After dinner we got into our sleeping bags for 4 hours’ ‘rest’ before leaving for the summit of Kilimanjaro.
The task ahead is suddenly very real as we climb into our tents with the glacier on the blown-out crater above, glistening in the evening sun. An invitation and perhaps a threat. At dinner we had presented a unified, confident group. But apprehension and concern was running close beneath the surface for us all. We all had minor aches and pains, nausea and headaches and I think we all worried that we were about to experience mountain sickness when we reached high altitude. Although we’d already climatised well to 4,850m. My own concern was my wheezy chest, which I’d been dosing with Neurofen and Vicks for a couple of days now. I’ve never suffered from altitude sickness before, could this be my turn?
Waking after our break, we put on head torches and clawed our way out of our tents and into a cold, frosty, starlit night, to meet at the mess tent for tea and biscuits. Rucksacks packed and packed again, there were grim faces illuminated in the shadows, some nervous laughter, the click of walking poles and on the dot of midnight, we were off.
As we filed single column towards the rocky ascent in the distance, I ran through the contents of my pack again. Water, nuts, spare batteries for my torch, a 1st aid kit and my GoPro hidden beneath my insulated Platypus water pack, where the heat from my back would keep it warm. I also had lots of layers.
Our expedition leader Pat Falvey and head guide Freddy had warned us how cold it would get at dawn. But we all have to take our own bodies into account and take our own decisions. I walk ‘hot’ so while most were wearing down jackets, I was starting out with a combination of light layers; a Lynx sports bra (of the sort that could support a small cathedral!), Icebreaker Merino Wool vest, Columbia Omni Freeze t-shirt, and their Omni Heat long sleeved top. I was wearing an ordinary pair of leggings and with much personal debate, I’d left my toasty fleece-lined trekking pants behind, after sweltering in them the day before. In my pack I had waterproofs, a rain jacket, a windbreak, a buff, two light balaclavas, a fleece lined hat, Helly Hansen down jacket and Bergaus mitts with liners, suntan lotion and Julbo dark glasses for the summit. On my feet I wore Miendl boots and Smartwool socks with liners and gaiters. I was ready. We all were.
We passed out through the rocky ground at the top of camp and headed towards the flat upward facing slabs of volcanic rock that were the gateway to our challenge of the next 8hrs or so. It felt strange stepping on such a sharp incline, with no hand grips and only the forward-leaning weight of your body to connect you to the surface. The rough, rock seemed to make a seal as you stepped on up. ‘Just trust your boots mama’ one of our guides told me. And I did. Stepping and shuffling spanned into hours, following the slowly moving heels of the boots in front. There is a rhythm and a mantra to walking a big mountain in the dark of the night. You can almost imagine being in a trance, and a trance-like state certainly helps the hours go by.
We were sharing this high peak with dozens of other climbers. Looking up both stunned and scared me.
The brightness of the moon, the shimmering ice of the summit, and the long lines of lights dotting the hill ahead.
The lights stretched so far up into the heavens beyond us. Up and up. Each dot represented a headtorch, each torch represented a human heart, battling through months of training on hills and mountains around the world, and a week of tents and dust and acclimatising marches. We were all united at this moment when we all set out to reach this glimmering, shimmering, icy prize.
I’ve stamped out into the darkness of high mountains before and always been mesmerised by these long light trains all heading upward in one direction. But this is the first time I heard chanting and singing. Not from the climbers but from their amazing guides as the mountain shimmered and sang with life. But it was hard. Each step was a victory and an effort. There were no downhills, no straight sections, just long, winding, unrelenting zig zags, and ridge appearing after ridge, after ridge.
We drank and grazed from our pockets as we walked, but we stopped for a proper break just before dawn and drank from our guides’ flasks of hot, sweet, tea. I was cold, very cold and Pat and Freddy’s warnings about the dawn rang in my ears. I quickly dragged on my down jacket and windbreak and then began to put on my waterproof trousers. I paused for a moment, gazing at my boots and gaiters. Before I realised what was happening, one of Freddie’s team had physically bounced me into my own pants and zipped up the legs. “Thank you” I laughed. “You’re welcome mama” he smiled back. I don’t know whether it’s my age or my weight, but all the guides and porters on this mountain, call me
The cold of dawn hit us like a wave, but it was followed quickly by the energy-giving beauty of a fiery mountain sunrise. Like nuclear fission lighting up the world in a rapidly expanding line of gold and amber and cardinal red. So stunning it punched through the mind-meld of hours of climbing, and thrilled and warmed to the core. Then my heart plunged, as the light that followed lit up the mountain, and revealed how much further we had still to go. How could there be so much mountain on one planet? How could you fail to see so many ridges from the ground? Eternal waves of rock and dust.
