Kili Ultimate Day 6 - Uhuru Peak

Trip Start May 19, 2011
Trip End Jun 19, 2011

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Flag of Tanzania  , Kilimanjaro,
Friday, June 17, 2011

A nervous four exit our tents in a terrified yet excited sense of anticipation at 23:00 to begin the final climb to the summit of the mountain we've been circling for days. I know Nicki's been stressing about the final climb and Shaun's nerves were showing through on our "last supper" the night before when suddenly his appetite was gone. So while we've been in our tents, I'm not too sure everyone is as well rested as we'd expect. And while our nerves have been somewhat frayed, at 4600m, there's not much in the way of heat either and we've felt that even in our -22 degree celsius sleeping bags, but nonetheless, our final journey is about to begin. We've been told it's hard, but just how hard we would have to find out for ourselves. 

Armed with our headlights, me, about six layers of clothing, three layers of pants, thick gloves, two layers of socks, and our cameras we set off with our three guides, Tom, Simon and Oswald. Henny without a doubt was donning the sexiest outfit in the form of weather proof pants with a lovely set of braces. A man must do what a man must do I suppose. 

We'd planned our trip to coincide with the full moon and weren't disappointed when we were greeted by clear still skies, and beautifully lit up glaciers and mountain peaks. The headlights were hardly necessary. 

Starting at 4600m AMSL, we started our snail paced ascent. Never in my life moving so slowly, have I struggled so much for air. Every step required me to semi-hyperventilate to ensure I was getting enough oxygen in my lungs and even that didn't seem like enough. Not long after we'd started off, nausea set in. This was the first time altitude sickness had hit me so hard. Not sure how to cope with it, and knowing that stopping for longer than a couple of minutes was out of the question, I tried to focus on breathing deeply and maximising air intake which somehow seemed to do the trick. It also took my mind off the cold, what I was busy doing, and the distance and time still lying ahead. 

Every now and then I'd look up and see a number of headlights bobbing around up ahead. It felt like we weren't making any ground. However, looking down at the people behind us gave me some comfort that we had indeed made some degree of progress. Stopping at length for breaks wasn't really an option as your body cooled down fast and it was hard to get started again. However, a minute or two's break really helped to replenish the lack of oxygen in the system, and get you ready to get going again.

Often we had teams or groups of hikers overtake us, but then soon afterwards we'd find them on the sideline having to catch their breath from exhaustion. I wish I had the words to explain how hard this is. It's not about physical strength, or about fitness, both of these obviously give you a bit of an advantage. It's about finding the inner willpower to keep going despite the extreme cold and despite not being able to breath. About the ability to keep moving when your body is shouting at you to turn around because the elements are against you and making this the most difficult thing that you've ever physically had to do. I think each and every one of us had to dig deep to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. If any of us had verbally announced that we would not/could not carry on, it would've taken all my strength to not join them. But everyone just kept going. I was struggling to stay awake on my feet and at times I'd find myself sleep walking. I would wake up dizzy and disorientated and then consciously continue plodding on. The mountain side is extremely sandy, and often you'd find yourself taking steps forward only to find yourself sliding back down again. Any step that was more than a semi-footlift high would also take all your reserved strength out of you and you'd need to slow down to recover.

Just to explain how cold it was... Although the air was still and you couldn't really feel the effects of the cold under all the layers of clothing, my camelbak froze up 10 minutes after we started our hike. Henny had a 1.5 litre bottle which first turned into a slush puppy and then proceeded to freeze up over the duration of the hike. The air was clearly already way below freezing. My lips were chaffed and cracking but I didn't know how to prevent it getting worse, so you just carry on knowing that at least it wouldn't stop me reaching the top.

When we reached Stella Point, 5745m AMSL I became extremely emotional. I don't know if it was because of pure relief, if it was exhaustion, if it was absolute elation or a combination of all of the above combined with a sense of awe for what greeted us. At Stella Point we could see the crater, we could see glaciers to our left and right, we could see the end in sight, and it was just over a 100m elevation to go. This would take us at least another hour. Instead of taking a break, we decided to plod on. The top of Africa was calling...

With the full moon straight ahead of us and leading the way we moved on. A couple of hikers were coming down after already having reached Uhuru peak, lucky them! My fingers and toes were freezing and sore from the cold, but someone said earlier that I would KNOW if I had frost bite, so thus just assumed if others were ok, then surely I was too.

It was amazing to see how much the glaciers had receded based on pictures previously taken. "Amazing" not meant in a wonderful way. In fact, it's quite scary to see the obvious effects of global warming, and to read the impact it will have on the region once the glaciers have all gone. Many local farmers rely on the water from these glaciers for their coffee and other crops. Who knows what they will need to resort to once this water source dries up...? And this is only one small part of the world...

