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The roof of Africa, climbing Mount Kilamanjaro

sunny 19 °C

I stood at the snake park in Arusha with a forlorn expression on my face as my team and the truck left without me. As previously mentioned the night before we celebrated an epic journey from Livingstone to Nairobi with way too much Kilimanjaro beer, followed by brandy and coke, followed by j├Ąger. The sadness of the truck leaving was definitely made all the worse for the hangover I was suffering.

After a comedy of errors - a non-existent taxi, the only hiking store in Arusha being closed, a bus to Moshi almost leaving without me and a driver who tried to leave me on the side of the road instead of taking me to my hotel (it may surprise you but this was through no fault of my own, I didn't do something that made him want to kick me out). I finally arrived at Riverside Hotel in Moshi, seemingly the meeting place for all of Zara tours. I walked into the reception and was met with a huge hug. I'm not sure who the lady was that gave it me, but I had to apologise for being sweaty and tired and she replied with 'no problems sister, we are glad you have arrived'.

I was taken to meet my guide Arshad and pick up a whole bunch of rental gear. Obviously coming to Africa without planning to climb Kili, made the recommended kit list a little problematic. But nothing was too big or too small for the Zara lot, it was very reassuring. From there, there was nothing to do but stop worrying, drink a big bottle of water and sleep off my day-long hangover.

Day 1:
As I woke up Iain at 4am London time to say my goodbyes in a very fatalistic way, it became apparent to me that I was climbing a bloody big mountain, that I hadn't trained for, hadn't researched and without the big group of people I was expecting to climb with. Apart from my guide, I was tackling Kili alone. My competitive spirit would be useless and I would have to challenge and push myself. The only 'fitness' I currently have is piss fit - and that wouldn't help!

After a hilarious Monty Python-esque sketch of 'find the electrical tape' in the local supermarket.... (No, that is a garden hose, no, that is a banana....) we were on our way. The sooner I started walking, the sooner I could stop psyching myself out. Unfortunately African time was not on my side. African time is similar to Island time. They say in Africa, the Mzungu (foreigner) have the watch and the Africans have the time. The process of finding porters, filling paperwork and general sorting took over an hour of sitting twiddling my thumbs. I learnt very quickly to keep my kindle in my bag at all times.

Once on the path, Arshad realised that 'Pole, Pole' (slow, slow in Swahili) was not going to work for me, and he best keep up or he was going to be left behind. He told me, 'Kayleigh, one day I will make you go pole, pole, just wait.' He was right, but more on that later. We arrived at Mandara, 5 minutes after the porters, this was the first and last time that the porters arrived at the camp before me. A hut to myself (thank goodness for the Tanzanian bribing way - one bottle of coke), and I was on my way to the roof of Africa.

Day 2:
Consisted of a hike from 2700 metres above sea level to 3700 in 11 kilometres. The distance didn't concern me, but the fact that I had only been up to 3300 before really played on my mind. Basically by lunchtime I had no idea how badly my body was going to react. It's a pretty scary concept for a notorious over thinker like myself.

I shouldn't have been concerned about the altitude, I should have been more concerned about the tree that hung over the left hand side of the path. In true radhaz style, I smashed my head into it, full anti-pole, pole and hit the ground. My guide was super concerned and kept apologising. (Well, I found out later he was apologising. He kept saying pole... I thought this is not an appropriate time to tell me to slow down, I'm completely stopped sitting on the dirt path. However I later learnt that pole, pole = slow, pole = sorry. Easy mistake to make even without another head injury).

The rest of the day was spent asking how I was and checking I was ok. I told him that's if I got to the top of Kili without some sort of stupid injury no one would believe me. The bump on the head made me completely forget the altitude and a cheeky $1USD secured me a cabin to myself and a good night sleep in Horombo.

Day 3:
Morning came with warm water to wash and a full breakfast. Then I was ready to hike to Kibo hut, the base camp for the final ascent. Arshad kept checking on my head, and apart from the egg on the side, I was fine. He said normally from about 4000 metres people lose their appetite or feel nauseated. Super uplifting. He wasn't wrong though, it was at this point people started dropping like flies. I, on the other hand, had no head ache, no nausea, no vomiting and beautiful weather on tap. I was on top of the world. After a cuckoo lunch (chicken) on the saddle we started our approach to the Kibo hut at 4700 mtrs. The last kilometre was ridiculous. It felt like my legs were slowly turning to concrete and the hut was on a travellator forever movingly in the opposite direction.

Reaching the hut was not the sanctuary I was anticipating. Imagine trying to sleep in a deep freezer mixed with a cave made of rubble, paint it white, put bunks in it and you still wouldn't feel the inhospitable nature of Kibo hut. I guess there is a reason why it is a base camp, you might die if you spend the whole night there, so you may as well get up and go walking and fair better outside. My time to leave this icy prison was 12:45am to start the formidable journey to the summit.

