Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
WM’s Kili walk, March 2020 (Lemoshso Route, Northern Circuit, Summit, Mweka Route)
Day 1: To Forest camp
Driving in to the start of a Kili trail is a fantastically enticing experience: from the plains, the great mass looms vast and serenely white-capped amidst its cloudy robings, its scale deceptive, above the plains and forested lower slopes.
Approaching from the west, the road begins to climb, and the lush farmland turns to scrubby grassland littered with fumeroles, then rich dark farmland patched with pine plantations, then riotous forest.
The Londorossi Gate is heaving with people: long lines of porters awaiting the weighing of their loads, vans being piled with baggage, walkers watching and chatting, itching to be on the trail. We sign in, then wait for our team to be ready.
We drive up 6km of narrow track to the Lemosho gate at 2,100m (figures vary), where we eat lunch and tighten our boots. We are not alone: porters wait again in long military lines, packs are re-weighed and shouldered.
Then we’re off, at last, on a good path up a long but steady slope. Saimon, our assistant guide, sets a very steady pace, which even Serena, rapid walker as she usually is, complies with. We’re serious about acclimatization, here. We climb 550m, barely puffing, in 2hrs 20mins. It is a perfect temperature, warm enough to sweat a bit but eased by an occasional gentle breeze. We’ve got away with it, weather-wise: the online forecasts as we flew were so dire (heavy snow and rain for 10 days) that we contemplated changing plans. Phew. Every good day will be a blessing.
The forest is completely impenetrable, thick with creepers twining through low bush below stately straight-trunked trees and mad-rooted figs (well, they look like figs). It is beautiful, but quiet, with fewer birds around than I’d expected. The trees open out in places as we get higher, allowing glimpses of huge vistas down across the plains far below. A valley-bottom is lined with an avenue of pale, dead trunks.
I learn later that this is secondary forest which had grown back since the locals were resettled.
We work easily up steeper slopes, meandering on pretty paths through stands of fine trees on the flatter ground.
The Forest Camp appears, at 2,650m, at the top of a final slope: a narrow but flat ridgetop already stuffed with tents. It is very inviting even though full of voices. We sign in, and find our tents nearby. Our team (all 27 of them) have been waiting, and congregate to sing us in. It is completely charming, the first time I have met it, and the tip meter clicks up. We are introduced to each other, smiles all round.
Our chairs await us in dappled shade, and are soon occupied – but we are chivvied up to inspect our tents and internet tent (loo). Charles the guide joins us to talk through what’s coming as we sip tea and chew popcorn. Delightful.
We wash and get arranged in our tents, then return to our chairs and chat in the cooling air. Everyone is in good spirits, including Eugene, who has had the longest journey. We are summoned into the mess tent at 6.30 for supper of courgette soup, fish with fried spuds and vegetables, and a fresh fruit salad. Charles joins us to go over tomorrow – good weather again, with luck. Phew again.
We chat and play scrabble, and I write this diary. Bill and Eugene retire at 8.45, Serena and I read and write on in the mess tent.
The first night camping usually involves poor sleep as you get accustomed, and this is no exception, although it is comfortable night, thanks in large part to paying for a second mattress. I’m off to sleep pretty quickly, but wake at perhaps midnight. I’m reading Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, and can’t stop giggling: I hope I don’t wake anyone. I use my new camping tool, a urine bottle, to good effect, not leaving my sleeping bag – why didn’t I get one YEARS ago?? All those freezing late-night excursions…:. A crackling from nearby as Serena acquaints herself with her makeshift shewee (a cut-down water container) has me giggling again. I have to take a half Zopi pill to get back to sleep.
Day 2: to Shira 1 camp
We are woken by cooking noises some time after 4am: in this crowded campsite there is little distance from the active tents, although this one isn’t our team, I think. We are roused at 6.30 and receive tea at 6.45. We pack efficiently, and are out and ready well before an outrageous 7.30 breakfast of porridge with thick dark honey, pancakes with more honey, omelette and bacon.
