Climbing Kilimanjaro

This post (and a few others) have been a while in coming. It's been a few weeks, and I'm still processing, and thinking and feeling all the things that I saw in Africa. In regards to Kili, I'm 100% sure we had no idea what we were getting ourselves in for. Oh sure, we knew we were climbing a mountain. A really rather large one at that, but knowing you're going to climb a mountain is rather different from actually climbing it. It's a rather long post, but here it is in a nutshell:

I climbed Kili. Hardest thing I've ever done, took me 16 hours to get to the very top (Uhuru Peak from Kibo) and I was violently ill with AMS. Awesome. I was rather proud of myself, not for getting to the top, but because I learnt where my limits were and how to push past them. I've never pushed myself so far before. Also my motivations were laid out pretty damn clear. I did it, and I shook the fuck out of my flag at the top. Good for me.

Kili + the Saddle in the distance

Here's the blow by blow version:

The first few days were long, (relatively) easy walks. We all set off in our fancy gear, all clean and shiny and expensive. Boots, gaiters and poles all new and ready for use. We were clean and happy and excited to get going - we were going to climb a mountain! There was puntastic jokes and laughing as we set off the 16 of us. It was all happy attitudes and a 'go get em!' kind of mentality. There was lush rainforest the first day, complete with monkeys and chameleons and blue skies. The second day gave way to moorlands, large gullies and rolling hills pretty quickly. In the morning we were walking under a bright, fairly brutal sun (we got some nice tan lines that day!) and by lunch? By lunch we were walking in clouds. It was fine, the walks had predominately uphill gradients with some nice flats. Five hours, maybe. Being dirty was still novel (and we weren't really dirty). We were still using wet wipes rather discreetly and still really getting to know each other. It was still fun time jokes and singing Elvis tunes as we went. Playing cards and guessing games and gossiping about our lives back home.

At the lodge, all ready to set off.

At base, waiting for permission to get going.

Day 1 Camp - Mandara

Setting off, Day 2

Day 2 + 3 Camp - Horombo

Day four is where things got interesting. Where the reality really set in for me, and we got a taste of what the mountain really had to offer. We set off early, from Horombo (Camp #2) up to Kibo (Camp #3 the highest camp at 4700m). We were pretty cheery to begin with, but that was before the storm set in. It was cold and wet. The moorlands changed from stunted trees and shubbery and rolling hills into rocky wasteland as we crossed into the saddle. As far as you could see, flat rocky wasteland. We'd walk, more silent than usual, the rain and cold getting everyone a bit down. We passed a stream, the last water mark. All the water past here had to be carried up with you.

Around this point I got tingly fingers, thanks to the Diamox I was taking (for altitude sickness). The higher we went, the more difficult it became, and the more you had to will yourself through it. Despite the Diamox, I still got altitude sickness. Dizziness, pounding headaches, nausea. It was like the side effects listed in the small print of any drug you’ve ever read. It’s only 9k, but it’s a terrible 9k. All uphill with paths made of mud, and stones that crunch underfoot. Pretty uncomfortable going, and even worse was that it was cold and raining. I felt pretty horrid, but I’m pretty sure all of us did.

Lunch time. At the 0:55 mark I'm clearly feeling it. "Struggle city"- direct quote.

Looking up across the saddle. It's a long way to walk.

After 8 hours of walking, arriving at Kibo was pretty disheartening. It was desolate. Snow everywhere, someone somewhere was cooking some foul smelling fish, which prompted gagging with all the nausea I felt. Dinner was early, and oh it was the feel of the camp that really got to me. We were all a bit apprehensive, all of us a bit tense, anticipating the climb. I can guarentee NONE of us had any idea what was coming next. We were woken at around 10pm, after maybe 4 hours of sleep. I was not ready to be awake, but mostly that’s because I barely slept. We dressed in the dark in all our cold weather gear. Headtorch on all ready to go. Ready to go climb a mountain.

