The Climb: Summit night

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As it is almost a year since I took on the challenge of a life time, I thought it was about time I got round to finishing my blog about climbing Kilimanjaro. I did actually type this in full the other day, but of course the computer froze when I was scheduling it to post and I lost the whole lot – so this post is definitely not as good as the original, but hopefully it is appropriate enough to summarise what the final climb was really like.

We were woken up at 11pm and told to dress quickly and meet in the mess tent for breakfast. After 5 days on a mountain we were all shattered but really looking forward to reaching the summit. The mood was quite different in the tent to previous days, no one really wanted to eat anything, and the realisation that although for the last 4 days in my head this had been the final hurdle, it was in fact not technically true, after all what goes up must come down, and once the challenge of summiting the world’s tallest free standing mountain was over, the challenge of getting back down in one piece was about to start.

Our mood all seemed to pick up as soon as we noticed the plate stacked high with ginger nut biscuits and we all eagerly began filling our coffee and tea cups with hot water, ready to dunk our biscuits in. Of course, it was all going too well and no sooner had I managed a spoonful or 2 of porridge, did I manage to vomit in my hands. Nice, I know.

I ran outside the tent, trying not to put anyone else off their breakfast and desperately tried to stop the tears from flooding down my face. This was the last thing I needed, being sick was not cool! A few seconds later, whilst I was hurling into a bush, I felt a hand on by back. One of the guides had followed me outside to check that I was ok. When I felt like I was going to be ok, I went back inside the tent and sat back down. One of my camp mates had filled my cup with hot water, another was pouring a re-hydration sachet into said cup, and my ‘porridge’ (if you could call it that) had been replaced by a plate of ginger biscuits. I immediately felt much better, and I knew with the support of my new friends I would make it to the summit. Just try and stop me.

We set off not long after and I noticed that the pace of the group was much quicker than usual (well, it certainly felt that way to me.) After about half an hour we naturally fell into a couple of groups and I felt much more comfortable going at my own pace. I had read a number of blogs before leaving the UK and I knew that this was the hardest part. I had purposely kept mu iPod for summit night, so I turned in onto shuffle and kept in playing quietly in my ear. If I’m being completely honest, I spent the first 4 hours looking pretty much at the ground. I mean, it was pitch black anyway so there wasn’t really much to see, but on the occasions that I did glance up, the sight was spectacular. We were one of the last groups to leave camp, so there were quite a few people ahead of us. This part of the climb was like a winding road, so all I could see was torch lights, floating in the sky like fireflies. It was truly amazing.
Although the journey seemed to take forever, given the amount of time we were actually walking for, it did go quite quick. The guides wouldn’t tell us how far we had to goo, but they did keep saying, you’ve been walking for 3 hours, 4 hours, 5 hours now, so we knew there really wasn’t much further to go.

The sun began to rise about 5 or 6 hours into the climb, and I still have another 2 hours until we reached the top. Although I didn’t make it for sunrise, I didn’t care, I knew I was going to get to the summit; it was literally just a matter of time.
I remember asking the guide how long we had now until we reached the top. We could see the top for quite a while and surely we must nearly be there. About half an hour he told me. If I’d had more energy, I’d have been giddy, but seems as I didn’t, I just replied with ‘good.’ By this point it was about 7am (I think) and some of the earlier groups were starting to make their way back down. One woman coming towards me (as I was in the front of our trio at the time) offered me some words of encouragement. You can do it, she told me, and you’re nearly there. You look in a much better place than I was when I was at this point, I was crying and you’re not. You’ve only got about an hour to go. Go on girl, you can do it. I smiled at her and said that you, but I really wanted to say 2 things: 1. I am crying inside, believe me and 2. AN HOUR, A BLOODY HOUR, MY GUIDE TOLD ME 30 MINUTES, 15 MINUTES AGO. FOR GOODNESS SAKE. (Or another more appropriate expletive)

Eventually (about an hour and a half later – turns out they all lied!!) I made it to the summit. I couldn’t believe it. I literally had no words; I just stood staring out at the edge. I was here. I had done it. The head guide was with our group at the time and he asked me where my camera was. Erm, I don’t know, was all I could reply. I don’t really know who was more confused, him or me. I mean, you can’t go all the way to Africa, climb Kilimanjaro and not have a picture. Where’s your phone he asked me. I gave it to him and made my way over to the sign. ‘Say cheese’ he said. Snap, that was it. I had my memento, an iPhone picture of someone who resembled my former self. I was broken, but I didn’t care, I had made it to the peak. Now, all that was left was probably the greatest challenge of them all, getting down from the highest free standing mountain in the world. Should be a doddle eh!

