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For some unknown reason I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. I say unknown, but in fact I’d wanted to do so since I climbed Mt. Kenya as a volunteer teacher when I was 18 years of age. The landscape was beautiful, although I’ll never forget the final ascent; a vertical scree slope which was agony to climb at all, let alone in the dark (…one step up, two steps slipping down…). Without ropes, we were only able to reach the third peak, Point Lenana, at 4,895 metres; and thereafter I had envied those who had climbed Kilimanjaro, the flat summit of which you could reach without ropes.
We reached the top of Mt. Kenya for sunrise on new year’s day, and so that was my plan for Mt. Kilimanjaro – to summit on 1st January 2013. Naturally I decided to climb in aid of Mental Health Research UK, which I’d set up with John Grace QC and Professor Clair Chilvers in 2008. Sadly, John died from a brain tumour in 2011, and MHRUK has since set up a research scholarship in his name focusing on schizophrenia – an illness from which one of his relatives suffers. So I decided to climb ‘Kili’ to raise money for John’s scholarship.
As none of my friends were interested in climbing Kili, I had asked my tour organiser to match me with others; I was keen for a more sociable climb. Tess, a student nurse from Boston, joined me, and after an inexplicable lengthy delay at the Machame Gate, we set off and quickly bonded. Almost as soon as we started trekking, it began to rain. I had chosen new year as a good time to climb not only because I wanted to re-enact my Mt. Kenya ascent, but also because the rainy season was meant to be over by the end of December. In fact it had barely begun. It seems the 2012 East African rains were late. My guides Sabbi and Moses had taken one look at my lightweight hiking boots and advised me to hire some more. I discovered within about half an hour of the trek beginning that my newly hired hiking boots that they leaked. Sadly, the scenic Machame route was constantly shrouded by cloud and/or a veil of rain and/or a curtain of sleet and/or snow. To say the entire climb was a washout would be an understatement!
Unlike on my Mt. Kenya climb, we only had to trek with small day backpacks, the porters balancing our larger ones perilously on their heads or the nape of their necks. Quite frankly, some of their loads were inhumane; the bags the size of a 12 year old child, with waterproof clothing conspicuously absent, and boots scruffy and ancient. We even saw one porter toiling up the muddy steep slopes wearing flip-flops. I was astonished to spot a female porter. How she survived in that male-dominated and physically gruelling job I’ve no idea.
At Machame camp, we had our rucksacks, sleeping bags and mats delivered to us - wet; a scenario we were soon to get used to and even expect. We were told to eat lots during the climb, and our guides recommended we drink 4-5 litres of water daily. The food remained varied and tasty throughout the climb. We were brought some delicious warm popcorn, followed by an amazing dinner - tasty vegetable soup and bread. Thinking that was all, we savoured it, only for a main course of roast meat, chips and a tasty vegetable stew to appear! We had orange segments for dessert. This was a marvel, as it was somehow whipped up in a tiny tent into which squeezed three porters and the cook; and it was created on a single gas stove with a handful of cutlery, utensils and basic ingredients.
On my discovery of this tent on my second evening, I quickly huddled just inside the flap, trying to warm myself by the gas stove. We were able to dry our socks and boots in the kitchen tent, although I lost two pairs of socks (now sporting burnt-edged holes) to the rather hazardous drying method of hanging them over the gas canister edge during the cooking process. What about the washing facilities, I hear you ask. I smile at the very suggestion. A porter kindly brought us a bowl of warm water every morning with which to wash our face. But there were no washrooms.
Day 2On the second day, we were woken for porridge, omelette, toast, banana and papaya, and set off at about 8.45am. We were told we would be walking for only around four hours as we had made such a good pace yesterday. Although I felt strong for the first three to four hours, it ended up being a six hour walk. Our strength began to dwindle, having been given the false hope that we would be nearing the next camp.
There was no rain until just before lunch, which chose to start thundering down at a particularly bleak, exposed spot. We passed a porter who was collapsed on a rock, complaining about his chest. Help was summoned by Sabbi, but we were told that the poor porter would have to climb to Shira camp (1.5 hrs away) to get stretchered off the mountain.
The endless rain was exhausting, as was the mud. I was grateful that I had no sign of altitude sickness, which I’d had no trouble with when I climbed Mt. Kenya. Unfortunately when we arrived at camp the tents weren’t ready, so we had to shiver for an hour waiting to change our clothes. The warm popcorn and roasted peanuts were gratefully received, as was the tea which followed. The hum of voices was incredible - the guides thought there were about 700 people in camp. We were meant to trek up the mountain a little and then down to camp again for an hour and a half to improve our acclimatisation, but Sabbi was too wet and tired himself. In hindsight, I wish we had.
Day 3During the first two days of climbing, I was largely feeling somewhat frustrated by the slow pace. I’m quite fit, and although I have occasional knee and ankle problems descending, I’m usually speedy on my way up any mountain.
