We’re woken at 11pm for a light breakfast. Our guides tell us to expect harsh conditions tonight during the climb to Uhuru Peak. We’re told to expect temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius, and howling wind, and perhaps even snowstorms.
My outfit for the day is as follows (NOTE: this isn’t the recommended apparel, it’s just all I had):
- wicking undershirt
- thermal undershirt
- light jumper
- heavy jumper
- thick down-feather jacket
- waterproof jacket (my down-feather jacket isn’t waterproof)
- compression leggings
- thick thermal leggings
- rainproof pants
I’m also wearing ski gloves, three pairs of socks, a beanie, and I have three hoods pulled over my head.
Midnight arrives; time to begin the six hour climb to the summit (also known as Uhuru Peak). We have 1.3 vertical kilometres to ascend.
We’ve timed our climb perfectly; tonight is a full moon, and the night sky is so bright our torches are unnecessary. But the clear sky only lasts so long, after an hour or so we ascend into a ring of cloud that is encircling the mountain. The wind picks up, the temperature drops, we get hit by bursts of frozen rain, flurries of snow, showers of sleet, and everything in between. My cover of my daypack gets wet and freezes. The fur lining on my hood freezes. The neck guard I have pulled up over my nose freezes (water bottles need to be treated with antifreeze or kept next to the body to prevent them from freezing).
It is dangerously cold. This is certainly the most hostile environment I’ve ever messed with. We stop for five-minute breaks every 45 minutes, but it takes just one or two minutes for your core temperature to drop below comfort level; after that your extremities start to smart, then sting, then burn. Our breaks are getting longer too; the two ladies in our group are putting up a good fight but each is verging on collapse. Both are emotionally and physically exhausted, and reliant on their hiking poles to remain upright. Both have already mentioned quitting, but they’re encouraged to continue by the guides. We’ve passed plenty of individuals who have already succumbed to altitude sickness and turned back, others are crouched beside the track vomiting, or quietly muttering to themselves, trying to muster the fortitude to continue. And we’ve barely passed 5,200 metres elevation.
Each time we stop for a respite the two ladies in our group burst into tears. I completely understand the compulsion to do so. Every instinct in my body is telling me to stop, to turn around, to go back, to return to a sensible altitude, to return to a sensible climate. But we push on.
The weather deteriorates, oscillating between a gale and an ice storm. The headache comes on somewhere around the 5,500 metre elevation mark. I take paracetamol and ibuprofen together, but neither of them does anything for the pain. It’s altitude sickness; nothing will relieve the pain now except returning to a lower elevation.
We’re running way behind schedule. The extended breaks we’ve been taking have been slowing us down. We won’t make it to Stella Point by sunrise.
Eventually the sky starts to lighten, the clouds part, and the wind drops. Dawn is on its way, revealing the peak of Mount Mwenzi (5,149m elevation), now well below us.
We take a ten-minute break at a random point on the side of Mount Kilimanjaro to watch the sunrise. With the sun out, the weather easing, and the temperature climbing, morale in the group improves dramatically.
The stream of hikers aborting their attempt at the summit increases – many had been waiting for sunrise before returning to base-camp. The trail to the summit is lined with vomit.
Stella Point (5,756m)
We reach the lip of the two kilometre wide crater an hour later. This is Stella Point (5,756 metres elevation), but we’re still not done. Still an hour to go to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro.
As we make our way around the crater rim we pass several of Kilimanjaro’s rapidly vanishing glaciers. In the 1880s the entire summit of Kilimanjaro was capped in ice with glaciers flowing down the western and southern slopes.
Between 1912 and 2012 ice cover reduced by 85%. The glaciers are expected to disappear entirely in the next 15 to 30 years.
Uhuru Peak (5,895m)
And then we are there, on top of the highest point in Africa: Uhuru Peak at 5,895m. Several members of the group are beginning to look a little peaky (pun intended); there is some vomiting and falling over, but we all made it.
We get 15 minutes on top of Uhuru Peak, then it’s time to head back down.
The less said about the return trip the better. It’s a six-hour hike just to get back to base camp, then another four hours descent to Mweka Camp, at 3,068 metres altitude, which means you’re up for a total of 16 hours of hiking in a single day.
And you have a 2.8 vertical kilometre descent between Uhuru Peak and Mweka Camp – absolute torture on your knees.
The final day is short and sweet. An easy four hours of hiking, all downhill, through oxygen-rich wet-forest, then you arrive at Mweka Gate (1,640 metres elevation) and you’re time exploring Africa’s highest mountain, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, is over.