It’s 12am, it’s pitch black, all you can hear is the sound of your own heart beat and someone being sick a few steps in front of you. It’s cold, it’s windy and all you have is a head torch to guide your way. It’s summit night on Kilimanjaro and it’s about to be the hardest night of your life!
I had such high hopes for this blog post, I was going to write notes from each day, record everything, do a video diary. By the time I got to camp on day one all I wanted to do was eat my popcorn, sip my tea, locate the nearest toilet, curl up in my sleeping bag and pass out! (Which is exactly what I did.)
Don’t get me wrong I didn’t for a second think that climbing the highest free standing mountain in the world was going to be easy, in fact a small part of me was convinced I couldn’t do it but I just told that part to go to hell and kept pushing on. The thing I found both this year and with Toubkal last year was that it didn’t seem to matter how physically fit you were if you weren’t determined to make it to the top. It was mind over matter with me, my body wanted to give up, it was falling asleep as I walked but my head wasn’t going to let that happen.
This is my Kilimanjaro experience (as well as I can remember) it day to day over the six days it took to complete the biggest challenge of my life!
Day one started at the Machame gate 1640m above sea level, it was a bit of a gloomy day so we didn’t get to see the whole mountain before the climb (probably for the best to be honest…) It was like walking right into the Jungle Book, hanging vines and stone steps all the way to camp. I was glad of the cloud cover if the sun had been out in full force the heat and humidity would have been unbearable. It was quite pleasant walk to Machame camp stopping for a lunch of chicken and chips under the trees about half way. A couple of times I felt I was going to tumble back down the path, my awful balance and walking poles being attached to my back pack were not helpful, but there was always someone behind me to give me that slight push I needed to correct myself.
At camp we met our porters who showed us to our tents (I’m just going to say now that my porter was the best human being I have ever met and I owe him so much because he pretty much did everything for me, including putting aftersun on my very burnt hands, and I love him). We were shown the mess tent and given a briefing for the next day and then it was straight to bed for me because it got unbelievably cold as soon as the sun went down!
Day two the sun was out and we raced the clouds up the mountain. I thought they were going to catch up with us but we stayed ahead of them until they couldn’t climb any higher. I found this day one of the hardest because we had to walk all the way to camp before lunch and it felt like a life time! I also dropped half of my NAKED Banana Crunch bar at our second snack stop and it was heart breaking. Staying at the back allowed for a lot more conversation though I felt like I got to know some of my Brunel team mates a lot better on day two.
Everyone told me about how beautiful the stars look from Kilimanjaro before I went but I can’t say I really saw them properly until summit night. They were there, I was just absolutely exhausted every night when we got to camp that I went to bed straight after dinner and looking up while walking in between 20 something tents is not advisable. A few people stayed up to watch the stars and came back to me with tales of shooting stars and the milky way but I just couldn’t keep myself awake to watch with them.
Day Three was acclimatisation day, we climbed high until lunch time and then back down to sleep low giving our bodies a chance to get used to a thinner atmosphere at higher altitudes. The climb to lunch was hard, breaks were very welcome, but I did not feel any symptoms of altitude sickness and made it to the Lava Tower in the first half of the team. After lunch I decided to stay back with the team members who were suffering from altitude sickness to make sure everyone was doing ok and to provide my encouragement. This was going very well until about ten minutes before camp when out of nowhere altitude sickness hit me and the entire contents of my stomach emptied onto the side of the trail. It completely knocked me for six. I felt dizzy, weak and wasn’t entirely convinced I wash finished throwing my guts up. My head guide, James, had to hold me up for the short distance to camp, my vision was blurry and I don’t really remember getting to the check in point. All I remember thinking was how impressed I was with the members of my team who had been dealing with this all day, I felt absolutely horrendous and could only imagine what it must be like to experience altitude sickness from the morning knowing how far away camp was! When I finally got to camp all I wanted to do was go to sleep but I knew that would just make me feel worse so I made myself go to the mess tent for popcorn and a hot cup of tea, followed by a handful of pain killers and a lot of water. Within the hour I felt absolutely fine again.
Day Four we tackled the Barranco wall. This steep ridge was an almost vertical scramble on which I ripped my nana’s walking trousers she had lent me, almost had my hand pulled off by the guides (they did not know about my dodgy wrist) who yanked us up that wall like their lives depended on it and saw the most spectacular view from above the clouds. This was actually the fun part of the day because they then made us walk down a valley, back up a valley, down another valley and finally back up a valley and into camp. What’s wrong with bridges Kilimanjaro?? I have never wanted to pee more in my life than the last twenty minutes of that day and I was so relieved (in more ways than one) to see a toilet block just out side of camp, there was no way I would have made it through check in without an accident occurring!
We had made it to base camp! There wasn’t exactly much time to celebrate though, we were to leave again at midnight for summit so it was dinner, toilet and bed! Having said that dinner was still an emotional meal; a couple of my team were very upset because they did not believe they could make it to the summit! I had full belief in every member of my team and to see them so upset made me completely break down into what was the first of many tears in the 24 hours that followed.
Sometimes in life you believe you have been super sneaky and no one could possibly know what you are up to! I tried to organise a surprise for my team along with the team leader from Brunel by contacting the teams loved ones asking for a letter of encouragement to read before summit night. I would like to think that most of the team were completely clueless but one member of RGU had asked me on several occasions if I was organising said surprise. Getting more and more frustrated at this members willingness to spoil the surprise for himself when he finally called me over after all the letters had been handed out I thought it was to gloat that he knew what was going on the whole time and I hadn’t surprised him one bit only to be handed a letter from my own loved ones and have to return to my seat feeling bad for all the times I told him to let it go! My letter is pictured below and while most of the team were sitting in their seats crying I couldn’t help but laugh at my mum’s favourite story of me and my stubborn ways!
