Monday, 8 April 2013

Climbing to the roof of Africa

From the 1st of February I took a 3 week holiday and went to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro, go on safari and gorge on seafood on Zanzibar.

I've been asked why I decided to climb Kilimanjaro. My answer is generally "why not?" Africa is a continent that pushes you out of your comfort zone, a continent where you can challenge yourself, swim with great white sharks, bungee jump at Victoria Falls, white water raft on the Nile, stand 5 feet from mountain gorillas and climb the highest non-technical climb in the world. So after 7 months of working hard I decided to cross some items off my bucket list.

My first view of Kili
 Travelling independently in Africa is not the easiest of tasks, local transport is what you use and let me be honest, the buses have definitely seen better days.And so when I was getting on an 18 hour bus from Mbeya (near the Malawian border) to Moshi (in the  north of Tanzania), I knew at the very least it would take 20 hours, I knew my ass would be numb for most of the time and I knew I would have to carefully watch my water intake so as not to be caught short on a bus with no toilet. After an mini argument with the bus conductor (he wanted me to pay for my baggage), the bus left Mbeya at 5:40am! I finally arrive in Moshi at 10:30 pm and find that the hotel I wanted to stay in was full. So across the road I pop to Kilimanjaro Backpackers where I had to wake up a Maasai man to let me in!

Next morning I venture into Moshi town in the hope of organising a climb to Kilimanjaro. I spent the day traipsing around before deciding to climb with Kili climbers (a combination of free gear rental (normally runs to about $100) and them being one of the cheapest swung it for me). And so off I venture to Haria Hotel for a Kili (beer) and to watch the sunset over the mountain I would attempt to climb! So my preparation for my climb was a beer and an Indian dinner the night before.

Home for 5 nights!
And so, off I trot the next morning to meet the people who would be accompanying me on the most physically demanding thing I will ever likely attempt! So Chris, Yves, Raj and I started out to trek the Macheme Route to Uhuru peak, 5 days up, one day down. After a stop to collect all the gear we arrived at the Macheme gate where we had lunch while we waited for the guides to sort out our registration. Shortly after 2pm we set out.
Ready for off!
 Today was the longest day (distance wise), we covered 11km and rose 4,000ft in altitude but it was really enjoyable. We were walking through rain forest and spotted monkeys en route. The cover from the overhead canopy was a welcome break from the heat but as we rose in altitude you could feel the subtle change in temperature. As we arrived at our first camp, Macheme camp, the sun was setting and it was definitely time to don a jacket. Dinner, a briefing on the following day and some tea to warm the bones, we all fell into our tents to rest for the following day.
Sunset from Macheme Camp

Day two began at 8:00 when we started off from camp and started climbing. We exited the rainforest area pretty soon after setting off and entered the moorland area. Much colder, scrambling over rocks and wandering through clouds. I genuinely felt like we were the only people around as we left later than other groups to avoid the crowds. As the clouds rolled in and you could only see a few feet in front of you, I felt like I was an explorer discovering new territory with my hiking poles and my backpack.  After being told that we were "30 mins" from camp at least 4 times over the space of 2 hours we arrived, tired, cold and looking forward to some hot soup for lunch! Later that afternoon we went for an acclimatization walk. Basically a half an hour up high and then back down- the mantra for avoiding altitude sickness being climb high, sleep low. Over the course of the day we climbed another 1000m and a total of 9km over 4 hours.

View of the Peak from Shira camp
Ya, I'll just carry my shit on my head. 

