Mountain of challenges

The only way to tackle Mount Kilimanjaro, also known as Africa's Great White Mountain, is to take one slow step at a time

Save for a sliver of moonlight and the darting beams from our head-torches, everywhere around us was dark.

Luckily, there was no chilly wind blowing, just crisp freezing air that infiltrated my thick beanie and numbed my ears.

Crucial reminders came up in my mind with each weighty step I took: Watch where you are going; do not walk fast; do not fall behind; drink water; take deep breaths.

If everything went well, we would reach Uhuru Peak - Mount Kilimanjaro's highest point at 5,895m - at sunrise. That is, if we made it at all.

I squinted overhead. It had been two hours since we set off at midnight, yet the faint glaciers that crowned the Roof of Africa still seemed so far away.

I was exhausted. I took a sip of icy water from my hydration pack and told myself not to look up again. Instead, I should just concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.

My decision to climb Kili, as it is affectionately known, was based on a whim. My sister had ascended the world's tallest free-standing mountain earlier in the year and raved about the experience. She said in jest I should also climb it to make full use of the expensive equipment she had bought.

  • GETTING THERE 


    The frenetic town of Arusha (above) is the base for Mount Kilimanjaro treks.

  • I flew on Ethiopian Airlines from Singapore to Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania, transiting in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. The tour company arranged for airport transfer to the town of Arusha, the base for most treks to Mount Kilimanjaro.

    TIPS

    • There are hundreds of local tour operators to choose from. Research is essential. We climbed with Tanzanian Expeditions (www.tanzania-expeditions.com) and found its price, service, guides and porters beyond exceptional.

    • Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is not cheap. There are trip, equipment and tipping costs to consider. We each paid US$1,900 ($2,600) for the seven-day climb package, excluding airfare. Daily tips range from US$5 to US$8 a porter, US$10 to US$12 a cook and US$15 to US$20 a guide.

    • Consider carefully which of the seven main routes to trek up Mount Kilimanjaro. The shorter routes may be faster and cheaper but more difficult, crowded and offer limited scenery. The longer routes allow better acclimatisation opportunities. Only the Marangu route offers accommodation in bedded huts; the rest have tented campsites.

    • Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro can be attempted year-round, but the best months to do so are from January to March, and June to October, when the weather is dryer.

    • Even during peak-climbing months, the human traffic is manageable as climbers are dispersed throughout their pre-chosen routes. There are many points for resting or overtaking even on the final converging leg to the top.

    • A five-month pre-trip cardio, muscle-building and flexibility training programme is highly recommended.

    • Remember anti-altitude sickness pills (acetazolamide or Diamox) and immunisation jabs. The essential ones are for hepatitis A & B, typhoid, meningococcal, influenza and yellow fever and recommended for rabies if you are visiting other parts of Africa. Schedule your jabs four to six weeks prior to departure as some - such as those for hepatitis B and rabies - require a few doses over several weeks.

    • Take along adequate climbing gear: good, broken-in waterproof hiking shoes, trekking poles (especially important during descent as they take pressure off knees), warm clothes, sunglasses, head-torches and enough batteries or portable chargers as there is no electricity supply on the mountain. Also, take along light, easy-to-dry clothes as the trek takes climbers through the four seasons.

    • Rent a private porta-john - it could well be the best investment of the trip.

    • The maximum weight limit for each porter to carry is 15kg, so take along only essentials.

    • Enjoy the journey, Mother Nature, the company of your climbing mates and the warm Tanzanian hospitality. Appreciate the sense of freedom and simplicity the mountain brings, instead of worrying about reaching the summit.

    SUNDAY TIMES GRAPHICS

    OTHER TREKS AND ACTIVITIES AROUND MOUNT KILIMANJARO

    • If climbing Mount Kilimanjaro sounds too daunting, there are shorter, less physically demanding hikes to the Shira Plateau or Baranco campsites within Mount Kilimanjaro National Park. Trekkers can explore the forest, heather and moorland zones and sleep in rustic huts.

    • There are three-or four-day treks up Mount Meru - Tanzania's second highest mountain at more than 4,560m. Unlike Mount Kilimanjaro, wildlife such as buffalo, giraffes and elephants may be spotted at the lower slopes because the mountain is set within Arusha National Park. The trek is a little more challenging compared with Mount Kilimanjaro as climbers ascend via its dramatic ridge line. The trail to the top also affords wonderful views of Mount Kilimanjaro.

    • Northern Tanzania is famous for its wildlife and safari trips. The same tour operators that offer mountain climbs usually organise multi-day safari trips to Arusha National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area and other national parks such as Tarangire, Lake Manyara and the world-famous Serengeti. Some tour options cover beautiful lakes (Lake Eyasi, Lake Natron) in the area. Depending on time of year, it is also possible to witness the great wildebeest migration while on safari.

So when my good friend Shuxian asked if I wanted to climb Kili, together with two of her outdoorsy mates, it was as if a higher force was nudging me to just do it. Despite fears that I would be a liability to them, I decided to go for it.

Kili, which the tribal Maasai also call the Great White Mountain, is one of the more accessible of the world's Seven Summits - or the tallest mountains in each of the seven continents.

These peaks include North America's Mount Denali (6,190m), South America's Mount Aconcagua (6,961m), Europe's Mount Elbrus (5,642m) as well as Earth's highest point - Asia's Mount Everest (8,848m).

