Climbing Kilimanjaro in early 2015
I am truly proud to be able to say that, together with 10 other fabulous guys and girls, I summited Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania earlier this year. Just a few weeks ago we left our second-last tented camp at midnight. We spent the next six hours slowly zig-zagging our way up the final powdery slope to reach Gilman’s Point in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday morning, 3 February 2015. Thereafter, a slow, steady walk past Stella Point and on to Uhuru rewarded us with the sight of the famous yellow lettering welcoming us to Africa’s highest peak. I am overjoyed at this accomplishment and I am really thrilled that all 11 of us made it to the summit.
We took the climb very seriously. Our trip was preceded by a disciplined, consistent 5-month regime of gym training from Monday to Thursday every week, followed by Saturday morning 5-kilometre runs. And then every Sunday we did local hikes in the Magaliesberg region of South Africa – an area just north of Johannesburg – in the Level 3 group. As a result, we were well prepared to take on this challenge because we gradually became much fitter and more confident.
The company we used for our trip was Out Adventures, based in Toronto. They, in turn, sub-contracted with Team Kilimanjaro, the local operation in Tanzania. Team Kilimanjaro proved to be an excellent company to use. There were about 45 crew members to look after the 11 of us. They were made up of the main guide, five junior guides, and then porters, cooks and others.
I am really humbled by the slick operation that these men ran and the pride they took in their work. After every day’s hike when we reached our camp we were greeted by the sight of all our tents, ready pitched, with our bags inside. The dining and ablution tents would be up as well. Every evening we ate like kings. There was always a three-course meal which started with freshly prepared vegetable soup, and was followed by a main meal and dessert.
Of course it took several days to reach our second-last camp referred to at the start of this story. The route we took was the Lemosho Route. This route has a high rate of success (about 90%) because it extends over 6 nights and 7 days. This gives the climbers more time to acclimatize to the low oxygen at the higher altitudes. The route started at the Londorossi Gate. During the first few days you walk through a beautiful rain forest. Thereafter, as you progress up the mountain, the terrain changes and it becomes more rocky and less lush.
As you get closer to the point of assault (the camp from where you will do your summit) the terrain changes to rocks and volcanic ash. It was during this time that I found living in a dusty tent to be rather difficult. Every evening I would take my face cloth, dip it in the bowl of hot water provided and press it to my face, relishing the brief sense of luxury it provided, making me long for a spacious hotel room with hot showers and white linen.
Throughout the hike our guides would encourage us to walk slowly by using the expression “pole pole” (pronounced “Paul hey Paul hey”). Their advice proved to be sound. With the oxygen thinning as we climbed higher and higher our bodies took greater strain. By simply slowing down you give yourself that bit of extra time to breathe and recover, which is what enables you to continue. You’re reminded of all the lessons that nature has taught us. You think of ants, for example, that are so patient and continue to move particles many times the mass of their own bodies. Or birds that painstakingly build their nests, twig by twig. You realize that the mountain is not going anywhere, and going slow is better than not going at all.
But there were other lessons to be learnt by me about the ultimate frailty of the human body against the power of nature and the passage of time. As we shuffled up the final slopes in the moonlight of a Tuesday morning with the help of our hiking sticks I thought of elderly people. One sees them all over – in shopping malls, at church, in the doctor’s waiting room – slowly battling with their walking sticks, their crutches, their Zimmer frames. Our passage up the slope seemed to be a gentle memento mori that my body – strong and robust as it is now – will not be that way forever. I wondered if this is what it felt like to be old: everything working, but so much more slowly.
The route of the final ascent is a busy one with many groups completing the final stage of the summit at the same time. Most people start their summit from midnight onwards in order to be on top of the mountain in time for sunrise. The phases of the moon also play a part in climbers’ choices as to when to summit. Full moon is the most popular choice for summiting, so most people arrange their tour in such a way so as to be able to summit when the moon is full. Our tour took place in such a way that we summited on the night before full moon, so we also had the benefit of some moonlight as we climbed the final stretch. The moon becomes like a beacon of hope during those dark hours. It hovers high above one, very close to the rocky ridge outlined against the sky which marks the point where you reach the top.
It comes as a huge relief when, after the endless zig-zagging, you finally get to Gilman’s Point. Even though your climb isn’t over, from there it tends to be plain sailing through Stella Point to Uhuru Summit. We were given half-frozen Red Bull energy drinks at Stella Point to help us through the final stretch. And when we finally peaked at Uhuru summit I think there where tears of relief and joy for many of us. How wonderful we felt at having battled all the odds and having never given up. What a tremendous sense of camaraderie there was, and how proud and glad we all were to have reached the peak – 5 895 metres or 19 341 feet.
My trip to Kilimanjaro was seven calendar days but it will be a joyful little eternity in my memory and my heart forever.