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Excerpt from Chapter 25 - Tanzania - Kilimanjaro, The Roof of Africa
No sooner had I glimpsed the hut than I was practically flattening its door down to get inside for the dryness it offered. It was predictably crowded with porters, baggage and cooking equipment. A soothing warm fire would have been the perfect medicine after such an enduring day, but, rather ridiculously at this time of year, they are banned up here. It was rather difficult to conceive of a bushfire taking off in such damp conditions.
I hang up all my wet stuff, change into dry clothes and can do no more than hibernate exhausted into my sleeping bag for the afternoon. Warm, dry and rest are my only three priorities. As always the porters are chatting and arguing loudly. I remain blissfully ignorant of everything they say apart from one frequently repeated and popular remark: 'Kilimanjaro – changes like a chameleon!' they all joke. I tried hard to laugh.
My relief at completing a challenging day's walking becomes strongly tempered by the daunting prospect of having to start the next day walking – even more arduous – at midnight in an effort to reach the summit sometime around sunrise. So after eating dinner we are tucked up in bed before 7pm and sufficiently tired to sleep as well.
DAY 5 Barafu (4600m) to Uhuru peak (5898m) 7.5 hours
Just as I am contentedly drifting off into a deep daydreamy sleep, an African voice outside the tent wakes me. Reality rapidly dawns on me what I shall be embarking upon. Incessantly howling wind and driving rain had been battering the tent during the course of the evening and, having no dry waterproofs, I was mentally prepared for the very worst. This would involve getting soaked again before entering dangerously higher and colder altitudes.
Yet strangely, as I piled on every warm article of clothing I could find, I realised the rain had just about stopped. After some feel good hot tea and biscuits we all strapped on our head torches and ventured outside to brave the mountain elements. We headed unrelentingly vertically upwards and it was not long before we were passing through patches of snow. The patches soon merged together and snow was constantly underfoot.
The pace set at the front was anything but rapid, yet there was no respite from climbing steeply upwards. Initially there was a cool chilliness in the air, but this was soon negated by the body heat generated from the physical exertion of climbing. Worryingly, my legs lacked any sort of spring and my body generally felt drained of energy and strength. To me the air seemed uncomfortably thin as I struggled to take in as much oxygen as I would have liked with each breath. It was like I had been smoking 40 a day for the last 30 years.
After 2 hours, desperately struggling to keep up with the pace of the others, I was in real trouble and knew it. For the first time I very seriously contemplated the fact that the remaining climbing effort required (another 4 hours) would be beyond my current capabilities. And with that a dream would remain unfulfilled.
Two hours was a fair way up the mountain so the option of turning back was not particularly straightforward or viable. So for a long period I struggled and battled away, stopping for regular pauses to gasp hard for breath, as if I was sucking it in through a cocktail straw. I could only watch with envy as the torch lights of the others edged gradually upwards above me. Occasionally I managed to put in enough effort to catch them for short periods, before have to pause and drop away again.
Painfully slowly, 3 hours had passed, then 4 hours and the prospect of 4 down, 2 to go appeared far less daunting. Although the climbing was becoming trickier and technically more demanding the slower pace was certainly favourable to me. We were traversing across and up a glacier without ice axes and crampons, relying on little more than sound foot placement for critical grip and balance. A few mini slips were inevitable, especially where softer powder snow covered firmer hard ice underneath.
It was bitterly cold and getting colder. The elements were bent on destroying me. Even with two fleece hats on the icy wind was constantly snapping and biting at my facial extremities. Sleet and snow fired relentlessly across into us. I did not much feel the wetness, mainly because a layer of frozen ice now coated most parts of my clothing. The most I could do was button up the hatches as much as I could and walk hunched over staring towards the ground.
It was essential to concentrate hard on where the guy in front was and, ideally, to crunch my foot into the same prints as he had made with his. It was frequently demoralising to afford yourself the privilege of gazing upwards to where the path might eventually lead, so toweringly steep and intimidating was the white of the mountain. It could easily have passed for a rather steep downhill skiing black run.
After a while I gave up checking my watch to see if further minutes had passed by. This was largely because a substantial layer of ice crystals had virtually frozen my left glove and jacket sleeve together. Drinking from my water bottle also proved tricky as most of its contents had by now solidified into blocks of ice. The temperature near the top was minus fifteen degrees!
I counted down the hours to the moment when I could be psychologically lifted by the sun rising and warming and drying everything. It was still a long way off and the thought occurred to me that by such a time we would have reached the summit anyway. There were an endless number of heartbreakingly false mirages for me in terms of seeing what I though might be the summit and how much time I believed was left to go. In the end we would not reach the peak of Uhuru until 7.30am, about 90 minutes later than I anticipated.
Between the hours of 5am and 6am darkness began to dissipate and everything around us slowly became visually clearer. Looking across and below it certainly felt like being on top of the world. Layers of fluffy white cloud were densely stacked, over which the first orange stripes of dawn African sunlight were fighting their way upwards for supremacy. It was a moment of majesty amidst a sea of suffering.
We finally reached the top of the steep glacier from where another gentler path twisted and wound it way through the deep snow up to Uhuru, Kilimanjaro and Africa's highest point. The mountain was much more beautiful than I had imagined it to be, the whispering white veils of mist sweepingly skimming the gleaming glaciers.
Still doing my best to work out exactly how I had managed to survive for so long after close to 7 hours of upwards exhaustion, the excitement and anticipation of being close to the summit began to edge into my head. Unfortunately, my weary body did not share this excitement as it had been heavily overdrawn on energy supplies for a few hours now.
The surroundings at the very top of this colossal mountain seemed to me what I imagine Antarctica to be like – just white everywhere. Painfully struggling to string together coherent progress from one stride to the next, I was reminded of Scott in the Antarctic making excruciatingly slow progress. The final intended destination perennially seemed to be yet another ten or twenty minutes away. This is what can mentally crush you to pieces – the widening chasm between optimistic perception and sobering reality.
High above the clouds the sun now occasionally beams mystically through the white mist down onto us. Over to my left an opening in the clouds would occasionally reveal a spectacular jagged wall of ice like I had never seen before.
Finally the magical sign, which I had visualised 1000 times already in my mind over the last couple of hours came into my vision. The initial sensation was one of fatigued relief rather than screaming ecstasy, which would probably come later at some point.
The most I could physically achieve was to collapse down on my back on the snow underneath the sign. In order to properly read what it said Babuji had to scrape away a thick layer of ice and snow concealing what it said in the same way you would defrost your car windscreen on a cold winter's morning.
An exhausting continental journey was now satisfyingly complete and arguably the very final part conducted in the most primitive way on foot proved to be the most compellingly challenging. I had always imagined at such a defining moment I would recall another personally symbolic moment years ago when, after a nasty rugby accident, a doctor told me I would be lucky to walk normally again, let alone attempt any strenuous exercise. Such was my level of fatigue though, that I could barely summon any real emotion of satisfaction at proving this person wrong in such spectacular style.
It would have to postponed as I grappled with more immediate matters like legs on the verge of collapse and a vacant mind. Only afterwards, with some nostalgic hindsight, could the moment be properly afforded its true life-affirming status.Purchase 'Into India, Out of Africa'