A clear sky – thank goodness. Two good days banked.
We set off at 8.15 into really lovely varied, dappled forest. Yesterday‘s jungle has thinned to more stately trees, spread more widely, and thick lower undergrowth: this is proper cloud forest, with a goodly assortment of lichens and mosses.
Today is mainly a steep slog up the outer slopes of the old Shira caldera, the remains of the earliest volcano of the massif, with a very good slow pace being set. Even the whippet, aka Serena, is obedient. The track is crowded at first, with queues at the base of steeper climbs, and a constant stream of porters skipping past, their loads often teetering on their heads.
The forest ends quite suddenly after an hour or so, I suppose below the lip of a ridge although this isn’t clear, with a brief intermingling of the trees with the new heathery shrublands, then we are out in the full sun, with vast views back west over the slopes and plains below, framed by the swaying giant heather.
The next three hours are quite demanding, an undulating traverse across to the base of a long, steep ridge which we then labour up, with ever-expanding views. Clouds appear round the southern side of our view, leaving the north clear, and stay there, rather peculiarly.
We have lunch in a cleared area near the top of the Shira ridge, which swings round the south of the huge caldera, which has been filled in by eruption and erosion to form the Shira Plateau. Hot soup and a lunchbox of chicken, boiled egg, but don’t feel wildly hungry, so most of it is left for later: unusual for greedy me – it must be the altitude.
Things become easier, with a steady traverse around the ridge-end through head-high scrub (feels like Hong Kong, of all places), until we round a corner to find Kibo, the main Kili peak, looming across the huge, gently sloping basin: a moment of glory – it is magnificent and menacing amid its wreaths of cloud rather than beautiful.
As we drop into the basin, views of the peaks of the high Shira Ridge introduce themselves: Johnsell Point at 3,962m; Shira Needle; Shira Cathedral, which we will climb tomorrow, and East Shira Hill.
A steady march across the deceptive plateau – the lower Kibo slopes seem close, but it is enormous – gets us to the Shira One campsite early afternoon, 5 1/2 hours’ walking against a projected time of 6 to 7 hrs. Not bad.
There must be more than 150 tents huddled in patches spread out over a couple of hectares of heathland – perhaps 200 campers plus three times that number of supporters? Considering the numbers, it is remarkably unsullied: the authorities do a fantastic job keeping this in order – we have a recent comparison with Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, where the money clearly disappears and the sites range from dreary to miserable.
Sign in. Tea, wash, read Waugh and take a delicious kip, one of the pleasures of trekking. To the mess tent at 5-ish. It is a lot colder up on this windy plain as the sun declines. We chat and eat another good supper, and I write this account. I regret not having brought a bottle of something, although 9 dry days on the mountain is a lot better than a month in the lowlands.
Our team are incredibly cheerful. They were singing in the afternoon, and are laughing in their tents later on – with a girl in constant hysterics. It turns out that she is 16 and on her first ever expedition, as a porter/helper. Her mother is a trek administrator, and has sent her up for experience. She has clearly never heard anything like the boys’ stories that are coming out. I’ve never heard any one person laugh so much, and I hope she doesn’t make herself sick.
An interrupted night, with cold feet. But enough sleep.
Day 3: Shira Cathedral
What a day.
We're up at 6.30 again, emerging to a quiet grey sky with the prospect of sun – another good day to bank. Our regular huge breakfast to set us up, and a seat in the sun outside the mess tent as we get sun-creamed up.
We're off to the Shira Cathedral, a short ridge high on the southern caldera rim and a diversion from the direct track to Shira 2 camp.
We have a gorgeous walk across the plateau, gradually climbing on a good path which winds through vivid, ravishing shrub-land, widely spaced to aid appreciation of each individual specimen, from elegantly sculpted junipers to bright yellow bushes to a mixture of harmonious greys.