So here we were, summit night, with two to three hours sleep my nervous chatter had already set in, I had one mouthful of “breakfast” and thought I was going to see it again almost immediately, the cold was unbelievable, the sky was glittering with star light and my water bladder had already frozen solid. For most of the climb I focused on Mars, it was usually directly in front of me and distracted me from the tiny head torch lights in the distance that reminded me of just how far we had still to climb. My day bag was taken off me by a guide almost straight way so I could focus solely on where to put my feet. This guide (who fell over once and scared the absolute living hell out of me, if he had fallen over then all I could think was that there was absolutely no hope for me and my clumsy self!) stayed with me the whole way to the summit and for the life of me I couldn’t pin down his name. I know I would never have reached the peak if it wasn’t for him, shear determination and a packet of Haribo Tangfastics that I had saved specifically for that night.
I almost gave up on several occasions, absolute exhaustion and fear threatened to overcome me at any moment. Every time we stopped for a break I thought I was going to fall asleep. When James said it was time to move again tears came from nowhere, but he grabbed one arm and my guide grabbed the other and hoisted me to my feet, up we went higher and higher until we started to see the sunrise over the clouds so far below us. That was the moment I knew I could do it, my phone had died from the cold so I had no idea what time it was but when I saw the sunrise below and Stella point above and beyond that Uhuru Peak I knew I was almost there, to give up now seemed as impossible as the whole climb had felt 6 hours before and I pushed myself that last hour and a half, to the Summit of the worlds highest free standing mountain.
I didn’t summit with anyone but my guide, I was about ten minutes behind the first group from my team to summit. When I got to the rest of the team I was swallowed whole by a group hug and burst into yet more tears at the sight of my team mates tears. Then there was the queueing for photographs (other groups had summited at the same time as us), the realisation that my camera had died from the cold, losing the friendly square that a kind man had given me for good luck on the bus to London, my phone getting a second wind and switching back on for photos at the summit and finally a member of my team collapsing from hypothermia in his legs*. This all happened in about 30 minutes and then it was back down the mountain.
Heading down was arguably harder than the way up. Firstly the ground was no longer frozen so it was like walking down the biggest sand dune you have ever seen in your life, secondly it was about eight in the morning and I had had about two hours sleep and thirdly there was no motivation left in my entire body. I’d made it to the top, I was done, I just wanted to curl up on a rock and go to sleep. This was not helped by the fact that every couple of meters I would fall on my back and lie there like an overturned beetle until the James caught up with me again and put me back on me feet. By about the fifth fall I told him I was staying put and he would have to drag me down because I refused to fall over again. So that is essentially what he did after I had one more cry, this time asking for my mum and pizza. He took my bag on his back, threatened to piggy back me down the mountain, took my hand and led me down the sand dune of death with complete ease despite his allergy to dust (wise career choice there…). When we reached solid ground I got a complete second wind and marched of into the distance only to be met with yet another impossible downward climb and had to sit for about 20 minutes for someone with a bit more technical skill to show me the correct path.
Finally, after what felt like a life time, I made it back to base camp. I was met by my porter who gave me the biggest hug and a cup of pineapple juice which lasted all of five seconds. He led me back to my tent, took my boots off for me, ran to fill my water bottle up, gave me a well deserved fist bump and zipped me into my tent. I should have had a nap here, I was exhausted so it should have been easy but I just couldn’t fall asleep! I spent the rest of the time we had at base camp packing as best I could with my sunburnt hands, eventually admitting defeat I had to get someone to help me stuff my sleeping bag back into it’s compartment.
We had lunch and then set off again down the mountain. I think we had been walking all of two minutes when I had to stop. I couldn’t breath properly, my vision was blurry and I was about 90% sure I was going to be sick. I was right. Up came my lunch, up came my pineapple juice, up came my Tangfastics and, you guessed it, out came the tears. Altitude sickness is not a fun thing, why it only happened to my on the decent I do not know but I am very glad that it didn’t happen before then because I don’t think I would have managed to summit if it had. Instead of the four hours it should have taken me to get down to the last camp of the trek it took more like six and it was pitch black by the time I arrived. My porter, being the absolute amazing human that he is, guided me to my tent, took my boots off for me and even offered to take my dinner to the tent. I refused this last offer as food was about the last thing I wanted. I struggled into my sleeping bag, closed my eyes and passed out till morning.
The last day was definitely the easiest but it also felt like a never ending trail of trees upon trees. I was impatient to get down but also very aware of how slippery the ground was and if I was to go to fast the likely hood of me ending up on my backside was very high. When we finally made it to the bottom there was an enormous sense of relief. I signed out, took of some layers, found my porter and that was it finally over. This is where my porter very kindly put aftersun on my hands for me and took my day pack off my back. He even carried it all the way onto the bus for me. The final day was a good day for chatting and reflecting on the day before. For myself it still sort of feels like a dream, I know it happened but there was such a big build up to that day and then for it all to be over already is just surreal. This was by far the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life, there is no way I would have made it with out the support of my team, my family, my friends and the amazing guides and porters.
I took on this challenge partly to prove to myself that it was possible (partly because a certain RAG chair who shall remain nameless convinced me it was a good idea) and also to raise awareness for an amazing charity who do work all around the world. If you would like to donate to Childreach International you can still do so on my fundraising page linked below.
*this team member is absolutely fine and still has full use of both of his legs. The guides acted amazingly and got him down to base camp quickly and safely and part from feeling a little bit silly for not listening to the head guide about wearing more layers no harm was done.
You can donate here: https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/aileenmacalister2