October 11, 2015 by lucyhames
We booked up for Kili about 5 months ago. Me, my travel bestie’s Sarah (from Himalayas fame) Sean and my new friends Allen and Claire. Me and four Irish as it turns out. Sarah and I started our training in earnest. Our first walk clocking in at 22 miles, packs on, sun blazing…preparation being key. This level of training continued and I was sticking to the pre-dawn daily gym sessions, pounding the treadmill, steep inclines, hiking boots and trekking gear on, my pack filled with weights…..committed/embarrassing. Six weeks pre-Kili I headed to the US to work for a month. Despite the 5am alarm I was managing to keep the training at a satisfactory level, right up until my back went in week 3. Agony. Training halted and as it turned out never to be resumed pre-trek. Not the preparation I was hoping for but still I’m sure most of this type of mountain success comes down to one thing alone… ALTITUDE.
We arrive at our hotel in Moshi around mid morning and head straight to rent the missing essentials for our climb. This includes our -30C sleeping bags and walking poles, the latter not something we’ve used before but we’re told that we’ll need them for the way down. Moshi Town is hot and dusty and full of anticipation for those about to climb Kili. After a delicious lunch we get to meet our guide, Dan, whose English is excellent as he runs through our itinerary for the Machame six day climb. We picked this route (known as the whisky route) as our research showed that, although it is one of the hardest and most challenging, it has the highest success rate due to the fact that it offers the most efficient way to acclimatise to the altitude with it’s ‘climb high sleep low’ opportunities. Annually approx. 15,000 people attempt to climb Kili and the success rate sits at around 40%. Halfway into my first Kilimanjaro beer I unfortunately witness a man in his 30s, having just returned from the climb, suffer a fit. Whilst it is obvious, due to the slow reactions of the staff, that this is not a regular occurrence, it shakes me to my core. This leads to an uneasy nights rest as I contemplate what lies ahead and ask myself the obvious question, why am I here?!
Starting Altitude – 1800m
Finish Altitude – 3100m
Trekking Duration – 6 hours
Terrain – Jungle / rainforest
Weather – Hot and humid
Difficulty rating – 3/10
I’m writing this at Camp 1 inside my tent. I’m listening to the sounds of my teammates chatting away and a team of porters singing african songs…It’s a pretty awesome setting. I’m currently wearing five layers, my wooly hat and heat holder socks and we’re only only at 3100m. It’s going to get a whole lot colder from here on in.
Day 1 starts slowly. I was up at 6AM to wash my hair (the last wash for six days) and to get ready for the off. I’m actually incredibly nervous, it’s like the bit before a race, I just want to get started I hate the waiting around, it just allows my nerves to get the better of me. My buddies however all appear to be taking things in their stride. After a substantial breakfast we meet Dan and we’re packed into a minibus with four other people and shipped off to Machame Gate to start. Through the dust and the bright colours of Africa we catch our first non aeroplane view of the beast that is Mount Kilimanjaro. Sheeeet! It’s Ginormous! Few words are spoken as we individually size up the mountain silently vowing to conquer it. We arrive at the gate and are surprised at the amount of tourists about to attempt the same feat. We have a lengthy wait while our team of porters (21 in total including our Saint Nicholas who will be carrying our private toilet) prepare everything we’ll need for the climb. Eventually Dan bounds down the hill and calls us to our marks. We’re off!
The start of the trek reminds me of Colombia’s Lost City. It’s hot, humid and the sounds of the rainforest fill the air around us. The conversation flows easily as we navigate our way up what is clearly a man made path. It’s not long until the path steepens and we’re immediately told by our assistant guide Lucky that we need go “polé polé”; ‘slowly, slowly’ in Swahili. The trek continues in the same easy/polé polé fashion for the next five hours as we ease ourselves into the trek. We arrive at Camp 1 by early evening and high five before posing for our first team photo.
