Friday, November 12, 2010

Fri17th / Sat 18th Sept - Day 5 The Ascent..

This is what the itinerary said about today...

(Summit Attempt) Kibo hut (4700m) - Uhuru Peak (5895m) - Horombo hut (3720m)
Hiking time: 8h to Uhuru, 6h to Horombo
Habitat: Stone scree / ice-cap summit
Distance: Approximately 6 kms ascent, 21 kms descent
You will rise around 23h30, and after some tea and biscuits you shuffle off into the night. This is where the going really gets tough. The first section of the trail consists of a rocky path to the Hans Meyer Cave (5150m), also a good resting spot. The path then zigzags up to Gillman's point (5 681m), which is located on the crater rim. This section is very steep with a lot of stone scree, requiring a great physical and mental effort. This is probably the most demanding section of the entire route. Do the Kili shuffle and move slowly. From Gillman's Point you will normally encounter snow all the way up to Uhuru peak (5895m), the highest point in Africa. Total exhilaration and satisfaction - you made it. Weather conditions on the summit will determine how long you can spend, taking photographs, before the 3-hour descent back to Kibo hut. After a short rest you gather all your gear for the ascent and head down to Horombo hut (3 hours) where you will overnight. The return to Horombo hut will seem surprisingly fast compared to the ascent. The total time spent walking on this day is around 14 hours, so be prepared for a very tough day.

Here's how it all panned out:

Ok its 11pm and we've just been woken up to get ourselves ready for the climb, we set off at midnight. We had our pre ascent tea at 5pm yesterday - I made a point of eating as much as I possibly could cos I dont know when we're going to get fed again! So I've had about 3 cups of tea with lots of sugar and cook has made me some fried plantain so lots of honey on that and we've got a small snack pack with a juice drink, an apple, and some chocolate yay! I dont normally like chocolate at sea level - hardly ever touch the stuff, even the smell of it makes me heave...but up here...can't get enough of the stuff!

The Kibo huts area is a hive of activity all the groups are preparing for their ascents as well - its quite odd to be surrounded by so much activity as in the lead up we're virtually had the whole route to ourselves. Vincent is keen to get going at midnight on the dot - I think he's quite concerned that the slower members of the group are not going to make it to the top in a reasonable time.

My pack seems ridiculously heavy can't work out why - I've got 4 litres of water, I've got puffy down jacket, windproof pants, an extra beanie, an extra pair of socks and gloves and some mixed fruit and nuts to eat - thats about it otherwise I think I'm wearing every other item of clothing I've brought - its bitterly cold.

There's a nervous tension in the air and anticipation, I think we all just want to get started.

At midnight we set off Ian and Louise vote me to go up front behind Vincent - apparently I'm the strongest! Am really not feeling terribly strong or confident right now, my cough has come back with a vengeance and I'm coughing up green goo - I'm really worried that breathing this freezing air is going to cause it to turn to bronchitis or worse - pneumonia. I've got 2 balaclava's on and am trying to breathe through my nose so at least there's a slight chance the air will be a bit warmer before it reaches my lungs. All I can see in front of me in my torchlight is Vincents heels and he's going even slower than ever, which is good because its quite steep and I'm definitely beginning to struggle with my breathing. Looking down the mountain there is a line of tiny white dots which is quite cool - everyone has their head torch

Why is my pack so heavy? I'm having a sip of water every 50 steps or so - am trying to keep my mind occupied because I'm really starting to get in a tizzy about my breathing - this cough is sapping my energy badly and my throat is already sore - I've no idea how long we've been going, it seems like ages all I can see is Vincents heels, its very monotonous - step, breathe, step, breathe, step, breathe - in my own little bubble totally focussed on just putting one foot in front of the other - the trail is loose scree that is packed down hard so the grip is really good its very steep though - i'm hoping that all the stair work will help my calves cope!

After another eternity all of a sudden out of nowhere I start to panic - I'm totally overwhelmed by a wave of fear that I'm going to get pneumonia and die, I can't breathe and I have a massive coughing fit and I start to cry - I have to stop and step off the trail and lean on my trek pole to hold myself up - if I sit down now I dont know if I'll get up again...what is going on?

The rest of the group also stops and waits until I calm myself down which I eventually manage to do - that was really freaky, I've never had a panic attack before...scary stuff - unfortunately I think i've freaked out the rest of the group as well, including the guidesl - I think they saw me as one of the strongest and now they're wondering if they can make it.

So we set off again, this time I stay behind Ian and Louise and am going a little slower than them - our group is starting to straggle, Heather is next behind me with Juma, Fritz is further back with Lucas who is a guide for the night and last is Sarah with Mike.

