July 2014 saw the departure of 23 Oxford students on a pioneering RAG expedition: a ten-day charity climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro with a fundraising target of £46,000. An extinct volcano, fourth of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains of each continent) and at 5,985m (19,340 ft), Africa’s tallest freestanding mountain would, we were told, be a breeze. So, with malaria pills and £47,583.93 of the most successful fundraising total in RAG history at the ready, we felt invincible.
As it so happens, it took us two full days before we even saw the mountain, let alone the summit. Days at the tail-end of the rainy season are not always clear, so our first glimpse of the mountain was not until the second day of our journey. It rose up out of flatlands, flanked by the occasional hill and blocking out the horizon — it was the horizon. In the lackadaisical fashion typical of those suffering in intense heat, we arrived at the foot of the wrong trail as the sun was setting. What followed was a three-hour race against the oncoming darkness through coniferous forest with our 26 guides, porters, and cooks. We were promptly fed a three-course meal of broth, rice, vegetable stew with strips of dried fish, and slivers of slippery mango with tea, in a carpeted dining tent.
Permit me to seize this opportunity to give you an insight into my level of hiking/ camping expertise: upon seeing the campsite, I exclaimed, “It’s like a music festival!” My boots were already worn in and I had not packed a coat; though I had been persuaded by my friend’s mother to bring an anorak on the eve of my departure. My sleeping bag was twenty years old and therefore twenty years too heavy; my rucksack had a few crucial rips, which somewhat affected its usefulness. Nor did I have a sleeping mat (which left my rock-studded posterior with many bruises).
Thankfully, the next day was easier. Although the morning was spent attempting to see through the thick mist that had settled overnight, after our paper-bag lunch of hardboiled eggs, fried chicken, and finger-length Tanzanian bananas, we managed to break through to reach visibility once more. The silence was incredible — although it meant my heavy pulse from climbing was all the more audible — and in our huddle of tents we slept beneath the unbelievably bright stars.
Contrary to our expectations of one more day’s hiking and a hugely desirous good night’s sleep, we found out at lunch the next day that we would be attempting the summit that evening.
Five hours of baking sun later, we came to Kibo, the last port of call for four routes. At midnight, we were told to fall into line. What followed was six hours of trailing across a steep scree slope by the light of the full moon, as the temperature dropped and our water bottles began to clunk with ice. Through the cloud cover, we could see the distant lights of Moshi and Arusha. We finally reached Gilman’s Point (some 5,700m) and huddled together as we watched the hinter- land of the sky burgeon into a deep, royal blue. This was the final point at which we could turn back but, with the determination of someone who had spent the last few months pestering people for money, I put one foot in front of the other. Collective delirium descended. My head felt as if someone had hit it with a mallet.
The sun was just rising as we got to Stella Point (5,739m), spilling over the horizon and giving everything a beautiful red glow. For the last 300m I had three guides alternating which of them was leading my arm and telling me I was imara kama simba (strong as a lion). We passed glaciers like the ones you see on nature programmes of the Arctic Circle. By this time, I was past caring. When we finally reached the summit, the sun was already high in the sky and we had three minutes to take a picture before the descent.
This took two hours and I slid all the way. We then had our last night camping underneath the stunning stars, next to a glacial waterfall. The temperatures soared, and we eventually reached the rain forests and Marangu Gate. After another long bus journey, we reached Nairobi, piled into a seven seater and concluded our incredible journey with alcohol and dancing. At home, it took a week to scrub the dust out, leaving only the near-hallucinatory memory of this mountain of scree, sky and silences of somnolent power.