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Published: February 10th 2013
After much cajoling I finally succeeded in persuading Tarryn that a climb up Kilimanjaro would be a once-in-a-lifetime (ok, well not too much persuading needed there), inspiring and magical thing to do to cap off our trip to Africa. I have to say I almost had second thoughts too when I started getting price quotes from various UK-based and local trekking companies. This was not going to be cheap, no back-to-basics carry everything yourself style hike like I'd done with Lukas in Peru. But in many ways I was glad, since not all memories were fond lugging a 20kg pack over the Andes. The clincher for Tarryn was getting her (our) own private toilet which I begrudingly agreed upon. Many days later perched on said toilet in Barafu camp with the wind gently flapping the tent door bringing with it the sweet high mountain air, final preparation for the summit, I would thank that decision - one of the standard tourist toilets had left an indelible impression earlier in the trek as we'd navigated close by.
So we'd eventually settled on the Lemosho route, in 7 days, drawn to it by the promise of more isolation, more pristene forest, and
a scenic crossing of the Shira plateau. I must confess when I signed up to 7 days I hadn't realised that most people do it in 8 days, but as it transpired 7 days was absolutely fine. We actually joined Day 2 and Day 3 together into one super-day (also throwing in Shira Cathedral), tiring but better to get done early in the trek than leave it to the end (Barranco to Barafu in one day) as some people seemed to do.
After a modestly early pickup from our Moshi hotel, and a brief introduction (jambo, mambo) to our crew (9 porters, cook, 2 guides), we piled into our japanese import 4x4 minibus for the 3 hour ride to the gate. We signed on and watched in some bemusement as all the bags were weighed. 20kg per porter was strictly enforced. At this time I had no idea why we had so much gear (i'd been thinking we might have 3 or 4 porters max), but this would make itself clear on arrival at the first camp: mess tent, toilet tent, camping chairs, and all were provided, not to mention vast quantities of food for every meal time.
Another 30 minutes back down the road then up steeply to the Lemosho trail head ensued, passing fields of potatoes, casava and carrots being harvested in earnest by multitudes of locals. The dirt road was pretty dry, but our guide Caspar informed us that things had been oh so different just a week earlier. The road had been totally impassable due to rains, and most people had elected to walk in on the Shira road rather than a very long walk in on Lemosho. We were to be luckier - apart from a brief downpour during camp at Barranco we were to have no rain the entire way up.
Finally the driver decided that he could go no further, and out we all bundled. The porters needed a bit more work to get started, so Tarryn and I set off with our assistant guide, Yesse, and our somewhat less than 20kg (but still surprisingly heavy) daypacks. It actually took a good hour till we reached the true trailhead in which time I'd worked up a fair sweat. We'd also been lucky enough to see a solitary blue monkey high up in a fir tree (plantation). At the trailhead we
tucked in to an early lunch, eggs were juggled, profered and gratefully accepted by the guide (Tarryn doesn't like eggs), as we contemplated the muddy wetness of the rainforest around us. Straight after lunch we were scrabbling a little bit up some fairly steep banks, but nothing too drastic. Rain threatened but never came (bet 1 to me!). The heat from lower down finally tailed off as we rose up, with occasional dramatic glimpses of rainforest slopes around us and the far distant plains below. Perhaps the highlight of the day was seeing a large pack of Colobus monkeys high in the canopy directly above us. There was certainly a fair amount of crashing and branch flapping as they jumped, almost flying, a whizz of white and black, in response to our cooing. The also did a very good job of avoiding my camera zoom, but I did manage one good pic, and have an atmospheric video of a branch flapping with some shrieking from off-screen right.