We were on scree now, rapidly loosening as the rising sun thawed the ice beneath. For each foot you lost an inch, slipping back slightly each time you stepped. I was so jealous of those lost inches. My wheezy chest was tightening, the higher we got. I struggled to breath, and I struggled to ignore all the stories I’d heard of mountain sickness and Pulmonary Oedema. It couldn’t be happening to me. I’d never had mountain sickness before; although I know that’s no guarantee it won’t strike at any time. I’d taken a full dose of Diamox too, which is meant to help counteract the effects of altitude. No it couldn’t be happening to me.
Three times, a guide asked to take my bag. I refused. I wasn’t being heroic. I just instinctively knew that for me, mentally, if I gave over my bag, it was game over. Mentally I’d be giving up and giving in, and that was never going to happen. One of the team reminded me later that I’d said at a break, that I wasn’t coming down, even if Pat had to leave a guide with me and change my flight back to Dublin. That’s how determined we all were. The team dynamic was extraordinary. It didn’t matter how painful or difficult this task, we all had no option other than to succeed. No opt out, no ‘perhaps’, we were a team and we were all getting there.
I couldn’t feel excited as the top of the ridge emerged. This mountain had been playing tricks with us for hours and I was quite expecting to see another set of ridges emerge at the top. But I could hear the cheers and laughter and singing from climbers up ahead as they slipped over the edge of our world and out of our view. Then we joined them. We had reached Stella Point. We had now only a short ridge walk to the summit. We threw down our bags, leaving them with one of Freddie’s crew, and with delight and excitement, free of the weight from our backs, we headed off. Up and up.
Kilimanjaro had one final devilish trick up her sleeve. Each gently curving hill led to another, and another. I felt my excitement wane, along with my energy. I was gasping for breath, with a pain punching me high on my back, where I
imagined my lungs must be. I struggled for a deep breath, but breathing deeply brought on a savage cough that pulled violently on the last of my strength. So I gasped in small bursts of air, feeling light-headed and weak, as we scrambled around a rock and saw the famous Kilimanjaro summit sign, far, far, away in the distance.
When I thought I’d reached the very last step I could give, an amazing thing happened. The team all emerged together. Freddie our head guide took my arm in his, and all as one, we made the final few, emotional steps to reach Uhuru Peak. 5,895m high, on top of the world. We had made it.
There were pictures, a couple of tears, thoughts for loved ones, and lots of laughter, and then we looked to the exit. As Pat Falvey had commented earlier on the trip; ‘Climbing a mountain is optional, coming down is compulsory’. He took one look in my eyes and diagnosed ‘you’re sick, but it’s not altitude. All the same, lets get you down quickly’. Before I could reply, Paul and Alfred from Freddie’s crew took an elbow each and we were off and sliding down the mountain. Literally. The scree bank went on for hours. You pushed in with your heel and then ‘went’ with the slide, a bit like coming down through snow. My training on Croagh Patrick hadn’t prepared me for anything like this!
When you relaxed, it was actually good fun, and not at all hard on the knees, until you’d jam into a rock and take a couple of flying bounds until you got sorted again. It took several hours to get down the mountain, my lovely companions kept checking my breathing, which didn’t really improve. Proving Pat’s theory that it wasn’t Mountain Sickness. Finally we all reached Basecamp and all I wanted to do was sleep, but we had just one hour to pack, eat, rest and then break camp; before a further 4hr trek down the mountain. (That 4hrs is the subject of a stewards’ inquiry!).
We got to our new camp in time for a somewhat subdued dinner. Most of us were tired. I was more exhausted than I’ve ever been and working off a set of borrowed antibiotics. Somehow I didn’t feel like a winner.
This morning I woke up in my Tanzanian tent for the last time, shoved Vicks up my nose, slathered Sudafed over my lips and gratefully accepted the steaming cup of coffee that Freddie’s lad passed through the flap. “Good morning” he said, “How are you?” A smile spred across my puffy, Sudafed-plastered face and I replied “I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro”. “Yes mama” replied my coffee bearer, grinning widely back “You’re a Mountain Mama’ now. And you know? I guess I am.
*Pictures by Pat Falvey:
*Gear by Great Outdoors, Dublin