Outside the classroom, 17-year-old Cristobal Halffter embarks on an outdoor education and an adventure of a lifetime
Aray of sunlight shone on the horizon as I sat resting on the rocky earth of Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain and volcano in Africa. It was the sixth hour of the sixth and last day of our journey up the famed mount, and I was desperate. Our climb towards Uhuru Peak, its summit, began at midnight, which meant we had to hike in complete darkness for some time, making it difficult to see our progress, much less gauge how far (or close) we were to our destination.
The freezing temperatures didn’t help either. At the final base camp, the summit looked so near, but it was hard to breath in the cold, and we had to move very slowly to cope with the increasing altitude. We are still in awe remembering how our water bottles froze barely an hour from the start of our hike due to the chill.
Dawn could not have come at a more perfect time. Before that point, my patience had started to wear thin, and I was slowly losing all willpower to continue that final stretch towards the peak. The burst of morning light lifted my spirits just as it illuminated our path; after several hours of trekking in the shadows, there was nothing more gratifying than to see how far we’d come on our climb up “The Roof of Africa.”
We reached Stella Point, the rim of Kibo, the crater on which Uhuru Peak is located, soon after sunrise. From there, the energy quickly picked up as we knew that the summit was only 20 minutes away at most.
The last few minutes of our ascent proved to be astonishing, revealing magnificent views of the glaciers on the mountain’s slopes, its massive crater, and the everlasting landscapes of Africa. We finally peaked on the seventh hour of our climb, and it was a time of celebration for everyone. Nothing beats the feeling of reaching the summit, and realising that you are 5,900 metres above sea levels, and seeing airplanes coming out from the sea of clouds below you. It also felt good to be able to eat hot, comforting food while looking out to the breathtaking views, especially after several days of hiking in the cold.
Climbing Kilimanjaro was an experience I’ll never forget. Through the years, my mother and I would often go on hikes together, and during these shared adventures, we would talk about conquering this amazing volcano one day. That day finally came last April, and I was glad she could make the trip despite her busy schedule. It was such an amazing feeling to be together at the top of Africa, and I was grateful to have her by my side as I went through this challenging but thrilling and necessary excursion. I signed up for the hike through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a US-based non-profit organisation dedicated to teaching technical outdoor and leadership skills through extended wilderness expeditions, and besides being a true test of patience, it had certainly been an education for me.
Two days before our supposed summit, I decided that the pace of the group was too slow, so I sped ahead with KG Kagami, our excellent guide from KG Expeditions, a Kenya-based travel company that we enlisted to lead our hike. As more experienced mountaineers know, climbing must be done in a gradual manner so as to properly acclimate one’s body to the changing altitude. I did not immediately realise it, but my little stunt exposed my body to more physical stress than it could handle. I had to deal with constant cramps later that night, a severely upset stomach the morning after, and, as a result, fell behind the group by at least an hour. The experience taught me a lot about my own personal limits, and how I should always respect those who know more than me, including my mother, who warned me before I sped off.
She helped me recover and stay well during the trip by ensuring I drank the recommended six litres of water per day to prevent more episodes of altitude sickness. I also learned a great deal by watching KG and his incredible team of porters, who climbed so gracefully and persistently, even while they carried all our equipment and supplies on their heads. It’s amazing to think how they do this on a regular basis.Their resilience and strength are something to aspire to.
From Uhuru Peak—where we stayed for about a quarter of an hour, taking pictures and feasting on all the junk food we had saved for that moment—the rest of our trip went swimmingly. Our descent down the mountain was exhilarating as I decided to run down (along with a guide) one of the faces of Kilimanjaro with its sandlike terrain. It took us two days, including an overnight stop at one of the camps, to reach all the way back to the base of the mountain.
Before we said our official goodbyes, we sang “Jambo Bwana,” or the Kilimanjaro song, with all our guides and porters. Written in Kenyan, the song speaks about welcoming guests to the remarkable Mount Kilimanjaro and was a fitting end to an adventure so extraordinary not only in its grandness, but also in the sense of community and friendship it created among all of us. Our great hike lasted a total of eight long days and, even in all its ruthlessness, was definitely one for the books.