Some people have to climb a mountain every day!
Mental health can often feel like a mountain. My son has been struggling with mental illness for a number of years and has received the most wonderful care along his journey, particularly whilst in Langley Green Hospital and then in Shepherd House Recovery Unit.
For some time I had wanted to find some way of giving back to these two places that have done so much for my son, and the rest of our family, through his worst times. It might sound dramatic to those that don’t know our journey, but I honestly feel that they saved his life.
My friend and I had been talking about taking on a significant life challenge for a while. After discussing various possibilities, we decided upon climbing Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. So, we found a reputable organisation that we trusted and with great trepidation we signed up.
I quickly realised this was just the opportunity I needed to be able to give back to the places I’m so grateful to. So, I spoke to the lovely Sarah from Heads On explaining what I was hoping to do and set up my JustGiving page. There was no going back from this point; I would be reaching the top of that mountain no matter what it took!
Training and preparation was at the forefront of my mind for the months that followed. This meant keeping up with my Bootcamp classes, as well as fitting in long walks up hills… lots of hills. We became very familiar with Box Hill, the Seven Sisters and Snowdon. I also had to focus on ticking off the extensive kit list we’d been sent, so I began the quest of scouring outdoor retailers and eBay for bargains.
Time seemed to fly by, and before I knew it, it was October. The donations to my JustGiving page had surpassed anything I’d ever expected resulting in me doubling my target. The physical and emotional support I received from family, friends and work colleagues was incredible and really helped fuel my determination.
The morning of the 17th October was very surreal. My first thought as I woke was, “I’m going to climb my mountain today... Today!” My bag and boots were sitting there looking at me, all ready and waiting. It seemed very strange to be going into work as normal when such a huge event was looming. My mountain buddy, Claire, messaged to check up on me as I had been pretty poorly during the week before with laryngitis. That day at work was a bit of a blur, as I was on countdown until 4pm.
Heathrow Terminal 4 was where we got our first glimpse of the group that would become our climbing family for the next 9 days. It was a larger group than I was expecting, 25 of us in total, as well as the group leader and group medic. Someone once said to me that the difference between a group and a team is that a group is a collection of people, whereas a team is that same collection of people who are working together on a common goal. This was to be proven very true over the next few days; this collection of complete strangers would certainly prove to become a very strong team in a very short space of time.
After transfer from the airport we arrived at our hotel in Moshi. We were told that you could normally see Kilimanjaro from there but the weather was so appalling that all we could see was rain and clouds. Here we had a welcome briefing where introductions were made and an important kit check was carried out. I was still not feeling 100% with my throat infection but was sure that with another 24 hours of antibiotics inside me I’d be good to go in the morning. We tried to get a good night’s sleep in, but with the start of our climb looming the next morning, my head was buzzing with all the thoughts of the adventure to come.
We all loaded into the buses to drive to the entrance gates of the Kilimanjaro National Park. Here we signed into the park and picked up all of our support crew and equipment. It’s amazing how many mountain guides, cooks and porters a group of our size needed. I think there were about 90 in all! From here we drove to the Lemosho gate where our climb would begin. The previous day’s rain had taken its toll on the dirt roads, resulting in our bus becoming well and truly stuck in the mud. After all the porters and local farmers came to our aid - pushing, pulling, digging and filling in the deepest ruts with branches and grasses from the sides of the road, we finally got going again to huge cheers all around.
Due to this delay we began our first days of walking rather late. Despite this morale was good and there was an excited buzz around the group. This part of the trek was through the lush vegetation of the rainforest which was extra wet and muddy due to the recent heavy rainfall.
We arrived at our first camp just after dark with the help of our head torches. It was a good feeling to enter the camp after a long day. We had our first experience of dinner on the mountain. The cooks were miracle workers; how they cooked such wonderful meals on the side of a mountain was incredible. It was then time to familiarise ourselves with our tents, which we would be relying on for protection from the elements for the next 6 nights. They proved rather cosy for 2 people, but a nice relief to take our boots off and rest.
We had a rather early morning wakeup call from the monkeys in the nearby forest, before our scheduled 5am wake up call. After a good breakfast, we began our climb. We were faced with an 11 hours trek, across the Shira Plateau, so our bags were pretty heavy with our full 3 litre bladder packs. Sunday was a tough day. The morning’s climb was hard but we managed it well. At the lunch stop I had a wave of nausea that I couldn’t shift; I struggled to eat my rations of fruit pastilles and chocolate.
