Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Kili50 Blogathon

Kilimanjaro has been experienced in all its glory by The Kili 6, my 50th birthday is fast approaching, and it feels like the end game has nearly arrived. To use a sporting analogy borrowed from our friends across the's the bottom of the 9th innings and the count is loaded.
I set up this Blog in January 2006 to record our progress towards attempting Kili in February 2007, and to raise funds for a World Vision project in Tanzania. Well, you can read how Kili treated us by scrolling down from here to some great articles and pics...and I'm very proud and grateful to say that we've raised over £11,000 for a life-changing fresh water project for the small community of Kisiriri in central Tanzania.
But what about the Kili50 Blog? Blogs have feelings too, after all. Here are some bald facts about its short, but thrilling, life...and some Kili50 BlogOscars:
  • First article: Are you crazy or what? published on 13th January, 2006
  • Last far, apart from this one: Machame Memories published on March 22, 2007
  • Total number of articles written so far: 92
  • Article distribution: Andrew 68, Eszter 11, Jon 6, Neil 5, Mrs M 1, Steve 1
  • Total number of words: loads!
  • Longest article: Jon's Machame Memories
  • Shortest written article: Eszter's Kilicam
  • Number of audio blogs: 2 (Foolish thank you and from the top of Snowdon)
  • Favourite article from my portfolio....considering how fit we finally became many long hard months later: Definitely fat
  • Neil's post Kili horror story. HEALTH WARNING....DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU WILL SHORTLY BE CLIMBING KILIMANJARO: Worth Doing....But Never Again
  • Eszter's more balanced view of The Final Push: READ THIS FOR A LESS PAINFUL ACCOUNT THAN NEIL'S: Eszter's summit night
  • Best Kili pics...from Jon & Eszter: The Big Picture
  • Most descriptive climb indispensable account for anyone considering the Machame Route - Jon's Machame Memories
  • Best (only!) article from Mrs M: Happy Birthday Andrew
  • Best (only!) article from Steve...written during the painful 5 hour transit stop in Addis Ababa airport on the way back: Steve's Frst Bloggerisation

I feel like this Blog has become an old friend. I'll miss it and have very fond memories of how it helped motivate us all in the long year of preparation; how it helped us meet new people in cyberspace, like Dale; new friends in the real world like Chris & Jillie in Shere, Jane's Gang, and Claire & John in a tiny Snowdon B&B; record great training trips like Snowdon and the Surrey Hills; crazy fundraising ideas like the Holloway Hill Climb and the sweltering Lymington Boot Fair; and much, much more.

I'll leave the Kili50 Blog as a living organism, rather than kill it deserves to rest and enjoy a peaceful retirement (boy, does that sound good), and hopefully it will be a useful resource for anyone thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro. And if you happen to stumble across it and have read this far, please think about donating to World Vision for this very worthy cause in Tanzania. Thanks to the many generous people who have donated over the last year we've raised over £11,000 to make a start on the vital water project in Kisiriri, but they need so much more....

Onward and upward. The 50th is just around the challenges to face, old friends to meet, and new Blogs to write. But this one will always be closest in my ageing heart!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Machame Memories

As I sit at my desk, looking at my lucky rock*, it's now three weeks since we climbed Kilimanjaro, but it seems much longer, and has acquired something of a dreamlike quality (but not a nightmare, thankfuly!).

* a small rock that James, one of our guides (aka 'Cheeky Monkey', for reasons that became very obvious during the trek), took great delight in putting on my rucksack one day. I kept it as a 'talisman' against his putting much larger rocks on it**, and carried it all the way to the summit and back down again.

** it didn't work!

The Food

I like my food, and I like quite a lot of it, so what we were going to get served, and how much there would be of it, for the 6 days of the trek was something of a concern. I needn't have worried on either count.

