Uhuru, cause of mixed emotions

Posted: November 7, 2010 in Africa
Tags: , , ,

So finally we arrived at the offices of Akaro Tours in Moshi for our pre-climb briefing and to meet our guide for the 6 days. Our guide, a local chagga called Jimi, explained what was going to happen over the next few days and checked our kit. Once he was satisfied, we said our goodbyes and headed off to Marangu Gate and the start of our trekking odyssey. In the car we were excited but equally nervous.

We opted to take the Marangu route, also known as the Coca Cola route because it is the most popular. Whilst it is reputed to be the easiest route to the summit, there is no easy climb to 5,885m above sea level. We decided to be sensible and give ourselves the best chance of reaching the top so we had an extra day for acclimatisation. I’ll break down the trek into each day as there is so much to talk about.

Day 1 – Marangu gate to Mandara hut

After the usual faffing around at the start of any trek, signing in and filling out forms, we stepped through the Marangu gate and onto the start of the Marangu trail. Our porters and cook took a separate path and we walked with our guide, Jimi, whose English was really good.

Day 1 is a gentle climb from 1,800m to Mandara hut at 2,700m. We walked very slowly because Jimi wanted us to adjust gradually to the altitude. The route ascends through lush forest and dense foliage but the path is easy as it has been made by man. In fact, we were surprised by how well structured the path was, with trees cut and the branches used to border the mud path.

We spent 4 hours getting to know Jimi and learning about the local area and wildlife. We were lucky to spot both types of monkey that are indigenous to the area, blue monkeys and black & white columbus monkeys. We arrived at the hut just before 5pm and managed to secure ourselves a private room (rainy season has just started and today was the day after the presidential election, so many tourists stayed away given the violence after the last election). The rooms are basic wooden cabins with 4 single mattress in each. As we had expected Mandara hut to be one big hut that everyone shared, we were pleasantly surprised to have our own room, no matter how basic.

After a quick face wash, we headed to the communal food hall to have dinner with the other climbing groups. We opted for the veggie menu for the climb, not wanting to risk illness from dodgy meat, and tucked into a very tasty vegetable stew with pancakes. We retired to our love shack with our appetites satisfied and ready for sleep. It took me some time to fall asleep, probably due to the nervous anticipation, and then I woke up in the middle of the night freezing cold. It was a schoolboy error at that elevation to pass out in just a pair of boxers and it killed my sleep as I stayed awake for most of the night. Not a great start to a 6 day climb when you need all the energy you can get.

Day 2 – Mandara hut to Horombo hut

After a hearty breakfast cooked by Amiri and served by Hamezi, one of the porters, we set off up the path with Jimi. The target was Uhurumbo Hut at 3,700m and roughly 6 hrs by foot.

The climb started in the forest, surrounded by monkeys, and soon ascended to a plateau where the tree line fell away to reveal small shrubs and never ending peaks and valleys. We snaked across the base of the Kili range, covered in cloud and with no site of the mountain we had come to climb. After 1hr of walking the cloud darkened and the rain started. The rain got heavier and heavier and within 20mins we were soaked. Muneeza sensibly had her waterproof trousers in her day bag, I had left mine in the stuff we gave to the porters who were now at least 30mins ahead of us and stopping for nothing.

Silence ensued. I was cold and uncomfortable and had to focus on my breathing as we adjusted to the altitude. After 4hrs of freezing rain we saw the hut on the horizon. I was relieved to reach reception and sign-in to discover we could have our own room again. Having unsheathed the wet clothes and hung them up with the vain hope of them drying before the morning, we tucked into dinner before retiring early to bed.

In the camps at this height, there is nothing to do in the evening after dark. It is also so cold that all you want to do is climb into your sleeping bag and find warmth. The night proved colder than the previous and we had to keep getting up to go to the toilet – to cope with the altitude, we had to drink a lot of water to get more oxygen into the blood, so the side effect is a bursting bladder when you least need it. Each time we woke for a toilet trip, we struggled to get back to sleep in the cold. We were starting to feel the effects of the climb.