After yet another eternity, Louise suddenly stops - she is feeling nauseous and faint - and she is now panicking! Its altitude sickness which she hasn't experienced before so we talk her through it and wait until she feels she can go on.

We haven't even got to the rest stop yet and it feels like we've been walking for about 5 hours! This is sooo much harder than I expected.

Eventually we get to the Hans Meyer cave - bit of a grand sounding name for what is really just a slight rock overhang! I just collapse onto the nearest rock - am absolutely knackered and we're not even half way to Gilmans Point - bloody hell!

I scoff down some trail mix and quickly add another fleece and my puffy down jacket - its really freezing and we're just not going fast enough to generate any heat - not that we can go any faster, its just too steep and there is not enough oxygen.

We wait to see if the rest of the group arrive, but after about 5 minutes we tell Vincent that we want to get going - its just too cold to stay sitting there.

The terrain also starts to change, the scree that was hard packed is now becoming much deeper and more loose - its really slippery - for every step we take forward we slide half of it backwards! this is a complete nightmare - I thought it was hard already, now its just got a whole world worse! And we've only been going 2 hours...

step, slide, step, slide, cough up goo, spit...step, slide, step, slide, cough up goo, spit

...step, slide, step, slide, cough up goo, spit..and so it goes on...and on...and on.

I'm really beginning to struggle - I have no energy or strength in my legs, my calves are on fire because of the steepness and the constant sliding, the trail is zig zagging and I have to stop at every corner to rest. Louise is not faring much better she's just one zig ahead of me and Ian and Vincent are a zig zag ahead of Louise. Ian doesn't seem to be having any trouble at all, he's just found the zone.

This is where mental strength really comes into its own - I'm having arguments with myself whether this is worth it - half of me just wants to throw in the towel and head back down, but I can't let myself do that - I've come all this way and put in so much effort, I know that if I did quit I'd hate myself, I'd feel like a total failure - I'm sure this is all altitude related but this is all the shit that is going on in my head.

At one point I look behind me - there is still the string of lights all the way down the mountain - but the gaps between them have got much larger. There are also little dots zig zagging vertically above me for what appears to be a very long way - I wish I hadn't looked, its very discouraging knowing that I've still got all the way to go.

And to add insult to injury we now have to clamber up boulders - could this get any worse? how can I do this - I haven't got the energy, my legs are numb, I literally have to haul myself up with my arms on some occasions.

Now I'm getting angry - what the fuck is the point of this? Are we EVER going to get to the top?

Its starting to get light - I can see the crater rim outlined against the slightly less black sky - I turn round and notice that there is an orange stripe on the horizon - the sun is coming up - we must be close to Gilmans point now.

Just when I'm seriously finished with this - I've totally had enough - I'm going back down - one last boulder and I fall into Gilmans Point! I made it this far and just before sunrise...

and then I have another panic attack and start to hyperventilate - I'm in a total state of fear and overwhelm - I seriously can't breathe now so I panic even more and again I start to cry - I can't believe this is happening to me, what is going on? I'm a complete mess emotionally and physically - it wasn't supposed to be like this!

Sunrise Gilmans Point

Me, Gilmans Point

Louise, Gilmans Point

After I calmed myself down again, had my juice drink and a bite of chocolate, Vincent wanted to know if we felt strong enough to go on to the summit - Ian was really keen and still didn't seem to be suffering any effects of altitude. I was unsure if I could make it but Vincent explained that it should only take 1 1/2 hours to get to the peak and it there was no more scree as we would be walking around the crater rim. We also only had another 200m of altitude to gain which in the light of what we'd just come up was nothing. Louise was also hesitant, but after a discussion we felt that we could go on which I think Vincent was quite relieved at becuase if myself and Louise had decided not to go on, we would all either have to wait till Juma arrived with Heather so Vincent could go on and Juma could take me and Louise back down or we would all have to go back down and Ian wouldn't get the chance to get to the top either.

In the event it was just too bloody cold to sit and wait for the next person in our group to arrive - keeping moving was the only way to stay warm.

Thankfully there was no more scree, the trail was solid and rocky and relatively flat - what a relief. However we were going so slowly - Vincent let Ian go on ahead because he was clearly doing pretty well. Lousie and myself would stop every few steps to rest and catch our breathe - progress was painfully slow.

Again it seemed like we'd never get there - every time we went round a rock outcrop or got to the top of an uphill section there just seemed to be more trail - people were coming past us on their way back down and kept saying 'its not far now' but how far is not far?!!

