Mt. Kilimanjaro: Almost My Mountain of Doom
By Neil Askham
Day 1 – (5 August 2009) Johannesburg to Tanzania
Months of planning have gone in to this trip and the excitement has been mounting, albeit only really of late. The cost – staggering! Will this experience be all it’s been made out to be?
The flight from O.R. Tambo International was a fairly pleasant 5 hour affair. Thankfully, Kenyan Airways owns a few decent Boeings! This was my first experience with this airline and I must confess that I am most impressed!
We landed at about 15h15 (Local time) in Nairobi, Kenya and after a quick transfer to our connecting flight, were once again airborne in a magnificent ‘Dash 8’, en route to Kilimanjaro Airport, courtesy of Precisionair. Cruising above the clouds at around 17 000 ft amsl, we had a magnificent view of the Mt. Kilimanjaro peaks as we flew into Kilimanjaro Airport, Kilimanjaro. Our excitement was tangible and I could see that the boys were eager to begin this adventure.
We touched down after 17h00 local time and went through the fairly lengthy process of filling in forms, getting our visa’s sorted out and passing through Customs.
A rather harrowing drive in a strange looking Toyota bus followed. The trip took almost an hour, but we finally made it to our Hotel, the Springlands Hotel in Moshi. Moshi is a very simple – typically African town where road chaos reigns. We all had some anxious moments as the streets seemed to get narrower and darker. We suddenly turned into the hotel, which one would easily miss had you not known it was there. We were very relieved when we entered the fortified gates of the Springlands Hotel as it seemed like a paradisiacal oasis compared with what we had just been driving through. A seemingly ‘modern’ building lit up by strategic lighting all over produced a pleasing impression. I wondered whether it would appear this inviting in daylight.
Our first meal at the hotel in Moshi was – disgusting! After paying $9 US each for the privilege, we concluded that it was a total rip-off. Nick and I had some crummy red wine (From South Africa), which neither of us had heard of before. Some sweetish sort of red juice – awful! Of course, we finished the lot! The trip, thus far, had been typically African. No service, no hurry, no worries!
After supper, the older boys sat in the gardens and chatted to some foreigners and the rest of us went to turn in for the night. I sensed that we would be needing all the sleep we could get.
Day 2 – (6 August 2009) It begins!
After a fairly hearty breakfast and waiting around for what seemed like an eternity, we were finally introduced to our mountain guide – Abdi. He seemed like a pleasant fellow and definitely appeared to have influence over the locals. ‘Africa time’ is, in no small measure here, as applicable as anywhere I’ve been on the continent. “Hurry up and wait” seems to be the way everywhere. Eventually, we got underway to a death defying drive in a rickety old Toyota bus. Our destination – Marangu Gate, Kilimanjaro National Park. After several stops at the most obscure little ‘trader’s’ shops for – God knows what – we were driven up what seemed like half the mountain itself at a snail’s pace to get to the gate. After more paper work – these people love to have you fill in forms – we waited for another ‘eon’ before eventually beginning our hike.
Once it started, all was forgotten and I was mesmerised by the scenery as we walked through the most spectacularly beautiful rain forest imaginable. Tens of thousands of tropical plants and trees were reaching out toward the forest canopy as they all desperately begged for a ray of sunlight. The shades of green around us were infinite! Virtually every tree appeared to be clothed by thick moss which hung from every branch like unkempt beards, giving them the appearance of being hundreds and hundreds of years old. The twitter of birds in the trees was like background music, although we could never really see them through the dense vegetation. In retrospect, the absence of animals (large and small) was quite surprising! Perhaps they lurk in the forest, watching from safe distances as humans trespass on their territory, but we certainly didn’t see them! I counted at least ten different varieties of ferns, but I have no doubt that there are many more than that along that trail. They are exquisite!
That walk was four hours of absolute outdoor bliss! The climb that day, was punctuated by a lunch stop half way to camp. Lunch involved a typical sort of school-kid packed lunch: Boiled eggs, samoosas, an orange, finger bananas and an ungarnished beef patty in a small, but fresh bread roll. The lunch entertainment was provided by a mongoose family (the only other animals we saw for the duration of the hike except for Colobus Monkeys, Crows and field mice), who came right up to us begging for food. We were very naughty and fed them a few morsels for which they actually seemed grateful. One of the guides reprimanded us for feeding them – I suppose he was right to do so. After lunch, we set of on the remainder of the trail to the Mandara Huts. The climb was quite long and steep, but we were so enthralled by the natural beauty around us that the time seemed to fly. The dense mist in the forest accentuated the visual magnificence before us and I marvelled at what an amazing artist God is.
