Updated: Jun 6
In 2007, I travelled to Africa to conquer the world's highest freestanding mountain, and one of the Seven Summits.
This had always been my # 1 bucket list item, since I was 17, before I had even heard of the bucket list. I knew I just had to do it.
Originally, to be honest, it was mostly about me....my dreams, and to fulfil one for a past but not forgotten friend, who told me about this beautiful mountain, and how altitude sickness forced him off it before he could summit. I took a part of him with me to the top.
As fate had it, I randomly came across a group of wonderful people who were raising money and awareness for AIDS and education in Africa,
(through Rotary), and climbing 'Kili' was their major fundraiser. So, agreeing to help raise money, I joined their team of 15 and we set out for an adventure of a lifetime.
It soon became so much more than about 'me'.
(* We ended up raising $160,000 for AIDS and education in Africa.)
I have created other posts about my experiences on this African adventure, such as an incredible camping safari on the Serengeti, where we were unbelievably fortunate to witness the Persaids Meteor Shower - whilst listening to lions and hyenas not far from our unfenced campsite...
Also a crazy overnight train trip from Nairobi to Mombasa, as well as snorkelling the 'not-so' tranquil, azure waters of Zanzibar, so you can read them first if you want to stay in order - or not, they could easily be stand alone trips in their right!
This is straight from my hand written journal;
a story of how it was, raw, and to the point.
So, grab a coffee, or a wine, and sit back and let me take you to the freezing slopes and high altitude of Africa's Queen...Mount Kilimanjaro.
Well, here I am! I'm sitting at the Machame Gate entrance to the
Mt Kilimanjaro National Park.
We have donned our gortex jackets, gators and waterproof pants; signed the climber log with our name, nationality and passport number and shortly we'll be on our way!
I've waited over 20 years for this, and it's hard to believe that I'm
actually sitting here.
I know it's going to be extremely hard; my backpack weighs around 8 kilos as well we have to carry 3 litres of water, along with our camera, sunscreen, munchies and warm and waterproof clothing.
It's the water that weighs so much. I will have my own porter who will carry my duffle bag that contains all the gear I don't need to have during the day. These bags are limited to 15 kilos, as the porters carry these on their heads!
Besides the 3 litres of water each day we need to drink to help avoid the effects of altitude sickness, we must further ingest another 2 or more litres of cups of tea/porridge/soup etc, just to keep the fluids up. Dehydration is your enemy, and you may succumb to altitude sickness
because of it.
Our guide Elias, is fantastic, and I'm confident that if I do what I'm told,
and go 'Pole-pole'... pronounced 'poley'...
(Swahili for slowly, slowly) I'm confident I'll give my best shot! OK, we're off!
We started out in glorious rainforest.
It wasn't long before the porters started overtaking us.
There are 16 in our team, plus 2 members of Albatross company; Kidana and Margaret, who are climbing alongside us.
We have Elias and Moses as our head mountain guides, 4 junior guides, 6 cooks, 2 assistant cooks, and 54 porters to carry all our equipment and supplies, AND US, if we need to be evacuated.
We trekked long and hard.
Uphill, uphill, uphill and through and into the clouds. Sharon (one of my safari buddies) and I were together for the most part,
which I like as we have a similiar pace and sense of humour.
Today was 18 kilometres, 7 hours or so, and we rose from 1800 metres to 2980 metres. Quite a big effort for our first day! The forest was dripping with moss, no monkeys though sadly, but extraordinarily beautiful all the same. We did however, have to give way to a column of African army ants on the march though - those guys aren't to be messed with.
The group broke up a bit just before we made camp, (which, for the record, is always "just two more hours", or "just over the next ridge"...) We had our head torches on by now as darkness had fallen, and suddenly Sharon and I felt ourselves having to walk fast to try to catch up, but that only increased our breathing and heart rate immediately due to the higher altitude, so we decided to slow back to the
'pole- pole' pace.
Just as we came across our first camp, Machame Hut, we felt lost because of the sheer number of tent sites amongst the trees,
and we didn't know which one was ours. Just as we were feeling a little panicky, one of our guides, Paul,
came to our rescue.
Phew! Lost on night 1, that's a good start! lol
We walked up to the Machame Hut where we had to sign in, then down to the site where our porters introduced themselves to us, (mine is named Stephen, not hard for me to remember as that's one of my brother's names.)
Anna and I checking our our lux accommodation for the next week. ;)
Anna, a girl from South Africa who we were sponsoring for the trip, was to be sharing my
two-man tent with me.
Unfortunately I had scored one of the skinny sleeping mats, (about 1/2 cm of foam thick-or 'thin' I should say...) and Anna had the slightly thicker air mattress.
This was going to have to change tomorrow, hopefully there is a spare air mattress, as this foam was equivalent to lying on bricks.
Hot water in tubs were brought to us to wash our face and hands,
and boy it felt sooooo nice!
