Escaping the rooftop of Africa with a narrow victory

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August 4th 2013
Published: August 4th 2013
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It'll be no problem I said, not much training needed I said, its not so steep I said, a person with average fitness could make it I said. I say a lot of things, they are invariably wrong. Stood before us was 5895 metres of volcano, the worlds tallest free standing mountain in the world,the highest you can climb without the need for oxygen tanks-although some did. We needed to walk the length of 47 miles in 5 relentless days, 23 miles on summit day alone, wear the same clothes, struggle to sleep in draughty huts, go without showers or 'proper' toilets, summit in sub zero conditions at midnight, combat physical and mental fatigue plus battle altitude sickness,all to stand at the top for only 10 minutes...why did I sign up for this again? I pondered this at the starting point of the trek,as I stared at the group of loud whooping Americans celebrating wildly with high 5s about the fact it was all over and they could buy a Diet Coke again. I cursed them mentally and assumed them idiots( I still think this, diet coke is horrible) but at least I understand why they were so glad to be done. We completed the trek and won the war, but Kilimanjaro sure did win a lot of battles and take a lot along the way. It started beforehand when I lost my brother in laws pricey climbing jacket en route, we then lost our guide as he cried off at the last minute due to a sick grandmother, and over the five days we or people we knew lost cameras, the use of their limbs, consciousness, breathing, control of their bowels and sanity. Other than that, it was great.

Day One

It started off conspicuously enough too, me and my friend Dave flew into Nairobi and then made our way down to Moshi. This was our first taste of 'This is Africa' (TIA) and the organised chaos which could be a blog in itself, as we took two buses and a border crossing into Tanzania. It was an exercise in blind faith and hours wondering how anything gets done here, ever. Eventually we arrived and met our guide and discovered we were the only two in our group, compounded as we looked forlornly across the court yard to see a group of 10 chatting away and getting to know each other. We were like the kids at the disco nobody ever asked to dance (not me, I was always inundated with offers to do The Locomotion...)but we didn't let them off lightly and stalked them until we became friends. The walk itself started serenely enough, a gentle sloping amble through temperate rainforest chatting amiably with the group. We stopped at picnic benches for lunch,pointed out wildlife and enjoyed the sun on our backs. We arrived in camp at 2700 metres after a few hours to see not tents but wooden huts replete with mattresses and electricity. Decent food was served in a dining hall and card games were played with the Irish. This Kilimanjaro malarkey was easy.

Day Two

Second day followed the first(it usually does) and it was no more taxing. The gradient was fairly gradual and the footing easy,it was casual walking as opposed to trekking. The Kenyan mantra of 'pole pole' meaning 'slowly slowly' was employed liberally meaning a sedate pace and relaxed attitude,it was almost hands in pocket stuff. We walked through fields of heather, ascended through the cloud layer and gained our first glimpse of the top. It looked easily reachable and not so monolithic or imposing, and being above the clouds gave a serene feel, it was just us, blue sky, the sun and a big hill in front of us. We camped at 3700 metres high with a reasonable temperature and the mood was still high.

Day three/Four

And then the fun really began. Those on the six day trek spent an extra acclimatisation day here to combat the altitude and perhaps in hindsight this would have been a good option. But those on the five day trek pressed on, tired by the lack of sleep that accompanies altitude and the result of 6am starts each day, plus some ever so slightly aching limbs. Over the next 24 hours we would walk 23 miles in total:The first part was a mere 6 hour trek that stopped at a base camp at 4700metres, after just a few hours we left at midnight and hiked 7 hours to the summit at 5900m, before walking 3 hours back to the base camp to rest for 2 hours, and then descending another 4 hours back to the original camp. It was brutally punishing both mentally and physically and was a real shock to the system after the gentle first few days, I can easily say that it is the most difficult thing I've ever done. The initial walk brought a huge contradiction as we trekked above the clouds with nothing between us and the blazing sun but clear sky. This meant we walked through a desert which was obviously very warm, but being so high the mountain whipped a freezing cold wind around us that required a lot of layers to be worn. It was walking through a desert, in a lot of layers, sweating heavily yet being cold. I've not been so confused since I saw Brokeback Mountain and questioned my lifestyle choices. Eventually we arrived at the base camp called KIbo, a prison like concrete block of a building that let the wind pass through and into your bones. We arrived at mid afternoon and tried to rest, we ate dinner around 6 and were then told to go to bed as we had a big day ahead, almost as though I was a child again awaiting the annual migration to Spain, sadly this was a little more Siberian gulag.

