Climbing Kilimanjaro Summit

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

March 2020 – Summit day

Woken from a pleasant drowse at 10.45. An efficient clear-out, having gone to bed in my summit clothes and pre-packed. A lightish meal – porridge and biscuits, I think - then it is coverings on and we're off at 1220.

It is bitterly cold, but not as gross as we have been led to expect, and clear and starry-skied. It is steep out of camp, indeed almost all the way, with just a few stretches of moderate climb. We trudge very slowly behind Charles' pole-pole pace-setting. 

We climb through broken boulders, then up a long, broken slope. An hour or so gets us to a ridge-top, where we stop for water and kit adjustment. I remove a fleece and unzip some layers - too hot: result! My layers otherwise remain the same the whole way up, so I've got it quite well judged. My hands in their double-folded merino sock-mittens are toasty around their handwarmers. (My ski gloves have been jettisoned as fingered and therefore the colder option.)

I have to say, I'm glad of the break: I can't imagine what it would be like if I hadn't climbed all those flights of stairs at home. It is very beautiful: bright moonlight throws shadows off the rocks, and Mawenzi looms mysteriously against some flat clouds. 

 Things are a bit easier for a while, diagonally up a slope, then we climb harder to a couple of rocky ridges: we are heading south and up across the grain of the land. It is tiring but manageable.

We meet the Marangu route on a long (indeed, endless-looking) slope between lava ridges. There are clusters of torches, but it is not nose to bum as I'd been led to expect: surprisingly few people on the trail tonight. 

We start on the endless switchbacks which we know are our fate. A very long slog to come.

The ridge high above seems attainable with time - then I realise there is a very faint one far, far above, discernable only because of the tiny torches dotted up its flanks, which shows quite how high we've got to go. Hell. 

We enter the snowline so gradually that we only realise after the event that we are in it.  

We pause below a stationary group, then I realise I have somehow got left behind. Was I briefly asleep leaning on my stick, or just confused? I never catch up. 

I gradually slow down, increasingly tired – and I'm on oxygen! It is an endless slog.  Charles (it is of course he, at the back with the slowcoach) tells me I'm doing great, but it ain't so. I'm down to 50 paces between rests. I'm pretty sure I fall asleep several times leaning on my stick. I'm in a funny dreamy state, and wobby when I start off again. A couple of times I think I've really had it, but some energy returns, and I labour on. 

What turns out to be Gilman's Point is signalled by bouts of cheering above, then it appears, unheralded and a tad bathetic,  at a bit after 5.30am. Not so bad after all! I find Bill, not so irretrievably far ahead I’d thought! One of the team is there with hot water - or is it weak tea?

We don't linger long, but embark on what would (but for the exhaustion) be a wonderful traverse along the inside of the crater rim to Stella Point. Bright moonlight illuminates our at times precarious route on a narrow and weak-looking path in the snow above the cliffs and long rocky slopes down into the crater.

I didn't appreciate what a rim Kili has, and indeed how huge its crater is, although the picture is confused by banks of old lava filling most of the void, with a further inner crater somewhere. It is stunning. 

We get glimpses of pre-dawn tints on the clouds half way round, but it is thickly clouded by the time we get to Stella Point, and there is little to see. But it is now light, dimly.

 A quick stop, then I gird myself for the final hour’s slog up the rim to Uhuru Peak. Bill is ahead, again. Beautiful  light, views and cloud effects now distract me at almost every step, so progress is even slower than it need be. The whole long summit ridge is gorgeous in its deep fresh snow. Mawenzi sharp-silhouetted against a quiet pre-dawn sky. The ridge back to Stella and Gilman's Points, sharp black rock protruding from blowing snow. Meru's perfect cone standing darkly before a complex early sky of indeterminately-coloured cloud layers, all behind the fluted upper side of the Rebmann glacier, which is now so small it surely no longer qualifies as such? The crater's normally messy and even a tad ugly inner workings are pristine.

In my layers and hood against the freezing wind, I feel like I'm heading for one of the poles. 

