I wake just before 11pm to the sounds of the camp outside. As I move to start pulling on every layer of clothing I have over my thermals it becomes clear that the tent is collapsing in on me. Outside my porter shakes the thick snow, which has fallen whilst we slept, from the tent. I brace myself to move from the warmth of my sleeping bag. My porter helps me out of the tent. He will be sleeping in it for the rest of the night to look after our things.
In the mess tent everyone is full of nervous energy. I managed to get down a bowl of sugary porridge before helping a friend with her gaiters. I start to feel frustrated by the slowness of our start. After an age of packing up, putting on more layers and struggling with our huge outer gloves we were ready to set off single file into the night.
Only a few metres from our camp one of our group has to stop. Exhausted from days of vomiting due to altitude sickness she has nothing left to give. From my position further back I don’t know what is happening, I can only hope that everything is OK. And so sets the tone for the rest of the night.
Trying to capture the feelings of summit night feels like an impossible task. Every step through the snow, the relentless steepness of the path, the icy rain and wind cutting at exposed skin, no stars only the bobbing of torches of other groups further up the mountain impossibly far away.
We walk silently through the night, our guides cutting a switchback path through the heavy snowfall. Every few steps we have to pause, pause for someone who has fallen over ahead, pause for breath. We reach our first stop at a rocky outcrop after 2 hours, maybe more, it’s impossible to tell the time. A quick toilet stop, a quick snack and we’re moving again. It’s too cold to stop. 5000m.
Onwards we go. Up, up and up. Our second stop is in a cave. My snacks are frozen and I feel too sick to eat anyway. Everything is starting to freeze. My camelbak, my hands.
I want to stop. Every step is an enormous effort, not from the altitude but from the snow. Kicking my toes in to get a grip on the path takes all my energy. As the wind picks up I focus on my breathing. Wind means oxygen in my lungs. I feel like I’ll be OK once the sun rises. I don’t know what time it is. I don’t care either. I just want it to be over and in my mind the coming of the sunrise means we’re near the top.
I can’t move my hands and when we stop again King James, one of the guides sits me down, pulls my gloves off and starts rubbing and moving my fingers to get the feeling back. The pain is excruciating and I’m in tears. At some point the sun has risen but we’re still lost in a snow cloud.
The light has energised me and I’m ready to push on. Mentally I know we must be nearing the top and I concentrate on keeping my fingers moving in my frozen gloves. We reach Jamaica Rocks – two hours from the crater and the guides decide it’s time to have a hot drink. We’re running hours behind schedule and are getting cold. The warm water makes me feel sick and I start to fall asleep perched on a rock. I can’t really tell if I’m awake or asleep.
But I’m feeling stronger. I want to get to the top as fast as possible even though anything faster than my rhythm of breathe, lunge, breathe, lunge leaves me exhausted. Tony Blair is singing Bob Marley songs and I join in under my breath.
Somehow we reach Gilman’s Point. 5685m. I’m elated but I know I want to go on. I’m not finished yet. I find a bar of chocolate in my bag and manage to eat a few squares. We take photos, celebrating our achievement as quickly as we can, aware that most of the group are suffering badly from altitude, exhaustion and the cold.
Three of us are ready to walk to Uhuru Peak. I follow King James, placing my feet in the holes his feet have made in the thick powder to avoid deep holes. If I wasn’t so exhausted I might be scared. As we come around the crater rim the clouds clear and I catch sight of the view. Below are huge ice cliffs, sparkling blue against the white of the snow. The clouds seem impossibly far away, far far below. As we walk others who have been before us and are returning from the summit wish us well and assure us we don’t have far to go (they’re liars of course). My bag is taken from my back by another porter and I drop to a slow walk behind our leader JT. I’m not sure how it is even possible to walk slower but I do. My mind is so set on reaching the summit but my legs aren’t cooperating. I start to wonder how I’m going to get down. Every step towards the summit is another step I’ll have to retrace on the descent.
And then at an agonisingly slow pace the sign comes into view and I reach Amelia and Abbey who have got there before me. I can barely stand for a photo but we take a few, sit for a moment, have a group hug and prepare ourselves for the walk back.
I’m exhausted but the walk feels shorter. In no time we’re at Stella Point, then Gilman’s Point where I share my jelly babies with a group of Americans who’ve just made it to the crater.
Just below Gilman’s Point I spot a lonely figure on a rock. It’s Bertuse, my porter, waiting to take my day pack and help me back to base camp. As we start to descend it becomes clear that we don’t really have control of our legs. We slip, and every fall is a monumental effort to recover from. JT holds my hand as we slide straight down through the scree, handing over to Bertuse so that he can head on to camp to check on the rest of the group. And so we slide hand in hand to the bottom of the mountain. As I look around I’m not entirely sure how I managed to climb up it in the first place.
As we reach camp we are congratulated by the porters and guides for making it to the summit but commiserated. There’s no time to rest. We must eat and then start walking on to the next camp. As I enter the mess tent and spot the plain spaghetti I get my appetite back. There’s even grated cheese.
Walking down across the flat plain between Kibo and Mawenzi we’re racing the light. Before long we need our head torches to navigate the rocky path. At the camp washy-washy bowls and dinner are waiting for us. I soak my feet, sore but thankfully no blisters. Dinner is quiet and even though I’m exhausted I watch the lightning flashes in the clouds around Kibo in the distance. Getting into my sleeping bag it only takes a few moments for me to fall into a heavy sleep.