That night we camped in Big Tree Camp, still within the rainforest climactic zone (and worryingly still within biting distance of mosquitoes as I wasn't planning on taking anti-malarials until later in
my trip). Alas the big tree after which it was named has fallen down (I think it was a lightning strike which caused it, and not tree poaching which is also a problem for the prized species of tree - I can't remember the name though). There was no great sunset as we were still firmly within the trees, but the temperature noticably coolled as the skies darkened for night. This was our first introduction to the 'camp procedure'. Firstly we had our main tent (a very nice yellow North Face one), a large brown slightly flappy mess tent, and finally the elegant dome of the toilet tent, tall enough for all but the most nordic of trekkers to relieve themselves in un-stooping comfort. Secondly we had basins of hot water for tent baths (by which I mean a quick splash and wipe over the sweaty parts whilst trying not get sleeping bags etc... soaked, nor accidently stick unsavoury parts in climbing partners face), followed up by tea and popcorn (now in the mess tent). We certainly had a fine array of drinking condiments to go with this - see photo (hot chocolate won the day on most occasions).
Dinner too was a mostly grand affair. I can't remember what we ate, but I'm placing a small wager that one part of a meal was flavoured with a rather unpleasant orange coloured, but vomit tasting sauce. This sauce was to rear its unsavoury head time and time again, and is one of the few unpleasant memories of the trek I have. I should say at this time that all the other food (with the exception of millet porridge which thankfully was retired in favour of the oat variety on morning 3) was excellent.
After dinner we had our first 'health' check by Caspar. This was all rather professionally done. I must admit a pang of jealousy as Tarryn outscored me on O2 saturation that night (I was languishing at 90% whilst she was up at 97%, though later I learned by heavy breathing for long enough I could cheat the test hehe). After this we chatted a little with out guide-cum-host before finally milling around a little, wondering why we'd been foolish enough not to pack a book or a pack of cards or something (especially as the porters would have been carrying it!). However it wasn't with
too much regret that we bundled in to bed (me under my sleeping bag as it seemed far too hot) and added our own not so little addition to the symphonic cacophany of forest noises. I think about 5am I must have awoken with a start to find I was still not in my sleeping bag (bizarrely I definitely remember getting in it but it must have been a dream). By that time it definitely was cold enough to warrant the sleeping bag, judging by the layers of icy condensation in the tent.
The next morning we set off early, perhaps first in the camp (maybe 4 or 5 other groups had arrived after us on the first evening but we hadn't really chatted with anyone), and continued onwards, at first slightly downhill and then uphill again after crossing a small stream after about 30 mins. The stream had been our water source the night before so some poor porter must have had to lug a barrel of water back up that track the night before. About an hour in I can remember the porters whizzing by with friendly jambos and mambos to which we had already learned (and
forgotten) the classic reply 'por kay cheezy camondayze' (sic) which means something like 'as cool as a banana'. I was particularly impressed that not only were the porters going twice as fast as us (though of course we were walking 'pole pole' - slowly slowly), carrying more than twice the load, and skipping up slippery steep slopes, but they were also carrying their loads on their heads without using hands or anything to balance them. We had a break in a stunningly atmospheric lichen forest with the sun streaming through; firstly to catch breathe but also to wait for Caspar to catch up (head guide has to make sure the camp is taken down before signing out with the camp registers).
We soon passed out of the rainforest zone and into a brushy scrubby zone. Initially the brush was about 2m high and closed us in quite tightly. Now exposed to the sun things started to heat up, and also the gradients started to sharpen. Looking back this section was perhaps the toughest in terms of actual hiking until the final summit push. Time and time again we'd break a false summit only to find further ridges rising up
in to the distance. The path was easy to spot by the trail of porters, many of whom too were battling. Here we also had our first fall, Tarryn sliding on a treacherous root, but thankfully with nothing worse than a dirty bottom. Fueled by Super-C's (South African energy sweet) and mango juice we pushed on and eventually, around noon, made sight of Shira 1 camp (~3600m) and also a first glimpse of Kilimanjaro summit rapidly disappearing behind a cloud since the hike had begun. The little descent into camp dragged on deceptively but we'd made it. Many people would overnight here, but, on plan, we'd made it for lunch which meant if nothing went amiss we could make Shira 2 camp no problem and thus catch up a day in our itinerary.