Our tents are already set up, including our mess tent for eating and our ‘private’ tent which we are all very relieved to see. The first thing we do is make our tents comfortable and then we are bought hot ‘water for washing’ and a bar of soap as Julius and Livingstone, make us tea. Our chef Omari cooks us up a real treat and Night 1 on the mountain passes with plenty of good humour, great food , local song, and all under a full moon lit clear night sky… Until midnight, when yet again the curse of the trekking belly finds me once more, and Nicholas becomes my Saint.
Starting Altitude – 3100m
Finish Altitude – 3658m
Trekking Duration – 6 hours
Terrain – Rocky Moorland
Weather – Dry and cold
Difficulty rating – 6/10 (but made worse by dicky tummy)
I’m writing this at Camp 2, tired and dehydrated, but relieved to have arrived in one piece. It’s very cold.
After very little sleep we’re woken up with ‘water for washing’ at 6.30am. I feel like crap, but with very little preamble we are summoned to the mess tent for a quick breakfast of eggs and porridge, before we find ourselves on our feet in trekking formation. Immediately the terrain changes and before I know it we are scrambling up and over rocks. My heart is thumping, my pack is heavy and my stomach is churning. Up and up and up we go. Four and a half hours of tough glute-screaming steps which leaves our hands and clothes filthy from pulling ourselves up. The terrain is more barren, sparse, open and cold. There is very little wildlife here; only the occasional chipmunk or raven to be seen. My energy has taken a massive blow and the headphones go in to block out pain receptors. However, we finally arrive onto level ground and have a moment to take in the view. It’s impressive. It’s only day two and we’re already just above the clouds.
We arrive at Camp 2, under the shadow of Kilimanjaro, just in time to catch the most glorious sunset.
Over a simple dinner, Dan tells us that we did well today, but we have a big day tomorrow. I grab my imodium and as the guys play cards in the mess tent, I head to bed. It’s chuffing freezing.
Starting Altitude – 3658m
Finish Altitude – 3860m
Trekking Duration – 5.5 hours
Terrain – Lava ridges – more rocks
Weather – Dry, bright and cold
Difficulty rating – 6/10
I’m writing this at Camp 3 and yep you’ve guessed it, I’m cold! I seem to be feeling it so much more than everyone else, although based on how I feel the cold at home I guessed this would be the case. Never the less I wasn’t expecting to be in my tent each night ready for bed and looking like this….
I couldn’t sleep last night, I’m not very good at sleeping these days and if I’ve got stuff on my mind it’s hopeless…I have one very big thing on my mind. We wake up to the most incredible view of it, towering over our campsite. The good news is that minus the lack of sleep I’m feeling pretty awesome, stomach is stable, no headache so I’m keen to get moving. Today is a big day for us. Dan told us this is a tough day so we’re all fired up to see what this mountain will throw at us and how we will cope. It’s my first day of starting out in long sleeves and my boots…today I mean business.
This is my favourite day so far. We walk across lava ridges and head up and up to Arrow Glacier at 4876m. It’s an absolutely awesome a very cold and bright climb. Whilst we are heading high and the altitude challenges us, it’s perfectly manageable and the views we are getting are outstanding. I’m starting to feel ALIVE!! I’m really getting it now, remembering what it is like to see these types of views, to see the world from an entirely different perspective. To be standing above the clouds.
I haven’t mentioned the porters yet but this is the day that we really get to see what they do. They are firing past us carrying up to 20kg each on their heads or shoulders, it’s incredible. They are so fast and strong and we often offer out our snacks or juice to those we see struggling or taking a rest. It’s amazing the ground that they cover and the time they cover it in, some of them have done this around a hundred times, it’s unthinkable.
We take a well deserved break for lunch surrounded by ravens. It’s windy but we are sitting in between rocks. We brace ourselves for the second leg of today’s trek which is all downhill and back to 3860m (it feels a little painful going down when you know you have to go back up at some point)! We slip slide down sand and dust jumping from rock to rock. We really are all incredibly filthy now. It’s a long old slog downhill and our legs are like jelly when we finally hit camp. We get there in such a fast time we can’t believe it, its only 2pm! That’s a lot of camp time to kill…
We are brought ‘water for washing’ and this is fast becoming the highlight of my days…there’s only one thing for it..
