My Real Life Adventure up Mount Kilimanjaro
In 1980 as a young twenty year old soldier serving in the Welsh Guards I travelled to Africa for the very first time. I spent six weeks in Kenya which included a three day hike up Mt Kenya. At 5199m it is the second highest mountain in Africa. Funny now when I think back that nobody mentioned to me the dangers of altitude sickness and it was just a case of follow orders and climb the mountain. I do however remember feeling on top of the world and promising myself that one day I would return to Africa to climb the highest mountain Kilimanjaro
What I didn’t realise at the time, was that it would be another 38 years before I had the opportunity to return to Africa. I’d almost given up on the idea due to family, work and other interests when in 2016 I got into a conversation with an old work colleague who had climbed Kilimanjaro several years previously. After relaying his story over a good couple of hours chat I found that my spark had been ignited and after discussing it with my wife Shona it was agreed that I should go for it. I had no idea at that time of when I would go or who I would go with but the plan was hatched, I could worry about that later. I decided that I would need time to train, research the mountain and organise the trip so I set myself a target of eighteen months to achieve my goal. I managed to recruit my work colleague Russ who was also keen to climb the mountain. He like me is ex military (Royal Marine) and we got on well, so in my eyes was the perfect partner for a 6/7 day hike in the mountains.
We also decided that we would like to use the challenge to raise some money for a good cause and I remembered my daughter in law Robyn telling me about her friend Amy May. She had suffered severe brain damage in 2014 after an allergic reaction to a single mouthful of food containing nuts. The Amy May Trust was set up to raise money to assist in her progress and rehabilitation. We both decided that this was a great cause and raising money for Amy May would give us an even greater incentive to succeed.
Over the next eighteen months we trained hard including completing the 3 Peaks Challenge (see photo below on Ben Nevis) in under 24 hours, numerous mountain walks mainly in the Brecon Beacons and lots of researching the routes up Kili to decide on the most challenging and most interesting way to climb to the summit.
We managed to book our flights the previous September when they first came on line through KLM paying £513 for a return flight arriving at the end of August and returning early September. I am fortunate to have a niece Hayley living near the mountain who is married to Reagan, a Tanzanian businessman. Together they own The Kijiji Collection, Kijiji Village and Blue Zebra Art Gallery selling African artefacts and amazing artwork. They also have several contacts in the Kilimanjaro tourist business who bring clients to their shop which is located at the foot of the mountain near Mweka Gate. My niece kindly volunteered to arrange our trip up the mountain, so about six months prior to leaving I put my trust in Hayley and Reagan to broker a good deal with a reputable local company. One thing important to us was that the company chosen were members of KPAP the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project. In around May this year I received confirmation that they had made contact with a local travel company called Real Life Adventure Travel and a price had been negotiated. The company Real Life Adventure Travel (RLAT) are a travel specialist from Moshi with a satellite office based in the USA. They specialise in mountain climbing, safaris and local cultural trips.
So after eighteen months in planning on Tuesday 30th August 2018 I met Russ at Bristol airport and we set off on our trip to Tanzania. The route to Kilimanjaro International airport from Bristol is straightforward with one change at Amsterdam followed by a eight and a half hour flight to Moshi. We landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport at just after 8.30pm local time.
After a short wait queuing for our Tanzanian visa’s, for which we paid 50 US Dollars each, we picked up our baggage and headed to the exit. We met Reagan who had arranged to collect and transport us to Honey Badger lodge where we were going to stay before and after climbing the mountain. The journey from the airport was exciting experiencing African culture straight away with a hive of activity around various shops and stalls scattered near to the one main road connecting the airport to Moshi. After an hour of some very streetwise driving we arrived at the resort gates which were guarded by quite an old looking Masai male. We found out later that the location is perfectly safe and it’s the Tanzanian way to have Masai security at all hotels and lodges. After a long days travel we were ready to get some sleep so we checked in and received our lodge key. At the reception area I was dive bombed by a huge dragonfly type creature the size of a small bird and immediately dive for cover. Reagan with a broad smile looked at me as if to say ‘Welcome to Africa’. Reagan said his goodbyes after giving me 400,000 Tanzanian schillings to use until we could change some money. I immediately think I’m loaded until later finding out it equates to around £137. I will never get used to the concept of paying thousands for a meal and a drink.