The mess tent was already up and waiting for us, and the porters were huddled around their little music system chilling in the sun, staying low out of the wind. Lunch was gobbled down, and after some further relaxation time (but alas no dip in the lovely looking pool beside the camp) we pushed on. Feeling somewhat pleased for having made Shira 1 with no particular
ill effects, I pushed for the itinerary to take in Shira Cathedral which we could see glimpses of as the cloud bank behind it would roll in then mysteriously recede back. It didn't look too far after all.
Well it was probably half-way across the plateau towards the Cathedral, with the peak still looking exactly the same distance away as it had an hour before, that i started to get some strange tickly, then downright uncomfortable, throat effects. I'm guessing this was a manifestation of the altitude. It felt something like that feeling you get the morning after a doner kebab that's not quite settled itself, but with a hint of the feeling when you've just swallowed something way too big and it's stuck in your esophagus.
I carried on, albeit a bit slower, tentatively burping my way forward. Tarryn seemed fine. Naturally the two guides were ok too, though they seemed a little concerned at my loss of humour, occasionally chiming in 'Mambo Nikki?' We eventually left the bleak plateau, with its stunted scrub and buffalo bones, behind and rose up through the hint of forest as the clouds licked in. The trees here were festooned with
multi-coloured lichen, and there was also the odd 'cactus-like' plant that we'd see again in more abundance near Barranco. The final ridge up to the summit was a slightly airy scramble. At the top we could see precisely nothing. Those of little faith wanted to leave quickly, but I stalled a little (in fact at this moment I received a text informing me I was an uncle (again) which I felt warranted a quick reply). Just as I was about to give up the clouds did lift a little and we got a clear view back to the plateau as well as just a hint of what was down the vertiginous other side.
Bouyed by this, and the fact that Shira 2 was already in sight we bounded back down the ridge, then followed it on some more to camp. The pace gradually slowed, then slowed, then slowed some more. Finally the day seemed to have caught up on every one, even the guides, and no amount of Super-C's nor singing seemed to be having any effect. In fact I was battling my own internal demons, or rather a rather unusual case of pant chaff that was making walking
in any way other than cowboy-style rather painful (yes I know three rathers in one sentence). I did wonder if I might have to embarassingly halt the whole escapade, but thankfully the next day and with a new (clean) pair of undies the problem went away.
We finally reached camp at just before 6, an 11 hour day, with 8 hours walking, altitude gain around 1100m since we were now at approx 4000m. That night in camp the sunset views were awesome, the clouds had rolled back (as they always seemed to do) and we could see down to Moshi. Afterwards it was a struggle even to stay awake until dinner. Brush teeth whilst gazing in awe at the 360 degree crystal clear starscape, then hit the sack. Since we were higher and the previous night I'd been so hot, I volunteered to take the lighter hired sleeping bag. It was to be the first of several cold nights for me. Meanwhile Tarryn was snug as a bug in the other -30 deg rated Norwegian brand bag (it was slightly stinkier though, but at least we had liners). I experimented over the course of the next few nights and
discovered if I wore absolutely everything I owned (including my down jacket) and placed my camelbak bladder full of boiled water (which we receive every night and morning for the trek) in the footwell then I could just about stay warm!
One good thing about being cold in bed is that it does make it somewhat easier to get up in the morning at 6am. And there's nothing nicer than the feeling of the sun's first rays as they hit you, instantly warming. Socks and never to be worn again pants were laid out to dry on rocks as well as one of the sleeping bags which had got a bit damp on the tent floor. Faces and hands warmed in some hot water, Tarryn's blisters squeezed and replastered, and was it yummy banana fritters for breakfast and a transition to real oat porridge as well as the usual fruit and pancakes?
Day 3 was to be Shira 2 to Barranco camp via Lava Tower. No real height gain at the end of the day, but Lava Tower at 4600m was to be the highest point on the hike until the summit day. We'd also be meeting up
with the Machame trail just before Lava Tower, so things were going to get busier.
