I’m struggling to start this post, as it’s going to be a beast of a story and I’ll never manage to cover all my experiences, feeling, thoughts and fears… Before I jump straight into the fact that by the grace of God I managed to summit the great Mt Kilimanjaro (spoiler alert), I need to start from the beginning of my trek 🙂 You might want to make a cup of tea and settle in… and then make another cup of something…
Travel Day 1&2:
I was so nervous the airline would lose my luggage, that I wore and carried almost ALL of my essentials to get me through at least the first 2 days on the mountain haha – thermals, socks, boots, trekking pants, t-shirt, fleece, down jacket, rain jacket, hat, sunglasses, gloves, beanie and ALL my tablets and camera gear. I think most people are given this advice, as almost everyone arriving in Kili was dressed like me!
I flew from Cape Town to Joburg on Friday night, then flew to Nairobi at 2am on Saturday morning. After that 4 hour flight, another 1 hour flight to Kilimanjaro… Travel days are long and they mostly suck! But I must say that Kenya Airways really surprised me with their on-board service – clean, on-time and friendly staff.
I arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport and was greeted by passport control asking for Yellow Fever certificates and general immigration questions and fingerprints. The next step… did my luggage arrive?! I was so grateful when I saw it pop onto the carousel. Met my driver and met a fellow climber, Mark from the UK, and off we went to our hotel. Tanzania was everything I expected from a poor African country – I must confess, I haven’t travelled around Africa too much and would like to do a lot more! We were really in the rural parts of the country and it was wonderful to see the market place, cattle, kids running around and the locals just hanging out and drinking at little “Shebeens” next to the road. The drive was about 45 mins to the Keys Hotel.
After some refreshments and a quick nap, we had a briefing with our guide and and met the other climber – Sharon, from Malaysia. Both Sharon and Mark were super fit and strong and I definitely felt out of my league… but I knew it wasn’t a race and we were all in it together!
Once breakfast was done, bags were packed, we were ready to go 🙂 Day pack weighed about 7kg and big bag weighed about 14kg. We drove to the starting gate – Machame. There were so many climbers, porters, guides and vans around, we had to be pretty patient – it is after all, “Africa Time.” We started walking around midday and walked through rain forest for about 5 hours. I remember thinking “This is steeper than the YouTube videos I watched…Eeek!” But we took it slow and made it to our first camp, Machame Camp (3100m) Oh, everyday we got a lunch box with a boiled egg, piece of chicken, crackers, mango juice, 2 slices of white bread and some sort of doughnut. By day 3, I couldn’t eat another boiled egg. As we reached Machame camp, I picked up a groin strain… yes, the first day – I couldn’t believe it! Quickly rubbed it down and texted the parentals to ask them to pray for it haha
We were now on the edge of the Shira region – DUST! We had never seen such fine dust before, and it got everywhere. I wore my buff over my mouth and nose while around camp that night.
We each had our own tent and we also hired a private toilet – as private and clean as a bucket with a toilet seat in a toilet tent can be 🙂 It was one of the best decisions we made though! The common toilets were horrible! Our tents were 2x2m and I was pretty comfortable in it. Mark really struggled with the fact that is was so small and that you couldn’t stand up in it – it’s amazing the things that can affect one that has nothing to do with the actual climb. Hand sanitizer was also my best friend on this trip – I tried to control everything that I could, in order to not get any kind of sickness.
Once settled into our camp, we had popcorn, biscuits and warm drinks after the long day – I think I drank more hot chocolate on this trip than in my whole life. We then had dinner. Breakfast and dinners were always simple, bland enough to not irritate anyone’s tummy’s but tasty enough to encourage you to eat – the higher you go, the more you lose your appetite and you need to eat as you’re burning so much energy each day! We had a little “mess” tent where tea and food were served in.
Night routine – take all vitamins, take Diamox (altitude sickness meds), fill up water bladders and bottles and purify and add electrolytes to the water, take hayfever tablet and any other tabs depending on symptoms.
We were all feeling really good at the end of day one – this wasn’t that difficult, right?
