Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Worth Doing, But Never Again!

So let me tell you a horror story. It was hard. It was the hardest physical thing I've done in my life. I made it to the summit with extreme difficulty. I didn't bother walking to the highest piece of rock on the very large summit, so I guess you could call it a first without honours. Whatever. It was tough. Everyone found it tough.

The symptoms of altitude sickness vary extraordinarily from person to person and can occur at any time. Some people had symptoms low down and didn't have anything else again, for example. In our group of 16 there was dizziness, nausea, severe headaches, nose bleeds, hallucinations, diarrhoea, tingling fingers and toes, and maybe one or two other things. I had none of these symptoms. In fact, up to about 4,500m I relatively waltzed up. However, from then onwards I experienced greater difficulty moving than probably anyone else. Just taking off my boots caused me to pant heavily.

From 3,000m we all had noticed that moving, especially upwards, was increasingly difficult. The longer we remained at altitude the harder it got and the higher we went (obviously) the harder it got.

13/16 of us made it to the summit, which is very good as only about half are generally expected to make it at the speed we did it. You really shouldn't try to get to 6,000m like we did in just five days! The summit day was the real tough one that made it so extraordinarily challenging. During the day we'd walked for nine hours from 3,900m to 4,600m. Afterwards, at 6.30pm, we went to bed and tried - and failed - to sleep. Less than five hours later we got up again and had tea and biscuits. That was our dinner, because we were about to attempt the summit, and high altitude makes you lactose intolerant and shuts down your digestive system. For the summit attempt we relied on sweets and glucose drinks. We could have nothing with caffeine in as it's a dangerous stimulant up there.

So at twenty past midnight we set off. I panted the whole way. It was unbelievable. Each step was a huge effort. For the seven hours and ten minutes it took me to climb those last 1,200m my heart rate was around 170bpm. It was exhausting. Despite being well equipped, my hands and toes suffered terribly from the cold. For the last couple of hours I was moving forward at just six inches for each step; my feet were overlapping. My body was protesting extremely against the effort. During that time I was stopping to catch my breath perhaps every minute. We couldn't have many rest stops, because the affects of altitude were compounding, plus we started to become hypothermic whenever we stopped for even 30 seconds.

When I made the summit (as the sun rose) I was frozen and exhausted. As much as I didn't want to move, I was concerned about hypothermia and worsening altitude problems, so I knew I had to get down. The problem was that there were things to sort out like photos, guides turning up...all sorts of things that delayed the descent by about 15 to 20 minutes. When we finally went down it was easier to travel faster, but it was important to descend as quickly as possible so that we could get warm and get to a safer altitude from altitude sickness. So my heart rate was still around 170bpm for another hour. That means my heart was struggling hard for over 8 hours. Quite frightening, huh?

To get down the first 1,000m or so we slid on scree (very loose small stones up to 30cm deep) using our heels as skis. You could cover a huge amount of ground very quickly doing that. It was hard work though.

Because everything is so much harder/heavier at altitude, I had only brought 2 litres of water with me for the summit night/day, with no opportunity to fill up until around lunchtime on the way down - more than twelve hours after we set off. (To compare, on all the previous days I had drunk an average of 8 litres of water. Altitude makes you need to drink more too.) I was very dehydrated, particularly as it got roasting hot as we moved rapidly below 4,000m. It is on the equator after all!

That day, from midnight to getting down, we walked for about 15 hours. During all this time I had a piece of bread, a glucose drink, a biscuit and a few sweets. At the end of the day, when we got to camp at a much safer 3,000m, I was too exhausted to wait for dinner, so I slept. By the time I got up I hadn't eaten anything substantial for 36 hours.

The next day we came all the way down. We were (and still are) all completely fucked, inside and out. Our bodies were so exhausted, abused, full of various drugs and pills and things, confused by strange diets and suffering from unhygienic conditions. That first night back down in the hotel I had a terrible fever. For the next day or two I was nauseous and retching, and I've had bowel and stomach problems and...other things. (Let's keep it vague, I'm trying to regain my appetite!) My heart rate is still above normal. I still can't eat properly. Altitude really messes you up.


