Tuesday 12 November 2019

8. Kilimanjaro Challenge: Lemosho Route - Day Seven - Summit Night....My Story

'It always seems impossible until its done.'

                                                              - Nelson Mandela 

'Arnold, Jambo Arnold!' I call out lightly into the strangely still night. I was sticking my head out of my (again frozen annex) and was overjoyed to look up to the abyss of a blank deep purple sky speckled with the glint of little stars. What good luck after two days of torrential rain, it was clear!  

Arnold, one of our great cooks, appeared away from the annex of another glowing tent, lit up like a firefly in his bouncing headtorch as he came over to my tent, holding a roll of cling film. It was just after 10pm and everyone was rousing after getting absolutely no sleep.  

'This one first' he tells me, gesturing for me to sit back and stretch out my right foot swathed in three pairs of socks. He struggles to find the end of the roll, picking at it and pulling pieces off until he's happy to start wrapping the sheet of cling film around my feet a few times. 'You feel the warmth? Will keep you dry' he says, proceeding to wrap my other foot until they both looked like roasting chicken drumsticks.

Despite sharing ideas, our boots were still remained soaking wet and this was our guides brilliant plan to stop our feet developing frostbite in the sub zero temperatures.....

Ain't no mountain high enough!

I had lay awake for the three hours respite, anxiously looking constantly at my watch waiting for the time to pass - this I knew was going to be what our last six days had accumulated up to, wow we were so close to making it to the summit of KILIMANJARO! It is was one last push, one more day of ascending and we were thankfully rewarded for our resilience through the discomfort of the terrible weather we'd endured on our quest here, to now have a clear and still night for what was known as the 'last hard yards'.  

I just wanted to get on with it! 

Summit Night - no sleep but serious for action (well slow action anyway)

Although sleepy, I was delighted and so thankful the weather was so unexpectedly dry for our summit night and although our welfare was paramount, I was adamant about having anyone telling me that my own body couldn't attempt it or controlling my decisions. Even my skippy whippy heart that was now throbbing with a nervousness, the desire and drive I felt was strong enough to push through the most physically and mentally challenging finale of the whole expedition. I knew I had the dogged determination and pigheadedness to get to the summit. I believed I could do it and I didn't get this far to not have a crack at finishing it, not just for myself but for all the M.E sufferers I was helping and the backing from all those who supported and believed in me. 

When people would tell me from their experience about summit night, they were not exaggerating - it is a rigorous, vigorous push and one of the hardest things you could endure as you struggle to acclimatise. I had to be prepared for whatever hardships were going to be thrown at me physically and mentally doing everything I could in my control, but if I could manage to avoid injury or extreme sickness over the 5,000 metre glacial zone, it would be a test of our true unwavering mettle that could get us all to the summit of Kilimanjaro. 

Just seven or so more hours of trekking and we'd have done it. 5 km to the finish, no risk, no reward - I was just going to go out there, give it my best shot and see what happens.


Summit Night begins....

'There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing'. 

                                                                                                - Sir Rannulph Fiennes

Just because its a hassle if you don't at the freezing temperatures, its better to sleep in the clothing you are going to be wearing for the summit night - or as much as you don't feel you're overcooking! So I was decked out in thermal leggings, hiking leggings and would then wear hiking pants and waterproofs over the top. When our guides told us that it had been snowing at the summit - you pretty much assume you need to dress for the coldest conditions. At altitude, for very 1,000 metres climbed the air temperature drops by 6.5 degrees Celsius and we had no idea if there was going to be wind near the summit which could make things worse, so as I finally emerged from my tent onto the snow glazed ground, I was bulked up in 8 layers of clothing! like a walking, talking sumo wrestler. You could always take them off if you needed to.

I thought about wearing a support strap for extra measure for the strain on my knees but like my daypack - it was absolutely soaking wet! urgghhhh what a stress still having wet stuff at this arctic temperature, so I'd have to do it without it and wear my wet day pack and endure it out. We were offered a hot drink and some biscuits which I could only really manage little and often. Taking my daily probiotics and vitamin pill to increase my chances of staying healthy, I prepared my usual three litre electrolyte water package - two litres in my water bladder and my one litre Nalgene bottle snugged in a dry thermal sock and turned upside down to prevent from freezing. 

In my experience and in hindsight of my mountain adventure, if you're someone who needs to drink alot and think you might get altitude sickness - 3 litres is NOT enough for the summit. I would recommend for such folk like myself's bodily needs to take a 3 litre water bladder for the whole trip from the start and keep that extra 1 litre Nalglene bottle for later as you don't know when you might need it in the changeable weather. The more water the better - it could save your life. 