Today we were hiking from Machame camp (3100m) to Shira camp (3800m) – that’s quite a bit of height to cover. From camp, we could see some of the path and it was extremely steep – think about going up Platteklip Gorge for 6 hours… We always had to move slowly because of the altitude at which we were – we couldn’t rush up the mountain because we needed to acclimatize. Breakfast consisted of porridge, egg and toast. I’m super fussy when it comes to porridge, but I knew I had to suck it up and eat it to get energy! It really wasn’t bad at all 🙂 Today the route was much busier with all climbers, porters and guides leaving at a similar time! The porters are so strong – carrying 20kg up the mountain and sometimes even running past us. Jeez but didn’t we feel weak?! 😐
Again, this day was so dusty, I could feel it being sucked up into my lungs. We basically did lunges uphill for about 6 hours… Everyone was in good spirits and when we reached about midway, the view was spectacular!
We were all drinking and eating well – no less than 3.5l of water each day! When we reached 3890m, both Mark and I had a slight headache, but we knew it’s normal. However, later that day, Mark couldn’t seem to shake the headache so he tried to get some sleep after taking migraine medication. We then went for a short walk up to Shira cave – a little acclimatization walk. At dinner, Mark had lost his appetite and was pushing his food around – he wasn’t looking good, but we hoped for the best and told him to get some rest. Mark had decided not to take Diamox and rather handle the symptoms as they arrived rather than masking them… unfortunately he couldn’t shake the headache and nausea and decided to leave the following morning… It was a heart-sore goodbye and I told him that the mountain will always be there and he could try again! And then there were 2…
We knew this day wasn’t as steep, but it was a much longer day of walking – about 9 hours, and we were going to hit the 4000m mark where the air really started to get thin. I can’t explain the vastness of the mountain – not just the height of it, but the peaks and valley’s and as far as the eye can see. It’s extraordinary! We were making our way up to Lava Tower (4600m) when I couldn’t breath. I started to panic because my chest was so tight and sore that I started hyperventilating! We were the slowest group on the mountain – everyone seemed to be passing us, but I didn’t care! We took a break and Sharon helped me with my breathing – in through the nose, out through the mouth. This calmed me down and helped my chest. I was so concerned about getting altitude sickness, that when reading about the lack of air, I didn’t realise how thin the air would be… Breathes were very shallow – 2 seconds in and 2 seconds out…
I wasn’t feeling hundreds at Lava Tower – I ate the bare minimum and some chocolate to keep me going. This was the first time I took some nausea and headache tablets. We then made our way down to Barranco Camp (3900m). It was a long day and I was so exhausted I couldn’t even take photos. It also started raining as we got to camp – I tried to see it as blessing from the sky rather than making my life harder! I was pretty emotional and needed love and support from home – as always, the text message from the family did just that! I once again asked my praying posse to ask for my lungs to open. I had to process and work through the fear from the day and persevere – if it was this tough on day 3, how would I make it on summit night?
I decided to re-strap my knees and rub all my sore muscles down on the night of day 3, in preparation for summit night (the evening of day 4/ morning of day 5) so when I woke up on day 4, I had a renewed sense of energy. We had an early start – left camp at 7am because we wanted to get to base camp with enough time to eat and sleep before summit night.
I think most people are fearful of the Barranco Wall/ Breakfast Wall because it’s a sheer rock face that you have to scramble up for around 3 hours. I was scared but pretty excited because it’s something different than what we’d been doing for the last couple of days. I had to put away my trekking poles and use my hands! Sharon was like a little rock spider and moved quickly up the wall. I concentrated on putting my feet and hands in the right place because the last thing you want at this stage is to get hurt so close to summit night.