I barely remember the first bit. We moved out all walking in a line, head torches bobbing up and down in the dark. All the way up I was nauseous, which was hard. There was pounding headaches, too. The beginning of the climb was about getting through, it was about taking a step and moving forward in the dark, trusting that you were making progress as we zig zagged slowly up a hill. I’m glad we couldn’t see where we were walking, or how far. It was literally about putting one foot in front of the other, minute after minute, hour after hour, just keep on moving ahead, watching all the little head torches bob their way up a mountain. At the half way point, maybe four hours in I was flagging. My head felt like it was in a vice and oh, all I wanted to do was sleep, or vomit. I wasn’t sure which. When we started moving again it was pretty clear I was holding up the crew, so I got my own guide – John. He and I went super super slow, poole poole. The rest of the crew waved goodbye and just like that it was me and John out in the wilderness by ourselves.

It was hard going, SUPER hard going. Each step was difficult, it’s own kind of torture as we zig zagged up the side of a mountain in the snow. Each step took my breath away and I had to stop. I often sat down, every ten minutes or so to rest. I’d yell down the mountain at my friend Matt, who I knew was also struggling with AMS. I wasn't sure if he could hear me, but hoped that the encouragement was helpful all the same. It was good for me to have someone to encourage as I went. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone, considering everyone else had left us behind what felt like years past. John kept up his gentle encouragement, calling me sister. One more step sister, you can do it sister, only a bit more to go sister. (That last one was a lie, because ‘a bit’ ended up being hours and hours). I got into a rhythm, and started repeating weird mantras (the one I remember most was “pole goes in *stabs snow with left pole* other pole goes in *stab snow with right pole*) – but there were many. Whatever got me moving and into a rhythm.

We were a few hours out from Gilmans Point before the sun came up over the clouds and oh. It was glorious. At first it turned the snow smokey blues with dusky grey shadows, moving into baby pinks with peach overtones and oh, it was gorgeous. It made climbing a smidgeon easier. It was a little bit shocking actually, to see how far we’d climbed. Kibo was a tiny dot so far down the hill. I couldn’t believe it, and was glad that I hadn’t been able to see how far we were to climb on the way up.

Kibo is just past the snow line in the middle. A tiny speck so small you can't really make it out from here.

I was sitting on a rock when I looked up to see how far we had left and oh, I almost cried. We'd been climbing about 8 hours at this point and were so far from the top still. Gilmans Point is the first 'top' - it's where the route reaches the kaldera. If you reach that point it's acknowledged that you've climbed Kili. It's not the very peak, but oh, getting there would have been good enough for me. Because oh, oh fuck, it was hard. It was torturous. Every step took everything I had. I was retching more often now, my head was pounding and I felt terrible. I’d take a step, force a second step that was really more of a lurch and then stop to breathe, like I’d just run up three flights of stairs in those two steps. It was insane. I was really quite miserable, I was nauseous and desperately wanted to vomit, as if that would ease how I felt, knowing full well that it probably wouldn’t and I’d be losing much needed liquid. As I came around every zig, I’d look up at the next zag and be filled with such despair at how much further there was to go, about how many more step and lurches I was going to have to make.

There was a wooden stick that you could see that marked where the trail ended, and fuck that fucking elusive stick. No matter how many steps I was taking, no matter how far I was moving forward that stick never looked like it was moving any closer. It was demoralising. It took everything I had to keep going. Pride mostly, I don’t think I could face the team if I had to turn around. They hadn’t passed me on their way down, so I knew I was going to keep going. Pride it turns out, is a pretty powerful motivator for me. I stopped looking at the stick. I stopped measuring progress and how far I was walking. It became about taking more steps, and less breaks. It was steep going, every step was uphill and a bit treacherous. When I finally rounded the corner and saw the sign I was shocked. I'd made it!

