On Sunday 16th July 2017 at 6.55am I summited Kilimanjaro with Mo, my mother-in-law. It had been the accumulation of 2 years of planning and preparation, walking plentiful Munros across Scotland, going to the gym several times a week, and talking LOTS about what it might be like to climb the highest peak in Africa. It took us 7 days along the Lemosho route to reach the summit, and another 1 day to descend. It was a significant challenge, but also an extraordinary and beautiful journey!
Needless to say climbing Kilimanjaro was far removed from my normal day-to-day routine which is, to be fair, pretty ‘kushti’, and certainly does not require much thought about oxygen levels, heart rate and where to go to the toilet (which turned out to be daily concerns on the mountain!). It was also a completely different environment, nestled in the heart of Africa yet the ascent took us through four completely different climates – from the thick jungle to barren desert, from mid 20C to -15C degrees. It was a physical and most certainly, mental, challenge.
Now that I am back at sea level and have had some time to consider the journey, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on a side of climbing Kilimanjaro that I have been able to find little written about since I returned. This being the ‘extraordinary’, and what some may consider ‘spiritual’ experiences, encountered on the mountain. Whilst I do not align myself to a particular religion, there were moments when the beauty and immensity of the journey probed at deeper philosophical and spiritual questions. I found this particularly valuable at a personal level, but it also made me consider the role that these experiences play in a broader society that in many ways strips us of these moments for philosophical and deeper thought. Perhaps finding these moments is what makes touristic experiences such as climbing Kilimanjaro so popular in our modern Western world…
During our 8 day journey there were numerous moments of reflection, and I guess the fairly long days of walking (usually single file), focusing on getting to the next camp, fostered this. However, there were a few defining points along the way that made a deeper connection more pronounced. Firstly, the environment was phenomenally beautiful. At night the stars stretched vastly across the sky and as we neared the latter part of our trip the Milky Way appeared brighter and deeper. One evening, myself and one of our group, Rob, stood and stared at the stars for what must have been half an hour. This combined with the silhouette of Kilimanjaro as a backdrop and the lights of Moshi in the distance made for a truly stunning scene and a real sense of ‘smallness’ in the immensity of the Universe. We were also above the clouds. The beauty of this took me by surprise, and even now when showing people the photos, I can’t stop pointing out the carpet of clouds laid out below us! Whilst not religious, I had grown up with the socially constructed image of what heaven would be in my mind, and this was it – I was seeing heaven. Secondly, the physical challenge and effects of altitude impacted people differently. For me, altitude did not effect me in the way I expected – most usually headaches and nausea – instead I could not sleep….for three days! By day four I was utterly exhausted, and had begun to have some rather trippy visions. To try and help me sleep I had started to meditate and on the third night had experienced a vision of a floating head of a bearded tribesman hovering over me! It was incredibly clear and difficult to shake, leaving me wondering the next day what it might mean…fortunately Mo, was carrying some Diazepam, and I managed to knock myself out for the following four nights! Although I am not one for usually taking pills, without these I am sure I would have either run out of energy or gone slightly loopy! Finally, summit night was perhaps the most physically challenging but also mentally exhausting experience of the trip (and indeed of my life so far!) . We arose at 10pm after very little sleep to start our ascent at 11pm. Not only was this surreal, but trekking at night in the cold and dark with nothing but a head lamp and the feet in front of you is somewhat of an assault on the senses! However, even in what was a fairly gruelling 8 hour trek to the top there were some truly wonderful moments. I saw my first ever moonrise over Mawenzie Peak, a stunning golden glow emerging over the cloud lined tops of Kilimanjaro’s second highest point. About two hours from the summit as I lifted my head to look towards the top where I could now see head torches disappearing, I also saw the most amazing shooting star. It literally appeared for the few seconds that I took to look towards the summit and shot across the sky in the direction we were heading. At that point in time, I don’t know why, but I knew we were going to make it.
We arrived at Stella Point, the first stage of the summit, as the sun started to rise. We walked for a short while longer before stopping, having a seat and some cold tea. We watched as the golden glow of the sun appeared over the top of the clouds, the glow somewhat more beautiful as it was the first warmth we had felt in 8 hours of climbing.
At this point I knew why there were stories of people finding God at the top of Kilimanjaro. Indeed the Chagga people believe that the underworld can be accessed at this point where the sky and the earth meet. According to this belief you may find heavenly paradise, or the gateway to the “ghosts”, depending on which gateway you pursue.
For me, I did not find God or indeed a gateway to another world. However, I did feel an extraordinary connection to the world at that point and the beautiful immensity of it all – so much so that my first reaction on reaching Uruhu peak was to cry. I had seen heaven at the top of Kilimanjaro but not in the divine sense – instead heaven appeared to me as a window into the breath-taking beauty of our world and the extraordinary possibilities that we have to experience it.