My back is absolutely killing tonight. I don’t know if it was all the uphill or all the downhill, or most likely both, but it’s sore and I cover myself with Painkiller heat patches which has the added benefit of additional warmth.
Over dinner we ask about the following day’s climb. We are happy to have reached this point in one piece and feeling pretty good. Every time we ask Dan anything about timings etc he always gives us the same answer with zero commitment ‘it’a depend’. Surely he’s getting the measure of us and what we are capable of by now….seemingly he’s still unsure…well we’ll show him 😉 We discuss the following morning which involves hitting the Breakfast Wall. In the clear of the early evening sky I can see the wall….Game of Thrones eat your heart out.
Starting Altitude – 3860m
Finish Altitude – 4600m
Trekking Duration – 7 hours
Terrain – Breakfast Wall, rock climbing
Weather – Dry, cold in the morning, snow and rain in the afternoon
Difficulty rating – 6
I’m writing this at Camp 4. Last night sucked, I only had 3 hours of broken sleep with the weirdest dreams brought on by Malarone and altitude. 6 layers including balaclava, and for once I’m not the only one that’s feeling the cold. I am supposed to be napping right now, pre-summit but I just can’t.
We wake up to an incredible view of Kili, the sky is clear and weirdly from this angle the mountain looks much more manageable. After a hearty breakfast of porridge, eggs and pancakes (well I need the energy) we pack up and head off to chip away at the Breakfast Wall. Everyone knows I’m useless on the rocks but surprisingly this section of the trek becomes my favourite.
The wall is steep and we scramble up it sometimes so close to the edge it’s pretty scary and my adrenaline starts to kick in, I love that feeling! When I look up the wall reminds me of Colca Canyon, so I try not to look up, I really didn’t enjoy Colca. I focus on the task at hand. There are so many trekkers attacking the wall that there are the occasional frustrating traffic jams, but we are quite nifty on our feet so we make relatively short work of it whilst being overtaken by the incredible Porters carrying the most ridiculous loads. We also pass some of the kissing rocks, named as you have to literally stick your face against them to get past without slipping off the edge. For good luck I make sure I smooch every single one we pass.
It takes us about 1.5 hours to get to the top of the Breakfast Wall – not bad going. It’s taken us back up to a pretty decent altitude and as we walk on through the Karanga Valley we are continuously rewarded with the most incredible views. We are flying now, above the clouds, soaking in the scenery, the mountain, the thought of our impending achievement, it’s really giving me a lift.
Our last stretch before lunch is seriously steep, we are definitely working up an appetite here. We are forced to go pole pole as Dan keeps an eye on our energy levels for the big summit night. We circle Kili weighing it up and I’m sure all of us are thinking the same thing ‘tomorrow we’re on the top of that’…
The weather starts to change, the sun disappearing and taking with it any of the warmth and some of my positivity.
We arrive at our lunch stop on day 4 and surprisingly we have our mess tent set up and an actual hot lunch! We are also over the moon to see Saint Nicholas true to form has arrived ahead of us and erected our private tent….this is the best $20 I ever spent. We have chicken and chips for lunch although I lay off the chicken. I’m guessing they haven’t caught it on the way up and it is day 4. To be honest we would have probably rather not stopped for lunch and just kept on to camp. That’s the trouble with stopping, it makes it harder to get cracking again. Still at least we have some more energy now so we get ready to head off. As soon as we start to walk the snow comes. Wet snow and hail…awesome. We all whip out our waterproofs (Allen’s are fluorescent yellow) and march on. This is probably my least favourite section of the trek. In fact it’s pretty grim. We trudge on against the wind getting soaked for hours, we keep walking like this, saying very little except for the odd exchange of waterproof clothing ratings. This section is supposed to be way easier than this morning but the weather really drags it out and we cannot wait to get to camp. I barely look up once. The landscape is so different here, so baron and a bit depressing, very other planet like. I feel really drained by the time we reach camp from lack of sleep and crappy weather. I am reminded though how lucky we have been with the weather so far. After what feels like hours we reach Camp 4. On our way in we pass a group coming down from the summit, they look broken. We congratulate them all and every single one says exactly the same thing ‘just keep going’. There is a man at the front of the group who has had both of his legs amputated below the knee and is wearing prosthetics, honestly if that isn’t inspirational I don’t know what is.