Arriving at the Mandara huts just after 4 pm, we were asked to sign in. Everyone has to sign the register whenever arriving at any of the camp sites. This is an important means of control. Our second guide, Katenja, then hurried us off to our lodgings for the night which were located in the upper level of an ‘A’ frame building. We crammed up the narrow, steep stairs and each found a bunk (Auschwitz style). We were to share the dormitory with an assortment of about 10 other people of all different nationalities. Each of us claimed a bunk and had about 1m2 within which to move. If you enjoy your privacy this experience is definitely not for you.
The toilets are something to behold! A commode-type thing mounted into a concrete floor over which one is supposed to squat! Unimaginable!
Sleeping among all those people was like listening to an out-of-tune orchestra performing alternately with spontaneous stand-up comedy acts. Little 12 year old Jonathan became violently ill after dinner with the first of a series of projectile vomiting episodes. The poor lad was very ill indeed and I felt quite sorry for him. A compounding problem was that, being located on a top bunk, the contents of his stomach reached disturbing distances across the floor! Considering the fact that there were at least eight other bunks within a two meter radius of his, you will have no difficulty in understanding the enormity of the problem. Nick efficiently cleaned up the mess and it occurred to me that he would have made an excellent doctor. He really did an excellent job of it and attempted to mask the rancid smell that now permeated the entire cabin with the Dettol I had provided him with. No sooner had everything settled when Jono let rip with a second wave of convulsions. He gave us about a ten second warning this time – bless him. Such was my annoyance at myself for not positioning the bucket in time that I let off with a mild expletive. I think that Jono was so shocked that he, for a moment, seemed instantly cured! After a second clean-up session, the cabin began to settle down for the night. Little did we know that our guides were about to begin a clean up of the dining area below. With all the grace and charm of water buffalo, they went about their duties as we lay on our bunks trying to sleep. It sounded like a flea-market down there! Their duties seemed to carry on for about an hour, but as with all things, it finally ended – mercifully!
We were lulled by a brief period of relative mountain quietness before the real show actually began. Gabriel’s snoring was as relentless as a lumberjack’s chainsaw in a forest! I tried hurling my beanie at him, followed by my pillow – but alas – to no avail! I eventually got off my top bunk in the freezing cold to give him a few nudges and tell him to turn over. He actually swore at me – the little lout! Of course he claims to have no memory of the event now. Out of the blue, Simon began to talk in his sleep. He let off with a tirade of “no no no no no no” followed by a long, low pitched “noooooooo!” almost immediately, an Italian, sleeping in the same vicinity as Simon let rip in Italian and then began to laugh spontaneously. He was, of course, fast asleep at the time which I found extremely funny. I quietly chuckled to myself – it was all hilarious! This sort of thing went on all night and I’m almost certain that not much sleep was had by anyone in that cabin.
Day 3 – (7 August 2009) Mandara to Horombu
After the longest night of my life – we awoke at around 06h15 to the stirrings of a few of the other unfortunate “insomniacs” in the dorm. Breakfast at 07h00 was some sort of awful ‘slop’ followed by Vienna sausages and some sort of egg ‘thing’. The coffee, however, was fantastic! The guides preparing for meals is something to see! They are all highly competitive and trying to serve their own clients (us) simultaneously in limited space makes for some fun and games. Spontaneous arguments erupt from time to time – all of which is quite amusing.
The walk today was very long and steeper that I had anticipated. We climbed through cloud and light drizzle for much of the hike. They scenery, although obscured by the mist, was still breathtaking. Rolling slopes of grass and small shrubs lay all around us as we travelled along the spine of the mountain slope from East to West. Eventually, we emerged above the clouds to what seemed like a desert compared to what we had been through for the past two days. Fine dust (dry as can be) became the product of our meandering. Needless to say, our boots and trousers were filthy by the time we reached the Horombu Huts after over six hours of hiking. This is when we caught our very first glimpses of Mawenzi Peak (Kilimanjaro’s sister Peak) and of course, Mt. Kilimanjaro herself! These towering fortresses had, till now, been totally obscured from vision by thick cloud and mist since we had seen them from the plane. My heart leapt as I gazed at the tiny ice-capped tip which lay many miles ahead of us. It seemed to beckon and call as we looked at her – transfixed!