The start was up a steady boulder strewn incline. Here we had our first interaction with other climbers, but no-one seemed overly talkative, and dare I say it there was almost an air of competition. I did chat with a couple of German guys who were doing something similar to us except planning to spend a night at crater camp before descending (at that point I felt a touch jealous as crater camp looked from pictures I'd seen like it would be pretty awesome, but thinking retrospectively a few days later, I was pretty glad not to have to spend a night so high up as no doubt it would have been freezing ~ 5500m). As if not content with the standard route Tarryn was making forays to either side of the path on a regular basis, a function I believe of the Diamox we were both taking. At this point I'll say that Caspar had encouraged us both to take Diamox for the duration of the trek, and since Tarryn was going to take it anyway I went along. I'll never know how
much it helped with altitude related symptoms but, in the past I've had splitting headaches at and around 4000m, whereas on this trip I didn't get any real symptoms until the final summit push (except of course going to the toilet lots, and lots of pins and needles). But it may just have be down to the pole pole nature of the hike, or drinking lots of water, who knows? In any case rather than suffering the headaches and then taking paracetomol, preventing the headaches in the first place via Diamox seems a winner to me.
Half-way up this section we passed a cross laid out on the bare earth, made from rocks, with a bunch of now wilted flowers to one side. This we heard had been the point just a week earlier when an unfortunate Irish climber had been struck by lightning and died in a horrible storm. A reminder that although things had been going well, such is the fickle nature of mountains. I was reminded of just a month earlier when we'd been racing down Cathedral Peak in the Drackensburg in a massive lightning storm. At one point the thunder had crashed so close I
instinctively hit the deck. A pack of baboons ran by, and I knew this was bad.
Soon we could feel the temperature dropping, and some ominous clouds were rolling in around what we were told was lava tower; from our side a squat almost cubic column of black rock that broke the ridgeline in front of us. Others on the mountain, climbers, guides, porters and Tarryn were wrapping up in multiple layers of fleece and waterproofs. Much to the general amazement of several other climbers I continued on in shorts and t-shirt, enjoying the bracing 'Scottish-summer-esque' conditions. By this point we'd left any vegetation long behind, and the final cold climb up to the tower was over eroded bare rock, interspersed with pockets of ashy dust. Suddenly both of us had freezing hands, not helped by the trekking poles (i'm never entirely sure whether trekking poles are a good or bad thing - in my hands apparently they are a dangerous weapon too). If looks could kill - we put on our under gloves, but I must confess I'd told Tarryn there'd be no need for her winter outer gloves so I'd removed them from the day pack. Ooops.
So as we peaked behind the tower we were both battling stinging hands, and for me at least feelings of high altitude in a slightly laboured breathing. We'd lunched just before making the climb up, so we didn't linger too long. Other groups (of which there were now a great number) seemed to have mess tents out, but in the cloud and wind it hardly seemed a hospitable stop. The back side of the tower was more impressive, with huge shards of rock littering the terrain. In a better state I might have been tempted to investigate the tower further - I'm not sure if it's possible to scramble up without ropes, but there seemed to be a number of fissures which could be possible.
Down the other side was at first steep then more steady. We descended at pace and soon our hands had recovered, and we were able to remove gloves and outers (yes even I had been forced to fleece up). The path entered a stunning valley culiminating in Barranco camp, teetering on a cliff edge, with a healthy drop to the rainforest below. As we descended greenery started to return, first a couple of
those 'cactus-like' plants we'd seen earlier, gradually increasing in number as we skirted close to a mountain stream (which had a couple of very tempting looking waterfalls for a shower), then larger trees, and finally verging on a forest. Our spirits were high as we hit camp at about 2pm, Day 3 done and pretty much half way up the mountain. By this stage we'd also learned to count in swahili, building on excellent progress whilst crossing Shira plateau the day before: moja, mbili, tatu, nne, tanno; we'd made it to ten: sita, saba, nane, tisa, kumi, and could even sing a little song. Plus we could also say elf tanno mia nane tisini na tanno, the height of Kilimanjaro in swahili! (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to decipher that.)
