Africa's highest mountain seems to be at the top of the world's to-do list.
But as it's popularity soars, Trail asks the question:
But as it's popularity soars, Trail asks the question:
This Article appeared in the July 2009 issue of Trail Magazine.
Barafu camp, Kilimanjaro. Nobody sleeps here; They just choose their own quiet way to wait.
It's 11pm. In the moon's cold, navy glow I sit and watch the camp through swollen, lead-heavy eyes. A few of the tents are lit: orange capsules of twitching shadows, like embryos held up to a desklamp. It's disquietingly silent. Three miles up, any human sound is squeezed to a weak wheeze beneath a huge, reverential hush. After lights out here, in the tent-scattered limbo before the summit push, all you hear is the soft flap of frost-stiffened nylon, and the occasional muffled cough. This place is one deep, nervous breath. And there, silent and white stands the exhale.
Here we go, you think. Kilimanjaro. Again.
Perhaps you've heard: Africa's highest mountain is having credibility issues. From the whinnies of crusading popstrels to the bar stool opinion machine who claims Africa's highest peak is clearly little more than a steroid-stuffed Snowdon, Kilimanjaro's status as a mountain for mountain lovers is decomposing in some vulture-haloed wasteland well off your radar.Rubbish. Anyone spouting anything like the above should be ignored and, ideally, have a drink spilled in their lap. I know, because I used to be one of those people. And, boy, did I get a fright.
Kili's serious, people would say. Mmm. Have you trained? Not really. Weren't you going to stop drinking? Yep. Oops! Are you worried? 'Course not. Everyone knows… Kili… is… e a s y.
I cringe when I type this. Nothing turned out as I expected. On any level. It was, by an order of magnitude, tougher. Better. Bigger. Scarier. Which is why that night, sat in the cold dark of Barafu camp watching my 30 final minutes of rest slide
by, I wasn't worried: I was resigned. In believing my arrogance and every ignorant bar stool idiot, I was convinced I'd blown my chance to stand on top of Kilimanjaro.
My first experience of east Africa started splendidly: bouncing in the back of a Land Cruiser, where I sat giving Chinese burns to the grab handle and grinning like a maniac at anyone who would grin back. And that's everyone: from the kids to the effortlessly elegant, technicolor ladies, to the football-shirt-clad men loafing by, Tanzania is the friendliest place in the world. You can marinate yourself in literature and photographs for weeks, but conjuring the ambience of this place from a room in England isn't possible. The air's different. Sound on another frequency. Visuals cut from unfamiliar material and coloured with brighter paint. You could sit, confused and delighted, and just watch it for days. But most who travel here wearing walking boots spot what they've come for soon enough. It's everywhere. On tea. Beer. Behind giraffes on sun-bleached postcards. Everywhere, it seems, but where it should be."Samuel - where is the mountain?"
"Kilimanjaro? Here." Samuel Kusamba, our head guide, throws a hand out of the window in the general direction of the eastern hemisphere, towards a flat sky of white. "Not so good today."
We were on Kili for 24 hours before anything mountainous would appear, but there was plenty else to see. The six-day Machame route is the most scenically gushing way to climb Kilimanjaro, simply because you see a lot of it. The first hours take you through a lanky jungle with an enthusiasm for downpour. Clenched inside waterproofs, I tried to remember: had I read anything about rain on Kili? I hadn't. In truth, I'd read little of substance about this mountain, other than that it will give you a headache.
It was warm enough to dry off at Machame camp, which licks the 3100m contour. It's a fine place to sit in the gloaming and get used to the idea that You're In Africa Now. At twilight, Kili's pawnpiece peaks drop their cloud and fill the horizon with weird, skeletal spires. Then the porter's tents begin to glow with Swahili chatter and candlelight, and the forest below comes alive with neck-hair-raising noises. It's electrically atmospheric.Over dinner, we receive some wisdom from Samuel. "The way to climb the mountain is pole pole. Means 'slowly slowly'." This is the two-word, four-syllable Kili motto, the secret to success in the words in the mouth of every guide and the ears of every trekker. I even saw it on a T-shirt.
Mt Kilimanjaro is a beautiful freak. At 5895m it's the highest mountain in Africa. That's near-as-dammit 20,000ft. Whoever you are, that's high. Sickeningly, dangerously high. It's also huge - 40 kilometres wide. It's the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. A volcano, it's young - geologically embryonic compared to Scotland. The first humans to emerge blinking from the Rift Valley 50 miles to the east would have been greeted with the last throes of the mountain's incomprehensibly violent birth, which settled down around 360,000 years ago. Shira volcano was the first to arrive, which collapsed on itself before being followed by Mawenzi, then Kibo - whose summit, Uhuru peak, stands as the summit of the three-headed massif that today we call Kilimanjaro.
