An epic seven days of trekking has been summed up in this epic blog by Sarah Talbot, one of our team of Kili climbers who successfully made it to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro!
After breakfast and a quick happy birthday to Jamie, we get the buses packed and get ready to head off. It’s around a 40min drive to the park gate, where we get signed in and the support crew gets set up. The trek that day takes us from the Machame Gate to our first camp: Machame Huts. Everyone is excited and chatty as we trek the 10km, gaining over 1,200m altitude. After a five hour trek through rainforest we arrive at our first destination, excited to get a taste of our first Kilimanjaro camp. We have a nice hot dinner then it’s straight to bed ready for an early start the next day.
the 5:30am wakeup call is made slightly better by the fact that a cup of tea or coffee is brought to your tent. It’s needed though - it’s hard to get out of your cosy sleeping bag into the cold morning without an incentive.
We get our tents packed up and head to breakfast. We continue to be amazed by what our support crew can whip up on a mountain, there’s even a belated birthday cake (and local birthday songs) for Jamie.
At 7am we set off. It’s about a six hour trek to our next camp: Shira caves camp, and over 800m gained. It’s only 5km away but most of the morning is spent scrambling up very steep terrain. Everyone seemed to enjoy the day with the scrambling making a fun alternative to the constant walking. We’re out of rainforest now and into moorland.
As it was a short trek today (yes six hours is “short”) we get to camp around lunchtime. After lunch, a few of us went to the nearby Shira caves. It’s less than an hour away so no need to carry our day packs (around 7-10kg bags we have with us the rest of the trek). After two days it is already liberating to go for a nice bagless walk!!
Another 5:30am wakeup call but we need it as it’s ten hours of trekking today to Barranco Huts. Still time for some birthday songs for me though before we set off.
In order to give everyone the best possible chance to acclimatise to the altitude, routes are planned so you climb high and sleep lower. Today we trekked to Lava Tower for lunch, gaining around 780m, then we head back down another 640m to Barranco camp, covering about 11km overall. The distances might not seem far but the steepness and altitude mean we have to keep slow to make sure we acclimatise. “Pole-pole” as the locals say, meaning “slowly slowly”.
It’s a tough day and altitude starts to take effect. Many of the team start to show symptoms, which can range from headaches (mild to severe), vomiting or... well... other digestive problems (we’ll leave it at that). Some of the team are hit pretty hard, yet still complete the ten hours of tough walking. After the fun of scrambling yesterday, the challenge starts to get real today as we see the effects of the mountain take their toll.
It’s quiet at dinner, with lots of the team too ill to eat, (I still get some birthday cake though!). With many of the team suffering and ill throughout the night, it’s a solemn night in camp.
A lie in today - 6:30am wake up call. We had about four hours of trekking to do, the first two hours of which are spent scrambling up the severe Barranco Wall. At times this is as close to climbing as you can get without ropes. It’s tough and it’s gruelling. Although we enjoyed the scramble on day two, with the altitude taking its toll on the team this is much tougher. After the wall there was another two hours of trekking until we reached our camp at Karanga Valley.
Although short, it’s a tough day and many of the team are working on no food, no fluids and no sleep. It’s hard and we really started to see just how amazing our support crew is. As well as handling all the logistics of moving camp every night they were so supportive of our task (even though it’s something they do week in week out), from carrying bags, guiding us on the difficult climb to literally holding hands with people to get them up the mountain! These guys are amazing, but that can’t take away from the sheer grit and determination it takes for someone who has no food or sleep to carry on. I am in awe of all the team for the work they put in, the sheer will of those that kept going despite illness was truly amazing. To steal a chant from the local guides: “Maximum... RESPECT... maximum... RESPECT!!”
At camp, thoughts naturally turn to the next couple of days and the summit push. We want to know as much about what to expect but as it turns out nothing could have prepared us.
DAYS 5 & 6
So this is where we make our overnight summit attempt so it’s best to talk about it as two days together.
We got woken at 6:30am and leave Karanga Valley at 8am after breakfast. We head to Kosovo camp about five hours away. It’s a fair trek and we get to camp at about lunch time but we’re not done for the day yet! It’s straight to bed after lunch ready for the night when we’d be making our summit attempt. We did the last part in two groups: leaving at either 10pm or midnight, with the goal of both groups making it to the summit in time to see the sunrise.
