So with the big 3 0 looming in the horizon I knew I wanted to do something big, preferably outside of raining Ireland! I thought about when I felt most alive and came to the conclusion that it was definitely when I was far out of my comfort zone. Thus how I came to th decision to spend my 30th climbing the highest mountain in Africa!
While stuck in a two gate terminal in addis airport, Ethiopia with nowhere to buy food, drink or go to the toilet waiting 7hours on delayed flight to Kilimanjaro I found the not so positive thoughts creeping into my head ‘Michaela, why the heck are you doing this, everyone else at home is getting fat and drunk over Christmas, yet you chose this!’
Landed, showered, fed, emptied bladder and those negative thoughts are no longer there; why the hell am I climbing Kilimanjaro? Well why the hell not. You can get fat and drunk at home anytime!
Met my guide(s) and fellow climbers, a lovely father, Pacale and daughter, Pauline from France. Pauline has been living in Tanzania for over a year so quickly became the translator from Sawhali to English and French, very skilled young lady! Seeing them share the same little anxieties about this adventure is comforting. Although when my guide said he cried the first time he did the climb that was more of ‘oh shit’ feeling than a comfort!
Accidentally taking double the recommended dosage of my altitude pills the night before the hike started caused an unpleasant night filled with little to no sleep and times when I did close my eyes horrible nightmares such as the mountain collapsing on me! So….very tired that morning I dragged myself out of bed, got the bags packed one final shower and geared up to go. When the bus picked us up it was full of local men, I kept thinking they can’t all be our team there was over 20 people and only 3 climbers but turns out they were and this was to be our family for the next 7 days.
Getting off at the gate, signing into the mountain(!) and filling out water bottles that was us ready to go. The first half hour I was too hot, out of breath and couldn’t get enough water into me the thought of how the heck am I gona do this definitely crossed my mind! Then the guides advised slowing down, they set a pace for us and I quickly got a rhythm of walking which I tried to maintain for the next week!
First night we stayed in a campsite in the forest. The feeling of coming to the top of a hill and seeing tents was a massive relief. Although we only hiked around 6 hours the first day I think my body was in a bit of shock and was thankful for the end of the day. Our team of porters, more appropriately named by our guide as soldiers, had set up camp for us with our tents for sleeping, tent with table and chairs for eating, tent for kitchen, portable toilet and staffs sleeping tents. Considering they left after us set up lunch along the way and still made it to camp hours before us give me a sense from the beginning they were very hard working men.
Our guides were very careful about how much info he give us for the days ahead. Being a leader in my job at home I totally understand this, managing expectations is key to a happy group especially in a trip such as this where us ‘clients’ clung to their every word! All we were told was the next day would be steep but short and the day after would be long but not as steep. Ok two different days, I can deal with that. The next day we were very kindly woke by Charles, a lovely man who was part of the cooking team. He knocked the tent with a cup of tea in hand, how could you be annoyed at that even though it was 6.30am! The diamox pills had once again disturbed my sleep I didn’t feel refreshed at all and certainly not ready for a steep climb but on we went up a path which looked like it was leading us to heaven! The hike was steep but in a mere 6 hours we arrived at camp number two! Arriving early and not stopping for lunch meant we had all afternoon to chill in camp which was great. This camp, possibly my favourite of the trip overlooked another mountain range on one side and the summit of Kili in sight on the other. Being New Years Eve we decided to have a wee ‘party’ this involved us each lead in a song/dance from our country. The frenchies did their national anthem and I qucikly realised every Irish song that came to mind involved people dying or British occupation so being New Years I adopted a song from our lovely Scottish neighbours and lead Auld Lang Syne with some extra Ceili moves! The team then blew us away with Tanzanian songs and dances, the energy and spirit these fellas put into each song was so impressive, especially after just running up the steep bit of the mountain with 20kg on their back and heads! One song that stuck out to me was had the words Jambo (hello) kilimanjaro, pole pole (slowly slowly) Hakuna Matata (no worries) I loved this song from the minute I heard it when it become a reoccurring song in our team and others I knew it was a keeper! I’ve now heard this song everywhere iv went from the short flight to Zanzibar, boat trips, the kids on the beach…..it’s clearly the anthem of the trip!