The actual peak is slightly bathetic, a nondescript hump in the ridge with a rack of boards proclaiming its statistics, with maybe 20 people waiting to take their photos beside it. There are Bill and Charles. High fives.

The next hump along actually looks higher, but we suspect must have dangers that have pushed even the elf-n-safety-denying locals to relocate. 

The trudge back to Stella Point is tiring even though mainly downhill, a tribute to the altitude. Fortunately, there is much to admire: the intermittent mists clear and the sky brightens into full sun, providing endless reasons to stop and admire. Mawenzi changes its apparel by the minute, clouds shifting against its stunning near-silhouette against the angled sun; the sharp rim back to Gilman’s Point, swinging round the pristine interior, is really breath-catchingly gorgeous.

I am overheating and need to remove my outer trousers, a major operation involving taking off my boots - and my oxygen. I am gasping for breath, with a headache coming on, within a couple of minutes. Serena and I have had doubts about whether my oxygen is working perfectly, but it is telling how quickly it is missed. I also need to Compeed up a couple of tender spots on my feet in preparation for the endless descent of the Mweka Route which we are about to tackle – more than 4,000m in just over a day. Charles acts as patient nanny, to my embarrassment.

The first switchbacks are rock and ice and require care. Then the path becomes easier, ash grit which you can teeter down – or skate down at a semi-run. I've always loved scree-running, but, in keeping with everything else here, it goes on too long, and becomes shattering. 

We drop rapidly through cloud, down steep rocky slopes into a grim, murky world of the barest and least charming of rock. This isn't enjoyable walking, working to keep alert, every step needing care, in a sleep-deprived fog. Some way below the peak, we pass a huge (30 strong?) and very extended group (Russians, Charles later tells me), who look underprepared, and horribly tired, and ill: they haven’t had enough acclimatisation time. They make me feel better about myself.

Way below, Barafu campsite crouches among wild crags above the huge, wittily named South East Valley. Barafu is weird close-up, scores of brightly-coloured tents crammed into a sloping field of joyless boulders. There must be tentage for more than 200 climbers here, plus their entourages.

And here is lunch, in the lee of the office: delicious hot soup and a box of carb-rich goodies, although exhaustion makes me picky. I ask to stretch out on the concrete veranda, but Charles nips off and a couple of minutes later I'm in the bunk room behind the office, stretched on a greasy foam mattress which I'm sure would render up a small army of bugs but for the cold. My last sight as I drift straight off is a small but healthy rat, sleek even, sauntering across the back of the room. Charles got us 15 minutes in here, and, true to our word, we're up and out within that, extraordinarily refreshed from having taken just the top off the sleep deficit.

A clamber down through some rocks has us in a curious sloping plain veined by braided trails. I guess it is an overflow campsite. Below that,  we get properly stuck into another 2 hrs or so of descent – not so steep, now, but feeling every step, in a tough landscape of rock and... er...rock, which gradually softens into low Alpine scrub then pretty shrubby heathland. By the time we reach Millennium Camp, we are in gorgeous, vivid giant heather forest. I am able to enjoy it, thanks to my quick sleep, but only up to a point – I just want to get there!!

I reach camp at around 2.15pm, in quite good time but no less than FOUR hours after Serena and Eugene! What a pair - they are sitting in the mess tent looking cheerful as I lumber in. I think Serena is doing her tapestry as if she's just pottered up the local hill.  Bill was well ahead, too, although he is not to be seen. S and E got to our brunch pit-stop before brunch had arrived, and here before the porters! One of their poor guides took himself to bed and wasn't seen till the next day. Extra tip needed for what can only be designated a form of abuse...

This is a very different place from where we've been of late, a series of pitches down a gentle slope, separated by stands of giant heather. Not a word you often use at just under 4,000m, but it is charming. Kibo presides amidst its cloudy majesty behind the uphill heather hedging. 

All is fuzzy by now. I guess I drink and eat a bit, then it is time for my tent and that longed-for kip. A truly sleepless night is an unlovely thing. 

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