Which I would find out later.... 

The camp now full of swishing headlamps in the darkness as we kitted ourselves up for the final frontier, cling filmed feet lodged into wet boots, gaiters strapped, doubled up gloves and wet daypacks on - the summit stage was scheduled to start at 11pm to give us a chance to ascend slowly and be near the summit for the sunrise and have enough daylight for recuperation and the long decent to the next nights Mweka Camp. I would advise to also put your camera and any spare batteries in one of your deeper layers of clothing or pack to insulate them better from moisture and rarefied air. If you have any valuables or money with you on route, take them with you to the summit or lock away in your luggage as thefts can occur from unguarded tents at the base camp. 

So, enough schooling - with much anticipation we finally began prodding our poles rhythmically ambling our way through the camp being handshaked off by our well-wishing porters, including my sandal-wearing tent porter Richard who I told 'damn, please put some shoes on up here!'. Having now travelled 49 km (30 miles) everyone in the team was nervous with what lay ahead and how we were going to tackle the attempt of ascending this last intimidating glacial 1,222 metres from the base camp to the summit, 5 km. At sea level, 5km for a fit, healthy being seems nothing considering you could run it in half an hour. At extreme altitude, its completely different even for us athletic types.

So the summit starts, our whole team of guides and a couple of the porters chosen to accompany us were going to do everything in their power to help us through this gruelling final leg. The first part into the will was following the direction orders from the guides scrambling over steep small cliffs at the northern end of the camp to then flatten out onto the purest whitesh snow I'd ever seen. I could feel a spot on my thumb starting to go numb from a bit of wet soaking through my outer gloves and onto my woollen ones which showed how moisture on your skin at this environment can be dangerous. It soon relieved after reaching the top of the cliffs where I was panting and sweltering like a roasting Xmas turkey - the 8 layers were far too many and I had to strip off!

Throughout my life time I had often been heavily criticised for my 'slow approach' to life and how I operated, but I knew on this occasion it was being this 'slow and steady' that might win me the prize of Kilimanjaro. I decided to not change my game plan for summit night and chose to go at my own low speed, relaxed pace, the slowest at the back with Kotalieb and let the group go ahead. I knew this was going to probably be the toughest thing I would have to push through and was not going to get cocky and screw this last piece up by going faster than what I knew my body was comfortable with, especially as my heart rate reading had been going so high at the base camp. My goal was to get to the top, even if it took me forever. Be the tortoise, not the hare - and we all know how they ended.

So I plodded slowly, following the trail of light balls shining in the night ahead of me from the dark figures moving robotically at a glacial pace. It was the slowest that our group had ever walked and so far my breathing was not a problem. I was breathing deeping through my nose with each measured step crunching on the snow - I was still so drowsy from the lack of sleep, that I was like a sleepwalker, closing my eyes restfully every few steps and then locking in, mesmerised by the heels of Koteliebs boots shunting slowly in front of me, his footprints marking tiny glints sparkling in the snow under the spotlight of my head torch. This was what I would have to do, follow this tedious monotonous pattern for the next seven hours of my life, one step at a time, 'pole, pole' 'breathing and believing'. Hakuna Matata, I could do it. I had better chance than any now, no bad AMS symptoms and the weather for ascending was still and mild. I looked at my watch and conditioned myself to register the countdown each hour of ground we covered. This was going to be a mental game and we had to break the journey down into manageable chunks to get through it.   

About 1 3/4 into the hike we came across Kosovo Camp at 4,863 metres which is actually higher than Mount Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe! still plodding along in the grit of the snow, I raised my head up to sip water through my drinking hose and my heart skipped in wonder at the mighty mountain peaks grouped around me. We were heading between Rebman and Ratzel glaciers and ascending slowly zig zagging onto the mountains spine. I kept looking behind me, to see how far we'd come and down into the belly of the valley to see a line of bright lights in the darkness snaking down the projecting ridges of lava slabs from other climbers now starting the summit. Like miners marching to a night shift.

The air of high altitude is always very dry and with each breath, water starts to become stripped from your lungs. I was still disciplined with my drinking and peeing in the dark for us ladies isn't so bad - you just have to go a metre or two from the trail (or risk falling off!), uncomfortably wriggle out of your layers and turn your headtorch off. Everyone just loses their inhibitions on summit night just out of desperation  going here, there and everywhere - we were all chasing the same goal.

The thing that concerned me was finding the best position to squat where I wasn't exposing my backside to everyone's torchlight coming up the mountain!

