A Non-Climbers Guide to Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

Hmm…yes, that’s a good idea?!…

When thinking of honeymoon ideas, Mount Kilimanjaro isn’t really up there in terms of a romantic getaway. But this is exactly what my significant half Stuart and I decided to do.

Stuart grew up on the rugged plains near the Welsh border and spent his childhood on his bike having adventures with his friends and climbing up things. To sum him up he’s outdoorsy. I, on the other hand grew up in the flattest part of England and as soon as I could walk, spent my weekends in my dads shop (we’re Indian you see) stacking sweet shelves.

That in mind it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out whose idea Kilimanjaro was. But, having been promised a safari and a trip to Zanzibar too I signed on the dotted line.

Researching Mount Kilimanjaro I learned that it is the largest free-standing mountain in the world, the highest mountain in Africa and temperatures can plummet to minus 20. For a girl who walks around the office with a hot water bottle this was a disaster. However I was duly reminded that we had already started raising money for Save The Children and that there was no backing down now.

Let the training commence!

With nine months to go, we went on longs walks when we could and climbed up Mount Snowden a few times. This was my first experience of a mountain and that’s when I first came to the conclusion that….yeh, ok maybe I’m not soooo good with heights. Realising that there was not much I could do about it now, I presumed that if I just don’t look down I’ll be fine.

Another form of training was to run up and down the stairs 30 times in one go. My poor stairs really got a battering and will from now on always squeak like they will give in and collapse at any moment.

11 days before we were due in Tanzania to start our climb, Stuart came home with a broken toe from playing football.

There are no words I can put here to describe the feeling. Not happy, would be putting it mildly. We ummed and ahhed over what to do, we considered cancelling, but Stuart being incredibly manly about it decided that he would do it as his toe was feeling better daily (or so he insisted to me anyway).

Welcome to Kilimanjaro

We landed at Kilimanjaro airport, I stood on the tarmac looking for Mount Kilimanjaro, was a bit disappointed that we hadn’t parked right next to it (or ideally, on the summit to save me a lot of bother).

We checked into our lodge, it had no lifts so our suitcases had to be carried up, a girl not much bigger than me (I’m 5ft), with one swift movement and one hand, placed the suitcase on her head and walked upstairs. Stuart and I stood at the bottom with our mouths open in awe. Someone’s had her Weetabix today.

We met our fellow climbers, a mixed crowd but a friendly bunch. Stuart has a way with people, he can talk to anyone about anything and probably the most friendliest person in the world. I was his cool, quiet, maybe mistaken for slightly aloof sidekick. I don’t mind this. I like the word aloof. Though during this time it was probably just nerves that was radiating out.

This is easy!

We drove to the base of the mountain, I don’t know what I was expecting but I thought that if you just look up you would be able to see the top. You can’t see the top. My first view was that of a forest, with a well-worn path and a mild incline I thought ‘hell yeah, I can do this’. Unfortunately, and what I already knew, somewhere in the depths of the pit of my stomach….this was going to get harder, a lot harder.

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We had our first break at lunch time, a welcome break to cool down and go for a wee. Now, I have never gone for a tinkle anywhere but in a normal toilet. Here I was presented with a wooden hut with a hole in the ground. I don’t mind the old challenge, but this was something else. I squatted down and forgive me dear reader, I know this must not be easy reading, but I had to balance myself up (ideally without touching the sides of the hut or the floor) and aim for the hole whilst not breathing in the stench that would have surely knocked a small person out. I had more toilet and bowel related issues throughout my trip, but I have a sense that I should leave this information out.

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Moving on then. We reached our first camp late in the afternoon and were welcomed with hot tea and salty popcorn. I love popcorn. I slumped down, crunched through about a ton of the stuff and reflected on the day. It had been a good day and secretly I was really pleased I had made it through Day 1 and my initial goal was achieved and Stuart’s toe was still attached to his foot. I went to sleep feeling good and dare I say it optimistic.

Oh wait, no it’s not…

The couple of days that followed was a blur, involving interesting bowel movements (which I have promised not to divulge in further), legs getting tired, hardcore headaches and I started feeling mild affects of altitude sickness. Dizzy spells and fatigue well and truly kicked in.

