It is not only celebrities who can tackle Africa’s highest peak. Last autumn, I reached great heights on Mount Kilimanjaro, with the aid of photographer Paul Goldstein, and the Africa Walking Company – the group who helped the Comic Relief celebrities with their climb.
Kilimanjaro is affectionately called the ‘Roof of Africa’ for one reason. Her highest point, Uhuru Peak sits in splendid isolation, bathed in clouds at some 5,895 meters above sea-level - three miles above the level generally associated with holidays.
Nowhere else on Earth is it possible to climb a mountain on such a grand scale without an ice-pick or a frost-flecked beard. I have neither beard nor ice-pick and throughout my climb I reminded myself that summiting Kilimanjaro is a test of endurance, not climbing ability.
I prepared for the trip for over two months, but some of my fellow climbers had been preparing mentally, as well as physically for over a year. Cardio-vascular workouts in the gym as well as long walks were highly recommended to get me into peak condition. I also concentrated on breaking in my walking boots – one blister and it could have all been over. Whilst you do not have to be hugely fit, physical wellness is essential. Oh, and as I found out pretty early on, those attempting Kili must really like walking... as up to 17 hours a day are spent placing one foot in front of the other!
Travelling in a group of ten, each of us had our own reason to conquer the mountain. A banker, a civil servant, a PR manager, an IT manager, a physio, a charity worker, a recruitment consultant and rugby player. Mine was a personal ambition – part of my list of ‘things to do in my 30th year’.
We were joined by a small army of guides and assistant guides, as well as an assortment of cooks and porters. What is most impressive is that whilst I cite my ‘difficult moments’ in the communal tent, the porters had done the same journey as me, with a 15 kg load on their back, assembled and dissembled our tents and cooked dinner! We slept in two-man tents, although I was fortunate enough to have a tent to myself as a single girl. There are some times when it is best not to get too up close and personal with a stranger, and after a week of not washing, this was definitely one of those occasions. As the days went on and we reached new heights, the air became thinner and the snoring accelerated. So much that by day three, two of the guys in my group ended up in their own separate make-shift camp, some 20 or so metres from the rest of the climbers. Quality ear-plugs therefore are essential – you will need your sleep. The bathroom is a chemical portaloo which is carried up the mountain by a porter each day and then placed in the camp each evening. Charmingly named ‘poo with a view’, it was a luxury on the mountain where home comforts are scare. Another option is to find a well-concealed rock. Quilted bathroom paper is virtually a currency on the mountain.
Fortunately I did not have to carry my equipment myself, as I struggled even to carry my day-pack. My kit list consisted of several layers of warm clothing and thermals as well as t-shirts and shorts for day wear as temperatures soared above 30 degrees C in the day and dipped below zero at night. My one comfort was down ‘ugg’-style boots. Not for climbing, but for slipping my feet into after a long day on the mountain in boots ...bliss. I also found that scented oils helped enormously in the absence of hot running water and showergel... lavender to induce sleep and citrus to ward off insects and conceal the odour (of the rest of the group that is, not me).
We took the lesser-known Rongai Route, the northern trail, which passes through rainforest, alpine desert, then over a landscape which could only be described as lunar before climaxing at the ice-capped summit. Minor ailments such as bruised toes, blisters and altitude headaches were all forgotten when morning breaks and the sheer beauty of the mountain is revealed.
Our trip took six days and five nights which saw us strolling across beautiful trails, marching towards the jagged peaks of Mawenzi, the second of Kilimanjaro’s cones, followed by a day of crossing the saddle towards Kibo camp, a bleak, desolate site which is like the end of the earth. Kibo was our rest point before the final ascent.
The first four days were easy, only getting marginally more difficult. We whiled away the hours playing word games as we sauntered up the mountain, stopping to enjoy hearty meals and to point out the stunning scenery. We ended each day with an acclimatisation walk which prepared us for the next day. As we reached greater heights our sense of balance was compromised. One of the group Joe, a sturdy rugby player slipped on the scree and tumbled several metres down a switchback trail. Fortunately his landing was soft and he was uninjured, save a few scrapes, but we all learnt a valuable lesson about tackling the ridges at a gentle pace.
We were told that it is best to attempt the mountain at night, to reach the summit for sunrise. At night, Kilimanjaro is at her most enigmatic, and most menacing, due simply to her near invisibility. She appears as a bulky, impenetrable shadow. We climbed at night because there was no way that we’d handle it if we could see the enormity of what we were about to attempt.
On summit day, we went to bed after an early dinner and were roused at 11pm. At a level of 4,700 ft the air is painfully thin and we were urged not to make any sudden movements that might over-exert us.
Silence fell over the group as we began our climb and I remember looking back into the night to see a diagonal trail of shadows marching silently up the mountain, their headtorches lighting their path as if on a pilgrimage. A six-hour slog to Gilman’s point and I was almost delirious with exhaustion as I stumbled over invisible rocks, and slipped on the scree.
Finally, we reached Gilmans Point, at 5,685m, the stopping point, before we made the final push. It is an unwritten rule that you must not stop too long at Gilman’s in case you are discouraged by the couple of hours ahead before you reach Uhuru, the true peak.
The sun began to rise and we saw the glacial rim begin to light up as if on fire. The heat gave us new energy as we pursued Uhuru which finally seemed within touching distance.
The glacier was pure white and bright, just as Hemingway described. We were passed by climbers descending from the peak, their eyes had a haunted stare and their faces bloated.
Finally, I reached the famous sign and had my picture taken next to the highest point. We all made it – the perfect ten. I almost forgot to smile, all I could think about was getting to the bottom and filling my lungs with delicious oxygen.
One thing is for sure, I could not spend much longer than 15 minutes at the top. As I began my descent, I smiled as I pass the hoards of people heading in the opposite direction. I didn’t envy them for a moment. I know what they are letting themselves in for.
Natalie Amos climbed to raise funds for the Exodus & Friends of Conservation Porter Education Project
Exodus, Friends of Conservation and the Africa Walking Company operate three schools to teach English during the rainy seasons. They also provide porters with skills to help them progress in the local tourism industry.
The 10 day Kilimanjaro Rongai Route itinerary costs from £1,362 per person including flights, accommodation and most meals. www.exodus.co.uk or 0845 863 9601