The Honest Truth – Thoughts from the Summit of Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro: highest mountain in Africa, one of the Seven Summits, and tallest freestanding mountain the world.

Before we started, one of the staff on our trip mentioned to me the amount of respect he now gets from seasoned mountaineers for successfully tackling the mountain. At the time I didn’t really consider the implications of his words. Now? Well… 

I’ve done the climb, been to the summit, and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. To the best of my knowledge (the facts are conflicting) 3-7 people die on the mountain each year, and overall, there is a roughly 45% success rate for climbers on all routes.

But why? What is it about Kili that makes it so damn difficult?

The biggest, most obvious and most dangerous reason is the altitude. At 5985m (19,340ft), Uhuru Peak sits well into the ‘death zone’ of altitude. The oxygen up there is so thin that it can feel like you’re suffocating. At base camp (4600m) my resting heart rate leapt to 117bpm to keep my Oxygen levels up. There are all the obvious symptoms of sickness here – pounding headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, even hallucinations. If they’re not spotted early enough, they can be killers. You NEED good porters, you NEED somebody who is properly trained and experienced in how to look for and react to symptoms of altitude sickness. (Find out more about porters and the importance of KPAP here).

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The relief of getting to camp after a hard day’s walk

It has become a joke of the mountain that the porters say ‘Pole Pole’, meaning ‘Slow Down’ in Swahili. The faster you go, the faster you have to acclimatise, and the worse your symptoms will be.

The worst of the altitude for me was the tiredness. With reduced oxygen to the limbs, energy is lacking, and you really feel it. Altitude can also make you lose your appetite. At the time when you most need to be taking on energy, each mouthful can cause nausea. The walk from Stellar Point to Uhuru Peak, being along the edge of the crater, would take about ten minutes at sea level. In the death zone, it can take nearly an hour.

We got up to start the climb at midnight, following the snaking trail of head torches up the mountain without breakfast. We struggled. We had our bags carried, our poles carried, our water carried. The porters lifted our heads and pushed us onwards, upwards, ‘twende juu, juu, juu’. People stopped again and again to throw up. One our group had a porter on each arm to stop them falling over. We passed several people heading back down with oxygen tubes, their reaction to the altitude making it simply too dangerous for them to continue. This is NOT an easy climb.

The hardest point in terms of actual walking is up to Stella point, because that’s the part where you breach the edge of the crater. It’s a hands and feet crawl, a holding hands stumble, and you collapse at the top only to look down and see that in the last hour you probably walked about four hundred metres.

To get to Uhuru from here, you just walk around the edge of the crater. At this point, it’s hard to concentrate on anything except the pain, and putting one foot in front of the other. I summitted at 10:45 am, having been partially dragged up by the porters. From Base Camp, it had taken me eleven hours.

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Smiling on the summit

The summit was anticlimactic. I hate to say it, especially after all of the work it took me to get there (read about my year of fundraising here), but it’s true. The mountain is busy – from day one, our group of 34 climbers and 107 staff and porters were far from the only group that size. At the top, you wait in the crowd for your turn for a photo then head straight back down again. There was no sense of elation, no new lease of energy and adrenalin. The most I felt was a heartfelt and desperate relief.

It took us an hour to get back to base. We were desperate to get down, get out, to be able to breathe properly again. You can feel the oxygen getting thicker as you descend.

I wish I could say that as I was climbing, I was thinking about how much of a difference I was making just by being there. I wish I could say that I was thinking about the incredible amount of support that I had received to get me there in donations, encouragement, and at the very end, physical assistance. I wish I could say that I did it because of noble reasons. I can’t. I may have started the climb for all of that, but at the end, all I could think of was how disappointed in myself I would be to make it all of this way and NOT get to the top. It was sheer bloody-mindedness that meant that even when it felt like someone was tightening a clamp around my head, had tied weights to my feet and dumped a rock in my stomach, I kept pushing forwards anyway.

You know what though? I am proud. It would be nowhere near the same sense of achievement if it hadn’t been such a challenge. I didn’t just summit a mountain, I fought a personal and physical battle with myself, and won.

Yes, it was a killer, but I’m so glad that I climbed Kilimanjaro.

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Free beer at the bottom!
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