The husband and I have just returned from what I would classify as the most physically challenging experience of my life (I won’t speak for him!).
We conquered Mount Kilimanjaro, all 5,895 metres of it. My first response when people ask how it was, is, “it was tough.” It was tough. For those of us who have lived most of their lives at sea level, it is a strange thing to experience being out of breath simply from climbing in and out of your tent, or walking the short distant to the toilet. Stranger still, being on the trail (Pole Pole) and marveling at the porters and guides as they fly past you up the rocks balancing your pack, your tent, or the toilet itself on their heads and shoulders. Yet, this is just the teaser. It is the night/early morning of the summit push which wins the prize for toughness.
You are woken at 11pm, after (hopefully) a couple of hours sleep. Crouched in your tent, you then dress yourself in your Michelin-man chosen outfit – for me, this included three pairs of pants (thermal, hiking, ski) and six layers on top, plus the mandatory beanie, gloves and boots. Don’t forget, it’s dark at midnight, so you need to wear your headlight – try not to blind anyone simply by looking at them.
After a quick “breakfast,” at midnight, it is time to hit the trail. As practiced for the past week, you follow your guides Pole Pole (loosely translated as Swahili for slowly). You place one hiking boot in front of the other, at a snail’s pace, behind your guide. Pole Pole. And strangely, you find Pole Pole is all you can manage. Pole Pole, one step for one breath. Unless you are my husband who was suffering from a bad cold at the time – his rhythm was more like 1 step: 3 breaths; 1 step: coughing fit.
And Pole Pole is how we continued into the early hours of the morning. We staggered up steep rocks, turned at switchbacks and the air became colder and colder. Not for the first time during the course of the week, I wondered if I would make it. I was fit, sure, but the altitude had given me a splitting headache on the third day which dully threatened to return with every inhaled breath. And the cold; the cold was going to undo me. Despite my two pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves and hand-warmers, I could not feel my hands or feet. As we walked, I wriggled my fingers and toes constantly so as to keep them alive. Yet every time we stopped for a break, they would refreeze – like the water in my water bottle suddenly throwing ice shards down my throat around 3am. I became so fearful of the cold I couldn’t bring myself to remove my gloves every time I had to pee. In the end our main guide (who we noted was not even wearing gloves himself) forced a third pair of gloves onto my hands under my ski gloves.
In the toughest times, as you continue to ascend and lose more and more air, your thoughts go to your family and friends – you wonder what they are doing, and whether they know what the hell you’re doing right now – that yes you are crazy enough to be walking up the highest mountain in Africa at 3.30 in the morning. You raise your eyes from the path below to that above and take in the zig-zag of lights of the people ahead of you who are just a touch closer to the summit.
And you wait, you wait for the colour of the dawn sky to start to show – a strip of peach on the horizon while the sounds of ABBA’s “Chiquitita” serenades you from the guide’s phone ahead. You know once the dark of the sky starts to be replaced by the morning’s light, you are almost, almost there.
And so, in the early hours of the morning, sometime after 6am after 6 hours of our Pole Pole ascent in the dark, we arrived at Stella Point. After that, it is “only” another 45 odd minutes to the true summit Uhuru Peak. As if we hadn’t tested ourselves enough already! But we made it.
To be at the top of the peak, to experience the challenge of that week and the additional challenge of the summit push – to witness the beauty of the mountain and its contrasts – the green rainforest, the bright blue of the sky and the mountain snowcapped, the dense fog rolling in every afternoon to blanket a desolate campsite – we are just so very privileged.