I Conquered Kilimanjaro: What It’s Like To Stand On ‘The Roof Of Africa’

In 2012, 52,000 people climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest point, also known as “the roof of Africa.”

I was one of them.

I climbed the famed mountain in September 2012 with my mother, Nancy Barkan of Switzerland, and my sister, Jess, who was 17 at the time.

It took us six days to summit. Each day we hiked for about five hours, starting in an extremely hot climate. The humidity made it uncomfortable to sleep at night, and we were drinking upwards of six liters of a water a day to stay hydrated.

We eventually passed through five different micro climates, ending in extreme cold. On the last stretch before the summit our water froze, including water stored in a specially insulated tube. Luckily we had hot chocolate, but it was so cold I was unable to take off my gloves to get something to eat. My mum who really feels the cold had to be wrapped in three blankets for the final hour of walking before the summit. I think it’s safe to say she has never been so cold.

I trained for Kilimanjaro for weeks, hiking for 10 hours a day each weekend, and was very physically fit. I was an avid hiker and football player, but I needed to have endurance training. Still I could’ve been much fitter. When you’re hiking over a long period you feel any extra body weight you are carrying with you. I had however completed several 10-hour hikes in preparation and thought I was ready for the physical challenge.

The ultimate test

For me, climbing it was much more than physical challenge. Psychologically it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

The last 16 hours of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to Uhuru Peak — the final stretch that got us to the summit — are when I was most tested. We left at 11 p.m. on Sept. 12, 2012, and would be be walking for the next 16 hours, with just an hour to rest after summitting.

It was cold and dark when we set off. For the first seven hours I had my iPod on, with Adele’s second album, “21” repeating over and over. After nine hours of hiking, I’d had nothing to eat as it was too cold to take my gloves off and reach into my pocket. Besides, all the food we had prepared was frozen.

After nine hours of climbing with no food, you’re not sure you’re going to make it. Combined with the lack of oxygen, which affects everybody differently, you literally have to take one step at time. The guides tell you repeatedly “pole, pole,” which means “slowly slowly” in Swahili. I was only able to take two steps at a time before stopping and actively concentrating on breathing.

Once you feel like all you physical energy is gone, your mind kicks in and that’s what keeps you going. My energy was depleted, my brain was determined. I was two hours from the summit and I had the opportunity to give up. My mom was wrapped in an emergency blanket. We were both told we could just stop. Once she decided she was going to continue, I knew I had to as well. Together with my sister, Jess, who was 17 when we climbed.

We walked the rest of the way in silence, with the occasional “are you OK?” before continuing, step by step, pole pole.

Reaching the summit

Upon reaching the top, there is a huge sense of elation. The scenery is magical. You are well above the clouds and can see for miles across Kilimanjaro National Park. Behind you are glaciers. Even though they are melting rapidly due to climate change, they are still more than five meters (16-feet-plus) tall. The sun had just risen when we got to the top, casting a yellow light across the mountain. You can see other people coming up the summit, and there is a sense of community. Everyone is filled with elation at the realization you’re standing on the top of Africa.

Although the sun makes it feel a little warmer, the wind keeps you cold. I was eager to get back down the mountain. The chocolate bars we had in our pockets were starting to defrost, and they gave us much-needed energy for the hike back down.

All of our group of climbers were able to summit.

I was carried down the top bank of Mount Kilimanjaro by two porters, literally dragging my feet. I could no longer stand and every two steps my legs crumbled and I fell down. I finally made it to the bottom.

For my family, this was not just a physical challenge. My mother, sister and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro just after my mother split from her partner and the challenge was her way of moving on. For my sister and I it was an opportunity to support our mom in the only way we knew how, just by being there. The climb held something special for many other hikers as well.

What the climb means to others

Alistair Howarth, 28, from the U.K., climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in September 2013, with five friends and a private guide. They all reached the summit. He spoke to AFKInsider about what he enjoyed most about his climb.

“I love to be outdoors and Kilimanjaro is an accessible way to climb one of seven summits around the world,” he said. “You hike through four-to-five micro climates on your way to the only glacier in Africa, and it is stunningly beautiful.” Howarth recommends Mount Kilimanjaro as a starting point for those who want to gain more experience. “For me it was an amazing stepping stone to other peaks like Aconcagua (in the Andes, highest mountain in the southern hemisphere), and McKinley (in the Alaskan Range) and who knows, maybe higher,” Howarth said.

Amanda Chidekel, 22, of Switzerland, summited Kilimanjaro when she was just 13. She set out on the adventure with her mom and uncle so it was a bittersweet moment when she summited without them. “My mum and uncle, as a result of altitude sickness, did not continue with me to Uhuru peak,” she told AFKInsider. “I wept quietly for most of the hour-and-a-half walk to Uhuru peak, I so badly wanted my mum and uncle to have been there with me.”

Like many other climbers, Amanda raised money for charity — $13,000 for progeria, a genetic disorder where the patient ages at an abnormally fast rate. Amanda spoke about the importance of a shared experience. Without her mom and uncle there the moment was less thrilling, she said. “It was a massive accomplishment, but if I’m honest, I felt numb when I reached the top. My Swiss guide says he’s never gone back down to base camp so fast; that was how eager I was to be with my mum again.”

Many climbers add a few days to the end of their trip to go on safari in Tanzania. The Serengeti is widely considered one of the best places to go on safari, and has been well preserved thanks to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Practical advice for would-be climbers

Mount Kilimanjaro a fairly accessible mountain, but at 5,895 meters (19,341 feet), summitting without training would be difficult. Still the immense physical challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro continues to be popular.

Kilimanjaro is not a technical hike — meaning you don’t need special mountain gear or ropes or even previous mountain-climbing experience — but it is the highest mountain in Africa. The altitude can cause problems for many hikers — vomiting, dizziness and fatigue — and if you don’t take enough time to acclimatize, you could find yourself in grave danger. The climb takes between five and seven days.

There are seven routes you can take to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, all with different degrees of difficulty. Only one requires technical climbing.

The Marangu trail has been nicknamed the Coca-Cola route, as park rangers would sell bottles of the soft drink to hikers along the way. Additionally it’s the easiest route, and until recently, the most popular.

Umbwe is the most difficult route but has some of the best scenery, and because of its difficulty it’s used by very few hikers. Rongai, on the north side of the mountain, also has few visitors because of its remote starting point but during the rainy season, this is the safest route as the north side of the mountain receives less rainfall. Lemosho and Shiro are arguably the routes with the best scenery, but are more difficult to ascend than the Marangu trail. The Macheme route, now the busiest on the mountain, is considered more of an adventure than the Marangu trail but has a low summit-success rate as climbers often underestimate its difficulty.

The joy of climbing mountains cannot be taught. George Mallory, the famous British mountaineer, said, “If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy…We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”

This article originally appeared on AFKInsider.com.

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