Aaron took some strain today. I was a little worried about him. Fortunately, Abdi, our guide, offered to carry his back pack. We reached the Horombu Huts just in time, or else he might have expired! This particular camp site lies about and hour’s hike to the East of the Mawenzi Peak. I gave Aaron a Diamox tablet and he took a few headache pills too. He seemed a little better after that.
We had now climbed above the level of the clouds, which sprawled out over Africa for as far as the eye could see in endless undulations of soft, cottonwool-like balls of ‘fluff’. It was truly beautiful. I couldn’t help but feel that we had somehow passed through some kind of trap-door and that we were now cut off, in some strange way, from the rest of the world. I kept staring at the mountain as if compelled to do so for some reason.
I had a welcome wash from a tiny plastic basin of warm water supplied by our faithful assistant guide, Katenja. A welcome wipe-down it was! Just being able to wash my hair was exceptionally soothing. By now, my left knee had begun to hurt after all the hiking we’d done so far. I hoped that it would be ok after some rest. Fortunately, it was.
Nick and I enjoyed a welcome Kilimanjaro Lager each while the boys went off for popcorn and tea – apparently thought to be quite a treat in these parts! At 17h30, the sun was still shining, but it was starting to get rather nippy after what had been an unexpectedly hot afternoon. The temperature changes up there are very abrupt. The moment the sun begins to hover above the horizon and bid its fond farewells for the day, an icy chill begins to take hold in a brutally teasing way. Dinner comprised carrot soup followed by spaghetti with some sort of vegetable sauce over the top. I did not enjoy it at all! Again, the coffee was great! I was looking forward to a good night’s rest.
Day 4 – (8 August 2009) Horombu to Kibu
It had been absolutely freezing in our four-birth cabin that night. I shared with the Gordon boys and Nick. Aaron (in the next cabin) had been ill with nausea and vomiting - the poor lad felt awful.
It took us a while to get going that morning. I was getting irritated with a few of my fellow mountaineers who seemed to perpetually pfaff about without any concern that they were being waited for. My irritability was probably the first signs that altitude sickness was going to get me.
The landscape was completely different yet again today. It was beginning to look pretty much like a desert – sparse vegetation and many rocks and boulders were the main features. Aaron was still battling a bit and, fortunately, Abdi again carried his back pack for him. It was a long, slow walk of almost six hours endurance as westwards and upwards we went yet again. Aaron eventually looked completely shot, but fortunately, his diarrhoea had abated! Jonathan battled with the altitude today and I could see that Gabriel struggled too. He was lethargic and didn’t speak much. In fact, all of us were affected by the altitude now and everyone had to resort to some sort of medication for headaches and varying degrees of nausea during the course of the day. Breathing became increasingly more difficult as we sojourned up the dusty slopes toward the Kibu Huts. By now, we were approaching around 15000ft amsl. Shortness of breath was the main issue, followed by tightness around the chest as well as constant headaches. It is truly amazing how any physical exertion – even walking- becomes a very difficult thing at these altitudes. It’s no wonder the guides keep saying “Pole Pole”, which in Swahili means “slowly, slowly”. Darren, Andrew and Simon seemed to be coping really well at this point and according to our oximeter, Andrew had the best blood oxygen saturation levels of us all.
We spent the afternoon recovering and put our South African flag up on some nearby rocks, which displayed beautifully – much to the amusement of the hordes of porters and other hikers standing around. A great sense of pride came over me as we stood there looking at our magical flag in this hostile and barren territory.
Some of us had an afternoon nap which made me feel incredibly stiff and sore all over. The degree of sunburn was surprising. It is so cold up here, that one doesn’t realise how severely you are being irradiated by the sun. We’ve learned now!