We are all feeling the altitude here at 4600m and are tired after today’s trek. After an early dinner we are briefed on tonight’s attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. We will be woken up at 11pm for tea and toast, and will prepare for a midnight start. The aim is to arrive at the summit in time for sunrise. All we need to do now is take the next 4 hours to sleep…..argghhhhh easier said than done. I can’t sleep a wink, not a wink. It’s so cold that I can’t feel my toes. I lie with a hot water bottle at the bottom of my sleeping bag but I just can’t lie still. I have to move or I’m just so freezing I’m shivering like crazy. I’m distressed by the lack of sleep at this stage because I’m actually only just starting to really appreciate what the next 24 hours is going to hold….and quite honestly, I’m terrified. We are ‘woken up’ at 11pm. 8 layers on my top half, 3 on the bottom half, 2 pairs of gloves, a buff, balaclava and wooly hat….GAME ON.
Starting Altitude – 4600m
Highest Altitude – 5895m
Finish Altitude – 3100m
Trekking Duration – 13 hours
Terrain – Snow, rocks, scree,
Weather – Dry, unbearably cold
Difficulty rating – 10/10
The five of us, Dan, Lucky and God-Lizzen join the trail. I see having Lucky and God behind us as a massive plus. Lucky is actually rocking corduroys for the hike… outstanding. We join what appears to be an alarming number of trekkers heading up the one main route to the summit. It’s eerily quiet; all you can hear is the clink, clink of walking poles and the laboured breathing that comes with 4800m plus. Everyone is sporting their head torches. It’s like a religious procession; very quiet and very serious. Pace is such an important part of successful climbing and our team are immediately bothered by the groups of people whose pace is slower than ours, so we push every now again to overtake, which makes my heart thump uncontrollably in my chest. It’s undeniably cold. “Pole pole” we start our accent and immediately I’m struck by the thought that I honestly had no idea what this climb to the summit would entail. I hadn’t thought about the fact that we’d be making our accent through the night or what the terrain would be like. As we scramble up rocky steps and scuttle across flat steep rocks as wide as a road and covered in snow, I begin to appreciate the potential for disaster. Only a couple of weeks ago a man was sadly killed here by falling boulders. It’s inhospitable terrain. Sometimes I feel like one false move and it’s game over.
My back is already aching, I think made worse by tensing so much but also by the pack that I’m carrying. Only 100 or so metres up and the negative thoughts come… ‘Maybe I won’t make it.’ ‘Maybe my back won’t hold out’. I know from speaking to Kili conquerers that there is no room for negative thoughts on summit night. Negativity simply means you won’t make it…. I push on. Dan starts to sing a slow native song in Swahili as we progress. Although very few words are spoken by our group on this night, we agree that the singing is a good distraction and I begin to think to myself, ‘All you have to do is get this done is keep putting one foot in front of the other’
…. Simple right?
We seem to overtake a number of groups and it’s obvious we are walking at a pretty decent pace, although at sea level it would be little more than a crawl. Up and up we go, It’s maybe only two hours and a few hundred metres in when I can stand it no longer.
“Dan”, I breathe, “Can you take my pack?”
Lucky calls something to Dan from the back, and we stop. Dan takes my pack and suggests I start to use walking poles, my first use in five days. At this point I’m aware of how hard I’m finding it just to place my foot at each step. Later I am told it was like I was drunk; legs all over the place, stumbling, tripping my way up the first couple of hours. The poles help, they immediately make me feel safer, more grounded and the removal of my pack gives me renewed hope… No more excuses Hames, you’ve got this! It’s starting to feel so much colder.