I cried at Gilmans. I was sore, I was sick and oh, all the things I'd emotionally and mentally pushed through to get there was overwhelming. I sat on a rock and just, felt all of the things. I couldn't believe I'd made it and the thought of turning around to go back down all that way seemed impossible. It was just then that two of the boys from my crew walked back. I was so glad to see them, glad to see familiar faces, glad to see someone who was suffering just as much as me. We hugged, and took photos by the sign and congratulated all of us together on making it this far. It was pretty joyful, and I got a burst of energy. I asked them how far they'd gotten. 15 minutes, they said, before they had to turn around. Something sparked in me, and I thought I could probably walk another 15 minutes down the trail. If I went 5 minutes more I would have walked further than the boys. Turns out competition is also a pretty strong motivator for me. John saw the spark and said he thought I could do it ('Sister, I think you can do it' were his exact words), so I wished the boys a safe descent and off we went.

It was easier, the walk past Gilmans. More flats, some minor ups and minor downs, but mostly flat. After the steepness of the final ascent to Gilmans this felt like a walk in the park. I was still nauseous, and still had the headache, but the steps were easy on the flat. The sun was warm and the views of the glaciers above the clouds pretty phenomenal. That and I was walking further than the boys, despite taking longer to get to Gilmans.

When I got to the 20 minute mark I met two more of the crew coming the other way. I got my first good look at what worse AMS than mine looked like, which was pretty terrible to see. My friend was suffering and was focused on getting off the mountain, and only getting off the mountain. The other, a brilliant German with a ginger beard who is amazing hugged me. 'Elly!' he said 'I never expected to see you here!' and we grinned and we laughed and his enthusiasm and high fives gave me another burst of energy. And with that, me and John made it to Stella Point.

I sat for bit under the cliff, behind the sign. I was pleased that I'd made this far, further than some of the boys, further than many people. Some randoms sitting further down started chatting with me, they liked my flag, which I'd been wearing as a cape as I climbed. Sir Ed climbed Everest first, so surely mountain climbing was something ingrained into my countrymen, and it couldn't hurt to have the comfort of my country behind me. Also, when my Dad donated, he said to shake the hell out of my flag at the top, and I'd done that. At Gilmans, and at Stella. Waved it around like I'd never waved anything before.

And just like that, I decided I was going to walk to Uhuru. That I'd come so far, that I'd walked five days, given so much, that whatever discomforts I was feeling, what was another few hours? I already felt horrid, but camp was hours away anyway. What was a few more hours? A few more steps? I was already at my limits, but I'd passed one line getting Gilmans, and another getting to Stella. Surely Uhuru could be the same, I just needed to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. I could do that, couldn't I?

So I hauled myself to my feet and off we went. The pace was slow, very poole poole. One foot, breathe breathe breathe. Lift your head to the sky and summon the energy to take another step. You move your other foot forward. You suck in another breath. And then another. And you will the other foot forward. It's clumsy, and it's slow, and it's hard.

The walk to Stella was mostly flat with some little ups. Past Stella, oh, it was more up than flat. I came around the corner and saw how far up I'd have to go, and oh, I cried when I saw it. I was exhausted, completely spent, and the up was so demoralising. I was determined to get to the peak, I knew I was going to walk all those steps, but I despaired at how far left there was to go. Half way up, an hour, hour and a half after setting off from Stella the rest of the crew came around the corner on their way down. I cried. They cried. There were high fives, and in a flurry of emotion and movement and colour they were there, and then they were gone. The landscape was white, and felt much whiter after their departure.

They said I was so close, that I'd be able to see the sign around the next corner. They weren't wrong, all filled with hope that the end was near, I climbed up the ridge and around the corner and oh sure, there it was, you could see the sign. A tiny tiny green dot against the horizon. I cried. There was a lot of crying, I was emotionally spent and couldn't believe how far there was to go. Still, off we went. And maybe an hour, hour and a half later I was finding walking in a straight line hard. I was dizzy, and retching and my head was pulsing in a way I was sure was not normal. John took my arm, held me up and together we walked the rest of the way.