On day three, at around 4,000 metres as we approached the Lava Tower, I hit the wall called altitude sickness, and that scenario was turned on its head. It started to snow/sleet and I noticed my breathing become very heavy and laboured. My stomach lurched, and I found myself doubled up, vomiting. I vomited again before reaching the Lava Tower. We were meant to eat a pack lunch at that point, but there was no possibility of that.
I was freezing and feeling very sorry for myself, but trudged on after Moses. It was too cold for Tess to walk at my snail-like pace, so she passed and carried on to the next camp. I vomited again. It was yellow bile. Each time I vomited, I heaved four to five times, and it absolutely drained me of energy. Strangely my eyes kept closing. Frostbite crossed my mind - my ski gloves were in my main pack being portered to the next camp; I had only thin fleece ones which were thoroughly sopping.
I thought I’d never get to Barranco camp, but finally I made it, and lay down for a while. I was pressed by the guides to try to eat, as I’d lost all my food and fluids. They insisted that even if my food didn’t stay down, I might gain some small amount of nutrients prior to its ejection. Taking their advice, I managed to force down a little food, but then vomited it straight back up again.
For the first time I began seriously to doubt my ability to reach the summit. To be perfectly honest, the need to ‘make it’ there substantially waned at that point; I felt absolutely dreadful and was seriously concerned about my health. I went in search of the advice of a doctor attached to another tour. A doctor called Emma very kindly spoke to me despite having no responsibility to so. She suggested that I should return to Moshi the next day if I felt no better. She enquired whether I was taking the altitude-sickness drug Diamox that everyone else seemed to be taking. I wasn’t. She said I should use it as a treatment rather than a prophylactic if I could find some.
Fortunately Sabbi did. I was warned that it would make me urinate excessively - and until you’ve seen and smelt the ‘longdrop’ toilets along the route, you won’t understand why this was such a serious negative! Before I went to sleep, I took my first Diamox tablet.
Tess had paid for a seven day trek, whereas I had paid for a six day one. In order to summit for sunrise on new year’s day I would have to trek all of the next day (inevitably slow-going because I was so weak) up the gruelling Barranco wall and down the valley to Karanga camp. I would have to carry on up another incredibly steep stretch to Barafu camp at 4,633 metres, and then, after only a few hours of rest, I would have to leave late at night to set off for the summit. This was not going to happen.
Although it had not even crossed my mind at the time, in hindsight scuba-diving in Mombasa four days before starting my Kili climb had not been a smart move. My aim of being at the top for new year’s day seemed entirely unrealistic and I let it go without a hint of regret. I developed a healthy respect for the mountain and the elements, and recognised quite simply that human beings are not adapted for life at such altitudes.
Day 4The next morning, I managed to eat and keep down a small quantity of breakfast. Whether that was down to diamox, I will never know. However, Tess had begun to feel unwell, having woken with diarrhoea, which was a new development for her necessitating a disturbing rush to the latrine at 4.00am. She had considered shortening her seven day trek by a day in order to remain with me. Instead, we both decided that our only realistic chance of making it to the summit was to take seven days and to trek only a few hours to Karanga camp that day.
Although still weak and tired, I felt much better, fortified by my small breakfast. We set off slowly. Tess vomited a small amount en route.
Sabbi felt satisfied that I had improved and I was fortified when he said he believed I’d make it to the summit. However, when we reached Karanga, Tess was exhausted and described a burning sensation when she urinated, suggestive of the development of a kidney infection.
Sabbi was worried about her and advised that she should return to Moshi the next day if she didn’t feel better. However, he said she would still have to hike to Barafu, as the terrain would be too difficult for a stretcher to negotiate from Karanga camp. Although I’d managed to eat some lunch, I regurgitated dinner.
It was new year’s eve. We were in our tents asleep by 9pm.
The following day, after exchanging new year greetings with fellow tourists around us (although numbers were greatly depleted as I clearly had not been alone in my intention of summiting on new year’s day), we set our sights on getting to Barafu camp as close to midday as we could manage. The reward would be an ability to rest for the rest of the day until our midnight summit attempt. To our relief, Tess was feeling considerably better, and we made reasonable time. We only had to hike for around three hours, and thankfully it rained less than on previous days. The final ascent to Barafu, at 4,673 metres, was extremely sleep and a real slog.
The stars were astonishing, and the clouds were lit by the strong moon, behind which peeped nudges of Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped summit. Snow flows stretching up on both sides of us. To our right was Mt. Mawenzi peak cast its 5,200 metre shadow; a mountain which few climbers manage to summit, as it’s so treacherous. Mt. Meru could be seen rising imposingly from the other direction. Ice crystals glinted on the ground in our torchlight.
We had a new lease of life initially, and passed quite a few groups in the first two hours. Gradually we inched higher than the ice flow to our right. Looking back down the mountain, we could see a snaking line of head-torches slowly making its way up the mountainside behind us. It was certainly a relief to see the line behind us, rather than stretching endlessly ahead.
