Running past the last few people in my way. Snow and ice crunching underfoot, awkward steps made off the trodden path to overtake. I felt embarrassed about not being tired. That I wasn’t one of the ones vomiting or stopping to catch my breath. But then I did have a focus they lacked, one of basic bodily functions. I was looking for somewhere I could empty my bowels on top of the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Some people leave their heart in Africa, I left something else entirely on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
As usual my decision to climb Kilimanjaro came out of the blue — relaxing on the beaches of Zanzibar after my overland trip from Cape Town it just seemed like a good idea — like going to the gym. So, I flew to Moshi, hired everything I was told I’d need and waited for my guide to pick me up. Whilst I may have been woefully unprepared myself, I had a very thorough team. There were 15 porters, 3 guides, 1 cook and 2 penis doctors. Okay, so the doctors were climbers (and probably preferred the term urologists). There were five of us climbing — three Germans an American and myself. With a complement of 19 locals to presumably carry us to the top. At first I thought this was ridiculous, why on earth did we need so many people. But I suppose someone has to carry the food, for 7 days that’s a lot of lobster and caviar.
People are always telling me I’m going to die, waiting outside the pharmacy for my fellow climbers to stock up on various drugs I was approached by someone trying to sell me the usual tourist tat, realising I didn’t want a bracelet or beaded butterfly he asked if I was climbing the mountain. I told him I was starting today. He looked shocked, “You have to be very careful, 3 people have died this week, it’s very icy. Do you have crampons?” Erm, I don’t even have my own boots. “You need them”. I didn’t know if these were facts or the ramblings of a mad man and I wouldn’t find that out until it was too late.
I'd also heard there was a warning issued by the government about the ice so I asked Eric, our head guide if he knew about this, he said "Yes, that's why you have me". I didn't know at the time but I should have swapped him for a pair of crampons.
We were taking the Lemosho route over 7 days. It was surprisingly claustrophobic at first, with dense green rainforest surrounding you on all sides, occasionally giving way to walls of dark cloud. I was a little out of breath already. My only preparation had been drinking Kilimanjaro beer, could it be this wasn’t the best preparation for the mountain? But I soon picked up — I think my body had forgotten what exercise was.
Having been in Africa for a couple of months already I was very familiar with “polepole”, it means slowly and it’s the way most things are done here. We’d been briefed that this would be the pace, taking it slow to prevent altitude sickness. It made sense, I didn’t want my brain to swell up like a balloon or to drown from the fluid in my lungs. I hadn’t appreciated just how pole their polepole was though — the porters would run past us with loads balanced on their heads whilst we walked in slow motion. Eventually, with the encouragement of one of the Germans I broke free and strode out in front of the guide. Only to get told off, to slow down, polepole. So, I adopted a yoyo approach where I would walk off, get told off, wait and repeat.
By the second day I’d developed the yoyoing into an art form and the guides were starting to give up. Either I’d won the game or they were bored. We were leaving the rainforest behind and entering open heathland, patches of wild flowers dotted the landscape. Unfortunately the clouds still loomed all around. I was beginning to think that there was no mountain, to save money they’d just taken us to some hills to walk in circles among the clouds. There was a hill ahead covered in cloud, I jokingly asked if that was the mountain, expecting to be laughed at, “Yes” they said. I wasn't impressed, it was just a slope into the clouds. But as we neared our camp for the night, a patch appeared in the clouds high above and the mountain gave us a little peek. Just a glimpse of her side, vertical and icy. The tease.
My Swahili was terrible so I made the effort to learn a new word, haraka, meaning faster. Now I had a response other than rolling my eyes whenever my guides said polepole. I don’t know why but I think they were beginning to dislike me.
By the third day I had an unspoken agreement with the guides, they left me alone to walk at my own pace. After a few hours a couple of porters passed me and asked if I wanted to walk with them, I said yes and they said “haraka”, they were speaking my language. So, I descended through the valley at speed. It looked like something from Jurassic Park, strange spiky trees rose from the rocky landscape, unusual features at 4,000 metres. Cotton wool like clouds would roll through obliterating the landscape before vanishing as quickly as they’d appeared. Every time I paused for a photo the porters did too. I later found out they’d been sent to find me and walk with me (to make sure I didn’t die) but I think they were supposed to slow me down, not speed me up. Perhaps my guide was trying to break me into obedience.
