By Anna Ley
Ever considered hiking the world’s highest free standing mountain, to the roof of Africa? Last summer I tackled the 19,341ft monster in aid of Diabetes UK. While it was the toughest seven days of my life, it was an inexpressible experience and will forever be one of my proudest achievements. I submerged myself in frightening facts and sugar-coated blogs before I went; this is an honest account of my experience so that you don’t do the same.
One of the greatest parts of climbing Kilimanjaro is the transitional scenery. Each day brings a new landscape and this is something that many other treks fail to offer. Beginning in the enclosed rainforest of twining trees, your path towards camp is guided by rugged roots and echoes of birds and monkeys. You’ll then follow the Shira plateau to your first sighting of Uhuru peak and neighbouring Mount Meru at a camp that lies above the clouds; this offers amazing sunsets and with Meru peaking in the distance, makes a beautiful picture spot. Pacing through mountain moorland, you’ll come across a garden of Dendrosenecio plants and ascend the impressive lava tower – formed by the mountain’s last eruption. Scrambling up the great barranco wall seems more daunting than it really is and climbing on hands and feet actually makes a refreshing change from the repetitive walking. This is a great place to jump above the clouds for an awesome photo (if you have the energy). And finally, you’ll traverse through the ice capped peaks of the mighty Uhuru peak.
When you eventually reach base camp, anxiety begins to set in. This is the highest you will have been as you crawl into your tent, over which the teasing peak looms. I had incredibly tingly feet and lips and felt very sick. I was raring to go when I woke up. Leaving to walk at midnight was bizarre, but watching the head torches meander the moon lit path in front of you will take away any breath you might have left. The peak was by far the steepest part of the whole climb – I was surprised to have to go on hands and feet at points – but the use of poles and the surreal experience of pausing for an occasional cup of tea at 5000+m will carry you through.
The first few hours were surprisingly fine, dare I say enjoyable, but in the second half of the ascent I became breathless, disorientated and almost drunk in feeling. I remember having a bizarre feeling that my chest pains were the result of a tiny man trying to climb out of my chest. My amazing guide Thomas stayed close to me for the final climb to Stella point (the first peak, 200m below Uhuru) but, determined to tackle the final push on my own, I took back my poles and managed the final 45 minute walk in a mere 80 minutes. The speed at which we ascended that night may not have helped how I felt but making it to Stella Point by 6:15 to catch the sunrise was a wondrous experience. It puts any sunrise I have ever pulled myself from bed for, and ever will, to shame.
I think the vital thing is while I really struggled up towards the summit, I never once thought about quitting – it is definitely mind over matter. Uhuru peak itself is the epitome of its definition – ‘freedom.’ Being above the clouds up until then was refreshing but this was something else: standing literally on top of the world, all the pain and negative thoughts sink into the clouds below you. Well, maybe not all the pain… my arm was aching just lifting it for the summit photo. Looking around at the volcanic crater and glistening glaciers to the sound of ‘Happy Birthday’ from my co-climbers on my 18th birthday was an emotional experience for sure – I would definitely recommend timing it with a birthday!
Coming down was in fact the real challenge for me. After remaining on the peak for around 20 minutes, you come straight back down… and at twice the speed. On Kilimanjaro they don’t ski on snow – they ski on rocks. Back to base camp, sleep, eat, back down to the final camp; this 14 hour walking day really robs you of any energy you have left after 6 days walking. After the climb down from the summit, I crashed in my tent for 3 hours with my boots still on my feet. I have never felt so drained in my life and this is perhaps where being more than just averagely fit can really benefit the climber.
• Choose your route wisely, there are seven and are all very different. While you don’t want to go too fast (definitely opt for the seven day route, not six), being up there for that period of time, not cleaning yourself or eating properly, is just as challenging as the climb itself, so I would avoid extended lengths.
• Don’t freak yourself out with information on altitude sickness, I let myself read numerous horror stories about the effects of high altitude on the body, but excluding summit night I had no troubles. Having said that, my boyfriend and climbing partner, Chris, unfortunately did not make it past the 3000m mark due to severe altitude sickness and my scramble to the summit was accompanied by walkers taking a moment to be sick and a girl being stretchered down. Ultimately you have no control over your experience with it, but you have to remember the minute you get down you almost immediately recover and your guides will never put you in a position where this becomes threatening. This is just one of the risks, but if you don’t try it you will never know how your body copes.
• Get yourself some Diamox. My doctor wouldn’t recommend climbing without this altitude sickness drug and a lot of people see a big difference, even if just because of the psychological confidence it gives them knowing they are taking something. But don’t depend on them; Chris was taking them and still suffered.
• Don’t strictly stick to the kit lists. I went with a lot of expensive, branded clothing and accessories and a fully equipped first aid kit. Ultimately, I didn’t use anything besides pain killers, and your guide will carry the essentials. Water purification tablets aren’t necessary as drinking water will be boiled at camp and is therefore safe to drink. I met numerous people in Tanzania that made the spontaneous decision to climb it and bought all their gear at African markets or hired it, even their walking boots, and still made it up.
• Don’t get bogged down with being physically fit. I scared myself into thinking I needed to be a marathon runner, not helped by the fact we were grouped with experienced Norwegian trekkers when we arrived. But while they found it a lot easier, I still made it up and struggling physically can actually detract from symptoms of mild altitude sickness like headaches so it can be a blessing. The biggest challenge is mental strength – you have to have the drive to carry on no matter what.
Advice: On the Trip
• Mentally prepare yourself for the camping aspect, no blogs seem to discuss the daily struggles of finding the energy to pack away your thick sleeping bag, force feeding yourself to eat and how lonely and desolate the camps can be after a tiring day walking.
• EAT EAT EAT! The altitude will rob you of your appetite, there were some nights of tragic lows, myself and Chris forcing each other to eat, but this kind of activity demands maximum energy and was a cause of a lot of my fatigue.
• DRINK DRINK DRINK! 4-5 Litres a day must have contributed to my lack of headache, it’s great for alleviating altitude sickness.
• Get to know your staff. Porters pass by you every day with your backbreaking load on their heads and most people don’t even know them to acknowledge them. We had to ask our guide to greet them on the last day but it was great to be able to thank them for the amazing work they do as your tips will be given anonymously. Give them whatever you can in tips; the men earn a mere $5 a day as porters and you will feel an overwhelming gratefulness for their work by the end, so budget for this.
• Most importantly, enjoy yourself! Immerse yourself in every moment, every sight: the unbelievable stars when you run to the toilet at 3am, the sunsets and sunrises, the beauty all around you with every step. Meet as many people as you can. If I would do anything differently it would be this, mingle more at camp, share your experiences so you know you aren’t alone and don’t be relieved that it’s over by the time you reach the final camp. Celebrate that you made it with the friends you met along the way.
Don’t think about it, just go for it. There are risks, and it is tough, but you never know how you will react under those situations. I surprised myself: it was a huge awakening about how much I can mentally handle, it’s been the biggest confidence boost and also the perfect opportunity to raise some money for a fantastic cause.
Photograph: Anna Ley