Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Yes we can!

The Summit!
And we did...I'm not sure what made Chris and I decide to undertake the Kili climb. It has been on my list for a long time, we've been talking about doing a peak all year (since our Nepal trek) and we were both feeling a bit aimless. Having a focus and a challenge seemed as good a reason as any to give it a go. Plus we were there and it would seem almost rude not to!

On further  reflection, we started to worry that this decision, taken in a rum induced haze on a Belizean beach, was actually slightly rash. As we read up on the climb it became clear that people train for months beforehand, they spend thousands of pounds on the right gear for the minus thirty degree summit trek and hours researching the right route and company for them. In short, they take it pretty seriously. Here we were, rocking up to book it the day before departure with no gear, no preparation and expecting to smash it (naturally!).

A porter on the job
As always, these things are thankfully a lot simpler to sort out than it seems when you are sat at a desk in London a million miles away. We arrived in Moshi, spent a day wandering around and chatting to various tour operators, chose one, and organised the climb for a day later. So far so good. Luckily the company we chose, Keys Hotel Tours, had a  shop where we could rent a few bits and bobs, notably a warm sleeping bag and a down jacket for the final climb to the summit. Awesome! They were also members of the Kilimanjaro Porter's Assistance Project which promises to treat staff fairly and pay them appropriately for their hard work. Having trekked in both Nepal and South America and experienced some of the horrendous conditions that these extraordinary individuals encounter, it was something that was very important to our decision. Super cool!

We opted for a six night trip which gave us plenty of time to acclimatise on the mountain, the main thing we were worried might hamper our success. The days leading up to base camp were relatively easy going. Relentless climbing uphill, don't get me wrong, but nothing we couldn't handle, and our guides made sure that we went as 'pole pole' (slowly slowly) as possible in order to help our bodies acclimatise. This was almost painfully slow at times but seemed to do the trick as neither of us had any problems and were able to just sit back and enjoy the stunning scenery as we moved from rain forest through heather and moorland, into alpine desert and finally snow and ice country, Kilimanjaro watching ominously over us as we climbed. What with the army of porters and cooks we had looking after us and the slow pace, we started to wonder if the whole thing might have been a bit hyped, might be a bit of a jolly! The guides were very serious about the whole thing though, monitoring our pulse and oxygen saturation rates every evening and morning, and  we soon realised how wrong we were!

Base Camp

Base camp was at 4600m, the mountain towering above us, Uhuru peak just slightly out of sight. After our briefing (basically 'put on as many clothes as you possibly can, try to sleep, keep drinking water, 'pole pole' the whole way with no breaks') we went to bed on summit night at around 6pm in a bid to snatch a few precious hours of sleep before starting our ascent at 12.30. I didn't sleep a wink. Up we got, a quick cup of Milo and some custard creams and we were on our way walking into the unknown with only our head torches lighting the way. At first the going was good. Arnold, one of our guides, set a steady slow pace and we trudged on up the steep rocky slope barely stopping for a breath. This was important so we were told. Better to keep moving, however slowly, than to have lots of breaks which, in the minus twenty degree weather could chill you to the bone in seconds. Unfortunately just about the time we hit the scree and the snow, my right foot started to go numb. I had ignored Arnold's instructions to wear 3 pairs of socks and had opted instead for a trusty pair of smart wool ski socks. They were nowhere near warm enough. Luckily Chris had packed an extra pair but this meant stopping in the snow, with nowhere to sit and taking off my shoes to put them on. Not good. I started to panic as I literally couldn't feel my right foot but stuffed the socks on best I could in my big ski gloves and tried to get the circulation going by stamping out each step and wiggling my toes in between. After a while numbness gave way to pain, tingling and relief...at least I could feel my toes now! Added to this, I was starting to feel sick and dizzy. In fact I felt so out of myself that the rhythmic pace and the intense concentration on Arnold's foot steps threatened to actually send me to sleep standing up at times. For those who know me well, you will know that my ability to fall asleep literally anywhere is astounding. This, however, was pretty good going even for me!

Stella Point on the way down!
The ascent was never-ending. Every now and then I would look up at the specks of light from other head torches miles above us trying to work out where they ended. They never did, they just kept going up up up for ever and ever. Chris was doing brilliantly behind me and diligently kept sipping from his increasingly frozen water bottle and nibbling at his snickers bar complaining only of a mild headache. He tried to get me to drink at intervals and eat something but every time I did I felt like I might be sick so I opted to just deal with the increasing feelings of dehydration and exhaustion instead. Our other guide Emmanuel kept the morale up by serenading us with African songs as we went, his lovely voice ringing out in the darkness, lending the whole spectacle a rather surreal air. It seemed almost as though he could sense those moments when my resolve was faltering, offering up enthusiastic and cheery updates on how close we were to the top, giving my mind something to focus on.

Sunrise and warmth!
We finally made it to the top of the steepest section of the climb rather abruptly and emerged onto Stella point at 5796m. Neither of us had been expecting it to pop out of nowhere like that but I was incredibly happy to have made it there and people whooped with joy as, one by one, they hit this milestone. The worst was over,from here it was only 100m to the summit, another hour's climb over a more gradual incline. It felt like forever but finally the sun started to rise setting the sky alight with a beautiful orange glow and showering the first rays of warmth onto our chilled bodies. It was an incredible sight. The plains below us were entirely covered in thick billowing clouds,  Kilimanjaro's peak  floating above the expanse like a snow covered island or space ship.

Clouds and ice...
The peak itself, the very highest point of the mountain, is about a 2m squared bit of rock with a huge sign on it under which to take your pictures. The peak at large is a massive crater filled with glaciers and snow, a stunning winter wonderland floating on top of the world.

We made it to the summit at 6.30am, a fantastic achievement of only 6 hours climbing. The feelings of exhilaration I had expected didn't actually come though. If we're honest we both felt pretty out of it just staring around us trying to take it all in. I couldn't even muster the strength to take a photo which is pretty much unheard of. It is thanks to Chris that we have any evidence of our victory over the mountain at all. We were allowed about 20-30 minutes up there before the guides wanted to get us down again and we didn't complain, starting what was to be a 7-8 hour descent to our final camp, completely and utterly broken already!

The crew celebrating our success with a song!
Without wanting to sound cliched, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was truly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Ironic given the relative futility of it all as Chris outlines in his own blog. It was  a true test of endurance and determination. I knew I wouldn't give up at the time, but there were moments where I really had to steal myself mentally for the final push and will my body onward and upwards, especially when we passed others who had given up the fight, although I actually think this helped cement my resolve. I thank Emmanuel and Arnold sincerely for helping us reach the summit. I'm not sure if I can say I enjoyed the experience but I respect the memory of it immensely and  feel pretty proud of the achievement There is something addictive about this climbing malarkey though. I have a feeling that this could be the first in a series of horrendous summit climbs for Chris and I in our future lives and just hope that I have as much determination to succeed then as I did this time.  


  1. Sounds immense Em. Glad Chris took his trusty water bottle attached to his back! Congratulations both!

  2. fantastic, well done both of you. We did the modest Pic dAnie (about 3,000m) in the Pyrenees, so can really appreciate the achievement. Look forward to a catch up soon, much love from us xxx