Climbing the Kilimanjaro by accident

Climbing the Kilimanjaro wasn’t even in my dreams but as it sometimes happens, the most amazing things occur even before dreaming about them .

My four weeks volunteering in Arusha, in the north of Tanzania, was cut down to 3 weeks at the last minute, because the school where I was teaching was closing for a long holiday season. I was disappointed as I wanted to do my share of good deeds, but then, what could I do? That day I went back to my hosting house and talked to my new good friend and roommate, Allise. When I arrived at the hosting house the first day, she was already there and we connected immediately. We had spent lots of sleepless nights talking about anything and everything, and that night in particular we chatted about what we could do on my last week, as she would also be able to take some days off.

We had heard about other volunteers who had climbed the Kili with no particular preparation or experience, and had said we would give it thought.

The truth was, we already knew deep inside that it was a done deal and it took literally a minute to calculate if we could fit it into our budget…with a resounding yes!!!

We were going to climb Kilimanjaro, with its 5895 mt-high summit, and we had had no preparation. Our excitement was sky high, as was our fear. What if we couldn’t make it? What if it was too difficult? What if we were to die…? Ok, well, that was not an option.

We would be departing in about a week’s time and felt silly and kind of proud that we hadn’t prepared. It just spiced up the adventure even more, and we felt brave and strong. I was happy however, that I had been running a bit over the past few days, hence I was not totally unfit.

THE BEGINNING OF OUR CLIMB

On the first day I was anxious, not so much about the challenge, but about meeting the other fellow-hikers of the group, as I always tend to be concerned about slowing the others down. The guide picked us up and told us there would only be the 3 of us (Allise, myself, and another girl from the volunteer group, Carly), and a guy who we would meet there.

Carly was young and tiny, and looked reserved, but very confident. It took a few minutes for introductions and from then on it became clear that we were going to have a great time together. The guy, who we eventually met, was a blogger from somewhere in Europe, who was coming along to write about the hike, as well as the company. I am now wondering if he wrote about the tents leaking and rain coming in while we were sleeping, or about the guides complaining how little we left as tips. At the time, I wasn’t aware that blogging was a real profession and that people actually made a living out of it. The guy seemed cool but we soon realised he had been hiking all over and was thus very athletic and fast, unlike ourselves. This, in fact created a little tension along the hike.

We slept at a lovely hotel in Moshi, a small town close to the Machame gate of the park, around 2000m in altitude, and would start the ascent the following morning.

There are different routes, all with their own peculiarity. There are no good or bad routes, it really just depends on your preferences. I have found this site quite helpful in the description.

TIP-We stopped by a rental place for our equipment on the previous day, which is common. This is normally included in the tour fees. You should check with your agency before paying.

TIP — The porters carry your backpack up so that you are free to climb with just a small bag. They are very well organised indeed, and it justifies the high cost of the trip. When checking the cost, please make sure you consider tips for the porters. I have learned that there is a sort of unofficially established % that they expect, which inflates considerably the overall cost of the trip and although it might seem high, it is what they basically live on, as their salaries are very low in comparison.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity” John Muir, Our National Parks

ON THE WAY UP

We loved that our group was made up of just 4 people, giving us the opportunity to have good chats along the way, and at night.

The food was so delicious that we actually couldn’t believe they managed to cook so well in such difficult conditions.

The ascent was not difficult at the beginning, and the road was easy and not too steep. Well, steep, but bearable.

The landscape was breath-taking and the vegetation was lush and thick; it was interesting to note how it changed as we climbed up. Once we arrived at the first campsite we felt quite satisfied and happy. It had been easy. I started to get a headache, however, and the guide authorised me to take my pill.

(TIP) They normally tell you not to take altitude sickness medication because it masks the symptoms of sickness, and if your body really doesn’t tolerate the altitude, the guides, who can normally understand what’s going on, would be misled by the reaction of the pills. This could ultimately be very dangerous. In fact, I was reading that the danger of death during the climbing of Kilimanjaro is not because of accidents, as the trail is not dangerous at all, but mainly due to altitude sickness. People don’t always recognise the symptoms, or they just don’t want to stop and give up, which can be lethal. SO please don’t try to be a superhuman, as you can put in danger your life and also the lives of your companions.

The following days were even more amazing. The more we climbed, the more surreal the view became. I could not believe my eyes, and was so grateful to be there living that experience. I felt so fortunate and blessed. The landscape was becoming drier, and the vegetation was almost dead. Mighty eagles flew about high in the sky, as if checking who was invading their territory.

The best camp, in my opinion, was that of the third night, the one before you get you get to Barafu camp. It was here where you could see Kili from a distance, the land flat and barren, like a desolated field.

We met other climbers there. I love that moment when you get to the daily “finish line” and you get to either rest in the tent, or walk around and connect with fellow nature lovers.