The next day was a rest day at the resort and we had our first meeting with Real Life Adventure Travel owners Freddy and Richie. They were accompanied by our lead guide for the trip, Wilfred. He comprehensively briefed us on what to expect over the 6 days on the Machame Route. For me it confirmed what I already knew, having researched the route thoroughly in the Trailblazer Kilimanjaro trekking guide 4th edition book, a Christmas present from my wife Shona. However, I’m sure it was all new for Russ who put his trust in me to research and arrange our trip. Something he regretted later when realising I had chosen one of the toughest routes, they don’t call it the Whiskey trail for nothing. We finished off with a kit inspection, army style, which we passed with flying colours as Wilfred meticulously checked all our kit. He ensured we had everything we needed for the hike, paying special attention to our cold weather gear which would be required on summit night. It was an excellent briefing and my first impression of RLAT was that it was a very professional company.
After a night of broken sleep due mainly to the joyous sounds of Africa, from three o clock onwards we were treated to the sounds of dogs barking, roosters crowing, and the local mosque’s call to prayers. Earplugs are an absolute must if you want to sleep well !! We were collected after breakfast by Wilfred and driven 45 minutes to Machame Gate our start point where we met the rest of the crew and our assistant guide Hans for the first time. After researching all the routes we decided that it we would take the Machame Route, this was mainly due to the appeal of travelling through five different types of terrain and the challenge of climbing the Baranco Wall. There were a lot of other hikers waiting to register at the Rangers hut including a group of around thirty students from various universities including Manchester and Northumbria who are raising money for charities including Dig deep and Hope for Children.
We are supplied with bottled water to fill our bottles and the OEX 2 litre bladder that I intend to use in my daypack to allow me to drink on the move. There was a delay due to the vast amount of porters each needing to have their packs weighed to ensure they are not carrying over 25kg which is the maximum allowance. Whilst in the waiting area a young female student searching for something in her rucksack dropped her plastic make up compact case at our feet. She quickly apologised and collected it all together before returning to her friends. My immediate thoughts looking at this young lady with her bling necklace and carefully applied make up was “I hope you realise what you are letting yourself in for”. I learnt a harsh lesson that day in ‘never judge a book by its cover’, as I saw this young lady nearly everyday of the hike and she always appeared one of the strongest in her group. On summit day she appeared at the top being supported by two guides. She looked very tired but still found the energy to apply fresh makeup before posing for her summit photographs!
We eventually signed in at the Rangers Office and were given the green light to go. We were finally starting our adventure led by our guides Wilfred and Hans. We set off on our attempt to climb Kilimanjaro which began at 1640m with a 7 hour hike up through the rainforest travelling to Machame Camp at 2835m. It was going to be a long day but we were excited at the fact we were finally starting and in a few days time if all went well, we would be on the Roof of Africa.
The walk up through the rainforest was quite easy going. We are introduced to “Pole Pole” which is Swahili for slow. Wilfred set a nice steady pace as we climbed gradually with the occasional really steep section. On starting we saw some blue monkeys swinging in the trees and in the rainforest you could hear some birdsong. However after a couple of hours walking it became noticeable how quiet the rainforest became, it was quite eerie. We spent time getting to know our guides. Wilfred at 28 years old is a veteran of 290 previous summits and knows the mountain very well. Hans is the boss Freddie’s son and at 23 years old he is a novice learning the ropes to eventually become a lead guide. Both speak very good English so there is plenty of conversation during the day as we ask lots of questions especially about the mountain and what to expect in the next few days.
Occasionally we are passed by our porters and camp crew who are travelling much faster than us and all carrying heavy loads, mostly on their heads. We have actually set a very good pace and although humid , it remained dry throughout our climb. We arrived at Machame camp at around 5.30pm in daylight meaning we would have plenty of time to get used to our surroundings before it got dark. This would not be the case for the group of students who arrived at camp much later after nightfall and with no time to get acquainted with their new surroundings. It was good to reach our first camp and we felt confident that we had managed to hike the first leg of our journey in good time.