The meals were pretty much ideal mountain fare - high in carbs, and plenty of everything. As far as breakfast was concerned, it did rather help if you liked porridge. Luckily I love porridge, so filling up on two or three bowls full, liberally laced with honey, made for a good start to each day. The "cooked breakfast" that followed it was a nice touch, especially when you consider the conditions under which it was provided, although I'm not sure how sustaining a couple of teaspoons of scrambled eggs & a rather cardboardy bit of bacon actually was.

At the end of several hours walking, dinner was always very welcome. It invariably started with soup (thanks to whichever porter carried the innumerable packets of Knorr up the mountain!), and the main course involved a 'staple', such as pasta, rice or potatoes, together with sauces (the vegetable sauce we had with the pasta on the first night was a triumph), and perhaps fried chicken. On one day we were treated to roast potatoes and they were amongst the best I've ever had — crispy on the outside and beautfully fluffy inside. All that was missing was Yorkshire Puddings and gravy!

I think, therefore, our group's cook deserves a name check. Coming, as he does, from the ancient Chagga tribe, which has lived in the foothills of Kilimanjaro for the past several hundred years, he revelled in the wonderful, if not terribly traditional-sounding, name of River Cactus Mario. Inevitably, given his terrific cooking skills, he got called Super Mario.

The People

Your fellow trekkers can make-or-break a trip like this, where you're living at very close quarters for a week, in increasingly challenging conditions, and where tiredness & lack of oxygen can easily lead to short tempers.

Quite what we'd done to deserve the other people on our trek I don't know, but it must have been something very good, as they were a wonderful bunch. The chats with people on the walk, the easy banter at meal times, and the overall camaraderie all positively enhanced this trip for me (even if whoever snored like a battleship being launched rather detracted from the nights. Aren't ear-plugs great?).

The guides, porters and other trek staff were great too. It's now something of a cliché that the porters are near superhuman in their ability to almost run up and down Kili carrying 25kg of assorted kit, much of it on their heads. But it's a cliché grounded in reality. They are up before anyone else, they pack all the tents and kit whilst we enjoy breakfast, and they set off for the next camp so that everything's ready by the time we arrive. And, judging by the chatter that went on late into the night, they're also awake long after most of the group. Superhuman or not, we were all immensely grateful for their exertions.

The Trek

After occupying our minds with months of training, buying gear, suffering injections, and endlessly chewing beef on Ethiopian Airlines, we did actually have to climb Kilimanjaro. The trek, on the Machame route, at least, begins pretty easily, with a very pleasant day walking through the shade of Cloud Forest, creating a somewhat false sense of confidence — until you reach the first night's campsite, that is, which seemed considerably steeper than the walk had been so far. It was also our introduction to the "long-drop toilet", about which the less said the better (NB. you follow that link at your own risk!). On the bright side, Super Mario came up with a mountain of food.

Day two upped the ante a bit, with a fairly strenuous start up a steep ridge. It was somewhere on this bit that I inadvertently got ahead of our group, and fell into step with three porters and someone from a another group. It was only when I reached what was obviously the lunch stop — "obviously" because a) the path reached a plateau and b) people were having lunch there — that I realised no-one from our group was in front of me. The problem was, even though I was able to look down a very long stretch of the ascent, it was impossible to work out where our group was, partly because there were several different groups bunched together, and partly because each group looked much the same from above - mainly a sea of sun-hats. Eventually Meckson, the head guide, appeared, having apparently run (yes, run) after me, to put an end to my impromptu escape bid. After we'd had lunch, the rest of the day went according to plan, and Super Mario treated us to an avalanche of sublime roast potatoes for dinner at Shira camp. There is no truth in the rumour that I managed to eat double-figures of them. Nor that Peter (aka "Pirate Pete")
matched me, roastie for roastie.

Day three was, theoretically, "acclimatisation day", meaning that we ascended several hundred metres, but then dropped back again to around the same height as the previous night to sleep. This approach exposes your body to the stresses of altitude, and then gives it a bit of time to adapt before going back up again. At the start of the day Hellen very sensibly advised us to liberally annoint ourselves with high-factor sun screen, and I am sure this greatly helped when we were pelted by hail a couple of hours later. A few of us diverted up to Lava Tower, which is, well, a tower of lava, jutting over 220 feet into the air.

