I never really thought I’d climb a mountain, at least in the literal sense, but somehow here I am standing at the gate to the Lemosho Route that – in 5 days and assuming I don’t die – will lead me to the summit of Kilimanjaro, to the roof of Africa.
As I look up at the snow-capped peak, I realise I’m horribly underprepared – it’s all been a little last minute and the only time prior to today that I’ve worn my embarrassingly shiny hiking boots is when I tried them on at Cape Union Mart last week.
I’m at least buoyed by the fact that the lady that signed in at the gate in front of me put her age as 82yrs.
We fill up our water bottles, strap on our day packs and off we go. It’s suddenly very real. I’m here to make a promotional video, so giving up before I’ve actually climbed this damn mountain wouldn’t really be a very professional move, but I consider it nonetheless.
We start in deep, dense, lush rainforest with the hot sun filtering through the leaves. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt and it’s hard to imagine that in just a few days’ time the temperature will drop well below zero.
With each day that passes it’s like entering a new world. We emerge from the rainforest into green moorland crisscrossed by streams and characterised by heather and long grass that hisses in the light breeze.
Then the green colours suddenly fade and we are in sparse, rocky alpine desert. It’s like we’ve gone all the way from The Shire to Mordor in less than 24 hours.
As we reach the iconic lava tower on day 3, the altitude suddenly weighs down on me like a heavy blanket and my head pounds. We’re only at 4,640 metres – we’ve still got more than a 1,000 metres of altitude to come. One of our group has to descend with a terrible migraine. For a split second I think about joining her.
The next two days are a tease – we skirt the edges of the peak, rising a little, descending a little. Sometimes the summit looks like it’s almost within touching distance. Patience remains key, and so does resisting the urge to panic when the night before summiting I keep waking up gasping for more air.
We set off for the final climb to the summit beneath clear skies and a full moon, a blessing from above. As we steadily hike through the night the air seems to get colder and thinner with each step. Three of my group have to stop to throw up. I try to focus everything on my breathing: three seconds in, three seconds out.
At 6.40am, we are approaching the summit with the new day’s sun blazing red across the horizon and huge glaciers rising like waves on either side of us. As I look out across the sky, I shed a tear then wipe it away again before anyone else notices.
We reach the sign at the summit, which confirms our current altitude at 5,895 metres above sea level, and I hug everyone and anyone that I can get my hands on, whether they like it or not.
We take a few pictures, then before I’ve really even had time to acknowledge what it all means, how the whole thing makes me feel, we are hurtling back down the mountain again in search of more air.
I tell myself that there’ll be time to reflect later, but deep down I know there probably won’t be. There’ll certainly be other mountains to climb, though none quite like Kilimanjaro.