Journey up Kilimanjaro – torturous, treacherous, euphoric!

By Kevin Ritchie

“KNOW your why,” enjoins Africa’s Everest hero Sibusiso Vilane. He’s not talking about the world’s tallest peak but Africa’s.

There are 46 of us and we are all trying to get to the summit of Kilimanjaro, 5895 m above sea level, on the day that Nelson Mandela would have celebrated his 100th birthday. We are all part of Trek4Mandela, an initiative launched in 2012 the year before he died to end the stigma around menstruation and drive donations of sanitary pads for girls in need.

It’s estimated that poor girls in South Africa especially, lose up to a fifth of their high school career, because of the shame of not being able to attend to their monthly period. The effects on their education are devastating, their chances of breaking the vicious cycle of inter-generational poverty nil.

Climbing Kilimanjaro, we are about to find out, is as much a metaphor for the mountain that these young women have to bear every single month.

We are doing the Marangu route, said to be the shortest of the five routes to the top of the world’s highest free-standing mountain – but also the one with the highest failure rate. It’s the oldest route, the one taken by German Hans Meyer in 1898, the first recorded successful ascent of the mountain. It’s a five day route that leads from the eponymous gate at Marangu village up through the magical rain forest to Mandara Huts and then on into moorland towards the stunning Horombo Huts which seem to sit 1000 m above a blanket of pristinely white clouds.

We will be climbing 1 000 m per day for the first two days. Day three is a short jaunt to Zebra Rock for the vertical geological striations that give it its name. It’s an acclimatisation climb to stave off the rigours of the dreaded and debilitating mountain sickness precipitated by high altitude.

Day 4 is the penultimate push, into the dry and dusky arctic desert and on towards Kibo Huts, the jump off point at the foot of Mount Kibo, the highest peak of Kilimanjaro. There’s time for a meal and then clad in our summit gear, we doze fitfully until 11 that night.

At 11, we set off, trudging, our headlights illuminating the heels of the climber in front of us. We can see nothing else. The temperature drops until it is mind numbingly cold, scything through the double sets of gloves we are wearing. We trudge on. Thankfully we cannot see the summit because of the dark night, if we could many of us would crumble at the prospect of what is effectively a five kilometre ascent on a gradient that never seems to be less than 60 degrees as the air pressure keeps on dropping.

Many of us will become breathless. Some will suffer crippling headaches, while others will lie helpless in pools of their own vomit. All of this, warns Vilane, is quite normal. It’s the price you pay for getting to the mountain top.

The mountain will ask you why every step of the way, but only you can answer. If you do, you’ll reach the top.

Dawn breaks for most of us just below Gilman’s, it’s been a slow climb. Torturous, emotional, spiritual, mental – and physical. All but two of our party make it to Gilman’s less than half though will continue on to Stella Point and thence to Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa. The snow is too great a challenge, too treacherous for some.

For all of us, it has been the adventure of a lifetime. Celebrating the life of the man who personified ubuntu, we have been gifted the true meaning of this on the mountain.

ON TOP OF AFRICA: Trek4Mandela climbers Kumi Naidoo (left) and Mags Natasen (middle) pose with expedition leader Sibusiso Vilane at Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the continent at 5895m above sea level, atop the world's highest freestanding mountain, Kilimanjaro. Picture: KEVIN RITCHIE