On arrival at camp we were shown around and introduced to our tent, an excellent Mountain Hardware Trango 2. This is a top quality 2 man tent with loads of room and excellent protection from the elements. We also have our own chemical toilet which is a welcome luxury item. Having roughed it with the best in my younger military days, I was so glad not to have to queue up with everybody else at camp, to squat over a hole in a ground! We were shown the mess tent where we would be served our meals and able to relax in the evening after the days hiking. It is a large tent with room for a dining table and three chairs allowing at least one of the guides the opportunity to dine with us at each meal. We are also introduced to Philibert our waiter who will serve us in the mess tent and look after our daily needs. Although introduced as our waiter, it didn’t take long for us to form a bond with this charismatic Tanzanian who apart from the guides is the person we spend the most time with during the trip. Everything is so well organised. The remainder of the crew including our cook Emmanuel have there own big marquee style tent and the guides another two man tent.
It is a bit of a first come first served system for the crews to find a good spot at camp, but we seem to have been found a good location in what is to become a quite crowded campsite. The first routine in reaching camp is to sign in at the Rangers Office, something we will do daily as we ascend the mountain. This is followed by time to sort the kit out, inflate our roll mats and pillows and lay out the sleeping bag ready for sleeping. I am so glad that I paid a bit extra for a good four seasons sleeping bag and my OEX Leviathan EV 900 serves me well even in the more extreme cold conditions later on in the trip. RLAT pay real attention to detail in camp life which you must get right in order to help you reach the summit. I can imagine that many a hiker has fallen foul of being unorganised in camp with either their kit administration or hygiene, contributing towards them not reaching their goal. Being a couple of old soldiers, I was in the Welsh Guards and Russ the Royal Marines, we quickly reverted back to military mode and organised ourselves quickly. Although it has been 30 years since I was last in the field, so to speak, it’s amazing how quickly you can get back in the zone. It’s all part of the adventure but although camp life is easy I find sleeping in a tent a different story and broken sleep is something I would suffer over the next few days. Altitude however is not yet a problem and it will only start to have an effect on us tomorrow when we go above 3000m for the first time.
Day 2 began with a wake up call at 6am and a nice cup of Kilimanjaro breakfast tea made builders style (not too much powdered milk) by Philibert. We pack away our kit ready for the porters to collect our North Face 90 litre duffel bags to transport them to the next camp. All we carry daily is our day packs containing an extra layer and water/snacks required for the hike. I have brought over a large bag of goodies and fill up the sweetie box daily with jelly babies and fruit pastilles and make sure I have a couple of energy bars close to hand to munch on the way. Today we are walking from Machame camp to Shira camp which stands at 3859m. This is a shorter hike of around 4 hours but very steep and tough going.
We see a lot of other groups along the way including the university students and a small group of Polish male and female hikers around our age group. For some reason Wilfred who knows their accompanying guide thinks they are Russian and makes a comment to one of the males asking if they were indeed Russian. The Polish male quickly replied with great wit ‘Not yet’. Both Russ and I saw the funny side of this comment but I think it went way over Wilfred’s head. The highlight of day 2 was the music box that Wilfred had brought in his heavy looking rucksack. A real diverse mix of music sounded out as we continued our steep ascent out of the rainforest and into the Lower Alpine Heather zone. Over the next couple of hours we listened to Bob Marley, Don Williams, Lionel Ritchie, Whitney Houston and some Gambian rap star I’d never heard of. Other groups never had the luxury of music and we soon nicknamed Wilfred the Pied Piper as he climbed slowly up the steep terrain with not just myself, Russ and Hans following, but also several other groups who had tagged on behind with their guides to listen to the music. We began to see a lot more plant life on this route including one beautiful red flower called the Impatient ‘Kilimanjaro’.
We are introduced to some of our porters as they sprinted past us during the day reaching the camp long before us. I can never remember names so I come up with an idea to connect their names to films. Wilson a young 20 year old Porter is remembered by the famous volleyball in the film Castaway, Joffery the evil king in Game of Thrones, Hans by the baddie Hans Gruber in Die Hard and Emmanuel our cook from a female soft porn star from the 70’s! It worked, and their names were installed in our heads for the rest of the trip. We eventually reached Shira camp and were treated to some well earned salted popcorn and biscuits, along with a nice cup of tea. Philibert soon learns that in true British style we do like our tea morning, noon and night.
