Back in January when I knew I was going out to Tanzania for 5months I thought ‘let’s climb Kilimanjaro while I am there’. I was going. It was there. So it seemed the natural thing to do (at least it did at the time). I didn’t really thing about what it involved much beyond that! I knew a few people who had climbed it and that a group of celebrities did it for Comic Relief a few years ago so it must be possible. Besides I had been to Everest Base Camp a few years before, which is the same height, so how hard could it be?Over the coming months working in Tanzania I didn’t really think much more about it. June approached, the tour company was selected and equipment purchased. I did get quite excited about buying the equipment – new toys! But by this point I was starting to get quite apprehensive and wondering if I could do it. I had done no exercise since leaving the UK in January so was very unfit and memories of the Kala Patar summit day by Everest came flooding back – just how hard it was to walk above 5,200m due to the altitude. I thought I had better do some training so climbed a few volcanos and mountains in Uganda while I was there – I still felt unfit and the climb was rapidly approaching. But it was now too late to back out. To add insult to injury I was ill the week before so didn’t eat for 3 days! Not the best preparation.
Day 1 was a pleasant half day walks up through the rain forest to a camp called ‘Big Tree’ – so named as it had a big tree in the middle of the clearing. One thing that struck me about this at this point was just how many people and tents there were in this small clearing. Most of these weren’t climbers but support staff. For our group of seven we had 25 guides and porters to carry all our tents, food, equipment and most importantly the chemical toilet!
Our guides were trying a different route tactic with us. We were still doing the Lemosho route over 7 days but the idea was to front load it so we could have more rest on summit day and better acclimatisation above 4,000ms. So this meant for long days on days 2 and 3. Day 2 we hiked for over 12 hours to get to Shira 2 camp. We were so lucky with the weather, it was gloriously sunny but as it was the rainy season most of us didn’t think it would hold out. All expect one girl who believed it would stay dry – we then had a bet going that if it rained before we got to the summit she would sing and dance at the top.
The afternoon of day 2 was when we got our first proper glimpse of the mountain. We rounded a corner and the ‘oh sh*t’ moment rippled down the group like a Mexican wave. This was when it suddenly became real – were we really going up that thing? Could we really do it? Camp that night was at 3,900m and was quite exposed and windy. My -18°C sleeping bag suddenly didn’t feel warm enough at night.
I woke up on the morning of day 3 with stomach problems and had lost most of breakfast and last night’s dinner so felt fairly weak but not a problem – only a 10 hour hike today! The guides were making us walk at a pace which seemed painfully slow at the lower slopes but that would benefit us in the long run at the higher altitude. Feeling quite weak I fell in behind the guide and just focused on following his feet and getting into a rhythm with my poles. My eyes barely left his feet – I was focused on just one step at a time. Getting into a steady rhythm really helps to tackle the steepest of slopes.
To add to my weakness I soon started to develop an altitude headache. One of the worst pounding headaches you can imagine. At lunchtime I lost all appetite and food just tasted like eating cardboard– managed a couple of jelly babies though but that was about it. By this point the guides weren’t even letting me carry my day pack. But we still had higher to go. We were hiking up to Lava Tower (at 4,600mm) and then back down the other side to camp at 3,900m. Again I made it focusing on my guide’s feet taking one step at a time, developing a rhythm.
At Lava tower I wasn’t alone in the feeling rough, two of us had bad headaches and were feeling quite nauseous. When you are feeling that rough you start to hate the people who are jumping around and climbing rocks to take pictures – how come they feel fine? It’s not fair! But there is no logic as to who gets altitude sickness and who doesn’t. But after Lava tower it was all downhill to camp – easy right? No nothing on this mountain is easy!
The walk down was quite steep and rocky so not easy going. Added to the fact I still had a pounding headache and felt nauseous, it wasn’t much fun. I had got most of the way down when I realised that I was actually going to be sick. Now I tried very hard to be discrete in this hiding behind a rock but when most of the others are above you they can see over the rock! I was just very surprised how much came out – it was like the pringles crisps advert – once you start you just can’t stop! Oddly this made me feel a little better – at least when I had had some chewing gum anyway!