Hey yeah! So, cheery stuff, huh? So, like, did anything good happen? A few days ago, I couldn't remember anything good, but it's all coming back now, especially after having seen some of the photos. With the scary stuff out of the way, I can think of a lot of great things about the trip. Most of the climb - the first three days in particular - was very pleasant indeed. The scenery was incredible. I shan't bother to describe it because describing scenery is never like being there. See the photos:

One of the many highlights (a champagne moment, to coin Andy) was scrambling up the Barranco Wall. The views were great and it was an enjoyable climb. It was 300m high at roughly 4,000m altitude at the base. At this stage, I was still relatively free from altitude problems. In fact, one of the local mountain guides, James (nickname Cheeky Monkey), put three rocks in my bag and I didn't realise until after we got to the top. Just one rock makes a huge difference at that altitude. I got him back by throwing snow in his face at 4,600m. The other mountain guides were very amused to see someone get James for a change!

I was lucky enought to see some colobus monkeys in the jungle at the bottom on the way back down. That was cool. I also learned a fair bit (relatively) of Swahili. Languages are always an enjoyable part of my holiday experience.

The local mountain guides and porters were great. They are also poor. At the bottom I gave them almost all my equipment (what little I hadn't borrowed or rented). They need it more than me and they earned it. The nine other guys in the party (non Kili6ers I mean) were cool companions. The tour leader, Hellen Bunn from t'Yorkshire, was a remarkable lady.

Another champagne moment was on the descent from the summit. We'd hurried for perhaps two hours. It had got warm again. We collapsed in the loose stones and lay down looking at the blue sky and the big red and black rock walls of the huge valley we'd entered. (Most of the mountain was 'regular' grey rock, but not in this area.) We just lay there and no one said anything in the comfortable heat for maybe five or ten minutes. I can't think of a more serene moment.

What else was good...Oh yeah, we did it! And it was an amazing experience.


Today my appetite is a bit better, so I'm recovering a little. I lost 4kg (9lbs) on Kilimanjaro, which is horrific, as I had no fat to lose. In today's measurement, that's the equivalent weight of two copies of the fourth Harry Potter book (in hardback) of mostly muscle that I lost. I'm stuffing food and 'build-up' drinks into me as I type. One solid month of gluttony and three of training will sort me out again!

I told a friend that this was fucking hard. She asked "Fucking hard good, fucking hard bad or just fucking hard?" I said "I can't really describe it. I don't know the answer." I still don't know the answer. What I do know is that I'm glad I did it. But I'm never going to do it again.


Blogger Andrew said...

Crikey really did have fun, didn't you? I feel almost guilty for dragging you out there. Benidorm - or Norfolk - next year?
Andrew and the Gang

10:48 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

So you don't agree that - to quote Meckson (our head guide) - climbing Kilimanjaro is "easy peasy, lemon squeezy"? :-)

PS. Meckson told us to tell everyone that, so that people keep going, and he doesn't lose his job!

10:25 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

Er, whilst you were reeling from the horror story bit, you may have overlooked this: "With the scary stuff out of the way, I can think of a lot of great things about the trip. Most of the climb...was very pleasant indeed."

And yes, Jon, of course it was actually easy peasy. Forget the first four fifths of my post ;-)

10:31 AM  
Blogger Esther said...

Oh dear... I hadn't realised quite how awful you felt. All the more congratulations for having made it! But it just goes to show, you really can't predict how anyone's body will react to the altitude and the general conditions. Of the Kili 6 you were by far the fittest, but you still suffered really badly... Well done for surviving it and actually being able to find a few positive things about the trip! Est

1:57 PM  
Blogger Julia said...

That was a very interesting and moving read. It sounds like you really took on the challenge, and seem dead chuffed for it (especially seeing as you can eat lots more!). Well done! :)

(hugs from A Proud Julia)

8:04 PM  

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