I left a sodden Heathrow tea time in late July and by breakfast on Sunday I was jolted awake by this sight of this out my plane window…
Mount Kilimanjaro, the reason for my trip and my focus for the previous four months. Along with 18 intrepid global Goliners, I was going to attempt to climb Africa’s highest peak.
Like a bunch of over-excited school kids, we donned our hiking boots and squeezed ourselves into a minibus in the AM. The next few hours were spent on a red dusty track, internally rearranging our breakfasts like an equatorial cocktail shaker.
We were delighted to pile out, sign a register as we entered the Kilimanjaro National Park, and finally kick-off our adventure.
In a long line, through some really pretty rainforest, we walked from the Lemosho start gate, up around 400m to Forest Camp at 2821m. A relatively easy walk of less than 6km, we were in good spirits at dusk as we arrived at camp, enjoyed our first tented meal and settled in for the night, many of us entertained by the novelty of camping and breaking open boxfresh gadgets and equipment. Ha.
As someone that really only sleeps successfully in a bed, I managed a respectable 3-4 hours sleep. My tent was right next to the green tardis like toilet-tents. There was a great deal of nocturnal zipping and un-zipping which along with the gentle snoring of colleagues, became an almost comforting soundtrack to the trip.
Onwards and upwards for a hike of nearly 8kms over 700m elevation to Shira camp up at 3,508m so already a decent altitude, on the edge of the Shira Plateau.
It was a good day, a varied, interesting walk. You can see me above introducing transatlantic colleagues to culturally important British confectionery. Sadly, despite several chapters of Zadie Smith’s new book, many rounds of Christmas carols and some French verb tables, I got ZERO sleep. Breath getting a little short too and my face puffy in places. Nice.
Another climb across the plateau of almost 800m in elevation today, a decent distance of some 10k at this altitude, to Moir Hut Camp at 4,166m.
Hard going. Fascinating to explore how the body can keep performing, the mind surprising you with its reserves and then on a sixpence, you feel utterly depleted. That’s when a wonderful vista spurs you on, a guide cheers you with a song or someone cracks a toilet tent related gag. Mind you, I wasn’t not sure what was exhaustion, sleep deprivation and altitude sickness at this stage.
After getting to camp and washing up for lunch, I was overcome with emotion, had a good sob, then pulled myself together for our late lunch. I accepted the offer of a sleeping tablet from a colleague. Fingers crossed…
Now the going really got tough. Plus side, I did get 3-4 hours sleep, downside there were ‘shapes’ on the tent ceiling all night and my face and lips were seriously puffy when I woke up. We trekked around 20k, BUT actually going from 4166m ending up at Caves Camp, 3971m, good for acclimatisation. Nice view of the peak which is getting closer, helping to motivate us.
After an hour or two the clouds really closed in on us. This seemed novel until we realised they were a rain clouds. After hours three and four, we properly lost our sense of humour.
The group was collectively, very happy to reach camp. Trialing a new, hopefully trip-free sleeping tablet tonight.
A small amount of sleep, better than a poke in the eye I guess but we have a big 36 hours ahead. Only 5km but 750m elevation up to School Hut at 4,722m today.
The outside of the tent was frozen overnight and the sky clear, star-filled and breath-taking. The morning was equally clear and so we were treated to a spectacular alfresco breakfast. Sleep deprivation/altitude left me afflicted with a spoonerism (switching first syllables of words) so I accidentally call Jessie Dienstag the ‘worst’ swear word at brekkie. Sorry Jessie.
We are then treated to an animated song and dance display by our 60-strong expedition team. They are legends.
Despite lack of sleep, an inflated face, tough inclines and serious altitude, I felt elated today. The camaraderie was strong, and the views uplifting. We shuffled – not moving very fast now – past a mummified water buffalo which had got its horns stuck between rocks and had ended its days there. Sobering. We are now in ‘mountain desert’ and seeing the buffalo made me realise, we’ve seen no bugs for days, only a few birds. Even flora and fauna are becoming sparse. Living creatures are NOT supposed to be here.
Camp was staggeringly beautiful, the team strong. Many of us do manage an afternoon acclimatisation hike although I opt to stop part of the way up. 14 years ago today I joined Golin, what a way to mark the occasion with some courageous colleagues. Finally, I got mobile coverage and talked to my family who were on an outing at Legoland!!! That was great timing and wonderful motivation pre-summit.
