“How do you feel?” My Guide asked as I sat hunched in the darkness panting heavily.
“Absolutely…. exhausted.” I gasped back at him between pants.
“Are you sick or do you have a headache?”
“No… Just…. exhausted.”
We were sitting at a moment of truth high up on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. If my Guide told me to go down, I’d turn round. If he asked me if I think I should go down I’d turn round and start heading down.
“No headache, no sick, you can still go on.” He said. “We are so close to Stella Point now. Just keep walking and follow me and I’ll get you to your dream.”
That was how close the call was and that was the logic which made me wearily haul myself back onto my feet and stagger another agonizing few feet up into the darkness.
Leaving Barafu Camp
My journey had started about 9 hours earlier and close to 4,000ft lower down the mountain where our tents nestled among an inhospitable pile of rocks on a steep slope at Barafu Camp. At 9:30pm I sat in the Mess Tent decked out in all my winter gear reluctantly forcing down a ‘breakfast’ of porridge, coffee and biscuits. Myself and one other, a lady from our group, were the slow walkers and were heading out an hour ahead of the main summit party in order to get the most time and best chance of summitting.
I stepped out into the rocks, knowing there was a steep rocky climb of about 100ft just to get up to the Reception of the Campsite and get started. The adrenaline was pumping and I wanted the nervous, sleepless waiting to be over. My guide asked if I was ready, I said I was and we were off. I launched myself into the climb and was soon bounding through the Campsite heading for the next pitch. Another steep and rocky climb would take us onto a plateau 1,000ft above the Campsite where others were camping by virtue of special permits they had purchased.
Soon after we started, I heard the lady who had also left early shouting into the darkness for me to wait up. I had given her some electrolytes and some words of encouragement in the Mess Tent but no need to wait up for her now. She had a Guide and a Porter to look after her. For days, they’d had to take an arm each to guide her over the rocky pitches. If I had waited for her, we’d both been off the climb before long. As my own guide and I started across the plateau towards the higher camp, we were joined by the other Guide and Porter. My friend had already turned back.
Biscuits At 17,000ft
We started at around 15,000ft above Mean Sea Level, I’d hardly noticed as we passed through 16,000ft and as we took one of our regular short breaks at 17,000ft I was feeling great. By all accounts our pace was encouraging and the night was still and clear. There are always hundreds of trekkers ascending through the night on this route on Kilimanjaro (Lemosho Route) but most of them had only just set out and I could see their lines of headtorches steep and far below me as they headed up into the darkness.
I resolved to get to 18,000ft as easily as the rest of the ascent so far and cause an upset by reaching Stella Point (The first point on the rim of the volcano that is Kilimanjaro) in a very fast time.
Storm At 18,000ft
As things turned out, Stella Point is not at 18,000ft but almost 1,000ft higher. What I did find at 18,000ft was that I was moving incredibly slow, that every step was complete exhaustion and a ferocious wind was tearing across the mountain chilling the temperature well below the ambient -20C. The lines of walkers ascending the mountain were now trudging wearily past me.
My Guide had fallen and broken his wrist. We tried to strap him up in a sling using bandages from my First Aid Kit but it hadn’t helped too much and he had to turn round. He went down to pick up one of the other trekkers from the Main Group who we had been told had also turned around. I headed on up with a Porter who turned out to have the strength of an ox and the patience of a saint. A replacement Guide was heading up to us from the main party and would be with us in due course.
I joined the lines of climbers heading up a steep and seemingly endless slope of loose scree through a series of zig zags (Switch backs as the locals called it) but the altitude was starting to get to me for sure. I was becoming less aware of where I was and, more to the point, where I was going. At the end of each traverse of the slope, where the others turned back on themselves and traversed back across the slope, I kept wandering off into the rocks where I would lose my balance, stagger about and need to sit down. The climb across the rocks to get back onto the slopes with the others was confusing and completely exhausting.
The Porter who was with me kept hauling my arm to bring me back on course and telling me we were almost at Stella Point. All the while I knew that even a descent of 100ft and my head and my breathing would start to clear. It was whilst sitting wondering if I should, or could, continue that our replacement guide arrived. He soon established that I was fit enough and close enough to Stella Point to continue. And so we pushed on up ending a very long night on the long, steep slope at the top of Kilimanjaro’s rim.
