The squabbling accusations of the crows faded into the distance and the peaceful emptiness of the mountain wilderness opened around me.
Above Horombo, the moorland plants gradually downsize; the great heather bushes become mere tufts and the giant groundsel slowly disappears. It is here that the altitude really starts to bite. Each step is just a little more taxing than the last as each breath delivers slightly less oxygen to your struggling circulatory system.
After a few hours of arduous climbing, a bleached wooden sign beside a meagre trickle of water warns climbers that they have reached the last water source along the trail. By this time storm clouds had gathered around the summit and an icy wind had started to scythe down the mountain side. Slightly bizarrely, a canvas covered truck lay abandoned beside the trail. If you could drive to this point, why was I walking?
By this point, my life was reduced to the shortest of short term goals. I can make it to that rock, I told myself, clocking a boulder fifty yards ahead. An isolated shrub was my next pathetic but ridiculously challenging target. But each of these tiny achievements brought me a little closer to the saddle, which would be the first real achievement of the day because after that the trail levelled off, just slightly.
The saddle is a bleak, lunar landscape; an empty, lifeless expanse of scree and rock bridging the five kilometre span from Kibo to Mawenzi. ‘Alpine desert’ is its proper classification but the emphasis falls on the ‘desert’ part of the name - don’t go imagining geranium fringed Swiss chalets or steep meadows speckled with pretty spring blooms. The saddle is over 4000 metres above sea level; the annual precipitation is less than 250 mm; the ground freezes almost every night and yet daytime temperatures often exceed 30 C. It’s a climate that is incapable of supporting anything more than a sparse population of grass and lichen; a hostile environment with an extraterrestrial character.
And yet it has that bleak, rugged beauty that is common to remote landscapes the world over. When the sun shines the saddle is a colossal bridge, a fraternal connection between two volcanic siblings: Kibo and Mawenzi. But when the clouds close in, the saddle is a cold, lonely place. And the clouds did close in; unleashing an unrelenting downpour that trickled around the hood of my rain jacket and blew up my cuffs. Slowly and imperceptibly the weather seeped beneath my protective shell.
It was now too cold to stop for lunch and although the altitude had induced a desperate thirst, it was increasingly difficult to drink since even the smallest sip of the icy water in my bottle caused a painful numbing of my throat.
When the rain turned to driving snow, and the numbingly slow pace allowed the bitter cold to take hold, I took solace from the onslaught, retreating deep into my own thoughts where I found the huddled, smoke filled warmth of a Chagga hut. An elderly patriach was recounting a well known tribal legend. His audience had heard the account many times before, but he was a gifted story teller and they sat spellbound as he retold the tale of how Mawenzi had received fire for his pipe from his younger brother Kibo.
Geologist’s assessments of the relative ages of Kilimanjaro’s three volcanoes fall in line with the legend, which is thought to derive from an eruption a mere 170 years ago. Despite its estimated age of a million years, Kilimanjaro is still classed as dormant rather than extinct. In fact, recent scientific surveys concluded that molten magma is present a mere 400 metres below the summit crater.
Which, from the saddle, equates to a molten mound of magma towering several hundred metres above you, encased rather perilously beneath the scree covered slopes of Kibo. Suddenly, those mighty rock formations do not seem quite so solid.
All this means that Kibo Hut has one of the most extensive under-floor heating systems of any dwelling on earth. Walking towards the door through driving sleet, it is hard to imagine molten magma seething beneath your feet. And as under-floor heating goes, it is supremely ineffective. It was three in the afternoon when we reached the meagre shelter of Kibo Hut. Climbers who had arrived earlier were already in bed, the hoods of their sleeping bags pulled tight around their faces. After plundering my pack for warm, dry clothes, I followed suit, grabbing a couple of hours rest before dinner whilst outside the sleet turned to snow.After dinner, my group assessed the outlook. It was then that we realised that the mountain had said “No”. Our warm gear was damp and snow was still falling. Our progress over the last kilometre had been so slow that we had been unable to maintain our body temperature as the mercury plunged below freezing. Hypothermia was a severe risk and at this altitude it could quite easily become an irreversible decline. The hazards were too great and the mountain would be there for a long time yet; we would return when Kibo was in a better temper.Abandoning our summit bid we set our alarms for six the next morning – in a burst of petulant insolence, we had decided to trek the entire 42 kilometres to the park gate the next day and sleep in our own beds that night. The mountain had won and we were in retreat but there was no need to endure another cold night holed up at Horombo.
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Last water on Kilimanjaro's upper moorland and below, the bleak, lifeless landscape of the saddle.
Mawenzi peak from Kilimanjaro's upper moorland
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