This is where it gets weird. So we went to bed for a few hours, in the middle of the afternoon. Then we had dinner – little appetite between us – then back to sleep for another two hours or so (obviously, I got no rest whatsoever).
Our group was the largest that www.teamkilimanjaro.com had ever handled and there were big differences in our walking pace so we had naturally divided into two. The guides frequently tell you in Swahili ‘pole pole’ (slowly slowly) but my group, which set off around 11pm, we named the ‘pole, pole…pole’ group! We faced a climb from School Hut at 4722m to Gilmans Point at 5708m, on past the second the second crater/peak to the ‘true summit’, Uhuru Peak at 5895m.
We moved, at a snails pace, barely speaking, grateful of head torches and our multiple layers, taking regular breaks for water (which repeatedly threatened to freeze), snacks and pep talks. It was the biggest vertical climb by far, with negative temperatures (getting colder as we went), with little for us to breathe, on no sleep and in the dark. As we moved from hours, one, two, three into four, all our physical and mental reserves were called upon.
The regularity with which we were fed sweets by the guides increased and I found myself tearful and emotional. I became increasingly light-headed and wobbly around 4 or 5am. The star-filled sky was spectacular but as I looked up at the zig-zagging path ahead, I struggled to tell where the path finished and the sky began.
Where we clambered up large rocks, I swayed precariously, always finding magic invisible hands to steady me. I went through my catalogue of motivational stimulus, I was all out of visualisations. I told the head guide I wouldn’t give up but I just couldn’t continue ‘right now’. They were more than ready, and somehow they kept the increasingly despondent group going forwards as the first rays of sun gently backlit the horizon. I vaguely recall the other Golin group passing us and then, just at the sun peeked over the cloud blanket below, I fell over the edge to Gilmans Point. Happier tears, photos and Red Bull.
Someone I was part cajouled, part-dragged for the next few hours (it’s like a timewarp up there) by the astonishing guides past clouds, volanic rocks, spaced hikers and other worldly glaciers to the true summit. We were all elated and proud, aware that were sharing something momentous together. We were also beyond tired and speaking for myself, was displaying the behavioural traits of an over-tired toddler.
We then faced a long day hiking down to our camp for the night. Psychologically and physically we had underestimated that part, no magic trapdoor or Golin chopper to rescue us – more than 12 hours of walking and a distance of around 25kms again was not ideal. Hey ho.
Day 6 and beyond…
Massive sense of pride and relief in camp tonight that we’d done it and, hurrah, a full night’s sleep for me! Not the only one to have been touched by the extreme cold and strong sun yesterday, my bottom lip had also done something extra special overnight. It was about 3 times the size of my top lip and blistered. Uncomfortable.
Back in the fun bus, it was a far shorter and more pleasurable journey back to the hotel (and showers, yay) via a lunch stop. Maybe an hour out from the hotel in Arusha, the group was collectively silenced as we got a good view back at the mountain. It was beautiful yes, but we needed to significantly adjust our gaze upwards. It is SO big!!
So, what did I take from this experience?
- Back home now for a month now and the only remaining physical reminder is one black toenail but I frequently dream of the mountain or think of those I shared it with. For me, someone with limited sporting ability and zero interest in extreme physical activity, now in my 40s, I wanted to test myself, do something totally out of my comfort zone. I was really conscious of showing my children what was possible with hard work and strength of mind – that there was more to Mummy than emails, meetings, cooking and organising birthday parties. Mission very much accomplished.
- I was simply blown away by the 18 global Golin colleagues. It was an enormous privilege to have experienced such a life event with such excellent, diverse individuals and I am grateful that such a courageous agency brought us together. Some of them I might never see again face-to-face but for those of us with the opportunity to work together in future, this experience will make the world of difference.
- I was very proud of myself yes, and I will maintain my fitness (it was hard to shoe-horn training into my crazy life for four months). It is incredible to witness what your body can do when you think it can give no more.
- To step away from aforementioned crazy life, where there are many many plates spinning, nothing ever quite finished or under control, it was liberating for nine days, to be razor-focussed on one, large goal.
- Finally, our aim was to use this incredible experience to raise awareness of and funds for the most trafficked mammal on earth, the pangolin. This scaly anteater is on the endangered list. In partnership with the excellent savepangolins.org our expedition has so far raised $30,000. That’s amazing and there’s more to come from Golin using our relevance platform to help save a species next year.
Would I do it again? No. Will it have a lasting effect on me? Absolutely.