Periodically Dan asks, “Is everyone hunky-dory?”
Our response to this should be, “Baba cubwa” (all good). Usually only one of us can bear to respond, so he lists out our names one by one until he’s satisfied we’re all OK. I know that each of us are fighting our own battle out here. Each one suffering in his/her own way, whether it be exhaustion, altitude sickness, the cold, hunger or fear. For me, it’s all of the above.
I’ve stopped a few times now, bent over my poles wanting to vomit, wanting this to end. Dan drags us on. We can’t stay still, it’s too cold and too dangerous. At a point half way the altitude hits me like a sledgehammer to the head, Dan calls us to a halt and offers some hot water. That’s all it is; hot water from a flask, but it’s like the Elixir of Life to us. It revives us all and a few of us tuck into a jelly sweet – the only time any of us any of us eat anything this night.
It’s time for the next push. I foolishly look up and see the mountain looming above me, the lights of those ahead of us so far up I think I might collapse with the futility of it all. It’s the last time I look up. From now on I only look at the feet of the person in front of me. I know I’m starting to lose it. My brain slips between rational thought and utter delirium. I know I must keep moving but I’m not sure I can. The nausea is hitting me in uncontrollable waves. My legs are like jelly, my hands completely numb. I can no longer feel any of my fingers or toes. My nose streams onto my balaclava and it immediately turn to ice affecting my breathing so much I yank it down past my mouth gasping for breath.
The oxygen is thin and I try to concentrate on keeping my breathing steady but it’s all starting to feel difficult. My thoughts jump between things I know will keep me moving: my family past and present, the charity I’m raising money for, and this once in a lifetime experience. Then in an instant swings to the ridiculous, blackout and emptiness. After five horrendous hours we mercifully reach Stella Point. There are a few people here and everyone appears to be celebrating. I don’t understand what’s going on, I know it’s not the top. Why is everyone so bloody happy? It’s freezing and I don’t know how I’m going to take another step. I collapse on a rock and think maybe I’ll just stay there. Then all of a sudden Dan, with a sense of urgency, tells us, “Well done, it’s not far now, but we need to get moving fast!”
I try to move with the knowledge that we’re almost there, but I can’t. God takes my elbow, pulls me to my feet and tells me in zero English that I can do this. He takes my poles as my hands are frozen and they’re redundant. He takes my hand in his and tries in vain to bring life back to them. I don’t speak, I just trust in God that he will get me to Uhuru Point; the Rooftop Of Africa.
Within maybe 20 minutes we reach the strait. No more steep incline, just the last stretch to the summit. The sun is starting to come up and the wind brutally slaps my face. My eyes and nose are streaming, my hand is in God’s and for what seems like the first time I allow myself to take in my surroundings. It blows my mind. The glacier to my left has materialised out of nowhere. It’s huge, vast, incredible. It looks like something from Superman or Game Of Thrones, but definitely not something you’d expect to find on this earth. I try to tell God its amazing, beautiful, but my words are mumbo jumbo. He just smiles, squeezes my hand, and urges me on. I can see the summit ahead of me with the signposts that mark the highest point in Africa (5895m). I let out a sob of relief and of overwhelming gratitude.
As the sun rises completely and the light changes to an orange glow I see my friends ahead of me and I have a moment of complete clarity. We made it, all five of us, and we are sharing a moment that so few will ever share; of facing a mountain head on, of pushing yourself way past your comfort zone. We stumble our way to each other to hug and to capture our moment on film as Dan bravely/foolishly removes his gloves to take a picture.
It’s taken us just over 6 hours to summit Kilimanjaro, that’s pretty impressive. It took me an hour to walk about 250m from Stella Point to Uhuru peak….
It’s all then a bit of a blur, we can’t hang around as we have to get back down to a lower altitude and fast. With every step I take away from the summit I feel better, stronger and more alert. We pass so many still on their way to the summit calling out to them “Well done, you’re so nearly there! Keep going!” Somehow my relief gives me the strength to encourage them onwards.
