My Struggle To The Top Of Kilimanjaro

A defeated feeling started to wash over me, and it was hard to keep my inner voice from destroying the remnants of my confidence. But we kept moving – Polè Polè or slowly slowly! One foot in front of the other… it was like a death march. The hardest part was the mental punishment. I tried to think positive but found it almost impossible. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the end… and at one point, I knew Celine and Msafiri were deciding whether I would have to go down the mountain, but I kept moving on.

It was only day 3 of our trek to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 30 people from across Canada, all fundraisers with the Arthritis Society’s Joints In Motion program.  We had earned this once in a lifetime opportunity, a chance to climb to top of the highest peak in Africa.    We had split up into two groups of 15 and each group was escorted by 45-50 porters, 4 assistant guides, one guide, a cook, and two additional kitchen help. And while others were experiencing some minor altitude symptoms,  mainly headaches, I was very ill.  It started the day before as we reached Shira Camp.

We had began to hike at about 8am through bearded heather, tall grasses and volcanic rock. There was a steady mist falling as we hiked through the clouds, making it all seem dreamlike and surreal. You had to keep your wits about you though, it was all uphill, very rocky and steep. A few areas we had to climb hand over hand, the rocks made slippery by the mist. There were also a few steep cliffs that tested the nerves of anyone who was afraid of heights, even a little bit. It was awe inspiring though, when you weren’t looking down in fear, you could gaze out over the spectacular scenery in amazement.

The hike had gone well, we drank lots of water and I nibbled on the protein bars I brought from home, but while I had been feeling fine up to that point, just as we started to descend into Shira Camp, at 12,200 feet I started to get nauseous. I stepped away from the group and lost my cookies, just a few meters from camp. It really scared me because I don’t get sick easily, and wasn’t sure if this was a cause of the altitude or the heavier diet I was now getting used to or even because of bad water.

Our travel coordinator Celine and our head guide Msafiri immediately came to my side, eventhough I preferred to get sick in private, they were there rubbing my back trying to  comfort me.  As soon as the nausea had passed I wanted to rejoin the group but was told that I should eat as soon as we got back to camp. That was the last thing I felt like doing.

Luckily one of the other trekkers, had some Lipton chicken soup that I was able to eat with some dry toast, and for dessert I ate another protein bar. It was tough to keep anything down though with the smells from other people’s dinner (I think they were eating curry). I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I felt, so I choked it down with a smile on my face.  I wasn’t about to let this defeat me.  I asked Celine if she thought I was going to be okay and she was very encouraging – reassuring me that people get sick all the time and it doesn’t mean they aren’t able to reach the summit.

Still I am nervous about day 3…. as we are supposed to climb about 3000 feet before descending to Barranco Camp.  We will end up only a few hundred feet higher than Shira Camp, the day’s starting point. That apparently will be our best chance for acclimatization. Climb high and sleep low.

I got up for my midnight Diamox ‘moment’ (Diamox is the drug we take to prevent altitude sickness- but it is also a diuretic that makes you pee… a lot!). After crawling out of the tent, I turned on my flashlight to make my way to the portable toilet. The narrow beam of light showed me the frost on the ground but suddenly the campsite started to glow as the clouds cleared.  A beautiful three quarter moon lit up the night sky, illuminating the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro among the stars – it was a spectacular!  I paused briefly to enjoy the moment before I had to answer nature’s call.

I woke the next day feeling confident and relatively strong again. I had some breakfast and drank as much water as I could because we were about to start ,what would be, about 6 hours of hiking, mostly straight uphill through rocks and shrubs, headed to the Lava Tower and then Barranco camp.

About an hour into the hike I started feeling nauseous again – so much for my iron stomach.  I just can’t understand it. I rarely get sick so I was shocked at my body’s reaction to the altitude (I didn’t know I was suffering from food poisoning too). With each step, I tried to fight the feeling as long as I could. Eventually the nausea won over, and when I lost my breakfast things really started to get rough.

This was still just the start of a day long uphill marathon and I had now lost any nutrition, energy and water that I had in me – all the things I would need to get through the day.  I tried to sip on water but knew I wouldn’t be able to stomach anything more than that.

I hung back with an assistant guide, and two of the other trekkers who were having their own health issues.  We had porters carry our day packs, but it was still an unbelievable nightmare. We continued to hike, albeit very slowly… or Polè Polè. It was easier to go slow and it didn’t sap all of my energy. But about an hour later I got sick again, and now as the vegetation was thinning out, it was harder to be discrete about it. My legs kept moving, although we had fallen back from the main group, we were still moving up the mountain. It actually felt better when I moved than when I stood still. While the rest of the group continued on to the Lava Tower, our guide led us back on a shortcut to Barranco Camp. I was able to keep going in small increments… hoping to get to the next rock outcropping without getting sick, and then the next rest stop, and finally could I make it to camp? I had no energy and a few times I had to lean on our guide and porter to keep from falling down as I stumbled across the rocky terrain. When my eyes started closing, they would yell out- ‘Do not sleep… Do not sleep!’ I was completely beaten down. At one point, we passed a German family that we had seen before, and it seemed that the teenage daughter Maria and her father were not doing well either. They appeared to be in the same shape I was in.