After a few hours, however, my breathing became laboured again and I found my energy waning. I began to feel weak and exhausted. Tess was doing better, but we’d agreed to wait for each other to make sure we summited together. She took frequent rests as she waited for me to catch up. Fortunately, though, the promised sudden biting wind rising up between 2am and 5am never came. We continued toiling.
Finally after five and a half hours of climbing, at around twenty past five in the morning, we reached Stellar Point, standing at 5,695 metres. I think it was then that I realised we would make it to the summit. Prior to that, anything could have happened, and it was difficult to know if my flagging energy would permit success. We both realised it, and gave each other a hug. After a 5 minute breather we headed on towards the holy grail – Uhuru point, where the track would end. We were told it was so cold at the top that you couldn’t spend more than five minutes there. To avoid our water freezing we kept is less accessibly within our bags. Consequently we saw one couple traipsing back down from Uhuru, despite the fact that it was still dark; an unfortunate error of timing. From Stellar Point onwards, ice and snow sloped down on all sides. Our guides assured us that it was only a 40 minute walk to Uhuru (although they had a habit of telling us entirely unrealistic timeframes, probably in an attempt to cheer us up, but with the opposite effect when we realised that the destination point was much further away than expected).
About 10 minutes before we reached the summit, the first tentacles of sunlight stroked the sky behind us. The icy landscape was stunning, with vast glaciers topped by haunting clouds as far as the eye could see. It took us around an hour to reach that longed-for final point, where only around twenty-five people had arrived before us. Tess and I clung to each other in relief, barely able to believe we’d actually made it. We almost cried – it had been such a colossal effort, it really was emotional! The obligatory photographs were taken at the infamous signpost (which Moses managed to anonymise by cutting off both ‘Uhuru’, and ‘Tanzania’! Fortunately Tess’ photos were better).
I retrieved my MHRUK t-shirt from my small backpack which I’d not worn in the belief that the cold would preclude me from opening my jacket to reveal it. Tess recorded me making an emotional message to my good friend John Grace on my camera (click here to watch it), and then it was off back down for both of us - such enormous effort for such short glory. The trek down was an almost equal ordeal, given my old knee and ankle injuries, and the loose scree made a fast pace treacherous. In the end, Moses was so frustrated with my slow progress that he grabbed my arm and rushed me down. This method of descent was ripe for injuries, the pounding gave me a headache, and I began to feel a bit nauseous again. We fell over more than once before reaching camp.
Tess and I collapsed into our tents and fell into a heavy, exhausted slumber. About two hours later I was woken by the rain on my tent roof. Raising the zip, I discovered that in fact five inches of snow had fallen; a huge storm was raging, making it essential that we packed up the tent and began the descent to the next camp as soon as possible, regardless of our exhaustion. Apparently the unusually calm and windless ascent had signalled this encroaching storm, and due to my exhaustion, I had managed to sleep through the fierce thunder and lightning. We rose and set off slowly down the mountain, the snow lashing our faces.
Trekking for the rest of the day was tiring, slow and damp, as the snow once more turned to rain and absolutely poured.
I felt utterly and completely physically drained. We were told it would take an hour to walk to Millennium, but in fact it took around three hours.
Day 7It was early to bed for me, and I was grateful the next morning to discover that an eight hour sleep had revived me.
As we reached lower and more sensible altitudes, I felt considerably better and we made excellent time down to Mweka Gate.
Hot showers! Clean toilets! Laundry! Dry beds!
Day 8It was the next day – 4th January 2013 - that I heard of the tragic death of my fellow countryman and guide Ian McKeever, near the Lava Tower which rises imposingly at 4,560 metres. He had been struck by lightning, I was told; yet he was a highly experienced climber leading a large group of climbers. He died just as he approached the Tower; the exact point at which I had developed altitude sickness. I realised that he must have been caught in the very storm that hit us at Barafu camp just after we had descended from the summit.
The Tower consists of tall, craggy rocks, and I couldn’t understand why lightning would strike a person, rather than its top. The rumour was that Ian had been speaking on a walkie-talkie at the time of his sad death; no doubt due to concerns about the atrocious weather. It seemed so ironic that someone as experienced should be the one to lose their life to Kili. The mountain respects no man.
The day after my ordeal ended, my legs were stiff when I walked up and downstairs, and I had huge blisters on my toes. However, by the following day, aches and pains had dissipated, and even my left knee on which I had worn a knee support for six of the seven trekking days felt normal.
Like the agony of childbirth, the pain swiftly began to wane, the ugly memories began to dissipate, and, miraculously, the beauty of the summit became more vivid. Perhaps this is the brain’s way of making sense of the inexplicable arduousness which I’d chosen to impose on my body.
Would I do it again? A resounding no! But I’m glad to say that I’ve managed to raise more than £1,000 for MHRUK. Thank you so much to everyone who has sponsored me. Next time I’ll do a 5k run!