How difficult is summiting Mount Kilimanjaro? Depends who you ask.

Peter's Kilimanjaro misery

Like a procession of overdressed zombies holding walking poles, we’ve been staggering uphill on this loose volcanic rock since midnight. My watch reads 4:14am.

Although our pace rivals that of a snail, my chest heaves laboriously as my lungs struggle to extract oxygen from the stingy air. The five layers of clothing are strangling me like a Gore-Tex, down-filled anaconda.

I can no longer feel my toes.

A full moon hangs overhead, but does little to illuminate the barren landscape before us. The headlamp I’ve been carrying for days has finally become more than just a fashion accessory, helping me to avoid lurching off a cliff.

Our Tanzanian guides – James, Julius, Alpha, and Cerafin – sing in hushed Swahili harmony as we plod along, delirious and exhausted.

“Wageni, mwakaribishwa! (Welcome guests!)

Kilimanjaro? Hakuna matata! (Kilimanjaro? No worries!)”

The blistering wind blows fine dust into my face but I keep my eyes squinted, focusing only on the turquoise backpack ahead of me.

That backpack belongs to my partner, Marina.

She seems completely unfazed by the altitude. Over the past seven days I’ve trudged behind her, I’ve become intimately acquainted with that damned backpack – so smug in its cleanliness, so taunting in its cheerful colouring.

It was Marina’s idea to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro – the highest peak in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

I was less than thrilled to head higher than I’ve ever been –5,895 metres – especially given the throbbing migranes and severe nausea I’ve experienced at lower altitudes. As a compromise, we took the long way up, which promises a higher chance of summit success, and a lower chance of vomiting.

Looking up in the distance, I notice dozens of headlamps bobbing up and down across the never ending series of switchbacks up the mountain.

There appears to be no end in sight to this torture.

With increasing frequency, we pass fellow climbers. Some are hunched over on the side of the trail forcefully emptying the contents of their stomach, others are stumbling around and babbling incoherently, while a few particularly unlucky souls are carried down the mountain, barely conscious.

To prevent my mind from entertaining ideas of sickness and failure, I ignore the fallen and regain myopic focus on Marina’s backpack.

As the sun starts to rise, nearly six hours since leaving our base camp, we finally step onto some even ground. Reaching Stella Point, on the rim of Mt. Kilimanjaro’s volcano, we’ve completed the first section of the summit.

“Here, we rest,” declares our lead guide.

I sit on a rock, barely lucid, and try to catch my breath. For the first time since we started hiking over a week ago, I believe that I may actually make it to the top. All that remains between me and Uhuru Peak is a gentle walk around the crater rim that ascends the final 210 metres.

After a brief respite to gnaw on a hardened granola bar and to try unsuccessfully to drink water from my frozen hydration pack, I’m again shuffling my numb feet forward.

Not only is Marina once again in the lead, she’s actually jogging ahead to snap photos of me in my misery. Fortunately, I’m much too detached and numb to feel humiliated.Peter's Kilimanjaro misery

Before long, the two of us are standing on the roof of Africa, posing for pictures. As I summon all my strength to look more excited than exhausted, I confess to Marina; “This was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“Oh, really? I actually didn’t find it that difficult,” she says, beaming.

And with those words, the greatest physical feat of my life became just another leisurely hike.

At the top



Note: an edited version of this article was posted in The Globe and Mail on March 10, 2015

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