Posted by Arvind Mistry.
Last September an opportunity arose to join a group of family friends to fulfil one of my personal lifelong ambitions, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. A ‘Bucket list item for many people, this challenge was especially meaningful for me as it allowed me to return to the country of my birth, Tanzania, which I had left – aged 7 – to move here to England. Six months after completing the trek, and well and truly back into the everyday routine, I am pleased to take the opportunity writing this blogpost to relive and share with you some of the most memorable moments.
I landed in Tanzania on 9th September 2017, and met up with my fellow trekkers in Moshi. All five of us were aged between 55 and 61, making the combined age of our group a somewhat staggering 285! We started the trek 2 days later. The trek would take us through many climate zones, initially from woods and dense rainforest. The landscape then opens into vast expanse of heath over the next three days. As you get higher the terrain becomes alpine and then barren, stoney and dusty. During our time on the mountain our climbing team of five members was supported by a team of three guides, two cooks and 18 porters. Fortunately, therefore, we only had to carry our daysacks and focus on walking and getting to the next camp where there would be hot food and a bed waiting.
The climb itself it is not a technical climb; no ropes, crampons or special equipment is required. It is a trek which requires a lot of stamina and hard work. Although it helps to be physically fit it is not something that will get you to the top to Uhuru Peak alone. It was willpower and endurance that saw me to the summit, together with a lot of support and encouragement from the guides and the support team and camaraderie amongst our group of trekkers. Something you hear the guides saying all the time on the way up is “Pole Pole” which is Swahili for “slowly slowly”. It’s a snail’s pace walk to save energy, and acclimatise to the high altitudes. Very quickly I found myself focusing on just being able to put one foot (and at times half foot) in front of the other; even though you feel you are deprived of oxygen and energy you keep going until the guides say stop. I found that listening to some of my favourite upbeat ‘dad music’ really helped. It seems to cut the long day’s trek into manageable two and half minute bite-size sessions. Something else that also helped to lift the spirit when things got a bit tough, was the singing of the Kilimanjaro Song, which is taught to all the trekkers by the guides and porter “Jambo, Jambo Bwana, Habarigani, Mazuni Sana, Wageni Mwakaribishwa, Kilimanjaro, Hakuna Matata…..”
The sixth day of the trek was the final ascent from the Barafu Base Camp to Uhuru Peak. This day was by far the longest and most demanding. Most people start the ascent at around 1am, trekking through the night with head torches. Their objective is to get to Stella Point, which is on the rim of the volcano, before dawn breaks to see a magnificent sunrise. As a team we elected to forfeit the sunrise to secure a successful summit by not walking through the tricky terrain in the dark and freezing temperatures. Instead we started our final climb at around 5am, which meant that there was only about one hour of trekking to do in the dark and the cold before the sun rose. By starting later, we had the further advantage of reaching the summit after the crowds had been and gone. This meant we had the top all to ourselves without having to jostle for the best view points and photo opportunities.
The day had started well; however it wasn’t long before a couple of team members started to struggle to keep up, with fatigue starting to set in. There was also some concern as one member’s blood oxygen level was getting a bit low. At this point and for the first time in the trip it was decided by the head guide to split the team and three of us would go on ahead and the other two would follow on at a slightly slower pace. As the morning progressed and the ascent got steeper it started to become increasingly difficult and every small step seemed like ten. Like six-year olds we started asking the guides every few minutes ‘are we nearly there’ and like patient parents they kept saying ‘yes almost there, just around that corner’ knowing perfectly well that there was still good three hours to go before we reached the summit. Finally, around noon we got onto the rim of the volcano at Stella Point. For me this was a massive relief and a great sense achievement getting this far. I had read that Stella Point was most people’s nemesis. Sometimes even if they get this far they are unable to continue though the summit is in sight and there is only another one and a half hours of walking to do after six days of trekking.
After a short break we were ready and excited for the final push. However there was also a note of sadness that whole team did not get this far together and there was concern as to whether the other two would actually make it to Stella Point. There was also a suggestion by the guides that even if they made it this far they may not be able to go further, depending upon the findings of a medical examination by the head guide. With mixed emotions we shuffled on slowly along the rim towards Uhuru Peak. On this final stretch we walked past something I really was not expecting to see on the top. I had read about and seen pictures of snow being on the top but not Glaciers! In Africa!! These were an amazing sight and a massive unexpected bonus for me. As we approached the famous sign marking the summit and Uhuru Peak the guides said that we had to be quick about taking photos etc. as we would only be stopping here for about 10 minutes or so. It was not safe to hang around too long at this altitude. 10 minutes after weeks of training and days walking up this mountain! But reaching and touching that summit board was the best feeling ever and what a sense of pride and accomplishment. That moment will stay with me alongside those few other special landmark moments in my life.
After a few pats on the back, man hugs and a photo session we started making our way down. We were really pleased to meet the other two members of the team making their way up after having a little rest and given some oxygen at Stella Point. They were also going to make to the summit after all. It was humbling to see two men who had fought so hard to get to this point and were so defiant that they were brought to tears by their determination to get to the top.
The downside of starting late in the morning was that you finished late. After summitting at 1.30pm we still had approximately 10 hours of trekking to do to get to the camp where we would spend the night. Initially the trek down seemed easy as we were still euphoric about all five of us successfully summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long and the tiredness soon set in and we found ourselves stopping for rest at more and more frequent intervals. We arrived at the camp at 11.30pm after hours of trekking in the dark and freezing cold. That day we had been trekking for a total of 17 hours! And we were absolutely exhausted both physically and mentally.
After seven days we had all descended Kili safely and had successfully completed our goal. Reflecting on the experience, it was amazing and it is the most rewarding thing I have ever done (seconded only to having two amazing children), not to mention the most physically and mentally demanding thing!! If you ever have an opportunity to do it, I would thoroughly recommend going and climbing Kili, and at the same time visit Tanzania and meet its friendly and happy people.
When I signed up for this trip, I decided to use this personal opportunity to raise some money for couple of charities that are dear to us, Anthony Nolan and Dove House Hospice. Anthony Nolan does fantastic work helping to save the lives of people with blood cancer. With Leukaemia having claimed the lives of close family and friends, this is a cause particularly close to our hearts. Dove House Hospice, as many of you will know, provides fantastic support to local people with life-limiting illnesses. Thanks to the amazing generosity of friends – many fellow Walkington residents – and family, I was able to smash my fundraising target by raising over £3000. If you would like to donate to either of these two causes, I have included the link to the fundraising pages for both charities, below.