Barranco Wall took us 1h45m and it felt great getting to the top – the views where also pretty special. We had a clear view of Kili and she felt so close… I chose to do the 6 day, 7 night Machame route, but I would really recommend taking an extra day to rest. We walked from Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp (4hours), ate lunch there and then continued on to Barafu Camp (another 4 hours). If you took the extra day, you camped at Karunga Camp, so split that day into 2 rather than walking for 8 hours, getting 3 hours sleep and then starting summit night. Each day was more difficult than the previous one – the lack of oxygen really took it’s toll and I broke down just before reaching Barafu Camp (4600m). My guide, Frank, said “The camp is just at the top of that hill”. When I reached the top of that hill, there was another hill… and I just muttered through the tears “It’s just too hard, I can’t”… Left…right…left…right… Managed to get to Barafu Camp. Messaged home… “BROKEN” – my poor family and friends.
This camp didn’t even look friendly – it was very misty and had sharp volcanic rock at every turn. As soon as we registered (we had to check-in at every camp so they could keep track of us at each station) we made our way to our tents for a hot drink, early dinner and briefing for the night ahead…
Even though I was feeling broken, I still made sure that EVERYTHING was ready for summit! Water, tablets, spare clothes, snacks, headlight, spare headlight and all the layers I was planning to wear. I went to sleep at 7pm. My alarm sounded at 10:50pm – I surprisingly managed to sleep for just under 3 hours. When I stepped out the tent, there was ice on the ground and it was probably around -10 degrees Celsius. I was pretty zen over the next 45 minutes or so… I kept thinking “This is crunch time, this is why I came here!”.
It was pitch black when we started walking from camp around 12am, and in about 10 minutes, Sharon panicked and couldn’t breath. All climbers were on the same mission and the route was pretty busy. We took a break and she tried to catch her breath. We walked for another 5 minutes or so and she collapsed onto a rock and said her heart rate was so high that she didn’t think she would make it… She decided to turn back and go back to camp. And then there was 1…
I’m not sure I even registered the loss of Sharon because I didn’t want that fearful energy to engulf me. It sounds selfish, but I couldn’t let anything fluster me – I had to stay present and strong. I couldn’t believe how steep the summit was… I couldn’t believe how much snow was on the ground… I couldn’t believe how many rocks we had to walk over… This wasn’t what I was expecting – the videos I watched and literature I read never focused on this part of the summit, only the end part… The moon was shining quite brightly so I could see the whole mountain and how far up people were. I was walking so slowly that I was finally alone with my guide – almost no one was around me. I could see all the little headlamps all the way up the mountain. I just couldn’t breath… my lungs were more open than the day before but I can’t explain the lethargy when you have no oxygen.
The sun rose while I was still on the bottom section of the summit – usually one would be at the summit when the sun rises… No matter how tired I was, I said to Frank “If nothing else, she sure is beautiful…” I could appreciate her majestic nature – I have never seen anything like that before – she literally took my breath away 🙂
Not once did I think of turning back. Every time I experienced any form of pain or fear, I thought about cancer patients who have to endure this all the time, but persevere – that pushed me onwards. I had been walking for about 8 hours and people were streaming past me coming down after a successful summit. Left… right… left… right… My guide could see that I was tired, but I was so fortunate not to be sick! We both agreed that exhaustion was not going to be a reason why I didn’t summit. But time was passing quickly and Frank said “Romy, even if we just get to Stella Point, that will be ok.” to which I replied “Frank, I didn’t come here for Stella Point, I came for here for Uhuru Peak, let’s keep going!”
When I say that I was exhausted, I don’t think one understands what that means… Frank had to unzip my pipe from my hydration bladder, place it in my mouth and tell me to drink. He had to open my nuts and raisins and feed me – I couldn’t lift my arms. He had to carry my rucksack from Stella Point because I was moving too slowly. I was present but at the same time not really there.
Stella Point reached! 5756m… Only 139m to get to Uhuru Peak – shouldn’t take too long! It took me an hour – the road looked longer, there was always another hill and then finally I saw the top! I was so prepared to be weeping when I summitted but when I got there I realised that I had no air to cry and just felt joy and relief that I made it…
10 hours… it took me 10 hours to get to the top! It usually takes people between 6-8 hours to summit but I persevered and took 10. I was so determined to not let anyone down, including myself, that I was not prepared to turn back (unless I was sick). I felt every single person praying for me and I heard my mom’s voice in my head – “Left…right…left…right…” It felt like I was being carried by another force at times when I couldn’t move. When I returned home, my mom told me a prayer came through saying “Let Mary’s blue cloak wrap around Romy and carry her when she can’t go on any more…” – their prayers came true. Even though I was physically alone on the mountain, I was definitely not alone in spirit and energy.