Dinner was to be served at 9pm, so we had time to change into our thermals and ski pants etc. Nice comfy and warm camp clothing.
This is when my dramas unfolded.
After ALL the careful packing and endless repacking and reorganising last night - (to only bring exactly what I needed, nothing extra)...I couldn't find my thermal tops and bottoms! Oh no!!! What was I going to do? Shite! I had bought 3 sets of each and they weren't in my bag. BUGGER!!
I truly needed my thermals, I'd be in huge trouble without them as we ascend towards minus 15 degree temperatures towards the summit.
So Anna reluctantly returned the thermal top I had lent her as an extra, (as I knew at the time of repacking that I had extra), and I went down to the dinner tent in quite a cranky pants mood. I was so mad at myself.
All my careful planning and purchasing had gone to waste.
I had inadvertently packed them into my 'spare stuff' suitcase that was left in storage back at the Arusha hotel.
Anyway, the generosity of my fellow climbers came to the fore, and Linda and Kat lent me 2 pairs of long johns. Phew, and Albatross staff said they had extra if required.
Dinner, as per usual with this amazing company, was fantastic.
Two large tents with tables, chairs and Maasai tablecloths, three courses of food, and even candles. We were all fairly tired, yet thrilled to be here.
Kilimanjaro loomed in the distance; her glimmering snow cap shining under the 'nearly full moon', was beckoning us.
But for now, it's time to retire these weary bodies to our tents for some well earned sleep. 'Lala salama'. (Sleep safely.)
OK, don't want to sound like a negative Nellie, but that was the WORST SLEEP of my life.
I barely slept a wink. The sleeping pad was non-existent, and we had our bags in the tent, in-between us, (otherwise they'd freeze outside) - which made us feel like sardines. It was just woeful.
The ground was so hard and bumpy, I truly felt like the princess and the pea - less the mattress!
I got up and out of the tent and saw Sharon, and I just about cried. I was so very tired, and after such a big day yesterday, I was really hoping, and expecting, to crash exhausted and get some sleep.
Oh well, suck it up, buttercup!
I spoke to my porter Stephen, and begged him to see if he could find me an air mattress.
Breakfast was plentiful, and I made sure I had 2 servings of porridge, and skipped the toast. Gotta keep those fluids up!
I have seen photos online of Kilimanjaro climbers, standing, eating their piece of toast having picked it off a blue tarp on the ground.
They didn't even have camp chairs!
Our set up was pure luxury next to that!
Off we left about 9am, towards our next site, Shira Camp, which was to be only 9 kms today, raising high though, to 3840 metres, but the first section before lunch was apparently insanely steep - like about a 45 degree pitch for 3-4 hours. Thank goodness I trained as hard as I did over the last 18 months, as the legs copped an absolute pounding.
We made it through the Rainforest, to the Heath zone and onto the Moorlands. The vegetation keeps getting shorter and shorter the higher we climb. Plus, it's getting colder. No rain thankfully!
The lunch site was our two mess tents, all set up beautifully as usual, and 3 courses consisting of delicious soup, salad, tuna salad, and fruit.
We were all famished and always go for the double helping of soup, which the cooks are more than willing to oblige.
So imperative to keep up the fluids to try to avoid altitude sickness, which the symptoms are starting to appear, in the form of headaches.
Elias, our leader, always telling us "Sip, sip."
Michael, one of our two resident ambulance drivers back home,
(Peter is the other), tested our oxygen levels in our blood, and our pulse, as we sat and rested a little after lunch.
At sea level, the level of oxygen in your blood is usually between 95 and 100%.
90% would see you in an ambulance and 80% you'd be in big trouble.
Mine came through at 79%!
Holy high altitude Batman!
By resting, the second reading had crept up to 88. Still very low, but a typical reading for all of us. Elias came in at a whopping 94%.
This is what high altitude does to you, and shows how it's a silent killer,
if allowed to go unnoticed, or ignored.
Our guides are always asking us how we felt.
My resting heart rate was 89, again, fairly similar to most of the group, however one of our climber's resting pulse came in at 120, and she was feeling it.
Time to keep movin'.
After lunch was an easier walk, but it was still fairly late as we pulled into camp.
Today's climb was a ripper. It was basically 'pole, pole'- slowly ascending to a high point for lunch,
then we were to drop down in altitude a little, so we can use this day,
and tomorrow for acclimatisation purposes.
The idea is climb high and sleep low.
So in essence, we were climbing 1000 metres in altitude, then descending and sleeping only 100 metres higher than the night before. We will be getting closer in distance, but spending 2 days around a similar altitude.
You can climb Kilimanjaro much quicker than the way we are doing it, but this way gives us much more chance of summiting. Why would you risk not achieving the summit, or worse...even death, just to perhaps save a couple hundred bucks?
Today, by lunchtime I was suffering a screaming headache. I had already taken a headache pill at breakfast, so I took some more and hoped it helped.
