The One Where I Climbed Kilimanjaro
Before you read all about my Kilimanjaro adventure, please consider making a donation to my Just Giving page. Dammit – I’ve earned it! Also, I’ll be closing the competition for the £2500 Hasselblad Stellar camera at the end of play on FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 14, so please make your donations now to enter. You can find instructions HERE.
I will never, ever use the words “hard” or “difficult” in vain again.
When I went to my first meeting about climbing Kilimanjaro, Charity Challenge told us that it classified as “extreme fundraising”. One of my clients told me it was more painful than the time he had tuberculosis as a child. How hard could it be, I thought to myself. I had walked the Inca Trail (carrying my own pack the whole way) and run a marathon (albeit over 10 years ago). Those weren’t easy.
Now that I’ve done it, however, Kilimanjaro has become my yardstick for measuring how hard something is. I call it the Kilimanjaro Scale. The only thing that remotely comes close in my experience is childbirth. But frankly that only went on for a mere 24 hours. This lasted 7 days.
Of course, the first question people asked when I returned was: what made it so hard?
Ironically, that’s a difficult question. Not difficult as in “Kilimanjaro difficult”, but difficult in that it’s not really tangible or easily explained.
It wasn’t the physical aspect; it was the mental aspect. I am a generally fit person. I run. I have an active job. I enjoy the great outdoors. But you don’t have to be in great shape to achieve the summit (I wouldn’t recommend being completely unfit either).
The things I think you need to climb Kilimanjaro are a will of iron and a little bit of luck. A will of iron because you know that for 5.5 days, you are walking very slowly – and I mean veeeerrrrrryyyy slowly – towards a goal, while feeling like crap, wondering why you agreed to do this thing in the first place, and missing your family like hell. A little bit of luck because even a will of iron and being über fit do NOT guarantee that you will reach the summit. In fact, the only person in our group not to reach the final peak had both of these in spades, but altitude sickness doesn’t discriminate.
Speaking of the devil, it was the altitude. I don’t think there was a single person in our group who didn’t suffer from altitude. I expected to feel sick the closer we got to the peak. I didn’t expect to feel like complete crap at the end of the second day. With 3.5 days still to go until we reached the summit, I had intense headaches and nausea, which we treated with paracetamol and anti-nausea drugs (I elected not to take Diamox – the anti-altitude sickness drug – on the off-chance that I was miraculously pregnant. I wasn’t). Looking back at my diary for this day, I wrote: “Today was very hard and I’m finding it difficult to think about the other days and the fact that we still have 5 more.” After that, when we gained more altitude, the headache came back. And it came back in force on the summit night.
Ah, summit night. That was fun (not). We were awoken at 11:00pm for a dinner of watery porridge (most of the food on the trip was pretty good, but summit night was not a culinary masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination). By midnight, we were in a single file line and marching slowly up for the next 7 hours. I think the best thing to do here is share what I wrote in my diary:
“I expected it to be hard. I am not a complainer and believe firmly in the philosophy of just putting one foot in front of the other. But it was cold. And it was windy. By the end of the first hour of this 7-hour journey, I was starting to panic a little. My pack was heavy and the slow, constant uphill zigzagging seemed like it would never end.
“By the third pit stop at 3 hours, I was crying. I felt nauseous and I had a bad headache. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty and I doubted my ability to continue, especially if I had to carry my pack, which seemed to feel heavier by the minute.
“Thankfully, one of the guides noticed my distress. He offered to carry my bag. Rhiannon [our tour leader] also gave me some Paracetamol and anti-nausea drugs, so that helped, too.
“The walk got better, but not easier after that. It was relentlessly uphill and, even though we took baby steps, the pace was tiring.
“That being said, Richard was singing and Nick, Will, and Robin were discussing chocolate roulade at the back. Rhiannon said she had never led such an animated group up the mountain.
“She also said we had to deal with the toughest weather conditions that she had seen in all of her tours. It was extremely cold (-20°C) and windy – we even had a snowstorm at the top.
“So why was the walk so hard? First, we’d had little sleep. Second, the weather. Third, it was a constant slow plodding for 7 hours. Fourth, we were walking for about 5.5 of those hours on scree, which is basically coarse dust and moves underfoot and it also kept blowing into my eyes.
“The climb got harder and harder as it became steeper. The path zigzagged back and forth, always at an incline. The scree eventually became rocks covered in scree, which was slippery, and then it became just rocks (boulders). The final two hours were incredibly steep and we were climbing them in the dark.
“The guides were a great help. They sang and shouted out encouragements in Swahili. ‘Tunaweza!’ ‘Hakuna matata Kilimanjaro!’ ‘Pole! Pole!’ Milange, who was carrying my pack, was in the lead up the mountain, so I just slotted myself behind him and away we went. I just concentrated on my breathing and my poles. Pick it up, put it down. Pick it up, put it down. He would even shove the Camelbak tube in my mouth once in a while and say, ‘Drinky drinky’ because I was in no state to do it myself. Staying hydrated is really important on the mountain. Seriously, I couldn’t have climbed that mountain without him.
“In the final hours, the sun rose over the clouds as the full moon disappeared behind Kili above us. It was beautiful. None of us have photographic proof though because we were that tired and the thought of taking my gloves off to handle the little buttons of a camera – well, it just wasn’t going to happen.
“As I walked over the final rocks onto Gilman Point, I broke into tears. I was tired, my lungs were on fire, my legs ached, but we had reached the first hurdle. We all hugged in relief.
“But this was only the first hurdle. An hour and a half of walking still stood between us and Uhuru Peak [the highest peak in Africa at 5,895 metres]. Also, as soon as we passed Gilman Point, we walked straight into a blizzard.
“It was another hard slog. Mostly uphill. In a snowstorm. But we got there. More tears ensued.”
When we got to Uhuru Peak, the weather suddenly cleared up for us to enjoy the view from the top.
As soon as we had taken all the obligatory pictures, the blizzard descended again and we had a few hours of descent to hit base camp and then another couple hours’ walking to get to the camp where we would sleep that night. All in all, from midnight, we had walked about 15 hours that day.
I turned 40. I won’t ever forget where I was on my 40th birthday! I was climbing a mountain in Tanzania with 13 crazy people and 60 amazing support staff, contemplating mid-life and wondering if I could get myself up that mountain.
Would I do it again? Not on your life! But am I glad that I did it? YES YES YES! At the risk of sounding like I’ve just come back from Girl Scout Camp, I feel that I met 13 people who I will be friends with for the rest of my life. (Although, to be fair, I am not friends with anybody that I attended Girl Scout Camp with, and I went for about 10 summers). Well, at the very least, we’ll meet up for drinks once in a while and chat about the good ol’ days of Kili.
And we raised money for a great cause. Let’s not forget why 14 city slickers did this crazy thing. It was to raise money for Borne, a charity that we all believe in and that does work that touches all of our lives in one way or another. Collectively, we’ve raised £411,000 for Borne. The money will go towards preventing death and disability in childbirth and creating lifelong health for mothers and babies.
You can watch a short video of the trip below.
THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO HAS SUPPORTED ME, BOTH EMOTIONALLY AND WITH DONATIONS. I’D LIKE TO GIVE SPECIAL MENTION TO KERRY FROM BORNE, RHIANNON, AJ, DOC AND THE TEAM OF AMAZING PORTERS AND GUIDES. AND, OF COURSE, MY WONDERFUL HUSBAND AND BABY, WHO WERE BOTH NEVER FAR FROM MY THOUGHTS. YOU ALL ROCK!