The position of the mountain made it a beacon for life, which quickly staked out ecological tiers. Each day of this trek, we would move up from one to the next. After day one's green, jungly swelter, day two was all mud-coloured rock, Jurassic Park ferns and gothically creepered giant lobelia trees which looked like they might grab you when your back's turned. It was a short day, and full of wonder.Our group was small: Andrew, Ben, Ali and myself. That we were four chaps in our twenties was unusual for Kili: most groups here comprised all shapes and ages, and I didn't know if I felt better or worse that I had three fairly equal yardsticks against which to measure my imminent physical distress. Then there was Samuel, his deputy Godbless, and our genius cook Ernesto. In addition, we had three porters for each of us. This sounded shameful, until I realised how much infrastructure went into even a fairly soft-footed expedition like ours: tents, food, water carriers, tables, stoves, gas - yet compared to some, our expedition was practically rustic. Rumour had it a French trekker nearby had recruited 12 porters for herself alone, private loos et al.Next stop was Shira Cave campsite, named for an overhang to the north-west. The camp's situation is spellbinding: the first wide-open mountain views of the trek. Kibo dominates, and it's quite a sight, resembling Ayers Rock's evil, chilly twin.
As we crept in, so did the mist. Ali produced a Frisbee, Ernesto prepared fresh popcorn (good for the digestion, apparently) and, despite being at 3800m, none of our bodies was displaying any serious signs of imminent height hijack. I had waved away altitude-aid drug Diamox back in England (typical) and was wondering when this decision would come back to bite me. I feared my dull headache was the first gnaw.
Next morning, huddled at the breakfast table, a status check confirmed we were all feeling okay, if a little fragile. The word 'Imodium' was mumbled before being swept away in favour of excited chat.
Kili is a surreal place, quite different to what you expect and far from the coddled, commercial beast you fear. 'Health and Safety' on Kili means regular bowel movements and not dying, which is why all the British look invigorated and the Americans look confused. Hygiene doesn't exist. You can't buy anything. The toilets are alarming. Yet - apart from the last bit - it's all fantastically refreshing.
Today, Samuel told us, was a big acclimatisation day. At the end of it we would be sleeping at Barranco, at roughly our present height. But first was a walk to a feature called the Lava Tower at 4600m: just 200m shy of the height of Mont Blanc.
Kibo from Shira is a beautiful thing, far from the smooth, friendly hump of legend. It has a skin of black obsidian lava carpet tacks, gripping bulbous ice sheets to a massif the shape of headless shoulders. If it did have a head, its expression would be one of bemusement at the snake of porters and trekkers sliding towards it.
Somewhere in that snake, our group was starting to have a few gripes. One increasingly runny tummy and three headaches were being tentatively medicated by lunches, which today carried such treats as pineapple juice and a tube of mystifyingly pleasurable milk biscuits. I ignored the furriness starting to chew the edges of my vision as we pressed on into the shadow of the mountain. Mist rolled in again, and with it rain, then hail, as we crept on beyond 4000m. Ahead, a rhombic ziggurat of lava pierced the view: the Tower, our altitude ceiling for today. But it was too late. I had hit my first wall.
From past experience I knew my altitude redline: 4100m. Above that, hypoxia creeps into my skull and starts cutting cables. It's not exhaustion; that comes later. No, for me acute mountain sickness (AMS) begins with a nauseous feeling of imminent physical fireworks, like closing your eyes when you've had a skinful and feeling the room spin. At the foot of the Lava Tower I sat and stared at my milk biscuits, swaying gently with a stomach full of terriers and a brain made of wax. This was horrible.
The descent to Barranco camp was a nasty, rainy stumble. Heartbreaking though it was, the views were becoming awesome: we were in the curl of the mountain now, and had we been a bit more chirpy it would have been a highlight. But I felt - and the complexion of the others suggested I wasn't alone in this - like I had overstretched myself and was now a walking, wheezing piece of deformed elastic. By camp, I felt wretched. After a collapse-induced kip I oozed outside, where Ben and Andrew were staring at a game of checkers with expressions of intense confusion. The guides didn't seem worried, though I knew they were subtly watching us closely.
"Tomorrow night is summit night," said Ali.
Cogs whirred. No. Oh, no. Tomorrow was a long walk to Barafu. Then sure enough, come midnight, it was crunch time. "Balls," I said.
At tea, Samuel tried to reassure us. "If you wake up and still feel bad, we'll see. If you are okay, it's okay." With heads full of dread, we retired.
The first obstacle on day four is, alarmingly, a cliff. You're standing in its shadow straight after breakfast: thus, it's called 'second breakfast'. Something had happened overnight: the four of us were feeling strong and replete with something approaching an appetite. Nods from Samuel confirmed this was all par for the course. Second breakfast was a hoot: Grade 1-ish scrambling accompanied by sunlit views of Kili's conical neighbour, Mt Meru. As we topped out we began to trek, rock to scrub, past the last stream and up into expansive, cloud-mithered volcanic desert. One by one, we began to succumb again to altitude. The final pull up to Barafu was dominated by Kili's dragon-toothed crony peak Mawenzi clearing into view, and hot, dusty breaths.