We are heading straight towards Kibo, with a constant stream of porters flowing past us, the path often a pedestrian dual carriageway in which we are the lorries. We turn right onto a cycle path, of all things, a wondrously smooth trail across the upper basin. We are feeling good, plodding steadily, with enough spare energy to talk discursively (whether we make sense is another issue…). Beyond a wide area of rough grass, we reach a belt of shapely heather clumps at the foot of the Cathedral. It has taken us three hours to cross a long radius of this vast oval bowl.
After a water break, we climb the lower slopes to a narrow col where we meet our first view along the southern slopes of the great massif, which recede in a series of ridges and deep barrancos. A steep 20 minute climb gets us onto the summit ridge, greeted by views across the southern plains around Moshi some 3,000 metres below us. Immediately below us is a tumult of sheer ridges and spires protecting what looks like an Eden of an untouched hanging valley.
The full extent – and grandeur – of the caldera is done justice from here. It is the remains of the first volcano, which must once have rivalled subsequent Kibo in size, but which collapsed in on itself, with later ash and lava flows from Kibo filling the chasm to leave the strange flats we see now and overwhelming its north-eastern rim. Our broken southern ridge swings round to a western buttress round which we walked for our first view yesterday. After a break for the Engari Nairobi river, the sides circle round less distinctly to meet Kibo's lower slopes. Above it all, the emperor of mountains lurks in its cloudy mystery.
Away to our west, Kili’s twin volcano, 4,560m Mount Meru dominates the skyline, still some bit higher than our perch on the Cathedral’s roof-line. It looks like a laughably perfect cone, an African Fuji, but the half of it facing Kili collapsed, leaving an enormous chasm surrounded by a horseshoe of cliffs which are getting on for 2,000 metres high at their centre. It is a staggering place, commanding its own view back to Kili at dawn, when it stands serenely above the low early morning clouds.
Our hearts sing, with the moment fortunately not spoiled by their owners joining in.
We climb back down to our packs, and walk northwards along and behind the ridge-top towards its junction with Kibo. A wonderful trail. At an area of hard sand flats, adorned with scores of stone assemblies, we meet the head of the emergency track from the Shira Route entrance. We then slog for half an hour up maybe 200m to the Shira 2 camp on a fine platform with huge views back across the plateau. It is emptier than Shira 1, to our relief.
In retrospect, this is (for me) the most enjoyable single day of our trek.
We attack lunch in the mess tent - pizza (how the hell?), amazing onion salad in mashed avocado sauce.
Another delightful kip in my tent, worried about spoiling night-time sleep but unable to help myself.
At 4pm, we make an acclimatisation climb, 30 minutes up old lava flows to another platform where we sit and enjoy the views of the cloud soaring up over the plateau rim to evaporate in the drier air, while gaining some useful time at around 4,000m.
At 3,840m, the camp is windier and colder. We wash, swig tea, have another big supper, chat, I compose this account while a game of scrabble rages, then Serena and I play backgammon while t'other William produces random numbers from his phone as I've lost the dice.
A cold bed: I haven’t got my layers right for this new world. But I love my pee bottle. The big issue is how to stow it so that sleepy fumblings don’t tip it over…..
Day 4: Lava Tower and Moir Hut
We're in a good routine now. Tea in our tents at 6.45, pack, the usual huge and bracing breakfast.
It is a beautiful morning, a clear sky allowing us to gaze across the plateau and the caldera rim to the grand silhouette of Meru in the distance.
We head straight back up the hill we climbed, past yesterday's vantage point, plodding on up into Alpine shrublands: lovely, vivid vegetation softening the harsh outcrops of old lava flows.
It is a long climb, but, given we are over 4,000m, it goes reasonable well.
At the junction where the Northern and Southern circuits meet, we turn east to make a gorgeous undulating traverse then a climb towards Lava Tower on the approach to the fearsome Western Breach. The altitude starts to tell, and I find the ups increasingly laborious.
