Thursday, 26 January 2012

Kilimanjaro DONE!

OMG! Well, after a long wait, a huge build up and many MANY photographs along the way - we finally did it - 5895m conquered and the way I feel right now - NEVER again!

I am currently in (what I firmly believe to be) paradise and can't believe it's been a whole week since I hobbled down that mountain. This time one week ago, I was walking 9km to the next camp, having already hiked/climbed for the previous 12 hours to the highest peak and was absolutely exhausted.

Day 1. Sunday 15th January
We met our team of 10 climbers the night before and fortunately, with no egos and a lot of similar personalities, we all got on well. The bags were packed in a state of excitement and nerves and having got to bed at 1am (not the best preparation for the biggest undertaking of my life), I'd clearly worked myself up into a frenzy and made myself thoroughly sick the following morning, unable to eat breakfast and feeling more than a little fragile - great start, as ever.

We had to drive for two hours to the registration gate, where we met all the other teams, ready to start the trek and on the way there saw the most fabulous display of African culture - the Sunday tradition is obviously to attend church in all the finery you can muster and people who ordinarily run the dusty streets in rags and hand-me-downs, were dressed in inconceivably bright and colourful posh gowns, that looked too over the top for a ball, never mind the local church. The men dressed in suits and bright shirts and everyone flocked to the nearest church, in the scorching heat, making you wonder how on earth they didn't pass out, or at least get their impossibly white whites, the slightest bit dusty - honestly, I can't get my whites that impeccable and I have a top of the range washing machine and don't live in one of the dustiest communities I've ever seen.

We met the porters who's be carrying our big bags - you can't climb Kilimanjaro unless you use the porters, as there are strict licences and regulations governing Kilimanjaro and to be a porter in Tanzania, is actually quite a sought after job. Though I can't think why, when their daily role is to wake up at about 5am, carry a personal load of approximately 20 - 24 kg on their poorly clad backs, ascending about 800m per day and having to then pitch camp and get everything ready for the eventual arrival of a bunch of lightweight trekkers, whinging because their feet hurt from carrying their pitiful backpacks and wearing the best mountain gear money can buy.

The first trek was supposed to be 3 - 4 hours and only ascending to 2,700m from about 1,900, so it wasn't too bad. We met a few of our mountain guides and got to know a bit more about each other, chatting on the way and inhaling the pungent smell of marijuana from the guides, which may have been part of the reason we got to camp in less than 3 hours...

When we arrived the camp was already laid out for us, they brought a bowl of warm water per person (for 'washy washy') and then we had tea and popcorn!! Seriously, at this point I was kind of thinking the whole thing might not be as bad as everyone makes out!

Monday 16th January
It's quite funny with altitude, that it affects people so differently. The significant effects usually start at about 3,600m, but to be fair, some people were already suffering a little by the time we got halfway to our next camp and most of us could feel the onset of either slight nausea, or a light head. The journey from camp one was stunning, looking back as we went down the mountain at the view of Tanzania spread out beneath us. Our route was through gorse, forest and then moorland, so we could see the outline of the mountain beneath lush vegetation and then the plains beyond, stretching out towards the Kenyan mountains in the distance.The pace had also slowed right down, not necessarily due to fitness levels, but because as the air gets thinner, it is more difficult to inhale a full lungful of oxygen and the guides insist on making you walk, 'pole pole' or 'slowly slowly', which I guess is also to do with getting us used to the final summit pace.

The altitude also has an effect on many other bodily functions and within a few hours it became quite clear that we'd be stopping regularly to... as the guides put it, 'send emails' - with or without attachments!! At each lunch stop the porters would have a hot, usually three course lunch prepared, which we ate in the mess tent and still to this day, I can't quite believe how they managed to carry, prepare and present such fantastic three course spreads on a mountain side - I don't eat that well at home!

The second day seemed to go on forever and we walked for about 8 hours that day, very slowly in places as the altitude increased and the temperature decreased. By the time we'd got to camp at 3,600m I was feeling a little sick, my ass was aching and we were more than ready to fall into bed. It's quite odd how you get to know one another very well, very quickly when you're walking in a long line, talking about life and all your experiences and inevitably 'sending emails together'. I think the level of inhibition between a group of people is directly proportional to how many hours you've shared with a common purpose and experience and by the end of that second day, we were lined up in a row of mooning females, all synchronised in our exposure, quite happily emailing away and sharing... well, there's no euphemism equivalent for toilet paper.

