... "On your right side, you can see Kilimanjaro", came the instruction from the pilot. Instinctively looking down I couldn't see anything but when I followed the wing tip, there was the mountain and just visible ABOVE the clouds. That is when it dawned on me just how high 5895m really is!
A few days later at the summit, the realisation that we'd climbed Kili didn't sink in at first. Our minds were focused on retracing our steps to Gilman's Point and then the long trek down to Kibo Huts. The blizzard was worsening and with hoods pulled around our sunburnt faces and and poles tightly gripped, we began our descent down the mountain. It was hard to see with sunglasses constantly fogging up and trudging with leaden feet through deep powder snow but I tried to take a last look at the glaciers an the crater rim and remember the summit experience. Rest stops weren't so frequent but now the hunger pangs began to bite ... dinner seemed a long way off.
At Gilman's Point, the scree slope where we'd clambered back and forth amongst the boulders, zig zagging in tortuous switchbacks, was now covered in a thick blanket of snow. Gingerly we picked our way through, trying to prod the snow with a pole to check if there was rock beneath each step. Sliding on your backside was inevitable and there were a few pile ups! Finally we could slide in long turns getting into a rhythm before you lost your balance and got a boot full of snow. The path seemed to go on forever, with Kibo Huts a mere speck in the distance, a bit like a cruel snowy mirage. Each big boulder on the horizon looked like it could be a tent shape with a dusting of snow on the top. I was hungry, thirsty, exhausted and frustrated beyond belief. It was the hardest part of the trip, stumbling over small rocks, head pounding and dry mouth, just wishing it would end. I pushed myself to the limit of my reserves, sighing at every phantom tent and not wanting to be last or left behind.
Finally, Kibo Huts were in sight! I stumbled into the familiar warmth of the mess tent, taking off my hat and scarf and as I sat down felt like my head was going to explode. I promptly burst into tears with sheer relief at getting this far. I tried to eat the soup brought in by the guides but suddenly lost my appetite. After a few moments sitting outside in the snow to collect my thoughts, I found an empty bunk in one of the huts and slept for half an hour. Exhausted, I dragged myself up to meet the others and continue the slog down the mountain to Horombo Huts. It was dangerous to remain at this altitude for too long.
Mercifully, the terrain was flat, walking across the famous Kibo Saddle that I had heard so much about. My feet were on autopilot for the first hour but as darkness began to fall and the stars came out I felt much more positive. It was a new experience to walk along with just the light of my head torch, gulping in the now oxygen rich mountain air, gazing at the myriad of stars above and my headache finally dissipating. Crossing streams and following increasingly rocky paths downwards, we could finally make out the lights of camp. Hurriedly shown to our tents and then ushered into the mess tent, dinner was a quick affair and finally bed! I don't think I've ever slept so soundly!
Jambo! Sunrise and coffee with the porters and a moment that I will remember forever ... gazing up at Kilimanjaro covered in snow. I couldn't stop smiling and the grin spread across my face like a cheshire cat. I just wanted to shout "I climbed Kili!". Looking around at the battered sunburnt faces of the group, everyone was thinking the same thing "I CLIMBED KILIMANJARO".
We still had a long walk down to the Marangu Gate and the waiting bus but with the oxygen rich air it was a whole different experience. With aching limbs and sunburnt lips we followed the paths between the strange looking vegetation and across the wooden bridges. As we came to the forest, the heavens opened and it poured with rain. But it didn't matter, we were on the homeward strait.
Yes it was physically and emotionally exhausting, but would I do it again ... ABSOLUTELY!
Keywords: adventure, Africa, altitude, challenge, climbing, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, elephants, expedition, Kilimanjaro, Roof of Africa, Tanzania
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