To describe the summit push is difficult. It’s cold, as in the water you’ve brought with you is frozen, and it’s dark and it’s gruelling. That can’t do it justice though. People who’ve done the push themselves will know but if you haven’t I’m afraid you won’t quite understand. Hour after hour of “pole-pole" up steep scree which slides back down with each step and it’s dark and so cold you can’t use your hands. It’s tough and with exhaustion, altitude and lack of sustenance you’re also in the worst possible condition to be doing it. You try to find ways to cope: earphones in, talking yourself into getting it done and of course turning to the support of those around you. The people who a week ago you’d never met are now the ones patting you on the back, telling you to keep going and getting your water out your pocket from you because you can’t feel your hands.
The two groups stayed in touch via walkey so we could keep track of progress and at just past midnight we also manage to sing happy birthday to Sian.
When people talk about mental determination this is what they mean. As we pass each other on the way we keep giving words of encouragement, checking to see if people are ok and doing whatever we can to give them the metaphorical, and sometimes literal, push that they need. After 6-9 hours of trekking overnight, a week of camping and acclimatising, and over a year of training and preparation... we make it!
At around 6:30am with the sun rising over the summit peak and the nearby glacier, emotions hit a lot of us as we can’t believe we’ve made it. We get that all important photo and then head back down because it’s too cold to hang around at the top!
So after trekking for between 11 - 14 hours on difficult terrain in freezing conditions there’s nothing left to do but turn around and start heading back down. We pass our fellow treckers on the way down and tell them to keep going - it’s worth it.
The steepness and loose scree terrain make it an arduous task, kind of like skiing on stones, but with gravity now on are side we get back to base camp in a couple of hours.
Now you might be thinking after nearly 16 hours of trekking and no sleep that it’s time for a good rest, but there’s no such luck. We have an hour or so rest before having lunch, packing up camp and heading out for the four hour trek to Millennium camp, our last camp of the trip.
At lunch we all catch up and congratulate each other. Emotions are high, we’re happy, excited, exhausted and the thoughts of getting back on the trail is pretty soul destroying but we push on.
The walk is steep downhill, which can be just as demanding on muscles and joints but the adrenaline gets us through and soon we’re at our last camp, having our last dinner, ready for a well-deserved last camp sleep.
We wake up at Millennium Camp at 5:30am. No tea today but for the last time we get our tents packed up and head to breakfast. Camping for a week has presented its own challenges, especially when you camp on less than level ground. We were lucky with the weather (no rain) but dust has made its way into everything and the nightly battle to stop your sleeping back sliding down to the foot of the tent has been frustrating to say the least. Add to that the constant zips up and down throughout the night and it’d be safe to say that we’re all over the camping thing! I guess we might miss some of it though: the things you hear from the other tents that make you break into laughter, the cosy feeling of climbing into your bag after a long trek, or the day you discover your down jacket stuffed into your sleeping bag hood makes the perfect pillow: small victories and moments that add to the whole experience.
After breakfast it’s a 4-6 hour trek down to Mweka Gate. It’s steep, rocky terrain that’s not friendly on the knees, hips or your sanity. We just want to push onto the bottom now so we make our way down to the gate to get signed out and get ourselves a well-deserved cold drink (beer for most!).
The rest of the day can be summed up with the following: lunch - hotel - shower - shower - shower - dinner - bar. Heaven.
I can’t write about the trip without taking the time to thank some amazing people. I’ve already talked about our brilliant support team of porters and guides but it can’t be said enough so I’ll happily say it again. Julio, Benson, Laurence, Karim and all the others - These guys are hardcore and they make it their mission to get you up that mountain. I don’t think anyone could do it without them.
The guys from Discover Adventure were just amazing. Christina, our tour leader, who kept us going, answered all our inane questions and made sure we looked after ourselves - you were amazing and we were so lucky to have you as part of our trip.
Doctor Robert, the legend. We certainly kept you busy but you kept us safe and in all seriousness, alive. Not only that but you made us smile, shared your stories and advice.
And last but by no means least, CJ, the Macmillan representative who was with us literally every step of the way. You kept us focussed, reminding us why we were there.
All of you made our trip, you weren’t just with us, you were part of the Kili climbers’ team.
It’s been a long week and we’ve learnt a lot. We’ve seen what true spirit is and the power of will and determination over circumstance. It has been amazing to see time and again what people can overcome. However, as CJ reminds us, our hardships are temporary. Our aches will heal, our illnesses will subside and the exhaustion will fade. For those with cancer, the effects are life changing and permanent. If our seven-day trek up Kilimanjaro can do anything to help lessen or overcome the challenges faced by those with cancer then every moment, every pain, every torturous step was worth it. I am honoured to have been a part of something so wonderful, and count myself lucky to have been able to do it with so many amazing people. Kili climbers... you made this trip and we made a difference. Thank you.