The roof of Africa

For six days my daughter Lindsay and I trekked upward from the Lemosho Gate of Kilimanjaro National Park heading to Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, sitting 5,895 meters above sea level. The adventure began in rainforest, moved through heather-moorland, until we reached the alpine desert. One final change in ecosystem awaited as we prepared to trek from Kosovo Camp to the glacier through snow and ice.

Most groups trekking to the summit leave from Barafu Camp at midnight, reaching the rim of the ancient volcanic crater in time to see the orange and red hues of the sun’s light as it rises in the east. Our group stayed at Kosovo Camp, which sits above Barafu Camp, leaving us less distance and elevation to cover on the final push. We arrived at Kosovo Camp in the late afternoon on June 25th, had an early meal at 5:00pm, then headed to our tents to get as much sleep as possible before the midnight departure.

Summit day began in the early morning hours of June 26th, in darkness.

Waking just before midnight, everyone started to prepare. It was already cold outside at 4,800 meters, and it would only get colder as we ascended. Lindsay’s clothing plan was to put on everything she brought with her. She looked like Bibendum, the iconic symbol of the Michelin tire company. I honestly can’t understand how she was able to walk, let alone hike over 1,000 meters in elevation over six hours.

As we set off, the ridge and sides of the crater were clearly visible on a night with no cloud and a full moon. The snowy white patches on the mountain looked cold and unwelcoming. Stars crowded the sky, many forming the shapes of familiar constellations. You always know a clear night means the heat from the day has escaped into the atmosphere without any cloud to insulate the earth. This was one of those nights.

The first two hours went smoothly enough. Everyone had energy, enthusiasm, and good humour. With headlamps turned on, we hiked in single file, placing our feet in the footsteps of the person ahead. The trail was marked ahead of us, and behind us, by the small dots of light created by the headlamps.

From 2:00am things became a little more difficult as fatigue set in for many, and the diminishing atmospheric pressure meant less oxygen in our lungs the higher we climbed. One section of the ascent unnerved a few of us. It was very steep and exposed, and the footprints formed by groups from earlier days were icy after repeated thawing and freezing. A fall here would result in a very long and accelerating slide.

At 5:00am most of the group reached Stella Point where the trail meets the crater rim. It was windy and dark, everyone anxiously hoping for the sun to appear. Lindsay was exhausted and her feet were cold but she had stayed with the group without flagging. I rubbed her calves to get blood circulating back into her boots and one of the guides gave her some hot water.

But Stella Point is not the summit. Uhuru Peak is 150 meters higher reached by following the gradual slope of the crater westward. We set off again for another 40 minutes, occasionally glancing over our shoulders to look for the sun. When would it rise?

As we reached Uhuru Peak 40 minutes later, the sun appeared as a thin orange line on the horizon. The effect was mesmerising. Lindsay and I stood by the sign marking the peak to have photos taken. For the next 30 minutes I ran around the summit and the ridge trying to photograph the incredible vistas while Lindsay descended to Stella Point. I wanted to capture everything. The glaciers, the sight of Mount Meru miles away in Arusha National Park poking above the clouds, the jagged summit line of Mount Mawenzi, the plains at the base of the mountain thousands of meters below rolling toward Kenya, the snow capped ridge line, and the view into the crater itself. All with the backdrop of brilliant colour created by the rising sun.

For many reasons, this was a very special adventure.

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