Seeing people so proud of their country and wanting to show their guests the best of it brought a very humble feeling for me. I felt extremely grateful to be given an insight into this beautiful country, feeling the sense of pride the guides and soilders of our team had for this incredible part of the world highened this gratitude so much. I can only hope someday I get the chance to show off my country with the same pride to this special people.
After the sing song I sat on a rock watching the clouds pass in and out of the mountain range infront of the camp. I took a bit of time to try and capture what I was witnessing, where I was and what I was embarking on. I had they sudden rush of appreciation for everything in that moment and promised myself I would never forget the feeling of total gratitude.
We hit the tents for an early night having already celebrated New Years before dark. A night of tossing and turning on my tent (damn diamox!) ended with sunrise; I hadn’t slept a wink and it was time to start another day. After breakfast I got a wave of nausea and threw up by a rock! Our amazing team, who clearly don’t miss a trick were straight over with water and an supportive tap on the back. I panicked a bit at this point, I remember hearing before that once you start to vomit that’s your body not coping with the altitude and it’s game over. On day 3 I really didn’t want this to be the case. Our lead guide Alex seen this panic on my face and reassured me this sometimes happens it’s not a problem unless it continues to happen. So on we went up a steep and long hill to our highest peak yet, Lava tower. This day was a test on our bodies to see how we coped at lava tower which was 4600 meters above sea level. This is the same height as the summit on the Salkantay trek I did in Peru last year. I remember heading towards the summit of Salkantay in Peru completely out of breath, gasping for air and not able to go a few steps without stopping. This experience was different to that. Heading towards Lava tower I found myself in a good rhythm with enough breath to make it to the top with few stops along the way. I was really happy I dedicated time and energy to getting my fitness up before I came as I think this played a big part in being able to take on long hikes to high altitudes such as this day. Landed at Lava tower had lunch and didn’t puke it back up, great success! We carried on to our descent into camp for the night.
Going down presents different challenges to going up. I found I needed to concentrate a lot more on every step as parts were quite steep. My knees weren’t too happy about the decent and I just kept thinking if I don’t have thighs like beyonce’s by the end of this I’m asking for a refund! The rain came on part way through this afternoon which brought a bit of a shit vibe and made every step that bit harder to control but we had been so lucky so far; trying to be all peace loving hippy I was thankful for the rain as Kili needed it as much as the lovely sunshine(!)
After dinner that night we were given the nightly run down for the next day by our guide Alex. He told us we’d be faced with a wall in the morning that some people cry at the thoughts of having to climb, super can’t wait for the morning! I’m not great with heights so was a little anxious at the thought of climbing a cliff face with not a harness or rope in sight! The guides were, as always amazing help throughout this climb. They told us where to put each hand and foot and where to be extra careful (I guessed these are the spots people had died on before which is why they got a special mention!) So with the valley below we successfully made it to the top of the wall after about 2 hours of climbing. It was actually brilliant, once my legs stopped shaking I loved it! Who needs a harness anyway!! During this climb while we carefully placed each foot and hand the porters were swing on past us, barley holding onto the wall with at least 20kg on their back and heads!! It was an insane/scary sight. I never got the statistic on how many porters die on Kili but I’m sure it a lot more than clients, and a lot less reported 😦
This was a long day and after the adrenaline of the wall wore off I felt like I was running on empty. But we pushed on and made it to base camp late afternoon, just in time to get prepping for summit day tomorrow eekk!
