Monday 5th June 2017
So last couple of times I told you about how I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro, but first a broken leg postponed my trip by two years, then Cyclone Kyrill threatened to derail my journey. Well here’s what happened next…
Having slept fitfully, I couldn’t wait to jump out of bed and finally get on with the task of actually climbing the mountain. I laced up my barely used walking boots, filled my daysack with as much chocolate as it would hold, poured fresh water into my two stainless steel drinks bottles and marched downstairs to meet the others in the lobby.
After a short drive, we were at the gates to the mountain, where most of the morning was spent filling in permits, weighing rucksacks and taking endless photographs.
Eventually it was time to begin and the group of 40 of us set about up the narrow tail ahead of us. The path led us through dense jungle, with luminous green leaved trees lining each side of the path. We were overawed at the beautifully coloured birds, gushing waterfalls and spritely monkeys playfully swinging from tree to tree.
The walk was tough and it wasn’t long before I was questioning my decision to have picked such an ambitious first adventure. My legs felt weary with the heavy boots weighing me down and the heat and humidity of the jungle climate sapped my remaining strength. Maybe this was the dreaded altitude sickness that I’d heard so much about kicking in already.
I had actually for one gone against my principle of never taking any medicines and chosen to take Diamox, which is one of the few things that can help to stave off the effects of the deadly condition of altitude sickness, which is brought about the decrease of oxygen in the air at great heights. The danger of taking it as a prophylactic, is that you are using up one of the only treatments. The only real “cure” being too get down to a much lower altitude fast.
By the time we reached camp for the first night, I actually still felt fine, except for very tired legs. If the first day was anything to go by the rest of the week was going to be torture.
I was pleasantly surprised then, to find out that after the grueling first day, the rest of the week actually got much easier. With the dense hit jungle behind us, the next few days we wound our way up the hillside in a zig zag fashion, through a variety of terrains that included thick gorse bushes, large yuka trees and even a desolate lunar style landscape, too high for any flora or forna to grow.
Apart from having to stop to go to the toilet every few minutes, one of the side effects of the Diamox being that it makes you want to pee constantly, I felt in great shape and enjoyed each day more than the last. Many of the rest of the group were unfortunately suffering from intense headaches, blisters and upset stomachs.
By the time we had passed the last water point and were onto the final day’s walking before the summit push, I was bounding along near the head of affairs, trying to name capital cities and their countries, in a bid to keep my mind sharp, as the altitude sickness easily confused the brain into a drunk like fashion.
I was drinking plenty of water, eating like the proverbial horse and slathering myself in suntan lotion, mindful that we were still dangerously close to the equator, even if it didn’t seem all that hot and tropical at so many meters above sea level.
Supposedly we would burn nearly twice as many calories than we could consume and were warned that the further up the mountain that we got, the more our appetites would wane, as the stresses of the reduced oxygen to its toll on our bodies. If anything, mine had increased and I think I was the only member of the party that gained weight and didn’t lose it!
This was down to the delicious food in camp each night, cooked by our awesome team of local guides, my enormous chocolate supply, that also won me plenty of friends and made for a great trading tool in exchange for essential items such as loo roll, of which I had run out of due to the incessant peeing, and of course my ingenuous stash of croutons.
What kind of posh weirdo brings croutons up a mountain?! I hear you ask. I’m telling you, croutons are the snack of champions and my idea should go down as tip number 1 in mountaineering guidebooks all over the globe.
Firstly, they’re light to carry, uncrushable and don’t melt or freeze in extreme temperatures. Secondly, they’re soaked in fat and therfore tremendously calorific. Thirdly, soup is a staple food on expeditions, as it’s nutritious, palatable and easy to cook over a camping stove, and a sprinkling of croutons make a snack into a meal and add a very tasty dimension to it. Lastly you can eat then alone as a very delicious dry snack whilst walking. They’re the climbing connoisseur’s crisps (or chips if you’re American). Honestly these crunchy little bites of hard bread are like small nuggets of gold and despite a lot of laughs from the rest of the group, I maintain that they were the single best food brought on the trip.
So basically, everything was going swimmingly, the snow topped peak was in sight and I was feeling fine. That was until some of the suncream started to run into my eyes, as the sweat started to trickle down my face. I tried rubbing it away, and even rinsed it out with water, but my eyes were really sore and started running badly. I must be having a bad reaction to the extra strength factor 50 that had accidently got in my eyes.
By lunchtime, the tears down my face were constant and my eyes were stinging like mad, so much so that I went to see the team Doctor, who was walking with us.
