I've never really considered myself a mountain climber, an adventurer or the sort of person to take on anything more challenging than a tricky cake recipe. I've always been more inclined towards warmer, indoor activities but when I saw a post on Facebook about the Cornerstone Kilimanjaro Challenge, something about it appealed to me. For some unknown reason it suddenly seemed like a thing I could and should do and, with my 40th birthday looming I decided it was a good time to accept a challenge.
In January, I bought myself a pair of walking boots and began training. And fundraising. At first, reaching my target of £3,500 seemed to be the real challenge but the total kept on creeping up thanks to the incredible generosity of family, friends, FX contacts and even complete strangers. People have been more kind than I could have imagined. By October donations totalled about £4,500 - a big thank you to everyone who supported me.
And so, after months of planning, walking, begging and acquiring much more man-made, hi-tech, thermal, wicking, clothing than I felt comfortable with, the time came for me to actually climb the mountain. I didn't feel particularly well-prepared; I'd read so many different accounts, so much advice, nice stories, adventure stories, horror stories but really, because the whole trip was so far removed from anything I'd ever done, I just couldn't imagine what the next ten days might bring. I kept reminding myself of everything I've been through with Seb over the last 11 years and thinking, hey, how hard can it be? (Read on to find out). I met the other 22 team members at Heathrow, all from Scotland, all raising money for Cornerstone, and we started, excitedly, nervously, our journey to Tanzania.
It was warm and overcast when we eventually arrived at Kilimanjaro - the prettiest airport I've ever seen, surrounded by bright flowers and lush greenery. We chucked our stuff onto the roof of a bus which wouldn't have been out of place on a 1950's Sunday School trip and made our way to the hotel, passing by the predictable broken-down roadside shacks, tatty old cars and groups of locals, some waving, some smiling, most just staring at the tourist idiots on the bus. Our hotel, the Honey Badger Lodge turned out to be the most idyllic place - luxury, straw-roofed huts, a clear, blue pool encircled by banana trees, monkeys and lizards scuttling about and even a stone pizza oven - I'd thoroughly recommend the Honey Badger to anyone thinking of visiting Tanzania.
On the Sunday morning a bus ride up through the hilly, dusty roads towards Kilimanjaro National Park, passing lines of locals in Sunday best dawdling back from church. At lunchtime we reached Marengu Gate where we registered our group and then, on a bit further to the beginning of the Rongai route where we started our trek. It was still overcast and nicely warm, the landscape not hugely different from home with forests and paths squishy with pine needles. We reached first camp at dusk where our bags were waiting and tents had been set up by the incredible group of porters who worked so hard for us during the entire trek - around sixty young guys and a couple of women, who would each day (as we grunted on laboriously, breathlessly) slip gracefully past our group, their heads and necks laden with our bags, tents and the odd bag of potatoes or bread to set up camp in time for our arrival. Food was served in the mess tent - a taste of the days to come, heavy on carbs and hydration but a real feat of catering in the circumstances - but we all soon ended up in our sleeping bags, full of anticipation of the walk ahead.
The three days which followed were pretty great - routine 6.30 start with breakfast of porridge, bread, omelette and plenty of tea and coffee, filling up of water bottles and after packing up camp, a long and very, very slow hike in single file, between about six and nine hours each day. The pace was slow and our ten brilliant guides never tired of reminding us 'pole pole', Swahili for 'slow-slow', essential to maintain stamina as we climbed higher and the oxygen levels decreased. We became slaves to our walking poles and water bottles for those three days, gradually getting higher, walking over rocky moorland, through Alpine desert with spectacular views of plains, mountains and of course, Kilimanjaro itself, often appearing unexpectedly around a corner with its inimitable, awesome presence. By the end of Day Two, we were above the clouds and soon got used to the fact that this was to be our home for the next few days.
Wednesday morning saw the pleasant short-ish, four mile walk to Kibo camp, the camp from which we were to make to final push to the summit later that night. After eating in the evening we were given a fairly grim briefing about how to prepare for the summit climb and what we could expect, before being told to rest until 11pm when we'd be woken for tea and biscuits and the biggest challenge of our lives. I don't think anyone managed to sleep - it was already bitterly co
At midnight we obediently formed a line in the darkness and started walking, slow-slow, the only sound the huffing of people trying to catch a breath and the painfully slow noise of boot in front of boot, trudging through gravel. It was probably around minus ten degrees at an altitude of around 4,700m, the sky was clear and the moon full. Many of us abandoned our head torches and walked by the moonlight, although there was no opportunity to appreciate the beauty or the scale of what we were doing - all focus was on taking each step and trying to overcome the dizziness and nausea caused by the lack of oxygen and the extreme tiredness, walking up a steep, rocky slope at a time when we should have been tucked up in bed. A break after two hours' walking was welcome, as were the two Mars bars I crammed in my mouth, but getting going again afterwards was almost unbearable. Not long after, the first member of our group collapsed with a thud, having to be taken back to camp and then things got really tough.
By this point, I was so tired and so cold - my fingers had started to swell and bubble - my water bottle was frozen and all around me I could hear people sobbing and vomiting and dropping to the ground. The slow-moving zig-zag of head torch lights of other groups above us only lit up just how long and how steep the path ahead was. I decided I couldn't go on anymore and crumpled down into the gravel, happy to cry myself to sleep, to surrender to the majesty of Kilimanjaro. I was told by the leader that someone would take me safely back down to camp and I was resigned to that - even though a part of me was so disappointed that I'd made it that far, my body just didn't have the drive to go on...
...a shot of glucose gel and a stirring pep talk from an inspirational friend gave me enough strength to continue. For another five hours. Each step brought a fresh wave of exhaustion, nausea and piercing cold. I couldn't have done it without my beautiful guide, Johann who took care of me as if I were a child - he warmed my hands, helped me zip my coat, de-iced my water bottle and at times physically hauled me up the slow- slow, zig-zag path to the top. A moment that will stay forever was when Johann pointed behind us and I turned to see the brilliant pink strip of sky behind Mawenzi peak as the sun began to rise.
19 members of our group made it to Gilman's Point, 12 made it all the way to Uhuru Peak, the highest point of Kilimanjaro which was another two hours' walk and 200m climb. After a hot, sweet tea I had thought I could make it to Uhuru but a few steps in, I realised I had nothing left and felt satisfied to have made it, more or less, to the top.
Down was easier, but not easy - three hours of skidding and falling back down the gravel slope, still struggling with nausea and fatigue - before collapsing into my tent and sleeping deeply for a cruelly short time and then heading off once more to our final camp. The last day was a swift, beautiful, toenail-destroying 13 mile hike downhill through moorland and rainforest, back to where we began for a cold beer and the Sunday School bus back to our hotel. That evening we were treated to a wonderful Tanzanian feast with drummers and dancers although no-one's feet or legs were in the best shape for dancing or even moving.
And then it was time for home. Back to a cool, misty Britain and a Seb who'd had such a brilliant time with his grandparents he hadn't really noticed I'd been away but seemed happy enough with his Tanzanian football strip.
At first it was very strange being at home, sleeping in a bed, sitting in a chair, using a flush toilet - for about a week I dreamt vaguely sinister, confused dreams of walking in single file through gravel, of cold and darkness. In the mornings, I'd wake with the feeling of being up very high, on a mountain, in cool, snowy light. But two weeks back and I'm feeling just about normal again with enough time and distance between me and the mountain to say that I am glad that I did it and know myself to be privileged to have been involved in such an incredible, unforgettable adventure. And of course, to have done it for such a worthwhile cause as The Fragile X Society! P.S bake sales all the way from now on...