Headaches are the first sign of altitude sickness, and as it was, I wasn't the only one suffering - a lot of our team had headaches.
Its crucial you don't take anything stronger than say Nurofen or Panadol, as a heavy painkiller may disguise serious symptoms - something you must not do. High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) means your brain swells with fluid into your skull (hence the headaches) and you can die. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) - is where fluid goes into your lungs and you basically dry drown.
We all had our oxygen and pulses taken again - my oxygen level again was super low, pretty much dead at sea level, but hey, I'm still here! Pulse was 86.
We were very close to the slopes of Kilimanjaro now, and were dressed accordingly. Thermals underneath our hiking trousers and fleece jumpers with gortex jackets in our packs in case of rain - which I might add, still hasn't hindered our trip.
After lunch, we had two choices of direction to travel. The climbers feeling more energetic could take the more challenging route to the rocky outcrop called the "Lava Tower', and others could opt for the
2 & 1/2 hour downhill hike (ended up being 5 hours...they never told us how long things were - which kept us positive)... to our next overnight camp.
My head was literally pounding and I was feeling unwell due to the altitude - so after my second dose of Nurofen for the day, I chose the easier route.
Sharon headed towards the Lava Tower, (she's always up for a challenge) and as it happened, it stood as a good decision as she had to conquer her fear of heights by scaling the Tower. Tomorrow's hike is near vertical so our other head guide, Moses, wanted Sharon to get some height-climbing practise.
As we meandered our way down the slopes (wow, going downhill for a change), we enjoyed hugging the side of the Kili slopes and we had a lot of laughs as well.
'Going to the toilet' here on the mountain is translated to "going to the Internet cafe" or "sending an email", or worse still..."downloading!"
Needless to say we always had plenty of email stops everyday, due to the high altitude as well as the copious amounts of liquids we were consuming.
We learnt, however, this afternoon, that the best looking or largest rock or "internet site" wasn't always the wisest choice as it has been 'well-used' many, many times before us.
Young Kate; our vibrant, intelligent, lovely teenager of our group, managed to slip and slide all the way down the hill so I gave her the nickname 'Skid Marks' as she was leaving slide marks in the dirt in front of me. Anyway...to link the Internet cafe explanation to what I'm saying now : Kate, Kat and I decided we needed to send an email, so we found an enormous boulder to hide behind. Kate ('Skidders' now) went high, Kat went low and I bided my time with my back turned being the lookout.
Well, just as the girls finished, Kat said to Kate (who was coming down from higher ground) "You don't want to step heeeeere.........AT THAT EXACT MOMENT Kate did a long slide right into a pile of poop!!!
NOT any old dried up poop, but a wet, liquidy, orange poop that actually sprayed up and went all over the top of her shoes as well as filling every inch of tread in her soles.
Oh - and the smell!!!!
She was lucky she didn't lose her balance completely and end up
lying in it...EWWWWW!
Crikey, I though dog shit was the pits, but a loose stool of human faeces just had to be a new level of foulness.
I honestly had never laughed so much in my entire life. I was honking like a hyena!!
It was by far the most funny, most extraordinarily hilarious thing I have ever witnessed. And Kate, God bless her dirty hiking socks, laughed whole heartedly along with us - she's such a good sport and great fun. I think the rest of the group (who were waiting patiently for us by the creek) must have heard the ruckus of laughter and wondered what the hell we were on!
The rest of the afternoon's walk remained somewhat uneventful, although the fit of laughter wasn't much good for my headache, so I popped some more Nurofen.
It was a beautiful walk into camp, and we strolled through what looked like giant cycad type plants. Each one of these new branches of leaves only grows every 50 years!
Each camp now is getting wonderfully close to the shining mountain that looms over us. Cloud was coming rapidly up the valley and within half an hour of arriving in camp, it was a complete and eerie whiteout.
A quick stretch after the backpack comes off is always the go.
The other group hadn't arrived back yet, and we knew some of them didn't have their head torches, but not to worry, a welcome party of porters had walked up to meet them, armed with a hot water thermos along with tea and coffee.
The standard of care for us by this company, is without exception.
Dinner was a gastronomical feast as usual.
We talked about the plans for the next day, what to expect, how many layers to wear etc; then we retired to our tents.
It was absolutely freezing!
I had a very uncomfortable cold night sleep, and crowded, as we had to sleep with all our bags, and our hiking boats now or they'd freeze if left outside
We even had to start stuffing our spare batteries into woollen socks, same with the camera, as to stop them from freezing and having their battery life diminished.
My tent mate Anna kept getting up during the night (every night - at least 3-4 times) to 'send an email', and the constant zip-zip, zip-zip, plus her sitting on my legs as she struggled to put her boots on, - and take off, was really the pits, not to mention the intolerable slope our tent was pitched on. It took all my effort NOT to roll onto her during the night.
I thoroughly recommend SINGLE tent accomodation to anyone who wants to do this.
