Into Thin Air
"Time to wake up," our porter shouts through the tent at 11pm. Having had only four hours of patchy, broken sleep disturbed by thoughts of the gruelling challenge that lay ahead, I didn't feel in the best of shape to tackle the final push to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in the middle of the night. Already in a thermal base layer and socks, I quickly added a fleece, down jacket and waterproof coat to combat the below zero temperature outside of my sleeping bag. Two cups of tea and several handfuls of biscuits and salty popcorn later and I was ready to go. Leaving Barafu Camp with the other members of the group, bright sparks of head torches were already forming a zig zag pattern up the side of the mountain, like some sort of religious lantern parade as other walkers started their ascent. Adopting a single file formation, we began our mission to the top, placing one foot in front of the other as would a trapeze artist attempting to cross a tightrope.
This was the climax of an eight day walk along the Lemosho route to the top of Africa's highest mountain. Passing from tropical forest, through moorlands and dusty alpine desert to an arctic peak. My full wardrobe of outdoor wear had been used, from shorts and t-shirt to the technical multi-layered combination I was now sporting, reminiscent of the Michelin Man. Gaining altitude each day had proved a stern test for both body and mind with frequent headaches and feelings of nausea becoming a regular occurrence. By day four, I had joined the majority of my group in taking acetazolamide (or diomox), which is used to combat the aforementioned symptoms of altitude sickness. It comes with its own negative side effects however, including tingling hands and feet (not so bad) and an increase in trips to the toilet (not so great).
Up and up we climb, relentless, and without end in sight reminiscent of an M.C. Esher artwork. I contemplate whether the cold blindness of the night makes the trek an easier or more difficult task than the warm bright visibility of the day. Repetitive beats blare out of a speaker strapped to a porter's rucksack to support one walker's climb, as they step to the rhythm of the music, while another guide shouts: "Don't sleep, don't sleep! Wake up, wake up!" to encourage his group. It frustrates me as the words get stuck in my head and I'm jealous of his energy as all my concentration is placed on breathing and slowly stepping along.
With almost seven hours elapsed, progress is broken by an audible cheer from other walkers. A few steps later and we too have reached Stella Point (5,756 metres) marking the end of the steep section of path. Tears fill my eyes from sheer exhaustion and the joy of making it this far. A quick intake of popcorn and chocolate, and ginger tea provided by the guide proves a welcome addition after the drinking tubes of our camel backs froze several hundred metres lower down. From this spot, it's a gentle incline to Uhuru peak at 5,895m. The centre of the dormant volcano is visible to the right and a huge glacier comes into view on my left as the light of the dawning sun starts to reveal the surrounding luna-like landscape. A group of South Koreans exhaust the photo opportunities by the famous sign marking the top of the Kilimanjaro before three Europeans open a bottle of bubbly, threatening to spray the onlookers in a joking manner. Next in line, along with my partner Lucy, we hold our arms aloft, taking in the moment of reaching the highest point in Africa.