Revving up for climb up Kilimanjaro

STERK Horn has loomed large in my dreams – and nightmares – for months now. It’s a 2830m peak that sits to the right of Cathkin Peak, the 3148m flat-topped mountain that defines the entire Champagne Valley in the central Drakensberg.

The last time we were there, two months ago, some of us managed to get to Level 3 of the 15 levels that make up the peak. It’s daunting.

In fact, on this Saturday morning, it looks impossible from the angle at the Monk’s Cowl nature reserve car park. “This is why we do the final ascent to Kilimanjaro in the dark, starting at midnight,” confides Trek4Mandela leader Richard Mabaso. “If you could see what the route was like in the daytime, your mind would play tricks on you. Instead, you just keep on going forward, step by step until you reach Gillman’s Point from Kibo – and from there to Uhuru, the top of Africa!”

We leave for Tanzania on July 12. My stomach is roiling at the thought. I’m not the only one. Nobody wants to be disqualified at Kibo Hut, the base camp, from doing the last push to the summit.

Mabaso is determined that everyone will stick together on the climb, practicing the discipline and the process that will be followed from July 14, when we set out from Marangu Gate hoping to the summit at sunrise on July 18, on what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. So he leads from the front, setting the pace.

It’s a blistering pace, way faster than the Pole, Pole Swahili for slowly, slowly that will be the mantra on the slopes of Africa’s highest peak. We race up to the Sphinx, stopping to de-layer, stripping off gloves, beanies and down jackets. The sun’s come out, it’s a little warmer than the minus 3°C when we started in the car park, but many of us are starting to sweat.

Mabaso lets us into a secret; we have to step it up if we are to summit Sterk Horn, which is why he concedes he’s been pushing the pace. He flatters and cajoles, giving everyone three minutes to do the obligatory selfies, have a snack and packs their outer layers into their backpacks before we’re off again.

Up onto the escarpment is known as the Little Berg, we head for Sterk Horn in the distance.

It is incredibly deceptive. The ascent looks very gradual. We are about to find out that it’s not.

Up past Blind Man’s corner, we stop in a thicket of trees nestled in a mini valley. It’s time to get real, Kili real. In Tanzania, we’ll submit in groups with the slowest going first. Here we’re allowed to split into groups to try to get to the top of Sterk Horn, the only rule is that wherever we are by 2 pm, we turn back and head down.

Everyone opts to be in the first group to leave, but within several hundred meters we are strung out on the slope, organically sorting ourselves into groups – the fittest and strongest racing naturally up the mountain.

The going’s hard, but at least the pace is far slower. It’s relentless, one foot in front of the other, up one level and onto the other. Eventually, you lose count of the levels until finally we can’t go up anymore but have to go around.

It’s steep, the path is narrow – mountain goat territory. The wind picks up and it’s frigidly cold, then it drops and all that’s left is silence.

The view is breathtaking and terrifying all at the same time. Eventually, we catch up with the front-runners. Guide Phumlane Ndumo has stopped everyone. There’s a berg adder that Tawanda Chatikobo almost put his hand on in front, but the bigger issue is that although it’s only 1 pm, it will still take us 45 minutes to summit.

Then we’ve got to head back and, because it’s midwinter, the sun will set by 5.30pm, meaning we won’t clear the park in time – and the last leg will be done in the dark but none of us has a torch. It’s an unnecessary risk.

We have to turn back. There’s disappointment, but nowhere near what you’d expect. It’s soon replaced by an incredible sense of achievement. The altimeter on my watch claims we have reached 2674m above sea level – an ascent of 1319m from the main gate where we started. Kibo to Uhuru Peak will be 1165 during the early hours of July 18.

The big difference though will be the altitude. First, we have to get back down, which is easier said than done. When I first started training and I saw people walking up and down the Westcliff Stairs with their walking poles, I wrote them off as posers. Now I’m using mine for dear life – as well as trying to hold onto tussocks of grass.

The slope on either side is sheer. If anyone falls we won’t be talking about broken legs but body bags – and still the trail runners run up and down past us. The record to get to the top of Sterk Horn and back from the Monk’s Cowl gate stands at 2 hours and 18 minutes. Put that in context, it took us five hours to go down to the gate alone.

Many did it inadvertently on their backsides, a couple of us broke our poles, some like Dikeledi Dlwati and Lynn Forbes had to master the very real fears of being so high up and so precarious.

Spirits revive over coffee and bacon and eggs, the talk turns to Kili, as always.

* The Trek4Mandela organizers thank Volkswagen SA and Mercedes-Benz SA for the kind loan of vehicles to ferry the group from Joburg to the Drakensberg and back