Day 3 – Acclimatisation

An easy day. We had a late breakfast and set off at 09.00 for Zebra Rocks at 4,000m to help adjust to the altitude before heading to the summit. Unfortunately the battery on my camera was playing up and showing as empty, so we had to leave it in the hut and save the limited juice for the summit.

For the first time since we arrived in Moshi we could see the snow capped peak of Kili with Mawenzi, its older relative, alongside. As we climbed, we took in the surroundings and bathed in the sun, happy to be free of the cold for a while.

We reached Zebra Rocks within 2hrs. The rocks are a natural outcrop in the middle of the saddle, the tundra like plateau that joins Kibo (Kili) with Mawenzi. The rocks are streaked with black and white from the crystallisation caused by wind, rain and sun. The other groups were behind and would reach this point soon, so we asked Jimi if we could go higher to help prepare for the summit. He was happy to oblige and guided us for another hour up into the higher climbs of the saddle to 4,250m. Here we sat and stared in awe at the silvery snow lined valleys of Mawenzi. At 5,160m it is much lower than Kibo but it is actually more beautiful to look at from a distance because of the colours.

Such a shame the camera was out of action as the climb took us through some beautiful scenery and the view of Mawenzi was breathtaking. The word ‘inspiring’ is rather cliched but it applies to so much of the landscape up here.

We returned to camp for lunch and then spent the rest of the day relaxing and taking in the views now that the cloud canopy had dispersed. We went to bed early again but I had another frustrating night’s sleep disrupted by the cold.

Day 4 – Horombo hut to Kibo hut

The business end of the trip had begun. We set off early at 07.30 for Kibo hut at 4,700m elevation, nested into the side of Kibo. Luckily the weather at this height is pretty reliable in the morning, so we were gifted with clear skies and sunshine as we ascended to the saddle and made our way across the valley between the two peaks.

The saddle is much more arid than the slopes, with limited plants and a dusty brown hue. The saddle is set between the two snow capped peaks which makes for a barren but awesome sight.

We stopped for lunch at the last toilet station before Kibo hut. The toilets here are grim – a basic wooden shack with a deep hole in the ground leading to a fermenting cess pit of sin. People just don’t care about others and the floors are covered in all sorts of human detritus. We beat a hasty retreat.

The weather here turns quickly and dark clouds set in before we had finished eating. Wrapped in all our wet weather gear, we set off for the final climb to the hut. We could see Kibo hut in the distance but it never seemed to get nearer. The weather was getting worse and we were getting colder. To make maters worse, the final ascent to the hut is steep and at this elevation breathing is hard, so progress slows to snail pace. The view of the hut is a big tease and we struggled to reach it.

Finally at the hut we checked in and found our beds for the rest of the day. Kibo hut is a series of 5 dorms of 12 beds each. The rooms are small and cold and you are thrown in with other climbers. Whilst the atmosphere is friendly and inclusive, it makes for poor rest.

The ascent to the summit was due to start at 23.30 so we had to bunk down and rest during the afternoon. However, people kept coming in and out of the room and the constant need to go to the toilet meant sleep was impossible. To make matters worse. the medical team from the big Deloitte party (50 climbers) was based in our room so we were disrupted by their consultations and treatment of the walking wounded. We didn’t resent it because some people were in a bad way but it was frustrating as we knew we needed sleep to save energy for the climb.

The hours dragged by and sleep deprived we were ‘awoken’ at 23.00 by Hamezi our porter with a cup of tea and biscuits. After some rapid and nervous packing, we headed outside where Jimi waited for us with his most experienced assistant, Rahim. Just after 23.30 the 4 of us set off to start the summit ascent and attempt to reach Uhuru summit at 5,885m. The time of reckoning had arrived.

Day 5 – Into the lap of the gods

And so it began – on the 5th day God gave us pain. We set off just before midnight as slowly as possible, leaving from Kibo hut in a long procession to reach the roof of Africa. Our first destination was Gillman’s Point, the first summit on the Marangu route at 5,680m. It was pitch black and the sky was lit with a stunning array of stars and planets. Occasionally a shooting star would grace our presence but looking up to the sky would make us dizzy so most of the time we kept our eyes firmly on the ground.

