Day 8: Kibo Hut – Summit – Horombo Hut (25th October)
Approx 19km (11.75 miles) – 6km (3.75 miles) of this was the climb
Time of climb to Uhuru = approx 9 hours
Total time from start at Kibo hut camp to arrival at Horombo hut camp = 19 hours
I was woken by the porters at 10:30pm (technically it was still the 24th of October). I had surprised myself by managing to doze off for an hour but what little sleep I had made a huge difference and I felt good as I pulled on my layers and layers of clothing. Unlike back in the UK where one can warm up during hiking simply by moving faster and exerting oneself, here its pole-pole and one generates minimal internal heat so conservation of heat is of paramount importance. I had 7 layers of clothing on my top, 3 on my legs and 6 on my head and neck. I was dressed like a mummy and it sounds excessive but I can assure you that it was not. I was wearing 2 pairs of socks and 2 pairs of gloves as well.
We went to “breakfast” where I forced down a bowl of porridge which was eaten quickly and in silence as everyone was lost in their own thoughts.
We then regrouped, put on our head torches and finally set off at 11:30pm, in a line one behind the other with Saumu at the head setting the pace. It was pole-pole from the very beginning of the trek, one slow, small step every 3 seconds in a continuous motion. Try it at home and you will realise just how slowly we moved our legs and feet, but that is exactly what we did from the very start and continued to do throughout the climb all the way to the summit.
Within a short time we were on the scree which is a mixture of soft volcanic ash & sand. We were walking on switchbacks, ie zig-zagging up the scree slope on well trodden and relatively firm paths. It was not possible to walk straight up as the scree was much too loose, a bit like a huge unstable sand dune. Saumu was brilliant at keeping up a constant pace, the steps got shorter when we climbed steep slopes and slightly longer on the flatter sections. The night was clear and cold, the stars were shining brilliantly in the sky and there were several bright meteor showers but we really did not have the energy spare to appreciate the beauty of the sky at the time. It was extremely cold and my fingers and toes were frozen but constant wriggling of both managed to warm them up. The disadvantage of the clear sky was that it was incredibly cold. The advantage was that it was dry throughout the climb; we would have been extremely miserable in wet weather.
I must admit that I don’t remember much about the climb to Gilman’s point (the first point on the crater rim), it was so mind numbing that I have kind of blanked it out from my mind. There were 5 or 6 other groups of climbers who left camp after us but they all overtook us on the way up. It was surreal, one snail paced group (us) being overtaken by slightly faster snail paced groups. Everything was done in slow motion. I made the mistake of looking uphill to see a trail of lights above us, and then realising that we still had a very long way to go. I was determined never to look upwards again but curiosity took over and I did so several times, only to see many “trails” of lights way way higher above us. It was disconcerting each time to realise that we were nowhere near the top but I still could not help making periodic upwards glances.
One of my over-riding memories of the trek to Gilman’s point is of following in the footsteps of the person in front of me. It was a case of looking down at her feet and keeping up the same pole-pole rhythm as she did. It was mind numbing but I knew I had to go through this pain if I wanted to get to the top. I had already visualised myself in front of the sign at Uhuru peak, so it was a case of getting on with it and taking everything one very very slow step at time to get me there.
The other memory I have is of dozens climbers being escorted down the mountain very rapidly by their guides who simply grabbed them by their arms and jogged downhill with them in tow. They all looked very unwell, had obviously ascended too quickly, succumbed to the effects of altitude and had to be brought down very quickly for their own safety. This really reinforced my faith in Saumu and in her experience and I was quite pleased to be the slowest group on the mountain. This proved to be the case because she got all 10 of us to the summit successfully. I was speaking to another person who had overtaken us and was taking pictures at the peak (Uhuru point) and he confessed that out of his entire group he was the only one who had made it to the very top.
Back to the climb – we stopped for a short 5 minute break for a quick energy snack after about 2 hours of climbing and then set off again. It’s amazing how cold one gets in such a short time of inactivity. My fingers and toes froze up and I had to wriggle them frantically to get them warm again. It was then back to the mind numbing pole-pole. Our guides were brilliant, they sang and spoke words of encouragement when they sensed that the energy of the group was waning. They constantly moved up and down the ranks, keeping an experienced eye on each and every one of us to look for signs of fatigue or altitude sickness, whilst Saumu led the way with her pace making.