Even if it's colder, it'd be roomier, and no snoring and
zip-zip all the time.
We awoke this morning to see ice all over our little tents. IGLOOS!
It was bloody freezing.
(Thank goodness I was loaned those thermals!)
Michael made the mistake of leaving his boots outside his tent overnight, and woke to find a centimetre of ice neatly lying inside them. UGH!
This morning our walk out of the canyon was to be the Barranco Wall - or otherwise known as 'The Breakfast Wall' - as you need an extra hearty breakfast to be able to tackle it.
This was to be a particularly nasty cliff face that we had to negotiate. A few of our team had a fear of heights, so it'll be a big test.
This walk was supposed to be about 5 hours till lunch, or so they say...(around 2.30pm but we always take longer) ...which was to be our end of day camp. A short day, but a really hard start.
No guard rails on this mountain, and we were constantly having to jam ourselves against the rock wall to allow the porters safe passage passed us and yes, with our bags still on their heads! They put us to shame.
It took about 2 and 1/2 hours of climbing straight up before we made it to the top of the cliff. What a relief, especially for Sharon who reckons that having done The Lava Tower the day before, really enabled her to make it up such a
treacherous rock wall. Good on her!!
Ahead of us now were many hills, so we were constantly climbing then descending - I think I prefer climbing to be honest, as going down, especially with back packs, can be really tricky and quite slow.
The guides helped us a great deal and were very caring and patient with the slower climbers.
This part just seemed to take ages and ages, and was quite uneventful.
Just plodding along, one foot in front of the other kind of stuff.
You can tell by my attitude here, that it was getting hard. Our guides would get a sense of how we were faring, by singing loudly:
To which they would either get a big "AAAA-OH" back from the team - which meant everything was OK, however sometimes when they called it out, we kinda grumbled 'get stuffed' under our breaths... which was a clear indication we needed to stop for 5 minutes for a sip of water and maybe a cookie or sweet. We needed energy.
I was actually feeling a lot better today with finally a 'headache free' day.
Must be actually acclimatising.
We were rewarded for that breakfast wall, by a fabulous photo opportunity. One direction had Kili filling the background, the other had the cliff and the sea of clouds below us. Hard to tell, but right behind me was a cliff, and a valley before it went up again towards the mountain.
Once arriving into the next camp, waaaaaay later than the estimated 2.30pm, what a surprise, haha, we are always overdue somewhat, Sharon and I donned some warm clothes and found a nice rock to sit on and have some quality journaling time.
A beautiful sunset appeared for us with such vivid reds, pinks and gold that reflected off the clouds way below. I have to say how fantastically fortunate we have been with THE most outstanding weather/climbing conditions.
I can't imagine how hard this would have been in the rain, or even snow,
with little to no visibility. We always got to see Kili shining at night under the nearly full moon. SPECTACULAR.
A carbon copy evening events - Dinner, talk about the day ahead - then bed. EVERYONE was snoring a symphony on the mountain overnight.
I guess we are all really tired. Another night I wished I had my own tent...
Day five and still alive!
Lovely Linda, (Kate's mum) let me use her mobile to send Trev a brief text this morning, as I have been saving my phone as I only have 1 bar of battery left, and I was hoping to call him from the summit.
The mobile phone range here in Africa is infinitely more expansive than home in Australia, that's for sure.
This morning's walk was a very slow one, as Elias, our intrepid leader, wanted all of us to walk as a group today so he can observe us, and coach us in high altitude climbing.
We usually have 3 groups: Bob, Belinda, Tim and Quinn are the bolters, I haven't walked with them yet - The main pack would normally be myself, Sharon, Kat, Linda, Kate, John, Craig, Michael, Peter and Mark...
Then the slower paced walkers; Anna, Narelle, Kidana and Margaret.
So Elias had the slower group lead the pack, as to try to keep us together, and to encourage us to stay together so we can eventually (hopefully) all summit as a team to get that group photo and sense of achievement.
The track was straight up, and I guess the slower pace really does conserve your strength, and keeps your heart rate at a manageable level. I honestly felt I could, figuratively speaking - walk to the moon and back at this pace, without raising a sweat.
That said, I can truly say that the pace was excruciatingly slow.
I swear we weren't going anywhere, and the bolters were itching to pass.
It's become such a personal battle now, this climb. You really just have to do what's best for yourself, to give you the best chance of making it to the top.
We were in the alpine desert zone now. There are 5 zones here: Rainforest - Heath - Moorlands - Alpine Desert and Arctic region.
We go literally from lush rainforest to arctic ice, without changing latitude. Mt Kilimanjaro has the only equatorial glaciers in the world.
Lots of small rocks and boulders now, probably all still sitting in the same spot since Kili's last major volcanic eruption perhaps, 360,000 years ago!
As the rocks are getting smaller now, and no flora to speak of, the Internet cafe sites are becoming harder to find, although by now, we have become quite blasé about them.