Barely had we signed in and reached our tent than the rain started, with some ominous rolls of thunder. It was our only real rain of the trip. We dived in the tent and waited it out, thankful for the excuse to lay and do very little. After an our or two the clouds did lift enough to see right down the valley below, the
route of the less popular Rongai trail. It certainly looked dramatic and steep. I met a south african called Alex the following day, who'd done this route and had raved about it - note he did a 7-day Rongai, which included at least one acclimatisation day up and down the lava tower. Behind us Kilimanjaro literally towered overhead, this was the closest point to the summit as we traversed below to ascend the easier ridges on the eastern flank. The camp was buzzing with activity, not only from the multitude of camps (this was by far larger than Shira 2), but also wildlife, including large crow-like birds intent on grabbing any food left unattended, as well as tiny birds and mice beavering away on scraps around the fringes of the camp. That night may well have been an orange-sauce free night, health checks had gone well (pulse at 70 and O2 still hovering over 90% I was fighting back to take king/queen of the stats) and I slept well (but still slightly too cold) with dreams of lightning storms, strange rock formations, night-time summit ascents, emergency evacuations by mountain stretcher, and morning pancakes.
Morning, Day 4. Barranco Wall. Looking
up, the path is clear to see - it's a human traffic jam. One more cup of Africafe instant and we make tracks, hoping perhaps that things might have calmed down a little. Fortunately we were in no rush as this day was a comparative stroll to Karanga Camp. Dropping into the first shadow at the base of the wall, we hit some pretty slick ice, and I did wonder if this might explain the slow going higher up on the wall. But thankfully it didn't. As we rose the path turned into a modest rocky scramble - a little exposure in places but not living up to the hype. The jam was really caused by weight of human numbers, and with a couple of tricky step-ups you can hardly blame the porters for going slow. There was really only one route, so nothing to do but keep pole pole and wait your turn. We did sneak by the German guys, and also miserable female pair (no hello there - what did I do?) higher up the slope. During our well deserved rest at the top we got chatting with Alex, Qatar Airlines employee from SA, whilst our respective guides
also seemed to be bonding. Alex was the first really friendly guy we'd talked to - he was loving the climb, and snapping away with his SLR camera almost constantly. It was with a slight chuckle that I heard later his camera battery and spare had died on him at the summit, and he'd had to resort to the not so pro spare camera for the crucial summit shot (not that it really matters for a shot in the dark). On comparing notes on the climb so far, and the Barranco Wall we'd just passed, he said his slightly rotund (I have to say) guide had tripped, rolled and almost fallen off! So maybe caution is the word.
The rest of the walk (only another 2 hours) was a speedy traverse across a couple of valleys, the last of which was Karanga. The descent down into it was somewhat
steep (passing misery girls again at the bottom) and back up 100m to the camp which was on the lip. The stream running thru was the last water source before the summit, meaning that all water would have to be carried up to Barafu.
Again we had a lovely spot for our tents on the periphery of the camp (bravo to Gabriel the chief tent erector, who by all accounts was racing each day to bag us a good spot), and mercifully away from all the toilets. We had most of the afternoon to burn here, and with the cloud coming in it wasn't ideal sunbathing conditions. In fact it was positively cold so down jackets were order of the day. We moped around camp a bit, chatted to Alex, and wandered to look at the view down to Karanga, but the clouds didn't budge. Some people seemed to be doing a little hike higher up the mountain for acclimatisation, but Caspar was nowhere to be seen. In fact it transpired that one of the groups (2 amusing Irish guys as clients) had a porter in some degree of distress. The porter was the brother (or related somehow) of
one of ours and a friend of Caspar. Now apparently he'd had some form of cold/cough but had kept quiet about it in order not to lose his job. But things had turned bad in the cold and at altitude. A group of porters and guides had to carry him down the mountain to Millenium Camp, Caspar being one of them, from there the rescue team would use the mountain stretcher to get him down speedily to Mweka gate .
That night regular as clockwork the clouds parted and we were treated to the clearest sky of the trek. It was also the first night I managed to keep warm in my substandard sleeping bag.
Morning brought a spectacular sunrise, which I made it up for (for anyone who knows me this is indeed incredible). The whole snowy peak of Kili glowed red in those first rays, before finally the sun peaked up on the camp itself. By this point dressing for the day was becoming a real chore as we were both on the last of our recycled sweaty damp clothes. Of course we both had a reserved set for summit night, but that luxury was still
a short hike up to Barafu away. Today's hike would get us pretty much to the highest we'd been so far at 4600m.