I made it to camp and went straight to bed. No dinner for me I just wanted to sleep. I think my friend was a little surprised to be asked for a bucket when she came to see if I wanted anything – think she was expecting me to say food or water or something! Unfortunately I needed that bucket several times during the night – it was a good job I wasn’t sharing a tent with anyone!
The morning of Day 4 I was feeling better but still couldn’t face eating. And the first part of the days hike was the Barannco Wall – a several hundred metre wall of rock that you have to scramble up on your hands and knees. Having not eaten for 36 hours, and been quite ill this posed quite a challenge and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it. Amazingly I did by taking things slowly, one foot at a time, one step at a time. I might not have been particularly quick but I did it. This showed me just how much further you can push your body and that it’s all down to mind set. Focus on the small things, the small challenges and rewards you set yourself (such as I’ll have a short rest when I get to that rock). And of course not forgetting the jelly babies – I managed to eat three of them and not feel sick!
The other thing that helped me on this climb was talking to a group of 3 English guys at one of the rest rocks. One of these guys had experienced the same altitude symptoms as I had done. This made me feel better knowing I wasn’t alone (as I was the only one in our group to feel so rough!). We saw these guys at several points through the day and this helped me get through the day (there were about 5 climbs that day). This to me was a good lesson for life – while it is good to surround yourself with people who challenge and push you (apart from my friend’s father, I was over 10 years older than the rest of my group) – you sometimes need people who are in the same situation as you to help get you through. The other one was breaking the seemingly insurmountable wall into smaller chunks and taking each at a time things soon become achievable.
By the time we got to camp that night I was feeling much better – I was able to face a little soup at lunchtime and even eat some solids (although not much) at dinner. I was also able to enjoy the outside singing and dancing we had with our guides and porters – this was one of the most surreal but special moments of the trip, standing around in the cold, everyone wrapped in down jackets and several layers singing and dancing to the beauty of the sunset and moonlight over the mountain behind. By this point it was also starting to look a little less daunting – I had rounded a corner mentally and physically.
Day 5 was a short 3 hour walk to summit camp at 4,600m. I felt good that morning and set off at quite a good pace with my guide. I wanted to carry my day pack but he wouldn’t let me saying I had to conserve my energy for that night. I felt a little cheated at this as for the first time on the trip I felt really good. We arrived at the summit camp about 12pm and had to wait a little for the camp to be set up and lunch was ready. Plan then was go to bed at 2pm until about 5pm for an early dinner. I don’t think any of us managed to sleep as people were arriving at summit camp all day. I wouldn’t have wanted to be one of the groups arriving at 5 or 6pm at night and then having to summit at midnight. I was very glad we front loaded it.
For the first time in the trip I was really hungry and to my delight this enormous plate of chips was brought for us for dinner. Not healthy I know but come on I had barely eaten for 3 days and was climbing a mountain. I have no idea what came with the chips but I just remember at the time these were the best chips I had tasted. I stuffed my face with them – but I soon got full as my stomach must have shrunk. After dinner it was back to bed again until 11pm. Again I didn’t get any sleep; this time was more due to apprehension than anything else. I was about to start a climb that was higher than Ben Nevis, at altitude, in the cold (-15°C plus wind chill) and dark having not really eaten for several days. What had I let myself in for ? But it was at this point that I realised I couldn’t let myself fail now. Kilimanjaro has a high summit failure rate (Roman Abromovich had only got to the height of the camp I was now at before turning back) but I wasn’t going to be one of them. If I could get up Barannco Wall feeling like I did, I could reach the summit. Even so I still underestimated the climb still to come.
Up at 11pm for tea and snacks (popcorn and porridge!) but most of us couldn’t really eat anything – and it was not just as a result of all the chips we had eaten! I actually felt nervous and apprehensive. Not backing out now though. It was very cold so we were wearing a lot of layers. Ski trousers would have been ideal for this. The aim was to summit as a group but we had 5 summit guides between the 7 of us in case this wasn’t possible (it wasn’t!). We set off with our head torches on – I soon realised that mine is worse than useless for anything other than use in a tent – but luckily the full moon was only 3 days ago and it was a clear, bright (if cold!) night.
