Excited to climb Mt Killimanjaro I arrived in Moshi, conducted some quick research and decided to to climb the 'Machame' route to the 5895m summit. The trek is a 6 day camping route and I had wanted to meet some other travelers to do the trek with but due to it being low season there weren't many other travelers around. Randomly I had found a cheapo agency that organized climbs for $900 plus tips (the cheapest deal in town) as it is mandatory to climb with a registered agency and guide.
The agency told me that they had two other people going up on the same day however when i requested to meet them first i was told they were on safari and not coming back till later that night. I was slyly informed on the morning we were leaving that the other two people had fallen sick. Apparently this is a common scam and there never really was any other people in the group, not an auspicious start! I decided to go up alone anyway as i couldn't find anyone else that wanted to climb.
My support party consisted of 5 Tanzanians: Romi (my guide), Matthew (my cook) and 3 porters to carry all our gear. Matthew doubled as porter and cook, carrying my bag on his head all day then cooking my meals for me at night while I rested in my tent.
I had planned to do the climb in 6 days to give me time to acclimatise to before attempting the 5850 peak. Not the highest I have ever been but my quickest ascent. The first couple of days went by like a breeze. I was told the walking would be 5 - 7 hours each day only to arrive in camp after 3 or 4, having nothing to do for the rest of the day but lie in my tent reading my book as it poured heavily with rain for a few hours every afternoon.
At this stage i was happy to be by myself as i could set my own pace and have breaks wherever i wanted. I saw other fit looking people in bigger groups being held back by slower group members and knew this would have frustrated the hell out of me.
As the days progressed i suffered relatively no altitude sickness as i was drinking about 5 liters of water a day which necessitated constantly ducking behind rocks to relieve myself.
The day before the summit at 4600m i started to developed a little headache but was still amped for the summit attempt later that night. This was the first sign of the difficulties to come.
We were hoping for some good weather for our summit attempt and decided to leave the high camp at 1am, an hour or two later than most groups usually leave as we had been making great time on previous days. It had started to snow fairly heavily at around 6pm and I decided to try and get some sleep before the summit ascent. I was hoping that while i slept the snow would stop and that it would become a starry night like every other on the trip had been so far.
My guide, Romi, woke me at 12.20am and to my dismay i could still hear the wind and snow battering the tent outside. I got dressed in all my layers of gear and emerged from the tent to see a thick layer of snow building up on the tent.
We were the last group to leave at 1am, most others had left between 11pm and 12am to make the summit close to sunrise after 6 - 7 hours of ascent. it was to be a 1395m ascent in the pitch dark, howling wind and snow to the top of the mountain.
As Romi and I left camp snow and ice was blowing straight into our eyes and we had to keep our heads down to see. I was wearing thermal underwear, thick jacket, a balaclava and a head torch. I also carried a spare jumper and fleece in my bag. I usually like to start off not wearing enough layers as i usually warm up fast while climbing.
After a couple of hours of slow, steep ascent we passed a few groups of miserable looking people slogging slowly up the mountain through the blizzardy conditions. All i could see was blackness around me plus some faint groups of lights glowing in the snowy darkness on the mountain above.
Over the next few hours we slowly passed other groups of climbers on the mountain. Because of the foul conditions there was no real communication with others as we passed them, just a quick nod, then heads back down to keep the snow and ice out of the eyes. A number of groups of climbers had also passed back by us, returning to high camp as the conditions were to foul.
As the going started to get slower and steeper I started to get a little cold. After stopping and trying to put on another jumper i found that it was almost impossible to get my jacket off as it was completely frozen with ice. The zip on my jacket was frozen solid as was my hood and beanie that was protecting my Bose Ipod headphones. Luckily i had put my Ipod on shuffle as there was no way i could change the music or turn it off, it was basically frozen solid to my head. I gave up on putting on another jumper and I think this is when the words 'suck it up princess' started constantly repeating through my mind.
