It's now been a week since I experienced the toughest physical challenge of my life. I don't want to sound melodramatic or to present the trip in an impossible light as I believe that climbing Kilimanjaro is a really accessible challenge but heading to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro last week gave me some of the most unforgettable hours of my life .... although ironically, I've now almost forgotten the pain that I put my body through .... however, before we get to the summit there's a whole story to tell first....
Three months ago I was sat at my desk at work thinking about how unreal it would feel to do something incredible. To not just go to work every day and do chores at the weekend. I wanted a physical challenge, something that really pushed me to my limits. I knew I wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I'd wanted to do it for years and so that day I booked my trip! It was as simple as that. I was tired of always being the person who said they would love to go on adventures but never doing it. I made a decision that I was going to start making the most of my weekends and instead of living for them I would start living in them ... and I did. I hope that by sharing my story, it will inspire you to start living in the weekend too. To keep this post to a manageable length I'm not going to cover preparation/training, kit, or day-to-day life on the mountain but there will be posts on that coming up, or feel free to drop me an email with any questions, until then, join me as I recap my incredible African adventure.
After a long flight out of London Heathrow via Doha and an overnight stay in a lodge in Moshi, I set off with 21 new friends towards the Machame Park Gate. The challenge was to follow the Machame Route for six days and to make it up and down from the summit. We set off in high spirits and full of energy for our big challenge.
Unusually for me, someone who doesn't like spending time on their own, I signed up to this trip alone. As a result I was understandably worried about who I might be climbing with and just as I had thought, there is definitely a kind of person who was there and that type of person was friendly, outgoing, chatty, enthusiastic and positive. I was really lucky to be paired up with a brilliant girl called Kelly who was bubbly from the off. Kelly was full of energy and even in the tough times she was always smiling, so much so by the end of the trip we were telling each other our life stories and finishing each other's sentences. Other people in my group were my new hero Hilary who is in her 60s, had already been to Everest Base Camp and who had recently undergone a knee replacement and despite being the oldest in the group and the most likely to struggle I never heard Hilary complain once, Hilary's friend Barry, a group of four friends who like me had jobs working long hours in the City, a brilliant couple Eddie and Mary, a group of friends who had fun jobs in fitness and beauty, a handful of people who were also on the trip alone and even another lawyer! There were people from all walks of life, all ages and all fitness levels and all with one common goal, to climb 5895m to reach the summit.
In addition to the 19 people in the Dream Team, there was our fantastic guide Jade. Jade was such an asset to the group, when most people would have lost patience with people being late, slow or moaning, Jade had a big smile and was always happy to offer advice or guidance. We were also joined by our fantastic medic Alex, who dealt with everything from blisters, tummy upsets, altitude induced headaches and problems with eye-sight.
Then lastly and most importantly my new friends and I were joined by a team of 79 porters and guides from Steep Hill. Yes, that's right, for the 22 of us there were 79 people who accompanied us every step of the way with our tents, food, toilets, a medical kit and a tonne of smiling faces. Each night when we arrived at camp we were welcomed with songs and dancing. The Steep Hill team run by Batchi were absolutely incredible. They fed us with delicious food, made sure we were comfortable in our tents, kept our spirits high and adapted the timing of our routes to ensure we had the best chance of summiting. I honestly believe that they were the reason so many of our team made it to the top.
I chose the Machame route specifically for the varied landscapes. We started in the rainforest and as the climb progressed the vegetation got smaller and more sparse but no less dramatic. By day two we were walking above the clouds through moorland and shrubs and by day three there were lots of rocks and boulders but not much more than that (this meant that going to the toilet became more and more difficult as the trek progressed).
After the greenery of days one and two we headed further up the mountain on an acclimatisation day for day three. One way to avoid getting altitude sickness is to climb high in the days and sleep low. So on day three we trekked up to Lava Tower to a height of 4600m and at one point just before lunch I did feel a little nauseous but in hindsight I think that was just hunger! I was incredibly lucky the whole trip not to be sick once. A few people in my trip did suffer from a bit of sickness but I'm not entirely sure whether that was due to altitude or a change in diet.
Then after lunch we headed back down the mountain (not as soul destroying as you might think) in a brilliant afternoon walk. The lower we got the more the vegetation came back, the scenery got more interesting and there was even a little stream and by this point all of the polite conversations about people's professions and where they lived had disappeared and we were playing games and chatting like we had known each other for years, it's incredible how quickly you become friendly with people when you spend every waking minute with them. I do feel incredibly lucky that so many awesome people booked the same trip dates as me.
The next morning was my favourite part of the trip as we took on the Barranco Wall. This involved scrambling up the rocks, looking for foot and hand holds and taking a small leap of faith at one point across the rocks. After days of trekking mostly uphill I loved the challenge and variation that the Wall brought, I'm not scared of heights and it was fun to be shuffling along the ledge of the rocks and climbing a bit.
