In October 2013 I was on Safari in Tanzania and ventured to the foothills of Kilimanjaro where I thought it would be a good idea to try to raise some money for charity and reach the summit on September 11th 2013 (my 40th birthday). Once I got back to the UK I approached one of my oldest school friends, David Rosie, who I’d gone all the way through school with (both Junior and High School). Fortunately he didn’t really take much persuading even when I told him the 40% success rate of reaching the summit.
If we’re honest we both left our training a little late. I started about 3 months before and pulled my hamstring in my 2nd week which stopped any further training for about 5 weeks. I was also having physiotherapy for neck and back problems I’d been having. Mentally I didn’t think I’d have any problems but I have to admit I was worried about my old body and my back in particular as I’d had part of a disc removed a few years previous. With only 6 weeks to go I was contacted by a client, Anthony McGrath, who offered to help us train and set up a brutal training regime 6 days a week which turned out to be both painful and invaluable.
Once we got to Kilimanjaro we were both feeling good and very positive. We had a meeting with our guide, Jeff, and he gave our gear the thumbs up so we were happy about that. We then had a discussion to ensure we new the dangers and symptoms of severe AMS (acute mountain sickness) and we discussed the medication we both picked up in the UK. Acetazolamide – which helps you by simulating breathing, makes your blood more acidic and lets it absorb more oxygen but can have bad side effects. Dexamethazone – which can help slow down any swelling of the brain and hopefully buy you time to get back down the mountain (fortunately we needed neither). We were also told there were no helicopters so if we had problems we would have to be carried down. Even this news didn’t dent our enthusiasm.
The next morning we met the rest of our team. There were 12 of us in total – 7 porters, a cook, an assistant guide and our guide. We then set off for the Machame gate as the Machame or ‘Whisky’ route was the one we’d be attempting. This is a different route to the one attempted by Chris Moyes et al. The route they tried was shorter, not as scenic and has a higher success rate.
Machame Gate to Machame Camp 3032m
This was a 5.5hr trek up through rain forest which eventually turned into alpine moorland. It was fairly steep in parts but not too bad a trek to deal with on the 1st day. Once we got to the camp we had our first experience of the ‘toilets’ (if you consider a wooden box with no door and a hole in the ground a toilet). To help combat altitude sickness the body must be well hydrated we were consuming 3-5 litres of water per day. This has the obvious side effect of having to use said toilets on a very regular basis but even after a week I didn’t get used to those ‘drop toilets’. I hope to never see or smell one again!
After a baby wipe bath we had a our first meal on Kili which surprised us both. Our cook, Walter, really knew how to rustle up some tasty food using only a gas burner with the added disadvantage of doing his cooking inside a tent. Every single meal Walter made was restaurant quality which really blew our minds and gave us something to look forward to after each long day.
Machame Camp to Shira Camp 3847m
We both enjoyed this trek as it took us out of the forest and above the clouds which offered spectacular views any time the mist cleared. As the day progressed we felt the first effects of the high altitude we’d heard and read so much about. The effects weren’t too bad but we both had shortness of breath and headaches. The Shira Camp is located on the dry and rocky Shira Plateau which had absolutely breath taking views of both the Western Breach (as per the ‘Lava Tower’ pic attached) and Mount Meru to the west. The sunset over Meru was fantastic especially as it was starry with it (pics available). Once the sun went down the temperature dropped with it so it was into our tent and sleeping bags to try to get some sleep which we both found hard to come by.
Shira Camp to Barranco Camp 3985m
This was an incredibly long and gruelling day, 7-8 hours with a stop at the Lava Tower (4600m) to help acclimatise. We both experienced some really severe headaches and shortness of breath on this trek and were really glad to get back down to lower altitude at the Barranco Camp. After another excellent meal it was off to bed. Another restless night and I was awoken at around 5am with a warm feeling on my face which turned out to be the first of 2 heavy nosebleeds. I had the next one at around 8am but felt ok and it seemed to clear my headache.
Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp 4130m
After breakfast this days trekking starts with a 300m climb up what looks like a sheer rock face. This is the Barranco Wall which does in fact have a very narrow path with some parts that need both hands and feet to climb up. We were both in awe at how quickly our porters went up Barranco whist carrying up to 40kg.
This was quite a good day with only mild headaches. The Karanga Valley Camp had a lunar landscape look about it with the only other life being the sinister looking Ravens that scavenge any scraps of food left behind by trekkers. Another very restless night.
Day five & six
Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp 4681m to Uhuru Peak 5895m
We took around 4 hrs over rocky terrain to reach the Barafu Camp. Just as we arrived at Barafu we both had our first proper experience of altitude sickness. As I was walking along, for a few seconds, I couldn’t figure out where I was or what I was doing there. When we were signing in I looked over at David and felt much better as his face had a look of bewilderment on it too. The altitude was really hitting us now. Getting up from lying down, taking jackets off, putting boots on, getting in or out of the tent, eating, talking, laughing and getting in or out of our sleeping bags all left us struggling with blinding headaches and awful shortness of breath. On the plus side we did have many moments of hysterical laughing which were very tiring but most enjoyable.
After some food we got our gear ready for the summit attempt. We had a final talk with Jeff and a final check of our gear. It was also decided that Walter our cook would help us with the summit attempt to give us the best chance of getting there. So there would be five, David, Jeff, Walter, Emmanuel (assistant guide) and myself – although I wasn’t quite sure who I was by this point. It was now 6pm, the day was nearly over, the temperature was dropping very fast and the wind rising.
Sleep just didn’t happen for either David or myself and we started to get ready around 11pm as we were leaving for the summit at midnight. A midnight ascent is recommended as you have enough time to come back down while it’s light and also you can catch the sunrise over the African Plains (if by that time you can figure out what the sun is..).
Heading up into the darkness with only a headlight to light the way and a minus 10 temperature with a howling, freezing wind blowing down I did have to wonder what the hell I was doing.
In front of us there was a zigzag of lights coming from other trekkers headlamps which seemed to be never ending both above and below us. We were both told to make sure our Camelbak tubes were clear but it made no difference mine still froze after about an hour. After 6-7 hours of very slow and painstaking left-foot-right-foot-left-foot-right-foot we were both on our last legs really struggling to reach Stella Point (5672m) with very little energy left it was then looked round to see the faint orange line of the horizon and immediately started to feel better. This was my 40th birthday and I was going to make it to the summit!
Once the sun lit the mountain we could see what was in front of us and could see we didn’t have far to go to reach Stella Point. Once we got there it was only another 45 minutes to the summit – Uhuru Peak (5895m). I found I had renewed energy by Stella but couldn’t concentrate very well. Trying to get my camera out my pocket was a real effort as I had to take my mitts and gloves off. Aside from how cold it was, opening my jacket to get my camera out was made harder by the fact that it didn’t occur to me to put my gloves in my pocket so I struggled to do things while holding them in my hand which was really stressing me. Eventually Jeff noticed and held my gloves while I took ONE photo. David was a bit behind me by the time I reached Uhuru but he got some good pictures once he’d figured out how to operate his camera. As he approached Uhuru I said to him “right mate, lets get some photos taken and get the hell out of here”. I really wanted to get off the mountain and have a few pints as I’d given up for the last 7 weeks.
Going back down was a blast. Jeff and I ‘skied’ down around 600m of skree which was great fun but by the time we reached Barafu I was so tired I could hardly walk.
This day was definitely the hardest of my life (16-17hrs of hard trekking)
After a couple hours rest, some breakfast and a cup of tea we set off for Mweka Camp and our final night on the mountain.
Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate 3110m
A very pleasant 3hr hike to the gate through forest with lots of birds and a few monkeys. All symptoms of altitude have disappeared and we both feel very tired but very satisfied and excited about celebrating my birthday with lots of beer on Zanzibar a few hours later. We are also both really looking forward to our first shower in 7 days. And, access to the internet to see what the world’s been doing without us. Not much as it turned out!