“Nobody said it was going to be easy” was a phrase that came to mind on several occasions during the final six-hour ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. The cold, the sleepless nights, the altitude sickness and the fact that we hadn’t washed in four days were quickly forgotten as we enjoyed the spectacular dawn from Uhuru Peak at 19,34 ft (5,895m). Already this has started to sound like such a struggle; the trip was supposed to be a holiday after all, not a National Geographic documentary.
Our group, two friends from UL, four porters, two guides and myself, had set out four days earlier on the 10th January. We had decided to climb via the Machame (Whiskey) Route. This is considered more scenic, is a day longer and slightly more expensive than the popular Marangu (Coca-Cola) Route.
Kilimanjaro is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. It is also the shortest distance from the Tropics to the Arctic on earth. The terrain, therefore, ranged from lush rainforest, to the rocky expanse that is the Shira Plateau, to broad slopes of scree, sand and the volcanic ash. The climbing for the first four days was a pleasure and took four to five hours on average. This meant that we had a chance to relax at the camp each evening, while our guide and master chef, Elvis, prepared food on a single gas cylinder that would put Darina Allen to shame. We had everything from your standard fare of scrambled eggs, porridge and jam sandwiches through to French toast, popcorn, pancakes and chips!
The final ascent was by far the most difficult pan of the climb. We left Barafu Camp just after midnight with every available stitch of clothes on us. However, it was the altitude that was debilitating and not the cold, which was -10 degrees. Out of the seven symptoms of acute altitude sickness mentioned in my guide-book, we had six of them. The only symptom we were missing was unconsciousness! To be serious, altitude sickness is a very real and dangerous threat on Kilimanjaro as your body can go too high too fast. Everyone reacts differently to the conditions and there is no special training that can prepare you for the challenge, although several climbs in the Maamturks didn’t do us any harm.
The trip will live long in the memory and the most common question that has been asked of me many times since I returned is: “Would you do it again?” “Of course, but I would turn the Irish Flag the right way around the next time!” is the obvious answer.
Written by Damien Hardiman
Published here 10 May 2023 and originally published Christmas 2000