So I decided to climb a mountain…

February 11, 2013.
You pass Mount Kilimanjaro on the plane from Nairobi. With a big sweep to the left the mountain sticks its peak above the clouds with patches of snow and glaciers on its upper flanks. It’s just there, taunting you, giving you a glimpse of its steep finality. It waits.

February 12, 2013.
Go day. Our group of seven left the hotel just after 9am, stocked with water for the day.
Arriving at Machame Gate, the path with provides the hardest route available for climbers, you get signed in and prepared for the next week. The most fascinating element of this hive of activity is the queue of porters clinging to the gate eager for work. Tanzania has a huge unemployment problem and in the example of our head guide for the week, Siegfried or ‘Sigi’ as he would become known to the group, the opportunity to lead a climb six or seven times a year provides all important additional income, small as it may be.

Kate and I ready to leave from Machame Gate.

Kate and I ready to leave from Machame Gate.

The first day of the climb takes you through dense rainforest, dense with vegetation and humidity that will leave sweat pouring over your body in slick waves. Thunder rumbles in the distance and finally submits with a short sprinkling of rain that’s not quite enough to warrant removal of wet weather gear from our day packs. I was grateful for the cool drops on my skin, which had been drenched in saltiness for close to three hours. Several steep sections marked the day but with the easy pace – phrase of the week is pole, pole: “slowly, slowly” – it was a long way removed from the challenging days to come. Just before you reach 3000m and Machame Hut, your first camp site,  the rainforest gives way to moorland and Kibo occasionally pokes its head through the clouds.

A helicopter buzzes overhead. Siegfried thinks that it was participating in a rescue which is a timely reminder of that it is only going to get tougher from here.

Hiking observation #104: Tucking your pants into your socks is neither appropriate out here or in everyday life.

Agony. I’ve crawled into my shared, two-person tent and my head in pounding so badly it’s almost impossible to lay my head on my pillow – aka a dry bag masquerading as soft, fluffy goodness. Is it dehydration? Is it altitude sickness? Or just a migraine? Either way, I’m not gambling. I take my first diamox tablet and a litre of rehydration fluids.

February 13, 2013.
I wake up feeling vastly improved. Which is a huge relief. It’s hard enough taking on this climb of nearly 6000m without dealing with extreme headache, whatever its cause.

The first part of day two could only be described as a slog. It’s steep, and slippery and you’re just never sure of your footing. We have an hour of that and it’s straight up. We were set for three hours but it ends up being four-and-a-half.

There is an almost erie feeling with the low could rolling over the moorland. There is also a population of ravens which appear as if they’re a cross between a magpie and a vulture.

While the trail is populated with many different groups of hikers from all over the world, it’s an American group which piques our interest led by a guy who a few of us have dubbed ‘Bear’, as in Grylls. Although we’d be loathed to ever tell him that. He is hard core and I’m not so sure his group is the place to be. This morning he was telling his group not to fall behind. His other thing while he was riding some poor guy was that ‘everyone is allowed one bad day, but you don’t want to be in the same position tomorrow.’ Right. They also have  a lunch tent, which is assembled by porters along the trail, a changing and shower tent. It seems indulgent given the conditions endured by the majority of hikers.

I feel okay having got through today without too much trouble. Although my VMOs need work, and have for a while.

It’s cold in the extreme to leave the tent in the middle of the night, as well all inevitably do – thank you diamox for making me pee like a horse – it’s worth it to see the night sky from the roof of Africa. The stars are amazing up here. Tonight they came with the added bonus of a lightening storm off in the direction of Kibo. Stunning.

February 14, 2013.
It’s Valentines Day, Sigi announces as I check my day pack for the journey to Barranco Hut. Thanks mate, I came up here to avoid that.

An important day in the scheme of the week however with a climb to 4700m and back down to sleep slightly below. I spent the day in the front three hikers, along with my travelling companion Kate, and Tarica who is from Perth. I had a bit of a rocky start with the tube slightly coming loose from my camelback, resulting in a lead through my day pack. Not great but fixed with some gaffer tape and a plastic bag. The track was straight forward in the way that it was just  a slog uphill – the main challenge being the noticeable but ever so slight adjustment for my lungs due to altitude. I had nothing to worry about but there was a few people taken ill on the trail. The pace was steady up to the Lava Tower at 4700m, yes Kilimanjaro is an old volcano. The descent from there was stunning and very much into alpine desert with giant groundsel trees dotting the slopes. They look as though they are straight from the Jurassic era. Ice was everywhere and the rain fell as sleet and or hail before it hit the ground. After just over six hours, we made it to camp before the weather really set in.

