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Kilimanjaro: A journey to the heart

June 20th, 2008 · 11 Comments

When we were planning our trip to Africa Julian was keen to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.  I had been exposed to trekking  but no altitude trekking so I was feeling anxious.  My natural hypochondrical instincts led me to google altitude statistics including acute mountain sickness and death rates on Kilimanjaro.  Julian, the more sensible one, directed my research to a more positive study which focused on good tour operators.

Our goal was to make it to the summit- Uhuru peak at 5895m, 5.895 km or 19340.316ft to be precise.

This only meant one thing – choosing a reputable tour company with good stats.  From the four or five routes available we chose the Shira route which allows for extra acclimatisation days and is deserted of any other climbers.  Finally we wanted to ensure the porters were not exploited. So taking this all into account we went with the African Walking Company through ATR (Africa Travel Resources).

Altitude will be a different experience for everyone and there is no way you know how you will react to it until you get up there.  Julian and I trained like maniacs thinking that fitness was going to make a difference.  Ultimately fitness is useful (for mental and physical purposes)  but it certainly has nothing to do with altitude sickness.  Julian is fitter than me and got sick while I got off ASFF (altitude sickness free- fantastic!).  Ironically I was the one worried about altitude sickness.  Altitude sickness does not discriminate between neurotics and fit people!

Even though I did not suffer altitude sickness I had my own personal demons to deal with such as the unbearably cold weather.  The cold weather was my enemy and we battled day and night.  In order to minimise altitude symptoms I was drinking between 4-5 litres a day.  I topped this up with a precautionary dose of Diamox on the fourth day so my badder worked overtime.  Instead of toilet stops every 45 minutes I stopped every 20 minutes.  The night was the worst, having to wake up and make my way to the toilet was excruciating, the cold made it painful to breathe.

I used every item of warm clothing I had on me, especially at night.  We  hired our sleeping bags  and I learnt a valuable lesson about sleeping bags not fitted to your body.  They are not nice and cosy like an over-sized doona.  Heat was escaping left right and centre and it was during the night that I found myself jealous that Julian had altitude problems, the high altitude made him extremely sleepy and he would crash as soon as we went to bed and would stay in the same position for the entire night. Thankfully I received a good tip from one of our fellow climbers. I wore less layers during the night (apparently sleeping in too many layers contributes to sweating and thus getting cold) so instead I shoved clothing around my neck to stop the heat escaping from my sleeping bag.   Wrapping my down jacket around my feet also helped and hey presto the nights were now bearable.

At high altitude normal and relatively simple activities become painful and drawn out.  I could have sworn I was rolling up a sheet of  semi-dry cement instead my sleeping bag each morning.  At a couple of campsites our toilets were located on hilly and rocky ground.  It would take no longer than two minutes to reach the toilets from our tent but at high altitude this task compared to running 100 metres at full speed.  By the time I would reach the toilet I would be huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf.

Our guides new best.  On the first day we were shown the snail pace walk that we were expected to keep for the next seven days.  We all thought it was hilarious until we realised that this was they key to acclimatisation and reaching the summit.  This is why the 10 people in our group all reached the summit including Bill, the 67 year old inspiration.

I found it amusing that Stratton, one of our guides was explaining how they use the stretcher that I spied on the side of the path during the second last day of our trip . ‘We use this to carry people to the bottom of the  mountain, then the ambulance comes and takes them to the hospital’,  Stratton explained.  Somehow his words didn’t fit my mental picture.  Remote mountain + Africa + sick does does not equal ambulance or hospital!

Our guides had a warped sense of humour, they enjoyed mind games and  torture.  Often we would ask how far we were from our next camp site and they would say ‘not long to go now’, but they would never give us a straight answer.  ‘Not long to go’ ranged anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 hours.  One day we were so exhausted after a days climbing to higher altitude,  Vivianno who was the best at delivering these forms of torture told us we had 1 hour to go. You can imagine the relief when we saw our welcoming tents a few minutes later!

