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Almost as high as angels - trekking Mt Kilimanjaro

Sarah Jayne, one of our Adventure Travel Consultants recently returned from a successful trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. A giant stratovolcano in Tanzania, it is the highest free standing mountain in the world and the tallest mountain in the African continent. It has three volcanic cones, Mazwenzi, Shira and Kibo; the highest peak last erupted 360,000 years ago but the most recent activity was recorded just 200 years ago.

"Let me explain a little about altitude. If a commercial jet experiences a sudden loss of cabin pressure due to a smashed window – the pilot is forced to make a rapid descent to bring the aircraft to a safe cruising altitude of 10,000ft. Usual cabin pressure at cruise is 14000ft cabin altitude. On our trek, we climb to over 19000ft. You cannot drive half way up to attempt the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. You would experience acute mountain sickness. The worst headache you’ve ever had, disorientation, breathlessness, nausea and lack of coordination to name but a few symptoms. So, in order to give one the best chance of reaching the roof of Africa, we took the 8 day Lemosho Route.

This provides excellent acclimatisation by climbing to a high point, then descending down to camp to sleep at a lower altitude. This way, your body can better adapt to the thinner air and higher pressure. It’s almost like the mountain was designed to be climbed, with the camps perfectly situated along the route.

Trekking from camp to camp is and adventure in itself. Our first day allowed us an enchanting experience watching a family of black and white colobus monkeys swinging from tree to tree.

The mantra of the mountain is Pole Pole, which is Swahili for ‘slowly slowly’. You begin at the park gate at a slow pace and this is how it remains all the way to the top.

Can you imagine every day for the next 8 days spending an average of 6.5 hours on a stair master? Trekking in to direct, equatorial sunlight, carrying the weight of a 1 year old baby on your back, the occasional blast of chilly wind testing your core muscles are still engaged. On top of that, with constant changes in temperature when the clouds cover the sun, stopping to layer up to avoid the cold or strip off every 20 minutes to avoid sweating. Well, that was our life for 8 days. Travelling through rainforest; across moorland, on to the alpine desert before reaching the arctic conditions of the summit.

Every morning, having washed up quickly with hot water and soap and fuelling up on a cooked breakfast in the mess tent we would set off up the mountain.

Shortly after we began, our 'entourage' would come racing past and overtake us, rushing to get camp set up before we arrived. If you think we had it tough with our 6.5kg daysacs, each of us had three porters to carry our kitbag, our tents, our food, the mess tent, tables, chairs and the portable flushing loo. Their maximum weight is 15kg and how do you think they transport this? On their heads!

It blew my mind that for a group of 12 of us we had a crowd of 42 including the chef, porters, guides and our tour leader Julius (Whitey) White, who is an amazing ambassador for Explore; and infact Tanzania. But leaving our empty breakfast dishes in our yellow and purple dining tent, then several hours later reaching the crest of a hill, seeing the next camp in the distance and knowing they had already pitched our tents, boiled the hot water and popped the popcorn never failed to blow my mind. These guys, although never having had any form of customer service training, always seemed to anticipate our every need.

On the subject of food – this is one holiday, probably the first and only – where you are encouraged to eat and eat, and yet you are guaranteed to lose weight. Not only did we have hot meals at every camp, in our packed lunches we would find delights such as a deep fried jam sandwich, chocolate bars and cupcakes. Never before have I found it entirely acceptable to tuck in to a bag of beef jerky at 1.45 in the morning! But because of the altitude, it is common to lose your appetite. So in case of this, you fill up on energy when you can. The danger of course – now that I’m back at sea level - I need to re-adjust my eating habits.

The mountain brings out all kinds of characters. You have a lot of time to think. Whitey calls it meditation. It’s the way of coping through the relentless trudging uphill.

Somewhere between 4000 and 4600 metres on day 4 of trekking, I came up with my own version of ‘1 man went to mow’. I started singing ‘1 man went to climb, went to climb a mountain’ only to be told to save my energy by my guide Ibrahim. I may be tone deaf, but he clearly wasn't.

Before I left for Africa, my friend wished me good luck, having summited a few years ago. She said ‘I’ll set my alarm for midnight, stick my head in the freezer for 8 hours and slowly walk in support’. Whitey advised us that in order to beat the rush, we’d set off at 11pm, so after a power nap we donned our 7 layers of clothes and headed up to the Kibo crater.

The first bit reminded me of the Monday morning rush, with lots of groups heading up together there was a concertina effect and it took a good hour for us to settle in to a pace. The temperature drops after the moon sets, and the coldest part of the night is just before dawn. We were lucky, as the temperature only got down to minus 5, and there was barely any wind. The altitude started really sapping my energy about 3 hours into the climb and I decided to hang back with the slower paced people in our group. Knowing you had at least a 6 hour uphill climb was almost unbearable when you’re actually doing it. I could hardly sip my water and one of our porters offered to take my daysac off me.

You look up and all you can see is a zig-zag line of head torches in the pitch black, as far as you can see. You think, 'well once I get over that crest, it will flatten out and I’ll be able to see the Kibo crater'. That crest just kept getting further and further away. There was a point, in the pitch black when I started having doubts. Then Whitey began singing ‘I believe in Angels’. It was haunting. I shed a tear knowing that I would be able to make it. Just place one foot in front of the other and eventually, I’ll get there.

A few hours later the sun rose. I could see the top – Stella Point, at 5756m. In my euphoria I broke free from Whitey and the others and began to scramble towards the Stella Point sign. Then I realised, what on earth was I doing? I was wearing 5 layers including a woollen hat and scarf, I was dehydrated and exhausted, had no sunscreen on whilst the dawn sunlight was burning down on me. I collapsed into the side of the path and told Whitey that I thought I was going to die of heat exhaustion. He simply said ‘if you are going to die, you will not reach the summit’. That snapped me back to reality.

I completed the climb to Stella Point at 08:43, where I was greeted with hot sweet tea. I stopped here for a short while, chatting to others who were resting after making it up to the summit. Everyone looked absolutely shattered. 

As I got up and started walking again, I passed the rest of the Explore group who were already on their way back down. I barely remember seeing them, I was in such a daze. They were all fantastic, really encouraging, it felt like I was running the final straight in the London Marathon, they were saying ‘it's not far now, just up and around the corner’. I trekked from the eastern side of the crater, up higher and around the rim to the western side, experiencing a few more symptoms of altitude sickness and finally, finally to Uhuru Peak. What a relief! I was so exhausted, I went to sit down and rest, and woke up about 15 minutes later!

I still can’t believe I’ve actually done it. The scenery at the summit is out of this world. The glaciers are stunning, everything looks so crisp and fresh. Nothing will ever compare to how difficult it was, to get to the roof of Africa. But somehow I made it all the way up to 5985 metres. What an epic week at the office with Explore!"