Around lunchtime we arrived at Shira camp and had a good lunch before being allowed some rest prior to an acclimatisation walk up to Shira Camp 2 at 3850m before dropping back down to our camp to sleep. We set off on the walk with Wilfred, Hans and the porter Joffrey coming along to help. We first stop off at Shira cave where Wilfred gave us an informative talk about the caves. In the early days when tourists started climbing Kilimanjaro they would pack almost one hundred people with only blankets for warmth into the caves, which were about the size of my living room. It could not have been a comfortable place to sleep but warmer I suppose than being fully exposed to the mountain elements. We then walked to Shira Camp 2 where we see Mt Meru around 20km away and Shira Peak the third highest of the volcanic peaks on Kilimanjaro. A layer of cloud lay between the ridge and Shira giving you the impression that you could just walk across the soft pillows of cloud to reach this peak which looked in touching distance. We also took some great photographs of the sun setting in the direction of Meru and Shira. I introduced everybody to my sweetie box and we all shared a jelly baby or two to celebrate this wonderful sight.
On arrival back at Shira Camp we are introduced to the remainder of the team who entertain us with some African singing and dancing. The highlight being a motivational song called ‘Touga’ which involved some intricate dance moves and backing vocals. As we listened we had visions of the song being about some great African warrior only to find out later that it was about a frog who travelled from town to town meeting his friends along the way. We also get to see the huge white necked ravens who we are informed are scavengers and to keep the tent flaps zipped down when they are about. At dinner later that evening Hans did our daily medical checks to make sure we were both okay. The ‘meds’ as they called it consisted of an oxygen intake and heart rate reading to gauge how the body is coping with the increase in altitude. We were then asked how we felt at altitude ranging from 1-10, 10 being totally fine. The checks also included toilet habits, and whether we had suffered from diarrhoea, vomiting, difficulty breathing or coughing. I didn’t want to peak too early and told Hans that I was feeling good but had a slight headache making my score a 9.
After our three course dinner which was delicious, Russ went off to bed and I went back to the mess tent armed with my journal to write about our days activities. It was important to get some sleep tonight as we had another tough days hiking tomorrow but like the previous evening for me it is broken all through the night. Although being in the tent for nearly 9 hours I would be surprised if I managed to sleep for a few hours at the most. In the middle of the night I got out of the tent and witnessed what looked like a million stars in the sky and the most amazing view of the mountain with the moon and stars shining on the snow capped peak lighting it up like a Christmas grotto, it was a truly breath-taking sight. Unfortunately the photos I took did not capture this amazing spectacle but the memory of the view of the mountain that night will stay with me forever. Tomorrow was going to be a long day. We would start off by climbing steeply to Lava Tower at 4,600m before dropping down into the Baranco valley to sleep at the camp situated below the Baranco Wall at 3,900m, meaning we will only gain a grand total of 186m during the days hike.
At the start of day three after a good breakfast of porridge, eggs, sausage and potato patties we started the long and arduous hike to Lava Tower. After about an hour of solid uphill climbing I realised that Wilfred had quickened the pace from the previous two days and I was feeling the tiredness in my legs. The pace was relentless and we started passing several groups as Russ and I struggled to keep up with this quicker pace. After a while Wilfred settled down and once again we were “pole pole” as we climbed steeply towards Lava Tower. I’m convinced our lead guide was on a mission to beat all the other groups to Lava Tower and he was mainly successful. The scenery was again changing and we started to see the giant Scenacios and Lobelias scattered on the mountain. We were now entering moorland and the Upper Alpine Desert zone. The last half an hour of the climb into Lava Tower camp was very steep and I had to work really hard to get there, it was the first time that I felt the altitude affecting my breathing. However that may have just been the fact I was breathing hard from the steep uphill climb. It was a great relief when we arrived knowing that the rest of the day was all downhill to Baranco Valley. Lunch at Lava Tower was amazing chicken and English chip shop tasting chips at a height just above the summit of Mont Blanc in the Alps, it was surreal. I’m not sure how the cook Emmanuel managed to serve up such wonderful food at that kind of altitude but he did so continuously throughout the whole trip.
I noticed a big rock at the camp which was covered in porters and other crew members all on their mobile phones. Wilfred explains that it is called Signal Rock and is one of the only places on the mountain where you can successfully make a phone call. It was also really hot at Lava Tower and the mess tent was like a sauna, but this was soon to change as the temperature started to drop during our next part of the hike to the Baranco Wall.
