Day 1 – Leaving for Africa
After almost 12 months of fundraising, training, walking up various mountains, sleepless nights and plenty of nervous anticipation, the day had finally arrived! I was leaving for Africa to take on all 19,304ft of Mount Kilimanjaro.
The idea of taking on this challenge for Velindre seemed a good one at the time, now it was dauntingly real.
All the stress of going through a CT brain scan, all the agony of summiting Britain’s highest peaks, all the endless nagging of friends and family to part with their pennies – it was finally all laid to rest – the plane had a seat with my name on it – no turning back.
Well, there was some turning back! – In the sheer excitement of what was ahead of me, I somehow managed to forget my boots!! (only the most crucial piece of equipment I would need!!!)
Having got through what was an emotional goodbye with my family, me and my fellow 18 trekkers set off for Heathrow. It would be a long and testing trip.
Promptness was to be the order of the week and we were already 2 hours ahead of schedule once we arrived at the airport, more waiting around = more time to think = more time for the reality of the challenge to sink in !
Goodbye own bed, goodbye good food, goodbye home comforts – goodbye UK!
Now I’m not the most comfortable on planes as it is, but the prospect of an 8 hour flight to Nairobi soon got more appealing when I found I was able to grab a whole row to myself (able to spread across 3 seats – jackpot!)
But, unfortunately, that’s where the comfort would end for the next 8 days or so!
We finally arrived in Kenya.
At this stage the group had started to gel well with each other, different age groups, different working backgrounds and some great characters. And it’s a good job we did bond well – because the transport we were allocated to take us from Nairobi to Tanzania – was, how can I put this? somewhat restrictive!
The Bone Shaker:-
21 of us (19 trekkers, the Doc and George, our travel company guide) – plus all our day packs and luggage – crammed into this piece of tin to embark on a journey from hell across the Kenyan/Tanzanian border. Tarmac was not something these countries invested a lot of money in!
This was a 7 hour transfer, and with the heat blazing through the windows – it already felt like a million miles from home!
Combine the need to drink 3 to 4 litres of water with the fact that our Altitude Sickness medication was now in full swing – bladder control soon became the next problem.
Numerous impromptu ‘toilet stops’ only prolonged the agony of the journey.
It was during this journey though, where we saw the real Africa. Local townships painted a bleak picture of life, 6/7 year olds old roaming the streets, pulling donkeys and food supplies home to their families.
All of a sudden the home comforts I had craved since leaving London were soon put into perspective.
On a plus point – we did spy a herd of giraffe in the wilderness!
As we crossed the border to Tanzania – we were immediately engulfed by the mountain. It was everywhere – the enormity of our challenge was cleary evident for us all to see. We were to reach nearly 20,000ft above sea level.
We arrived at the hotel – last night of comfort, last night of warmth, last night before our journey started for real……………. And a week under canvas!
Day 2 – Simba 8694ft
Having had time last night to walk around Urusha town (to supposedly alleviate nerves), the mountain was always in the back of my mind. Family and friends back home – always on my mind. There was an urge to get on with it. I just wanted to steadily get up that beast.
We had to endure another 5 hour Bone Shaker trip to the base of the mountain in the morning.
The deprivation on the route – was very apparent. The drive to Kilimanjaro national park could not be mistaken for anywhere else but Africa – bananas, papaya, mango fruit – local market.
Sweets and chocolates brought smiles to local faces / school children, as we were constantly bombarded by local beggars.
7 days from base to peak following the Rongai Route, fairly gentle trekking at the start culminating in a gruelling last couple of days on route to the summit. Pace was key, acclimatisation important. We were warned form the onset that Kili could not be taken lightly. Altitude, weather and sheer exhaustion had thwarted many in the past.
We didn’t have any fancy oxygen chambers to train in – no luxurious training camps. Just plenty of hours trudging up Pen-y-fan and a rather unfortunate chaffing incident up in Snowdon! (different story for another time!)
We would be transported through differing climates – from tropical savannahs to sub-zero temperatures.