Lava Tower was the highest point of our day, at about 4600m, after which we descended back down to Barranco camp, at 3950m to sleep.

Marathon runners, so it's said, hit a wall when they're partway through a run. Our wall was somewhat more literal, towering as it did about 1000 feet over the campsite, and dominating our immediate route up Kili. The Barranco Wall is an apparently sheer wall of rock, rising straight up the side of the valley. It's only when you look hard that you can see porters, who set off early, zig-zagging their way up the steep & narrow path that meanders up the wall. Thankfully the Barranco Wall is far less intimidating close up, as the path becomes more obvious. It's still very steep, with precipitous drops awaiting anyone careless enough to slip, but at least it's not actually vertical!

In fact, it was possibly the single most enjoyable part of the whole trek, combining a pleasantly shaded ascent of the valley, with some nice (if somewhat short) bits of scrambling here-and-there. Gaining the top of the wall brings the reward of some very good views, across to Meru, and up to Kibo, even if cloud closed in fast, completely obscuring the summit of Kili in our group photo. Because the next campsite — Barafu — doesn't have any water nearby we had to fill everything up at a stream en route, and carry it up there. Today also saw our last proper meal before summit night — a hearty, heavily potato-oriented stew, eaten in a mess tent on an otherwise barren mountainside. Arrival at Barafu saw a light snack of popcorn (which was served every day, on arrival at camp, and which was the best popcorn I've had anywhere), before we all turned in for a very early night, at about 7pm.

I don't know quite how much sleep I managed to grab before getting up again at 11.30pm, but it was more than I'd feared, if not as much as I'd hoped. I wouldn't say I was exactly raring to go, but at least I was all packed and ready, and after a quick cup of tea we all set off. Having done a bit in the alps (albeit almost decade ago) setting off in the cold of the wee small hours wasn't too much of a shock. I rather like the strange contradiction that whilst you're part of a group, you also feel almost completely alone in the darkness, and the whole world just shrinks to the few feet you can see in front of you.

Interestingly, modern technology rather spoiled this aspect. I was the only person using an "old school" Petzl headtorch — the type with the halogen bulb, twisty focussing collar, and huge battery pack at the back (on the left, below) — whereas everyone else had shiny new LED ones (on the right).

I am sure the new-fangled LED ones are very lightweight and efficient, probably cause less global-warming, and maybe even make toast — but they don't let you aim a tightly focussed beam at the boots of the person in front of you, so that, from a distance, it looks rather like the Mysterons are walking up the mountain.

The walk up the frozen scree to Stella Point seemed to take forever. Absolutely forever. For the latter part of the ascent I was immediately behind Mringi, our guide, and concentrated entirely on his boots, chanting with each step, "closer... closer still... closer... closer still...", using what über-mountaineer
Andy Kirkpatrick called the "eating the elephant philosophy":

"If anyone asked you to eat an elephant you'd think it was impossible," he says. "But if you just ate a little bit every day, eventually you'd finish it."

Well, that's how I approached the final few hundred metres of Kili - just a step at a time.

Eventually, Mrigini turned round and caught my attenion. "Up there ... the big rock ... Stella Point". It was bizarre, but, tired as I was, I felt that I could have run up to Stella Point. Needless to say, I didn't, but I was defintely revitalised to know that such a landmark was clearly in sight.

When we reached Stella Point, Mrigni performed the best magic trick I've ever seen and pulled a thermos from his backpack. Hot tea! It was also at Stella point that Andy got Mrigni to hold Poohlet & Tiglet for a photo, producing a touchingly bemused look of wonderment

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we'd forge onwards and upwards to Uhuru Peak — we weren't likely to come back, so this was "it". The
route from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak was entirely covered with snow — more than for many years, apparently — which really added to the experience. There was just enough ice that crampons would have been handy, but not so much that they were necessary. Still, walking poles came in very useful on more than one occasion.