After some photos with the Reach for Recovery and Property24 flags (thank goodness I remembered to pack them), we made our way down as we didn’t want to spend any more time at such a high altitude than we needed to. Both Frank and I had a slight headache but started moving down as fast as possible. What goes up, must come down… It took 4 hours of slipping and sliding down the melted snow and screed and a long steep walk down to camp. Frank literally supported me the whole way down as my body finally went into “Airplane mode”. The constant breaking to maintain balance really caused trauma to my feet and toes in the hard hiking boots. I couldn’t feel my toes – they became numb from the constant bludgeoning.
We finally made it down to Barafu Camp where Sharon and the porters greeted me and congratulated me – I couldn’t really verbalise too much. I lay my head down for 15 mins before getting up and packing to move to the next camp. Because I had taken so long to summit, we didn’t have much time to get to the next camp before dark so we couldn’t take more time to rest. I couldn’t even pack my bag properly and the porters really stepped in to help me 🙂 I changed my boots to my trainers – softer front to help with the toe trauma and then we started our 4 hour trek down to Mweka Camp (3000m). On the way down, we met a fellow climber and his guide – he was also exhausted but was so happy he managed to summit! Yes, if you calculated correctly, I walked for 18 hours that day, while the previous day we walked 8 hours, with only 3 hours sleep in between! BOOM!
We arrived at Mweka Camp in the dark but as usual, there were hot drinks and snacks waiting for us. I had picked up a dry cough on about day 3 (a side-effect from high altitude), but managed to keep it under control. On my way down from summit, it turned into a wet cough very quickly – that just shows that spending that much time at such high altitude, caused water on my lungs. I acted quickly, messaging my parents to ask what tablets I should take and made sure I took my Diamox again that night. I had made one vital mistake – I missed a dose of Diamox on the morning of summit (6am). If I had remembered to take that dose, I don’t think the cough would have been that bad. That night, the guide woke me up around 4am because my cough was so bad and he was worried I couldn’t breath and needed oxygen. I was ok, but had some hot ginger water to soothe the irritation. If I didn’t act quickly, my cough would have turned into pulmonary oedema – and that is serious…
We wanted to get an early start so we could get back to the hotel as soon as possible. It’s amazing how you get over the camping vibe when you’ve accomplished your goal haha. We left camp around 7am on another 4 hour trek down to Mweka gate. Again, the knees and toes were not feeling good but I had to keep going – my trekking poles really helped with the impact. While we were walking down, we heard the unfortunate news that the climber we chatted to the day before had past away in his sleep. It was quite an eye-opener, as we hear about the risks but don’t think it will happen to you. We unfortunately also saw the body being transported down on the metal “stretcher” all wrapped up. I took a moment to say a little prayer for him and his family – he was a solo climber from Poland, with no support in Tanzania.
We finally got back to the hotel, had a a hot shower, ate some lunch and had a celebratory beer before getting some much needed sleep! Sharon and Mark were obviously disappointed that they didn’t summit, but they’ll definitely be back to give it another shot!
After an early transfer to the airport on Saturday and a very long travel day, I returned home to sea level – it was so good to see my family and that’s when the ugly cry kicked in 🙂 I couldn’t believe that I did it!!
The words “Thank you” don’t really feel adequate when trying to express my gratitude to every single person that supported and carried me through this journey. I would have never made it to the top without their encouragement, prayers and love sent my way… As far as I’m concerned, we all summitted the highest free-standing mountain in the world, on 1 October 2015 – exactly 1 year since my mom’s last diagnoses… <3
Here’s to celebrating life and to the next adventure!