The time for experimenting with the equipment was over. If I hadn’t packed enough by now – it was too late.
Nerves started to kick in at this point – had I trained enough? Is it all in the mind – was I mentally prepared? I would be expected to dig deep a few times up there.
Searching the internet beforehand and watching countless videos haven’t helped – but now I just had to take everything in my stride.
Mind over matter!
Excluding support staff, guides and doctors – there were 19 of us trekkers – a mixed bunch – but all with similar fears & anxiety. We soon bonded and banter was freely flowing amongst the group. You could say, we were using humour to put on a brave face.
Another stark statistic given to us on this first day was that only 40% of people will make the peak. Altitude is a lottery. That was another confidence booster – not!
The first welcome we had from the porters could be heard from afar! Approx 30/40 staff in total all singing – now the goosebumps were in full swing.
With the tents, food and water all packed up we were finally ready to go.
“Pole Pole” – Swahili for Slowly Slowly – was the constant message – from start to finish.
The initial pace was good, very manageable and spirits seemed high.
A 4 ½ hour descent through forests and lush growth – the monkey spotting began. The camera-shy black and white monkeys not too keen to welcome us into their habitat.
The track was very dusty and very sweaty! And the amenities left little to get excited about. I’d heard about the infamous long drops – but it wasn’t until I’d actual seen one (a used one!), was I able to appreciate how bad they actually were.
We walked past some local inhabitants (human and otherwise!) who seemed oblivious to us strangers.
As night was coming ever nearer, we arrived at our 1st camp – Simba (2700m above sea level). It was here we caught the first glimpse of our homes for the next 6 days or so – our 2 man tents – hardly luxurious but home nonetheless.
With a successfully negotiated first days trek behind us and following the previous day’s travels, sleep wasn’t going to be a problem (so I thought!).
It was a little tougher than we were led to believe, the terrain was a little difficult to walk on – but manageable.
No major complaints from anyone yet – the general feeling in the camp was good.
I hadn’t trained too much carrying weight on my back, and was starting to feel my shoulders and upper back ache. The porters were carrying at least twice the amount we carried. All with ill-fitting footwear and all moving at a ridiculous speed.
There was a cold night ahead but we did have a hot meal to look forward to – unfortunately the meat they served up didn’t appeal to my tastebuds! (another trend which was to be set throughout the week).
Back to the apparent no problem with sleeping – how wrong could I be. Whether it was the fact I was thousands of miles from home, whether it was the lack of spacious comfort, whether it was the constant passing of wind and zipping of tents from fellow campers – I’m not sure – but I didn’t sleep.
Day 3 – Kikelewa Camp (12066ft)
African sunrise spectacular – dawning of day in the shadows of 10 million year old Kili – made the sleepless night seem insignificant.
A customary cup of tea was brought to our tents, together with fresh hot water bowl for cleaning. No power showers here.
As we struggled through the bowl of porridge that was served up, the battalion of porters were already packing things away and forging ahead to prepare lunch and set up next camp.
A hearty breakfast fuels the body so they say, shame we didn’t get a hearty breakfast!
Another 5 hr trek followed, today though it was over boulders in the heat of the African sunshine. Surprisingly though at this moment, I was still feeling good – the forced slowness of the trek was giving everyone the opportunity to acclimatise and to get to the summit unscathed.
Lunch was welcomed – Pasta & cheese – safe food – of course I took advantage of this and devoured the lot (with seconds!)
Having reached our 2nd camp, it felt a bit of a drop in standard – ok Simba camp wasn’t the Ritz but this camp certainly felt more cramp and remote. Mice running around everywhere didn’t help set the mood!
My legs were still intact, no issues with the altitude but I did have sunburnt ears!
Tonight was easily the coldest night yet – paying all that money for a 4-season sleeping bag now seemed worthwhile. A few in the group had started reporting bugs and illnesses and occasioning bout of vomiting could be heard at night – nice!
Day 4 – on to Mawenzi camp 14091ft
Today was an early morning start 6am – very early, too early. And to dampen spirits even further, it was raining!