Tuesday 17th January  
Day three started with us all feeling quite exhilarated and invigorated by the prospect of a shorter trek of only 3 - 4 hours. We'd be climbing to 4,330m and camping at Mawenzi Tarn, which is a meltwater at the base of Mawenzi peak - the second peak on Mount Kilimanjaro and I'd better stress at this point that it really is stunning... as my MANY photographs show. The sun had just risen over the peak when we awoke on day three and Mawenzi is as jagged and uneven as Kilimanjaro is flat and table like. Anyway, I have a lot of photos of both peaks in what I like to think are different angles and aspects... to most though, they probably look exactly the same, but I don't care - I climbed it and I want to make sure I can reflect back on exactly how tough that bitch is - from every view point.

One of the two American girls Sam and I arranged the trip with was Heidi and she wasn't feeling too good at this point. As I said, the altitude can get to some people no matter how fit they are and whilst Heidi runs marathons in the States and has done a half iron man, she was sick from the end of day two and there's no way of knowing that until your body reacts. Still, she stoically powered through it, tactically throwing up where she could and we rallied around, trying to keep her spirits up. The length of time we walked was shorter, but the ascent was the steepest yet and we literally plodded like the walking dead up some slopes. The view was still stunning and we literally had Kilimanjaro peak to our right, Mawenzi in front, to the left and the African plains of Tanzania, leading to Kenya behind us... you can never have enough photographs of the same view, but five minutes later... and so on.

The camp was gorgeous, set in the small crater below Mawenzi peak and the tarn was a turquoise blue colour and strictly, we were told, for drinking only. Though why the hell anyone would want to strip down and swim in freezing cold water at 4,330m anyway, I have no idea. It's deceptive at altitude, that the temperature is actually really cold, because the sun shining and constant plodding, makes you feel quite hot and it's only when you stop that you realise. We did another acclimatisation trek about an hour after we arrived at camp, to 4,500m and then back down again and a couple of us actually felt better when we were higher. You sort of get used to this constant dull thud in your head, which is kind of like a lingering hangover (and yes, oddly enough, I could handle that), but it's the nausea that gets to you coupled with the feeling of being sapped of all energy. I felt the worst I felt on the mountain that night, I could hardly keep my eyes open by 7pm and couldn't stomach the thought of food. The guides are brilliant though and they are trained to watch and keep an eagle eye out for any symptoms and try to get you to eat and drink as much and as often as possible. Heidi wasn't fairing too well by that point either and a few other members of the group felt quite rough, which is really unnerving, because you're constantly wondering whether your body is going to succumb to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) at any point and fearful of whether you'll be able to climb. We were also starting to stink a bit by now - no matter how many wet wipes you use, or what a good job of 'washy washy' you do with the meager bowl of lukewarm water you  have to make do with, nothing compares to a good soak in a hot shower or bath. Still, at least we all stank together.

Wednesday 18th January
The penultimate day... our plan for today was to walk the relatively flat 300m ascent to base camp, at 4,700m and then rest and go to bed at about 6pm/7pm. What we didn't account for was the searing heat from the relentless sun beating down, on what felt like a desert crossing. I have pictures of us in a long line, dressed bizarrely in long sleeves, long trousers, gaitors, woolly hats and face scarves, all to protect ourselves from the burning sun and wind whipping across our faces. There's no way of describing the landscape to do it justice, because whilst you are in reality on the side of the world's highest freestanding mountain, you feel like you're crossing the Sahara desert or similar. The land either side and all around is perfectly flat, interspersed now and then by the odd boulder or rock outcrop and occasional cactus. The only landmarks are the winding faint path, created by previous trekkers all using the same route across the dusty plain and the two different peaks of Kilimanjaro in front and Mawenzi, by now behind. It is really surreal and rather like travelling across snowscapes, for trying to judge distance and time. Our long, dry and dusty trek took us over 8 hours, plodding and shuffling at the almost comically slow race, set by the guide and dictated by our inability to take a full breath.

'Emailing' was an interesting concept by then too - with such a barren landscape and us being one of several teams on that side of the mountain, you kind of had to use one side of any available rock, to shield from the rest of the team close by and then expose everything in the general direction of the streams of people crossing the desert towards you, hoping they were far enough away not to care and that none of them had binoculars!

