Mt Kilimanjaro.

15/9/2011 – 20/9/2011

1,828m @Machame Gate – 5895m @Uhuru Peak

36 hours, Do the math.

The Crew.

Machame Gate buzzes with expectant trekkers, bemused porters and obligatory hawkers (are you sure you don't want a Kili sun hat?) Progressive bureaucracy means all porters have to weigh in at the office to prevent over-loading. For three trekkers, we are supported by an incredible and embarrassingly regal 16 staff.

The Trail Begins, 1828m.

The first day mixes relief (no more hassle, just me & the mountain...) and anxiety (this is bloody hard work already). The path winds steadily upwards through dense rainforest affording occasional glimpses of swirling mist & flashes of intense red from the native flora. Wildlife is disappointingly sparse.

Camp #1: Machame Hut 3020m.

Machame Hut campsite is one of the best on Kilimanjaro, set within small groves in the forest. The evening sun casts a glorious light on the crater rim, I'm starting to enjoy this.

Mountain Wilderness?

Next day, we set off in bright sunshine up a steep rocky path through ever-opening terrain. The path is narrow and there is a constant stream of trekkers and porters.

Porters struggle up with tables, chairs and massive food sacks balanced on their heads. Transistor radios blast out Congolese pop and reggae. Peaceful wilderness solitude this isn’t.

Juniper and Everlasting.

The terrain at this altitude is open, rocky and carpeted in the vibrant green of giant lobelia and sinecio and the yellow of everlasting, with gnarled old juniper trees atmospherically draped in Spanish Moss.

Toilet @ Camp #2: Shira Cave, 3847m.

I’ve always been aware of Kilimanjaro’s popularity but the camp at Shira Cave is an eye opener. A vast field the size of 10 football pitches covered in tents of every colour in the rainbow. The views are magnificent, but the smell from the toilets less so. Having initially been sceptical of the private toilet our crew bought along, I was now fully bought into the idea.

An afternoon stroll.

After arriving at Shira Cave we headed for a short acclimatisation walk. I always enjoy these walks, unencumbered as they are by the weight of the ultimate objective. A chance to take a wander around and get a feel for the mountain.

The fast way down.

This baby is the Kili stretcher (note the suspension). 40% of those who try don’t make it all the way up, and most that fail come down on one of these. AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) is the main culprit.

And then it snowed.

Morning bought new weather, thick overnight cloud materialized into snowfall. From Shira Camp we trekked through fast falling snow that blotted out a rather drab desert landscape. With little of interest to see and the only features to note being the countless teetering cairns sat upon every rock in site, it was a relief to reach Lava Camp for lunch. I never expected snow, that is all.

A mad scramble.

Lava Rock is, a 100m pinnacle that serves provides as excellent climb-high sleep-low acclimatization. It is a fairly easy scramble made all the more exciting by driving snow, numb hands and slippery rock. By the time we get back down, camp is set and a steaming pile of fried chicken and chips waits to warm our souls.

Giant Lobelia.

From Lava Camp it's a two hour descent down to our overnight camp. The track follows a steep glacial valley studded with glacial rock and meandering streams. At this altitude the Giant Lobelia and Sinecio dominate, creating a landscape quite unlike any other in the world.

Camp # 4: Barranco, 3984m.

With the altitude at 3950m now is the time to start feeling the altitude. With a mild altitude head-ache, I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep to Arcade Fire on my iPod. That night was really the first time I got a sense of how high I was. As the sun-set and stars began to twinkle, a vast blanket of clouds settled upon the plains over 1000m below us.

The day before the big one.

The penultimate day before the summit is a cracking walk. We set off just as the rest of the camp began stirring and were treated to a virgin trail bathed in early morning sunlight. There was just enough time to bask on the rocks and grab some photos before the freezing cold clouds rolled up the flanks of Kilimanjaro again.

Not as scary as it looks.

As scary as it looks.

Camp #5: Barafu Camp, 4681m.

By the end of the day, our party are feeling the altitude. A mild persistent head-ache is only partly dulled by a regular dose of ibuprofen. Seeing other trekkers stretchered down is enough to put you right off your stride. I have mild nausea and an upset stomach – my body is not built for this altitude. A rare glimpse of clear sky is enough to remind that this is alien terrain for us humans. A vast field of thick cloud sits below us and only the stars and the snow-capped crater shine in the night sky above us.

