The Adventure of a Lifetime
How did you come to do a trip like that? I must have heard the question a hundred times since I returned from the big climb last August. The idea started on a night out with friends, as many great ideas do, but instead of putting it down to the bravado of a few pints we followed through on our plan and later that year climbed the highest free standing mountain in the world.
While the climb itself took a week, between the six day ascend and just over 24 hours to descend, there were many hours of preparation before we ever boarded the plane. We booked our trip with a well known explorer and fellow corkonian Pat Falvey. In the weeks and months approaching the trip we were updated on what gear to bring, what clothes to pack and what training we should be doing. As part of our training, Pat invited us down to Kerry to climb Carrauntwohill with some of the team we would be climbing Kilimanjaro with. It was a tiny taster of what was to come but it was great getting to know some of the gang we would be climbing with in Tanzania.
August was our expedition month and when the time came we all gathered at Dublin airport, that is Pat and our team of ten enthusiastic hikers. On arrival in Tanzania, we met with our mountain expedition team, a group of just over thirty local porters, men who know the Kilimanjaro routes like the back of their hand. That evening in Moshi as we settled in, Abel, our lead guide talked us through the schedule for the following week and checked that we all had the essential clothing and equipment we needed. Bags packed for the following morning, we sipped on the local Kilimanjaro beer wondering what the week would bring.
There was a great buzz and excitement the morning we set off. We ate a hearty breakfast in the hotel and loaded all our gear on to the rickety bus, in through the back window. We then boarded ourselves and our driver Dominic took us to Macheme Gate, the start point of our climb. Here we had a bit of a wait as there was paperwork to be sorted and extra porters to be hired to ensure a successful climb. Shortly after midday we were all set and ready to begin the adventure. We followed Abel up through the gate, cheered on by a troupe of excited monkeys and hiked pole pole (slowly slowly) up through the dense forest.
After a few hours we stopped and had our packed lunch prepared by the porters earlier that morning. The brief break was welcome, and after regaining our energy we were on the track again, this time the path getting steeper and the surroundings more jungle like. We arrived at Machame camp shortly before dusk, looking forward to dinner and a rest. The porters had arrived before us and had set up our sleeping tents, the kitchen (a tiny tent with a gas stove) and the mess tent. We set up our sleeping bags while we still had some light and gathered in the mess tent for dinner. Our first meal on the mountain was amazing – ginger beef stir fry with veg and potatoes. The meals that the cooks prepared in that teeny tiny kitchen tent were phenomenal, we were never once left hungry. Bellies full, we retreated to the sleeping tents and fell into a happy tired sleep.
Although we had an early start each morning on the mountain (6 am), we enjoyed waking up to the early morning coffee service. The porters would visit each sleeping tent, wake it’s inhabitants, bring tea or coffee and warm water for washing. Then Abel would call in and check our stats – oxygen and heart rate – to make sure we were acclimatizing properly as we hiked higher into the altitude. Then it was time to pack up our gear, get our equipment ready and head to the mess tent for breakfast. We made sure to eat a good breakfast to set us up for a morning of climbing and there was always a variety of foods from porridge and eggs to toast and fruit. Again, we were never left hungry.
Our days were very structured, we had to keep on task to make sure we would make it it camp before dark each evening. Some days were more difficult than others, but one thing stayed the same – our team spirit. Everyone was so supportive of each other even though some of us had only met a day or two ago. We shared everything, from medical supplies to clothing and whenever any one of us was in need, someone was there to lend a hand. And then there was the porters, an amazing group of men, who attended our every need and advised us so well on the best way to tackle each day as we moved from Machame camp to Shira Cave Camp and then on to Lava Towers and Baranco Camp.
The climbing was always enjoyable, pretty straight forward hiking and sometimes some scrambling over rocks. Luckily we took plenty breaks and I was always delighted to hear Abel announce ‘five minute break’. Most of us would throw down our rucksacks and walking poles and race off between the giant moon rocks for a desperate pee. The most difficult section we encountered was day four on the Baranco Wall. Here we navigated a steep and dangerous climb, scrambling up the mountain face one after the other, the porters calm and reassuring and always on hand to support us should we have a wobbly moment. All of a sudden we were over the wall and the most beautiful view of the snow topped peak lay ahead of us. We were getting so close to our final destination!
Barafu Camp was our final sleep stop before the summit. Here, at 4676 metres we prepared our equipment, ate a big meal, stocked up on snacks and managed to squeeze in a couple of hours of sleep before our midnight departure. It was all so exciting! There were several other teams at Barafu left during the night, everyone hoping to summit Kilimanjaro sometime the following morning. We joined the trail of headlamps snaking up the mountain in the dead of night, feeling ever so alive. After a few hours though, the altitude was starting to really effect a few people on our team, myself included, and we were growing tired. The ever ready porters were quick to perk us up with some ginger tea and biscuits that they carried in their backpacks.
We made several stops throughout the night, though never for more than a couple of minutes at a time, as the temperatures were dropping dramatically the higher we climbed. The sun rose as we reached Stella Point and while we were glad the steep climbing was over, we knew we were facing into snowy conditions for the remainder of the climb. We traversed across the icy landscape, in single file, aware that we were only about an hour from our destination. It was very cold, minus 11 degrees, and the water we had brought with us in our camel backs was freezing over. Despite the low temperatures, we arrived at the summit to a glorious display of sun and snow. Our team cheered at our achievement and we took photos with our Irish flag, exhausted but ecstatic with excitement. Then all too soon we had to muster up the strength to make our way back across the snow to Stella Point and navigate back down the steep mountain face to Barafu Camp.
Delighted to be back at Barafu, there wasn’t much time for celebration, as we had to pack up and head for the final camp on our route – Millennium Camp. Although everyone was exhausted (we were now hiking with 14 hours, after minimal sleep) we kept each other going by sharing thoughts and stories of our monumental achievement earlier that day. The lower we descended, the more we began to recover from altitude sickness and were able to really appreciate the summit experience. We arrived at camp just before nightfall and almost collapsed into our sleeping bags with tiredness.
Waking up the next morning, we could hardly believe what we had completed the previous day. Was it all a dream? No, we had the summit photos to prove it! The final decent seemed like childsplay, and we reached Mweke Gate shortly in the early afternoon. Dominic our driver was there to meet and we greeting him with smiling faces as he took our backpacks and threw them in the back of the bus. Then it was back to Moshi where we had our first shower in over a week and a well earned rest! That night we had a celebratory dinner with Pat and the porters. We toasted our bottles of Kilimanjaro beer to the mountain and the week we had just spent together.