The sight back down the mountain was amazing – a long procession of headlights against the black of night created a hypnotic vision and the sound of singing broke the silence of night. For the first few hours we simply walked and enjoyed the calm of night, focussed on walking sensibly up the mountain. Progress was slow because Jimi took us on a snaking path to take some of the incline out the climb. Kili has a very steep summit so you have to walk a long route to avoid zapping energy too quickly.

And then it all fell apart. After about 4hrs of climbing, I started to feel bad. We had both had a headache for 24hrs, probably due to altitude and lack of sleep, but mine was getting worse. Then my stomach started to grumble – in the thin air my heart was beating much faster than usual and my body was burning energy too fast. The meagre breakfast we had been given was simply not enough. My legs were weak and my head dizzy. Within minutes I had to stop and take a break. The next 2 hrs passed by so slowly. Every few minutes I had to stop because my legs had no drive. I could hardly manage the next few steps. My headache was getting worse and it was cold. I wanted to give up and my mind told me to close my eyes and sleep. I was exhausted and mentally fatigued. I really wanted to give up but Muneeza and Jimi encouraged me on.

I can’t accurately convey just how hard the final part of the ascent to Gillman’s Point was. It is the worst physically and mentally I have ever felt and that is not an exaggeration. My mind shut down temporarily and it was only the insistance of Muneeza and Jimi, along with the help of Rahim carrying my bag, that got me through the ordeal. Every step hurt and my emotions were running wild. I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I broke down into tears on a few occasions at the thought of having to give up. I consider myself to be mentally strong when the going gets tough but it was Muneeza who was the strongest and she spurred me on.

We reached Gillman’s Point just after 6am, slightly later than planned due to my physical exhaustion. I was relieved to be able to sit down on the rocks and catch my breath and take on fluids and food. After 15mins of recovery, I was able to look up and take in the surroundings. It was an incredible sight – a view over the saddle to the lower peak of Mawenzi and over my shoulder, the winding peak that makes its way up to Uhuru, the highest point in Africa. I had resigned myself to stopping and heading back but Jimi insisted I could make it to Uhuru. At that point I wanted to shout at him but something told me that I couldn’t feel any worse and would regret not making the extra effort.

So we headed off. The route to Uhuru winds up and down across the summit slopes and is a tough climb. The sun was starting to wake up and the heat was rising. My legs were shot and Muneeza was starting to feel weak. The further we walked, the further Uhuru seemed. The views distracted us from the enormity of the challenge. To the left was a huge glacier, rising over 40ft from its base to adorn the side of Kibo. The colours of the glacier are spectacular, rich hues of blue, white and green that sparkle in the morning sun. And still we pushed on. Within 100m of Uhuru summit, now surrounded by exhausted climbers, Muneeza broke down and collapsed on the floor. The mental demands of the climb got to her and she said she could not go on. Now it was my turn to lend a supportive hand, ironic given my physical state, and I told her she could do it. With a remarkable turn of strength, she got up and hobbled the last few yards with me. When Jimi took our picture at the summit signpost we were both too blown emotionally to speak. You don’t need words when you have gone through that experience together.

Our time at the summit was brief as we were encouraged by Jimi to get down quickly before exhaustion and altitude took over. On the way back to Gillman’s Point my dizziness hit home and my legs finally gave way. I collapsed and nearly slipped down the ridge which would have been a painful and dangerous fall. Luckily Rahim was watching me closely and caught my arm. I couldn’t get back up and had to be walked by Rahim and Jimi for 30mins back to Gillman’s Point. I pointed out to Jimi that the problem was lack of blood sugar and tiredness so he gave me some glucose powder. I wolfed down drink and biscuits and then decided we had to get down quickly before my legs went again.

The first part of the descent is demanding, straight down 300m of sheer rock face. I had to keep my wits about me whilst also worrying how Muneeza was coping. After the rocks came 600m of loose scree that required you to sky down using your legs and backside. It was steep and my legs were again giving way. At the bottom of the scree, as the path started to level out, I collapsed again. One more I was helped and carried for another 30mins until we were in sight of Kibo hut.

