Sitting on top of Kilimanjaro MzansiBride

Winona Griggs

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Sitting on top of Kilimanjaro

Have you ever heard of Mount Kilimanjaro? It’s the tallest mountain in Africa and stands all on its own. It’s quite a popular mountain for people to climb, especially if they’re new to high-altitude climbs like me. I had the amazing opportunity to climb this magnificent mountain in January, and boy, was it an adventure!

Let me tell you about the first time I laid eyes on Kilimanjaro. It happened when I was flying into Tanzania from Kenya. I couldn’t believe my luck! From the window of our aircraft, I caught a glimpse of this massive 5895 m mountain. The sight took my breath away. Just as we were about to land at Kilimanjaro International Airport, I noticed the sun setting in the distance, casting a warm orange glow across the landscape. It was like something out of a movie.

I arrived at Keys Hotel in Moshi about an hour later and met up with my two fellow climbers who had flown in from the USA. After a quick introduction and chat, we headed off to bed.

Lemosho Route

We decided to climb Kilimanjaro using the Lemosho Route. We chose this route specifically for acclimatization purposes. The Lemosho Route is the longest route, taking almost 10 days to reach the summit. We believed that the extra time would help us adjust to the altitude and reduce the risk of mountain sickness. When we arrived at the gate in the mid-morning, our Chief Guide, Raj, took care of our climbing permits. Once everything was sorted, our porters were assigned, and we set off on our exciting adventure.

The Terrain

During our climb, we experienced the various climatic zones of Mount Kilimanjaro. We encountered five different zones along the way. The first zone consisted of lower plains, where the native vegetation had been cleared for coffee and banana plantations. Next, we entered the forest belt, a lush rainforest with dense undergrowth, ferns, trees, and abundant wildlife. The climate was warm and moist. As we continued upward, we reached the Alpine Heath and Moorland zone, starting at an altitude of 2800 meters. This zone was characterized by small shrubs, bushes, and a lack of shade. There were plenty of flowers, but the vegetation gradually thinned out, giving way to volcanic rocks and soil in the Moorland zone. At this altitude, there were no large mammals, only the occasional small bird. The Highland Desert, at 4000-5000 meters, was our next stop. Here, we truly felt like we were on a mountain. The days were warm, but the nights grew cold rapidly. Vegetation was scarce, resembling the lunar landscape with massive boulders and dry, grey volcanic soil. Finally, there was the Ice Cap zone, above 5000 meters. This zone was characterized by rock scree, volcanic soil, and diminishing glaciers. The conditions were arctic, with temperatures mostly below freezing. The oxygen level was significantly lower than at sea level.

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Conquering Mt Kilimanjaro

The path I took to climb Mt Kilimanjaro lasted for 10 days. Each day, I trekked through different altitudes, covering an average of eight to 14 kilometers. Throughout this journey, I was amazed by the breathtaking views of Tanzania that unfolded before me. However, as I reached higher elevations, I definitely felt the effects of the altitude. On the fourth day, I suffered from altitude sickness. The symptoms were overwhelming – I felt queasy, dizzy, and had a pounding headache at the base of my skull. It felt as if I was walking beside my own body. It was a tough day, and by the end, I seriously contemplated descending the mountain. I had witnessed the seriousness of altitude sickness firsthand when the famous tennis player, Martina Navratilova, was forced to be evacuated due to it. Even some of the porters on the mountain weren’t spared from its grasp and had to be rescued. I knew this illness could lead to grave consequences if ignored.

With no room for risks, I immediately informed our knowledgeable Chief Guide about my condition upon reaching the high camp. He reassured me in his soothing Swahili accent, saying, “Don’t worry, this is a common occurrence, but I have a solution. I am a witchdoctor.” Though skeptical, I was willing to try anything at that point. He brewed a special concoction consisting of chopped garlic and ginger, pouring boiling water over them in a teacup. He instructed me to sip it while it was still hot, swallowing both the garlic and ginger. It wasn’t the most pleasant taste, especially considering my queasiness, but I followed his instructions and went straight to bed afterwards.

To my surprise, when I woke up the next morning, I felt better than ever. In fact, for the remainder of the climb, I didn’t experience even the slightest hint of illness. It was a triumph over adversity and an unforgettable experience at the top of the world.

I have to tell you, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was no walk in the park. It really pushed me to my limits, both physically and mentally. As I ascended higher and higher, I realized that reaching the summit was not going to be a piece of cake. This was the real deal.

Fortunately, I had the help of an amazing expedition company called Adventure Dynamics, run by Sean Disney. Let me just say, they are the real deal. They have a stellar track record when it comes to high altitude expeditions, not just on Kilimanjaro, but all over the world. If you’re thinking of taking on this challenge, I highly recommend them.

