If one has the time, the best way to prepare for Kilimanjaro is to climb Mt Meru, a neighbouring volcano, first. Not having done this, I know that the final push to the summit will be very difficult – 1262 m of rock and scree at an elevation where the lungs struggle to extract oxygen from the thin air.
We rise at 0500, depart at 0600. Only a skeleton crew will go to the crater while the rest of the porters enjoy a leisurely day in camp. Tobias designates Frank, a porter, to carry my day pack. The first part of the trail traverses smooth rock, after which we begin an endless series of switchbacks in scree.
Thanks to Tobias, who took these photos, I can view the scenery that I completely ignored on the way up; all I saw was the path in front of my feet. I’m so slow that Ernest has to ease the load on his back, repeatedly racing ahead to sit and wait. We begin to meet climbers from other parties who are descending with the help of porters; they have failed to make the summit. I put my head down and keep going.
As we approach Stella Point on the summit ridge, a huge glacier comes into view.
After ten hours and 1000 m of one foot in front of the other, I reach Stella Point, with Frank and Ernest singing and clapping encouragement. I collapse on a boulder and Tobias sticks the oxymeter on my finger: 68! I didn’t think one could live with that level of O2 saturation, let alone walk. Tobias wants to go on to the summit, about two hours away. I refuse; I want to enjoy the summit. So we drop down into the crater and reach camp in an hour.
While I rest in my tent Tobias walks over to photograph the glacier. These fragile spires of ice rising directly from the crater floor will sadly be gone in a few years.
Tonight I sleep like a baby and wake fully rested. We watch the sun round the higher slopes, glisten off the ice and gradually warm the valley. Our route remains in shade, however, winding steeply up rock,then snow.
Frank walks ahead of me with my pack in his arms. Ernest follows with his enormous load.
Two hours after leaving camp we sight the ugly sign that marks the roof of Africa. As an emotional moment, it would be hard to equal. I thought of my friend in whose memory I had made the climb. I thought of all the joy that climbing had brought me over a career that saw me on summits from Denali and Logan, to Huascaran in Peru, to Nepal, and to countless peaks in the Alps and in Canada from the BC coast to Baffin Island. I knew that this would be my last great mountain. Overwhelmed, I wept.
We took the obligatory photos, happy to have the summit to ourselves, at least for a few minutes. Then we turned away and started down.