At five o'clock, we stumbled into Barafu camp beneath a navy sky and a cloud of exhaustion. There it was, painfully white above us: the top. The three of us spent the next few hours gazing at Mawenzi, up at the summit, and back at each other with a mixture of invigoration, trepidation and - in my case - building resignation. The sun fell, rags of cloud hanging on Mawenzi's teeth turned blood-pink, and the stars emerged. Which I think is about where we came in.
It's 11.30pm. I take a picture of myself, then look at it: bloody hell. Rheumy eyes, swollen, rosy features. I feel the side of my head for my pressure gauge: the vein in my temple is wire-thick and pencil hard. Within minutes, we're outside in frightful cold, dazzling each other with headtorches. In the meek light of the food tent, four pairs of bloodshot eyes fix on Samuel as he briefs us on the night ahead. Thirteen hundred metres of ascent. Few stops, all short. Pace even more pole pole than usual. If you're sick once, twice, three times, that's okay. Four, five, not okay. Short sips on water. Sugary food. Reach Stella Point, and you've killed the mountain. Nerves? I was jitters on a stick.
We leave. Around us, other groups begin to emerge from their tents. It's a beautiful starlit night. But it's incredibly cold. Soon we begin the zigzags.
So it goes: 1am, 2am, eyes fixed on the back of Ben's boots, falling asleep on my legs, the odd weird sight emerging: someone vomiting, someone crying, someone staring back into my headtorch beam with an expression of bewildered exhaustion. Take your strangest drunken stumble home from the pub, give it fog and slope, chill it to minus 15 and add breathlessness and an aching desire to sleep, and you're getting the idea. We stop maybe three times, each time my head falling onto the nearest shoulder and my eyes closing, my mind blocking out the cold, the noise of the wind and trying to imagine being tucked up in bed as I glide towards sleep. This is how people die on high mountains.
I'm shaken awake and we move again. Shuffle shuffle, pole pole. Casual remarks made by the guides over the past days become mantras. Small sips on drink. Get to Stella Point, you'll make it. I look up into the night ahead and see the stars. We're topping out! But... the stars are in lines, moving. They're not stars against the sky: they're headtorches against the black of even more mountain. My heart plummets. We keep going. At one point the crags thin to the left, exposing a cavernous view. Puddles of rippling tungsten light are splashed over it - towns. Cities, even. But not like the view from a mountain: like a view from a plane. Ben's boots trip in front of me. Andrew dives off the path and vomits. Then we're on scree. Samuel is traversing up a steep slope, scrambling, passing others, static on the steep rock. I look up again, watching the silver lights ahead for movement. They don't shift. They're stars. People are sat around me.
I look out and spot the faint outline of a level skyline. This is Stella Point. Make it to Stella Point, you've killed the mountain. It can't be:
I was never going to make it this far.
We start to move again. The light is changing, from crepuscular black to cool brown-blue. Wonderful things appear: an immense ice shelf, glowing in the pre-dawn. A huge crater and its rim. Gnurls of lava. After hours of exhaustion and the view of a pair of boots, it's almost too much. A line the colour of a fresh bruise is appearing on the horizon. It's broken by a black promontory ahead of me, from which I catch the flash of a camera. I pull mine from my jacket, passing it from my right hand to my left. It falls to the ground: my left hand is as numb as a branch. Alarm bells ring, but I pick it up and trudge on. There's that ugly sign. Samuel grabs my shoulders. This isn't right. I can't be here. I was certain I would never be standing here. Godbless taps my shoulder and points back the way we came. The second I turn, the horizon explodes.
I can't stop myself. I sob. Witnessing dawn over Africa from its highest point after convincing yourself you wouldn't has that effect. The others have all made it too: five days of uncertainty, diarrhoea, headaches, wondering - all for this moment. It was timed and chivvied to absolute perfection by our guides, who smile with unfakeable glee. Sleep is 12 hours away. A shower, the lodge and a mythologised steak more distant still. But the thought of getting back having made it sets my legs on fire.
Three months on and a blurry photo, a certificate signed by Samuel and the bottle of my first Kilimanjaro beer are a few of my souvenirs. They mean far more to me than I thought they would before leaving. Back then Kili was the plod that gave you a headache. It isn't; it's gripping - full of beguiling interest, chewy atmosphere and spectacle. Summiting Kili was a life highlight: I'd recommend it to anyone - as long as they realise what they're getting themselves into.
It was certainly the hardest physical and mental stand-off I've ever had. Anyone who's stood on the top - from the youngest (aged 7) to the oldest (87) via Chris Moyles and a bloke in a wheelchair - will probably tell you a similar story.
Around half of those who attempt Kili fail to summit. They don't think it's easy. The 20 or so people who die on it each year certainly don't. The only people to claim Kilimanjaro is a pushover are the ones who have never tried.
If you want to agree with the guy on the bar stool and say Kili is easy, go ahead.
But don't ever say it to me. Because, regardless of whether we're in a bar or not, I will spill a drink in your lap.
Words and photographs by Simon Ingram
Article Copyright Trail Magazine 2009