There is a banging on the tent. “Go away” I mumble. It’s pitch black, freezing cold and certainly not a time to be awake. The banging continues and all of a sudden I remember where I am. Barafu Camp, 4673m above sea level. Base Camp, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. It’s 23.00. I went to bed at 19.30. For someone who enjoys a solid 8 hours sleep a night, I’m not best pleased to be awoken, But it’s time to climb again. The final ascent towards the roof of Africa.
Last month I switched my running shoes for some hiking boots and headed out to Kilimanjaro. I was very much aware that this wasn’t just a stroll up a hill. After hearing multiple stories from colleagues, family and friends, good and bad. Along with comments of make sure you have this or do that and my mother saying “but you hate camping”. I knew I was in for a challenge.
After a morning of double and triple checking my bag, I set off for Heathrow thinking I was fully prepared for the challenge ahead. That is if you call being prepared borrowing the majority of your kit from others and wearing your hiking boots to work once. After meeting up with the lovely students of Bath and St Andrews University, I settled down for the 8 hour flight to Nairobi before transferring to Kilimanjaro International and finally arriving in Moshi at mid morning the following day.
With just one day in Moshi, the team and I arranged to head into the local market and explore the town. I always think that the market is the hub of a town. Here was no different. Hustle, bustle, smells and noise at every turn. Within the covered market, you felt very much like you could be in a James Bond film dashing in and around the stalls knocking over fruit, seeds and fish. It was also amazing to see how resourceful they are in Tanzania, making flip flops out of old car tyres and then using the remnants of the tyre to carry water around the stalls.
Not forgetting we were there to climb Kilimanjaro, we sat down for a full briefing about what was ahead with our head guide Yesse. Yesse talked through what the next six days would entail, what we needed to wear, eat, how we may feel, the distances we will be trekking etc. Every question I had thought up on the flight over had been answered and more so. I headed to bed full of excitement for the next day.
Surprisingly I slept really well. The next morning there was a buzz as everyone rushed around, loading their bags onto trucks. It had finally arrived. For the team their months of fundraising was finally over and they were on the way to the mountain. I am introduced to multiple porters and guides, many of whose names go in one ear and out the other. I shake their hand and say a polite “hello”. What on earth could we need all these people for? For each climber there is around 3 people to help carry equipment, our bags and food. I didn’t pack light and began to feel awfully sorry for the poor soul that had to lug my bag all the way up the mountain!
The first day is spent trekking through the jungle. With the weather being damp and misty it felt very much like we were trekking into the unknown depths of Kilimanjaro. Today I spent most of my time mixing with the team and getting to know everyone. My top tip for day one on Kilimanjaro is to ask your guide about the local wildlife that you are passing, as many of the plants and flowers you see are only found on Kilimanjaro.
As the group and I arrive into Machame Camp I am thrilled, but also slightly shocked to find the whole camp already set up, warm water brought to the front of my tent and an evening meal large enough to feed my entire university halls already prepared! I had been told mountain food was good, but I hadn’t expected some of the best soup I have ever tasted (cucumber soup… who knew!?) along with fresh avocado! To top off such a wonderful evening after all their hard work our porters and guides sang us a lullaby. A touching moment that featured at the end of every evening meal in camp.
On day two we made our way out of the jungle and above the clouds finishing at Shira Camp. From memory day two went by in a blur of walking, singing along to some music and a continuation of getting to know the rest of my teammates and guides. Along with our chief guide Yesse, there was Regin, who was a second in command and never stopped smiling, and then there was Grandpa Felix, who was always at the front of the group. Shira Camp was right above the clouds and seeing Mount Meru in the distance really put into perspective how far we had come and also how much further we had to go!
Day three came around before I knew it. It was at this point that I got it. I understood what trekking was about. Putting one foot in front of the other for many hours over several days. Before Kilimanjaro I had very much focused my time on marathons and running. A marathon is over in around 6 hours, quicker if you run fast. You can simply run and have it over and done with by tea time. Kilimanjaro, however, takes 6 days (4 up and 2 down). “Pole Pole” or “slowly, slowly” became an hourly saying to remind us to take our time. Something, that I was not used to.
Day three was also the day where discovered I wasn’t as immune to altitude sickness as I hoped that I would be. Throughout the morning trek up to Lava Tower, where we stopped for lunch, I had felt perfectly fine. However, as I sat through lunch a headache slowly began to creep up on me and I began to feel dizzy and breathless. It was at this point I stated “Do you know what guys, I think Kilimanjaro may actually be harder than a marathon”. To say this was bold. But it is for the following reasons I made that statement and still stand by it. You can train your body for a marathon. Two short runs and a long run each week and you’re on your way. You can learn how your body reacts, when it needs rest or an energy gel to pull you through the final kilometres. You simply can’t prepare your body for Kilimanjaro. You can break in your walking boots. Potentially take on that long walk in the Lakes your mum suggested. But, there is no way to know how your body is going to react to the altitude halfway up the mountain. For this reason it is harder. On my descent to Baranco Camp (3900m) altitude hit me like a ton of bricks. A pounding headache and the feeling of being unable to breathe lead to having to sit and listen to my guide’s advice and after much refusal, I gave him my backpack and once I felt myself being able to breathe again I carried on downwards..