The Climb: day 4

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This day was probably the hardest in terms of tiredness – sleeping on pretty much the floor for the past 3 nights and walking almost nonstop for the previous 3 days, in the heat, had really stared to take its toll. The first part of the day was really positive. We knew today’s part of the climb was shorter than previous ones as the guides wanted to get us to camp, fed and early to bed in preparation for our midnight climb to the summit.

I’ll be totally honest, although some bits were steep, I quite enjoyed the morning walk – I chatted to a few people that I hadn’t spoken too much and it was nice to be so close to the end of the challenge. I think I had almost brain-washed myself in to believing that the hardest part was over and now it was just a case of getting to the top, taking a photo and coming back down to a nice hot shower. Ha! How wrong I was.

Day four started with scaling the Barranco Wall. This was the part of the climb that everyone had been going on about as it was infamous. I was a bit nervous, but I have to say it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought it would be. We climbed pretty much as a whole group and although you had to watch your footing – and there was definitely a bit when there wasn’t a single part of me actually touching land – thank god the guide didn’t let go that’s all I can say! Reaching the top was great for morale and we continued the rest of the way up and down the hills of the mountain in good spirits (even when a couple of us slipped and landed on our ass’)

Stopping for lunch was a nice welcomed break and we all couldn’t believe our luck when we realise that not only were we a million miles above the clouds, but we would be eating chicken and chips at such high altitude. I literally devoured mine in about 5 mouthfuls – it was the first time I had felt properly hungry and really enjoyed the meal. I don’t even like tomato sauce, but hand me the bottle, these bad boys were getting salted and sauced and I didn’t even care.

Problem was, after lunch, it was a pretty steep climb to our camp. Certainly not the most ridiculous of all the climbs to date, but not what you wanted after what felt like a good hearty meal. Hmm maybe the ketchup hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

Taking it pole-pole (slowly-slowly) myself and a couple of the others made it to what we thought was the top and the ground started to flatten out. A few miles later though, one final hurdle…a mahousive bloody hill, (well by that point, for me it felt like another mountain in itself.) Taking it slow myself and another of the girls in the group finally made it to the top, with the help of our guide, and boy was I glad to see my tent and tent buddy.

Chatting in the tent before dinner, I could feel the nerves building. We had all come so far now; the end was literally in sight. But feeling as crap as I did, I knew this last part of the climb was going to be the hardest.

It got cold pretty quick, so we layered up and went for dinner. No one really ate much; all our appetites had gone. 8pm came and we all settled down in our tents to grab what little sleep we could before the guides woke us up again. I felt sick, partly because I was definitely feeling ill and partly because I was so nervous. I did fall asleep surprising quickly though, once id gotten over how bloody cold it was. Typically though, after what felt like minutes, the sound of the guides waking each of the tents up came, and there it was, the moment we had all been waiting for…summit night was here… OH GOD.

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The climb: day 3

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For me, with the exception of summit night, and of course, hindsight, day three was definitely the hardest. Not so much in terms of physicality, but it just felt like such a looooong day, and by the very end of it, we didn’t really have much to show for it, other than a bit of sunburn, lots of dusty faces and clothes, as some very tired eyes.

Team ‘pole pole’ (which means ‘slowly slowly’ in Swahili) as we had named ourselves by now, started off in really good spirits. We were walking along playing the name game, we had to think of names beginning with the last letter of the name before, then we went through the alphabet with film names, famous people, you name it, we listed it. Animals were a personal favourite of mine, as we always ended up getting stuck on ‘e’ I mean, after elephant and emu there isn’t a whole lot of choice left! This tactic of concentrating on names and words meant that the first few house flew by and did so quite easily, but as we started to tire and get bored of the game, that is when the cracks started to show a little more. Everyone was starting to suffer with headaches and some of the guys were being physically sick. We hadn’t even made it to lunch – which normally I could do fairly well before the doubt started to set in. I seemed to get a bit of a new lease of life in me, just before we stopped for lunch, but what that meant was a walked a bit quicker, ended up on my own (probably for like 10 minutes but that was long enough) and I got all soppy and emotional. Thankfully, another girl caught up/I stopped and waited so I could walk with someone, and the chatting really helped.