Supper was the usual soup and slop which I was rapidly growing tired of. Generally, I thought that the lunches had been better than the dinners we had been served – but then again, I am somewhat of a fussy eater. The toilets were something to experience and I felt personally violated every time I was compelled by nature to use one of those disgusting contraptions! A filthy dirty, stinking cubicle with a flat floor and a slit in the middle. All you have to do is squat over the slit and let go! The problem is that some people don’t aim very well and so . . . well!?!?
I had a headache after supper for which I took a Panado – it helped. This was it! It had gone 17h00 and we were all in bed, dressed in our thermals and ready for the final summit which was to commence at around midnight. Six months of planning; R17 000 and three tough days of climbing had come down to this! I felt really excited about the whole thing and hoped that we would all make it.
Day 4 – (Midnight, 9 August 2009) D-Day
We were all in bed by 17h00 yesterday, as I’ve mentioned. Thing is – not a single one of us could sleep AT ALL! Again, we had been in a dorm of twelve people. There was the eight of us, a French couple and the young Irish couple whom we had shared accommodations with previously. With that many people tossing and turning, breathing and farting in one room, it’s never quiet enough for long enough for you to dose off – very frustrating! Besides, we were too excited to sleep anyway!
Poor Gabriel started vomiting at around 7pm and had to take about 3 or 4 trips outside in a temperature of -1oC (according to Simon’s little thermometer anyway). It was early evening and the temperature was plummeting! At least, Gabriel managed to get out of the building before letting rip! For this I was grateful! I had started to feel nauseous soon after supper, but hoped that it would subside before the climb. It didn’t. By 22h30, everyone was so frustrated at not being able to sleep that we got up to begin our final preparations. I felt exceedingly irritated and worried by the fact that we hadn’t slept a wink since 06h30 the morning before. We had been awake for 18 hours already and now had a harrowing 7 hour ascent up the mountain ahead of us – not good!
After much phaffing about, we set off at midnight for what was to be one of the most trying few hours of my life.
We were instructed by Abdi to walk in single file along a well trodden path up the Eastern slope of the Volcano under cover of the full moon light. It was beautiful and there was an aerie quietness about us as just the sound of crunching footsteps could be heard. The ghostly light was illuminating the mountain just enough for us to see her distant silhouetted outline. Our initial destination – Gillman’s point, which is at 5600m above sea level. The terrain, to my utter surprise, was loose, thick volcanic skree. Skree can basically be described as an endless assortment of tiny, small and large rocks in an infinite amount of grey coarse sand (gravel). The only way to climb this stuff is to slowly zig-zag back and forth up this 60o slope. It was near impossible to make any progress! You would take one step forward, your foot would burry itself in the thick gravel and then you would slide back what seemed like three steps. It was very tough going!
About 15 or 20 minutes into our climb, poor little Jonathan (age 12) was taking a lot of strain. He clearly wasn’t coping with the altitude and had lost his strength. That was when I realised how important it was for us to have our guide and assistant guides with us. Those guys are amazing! Abdi, our chief guide, immediately assessed the situation and informed us that Jonathan needed to go back. Things were going to get a whole lot tougher in the hours to come and he clearly would not make it.
After a somewhat emotional separation from the group, Jono went down the mountain to his sleeping bag, accompanied by one of our assistant guides, Johnson, who amazingly would see Jono safely down to the camp and then race back to the group again to see us to Uhuru Peak – our ultimate goal.
In the meanwhile, Gabriel, who had been severely weakened by his night of vomiting, was starting to show signs of physical breakdown. I had been trying to encourage him and even made attempts to lift and pull him up that treacherous slope by wrapping my arm around his waist. This had been very draining on my own strength and clearly we could not continue. And so it was that Gabriel, shortly after this, announced that he could not go on. I felt deeply emotional that he had been dealt this blow. I remember having a lump in my throat as he was escorted back down the mountainside. At this point, my heart went out to Nick who had put so very much into seeing both those boys to the summit of Kilimanjaro. The disappointment was etched all over his face and I felt like hugging him. Sadly, I didn’t hug Nick then – which I deeply regretted later on.
