It’s been three and a half months since we flew to Africa and climbed the world’s highest freestanding mountain and being brutally honest, it’s only now I’ve finally felt ready to write about it.
Summed up, the experience of climbing Kilimanjaro was possibly the toughest mental challenge I have ever faced. Ever.
I thought I’d prepared for everything. I trained for 10 months and became fitter than I’d ever been. I’d bought all the kit, read all the books and blogs, had all the prescriptions.
But nothing prepared me for the altitude sickness; the relentless ‘hangover’ of the mountain, without the fun of the gin.
I can remember being asked how it was when I got home and my response was ‘horrendous’. ‘Worst thing I’ve ever done – don’t do it’. But three and a half months on, reflection has set in and my view more rounded.
Firstly, ten (almost complete) strangers spent 8 days on the mountain together and we all summited together. That’s an incredible feat. Kilimanjaro has a success rate of between 50-85%, so for our team to all make it is incredible.
Collectively we raised over £50,000 for Trekstock – again, a phenomenal amount and one well worth the pain.
We bonded, shared tears, fears and stories and will always share the experience.
But my personal journey on that mountain was life-changing. I can remember on the last day as we walked down, I was at the back, (a change from being at the front), with Mussa – our head guide.
We stumbled down what seemed like a million ‘steps’ through the rainforest practically hand in hand all the way as we both kept falling on our backsides, giggling like school kids.
But the laughter dispersed as Mussa shared with me how he lost his wife, Ashura (known to many as Shushu), in May to breast cancer. Like him, she was in her early 30s and is survived by their two young children. (Photo shared with kind permission)
We talked for hours and he asked me what I had learnt from the experience. I managed to break it down to three things.
I make decisions very easily, and get frustrated and impatient with those that don’t. I am strong-willed and if I don’t think it’s the right course of action I will argue it. I am generally regarded as a problem solver.
When I experienced the onset of altitude sickness on day two of the trek I had known nothing like it. The pounding head, the nausea, throwing up in front of my team mates and the added joy of blurred vision.
But for once, I did exactly as I was told. Sit, eat, throw up, coat on, keep going, give me your pack, rest a minute. No argument, no challenge. I obeyed.
When we got to camp – I forced my meals, and asked permission to go to bed. I took my medicine and had my heart rate and blood oxygen monitored. No argument, no challenge. I obeyed.
I learnt that there are things in this life where I am not the expert – even my best guess is not adequate. I learnt obedience. And it was liberating.
I think this second lesson is the toughest to admit. I can give up easily. Not to be confused with not following through. If I say I’ll do something, then I will and I am loyal to a fault. But if something gets difficult or doesn’t go quite how I’d like, then I go down the mental route of suggesting it may not be worth it, or can I find a quicker or easier way, because I’m just too impatient.
This is where the mental challenge lies. I wanted to give up and get off that mountain so many times – SO many times. I felt so ill, and so cold and so out of my depth.
Before I left, my friend John had leant me some kit, including his kit bag. I had him write me a message on some gaffa tape that was stuck to the strap.
He wrote: “Don’t give up it’s the worst thing ever, love John x “.
Every time that doubt crept in, I thought of John and how upset and disappointed he would be if I gave up. So I carried on.
I think his voice in my head will be something that ‘sticks’ for quite possibly the rest of my life.
I teach my kids three things: Kind words, kind hands, kind actions. It covers all the bases and they repeat it like a little mantra.
However, I have never before experienced the true, unconditional kindness and generosity of spirit that I did during my time on the mountain. Members of the crew and guide team went above and beyond to help ensure we all had the best experience possible.
My porter – Job – would take my boots off for me when I got to camp, and fill my water flasks and stay with me until I didn’t need his help with anything else.
Sampson – our mess tent waiter would smuggle me my own stash of ginger biscuits, because they were the one thing that kept me going on that mountain (alongside toast and ketchup but that’s another story).
Patrick – the most serious guide of all, getting up in the middle of the night to listen to our breathing patterns to check for altitude sickness issues.
Mussa – my personal boot butler….
All the team (too many to name), in their own way, showed so much love for us scared foreigners going on our African walking holiday with our first world problems like running out of chilli sauce and the lack of avocado.
And on summit night, having been handed a RedBull at 2am with a distinct lack of Jager, we plugged our headphones in and got on with it. Stella point was awash with tears, and the summit even more so. We made it. On reflection, we are nuts, and we all made it and we should be so proud, each of us with our own personal demons, we made it.
The day after the trek, we all agreed as a team to go to a coffee plantation for the day. Inadvertently signing up for a 3-hour hike on the day we didn’t need to – crazy.
As we arrived at our destination that morning, hungover from the previous night’s revelry, I received a message from a good friend, to tell me her husband had been diagnosed with testicular cancer at 35 years old.
Surrounded by these amazing individuals, two of which had survived their own battles in their twenties, this news, although upsetting, validated my ‘jaunt’ to Tanzania. (You will be reassured to know that all is well so far following his first round of chemo).
I feel it a very selfish thing to do – to leave my own children and venture off for two weeks, but I think they will forgive me and understand when they are older and I can tell them about all the kind words, kind hands and kind actions I received, helped and raised money for by climbing nearly 6000 metres.
Unbeknown to me, my husband, on a camping trip with the kids and his parents (possibly a tougher mental challenge than Kilimanjaro), had produced his own daily vlog supporting me and the team and helping to raise money whilst I was incommunicado. I am so grateful for his support.
If you are thinking of doing it – go for it, but be warned, it’s probably the hardest thing you will ever do, but you’ll be a better person for it.
I plan never to hike at altitude again, but am considering a tough-mudder in May and the 5 peaks in June to raise more funds for Trekstock – let me know if you’d like to join in!
From the bottom of my heart – a huge thank you to all that sponsored me, or one of my team mates.
You can check out the video of my personal ‘vlogs’ from the trip – I warn you, there is a lot of bad language and I look like crap (standard), but it doesn’t get more ‘real’ than that. You can find it here.