A couple of hours went by of keeping my constant steady pace and then something strange hit me - I'M HUNGRY!!!! an insatiable need to eat slammed into me and I stopped to began tearing into my little snack bag, gouging on my chocolate treats, Kendal Mint cake and strawberry laces (Polo's never got a look in and gummy bears - they freeze and are yucky). It was very bizarre that my Ghrelin levels went completely up as we ascended and for the first time in ages at this point over 5,000 metres I was sooooo hungry as if I was a scoffing Porky Pig!). I caught up with the group periodically at a rocky ridge where we needed to put spikes on our boots to grip the snow with the steepening path - now I felt like a mountaineer! Except there was no where for me to sit - every available space on the ground had been marked by climbers #2's!!! urghhhh!!! Why!?!?! Kotalieb and Edwad had to brush off the thick snow and prop me up on a rock like a ventriloquists doll and stretch the spikes on. This was serious trekking now and I knew this is where we'd likely start to really start struggling with the altitude. 

'Hip! Hip!' calls Robert my lead guide, the welfare mantra to the resting group, his unrecognisable face masked by a balaclava, the white of his eyes now peeking out the top from his already dark skin.
'Hop! Hop!' I managed to still throw back in unison. But it was all going to change.

With the now distinct chill in the air biting at my face, I whipped on my balaclava and continued crunching my spikes into the slope.We were now ascending onto the sleep climb heading directly to Stella Point and the crater rim which when I asked was always 'just up there' (it wasn't). It must have been about 2am, 3 hours into the ascent when I began to get anxious - I was drinking alot, breathing through my nose and taking slow steps (I even had climbers behind overtaking me!). As I stared down at the yellowish glow of the snow from the radius of my head beam in front of me, that awful pain in my head began to gradually creep in - NO NOT THIS AGAIN!!!!! I was getting a headache again, that sodding headache was back! You are not going to stop me, I said to myself, you are not going to stop me!

I began to drink more from my water hose, remembering to blow air back into it to stop it from freezing and the breath out really took it out of me! Woah. I pressed on nursing my headache waiting to see how far I could stretch it out before I would take Diamox and painkillers to beat it down. I told Kotalieb I was suffering and I was very lucky to have him attend to me. He took my (still very wet day pack) off me and wore it on his back, letting my water hose dangle from it so I could call for 'magi' (water) which I ended up needing every several steps as the air got progressively thinner. He sometimes went too fast and I'd have to call him back 'pole, pole' as I could feel my muscles becoming fatigued. This is your brain's protective response to the altitude, slowing you right down and I began breathing deeply with each step. The peak of Stella's Point at 5,732 metres still loomed in the distance, never seeming to get closer but we would maintain the same direction throughout the rest of the night, it was an illusion, each patient step we were getting closer.

My group were breaking and I rejoined them to find one of the guys heavily vomiting and others showing some signs of struggle. I just felt like I had the worlds worst hangover as I tried to distract my growing fuzzy, brain fog on the majestic grandeur of the landscape in a kind of groggy, dreamlike lens. It didn't seem real looking out onto the mountain, but I knew this pain was temporary, it will be over. I got up to relieve myself and plodded off the path to find someone's er you know....having been freshly laid in the glorious white of the snow - man can't I escape turds anywhere on this mountain!

'My sister from another mister, are you okay' asks Abel, who's face was also hidden in a balaclava. He was smaller than the other guides and peered into me as he rubbed my arm affectionately. I told him I just had a headache and he reassured me that I would be okay but 'no sleeping!' and offered me a cup of black tea as members of my team retched around me. I just had to stick it out for a bit longer. It was part of the game. I was so sleep deprived and my head felt like a scarecrow stuffed with cottonwool, but I wasn't extremely ill or injured and not going to let this stop me, I wanted to stand on that summit too badly. We all deserved it too for how far we had come on our hard journey to this point.   

I went to take a sip from my water hose and was too 'stoned' to be annoyed - it had frozen solid like a ice lolly! I had worked my way through two litres already and Kotalieb had poured my last litre into the bladder before it froze and would have to pour it back in again. With it being about 4am now, we had got over half way still and long way to go and the guides of Kandoo were so kind and attentive to our sufferings.
  'You will tell me if you feel worse' asks Kotalieb turning back to me as he swings my sky blue backpack on his shoulders again. I agreed, but I wasn't unless I was dying - I was determined to tough it out. There was no way I was going to quit after battling six days up here from attitude sickness which is what really was the test now.