The afternoon was slow and the altitude was noticeable; we were up to about 3,500 metres by the time we reached camp. As if on cue, the clouds started to break, giving us our first glimpse of the summit. It was absolutely amazing with the sun glistening off the snow-topped peak. It still seemed to be towering over us and very much in the distance though. That night I fell into my bed feeling totally shattered, dizzy and sick. I don’t think it took me long to get to sleep that night!
Never underestimate the power of Marmite! I had taken some individual sachets with me and they were very happily received by all at breakfast, especially those struggling with their appetites. It was yet another early start, with another full day of walking.
The transformation of the landscape as we ascended was amazing. Monday’s climb was through the most barren lands I have ever seen - it can only be described as a lunar landscape complete with craters scarring the earth. This was also dusted with pockets of snow, which was quite magical.
Monday was probably my worst day so far in regard to sickness. I felt so weak with absolutely no energy at all. With our highest point of the day at an altitude of 4,630 metres, I wasn’t the only one to be feeling the effects. I think everyone was happy to get to camp that night.
We had a big day ahead of us with our first real taste of climbing, or scrambling, up the volcanic rocks of the Barranco Wall. I felt so ill that morning and couldn’t see how I was going to even pack up the tent, let alone face 6 hours of rock climbing. I managed to summon up energy, helped by great encouragement from Claire and a number of the others, and I set off with the rest of the group. After a while, and thankfully just in time, my nausea lifted, giving me back some much needed energy. Today we really saw a lot of teamwork and bonding going on, with the stronger members giving true support and encouragement towards the less strong ones, which was so refreshing to witness. We arrived at our camp mid-afternoon for a hugely welcome hot meal and an early night. The nights were getting noticeably colder with the tents freezing overnight, which made getting up for a midnight wee even more challenging than normal!
We made our way to our base camp. We had a shorter trek of only 5 or 6 hours, reaching our camp at lunchtime. We needed to add layers as the weather was starting to get pretty harsh. We all retreated into our tents by around 6pm in preparation for our summit climb starting at 12.30am. I went to bed feeling both emotional and terrified, but I knew that no matter what I was faced with the next day I HAD to reach that summit!
Not the best start as somehow we were missed out of the wake up round. The first Claire and I heard was everybody getting ready to go. We missed breakfast and had to get ready in such a rush that we weren’t emotionally set at all. The weather was horrendous from the off, with winds of 60km/hr frequently gusting to 80 km/hr. Looking ahead and behind at the long line of head-torches silently and slowly making their way forward was quite eerie. Conversation was virtually impossible at that altitude with every effort being put into placing one foot in front of the other. This was the toughest day of the whole climb and we did the steepest and most demanding section through the night. I think I survived by concentrating on the set of boots walking in front of me and matching my steps to theirs. “One foot in front of the other, just put one foot in front of the other”, I kept repeating in my head. After several hours a beautiful red glow eased into the horizon; sunrise had never been more welcomed. We still had to fight against the wind for a few more hours, trudging through thick snow as we neared the summit. When I finally saw the summit sign I couldn’t quite believe that I’d made it 5895 metres above the plains of Africa. Unfortunately, with the snow running into the clouds, all we could see was whiteness in every direction!
I don’t remember much of the descent, only that I was so elated that I’d reached my goal that I really didn’t care what happened now! We had several hours of steep slopes downward through rocks and scree which was quite gruelling and our knees were complaining well before the end. By the time we reached our camp for that night we had been walking for over 15 hours. Moral amongst the team was high and being at a much lower altitude again, people were feeling better. For the third time in the trek the chefs managed to produce a magnificent birthday cake for one of the team; Mary Berry would definitely be impressed! How they did that up a mountain I’ll never know!
After breakfast we continued our descent, now through the rainforest. The weather was warming up the lower we got and the pace showed our eagerness to reach the base. As we rounded the final bend in the track we were greeted by all the porters singing, dancing and congratulating us for completing the climb. It was an amazing feeling; all our team linked arms and walked through the gate together, joined physically and mentally by the journey we’d all just travelled together. Pure joint elation!