Gotta do watcha gotta do. No one really cares.
Just hang to the back of the pack...
Towards the end of the day's climb, as we were nearing our final stop before attempting the summit, a few of us broke from the pack as we felt if we went any slower, we'd be going backwards.
There seems to be a growing 'discontent' amongst the faster walkers, and I understand their point of view, but I see Elias is doing his best to keep us together for a collective summit, seeing that we are all here as a group AND climbing for charity, and not necessarily as individuals. It'll be interesting to see what ensues at our team meeting tonight,
because there may just be a mutiny!
One suggestion is for the slower team to leave first, so the faster team can catch up closer to the summit.
Makes sense, but so many variables.
I truly want all of us to get to Uhuru Peak together, for a team photograph, which will most likely make all the Rotary newsletter covers back home,
and here in Africa. The publicity will be create great awareness for our cause.
Anyway, we finally all arrived at Barafu camp (Swahili for 'freezing')
at around 2.30pm. A much needed short day, considering what lies ahead tonight.
We were shown to our tents nestled amongst the rocks,
and we got to watch three Lammergeiers -
(giant eagle-like vultures with wingspans of 3 metres) soaring above us!
They live only above 15,000 feet and are quite a rare sight, but true to form, like our safari, we got to see not just one, but three.
During our safari last week, I actually earned 'Lammergeier' as a nickname from Elias,
as he thought I was a strong bird, but a little crazy too. :) (*A nickname that was to stick forever from Sharon and Narelle.)
The porters were now all pretty stuffed, and understandably so.
They slept where they could.
We enjoyed a late lunch and were told to rest up, so that's exactly what we did, as it was warm in the tent, with the sun shining and being out of the wind.
Right now, the sun has set on Day 5, and I'm about to start changing into all the clothing that I need for the overnight push to summit. It's going to be horribly cold, and is something I am trulyNOT looking forward to. I kind of wish on one hand we were doing it in the day time -The summit attempt that is. We are approaching the Arctic Region, and doing that at night is just unfathomable as I have never been this cold in my life. If the wind picks up it'll drop to about minus 35 deg Celsius. Elias said it will be about minus 20 anyway.
We had an early dinner, followed by a team meeting. This was the most important meeting to date.
Elias has been pretty casual all the way along, but now he told us what to expect,
and how hard it's going to be. He pulled no punches, and to put it mildly,"The shit got real." After what was quite confronting, knowing what was ahead, it was suggested we go back to our tents for a couple of hours, to try and sleep, as we will be leaving before midnight. It'll be a long while before we sleep again...
I'm living on borrowed thermals, and Linda has now loaned me another thermal, as well as a fleece vest. So basically I'll be wearing everything I have: 2 pairs of woollen socks, boots, 2 pairs of thermal pants, track pants, ski pants, water proof pants, (maybe), gators...and now the top half: 2 thermals tops, fleece vest, 2 fleece pullovers, ski jacket and gortex jacket... Then inner gloves, outer gloves, balaclava, beanie, neck warmer and head torch.
Wow! (You have to be careful not to have too many layers, because you'll sweat, then the sweat can freeze. Oh joy! ) We'll all be unrecognisable Michelin men. Michelin Mandy!
Haha. Wish me luck.Wish us all luck! (I don't have many photos to insert in the text coming up. It was too dark, and too hard to photograph anything,and then you'll read what happened to my camera anyway.)
~DAY FIVE STILL, 10PM.~
The ‘knock, knock’ call came to our tent, 5 minutes after I finally fell asleep.
It was impossible to sleep knowing what was ahead.
Kind of like being in the early stages of labour and being told to go to sleep…too much adrenalin and nerves going on.
I bolted upright and put on my final layers, gloves, beanie and balaclava, head torch and finally outer gloves. However I had failed to try on the outer gloves over the thermal gloves that Heather had loaned me, and unfortunately they clearly did not fit, so I chose to start with just the thermals.
Breakfast, (at 11pm) was short and to the point.
Porridge, biscuits, chocolate and Milo... carb loading -
My kids would’ve loved it!
Standing outside the tent, I was surprised that it didn’t seem too horrendously cold, and for the first time since day one, the clouds below us had cleared to reveal a kaleidoscope of lights in the town of Moshi.
It was like looking down from an airplane.
We all shuffled into a line, I had my camera around my neck and in between a few layers to keep it from freezing, as well as extra batteries for my camera and head torch in my pockets to keep them warm.
“Pole-pole…”, “Sour, sour”, (Swahili for: slowly, slowly, yes, ok, all good)
and off we went.
We chugged along the ridge line from Barafu camp and immediately were faced with a rocky cliff.
It was really slow going as Elias, our leader along with Moses, was determined to keep us all together, at least for a while as he and the other guides wanted to maintain constant vigilance over our physical conditions, and to watch for signs of the possible deadly altitude sickness.