We kept on going and the painkillers were working, gesturing to Kotelieb that I needed to stop and gulp water or 'magi' - I was down to my last litre. I could feel the mass influx of other climbers joining the route at junctions like a pilgrimage, foreign accents fleeting past me and heavy breathing behind me. I didn't want to talk much, trying to concentrate on breathing through my nose and keeping my pace very slow as Kotalieb told me we were now heading up to Stella Point and should be there by 6.30am. We had been very lucky with getting the cover of snow on summit night, priming the loose ice scree and shingles with a better grip to climb with my spikes. My feet stuck to it as I patiently put one foot in front of the other 'one, two, one, two' compared to the sheer sliding dry scree which usually tested climbers sanity at other times of the year. If you can do the summit in snow, you're be better off! 


This last steep ascent, by far is the hardest part of the climb up the volcanic slope of Kibo. It tires you beyond belief, makes you feel the top is never going to come and the sheer oppression of the altitude made me feel like my body was made of lead. But it could have been worse, there was no thrashing wind so I took my balaclava off and was thankful weather wise this was the best condition I was blessed to have for summit night. You can't do anything but to just keep going and not use anymore energy than you have to. My headache still lingered and I began to see shapes in a dreamlike state on the face of the snow in front of me as it began to turn a soothing shade of blue and then quickly glowing to yellow with each plunge of my poles. The sun was coming up! I had pulled through the summit night and could see the familiar figures of my team up ahead. With each strained step, I felt the rush of ascending higher above the plains of Africa and had to keep driving, I wouldn't get to Stella's Point for the sunrise but I looked back to see the clouds shifting and reveal the warm orangey -purple light over the monstrous valley below making me gasp at how far up we had managed to get and how oppressive our surroundings now were in the breaking light.

Now the light was rapidly turning up, so was the loud mouths of fellow climbers obviously blessed enough to not be suffering from AMS and showed off by screaming up into the mountain. One bearded caucasian guy of which I could feel creeping up behind me SCREAMMMMED out into my ear and it annoyed the hell out of me!

'Stop yelling' I bit at him,'some of us have a headache' before stomping off irritated onto the side of the track and let the guy who didn't care go and yell in someone else's ear.

The half an hour painful uphill pull carried on, one step at a time following Kotalieb up the seemingly never-ending steep incline of yellow snow as my numbed thoughts faded into a dreamlike state. People were happy to take over me and I look over at a young woman passing me in the soft glow of the dawn light, her hand being pulled along by a guy as she looks around spaced out and glazed eyed as if disorientated. I realised how dangerous this situation we were putting ourselves in was at such high altitude. Am I crazy!?!? I'm streaked with madness. But I also put it all into perspective, I was only experiencing this temporarily and will be over in a matter of time - the chronic fatigue and discomfort that I was suffering, was what sufferers of severe M.E and Chronic Fatigue who I was helping through the expedition have to battle everyday of their lives. I could stick it out, as masochistic as it was at the time.

The line of human lemmings persevered and kept the monotonous rhythm pushing on and I felt the release of relief when I could see hikers shuffling above over the last ridges of fissured rocks and coming to a halt - that must be the top!

I gritted my teeth and stuck my poles into the thick snow, breathing deeply through my nose as I patiently allowed my feet to carry me and we were there a little after 7.30am! Stella Point at 5756 metres and the crater rim of Kilimanjaro! I'd made it through the most painful, difficult part of the climb. But I was not done yet.

Although my lungs were fine, I can truly say, I've never felt so exhausted in me entire life - my muscles were heavy and burning and I needed to sit down to recover my breath with my heart beating fast now to maintain the oxygen in my tissues.

I needed some time to relax that's all, Stella Point in fact was the highest point reached on his first attempt of Kilimanjaro by explorer HW Tilman.

But this wasn't the end....remember when I said its 'about the journey, not the destination'? Forget it! not in this instance, my Kilimanjaro challenge was about reaching the top of Kilimanjaro not Stella Point and just out of my pure ego I wasn't going to stop here, not matter how tired I felt. 'Uhuru Peak' meant all the time, money, training, planning, suffering and energy over the last 6 days we'd come with most importantly for all the M.E sufferers I had a duty to finish for. I was going to fire up every ounce of desire to finish this thing, even if it nearly kills me.

Uhura Peak was the 'true summit' of Kilimanjaro way up here in the clouds at 5,895 metres and there was no way I was giving up the fight easily being now just 139 metres away!, no matter how hopeless or how much my knees were now hurting - damn if Cheryl Cole got herself up here, I'm not being beaten by a girly Girls Aloud pop star!