Arriving at camp, I went to unpack my holdall, there was a strange smell of beer, my heart sank, this was the bag carrying all my warm gear for the summit and my sleeping bag. Oh, and my beer. I was confused at first, everything smelt like beer but there was no sign of liquid, the insulated clothing had absorbed 500ml of sweet Tanzanian amber nectar. Fortunately through careful planning I had taken two bottles for just such an emergency — always be prepared on the mountain.
The next morning I started to feel the altitude, I couldn’t catch my breath and even simple things like cleaning my teeth were hard work. It was an acclimatisation day so we were climbing up to Lava Rock at 4,600m for a spot of lunch and descending for the night. Lemosho joined with Machame here, even now in the off season when only the anti-social or suicidal climb the camps were like shanty towns, complete with armies of porters and private toilet tents. I was shocked to learn for a mere $100 you could pay someone to carry your own private toilet. There were even shower tents which took up a lot more space than my pack of 12 wet wipes. Perched on my homemade folding stool I looked on as a girl was vomiting. I asked Eric if they’d take her back now, he said "No, it’s normal."
At our campsite I headed to the toilet in the warm sun, not a cloud in sight while my beer soaked clothing dried on the tent. I appeared a few minutes later to a seen from a horror movie, unable to see more than 20 metres through the clouds. The air was heavy and wet, the light unable to penetrate through. Who needs dry clothes on a mountain anyway.
That night it was unbearably cold, as I got into my artic sleeping bag wearing everything I had, I was not feeling particularly keen to experience the summit temperatures that Eric had described as the “coldest I’d ever feel in my life.”
I’d planned on slowing down a bit, worried that ignoring my guide’s “polepole” may impact my ability to summit, but I couldn’t. I’m not sure why, in part stubbornness, and I certainly don’t like being behind other people, I just get impatient. These aren’t my best qualities of course. Well, I hope they’re not...
That morning started with a fun climb up Baranco Wall, 257m of near vertical climbing. It was around this time I started to notice an unusual body odour near me, it wasn’t me as it wasn’t my smell, but there was no-one else around. A quick sniff revealed the source, it was my hire clothes, or more specifically the body odour of hundreds of other people who’d previously hired the clothes I was now wearing. My warm damp sweat activating the smell. Like a fine wine each individual aroma could be distinguished. I like to think I added my own unique odour to the garment now, so the next person will discover a woody, musky note with just a hint of cat’s piss.
Lying in my tent that night I was trying to work out why I was on the mountain, why I was suffering the cold, the poor hygiene, the hard work. And I had no idea. As usual I’d booked this on a whim at the last minute so hadn’t developed any expectations. The thought of being at the summit did little for me and I was much more excited about getting back to my hotel and having a long hot shower. It felt pretty stupid to be there and to want the experience to be over. Over $2,000 for 7 days could buy you somewhere you actually wanted to be.
After a short easy day we arrived at base camp. Some people had climbed that morning and were taking a brief rest before continuing down. A group asked us for some of our protein as one of their team was unwell and apparently hypoglycaemic. We obliged and took the opportunity to ask how the climb was? “Hard. Like doing a marathon underwater”. The thought of 7 hours up, 3 hours down, a brief rest and then 4 hours further down to the final camp did not seem like fun.
After the usual polepole lecture over dinner (directed at me) I pushed for specifics on the conditions, about the snow and ice. Reluctantly Eric said “It’s not that safe”. Only that morning there were two people with broken legs and many more injured. It was starting to sound interesting. We were advised to take snacks, everyone else had a dozen energy bars and gels. I had a Mars bar and a bottle of Kilimanjaro beer… It was going to be tough. I did however have one pair of pants, two pairs of thermal leggings, two base layers, a t-shirt, jumper, fleece, down jacket, ski trousers, a balaclava, buff, wooly hat, two pairs of wool socks and sturdy but ill-fitting waterproof boots. I would weigh a tonne and be hungry but at least I’d be warm. My wake up call would be at 11pm.