This day the weather seemed unusually good, perhaps a forewarning of a change to come?! The sun was out as we jaunted up the slope. Despite the climb, it didn't seem particularly hard, and we made good progress breaking onto a stark plateau with the telltale line of Barafu long drop toilets clearly visible hanging off the ridge in the distance. I was getting a good tan on my hands, arms and face at least. Our singing repetoire was also improving, amounting to several (but not all) lines of the annoyingly catching Jambo, Jambo Buana, ... Hakuna Matata song.
Camp was perhaps the most spectacular of the trip; with our tents nestled high up between huge boulders with guy lines held by rocks rather than pegged in.
So this was it: the plan would be to have a relaxing lunch, an afternoon siesta, then an early dinner and in bed by sundown, to wake up and head for the summit on the stroke of midnight. The climb up 1100m in the dark to Stella
Point would take about 6 hours so we'd make it for dawn, then an easy hike along the crater rim climbing the last 150m or so to the summit.
The sun was out and we joined the porters bathing on the rocks, listening to an interesting mix of reggae, the odd western hit, a bit of reggaeton and some more local Tanzanian stuff. To pass time I set up a rock on the edge of the close-by precipice and we played target practice. I hit it, but eventually Yesse won by smashing it over the edge, hopefully not onto some climbers below (I jest - I had of course checked below and there was no path nearby).
Dinner came all too soon. Having eaten a very nice lunch just hours before I wasn't exactly thinking about food, and since orange sauce reappeared the meal was left largely untouched by both of us. I think Caspar might have been a bit worried seeing the leftovers as he gave us our post-meal medical, but we assured him that we were full and raring to go! We both passed the health check in flying colours and popped our last diamox pill
each; nothing further to do except catch some sleep.
The alarm went off at 11.30pm. This was it. Fully clothed in any case, getting out of the sleeping bag was not too bad. Tarryn had volunteered to have the crap sleeping bag, and was thankfully still alive (helped by the hot water camelbak we'd procured). A mug of coffee and then a last trip to the toilet. 5000m+ in the dead of night wasn't really the place to be exposing one's delicate derriere, so best to empty out first. And there I sat, enveloped in a cool moment of calm and tranquility ahead of the ordeal that would surely follow.
12 midnight, we weren't quite ready. Final torch check, down jackets, gloves, hats and waterproofs on, over double layers of thermals. A quick photo. We could already see an intermittent line of torches snaking up the mountain: some people must have set off at 11.30 or even earlier. But now at 12 we could see even more people coming up from below, so not wishing to be caught behind too large a group we skipped down loose rocks to the path. Caspar, me, Tarryn, and Yesse bringing up
the rear. We'd been assured that the pace would be 'pole pole', but to me it seemed we were upping it, just to get some breathing space away from some of the other groups perhaps. I just sat in behind Caspar, face inches from his pack.
At first there were a number of tricky step-ups, as the path snaked upwards. We could see lights ahead that we were slowly reeling in, and pretty soon we were in a jam of people, unable to pass since the path was only a person wide. There didn't seem to be any etiquette in such situations, sometimes a slower group would stop and allow people behind to pass, other times Caspar would do a quick acceleration to cut a corner, that would leave me and Tarryn behind breathless for the next few minutes. It just showed the fine line between a comfortable pace, and the body and lungs saying "no more!" A few other climbers seemed to be in a very bad way. In particular a young woman who was coughing her lungs up even though we were only less than an hour in. I whispered back to Tarryn, "She'll never make it!"
But I was to be proved wrong!
At some point early on, our two guides burst into song. The Hakuna Matata song - at first I joined in but, breathless had to stop. As we gained altitude so did the pitch of their voices. Our guides were in fact key players in the Moshi Falsetto Operatic Society, perhaps? Their repetoire was endless, by which I don't mean they knew lots of songs, but that they could quite happily repeat about 3 songs ad nauseam. 'Zaiiina, Zaiiina' - I swear a buffalo had been taken down by a lion somewhere close behind me. At that time I turned to Tarryn and said "Don't worry, they can't keep this up!". How wrong I was.