I made it to the top, to that sign. I cried. I shook the fuck out of my flag, and cheered, and thought about my Dad, and my family and friends and all the people I loved and adored. It was just me and John at the peak of the highest mountain in Africa. Just us two alone, above the clouds. And because I was standing higher than John, right then, for about a minute, I was highest person in Africa.

When we left, I left my flag up there, flapping away in the wind. John used his pocket knife to make it more secure. I hope it's still there.

I don't even want to think about the way down. I hadn't trained for down, and after an hour of down my knees were ruined. I made it to Stella and fell over trying to sit down. I don't remember getting to Gilmans, but at some point John had taken my arm and was holding me up. We descended past Gilmans by sliding down the scree, and oh, it was treacherous and scary (not helped by John telling me how a Jamaican man had died earlier in the week by falling and hitting his head). Hours and hours and hours we slid down, I was struggling to stay upright and oh, I was barely aware of my surroundings.

We stopped, I remember. And I watched some school kids from an international school try make the ascent to Gilmans. I laughed, because it was the most hilarious joke. These kids hardly had the right gear, and didn't look like they had trained at all. They were all decked out in fashionable street gear, nice sunglasses and fancy jackets. These kids weren't even half way up to Gilmans and had no idea what was in store for them. Kili had decimated me. Those poor children had no chance.

I don't remember much about the way down. At the halfway cave there was someone who was on his way up who we met. He asked for advice, and I said just to keep going. One foot and then another. An hour or two out of camp the leader had sent up a group of porters to meet us, with extra water. They took my pack from John, and one porter tried to carry me but I freaked out. So two porters, one either side held me upright and I walked myself down back to camp.

There were high fives from all the guides when I got there. It had taken me 16 hours, from when I left kibo to when I got back. I was the last one back by miles and miles and miles. When I got in, the rest of my crew were sleeping, and oh, oh oh oh, having walked all through the night on little more than a few hours sleep, I was ready to lie down. Truth, I kicked off my boots and fell into bed and was instantly out.

I was woken an hour or so later. A single hour, that's what I had. I opted not to eat dinner, hoping to sleep more but not even 20 minutes later we were packin and heading out, leaving Kibo and heading back to Horombo. I don't remember this walk so much, either. There was lots of down, and I remember sharing snacks with John. Down was easier, and now that we were at a lower altitude I wasn't so nauseous or ill, and was happy to start eating again. We took so long walking back across the saddle that it was dark, and they sent up porters with torches to help us down the last hour. I fell into bed completely ruined.

The next day was a run back to the base. I walked at the back with my friend Matt (who, sucks to be him, he couldn't see anything). So here's the thing. Not only was my body exhausted, my knees uncooperative, but because I'd spent so long descending the day before, my face got second degree burns, from the sun. Yes I had sunscreen on, and yes I was applying it throughout the day. I was out too long with the blue skies above and the snow below I had no chance. It was blistering, and shiny and oh god, it was my FACE. From cheeks to chin, and it was painful.

In saying that, I was pretty happy to get off the mountain. We walked slow and easy down from Horombo to Mandara. On the way we saw two Chameleons across the path (which I was SO EXCITED ABOUT). There were monkeys near Marangu (EVEN MORE EXCITEMENT!) and all in all, took us a few hours but we got there. Once we got to the road, they got us a Land Cruiser, and we made it back to base. Oh my days, I'd never been more happy to be off a mountain.

The first shower was awesome. Kicking off dirty clothes knowing I wouldn't need to put them back on was phenomenal. I was glad to be off Kili.

So like I said in the short version. It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. It's the hardest I've ever pushed myself through, ever. For anything. I didn't even know my body could keep going, but it did.

It wasn't on The List, but I did it anyway. Climbed Kilimanjaro. The tallest mountain in Africa. The tallest freestanding mountain in the world. Climbed it. Done.