At 11 we awoke and started to prepare, I opted for five layers on the bottom including a fetching pair of thermals, five layers on top, plus three pairs of socks, gloves and a beanie. It was still cold. We began the attempt at midnight, our guide eager to get us going in order to summit at sunrise at6:30, we took a breath and headed upwards with nothing but headlights and grim determination to guide us. Before long I discovered my water bottle had started to freeze and the iPod gave up the fight citing inhospitable working conditions. The mountain glared down unfazed, an omnipotent slab of rock daring us to keep going, the moon lit the way and the stars shone effortlessly showing what we had to overcome, I wanted a sick note from PE and someone to call my mum. The four hour slog to the section named Gillmans Point was the most challenging, the gradient was steep and made up of loose rock and shale so you slipped at every step and had to work twice as hard to get anywhere. We switched back and for across the slope with dizzying regularity. The altitude took hold here as we passed through 5000 metres, the thin air bereft of oxygen meant our bodies had to work harder to keep us moving. Breathing became laboured and we had to rest every 10-15minutes, gulping in as much air as we could and trying to lower our hear rates lower whilst our muscles screamed at us to sit down. Our bodies told us to sleep and I came close a few times, everything wanted to shut down and hibernate, Dave started to black out and stagger. I'm not trying to be overly dramatic here or exaggerating,it just really was that tough. Eventually we reached Gillmans Point at 5200 metres, I had forgotten through the battle that this was actually a (just about) active volcano, we had reached the rim and now tracked around the outside to try and reach the highest point. It was still pitch black so you couldn't see inside the crater but it was an impressive feeling to have reached this far and to know you were close, sadly some turned back here unable to go on further. Dave really started to suffer and became punch drunk, his legs no longer responded to his brain, he felt sick, his speech was slurred and he came close to passing out a few times. If this was in the UK the fight would have been stopped a long time ago and we'd have headed back,but This Is Africa. I rotated between mild headaches, nausea and being too tired to continue, the fat lady was warming up her voice and the mountain seemed to get smugger by the second.

We trudged on with Dave being supported on one side by our guide to keep him going straight. We had the wounded solider stance and memories of high school English and my favourite poem Dulce et Decorum Est danced through my mind:

"Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Men marched asleep.All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots."

Perhaps comparing it to the WWII is dramatic but call it artistic licence! We pressed on although I'm not quite sure how, the last section took two hours but seemed to last a lifetime. As we rounded each bend and the familiar heartbreak that it wasn't the summit took hold it became more difficult. I seriously started worrying about Dave as we broke more often, our guide was Isack but he called him Icarus, Ivan and who knows what else, although he's like that at the best of times. Isack was quite relentless and to be fair got us there for sunrise as one of the first groups, but our main group got there some 2 hours after us and I can't help but think we should have gone at that pace and been all the better for it. As the sun rose we passed the huge ice sheets and beautiful glacial features, the clouds way below drifted on and suddenly out of the gloom we sighted the summit sign, sweet mother of God we were going to make it. The next ten minutes passed in a blur, I'd like to say I fully appreciated the beauty and grandeur but it was a daze. My overriding thought was sheer delight and thanks that it was over, the sense of accomplishment hit me that we hadn't given up and had achieved our goal. I even felt like I could cry I was so relived and happy, but then I remembered I was a double hard bloke so cupped my testicles and leered after a girl nearby whilst talking about football and that. Improbably, and very British like, we stood in a queue to take our pictures at the sign. We tried to smile (not my forte) and show our happiness but they were tired, weary smiles under haggard eyes. Dave dropped and broke his camera and was pretty much immediately rushed off the top for his own safety. I stayed a little while to soak in the moment and feeling, happy tired faced abound, celebrations, the sun rising above the clouds, the ice sheets gleaming and the 360 degree panorama. Knowing you were on the rooftop of Africa and knowing you had beaten Kilimanjaro, have that you bastard. I don't think I've ever had that proud, complete sense of accomplishment and knowing you have really gone to your limits and beyond, it will live with me for a lifetime.