I will now jump forward 3-4 hours. We were all still trudging, and they were still singing. Only this time I had an altitude-induced headache, and every rendition of 'ZAAIIIIIIINA' was a like a spear through my eyeball (I swear the zainas were getting longer and higher pitched). During one lull, perhaps the end, I mutter back to Tarryn, "I swear I'm gonna kill the next person who says 'Zaina'". They do say that one effect
of altitude can be a loss of rational senses. Caspar told of one tourist who was seen beating his guide with his pole as they climbed up. Suffice is to say the climber didn't make it up, and I'm guessing the guide didn't get his tip. Well perhaps for me I was also suffering from the onset of altitude-induced madness, but I think not. In fact I remember taking Caspar aside at the next break and with a gentle hand on the shoulder saying 'Singing is good, so is chatting, but sometimes so is SILENCE!' I still had all my faculties of tact at my disposal, not wishing to insult our Tanzanian hosts. Alas Caspar either forgot to relay my veiled message to Yesse, or indeed maybe it was just too subtle, because almost immediately after this Yesse started up with an especially screeching zaina. Casper interjected in super-falsetto 'Mambo Nikki' as I held hands to my ears. In retrospect perhaps it wasn't so bad. In fact Tarryn confided that she had actually enjoyed the singing - it had kept her morale up during the tough final few hundred metres to Stella Point. Later I chatted
with Alex, the South African, and told him of my suffering and he too said his guide had sung, but it had kept him going. In fact he was following the song with his eyes closed almost in a dream.
There were only two other points I remember during our torchlight procession to Stella Point. The first was some tall chap practically racing by at one point (when we were stuck in a log jam of people). His guide had adopted 'flashing light' position on his headtorch, which presumably means 'we're coming through whether you like it or not' and is very effective since having someone with a flashing light behind you is extremely annoying. Several hours later I saw same hiker standing wheezing, facing a rock, guide several metres away looking frustrated. I don't think he made it.
The other point was when miraculously the coughing lady caught us up (we'd passed her way down so I wasn't expecting to see her again). Her guide was actually dragging her at some pace - clearly the thought of a tip motivating is actions. We briefly sat together as we were having a rest. In fact, this was the
moment when Caspar had thought I seemed to be struggling. I don't think I was particularly, but next thing I knew he had some pills out, which he claimed would help. I wasn't overly thrilled with taking this unknown pill, but I think I lacked the clarity of thought to resist. He also handed one to the coughing girl, and ascertained that in fact she had asthma - her guide seemed to be clueless, and didn't have any of the necessary first aid experience. In fact Caspar later confided that he'd been in a dilemma about whether to give her his oxygen, but had decided against it as his own group (i.e. us) had still not reached Stella Point.
Out of the blue Yesse piped up "only 15 minutes to Stella Point". I looked at my watch, still only 4.15am. I really didn't believe him, "Yeah right". It certainly perked up Tarryn though. She'd been flagging mentally.
Sure enough just after 4.30am we topped out at Stella Point. There was a small crowd of people, some taking photos of the sign, others collapsed in a heap. Including coughing girl and her trekking friend, neither of whom seemed to
be lucid. A weaved uncertainly through, and plonked on a rock, soon to be joined by Tarryn and a very welcome hot mug of sugary tea from Caspar, as ever well-prepared. I think at this point I was feeling very light headed, and reality wasn't quite hitting home. Other people, those in good shape, seemed to be quite excited, for me still with a bad headache (but not a killer that it could have been) I had the feeling that there was still more to do to reach the top. After what seemed a while, but was probably only 5 minutes we got up and continued on through a small patch of snow under a rock face then out onto the broad crater rim (not that we could see anything, I remember from the decent that this was how it was). Caspar continued at a good pace, and it seemed Tarryn would easily keep up, had it not been for me in front of her. I wasn't feeling so good and remembering the 'pole pole' mantra dropped the pace right down letting Caspar drift ahead. At some stages in the hike I'd been feeling quite competitive, but at this point
I didn't care less as other climbers passed by. We were so close and I didn't want to blow it. I also had a further motivation: by my reckoning we were going to summit in total darkness and I actually wanted to see something at some point, so by dawdling up the last stretch we could hopefully get some daylight pics at the top.