Either side of our climbing team were all the guides and porters,
flanking us like guardian angels, constantly helping us, encouraging us,
singing sometimes, always there to take care of us every step of the way.
They were scrambling over slippery ground so we had the track.
Mind you, our track consisted of a lot of climbing up, up, up very steep rocks.
Elias, as usual, down played the task ahead. I think, had he have told us the truth all the way along (about how hard, how far), it would’ve been a lot more daunting. (Even though we were always well prepared…sometimes things are better left unsaid.) So we learnt to always double how far/how hard things were to come.
By now the cold had started to seep through my seven layers of clothing
and into my core.
I was freezing. I was numb.
My hands were rigid, and my feet stung.
Breathing was extremely hard going, one breath in and out per step.
We were told we’d stop about every 40 minutes or so for a sip of water and maybe a bit of biscuit, chocolate or sweet for energy.
This turned out to be a lot more often than 40 mins, as we were all struggling. We had to keep our water bottles in our back-packs, or they’d freeze,
same with the people that had camel packs – they had to wrap the tube to insulate it but later on in the night that didn’t matter as their whole camel packs of water were to freeze.
Time on the mountain was impossible to gauge, (perhaps that’s because I don’t wear a watch – but that’s besides the point),
as by looking at your watch it may have been no help either,
as Sharon at one stage tried to tell the time but couldn’t comprehend what she was looking at – such is an example of what high altitude does to your body and senses – it makes the simplest things extremely difficult, even breathing.
Now after we had been going about 2 hrs or so, Elias divided the group into 2. The faster ones and the slower ones. At first Sharon and I were reluctant to move out with the faster ones, as we were concerned that their pace would be too fast for us, and could jeopardise the end result.
Anyway, we had to choose quickly, so we parted with the tortoises and started with the hares (NO detriment intended to all involved – just an analogy…remember the fable about the tortoise and the hare…go the tortoise!!!)
It was all ok, I remember saying to Moses, “Kidogo Pole-pole Tafadhali” –
(a little slower please), and so we did…we were just a little faster than the other half of the team.
More climbing, breathing getting increasingly hard, but it was also getting so much colder (possibly between –5 and –10deg C) and it hurt and dried out your throat if you breathed in through your mouth – but I found that breathing through the nose didn’t get enough oxygen, kind of like breathing through a straw through one nostril.
I had my neck warmer up over my mouth and nose to breathe, but I was inhaling my out breath a lot, and was concerned about breathing in too much CO2.
Oh well, moving right along…
Onwards and upwards.
Freezing and numb.
When we begged for a stop, a porter jumped to our aid immediately (mine was the lovely Afreme, who was great). He helped me take off my pack, got my water out, and even helped me drink it.
I remember getting a mintie out of my pocket, and as my hands were numb and in gloves, I found it impossible to do such an easy task as is to open a sweet, besides it was frozen anyway, so I put the whole thing in my mouth and spat the paper out eventually!
Simple tasks – very hard!!!!
A couple of us girls were wanting an ‘internet cafe stop’ and for me, that was to be the last one for the climb. It had become just too hard, too cold, and we weren’t drinking much water anyway because we were trying not to vomit.
Suddenly it all started to get serious.
Linda, (Kate’s mum), started vomiting. And boy, did she chuck.
It was awful to have to see one of our climbers start to suffer like that.
Kate immediately panicked, started crying and saying
“Mum, I want to go down, I want to go down…”
Linda, as the super Mum that she is, tried her best to assure her daughter, between retching mind you, that she was ok.
Even the guides were explaining that vomiting was perfectly normal at this altitude, and under stress, and that she’d feel better in a few minutes,
and they were right.
Linda felt better, and after some hugging we moved on.
Kate is a very brave young lady, and I think it hurt her to see her Mum suffer. The guides explained to us that vomiting is the body’s way of dealing with high altitude – by emptying the digestive tract, it allows more oxygen to the heart, brain and lungs. Vital organs…
Shows how amazing the body is and what it does to survive.
Even more amazing is that we’re putting our bodies through this agony!
What were we thinking…?
It was hard doing anything now other than to concentrate on what you yourself was doing, as even turning my head around raised my ever pounding heart rate. I do remember at one stage, walking behind Babu (Bob),
and singing that silly old song,
“Show me the way to go home…I’m tired and I wanna go to bed. I’ve had a couple of drinks about an hour ago, and they’ve gone straight to my head…”
It was funny at the time…
Then it got hard again.
Tim started vomiting. Kat started vomiting.
I started to think that we weren’t all going to make it and that we may start dropping like flies.
Then Linda vomited again.
Boy this is tough!
I have no idea how far we were into the journey,
maybe around 2am, but I heard a bit of commotion behind me –
(and the surreal thing was that I was too tired to even look around),
and word was out that young Kate had passed out!
Still, nothing registered with me.
We had stopped and I relished the rest.
I lent against a rock, and rested my chin on top of my hiking pole and grabbed about 20 seconds of sleep.
