Head in the clouds

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Head in the clouds

Kilimanjaro. Arguably the most iconic mountain on Earth. Many will only dream of the day they stand on its summit. Marta Maciejewska actually did it…

I sit above the clouds, in Kibo camp and look up at the mysterious top of Kilimanjaro, the Roof of Africa, called by Masai ‘the House of God’. Its snow-covered, majestic peak reminds me of all the dreams that brought me up here.

Pictures of the journey so far pass through my memories: hot, dusty plains of East Africa, cheerful children running around bare-foot, women wearing colourful dresses and waving their hands, fields of maize, strong men carrying enormous piles of banana leaves on their heads. I recall the humid jungle with Colobus monkeys playing in the branches, enormous ferns beside the path, the fresh smell of eucalyptus, the reflection of sublime and majestic rocky mountains in Mawenzi Lake.

Here the air is thin, making breathing difficult and every move challenging. I feel as if I’m watching myself in a slow motion film. The sun is setting behind the mountains; the soft warm light turns huge stones shining gold. There are other people around me and I can sense the atmosphere of hope and focussed determination before the final ascent the following night. We have all made it so far, so high up to 4750m. Will we be able to make it to the very top?

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I know it will be tough. It will be cold. The altitude will make me feel sick and weak. I know the challenge will be to keep walking; pushing myself outside my comfort zone; outside what I thought my limits were, yet there is an amazing reward waiting at the summit.

Abraham, our leader wakes us in the middle of the night, saying it is time to leave camp. The black sky is covered with thousands of bright stars and the bright Milky Way above my tent near ice-capped Kibo. The group meets in a communal tent for the final briefing; a last word of encouragement, a hot drink and a light meal. We all laugh and give each other a warm hug for luck.

We leave the camp and follow a narrow, rocky path up the mountain in complete darkness. Distant lines of torchlights suggest that other groups have started their climb too. The rhythmic walk puts me in a trance-like state of mind. My steps are heavy, slow, laboured. I can see my breath condensing in the freezing air; a myriad of tiny shining crystals. I can feel my heartbeat. The world outside does not exist, only this; here-and-now.

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In the deep silence of the night I hear a remote song. The sound is ancient, tribal, earthy and beautiful. It is sung by one of the local guides walking alongside. It brings images of people climbing the mountain in the past, about indigenous tribes, about the first expedition to the top, about a frozen carcass of a leopard, hidden close to the western summit. In this moment, nothing else matters but this profound song that gently carries me up the sacred mountain. I lose my sense of passing time.

We reach Gillman’s Point, 5685m, before sunrise. It is snowing heavily and my water bottle is completely frozen. Abraham hands me a cup of tea. A hot, sweet liquid penetrates my body and brings tears into my eyes. It is two more hours from here to Uhuru Peak, around the rim of the Kibo Crater, above ancient hanging glaciers and vast ice fields at the edge of the volcano. A silver frost covers everything around; the rocky path, stones, our jackets, my hair and my friend’s eyelashes all glimmer, covered in icy crystals. It feels surreal, like walking on the moon.

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I keep going. Each step is a conscious decision made to continue, not to give up, to stick to what my heart and my mind decides and to ignore what my tired and heavy body wants to do. It is so tempting and would be so easy to give up. Abraham appears, obviously knowing my thoughts. He smiles at me encouragingly, promising me that it is not far now. I smile back at him. Yes, I will make it!

The first sunbeam warms my face when approaching the peak. I can see the famous board on the top of Kilimanjaro. Have I really made it?! Are we all here? I look around and feel touched. Someone is crying next to me. Someone else is whispering that it was the hardest thing they’ve ever done in their life; people are hugging and congratulating each other. It is intensely emotional.

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Sunrise on the top of Kilimanjaro: the Roof of Africa, above the pink and gold clouds, where you can even see the curvature of the Earth and time passes at its own, ancient pace.

Marta Maciejewska is a Customer Operations Executive for Exodus. She summited Kilimanjaro on the Rongai Route.

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