From there onwards I struggled back, barely able to stand. We reached the hut physically and mentally exhausted. We collapsed for 1hr to get some rest before we had to make the 4hr walk back to Horombo hut where we would stop for the night. After 11hrs of climbing, having to walk a further 11km is torture. We got back to Horombo in silence and were elated to use our portable shower to be clean for the first time in 3 days. After dinner we collapsed and passed out into blissful oblivion.

Day 6 – Back to Marangu gate

Finally we had slept well. We passed out instantly at managed to get 8hrs sleep ready for the final descent.

Before we set off we asked Jimi to gather our team of porters so we could thank them personally. You only meet a few en route and we wanted them all to know how grateful we were for their support and incredible hard work. We gave a genuine, heart felt speech and said our farewells and set off on the last stage of our epic adventure.

Muneeza really struggled the entire way down thanks to her bad knee. She was in agony but struggled on, even with a few bouts of grumpiness! When we reached Mandara hut, nearly 2 hrs later than planned, Jimi arranged with the ranger for the rescue vehicle to meet us to drive Muneeza back to the main gate. After another hour we were picked up and driven the last 500m of descent – it couldn’t have come soon enough for my darling who was in serious pain.

We were met at the gate by the Akaro Tours manager and taken back to the office in Moshi with Jimi and our porters. The final action of the day saw us tipping the crew and thanking them for all their effort and helping us to realise our dream of climbing Kili and reaching the summit – these guys are awesome and deserve every penny of their tips, the work they do is exhausting and hard. We got back to the hotel and enjoyed a long dinner with an Irish dude who had just finished his climb on a different route, then slipped into deep sleep.

Musings on the roof of Africa

It is difficult to describe an experience like that in words. We have run through so many contrasting emotions in the past 6 days but overall we both feel elated. There are certain things that you do together in a relationship that bring you irreversibly closer, and this is one of them. I have learned just how much mental strength Muneeza has when she wants to – it is quite incredible what she has just achieved and I respect her immensely. Watching my fiancee crouch behind a rock at 4,700m with her she-wee will be forever etched in my memory.

We hope you enjoyed reading about our climb.

love james & muneeza x

  1. Katie says:

    Wow, that really is an epic tale and huge congratulations to you both for completing the challenge. Keep up the good work & I look forward to hearing about the next stage of the adventure. Hey, you never know, one day Boots & I may even attempt Kili??

    • jamerguk says:

      Merci Mr & Mrs Boots! Hope les enfants are well and up to mischief, taking after their papa. If you attempt the Kili challenge, we can recommend a fantastic guide who can arrange private climbs, avoiding the need for a tour company. Keep the comments coming, thanks from us both

  2. Boots says:

    WOW!! Amazing blog on this mate, you both really went though it up there. Makes me want to challenge myself in the same way. Nice one.


  3. Chris Twine says:

    Wow! Amazing reading about your climb guys ! Sounds like a true ordeal. Great you helped each other out up there – really great read. Well written sir g. Look forward to the next instalment.!)


    • jamerguk says:

      Cheers monsieur – has been an epic battle with my inner demons to mount the Kili beast. Hope you are well homo, drop me a line with stories of intrigue and wonder. Cheers J

  4. Ian C says:

    Hey dude, ahhh the memories come flooding back. Your experience of Kili captures just how tough it is up there. Congrats to you both for making it through and reaching the roof of Africa! Mr & Mrs C.

    • jamerguk says:

      Cheers Mr C – we now know what you meant when you said you nearly gave up – it’s a tough mental battle at the top. Still, really happy we made it and love the photo from the summit. Apparently some English botter proposed to his girlfriend up there…..

  5. Muneeza says:

    This is my favourite blog so far. I have never found anything so difficult I can’t believe people do this for fun like we did! What were we thinking!!! The feeling knowing we made it to the top of Kilimanjaro is something so amazing and an experience I will never forget. Wouldn’t have made it to the top without James. xx

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