Every morning our journey started an hour before the porters but it wouldn’t take long before they overtook us.  Here I was walking like a snail with my little macpac weighing no more than 6kg when the porters would fly past us each carrying up to 25 kilos worth of  stuff.  You could tell the newer porters, they had buckets of sweat  pouring down their faces and were forced to carry the awkward stuff.  We thought it would be nice to greet them warmly with ‘Jambo’, the Swahili word for hello.  Their responses were always very friendly but occasionally their eyes didn’t carry the same message,  it was more like, ‘I am carrying your portable toilet on my head and all you can manage  is Jambo!’

Some days were better than others but the worst days were the acclimatisation days.  On the fourth day after walking for hours we reached our campsite at 4200m.  Unfortunately this day was also to include an acclimatisation walk to 4500m.  This wasn’t an attractive option, we were cold, wet and most of us had pounding headaches.  To top it all off it was snowing and windy and all of us collapsed in our tents feeling pretty certain that our guides were going to call the walk off.  No such luck.  Within 30 minutes through the flapping walls of our tents, the voices of your guides could be heard calling us to wake up. This is a snapshot of hell I thought to myself.

As I found out later these acclimatisation walks were nothing compared to the summit ascent but our guides new something we didn’t.  In addition to acclimatisation these walks also prepared us mentally for the challenge ahead.

The Summit Ascent

Feeling nervous and anxious on summit eve,  Julian and I were were keen to film some pre-summit interviews.  Unfortunately I was feeling tired and grumpy because we arrived at base camp quite late in the afternoon and had to sleep early in preparation for a midnight ascent.  The last thing I wanted to do was interview people.  I was cold, tired and nervous but had to feign enthusiasm.  Ah the life of a wanna be journalist.

Miraculously I slept from 6pm until 11pm.  After waking,  I had that not quite right with the world feeling. We all sat in our mess tents, our usually talkative group was strangely quiet. I wondered what people were thinking but I didn’t need to be a mind reader to figure it out.  I psyched myself as I walked out of the tent into the windy and snowy blackness, my headlamp my only friend.  Even though the intense wind chill was penetrating through my 5 top layers and 3 bottom layers I was mesmerized by the light in the distance.   Other groups were a couple of  hours ahead and the mountain was lit up like a Christmas tree with  little beacons of lighting bobbing up and down.  Perhaps it was the altitude but it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!

A blizzard hit us and reality hit me.  We were going to have to climb this thing in a blizzard.  I asked one of our guides if this was normal, apparently not- gee great.  Coming from Australia I had never been exposed to much snow and a blizzard was a new concept for me.  It felt like a thousand hot needles were stinging my face as we trudged up that mountain.   I couldn’t even cover my face with my balaclava because my breathing felt restricted in the thin air.  It became worse as we zig-zaged up that mountain, the more we climbed the harder it became to breathe.  The wind knocked me off balance and  I couldn’t get a sense of height, all I knew was that it was really steep. I developed a  creative side walk to try and block some of those stinging needles from hitting my face directly.   On and on we climbed,  hour after hour concentrating on keeping one foot in front of the other.  What a prankster that Mount Kilimanajaro is, it loves to make you think you are nearly there but it only presents you with false ridge lines.

Something happens to the body when faced with extreme physical challenge, your capacity to feel pain is reduced and the body runs on auto pilot as the mind goes somewhere it doesn’t hurt. I must have been in some of sort trance because I remember being hurled back into reality by people singing.  It was our guides, they must have sensed our spirits were frozen in little ice cube holders so they were singing in Swahili.  Listening to people singing in their own language is a stunning , especially when they sing with passion.  This was even more  impressive because these guys could actually carry a tune.  What an experience, trudging up Mount Kilimanjaro at 4am in a blizzard listening to 4 African guides singing.  This experience was even memorable than making it to  Uhuru peak.

There are two main reasons why you begin your ascent at midnight, firstly the weather is supposed to be better earlier, and secondly if you leave early, you can make it to the summit in time to see the sunrise.  We didn’t experience either.  The average group reach Uhuru Peak in 6- 7 hours it took us 9 hours.  Nevertheless the sunrise a couple of hours from the top was still a breathtaking experience, especially in  post-blizzard conditions.  The sky was filled with brilliant orange rays and  we could see the darkness of space through the thin atmosphere.   For a couple of minutes the pain and exhaustion was forgotten.