We are just on the vegetation line, alternating between small shrubs and bare Alpine desert. We head towards a long lava cliff, with the Lava Tower dominating the middle horizon.
Round above the cliff and down a short slope, a final exhausting climb gets me to the busy platform below the chunky but perhaps slightly disappointing tower, which, unusually, is less dramatic close up than I’d expected. The platform is covered with tents, a shock in this lonely landscape.
Serena and Eugene are perched on boulders below the tower, but Bill doesn't like the look of the weak rock of the tower so he and I sit away, facing it, chewing our lunches and discussing Brexit and the row between the government and the BBC. The virus gets little mention during the whole trek, except when we get rare moments of connectivity, and then to express incredulity at the apparent panic: we are already way out of touch.
The return to the junction is mainly downhill, so easier. We meet a very ill old man wobbling between two guides who hold a hand each. He is all pale khaki: his hat, his short, his trousers - and his face. He is clearly suffering from severe altitude sickness and will die if not got down quickly. Charles remonstrates with the guides, even draws a line in the gravel which the man can't walk along. But he is clearly determined, and the guides overwhelmed. We head on. I still wonder about what happened to him, and feel guilty about not talking to his young companions, but altitude does funny things.
Back at the junction, we carry straight on, now on the Northern Circuit, along the contours, over vast lava slopes and between curious formations.
After maybe 1.5 hours we reach the lip of our destination, a barren valley which is elegantly scooped and dead straight, clearly once a glacier. We soon see the Moir Hut campsite, a large gravelly flat by an infant stream with just two groups of tents: our lower-season good fortune. It is how I had hoped would be – well, perhaps I'd assumed something slightly more forgiving.
A porter comes up to take a pack, a typically beyond-the-call gesture, if unnecessary.
Down at the campsite, we enjoy the temporary pleasures of warm sun and no wind. I lie on my mattress with the tent door open, savouring the joys of not having to hurry into layered insulation. Then it is a wash and change, a quick kip, a sort-out.
We sit in the sun by the mess tent, enjoying the moment as we've been warned that this is a tougher world, and it will fall below zero as soon as the sun is down, with freezing air rolling down from the glacier at the valley head. This is a very different-feeling place: with its gravelly bottom and scoured-smooth rock, it feels like a Utah canyon rather than a volcano.
Supper is at 6.15: peanut soup (our request after a success in Ethiopia), delicious and filling spaghetti Bolognese.
We talk, I write, play backgammon facilitated by the patent Charlwood random number generator.
It is a cold night, but not that different from Shira 2 – but that may just be how it seems because I have more layers on.
Day 5: to Buffalo Camp via Lent Tower
We are now well into our morning routine, dressing and clearing out or our tents before breakfast as usual. It is a beautiful clear, still morning, and warms up quickly when the sun hits the campsite. Another good day to bank?
I'm in the internet room when the team start singing. A prolonged time in there means I miss the entire performance - but have a very harmonious session. Someone apparently suggested they gathered round the tent to serenade my exit.
Serena and I have indented for personal oxygen for the summit: I've always regretted not having had the energy to enjoy the moment at the high pass on the sacred circuit round Mount Kailash in Tibet, and she has had similar experiences in Ladakh. We are to try it out now. It seems easy, with a flexible plastic tube to my nose and hooked over my ears from a lightish cylinder on my back. It discharges a puff on each inhalation: result!
We're off at 8.30, crossing the stream and clambering onto the local lava-flow, which has been smoothed by water or ice.
I roar up the steep hillside behind, towards the dramatic ridgetop tower that is our first target. The oxygen has kicked in. I know I'll make the top – and enjoy it! I get funny looks from the Germans who pass us as we drink our water on the col. Fine views back over our valley to the Shira Plateau.
We weave across rocky ground to the back of the first Lent Hill formation just above the col, then scramble to the top for thrilling views across the quiet plateau to Meru looming grandly in the distance. Behind us, the ridge runs, in a series of further towers, until it merges with the rock and ice of the main Kibo mass. A really lusciously enjoyable few minutes. The platform is laden with more stone assemblies, many ingenious, which add to the magic of the place.
