Separated from the nearest town by some 18 miles of ‘rough’ walking, steeped in a bitter cold weather, I encountered the toughest night of my life in a dormant volcanic crater in Mountain (Mt) Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, the highest point on the African continent.
With shortness of breath at every lunge at more than 19,000 feet above sea level on Kibo’s crater rim, I worked over heavy scree or talus deposits between loosely distributed rocks and frigid winds to the peak of the mountain at around 8:30 am on April 2, 2012.
I made it to the top after seven days of strenuous hike and steep climb through a varying range of vegetation, including tropical jungle, moorland, plateaus, alpine desert, and sedimentary rock and snow in a severe cold weather.
One great lesson I learned is that patience matters a lot in life, especially in the face of fear and extreme suffering. No matter what the obstacle or difficulty is be it heavy snow, avalanche, large rock, cliff or ridge, only those with the capacity to tolerate the situation can reach the top.
I climbed the mountain through the Machame route, which begins at the northern edge of the Machame village, on the south-western slope of Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania. The route forms a half ring around the southern circuit of the mountain, approaching the summit from the east and climbing-down through the Mweka trail.
Stanley, who is mountain guide, three porters and I arrived at the Machame route gate almost noon and began our ascent by entering the Machame rainforest, where it drizzled constantly, splattering the rainwater against the thick foliage in a pitter-patter sound.
We followed a footpath that meanders north through the misty tropical jungle to where the forest meets a wide-open heath. After close to six hours of climb, we emerged suddenly onto moorland, just as one went through a small door into the open street, where we pitched our tents at an elevation of 9,840 feet above mean sea level (AMLS).
As twilight passed into darkness, stars speckled the sky, and as the night grew, I laid in my tent gazing up at the glow of the milky way. Cold wind blew, rattling the trees against each other with a big whoosh of air, and as the night got colder, I wriggled inside my sleeping bag and slept under the stars.
Stanley’s job was to guide me through the terrain to make an attempt to the summit and the porters also carried all our needs, mainly tents and food. The porters hiked faster, if they could, to the camp ahead to make preparations for our arrival. Stanley and I broke camp around 8:00 am on the second day, and started north again, ascending steep rocky ridges and hiking over streams through the moorland towards the west of Kibo, the highest peak of Kilimanjaro.
We settled at the camp (12,470’ AMLS) after about five hours of hike and steep climb just when the sunset was flaming. Golden light streaked across the horizon with strips of dark clouds floating above Mt. Meru in the east. The view was magnificent.
Over the next three days, we tramped for close to twenty hours over plateaus, alpine desert, gorges, deep valleys and scrambled up a steep lava cliff to an ice field in the south of the mountain, were we encamped at the elevation 15,420’ AMSL. This camp, Barafu, sits on a pile of fragmented rocks on a large rock shelf that jutted away from the Kibo crater; it is the base camp of Kilimanjaro, our final resting place before the summit attempt.
It had been five days since we started climbing, and we were already lying at the foot of the mountain. I imagined what the early explorers of the mountain went through. It took months for a Prussian officer, Baron von der Decken, and Otto Kersten on his second attempt to make it this far over a century and a half ago.
Our adventure started around 11:40 pm on the fifth day as we stride right up the crater, plodding on steep scree crouching, climbing and sliding into the cold thin air. For hours, I marched in silence, putting one foot in front of the other, huffing and puffing in the freezing winds, attempting to grab something when there was none, and my lungs gasped for oxygen where there was so little.
We were alone there, and all that we had was the mountain; the weather was cold and characterized by the trailing veil of blackness in our unquiet desperation. The only sound was our ‘laboured-breathing’ and the chuck of our trekking poles jabbing into the scree.
We crept inch by inch through the dreary routine, and as time passed, six hours or so, we watched the sun come up over the horizon with unusual beauty. The sunrise drove away the darkness of the night and brought us some warmth, which we most needed. Wreathed in cloud, the jagged cone of Mawenzi, a sister peak of Kibo, and the third highest peak in Africa, hanged in the east like an island in the sky; rooted to the cloud as we work our way up on the last scree before Stella Point, the last landmark before the summit.
My fitness had completely deteriorated by the time we came to Stella Point and I was only getting about half of the level of oxygen my body is used to at sea level, but for another hour and half, I plodded in a prolonged labor walking on snow and past glaciers in the crater rim until a sign that reads ‘Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Africa’s Highest Point’ started to appear about 1500 feet away. I fell upon my knees at the sight of the sign as if I was showing deferenceor saying a prayer to the mountain. My heart melted as I looked upon the summit with great admiration and fondness. Now I know why more than half of the people who attempt this mountain fail, I thought to myself.Then, a low, feeble sound slipped from my lips and hot tears started trickling down my frozen cheeks. It was triumphantly joyful to see the summit at last. A sense of victory had settled over me.
I was in pain, my knees twisted and snagged; my legs ceased altogether, asserting themselves with restless movements. They hurt badly from the cold of the night and the many hours of climbing. Don’t tease with me Kilimanjaro; I know I’m in pain, I said aloud to the mountain.
I knew my legs were not dead, so I remained kneeled for a moment and then I lifted myself slightly with my eyes tightly closed. Gripping the trekking poles gently, I dragged my heavy body up in agony and off the snow-covered floor. Stanley was standing there staring at me. He had no time for sympathy. “Hurry, the weather is getting bad,” he announced, with grains of snow on his face.
A sudden spike in my energy propelled me forward, and almost without noticing, I padded sluggishly along giant glacial crevasse to the summit, and I threw down my trekking poles and backpack upon reaching the summit, and hugged Stanley exultantly. I was filled with a sense of great accomplishment.
After 20 minutes on the summit, we returned through the same route by which we had come, descending through Barafu camp to Mweka Camp around late afternoon. After more than 16 hours of climbing and descending, we made it to a resting camp just above the Mweka forest canopy, at around 5:30 pm on the sixth day. I received a rousing welcome from my porters and fellow climbers that I had come to know on the trail. After close to thirty-six hours of being awake, I had the most restful sleep that night.
I crawled out of my tent quite very early on the seventh day, looking cramped and cold, and after breakfast, we descended further for five hours to the Mweka gate, where a Kilimanjaro National Park official awarded me a summit certificate bearing my name. We proudly celebrated our achievement returned to Arusha whence we had come.
Back in Arusha, I tried painfully, to adjust to the normal life in East Africa, but everything had lost its enchantment after the ‘Kilimanjaro experience”- mountain life has changed me. Despite the pain and hardships I endured, I became restless, longing for the cold and desolate nights I spent on the mountain, wishing I were back on its’ slopes once more. I left my heart on Kilimanjaro!
By Muntaka Chasant