The spell was broken when our guides told us we had to keep moving because we had an hour to go until we reached the first peak, Stella point.  I could clearly see the top so I thought  the guides were joking  as usual.  I waited for the ‘I am only joking’ but it never came.  That good old prankster Mount Kilimanjaro again.  Although Stella point was in sight it was an illusion, the mountain was at its steepest and the ground below filled with snow so the dragging of the feet continued.

After an enduring eight hour trek we finally reached Stella point at 5685m. Feeling depleted I was adamant that I was not going to continue to Uhuru peak.  Yep this was good enough for me.  Thank god our guides knew that I was going to regret this and after they assessed us we were all told to keep going…. apparently if you are not vomiting, delirious or bleeding from the ears you have to continue.

It was a relatively easy walk from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak.  I was so grateful that our guides encouraged us to keep going.   People have all sorts of strange experiences on top of Uhuru peak, these vary from person to person.  For me the snow kept changing colour from pink to red to orange.  It could have been the fact that I wasn’t wearing my sunglasses, it could have been  the way the atmosphere filters the light at higher altitude or simply put  perhaps I was just punch-drunk from the altitude.

I have heard rumours that the view from Uhuru peak is spectacular,  but for us visibility was so poor that we couldn’t see beyond 5 metres.  We didn’t care.  We hugged and we danced and we sang as we stood in front of that famous sign.  We  stood where hundreds had stood before and hundreds will stand again.

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I had nothing left in my tank for the trip down.  In some ways it was worse than the climb up.  I wished I was Monkey and had a magic cloud that I could call upon to fly me back down.  Every step was a living nightmare and the mountain was covered with snow for most of the way down so scree running was not an option. Often my eyes were closing so I had to stop and rest every 20 minutes.  3 hours later at base camp you would have thought the nightmare had ended.  Not a chance!

After an hours rest, we had to move onto the next campsite at a lower altitude.  I thought Julian was dead because I couldn’t wake him up and when he woke up he would just fall into a slumber again!  It took three hours to walk to our next campsite but it was very much worth it,  we felt energized at lower altitude.

We calculated that we had been walking for 15 hours since our summit ascent began at midnight.  Not a bad effort!

Isn’t it crazy how we walk for seven nights, climb a mountain in inhospitable conditions just to reach  the summit only to have to come back down again after 10 minutes?   Why do we do these things?   You might think that its simply about climbing a mountain but its so much more than that.  It’s personal journey.  It’s about stripping back all the layers that years of complex western society has wrapped around us – its about being simple.  How often do we feel invigorated and stimulated by a physical and mental challenge?  I know I wasted 35 years of my life, how many have you wasted?

We all need to step things up in life, to push ourselves to grow and develop, so whats the next adventure?

10 top tips for climbing Kilimanjaro

1. The right gear is the difference between being moderately uncomfortable and being extremely uncomfortable.

2.  Don’t be tight,  if you are going to pay for this opportunity you might as well fork out and  pay for a reputable tour operator and extra days for acclimatisation.  Do your research.

3.  If you want to rush to the top of the summit enter a race instead.

4.  Listen to and respect your guides.  Share your snacks with them along the way.

5. If you make it to Stella Point and you are exhausted but not bleeding from you orifices.  KEEP GOING.  The path leading to Uhuru Peak is not steep and relatively easy compared to the last 6-8 hours!

6.  Never leave your extra baggage the porters carry unlocked, unfortunately you can never trust a porter – even  if you are with a reputable company.  Sad fact but true.

7.  In saying that tip your porters well, they have a tough job and a much tougher life than you or me no matter how relative you think this is.

8.  Your porters will fill up your bottles with hot water at night in preparation for the next day.  Stick them in your sleeping bags at night, they make great hot water bottles.

9. Drink lots of water no matter how hard you might find it.  You will often need to stop to let porters go past so its a good time to have a drink.  Remind others to drink as well.

10.  The right attitude will make all the difference, a cliche I know but its an important cliche.  Our head guide always reminded us to think positively.  In the words of Passian our head guide – its a piece of cake!

