Monday, March 05, 2007

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro

Alive. Sore. Definitely alive though. Two massages later I think I may actually feel worse. Though I am sure it must be just accelerating the healing process. It must be. Neither my feet nor my legs actually hurt until Day 6 (the last day). But after a massage that evening (last night) I could barely walk. A second one this morning and I am still hobbling like a 95 year old. We have stopped in town briefly to pick up more supplies before we head onto the school site. This will be the last chance I get to go onto the internet until Saturday or Sunday. I believe it’s Monday now? Apparently altitude can cause memory loss. I say that lightly but I don’t think any of us realized quite how seriously altitude can affect people.

May I suggest, if you are considering climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, NEVER climb the Marangu Route. Particularly not in six days or fewer. There were 19 in our group – one of the largest groups the guides had ever seen – and every one of us suffered at some point. You cannot predict who it will hit – fitness and size are not factors – and for some reason we were briefed so little about it that I don’t think everyone was even aware of all the symptoms. I kept falling asleep whilst climbing the biggest stretch from Kibo to Gillman’s point (from 4700m to 5700m). I thought it was because we set off just before midnight and I hadn’t eaten since dinner at 5pm (which we had after finishing a 7 hour hike from 3700m), nor had I drunk more than 500ml in the 7 hours it took me to reach the point. I suspect all of this contributed but I learnt later that falling asleep and losing your balance are symptoms of altitude, as is the loss of appetite. That one I knew about. It was very frustrating not to be able to eat anything. I felt if only I could consume some fuel I might be able to make the two hour hike to the real summit of 5895m, Uhuru. After hearing from the guide that we should have arrived at 5am if we wanted to go on to Uhuru because the sun melts the snow and makes it dangerous; and speaking to other groups who weren’t allowed to continue I decided I did not have the wherewithal to negotiate an icy path (falling asleep on the edge of a cliff was not an appealing prospect). I also had no idea where I was going to find the energy to get back down the cliff we had just dragged ourselves up, let alone do another 4 hour round trip.

I made the right decision. About half way down, a little after I had negotiated the more difficult boulder section near the crest, I was completely devoid of energy. I crumpled into the scree and contemplated falling asleep there. The guide, who was taking me and three other girls back, was a little further down and stopped to wait. I got up and inched and slid my way down further. Another 100m or so I sank to the ground again. I felt I may be there all day. The guide had taken my pack from me on the way up, so I had no water and no food, not that I could take any anyway. I felt sure the others would pass me on their way back down, even with the extra 4 hour stretch they were taking. I finally reached the amazingly patient Philip again and sat at his feet for a while. Eventually he encouraged me to “pole pole” (“slowly slowly”) continue. He held my arm for parts of our descent and eventually put my arm over his shoulder and slid us both down the slope (like skiing through the scree). Like an angel, our one team member who had turned back hours before because of breathing difficulties greeted each of us four girls as we arrived back to the hut with a fresh bottle of water and offered to give us a rub down. Philip organized passion fruit juices for us. I still couldn’t swallow either liquid.

After having my feet rubbed I heaved myself into my top bunk and except for a toilet trip I didn’t move until they told us we had to head back down to Horombo huts at 5pm (where we had only set off from at 7am the day before). Up and down more than 2000m in less than 24 hours. Having not eaten and drunk less than 1L in 24 hours I was still pretty weak. There was one stretcher which was going to be used solely by our friend who had temporarily lost the use of his legs up by the summit, but as he was much better they suggested he share it with me and another woman who also hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before. I managed to swallow 300ml of diarolyte and eat 5 goji berries (just to line my stomach for an ibuprofen to stop the pounding in my head). I was told it would take two hours to get back down the 11k route we took seven hours to ascend. I offered to try and walk so the others could have more space and then – after most of the team had started walking already – was asked if I would walk.

By now it was snowing so, pole pole, I started back down the route to Horombo. Fortunately two others caught up with me and I decided to walk faster to have company. I felt better with every step. It was then I realized that a lot of my illness was altitude related, though I’m sure exhaustion and dehydration played a part. By half way down I was starting to feel hungry and I was so grateful for their company as it had started to get dark. Also incredibly grateful I had my head torch in my pack. 3hours and 20 minutes later (at a reasonable pace too!) we returned to what had been our home for two of the nights of the trip. I ate well.

Yesterday we covered another 18km back down to our starting point. Across two days we had passed from snow, through rocks, scree, dirt plains, scrub, forest and rain forest. The first three days walking up were beautiful, and really fun too. What made this trip so incredible was the phenomenal 18 other people I shared it with, and some smiling guides and an eager-to-please chef. I was grateful for our huts and mattresses every night. And flushing toilets at every hut except Kibo. For the porters who carried bottled water we were able to buy at each camp. For the guides who carried my bag on the last climb, to Phillip who carried me down. For great conversations, and great lessons learnt. For having amongst our group someone who could somehow assist in every ailment, and for a team that kept smiling the entire time, ever patient, and unendingly supportive of each other. Now that we have completed our personal challenge we are off to give our time and the energy we are rapidly regaining to helping children in this country. If you would like to help you can go to and donate money. Thanks so much to those of you who have given money so far. I am really excited about this project, and I am looking forward to be telling you about it first hand.

Oh, and I discovered that chocolate doesn’t taste as good up Kilimanjaro, likely because the temperatures were far from ideal. Shame. Two small squares did get me down the last hour and a half to Horombo from Kibo though! Ever grateful!

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