Knowing that the summit was ~45 minutes away gave enough of a mental edge to make this part of the climb easier than expected. Still, at nearly 6000m, and after almost 7 hours hours of walking, nothing is exactly "easy", and the "rolling" nature of the crater rim provided enough false summits to maintain one's interest.

Mringi, Andy & I finally reached the summit at 8am. It was now that Andy's camera, having worked fine 100m lower, decided to fail. Numerous attempts at warming the camera itself, and three different batteries, failed to revive it. So, sadly, Andy didn't manage to get a photo of himself on the roof of Africa. The real tragedy, though, was that we would now forego the donation riding on a picture of Poohlet & Tiglet on the summit.

When we'd been on the summit for about 20 minute Mringi made it clear that we should start the descent — after all, we faced another 6 or 7 hours hard slog, most of it down scree, before we reached tonight's camp.

After going down for about half an hour we met some people from our group on their way up — Anne & Eszter, plus their guide, Hery. Eszter expressed the desire that I come back up with them to the summit, so we could have a picture together. What's a man to do? Well, what's a man who wants to keep his relationship to do, anyway?

Bidding adieu to Andy, I turned round and committed myself to going back up to Uhuru Peak, for the second time that morning! Despite being tired, and despite having thought I was on my way down, going back up was much easier than I'd feared — knowing exactly what was ahead, and just how much effort it would take, allowed me to pace myself well.

We reached Uhuru Peak at 9.20am, and thankfully our camera proved fully functional — Poohlet's & Tiglet's triumph would be preserved for posterity! Oh yes, and so would ours.

Unfortunately, reaching Uhuru Peak is far from the end of the day's walk, and the sense of relief at having got there is quickly supplanted by the realisation there are several hours of knee-crippling descent ahead, much of it down thawed-out scree. The only approach really is to just get it over with — there's nowhere to go but down, anyway!

Because we were one of the last groups to reach the summit (we met some decidedly tired-looking people still ascending as we made our way down), we were later than the others in our group in getting back to Barafu camp. Thankfully, however, some hot soup had been left for us, and we were also able to put most of our summit layers into our kit bags, which would then be carried to the final campsite by the porters.

It was at this point it transpired that our guide had been "managing our expectations" on the way down, telling us that the walk from Barafu to Mweka camp was over twice as long as it really was, in order to make us go faster. In his defence, it had worked! So, instead of about 6 more hours walking, it was really only about 3 more to go, and with the lure of being able to finally stop walking, and the encouragement of James, who was our guide for this last part of the descent, we made it to Mweka even faster than that. Although dropping ~3000m in 7 hours is pretty hard going, one really nice aspect of it is that you get to see several of Kili's "climactic regions" in very quick succession — the alpine summit, high desert, heathland, and heather forest. The last part of the descent was especially impressive, with a stunning view across a wide valley that was thickly carpeted in giant heather plants.

For some reason, no-one seemed terribly inclined to stay up after dinner — perhaps it had something to do with the 15 hours of strenuous walking we'd just done, who knows? So it was an early night for all.

The final day saw a short and very pleasant walk back down through Cloud Forest. We were even treated to a sighting of Colobus monkeys just before we arrived at Mweka Gate.

On arrival back at The Mountain Inn, and after nearly a week without being able to wash properly, I made a dash for the showers, which saw an impromtu re-enactment of the Herbal Essences advert as the hot water hit my body — "Yes... YES... OH, YES!"

Altitude & Acute Moutain Sickness (AMS)

For most people, the main problem when climbing Kili is the altitude. The summit, at 5985m, is classed as "extreme altitude", and AMS is a serious threat. Mostly the symptoms are "just" nausea, breathlessness, severe headaches, loss of appetite, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, and lethargy, but in its most severe forms it can lead to death. The fact that we were ascending Kili more than three times as fast as medically advisable (over 1000m a day, as opposed to the 300m advised) only made matters worse. Most people seemed to suffer from one or more of the symptoms, and, very sadly, for one person they were bad enough to force them to go back down after day three. (But he'll go back, I'm sure, and will reach the top next time.)