View the Kilimanjaro Videos by clicking the link:

Tags: kilimanjaro · travel

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anonymous // Apr 24, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Hi, I just read your thoughts on Kilimanjaro and I must say it’s the most informative and inspiring writing I have read. I have been trawling the internet for information for my trip next June and at last I have found something to convince me that I am not just a crazy mum having a mid life crisis but someone who has something she only wants to prove to herself.

    My daughter hopes to be a journalist, if she can convey her thoughts like you she will go a long way.

    Thankyou Cathy

  • 2 Anonymous // May 5, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    Hi
    I am climbing Kilimanjaro next year (August 2010). At that time I will be 16 and 3/4. I have had some of my friends climb at the same age. Is it very hard to do (will my age make it harder). I have climbed up to the first camp (just a day hike). My dad’s done this before and I have seen the videos of the climb. I am not worried except for the last summit day. Do you have any advice that I would find helpful, especially about the summit day? And what do you recommend I should do if I get really tired on the way to Stella Point, turn back or fight through it?

    Thanks a lot for your help with this.
    Nikunj

  • 3 kimbakat3 // May 5, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    Hi Nikunj

    thanks for your email, wow! what an experience you are going to have when you turn 16! I will send you an email later this evening with my thoughts.

    How did you find my website? All the best. Katherine

  • 4 Pat,Jackie & Brooke // May 12, 2009 at 9:32 am

    love it, love it, love it!!! a per usual Kath!!!

    Oh and Mr Camera man top effort filming the “Dunny’s” or in Pat’s words the Shitter…..

  • 5 kimbakat3 // May 12, 2009 at 11:07 am

    hmmm I have no idea how Julian was capable of filming anything on that trip… it was so hard to breathe and walk let along breathe, walk and film!

  • 6 Karyne // Feb 4, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Hi again!

    I just read your article. I agree whole-heartedly with your ‘being simple’ comment. I enjoyed soul-searching on the Inca trail with you. I’ll have a thought while suffering on Kili!
    You write beautifully, don’t ever stop!
    K.

  • 7 kimbakat3 // Feb 5, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Hi Karyne- Kili was certainly a life changer, but I do feel I need another reminder of the simple things in life! Thanks so much for for the encouragement, it;s so lovely getting that feedback, I have had writers block lately… I need some inspiration!

  • 8 Trish // Apr 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Hi Awesome writing on your kili trip!! We are thinking of doing it in Aug 2012, I also have the fear of AMS … I think probably because it is an unknown.. will I won’t I kinda thing… :-) We are battling to decide who to go with though… there is so much info and its such a challenge to decide who’s hands to put your safety into and take in all the other considerations too, like porter treatment etc.. we are leaning towards TK but are also looking at serengeti pride safaris and a couple others… SO if you have any words of wisdom to help me make a decision .. that would be superb :-) You said you were very cold, I seem to feel the cold easily and was wondering what jacket you wore and did it do the trick..? Hopefully I wont be hauled off the mountain on that “sexy” stretcher in your video clip!! heaven forbid :-) Congrats on your summit!

  • 9 kimbakat3 // Apr 29, 2011 at 4:32 am

    Hi Trish
    Thanks for you kind words. I really encourage you do make the trip – I still remember it, it was like yesterday and it made me look at the world a lot differently! So worth it. But be warned – you will just want to do more and more challenging things after making the summit! I think the best thing you can do with the tour company is read as much as you can before you make the choice, also it’s been a while since we met so there are probably different companies now. As far as clothing goes – we hired our summit jackets from the company – we only needed them for the summit day. They were really warm! I also had my own gortex jacket along with other layers i.e fleecy type jacket, then wind proof vest then marino wool thermal. I was able to take things off or on when the weather changed – and it changes often! oh and if you are an animal lover I totally recommend going through the serengeti – it was AMAZING! Good luck! Katherine

  • 10 James Foley // Sep 23, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    Hey,

    Love your story,really nice,was just wondering what time of year did ye climb up…? Is there usually blizzards associated with Kilimanjaro..?

  • 11 kimbakat3 // Sep 25, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Hi James
    Thanks for the comment. We climbed in Jan. Blizzards are actually not that common on the climb, we just happened to have be unlucky! Although it was kind of exciting and cool! Cheers, Katherine

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