It was a bright night, dreamlike and other-worldly, something that a Mumbai resident could have previously seen only in a National Geographic magazine. Within seconds of crawling out of my tent, the head torch I had laboured to pull on proved redundant.
The jagged snow-streaked contours of the Mawenzi Peak glistened in the light of the near-full moon. A handful of tents, housing human beings oblivious to the beauty outside, lay scattered across the campsite. The sound of frost crunching beneath my boots cut through the absolute stillness.
The prospect of trudging out in the sub-zero temperature to the faraway toilet block seemed daunting.
Eventually, I had stirred out of the sleeping bag, eased into the outdoor gear, switched on the head torch, crawled into my boots kept outside the tent room, and crouched out, zipping the tent shut behind me. Using minimal effort and slow motion was critical—in the thin air, nearly 3,900m above sea level, even bending down to tuck in shoelaces leaves one panting for breath.
Kilimanjaro has three volcanic cones — Kibo, Mawenzi (in the picture), and Shira.
We were a day away from the final summit night in our attempt to scale Kilimanjaro—the world’s highest free-standing mountain. The Uhuru Peak at Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, is the highest point in Africa at 5,895m (19,341ft) above sea level. The peak is fully “trekkable”—one does not need special climbing skills or fancy equipment—but the sheer altitude, and the five different climate zones one has to negotiate en route make it a challenging climb.
But, as I gazed awestruck at the bright night, all dark shadows and elemental beauty, the awareness came from within: This was the reward for the exertions of the past few days.
Three days earlier, we had started out on our trek close to the Kenyan border, a motley group comprising five Australians, three Iranian-Canadians, two Norwegians, an American and an Indian. The Rongai Route, which we followed, is the least used of the five routes to the peak—there is a gentler path for those reluctant to deal with tent life and the rapidly changing gradients—but the inaccessibility factor has nurtured the unspoilt vistas all around.
Starting with maize fields at 1,950m, we had passed pole-pole (Swahili for “slowly”) through dense equatorial rainforests and damp moorland up to 3,500m, where acclimatization becomes necessary. But rain and thunder struck that night, making us fear for our tents. It didn’t help that Canadians Aitin and Sheida claimed to have spotted large mountain rats, although a few of us believed—or, rather, hoped—that we were merely hallucinating due to the altitude.
At dawn, though, the orange glow of the Kilimanjaro whetted our appetite for what was meant to be a short but steep trek up to the Mawenzi campsite. Mountains, I was learning, have a strange way of cheering up the most morose soul without warning and, equally unpredictably, testing the most spirited one. “You can never tell when the weather will change,” warned Deus, our lead guide. And when the weather changed, so did our moods.
To avoid succumbing to the alternating sunshine and rain on our way to the Mawenzi Tarn campsite, a plain stretch at the foot of the Mawenzi Peak, we focused on the trek that lay ahead the next day: a seven-hour slog through the high alpine desert that saddles the Mawenzi Lake and Kibo which, at 4,700m above sea level, lies at the base of Uhuru Peak. The desert was high and windy, dry and deceptive. By the time we reached the base camp at Kibo, out of breath and exhausted, and registered our summit attempt at the Kilimanjaro National Park’s office, it was all we could do to have a quick dinner and hit the sleeping bag.
We needed all the sleep we could get, because park rules require all summit ascents to start at midnight—the heat makes day climbs inadvisable. If climbers reach the peak by sunrise, they also have enough time to climb down to a lower altitude well before sunset.
So near journey’s end, the mood in the camp turned indescribably quieter. “You will know by about 2am if you can continue,” said Deus at the early evening dinner. “You have to ask yourselves if you feel up to it. We guides cannot judge you.”
Was it his words, born of years of experience? Was it our bones still remembering the arduous saddle walk? Was it the unfamiliar sensation of asking our bodies and minds if we were up to the task? Or was it altitude sickness? I think some time in those seven and-a-half hours before the final attempt at the summit, each one of us felt pensive and philosophical in turns. We were on a climb that required no mountaineering skills; we had battled thin oxygen, mood swings, aching muscles, with the best support possible. Global warming, which has caused the snows to recede drastically on Kilimanjaro, had even made it possible for New Yorker Ram to trek in shorts right until the final summit night. How had the first summiteers—two Europeans and a local guide—done it, way back in 1889? And exactly how much more demanding were the Himalayan peaks, always the ultimate challenge for mountaineers around the world?
Trekking up the mountain does not require any special skills or fancy equipment.
However, this was not the time for apprehension. Shortly after midnight, with the temperature below minus five degrees and a high wind chill factor, Tom and Cathrine, who had been slightly jet-lagged, turned back after a bad bout of altitude sickness. After nearly four hours of climbing, having gained an altitude of well over 5,000m, Nader, one of the fittest and most organized members of the group, started losing vision and decided to return to the base camp.
Aitin, Sheida and I trudged up in a smaller group. The trail up to Gilman’s Point (5,681m), on the way to the peak, is a terrain of volcanic scree, a vast pile of gravel and pebbles. We expected to reach Gilman’s Point by dawn, but the sun beat us to it, rising magnificently at 6.45am over the African continent.
Aitin turned back from Gilman’s Point while Sheida and I, clearly cautioned to turn back at the slightest feeling of despair, went on to the Uhuru Peak, a relatively easier trek in the snow compared to the previous stretch. It was exhilarating all right, but the defining image of Kilimanjaro, for me, came just before Gilman’s Point.
Watching the golden sunrise under my feet, infusing colour into the thin white clouds that surrounded the lower levels of the mountain, enveloping us in a warmth that contrasted sharply with the biting winds, I sobbed uncontrollably. That emotion, some say, is the fallout of the mind comprehending that the pain and rigour of the climb over; others believe it represents the thrill of a milestone.
I don’t think I’ll ever know the real reason. Perhaps that’s one of the mysteries the mountain will keep to itself.
How to get there:
You could get to Kilimanjaro via Nairobi, Kenya, or directly into Tanzania via Kilimanjaro International Airport. Kenya Airways (‘ www.kenya-airways.com ’) flies directly between Mumbai and Nairobi; return economy fares from Rs20,700. Flying via Dar es Salaam is also an option to blend in a cultural holiday. Qatar Airways (‘www.qatarairways.com’) offers return economy flights to Dar from Rs27,805 (ex-Mumbai) and Rs31,880 (ex-Delhi). Drive in via Kenya for a great view of the African countryside.
They cost $50 (around Rs2,000) each for entry into Kenya and Tanzania. Apply for visas at the Kenyan high commission, 34, Paschimi Marg, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, 57; tel: 011-26146537/6538/6540. The Tanzanian embassy is at 10/1 Sarvapriya Vihar, New Delhi 16; tel: 011-26853046/3047, 26968409.
No trek around Kilimanjaro should be attempted without professional help. Shop online for a trek organizer, looking for credentials such as safety standards, environment impact policy, trekker-porter ratio, inclusions and exclusions from your package price.
The Rongai Route gives a complete wilderness experience, accommodation is entirely camp-based, and the longer trek enables better acclimatization. The Marangu Route, popularly called the Coca-Cola route, is more widely used, manicured and has lodges with flush toilets for quite a distance.
But, it can be crowded (one often has to wait to let porters and faster trekkers pass from either direction). The easy routes may not give the trekker a full sense of what to expect on summit night and, therefore, the ultimate summit success rate tends to be lower.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org