“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now,” I heard my team-mate, Jemma pipe in the darkness.
Jem and I had bantered and belly-laughed our way up the mountain thus far, and I totally agreed in that second. I would have high-fived except it was too dark to really see her.
It was about midnight, and we’d been walking for half an hour. We were excited and invigorated by the cold. We could see only blackness punctuated by head torches, like stars in the night. This was it. The moment we’d all been working towards. Summit.
Three hours later I was singing an entirely different tune.
I’d been walking for what felt like months into the abyss of freezing cold darkness when I realised that every ounce of my being wished I was anywhere else right now. I had totally underestimated how steep, how cold, how long and how just plain tough this final push of the Kilimanjaro trek was going to be.
Periodically, our guide Holson was singing in Swahili in a low velvet tone. The only other sounds were the rustling of our clothes and the rhythm of our feet. And we walked.
My glutes had been burning for an eternity, my hands were so cold they felt like they were on fire. I couldn’t stop licking my lips, which felt bigger than Angelina’s due to blisters already forming. No amount of paw-paw ointment in the world was going to save them tonight.
We stopped for a water break and my team-mate, Antonia, pulled out a gel to take in some sustenance. Her fingers fumbled to tear the tab to release the goo, and her frustration bubbled over into tears. That was my cue. I cried too because this was not fun anymore.
From that moment if I went too far into my thoughts I would just weep, which did not help the frozen snot situation the -15C temperature was causing. It was easy to blubber because my breath was coming in gasps due to exertion in the altitude so it was only a short step into actual crying.
I tried to meditate; to control my breathing as the air became thinner and thinner, and to control my mind. One of my team-mates, Antonia, had given me a new mantra a few days before to help with the no sleep I was having – “I am not my mind, I am not my body.”
I suck at meditating but I chanted mentally in between steps and breaths – inhale -“I am not my mind” step- exhale – “I am not my body” – and turned myself into a machine with no conscious driver. I have no idea if this went on for ten minutes or two hours.
Suddenly out of nowhere, an explosive chunder caused me to dive to the edge of the path. My guide Heimliched me to encourage more vomit out as the popular belief is there’s nothing like a good hurl at altitude to make you feel like trotting uphill for a further million years.
Strangely, it was somewhat true. I wiped my mouth with a tissue someone handed me, took a breath, looked around to my team who were all watching this spectacle.
“Let’s roll,” I wish I said, but I probably mumbled something unintelligible and shuffled into formation.
Our team, who had laughed and joked the whole six days prior was virtually silent for the entire six-hour climb. Occasionally, someone would complain of fears of frost bite or not being able to feel some part of their body any longer.
If anyone started falling behind they were put at the front and we would take their pace. My tent mate, Krystal was called to the front causing her to panic.
“I’m too slow, I can’t do it,” she despaired. No one desired to go any faster. At this stage, we would take a handful of steps, and stop for a beat, before ambling a few more steps, then straighten your stiff body, rest your angry glutes, and drop a million silent expletives.
We stopped for a drink, sheltered next to a large grey rock and a mysterious round of “If you’re happy and you know it” broke out. No one can really recall how or why it began. Or if we were actually sincere as we clapped our frozen hands together. I know I fucking lied.
We eventually reached Stellar Point. The first summit at 5739m. I flopped to the ground, legs jutting out like a rag doll, and cried a little bit more. I had bugger all dignity left. I was done. Alas, they told me I could not stay here. It was 45 minutes before sunrise and I was likely to freeze in that time. Fabulous incentive to walk.
We joked later that we were totally useless in the end. Gerald and Holson, our guides, were doing everything for us and we were like defenceless baby birds.
They held our water bottles to our lips (or someone’s bottles as most of ours had frozen solid,” they put jelly beans in our mouths because if they gave them to us we dropped them. The amounts of times I heard “oh shit, I dropped it” was actually comedic…but not until hours later.
They wiped our frozen snot that was leaving frost burn on our lips. They managed our tears with kind words and encouragement. That’s serious commitment to your job.
About 30 minutes later a crack of orange light curved across the Earth on the horizon. Tiny hopeful rays indicating this was nearly over, we had nearly made it. We trudged ahead and we could see the sign for Uhuru Point only a few hundred metres ahead.
A glacier unlike anything (I hate the cold and snow remember) I’ve ever seen was being gently lit up by the rising sun, and we were no longer in the dark. We were in a magical ice land.
We hugged. We cried. We took photos. And we got the fuck out of there because it was freezing, we were shattered and we had a three-hour walk to get back to camp, a two-hour rest, and another four hours to hike that day. It was too high to stay there while we recovered. We had to descend before we could rest.
I did reach the summit of the highest freestanding mountain in the world on that night but wasn’t something I did alone. I did it because my team – Natasha, Jemma, Krystal and Antonia, and the guides Gerald and Holson, from Maasai Wanderings had my back.
On our way back down we passed the second half of our team. They looked catatonic. I do not doubt for second on our way up we looked like that too.
Wagumu (strong men) came to meet us on our descent about an hour from home and took everything from us so we only carried our exhausted selves. They hugged us with genuine joy on their faces.
Our summit success was theirs too.
We hobbled into camp to the sight and sound of our entire crew singing and dancing for us. They handed us the best orange and mango juice I’ve ever tasted and rained down joy upon us.
We had done it.
People have said that now I must feel like I can achieve anything but I don’t really know how to answer that. I think anyone can achieve something if they set their mind to it, it’s just knowing what the hell it is you want to do. I still don’t know what I want to do.
No great epiphany as I watched the sun coming up over the curve of the Earth. Just thoughts of simple stuff, like survival. Like deep respect for my team.
A deeper respect for the crew who do this regularly as their job.
I was humbled by their service and joy at our success. I was ready to leave the mountain, though, because now it was time to head to Rafiki Mwema and meet the inspiration behind this whole adventure.
Here’s the director’s cut of the video of our trip. Hope you find the time to watch it.