Published: June 26th 2011June 16th 2011
Sunrise at Gilmans Point
Rise at midnight to find a red shadow of moon hanging directly above amid a gleaming sea of stars. Over the next hour or so, this moon will slowly reveal itself as it moves round to allow the sun's rays to hit it - a stunningly beautiful total lunar eclipse. We begin the march up the crater wall. I cannot believe we are really going to go this slow. I swiftly make my way to the front and begin a repetitive conversation with man-mountain that lasts for the whole of the ascent to the rim of the crater (Gilman's Point). "Let's go faster" "But what about the others?"
Six long hours later we're at Gilman's Point. We've lost four of the twelve who set out. The first faints with heart palpitations and is swiftly taken down off the mountain. The second and third turn back half way up the crater wall - Acute Mountain Sickness beginning to take them - time to go down. The fourth reaches Jamaica rocks and has refused the previous three attempts to turn her around. She accepts the fourth attempt and begins the long walk down. I reach Gilman's Point just as the sun's glow
The summit ridge
is beginning to redden on the horizon. The horizon - it's hard to describe how wide the horizon is here. There is nothing, nothing breaking up the long line - the plains of Africa lie below us - flat to the horizon.
Brief pause at Gilman's Point to allow for the toes and fingers to thaw - they've been frozen for hours now and when the feeling returns the pain is really quite intense. Briefly wonder if there's any chance of frostnip/bite but soon the blood is flowing freely and the flesh looks rosy and healthy. Now, there are seven clients here - one more is still making her way up. I've looked into the eyes of every one of the other six - I'm not sure they're in there any more. Their shoulders drop visibly when they look across to the summit (still an hour or two away).
There are two guides here - three have taken the returning four down, one more bringing up the eighth. A quick calculation tells me that's not enough - the safety ratio for summit day is two clients to one guide. The smallest guide leads off six clients - he's
The ice cliffs at the top of the glaciers and Mt Meru in the distance
already carrying three of the packs of the weakest of them. I wait behind with man-mountain to check on the eighth client before setting off. Man-mountain has been out of breath for a wee while now. As we set off, I march ahead of him, skirting up over the ridge (I'll take the high road etc...) and catch the group swiftly. Man-mountain does not attempt to keep pace. I walk past the group, make a joke with the guide as I march past. He does not attempt to keep pace. Before long, I am out of sight of all of them and hiking the crater ridge of Kilimanjaro blissfully alone.
The sun is up and warming my bones and I feel strong. My limbs feel like they could run for miles up here. The air feels fresh, light, easy. I scamper from rock to rock, run up a couple of rockfaces, note the slight shortness of breath as I ascend the summit ridge. I pass a couple of guides slowly guiding struggling clients.
They look at me jealously (can we come and play please? their eyes seem to plead). "Who you with?" they say. "Man-mountain" I say. "Where
Looking back to (busy) Uhuru peak (that's Gilman's Point in the far distance)
is he?" "Long way back" I point back along the ridge. They look at each other "Imara kama simba" - they both nod to me and I march off smiling.
The summit ridge is stunning - the ice cliffs of the top of the glaciers gracing the side. The summit itself is nothing but a sign and there are a number of people taking their pictures. I wander past and on to the third (unpeopled) ridge beyond where the true summit lies (it's about a metre higher than Uhuru peak). I sit on the true summit in silence and breath the air of the top of Africa. The crater is beautiful. The whole of Africa falls away below me as far as the curvature of the earth allows my eyes to see. This is where I feel alive - up high. As I begin to walk back towards Uhuru peak (19,340ft), I realise I cannot feel any weight at all on my shoulders. I try to think about the things that might've been weighing me down when I stood down low, when I was enduring the daily grind of like back in the UK. I can't even place them,
let alone comprehend why they weighed so heavily.
I sit beside the summit sign and wait until the other six have made it. Man-mountain struggles up and shakes my hand firmly - looks me in the eye - trying to comprehend this man.
The descent is broken only by stopping to check on the many struggling and/or collapsed clients who don't seem to be being helped very much by their guides. They're all ok though - mostly exhausted and needing to get down as fast as their spent bodies will allow.
Back at camp within two hours, I rest for a while, wondering if I really just did that. Lying in my tent, I experience the beginning of the mild depression that comes with the loss of altitude. I itch to be back up. I could go back up now. What is this? What is this addiction? Perhaps I'll never know but already the world feels heavier. In the afternoon we hike the five hours down to Horombo (12,204ft). By any measure, that is a lot of up and down for one day - 11,057ft in total.
Horombo is in the midst of an impressive duststorm as the clouds roll in so sleep is fleeting.