Tom who had been quite stern and serious for most of the day's hikes was leading our group singing Shakira's Waka Waka song to encourage us up the last stretch. This was a different side to him we hadn't seen as yet. When we finally reached Uhuru Peak at about 7:00am, stationed at 5895m AMSL, my emotions again got the better of me when I finally congratulated and hugged everyone in our team. I couldn't believe we had made it, FINALLY. The one thing that we'd been building up towards had been achieved!!! The hardest thing I've ever done to date!!! The queye for the pics is quite a big one, so we quickly had our photos taken before being rushed back down. Apparently not good too rest at that altitude... not sure if it's because of the lack of oxygen, the temperature (Tom had estimated it to be about -10 degrees celsius), the exposure to the sun, or just that our guides wanted to get back down to rest themselves too...

So seven and a half hours up... If getting up the mountain was tough and took a while, then coming down was the complete opposite. The mountain side was so sandy that I almost wished I could've had a sandboard going down. You jumped and no matter where you landed, you'd just keep sliding down. Suddenly the two steps forward, one step back on the way up made sense, and also now proved to be a huge advantage for someone hating downhills as it was. Simon, our one guide hooked into Nicki's arm and just about dragged her down the mountain at a pace that would make Usain Bolt proud. Along the way we came across a guy who seemed to be worse for wear. He had guides on either side of him, just about dragging him down. His feet were moving, but he just didn't seem all there. I don't know if you could attribute it to altitude sickness or even plain exhaustion, but the man seemed like he was in trouble. 

Two and a half hours later, 9:30am, we found ourselves back at base camp. If only going up was as easy. Amazing too how when coming down, your body is starved of oxygen and is fine again. A decision was made that we would rest and get some sleep in before having lunch and then heading down to Mweka camp, 8km away. At lunch we decided that we would try and press on through all the way to Mweka gate, and then back to Moshi if they had accommodation available at the hotel. The hike to Mweka was estimated to be 3 hours, and the hike to the gate another 2 or so... We'd already completed 14km hiking in 10 hours for the day, so contemplating just closing off the hike, it's clear we were ready for some basic luxuries. Warm water, a toilet you can comfortable sit on without having to hold your breath, clean clothes, washing your hair, a towel, a bed, restaurant food... the list goes on.

Hiking from base camp all the way down, it's amazing to see how the landscape and plant growth changes. NOTHING grows at 4600m... but as we went down we started seeing some paper flowers, some grasses and then some small bushes of yellow daisies. The landscape then starts resembling the Karoo with all it's small bushes and grasses, and slowly the plants and trees just get bigger and bigger until you're down into the rainforest... Absolutely amazing. 

Heading down we passed a couple of porters heading up with a stretcher, assuming it's for the guy we saw being carried down. Hope he's ok. These porters genuinely are incredible. They're carrying way more than us and head down/up/wherever at speed. Granted they're fitter and more acclimatized but it doesn't take away that it's still pretty impressive. 

By the time we reached the first campsite Nicki was feeling quite nauseous, but despite that not once did she insist that we stop and reconsider going all the way back down. Nicki really is amazing. She's always game for an adventure no matter how tough, and always gets through. Absolutely loved having you on this trip Nicki, there'll definitely be loads more to come... Bring on 50!!

Passing through Mweka campsite, we realised that we were passing up what looked like one of the most well established campsites yet. There seemed to be better bathroom facilities, beers were on sale (aaah, how good a beer would taste right now), and a few other refreshments, but despite all that we decided to push on through. We've received a varied range of time estimates to the gate... from one and a half hours to three... In retrospect, we should've known better than to use any times provided by any porters since these are the sprinters of the mountain. So down we headed with a one and a half hour hiking expectation to the gate. 

There are a few things in life which I detest... one of them is when people take me for an idiot and talk to me like I'm stupid, the other is when someone sets an expectation and doesn't meet it. I've always said, rather tell me you're going to do something in two days and give it to be in an hour, than promising something to be done in an hour but instead it's done two days later. I guess the reason the disappointment of not reaching the gate in an hour and a half as expected was as bad as it was is that you've already pushed your body to the limit climbing Kili, you're exhausted, you're in pain, your feet are sore, your knees are taking shots in the downhill and you just want to get home!! After that crucial time limit, every answer you received from the guides was different... and you didn't want to believe them. You set another expectation... I should be at the gate in the next half an hour... but then you're disappointed AGAIN when you're not. You can't blame anyone because really it's no one's fault but you're getting more tired, and more despondent. You set the next expectation... you're wrong AGAIN!! You want to give up but you can't because what happens then? You're hurting, even more so now, and you get angry... and with this angry energy I just decided to ignore the pain and push on faster... THREE HOURS LATER we arrive at the gate!! 32km after the day had begun, we arrive at the gate!! I am SO grateful I don't have to go any further. My feet are in agony! My body is in pain. Why did we decide to do this to ourselves? Henny is as jovial as can be and I'm struggling to maintain my sense of humour. I should be happy too, but I'm tired and I just want to get back to the hotel. 

I have a short lived hot shower of one measly solid stream of water flowing from a miserable looking shower head but it's wonderful!! I couldn't be more happy with the situation. Of course it could be better, but at that moment I'm as happy as a hippo!! It's amazing how you learn to appreciate the small things again. 

That night, I slept like my life depended on it... What a day!!!...
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