Friday 17 August

I must have succeeded in getting off to sleep, because I am woken shortly before 11 pm by activity around the tents. I down a mug of tea, then dress, visit the loo, and I’m soon ready in the mess tent.

The snow has stopped and the sky is clearing. There is no moon. Everyone looks very apprehensive. Will we all make it to the summit? Will we be warm enough? I’m wearing five layers – thermals, a shirt, two fleeces, and my down jacket and I feel slightly chilly inside the tent. Ghislaine I think has eight layers on. Tom has rigged up his platypus bladder as a hot-water bottle hanging from a strap underneath his jacket. It seems ingenious but I hope it doesn’t leak.

Climbing out of Barafu Camp

We begin walking just after midnight, picking our way around rocks and tents as we climb steeply up out of the campsite. Even after we have left behind the last tents there is no let up in the steep ascent. Other torchlight processions converge with ours. The path is quite rocky as well as being steep, requiring the use of hands in places.

The stars are now clearly visible as the last of the cloud clears away, giving a clue to the outline of the mountain – the region of the sky ahead where there are no stars. Within that outline a silver chain of light snakes laboriously summitwards.

It struck me that we were part of some mass pilgrimage to the top of Kilimanjaro – a stream of snaking lights below and above us, quite high above us.

I’m finding it very hard-going. I can’t establish a rhythm and I have stomach pains. We’ve being going for little more than an hour when the mountain claims its first two casualties. Ghislaine keels over against a rock in a faint. We all stop while she comes to and rests for a bit, but she’s feeling too terrible to continue. Perhaps she overheated with so many clothes on, and her heavy backpack would not have helped. Tom is also having difficulties breathing. After some discussion with the guides, Ghislaine and Tom (and therefore Orsi too, not wanting to continue with Tom) turn around and head back down the mountain with Tosha.

As we shuffle upwards time seems to lose definition. I finally find a rhythm of one breath per step and soon begin to feel much better and more confident of reaching the top. Rambo helps to keep our spirits up by singing the Jambo Bwana song over and over again. How he can find the breath for this I will never know.

First hint of dawn over the cloud tops

After we’ve been going for some time, Tosha stops us for a break and divides us into two parties to go on at different speeds. RS, who has been struggling with breathing again is in the second group, but RL and I are in the first.

We continue for hours, though with nothing to mark the passage of time it is hard to judge how long. My stomach pains begin to reassert themselves.

The first hint of dawn is a slight breach of the inky blackness far off to the right. A ghostly landscape of dark shadows emerges below us as the cloud tops covering the plains begin to take form. Soon the sun starts to break through the haze over the distant horizon and the light becomes sufficient to see how far we are off the rim.

(magnify) Nearing Stella Point

After we split into two groups, I began to find the going harder and harder with my breathing being very laboured, my heart pounding, my back aching, and generally being utterly exhausted. The hours passed surprisingly quickly but the ascent never got easier – only harder. Noel and I had to stop frequently to catch breath and gain energy. I think this annoyed Liberate slightly as he (and we) got very cold. A number of times I considered jacking it all in but somehow didn’t. From about half way up Liberate took my bag, which helped me enormously.

We also became quite hungry and thirsty as our water froze as did the food. It was quite amusing trying to eat a frozen solid Boost bar in stages throughout the night.

About five-thirty to six o’clock the first traces of light began to dawn in a thin line to the east. This gave me some fresh enthusiasm and energy from somewhere. It also meant you could see the rise of the mountain ahead – unsure whether this helped or not!

Very quickly there was a beautiful sunrise and lots of light. No need for torches anymore – just as well as my headtorch was annoying me. It was shortly after this that Liberate pointed out Stella Point up ahead. He also pointed out the other part of our party, who were surprisingly less far ahead than I’d expected.

(magnify) The crater from Stella Point

The final one hundred metres seem to take an eternity but we do finally arrive, exhausted, on the low point of the crater rim known as Stella Point, an altitude of 5735 m above sea level. There is a cold biting wind blowing across the rim. I collapse exhausted.

Amazingly the other group is only just behind us. I have the vague thought that there ought to be some kind of group photograph here, but I’m unable to convert this into any kind of coherent action. Somewhere I am dimly aware of a beautiful landscape of orange shadows over the edge of the rim where the dawn light is just starting to illuminate the undulating sea of snow inside the crater.

Finally we reached Stella Point. I was elated with myself but absolutely exhausted and couldn’t even speak properly due to lack of oxygen. Poor Ian came and put his arm around me to congratulate me but I had to ask him to remove it as it was impeding my breathing.

