Day 1: The bus was buzzing with excitement as we travelled through rural Africa taking in our new surroundings. As we got closer we managed to catch a glimpse of the enormous mountain reaching high up through the clouds. We were excited but also very nervous about the great task that faced us in the coming days.
We arrived at Machame Gate where we registered our group and began our climb. At this point everybody was raring to go. We headed off through the rainforest as we started our ascent on the mountain. 7 hours later we arrived at our first camp everybody was excited to see the camp site set up that awaits us each day for the following week.
We gathered in our mess tent for our first dinner of the trek and the team was impressed with the food, drink and hospitality. Courgette soup with bread for starters, followed by potatoes and beef for dinner. After that we had a cup of hot chocolate and a few games of cards. The buzz and excitement was still lingering around camp as we all settled in to our tents for the night.
Day 2: we were woken by our porter offering us hot tea or coffee in our tent. Shortly after that, a bar of soap and a bowl of hot water for washing was delivered. This was to be our morning routine for the next week. We packed up our bags again and meet the gang in the mess tent for breakfast. Everyone was impressed again by the choice of hot porridge, fruit, toast, eggs and sausages.
The skies were clear and sun-cream was on as we made our way towards Shira Camp. The trail started off very steep and rocky, the path seemed less worn than the previous day but I was enjoying the more challenging terrain. After about an hour of hiking a dense cloud moved in and covered up any of the spectacular views promised from the mountain side. The temperature dropped quickly and the rain began to fall.
We put on our waterproofs & ponchos as the day turned a darker grey. Some of us had overlooked carrying gloves, hats or fleeces in our day packs and ended up being soaked to the bone and freezing cold.
What we thought was going to be a light trail with plenty of rests turned into an 6 hour wet slog without any break. The rain continued and the mountain rivers began to broaden and swell. This proved an even more challenging task to cross them.
Eventually we arrived at Camp Shira. My hopes of a warm tent and a dry change of clothes were shattered as I realised water had seeped through my duffel bag. This was a rude reminder that I was not on any normal holiday. I was on the worlds largest free standing mountain and was at the mercy of whatever weather conditions it decided to throw at us.
Day 3: The only thing we were wishing for was an hour of sunshine in the morning to dry out our clothes and boots. Thankfully the sun came up over camp and our wish was granted. Every plant and bush in camp Shira was transformed into a colourful display of wet t-shirts, trousers and socks. We packed up our bags again and just before we left camp, our group of 55 porters gathered and surprised us with a traditional swahili song and dance. This amazing display had the whole team smiling from ear to ear. Their chant of “Hakuna Matata” boosted our morale for our 3rd day on the mountain.
We headed off again, Our spirits were high and the craic was ninety within the group. Our challenge for today was to rise to an altitude of 4630m and have our lunch at Lava Tower before walking back down to an overnight stay at Barranco camp at 3950m. The weather kept dry and warm all the way to Lava Tower. We sat down for lunch and played some hilarious games. Everyone became more relaxed and the banter within the group reached a whole new level. #Jenna
Following lunch we began our descent to Barranco camp. The grey clouds moved in again and the rain started to fall. This time the whole group was better prepared with warm clothes and waterproofs and we managed to enjoy the trek regardless of the wet weather. As we arrived at camp the rain stopped and the evening sun began to set. The campsite was spectacular with a full view of the summit and the notorious Barranco Wall towering over the camp. The excitement of the following days challenge started to kick in. Everybody was connecting, sharing stories and enjoying the whole experience.
Day 4 and we woke up to a beautiful fresh morning. Spirits were high around camp and after breakfast we had the idea to form a human bicycle, sure why not? After plenty of laughing we headed off to take on the Barranco Wall, a steep 800ft rock that involved a lot of scrambling. A really enjoyable experience where every single step we took needed our full care and attention. Once we reached the top of the wall we sat down and celebrated our victory with some snacks.
We made our way towards Karanga Camp which involved crossing down through a deep valley and back up the far side. As we came over the ridge of camp, we heard some commotion, a member of another expedition had taken a seizure and was in need of a doctor. Thankfully our well organised team consisted of two doctors and they both attended to the scene. Faced with the seriousness of the situation we learned that there was no helicopter access to the mountain. This gave us all another reminder that we were in an unpredictable environment and very far from home.