It was raining at this point, and Carly’s tent was leaking, as was the blogger’s tent. He therefore went into the cabin and shared the room with the guards of the park, and Carly joined us in our tent, as we were able to squeeze up a bit. We shared space, experience and fears, turning an uncomfortable situation into laughter therapy.

Even though we had a great time we learned a lesson: don’t chose the cheapest company when it comes to your safety and comfort, unless you are prepared for the consequences, such as cheap or overused equipment, and consequential wet clothes.

With regard to safety I have to say the head guide was extremely competent, as were the crew. We felt very comfortable and safe, which was the most important thing.

The following night was the last one before the ascent to the peak, and we were thrilled! All the other segments of our hikes had been relatively easy… Oh wait! I forgot to tell you about one point where I thought I was really going to die, right there. I had never felt so scared in my whole life. On the second day, if I remember well, we reached a beautiful moonlike environment. It was beautiful; the grey, rocky terrain was interrupted by huge star-shaped plants, which seemed like awkward cactuses. After lunch, we had to go around the valley and walk along a very narrow, overhanging path.

THAT IS WHAT I WAS LOOKING AT WHILE MY LEGS WERE SHAKING

It was a little scary but I could handle it by being very careful, until we arrived to a point where the path was so narrow that a wrong footing would easily cause you to slip down the valley, thus we needed to kiss the rock and take a long step to the right to get to the other side of that point. Needless to say I was so terrified that my legs were shaking, which didn’t help at all. A minute later, we were all safe on the other side of the threatening point, continuing on with our walk. Little did I know that the most difficult part was yet to come …

BARAFU CAMP

We arrived at Barafu camp, the last one before the peak, at around 12. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the summit was clearly showing in all its majesty before our eyes. It seemed so far away that we could not believe that we would be right there, a night later.

The other groups had already arrived and we all milled around, sharing our emotions with each other. Regardless of our level of expertise, we were all there to conquer Kili. There were so many stories to tell. I wondered what had brought them here and what each of us would take home from this climb…

We had an early dinner and the guide briefed us on the program for the following day, or perhaps I should say, that night. We would start the ascent at 11 pm in order to get to the peak by dawn. I couldn’t eat a thing, my stomach had shut down and I had nausea; I couldn’t even drink water. I was sure it was a physical reaction to the altitude. Good for my figure, though!

I don’t think we could have slept for more than 2 hours, but at 11 pm, when the guide woke us up, we were ready on our feet. “Breakfast” wasn’t an option but I tried to get something into my stomach, just to muster up some energy for the hike; it was going to be very, very long.

It was so dark we couldn’t see where we were walking. The air was thick, and even though we had acclimatised to the altitude by then, we could still feel it in our legs and in our lungs.

The guide was very helpful, patient and reassuring. He kept telling us not to worry about the pace, and to just take it step-by-step, slowly, but surely. It was steep and rocky and there was a point where there was no path at all. While I am writing this, 4 years after, I still get chills. I miss that feeling, and can’t wait to have another adventure like this, despite all the pain. It was all worth it.

It was dark, cold, and snowing. I couldn’t see where I was putting my feet. My heartbeat was accelerating, my breathing short. I was as scared as hell! “I don’t want to die”, I thought! I didn’t want to give up, though, right at the very end of 4 days of an amazing hike. The guide suggested I stop for a while, take my time and see if I wasn’t really feeling well. I had the option of turning back with one of the second guides. I thought it was fear, at least I hoped so! I had heard stories that the worst thing that can happen is that your lungs fill with water because of the altitude, and that if that happened you can die, and because of my breathing difficulties I was scared that that could be my case. I feel so silly now that I think about it, but at that very moment I was in panic! “Why on earth did I decide to climb Kilimanjaro?” I wondered.

At that moment the girls spoke up. They told me that we had started together and that we should finish it together, slowly but all the way to the top! I was encouraged by their words and I suddenly remembered a self-help technique that I had learned, the “Hoponopono theory “. Basically, when you have a pain or something you need to change, you hold yourself responsible for what it is and talk to the problem or issue, saying a specific prayer to the cause of the pain with the words, ‘I am sorry, thank you, I love you’. So in my delirium of the moment I started to talk to the mountain, reciting my prayer in my mind. Believe it or not, a miracle happened. After about ten minutes of my special prayer I started to feel comfortable again. I was still struggling, of course, because of the altitude and tiredness, but my chest pain had gone and my fears, too. I felt wonderful and was determined to get to the top with my friends. I felt the spiritual presence of the mountain.