While scaling Kilimanjaro does not require technical climbing skills, it demands physical and mental preparation. Due to its height, climbers are also prone to suffer altitude sickness.

The low oxygen level above 3,000m causes most people to experience shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, loss of appetite and, in extreme cases, disorientation and fluid build-up in the lungs and brain - which is life-threatening.

Climbers take anti-altitude sickness pills and "climb high, sleep low", where they trek slowly to higher elevations, then descend and spend the night at lower altitudes to help their bodies acclimatise.

There are seven main routes up Kili, which take between five and nine days to complete. The longer routes have higher success rates because climbers progress at a gentler pace through Kili's five alpine zones. They also offer varying perspectives of its three volcanic cones - Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo, where Uhuru Peak sits at its crater rim.

The day before the climb, our guide Tumaini checked our climbing equipment, briefed us on our route and sternly detailed the effects of altitude sickness.

He must have noticed my face turn pale and said: "Don't worry, we will get there, as sure as Kilimanjaro stands."

TANZANIAN LIFE SAVERS

Tumaini and his team of porters entertained us with Swahili songs throughout the mini-bus ride from the dusty town of Arusha to Londorosi Gate - the start of our seven-day Lemosho route.

Aside from the four of us, our climbing entourage comprised two guides, a cook and 16 porters, who were our life savers.

They carried our heavy loads and magically set up our mini-village of sleeping tents, mass eating area and a porta-john before we reached camp each day. They woke us, cooked fresh food and fetched water from streams to boil for our use.

After we departed for our daily trek, they stayed behind to clear up, before catching up with us and whizzing past with duffle bags perfectly balanced on their heads while greeting us with cheerful "jambo's" (hello in Swahili), "hakuna-matata" (no worries) or "pole-pole (slowly).

It felt like we were hiking up Bukit Timah Hill on the first two days as we passed through Kili's forest zone. I paused now and then to photograph the exotic flora and beautiful Shira Plateau, before we progressed into the heather, and moorland zones.

On Day 3, what began as a light refreshing drizzle gave way to hail pellets, then incessant rain throughout our eight-hour trek. The trek to Lava Tower was also significantly more demanding: We crossed several small streams and had to scramble across a rock wall in pelting rain.

Above 3,500m, we began to walk noticeably slower and became breathless easily, especially when climbing over rocks.

For the first time in my life, I felt the effect of oxygen deficiency in my body.

When we finally arrived at the Baranco campsite, everyone was drenched. Our tent was leaking at its corners and rain water seeped in through the tarpaulin base.

I was shivering, dirty and miserable. I thought of giving up that day.

The next morning, we awoke to find Kibo standing majestically behind our campsite, basking in the morning sun. Gone were the depressing clouds that had shrouded the campsite. Like excited children, we hurriedly placed our wet clothes out to dry.

Our treks for the next two days were short but steep. The barren alpine desert zone - made up of rocks, scree and the occasional wheeled-stretcher - was a stark contrast to the verdant plant life we had seen on previous days.

Ugly squawking mountain ravens also followed us around the Karanga campsite like hungry vultures.

We reached Barafu campsite after a three-hour trek. We were going to take it easy, have an early dinner and rest before our midnight summit push.

Then it hit me: I suddenly felt exceptionally tired and the urge to throw up. I made my way unsteadily behind a boulder near our sleeping tents and coughed out mostly air. I had forgotten to take my anti-altitude sickness pill that morning and was now paying the price.

At that moment, I saw a helicopter fly towards Kibo. Moments later, it flew back down. A heli-evacuation had taken place.

To add to my queasiness, I was anxious not to become the next victim.

THE FINAL PUSH

Tumaini led us single file, followed by Shuxian, myself, Songwei - an avid rock climber - and Yunlong, the strongest climber among us four. Behind him was Jared, our support guide-cum-oxygen tank carrier, in case anyone needed it along the way.

The final trek was the toughest, most physically and mentally challenging task of my life - so far.

In between breathless gasps and fleeting thoughts of surrendering, I counted Shuxian's footsteps, then mine. I tried all kinds of tactics to push myself, including imagining chicken rice at the summit.

What worked best was psyching myself to reach the next boulder, and then the next, and the next, one step at a time.

Songwei and I took turns falling asleep, only to be woken by Tumaini's shouts to stay awake as he noticed us wobbling off path. We continued to plod along, shoulders slumped. It was torture.

Then out of the blue, Tumaini exclaimed: "Guys, we are here... Stella Point."

At 5,756m, Stella Point sits on one end of Kibo's crater rim. Uhuru Peak is an hour's trek away, on almost flat ground.

Minutes later, Tumaini told us to turn around. The world was awaking and glorious streaks of yellow and orange had pierced through the horizon. Rising above a fluffy cloud blanket was ethereal Mount Meru - Tanzania's other famous mountain.

In the warm morning glow, I noticed our path lined with rows of short icy pinnacles that stretched down the mountain and into its crater. A distance away, glaciers and giant snow escarpments completed the surreal painting of the arctic zone.

I mustered the little energy I had and fished out my mobile phone to capture the view, just before my emotions overwhelmed me.

We continued towards Uhuru Peak, which by now had a number of climbers waiting to take their token photographs to mark their successful summit to the Roof of Africa.

At 6.25am, we had made it too - as sure as mighty Kilimanjaro stands.


•Ryandall Lim is a freelance travel writer and feels most alive discovering far corners of the planet with his backpack on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 23, 2019, with the headline 'Mountain of challenges'. Print Edition | Subscribe