Kilimanjaro – “Pole Pole”
Having been asked some time last year to climb Kilimanjaro by the folk at Walking With The Wounded, I was super excited to be finally making the journey to Tanzania in October 2016. I was to fly out and meet up with the rest of the team the following morning in the hotel, whereby we would have a team brief, meet the guides and set foot onto the mountain that day.
We all met up in the morning and began the usual pleasantries. To be honest the team were all lovely and very nice and easy to talk to. In total there were six of us from England (Mike, Alan, Lauren, Shaney, Ralph and myself) two of us in fact from Gods country itself – ‘The North’. We were joined by two others from across the pond. Mike was a Canadian and Jacqueline from the States.
Day one involved us gaining almost 1,800m of altitude camping at 3,000m. This is where we were introduced at first hand to the ‘Kili shuffle’ and the celebrated “Pole Pole” – “Slowly Slowly”.
It is essentially a walking pace whereby to go any slower you would probably expire before reaching the summit. The pace, controlled by the guides, would be much welcomed as we hit higher altitudes, for now though, they were working hard on reigning us in.
The end of Day 1 took us to our camp. We were kitted out in very spacious and durable Mountain Hardware tents, with thick sleeping mats provided too. For the coming week meal times would be spent in our mess tent, the equivalent of a 9×9 military tent. Within these confines we would get used to eating together and drinking plenty of tea and coffee, even trying the local delicacy of Ugali – described as stiff dough made of cassava flour served with veg. Unusual to say the least.
The next few days that flowed were a similar routine. Day 3 is set out to be a hard day, as we go up to 4,800m, our high point for the trip before summit day. We were all expected to feel some effects of the altitude at this point, being that we would then sleep low to feel acclimatised ready for base camp.
Each day we conducted a health test, to measure oxygen levels within our blood and our heart rate. All of us varied to the point where Ralph had to try twice as according to the machine he lacked a pulse. I’m no doctor, but I’m sure that’s not good. Anyway, second time lucky, Ralph was alive and well.
We stopped for lunch at the amazing rock feature – Lava Tower. Being a rock climber I instinctively looked for good lines on where you could climb on this rock tower…that lasted a matter of seconds upon which the headache from the altitude would kick in Hard.
We dropped down to Camp 3 and were greeted that day by the amazing Barranco Wall. This is where our route for the next day will take us and at first glance looks steep and intimidating, bringing some anxieties to the team. Given that this is a trek it was clear that there would be an easy route up.
Heading off at a leisurely pace / late start on the Barranco Wall to hopefully miss all the bottlenecks, we set off up this amazing feature. The route was like an Ant trail with Porters, Guides and Clients shuffling along the route in one big line.
August, our chief guide, had decided that it was better to set off last out of the camp, which worked out great as we missed most of the hustle and bustle and just had a steady pleasant climb. As well as August, we also had three other guides; Jerome, Estome and Amedeus.
Our guides from Kandoo Adventures throughout were excellent. You really couldn’t speak highly enough about all the team of porters and guides. The guides speak very good English and the porters try their best and always want to learn more.
The porters are restricted to carrying 15kg on the mountain – however on top of that they also carry their own kit and then usually run up and down the mountain to the valley streams to fill water jugs.
Having seen this in Nepal once before I knew what to expect, however seeing it again puts it into perspective how lucky we are. These guys crack on very much unaided, always come past you with a smile and a “Jambo” (Hello) and a “How are you?” I’m flabbergasted every time they show concern for how I am… Hang about, you’re carrying the equivalent of a baby horse on your back, I’m good to be honest, how are you?
On our travels up the mountain we saw lots of other groups. We as a team were clicking so well and everyone was getting to know each other in order to distract from the slow ‘Kili shuffle’. It was about Day 3 when everyone seemed to be feeling and looking strong. After the high point at Lava Tower then recovering down low we looked a well-disciplined team, all walking together laughing and joking and generally having the craic.
That evening we spoke about Walking With The Wounded. I headed up an impromptu chat about my interactions with Andy (event manager) and Vicks (expedition manager) from the Walk Of Britain 1,000 mile walk and the work the charity has done.
It was great to see how many in the team already knew lots about WWTW and was doing fantastic jobs in raising money as part of their own personal Kilimanjaro challenge.
We talked about what the charity does and helped explain to our American (apparently America includes Canada and all other North American countries – so if you want to mention the USA you must say States or USA according to our Canadian Mike, it’s a good way of insulting Canadians) friends why we believe it to be a great cause.