The slow pace that the guides had made us walk to all trip came into its own here. We passed so many groups who just burnt out and needed to rest – we just kept going at our slow trudging pace, one step at a time up the climb and actually singing as we went up (for the first hour or so anyway!). When we looked up at the mountain (never a good thing to do as you realise how far away you are!) we could see the snakes of lights going up of the groups who had set off before us. My technique I had really perfected of getting into a rhythm of focusing on the guide’s feet was working well and after a while we discovered the group had split into two. My friend’s father was struggling with altitude sickness so she and her boyfriend were waiting with him.
Again the slow trudge up the mountain in the cold wind. In general I wasn’t cold as I had so many layers on (2 tops, 1 base-layer, 2 fleeces, down jacket and a 4 season hiking jacket on top) but my hands were really suffering. I had two pairs of gloves on, one pair of which were ski gloves but I still couldn’t feel my fingers. My camelback had frozen solid once we were over about 5,000m so I only had a 1 litre water bottle (wrapped in 2 pairs of hiking socks and kept upside down so it didn’t freeze) left to drink. Food wise, we all had pockets full of mini chocolate bars which we had saved for summit day – these became totally useless as they froze solid and we couldn’t feel our fingers to get to them – it’s not easy to eat a frozen snickers bar – hurts the teeth and jaw somewhat! Not that we felt like eating anyway but we did need the energy.
This climb up to Stella Point seemed to go on forever. The guide had said that we should reach it soon after day break. It felt like the longest night of my life. My mind had lost its focus and was thinking more of when will this be over, when is the sun going to come up rather than focusing on one step at a time. I became more aware of my sufferings and it was at about this time (about 5,500m) that I started to struggle. My legs felt drunk and I felt like I couldn’t control them. Every 10 mins I had to sit down for a few seconds, just to relieve them before I could go on. At first the other 2 left walking with me were grateful for the rest but as the stops become frequent they soon struggled with the cold so kept pushing on – the group was now split into 4 (which soon became 5 as my friend and her boyfriend had to leave her dad as they were too cold).
I don’t know whether this was due to lack of energy or lack of oxygen. In this case I think it probably was energy. I was running on empty and also dehydrated. I had some Haribo in my pocket but couldn’t feel my fingers to open them. My guide got them and kept them in his pocket and fed me a Haribo from the packet every so often. They gave me the short burst of energy I needed to go on for the next bit. By this point the climb was still just as steep but the terrain had changed – we were now walking on snow and ice.
I finally made Stella Point soon after daybreak. I sat down on the rock there so hard that I didn’t notice the overhang and cracked my head – this gave me a headache! But I was the lucky one as having been so ill earlier in the trip I had got over the sickness and was now taking Diamox so I was the only one of the group who didn’t suffer from altitude sickness on the summit day. The problem is Stella Point is not the end – its only 5,756m – another 150mtrs ascent still to climb but it’s around the rim of the volcano so takes a while.
This I had heard was the hardest part and I have to agree – it is really tough from a mental perspective (especially as you know that reaching Stella Point is classed as having successfully climbed the mountain!). It took over an hour to walk around the rim to the highest point, walking on snow and ice (sometimes a foot deep) all the way. And at this point people were starting to pass me on their way back down.
But I finally made it the summit at 7am in the morning and stood in front of the sign and had my photo taken. Most disappointed the old wooden sign has been replaced with a big green thing but can’t do much about that.
When we were all back in the tent afterwards – it was at this point that everyone said they burst into tears. The emotion that they had finally made it was released. I didn’t feel that at all. For me it was a case of I just want to get off this mountain as quick as possible! I was exhausted, hadn’t slept for 24 hours, cold and just wanted to go to bed – even if it was just a mat in a tent!
But what goes up must come down – which is often just as tough as the climb itself. The sun was now starting to melt the top of the ice/snow making it very slippery. I struggled to stay on my feet and fell over on multiple occasions just getting back to Stella Point (and to add to the embarrassment it always seemed to be in front of a large group of people!). The guide soon took one of my poles and we linked arms and walked like that. This at least kept me on my feet on the ice.At Stella Point we met my friend’s father who had just made it there. He had really struggled on the climb and had been suffering in a similar way as I had several days before. We all thought he was going to call it a day there but to all our surprise (including his own!) he pushed on to the highest point. My friend and her boyfriend then summited again with him. I was so impressed by this but I guess he was going through similar things that I had been through earlier. Not going to be beaten by this and although its technically conquered at Stella Point it wouldn’t feel right to ourselves if we didn’t actually make the highest point.