Day 4:
As I attempted to sleep, I made the fatal error of staring at the graffiti on the bunk above me. Amongst the well wishes and waz here's, was a very clear statement. Don't do it, it's not worth it. Great. There goes my restful sleep. I lay there, listening to others throwing up, hurrying to urgent toilet trips, thrashing with their sleeping bags in fitful slumbers and all I could think was what the hell am I doing? I like life, I like living without the feeling of a python crushing my rib cage. But I am here now and I need some epic motivation to eradicate this cautionary advice that was infecting my brain.

I got it from my guide. He said to me 'Kayleigh, you are strong like Simba. We will set out last and I want you to make it to the summit before anyone else on Marangu or Rongai route.' Just the competitive kick in the backside I needed.

By 1230 the hut was empty. It was just Arshad and I completing our last minute checks. Our path was lit by the moon as we started making our way up the final slope. I had saved my iPhone battery for this day so I could listen to motivational music and methodically time my steps to keep one in front of the other. The first 3 hours were ok, there was always someone in front to pick off, anyone who has run a marathon or half knows that feeling of picking your next target and setting yourself bite sized challenges. However after 3 hours I had no one left. I was in front, I just had to keep it that way.

Willed only by the music in my ears and my guide, I was in constant danger of falling asleep. Anyone who knows me, knows that this seems like an odd physical threat. I am like an ADHD squirrel in normal life. So it's a weird feeling to be terrified of blinking, just in case you pass out from altitude induced narcolepsy. Altitude effects are really difficult to explain as everyone suffers differently, and it is such an all encompassing feeling. But I felt like a 100 year old women had crawled inside my skin and then died. I was carrying her and myself up, and she was slowly decaying my own body.

Someone once told me that my age group are the least likely to make it to the summit, because we rush and don't let our bodies adjust. I think it is because having the feeling of our body turning to stone is a terrifying concept associated with age that we haven't experienced yet. Our bodies have always done what they wanted. To be restricted to what feels like a crawl, one step forward and one sideways to steady yourself is the actions if someone with a zimmerframe. Your mind plays tricks on you up there, I realised at one point that my pace was a slow march, the same pace that you carry a coffin with in the military. This was not helping.

But this wasn't what scared me most.

It was the cold. This was my 'give yourself an uppercut' moment. I was almost at Gilmans Point. This is the crest of the ridge before the slow incline to the summit. My hands were cold, actually not cold freezing. So were my toes. For someone who only has 9.5 working fingers this is not a fun scenario to find yourself in. I had a wee freak out, but I decided to do it in British style. I was quiet, I took a couple of deep breaths and had a cup of tea, whilst giving myself a talking to. I am always prepared to dish out life advice and motivational tidbits and this was my opportunity to send myself a sternly worded letter, served with a side order of harden the hell up.

As a precursor, you should know that this icicle finger situation was not helped by the fact that I had just opened up a packet of hand warmers kindly donated to me by a lovely Ozzie on my last trip. I was in the process of shaking them to activate them and Arshad said 'oh sorry Kayleigh, I didn't know you had these... They won't work up here... They only work up to 5000mtrs' (I was at 5600). I almost melted into a puddle right there. I was in a thought train of... this is my last hope. Very melodramatic I know. But as with my whole trip, I was lucky. By some miracle they worked.

With luck on my side, in just under 6 hours, I had conquered the last 6 kms to the summit of Kilimanjaro and was the first person from my route, or Rongai make it to the top. On my last few steps to the summit I turned around to one of the most beautiful scenes. Probably the most rewarding and spectacular sunrise, I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.

Many would say I had a relatively unchallenged summit of Kili, and you would be right. I think I have used up all my jokers on this one. I had so much luck on my side, not for my own preparation or organisation, just pure luck.
I had sun every day, no wind or rain.
I didn't succumb to the affects of altitude.
I never lost my appetite (I was still drinking tea and eating a snickers bar on the summit).
I had an awesome guide, with no other people to drag me down and slow down my ascent.
No blisters... In rental boots, unheard of.
My hand warmers worked and my drink bottle didn't freeze.

I actually had more problems coming down than up, but nothing that stopped me from reaching the summit and being back in my icebox bed within 8 hours. After about an hour of sleeping, I walked out to the bathroom and decided on the way back to lie in the sun as it was warmer than the hut. Arshad thought I had died, as I just stopped and lay on the ground half way between the bathroom and the hut. Ha! I'm made of tougher stuff than that!

The descent was pretty non-eventful except for the Germans and the Italians. Which I will put in another blog, as I have realised this one is very long and all of you probably have better things to do with your day than read this! I hope you had a big cup of tea and maybe a couple of gingernuts....

Posted by kayles 22:32 Archived in Tanzania

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