No amount of training could’ve prepared me for hiking up Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, as you can’t be sure how fit you need to be to overcome altitude sickness.
Our six-day trip followed the easterly Marangu route, and we had two porters per person to carry our rucksacks.
Day one was superb but sweltering. As my ‘fast’ is very slow, I was at the back of our group of 12 as we cut through rainforest. When we reached the wooden huts at Mandara, we dropped off our gear and hiked upwards a little further before returning to base camp, adhering to the ‘trek high, sleep low’ protocol that helps you acclimatise to altitude.
On the second day we hiked through marshland, singing the Kilimanjaro song whose words translate as ‘When you get to Horombo, everything’s alright’. Reaching 3,500m was an almost spiritual moment: I stood there, alone, feeling at one with this majestic mountain, staring at the incredible views of Kili’s three volcanic peaks. We stayed in Horombo for two nights, doing a short hike to 4,000m on Valentine’s Day, during which I handed out Love Heart sweets.
On the fourth day we planned a gruelling seven-hour hike to Kibo at 4,700m, from where we’d launch our attempt on the summit at midnight. In our briefing the guides told us to visualise ourselves at the top, and in my mind I was already there, standing on the roof of Africa. That day I couldn’t even carry my own daypack. I experienced painful headaches and dizziness and felt unbelievably fatigued. One of the group, an ex-military man, called out ‘Left, left, left-right-left,’ to help keep us motivated as we trudged ever higher. I also repeated the mantra ‘Strong, powerful, awesome, ace, I have got a good pace.’ We stopped for lunch at 4,200m but I had no appetite: all I could do was nibble on a biscuit. We pressed on, step by agonising step. Breathing felt like sucking sips of air through a straw.
When I reached the huts at Kibo I could see the snow-capped mountain glinting in the fading sunlight. I lay down for 45 minutes, feeling sick. At dinner-time a guide helped me off my bunk and my legs buckled. I crawled across the floor and made it to the hut’s door before throwing up. And then I vomited again outside. My guide rushed to check my blood oxygen levels and found they were dangerously low. ‘You have acute mountain sickness,’ he said. ‘We need to take you down straightaway.’ I felt a surge of disappointment mixed with relief and fear: knowing that remaining at altitude could be fatal was incredibly scary.
I expected to be stretchered down the mountain but was told I had to walk. It was snowing as I stumbled along the path, following my guide who balanced my backpack on his head. When I reached the huts at Horombo after five hours the stars seemed to be coming at me as if in a 3D movie. I thought I’d feel loads better as soon as I descended, but I had a nosebleed and felt horribly sick and weak with dehydration. It was only the following day that I began to feel less ill.
When I heard the news that the group had summited, I cried with joy for them, and intense disappointment for myself as I really had wanted to persevere and reach the summit. Nonetheless, I knew that I could’ve died if I hadn’t descended, and that the journey is more important than the destination.