I arrived home and flopped down to some mind-numbing soap opera when I suddenly realised what I’d agreed to. “I’m going to climb the tallest mountain in Africa!” I told my kind and supportive flatmates, who all burst into laughter.
The next day was the first of many spent in preparation for Kilimanjaro. It became immediately and somewhat painfully apparent that I would need to work hard on my fitness. One night I decided to take the stairs at the train station instead of the escalator, just to see how it went – badly, as it turned out. My calf muscles were aching after a mere dozen steps and I was mighty embarrassed to be out of breath half way up. I had to begin training in earnest. My lunchtime jogging sessions quickly became a great source of amusement to everyone (except me).
The time until my departure date disappeared faster than a birthday cake in the Exodus sales department, and my preparation was becoming frantic. I could now climb the stairs on my commute without pausing for breath. Then June arrived, as did my departure date.
The flight into Kilimanjaro was spectacular. I could see the mountain volcano and its glacier, rising like a colossal iced bun. It is at this stage, when looking out of the Plexiglass window, that it all sinks in. It’s a strange feeling.
The nerves that were jangling around my mind had evaporated thanks to the cracking group of like-minded trekkers and joyful guides who talked, sang and danced their way along the mountain path with me. A few of us decided to do a rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody at Kikelewa Caves (3667m), which was an instant crowd pleaser even though we all felt the effects of doing an air-guitar solo at altitude.
The Rongai route is by no means a well-tramped road. It is peaceful yet rugged. The change from lush forest and cultivated grass land into a rolling heather and moorland was almost instantaneous, as though I had fallen asleep and woken up in a different country.
As the days wore on, and the altitude crept ever higher, the temperature began to plummet, especially at night. The duvet jackets, worth their weight in gold, were very much appreciated now as we sat gazing up at the stars and the full moon at the foot of Mawenzi Tarn (4,301m). Mornings were my favourite part of the day. The guides were busy getting equipment ready, the mess tent buzzing where our cook was preparing another five star breakfast. The view above the cloud line as the sun was lazing its way up was heart-warming.
The penultimate day, crossing the expansive Kibo Saddle to reach the base camp (4,700) of Kilimanjaro, was tough. There was no great ascent involved, but the wind was howling in sideways and this is the aptly named ‘lunar desert’ of the mountain. Nothing can survive at this terrain. There were no plants, trees, or animals in sight; just rocks, sand, scree and one gigantic obstacle in front of us: Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We went to bed at 4pm. It felt odd, but necessary when we were awoken by the guides at midnight, and ushered into the mess tent for porridge and gallons of tea. I won’t lie; I’ve never dined on porridge at midnight before.
As we slowly started the ascent, Bohemian Rhapsody started playing in my head again. The cold had found its way to my toes and fingers and my breathing was rasping. The altitude was draining, my plodding strides becoming smaller and smaller and the need to stop and rest becoming more frequent. This degree of mental and physical endurance was unchartered territory for me.
It took six hours to reach Gilman’s point (5681m) for the moment that everyone had been training and looking forward to: the magnificent sunrise. As I sat on a frozen rock with a cup of hot chocolate, I couldn’t quite believe where I was and what I had just achieved. The sun poked its head over the top of the horizon, and everything suddenly felt good in the world.
This was not the end though. We staggered onwards towards Uhuru Peak (5895m) and the roof of Africa. The summit took another 2 hours to reach. It wasn’t that far, the ascent was gentle – but our bodies were trashed. It was good, old fashioned British stubbornness that got me there. At the peak, the 360 degree view of the Earth’s circumference (the only place on the planet where you can view it) was mesmeric as the sense of achievement washed over us. Kilimanjaro. Done!
By Tom Bowring, Sales Executive who travelled on our Kilimanjaro Climb: Rongai Route