I’d given up on trying to get any sleep that night and it wasn’t long before someone was tapping on my tent telling me it was time. After donning all my clothes and eating a little porridge I was ready. And so we headed off, following a few patches of head torches floating in the black above. After a little while I turned and saw a blood moon, my first, I was hoping this wasn’t an omen. It would have been nice to pay more attention to it but I was kind of busy looking at the ground.
I started out as a man on a mission, overtaking group after group. My guide having given me permission to go in front earlier (although I think he was joking when he said it — I didn’t hang around to find out). It was challenging though, focusing on placing one foot in front of the other, looking for the existing footsteps in the ice, the dim glow of my head torch providing the only light around. It was only now as things got hard and my lungs struggled to cope with the lack of oxygen and the cold dry air, that I realised why I was doing this. Because it was hard. It was that simple. Amelia Boone said, “I may not be the fastest or strongest but I’m the best at suffering.” I’m not too bad myself. I may even like it.
Stopping to take stock and catch my breath I looked down to see a snake of lights following. At times they would disappear into the black as the contours of the mountain covered them.
I pulled my buff over my nose and mouth to try and warm the air entering my lungs, my nose was bleeding, I couldn’t breath, my hands were numb with cold and my nose and lips were cracking. The wind was threatening to blow me away. The cold air attacking the nerve on my broken tooth. I was having fun now, this is what I was here for.
I arrived at the summit, perfectly timed for the sunrise but not well timed for something else, I’d asked my guide if there was anywhere I could go to preserve what little remained of my dignity. He said there was a dip beyond Uhuru Peak, and so my race to the toilet began. There was no shelter but the dip did at least provide me with a shred of dignity. Sadly the facilities on the mountain will only be getting a 2 star Tripadvisor review from me.
The sun was rising into a thin strip of sky, above were thick dark clouds, below was snow and ice, as it entered the strip of sky the most intense red light reflected off the clouds and the snow to offer the most surreal sunrise I’ve ever seen. And then as quickly as it appeared it vanished, the dense clouds surrounded us and there was nothing.
I was finally able to open the Kilimanjaro beer I’d carried to the summit, this was harder than I thought it would be, the lid had frozen and my hands were numb. I eventually managed to open it but the result was a beer slushy. As the sun rose I played Africa by Toto on my phone and danced around like an idiot. My goal here was done.
Whether it was the beer, the brandy (the Germans had that), exhaustion, lack of food, lack of sleep or ascending too quickly I’ll never know but as soon as I started to descend my vision started to go, everything was white, but it wasn’t the snow anymore (with hindsight it was probably the beer, I mean they didn’t tell me not to take beer up the mountain but there are some things that probably don’t need to be said). Unfortunately I was starting to realise that the hard part hadn't even started yet.
The ice had now hardened, the footprints visible by head torch on the way up were gone in a sea of shining white. Each step was hard work, looking for a patch of ice that looked soft, stamping on it to create some purchase, dropping my bodyweight to lower the centre of gravity, and repeat. Fatigue hitting my legs hard my knees buckled and I fell, hitting the ice hard I slid down a few metres uncontrolled. A guide came to my aid and held on to me, either too confident in his abilities or the conditions he went down after two steps and slid 20 metres from me. At least that provided a brief moment of laughter.
The falls kept coming. I was getting frustrated — I wanted to scream like a toddler, I can’t do this, it’s too hard, I’m tired, I’m hungry, my legs hurt, my knees don’t work, I’m hot, I’m cold, why the fuck haven’t I got crampons?! And so I was finally going polepole for fear that I’d fall and slide to my death, trying to calculate if I could get my knife out in time and use it as a makeshift ice axe. Probably not.
I was nervous on the way up when I was behind anyone as there were often little slips and I didn’t want to get taken out by someone else. On the way down the danger came from behind, worst though was you could hear someone fall and slide behind you. Panic and turn and you had a good chance of falling yourself, so I did my best to ignore the falls behind me that was until one of the Germans took me out like a bowling pin. Fortunately my only injury was a bent walking pole.