We walked at the same pace, one after another. It was steep and dark, and we felt the snow crunching under our feet; it actually started to snow again after a while. There was no one up there but us. We could see the lights of the other climbers far down below, and they reached us very quickly; their steps looked so easy and confident, as if it was their normal routine. As a matter of fact, we saw them later on their way back, while we were still struggling on our way up. “Good job! Keep going! You are doing great!” they yelled at us for encouragement.

I loved the sense of comradeship among the mountain people. There was no judgement or competition, everyone was fighting his/her own battle, and supporting one another.

We kept going, I was impressed by how Carly was able to eat so many chocolate snacks for energy when I couldn’t even drink water.

It was still dark when the girls started to show signs of extreme fatigue. They were both at the same stage I had been a few hours before, so I thought I would share my method with them. I was a bit embarrassed because not everyone would understand it, and they might think I was crazy. But I said, “Ok girls, now you will look at the mountain and say ‘thank you for your beauty. I am sorry for my tiredness and discomfort, I love you so much, thank you’. That is how I felt better”.

I was surprised when the guide looked at me in bewilderment, smiled and said, “thank you, Isabella”.

They didn’t say anything but continued to walk. It was silent again, everyone in their own thoughts, and we kept walking, surrounded by darkness and snow. I don’t recall any stars in the sky. It was cloudy and we ran into some light snowfall as well. It was beautiful and magical.

As dawn started to break we could finally see the peak, majestic, huge, far away, and yet achievable.

We could now see our first goal, Stellar Point, where the steepness would be over and we would ONLY be 1 hour away from the Uhuru peak. It seemed so close and yet so far as our steps were still short and slow, but we were sure we were finally going to make it. Few words were uttered but our faces clearly expressed hope and satisfaction regarding our near accomplishment.

It was frustrating however, it seemed as if we weren’t getting any closer, until finally, we did. As I gazed upon the Stellar Point sign, 5496 m (18000ft), I was overjoyed. Unleashed emotions poured down my cheeks. I couldn’t stop crying!

WE HAVE ARRIVED!!!! TOGETHER WE MADE IT!

When I turned around, the girls were all in tears as well. The guides complimented us, everybody complimented each other. Hugs and tears were on overload. We were probably the last group to reach the top, but we didn’t care. It seemed like an eternity since we had left Barafu camp. We were supposed to get to the top by dawn but it was already 9 o’clock, which meant we had been walking for 10 hours in the cold, 5000 m and higher. We were physically drained and I hadn’t eaten in all that time, nor was I hungry or thirsty. We stopped for a little while but couldn’t wait to get to the Uhru peak, the actual summit. From then on, the walk was easy and mild and we only had a 500m-ascent left to do in order to get to the top. All around us was a thick, white blanket of snow covering our path and the surrounding mountains. The sun was hidden by dense fog, which didn’t allow us to see our finish line or the glacier. I am sure it was beautiful. We walked on, still crying, but laughing at the same time.

When we reached the peak we found ourselves in a storm, but we didn’t care. I leapt towards the sign for the token picture! I wanted proof that I had made it. After all, we all yearn fame.

THE PROOF

We were all grateful for having been able to have such an experience, and thankful to the mountain. However, I don’t think it could ever have been possible without the support of the girls and their encouragement. Our comradeship was what made it that extra bit amazing.

The guide urged us to start our descent, since it was getting quite late; and so we did, happily. There was still the odd tear every now and then. My muscles were aching and I loved it, but at the same time I couldn’t actually feel anything at all. My legs were just moving because I didn’t have any other choice. It’s amazing how our bodies find the resources when needs be.

Walking down was easy, yet eternal. We could finally see where we had been walking all night in the obscurity. Once we had arrived to the camp, exhausted, it was already midday, meaning that we had been walking for 24 hours nonstop, in the cold and snow. I wasn’t sure if that was something to be proud or ashamed of. In fact, a regular hiker could have done it in 13 or so. It didn’t really matter at that point.

WITH OUR GUIDE JOHN AND OUR DIPLOMAS AND A FEW POUNDS LESS

– PHOTO COURTESY OF ALLISE GRANT IG @TIN.OF.BEANS

TIP: remember to wear skin and lip protection, or else you will get burnt, even if it is cloudy and stormy.

We ate something quick, packed up, and headed off down to the next camp. I could not believe I was walking again. Once we got to our destination however, I was exhausted, and based on the temperature I didn’t even eat. I basically passed out until the following morning, when I woke up, ready for the last day of our amazing adventure.

On the way down the landscape gradually changed, the vegetation becoming alive and more present, green and lush.

I noticed we were rushing; everybody was looking forward to getting home and probably sleeping in their own bed, in dry clothes, and most of all connecting with the world and telling everybody what an experience we had just lived. What’s the point in leaving a dream if you cannot share it with others and make yourself proud? It’s human nature that we all want fame and glory.

On top of it all, while savouring my achievement, my main thought was, “Where next…?”