The Climb of My Life (part two)

It’s hard to describe something in hindsight when you feel as though it happened to someone else. A sense of distance is created that makes the event appear almost fictional. That is my current state following my trip to Tanzania, to hike up Africa’s highest mountain Kilimanjaro. It was a trip unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before – amazing highs, devastating lows, and a sense that I won’t fully appreciate what those days were like for quite a while to come.

Such an adventure like this is a head game – extreme environments and unusual stresses affect your body, and that’s to be expected. But you have to prepare yourself for the mental impact; some will feel it more keenly than others, like I did, and it’s something you can never quite anticipate, nor know how you will deal with it. Day one from Machame gate started well – in the clouds and mist and drizzle, we were enthusiastic and nervous, but feeling good. The hiking was fine and easy through the jungle, reminding myself every now and then to look up and recall where I was. Vines hung everywhere, we passed clumps of the rare impatiens Kilimanjaro flower that only grows on those slopes. My head was slightly sore possibly from my headband and cloud pressure, but we were all in good spirits. Nothing too strenuous. But by the time we reached camp, nausea and dizziness had set in and I was surprised to find myself devoid of all motivation. I’m a determined and headstrong person usually, not stopped by much, often described as stubborn. During the hike a break in the clouds gave us a glimpse of the summit – an unusual sight for the first day. Rather than spurring me on, I shrank back, somewhere between indifference and fear, and all my willpower deserted me. If they’d told me to turn back then, I would have without a second thought. I don’t know why I felt that way, and I can’t explain its cause. But all the anticipation and build up dissipated into the mist and I was left feeling hopeless and empty, questioning why I was there and what the point was.

It’s hard to come away from something like that – to reach the first camp with such a devastating mental shift shook me as it was entirely unlike myself. I became a different person whose stresses and emotions remained high for the next 16 days (6 days trekking, 10 days travel/holiday). However, taking my first dosage of Diamox (tablets reported to help acclimatise to altitude), my head and stomach eased and I was able to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Days two and three were relatively easy – slow, methodical, monotonous progress, more people starting to get affected by the altitude, but nothing overly dramatic. The medication was doing its job and things were feeling settled, helped by the remarkable views that greeted us whenever we remembered to look up. Physically, this wasn’t a challenge as my hiking and climbing meant I was fairly used to it. The strange sensation was that of breathlessness caused by the low oxygen levels; even packing up my sleeping bag in the morning made me pause and catch my breath, feeling as though I’d run a mile.

As a group of twenty people who’d barely met before arriving in the airport, we gelled very quickly, which is vital for such a trip. Being in close confinement for so long, experiencing the same things, with little to no privacy (using long drops or, if necessary, the shadow of boulders is a good way to get people closer!), meant that we had to rely on and support each other. Day four, the hike from Barranco camp to Barafu Ridge which was to be our base camp, was incredibly difficult as it would consist of 15 hours of hiking including the Barranco Wall scramble. For those who were inexperienced in hiking or climbing, ascending vertically proved a huge challenge mentally and physically – I enjoyed this section as it broke the monotony of hiking, but upon the penultimate ridge overlooking Barafu, I broke down once again. It all seemed so impossible, a flat plain stretching ahead for a mile or so before the base camp, and rising above it the snow-capped summit. No matter how strong you may feel, such views can strike you as both awe-inspiring and terrifying all at once.

Keeping one foot in front of the other, the remainder of day four went by and we settled in base camp for dinner and a few hours of sleep before we’d make our summit attempt. Waking at midnight, I piled on my two down jackets, thinsulate gloves, mittens, and set my Kilimanjaro playlist on my iPod – it was about -10°C, and I was feeling alright. Just another 8 hour walk, nothing out of the ordinary, and with my headtorch focused on the boots in front of me, things seemed possible. Jelly babies at the ready, camelbak not yet frozen, it seemed the summit night might not be as appalling as I’d thought. Now taking the full dosage of Diamox, physically once again I felt completely fine, with just a small degree of sleep deprivation. After an hour of hiking, occasionally looking up to gaze at the Milky Way, and glimpse the glowing snow of our goal, my knees started to buckle. In my head I told myself to stop being silly, but it kept happening. And I got cold – very cold. Every time I stopped, which was fairly frequently along with the rest of our group, the lead guide urged me on to warm up and wake up. Two hours in, my knees continued to buckle, and my day rucksack was taken by a porter.

After walking for three hours, my speed was little more than a shuffle, and my knees were buckling every few metres. According to those who were walking around me, it was scary to watch me crumple in front of their eyes – I don’t remember hitting the floor, just being hauled to my feet by two porters, sat down on a boulder. I couldn’t focus on their words, my head was fuzzy, I couldn’t talk, I kept hallucinating thinking there was a building at the end of the path. The lead guide came up to me, pointed to the porter who was carrying my rucksack, and told me to return to base camp. My summit attempt was over at 5000m.

It took another three hours to return to camp, the sun rising as I stumbled down, occasionally helped by Jaffa who without I wouldn’t have made it down. Once back in my sleeping bag, it clicked that the entire reason for the trip was no more – I’d not reached the summit, that goal I’d been working towards was unrealised. But I was safe and well again. Had I continued, I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to return under my own strength, which would have been dangerous not just for me, but for the porters and guides who would have had to get me off that mountain. Either way, I’d given it my best attempt – all the will in the world couldn’t stop my body from letting me know when enough was enough.

That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from hiking Kilimanjaro. You never know how your body or mind is going to react when put under incredible stress and extreme environments. After informing my family of my failure, I received dozens of texts of support and encouragement, including reports of elite athletes such as Martina Navratilova whose attempts were also thwarted by altitude related issues. These stories reminded me that in fact I hadn’t failed – there was nothing more I could have done on that mountain to get me up, and it was just the luck of the draw whether or not your body was able to continue. Who knows, I may attempt a different summit and find myself symptom-free above 5000m, or it may hit earlier. You don’t know until you’re up there. And when you are, all you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other for as long as possible.

(read my build-up part one here and a video diary here)


8 thoughts on “The Climb of My Life (part two)

  1. Hi, just spotted the link to your blog on UKC. Great write up. You are right about altitude, it doesn’t matter what you do, it can hit even the most experienced high-altitude climber. One week I was at 5700m, frozen to the core but overjoyed to be on the summit, two weeks later I was at a similar altitude, struck by altitude sickness and unable to do anything, even sleep. Despite my normal attitude to such things, I also didn’t feel like I was a failure (which I normally would have done). I’d done my best and was still alive to try another day. I think that’s when the switch happened for me, when I realised that it’s not all about the summit, it’s about the journey.

    Best of luck with your next adventure.

    Martin (Martin1978 on UKC)

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