Turns out that it wasn’t actually suncream in my eyes, but the beginnings of snow blindness, which is a very painful condition caused by the super strength sun burning the back of your retinas. Nice! I’d basically sunburnt my eyeballs.
And before you ask, of course I was wearing full protection UV strength wrap around sunglasses, but unfortunately the sun had been reflecting off the bright ground beneath my feet and down over the top of my glasses, as I had a bobble hat on, not a peaked cap. Because of my fat hamster cheeks, the sunglasses did not fit flush to my face and the burning bright light had a small gap with which to penetrate my delicate eyes.
At least my legs, lungs and mind were still going strong, and really that’s all I needed for the summit push, as most of the ascent would take place in the dark, for we were only pausing at the last camp for a few hours before setting off again around 10pm.
By the time we reached said camp, it was early evening, and I could see nothing. My eyes and eyelids had swollen immensely, the pain was excruciating and I was horrified that the eye cream that the Doctor have me, was the same one that we use for horse eye infections!
I naively thought that I’d still be able to join the others on the nighttime jaunt up the steep snow covered scree in a couple of hours, despite the Doctor ding his best to persuade me otherwise.
But by the time the appointed hour rolled around, even I had to concede defeat. I was completely blind, physically sick from the pain, and generally lost and confused. All this way and to be beaten by a bit of snow blindness. What an idiot, nobody back home would believe me. I doubt they’ve ever even heard of snow blindness in Suffolk.
One of the others kindly took me outside to the toilet, for I could see nothing, and then the rest raped and pillaged my rucksack for goodies, such as gloves, walking poles and chocolate candies, with my permission and best wishes of course. Instead they left me guarding a pile of sleeping bags and other unneeded equipment. All I had to do was wait for them to ascend, take various pictures and collect me on their way back down…
I’ll be honest, it was quite scary waiting all alone in what I knew to be the dark, that would remain dark when the sun came up also, due to my condition. It seemed many hours of restless tossing and turning before I heard the first sounds of the life. As I couldn’t see my watch, I had no idea what time it was or how long the others had been gone.
A friendly yet stained voice informed me that it was our Doctor who had returned. He was worryingly ill with acute mountain sickness and informed me that he urgently needed to give me an injection of some life saving medication. Jeez, he must’ve been sick to want a blind person sticking a needle in his body!
I followed his gasping instructions and pretty soon he started to feel a good bit better. He told me to try to help him get the special pressure tent ready as there was another member of our group that had collapsed further up the mountain and was being brought down by a team of guides. After an easy first week on the mountain, the casualties were now coming thick and fast. And with the few of us that were assembled in camp already incapacitated, we were struggling to be of much use. It was a case of the blind attending to the wounded.
By the time the afternoon came, the main bunch of successful summiters were now back in camp, exhausted, elated and completely devoid of energy. They had to get all the way back down to the previous day’s camp though, as getting to a lower altitude is the single most effective way of reviving the weary and suffering climbers.
I couldn’t see how bad they looked, but they sounded dreadful, tales of vomiting, breathlessness, intense headaches, dizziness and ataxia. Maybe my snow blindness had been a blessing in disguise. But to come so far and be thwarted at the final hurdle was still tough to take. And I also had the small problem of getting down the mountain, before the altitude got me too. And of course I still couldn’t see.
There’s one fast and rather unglamorous way back down to base camp, and after one of the girls with a very serious pulmonary odema got carted off on the converted shopping trolley, I was determined not to become victim number 2.
The now recovering Doctor recommended the stretcher as the safest option for me, but while my legs were still working there was no way I was being wheeled away, so I found a good samaritain amongst the group of philanthropists and got them to guide me back down, pointing out stones and boulders in my way, whilst I shuffled and stumbled and used my trekking poles as a make shift white cane.
Eventually I made it back to the camp for that night and over the next couple of days, made it back to the base of the mountain, whilst my eye site slowly restored itself. Thankfully snow blindness is a temporary plight, but one that has left my eyes overly sensitive to bright light, meaning I have to wear sunglasses on very sunny days or else suffer from bad headaches. And yes I always make sure that they fit my fat face well!
Although I never made it to the top of the Mount Kilmanjaro, I did make it almost all of the way, and I certainly met some incredible people and made some great friends during my trip too. And on the long drive back to the Nairobi, we stopped at one of the projects that the money we raised went to fund. To see the style of life some of the locals were subjected to was sobering to say the least, and really put everything in perspective. The money was used by VSO to fund volunteers and organisations to help educate, support and improve the lives and welfare of those most in need. It was a trip of a lifetime and very humbling, and who knows, there’s still time to try for a go at second time lucky, if the urge ever strikes me…