I won’t take you on a day by day account of our journey across Kilimanjaro. I’ll save that for the book, or better still the trilogy. Or better still the Star-Wars-style x-ology, whatever x turns out to be! Instead I will tell you something of the highs and the lows as we traversed the mountain, gradually gaining altitude as we moved to the camp below the summit.
The highs. For me, the biggest high was finding myself with such a fabulous bunch of people, and having the time to talk to all of them over the course of the week. I don’t know if Kilimanjaro attracts a certain type of person but I found them all to be a joy to be with (when they weren’t throwing up).
As well as my chum Jonathan, we had Bjorn and Katrine, who adapted well to the conditions and were usually at the front of the group. Their fellow Norwegians, Morton and Hilde had a harder time, mainly due to the effects of some dodgy food eaten before they arrived at the mountain, but they persevered manfully (and womanfully). Then we had the mother and daughter combo of Annika and Julia. Annika introduced the Daily Award for the person who had done something heroic that day. It was a bottle of rum, which was passed around the group until the final night on the mountain (no guesses as to what happened to it then). Julia was very comfortable on the mountain for most of the time, singing away to the music on her headphones. She practically skipped up the mountain, whilst others (like me) where doing the more mundane things like trying to breathe.
Jo and Darren, our fellow Brits, were on their honeymoon. Now there is a honeymoon to remember! Beats our honeymoon in Scarborough – although our bed was probably more comfortable. Allison and Pete and Pete and Ed were introduced in the last blog, so the final namecheck goes to Dave. He was the only sole traveller in our group. I think we all admired the fact that he could undertake such an arduous trip without at least having someone else to provide support. I was also jealous at times of the fact that he was sleeping alone in a two-man tent, but that is another story.
The scenery was another big high for the journey. It varied considerably through the week. We started crossing a scrubby plateau, but soon came to an area of sharp peaks and pinnacles. Much of the mountain was scrub or indeed barren, but the Barranco Valley was a verdant exception, with masses of greenery, including the giant Senecio kilimanjari. The final walk to the bottom of the mountain was through topic forest, complimented by birds and various types of monkeys. And as we had good weather for most of our time on the mountain, we had good views of the two peaks of Kilimanjaro – Kibo and Mawenzi. These were stunning, especially in the moonlight or at dawn.
The walking itself was a highlight for me. I love being outdoors, although the day-job for me is generally an indoors one. And I love being active. No beach holidays for us. Generally it wasn’t hard to walk, although in various places it was tougher as we had to scramble up a steeper rock face. The biggest challenge, apart from the final summit ascent, was one such rock face, known as the Barranco Wall. It may not be mountaineering as mountaineers would see it, but the 200m ascent up a steep mass of rock was close enough to the real thing for me, thank you very much!
And the final highlight I will pick is just the challenge. The challenge of doing something that was physically hard, and doing it with a group of like-minded people.
So what about the lowlights? I won’t dwell on these, but they have to be mentioned.
The hard part of Kilimanjaro is simply its altitude. The mountain peaks at 5,895m above sea level, and our bodies were simply not designed to operate at this height. At the top, the atmospheric pressure is about 50% of that at sea level. So there is less oxygen. Also the lungs’ ability to extract oxygen deteriorates with altitude, so a double-whammy. And when you are climbing difficult terrain the muscles are working harder, so they need more oxygen – a triple-whammy!
This affects different people in different ways. For myself, the biggest effect through the week was that of headaches. Our guide, Florence, introduced us to the rating scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being a slight headache and 10 being really really bad. He asked us to tell him of headaches, and any other health problems, as his primary job was not to get us to the top of the mountain, but to keep us safe. I had headaches on a number of days, but the worst I got was probably a 4 or 5. This was tackled by paracetamol. Others had more severe headaches, but nothing at the very top of the scale. If they had, and if the headaches persisted then Florence would have ensured that person descended the mountain.
Other effects were nausea and loss of appetite. Fortunately I was not affected by these symptoms, although quite a number of our party were, at different times. Florence had various medicines for these ailments too. I was affected by insomnia, which was partly the result of altitude and partly as a result of my ‘love’ of sleeping in a tent! This was not helped by the fact that each night the temperature dipped to freezing or below. This meant we awoke to ice on the outside of the tent, and a general reluctance to wash in the bowl of water that had been deposited next to our tent at about 6.45 each morning.
And breathing was hard work at times (for those of us that weren’t skipping up the mountain whilst singing!)
Throughout the week, these were the main things that affected our group. We supported each other well and we all managed to get through the trials and tribulations to Barafu Camp, the one below the summit.
But we only got there through the hard work of walking across the mountain for a week, and in putting up with the hardships. I wouldn’t have been with such a lovely bunch of people for a week if we had not all come together to accomplish the same goal. I wouldn’t have enjoyed the scenery if I hadn’t been prepared to put up with the deprivations of camping on a mountainside. And I wouldn’t have enjoyed the walking, and the challenges, unless I have been prepared to put up with the mild health effects of altitude.
So the lesson – Lesson No.12 – No Guts, No Glory (but try to hang on to your guts).
Another flavour of what you experienced – still in awe of your achievement Tony…….
Hi there, cool post! I climbed Kilimanjaro a few weeks ago, our summit day was Fri 6th March (full moon!). My guide was called Florence too, he was fantastic. Did you go with The African Walking Company?
Hi. Thanks. Yes, Africa Walking Company it was. We were there about a month before you. Hope you made it to the top. I have a couple more posts to finish off my Kili story, but work keeps getting in the way!