I know that I must do what is right, As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti. – lyrics from “Africa” by Toto
In fact, Kili rises a lot further than Olympus, and at 5,895m is almost 3,000 meters higher.
It is the highest mountain on the African continent, but as an extinct volcano with a gentle gradient, it is also the highest mountain in the world that you can ascend without doing any mountaineering! And so, just before Christmas, my brother and I set off for Tanzania, aiming to achieve what apparently 50% of people who attempt it, can’t do…reach the summit at Uhuru Peak.
The difficulty in climbing Kilimanjaro can be distilled into two similar words…altitude and attitude. A lot of failures are a result of fatigue or altitude sickness due to the thin air, but even more are a result of tourists on holiday, who underestimate the task, and are unaware or unwilling to suffer the discomfort and strenuous effort required. Many of these will give up one or two days into the trek to continue their holiday in comfort…and I don’t blame them!
When deciding to go, there are 2 decisions to make. Which route to take, and which guide company to use. The rule, as with most mountains, is that a local mountain guide must accompany any climber, and so there are hundreds of guides, and companies to choose from. Some will provide porters to carry your bags, and chefs to cook your food, and others will just provide the guide, and as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.
There are also several routes, namely, Marangu, Rongai, Lemosho, Shira, Umbwe and Machame. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. I settled on the Machame route for one simple reason. It had the highest success rate. The profile of the Machame route meant we had to spend more time at altitude, which meant more time to acclimatise. And this was the biggest factor in my mind. The endurance required was never a doubt in my mind, as I have done much longer and tougher, and the cold at the summit wasn’t a factor as it was unlikely to compare to the North Pole.
But how I would cope with the thin air above 3,000m was an unknown, and therefore a concern.
The other concern was my brother. He had never done anything like this before, so everything would be a steep learning curve for him, from walking several hours a day, to sleeping in a tent. But the one thing he had abundance of was attitude. Two days into the trek he got mild food poisoning and was very sick. He was in a lot of pain, and had a fever, but he stumbled along for 9 hours, never giving up. I was with him every step of the way, mentally pulling or pushing him the whole way, but apart from the occasional assistance, it was all his own work. And he has every reason to be proud of his perseverance and accomplishment. After those two days of illness, I knew he would have no problem getting to the top.
After 5 days trekking, we reached Barafu camp, which was our last stop before our summit attempt.
We went to bed early to be woken just before midnight. In pitch black, we followed our guide and the tens of twinkling lights from the head torches of all the other climbers also making their way to Uhuru. This was actually the only time that I got into real trouble, and it was due to the cold, something I had been complacent about. During the trek to the North Pole, I had developed a cold injury on my left big toe, and twice on the climb up, I had to stop and revive it, for fear of losing it to frostbite.
But 8 hours after setting out, we were on the roof of Africa, and it was a great moment for everyone there. People who were in agony moments earlier were all laughs and smiles as they took photos. And no one enjoyed their triumph more than my brother, who really had to dig deep into his reserves of willpower to make it through the second and third day.
And as for me…well, my mind was never on Kilimanjaro…it was firmly fixed on Mount Vinson in the Antarctic. This trip was never really my goal, only a stepping stone in my preparation for a mountain that less than 1,400 people have ever climbed, roughly half the number that has climbed Mount Everest…but for a few moments, it was good to relax and savour our triumph on the roof of Africa.