Now, let me tell you about the unsung heroes of the mountain – the porters. These incredible men carry an astonishing amount of weight, between 15 and 25 kgs of equipment, up the mountain. For every climber, there are five porters needed. In our group of five climbers, we had a whopping 23 support staff! They took care of everything we needed to survive, from tents and food to cooking equipment and even a portable toilet. They are true superheroes.

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I can’t stress enough how tough these guys are. They climb the mountain week after week, with only a couple of days of rest in between. They are the definition of toughness, strength, and resilience. Without them, I have no doubt that no one would make it to the summit. They truly deserve all the recognition they can get.

It’s worth mentioning that there is a non-profit organization that keeps an eye on the treatment of the porters. It’s called the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, and they make sure these incredible men are treated fairly and are not taken advantage of. They deserve our support.

Climbing towards the peak

Before our big climb, we reached Barafu High Camp in the afternoon. The camp sat at an altitude of 4600 meters, while the summit of Mt Kili was even higher at 5895 meters. This meant that during our summit night, we would have to ascend 1295 meters and cover a total distance of 10 kilometers to reach the summit and return. It was quite a challenge, especially considering the lack of oxygen at that altitude, and the fact that we had already hiked about 55 kilometers on rugged terrain.

Arriving at Barafu around 4 PM, we were informed that dinner would be served by 5:30 PM, and we were expected to be asleep by 6:30 PM. We would then be awakened at 11 PM to begin our summit attempt at midnight. Everything seemed to be going according to plan until we were abruptly awakened at 11 PM – to the sound of a strong, gusty wind that seemed intent on uprooting our tent with us inside. The sky was clear, so we didn’t have to worry about snow, but the wind chill brought the temperature well below freezing. We quickly layered up to stay warm – I had on six layers on top, three on the bottom, and two pairs of gloves.

As we made our way up the scree slope behind the Barafu camp, I looked up and saw a trail of lights snaking ahead of us. Those were other climbers who had set off before us, on their own quest for the summit. The sight was both breathtaking and eerie. Above us, the stars shone brilliantly, but the wind howled relentlessly. The gusts came from the right side, and as we zigzagged up the mountain in complete darkness except for the narrow beam of our headlamps, I noticed that I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. The wind was so fierce that I couldn’t hear anyone speaking unless they shouted directly into my ear. I hadn’t worn a balaclava, but I had a buff covering my nose and mouth to protect me from the elements. Unfortunately, I soon realized that when I walked into the wind, my breath moisture froze on the buff, making it hard for me to breathe. I had to lower the buff and take deep breaths whenever I could. After doing this for four hours, my lips became cracked and purple. Even now, I still don’t have full sensation in my lower lip – a bit of frostbite, perhaps.

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It took me ten long hours to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The last 300 meters were the toughest part of the whole climb. At that point, my body was exhausted, my mind was drained, and all I could think about was getting back down to camp. It was pure determination that kept me going. Finally, at 10am, I reached the summit. To be honest, it was a little underwhelming. I was completely worn out – I could hardly move. As I stood there, looking out over the vast plains of Tanzania, it didn’t fully sink in that I was standing on top of Africa. I managed to snap a few pictures before making my way back down to camp, which took another four hours. By the time I arrived, I was completely depleted – physically, mentally, and spiritually. I had nothing left. I remember lying in the tent at 4600 meters, telling Francis that I never wanted to see another hiking bag again.

Looking back on that experience, I realize how much strength and endurance it took to push through those last few meters. It was a grueling journey, but it was worth it. Standing on that summit, even for just a brief moment, gave me a sense of accomplishment that I will never forget.

When I hiked down to a lower camp that evening and spent the night at 3900 m., little did I know what would hit me the next day. As we hiked out to the main gate at Mount Kilimanjaro National Park, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment.

But it wasn’t until we flew out of Tanzania the following morning that it truly sunk in. As our plane soared above the clouds, the sun slowly rose, casting its rays upon the silhouette of Mt Kilimanjaro. It was in that moment that I realized the magnitude of what I had achieved – I had reached the summit of the tallest mountain in Africa, fulfilling a personal goal that I had long dreamt of.

A quiet wave of realization washed over me. Sitting there in the plane, gazing at the majestic mountain, I couldn’t help but feel a mix of awe and pride. Just two days prior, I had endured immense pain and exhaustion as I made my way to the summit. And now, there I was, surveying the same peak from the comfort of my seat, able to reflect on the tremendous feat I had accomplished.

As the lyrics of that famous song, “I’m sitting on top of Kilimanjaro,” echoed in my mind, I couldn’t help but smile. I had been on top of Kilimanjaro, and the experience was etched into my memory forever.

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