In the three weeks prior to Kili, Eszter & I did a
course of "Intermittent Hypoxic Training" that, in theory, acclimatised us to about 6500m (9% oxygen). Whether it worked or not, we'll never really know — I have no intention of climbing Kili again without doing IHT just to find out — but I strongly suspect that it did, as neither of us showed any significant symptoms of AMS. The only thing I really suffered from were intermittent and brief headaches on day three. And I definitely didn't have any loss of appetite!


As experiences go, climbing Kilimanjaro tends to fall into the "once in a lifetime" category. It takes a lot of preparation, it's expensive, and it's very hard work to actually do. But, as with most "once in a lifetime experiences" — other than, say, contracting smallpox or being decapitated — it's well worth all the effort, even if it may not always seem so at the time.

I'll close with the words of a song (based on the one written by Kenyan musician Teddy Kalanda Harrison) that we sometimes sang as climbed. Hellen, our trek leader, seemed very fond of it, and the guides were happy to indulge her!

"Jambo! Jambo bwana!
Habari gani? Mzuri sana!
Wageni, mnakaribishwa!
Kilimanjaro, Hakuna Matata!"

which, roughly translated, means:

"Hey! Hey, man!
How's it going? Very Well!
Foreigners, you are welcome!
Kilimanjaro, No Problem!"

(Or, as Meckson told us to tell people - Kilimanjaro is "easy peasy, lemon squeezy!")

Friday, March 16, 2007


Having been thinking about this since we got back, I've reached the conclusion that one of the major factors influencing whether people struggled to reach the top or were generally ok was the amount of sleep they got (or didn't). A good night's sleep is invaluable for feeling ready to tackle every day and rest is also supposed to help with acclimatisation.

Jon and I were lucky that we had little problems sleeping and felt more or less refreshed each morning. Similarly, many of the people at the front of the group on summit night slept relatively well on the previous nights. At the same time, people who didn't reach the top all had serious trouble sleeping and the sheer exhaustion was a big reason for not being able to carry on.

So, for anyone thinking about climbing Kili via a tent route, I would suggest the following:

1. Make sure that you are happy with camping. The ground underneath you will be hard and uneven, and the campsite will be noisy well into the night and first thing in the morning. If you've never been camping before, it would be worth trying this before you attempt Kili (hint,hint!).

2. Take earplugs. The campsite can get noisy, but also your "tent-mate" may need to come and go during the night, and sleeping bags can be very rustle-y in the silence of the night.

3. Find out about what sleeping tablets etc work for you and whether they are suitable for use at altitude.

4. If you're coming from somewhere where you'll be suffering from jet-lag, make sure you add an extra few days to your trip at the beginning to allow your body to adjust to the new time.

Any other suggestions welcome!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Gushingly Grateful