'How far is the summit? I panted to Kotalieb, squinting in the harsh rising sun as I took more gulps of water and began taking out my polar sunglasses from my bag.
'About an hour away' he says, pulling me to my weary feet off the jutting ridge I was recovering on. I didn't care if I was sitting on snow now. 'You can see the sign of the summit there' he pointed. In the distance through my polar lens, I could see the edge of the volcanic crater rim curve round to the end where a sign the size of my thumb stood on ridge with people there - 'the sign' . I didn't care if I had to stagger another hour in the oppressiveness of the altitude, it was just one more hour and it'll be over. I would have done what I came here to do and I'd never have to walk up another hill again!

My team were ten minutes ahead and had already set off for the summit, so Kotalieb and I got on our way and through my fatigue I felt the surge of determination flare up in me as we began to amble slowly along the rim, having to stop in chunks for me to rest my tired body and rehydrate.

But the views above the clouds were so beautiful...

The Rebmann Glacier on the Crater Rim, named after the first European to set eyes on Kilimanjaro

My haunting hangover headache had fortunately dissipated and my body was working really hard now to maintain my supply of oxygen. With the blood pumping in my ears with each step closer, it was now fighting the intense heat, tiredness and chronic fatigue - ironically, exactly the cause I was doing this for. Hakuna Matata!, pole, pole...it could be so much worse!

And it was pole, pole, painfully, you think you'll be able to see the summit sign over the white encrusted ridge and then you wouldn't. Climbers passing us, descending from the summit would be amazingly marching briskly down through the snow compared to us, saying 'well done, nearly there' (which of course you don't feel you are when you're told that). The glare of the stark whiteness was like another planet up here and you couldn't possibly march you're way to the summit, but I knew 'breathing and believing' with each step I was closer to finishing and we eventually made it to the home straight and could see the sign of Uhuru Peak in the distance! My heart was skipping, I was so close!

This last push! mustering up every last ounce of energy to the end, because I.WILL.NOT.GIVE.UP.

I was going to get a photo with that damn sign!

And I got it.


'A winner is a dreamer, who never gives up'

                                                             - Nelson Mandela

After travelling 70 km (42 miles) over six and half days battling through our 'freak week' of torrential rain, sleet, sun, snow, freezing temperatures, altitude sickness, lack of sleep and bad knees! it was 9.5 hours of hiking through the sub zero arctic night that I officially reached the 5,895 metres summit of Mt Kilimanjaro 'The Roof of Africa' at Uhuru Peak, the highest freestanding mountain on Earth and the highest point in Africa.

Kilimanjaro was first summited by German geologist Hans Meyer, Ludwig Purtscheller and a local man named Lauwo in October 1889 so in my pioneering spirit, I liked to think Kotelieb and I had followed in their footsteps with my cling filmed roasting feet to Uhuru Peak exactly 130 years later - 'Uhuru' is Swahili for 'Freedom' which was later named after Tanzania gained independence in 1961.

Words can not describe the tremendous elation of the physical and mental relief that it was all over and that my self - belief, determination and stubborn pigheadedness over the whole hardship of the journey had pushed to get me here. I knew I had the resilience to make it to the end and with the help of my wonderful guide Kotelieb, I really proved to myself how tough I could be when I needed to, officially realising my dream and conquering Kilimanjaro!!! 

Check out the unrivalled views from the Roof of Africa! Wahooh!!

If you don't have an Iphone, bring a disposable camera for backup from frozen batteries or cloudy lenses on your digital!

Thank you everybody so much for reading right to the bottom here and for all your support in following the challenge of my lifetime which had been a year in planning - from my six months training, right up here through all the hardships and to the edge of the heavens to my final destination on 'The Roof of Africa'!

If you are impressed with my incredible feat of surviving the climb, rewards are welcome! and I'd love for you to shower me with praise and adoration by please sparing any donation you can for my achievement to my Just Giving page to help my chosen charity 'Action For M.E' who help over 250,000 people in the UK cope with living with 'Chronic Fatigue Syndrome' including my sister who don't have the blessings of good health to be up here on top of Africa.

But now I've reached the top, what goes up, has to come down right? - even from 5,895 metres!

Join me on my final blog, with how I get my head out of the clouds and down off this thing?

Asante sana, so much for your love and belief in me - I made it!

I hope you're proud :) I'm in the Kili Club!

Equipment and clothing I used were from Ultimate Outdoor and Cotswold Outdoors

Meindl Boots
North Face 
TYTNY Walking Poles
Regatta Outdoors 

Day Ascent Distance : 1,222 metres (4,009 ft) ascent 5km

Total Elevation (Day 7) 5, 895 metres amsl (19, 341 ft) Summit 

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