It was the hardest night of my life. But, after 10 hours of climbing and 1,295m of ascent I had made it. I was officially at the top of Africa standing upon the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. Finally, all of the pain and exhaustion had been worth it. The elation of having made it, the relief that the hardest part was over, and the gratitude for the people around me, was a feeling I will never forget. I will also never forget turning to my friend Suzi and hugging her tightly as tears rolled down her face as pent-up emotions were finally released.
The gruelling walk began at one thirty in the morning after a ritualistic cup of Milo and some biscuits were consumed. My mind was torn, on the one hand my body was already tired and craved more sleep, but on the other my unsettled nervous mind was ready to just get going. After taking two paracetamols to lessen the altitude headache, it was time. We all began to walk ‘pole pole’ (slowly, slowly in Swahili) in a single line toward the summit as the route zig-zagged up the mountain. It took all my energy, determination, and grit, to simply continue to put one foot in front of the other as I slowly inched my way forward. I tried my best to complete one ‘zig’ or one ‘zag’ before pausing to catch my breath, as the music through my headphones continued to play. I was fighting a constant mental battle as my brain kept telling me to stop, and at the same time my body was screaming at me due to the exhaustion amplified by the high altitude. Yet, whilst these feelings seemed all-consuming at points, there was another voice in my head which was not going to let me throw in the towel. It knew I had more in me, it knew that I could make it a little bit further. A particular moment of reaffirming self-belief came when the sun began to rise. As the first light shone upon the mountain, my spirits were temporarily lifted. The beauty of the sun stretching for miles above the clouds was a truly humbling feeling. It made me truly admire the power and beauty of the natural world, and I realised that if I was to succeed, I had to work with Mother Nature not against her. You cannot win against the power of the mountain and by adopting the porter’s ethos of ‘hakuna matata’ (no worries), the walk slowly becomes easier.
Another factor that made the treks easier were the amazing views. Often, it felt like with each hour that passed the mountain would reward us with stunning vistas. Alongside its beauty, the mountain is commanding and dominates the landscape as it intimidates and marvels in equal measure. I wish I had taken my journal so I could have jotted some words down, as the landscape truly is a literature student’s dream! During the first day, you walk through a vibrant rainforest that is full of life and variety, and if you’re lucky you might even see some monkeys playfully swinging through the trees. However, the higher and higher you climb the more dramatically the landscape changes, and once you’re in the alpine desert all that surrounds you is dust and volcanic rock. The dramatic change in the landscape is one of the things that made the journey so exciting.
However, arguably a bigger factor in what makes the days flow by with ease is the people you walk with. I was lucky enough to be sharing my journey with a lovely group of people who turned the trip from being great to incredible. It was comforting to know that we were all in it together and that I had someone to lean on if I was struggling. I know for certain that if it wasn’t for the great company from newfound friends and the support from the guides, porters, medics, and people at home who had kindly donated and supported me throughout, I wouldn’t have made it. It still blows my mind a little that I did. But what makes the moment at the summit worth it is the journey that comes before and after. The five days of trekking prior to summit night were equally rewarding and challenging in their own ways, with the ever-increasing ‘WOW’ moments as you stop and turn to look at the view, to the pressurising headache I felt during lunch on day four as we reached new heights of 4,600m.
Alongside the headaches, one of the things I will not miss is the biting cold in the evenings as temperatures dropped to well below minus five overnight. There is also nothing quite like stumbling out of the tent in the morning in your five layers to go to the ‘loo’. I use quotation marks here, as the toilet is a glorified hole in the ground known as a long drop – it is as basic as it comes. One afternoon, I distinctly remember waking from a nap horrified as I had dreamt that I had dove headfirst into the hole! It is an image I hope to never picture again!
Aside from the interesting toilet situation, the camps often had expansive views of the mountain above or the town and vegetation below. And, despite the quirks of adjusting to mountain life, routine became simple. You woke up, had breakfast, walked for the morning, had lunch, walked for the afternoon, arrived at camp, had dinner, and then went to bed. By repeating this pattern for five/six days there was no need for a phone, and I chose not to have access to any internet, telling my family that no news is good news. It was refreshing to be fully disconnected and it meant that I could be fully present without any distractions. Besides, who needs Instagram when you’re already living your highlight reel?
An experience such as this is hard to truly capture and even though I will continue to vicariously live through my photos for a while, the feeling of what it was like will slowly fade. Although, the lessons I’ve learnt along the way will remain. I think all ‘life lessons’ tend to sound a little cheesy and cliché, but Kilimanjaro has shown me that there is truth in them too. The mountain has taught me that to grow you must push yourself outside your comfort zone, you are capable of much more than you give yourself credit for, to make the most of the moment you must be fully present, and that life is better when you surround yourself with good people.
So, what is next? I have many places and trails I would love to explore, and the Dolomites in Italy is high up on my bucket list. But it is safe to say there will be no Everest or K2 treks planned as Kilimanjaro was plenty high enough for me! I hope that I have managed to give you a flavour of what it was like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and that I have inspired you to find your own challenge – whatever that may be. Life is meant for living, so live it!