The rest of the day is a long traverse round the north-western flank of that vast mass of rock and ice, Kibo, initially through harsh high Alpine desert behind the Lent ridge. The trail climbs steadily to a couple of ridges, all easy walking but for the altitude.
We then drop to pretty Alpine moorland, some of my very favourite landscape, with a variety of gentle grey plants setting an undemonstratively delightful tone. Happy days.
Bill and I loiter to take photos, and it is the last we see of Eugene and Serena. I suspect he tailors his pace to suit my plodding.
Kibo is wrapped in cloud, and Charles confirms what I suspect – it is snowing up high. Intimations of what may be coming our way cause a mild tightening of the intestines.
It becomes harder work: the path rougher, the valleys deeper, the climbs steeper, ending in a slog up to a long, sheer sill. We clamber up a break in the cliff: From the top, we can see our campsite, a bit over kilometre away, on a platform behind what looks like another sill.
A final 20 minutes or so get us there. We soon tuck into a late lunch, with tent flaps open to enjoy the genuine warmth. A lovely moment, and a luxury to be here promptly and with no acclimatisation walk to come.
I retire to my tent, for what is meant to be a snooze but turns into deep sleep, and for quite a while. With poor nights and the altitude gnawing away, these walks are tiring even though they would be pretty straightforward in normal conditions . I wake dopey and disoriented.
We sit and talk lazily in much warmer air, despite our exposed position. Perched on the rocks just below the camp, we gaze on gorgeous, towering late afternoon storm clouds rumbling with thunder, which do their best to obscure the huge views towards the soda flats of Lake Natron. We witness prolonged lightning flickerings later on.
Supper is soup, beef Stroganoff, flambe pineapples - not bad for nearly 4,000 metres! I fall asleep as Charles gives our next-day briefing.
Some relaxed chat, then Bill and Eugene peel off: I teach Serena German Whist.
To my sack and read Sebastian Faulks' Engleby. Not impressed. Very near quitting.
Day 6: to Third Cave
Kili is not quite on an east-west axis, so our north-slopes platform gets early sun, and today we are greeted by clear skies with Kili gleaming above us and huge views out over the sleeping plains under their ragged covering of clouds.
We take breakfast with the mess tent fully open to the warm sunshine at 7.30: we revel in an interlude of ease on our demanding journey: a few minutes lounging in the sun while camp is struck feel like luxury.
We're off promptly for a short morning which turns out to be the easiest walking of the entire journey, a beautiful meander through highland scrub, in steady sun with views of Kibo to our right and the clouds and plains below us to our left. There is some up and down, and the ups very quickly have me plodding and panting, but Bill and Eugene and I reach the Third Cave camp at 11.45, having talked all the way about Hong Kong, Brexit, Labour's recent history. (Amazing, in hindsight, how little we touch on the virus in all our 9 days, other than brief consternation following the occasional brief flicker of communications, emerging to find a changed world which I for one take a few days to get properly to grips with.)
The camp is on a long gravel slope by a wide dry river bed, smooth enough for an orderly set-up but a desolate spot as soon as the sun goes in.
Serena has been here for ages (we didn't even see her dust) and I tell her I definitely want her on the Canada exploration I’m planning, to be the one out front to disturb the bears for us.
A delicious pre-prandial kip, then a filling prand, then write this account and start an article categorizing artists by whether their sensibilities are renaissance or baroque (bit woozy with the altitude, I suspect).
We're off at 2.30 for an acclimatisation climb up tomorrow's trail. The clouds come down as we leave, gusts swirling around us to turn a bleak landscape into a miserable one. An hour's steady trudge up a steepish gravel slope and then a final really steep section sees us 325m higher at above the 4,000m mark, tedious and (for me, anyway) the final slope exhausting, but an encouraging performance for the coming challenge.