(All I really wanted to do was to crawl into the foetal position
and just go to sleep.)
I was aware that the guides wouldn’t let us stop for too long as it was so cold and we’d seize up. I also remember them saying,
“Mama don’t sleep, Mama don’t sleep.”
It wasn’t until much later that I realised that if you slept under those conditions of high altitude, hyperthermic temperatures and delirium, you could literally forget to breathe!! How frightening.
(That wasn’t in the travel brochure!)
I heard the commotion that Linda and Kate were going down the mountain! Whoa. I always thought we’d all make it.
You just can’t underestimate this mountain.
She seems to take at will.
It wasn’t till later, (I keep saying this, but as it stands, we found out a lot of things later…like the fact that 4 people died on the mountain the week before us…and one the week we were there)…that I found out that Kate had collapsed and stopped breathing and was minutes from death.
AND, she was right behind me...
I simply wasn’t aware!
Four porters put her on oxygen, locked their arms under and around her and literally flew her down the mountain and to a safer altitude.
She made it, thank God.
We were mostly pretty much oblivious to this drama, besides, the ability to comprehend anything other than putting one foot in front of the other, and breathing in and out, was enough.
HOWEVER…it did present a major problem to me.
Suddenly I realised that my porter, Afreme, was gone – gone down with Kate – AND HE HAD MY PACK!
(As most of us by this time had taken off our packs and given them to the porters to carry – a usual thing at this stage of the ascent.)
He also had put my camera around his neck – so, all my stuff – GONE!!!
And I so needed a drink!! (Funny how a simple thing like water is THE most important thing. Life’s sustenance.)
I put word out that my pack was missing and about 15-20 minutes or so later, (guessing), it arrived back with a different porter. Thank goodness!
But still, NO CAMERA…
I was quietly hoping that it would make it back to me, as for me to get to the top of this bloody mountain without my camera – after all the careful planning I had done to ensure that I had enough batteries and memory – was too, too much to handle, yet our thoughts were still with Kate and Linda.
Onward and upward.
Finally, we had started to walk above the snow line now –
WE HAD REACHED THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO!!!!!
However, I hadn’t the energy to say, “Wahoo!”
I had barely the energy to look at the beautiful full moon that was shining so brightly that we didn’t need our head torches.
I was totally drained, freezing cold, and hating every moment of what I was doing.
I remember saying to myself countless times:
“Dig in. Find your inner strength, just DIG IN.”
(Sharon says she remembers me saying this to her and she really appreciated the words of encouragement at the time.)
Every time we paused for a sip, or rest, or vomit, I took the quick chance to rest my chin on my pole and nap for just a few seconds. It would’ve made a great photo if anyone was physically able to take out their camera and press a button. I don’t think anyone at all got many shots of the summit ascent as it was just too exhausting.
Finally we could see a change in the sky.
Dawn was creeping upon us slowly.
A deep red and pink started emerging along the bottom of the sky below us, and it took all my effort to raise my right eyebrow to peep out from under my beanie and think –
OK, nice.., whatever.., too tired…
The top never seemed to get much closer and besides, it required looking up from the pair of boots I was following and that seemed way too hard.
What I do remember was hallucinating that the right hand trekking poles of the people in front of me was a fence line – so I was just following a fence line…and sometimes there seemed to be a shed there…it was really weird, but I didn’t question it,
I just kept plodding along.
At least I was still going, and hadn’t vomited, although sometimes I felt that that may have happened. As dawn broke, I felt as though I was ‘at one’ with the cold and had finally acclimatised to it – only took six hours of hell!
Then I realised that it was going to get warmer soon,
and that buoyed my spirits.
The crater rim by now was about 400 metres away, but as we were zigzagging, and sometimes walking in deep lava scree which was like walking in quicksand,
and pole-pole, (slowly, slowly),
that 400 metres was still about 2-3 hours ahead of us.
Our group now consisted of Bob, Belinda, and Tim, who were about 20 mins ahead of us. Quinn, Sharon, Kat and I were not far behind, yet we were all struggling all the way.
I tried not to look up at the crater rim too often, just concentrated on the job at hand, as it felt like we weren’t getting anywhere.
It was excruciatingly hard.
Kat was still vomiting, and had two porters either side of her now, helping her and caring for her, just so supportive.
She was so resilient, so brave, and so tough. She felt like hell, yet alongside me, kept trudging to the top.
FINALLY, WE MADE IT TO STELLA POINT!!!!! THE CRATER RIM!!!!
Unbelievable relief swept over all our bodies – although Tim basically lay down
and refused to get up. He looked awful, poor thing.
We were all suffering from some sort of exposure, my lips felt burnt,
so I used this opportunity to put on some sunscreen, a little too late though as my
lips were to blister badly later on.
It was about 9am by now, (way past the ETA at Uhuru of sunrise), but what the hell,
it was warmer.