Hiking observation #12: Altitude makes you repeat yourself.

Hiking observation #12: Altitude makes you repeat yourself.

Tomorrow is short but hard – Barranco Wall. Our camp sits on the plateau adjacent to it which gives us plenty to think about.

February 15, 2013.
That was one of the coldest nights I have ever felt. And I was so grateful not to have to crawl out of the relative comfort of my sleeping back and into the bitter night. Getting up this morning there was ice all over the tent and the ground crunched under foot. But what an amazing place to spend the night. A small plateau wedged between Barranco Wall and another slope. From soon after we got up, you could spot the odd porter heading up the climb, laden with supplies. It was a goat track at best and for someone my size with some of the stretching required to make it to the next ledge, quite challenging. I had one really bad moment where my legs just weren’t going to make it where they needed to. I ended up hauling myself up the rock in front of me. Hello upper body strength, it’s nice to know you’re still there… After that it was just a matter of clambering your way up to the peak. It certainly felt like an achievement once there. Id there was a view to soak in and really appreciate the moment, we couldn’t see it. The clouds had rolled in.

You can just see the path up Barranco Wall above the hut in the middle of the picture.

You can just see the path up Barranco Wall above the hut in the middle of the picture.

Next was a descent into a huge scree slope which despite being so barren. was quite beautiful. Up another short climb and the down into the Karanga Valley. Steep either way, it was such a sight to see clamp.

The night after next will be summit day – we set off at midnight. It’s crept up on me fast but I’m feeling confident.

February 16, 2013.
There is a hope that today could be our penultimate day on the trail. From our camp at Karanga Valley, it was straight up once again. Kate, Tarica and I for about two-thirds of the way up before we’d had enough of Sigi’s pace, overtaking him and leaving the rest of the group behind. It’s impossible to stride out properly following Sigi – it suits some people but not everyone and if I’m feeling comfortable enough, I’m happy to move ahead.

The trek to Barafu Hut was supposed to take two hours and why it wasn’t tacked on to yesterday, I’m not sure. It felt good just to stretch the legs after the up and down of yesterday. It’s not a race, a long way from it, but it’s always good to know where your limits are. When we got into camp, our tents weren’t even up but one of the porters from another group made sure we had the right place. How he knew who we belonged to it remarkable in itself. Sigi wasn’t too happy with us and to be fair he is responsible for the group. At the moment we’re just hopeful they split guide and ability appropriately tomorrow for the summit.

Hiking observation #10: Swedes have a tendency to wear their pants somewhere around their necks.

So now we place the waiting game. I’m pleased to say that altitude isn’t affecting me other than the obvious lift in heart rate that comes with physical exertion. We got another hot lunch today – tomato and cheese toasted sandwiches and chips – and will have   dinner at 5pm tonight, an hour earlier than usual before a very early night. My clothes are out for the summit and I’ll be wearing a few of my layers to bed tonight. We’ve been speaking to some people on their way back down and the resounding advice to wear pretty much all we’ve got.

Killing time by taking in another magnificent view.

Killing time by taking in another magnificent view.

For me that means: Top – thermal singlet, thermal long sleeve, another long sleeve, running jacket, down jacket and Gore Tex jacket. Bottoms – two pairs of thermals, my warmest water-proof hiking pants.

The thought of that coldness couldn’t be much different to right now. I’m lying in my tent wearing just a singlet and pants. The tents can be a real heat trap during the day if you get into camp early enough. You can dry anything that requires it and you stay warm. Bonus.

In terms of what’s sore at the moment, I’m doing okay. The lower parts of my calves are the worst and require a bit of attention with dencorub but that’s it. Of a night, my back aches from the lack of padding between by sleeping bag and the often rocky ground but I worked out that by putting my clothes for the next day into my sleeping back and then arranging them in the right place, you can take the pressure off your back or for side sleepers like me, your hip which is actually bruised.

Hiking observation #24: You don’t smell as bad as you think you’re going to.

The grand plan for tomorrow, apart from making the summit of course, is getting back down to the hotel in one day instead of the scheduled two. That would mean a full day by the pool and being able to get organised for the flight home.