We could see base camp in the distance at all times and it rarely seemed to get any closer. The only other landmark, was a small light aircraft that crashed on the mountain some 2 - 3 years ago and the remains of which, are strewn across that part of the 'desert' as a reminder of the harsh landscape and hostile weather conditions, that can change on Kilimanrajo, within minutes.

By the time we arrived at camp, we were shattered and exhilarated at the same time. Some of us felt nervous and some of us, just wanted to get going and go for the summit. I think I felt more apprehensive than nervous, wondering whether my body was going to suddenly reject the altitude and stop me from summitting, but mostly, I just wanted to get going. We had a few hours to get our kit ready for the summit attempt and to pack what we didn't need, because the guide assured us we wouldn't have the energy to do much when we got back down and frankly, I believed them.

So, after dinner at 6pm and bed by 7, we had to be wearing/have ready everything that we'd need for the summit attempt and await our wake up call at 11pm!

Thursday 19th January 2012
Summit Day.
Up until this night, I'd spent each evening sleeping - starkly, because although it's very cold, the kit we had, including the sleeping bags works best using the heat from your body to warm the air between the bag and you, so if you wear too many layers, you can get quite cold and not warm up. I pretty much based my summit gear on that principle and even took off some of the layers I put on at the last minute, 'just incase'. We woke up at 11pm and got dressed, 5 layers on top, plus a scarf and hat, two pairs of gloves and two pairs of warm bottoms. We had to carry boiling water in a thermos, because it's so cold, that your water freezes and you have to do everything by head torch. Apparently there are two reasons you summit at midnight, 1. so that the weather conditions are at their best and there is no cloud cover and 2. so that you can't see the top and realise how far you still have to go! Positive Mental Attitude, is apparently equal to fitness after your body's ability to deal with altitude. I can honestly say, that at 12.20am, as we started that climb, I had no idea how much PMA would come into it.

I can't describe the pace we walked to do it justice, but suffice to say, imagine when you were a kid and you tried to do the, 'slowest walk in the world' and that's somewhere close. We literally shuffled at a race that didn't even feel like a pace at times and in the early part of the climb, the gradient isn't too steep, so the hardest part is actually the anticipation of what's to come and the biting cold. We climbed in a line, with the guides sandwiching us front and back and a few spread either side, watching for signs of fatigue or AMS. The porters sang, which was a fabulous tonic and we tried not to look up and make out the summit against the moonlit sky. The whole way up, you can see a string of head torches in the distance, snaking all the way up the mountain, from those who have already started ahead and everyone goes at the same pace.

Quite early on we lost Heidi, who had to slow right down and keep stopping to throw up, or get her breath, Frankly I'm amazed that she even attempted the summit, given the extent she'd been suffering and it's purely testament to her determination that she got herself even half way up that bitch of a hill. The remaining 9 of us slogged on and between uncovering and covering my face against the whipping wind one moment and then overheating the next, there seemed plenty to do! I actually felt fine, with no headache to speak of, no nausea and a sense of inevitability that I was getting to the top, come what may, so I might as well get on with it. If I'm honest, for the first 4 hours, I remember wondering what all the fuss was about and thinking that maybe the guide books and other people who've described the, 'nightmare' might have been over egging it, when in actual fact, it was going to be a bit of a breeze... (pride before a fall and all that?!)

An hour later I hit the wall. The gradient changed at about 4.30am and we started to really climb and the ground wasn't rock, or stable soil, but volcanic ash and scree and it was something like scrambling up a loose, ever moving treadmill, just very very slowly. The wind was slicing into our faces, the top seemed to be getting farther and farther away and I can tell you that it's a pretty miserable experience to have to send an email in those conditions...

I'm not ashamed to say I found myself sobbing a few times, with shear exhaustion and each time we stopped for even a second, the chill would go through you and your hands and feet would start to freeze. I managed to get water right up until an hour before we reached Gillman's Point, the first summit, at 5.696m, but by then, I barely had the energy to drink it anyway. The last hour before the first summit was tough and it took a hell of a lot of PMA to keep moving and get us over the rocks that lead to the top. The scree gives way to boulders and rock and when you're physically exhausted, it's quite hard to haul yourself up onto the rocks, without toppling backwards. Kristin, was really struggling by then and was in so much pain and suffering with headaches, that she knew she couldn't go further and we agreed, reluctantly and sadly to see her at the base. You can't stop for long at the first summit, because the cold sets in and your body's already trying to sieze up, but the views are breathtaking and I have to say, worth it.