But…now, I was faced with the really annoying, sad and unfortunate situation,
that I was at the crater rim of Mt Kilimanjaro, looking into all the beautiful glaciers,
and I DIDN’T HAVE MY CAMERA!!!!
Oh my God, it was SO unfair!!!!!
I kept looking around at all of nature’s extraordinary beauty, knowing that it’ll have to be recorded through someone else’s eyes, someone else’s camera,
borrowed photos – it's just not the same.
(Plus, I was the ‘designated photographer/filmer of the trip...). Oh well, suck it up girl!
But, alas, I couldn’t hide my dismay.
We sat for what must have been about 10 minutes, before our guides kept pushing us to keep moving as we’d seize up if we stayed put.
The choice now was either to accept Stella Point as where you want to stay – then go back down – OR, continue onto Uhuru Peak, another 130 metres or so in altitude,
about 1 and a ½ hours of struggle.
Struggle it was.
I was so determined to make it to that bloody post, I wouldn’t accept
Tim had had enough and decided to go down.
So we plodded on.
I found this part so very hard.
I couldn’t find which porter had my pack at this stage, (musical bags), so I took a sip of water from Belinda’s bottle, and grabbed a macadamia nut muesli bar as I felt totally famished and in need of sustenance.
(Thanks, Belinda, by the way…mmmwa).
However, it was a bad choice.
The nut bar made my mouth feel like dry sand – and I didn’t have any water as Belinda had inched ahead of me by now.
Kat and I trudged on as the others were ahead of us now.
We had Paul, one of the assistant guides, with us, and he was fabulous.
So reassuring, so calm, so patient, and he’d do anything for us.
I can remember taking really small slow steps, one breath in and out per step, and after about 10 steps, I’d have to stop for about 30 seconds to let my heart rate go down and retrieve my breath.
Kat was just like me, beyond exhausted, yet I kept apologising to Paul for having to keep stopping. We had to negotiate our way along pathways of ice now, a little narrow and slippery, and always climbing that bit higher which was so exhausting.
People were passing us on their way back from Uhuru Peak now, and they encouraged and congratulated us which was great.
A real sense of communal accomplishment was felt by everyone up at this point – as we had all pushed our bodies and minds to the point of breaking.
Everyone had their own reasons for climbing,
and their own demons to conquer.
Everyone felt elated to have made it!
An hour and a half or so later, we could see the rest of our group celebrating at the
Uhuru Peak post about 40 metres ahead of us.
They beat us by about 20 minutes, but were still waiting for us to make it so we touched the post together....Bob – our young 63 yr old beat us all…(tough bugger)… and the incredible thing here is, (besides being beaten by a tough bugger)…was the fact that although we were SO close, we, (Kat and I) still had to stop every 10 steps to rest, so it was like…
”Hi guys…just a sec…be there in a minute...just catching a breath…!”
THEN…FINALLY WE SUMMITTED!!!!!!
I (we…, sorry Kat …)...had reached the post of the highest point in Africa –
the highest free-standing mountain in the world… and I CRIED like a baby!!!
Body racking sobs of relief, exhaustion, and sheer delight, wonder, disbelief and pride.
I’ve dreamt of doing this for 23 yrs!
We were ecstatic! Lots of photos (by everyone else’s cameras..) and some of us tried to use our cell phones to call home – hard to believe we had range, but we did – but all the calls failed, then my phone went flat anyway.
It was probably just as well for Trev, as I was crying and breathing heavily, so he may have been more concerned about me – especially if the phone cut off early!!
Then THE most amazing thing happened… I looked back at the direction from which we had come, and strolling towards me was Husseini, our assistant cook (and our cook from our safari with Mungure), with what looked like my camera hanging around his neck!
IT WAS A MIRACLE!
Husseini had walked ALL THE WAY, alone, from Barafu camp to deliver me my camera, which had been inadvertently taken down by Afreme.
Oh my goodness! I couldn’t believe it.
I couldn’t have been ANY further away from him, than here at the post.
And, God bless him, he brought it all the way to me.
That has to be THE MOST INCREDIBLE thing anyone has ever done for
me in my life.
What an amazing, amazing deed. I was gob smacked.
You know, if I had been walking back down, even by 100 metres in distance (not altitude), I wouldn’t have had the strength to have turned around and walked back to the post to take photos – let alone ask the team to come back as well.
It was meant to be!
So Husseini and I had our photo together, with MY camera, at Uhuru Peak.
What a moment to treasure!!
Now, there you have it…. after the joy and drama, we said goodbye to a signpost I’m sure NONE of us will EVER see again, and headed back to
That was the easy part.
The slightest walk downhill was completely normal, even at this mega high altitude: 5,895 metres or 19,341 feet...
It was not at all as hard as going up, that’s for sure. (Der...)
Here, we got to pass, on their way up, the remaining members of our team – Craig, Michael, Peter and Mark, with their guide, Moses, and their porters –
All heroes in my book…
Job well done!!!