A week ago we were starting the long flight home, still weary but elated by our Kilimanjaro efforts, whether we summited or not.
Normally on our walking holidays I manage to keep a fairly detailed journal of what we get up to each day. Sometimes it drives Mrs M nuts (like when I demand scores out of 10 for the soup course on the 3rd day of the Asturias stroll, or that pudding creation at the Hotel Adler in the Dolomites)....but even she admits it's a nice memento to look back on in our dotage, after it's all tarted up and enshrined with train tickets, photos and dog-eared restaurant bills.
I took a very flimsy writing pad to Kili, with the intention of scribbling down the bare factual bones of each day. At the end of the first day's Kili trek I had jotted down the following: 12:40 Machame Gate 1,800m-->5:40 Machame Hut Camp 2,950m. Pulse rates 20 minutes after hitting camp: Andy & Neil 60; Gill 84; Jon 88; Eszter 96; Steve ?
And that's it. Nothing else until we were back at base 5 interesting days later. By the time we reached our day 2 camp I was pretty sick, and the focus was on survival rather than creative writing. The ever-decreasing-drop latrine took a hammering all night, I was alternately shivering and sweating, and I really did think that it might be all over for me. And that kind of set the tone. Each day needed total focus on the challenges of that day's trek, with the magnificent Kibo peak constantly beckoning as the holy grail. And being completely non-campers, Mrs M and I struggled with the daily logistics of inflating thermarest sleeping mats (well, to be honest, she did), unfurling sleeping bags (Mrs M again), juggling kit between rucksacks and kit-bags...and generally trying to exist without standing up (note to Explore: any chance of larger tents for our next attempt....?)
We did succumb to an after-dinner game of ShitHead in the mess tent one night, otherwise it was a head-torched stagger home after supper for as much sleep as possible. And in Mrs M's case, sadly that wasn't much in the face of my peeing, crapping and snoring antics.
So all in all, the journal is a blank canvas. We did come up with some Descriptive Monikers for the Kili 6 back at The Mountain Inn after that wonderful first post-Kili beer:
Mrs M: Disturbingly Obsessed (or now Inflatingly Fatigued?)
Neil: Weirdly Focused
Jon: Disarmingly Frank (or Annoyingly Pedantic...take your pick)
Eszter: Determinedly Slow...or just plain Doggedly Determined
Steve: Youthfully Vigorous (not)
Andy: Gushingly Peeing (but not Enthusiastically Scribbling)
And since landing back on UK terra firma I've jotted down some collective terms to remember each enclave of our group by:
Peter, Steve, Jim & Richard - The Jocks (literal and honorary)
Leanne & Anne - Planet Canada
Simon, Terry & Shaun - The Wiltshire Boys
Kane - Psycho Mountaineer
Andy, Gill, Steve, Jon, Eszter & Neil - The Kili 6
Hellen - Relentlessly Positive
And when I say enclave, that doesn't begin to encapsulate how well the whole group integrated and helped each other. 6 days, 5 nights and 5,895m is a whole lot of enforced togetherness, and fortunately there was not one person who failed to enter into the great spirit of Hellen's Last Kili Hurrah. Apart of course from the tragedy of Jim's AMS-enforced descent on the morning of day 4 - a heartbreaking moment. Thanks for making the effort to meet us on the Final Stretch near Mweka Gate, Jim....that created a fitting symmetry when it would no doubt have been very easy for you to wait by the pool for our return.
I got some hard copies of my pics printed off today...they will end up in a wonderful personalised Kili journal given to me by old chums StuPot and McMaggie Anderson, that I can look back on from my rocking chair (in a couple of years time) and think: wow, we really did that, didn't we?
And I also smugly framed my Summit Certificate today. At the moment it's in the lounge but I fear it will be a constant reminder to Mrs M of how her incontinent husband and sleep-deprived thermarest-inflating sleeping-bag-unfurling efforts prevented her from perhaps it would be maritally advisable to tuck it away in a dusty cupboard for a few years.....
Anyway, enough of Randomly Rambling. Thanks everyone for an unforgettable trip. 2 months from today will be my 50th birthday. I'll slip gently into my dotage and rocking chair, but at least I'll have some great memories of Kilimanjaro and what I achieved in my relative youth.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Eszter's summit night

After Neil's horror story, I thought that in the interests of balance I should post my experience of the summit night, as I felt relatively ok.

My general approach to the whole trip was the traditional "pole pole", ie, to take it slowly. Except that my "slowly" was a lot slower than other people's "slowly". I was one of the few people without a Platypus hose to enable me to drink as I walked, so I had to stop to get my bottle out of my bag for a drink of water. I also had very frequent "pee stops", which is supposedly a good sign that your body is adapting to the altitude*, although it just meant that I had to stop all the more often to drink... So overall, I tended to be towards the back of the group faffing about with my stuff and tiring myself out in the thin air.

* Note: "clear and copious" does not apply at altitude, where your body is just dumping water due to the lower pressure, so you must keep drinking even if it seems like you've got more than enough fluid in your system.