So onwards we trudged, me weaving a little in my light-headedness. I could feel my chest constricting and knew this wasn't good. Steady steady pole pole. Even Caspar and Yesse were now subdued, no talking, no singing, silence at last! I felt that this was what it was all about. Suffering yes, but a spiritual moment as we approached the summit. A little speck of light appeared ahead; a small cluster of people standing around that well-known Uhuru sign. As it approached I held Tarryn's hand, and we walked together, made it! 5.35am. 5895m.
Suddenly my whole demeanour changed. No longer head down, I was dancing across rocks, to the steep crater edge. There was nothing to see at this time though. Back to the sign, the others who had been there had done
their photography and just before the left we managed to grab someone to take some pics of the 4 of us. Then Yesse took a few more of Tarryn and me. At this point the merest hint of light was appearing to the east. Tarryn and now Yesse were off, clearly cold and wanting to get down asap. I was still hopping this way and that with my camera trying to get some semblence of the view that was now appearing. Impressively (at least I think so) I managed to get my camera on shutter priority mode, set it to what I judged my work, an 8 second exposure, and find a suitable rock to perch it, all without gloves on, to catch the panorama that was now emerging in the pre-dawn light. Just the barest hint of the glacier that we must have been walking alongside all the way up the rim, and behind that, a darker blue on blue, the triangular form of Mt Meru. Caspar was waiting for me, but I got the hint he was keen to descend too. Still as I sauntered down, taking in the now improving view on both sides I managed a
few more photos. By the time we reached Stella Point again dawn was upon us. Tarryn and Yesse looked frozen, and were somewhat vocal about the length of time I'd taken. Despite double gloves Tarryn's hands, and also her feet had apparently gone beyond pain.
Looking down we could see the secondary peak, Mawenzi already wrapped mysteriously in cloud. In fact the whole skyline was looking a bit threatening unlike the previous mornings which had all been bluebird. There was actually no true sunrise because the cloud bank was too high. Still the sun did come out at some point on the descent. We raced down, eager to get back to camp and recuperate. I had no recollection of just how steep the path was on the way up. Seeing it now, I was thankful we'd done it in the dark.
Caspar and Tarryn linked arms and were setting a real pace - in fact Tarryn claims she was practically being carried. I sprinted (or so I thought) ahead, only for Yesse to come haring past me in a balze of ashy dust. I conceded defeat there. There was no way my legs could keep up his pace.
In the end, however, Yesse's knees gave in, and he limped in to camp last. I think I somewhat impressed Caspar with my final pace down as he jokingly suggest I should come back as a guide. In fact we were all down by 7.30am, still hours before some people would have made the summit. It was with some satisfaction that we slumped back in the tent for a brief snooze, before we'd break camp and head down to Mweka.
I'll just summarize the final day and a half down. The clouds had come in for the rest of the day, and by all accounts the weather on the summit had turned for the worse, but we were oblivious to this. Mweka was down, down and down some more, the path somewhat slick and treacherous. I fell for the first time in the trip, but only damaged pride. However one of our porters fell more seriously hurting his knee and was relieved of full duty on the final day down.
At Mweka camp on the final morning we were treated to one last stirring rendition of 'Hakuna Matata' from all the porters. Lower down in the rainforest we
saw the symbol of the national park, the indiginous species of flower that can only be found here. We also saw more monkeys, some birds, and had one final glimpse through the canopy of the summit we'd just climbed.
It was quite a trek, thanks to Caspar and Yesse, all the porters and our cook as well as those at Gladys Adventure in Moshi for a memorable 7 days.
Addendum: Tarryn now is hooked on high altitude hiking and we're already looking at trekking in the Himalayas for later in the year. We'll keep you posted!
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