We left Lava Tower at around two o’clock in the afternoon and descended rapidly for the next hour or so. We were now seeing lots more of the Giant Groundsels and stopped to take some photographs of us posing next to the trees. I have never seen anything quite like them before and they are truly unique to this great mountain. The hike is a long one but we eventually drop steeply towards Baranco camp which is in a deep valley beneath the famous vertical looking wall which we will scramble up the following day. We arrived at camp late in the afternoon and although still at quite a high altitude we were lower than at Lava Tower which helped our acclimatisation.
At Baranco the camp was set up and there is an amazing view of the wall from our tent. The reason I chose the Machame route was because I really wanted to climb the wall and experience the amazing views of the mountain from the top. There was some phone reception at the camp and I tried to ring Shona but had no luck in getting through. What had been nice was the escape from social media and the constant checking of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, I believe the saying is ‘digital detoxing’ and it did feel good. At Baranco Camp, Wilfred informed us that he has been in contact with Freddy the boss of RLAT and told him that we were doing really well and were on schedule to Summit on Monday morning. After dinner which was again excellent we did our meds with Hans before getting some sleep. Hans needs a name for our group and after a couple of minutes of thought he decides on ‘Hello Boys’. This refers to the Lionel Ritchie song “Hello” we have joked about my wife disliking so much. Later on summit night Hello Boys would be heard being shouted out on the mountain as we engaged in some motivational chanting.
It’s a bit colder tonight so I laid my Rab Down jacket over the top of my sleeping bag for extra warmth. There are several pieces of kit that have been essential around the camp including my Sketcher slip on shoes which are so comfortable and perfect to just slip on my feet after taking the walking boots off. Personal hygiene is so important on this trip so the small bottles of hand gel and wet wipes we brought are much used. My Hero beam head-torch has been great, it has three levels of beam which you can use depending on your needs. The strongest beam when leaving the tent at night was really powerful. I write my journal as usual in the mess tent before going back to our tent for some sleep. I actually rest better this evening and manage a few hours of unbroken sleep. In the morning we are due to set off at eight o’clock so it’s our normal routine, tea, pack away, morning wash, breakfast and preparation for the hike. Before we climb the Baranco Wall we are treated to a warm up, African style, and after a couple of minutes of joining in with some high knee dancing and singing I realise that at this altitude it’s like running a marathon! Eventually we were good to go and start to climb the wall under the watchful eye of the guides. I had been looking forward to climbing the Baranco Wall for a very long time so this was a really exciting part of the trip.
The Baranco Wall is a 257m rock face which is a steep traverse requiring some scrambling skills. You need to scale this wall of rock before you can hike eastwards towards base camp and start preparing for summit night. As we looked up at the huge wall from the valley floor we could see that several groups had already started and a colourful trail of ant sized people were snaking there way up through a trail in the rocks. It was a cold morning and there was a hard frost at the camp, I was fascinated to see a Lobelia plant closed tight shut due to the cold. It would open up later in the day when the sun gave it some warmth. We started to climb the wall with Hans leading us, as mentioned it involved a fair bit of scrambling but is relatively straightforward and safe. There is one little obstacle half way up where Hans asked us if we were familiar with the term ‘kissing the rock’ I wasn’t but on seeing what was in front of us I had a good idea what he was talking about. A narrow ridge had to be crossed by grabbing hold of a huge rock and edging slowly across over what was quite a big drop below. You really needed to hug the rock closely to safely manoeuvre yourself across the ledge. I have never kissed a rock so passionately. I remember thinking it would not be the place to be if suffering from vertigo or dizziness from the altitude. It takes about an hour and a half to climb the wall but the views at the top were well worth it. We summited the wall around the same time as the large university group and everybody was excited and happy to have got to the top. There were amazing photo opportunities with the mountain now in full view towering above us. Where we had just come from was now fully covered in cloud and again I felt on top of the world. We ask one of the other hikers to take a team photo of the four of us together which is one of my favourite photographs of the whole trip. Wilfred who fancies himself as a keen photographer tries to get Russ and I jumping in the air and he captures us a couple of inches of the ground, not bad I’m thinking. Then Wilfred and Hans like a pair of gazelles jump about five feet in the air and the photographer catches them in perfect flight. If they thought I was capable of such flexibility they were very much mistaken.