As we hiked up yet another ridge, I turned my head off the path and got sick again.  I didn’t have the energy to even step aside any longer, I just tried to keep it from hitting me or anyone else.  At that point I had nothing left in me… emotionally and physically. Even the cracker I had been nibbling on was gone. It was now just the dry heaves. I was totally dehydrated and had developed blisters on my lips and cankers in my mouth. Every muscle in my body ached and my eyes burned.  It was almost the moment of truth.  I knew that our guide believed this would be the end for me… and I couldn’t agree more.  But I was still determined to push myself to my limit… at least to see where my limit was.

As I tried to stand up from my bent over position, I managed to swallow a few sips of water.  And as we rested for a moment we heard a loud rumbling in the distance, and looked up to see an amazing rockslide.  We watched, in awe, as huge boulders rolled down the side of the mountain and over the glacial field. Billows of dust rose from the mountain, like the steam from a volcano suddenly brought to life. It made me forget my predicament for a moment and that is all that it took.  The natural beauty of the area was actually inspiring me, and I felt I had the energy to continue. I didn’t know how much farther, but I was ready to move on.  So we began again, one step at a time.  We could see smoke from a distant campfire, and realized that was our camp… and an hour later… after more than 9 hours… we finally stumbled into camp.

We had a very emotional group hug at that moment. We had achieved the impossible and made it through this hellish trek. It was very empowering, but we also knew that it was likely the end for me, I could not imagine how I could continue, there was still so much more still ahead. My spirits were buoyed though by my fellow trekkers, who soon came came over with their hugs and words of support too.  Nicole, a massage therapist from Newfoundland came over and sang a song that she said she had in her head while she was trekking – ‘we love you Darren, oh yes we do…’ She also had tears in her eyes as she sang it which really gave me strength to not give up… at least not yet.

During the trek that day, I had a chance to talk with our assistant guide, as he held me up and kept me from falling down.  He told me about his family, his wife and 6 children and how his mother and sister were also living with him since his father died. And at the age of 51 he was the sole breadwinner for the family. I gave him a tip, that was equal to the earnings he would expect for the whole week, and he seemed grateful, although not as grateful as I was for all of his support that day.

Of course the head guide Msafiri and our tour guide Celine were at my side, telling me my only chance to continue would be to eat and drink something.  I was absolutely exhausted and all I really wanted was to go to sleep. My tent mate Deborah had made up my bed for me and everyone let me nap for about an hour. But then Msafiri and Celine came to the tent, bearing dinner – very nice -but it was tomato vegetable soup, a tomato salad and 4 pieces of toast!!! I almost gagged with every bite, but Deb kept at me to eat something. I had a little soup and half a piece of toast.  It gave me a little more strength, but it was at that point that I handed Deb my share of the tips for the porters because I was afraid I would not make it to the summit. She tried to argue with me, but I didn’t want to have to leave the trek and not contribute to the team’s tips.  We crawled into our sleeping bags, turned out the lanterns, and I quickly started to drift off to sleep, with tears in my eyes, hoping and praying that I would improve enough by the morning, to continue the trek.

The next morning I woke up feeling totally refreshed and invigorated. Before I even got out of the tent, Celine had yelled out asking me how I was feeling, when I replied that I felt much better, those around us started applauding and cheering.

I planned a change to my diet if I was going to go any further… one of the other trekkers gave me some of his protein powder, my usual breakfast back home, and I was able to eat some toast. Not the kind of nutrition our guide, Msafiri thought I should have, but I reasoned that I now had protein, carbs, vitamins and minerals in my system to help me move forward.  (I was to learn later, that my fatal mistake was the protein bars I brought from home.  Months after my return I received a letter telling me the protein bars I had purchased were part of a massive peanut recall in the USA which had caused an outbreak of Salmonella).

Just as we were about to head up Barranco Wall, team one passed by our group. They had heard about my struggles the day before, so they stopped and gave me their hugs and words of support and it was really encouraging to know that they were also behind me in this. But I was sorry to hear that some of them had been suffering too.

We started the hike up the Barranco Wall and it was definately the highlight of the trek so far. It was almost a vertical climb with a lot of hand over hand climbing. It was also very slow going. The difficulty of the terrain caused human traffic jams along the route, which forced us to take frequent breaks, giving my body time to adjust to the rising altitude.