It’s just me and God now, picking up speed, slip-sliding down the mountain, snow and scree beneath our feet. He’s let go of me now confident that I’ve got this. And the only thought that occupies my mind is getting the hell off this mountain. It’s so bright now, the sun ricocheting off the snow. My sunglasses are in my pack on Dan’s back, and he’s way ahead. So I squint my way down a few hundred metres of blinding snow.
The team splits now, there is only one goal and that’s to get back down to camp as quickly as possible so it’s pretty much every man for himself. We conquered Kili very much as a team but we are all in different levels of discomfort, so the focus is to end that as quickly as possible. It’s a long 3 hours for me back to camp, stripping off layers as I go. At some points I’m running, then forced to slow down as it’s dangerous terrain but finally we all reach camp, exhausted and drained but at least able to speak and to acknowledge our success, briefly. Brutally, we are told we have only an hour to rest at this camp and to gather our kit because we are off again on a 4 hour trek to our day 5 camp. As we dive into our tents this news seems crazy, ridiculous, is it some kind of sick joke???? We literally just spent 6 hours climbing a mountain to nearly 6000m then 3 hours down and now another 4 hours….I’m furious! My feet are killing but at least I can feel them again. There were times up there that I honestly thought I would remove my gloves and a couple of my fingers would still be in them.
We have no choice but to get moving again and with heavy legs we kick off to get to camp as quickly as possible. We bomb it down the mountain and I take the lead for some of the way. It’s amazing how the removal of the fear of failure has lifted my energy levels and I feel like I’m on a mission. We make it to camp in 3.5 hours, legs like jelly but so happy to have air again, I’m taking big grateful lungs full of the stuff. We crash at camp and we all have the best nights kip ever. I’m not even too cold!! It’s a miracle!!
Starting Altitude – 3100m
Finish Altitude – 0m
Trekking Duration – 3 hours
Terrain – Jungle, rain forest
Weather – Dry, sunny and warm
Difficulty rating – 2/10
We wake up to sun and air and we are all sore but happy. After breakfast we are treated to a full song and dance concert from all of our porters, guides and even the park ranger (armed with AK47 naturally). Literally the highlight of the trek for me, we all join in to sing and dance and for 10 minutes we actually celebrate our success. It’s been a team effort, I realise that now. All 21 guys are over the moon that we made it. I realise it is part of their success to get us up there and that they really did everything they could to make sure we had the right comfort, gear, food and support to do it. They are congratulating us and their smiles and laughs are genuine and so warm that I feel part of something really quite special.
We only have 3 hours now, that’s all that is being asked of us and we chat our way down the last leg of our journey. On the way down we hear that someone has died coming down on the same night as us. It’s a massive blow and we are all left shocked and saddened by the news. It’s a stark reminder of how brutal the mountain can be, and is a sobering thought for us all. This news really makes me think about what we have achieved, about the frailty of life, about love and loss, about friendship, family and opportunity. I am so incredibly saddened by this story. We have looked out for news since but haven’t been able to find out what happened. I don’t think that I went up Kili as one person and came down as another (which I have heard so many people say of climbs) but I do think that this period of reflection on the way down will stay with me for a long time.
I am over the moon that I made it to the top. That was my only goal on this trip. Right up until summit night I’d say that the trek was pretty easy/enjoyable but that night was so much harder than I had ever imagined due to the altitude mainly and of course the cold…it was minus 20 up there! I am so grateful that I tackled this challenge with such an awesome team of people; Sean, Sarah, Allen and Claire. I couldn’t have wished for better company and I’m so blooming chuffed that we all made it in one piece and that I had such brill people to share the experience with. I am however a little scared of what the boys may be cooking up for us next…
So that’s it, another long-winded blog, but I hope it gives you an idea of the experience, especially if you did sponsor me. I have raised just shy of £1,000 for LOROS and that is something I am indeed very proud of, so thank you so much for your support.