Shortly after I had to head down too, thin air and frostbite inducing temperatures meant I didn't need encouragement, the problem was that you had used every last drop of energy and willpower to reach the top. Trying to summon up further reserves to make the 3 hour journey back down was tough too but an extra skip in the step due to the downhill helped. Dave was now supported on both sides and his legs trembled uncontrollably, I had visions of stretchers and helicopter rescues as we raced to a lower altitude. We passed our friends on the way, the group of 10, the 4 Irish, the Americans, and assured them all it was close and to keep going and that it was worth it. Their looks said they only half believed me but they all made it. Heading down and now in daylight it became apparent just how steep and long the slope we had climbed, I patted myself on the back some more. Finally we got back to Kibo hut, tired and content we slumped in our beds for just 2 hours rest. We were awoken and fed then began the 4hour walk back through the desert, the logic being the final day is shorter but we'd have preferred the longer break, thankfully Dave's legs and faculties recovered enough to journey down. We slept deeply that night, a surreal feeling that could it have really been that same morning we summited. Another early start followed and the final 6 hour walk to the starting point, one that seemed to last longer than the summit as you just wanted to be back and to shower. Journey complete, some more photos and eventually we were back at the hotel and it was all over, 5 days up Mt Kilimanjaro but a lifetime of memories. The photos won't show it off, for a start Dave broke his camera and the coldness made my battery freeze so we don't have loads to share I'm afraid, but the achievement is enough.

On reflection I'm glad we did it, it was a lifetime goal and the fact it was so hard made the accomplishment all the sweeter. It wasn't impossible, we met around 20 people and all but one made the summit, within the group of 10 there was a a father and son combination who summited together on his 70th birthday. It's do-able, extra training will make you physically fitter and help you stand a better chance, but there is no preparation for the altitude, you just head up and hope for the best. I have been to 4500m before and I think that helped my body adapt this time whereas Dave was not used to it, it's the only reason I can give for the difference as he is fitter than me physically. But the mountain took its toll on everyone, Geoff (the 70 year old) made it up but he had to be fireman lifted by his guide all the way down and then stretchered back, even the youngest and fittest like Reuben at 20 had to be helped back down by 2 guides, this mountain took no prisoners. But with a lot of mind over matter and pushing yourself to the edge and beyond it can be done. The camaraderie helps, we met a great group of 10-an eclectic bunch of Brits, Aussies, Danish and an American, as well as the 4 Irish, which led to much banter, chat, gossip and laughs which made the experience even richer. The pictures won't show it, or compliment the view from the top, in fact the cold meant the cameras wouldn't work and Dave broke the working one! But the memories are imprinted and the achievement can't be taken away. I'm not even sure I'd advise friends to try it in the future and I certainly won't be trying again, my mountain days are over. I'm happy
Happy group at endHappy group at endHappy group at end

Not sure why picture has jumped!
to just tick the box, move off and slink into the sunset with a narrow victory. Now where's that Diet Coke.

Additional photos below
Photos: 19, Displayed: 19


4th August 2013

Well done!! This is indeed a life time achievement! and that feeling of keep going and achieve something you thought you couldn't do is one of the best feelings ever!!
4th August 2013

Wow! A real victory
An omnipotent slab of amazing experience. Indeed you should be proud. Good job.
6th August 2013

Great writing! I was wondering where you had been and so delighted to see you pop up in Tanzania as I poured my coffee this morning. For the first half of the blog, I had myself convinced that this was something I just HAD to do. By the end, I was content to be at my current Illinois altitude. Anyway, I loved your descriptions and humor and humility. And just fyi, I hate Diet Coke too.
6th August 2013

Well done - an amazing challenge
9th August 2013

well done. very jealous. but did people really lose control of their bowels?!!!?! PS - you owe Jon a new jacket!
24th January 2014

Mt Kilimanjaro is Amazing
Well done, what an experience at the roof of Africa, more so the awesome views of the sunrise!!!!

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