We reached the summit at sunrise and the pink and orange breaking over the silhouetted Mawenzi Peak, with the creamy clouds, like a blanket below us, was one of the most stunning and indescribably beautiful sights I've ever seen. The volcanic crater of the mountain was behind us and covered in pure, untouched snow, with the most incredible glacier, looming over the ridge in the distance and if it hadn't been so cold, I could have sat there for hours just taking it all in.

But, you have to keep going - if nothing else, before you change your mind and if I thought the previous 6 hours were tough, the next two made them seem like a walk in the park. To reach Uhuru Peak at 5,895m, you have to scramble around icy boulders, tentatively step along sheet ice ridges and shuffle slower than ever, up even more endless scree slopes. It feels like you're never going to get there and at one point, I had to ask the porter behind me to put my second pair of gloves on for me, because I literally couldn't move my fingers. I worked out how to take pictures wearing my thickest gloves and stopped as often as I could to capture everything around me, partly because no one else in our group could bring themselves to get their cameras out either and there was no way I was going to miss out on getting our photos after all this effort.

Eventually, after what seemed like a lifetime, we arrived at Uhuru Peak at 08.24am. It was stunning and surreal all at the same time and if I'm brutally honest, while I can remember everything, I know I was functioning completely on auto pilot by then. The air is so thin, you feel like you can't get a proper breath and just bending to put down your bag is an effort. We literally had 10 minutes to take photographs and then the guides wanted us down and off the mountain as fast as possible, to prevent AMS setting in. I can remember hugging Sam and I can remember asking the guide to take my photo, standing by the Uhuru Peak sign, punching the air and pulling some cheesy victorious face, that is completely out of character for me, which basically means the photo I have of me on Africa's highest peak, is totally not me and not helped by the fact the guide taking it cut the top of the sign off and took the whole picture on a slant!! Brilliant.

Then, before we knew it, we were ushered to gather our kit again and whisked back down the way we'd come to get off the mountain and undo all the effort of getting up in less than 2 hours flat! The going down, was almost as hard as the coming up - more so mentally, because it's day light, so you can see how far you have to go and you are exhausted, in every sense of the word. My knees kept buckling from under me and I could hardly breath and felt like throwing down my kit, falling to the floor and sobbing like a petulant child. The only problem with that being, that with 8 other people to get off the mountain, our guides have little tolerance for drama and you have no option but to get on with it. Everything ached, I had zero energy and my nose kept running. I was not a pretty sight.

The most part of the down section of the mountain can be done 'scree skiing', which if you didn't feel like the walking dead, would probably be quite fun. As it is, it involves a skiing motion, using the scree as snow and kicking up the most choking dust cloud as you go. By the time we got to the bottom, every orifice was full of ash and dust and I couldn't cry if I wanted to, because I had no spare body fluid. It seemed to take forever to reach the camp and by the time I got there, my feet were in so much pain, I had to down whatever tablets I could just to stop the throbbing.

I'd like to say I was elated and proud of myself and high on the fact we'd reached the top of Kilimanjaro, but I wasn't and all I could do was flake out and let the girls who'd already reached the bottom, remove my boots and socks for me. Kristin, Sam and I were proud - of us and of Heidi, for getting to the halfway point, when most of us would have stayed in bed and of us, for reaching the summits. At that point though all I could think about was the pain and the fact the guides informed us we had an hour before lunch and then we had to start the 9km walk to the next camp, before we'd be able to really relax!

We climbed and walked for 16 hours that day and then after a heavy night's sleep, we had another 7 hours walk the following day to the end of the trail and to exit the mountain National Park. I am incredibly proud of myself and the girls, Sam, Kristin and Heidi, as well as the other girls Rhiannon, Seniz, Dominique and Judith and the boys James and Doug, also in our group. I'm sure, in about a week, I'll be able to look back over my photos and re-live the experience all over again and I'll have loads of stories to tell and be full of pride and excitement about the whole trip.

For now though, we have agreed to refer to our Mountain as, 'She who shall not be named' and as I sit here typing, still catching up on sleep and getting back to normal, I don't ever want to set eyes on that bitch of a mountain again!

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