One morning, feeling like the walking dead and probably not looking so hot either, I walked out of the tent when legs just gave way and suddenly was just sitting on the floor. I was so dazed, I bruised my bottom, grazed my hands but most importantly – no one saw.

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Through these mangled days of walking, one saving grace was night-time. Not just so you could stop and recharge dwindling batteries, but to stand outside and look up at the night sky. I had never seen anything quite as beautiful as seeing a gazillion bright stars all shining down on you. A blanket of twinkling lights, wrapping you up in the unfamiliar land and comforting you like an LED snuggie.

So came the penultimate ascent day, the Saddle Day. I was initially looking forward to this day as the name may suggest, is pretty flat. It started off well enough, then in came the battering, relentless winds. Zipped up and hoods up, communication between fellow friends was now scarce. We trudged along in silence. In the yonder we saw Kibo huts where we would be spending the night. We walked and walked but seemed to come no closer. In the middle of the saddle was a wreckage of a plane that had crashed there two years previously, this added to the depressing ambience.

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Finally we reached Kibo huts. We had an early night as we were to be leaving for the summit at midnight. I could feel the tension, hardly anyone spoke and we were all nervous.

Summit day – yay I might die!

We left at midnight, after eating whatever we could manage (not much). All wrapped up and with our head torches on, we began our final ascent.

I’m not joking when I say, we hadn’t even made it out of the camp (it’s a big camp to be fair) but I was already thinking about turning back. I was so cold and so tired, my body felt like mush and I was on my period– too much dear reader?

I looked at hop-along-Stu, I don’t know how he managed it, but he gave me the inspiration and hope to keep going and at least make it out of the camp. Powered on by lots of chocolate, then subsequently throwing up chocolate all the way up, I put one foot in front of the other and climbed on and up.

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Like the Saddle Day, communication was non-existent. Everyone was going through their own battles in their heads. I wondered at what point did I actually think this was ever a good idea? I prayed to my grandmother who was born in Tanzania to come and help her home-girl out. I thought of all those children who I was fundraising for. ‘Damn it Cheryl Cole did it’ ran repeatedly through my head too.

On the way up, people had started to come down. Unfortunately these people were in a bad way, sometimes on a stretcher and always with oxygen. I looked up and saw a trail of headlights miles up directly above me and hours later I looked up and saw exactly the same thing. It was all very soul-destroying.

I don’t know how, but somehow we made it to Gilmans Point. This is the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, but still not the highest peak which is Uhuru. I fell into a heap on the floor and cried my heart out. The sun was now rising and all around and exactly just what I had achieved sunk in. The pink sky with filled with hope and I ploughed on to Uhuru.
Walking along the crater rim (did I mention it is the highest mountain in all of Africa), I chanted my mantra ‘don’t look down, don’t look down’. We passed people who had already summated, one guy encouragingly said ‘keep going, you’re about 10 minutes away’. So 10 minutes later, we passed some more people ‘keep going you’re about 25 minutes away’. My face dropped and my heart sank, my energy was zero, I barely knew what my own name was but at that point I think I could have conjured up enough strength to run back down the mountain to find Mr 10 Minutes and give him a punch.

So about an hour later, we were there. The whole group made it to the top! This was the hardest thing I have ever done in my whole life, Stuart and I held each other (or he was possibly holding me up) and hugged. We were so proud of each other. Looking down at the African plains and then up at everyone’s elated faces, we knew it had been worth it.

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The end

Coming down, much to my dismay wasn’t exactly a breeze either, what was frozen on the way up was now deep scree, I had to be careful not to face-plant it all the way back down to Kibo. The descent was quick, it took about 2 days to rock up at the entrance gate. Frozen sick in my hair, eyes barely open, staggering around and generally looking like I had had one too many Baracrdi Breezers I graciously accepted my certificate with around of applause.

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We reached the lodge and thought about looking for the girl who’d carried my suitcase up the stairs to see if she would carry me up the stairs. I’m pretty sure I weighed less.
I went straight to the shower and Stuart went straight to the bar. The dirt that drained off me was shocking. But oh, to sit on a toilet was something I never thought I’d be so happy about.

I vowed to Stuart that I would never, under any circumstances do anything like this again. A year later and we did Everest Base Camp.

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