After the stop for lunch it was pretty much downhill (like actually down a hill, not spiritually) again, all the way back to where we had started (I mean, it was a different camp, but we ended that day, like 100m higher than when we had started.) It was the most demoralising thing ever. Team ‘pole pole’ did quite well to start with, we actually found something we could do faster than the rest of our group and at one point (for the first and only time on the whole trip) we actually led the way! Until of course, the tiredness sunk in. It started to get colder, the sun was fading and the wind was getting up, it became dustier and in order to stop us from swallowing it, we resorted to walking without speaking too much. Although going down wasn’t difficult, and the day itself wasn’t the most challenging, by the time we got to camp that night, I was in desperate need to speak to someone back home. The signal on my phone had been awful, so I hadn’t been able to text or call anyone since we left the gate 3 days earlier, and although I wouldn’t say I was home sick, I really wanted to hear Steve or my mums voice. Looking back, it was probably a really good thing that I didn’t get to speak to anyone that night, as I probably would have broken down and I’m not sure I would have been able to pick myself back up. One of the girls in my group said ‘you look like you need a hug Danielle’ and I was like, ‘yeah I do’ (I almost sobbed it!) – amazingly, one quick hug later I really did feel a million times better and was ready to face day 4 and the infamous Barranco Wall.

Before going to sleep that night, I told myself over and over again, Kili – I am coming to get you! – And I meant it!!

The climb: Day 2

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I’ve been putting off writing this for a little while now, partly because it meant actually re-living some of it, and partly because once I have finished writing it, that’s kinda the end – I will have shared my adventure with the world and it will seem a bit final. And, to be completely honest, I’m not sure I am ready for it all to end. But, I can’t just stop at day one, so here goes…

The morning of day 2, I awoke with my tent camp mate bright and breezy at 6am. A shout from the porters outside the tent of “good morning, good morning” followed my ‘eugh, it’s too early I’m going back to bed’ hopes and our tent opened. Now at this point in time I was far from fresh and raring to go. However, to say I was thrilled, when I was greeted with “Tea? Coffee?” is a complete understatement. “Coffee, please, milk and sugar” was my reply. I was going to need it.

Day 2 started off pretty well, we were going at a pretty good pace and ascending really quickly, it felt like a matter of minutes walking and we were in the clouds. The 1.5 hours in break-point provided the perfect opportunity to take some photos and really admire the views before the sun got even hotter and my face became a big sweaty mess. (eugh.) If I’m being completely honest, I can’t remember that much about day 2, other than the fact I enjoyed most of it much more than I did day 1 and I managed to not arrive last at the camp site (something which did become a bit of a theme as the trip went on!)

As I was finding this much easier than the 1st day I took the opportunity to get to know a bit more about the guides and porters we were with. I don’t think there is anything, or enough, that I could say about them that would do them justice. They were 100% amazing and so lovely. Our Head Guide had climbed Kili nearly 500 times. (I lose my breath just thinking about this!) Even now I can’t imagine doing it ever again, let alone a further 498 times! One of our other guides was also a safari tour guide. I joked with him that I can imagine that he prefers safari guiding to this, but to my surprise he actually said he prefers guiding groups up Kili as he gets much more time to himself, and the people on the treks are a lot more appreciative and interested in him and his opinions than on Safari’s. I can totally see where he was coming from, they are all hero’s in my eyes, and there was no way I would have reach the summit it if hadn’t been for them!

That evening ritual of feet washing, sweet tea and popcorn in the mess tent, and a hearty supper of food that I didn’t expect to taste anywhere near as good as it did, became to feel like every day ‘normal’ life, and was definitely something that I looked forward to once we had reached the camp. What I didn’t look forward to, was knowing that day 3 was about to be here and this meant acclimatisation was nearing, altitude sickness was fast approaching and I almost definitely was going to cry again!!

