To summit, you must rise when the sun is asleep and walk across cratered terrain lit only by milky stars. A five-hour sunrise summit across five kilometres of rock. Good luck going to sleep the evening before. If you’re lucky, the previous day’s nine hours of walking exhausted you just enough to rest your eyes for a couple of hours.
If you manage to fall asleep, it’ll only be a couple of hours before Moses runs his hand along the outside of your thin tent to wake you, rustling the nylon fabric and disturbing the curtain of silence that settles over the camp.
“Good morning, Moses!” an optimistic hiker from the group you travel in chimes, waking up happy, as she does every time Moses calls out to her.
But it is not morning, it is midnight, and you will try to unglue your eyelids from your under eyes and crumple your sleeping bag just enough that Moses draws the conclusion that his was a job well done and that you are, indeed, awake.
You dress sitting down, shivering from the cold that is accentuated by the thin air strained of oxygen by altitude. If you grit your teeth and suck in the icy air, it makes your lungs ache. Long underwear, hiking pants, thick wool socks. A tee shirt under a long sleeve shirt under a fleece zip-up under your shell.
The grainy sound of the zipper being peeled back is stark in the silence. The camp has not yet started to stir, and the rest of the climbers are still fighting the good fight against the claws of slumber. When the tent flap peels back, your breath may catch as you observe the window of pure stars hanging high above the light pollution and smog of a city you haven’t seen in days as you’ve wound your way up the soaring, sovereign mountain.
Hiking boots over socks and gaiters over pants. The blue dining tent glows from within, drawing you towards it like a gazelle to a watering hole. Your stomach turns at the thought of eating: on day one, something in the water made your stomach rot and it has yet to recover. Weak from hunger and illness, you will keep walking.
Having forced down grim sips of hot lemon water and a couple of lightly salted crackers, remember to shove the remaining granola bars in your pockets. The pilgrimage to the top is about to begin. Now, other groups gather outside of their colonies of tents, laughing and chatting, some dancing in circles and yelling out over the ledge that separates the top of the mountain from the bottom. Their energy is appalling and fascinating. Your group stands in the quiet, no one raising their voice above a whisper, waiting for Moses to begin the journey into the dark.
Stopping at the check-in check-out desk, find your entry from the night before and initial next to your name in the right box to verify that your life is accounted for. If you have enough time, drag your finger down the pencil-drawn entries that list names, ages, nationality, and occupations. Robert Kline, an occupational therapist, aged 48 years old from the United States. Laurelle Blois, a primary school teacher, aged 35 years old from Australia. Campton Hancock, a circus clown, aged 13 years old from Canada. That’s a weird one.
You clamber up smooth rock ledges and avoid deep craters exposed by headlamps. If you look behind, you’ll see a myriad of twinkling lights bobbing as other hikers follow in your footsteps. The relentless darkness emphasizes the discomfort of the icy temperature; while it is not snowing, it is cold enough for metal hiking poles to permeate the thick, thermal material of mittens.
At some point, you begin to cry without making a sound, thin tears streaking down your rosy cheeks and dampening your neck warmer. It’s dark enough that no one notices, and your first expression of genuine emotion in days feels like a great liberation but also a slippery slope. One foot in front of the other, the parade climbs slowly. You must climb slowly to acclimate and avoid altitude sickness. You’ve been climbing slowly for days.
Stopping in the shelter of a massive rock, you sit. Moses kneels next to you and sees your tearstained face. He knows that you’re sick. He lifts a yellow water bottle filled with warm lemon water to your lips. You and Moses don’t talk – how could you? – as he nurses you. Then you keep walking.
Stella Point comes and passes, located at the crest of the most tedious ascent of the day.
“Congratulations,” the sign reads. “You are not at Stella Point. 5,756M/18,885Ft.”
The sky is expansive now. The hues of sunrise splash across the blank, cloudless canvas. Your tears dry as the first beams of sun warm your cold cheeks, burnt by the wind and the sun. Now that it is light, you can see the crusty snow that makes the extraterrestrial texture of the mountain seem scantily clad.
Keep walking for another hour and you’ll be on a ridge beside the glaciers of Kilimanjaro. You look at the optimistic hiker, the one who rose with joy every morning, and smile. She wanted to climb Kilimanjaro before the glaciers melted, and now she has done it. You feel just as proud of her as you do of yourself.
On the ridge, the element to battle is the wind. It lashes across your body, causing the breathable nylon of your windbreaker to writhe and snap against itself. But now, you can see the peak, the sign that will greet you, and it doesn’t even matter. Strain against the yearning to sink to the ground. If you sit down, you won’t stand back up. Moses reminds you gently, placing the clip that measures blood oxygen levels on your finger and giving you a satisfying nod. You carry on in front of the group, right behind Moses, closing the distance between you and the peak. The kind elderly man from the group is lagging behind, stopping to catch his breath after every five steps. You thank your lucky stars that you’ve got good lungs.
As you approach the peak, a group of hikers ahead of you turn back. The golden sunlight radiating from the now risen ball of fire in the sky is blinding, even through sunglasses. You try to stretch your chapped lips into a smile to match the energy of the climbers who are just starting their descent, but they crack, and you taste a bead of blood. The smile won’t work, so you settle for a nod of acknowledgement. We have summitted together, on this day, the nod says. Good work to all of us.
The crowd has cleared and you are left standing on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, peripherally aware of the ragged breathing of hikers that approach behind you to marvel at the very same thing.
“Congratulations,” the final sign reads. “You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5,895M. Africa’s highest point. World’s highest free-standing mountain. One of the world’s largest volcanoes. Welcome.”
New tears swell, threatening to spill over as you look through the dusty lenses of your sunglasses at the panoramic blanket of lower-laying land that surrounds you. You hear the tinny sound of an old iPhone speaker begins to play Drake’s “Started from the Bottom.”
“Started from the bottom now we’re here.
Started from the bottom now the whole team fuckin’ here.”
What a bizarre soundtrack for a bizarre moment. Inhaling the lean air, you accept what comes next. The descent. But in this moment, at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, you hope that part of you will always be at Uhuru Peak, because life is about perspective. It can be hard to zoom out, but it is imperative. Sometimes in this life, you just have to keep walking.
When the song ends, you can hear the distant cracking of glacial snow as the expanse of white is warmed by the intense sun. With one final 360º spin, squinting through your sunglasses at the climbers that surround you, the next journey begins.