From Stella Point the descent didn’t get any easier. We passed the snow line but the scree had thawed so we had to walk down steep scree fields. This would have been tough at the best of times but at the level of exhaustion I was at it would have been quite comical to an observer. Needless to say despite my poles saving me on many occasions I still was on my bottom a lot! A bruised bottom was not one of the things I had expected as a result of climbing Kili I have to admit! The guide and I linked arms again after I fell and went over forwards over extending my knee. This really hurt. But we were doing OK as could be expected coming down together and getting down when 3 of our porters arrived they had climbed up from camp to help.
My guide was struggling a bit at this point with dehydration as to be honest I was – my 1 litre had just about gone and my camelback was still to melt. So one of the porters took my daysack off my guide and then took over from the guide at keeping my upright – luckily we had passed most of the scree by this point as he wasn’t as good as the guide at it! The other two porters continued up the mountain and after a while came down the mountain carrying between them one of the guys in my group. I was quite worried as thought something had happened to him but it turned out he was just exhausted – I guess it made me feel good that I was in a better state than him. His girlfriend came passed and we both confessed how we felt pleased yet guilty at feeling so pleased that my friend’s dad was over 2 hours behind us. This was because it meant we got more rest in the tent as we had to get up an hour after the last person returned!
Rest of the journey down was a blur of pain – my knee started to get more and more sore – I gave up on the porter at some points as it was easier to do it myself in places and I didn’t like feeling so helpless or reliant on someone else. That is something that I feel in like in general really and probably isn’t a good thing all the time. I remember starting to feel emotional for the first time when I was coming into camp and could see the tent. But I was determined I was going to hold it together and not cry. I thought crying was for wimps and I’m not a wimp (little did I realise I was the only one who hadn’t cried yet that day!).
A tent has never looked as comfortable as it did that day. It had taken about 3-4 hours to get down and was somewhere around 11am when I finally made it back. Staying upright long enough to take boots and sweaty clothes off before crawling into my sleeping bag was hard work. Despite all the noise of the people arriving back in camp or the people who would summit that night arriving at camp, I think I still managed to get a little sleep – not as much as I would have like though as by 2pm it was all up for lunch, tents packed away and then off again for another 2-3 hours down the mountain to then next camp.
When I got up and went into the mess tent for lunch the others were all sitting there. I took one look at them and then just burst out crying – I had no warning I was going to do it but the exhaustion and emotion just hit. It was then I found out that everyone else had blubbed like a baby on reaching the summit – which made me feel a bit better. I was so annoyed with myself though – why do I always have to do the silly things in front of people! The learning is not to bottle up emotions as they will come out – when you least expect or want them too!
By this point my knee was quite swollen and had gone stiff. It was painful to walk so for the next 3 hours I was basically in tears most of the way due to the emotion and exhaustion preventing me from dealing with the pain as I would in normal circumstances. Again I tried to hide this as best I could by walking on my own – this wasn’t hard as I was in quite a lot of pain so was much slower than the rest of the group.
Needless to say when we arrived at camp that night – I was the last one there by a long way – dinner was ready and it was eat and then go straight to bed. I slept like a log – nothing was waking me that night. In the morning my knee was a little better (I could hobble on it without poles anyway) so I borrowed some strong strapping and took some of the strong painkillers (left over from when I broke my coccyx) ready to walk down off the mountain to the cars and a nice hot shower.
At breakfast we had a final sing and dance along with all our porters – we were the only group who did that and each time we had people watching us – wishing they were part of our group. I know it shouldn’t be but it was a nice feeling to envied like that. But it wasn’t over yet – we still had another 5 hour walk down through the rain forest to the end. This started out OK. I developed a technique where I had to lead with my bad leg over obstacles as I couldn’t bend or jar it. It was quite effective but I suffered the next day with a very stiff good leg and hip! I managed ok for the first 4 hours but the last hour the painkillers had worn off and the knee was starting to hurt again. But finally I made it to the end – when I got there the others were all having a Kilimanjaro beer to celebrate. I had a sip but that was enough – not my favourite drink.
We had all successfully made it to the summit and back down again. The shower in the hotel was fantastic it felt so good to finally be clean after 8 days.
Man cannot live by Haribo alone – but it can definitely help get you up a mountain!