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The climb: day 1

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Considering all the drama with flights and airport closures I was really happy to reach day one of the climb but absolutely bloody petrified about what was to come. I had done my research, so I knew that day one wasn’t anywhere near as hard as the remaining days. I had a friend who had climbed with his family a few years ago, and although we weren’t doing the same route, he assured me that day one was just like walking up Snowdon and nothing at all to worry about.  So I was feeling positive about the day ahead and was ready and rearing to go.

The coach took us to the start point and we arrived ready to sign in mid-morning. A quick toilet stop and water collection, we gathered together for a couple of last photos and said goodbye to life as we know it (well at least for the next 6 days) The first part of the climb was pretty ok, we walk walking at quite a steady pace, up a hill, all chatting a way about our interests, books we had read and music we liked. We had a toilet stop after about an hour and a half and then were told we would be stopping for lunch shortly. When we arrived at our lunch stop, I expected to be handed a butty and maybe some crisps. What we were actually greeted with was a long picnic table, complete with a cloth, a carton drink laid out for each of us and camping chairs. This was totally not what I was expecting, but boy was I pleased. We really were going to be looked after on this trip.

After lunch we carried on with our journey and the route became steeper. Not unmanageable but it wasn’t always the easier to have a full scale conversation with people whom you had only really known for a day or 2. It was a good opportunity to have a chat and walk alongside some of the guys I hadn’t spoken to that much and find out a bit about them. Unfortunately, doing that meant that I found myself towards the back of the group, meaning that if I did have to stop for a minute, I didn’t really have anyone to fall back with. This became problematic about an hour away from our first nights camp.

Left in my own thoughts, I began to doubt what I was doing and if in fact I could do it. One of the other girls must have been thinking the same as me and I could see she had a few tears in her eyes. Less than 5 minutes later, I could feel them starting to fill up in mine too. Frantically I tried to stop myself, particularly as I was very near to the rest of the group and the last thing I wanted them to see was me crying when we hadn’t even finished the first day. What a wimp! It was all too late though, even though I turned myself away, I knew I’d been seen and then it was my turn to set someone else off, as I could see their eyes filling up too.  Thankfully we all managed to pull ourselves together and continue on with the journey.

Unbeknown to us, we actually were very near to the first nights camp, and once we have arrived, we were allocated a tent and all met in the mess tent to trays of popcorn, and steaming flasks of tea and coffee. An evening meal soon followed, and despite the dark and unknown area, I found myself enjoying my evening and really confident about the next day. Following a briefing by our head guide, Herman, we made our way back to our tents, ready for an early night and an early start the next day.

That day I overcame my fear of long drop toilets, peeing in a bush and well, y’know, going the toilet on a mountain. Oh and I’d survived the climb: day one.

Childreach International Project Visit to Kirefure Primary School

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When I signed up to climb Kili in January, the part of the trip I was looking forward to the most was the visit to one of the school’s in Tanzania that the project helps. Once I had arrived in Moshi though, I became slightly apprehensive about it all as I had no idea what to expect; will the children like us, what if it’s worse than what I thought it would be, will I cry?

The night before the visit, we had all speculated about what it would be like and how actually being able to see and understand how the children benefit from all our fundraising will really help to put things into perspective and gives us the motivation to carry on climbing when things got tough!

I guess it would be helpful at this point, for those of you who don’t know, to explain the reason why I decided to climb Kilimanjaro in the first place. It was a challenge that I had always wanted to do, but I always felt like, if I did it, it should be for a reason and not “just because”. So I decided to use the challenge as an opportunity to give something back – and raise some money for charity.

I decided to support Childreach International as I had heard extremely good things about their work and I am very much in support of charities for children. Childreach in an international children’s development charity that works to break down the barriers that stand in the way of children’s most immediate needs. Development charities are quite hard to explain, and this was something I struggled to do very well when I was fundraising as unlike more traditional charities, they don’t see a problem and send aid to fix it; it’s more of a longer term strategy. (This was actually something that we discussed in detail on our trip.) What the charity actually does is work with local people in order to help give them the skills, resources and knowledge they need to develop and become self-sustaining so that they can achieve their vision of “a world where all children have the opportunity to unlock their full potential in life.”

So, there I was, in Tanzania, driving down a dirt path, fast approaching a school which in my eyes was in the middle of nowhere. My first thought was how on earth did children manage to get here every day, and even if they did, what would the school be like.