The descent took everything I had and then just a little bit more. It broke me, physically and mentally. We’d been told that we would go down the same way we ascended due to the conditions. For some unknown reason about two thirds of the way down some of us were told to go a different way, behind the rocks. These were the same rocks I’d been told off for peeing by on the way up “Don’t go near the edge, you’ll fall and die”. Yet, now we were trying to walk down them.
The route was smooth ice broken by patches of rock sticking out. If you fell you’d probably end up getting cut up on some rocks. It was much steeper than the previous descent as well. The first 50m took us about half an hour as we found ourselves in an impossible position, unable to climb back up but realising this was not the way to go. Clearly no-one had yet descended this way, there were no prints to follow. Until now.
Assuming we knew something they didn’t other climbers began to follow us. All I knew was that my guide had clearly made a bad choice. “You’re climbing like a drunk” he said to me. Fuck you I thought as I gritted my teeth and stared at him. I asked him why we’d gone this way, “It’s safer” he said. It was not.
Eventually the ice disappeared but what remained was a deep sand and rubble, and my legs no longer functioned. So I kept falling, one rather spectacular time my legs came out from under me and I landed on my back on a large rock, looking like I’d broken my spine I lay there, my guide looked around concerned. All I could think about was that I bet the others who went the planned route were back safe already, sleeping in their tents.
As we neared base camp, some of the porters came to meet us with some victory pineapple juice. I was very grateful as my water ran out at the summit and I was dehydrated by this point. I tried to pretend to be happy but I don't think it worked. I probably scowled at them as they poured my drink.
Sat on a rock drinking the sweet life giving tropical juice, I saw the climbers that had followed us, now carried by their guides, I felt sorry for them as I knew what they’d just been through and assumed like me it had ruined their day. Their week in fact.
Arriving back at base camp, sure enough my tent buddy was already asleep having arrived an hour earlier taking the safer route. I tried my best to sleep for the short break we had but to no avail, we were now heading off for a 4 hour trek down to our final camp. I was trying to work out the best reason I could give for not continuing, for telling them they had to carry me down, or get a helicopter — whatever, not my problem. Was it the tooth? Nosebleeds? Headache? Cough? Exhaustion? Or that my legs didn’t work anymore? I’d definitely need those to walk down. After some food I calmed down a little and reluctantly started the walk.
I felt done. I wanted a nice long hot shower, a burger and to move on with my life. I think in the back of my mind I’d been toying with the idea of slowly attempting the seven summits and this was my first test. Unfortunately it was a failure in that regard. Why would I ever want to do anything like that again? But I think most of the issues would have been eradicated had I been equipped properly. Specifically if I’d had crampons, and perhaps my own thermals just for the smell. And whilst I'm at it, some form of training other than drinking beer named after the mountain.
Just one more day to go, a fairly easy but muddy descent through the rainforest. I was glad it was coming to an end.
Sat at the finish line, watching the other groups celebrating, I still didn’t get it. What were they celebrating? Did a toilet tent really make all the difference?
Even back at the hotel, clean and showered, I didn’t know why I’d done this. Sure, it was hard at times and had its moments but that didn’t seem enough. At my table lay a certificate from the tourist board detailing the time and date of my summit. Perhaps I’m jaded, complacency turning these experiences into my 9-5. The scenery was stunning and that sunrise will stay with me forever but it felt like a lot of time, money and distress for a certificate and checking something off a list I may never continue. But I knew I’d probably be half way up a bigger mountain before I even remembered how I felt here.
Things started to change on my way to the airport though, it was like I'd lost all emotion on the mountain and only now was it starting to return. I was remembering how to be happy. Perhaps it was the oxygen.
Looking out of the window as my plane headed towards the clouds, I had my first view of the full majesty of the mountain. Its silhouette dominating the sky and dwarfing the surrounding towns. As we broke through the dark layer of clouds it revealed another whiter layer above, beyond this loomed the summit, now strangely familiar to me. I knew her curves and undulations. I’d felt them first hand. In only a short time I’d come to know her and she was finally ready to reveal herself to me. It was only then that I was able to appreciate the achievement of what I’d just done. And just how high that toilet really was.