Day three we had a lie in. We didn't leave until 8:30. At this point the peak was getting closer but still bloodyfar away! We entered the "alpine desert" area. The whole area looked like a space scene, very little olants but lots of rocks, BIG ones that you have to dodge. It was a gradual incline until the Macheme route joined with the Lemosho route to ascend towards the Lava Tower at 4,800m. It was en route to Lava Tower that the Irish climber was killed when struck by lightening (R.I.P). The ascent to Lava Tower was tiring and difficult. At this point the lack of oxygen was really taking effect and with every breath I constantly had to remind myself to slow down my breathing and take deep breaths. Combine this with a constant up hill climb and you can imagine how happy I was to make it to Lava Tower. It meant lunch and a rest! After lunch and a pee break(!) we set off again, downhill this time. As we descended more, we saw more vegetation including the senecio kilimanjari, a plant (kinda looks like a non spikey, very tall cactus) that is only found on Kilimanjaro. After 2 hours descending we arrived at the Barranco camp which is a whole 140m higher than where we had slept the previous night! A bit disheartening but as the guide explained, the ascent to Lava Tower was important to avoid altitude sickness. From the Barranco hut, the peak looked just a few short walks away. It felt like you could reach out and touch it. We also got our first glimpse of Barranco Wall, the infamous scramble up a pretty much vertical rock face.

Climbing up Barranco Wall
And so day 4 began with this scramble up. It was quite fun. Felt like proper rock climbing. At this point I developed a WHOLE new level of respect for the porters. They scramble up this wall with 20kg ON THEIR HEADS!  I mean really! Who does that. And they still managed to pass me by! After a brief rest at the top, we started to descend again. Up and down and up and down for about 2 hours until we got to the last fresh water source and started to ascend to our lunch at Karanga camp. At this point I would have eaten my own hand. After a lunch of chicken and chips and soup we set off to ascend the last 1,000m to base camp (Baru) at nearly 4,700m. This part of the climb was eerie. It was like a moonscape, ascending through dense fog for about an hour before a nice break of about 1km of flat and ascending once again to camp. At this point I just wanted to collapse into my tent and sleep. Dinner and bed asap for the midnight start.
Sunrise from (nearly) Stella Point

Up at midnight and after a snack of biscuits and slamming a cup of coffee, we trundled off into the pitch black. It was so surreal to see a line of head torches going up the side of the mountain. Freezing cold, finding it hard to take deep breaths and climbing, climbing constantly made for frequent breaks and a very cranky Fiona. As the sun started to come up we were nearly at Stella Point but we couldn't power on the last 200m to get there for sunrise. At this point I was really considering if I could make it all the way to Uhuru peak, I just could not keep walking for more than a minute without a break and while my mind just wanted to push on, my body was rejecting that idea! Making it to Stella point was an achievement at this stage and I'm not going to lie, I considered giving up. However Good Luck and Oscar convinced me otherwise and I'm so grateful for that.
 From Stella Point to Uhuru Peak is relatively flat but any little incline caused me to lose my breath, my body was screaming out for a reprise and I was so frustrated that things were so difficult. There were tears at times. The really nice thing is people on their descent say words of encouragement as they pass you "Not far now", "It'll be worth it when you get there" and with Oscar encouraging me every step of the way I eventually made it to the roof of Africa at 8:20am! The sense of achievement was phenomenal  I doubted myself so much in the previous 2 hours that to make it to the peak was overwhelming. Looking around at the glaciers and ice sheets it's hard to believe that you are in Africa, a mere 200 miles from the equator. After a short stay at the top we made our way back to Stella point to descend back to base camp for a nap and lunch before moving on down the mountain again. Unfortunately, as we ascended I got ill and had a pretty bad last day on the mountain but nothing could over shadow the sense of accomplishment.

This was without a doubt the most physically and mentally demanding thing I have ever done and am possibly ever likely to do. Without encouragement I would have turned back, my body was not doing what my mind wanted it to do but I took it one step at a time (sometimes literally one step, break, another step, break) and made it!

Making it back to Moshi and having a long over due shower was a little slice of heaven. I met up with Sara for a beer (which I promptly threw up, I'm telling you a bug) and went back to my hotel watched a movie and feel asleep at 8:30!

 Quote for the day: "Never set limits, go after your dreams, don't be afraid to push boundaries. And laugh a lot, it's good for you." Paula Radcliffe