x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Conquering Kili: semi-conscious at the summit

It's day four of my Kilimanjaro adventure. Peter's gentle voice from outside the tent wakes me up again at sunrise.

"Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak Tanzania 5,895m. Africa's Highest Point. World's Highest Free-Standing Mountain.
"Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak Tanzania 5,895m. Africa's Highest Point. World's Highest Free-Standing Mountain.

It's day four of my Kilimanjaro adventure. Peter's gentle voice from outside the tent wakes me up again at sunrise. "Coffee?" I'm feeling surprisingly positive; while day three had been mentally and physically draining, day four is an enjoyable breath of fresh air (albeit extremely cold air). It's time to tackle the Barranco Wall (also known as the Breakfast Wall as it's usually climbed in the early morning), a two-hour climb up a near-vertical wall of boulders.

A large bowl of porridge and off I go. Stashing our walking poles, Razan, Charles, Salim and I scramble up rocks, enjoying using our hands and feet to hoist ourselves higher; a welcome change from the repetitive trekking all week. The constant stopping before and after each false peak means that there is a bit of traffic with fellow climbers, or as I see it, an opportunity to socialise. We bump into the Danish trio we had met on the first day. It's fun and reassuring to compare our feelings of anxiety and achievement. We encourage each other and continue with our rock climbing.

Now above another layer of clouds, we can see the glaciers we have to trek to reach the summit the following night. We walk down through the valley ahead and across the dry alpine desert terrain of Karanga; this is the last place we'll be able to collect fresh water. The weather has gone from uncomfortably cold to unbearably freezing, especially when the sun sets. Despite my best efforts to fall asleep, the subzero temperatures at Karanga Camp begin to freeze my extremities, and we awkwardly shape-shift in the tent until we fall asleep.

Day five Oh dear, oh dear: Razan isn't well. The scene as I unzip our tent in the morning is a fantastic 45-degree horizon and ice-capped tents. I call out to Razan but she just rolls over and falls asleep again. When an avid photographer doesn't want to come out for the perfect shot, I know something isn't right. We are the last climbers to leave Karanga camp. In order to get a good rest before summit night, we have about two hours to reach the Barafu (ice in Swahili) camp. I belt out "Ain't no mountain high enough" to force a smile out of Razan, but after one verse and the chorus, I'm out of breath. There is no light-heartedness or plentiful oxygen in the air; only headaches and nausea.

We reach Barafu camp (4,662m) and can see the snow-capped peak in the distance, where we will begin to head at midnight. Charles forewarns me that I might have to go on alone if Razan doesn't feel better by midnight. My mind begins to wander and my body begins to freeze. I get into my sleeping bag, zip up the tent and place my hands on Razan's shivering shoulders. Please feel better, I think. We've come this far. We have to make it together. Two hours later, I finally fall asleep, only to be awoken by my bladder. One hour until summit attempt.

I stumble out of the tent. The full moon lights up the entire camp and I see other climbers getting ready. This is it. Razan follows me out of the tent. She has her headtorch on, her headache is gone and she's ready to leave me with. I'm relieved. Day six: Midnight - Pole, pole (slowly, slowly) in Swahili. Every time we think our pace cannot get any slower, it does. It's now approaching -15°Celsius and we've only just started. Our aim is to reach the Stella Point (the penultimate peak) by sunrise. Razan and I don't utter a word to each other. Charles has become very serious, urging us not to stop, or we will freeze.

2am - The firefly-like trail of headtorches maps out our route for the night, but I can't see any summit. Charles warns us not to look ahead so I look down at his boots. My closest friend gave me the best advice of what to do when I thought I couldn't go on: "Can you put one foot in front of the other?" This becomes my mantra for the next 10 hours. 3.30am - It's too cold to stop at all now, too cold to stop for a toilet break. I'm wearing two pairs of thermal underwear, trousers, three thermal tops, two pairs of socks, a shirt, a fleece, a gortex, a beanie, a cap and I'm still freezing. Razan is convinced she has frostbite. It's getting tough to continue walking. It's time for a boost. Razan had been saving her iPod battery for summit night and tries to turn it on. It's too freezing to remove her gloves so she attempts to press the touch screen with her nose. No luck. Her iPod is a block of ice.

4.30am - The full moon is like a floodlight over Kilimanjaro. Breathing becomes very difficult and I keep stopping and starting. Charles informs us that by taking rests together, we're hindering each other's chances to make it to the top, and he forces a separation. Razan and Charles go one way, Salim and I follow shortly afterwards. 5am- My legs feel weak. It's dark. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. I see a few climbers being dragged down with their guides; some look deathly pale. I begin to feel semi-conscious and scared. It wasn't a questions of will I, but how can I, make it to the top?

6am - My head begins to throb and my legs had become numb. The sun begins to rise and a solitary moment of warmth surrounds my body. I smile and admire the views, but can't take too long in case I freeze up. 8am - Stella Point is in sight. Two hours later, I collapse with no strength left in my body. Salim pulls a Dairy Milk (now a Dairy Ice) out of my backpack and force-feeds me. I use the sudden burst of energy to hoist myself onto my poles and we continue. Pole, pole. I want to cry but I can't. I don't remember much after this.

11.45am - Walking through a glacier, the famous brown sign is in sight. The final 10 meters takes me more than 60 seconds. "Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak Tanzania 5,895m. Africa's Highest Point. World's Highest Free-Standing Mountain." I briefly return to full consciousness and let out a joyful scream. I feel tremendous. I had done it. Unbelievable. Somehow my camera still works. As soon as I have taken in the panoramic view, we head down - very quickly. I begin to feel extremely dizzy.

1pm - I fall to the ground and pass out for a few minutes. I'm woken up with water, and continue down the mountain. 3.30pm - I can no longer support my weight, I'm not quite sure where I am, and my head is in severe pain. I begin to fall over after every step. I cannot feel my legs. Some porters have come out to look for us and grab me by the shoulders. It starts to rain. 4.35pm - I open my eyes and see camp. I smile. Razan runs out of the tent and hugs me. I can tell from the petrified look on her face that I probably look like those ghost-like climbers we saw the night before. I'm placed on a stool in the dining tent and I pass out for about 15 minutes, to be awoken by Charles and Razan: "You did it!"

Day seven: We've just conquered Kilimanjaro and are on ahigh that makes the eight-hour descent easier to handle. The scenery and climate changes from glaciers to alpine desert to rainforest all over again, the reverse of what we had trekked through the past week. We sign out of Kilimanjaro National Park at the Machame gate: "Ismat Abidi, 24 years old, Uhuru Peak 5,985m (19,334ft), 11.45am". Razan, Charles, Salim and I are covered in dirt and sweat; we don't stop smiling until the bus journey into town.

Next week: Ismat explores Moshi, Arusha and Singida on the next leg of her worldwide tour.