We're back down in 40 minutes. It starts to rain half way down, which would normally depress, but we've banked 6 good days despite an appalling forecast, so can only be philosophical. Fingers crossed for the summit!
Change for the night, supper and chat in the tent. I don't now remember much, but I think we retired to tents and I wrestled onward with Engleby, gripped despite not liking it: but there is a surly suspense about it.
Day 7: to Outward Bound Hut
Another efficient start: up, packed and breakfasted and off at soon after 8am.
It is a heavy, lowering day, the cloud close above us. We have a 4 hour flog some 800m up to the Outward Bound Hut comp at 4,700m (15,500-ish ft).
We take it very slowly, plodding up the path we took yesterday. A bit of a boring slog is relieved by some wonderful views of Mawenzi, Kili’s soaring, gracefully castellated second peak, more like Mount Kenya than Mount Kenya itself, which appears over the ridge to our east, lent mystery by evanescent shreds of rising cloud, quite soon after we leave camp. Then we settle down to the rhythm. We reach yesterday's terminus in 20 minutes longer than yesterday, but I feel a lot better. Acclimatization or slow pace? I don't care....
After a gentler upward traverse which is probably mainly there to deceive, we tackle a brutal direct climb of a steep gravelly slope. It starts to rain, so it is a closed-down, closed-mind fight against an unforgiving environment. But we make it, to meet a weird sight, the carcase of a buffalo which died here (at over 15,000 ft!) in search of rock salts. Its neck sticks rigidly forward as if in a strange rigour mortis, although Charles says that this is caused by its skeletal structure. Its ribs show and it is hollow inside. Damien Hirst would love it.
The next phase is a marginally gentler diagonal, then another steeper climb through lava formations, then a long flog up a steep slope to the campsite, which still looks tiny in under a high crag. A hailstorm hits, and we hunker back down inside our layers. I have to say, I'm not entirely convinced by my thick and heavy 'extreme' coat, which seems to leak round the edges. Good time to find out. (Actually, I later decide it didn't do too badly, it is certainly windproof.) It is pretty horrible, but we have been so lucky with the weather, no-one is dispirited.
We are delighted to reach camp - a godforsaken group of patches just big enough for tents in a universe of steepness - and flop into the mess tent at around noon.
This was a deliberately short day, as we'll be setting off at midnight for the summit, so need to prepare and sleep before then.
We eat a good, carbo-loading lunch of pasta and other stuff - my appetite isn't its usual cheerful self, and the details don't lodge.
Then it is tent time - packing and indeed changing for the top. There is no water here, so no washing allowed, not that one sweats much up here. I don all my thermal underlayers, and my new summit-day double pairs of socks. I have brought thick ski gloves, which are not as suitable as I'd hoped: waterproof mittens would have been better and my fingers were cold on the way up. Serena has lots of handwarmers, so I improvise mittens from thick folded merino socks, so I can get my finger together round the warmers, and they turn out to work surprisingly well.
Some sleeping bag time (not too much sleep, now, or you won't sleep this evening), and it is 5ish. A cold read of Engleby, fascinating in its disappointment, a self-consciously clever book with no characters to find credible let alone likeable, even allowing for the narrator being weird. It rains and drizzles outside, and it is a pleasure to be snugly bagged-up.
Some dour mess tent time, then it is another carb-rich meal.
Back to our tents for the all-important sleep. Aided by nice Mr Zopiclone, I'm out at 7ish, and am woken from a pleasant drowse at 10.45.
Day 8 : summit
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 wobbly 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 as 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.
The most interesting sight here was a group of abandoned-looking unicycle rescue stretchers: one wheel below, four porters at each corner to steady and balance the descent. A horrendous way to be shaken four or more hours down the mountain with your broken leg, but ingenious and a lot less terrible than the alternatives.
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.