And so, off we went again, weaving our way up that defiantly loose skree. The slope angle seemed to get steeper and steeper and I could not believe that we were trying to climb it. My nausea had been growing steadily as we climbed higher and higher at the pace of a lost flea. I was now obviously suffering from the altitude sickness I so feared. I had always been confident that the altitude would not have such a detrimental impact on me as I am used to flying unpressurised light aircraft at comparable altitudes. Boy, was I mistaken! At some point, I don’t know exactly when, I could no longer walk as the effects of the altitude hit me like a brick wall. One minute I was trying to offer encouragement and motivation to all the others and the next, I was begging Abdi for a break. He was ruthless with us and expected us to climb for 20 minutes before earning a break of about 2 to 3 minutes per cycle. When requested for a break, his answer was simply – No!.
Eventually, I was so weakened and fatigued, that I sat down just as Andrew, who had been walking ahead of me also decided that he needed a rest. This brought the whole convoy to a standstill and we were able to enjoy a sip of water. Simon reported that the temperature was now lower that -5oC – and dropping rapidly. My fingers were freezing cold – even though I had them in a pair of very expensive snow gloves! Two of the assistant guides mercifully took Andrew’s and my backpacks from us. They could see that we were struggling. The relief was very welcome and felt like a mountain had been lifted off our shoulders (excusing the pun), even though they could not have weighed more than about 5 kg apiece – containing only a first aid kit and our water supplies.
Again, Abdi shouted “let’s go!”. We all got up with difficulty and started traipsing forward and upward - very slowly. The mantra for our trip was spoken frequently that night – “Pole Pole”. Slowly, slowly! No truer words can be spoken on Mt. Kilimanjaro, for a hasty man will meet his nemesis – guaranteed!
Suddenly, as if I had been struck by a bus, I could no longer walk any further and I lay down on the skree. Nausea overtook me like a tidal wave and my stomach began to convulse uncontrollably. After a most unpleasant episode of vomiting, I lay prostrate on my back, contemplating my next move. The abdominal pressure caused by the vomiting, had now triggered diarrhoea! My guardian angel that night – Adam (also a guide) informed me that a “toilet” lay but two turns ahead. Now, don’t forget that we were zig-zagging up the slope and that “two turns” could have meant 20 minutes of climbing. I could feel that I would not make 20 minutes! Adam convinced me to get up and to keep going. We would walk extremely slowly for 2 or 3 minutes before I would have to sit down and rest yet again. Breathing became increasingly more difficult as we ascended the slope. I never really believed what I had been told about altitude sickness and its effects before this trip – but I believe it now! The simple action of putting one foot ahead of the other is an incredibly energy sapping exercise at these altitudes.
Eventually, we arrived at the “toilet”. All I saw was a group of rocks protruding from the contrasting skree. By now the pressure within me had reached alarming proportions, so I “scampered” (as only a severely oxygen deprived individual can do) in the direction of the “toilet” and headed for the closest adequately private rock I could find. At -10oC, I hastily stripped off my gloves, weather resistant trousers, thermal underwear and eventually, my newly acquired non-cotton underpants, and squatted as well as I could before release. The ensuing eruption surprised even myself! The relief that followed is indescribable. Not forgetting that I had the benefit of only the moonlight and my head-mounted LED torch, you may appreciate that it was a considerable feat not to step into my new personal contribution to the landscape of Kilimanjaro as I clumsily tried to re-clothe myself in some sort of a dignified manner. (By the way, I did wipe, using a collection of dried-out wet-wipes I had been collecting over the previous days). Once ready to commence the ascent, I gazed out into the distance to see if I could see Adam, my guide. A moment of panic at first set in as I battled to locate him, followed by sheer embarrassment as I spotted him, patiently sitting on a rock, not 5 meters away from where I had been answering nature’s call. I’m sure I blushed as I realised that he must have witnessed the whole episode at short range with stimulus input from at least three senses! It could not have been pretty!
I developed huge admiration and respect for Adam over the next four hours that night. He was constantly saying one of the following things to me:
No! - whenever I wanted to sit or lie down to rest.
Ok! 1 minute! - whenever I did lie down to rest.
Never Surrender! - which became the driving force that eventually took me to the summit that morning.
And so, with my entire body now in full protest, we soldiered on up that slope of loose, dusty gravel. It was freezing cold! My hydration pack as well as my external water container had frozen solid. It didn’t make any difference anyhow, as every time I tried to drink something, it all came up a few minutes later.