There were a couple of occasions when I got very angry about all this – I felt it was unfair that people weren't waiting for me, as I needed time to take my backpack off, find a big rock to hide behind, have a pee, go back, have a drink, wrestle my bag back on and not even have a spare minute to have a rest, as the rest of the group had already set off and left me behind with a guide. To be fair, the guides were obviously used to this and had no problems waiting for me, but under the circumstances, you can't help but feel that you are holding the group up, so invariably I would rush after the rest of the group and get myself totally knackered in the couple of minutes it would take me to catch up.

From about 2,500m onwards, I got occasional mild headaches. They tended to get worse with more physical exertion, which was another reason why I preferred to walk slowly and why it was so frustrating to be lagging behind.

However, by summit night, I was used to being at the back and I decided that this was the only way that I had any chance of reaching the top – just keep going at a slow, steady pace and don't let myself be rushed.

I managed to get a few hours' sleep before we set off shortly after midnight. My tummy was a bit gurgle-y as my guts were trying to equalise with the pressure outside my body, but the Loperamide we took before starting the ascent obviously helped settle things down. For the rest of the night, I had no altitude sickness symptoms at all, not even the headaches that I had before, which was surprising, as I expected it all to just get worse. Maybe the extra day of acclimatisation had its intended effect.

The climb up to the summit was fairly steep (a gradient of about 1:5), but in the cold of the night, we didn't have too much of a problem with sliding back on the frozen scree, so at least it was possible to make steady progress. I stuck to my plan and took things slowly, but realistically, I really couldn't have gone much faster, simply because I was just so out of breath. I was taking very small steps – maybe about half a foot's length – and these got even shorter the closer I got to the summit. I got into a good rhythm of taking maybe 5 or 6 small steps and then stopping and resting for about 5 or 6 deep breaths and taking another few steps.

The group broke up into several smaller groups and Hellen had a difficult job making sure that there were enough guides with each sub-group to ensure everyone's safety. However, in the last couple of hours, I did end up being by myself somewhere in the middle of the scattered group, as I slogged away at my cycle of climbing and resting. It really worked for me and I was able to carry on like this for hours. I didn't even really notice the time – to me it didn't feel like an endless night, as I thought it would, but the sun started coming up all too soon and I was worried that I still wasn't near the summit, which just spurred me on.

In the end, I had to admit that I wouldn't reach Stella Point by sunrise, so I did have a little sit-down, dug my camera out and took some amazing pictures of the peak of Mawenzi. I definitely enjoyed that moment.

After that I continued my climb and in the growing light it was now possible to see the summit very clearly. It was tantalisingly close, but my painfully slow pace meant that it took forever to reach Stella. There were several times when I nearly burst into tears – I just felt like a child who couldn't get her favourite toy. I just wanted to be at the top, without the hassle of actually having to climb up. It reminded me of the final mile of my half-marathon, when I had the same feeling – when is this ever going to end?

Strangely, I don't really remember how I felt when I actually reached Stella Point. I was more grateful for the opportunity to rest than anything else. I was impressed that I still felt ok apart from being out of breath, so I considered whether to attempt Uhuru. The more I rested, the more I wanted to do it. My sensible side kept telling me that Stella already counts as the summit, so there's no need to push on, but my slightly more adventurous side (yes, I have one!) said – why not? You're here now and you feel ok, so why let this opportunity pass? It's not like you're coming back here any time soon!

When Hellen and the last few members of our group also reached Stella, we were treated to a nice hot drink. Hellen worked her magic with organising the guides, so Anne and I were allowed to attempt Uhuru, even though it was already relatively late in the day. We were amongst the very last people to go up that day, as on our way back down, we only saw one other small group of people coming up.

The way up to Uhuru was much better for me. There was good grip on the fresh snow, so it was easier to walk. It was also a much gentler slope, so it was possible to make faster progress. Poor Anne though was extremely tired and there were several times when we both thought we'd have to turn back.

