Kilimanjaro: To Uhuru Peak, the Roof of Africa

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Backpacks on, hiking poles readied.  This is it - summit night is here. We set off, almost unwillingly. It's Friday the 13th and coincidentally, the moon is full, washing the mountain above us with an eerie glow.


Read how we got to this point of our hike to the roof of Africa.


Ahead, a trail of light already snakes slowly, for what seems like miles, up the side of the mountain. Though distant and unfamiliar, these tiny orbs - the headlamps of other climbers - are to become our companions on this last monumental effort. In the eerie silence they bring comfort and a sense of solidarity to all.

The first part of our trek is tricky. While not particularly steep, the path is a mostly smooth rock face which means every single step we take is the final stage in a deliberate routine of sure-footedness. Concentrating, our hiking poles hit the rock face, looking for a sure catch. Once steady, we haul ourselves up, searching out the next advantageous place for our foot. Repeat.

We’re slow-moving, often standing aside to let other groups pass. Miranda is struggling; a mix of nausea, chronic cough, and headache taking its toll. But she’s determined, and while our rest breaks become more frequent and increase in length she continues to get up and keep going.

It’s three hours in that her body gives in. Coughing at every step, laboured breathing, stumbling, only supported by her walking poles, she and the guides realise the signs of HAPE have become too strong to ignore, and devastatingly, this is where her Kilimanjaro trek will end.

Here is where we fight - our first on the mountain. While Mark is adamant he’ll turn back too - this is a task we had always hoped to start and finish together and that’s what will happen - he’s still healthy and capable, and Miranda won’t have it. After a teary hug and some words of encouragement, we part ways – Miranda helped back to Barafu Hut by our guide Respick, and Mark and Michael climbing higher with a new ambition of making it to the Kilimanjaro summit for us both.

 

Mark conquers the roof of Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro

The next few hours are the most mentally and physically challenging of my life. I'm determined to catch the group of lights far ahead which seems insurmountable, unachievable.

Ever so slowly though, I reel them in. It isn’t a race, far from it. I'm lonely and need the energy that the other hikers may provide. I don't know them, they don’t know me, but they'll forever be part of the successful journey.

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Trudging on for the next six hours the fight is in my mind. I can’t do it, my legs are sore, I'm out of breath. It's cold, windy and Miranda is not by my side.

Suddenly, I'm brought back to reality, as the night's stillness is violently broken by a ferocious wind picking up.

It's only when we stop for a water break that I realise how cold it is; the water in my bottle is completely frozen. After a few minutes, and despite the engulfing exhaustion, I set off again with Michael - who is fast becoming my guardian angel - to avoid freezing over myself.

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Eventually the sun begins to rise, lifting my spirits with it for light means life up here. Surely, or so I believe, it also means that the summit is close. It isn’t. The hours continue to pass and the terrain changes. It's now like walking up a sand dune at 19,000 feet.

Then Michael turns, pointing; “there's the peak”. I almost break down knowing the end is so close.

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Unfortunately, it's not Uhuru Peak, but Stella Point - the final marker before reaching the summit. As we reach Stella Point, a blizzard hits. It's brutal, blinding, and we're knocked sideways as we walk.

Michael assures me there are just 30 minutes remaining to achieve our dream. A combination of this knowledge and sheer willpower is all that's keeping me going.

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Thanks to the blizzard I'm unable to see too far in front,  so it comes as a shock when we finally arrive at Uhuru Peak. I genuinely thought it would never come and now I break down, unable to talk as the realisation of the achievement sweeps over me. I'd done it for us both.

I hug Michael in relief and have the obligatory summit photo taken before sitting down for just a second to take it all in.

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For a brief second, the blizzard clears - revealing the awe-inspiring glacier atop Kilimanjaro. In this moment, the travails of the past few days seem totally worth it.

As we leave, Michael radios back to camp to let them know we'd reached the summit and are on our way home. In what is a truly lovely gesture, he and Respick hand the respective walkie-talkies to Miranda and I, allowing us a brief chat to share the moment from our respective places.

Michael and I begin the return journey and I could not be more excited. Adrenalin kicks in, and I can’t wait to get to camp, see Miranda and get off this mountain.

Slowly but surely we make our way back to camp. The last drops of energy sapped as we slide down the sand and rock. As camp moves into sight I break down again, a mix of relief and exhaustion. Then, I see Miranda and we both tear up again as I recount the steps to the peak.

the roof of Africa - Mt. Kilimanjaro
the roof of Africa - Mt. Kilimanjaro

Shortly after arriving back to camp I'm informed that she is unfortunately very ill and we must get off the mountain as soon as possible. I briefly rest; we pack, eat and are off again only an hour later.

The next eight hours are a blur of downhill scrambling and fatigue. At 9pm - 22 hrs after we set off for Uhuru Peak - we finally arrive at the Mweka Park Gate to be taken off the mountain.

The roof of Africa
The roof of Africa

The next day, glad to be on flat ground again, we visit the hospital so Miranda can have the various checks to confirm that she did have HAPE. A couple of hours and a handful of different  daily medications for her to take later, we're finally free to leave, and our Kilimanjaro experience is at an end.

It takes a good two weeks for us to mostly recover, and another month for Miranda to recover fully back to health. We had conquered Kilimanjaro, but only just.

While it might not have turned out to be the experience we had hoped it would be; our time on Kili was still an incredible, life-changing experience and we can't recommend it enough.


Are you planning hike to the roof of Africa? Read our tips on how to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.


Already summited Mt. Kilimanjaro? Let us know your experiences in the comments below!


 

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