Baring in mind I still hasn’t slept from 2days ago, I was counting down the minutes until bed time but we definitely needed the all important ‘I don’t want to scary you’s but….’ briefing from our guides after dinner. Alex and Yasser managed to strike the perfect balance between scary the absolute shit out of us, (for our own safety) and encouraging us that we can make it. I went to bed feeling hopeful and excited to see what the next day would bring, our biggest challenge yet!
4am came fast and before I knew it i had 6 layers of clothing on, a balaclava and head torch, I was ready for the summit! The climb was steep and air was becoming increasingly thin with every step we took. The guides were extra supportive and encouraging, checking every few minutes if all was good. The views were incredible, I literally pinched myself to see if what I was experiencing was real. I had got a playlist of music to keep me occupied, it ended up being the best thing I could have done. I put the earphones in and allowed my mind to wander with the cheesy tunes which felt like the soundtrack to my hike! This tactic seemed to work well for me as I did not feel the thoughts of headaches, shortness of breath or aches of my body overwhelming. The tunes helped keep my spirits high and energy positive. On the way up we were passing people who were on their way down, some aided by guides holding them up, giving them oxygen or holding their hair back as they puked. Occasionally this set doubt in my mind if I was going to make it. When comparing myself to others I often doubt my capabilities and think if they can’t no way I will be able to. Luckily I was able to challenge these thoughts and replaced them with positive ones, which spared me on and kept me going. The experience does not only challenge your physical ability but your mental state too. At Stella point we were at the rim of the summit, just 45mins to go until the peak. Superstar came blasting in my ears, as I looked around at the clouds below, the glaciers to the side and the tip of Kilimanjaro in reaching distance I actually felt like a superstar and was beaming with pride. At the top I took out the Macmillan banner and an angel which my granny give to me. I reflected on the amazing angels I had around me who kept me safe this far. The wonderful Danielle, for who I was honoured to hold the Macmillan banner in memory of. My uncle Tommy who would have thought I’m crazy for taking on such a challenge and my lovely wee Granda who was celebrating his first birthday away from home while I was celebrating mine on the mountain. I got a wave of emotion at the top of the mountain as I thought about those who are no longer with us but their spiritual presence at such times brought me so much comfort. A few ‘We Made It’ photos and it was back down the way we came! The way down was long and tiring in a different way but we were all buzzing from the peak and appreciating the oxygen at every step that it didn’t matter!
We were welcomed by our team with high 5s, hugs and a lovey dinner! We had made it, I couldn’t quite believe it and kept looking back at the many photos I had took with a disbelieve, did I really just climb Mount Kilimanjaro!?
The next day was my birthday and what an incredible birthday it was. After 5 hours downhill we arrived at our last camp in the afternoon. A little rest then it was party time! My wonderful team had arranged many surprises which I had no idea about. I was presented with Ugali cake, a sort of potato textured cake, with a lovely message written on it. The tradition is I get fed a piece of the cake, dipped in peanut butter while everyone sings! I then spoon feed each person with a piece of cake and peanut butter! A lot more fun than how I’m used to having birthday cake! We had lots of singing, dancing and games. Pacale and Pauline wrote and performed a song thanking the crew for a great week and we all sat in a circle eating dinner together. This was a very special birthday which I will never forget thanks to the wonderful people who made it. I was never chuffed with the idea of turning 30 but with such an amazing week it was impossible to not be smiling ear to ear!
The next day we walked downhill for 4 hours, had lunch at the gate, drove 2 hours to the city Arusha and said our goodbyes 😦
Having shared such an intense and special experience formed a unique bound within our little group. I was sad to part ways with these fantastic people and to acknowledge that this was the journey finished. I hope we stay in touch and maybe our paths will cross again, the world is only as big as we perceive it.
So off to Zanzibar I go to get a big hug from my lovely wee family who have been waiting patiently for me in paradise. I completed a challenge that at times I thought was crazy to take on, but having done it I think I would have been crazy not to. My week on Kilimanjaro was one of the best experiences I have ever had, and has set the bar higher for future adventures in my 30s!!!!
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it but that it is too low and we reach it”