On our way up, the view was superb, and we met many of our fellow group members on their way back down. In particular, we bumped into Jon and Andy, who explained that their camera didn't work at Uhuru, so they had no pictures of themselves (or Piglet or Poohlet, who I took up with me for a second chance) at the peak. After some emotional blackmail from me, Jon decided that he'd turn around and come back up to Uhuru with me! It was wonderful to have finally reached the top and I was so pleased that we got some pictures of Jon and me together at the summit.

By this time it was around 9:30am, so the sun was getting very strong, and with the white snow everywhere, it was impossible to see anything without our sunglasses on. It also meant that the frozen scree was starting to melt, so our way back down the mountain was very hard work, as we had to slip and slide all the way down. I think I found the way down even harder than going up, because by that time we'd been exerting ourselves for over ten hours, with relatively little food, water or rest breaks. Our progress was very slow, as Anne needed to stop many times because of sheer exhaustion, while I started feeling sick from the sugary drink I'd brought along to give me a boost of energy later in the day.

When we eventually made it back to Barafu camp shortly after 2pm, it was really disappointing to find that the rest of the group had already got there, had a rest, had some food and set off for the final descent to Mweka camp, which was another 3 hours away. However, after some hot soup we felt much better and the way down to Mweka was much easier. The air was noticeably better, so by the time we got there shortly after 5pm we felt reasonably good, apart from having very achy feet. We both slept very well that night.

Overall, for me summit night was very difficult, but only because of being so out of breath and needing to have the sheer dogged determination to carry on when you really just want to sit down and say "sod it, I don't care any more". But, I was very lucky as I didn't suffer from the altitude or the cold (it was a balmy –7C) so I could just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. It's definitely not easy-peasy, but it's doable. I am really pleased that Jon and I got up together, as I think I would have been very disappointed if we'd come back with just a picture of me by myself at the summit. It was a really amazing sight and I still have this happy glow that I've done it.

Not Quite A Horror Story

Hmmm. Perhaps calling the trip, rather melodramatically, a 'horror story' wasn't such a good idea. That's the problem with being a writer, sometimes my creativity gets the better of me. Just ask my editor!

After reading my account below, several fellow Kili climbers contacted me, concerned that I didn't have fun. This may sound strange if you've read it, but actually yes I did!

As I said below, most of it was very pleasant. (Perhaps I should have emphasised that more? Ah well.) As for the final push, I knew it would be tough, but I'm fit and felt up to the challenge, and I proved myself right. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it if it was easy. What would have been the point?

The weird and random effects of altitude, for some reason, affected me probably more than anyone else that night. But that just gives me more reason to feel proud that I battled to the top.

I've already been talking about what my next challenge might be. I'll be very happy if I find something that gives me half as many great memories.

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.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Andrew's Kili pics

Not quite as professional as Jon & Eszter's pics (see previous post and link) but my Kili pics are now online here:
Focus was on survival rather than snapping photos, so mine tend to be more of camps and rest spots than action pictures. Would have been great to record us all scrambling up the Barranco wall, or the head-torched procession on the final summit ascent, but my camera was safely tucked away in the rucksack as I concentrated on staying alive!
Regrettably all my 3 batteries froze on the summit, somewhere between Stella Point and Uhuru. But I did make it, trust me, and all the pain and joy of being on the crater rim is indelibly etched into my heart and mind. Fortunately, Jon returned to Uhuru with Eszter in a relationship-saving gesture and took some great photos. I hope others in the group will also have unforgettable shots that we can post here.
Photos are a great memory but I think all of us will remember every moment of the trip for a long time to come.....

The Big Picture

Our pictures are now online at

There may seem a lot, but we could have taken 10 times as many*, had 'logistics' permitted. But, even though we only walked relatively slowly (or pole pole, as the Swahili has it), we tended to walk 'consistently', and taking a lot of photos as we went along just wasn't realistic, as stopping & starting would have been very disruptive - hence quite a lot of pictures of either lunch stops, or camp sites.

* we did actually take twice as many as are online, but I've removed duplicates and ones that didn't "work".