Sunrise Far Above The Plains Of Tanzania
With the rising of the sun my breath was taken away for a whole new, and much more positive, reason. The slopes around the rim of the volcano, towering back cliffs rising above and around me with huge patches of ice, looked spectacular. Far, far below, the Plains of Tanzania spread out forever. Everything in the beautiful, silent pink glow of the early morning.
Meeting Above The Clouds
A short distance further along the track I took another rest in a small rocky inlet watching the world walking past me towards the top as I gingerly sipped at my water feeling too exhausted and sick to take on anything more substantial. Among the countless climbers passing me, the main party from my own tour who had left for the summit an hour after me soon came into view.
“Mr McBride. How are you?” Called Abraham, our Main Guide, as he saw me.
“Absolutely exhausted!” I replied.
“Remember tiredness is not an illness.” He beamed, “See you at the top.”
His character and his comments caused a broad smile to spread across my face and at that, one of the girls from the group came over and gave me a huge hug. This mountain was a turning point in her life as we had discussed on the way up while she had battled through the emerging effects of the altitude. She sobbed into my shoulder overcome with emotion and in that moment I felt like somehow I was helping and it felt great.
Stella Point – 18,885ft
For the next hour we labored on up the slope. The Main Group were ahead of me but never got too far and I could always see them. By this stage the Porter who was with me was pushing my back or my hips just to keep me upright every time we moved off. I guess I didn’t look too good on that final ascent, That Porter was a hero and there was no way I would have got up without him. At last the wooden slats of the sign for Stella Point were there in front of me among crowds of excited climbers.
The main group from my tour were already sat in a line to the side of the sign for Stella Point and I collapsed in a heap beside them. We congratulated each other, shook hands, hugged and patted each others backs. It was a bright sunny day now around 6am local time. My last action with the group that morning was to stand among them posing at the Stella Point sign. Stella Point – 18,885ft above Mean Sea Level.
Abraham pulled me to the side, explained what an amazing achievement it was to get to Stella Point and suggested that I start back down the mountain rather than heading on up to the highest point at Uhuru Peak. I could see Uhuru Peak along the rim just above us. It didn’t look too far but I was exhausted.
Abraham was asking if I agreed with his suggestion to turn back. It would have been foolish not to and would have put either him or his team under more pressure. I wasn’t really ascending under my own steam by that time anyway. I could only have reached Uhuru peak if they carried me and they had enough to carry without my 250lb frame on top. Reluctantly I agreed to head back down.
We soon descended into the loose steep scree past the line of weary walkers still making the climb. My guide bobbing up and down gently and gliding down the slope as he ‘scree skied’ through the loose rocks. Me behind him staggering about and hanging onto my trekking poles with legs like water feeling a world of pain below my waist. I could see the campsite looking something like a million miles below us. Sadly I realised even that was the high camp about 1,000ft above our campsite at Barafu.
I was soon sweltering under the African Sun as we plodded on into the bright morning. We stopped, de-layered and plodded on. Eventually, completely exhausted, I found myself clambering down through the rocks from the high campsite down to Barafu. I crawled into my tent at 11:45am and slumped into an exhausted sleep. I’d been on the go for 14 hours into extreme altitude and both hot and cold extremes of weather. I’d climbed 4,000ft and descended 4,000ft.
When the others arrived back at camp some 3 hours later, there was time for some hot chocolate and lunch before we continued our descent along a gruelling 9 mile dried riverbed to Mweka Camp a further 5,000ft below Barafu.
Back in civilization and tagging a safari into the holiday, I had time to reflect. At first there was a sense of relief. No more climbing, an hotel room instead of a tent and cold beer once more. Then there was the feeling of achievement at reaching the top of the highest free standing mountain in the world. Well the rim of the volcano at least. Then the doubt and disappointment that I could never say I just reached the top.
Not simply, “I climbed Kilimanjaro.” but always then the story which qualified what I’d actually done. “…I got to the rim…. I got to the top but just not the very top…” These notes I have written here. That is my full story of Kilimanjaro. it was amazing and I am proud of what I did.