The intervals between rests became shorter and shorter as we approached Gilman’s Point at 5640m amsl. At this stage, I could only really take about 10 steps before being brought to my knees (literally) by the sheer altitude. Breathing became more and more of an effort with each breath being deep and in rapid succession to the last. I could hardly even speak by now – let alone walk. The vomiting continued periodically as my energy reserves as well as my determination began to dwindle. The five remaining members of our group had opened up quite a distance between us. In Kilimanjaro terms, this distance could mean only 50m or so as the crow flies. However, on Kilimanjaro, a 50m gap equates to anything from 10 to 20 minutes of climbing. I could hear their voices as they reached Gilman’s Point, but, by now, I was at least 15 minutes behind them. My resolve weakened as I fought within myself whether to continue or go back to the relative luxury of the Kibu Hut.
Again I heard Adam saying “never surrender” and I decided to keep going. We would climb up the slope to the left and then, to the right over and over again. To me, we never seemed to get any closer to the upper outline of the mountain. The picture never seemed to change at all. My body was caving in, of that I was sure. It was exceedingly cold by now. My water supplies had frozen and my fingers and nose, in particular, were in excruciating pain from the extreme conditions.
I’m not sure exactly when, or how we got there, but I do remember reaching Gilman’s Point (5640m amsl) eventually. Adam seemed very happy that we had made it so far, even though we had long since lost visual and verbal contact with Abdi and the rest of my group. Another guide in a yellow wind jacket appeared and offered me a mug of hot, sweet tea. It was like manna from heaven. I just sat there warming my icicled fingers on that warm mug and slowly sipped the tea. Where he came from and, more amazingly, how he managed to serve up such hot tea in those conditions simply boggled my mind.
I slowly consumed the warm, rejuvenating brew and stared at the signpost that read “Gilman’s Point – 5640m”. I did not feel any real sense of accomplishment at this stage, but was at war within myself whether to continue on to Uhuru Peak or just to abandon everything there and then. Quite honestly, two things were going through my mind at this juncture:
1st: I considered how much this trip had cost me and that I would never forgive myself for wasting it.
2nd: My students were about to summit! How would I ever live it down if I could not?
So, I pressed on – taking a few steps and then lying down. By now, things had become so bad that I had to lie down flat on my back in order to recuperate. Within minutes of leaving Gillman’s Point, I again was lying on my side, my stomach convulsing violently over and over to expel the tea I had just ingested. It seemed as if my body was determined to self-destruct! I had no energy, no strength, no sustenance – only the will to continue and of course, my guardian angel, Adam.
Adam kept timing my rest periods, propped me up when walking and constantly reminded me to “never surrender”. Everything became rather surreal now. I was completely aware and conscious of my surroundings, and yet, it felt as if I was having an out-of-body experience. I knew that I was suffering from altitude sickness, so none of the symptoms really scared me much. But, if there is a symptom for altitude sickness, I had it alright!
The nausea and vomiting speaks for itself. In addition, though, there was the incessant throbbing headache reminiscent of the headache one suffers with a severe hangover. The shortness of breath can be frightening as you are constantly gasping for oxygen with every breath. Next, there’s the dizziness, visual impairment and hallucinations. I had them all!
By now, I was so disorientated that, had it not been for Adam who kept me on track, I might have easily stepped right off one of the many shear drops that we were skirting on the edge of the volcano rim. My vision became blurred and I could no longer tell with any degree of certainty if the person in front of me was Adam or the “new” guide who had given me the tea. I resolved to trust in the sound of Adam’s voice – it was the most soothing and reassuring voice I’ve heard – as if God himself were speaking to me.
Whilst en route to Stella Point (Between Gilman’s Point and Uhuru Peak) I began to have the strangest hallucinations. I thought I saw shongololo’s (millipedes) appearing from the rocks on my left and sprinting across to my right on the ground in front of me. Fortunately, I immediately realised what was happening and suppressed the imaginary worms from my mind by concentrating harder. This is the first time in my life that I remember having real hallucinations.
On and on we went, now taking only a few painful steps at a time and then lying down to rest. Up hills were severely taxing. Adam would always say “one minute!” when I lay down, but I’m sure that my rest periods were longer than that. He constantly encouraged me and never became impatient or irritable – God bless him!
