Friday, 2 October 2015

Don't look down

All being well, you reach the edge of the crater at the top of Kilimanjaro just as dawn starts to break. Far far to the east, a speck of light appears, grows and turns into a sliver of sun, which gradually divides the sky and the Earth. For six hours or so, starting from around midnight, you have been walking steadily, unceasingly, in the cold and dark. Around you, all you have been able to see is the pools of light cast by your and your companions’ head torches, as you trudge up the scree slopes of the mountainside.

The last night of ascending Kilimanjaro is an intensely surreal experience, like being trapped inside a dream. Without visible landmarks, it is like walking endlessly in the dark, along the same stretch of dusty path. The cold is colder than you can remember ever experiencing before; a dry chill that nips at your exposed skin, and tries to seep through your clothes. Water bottles freeze and toes feel as if they are doing likewise. The final climb – the last ascent after days of walking – is long, slow, relentless.

Most of us had been here before, four years previously, but had not made it to the top. A combination of a quicker route than this one (and thus less acclimatisation to the altitude), an oversleeping guide (which led to a panicked late departure from camp), and a stop-start-stop-start ascent did for the group, and only one of us had reached even the crater rim. The sense of unfinished business had burned in us all ever since, and now we had the chance to finish what had been left incomplete.

Kilimanjaro is not the most dangerous mountain in the world, nor are most of its routes especially adventurous or arduous ascents, but it is still a tough climb for most normal people. As we reached the lip of the crater, three of our group had already had to pull out, owing to illness, and another one of our team only just made it, a chest infection becoming increasingly evident in the final stages of the climb.

The rest of us were there, though. We had made it. As I looked out across the cloud-covered landscape, with the delightfully warming sun rising and spreading its light, I was overwhelmed. What had, for several years, felt like a tantalising impossibility, had now become a reality. With teary eyes, which I was too tired to wipe, I watched the world spread out beneath us, with the curve of the Earth marking the horizon.

“Go for the top?” somebody said.

“Yes. Definitely.”

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