We stopped for a 2nd break much later, I had lost track of time by then, for another energy bar and a drink of water. I had a water sack in my backpack but the feeder pipe had frozen up by this time and I had to resort to taking out a bottle of water from my backpack for a drink. It was a huge effort simply to take off the backpack, open it up with frozen fingers, drink some freezing water and replace the pack on my back. It was here that I took one Paracetamol (my 3rd medical dose of the trip) as I had the beginnings of a headache. A great tip by Saumu before we set off was to store our water bottles upside down in the backpack and I am really glad I took her advice. Ice had formed in the bottle but because it had been inverted I could still open the lid and get access to liquid water. It was really difficult to drink ice cold water in those freezing temperatures but it was also absolutely essential to keep ourselves hydrated. We were told later that we had been lucky and that the temperature had only dropped to around -8C (18F) that night. It can get as low as -20C (4F).
After the 2nd break I made the mistake of looking up again assuming that we were close to the top only to see several small pinprick trails of lights way above us in the distance. It was disconcerting to realise that we still had a very long way to go but it was a case of back to looking at the feet of the person in front of me and plodding along pole-pole.
The tiredness and exhaustion had kicked in by then and I actually found myself falling asleep whilst walking. I would be asleep for a few steps and then wake up again. I had the presence of mind to realise that there was no real danger. We were walking so slowly that the worst that could happen is that I would either bump into the person in front of me or fall down onto the scree and have to pick myself up again. There were no cliffs to fall over or steep slopes to roll down. I did mention this to Saumu afterwards and she said it’s quite a common occurrence, which is why the guides travel up and down the ranks keeping an eye on us, and also why they periodically start singing and talking to us.
We had just climbed the steepest part of the scree slope and had finally moved onto the rocky section below the rim of the crater when the sun rose. It was a magnificent sight and I spent the sum total of 3 seconds trying to appreciate it before looking back down at the ground and resting on my walking poles. I just did not have the energy to look at or to appreciate the beautiful sunrise, let alone get my camera out for photographs. The camera was stored in an internal pocket in one of my inner layers of clothing to stop it from freezing up, and there was no way I was going to unzip anything at those biting temperatures. I do regret not taking pictures of the sunrise but at the time I just did not have the energy spare to do it.
The original aim was to get to Gilman’s point for the sunrise but we were short of the target. Although it was only about a vertical 100m further up the mountain, it still took us well over an hour to reach there. The final hike to Gilman’s was the steepest and rockiest part of the climb and it was tough, but as it was getting lighter and warmer we could see where we were going which made the going “easier”.
At Gilman’s point we were given a very welcoming warm cup of tea and there were congratulations all around. We had done the toughest part of the climb and had reached the crater rim but we were not finished yet. The highest point, Uhuru peak, was at least 1.5 hours further away. We spent a short time at Gilman’s for photographs where we all looked happy but totally exhausted.
EXHAUSTED AT GILMAN’S POINT: ON TO STELLA POINT:
Feeling a lot better and knowing there were no more steep climbs involved, we hiked the 30 minutes to our next goal which was Stella point, which was around the crater rim and a bit higher. Again there was a short time for taking photos before we started our final leg towards Uhuru, the highest point in the whole of Africa.
About an hour later we reached Uhuru (5895m / 19,340ft above sea level), which means freedom in Swahili.” It was seriously slow pole-pole all the way along the final approach to Uhuru, which was along a wide and gently rising path towards the summit. I did feel a bit light-headed during this final section but there were no signs of altitude sickness.
We were lucky with the weather because there were no clouds up here this morning. However the wind picked up dramatically on the exposed path and the air suddenly got much colder near the summit even though the sun was shining brightly.
Uhuru was visible several hundred meters away and we could see many people taking their photographs at the signpost, and several more making their way back down. Some people jogged back downhill past me but the fact that they were jogging did not really register in my befuddled and exhausted mind at the time. My entire focus was in getting to the top and getting my photographs taken especially with the banners of the charity and others who had so kindly donated money to the CFF.
