The seven day challenge – Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Posted on July 5, 2015

6



The morning we were picked up from Arusha to begin our epic hike I was nervous. The thought of doing something so far outside of my comfort zone was both terrifying and exciting. My stomach was flipping somersaults. BQ was chomping at the bit, she just wanted to hit the road and get started……NOW!! 
  
I had read guide books; called friends who were climbers, Kili and Everest base camp graduates all for advice on what to wear, what meds to stock up on; how to prepare mentally, physically and just what the hell I was letting myself in for. Despite ticking all the boxes nothing and I mean nothing in hindsight came close to equipping me for the challenge that lay ahead. That mountain is one heck of a trek and hats off to anyone who gets to the summit. It is no mean feat, people throw up, bawl their eyes out faltering less than 1km from the summit and others are forced to turn back unable to stand.

  
I have a blood disorder inherited from my father (thanks Dad!!) called Thalassemia. It has never prevented me for achieving anything physically strenuous and I actually push my body harder than most people. 

  
Having Thalassemia however means my red blood cell count is lower than average. Pumping oxygen around my body is tougher, which explains my poor blood circulation and always being ice cold. My backpack was stuffed with thermals and fleeces and a hot water bottle, I did not want to feel cold. The condition is not a big deal, in fact it’s fine when you live in London. But I had not actually seriously factored in what would happen to my breathing and what impact having even less oxygen than normal people would have on me climbing at altitude.   

  
We did the seven day Lemosho Route. It is absolutely breath taking. The mountain has so many faces it is incredible. Seven days is supposed to help your body to adjust and generate more red blood cells to help to mitigate against altitude sickness. But that was not the case for me, I didn’t anticipate this. 

  
Day one takes you through stunning green and lush rainforest, abundant in colobus and blue monkeys as well as many bird species. Rich in all biodiversity including the dreaded red ants!!!!!

   

Day two a hard steep climb through some forest and rocky landscape. Day three alpine forest. Day four a wasteland of large boulders that sound like an out of key orchestra as you hop across from one broken slab of rock to another. Day five a desert, dusty, hot and nowhere to hide. High up you are above the clouds well over 4,000m and it is freezing at night. Day five was the toughest 17km hike taking the best part of 6-7 hours to camp. Lunch, then sleep and at midnight the summit ascent. It was like doing a nightshift at the BBC.

Being above 3,000m (roughly 9,000 feet) affects everyone’s breathing. But as we got higher, past 4,200m, I felt like someone had tied rubber bands around both of my lungs. As I sucked hard at the air I was wheezing and gasping every few metres – I felt starved – it was like suffocating – a very out of body experience, like watching myself slowly choke.

  
On day four as we climbed to 4,200m I was almost on my knees when we reached camp bursting into tears from sheer exertion, clinging to BQ. I was still not taking any medication at this stage. She wrapped me up in her arms hugging me tightly as we both sobbed, collapsed in a heap. I was exhausted and totally wiped out. My guide instructed me to start Diamox. Perhaps I should have started earlier. I had done everything else by the book. Ate like a Tiger Shark, three meals a day, drank 3 litres of water every day. I was stocked and pumped and healthy. Yet it was no use.

   
 
During the night of the summit I will admit I was frightened. I did not share this emotion with anyone. Foolish? Maybe. I put it to the back of my mind and convinced myself lots of people have this feeling the night before the big push. I was determined to do this, I am half Tanzanian, I need to do this!!! I prayed Diamox and another drug used to treat altitude sickness would give me the buffer necessary.

   
 

In the wee hours of Day 6 we left at midnight and continued for the next eight hours climbing, pole pole (Swahili for slowly slowly).

Our guide Athumani could see my pace was slow after just three hours. He took my backpack off me and we stepped up the pace guided by our head torches. I then got an excruciatinng stitch from lack of water, which lasted seven horrendous hours. Every step gave me a sharp pain. Every ten minutes or so I was forced to stop, breathing heavily, legs trembling and wheezing. BQ rubbing my back, encouraging me.

   
 

In life I believe every challenge is possible if you have mental strength. That, I know I have in abundance. It took every bit steely focus however not to spiral into a panic attack. My heart was racing hard and extremely fast as I clung to boulders under the stars pulling myself up as the numbers increased, 4,500m….5,000m….5,685m….5895m. 

God love that woman. She was an absolute warrior. She had a bad spell of altitude sickness two days earlier, started a course of Diamox (the wonder drug that climbers use) and was back in ship-shape condition. It was like she was climbing a hill in Dublin, all smiles, jokes and full of energy. I am so goddamn proud of her – what an inspiration. I on the other hand felt like a pensioner on a ventilator, wondering when it was going to be switched off.

  
I had nine layers on: three Merino wool thermals, three t-shirts, one fleece with a hood, a snood pulled up over my ears and two down jackets with a wooly hat. Much more than most people. My hands were icy, fingers frozen, unable to move around hand warmers that had little effect. On my legs, three thermals, one pair of hiking pants and a pair of waterproof trousers and finally two pairs of thick socks. I looked like the Michelin man.

We hiked around the crater and stopped to view the spectactular glaciers and ash pit. When we finally made it to the summit I was shaking violently. I couldn’t stop. I gritted my teeth and posed for a few quick snaps and embraces. I was happy but I was also wondering how long I could stay up here safely. Athumani told our second guide, Filay to start taking me down asap to stop me getting hyperthermia or worse. The way to treat the effects of altitude is to descend as quickly as possible so that you can get oxygen into your body. But that doesn’t really kick in properly until 3,000m. We were at 5,895m and there is no quick way down. It is all done by foot. As I practically slid down the mountain face, my knees began to twang. The pressure from the force and speed at which I was going began to build. “Uh-oh….here comes granny knees….” I feared.

BQ and I had separated. She was taken down the conventional route mapped up out for us. I was hurtling like a human avalanche down another side of Kilimanjaro being dragged by the chief guide now while watching her stride like a a gazelle across the other mountain face. 

She was worried sick and understandably so as there were no comms between the two guides or a plan of action where to meet incase people did separated. She had no idea what condition I was in and there is no phone signal up there. 

I am proud to say I walked unassisted back, there was a stretcher en route, which looks like a medival torture contraption that i lay in for a joke. The road is tretcherous, muddy, very slippery and steep as hell, if you are being carried, factor in getting a worse injury to the one you began with.

   

 By the time I had hobbled back 6km to camp from base camp I was crippled. Popping 900mg of Ibuprofen had no effect. I fought back the tears of pain and shoved down food to keep warm. After we had eaten my heart sank, when we were told we then had to hike another 6km to another camp with very steep steps all the way downhill in the mud and rain to where we were overnighting. Torture!!!

The pain was so bad it felt surreal. Sitting here now, I honestly have no idea how I made it back or indeed continued the next morning to hike down a further 9km to the gate to be picked up. It was a challenge of a lifetime and the hardest thing I have ever completed. 

  
I am so grateful to have had BQ with me. She was an incredible boost of energy, positivity and every time I wanted to give up I just had to look at her and dig that bit deeper. We started this together and my God did we finished it together.

  

Advertisements