After passing the last group of people on the mountain i started to get a little nervous as up until then we were following other groups footprints in the snow. It had been reassuring seeing faint lights of other climbers ahead, but once we were in the lead i started to question myself and my guide; If everyone else is turning around should we too? It's pitch black, snowing and blowing like hell, how does Romi know the route to the top without any path? I know the summit is straight up but what if we fall off a cliff on the way? It didn't make it better that Romi seemed a little nervous about continuing. He didn't say anything but i just got that feeling as he would often stop for a few seconds seemingly in confusion about which way to go.
To make things worse my headlamp light had faded to almost nothing. I had unknowingly bought cheap, knock off batteries that were useless and i was forced to turn off my light and follow my guides footsteps in the small amount of light that was left over behind him as he walked.
We started getting into a slow rhythm as we gained in altitude, I was just focused on the music from my ipod and on the footsteps of Romi in-front of me but often couldn't make out the ground in front of me and i just guessed where Romis footprints had passed into the dark.
The going was extremely steep and slow due to the altitude, Romi and i were less than a meter apart but in the wind and the snow there was no communication and it felt like we were worlds apart.
It crossed my mind a few times to turn back but i kept thinking i would be so disappointed with myself if i did. My ego also wouldn't let me turn back as i was imagining the shame of telling people that i wasn't strong enough to make it to the top.
At about 5am when we were still about an hour from the summit the snow storm started to abate and this gave me some extra confidence to continue. I was exhausted and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Since the wind had softened I decided once again to try and put on another jumper. We had moved behind some rocky shelter and Romi managed to unzip my jacket with considerable difficulty. My jacket came off me in one frozen solid piece that also contained my head torch, beanie, earphones and backpack all attached and frozen solid together. After managing with difficulty to put on the extra jumper and freezing more in the process we continued on our climb.
About half an hour later as we were nearing the summit the edge started to come off the darkness and while still before sunrise we were able to make out some rocky and snowy shapes in front of us.
It was reassuring not to be in a black hole of darkness anymore and my adrenaline really started to kick in. I was going to be the first person that day to reach the summit, I was actually going to make it.
We finally reached the summit at approximately 6am. The sign marking the 5895 summit spot was completely covered in snow and ice. With elation I took some quick photos of the cloudy surroundings, the sign and our frozen bodies covered in ice and snow. The atmosphere with dull light and clouds was very moody and mysterious but we were to cold to hang around and contemplate it for to long.
As we started I or decent an orange glow from the sun started to filter through the clouds. About 5 minutes later we came across a miserable looking group of people coming up another route to the summit. was like a little school boy, smiling and prancing down the mountain still on an adrenaline high and they just gave me tired and icy glares with no smiles, i guess that's how i was feeling a half an hour before that too.
This is where i made my biggest mistake of the trip. Still high on adrenaline and a lack of Oxygen I decided I was superman and that I didn't need to spend an extra night at the high camp. I could make it down the whole mountain that day. (Approximately 4000m straight down). It was only 7am, we had the rest of the day to descend the mountain after all.
We slid down through the snow back to the high camp, it was beautiful as the clouds had finally started to pass and as the sun came out we could see what we had just slogged up for the last 5 hours.
We reached high camp after an hour, swapped stories with the other climbers who hadn't reached the summit, packed up our things and then set off for the bottom. I had sent my porter off ahead of me with my bag and within an hour i regretted it badly. All my adrenaline had worn off, i was exhausted by the 6 hours of climbing and my knees started to hurt immensely.
I had no choice now but to continue down the mountain as my porter (about an hour in front of me) had all my gear. Every step was agony on my knees. Other climbers had bought walking poles for the decent but i hadn't as i thought hikers with poles looked like w***ers, who was the w***er now hmmm?
It took about 5 hours of pure hell to decent from 4895m to the 1800m start of the trek. Every punishingly rocky and steep step down felt like it was going to rip out my knee caps. I finally made it, not without much complaining and have spent the last few days in bed with my legs up, trying to heal my swollen knees with lots of ice, anti inflammatorys and a few beers.
I have a lot more trekking planned and had to postpone my flight to Rwanda to trek with the gorillas. I'm hoping that my knees will heal in the next few days but i know i only have my stupid ego to blame.
Oh well, it was fun.