By now the sun was fully up and I have to admit that even through my complete exhaustion its absolutely stunning at the top - we were so far above the clouds which formed a fluffy sea way down below us as far as the eye could see.

Going round the crater rim, crawling our way to the top was surreal - physically I was completely numb - on total autopilot - step, cough, step cough, stop to rest repeat - numb! but my mind was totally alive - many eons ago I did a geography degree and for some bizarre reason it came flooding back to me - I noticed the angularity of the rocks we were walking on caused by freeze/thaw action, I noticed the terrible state of the glaciers - boy are they in decay or what - they really are not going to be around much longer! I noticed the layers in the glaciers of good snow fall years, or bad snowfall years, I noticed layers of pure blue ice and whispy thin layers of black - caused by what I don't know. I noticed how arid it was, how the wind and sun combined to suck the slightest hint of moisture out of the ground - there was no vegetation of any description, not even lichen! It was a total moonscape.

At some point during this bizarre out of body experience, Heather caught us up - she was doing really well too, fresh as a daisy! she stayed with Louise and myself which was really sweet and eventually we all got to the top together - at last - 3 HOURS after getting to Gilman's Point we finally made it to the top. The whole Gilmans Point - Peak return leg is supposed to take 3 hours, not just getting to the peak!
Now I can look back on the experience and feel very proud of myself, but at the time I just didn't know what to do - I was so out of it that I couldn't function and just stood there looking at the sign not quite believing that it was real - and then all of a sudden Vincent and Juma came up and gave me a big hug - I think that was the most surreal bit of it as for the whole trip they'd been a bit aloof

WooHoo! Did It. Not letting go - will fall over

Heather, Me, Louise

We didn't stay very long, probably no more than about 10minutes, we'd taken such a long time to get there that Vincent and Juma were keen to get us back down - we still had to pack up our tents at the Kibo Huts and we had to be out of there by 12 noon so new groups could set up camp. It was 8:30 when we reached the top and it normally takes 3 hours to get down to Kibo - we were cutting it fine!
Mind you now were on the downhill section I suddenly got another burst of energy and if my legs were capable of it I think I would have run back to Gilmans Point!
We made it back to Gilmans Point in about an hour, then once we'd navigated down the boulder section we were back onto the scree - this time however I was excited to be on the scree, because as Louise had been telling us, we could 'ski' down it - because it was so loose, each time you took a step it you slid. On the way up thats what was so tough, but on the way down...
Woohoo!!!! Screeing!
It was like skiing in deep powder snow - just get the left right swinging movement going and it was fantastic - I literally flew down the mountain - made it back to Kibo huts in 2 1/2 hours in total! Even had time for a quick video and a nap!

here's the raw take on climbing Mt Kilimanjaro....

By the time I get back to Kibo huts its about 11am - I'm tired and hungry - we haven't eaten anything since 5pm yesterday!!! and get this - there's no lunch either!! WTF!!!
We have to walk god knows how much further to the Horombo huts and no food? the snack we were given is long gone and the climb was so bloody hard that I am completely running on empty.
I didn't get much of a nap because we had to pack up and leave.
Leaving Kibo was quite cool - we were all cocky cos we'd done it and knew exactly what the new groups were letting themselves in for, but we all gave out friendly advice -get some rest, eat a big meal, drink plenty of water - but we didn't let on just how frigging hard it is - they'd discover that soon enough!

After about 1/2 hour, I couldn't keep up with Vincent, Ian and Louise and dropped back to go my own pace and soon I was practically sleep walking - I'd literally look ahead of me to see if there were any obstacles and then shut my eyes for about 10 paces. Juma took my pack off me because I was going so slowly and was weaving about like a drunk. Even though the trail was well laid out, well maintained and downhill, I just couldn't go any faster...I had nothing left, I couldn't even think...
and we walked for hours! 5 hours it took me to get to Horombo...where I literally collapsed into my tent and was instantly asleep.

The Itinerary lied...17 hours of the most physically and mentally demanding day I've ever faced - 'tough' just doesn't begin to cover it! I was so out of it by the end of the day, I didn't feel anything - I didn't feel exhilarated or satisfied - I was just numb, incapable of processing the the entire experience.


  1. Amazing story! Did Kili a few weeks ago via Marangu route and your story explains the 'horror' and feelings incredibly well! I thought the way down from Uhuru to Kibo was absolutely terrible too, and I know how to ski. Mentally drained, and beyond and just completely empty as you described perfectly. Congrats on your successful climb!

  2. Although it was hard, it was the best experience ever :)