The Kilimanjaro Challenge
Scaling Africa’s highest peak.
“Pole, pole, dada,” goes my new Swahili mantra. Not that my oxygen-starved body is capable of moving any way other than “slowly, slowly.” The “sister” reference at the end is a nice touch, though, strangely comforting coming from the guides and porters who leap up and down Mount Kilimanjaro like mountain goats. It’s September 2015 — peak season. And with the added promise of a lunar eclipse on summit day, my fellow climbers are almost as numerous as the mountain crew, although considerably less nimble.
According to figures from the Tanzania National Park, back in the mid-1960s, barely a thousand travelers attempted to scale the volcanic peak each year. Though that annual figure has soared to approximately 35,000, that doesn’t detract from the extreme mental and physical effort it takes to reach the summit.
Back home in Britain, I’ve already conquered Scotland’s Ben Nevis and Mount Snowdon in Wales — both of which seem like molehills compared to this majestic rock. As the highest mountain in Africa, and the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, Mount Kilimajaro always loomed before me as the ultimate physical challenge — top 10 on my personal bucket list. It was an itch I needed to scratch, somewhere between running the London Marathon (check) and cycling from London to Brighton (still to do).
And yet, even though I didn’t come here expecting a walk in the park, nothing could have prepared me for what would turn out to be the most physically and mentally grueling experience of my life.
Climbing like clockwork
The distance from the starting point at Londorossi Gate to the summit is a deceptively manageable 49 kilometers on the Lemosho route. This eight-day climb is slightly longer than other routes, due to the fact that it includes some time spent ascending and descending along the way in order to assist with acclimatization.
Kilimanjaro is not an overly technical climb — making it a draw for
enthusiastic amateurs like myself. And as the number of adventure tourists continues to escalate, so too has the number of tour operators to meet the rising demand — including the African Walking Company, with whom I climbed.
Founded in 1999, the company has emerged as one of most well respected outfits, noted for its emphasis on social responsibility for its workers and sustainability for the environment, all while ensuring the safe movement of thousands of visitors each year. The porters and guides are not only paid above the recommended minimum wage, but they are also offered training courses, including first aid, guiding skills and English-language lessons. For me, though, the real secret of the AWC’s success is the confidence they instill in even the most tremulous climber faced with the mammoth task ahead. The support team of 56 porters, guides and cooks assigned to our group of 14 is organized with military precision.
Each morning, we’re woken at 6 a.m. with a hot beverage — much needed, as temperatures average 6 degrees Celsius at daybreak — as well as an inquiry as to how we’re feeling. Any signs of altitude sickness need to be reported early on, the guides explain, so they can be managed before turning critical. A bowl of water arrives for “washy, washy” at 6:30, and a hearty breakfast, usually of porridge with bacon, eggs and toast, follows till setting off for the day’s hike at 8:30.
With between 10 and 20 groups out on the mountain at any one time during peak season, there are lots of people to manage — making the schedule and total cooperation crucial. “We want everyone to work as a family,” explains Makeke, our lead guide. The relationship between the guides and clients may seem more akin to that between sheepdog and sheep, at times, but it’s understandable, considering the logistics. It was obvious from the start that I’m in safe hands. My only doubt as the climb progresses is whether or not I have the grit to make it all the way.
The importance of undulation
Lemosho approaches from the west and is widely considered the most scenic route, crossing through several climatic zones. It’s also the longest and least-traveled path, although seclusion on Kili is a relative term, I discover; after a gentle three-hour preamble through the dense rainforest on our first day, we arrive at the sprawling tent city known as Wti Mkubwa — alongside at least a couple hundred clients and crew.
Fortunately, the numbers thin out as we continue into the moorland. The beautifully bleak terrain of this region is rocky and unforgiving, with the trail cut through shoulder-height shrubs. Our pace is steady, and breaks are infrequent. The sense is more of dogged determination to reach our destination rather than wonder at the rugged volcanic vista we’re passing through to get there.
Our bracing six-hour climb takes us up to the edge of the Shira Plateau, from which we descend to the Shira One campsite in the plateau’s center. The route continues to undulate — from the summit of Shira Cathedral, a large crag of rock with a sheer drop on the southern edge of the rim, up to our third campsite at Shira Hut. The following day we pause at Lava Tower Junction for lunch, a much-needed, carb-heavy offering packed for longer hikes. This also gives our bodies additional time to recalibrate before heading down to the Great Barranco Valley.
The infamous Barranco Wall looms halfway through the climb. I’m anticipating a perilous scramble over the steep path winding over 300 m up a sheer rock face. For nearly two hours, I pick my way over the exposed trail, stepping aside every so often to let the porters and their heavy loads glide by. It’s fascinating to watch the seemingly endless procession of climbers moving slowly up above and below me, with bottlenecks forming in particularly narrow sections.
We take an additional day to acclimatize, spending the night at the Barafu campsite before ascending to the summit. Our four-hour trek there takes us through an extra-terrestrial wasteland — the apparent lack of all vegetation emphasizing how inhospitable the high altitude is for most life forms. Above, the snow-capped peak of Uhuru in all its glacial splendor gazes down indifferently as we trudge ever upward.
Although the extra time helps to minimize the effects of high altitude, the impact of decreased oxygen at these heights is random in terms of symptoms, severity and susceptibility. Fitness and good health offer no immunity. For me, I first experience insomnia followed by shortness of breath. When a walk of a few meters to the porta loo leaves me gasping for several minutes, I know I am in trouble.
By summit day, my flesh and bone have become lead — I am a disoriented, altitude-addled lump. There are no calls to “pole, pole” at this stage — I find I’m incapable of doing anything else. Not too exhausted, however, to notice that the promised lunar eclipse has failed to materialize. Though in reality, celestial bodies are less of a concern than my actual physical body, which continues to break down as the air grows thinner.
I finally reach Stella Point after climbing for 11 hours. I do the calculations: The round trip to Uhuru, the mountain’s highest point, would take an additional three hours, plus the descent to Mweka Camp, our final campsite, a further five or so hours away. I’d be climbing in total for the best part of 20 hours, and I am already practically on my knees. Even Makeke’s encouraging words fail to have their usual galvanizing effect. Exhausted and dehydrated, with Uhuru less than 150 m vertically up, I reluctantly and tearfully admit defeat.
In retrospect, I know I’ll always wonder whether I could have dug a little deeper and found the strength to push on, despite the fact that I was running on fumes. Although this was the experience of a lifetime and I’m glad I had the opportunity to have a crack at it, I can’t quite cross it off my bucket list. My summit hunger remains. I have unfinished business with Kili.
Ndidi Nkagbu is a freelance journalist based in London. She has written for numerous publications, including the Evening Standard, Time Out and Maxim.