Baranco Camp, I have to say was my favourite camp of them all. As you can tell by my smiling face in the picture below. Being able to see outwards into the clouds, and upwards to the summit and the overhanging Baranco wall which we would be taking on the next day was amazing. It was truly stunning.
The routine was becoming normal now, a 5am wake up call, a quick shuffle around the sleeping bag to get dressed and then shove everything back in the bag in any way possible before heading to breakfast. Breakfast consisted of porridge, pancakes, omelette and endless cups of tea (it’s a northern thing!). There was more excitement in the air this morning, compared to previous mornings. We were due to take on Baranco Wall and arrive at Base Camp by early evening. Everyone had the desire to make it Base Camp ready for summit night!
As you approach Baranco wall you can make out the trail of people scrambling upwards. The wall requires you to pull yourself up, swing your leg across, and at points hang on. I found the wall a lot of fun and a welcome change from walking. Today is a long day and you can really feel it, but it is a day where the team morale is at a high and with base camp in the distance we pushed on. Unlike all the other camps, base camp is full of hustle and bustle with people coming and going. Personally, after such a long day I couldn’t wait to crawl into my tent for some well deserved sleep. Before, I got the chance it was time for dinner and a final briefing from Yesse about the night ahead…
There is a banging on the tent. “Go away” I mumble. It’s pitch black and cold, certainly not a time to be awake. The banging continued and all of a sudden I remember where I am. Barafu Camp, 4673m. Base Camp. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. It’s 11:00pm. I went to bed at around 07.30pm. For someone who enjoys a solid 8 hours sleep a night, I’m not best pleased to be awoken, But it’s time to climb again. The final ascent to the roof of Africa. I sit up and lean forward. Uh oh. I feel sick. The altitude sickness was back. As I crawl at the tent, the freezing cold hits me, making me wish I had put on another jumper.
As we set off, in the darkness using head torches to light the way, I felt sick and dizzy. I shall leave out the unpleasantries which followed. You can pretty much work out what happens. At this point I must thank Yesse, who throughout the summit night listened to me moan and cry whilst dragging me up the mountain. He deserves a medal for putting up with me. I did reach a point where I thought I didn’t want to continue, but seeing the head touches of my team up ahead spurred me through to the sunrise and up to Stella Point. The final stretch to Uhuru Peak for most of the team was simply a case of putting one foot in front on the other knowing we were almost there.
In total the final ascent to Uhuru Peak, 5895m, took 9 hours. My plan to take my Kilimanjaro beer to the summit and drink it went out the window. The feeling of being at Uhuru Peak was incredible, though I was completely drained it was absolutely worth it. We only spent a short time at Uhuru Peak however, it didn’t matter. The team and I had done it! 5 days trekking, litres and litres of water, and several cases of sickness and headaches for 15 minutes at the Roof of Africa. Someone how it all seemed worth it. Just for those 15 minutes.
The journey down came as a welcome relief. My body began to feel normal and walking/sliding was easier as we made the journey down. Arriving back at camp and collapsing into my sleeping bag, completely exhausted and with no energy left it was strange to think that I had been stood on the Roof of Africa just hours earlier. The next thing I know there is a banging at the tent… dejavu? This time it isn’t pitch black it bright sunshine and time for lunch before beginning our descent to Millennium Camp. The mood was jubilant and by the time we arrive in camp spirits are high despite tiredness kicking in. Our final meal and lullaby was something I will remember as a highlight of the trip. By this point the team were like a family and jokes of the trip where going around the table, with laughter echoing into the night sky.
After a well needed nights sleep I woke and the only thing I could think of was get me off this mountain, very much a change from last night’s mood. As much as the mountain had become home, I was in desperate need of a shower, a bed and a well deserved beer. So much so, that I started walking down whilst some of the team were still exiting their tents and brushing their teeth. The final descent was filled with chats about the first things we were going to do when back at the hotel. Strangely, no one mentioned social media, after 6 days of no phone it seems as though we had forgotten about the constant need to update our followers and friends.
Seeing our final sign as we came off the mountain lead to even more cheers and celebrations. We had done it! Summited Kilimanjaro and made it back down again!
Once back at the hotel and showered I had a small amount of time for reflection and I have to give a special mention to all the guides and porters who climb Kilimanjaro each and every day. For the team and myself Kilimanjaro was a one off once in a lifetime challenge that we will probably never experience again. For those who helped us climb Kilimanjaro this is their job and livelihoods. Grandpa Felix who spent his time at the front of the group pacing us is a truly incredible man who now at 63 years of age still summits Kilimanjaro at least 1 a month. He first summited way back when he was 18 years and since then has trained many other guides including my chief guide Yesse! A man whose livelihood and life is Kilimanjaro. And yet his smile was just as wide as mine on seeing Uhuru Peak.
So, there we have it. Mount Kilimanjaro and absolutely incredible experience. Would I do it again? Absolutely.