We all had to wait in a queue for the photographs and in due course I got mine taken. It was only after the photos were taken that I allowed myself to relax and then a feeling of incredible wellbeing came over me. I was able to look around and enjoy the beauty of the mountain and it’s glaciers, and the scenery all around.
Shortly afterwards I started to walk back downhill and an amazing feeling came over me. I could breathe up here with no effort whatsoever, there were no sensations of cold or discomfort, no altitude sickness and in my euphoria I too started jogging. I have no idea what came over me as I have not jogged or run for over 25 years because of my long term knee injuries, it just felt the right thing to do. There was no pain so I carried on. I must have jogged several hundred meters before stopping to admire the glaciers and to take more photographs and then jogged on some more. It did not even register that I wasn’t breathless; I was in the zone just enjoying the freedom and the astounding beauty all around me. I cannot explain how I was able to run at the same altitude which left me gasping for breath on the way up less than an hour previously. Later on I asked Saumu if this was normal and she said yes, several people feel that way once they reach Uhuru (which means freedom in Swahili). I guess I was experiencing true Uhuru at the time.
VIEWS OF MAWENZI PEAK FROM THE TOP:
It was then a leisurely trek back around the crater rim to Gilman’s point where we regrouped for the downward journey.
We set off down the rocks just over the rim at Gilman’s point. The going at first was slow, but a lot faster than the ascent. Within about 20 minutes we hit the scree slope and I decided to take a direct route on loose scree between two of the switchbacks. Using my poles for balance I stepped onto the loose scree and promptly slid down a further 2-3 feet with my first step. I took another step and slid down even further. This was fun so I went a bit faster. The next thing I knew is that I was half running half skiing down the loose scree and having a ball of a time. It was brilliant fun. I have not skied for over 25 years, again because of my long term knee problems but as this did not seem to put undue pressure on my joints off I went downhill at top speed and the faster I went, the greater the enjoyment. I can remember thinking that I was really going to pay for it the next day, and then overriding that thought with another thought – that this is was so much fun and that I will never be able to do it again so sod the first thought and I will suffer the consequences (which unfortunately I did!! – but with no regrets). What took me around 8 hours to ascend, I descended in under 2 hours. Again there was no breathlessness, just pure joy. I guess because I descended so rapidly, the levels of oxygen rose quite quickly which probably compensated for the energy expended.
VIEW FROM GILMAN’S POINT: BACK TO KIBO HUT CAMP:
We got back to Kibo Hut Camp where a very welcoming drink of fresh fruit juice was waiting for us and then we had an hour’s rest before lunch. Some people had a nap but I was too wired to sleep. After a late lunch we set off for the 4 hour walk to Horombo Hut Camp where we arrived around 6:30pm, just in time for dinner and then to bed for 8pm. I worked out that I had been on the go for 39 hours with just one hour of sleep the previous night.
ON ROUTE TO HOROMBO HUT CAMP:
HOROMBO HUT CAMP:
I slept solidly for over 6 hours and then when I could not get back to sleep, I put my head torch on and decided to write up my journal at 3am. The temperature in the tent was 7C (45F), and even for someone who does not do cold it felt positively warm compared to what I had just been through. It was raining heavily outside and two nights ago I would have stayed snuggled up in my sleeping bag, but not this night – Kilimanjaro had taught me a lesson in cold.
I looked around the tent and observed my dust covered boots, my dusty clothing, my backpack, my trekking poles (a vital part of the kit)……. it’s been a great adventure and I have thoroughly enjoyed it but I would certainly not have said that 24 hours ago. I have met some wonderful people, learnt many lessons, and rekindled my love for camping and the outdoors.
Night camp: Horombo Hut Camp (3700m / 12,150 ft)
Height climbed today: 1285m / 4200ft
Height descended today: 2285m / 7500ft
Minimum temperature during summit climb: -8C / 18F
Temperatures during descent: -2C to 14C / 28-57F and 7C / 45F inside tent at night
Climate: Clear night, sunny morning. Very windy near summit.