Day #6: The Climb begins.

The final climb to the summit is a killer. 6 hours and over 1,000m up. Most groups shoot for a night climb arriving at the summit for sunrise. Whilst this has romantic appeal and the odds of cloud cover are lower in the early morning, the big drawback is bitterly cold temperatures and a busy scrum at the peak. With the plan to stay overnight in the crater after summiting, we opted for a more leisurely start. See that white bit on top, that's where we have to get to.

The monotony.

6 hours is a long trudge by anyone’s standards and with the elevation well over 5,000m we weren’t keen to push the pace. At times it's like slogging up the stair-case of a sky-scraper. The slope is continuous scree, with little to break up the monotony.

That’s me at Stella Point, 5745m.

Stella Point marks the end of the big effort as you reach the crater rim and in many ways it outguns the summit itself. Hesban treated us to a surprise picnic of Pringles, digestives and Red Bull — a breakfast of champions.

And that is litter at Stella Point :(

Unfortunately this planet is possessed of people ignorant enough to leave a string of litter on places like Kilimanjaro. WTF.

The last 40 mins.

From Stella Point to Uhuru Peak is the longest 40 minutes of your life. It isn’t particularly hard going, but with reserves depleted and insanely high altitude it is tough old work. The views of the crater and gleaming glaciers are worth the price of admission alone.

Uhuru Peak, 5985m.

Uhuru Peak is quite honestly a bit of a disappointment compared to other peaks. Mount Kenya outguns it for sheer alpine splendour with 360 degrees views down from a single summit point — something that just isn’t possible with a crater summit. Still the relief at having made it was palpable and we papped shots at our leisure with the summit to ourselves.

The Great Pit of Carkoon.

With all the other groups heading back down the way they had come, we had a real treat in store. We were the only ones headed down into the crater. Well not into the crater, that’d be scary.

We camped here.

If you wanted to know what it feels like on the moon, I’d recommend a night in the crater. We ran down the scree slope and set camp dwarfed by the vast crater and magnificent blue glaciers sat within the crater. Our camp looked tiny amidst the vast bowl of volcanic sands. Exhausted we flopped down and basked in the hot sun. For me the Crater made Kili more than just an achievement, more than just its altitude.

It gets rather cold.

Replenished by lunch we climbed up onto the glaciers and explored the surroundings of the tremendous cavernous ash pit that lies at Kilimanjaro's heart. The drawback predictably was night-fall. Sunny day time temperatures soon plummeted to -15C as the sun set.

But I valiantly brave the cold, to leave a message for my girls

Ok, it isn’t going to go down in history as a great work of art, or even a particularly legible message. But I did brave plummeting temperatures and cold hands (poor me) to leave a little message for my three little girls.

In case you are wondering, no, I didn’t sleep very well that night.

In fact I’d go as far as to say that I had the worst night’s sleep of my life. It was freezing. I had a stinking head-ache from the lack of oxygen and discovered that wearing 7 layers of clothing is not conducive to comfort.

The suffering of others is easier than the suffering of self.

The night eventually passed and we raced across the crater to reach Stella Point in time for sunrise. Fantastic sport is to be had sat at the top of Stella Point watching a new day’s legion of trekkers struggle up towards you, seeping exhaustion through every painfully slow step. It is raw human theatre.

And then we went down and it felt good.

It was with a certain glee that we plummeted down the scree slope in less than an hour (a trip that had taken 6 hours in reverse). With fresh legs we were able to attack the scree at a gallop — what a thrill after days of sloth like movement. In total we descended 2,500m in altitude in 5 hours reaching camp with thighs burning and hearts gladdened by the abundence of Oxygen.

Tourists Shelter.

We eventually reached the gate and signed out — which was a clarion call to the hawkers with their "I climbed Kili" t-shirts and caps. Not having the belly for an extra-large t-shirt (maybe they ordered too many for Chris Moyles's charity climb?) I declined and made my way to the tourist shelter.

We made it, thanks to... Hesban.

When you climb Kilimanjaro, you trust your guide with your life. Hesban was a real professional, capable, knowledgeable and most of all extremely sensitive to every symptom of Altitude sickness that we inevitably suffered. The man and his team are legends.