Midnight. Pumpkin hour. Time to wake up. Camp, of course, is pitch-black, despite our unusual proximity to the sun at 4,600m above sea level. The temperature has already slunk down to -7°C and will only get lower as we climb higher.
There is nothing quite like Summit Night on Kilimanjaro. For five days we had inched our way up the curvaceous mountain’s sides, sweating through the rainforests, clawing our way up the near-vertical Barranco Wall, and gasping with wonder as our footsteps suddenly led us above the clouds. Several of our party had succumbed to altitude sickness and staggered on dizzy and disorientated, yet determined to not let the mountain defeat them. Our bones ached, our feet blistered. Dirt etched itself across our skin. That night we roused ourselves in the darkness already exhausted, yet determined to fight for the prize of the peak. We thought ourselves hardy explorers, forged over the last week to withstand anything. We were wrong. The climb to the summit would be unlike anything we had ever experienced before.
Hours and hours and hours of darkness, with only the pinprick of the headlamp spluttering on your forehead to light your way. Hours and hours and hours of biting, bitter cold. Cold unlike anything you’ve ever felt before. Inescapable cold. Cold so deadly we stopped shivering. And then there is the altitude. The thinning of the air. The desperate, failing gasping for breath. The weakness that drags you down with every step. The incurable thirst as water freezes solid in the bottles. The inability to swallow. The sheer tedium and boredom of seeing nothing, hearing nothing, feeling nothing for hours and hours and hours.
But there is the arm of the friend who steadies you as you stumble. But there is the whisper of an unseen companion urging you on, pressing wine gums into your hand. But there is the smiling guide removing his own jacket, at -13°C, to place around the shoulders of the struggling. But there is a voice in your head, tired and cold and insistent, which repeats with every struggling step I can, I can, I can.
Hours and hours and hours, but then the blackness starts to grey. A lick of orange starts to line the horizon. The sun stretches, rises slowly up, and the world around you suddenly bursts into life. And what a world! To your left icy glacier majestically raise their snowy heads. To your right delicate white clouds roll against the mountain like the sea. The rock under your feet glows golden. Warm tea is thrust into your hands and you can see the way in front of you. Three steps to the summit. Two steps. One…
You stand at Uhuru Peak, on the roof of Africa, on the top of the world. Here you stand, 5,985m up, above the clouds, above the birds, above all. Every step was worth it. You made it, you did it.
You will never be so close to heaven again.