When I reached the top of the wall, I was exhilarated.  It was such an accomplishment for me to get up there and I had a lot of fun along the way.

But the day wasn’t over yet. We still had to do more hiking down into a valley and then uphill again to Karanga camp. When some of my group saw us come over the ridge, they started cheering us on. What an amazing group of people. It gave me the strength to get to my next goal.

When we got to camp I was able to eat some lunch… actually the most I’d eaten in days.  Some of the group opted for an alternate hike to a higher altitude to help their bodies adjust to the next level, I decided to stay behind and let my body rest and recover. Lunch followed by a nap made me feel a thousand times better and that is helping to bring some of my confidence back.

It had also become very hot hiking that day since we were now above the clouds. A few of us ended up with some nasty sunburns. Turns out sun sensitivity is one of the side effects of Malarone, the anti-malaria pills we are taking. I don’t usually burn very easily but 70 SPF wasn’t enough for us. My lips are a painful mess.

The next day we had a relatively short and easy 3 hour trek uphill to Barafu Camp- the final stop before summit.  I didn’t have much trouble this time, despite the fact we had now reached 15,200 ft.  in fact, I felt like I was actually getting stronger.

Again I was able to eat some lunch, adding to my strength… and I’m going to need every ounce of it. After lunch we will nap and then wake up for dinner at 5:30 and then grab a few more hours of sleep.  All of our warmest gear needs to be ready, so we can get dressed in the dark, since we start hiking to the summit at 11pm!  

Altitude messes with your sleep patterns, and it doesn’t help that the camp here is very noisy. There are about 300 people spending the night at Barafu and we seem to be in the midst of a very busy pathway. Most will begin their summit attempt at midnight, others will camp the next night in the crater. There’s a steady stream of people walking past our tents – annoying even with earplugs.

When we woke up it was dark and cold, but we were really excited about the night ahead. We dressed in our warmest gear, although I seemed to have lost my downfill vest. I have no idea what happened to it, and that is a big disappointment, since that was supposed to be my biggest source of warmth for the hike to the top of the mountain. We had a cup of tea to warm us up and get our motors running but we were still very cold as we started the slow climb to Stella Point.

It is almost impossible to put into words what that final push to the summit was like. Everyone on our team had their own challenges to overcome in getting to this point, and the trek to the summit would be no exception. We would all have to draw on that inspiration to get through this. It was going to be the longest day yet and we would be climbing about 5 thousand feet all at once, the biggest single altitude change yet.

Most of us experienced some kind of hallucinations on that final day. I kept seeing something in my peripheral vision, but when I’d turn to look, there was nothing there. Deb had the best one though… she said she thought the dusty rocks we were walking over were actually semi-precious stones… emeralds, rubies, pink quartz, tanzanite etc. but she couldn’t understand why no one was picking them up. And then she decided that the reason must be because they would make your backpack too heavy – which made perfect sense at the time.

Even though the pace was slow for everyone, I hung back with the even slower ‘Pole Pole’ group again – they had brought me luck before and the slower pace made for a better chance of reaching my target.  I still felt strong and confident but a couple of hours into this marathon trek, I felt we were falling back further and further from the main group. So when my group decided to stop for a pee break, I said I was going to go on to try to catch up to everyone else. I felt bad about leaving them behind but I also felt this was my best chance and I really wondered if they would even make it to the top. One of the women was really struggling at that point and I still felt like I had a lot more energy to go. As it turned out she didn’t make it, about two hours from Stella Point she really started getting delusional so they decided to rush her back down to Barafu Camp. She says she barely remembers it.

I knew I just had to keep moving. I just kept my head down with my headlamp on, doing half steps and watching as I put one foot in front of the other, and in no time I had caught up to the rest of the group as they stopped for a water break.

As we continued to move, I tried keeping my mind busy, trying to remember family and friends back home, my dog… anything to keep me moving. Other times my mind was on auto-pilot as I just kept my feet moving… one foot in front of the other. Like half comatose zombies, we made our way over the rocks and gravel but it was also getting very cold. My finger tips were getting numb (although I wasn’t sure if that was the cold or another side effect of the Diamox). My water bottle was ice cold – so I tried to put some hotpacks in my pocket with the bottle but that didn’t work, apparently there wasn’t enough oxygen to fuel the chemical reaction in the hotpacks. Body heat would have to keep my water, fluid enough to drink, though by the end, it felt like I was drinking a slurpee.

By the time we reached Stella Point – the last peak before the summit, it was still another 45 minutes to an hour trek to Uhuru. We stopped for a short rest and a few members of the group wondered if they would be able to go on, I was one of them, but I also felt stronger than I had a couple of days ago and thought if I could survive that, I could make it through this. We had already exhausted all of our energy reserves.  We were cold, tired, sore and all feeling the effects of the altitude – but we all continued. The word ‘Twende’ (Swahili for ‘let’s go’) became a dreaded word, when we were still just just trying to catch our breath, the guides would be urging us on to continue.

