A personal account of a father-son challenge to summit the world’s highest free-standing mountain
Written by Alex Reeve
The 747 jet is so large it seems to take up the entirety of Kilimanjaro International Airport when it rolls to a stop, 24 hours later than planned. My son Will and I cross the apron, ducking the selfie-takers to find the driver who will take us to Kilimanjaro Mountain Resort hotel – a two-hour journey without a halt as we are told it is too dangerous to stop en route.
We have just stepped off a Norwich–Amsterdam–Kilimanjaro long-haul, are grateful that our luggage has kept pace with us, and are looking forward with some trepidation to starting a trek to the summit of the world’s highest free-standing mountain.
Being a day late means that we missed the briefing and kit check the previous day, but things are relaxed in Tanzania and our guide introduces himself to us over breakfast, gives our equipment the once over and we pack our kit into the two large bags which the porters will carry between camps.
The three other people that will make up our group are gathered in the hotel lobby talking to a weather-beaten, high-spirited woman, walking poles still strapped to her rucksack, who, having gotten to within 500 metres of the summit, began coughing up blood and was forced to return. Despite the fact that no formal climbing training or experience is required, it is made clear from the time of booking that this is not a trek to be taken lightly.
The team of helpers that accompany any such journey is large, and it would be true to say that making the summit without the tireless support group of guides, porters and cooks would be impossible for the overwhelming majority of non-professional trekkers. Having met our support team, we set out from Marangu Gate (6,164 ft) on the first leg of the trek to Mandara Hut (8,860 ft).
Several routes to the summit are possible and each is different. Only the Marangu route has hut accommodation (all the others use tents), with each camp being roughly 3,000 ft above the last, helping acclimatise trekkers over the course of the ascent. It is also the route which takes the least time, (six days of trekking from start to finish) and, unbeknown to us at the time of booking, has the highest failure rate.
The two are not unrelated, as acclimatisation is key to making the summit, something we would find out in due course.
Back to basics
The first camp is Madaro Hut, reached through monkey-populated, heavy rainforest. Accommodation across all the camps is spartan and utilitarian, with up to eight people sharing a small hut, with no heating and the most basic of conveniences, requiring tightly choreographed night-time routines, a good sleeping bag and a cast iron constitution.
Evening meals, a source of much-needed energy, are prepared and cooked by the team’s chef and consumed in a large communal mess hut. These, like the camps themselves, comprise a collection of disparate, weary, footsore and friendly travellers from all corners of the globe brought together by the all-consuming goal of ‘summiting’. Some on their outward journey, some returning – elated or crestfallen – some in catatonic shock from a first visit to the ‘facilities’ and being cared for by concerned companions.
During the next stages, climbing through moorland to Horombo Hut, situated at 12,200 ft, the negative effects of high altitude started to materialise. An eagerness to sit when taking a break, a shortage of breath, a grasped opportunity to lean elbow on knee, headaches, nosebleeds and, worryingly, a bout of blindness. As the air thinned and we climbed higher we saw with disconcerting frequency, like an unnecessary Memento Mori, exhausted climbers being carried down the trail by sure-footed and tireless stretcher-bearers. An extra ‘acclimatisation day’ at Horombo Hut may well have made the difference between summiting or not. The additional day at altitude enabled tired bodies to adjust and accustom themselves to the increasingly thin air before pushing on to Kibo Hut, the final camp.
Miraculously, our bodies seemed to re-calibrate, the debilitating conditions receded, and with them the doubts that had begun pressing upon us. Setting out from Horombo the following morning, we dared to believe again.
We could see her, the mountain, by this point. Terrifying and brutal and magnetic. A constant reminder, if it were needed, of why we were there. Of the months of anticipation, of preparation
The final ascent
We could see her, the mountain, by this point. Terrifying and brutal and magnetic. A constant reminder, if it were needed, of why we were there. Of the months of anticipation, of preparation.
Kibo Hut (15,485 ft) is essentially “Base Camp” and the usual practice is to arrive after the trek from Horombo, eat and bed down for a short sleep, rise at around 11pm and set off for the summit at midnight. Adrenaline and nerves make any sort of sleep impossible for the majority, so we whiled away the hours playing cards and checking kit, before pulling on several layers of clothes, headgear and gloves and setting out in the inky blackness to begin the final push of 3,900 ft, in temperatures well below freezing.
A theory of why the final push is undertaken at night is that it prevents anyone from seeing the scale of the climb ahead of them. This is, quite rightly, trumped by the proposition that seeing the sun rise on the continent’s highest mountain is among the most awe-inspiring sights on the planet, but it contains a kernel of truth. The seven-hour ascent is tough. Physically and mentally. In the darkness, the ascent alternated between the monotonous and the surreal; the rapid climb and breakthrough into what is technically described as ‘extreme altitude’ – anything above 18,000 ft – plays tricks with one’s sight, one’s body and one’s mind. Hallucinations were commonplace. Time lost meaning. Anxiety surfaced. The only reality became the relentless push forward and upward. The only constant was the sound of one’s own breath and the thin layer of ice that had formed on beards, eyebrows and hair.
Gilman’s Peak (18,650 ft) heralded the end of the darkness, signifying the culmination of the repetitively steep climb, and our spirits rose with the sun as it revealed enormous glaciers in the distance and a frozen, stark and otherworldly landscape. Our group, light of heart and with Journey’s End in sight, completed the final part of the ascent and, exhausted and disorientated, with new friendships forged in adversity, proud of ourselves and each other, looked over a vast and beautiful continent from its very highest point.
Practical travel info and advice
Prepare; It is physically demanding. Train in the months leading up to the trek.
Invest in decent equipment; During the final push saw the temperature hit -15 degrees, and we also experienced rain and intense sun.
Pack light with essentials; Heavy DSLR cameras will weigh you down and smart phones take high quality pictures nowadays.
Use a reputable tour operator.
Don’t pretend you’re OK when you’re not; It is difficult to accurately assess the deaths per year on Mt Kilimanjaro, but the majority are from high-altitude illness. Your guides will monitor you but they rely upon you to be honest in your self-appraisal.
Show gratitude to the guides, porters and cooks; Look up the rates for tipping before your trip and tip accordingly. These people will look after you throughout the trip.
Take a Power-Pack to recharge your phone and LED flashlight.
Be aware that extreme temperatures do not respect technology. Batteries react to extremes and smart phones have powered down quickly.
Age; The writer and son were 46 and 15 respectively. Check with your operator on the age acceptance criteria.
The writer booked through Intrepid Travel, www.intrepidtravel.com/en