On one particular occasion, I remember lying down on a rock. My clothing had pulled up and my bare skin was now in contact with it. At -16oC, I could feel my skin freezing to the rock. Strangely, though, it did not frighten me at all. Instead, in some sort of weird way, it comforted me. It felt like I could just lie there and embrace the cold and let it take me. No one would believe me, but the truth is that I would fall asleep instantly whenever I lay down to rest and remember having vivid dreams of people and places back home in my day to day life during these narcoleptic episodes. These dreams felt warm and inviting and it was extremely annoying to be poked or shaken by Adam to rise and take our next few arduous steps toward Uhuru Peak.
I can’t tell how many times I thought to myself that if dying felt like this, then it would no longer scare me – in fact, I longed for death several times along that route. This may sound like a touch of mellow-drama, but it is the truth. I wanted nothing more than for Adam and his new partner (the man who served the tea) to leave me there to sleep and drift off into my dreams. I wanted it – I longed for it!
Instead, the cycle of sleeping for a minute or two and walking a few painful steps repeated itself over and over again. I thought it was never going to end. The scenery never changed and we never seemed to get any closer to the end – Uhuru Peak!
Somehow, after what literally felt like an eternity, Adam informed me that Uhuru Peak lay just beyond a rise we were nearing. My legs had no more strength in them and my lungs were gasping for any available oxygen to fuel my body. Every movement of a limb seemed to tax the body’s resources immeasurably and threatened to put it out of commission.
Yet, we went on! I kept telling myself that I could not fail! – I would not fail! About what must have been no more than 60m from the peak, my legs gave in completely as I collapsed to the ground. My two guides – Adam and the man who served the tea (I still don’t know his name) lifted me up, put my arms around their shoulders, braced me from either side and began to walk. I did what I could to keep up. At about 20m from the end, I told them that I had to finish on my own strength. They let go. I drew on every ounce of strength I could muster and walked toward the end. As I kept the goal in sight and took one step at a time toward the crowd of people already there, the deepest, rawest emotion began to rise up within me and I began to cry. Tears clouded my vision as a man dressed in a dark wind breaker embraced me in what was the purest, warmest “human touch” I have experienced in my adult life to date. As we embraced, emotions welled up inside me and I wanted to sob. The man in the dark jacket, I only determined later, was none other than my colleague and friend – Nick Harvey. The only reason I did not cry like an infant right there and then was due to the fact that I saw my school boys approaching and didn’t want to make a total fool of myself in front of them. I reached Uhuru Peak at about 07h05 that morning after more than seven hours of absolute hell!
I suddenly realised that I wasn’t breathing and that, to my utmost horror, I was having an asthma attack – the first time ever! I asked Nick if he could ask around for an asthma pump. I lay down again as I tried to breathe. Breathing out became more of a problem than breathing in. Incredibly, Nick produced an asthma pump within seconds. Where he got it from, I don’t know, but it did the trick. Soon enough, I was able to join him and the lads – Simon, Darren, Andrew and Aaron for a group photo in front of the “Welcome To Uhuru Peak” sign – wielding our South African and Springbok flags. I was relieved and proud all at once and continued to weep privately for many minutes after that.
The worst was over – or so I thought!
Our time up at Uhuru Peak was relatively brief as our guides were eager for us to get back down the mountain. I was still in a bit of a dwaal and breathing and moving around were still no easy matters. Adam and Abdi began to usher us back down the slope. The scenery was breathtaking as we gazed at the magnificent sunrise and the towering majestic glaciers on the upper slopes of the volcanic rim – the vestiges of an ice-age in our distant past. These massive slopes of ice are much larger than they appear from below and cover vast expanses of mountain slope. They are truly one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen! I made a concerted effort to absorb as much of the magnificent view as I could.
Going down that mountain is by no means a simple affair! We agonisingly made our way back down the same route we had taken to get there. The 1st 30 minutes or so basically involved walking back along the rim of the volcanic crater back to Gillman’s Point. Of course, the path was not a smooth surface and the endless undulations provided many downward, but also upward slopes. Breathing was still laboured business and the slightest incline brought us to our knees once again. I remember being with Darren, Andrew and Aaron for much of the descent and it felt good to be among familiar faces. We went along very slowly, stopping frequently to rest. When we did, we lay back and fell asleep - instantly. Our guardian angel guides kept a close watch on us and made very certain that we didn’t hang around for too long.