On top of the wall you gain the first real close up view of the mountain and the level of ascent still required to summit. We have a short break before heading off towards Karanga Valley. We drop steeply to the bottom of the valley but soon realise that there is a major climb ahead of us to reach the camp. We head off slowly and after about an hour or so of Alpine Desert we reach Karanga camp where the mess tent is already pitched and we have lunch. My appetite is beginning to lessen with the altitude but I manage some soup, bread and fruit. Prior to starting the hike we were given the option of extending it by a day and camp for the night at Karanga Camp instead of continuing on to base camp. Wilfred joined us and asked if we had decided on whether we would need the extra day to recover at Karanga or did we wish to try and summit the following morning. I had already made my mind up and wanted to start the climb to the summit that night but was wary that Russ had been carrying a calf injury from the start so would go along with whatever he wanted to do. Fortunately Russ was of the same opinion and wanted to crack on and try and get to the summit the following day. I believe the guides were happy with our decision and were confident that we could successfully summit in the morning.
We left Karanga camp after a short rest heading towards Barafu Camp (base camp) where we would prepare for summit night. The hike to Barafu was steep and took around three and a half hours eventually arriving there late afternoon. We were now at 4680m and for the first time on the whole trip I was feeling slightly nauseous with a bad case of diarrhoea. I immediately took Imodium and told Wilfred when we were having our meds what the problem was. He suggested that because I had been using electrolyte tablets to give the filtrated water some flavour it may have upset my stomach. He advised me to stop using them which I agreed to do. Dinner was hard work and I retched at first at the thought of eating anything. I eventually forced myself to eat some soup knowing that I needed some fuel inside me for the long hike through the night. I could feel Wilfred’s eyes watching over me no doubt observing me closely for signs of acute mountain sickness (AMS). I went to the tent that night exhausted from the days hike and very concerned that if this illness continued, I was in fear of not being able to summit. I managed to get some sleep before being woken at eleven pm.
Amazingly the tablets had worked and the nausea had gone away, I actually felt great with lots of adrenaline now pumping around my body excited at the thought of reaching the summit later that morning. We got dressed into our many layers and met the guides at the mess tent where we had a motivational group hug prior to setting off. I had decided to wear 4 layers on top, three below the waist and one pair of thick woollen walking socks. I started off with just my North Face inner gloves but stashed my fur lined heavy duty gloves in my pack. I had changed the batteries in my head torch and filled up 2 x 1 litre bottles of water, one insulated and one plastic bottle turned upside down to stop it from freezing. The weather gods were kind to us and there was no wind at all as we stood at Barafu ready to start the long gruelling hike through the night and up some of the steepest terrain yet. Wilfred and Hans had approached us earlier in the evening to ask us if we were okay with one of the young porters Wilson joining us on the hike as he had never summited before. We both immediately agreed excited for the young lad to have the opportunity to reach the peak of the mountain he had worked so hard on in the past few days. He would also be another pair of hands to help us if the altitude took its toll on us during the night. Even though I felt good and my breathing was okay I wasn’t ready for the enormous feeling of tiredness I felt when we were a couple of hours into the climb and three nights of broken sleep was starting to take its toll on my body.
I worked out a strategy with Russ that we would take it in turns an hour at a time to walk behind Wilfred who was to guide us up the mountain. Mentally this was good as it gave us something to focus on knowing we would probably have three goes each behind the main guide before daybreak. I haven’t walked at night for a very long time and it took all my mental toughness to drive me up that mountain along with a intense willingness to summit not just for myself but all the people who supported me in raising money for the Amy May Trust. I soon learned not to look up too often and concentrate on the persons feet in front, as every time you had a sneaky glimpse upwards the top looked further away and all you saw were literally hundreds of head torch’s lighting up the mountain trail.
During the six hours hiking before sunrise we saw many of the various groups we had seen previously on the trip including the large contingent of university students. Although some appeared to be struggling with the conditions the majority were looking strong. An Italian couple we had met previously hadn’t fared so well and I guess altitude had got the better of them as we saw them descending around three am. It goes to show what a confused and tired state I was in at this time as I initially thought they’ve done well summiting early. I then realised how stupid this thought was and that they must have been turning back as why would anybody want to summit in the dark. I also remember seeing lots of vomit on the rocks but never actually saw or heard anybody being ill. I suppose that night there would have been literally over a hundred people on the summit ascent all with the same goal but all having there own personal battles with the altitude and the sheer toughness of the climb. For me it was the tiredness, there were times where I could barely keep my eyes open. I don’t think altitude effected me too much throughout but trying to stay awake on the night walk was so hard. There were a couple of times in the night where I wasn’t sure if I could do it but this was where Wilfred and Hans showed great leadership, they believed in us and that drove us both on to overcome all the negative thoughts and literally keep going. The hot chocolate Wilfred produced half way up tasted so good and thank heavens for wet wipes which I used on several occasions to freshen me up when I felt like falling asleep.