Climate for shorts & t-shirts was now passing. The cold night air had alerted everyone to the extremes that kili could offer.
Today was rockier – steeper – but of course the full extremities were yet to be reached.
My recollection of the mornings early trek is somewhat jaded. What I do remember though was I spent a good couple of hours thinking of home. I knew that I was now hours away from summit night – the thought of failure had always been at the back of my mind, I’d come too far and done too much now to not complete this trek successfully. Failure was not an option. Thinking of both my family and all those who had supported me throughout my fundraising, it was playing on my mind – all the ‘what-if’ scenarios started to settle in………
I hadn’t integrated a lot with the group this morning; the solace of my IPOD was sufficient company for me. Whether the change in climate had put some negativity into me I’m not sure, but I was starting to miss my family back home more now.
Spirits soon got lifted again, with the customary welcome into the camp – always an unforgettable part of the adventure.
We arrived at Mawenzi camp for our “Acclimatisation walk” – which basically consisted of a steep incline up the mountain of Mawenzi across scree (akin to the conditions we would face the next night). At this point we would be reaching heights of dangerous proportions in terms of altitude. For me – I felt no different; altitude had seemingly not affected me – yet.
Day 5 – Kibo Huts (15419ft)
Day 5 had arrived – we’d been told about this day – the snail pace trek across the ‘saddle’, followed by the summit night climb itself.
This was, by far, the toughest day yet, with the climb reaching the penultimate stage – the ascent to Kibo Huts.
The trek to Kibo had been built as ‘traversing the slopes of Kili’ – not steep at all but a steady climb into a rarer atmosphere. We were above the clouds – an eerie sense of feeling.
As we crossed the saddle (desert-like terrain) – it felt like being trapped in a Star Wars movie. Remnants of an air crash gave the surroundings a touch of the extraterrestrial.
Walking for hours on end at slow pace – in heat of the desert was a mental battle.
As a group we were urged to stick together, but naturally some were starting to falter at this stage. The camaraderie and team-spirit never faltered though and together we were able to push each other on. Everybody knew what the night had in store, apprehension was unavoidable.
When we eventually got to Kibo camp, it had an even stranger feel to it – the last resting place before the assault to the volcanic head.
It had been a huge slog – the majority of people remained upbeat. We still had a long day and long night ahead though.
We arrived in time for lunch, with the plan being to rest and recuperate in the afternoon in readiness for the 11pm start up to the summit.
I had a good feeling that at least 80% of the group would make it, including myself. At this stage I felt no weakness (whether the constant popping of ibuprofen masked any symptoms I may have had, I’m not sure!).
Everybody had worked extremely hard to get to this point – the last briefing before the summit attempt was a daunting one. Reaching Gilmans was the obvious objective – but of course Uhuru was the ultimate goal for most.
Everyone was very pensive. 99% of us had never been this high before. Our competitive nature had gone – we all wanted each other to make it – together. We were told to expect extreme sub-zero temperatures at altitude – not an attractive proposition is it?
Unfortunately at this stage some of the group were advised against going any further, for some the attempt to summit would be impossible, as altitude and sickness had already struck them. This was hard; to know some of the closely knit group weren’t going to embark on the last leg was very hard to accept.
The doctor and travel company guide again conveyed their serious message of what lay ahead.
Being ‘fresh’ for the summit effort was a key factor, unfortunately it was also impossible.
I couldn’t sleep at night, let alone in the middle of a sun-drenched afternoon. Nerves were uncontrollable now – I doubt anyone slept during those afternoon hours – everyone was focusing on one thing and one thing only.
We sat around the mess tent where numerous laughs had been had throughout the week. But no-one was laughing now, the atmosphere was almost surreal and questionably eerie. The cup of tea on offer did nothing to calm the tension.
At approx midnight, with head torches on, we formed a single file line. Months and months of preparation were all geared towards this next 6 hours – this was it.
A 6 hour trek upwards into a deeper darkness – an enormous physical and mental challenge awaited.