The route progressed up the mountain until the view looked like what I would imagine the surface of the Moon or Mars to look like. The landscape changed to rocks and dessert. In terms of the climb, I found everything apart from the summit night to be pretty easy going fitness wise. The days were long between 8 and 10 hours of trekking but the pace was steady and apart from the odd time when I tried to run to catch up with someone at the front of the group and got breathless the rest was actually pretty easy going.
After arriving into a very windy camp site and snatching about two hours sleep half the team woke up at 10:30pm for an 11:30pm start. Lying in the tent whilst Kelly got ready to go with the first group the wind was howling around the tent and we both thought the summit trek might get cancelled. Despite the really fierce winds the trek continued and by midnight I was dressed in all of the clothes I had taken with me ready to start my summit challenge.
The wind sounded much worse in the tents but it was still pretty strong and made for tough conditions getting up the mountain. We were told afterwards that the wind speed was about 80kph and created a wind chill factor of minus 20!! I knew that the summit climb was going to be tough, I had been warned numerous times about sickness and about digging deep but nothing could prepare me for the reality of the challenge. The summit attempt takes place from about midnight to 7am (this is off the back of four days trekking with not much sleep) it's pitch black apart from everyone's head torches and it is freezing cold! There are no footpaths or safety harnesses, you just wrap up warm and set off with your group and slowly snake your way up the mountain focussing on putting one foot after the other. The rock surface is mostly scree so we were battling unsure footing and strong winds in the dark and cold but somehow the time passed really quickly. I hadn't planned to listen to music so soon in the trek but after half an hour when the winds hadn't died down and it was impossible to chat I turned on my iPod and was so overwhelmed by the comfort it brought. Each song on my playlist reminded me of people at home who had sponsored me, who were supporting my climb and who believed in me. At times I could hear my friends and family urging me on every step. I glanced down the mountain and saw a hundred other little lights snaking up the mountain and I kept thinking, "If they can do it, so can I". I remember Jade our guide telling us we had three hours up to Stella Point and at that point I felt confident I could do it. Just before Stella Point, which is 5756m, the sun began to rise and what an absolutely incredible and motivating moment that was. It was perfectly timed to give me that lift I needed, the realisation that it was only going to get warmer from that point and that I didn't have far to go hit hard and despite feeling tired and very cold I kept going.
After reaching Stella Point I made the trek along the crater edge to the summit. It only felt like a 10 minute walk but apparently it was more like an hour. By this point I was struggling quite a bit. I was really cold, I had no energy left and I was starting to lose the ability to talk, first time for everything! Luckily, two fantastic girls in my group Roberta and Sahra saved the day. Roberta shared some Kendal Mint Cake, - the key survival ingredient for any explorer - and Sahra took hold of me and we walked arm in arm to the summit. When I got to the summit I took a few selfies and the pain on my face really showed. I had my moment by the famous sign and then headed back down the mountain. Despite going over this moment hundreds of times in my head before I left for Africa I didn't have the energy at the time to properly appreciate being on top of the world. I was exhausted and for the first time in my life I had used everything my body had to get me to that point. Never before, not in running, training sessions, marathons, racing, climbing, skiing, nor in facing injuries half way up a mountain have I ever had to dig so deep and give it my all. By the time I had spent the next three hours stumbling down the mountain back to camp, I had nothing left. I burst out crying and then passed out. Not the cleverest move as after 3 hours in the sun on the way back I was massively dehydrated. However, going downhill for me was physically harder than uphill. My legs were tired and my knees kept buckling and I fell over time and time again. I don't think this was anything to do with previously having operations on both knees but more to do with sheer exhaustion.
The trek down to the lower camp was pretty uneventful and an early night was had by all.
On the last day we started with a tipping ceremony for the porters and guides which involved lots of singing and dancing. The hike down the mountain was brilliant. The lower we got the more luscious the vegetation got. The rainforest came back and I saw two different types of monkeys, the perfect finishing touch to an unbelievable week!
All in all this was an adventure of a lifetime. I had an incredibly tough summit night but the feeling of getting to the summit despite the elements just makes the achievement more special. The last night at the lodge we had a huge BBQ and sat around a campfire wearing our medals! I am now considering ideas for my next challenge. Probably not hiking or climbing but something totally different. This challenge really made me realise how much you can fit into a week and I am definitely going to use my annual leave more wisely from now on.
If you're thinking of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro too, head over to the Action Challenge website and sign-up to one of their opening evenings. I did no specialist training for this trip other than hiking and circuit training and I completely believe that with the right mindset you can make it to the summit too.