The roof 'of Africa' is on fire
The suns first rays paint the snow carved figurines atop Uhuru, Kilimanjaro, with a blazing inferno of pink. At 19,340 feet above sea level, there is a certain stillness in the air, a palpable pressure on your chest and an awareness of the effort necessary to move your feet slowly and steadily.
We departed for the summit, Uhuru, which means Freedom in Kiswahili, from Barafu Camp. Resting at 15,239 feet resulted in little sleep as oxygen levels at these heights are half what one is accustomed to at sea level. So waking up at 12 am was not a problem as our minds were on high alert. After piling on endless layers of pants, sweaters, coats and mitts, we checked our oxygen levels, flipped on our headlamps, switched on the Garmin to track our route and off we went.
Snaking our way up the pitch black vertex, one Swiss step at a time, passing a large Japanese group and a few others who paused to acclimate and take rest. Heading caution to the very severe risks that high altitude exposure can press upon the body.
Our guides John, Sanja, and Pogge were swift, cheerful and offered valuable insight from their hundred summits combined. Their jovial, early morning attitudes were a fresh perspective in the chilling mountain air.
"Jumbo, jumbo buena. Habari gani. Mzuri sana. Wageni, Wakaribishwa, Kenya Yetu, Hakuna Matata.
Kenya nchi nzuri, Hakuna Matata. Nchi ya maajabu Hakuna Matata.
Nchi yenye amani, Hakuna Matata.
Hakuna Matata, Hakuna Matata.
Watu wote, Hakuna Matata, Wakaribishwa, Hakuna Matata.
Hakuna Matata, Hakuna Matata."
The two younger guides were feeling the music on the fourth and fifth hour and sang their hearts out, dancing their way up to the final plateau. If I could have, I would have joined, alas the pressure in my head at such an altitude made it ache and my stomach cramp. It was best I kept my mouth closed. Instead I kept their rhythm and climbed on.
The sliver of the moon did not cast much glow, alas it painted an image in my mind of the white crispness we would encounter at the summit.
After five hours, the sky cracked along the horizon and our gaze was fixed as we stared in admiration from Stella Point. From here only one hour remained before we reached the summit. We took a moment to snap a photo, however when our finger tips were exposed to the arctic air we decided to get a move on.
Tracking our way through a snow tunnel, we were led near the edge which overlooked the world’s highest soccer pitch to our right. A few staggering snow formations meticulously carved by the wind, rose above this high altitude landscape. Somehow this place has formed a life of its own. Strange however, as it was a struggle to survive in the absence of oxygen, warmth and shelter.
The top layer of snow we walked upon was as crusty as the snow in the arctic, I recall from dogsledding adventures in university days. Who would have thought a feeling of home would arise on the roof of Africa. This is a special place, and the name Freedom had become a real feeling as we neared the peak.
The sun made its arrival above the horizon just in time for us to stand in amazement on the summit. Reflecting on each step that led us here, to actualize this dream. How worthwhile this early morning start truly was.
I congratulated my darling friend Felicia on this victory and cheered with our guides! Somehow the fatigue we had experienced walking all through the night in frigid temperatures, lacking oxygen and feeling a touch dizzy, had completely vanished in the new flavour of achievement. The sensation of positive emotions can override nearly any hardship we experience. One stands out in my mind. On this very day 19 years ago I said farewell to my sister whose fight against Cystic Fibrosis had come to an end. I vowed to keep her memory alive and and celebrate this life I have been gifted to the best of my abilities. I promised to meet her on summits each year to send my love a little closer to the heavens. I know she showed up to celebrate with us this day, which made the experience taste sweeter. We gathered round the company flag with our amazing team and I revealed the little Panda who had been tucked in my coat to join this adventure for a chilly celebration photo!
With this new high in our bodies, we felt light and took flight back down the mountain, racing with joy to a lower altitude that would relieve the pounding pulse in my head. Amazingly enough, we cut our descent time in a third! Striding long as we sprinted down the switchback racecourse that only a few hours ago we sauntered up by brail.
Vistas of the second largest mountain, Batian, in the distance and layering clouds below made it feel that this was the furthest one could be from humanity, otherworldly. Now I was returning with a precious memory and a story for the world. We hit camp and the next level of joy rose over us. Vibrant laughter, smiles and celebration with our camp crew who greeted us with tea, snacks and warm water to wash up.
I carried this little girls dream up to the roof of Africa, and here I stand.