For some reason – everything seemed to hit me in those first few hours – freezing temperatures took their toll on hands and feet, headaches appeared from nowhere, exhaustion, difficulty breathing, slight dizziness – I knew what was happening now.
The pattern was walk an hour – rest 5 mins. The water was already frozen in my camel-bak,
We got to the ‘caves’ –approx 3hours in (halfway to Gilmans Point) – a longer break – cup of tea and some nourishment – people were unrecognisable, the sheer pain and exhaustion etched all over their faces. It was here we found out that the doctor herself could no longer continue – she was heading back to camp. Another setback!
We continued – it was pitch black. I started to feel more unsteady but somehow managed to stabilise myself enough – vomiting sounds could be heard behind me – again not encouraging. The fact that I thought I was accompanied by a small black dog up there, said a lot about my mental state at that time!
Eventually 3 hours left became 2 – and then the guides were telling us we only had an hour to go! The strain on the body can not be explained to the uninitiated. It was hard – very hard.
Just before 6am we had made it to Gilmans Point (the first summit). First objective achieved.
Early signs of swelling in the brain – I was all over the place. I had concerns at this point, but with no doctor to carry out strict assessments, I thought I was invincible. I’d come all this way – I’d endured the first 5 days – there was only one option for me – I was to carry on – disregarding safety (and yes, in hindsight this was very foolish).
Reaching Gilmans point on the volcano rim was a unique feeling. It’s the summit of Africa – although Uhuru was waiting across the other side.
Once the porters instructed us to continue on to Uhuru – we knew we had to endure at least another 2 hours to reach our end goal. The spectacular sunrise was a welcoming sight – and it certainly helped me push on.
I had nothing left in the tank at this stage, lactic acid build up in the legs, constant headaches, dizziness – all remained.
With fantastic, breathtaking views and the glaciers – a remarkable sight in the distance, I seemed to be buoyed by the surroundings. This is where thoughts of letting people down, disappointing myself and others came into question – I wasn’t turning back now.
The last 500m was the hardest thing I have ever endured. Haunched over my walking poles – unable to move another step – all kinds of thoughts are going through my head. Luckily the porters and fellow trekkers are on hand to push me that little further.
At approx 07.30am I reached the very top of Africa!
11 of us (from the original 19) had reached the summit.
As it got tougher – we dug deeper. The final moments at Uhuru will live with me forever.
After the euphoria of successfully reaching the top – I’d forgotten about my head, I’d forgotten about the imaginary dog I never really saw, I’d forgotten that the mountain was spinning around me – I’d forgotten I still had to walk back down !
200m into the descent – I just collapsed on the floor. The spinning got quicker, the headache got more intense – I just wanted to get off that mountain ASAP.
Luckily for me, Humphrey and Elias (our porters) were there. I was rushed down the mountain, at a ridiculous pace and led down to safety.
The doctor later diagnosed AMS and fluid on my brain. Dropping a couple of thousand metres was the remedy and I was fine but for a while there I genuinely feared for my health.
I was down (somehow!) and I had reached the summit – goal reached & job done.
I had tried to persuade myself that this challenge was going to be just a really long walk – I asked myself a lot of questions up on that mountain and countless times queried my ability to carry on. The mental exhaustion & emotional fatigue was totally underestimated by all.
There were many times I called upon the psychological sat-nav to locate my inner drive!
It got inside my head – I had to tackle some interesting thoughts – and my brain took me to some interesting places. Lack of sleep, poor diet, and the toilet facilities all contributed to the toughest 6 days of my life – without a doubt.
Only thing that got me up there and got me down – was thinking of my loved ones.
I’m sure I’ll look back on this in a few weeks/months time and reflect. But for the time being – never ask me to walk anywhere again!
I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank my family and everyone who has supported me throughout my fundraising campaign. And I’d like to thank each and every one of the 19 Kili 2011 trekkers – a tremendous group of people, making the challenge an unforgettable one.
We all know why I chose to embark on this challenge, I have conquered Mt Kilimanjaro, lets just hope they conquer cancer.
In memory of a very important figure in my life – my dad.