Between four and four thirty am the temperature dropped dramatically and I could feel a combination of the Diamox (altitude sickness tablets) making my fingers tingle and excruciating pain from the cold. My inner and outer gloves seemed to have no effect on it and I was thinking that maybe I had frostbite. The guides soon eased my fears saying it was normal at this time of the morning and the sun would come up soon and the temperature would rise slightly. They were right of course and after around three quarters of an hour of severe cold in my fingers the temperature rose and the pain went away. It was at this time we started to see the first glimpses of sunrise which I could tell was going to be spectacular. My tiredness disappeared and the excitement kicked in once again. We watched in amazement as the sun started to rise in the distance surrounded by ice and cloud, it was a truly magnificent sight. The time was just before six am and in the increasing light we could see our next goal, Stella Point, on the ridge of the crater. It looked close but there was still a very steep and rocky section to complete so we were about an hour away. At 7.04 am we finally reached Stella Point and the final few steps onto the ridge felt great. It was wonderful to see the sign, take some photos and just have a short break before the final physical push to reach Uhruhu peak.
At this point I was totally unaware of the difficult journey ahead of us as I had been told that the final ridge walk to the summit was an enjoyable 45 minute walk along gradually rising ground. The fact that there was so much snow and ice on the ground meant that we would have to cross five large ice fields to reach Uhuru Peak, each ice field almost knee high either side of a narrow pathway. If you met a group coming the other way it resulted in a stand off before one of the guides relented and we either stepped onto the ice to make way or we carried on past. The journey from Stella Point to the summit took around one and a half hours over what was some of the toughest terrain of the whole trip. However the views of the glaciers more than made up for the energy sapping hike through the ice, it was a truly incredible sight. I will never get over the fact that I was hiking in Arctic conditions and viewing huge glaciers whilst on a mountain in Africa. It is not hard to see why people did not believe Hans Mayer when he first told them about the snow capped mountain in 1889.
Russ was struggling with the high altitude and having difficulty breathing. He showed some incredible mental toughness over the five days to reach the summit whilst suffering from a leg injury and also having breathing problems so close to the summit. At 0848am we eventually reached the roof of Africa and as I touched the famous sign all the pain and tiredness disappeared replaced by an amazing sense of achievement as I high fived and hugged everyone present. Wilfred had led us into the summit with a little ‘Touga’ the frog style dance which immediately made me smile. I remember feeling just as excited for Wilson the young porter reaching the summit as I did for myself, he looked tired but really happy. Then it was photograph time and we posed for several photographs next to the sign both individual and together as a group. The previous evening I was disappointed when I realised that I had left my Amy May Trust T shirt behind which I had intended to wear at the top. I quickly had to improvise by making my very own Team Amy May poster to display and leave at the summit.
Even though Wilfred and Hans had summited many times before I could still see the look of delight on their faces at reaching the top and seeing this magical place with amazing views once again. I didn’t expect to see quite so much snow and ice and the inside of the crater was almost unrecognisable due to the snow covering. We had made it and I savoured the short time we spent at the summit (five minutes) knowing that I had achieved my goal. The last five days of this physical and mental challenge had all been worth it. To stand there as hundreds of thousands of people have before me and to be able to say I have climbed Kili which at 5895m is the highest free standing mountain in the world, was one of the best experiences of my life.
After the excitement of reaching the summit we now had to find the energy to get back down. We passed lots of hikers, some struggling with the altitude, making there way to the summit as we quickly tried to manoeuvre the ice fields to get back to Stella Point. In the daylight from the top of the ridge you could clearly see what we had achieved during the night and how steep the route was back to Barafu camp. We worked in tandem with the guides to descend as quick as possible on the loose rock. We did this by linking arms and using a walking pole apiece working together we literally flew back down the mountain. The other reason to get down quickly was so we could reach lower altitudes quickly allowing us to feel better and breathe easier. It was really hard work and so tiring but after an hour and a half of rapid descending we were reaching better trails and could now manage to descend alone using the poles. We arrived back at base camp at 1140am almost three hours after summiting. The guides were really pleased with how quickly and safely we had descended. As a result of arriving back earlier than scheduled we were rewarded with one hour and twenty minutes to crash in the tents before packing up our equipment and hiking to the next camp. It was the best sleep ever but no sooner had my head hit the pillow than I was back up packing things away. It was a whirlwind of a day which started at midnight and now entailed another three to four hour hike to Mweka Camp.
