Climbing Kilimanjaro has been the best and worst thing I’ve done in my life. I signed up for the challenge at Christmas, cushioned by the 10 month stretch between agreeing to it and actually setting off. Since becoming a freelance presenter I’d been keen to up my challenge quota; it had been 9 years since I’d cycled up the equivalent height of Everest for Macmillan Cancer Care, 7 years since I’d wingwalked and 5 years since I’d flown a 1940’s fighter plane. But none of that prepared me for Kili. She’s a monstrous, wondrous, creature of relentless physical and emotional demands. It is achievable, but not without some serious doubts along the way, and some stern words with oneself.
A group of 21 of us flew to Kilimanjaro International Airport on Friday 13th (lucky for some) September and of that 6 didn’t make it all the way to the summit of Uhuru (meaning ‘Freedom’ in Swahili). 1 in 4 who attempt Kili don’t make the 5895m (19, 341ft) true summit, either being taken down with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), or worse, or having to turn back at the crater rim, unable to push to the peak. I can understand why. Those who’ve climbed this volcanic monolith know you have to dig really deep to push the further 140 vertical metres to reach the summit, and those who haven’t done Kili I implore you to do so. It’s incredible. But it is horrendous too.
There are 5 main routes up Kili. We did one of the longer routes, Lemosho, allowing an extra day for our bodies to acclimatise to the hostile oxygen depleted environment. Camping for 7 nights without any creature comforts, or comfort for that matter, is tough in itself, but add to that the fact that from night 2 you’ll pretty much be subjected to freezing temperatures, invasive sub-zero fog and, if you’re lucky, only the minor side effects of altitude sickness like sleeplessness, headaches and vomiting.
The walking aspect of the challenge is definitely doable. You just trek ‘polé polé‘ (‘slowly slowly’ in Swahili, pronounced ‘poley poley’) for several hours a day passing through monkey filled jungles, lunar landscapes with so much fine volcanic dust your nose bleeds, clamber over giant boulders, and then up above the snow line - all the while gaining small chunks of altitude equivalent to climbing a Snowdon or Ben Nevis’s every day. Camaraderie in the group is brilliant and a real boost when the lack of privacy and your resilience to yet another night listening to people snoring threatens to awaken your inner grump monster. However, one of the biggest surprises along the way was that the food was exceptional! We all had hopes of losing a few pounds on this trek of a lifetime, but the chefs prepared gourmet 3 course feasts for breakfast, lunch and dinner – despite being over 4km up the side of a mountain and days from a local shop or road! Beef stroganoff and coconut rice, sweet potato and plantain soup, pancakes and fresh fruit, chapattis and crispy vegetables…and even freshly fried chips! The porters did a superb job, and I’m half embarrassed to admit that for the 21 of us we had a crew of 81 porters, cooks, guides, water carriers and one poor chap in charge of the camp toilets (small tented cubicle with a chemical toilet in it) but each of them were instrumental in getting us up that beast and we couldn’t have done it without them.
Whilst each day has its own difficulties, it’s the summit night itself which really hurts. You have dinner perched at 4,600 metres at a bleak, post-apocalyptic boulder-strewn camp site, enveloped in pervasive freezing fog above the snow line. It is here the doubts – and the cold – really start to creep in. We were told to rest for a couple of hours but with sparse oxygen and far too much adrenalin my resting heart rate ranged between 120-135 for the entire week and I found sleeping at night often impossible, even more so on this evening. Just after midnight on the Autumnal Equinox 22nd September we set off in high spirits, buoyed by seeing the flickering of tiny lights up the mountain ahead of us, the head torches of a few hundred other brave souls also attempting to reach the summit for sun rise. At about 5,200m we passed the bleak sight of an evacuation stretcher, sombrely caked in snow and ice, little knowing that it was to be used about an hour later for an American lady in another group, very obviously suffering the dreaded AMS. Around 1000 people are evacuated from the mountain each year, and about 10 people lose their lives each year. In fact, more people die trying to climb Kilimanjaro than Everest, something I was grateful to find out AFTER completing the trip.
After this we became silent. Partly due to the unbearable cold, but also due to the 1 in 3 gradient and an inability to breathe normally or easily. I can hardly even remember the details of that 6-hour, pitch-black stagger up the mountain. At one point I started to have a panic attack at the lack of oxygen, which nearly became an unbearable spiral of uncontrollable fear until that nagging voice in my head reminded me that if a clinically obese, fag-smoking Radio 1 DJ managed this darn mountain then I could too. (Though by all accounts the celebrity team took nearly twice the time to reach the top, aided by the gift of an oxygen tent to rest in too…)
On finally reaching the summit I didn’t even have the energy, brain power or coordination to dab on a bit of the make up I’d carted up there in the hope of sprinkling a little bit of glamour onto my face. All I could manage at the top was a robotic wave and a sob of relief. We’d done it, and raised £77,000 for a local school with the British run charity Village Education Project Kilimanjaro.
So, what makes it all worth it? Aside immense elation and satisfaction from pushing your limits, seeing dawn break over a volcanic crater rim and eerie grey moonscape with rocks like strange land coral, glaciers slowly lighting up in warm pink rays is an out-of-this-world experience. For our ten minutes or so at the summit, we basked in delirious high-altitude pride, and one of the most glorious natural sights in the world: the glaciers on the Roof of Africa radiant with a metallic champagne-coloured glow. It was 0650, and ten minutes later we started our 2 day descent…
Everyone’s now asking me what my next challenge will be. I’ve had enough of Kili’s altitude and sub-zero temperatures for a good while, but I can’t say that she hasn’t put that cheeky challenge twinkle back in my eye.
A huge thank you to www.outdoorhire.co.uk, who lent me all my brilliant expedition kit which kept me as warm, dry and comfortable as is possible in those conditions.