I emerge at maybe 5.30, and we chat and sup in the mess tent. We are all in good spirits, although I at least feel discombobulated by the extraordinary experiences I've been through.
We talk over tomorrow's tipping, always a subject of careful focus on the last night, but fairly easily and efficiently despatched as everyone is getting top-of-the range tips and Bill brought envelopes, which aid the process no end. To add to Walkopedia’s checklist! Our only issue is we were told a maximum sum each which gets us nowhere near the amounts we want to pay. We are also aided by Serena’s being crisply decisive (some could argue bossy, but I’d never say that!) when others (well, me anyway) are fuddled, as if she hasn’t just walked 14 hours – oh, but of course she didn’t. It is very helpful. Honestly.
I write notes for this account: it says a lot about the demands of the last week that I have seldom had energy to get beyond notes. A few rounds of German whist, then it is back to my sack. I finish Engleby, still unsure what I think of it. Huxley’s Crome Yellow next: I’m looking forward to a light and witty read. I sleep like the proverbial baby: I'm not sure I turn over at all during the night.
Day 9: final descent to Mweka Gate
The day starts beautifully, with clear post-rain views out over a side-lit cloudscape behind the elegant tops of our campground’s giant heather. An efficient get-up and slipshod (sod it, bung it in) last-day pack, then breakfast with mess tent flaps open and bright tropical light streaming in. Our porters are already beginning to gather, tongues hanging out, for the tipping ceremony. We twitch nervously under their gaze, and make final preparations for departure.
Charles arrives and we’re off: I make a short speech of huge appreciation, telling them that they’ve all got top-of-the-range tips, and it is plain sailing after that: we hand out envelopes, shake hands and embrace, then it is song time, led by Juma, a wonderful and happy sound accompanied by clapping and swaying with some quality showing-off by some younger players at the front. A wonderful end.
Considering yesterday’s rigours, I feel surprising well, probably as a result of a heavy Ibuprofen dosage for my legs.
The descent to the Mweka gate is a gorgeous if tiring way to end a magnificent trek: 2,300m (or so) down through heath, giant heather (erica excelsa, lovely name), upper and lower montane forests, on an often slippery but beautifully maintained path the gravel for sections of which has been portered up from elsewhere.
The upper stretch is stunning, winding along the top of a lava sill with wide views across the steep ridges and valleys of the southern flank, between tall, elegant heather clumps; then into even taller heather dripping with old man’s beard, then lovely open and very mixed woodland. I am on my own with Charles at the back after half an hour or so. The dense cloud- then rain-forest full of competing trees looks richer than the Lemosho forest we climbed through, and he confirms that it is primary, unburned in contrast to the Lemosho area.
We see podocarpus, fig, hagenia at the higher end, with spindly 30ft heather struggling for their scrap of sky, and later mahogany, wild mango, giant ferns, thick undergrowth and flowers in clearings, including the beautiful elephant head and trunk-shaped and impatiens kilimanjari the national flower; and a little deer. Charles is a fount of knowledge.
The trail gets damper as we descend, and I am thankful for my two poles, as I was yesterday. (My arms ache more than my legs by the end.)
We overtake groups of limping climbers, and are passed in turn by a torrent of porters, balancing head-loads as they hop from one slippery stone to the next. Charles says that the Russians we saw yesterday had 120 porters. And 3 of their group needed rescuing.
The forest gets taller and thicker. We reach the head of a service road, and meet an ambulance fighting up the hill to drop off a mate (we surmise). Another hour or so gets us to the gate, where I sign out and sign in for a certificate of achievement, not that I feel I deserve it. Another 15 minutes in light rain I am too tired to protect myself against has us down at the village to meet the others in a bar. 4.5 hours down: I am really tired, too fuzzy to savour what is a special moment, but can’t believe what good nick my legs are in after descending 4,200m (nearly 14,000 ft) in less than 28 hours. All those flights of stairs at home have paid off. Phew – did it, and quite well – on my terms if slow compared to my exemplary companions.