As we started the final last few hundred metre trek toward the summit, it started to become very emotional. I started to choke back the tears as I thought about what I had accomplished. Just two days ago, I thought my trek was over, but I was able to push myself past that. Normally when I’m sick I am a real baby and I only want to curl up on the couch with a blanket and wait it out.  Yet here I was hiking for several hours despite intense nausea. And as the sun rose, nearby Mt. Meru was surrounded by an intense red and orange glow (I know that wasn’t a hallucination because I got the picture to prove it). Again I found the natural beauty of Africa, awe inspiring and even invigorating.

So I kept moving, sometimes through narrow paths in the receding glacier ice, until we reached the top, and that’s when I started to sob. And as we all started to hug one another, I realized I wasn’t the only one. We had all achieved an amazing feat and defeated our own demons along the way. I was so proud of myself for making it to the top, but of course I couldn’t have done it without everyone’s support along the way.    The summit itself was quite crowded, as different groups began arriving simultaneously.  They were arriving from different routes, but all meeting on this one small piece of Africa at this one moment in time.  And all were experiencing the same outpouring of emotion at their accomplishment.

Everyone was taking photos, but because it was so windy and cold we couldn’t stay too long. It was still very emotional and we felt like we were all part of a very unique community. We took our pictures, not as many as I’d hoped, but the important one – of me standing next to the Uhuru Peak sign.

But after this marathon journey we only stayed at the top about 10 or 15 minutes as we congratulated each other, and then started to head back down the mountain. We took a different route down the mountain than we had coming up. It was made up entirely of scree (small gravel and sand with some stones mixed in). You would sink up to your ankles as you slid downhill. I’m sure it would have been more fun if it wasn’t so dusty. I had my bandana tied across my face but was still spitting dust all the way.

When we stumbled into camp, beaming with pride at our accomplishment we were looking forward to some sleep.  But after a full 12 hours on the trail, we would only get to stop for a short 1 hour nap in our tents, then eat some lunch and then back on the trail, downhill to the last camp of our trek. In this one day we had  climbed up about 5 thousand feet and then down another 9 thousand feet to camp, all totalled the day would be about 18 hours of hiking!!! And I’m sure it would have felt better if I hadn’t taken off my hiking socks for the last part of the trek, because they stunk. I was only wearing sock liners, so I ended up with big blisters on my toes (but it was my own stupid fault).

We had to sign in again at camp, but this time there was Kili beer and Coke for sale. It was also very noisy at the camp and there were a lot of porters hanging around. There were also guards patrolling the pathways with submachine guns. We were told to be extra careful here.

After dinner, as we lay in our tents awaiting the deep sleep that would come, we finally had time to reflect on our amazing day. The trek to the summit was an overwelming experience. I had never pushed myself to test my physical and mental limits… and this pushed it to the extreme.

SIDEBAR:

Weight is everything, make sure what you pack is exactly what you will need. Leave all the extras at home, and if you are not sure, leave it out. Your backpack shouldn’t weigh any more than about 4lbs without water.

Your most important items will be your water bottle (enough to carry 3-4 litres of water – so a water bottle and a camelbak are good ideas), also remember something (either drops or pills or a purifying filter) to clean the water with.

Don’t forget sunglasses, hat, sunscreen (even if you don’t usually burn – like me- you will under the powerful sun, especially if you are taking Malarone) and even zinc oxide for your lips.

You will want something to wash with. Eventhough they brought us hot water to wash in with our tea every morning, you will still need more. Deb and I went through about 250 handi-wipes, plus purell and lotion. And the best thing I found were these soap sheets you could buy at a hike shop – small dissolvable sheets (like those listerine breath fresheners) that you simply add water to. Also don’t forget the toilet paper (again small camping/hiking packs worked best).

Nail clippers and an orange stick or something to get under your filthy nails is a small luxury you will appreciate. Don’t forget a headlamp and a tent lantern or flashlight (but remember the lighter the weight the better). Extra shoes to wear around the camp gave our feet a bit of a break from our hiking boots. Make sure your clothes are moisture wicking to keep the perspiration away from you (to prevent getting chilled). Ear plugs were a welcome addition especially in the noisier camps. A warm sleeping bag (the warmer the better).

And if you are having the debate about whether to take Diamox, unless you are allergic to Sulpha drugs… take it. There are side effects you need to be aware of, but it is really your best chance to reach the summit.

If you bring a cellphone or Blackberry (yes there is intermittent service on the mountain) make sure you can access service in Africa (check with your service provider first).

And most important of all, make sure you train. No matter the shape you are in, work your legs and back, and do the cardio!. Good Luck!

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