Now over the half way point the serious climbing was to begin in order to make the last 2000 metres from Barranco Camp to the summit, before we would then start the much quicker route backdown.
Barranco Camp, much like Shira, found itself situated at a point that seemed to drop off into a serene nothingness of cloud cover. It had a stillness that extended up through the valley where the campsite was located.
This provided a buffer from the elements, meaning that we were able to rest better and fully appreciate our surroundings.
It was perfectly framed by Kibo’s snowy peak with the Milky Way hovering overhead.
Surely the best place that most of us will ever hope to sleep in our lives.
‘THE BEST PLACE WE WILL EVER SLEEP’
We woke up early the next morning in order to scale our way up the 260 metres that make up Barranco Wall. We were facing the start of what would be our longest day spent on the mountain. Trying to make the midnight summit attempt left us only having enough time for a couple of short naps in between.
Barranco Wall, besides the obvious fact of summiting, was by far the most momentous part of the Kilimanjaro experience. It required physical exertion to haul yourself repeatedly over rocky outcrops whilst clinging as closely to the wall as humanly possible, swinging your body precariously over the edge.
This is the time that one truly started to appreciate the superhuman efforts from the supporting team of porters, who balanced up to 15kg on their head.
Reaching the top of the wall one could absorb the immaculate blue gradient of the sky, stretching out from behind the mountain all the way down to the horizon line.
This perfect sky wasn’t to last long thanks to the ever-changing and unpredictable mountain weather. We once again found ourselves with limited visibility as we were plunged back into a hazy mist that lasted the remainder of the day.
However, while passing through Karanga Camp this didn’t bother us too much, because attention had been turned solely to the lunch set before us. Fondly referred to by fellow climbers as ‘Karanga Nandos’, this was by far the best thing we would eat the entire time on the mountain. It served as a warm reminder of home, simply consisting of fresh chicken and chips that had been brought up the mountain that morning.
We continued to climb through the mist until reaching Barafu Camp, the highest campsite.
The thick blanket of cloud cover obscuring visibility left us with an ominous, disorientated sense of expectation as we stared off into the unknown.
The remaining couple of hours before setting off from the camp were spent resting, although time seemed to pass all too quickly. Before we knew it there was a knock on the door oas the porters did their rounds waking us up ready for the final ascent.
‘THE FINAL ASCENT’
We soon found ourselves once again sat around in the mess tent, wearing multiple layers of the warmest clothes we could find and picking at the bowl of popcorn set out on the table in front of us.
All clutching desperately at a mug of coffee in an unsuccessful attempt to ward off the plummeting temperatures outside.
For the next eight hours we became part of a snaking line of head torches slowly marching its way uphill. There was an uncanny silence that was only broken by the sounds of our feet crunching on shingle and the occasional cry from a guide of “sawa, sawa”, to which we would echo “sawa, sawa”, proving that we were in fact still awake.
At this stage the mixture of exhaustion and altitude truly began to set in, leading to us walking in a almost sleepwalking state.
Many claimed to have had dreams or hallucinations: some people started hiding behind rocks, which for others possessed smiley faces.
We had several short water stops where we attempted to drink from bottles that had frozen as we walked, or shared around a pack of ginger nut biscuits to try and settle the effects of altitude on our stomachs (a remedy prescribed to us at the hotel).
However, our first main break was shortly before we reached Stella Point. We moved off of the trail and sat down gratefully, turning our backs to the mountain in order to watch the sky.
It passed through every imaginable shade of yellow, orange and red as the sun rose over Africa.
The next kilometre up to Stella Point and further on to Uhuru Peak was the single most demanding experience that I have ever faced, both mentally and physically, taking over an hour and a half of pure, stubborn will power placing one foot in front of the other until the iconic sign was within reach.
‘ON TOP OF AFRICA’
Finally sat on the rock at the base Uhuru’s sign an array of thoughts and emotions began to bounce around inside ones head, acting as a welcome distraction from the dizzy light-headedness that comes about as one of the symptoms of ‘acute mountain sickness’ (AMS).
We had summited! All of us!
Lacking the energy even to speak, the descent back to Barafu was a quiet ordeal, with breathing becoming easier and easier after each step.
We quickly reached Barafu where we were able to rest up and eat. Then, with slightly boosted energy levels, we willed our feet to continue carrying our tired bodies down to Millennium Camp for our final night above the clouds.
The blood, sweat and tears of the last few days, requiring us to push our minds and bodies beyond breaking point, and into previously untapped reserves, meant that the speed and relative ease of the descent came as a stark contrast and marked relief.
The shouts from the guides had turned from “pole, pole” (‘slowly, slowly’) to “raka, raka” (‘quickly, quickly’).
The sixth and final day on the mountain allows time to meet the entire team of porters, guides and cooks that made the entire expedition possible, before setting off back down the mountain to Mweka Gate.
After a celebratory final group rendition of the Kilimanjaro song, this time accompanied by a dance, we headed through the rainforest once again and towards the bus which would take us back to civilisation, a hot shower and a cold Kilimanjaro beer.
“JAMBO, JAMBO BWANA
KILIMANJARO, HAKUNA MATATA”
It’s not until this point, sitting on the minibus, dirty and drained, amongst a group of people with whom over the last week you’ve grown to become like family, that the relief begins to flood through your body.
You can completely relax, while contemplating on one of the most surreal experiences of your life and ticking it off the bucket list.