The walk to Mweka Camp was long with lots of steep downhill sections on rocky trails. We started our trek with a sighting of the makeshift ambulances, large trolleys used to quickly transport severe altitude sufferers to lower parts of the mountain. I am grateful that I hadn’t needed any form of transport other than my feet. The further we dropped the greener it became and all of a sudden we were back in the Lower Alpine area where there were lots of plants and trees. Wilfred pointed out the national flower of Tanzania the purple coloured clove or ‘Mikarafuu’ in Swahili. It was another long hike of around four hours with a short break at High camp before arriving to a wooded camp at Mweka. Russ was now suffering with stomach cramps and shortly after arrival went straight to bed. I was surprised how little appetite I had after such a long day hiking but I did manage to eat something before collapsing in my sleeping bag and getting some well earned sleep. Before dinner I had spoken to Wilfred about the procedure for tipping the crew and he supplied me with individual envelopes for each crew member. I had previously been given a guide to how much to tip each member. Crew members are tipped depending on their role in the team. On waking up around four o’clock it dawned on me that I wouldn’t get another chance to sort this out before the final ceremony. Russ was awake as well and after an hour or so the tips were sorted and stored safely in my daypack. In the morning we went through our normal camp routine, including our ‘washy washy’ bowls for the last time and ate some breakfast before starting our final three hour hike to the finish at Mweka gate.
The final days hiking was far from easy, four hours on a very slippery downhill route through the rainforest. We stopped occasionally and managed to spot some Colobus monkeys swinging from the trees. We also stopped at a huge camphor tree normally found in Asia. Camphor is used in medicinal products such as Vicks Vapor Rub. We eventually reached the finish line at Mweka gate and signed out at the Rangers Hut after taking some celebration photographs at the finish sign. We then walked to the location of our closing ceremony which was to take place at Reagan and Hayley’s wonderful store, Kijiji, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. This turned out to be an unexpected treat with a wonderful barbecue lunch washed down with a bottle of Kilimanjaro beer or two. The crew then assembled and we were treated to some excellent African singing and dancing in honour of our achievement. We were also given the traditional Kili cake which is made especially for the occasion which we shared with our crew. We gave each crew member his individual payment (tips) before receiving our certificates from the guides Wilfred and Hans. Both Russ and I then said a few words thanking everybody for there support over the last six days and how they made us feel not just like clients but more part of the team with a common goal of reaching the summit. We said our goodbyes before paying a visit to the shop to pick up some souvenirs.
We finished our stay in Africa with a couple of days rest at Honey Badgers before spending some time with Hayley and Reagan and their two boys Skylar and River. We also got to meet the players from a local football team in Moshi called Kilimanjaro Heroes and I handed over some referee kit and equipment I brought over from the UK. On our last day we met up with Freddie and Richie to visit the Materuni waterfall before having lunch in Moshi and meeting some of Freddie’s family. We had a great time and Freddie and Richie proved to be excellent hosts.
It was a fantastic trip to Africa made special by reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro and raising £1225 for the Amy May Trust. During the trip I am so glad that I took the time to complete a journal it was a great way to capture my memories of the climb. I am hoping one day that it will be read by future generations of my family to inspire them to go and climb Kilimanjaro.
A big thank you to Real Life Adventure Travel for looking after us so well and making it such an unforgettable experience. Also a big thank you to my relatives Hayley and Reagan who arranged our trip and looked after us after we arrived. I would definitely recommend the Machame Route to anybody thinking of climbing the mountain it is really challenging but so spectacular travelling through the different zones. I would also recommend RLAT if you are looking for a experienced team to help give you the best opportunity to reach the top of the mountain. Our two guides Wilfred and Hans were excellent leaders and we enjoyed their company as they worked really hard with the remainder of the crew to make our stay on the mountain so enjoyable.
I loved my time on Kilimanjaro and achieved a lifetime ambition when summiting, the memories of the climb will stay with me for the rest of my life.