While standing atop Gillman’s Point for the second time that morning – albeit in daylight this time, we had our first view of our destination – Kibu Huts. They seemed an impossible distance away and I would have paid any amount of money right there and then for some form of transport down that murderously steep slope. My legs felt like jelly and every movement, an effort still. I felt like weeping again from sheer exhaustion and frantically tried to think of a way to get down the mountain without having to walk it myself – no answers materialised! And so, we commenced the descent one painfully jarring step after the next. Again, we had to negotiate the very loose skree which seemed endless. Abdi linked his arm with mine and we set off ski-style down the slippery slope. Had I not been so exhausted, it might have actually been a lot of fun! I could barely keep my legs from caving in and it took a great deal of concentration to maintain our balance in order not to fall and kill ourselves. There would have been no stopping if we had fallen – the slope was far too steep. By the end of the skree slope, the decline continued, but, thankfully on a more solid surface. It was a long and winding path that leads down to the huts. The dry dust was almost suffocating as every footstep caused an explosion of fine talc-like reddish/brown powder. That walk down the mountain – although only two hours long, could quite possibly be the ‘longest’ walk that I have ever taken!
Reaching Kibu was an incredible relief. I walked straight to the dorm, took off my boots and outer clothing, got into my sleeping bag and immediately went to sleep. It was like I’d died and gone to heaven.
After only about an hour and a half later, we were very rudely awoken by Katenja, our chief assistant guide. I could hardly believe that any human could be so heartless! After only sleeping for one and a half hours out of the last 30 hours, his actions seemed particularly cruel. My body had seized up completely! Legs of lead and arms of jelly! My hip joints, in particular, were reluctant to cooperate. My lungs felt raspy and raw and I began to cough – that lasted for two days.
We, yet again, rolled up our sleeping bags, packed up our gear and started the long, painful march back down to the Horombu Huts. – another high-paced 4 hour trot –descending by another 3000 ft for the day.
Gabriel was still very ill and had to be stretchered down to Horombu on a Kilimanjaro “ambulance”. This contraption is a welded bed frame mounted onto a single motorbike wheel with suspension. The patient is strapped onto this frame in a sleeping bag and then pushed down the hill by 4 porters at a blistering pace. Gabriel later told me that this ride was the highlight of the entire trip for him! Simon, Aaron, Darren and Andrew all looked totally exhausted during that walk and ended up taking quite a bit longer than the rest of us. I felt very sorry for them at that stage – they looked defeated. Simon took ill that afternoon with some sort of tummy bug which completely floored him. That was the end of the hike for him, as he was taken all the way back down the mountain the next morning by 4 porters in an “ambulance”. I’m sure that he was grateful!
Upon reaching Horombu in the late afternoon after 4 hours of walking, I washed my hair and face in a bowl of hot water, climbed into my sleeping bag and reflected on one of the longest days of my life. I still wasn’t feeling well, so I opted to skip dinner. I hadn’t eaten a thing for 24 hours now, but was not hungry at all. All I wanted to do was rest my weary limbs and get some sleep.
After a few fun-filled games of cards with Nick, Jonathan and Gabriel, I rolled over and went to sleep almost immediately. Summit day was finally over!
Day 5 – (10 August 2009) Down We Go!
Astonishingly, Katenja rudely awoke us all before day-break that morning! Had he been closer to me, I think I might have throttled him! Much to my surprise, I actually felt great physically. A little stiff at first, but I could not believe how refreshed and strong I felt after all we had been through the day before. We readied ourselves, had breakfast and set off on our last marathon hike of seven hours, stopping for lunch at the Mandara Huts. I hung back with Aaron, Andrew and Darren as they all seemed very tired still. We made light conversation all the way down and I learned a lot about each of them during this part of our trip – they are all very different but fantastic young men!
Reaching the Marangu Gate to the Kilimanjaro National Park – our original starting point – was a joyous moment. I felt like I had just had the most amazing experience of my life and was most thankful to have shared the ordeal with the seven magnificent people I had done it with. My thanks and congratulations extend to each one of them for their courage and fortitude. May you all be blessed all the days of your lives!
I have been deeply humbled by this experience. It has given me a fresh perspective on life. We, as individuals, are so small and so fragile. This is something I hope never to forget!
There by the grace of God go I! THE END