We made it, and what a fantastic trip it was! Africa never fails to impress – the scenery, the culture and the people, always impress me but this was so much more. We started to travel to Tanzania by catching the bus from the local Bridgwater bus station on Friday the 11th of June. I was joined by three good friends; Raddy, Lewis and Darren, and after 24 hours of buses and planes we arrived in the town of Moshi for a good night’s sleep before the early morning start to trek up Kilimanjaro. In total the trek would last 7 days, mostly spent taking a meandering route to the top to allow our bodies to acclimatise to the altitude. The first day arrived and we were introduced to the three others that were to join our group, before heading off to the national park for registration. Once there, all of our kit was weighed and shared amongst the porters before we could get started. It is hard to imagine that to get seven of us to the top of the mountain it required a team of 28 guides, porters and most importantly the cook!
That first day was a steady climb through the forest, with little sight of what was to come, but a general excitement through the group and the first chance to all get to know each other. It was not until we woke and clambered out of our tents, early on the second morning that we first glimpsed the mountain; and what a spectacular sight it was in the early morning mist. It was the first time the reality of it all sank in; it was a very big mountain!
Day 2 allowed us to climb up through the lava flows and get some fantastic views of the valleys below before arriving at the Shira caves campsite. Up until now, we had experienced some fantastic scenery and some good hill walking, though nothing too challenging.
However, day 3 saw us climb up to the lava tower at 4800m before dropping back down to Barranco camp. This was the first real test. The altitude didn’t seem to affect us too much at first, a little bit breathless at times and some challenging walking but nothing that was beyond what we had experienced before. We stopped for lunch at the lava tower and it was then that Raddy started to feel unwell and we saw for the first time how altitude could affect us. During the journey back down to camp I also started to feel unwell, what I can only describe as a feeling like sunstroke – headache and nausea that seemed to get worse and worse. By the time we reached camp Raddy was fine but I needed a couple of Ibuprofen and a sleep before bouncing out of the tent as if nothing had happened. A good reminder that it wouldn’t be a breeze to conquer this mountain!
Day 4 was probably my favourite day of the trip as we were to tackle the Barranco wall. After another early breakfast of porridge and fruit, we set off at 7:30 towards what seemed a vertical cliff face. As it transpired, there was in fact a steep but distinct path up the cliff. It involved a lot of scrambling over and around the rock face and was certainly not a place to go if you don’t have a head for heights! The views at the top were amazing and as we climbed into the sunshine, the mountain peak appeared again, looking even more forbidding than before.
The rest of the day was an easy trek to Karranga camp, an unbeautiful place that looked like a refugee camp in the mountain dessert, surrounded by mist and cloud. Day 5 started clear and bright and we were shown the full scale of Kilimanjaro’s peak once again. It was as if the mountain wanted to remind us each day of just how tough a challenge she would be. This was a short days walking as we headed to Barafu camp, arriving at lunchtime for a briefing before heading off to bed. We were to be woken at midnight to attempt a climb to the summit. By this point, our American teammate, Jason, was really starting to suffer. He had started to lag behind the rest of the group and we were starting to worry that he would not be allowed to attempt the final push. After a thorough check up from the guides, they made the decision to allow him to attempt the summit climb, though he was to leave at 11pm to give him the extra time required. It was a strange feeling at this point – seeing people struggle, and our own bad experiences when climbing up to the lava tower- gave this final section a bit of an edge. Excitement was still the greatest emotion though I must admit to there being a little bit of nerves!
The climb to the summit itself was the toughest part of the challenge by far. The majority of the climb was in the dark, the wind whistling past and the cold starting to bite through the early hours of the morning. It got so cold that the water in my insulated water bottle started to freeze and I was glad of the advice to keep the bottle stored upside down (water freezes from the top!).
It really was a bit of a blur through that night, in fact my friend Raddy remembers little of it at all, simply stating that he thinks he went into some kind of sleep walk as he has no recollection of most of it. A little worrying when we discovered how steep the drops were when we returned in the daylight! And so it was that we reached Stella point, the crater rim, just on sun rise, out of breath and freezing cold. We stopped for a short break before the final push around the crater to Uhuru peak, time to take in the views as the sun rose above the horizon. We had passed Jason two hours before, struggling with the effort of the climb and we were all worried as to whether or not he could make it. But for now, the four of us, and the two American girls Zoe and Ali, were nearly there, and to be honest the concentration soon turned back to getting to the summit ourselves.
As we set off it was obvious I was struggling; no headaches or the nausea from before, just a real effort to take every step. Raddy came back to walk with me and before long he was struck down with the same breathlessness, but between us we just kept plodding on to the summit. It was only later that Lewis told us that he spent the whole time on the summit feeling drunk, his feet wouldn’t go where he wanted to put them!
Only Darren managed it with little physical effects, a slight headache but otherwise OK. A good advert for taking Diamox, a drug that can be prescribed by your doctor to combat the effects of altitude – Darren was the only person taking these. After what seemed like an age, but was actually just under the hour, we reached the top of Africa and the views of the glaciers and beyond were amazing. We queued for a photo and then the guides were insistent that we move and start to get down as soon as we could. All that effort and the top was such a blur of pain and emotion – mostly elation at the achievement.
As we started to head back around the crater and the path started downward, the effort reduced and the breathing became normal again. In front of us was an amazing sight, Jason and his guide were approaching the summit, still slow but we knew he would make it now. With shouts of encouragement, we made our way off the peak and started the long journey back to Barafu camp for a well-earned sleep. The summit attempt had been tough, physically and mentally, but we had made it. The reality of what we had achieved was bought home to us after returning to England when we read the news that the Kenyan Rally driver Gugu Zulu had died whilst attempting the same climb for charity. A very sad story to hear and a very sobering moment.
After our sleep we woke to hear what we thought was rain on the tent, but after dressing and packing our gear we climbed out to find it snowing heavily! It was just a four-hour trek now to the Millennium camp before our final push to the end of the trek to the bottom of the mountain. This last day was supposed to be a 5-hour trek and the bus was planned to leave the gate at midday. The guides informed us that we were to leave at 7 o’clock, but disappointingly, there wasn’t a bar at the end! However, we made a deal with our guide – if we could get to the park entrance in less than 5 hours, he would go to the little bar outside the gate and get us all a beer. Challenge accepted! We made it down in 2 hours 45 minutes, running the last two miles with our packs, and managed four beers each before the rest of the party arrived. The perfect way to celebrate the end of such a fantastic adventure!
I would like to thank all my friends and family who sponsored me for this challenge. All the money raised went to my two chosen causes as the trip was completely funded by me. As a result, I have raised enough funds to donate £1000 to Living Paintings as a thank you to the work they have done to help my friend Kali and her daughter Tayen. Now to take my own advice and book the next fundraising adventure….
From Living Paintings: A HUGE thank you to Mark for fundraising £1000 for our work providing a free library service for our Touch to See books. We are all very proud of Mark for accomplishing such a fantastic achievement.