At 5895 metres above sea level (19,340-feet), Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain on earth. Situated close to the equator, and distinctive for its snow-capped peak, Kilimanjaro attracts thousands of people every year, each hoping to hike to the summit.
I did this trek years ago, on the spur of the moment (and without much training). It was before I really got into hiking and, I suspect, one of the reasons I really love it now. On the final day, I remember huddling next to a small fire, removing my socks to warm my freezing feet over the flames, and then massaging them desperately to get the circulation flowing. The other hikers were preparing to resume the trek, but I was struggling to breathe and desperately trying to make my body co-operate.
I also remember the doubts that went through my mind at that moment. How easy it would’ve been to quit. To get back to a lower altitude where my head would stop pounding. Where I could breathe easily. Others were heading down, so why not me?
I suppose it comes down to my personality. I’m really very stubborn. Once I set my mind on something, I rarely give up, and this was no exception. At the time, the Kilimanjaro trek was the most challenging thing I’d ever done (I’ve since added to that list hiking in Alaska’s Denali National Park and trekking the Inca Trail in Peru). But, the truth is, I love challenging myself… and these are the type of trips that remain forever etched in my memory.
Have you ever been in a similar situation? Tired and ready to quit? What did you do to motivate yourself to keep going? What is the most challenging thing you’ve ever done?
Keep reading for a recap of my Kilimanjaro trek
Setting out from Marangu Gate (1860m) with 14 other adventurers, I walk into a thick rainforest, a strange world illuminated by soft light, filtering through a dense canopy. Here trees resemble old men, with moss hanging from their branches like beards. Water trickles over rocks and along the path, making everything damp and muddy underfoot.
The first days’ hiking is easy and I quickly realise the porters are a blessing – they carry our heavy packs and produce a mouth-watering dinner when we arrive at Mandara Hut (2700m). Having worked on the mountain for many years, the porters are acclimatised to high altitude and can cover the distance much quicker than most visitors.
The next day we emerge from the damp confines of rainforest to brilliant sunlight and our first view of Kilimanjaro’s peak rising majestically in the distance.
“There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
Pondering the daunting task ahead, we continue hiking across the barren moorland. After a couple of hours, I begin to walk at my own pace, dropping away from the rest of the group. Tiredness threatens to overcome me and a headache slows me down. A mist descends making visibility poor and bringing with it a freezing wind.
Finally Horombo Hut (3720m) appears like a vision through the mist. Friendly faces greet me and a roaring fire begins to dispel the chill that grips me. Smelling the delicious aroma of dinner, I try to ignore how ill I am feeling. But, as I take my first mouthful of soup, I have to run to the toilets. Altitude sickness has caught me off-guard, but our lead guide, Elias, comforts me and prescribes an early night.
Although feeling weak the next day, I am allowed to push on. My porter walks with me in case I need to turn back, as the only cure for altitude sickness is to head for lower ground.
Instead I walk with five others from the group, who’ve nicknamed themselves the Tortoise Team. Their motto is to walk very slowly, but eventually make it to the top.
We continue hiking over barren terrain with little vegetation, except for an occasional cactus-like plant. A scattering of lobelias and giant groundsels bearing yellow flowers dot the horizon.
Mawenzi, a strange and craggy peak, looms ahead reminiscent of an old ruined castle, burnt and still smoking, with mist rising above it. As I get closer, I notice the colours of the rock changing subtly with the shift of light from black to rusty brown.
After lunch, we begin crossing the high desert from Mawenzi to the huts at the base of Kibo peak. Resembling the stark lunar landscape of the moon, the alpine desert is a strange place, and seemingly never-ending. The air is noticeably thinner and breathing becomes difficult.
Reaching Kibo Hut (4703m), I am too cold and tired to eat dinner. All I can manage is some fitful rest until 1.00am when we begin the final ascent by torchlight. The goal is to reach the top by sunrise.
Clad in layers of warm clothes, we hike for three hours before stopping at Hans Meyer Cave, the halfway point.
As I warm my feet I recall words of wisdom from Elias as we began the hike: “Walk slowly, drink lots of fluid and eat plenty of chocolate, even though you won’t feel like eating anything.”
I take his advice and munch on a bar of chocolate, searching for any source of energy. A couple of women have decided to go back down and I consider joining them, but my stubborn streak emerges – I’m so close to the top, I will not give up now.
As the sun rises three hours later, I’m still walking. Every five or six steps I stop to regain my breath. A guide encourages me, stressing: “Pole, Pole”, Swahili for “slowly, slowly”.
Finally at 8.00am, I clamber over the last boulder to arrive at Gilmans Point, 5685 metres above sea level. Looking into the snow-filled crater of the volcano, I feel as if I’m on top of the world. Here, above the clouds, is a panoramic view of the snow-covered roof of Africa – an incredible sight.
While there is opportunity to walk a further two hours along the crater rim to the summit at Uhuru, I decide against it. Of our 14 climbers, 11 made it to Gilmans Point and four went on to Uhuru, a high success rate.
The walk down is easy as my tiredness is quickly forgotten.
At Mandara Hut I write in the Hiker’s Book: “Worth every agonising step. Pole! Pole! Don’t give up!”