Rambo calls all who are able to begin as quickly as possible the final trek around the rim to Uhuru Peak. The sky is clear blue and to the left is the striated ice of the Southern Icefield glacier, just beginning to catch the light. To the right is the crater, snow clad, and the crater within the crater rising up as a dome in the centre. The Western Breach is clearly visible below and to the right of Uhuru Peak.

(magnify) Rachel at Stella Point

Noel and I had just sat down to rehydrate and energise when we were forced to make a quick decision to go on further to Uhuru Peak or descend with Alison, who was suffering badly from AMS. I don’t know what made me choose Uhuru but it was very clear after the first twenty minutes or so that I’d made the wrong decision. I just couldn’t get breath and my heart was racing. I was convinced that I’d either have a heart attack or lung collapse if I carried on even a step further. I’d reached my limit, 5800 m, and I needed to stop and go down. I told Liberate, who quickly got Noel sorted with the three others going for Uhuru, then came back with me.

It is not easy walking along the trail, which is a narrow and uneven slot in the ice-hard snow. My stomach pains are becoming more intense now and I am forced to make a sudden diversion off to one side and just below the rim, not entirely out of sight but as best as I can manage under the circumstances, where I leave a deposit under a stone as proof of my visit.

Left: (magnify) Traversing the crater rim
Right: (magnify) Approaching Uhuru Peak

Exhausted and shaky, I arrive at Uhuru Peak. Just in front of me is the famous sign:

Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895 m AMSL. Africa’s highest point. World’s highest free-standing mountain. One of world’s largest volcanoes. Welcome.

Vying with the other groups for photographs under the sign feels like too much effort. Gradually it occurs to me that we – RL, Nicky, Noel, and I – have made it. I have no idea how I will find the energy resources to get down again. I am not quite sure where RS and Alison are but I presume that they decided to stop at Stella Point. Finally we get a turn at the sign and snatch a couple of group photographs.

Left: (magnify) Rachel, ian, Rambo and Noel at Uhuru Peak
Right: (magnify) Western Breach and the crater
Left: (magnify) Coming down off the top
Right: (magnify) Along the rim to Gillman’s Point

I try to snap as many photographs as I can on the way back to Stella Point. Somehow this brief visit doesn’t seem real and I want something to remember the moment by.

The scree below Stella Point has thawed and descending feels very much like skiing, a feeling that is heightened by the fog that is rolling in, reminding me of near-whiteout conditions in the Alps. Noel however is finding it very hard indeed and leans heavily on Rambo for balance and support. Freezing fog creates glittering strings on our clothes and hair.

(magnify) Nicky decorated by freezing fog

My descent was not much easier than the ascent. I kept having to stop. My back really ached and I felt sick too. Gradually the further down we got (it took ages) the easier it got.

We descended into mist, then snow and it was cold and miserable, especially when we got to the campsite and Liberate couldn’t find our site in the mist! We wandered about for twenty minutes or so. By the time we reached camp I was dead on my feet. It took all my energy to go to the loo, eat a few biscuits and have a drink (I was feeling very faint), and collapse into my sleeping bag, where I instantly slept for nearly an hour.

It is a long, long, descent and Barafu camp is reluctant to show itself. I have no idea where we are and begin to wonder if Rambo knows either. There is some shouting and suddenly a couple of the “helping porters” appear out of the fog. Finally we see the vague outline of tents, but it is still much further to pick our way across the steep and rocky campsite before we reach our own.

I’ve been running on empty since before dawn on the ascent and when we learn that lunch will not be for another hour I hit rock bottom. Added to this it is snowing persistent fine flecks that gather in the folds of the canvas and around stones on the ground.

Lunch is just soup and bread, and then we must begin the descent to Millennium Camp. The snow is still falling as we wend our way through a featureless grey and rocky landscape.

Lower down the snow clears up and giant heather begins to appear. We reach the site at around 3 pm, fifteen hours after setting off from Barafu for the summit, and after a climb of 1295 m and a descent of 2095 m. The tents are dotted around on the peaty soil between clumps of giant heather. There are only four tents – Tom, Orsi and Ghislaine have returned to Arusha. Dinner feels very empty without them.

Although I’d have loved to have reached Uhuru Peak I am more than happy with where I did reach – it was my absolute limit and had I gone further I could have suffered possibly serious consequences. Judging by the state of the four who made it I’m glad I didn’t.