That evening we gathered in the mess tent and played more games. We were at an altitude of 4000m and could feel the difference in oxygen levels as we experienced shortness of breath with any fast movements. After dinner, the porters gave us another surprise when they entered the tent holding a big cake and singing for our two birthday girls, Lynn and Sharon. Everybody laughed, sang along and enjoyed a cup of tea with their slice of cake. The vibe in camp was amazing once again.
Day 5: This was the big one as we were heading for our last camp before we attempted to reach the summit later that night. We enjoyed more singing after breakfast and said goodbye to some of the porters as not all of them were needed for our final camp. We set off for base camp at 4550m. Along the way we stopped for a break and were all feeling energised; maybe it was the sugar from last nights birthday cake? We decided to get a bit creative and take a few fun snaps.
We arrived into Barufu Camp; it was the highest point we would sleep at before we attempt the summit. The altitude began to affect some of the team members, causing lots of nausea and sickness around the camp. The oxygen levels were noticeably lower and the pace which we move around camp had to be extremely slow. It was the coldest camp we had experienced so far but the views were amazing. We spent the evening resting and eating as much as possible. The nerves were high but the few illnesses had caused the groups motivation to hit a low.
We woke up at midnight and packed our bags for the summit, a cup of coffee, bag check and quick brief was carried out before we left camp at 1am. Head torches and multiple layers of clothes were on as we started our 8 hour ascent. When we started rising the novelty of a night time hike wore off as we got a little taste of what was to come.
The sickness from earlier that day in base camp was still evident in the group. Some of the team members began to get worse but continued to soldier on. We had spent the last 7 days together, supporting each other through all the highs and lows we had experienced. We all knew how much it meant for each person to reach the top. It was simply heartbreaking to hear some of the team were forced to abort the climb and return to camp. The rest of us helplessly continued on without them.
The temperature was continuing to drop and a sharp wind began to come at us from the side. We added on all the layers in our bags and kept moving at a snails pace. The high altitude and lack of oxygen available meant we couldn’t cover our face from the cold without causing difficulty with breathing. Even speaking was a chore that affected the rhythm of our breaths. We continued on through the night mostly in silence. After a few hours the sandy incline was beginning to drain the group physically.
Next our water bottles and bladders started to freeze. To add in more pain, the wind began to blast sand down on top of us. The group was now taking a mental beating too. As we climbed higher we passed countless people from other groups being escorted back down the mountain with health issues, a constant reminder that nobody was guaranteed to make it to the top.
It was 6am and the sun was attempting to break through the darkness. There was a bit of relief in the group as we were now hoping the sun would heat us up and ease some of the pain. Many of the team were emotionally exhausted at this point and most people collapsed onto nearby rocks to get just 30 seconds of rest. One incident that I will never forget was seeing one of the girls break down crying saying she couldn’t do it anymore. Usually I’d find some words of encouragement but I was so drained that I actually didn’t believe that we would make it. I could not bring myself to respond and needed all my energy to try and keep my myself together.
It was around 8.30am when we reached Stella Point 5752m. The sun was up and we had daylight at last. We knew we had just survived 8 hours of absolute hell and we only had 1 hour of slight incline left before we reached the final summit. It wasn’t untill 9.40am on the 4th of Feb when we stood on Uhuru Peak 5895m. Hugs and cheers were plentiful as the rest of the team reached the summit.
We had all just faced one of the toughest physical and mental challenges of our lives. It was a rollercoaster of emotions and a group bond that very few people will ever understand. We were delighted to get back to camp that afternoon and be reunited with the full team. There was even some talk of never climbing another mountain again, but that was short lived and it wasn’t long before we had countless group adventures planned over the next couple of months.
During my week spent on Kilimanjaro I experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows of my life. But I am thankful for every single bit of it.
“Its not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves” – Edmund Hilary
Some special acknowledgments to the team of African porters who took amazing care of us throughout the trip. Team guide John Healy who played the role of both group mammy and walking encyclopedia. Earths Edge for an brilliantly organised itinerary. Dr. Domhnaill for keeping us healthy and Pat Divilly for bringing a group of life long friends together.