Kilimanjaro: The Peak Experience

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There is that moment when the indigo sky pales and the stars slowly vanish, yet the sun is still hidden. What time is it? You can’t guess. You are near the top of an all-night hike – one way, uphill – to the roof of Africa

It’s July and the air is biting cold, and you are standing near the equator. Your lips feel rough and numb, like they have freezer burn. For the past five hours you have thought about turning back. You might have feared you would fall asleep and wake up half frozen. Or tripped over your leaden feet and tumbled into the darkness, a human avalanche. You try to wiggle your toes but you don’t feel a thing. You beat your gloved hands together, move your fingers inside your gloves as if playing piano, not hoping to feel any sensation, but just to keep them in motion.

Somehow you persevere, putting one foot in front of other, encouraged by your Tanzanian guides, whose good humour on the trek is mostly welcome, but dang, they make it seem so easy! “Po-le, po-le, slow-ly, slow-ly,” they urge you in Swahili not to push too hard. As if anything about this was easy. And yes, “Hakuna matata,” they say with a lilt in their voices, “No worries!”

Now here you are, cresting the rim of the volcano. It’s light enough you can see your breath escaping like a ghost from your lips. You pause for a second and rasp for air, feeling your heart pound. Not just in your chest. You feel it in your throat. You’ve been breathing hard, as if you’ve been sprinting all night. Your lungs need to work like a pair of bellows, forcing thin air through them as fast as they can expand and contract, to catch what little oxygen there is in the air.

Those small packets of chemical hand warmers you had packed all this way for this night – you wonder why they stopped working. Their magic comes from a chemical reaction requiring oxygen and this is scarce at almost 20 000 feet above sea level.

You hit the lip of the volcano and a few steps over, the lip drops steep into the crater, miles across, with a sea of ash inside. You have made it to the top. At that instant, the sun rips across the horizon and it’s unlike any other sunrise you have ever seen. You realise it’s a star, a burning, orange ball that could blind you if you looked straight on. Its light transforms the faces of your companions to brass. As you gaze around you see summit glaciers for the first time, turned a weird yellow by the golden orb, like massive slabs of prehistoric butter. All Africa spreads below you beyond the horizon.

You have made it. You are at the top of Kilimanjaro. Exhilaration overwhelms you. You feel a tear – elation, exhaustion, you don’t know why. The droplet freezes on your face. You force your brain to think, to pull together the flashing sensations, stinging cold, your bucking breath. You feel alive like never before and you never want to let this moment go. Life whirls around you and in you and through you, and you only want to rest inside that great vortex.

Life means more because you made it here. It seems impossible that you did this on your own legs. Yet here you stand, limbs shaking. And if you could do this one impossible thing, then whatever else there may be for you in the world below, at that one moment you know that anything is possible for you. 

Source: Timothy Ward is the author of Zombies on Kilimanjaro: A Father-Son Journey Above the Clouds, a thoughtful account of climbing Kilimanjaro with his 20-year-old son.

Published by: Huffington Post. Reworked by Melissa Jane Cook.

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Bewitched by the magic of France, Melissa Jane Cook is an intrepid explorer. A lover of traversing the globe, she eagerly absorbs different cultures and laps up the magnificent oceanic experiences. Wooed by words and writers alike, her penchant for facials, chocolate, owls and bugs, is surpassed only by her fascination with the stage aglow in lights or bookshelves that heave with stories, where characters invite her along on their marvellous journeys.

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