I have to admit; when we got there I was really surprised. On arrival the children sang us a welcome song and were all smiling happily at us. The head teacher explained to the children why we were visiting and then they all went back to their class rooms to finish their lessons before play time began.

The head teacher took this opportunity to take us on a tour of the school; showing us the recent renovations and how the classrooms had been improved, the toilets blocks which were now separate for girls and boys and the new kitchen which meant that every child received at least one hot meal a day. It was astounding to think how much we take for granted back home and how little they had here; yet at the same time how much had been improved.

Now, we all know what goes on in the world, I watch the news, I read the paper – but seeing these children with my own eyes put it all into perspective. In the UK children play truant from school all the time, not because they don’t have enough books to learn, or because they can’t go to the toilet, not because they have to walk for miles and miles to get there, or because if they did, they would be so tired they couldn’t concentrate; it’s because they can’t be bothered or don’t want to go. Education is taken for granted, food and water isn’t a luxury, it’s just something we have each and every day. None of these children have any of those luxuries, or they didn’t until now. Even with all the improvements, there was still a long way to go. It really did bring a tear to my eye and I cherished every moment I get to spend in the company of these children.

We spent the next hour playing games with the children such as football, skipping and singing the hokey-cokey (which I have to admit was probably my favourite part.) The children loved having their photographs taken and playing at being the photographer. One little girl did a much better job at taking photographs on my camera than I did! I ended that day with about 900 photos – all of which I still haven’t had proper chance to go through and look at.

On the way back to the hotel that day I was quite lost in my own thoughts. Originally I had said that if I made it to the top, I was going to treat myself to the Marc Jacobs handbag that I had been after for ages – use it as my mountain motivation. But now I had all the motivation I needed to get to the top. It really hit home the reason why I had spent the last 6 months frantically fundraising and promoting my trek. Yes, I knew I was going to return home having had an amazing experience, but I didn’t quite realise how much seeing the project would affect me. One thing was for sure, whether I made it to the top or not, this trip, this day, was something I was never going to forget.

 

 

African Adventure: Day 2

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When we had arrived in Kenya on the first day, it was past midnight, so we were given some food and shown to our rooms pretty much straight away. I thought I had fallen lucky as I was offered a room to myself – little did I know this ‘room’ was actually a wooden hut outside the actual hotel. Now, it was pitch black, I had been in Kenya for about an hour, we had been travelling for an entire day and it had been far from plain sailing. The last thing I wanted to do was sleep in a hut, by myself, away from everyone else with no toilets or running water. I wanted to cry. I didn’t though, I took swift action, informed the guy who had shown me to my room that I didn’t want to stay there, and told myself I will bunk in with someone else and it’ll all be ok when I wake up in the morning. One mattress move later, I was on the floor, tightly wrapped in my sleeping bag, covered from head to toe in insect repellent and ready to drift into the land of nod. The morning was going to make everything better. I HOPED!!

Waking up in Kenya the next morning felt great, for a whole load of 2 minutes, until I remembered that it was another entire day of travelling to get to Tanzania! 2 seconds in the freezing shower I realised I could wait until later to wash, so I quickly got dressed and made my way down to breakfast. Thank god there was tea.

Travelling to Tanzania wasn’t so bad in the end, the views were quite nice and we even got to see some zebra’s in the distance. Getting off and on the bus at the border was a bit of a hassle and every man and his dog was there wanting to sell you something and even tried the old ‘put it on your arm/in your hand so you can’t refuse’ trick! Thankfully I didn’t succumb to the peer pressure and managed to gain entry into the country pretty much hassle free, which considering the previous days problems, was no mean feat!

As we got closer to Moshi – the town in Tanzania we were staying in, Kili started to appear in our sights. My god, it was huge!! You could see it for miles and it just kept on going higher and higher and bigger and bigger the closer we got.

Now, I had done my research, I knew it was about 5.5 times bigger than Snowdon  and a million times bigger than the hills I was use to walking up in Bangor – but nothing could have prepared me for this. I went pretty quiet for a while after that, until I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Don’t worry Danielle, we’ll conquer this together.”  “Yeah, yeah we will.” I replied, as positively as I could! In all honesty though, what I was actually thinking was “WILL WE???”