Climbing to the roof of Africa

This summer, I took part in a sponsored climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Myself and 19 other students raised £57,952.38 in total for ChildReach International – an amazing charity which does work in seven different countries to ensure as many children as possible are exercising their rights to learn and live healthy lives.

On our first full day in Tanzania, we had the opportunity to go to one of the schools supported by ChildReach International. This was definitely one of my favourite parts of the trip. Being shown the changes that had been made thanks to fundraisers like us, and more importantly spending time with the children, was so heart-warming. They were so welcoming and happy to join in on our silly games. Visiting the school before the climb was perfect, because it provided us all with an extra dose of motivation and energy to reach the top.

Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, and the tallest in Africa. Standing at 5,895m, it’s no walk in the park. Our team took the Machame route. This route takes six days (four and a half days up, one and a half days down), and is said to have some of the best views of the mountain.

Machame Gate and all of the camps along the route

The phrase that I heard most on my trip was one used by all of the guides – “pole pole, but consistent”, ‘pole pole’ meaning ‘slowly, slowly’ in Swahili. This was the key to the mountain. Whilst it may have seemed silly to be walking at a glacial pace on the first day, when the incline wasn’t tough at all, you quickly learned why we did it that way. By the end of the second day, I was glad to be walking slowly and letting my body adjust to the increasing lack of oxygen and varying climates.

Slowly, slowly

Starting the climb walking through the rainforest, you get great views of untouched jungle, and (if you’re lucky) a monkey or two. Following on from that, after day two where you see the last of the heathers and green landscape, comes day three: acclimatisation day. This is the day where unfortunately, a lot of people on my team suffered. We climbed to Lava Tower, which would be the highest point before summit night at 4,876 metres, before descending back down to Barranco camp, at 3,962m. We walked very slowly that day and took lots of breaks, trying to get our body used to the altitude. Whilst I did suffer from a headache and slight nausea, I was lucky to not have been affected too badly.

Climbing Barranco wall

However, day four was the biggest challenge for me. This was the day we climbed the Barranco wall. By day four, we were so nearly there because that evening was summit night, but when you’re faced with the ominous sight of the wall when you wake up in camp that morning, it’s hard not to feel a little defeated. Even though its elevation is only 257 meters, it looks like a lot more! Having to use all four limbs to scramble up the wall, here is where you feel like a true mountain climber.

The feeling when I finally reached the top of Barranco wall and saw the layer of clouds beneath me was amazing, and gave me the energy to make it to basecamp that night. Because that night was the most important night, summit night.

The top of Barranco Wall

Waking up at 11pm, we were given a big breakfast. However, at this point of the climb, everybody’s appetites had shrunk massively, and the last thing we felt like doing was eating. This was the point when the guides were telling us to ‘push eating, push eating’ and you had to force yourself to eat something so that you could make it through the night.

We set off walking at 12:30am and were told that if we kept a good pace, it would be a six hour walk to Uhuru peak. But my goals were a little different. By this point of the climb, I was mentally and physically exhausted. It was so tough to stay positive and focus on the fact that I’d come this far already, because all I could think about was getting off the mountain, and going to sleep.

Keep pushing, keep walking

Very quickly I was separated from the rest of the group because I couldn’t keep up with their pace. Each step was taking so much effort and I felt very weak. The temperature was -15 degrees, and despite having about six layers on, I couldn’t stop shivering. I kept stopping every few minutes and falling asleep without even realising it. I would be woken by my guide Abraham who would tell me to keep pushing and keep walking.

Through the night, I passed about 5/6 of my team who had to come down due to severe altitude sickness. All I could think was that if I wasn’t as bad as them, I could keep going. Seeing the sun rise was the turning point for me. The view was breath taking and reminded me of where I was, and what I was doing. When you’re that tired, it’s hard to keep a perspective and remember the good things around you. After sitting and taking in the view, not only was my attitude improved, but so was the weather. Being a bit warmer meant I could focus more and walk a bit faster. In the next hour, I probably walked further than I had for the three hours before that. I was feeling good and thinking about reaching the summit and getting my photo at the top. About 300 metres from Stella point (5,756m), I started to feel a little faint so sat down to have a drink.

As I went to grab my water bottle, my nose started to bleed. I didn’t think this was too strange so asked my guides for a tissue, but as soon as they saw, they panicked. Apparently a nose bleed at high altitude is a very bad sign. Clearly my body was not coping as well as I thought it was. I was given the choice as to whether to carry on or not, but was told that if I did, it would be a severe risk to my health. There was no choice really, I needed to go back down. Luckily I’d managed to get a few photos of me above the clouds, which looked impressive, but it wasn’t the top.

Climbing through the clouds on summit night

Although it’s taken a while to get over the disappointment, I wouldn’t change my trip at all. I learned a lot about myself and my abilities, and had an amazing time with some great people. Leaving the mountain at the end of the climb was like what I imagine leaving a reality TV show would be like – nothing about the 6 days felt real. It was as if we were in this incredible little bubble that gave you the worst and best times of your life. I loved and hated it all at once. Perhaps that’s why I’ve already signed up to go back again. This time I’ll be leading the team, and I’m determined more than ever to get to the summit!