Day 5 started like any normal day, however it finished at base camp around 1pm where we got into our sauna tents in the mid-afternoon heat to have a nap. Then we got up for some dinner before retiring back to our tents to sleep. At 11:30pm that evening we were walking again and heading for the summit.
Suddenly this day came around quickly! After having our brief and some silly questions asked from the team (I will put this down to the altitude) we were all prepped for summit day.
Summit Day involves leaving the high base camp around 4,700m and heading up to the summit at 5,895m. That’s a hell of an altitude gain. 4,800m was our previous high point, so the altitude kicked in almost straight away and all that we could do was… suck it up.
I have done a lot of walking, running and challenges that push you physically and mentally in the past; however, the summit day is ‘Rough’ to say the least. In fact it’s unfair how torturous it really is. The other days are so disproportionately easy compared to the summit day. But don’t be put off!
Firstly, if you have never been at altitude, it’s the equivalent of having the worst hangover ever but also being drunk at the same time. Your brain is fully squashed against your skull, pounding your head, and your legs move about in a jelly-like fashion in any way they like; they are limbs that are in every way detached apart from being stuck on the bottom of your arse, you have no control over them. You just have to try and step forward and put one foot in front of the other.
Time exists but who cares. The conversation at this point is totally non-existent, as breathing is hard enough, but the chance of anything comprehensible coming out of your mouth is very slim. The guides had told us in the brief that they were there to help, zip up jackets, get your water out and carry your bag. This sounded a bit ridiculous at the time, but was much appreciated on the way up.
Water freezes in your bottles and a lack of appetite stops or restricts your intake of food and water helping compound how bad you feel.
Throughout the summit day, some of us were vomiting, others were shivering and most were having a mental battle to keep going. Even through all of this, I had not a single doubt that all of us wouldn’t make it to the summit.
The relationships we had formed over the five previous days were genuine, true relationships and I had faith and trust everyone would make it.
We were all here to challenge ourselves, all in the same boat race, totally in the hands of our guide and porters. Our main source of encouragement and reassurance and positivity however came from within the team.
We were one unit and I felt so strong that we would all summit.
The drive from the others was inspiring, they would not be beaten and those raising money for the charity seemed to find a new level of determination. They are great examples of people who completely throw themselves in the deep end in order to raise money for such a great cause.
To say they have given something back is an understatement. This set of people have no reason to give anything back, but the fact they do shows how WWTW has helped inspire a nation in supporting ‘Our’ Wounded soldiers. I can only say that it is completely humbling but massively heart-warming.
Summit day takes around six and half hours to hit the peak. Up there we had approx. five minutes of pictures, smile for the camera, try to not look like death warmed up, then about turn and stomp back off the mountain. The views were amazing and we made it up just in time for sunrise.
A two-hour descent allowed us to grab an hour’s kip in the tent before another four and half hour walk down to the lower camp. A long day in total and there were some happy but broken figures on the way down the mountain.
Mike summed it up as “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but I will recommend it to all of my friends”
Worth it????…. Absolutely!!!!!
Upon arriving at camp the porters all take time to give you a hand shake and congratulate you which is lovely. The next morning the porters, guides and anyone else involved all take part in song and dance.
As we had given them tips, which are the least they deserved, they all take it upon themselves to have a little ceremony of chanting, singing, dancing and fist pumping. It is a great way to start the day and showed how appreciative they are to have us on the mountain.
Between the team we hand out any of our unwanted / expendable kit over, doing our best to leave any spare socks, gloves, hats, jackets, T-shirts and even daysacks with the porters.
Bless Jacqui for if it hadn’t been frowned upon I am sure she would’ve left them with the clothes she was wearing and gone full commando on the way down.
It was really put into perspective for me by our head guide August. If we don’t go and climb the mountain there is no work for them. They absolutely depend on the mountain for income, which gets them food. They truly put every effort into making the expedition a wonderful experience and would encourage anyone to go and at least attempt Kilimanjaro.
Summit or no summit you will have a fantastic experience.
For me I’m so happy I was allowed to be part of the WWTW expedition. I have met some amazing people who go above and beyond to support a fantastic charity. I have also met some wonderful human beings in the guides and porters that depend on others being extraordinary in challenging themselves for a good cause.
The expedition has left me wanting to encourage as many people I know to go and do the trek. If you are in any doubt, please do not hesitate. You will have an absolutely fantastic time!!
I can only continually thank WWTW and Kandoo Adventures for supporting the expedition. I will never forget the experience, the views and the people!