February 17, 2013.
Just. The day began with a 1030pm wake-up call. As in a shake of the tent from Gaston who is chief dishwasher on our camp. I had barely slept so as of 315pm when I’m writing this, it’s been a very long day already. It was bitterly cold and apart from the lights below in Arusha and yet another lightening storm in the distance, pitch black. Snacks, a quick pack up of the tent and we were off.

Hiking observation #59: Do question why one of the guides up ahead is leaving a trail of whiskey vapours in his wake. At the very least, ask if he has enough to share.

It was solid scree for most of the way up, zig-zagging our way to the summit. There was the odd false flat which was welcome relief but for the most part, it was a matter of concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other by torchlight. It was hard and by hard I mean punishing. I wasn’t affected by altitude, a few were and there was even the odd person smoking a joint on the way up. Everything was well until I felt something go in my back. It was horrible, with a sharp, burning pain and not a battle I wasn’t to be fighting along with the 50km/h winds and freezing cold.

The best feeling was when Tim, one of the guides, tapped me on the shoulder and said look to the light toto my upper left. It was Stella Point. He said that it meant I was virtually already there. It was like getting a boost of energy from some unknown force.  Forty-five minutes later, after six-and-a-half hours of climbing and hovering by the sign that read Stella Point (5695m) and with the sun’s rays just peaking over the horizon, it was time for the final 200m of climbing to the very top at Uhuru. Alongside us were the stunning glacial walls. With the sun making its way into the sky, it was a spectacular view.

Everyone has their own reasons for climbing Kili, just as I had my own. The scene that takes place at the peak is an emotional one, as well as one of achievement and reflection.

Standing on the roof of Africa.

Standing on the roof of Africa.

The journey down is just as brutal and it’s then you realise the sheer magnitude of what you’ve achieved with steep, sharp, scree slope. Of course, already in a fragile state, I managed a commando roll down it which made my back even worse resulting in a medical escort back to camp. So steep is the climb that it only takes around two hours to descend.

The best story of the day belonged to one of our group of seven, 50-year-old Clint from Calgary. Twelve months beforehand, he’d attempted the Rongai Route but was forced to pull the pin after three days due to a chest infection. Rather than letting Kili beat him, and not mentioning a word of this to any of the group, he returned and made it to the summit. Chapeau.

After a brief period of rest at the camp, and some pain killers for myself, although no sleep was allowed due to medical concerns, at 1145am we were out of there and bound for the next camp three-and-a-half hours down the road, out of alpine desert and back below the tree line. It means that our grand plan to get back to the hotel in one day failed but in retrospect, it would have been a massive undertaking. We’ll still get back in good time, enough for an afternoon celebrating with drinks by the pool.

February 18, 2013.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the first shower following a week on Kilimanjaro is not one of the best of your life. Standing underneath the cascading drops has to be one of the most refreshing experiences of my life. Eyes cast downwards, the dirt and sweat of the last week was now at my feet, ready to circle the drain.

I have a confession. Once the slippery, rocky path through the rainforest transitioned to dirt road, I ran the last of the Mweka Track. It was hot, the sweat was rolling down the back of my neck and arms but it was time for the journey to end. The day had started with a fantastic breakfast of pancakes and fresh fruit, followed by a brief presentation to our wonderful support crew. My deep respect for the 30 or so contingent only grew throughout the week, constantly amazed by their strength and agility over the challenging pathways, weighed down by baggage, supplied and camping equipment. They were troopers. From Felix the chef who drummed up a special local meal of green bananas, beef, carrot and zucchini the night following our successful ascent of Kili – it was the perfect comfort food – to shy, young Honest who had the task of carrying my main bag each day, to smiling, ever-cheerful and outgoing Gaston, Kili was their office.

While everyone has their own reasons for climbing Kilimanjaro, I had been waiting on my own epiphanic moment while on the trek. What I didn’t know was that it would only come with time, that it takes time for the feat to sink in and it’s only once you have that perspective that you find the answers that you seek.

Kilimanjaro is hard. It was bring out the very best and the very worst in you. But it’s worth every step, every bruise, scrape and blister (although I managed to escape without any) and each and every aching muscle that comes with climbing 5895m.

One Response to “So I decided to climb a mountain…”
  1. imwanderingbutnotlost says:

    Thanks for sharing. I climb Kili in June. I’m a crazy mix of nervousness and excitement.

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