Spirits were high as we left camp, but as time went on people were digging ever deeper into their reserves of energy and mental strength
First-time trekker Lucy Nelson tells us about climbing Africa’s highest mountain
Initially I was only joking when I said to my mountain-climbing colleague that I wished I’d joined him on his latest expedition. But he must have thought I was being serious as before I knew it he had connected me to the team who helped him on his last trip and I had paid a deposit on a trip to climb Kilimanjaro.
Until this point I had done very little in the way of trekking. I’d spent a couple of months in New Zealand and done some walking on holiday in Canada. But they were just the usual touristy experiences and nothing particularly challenging. I did get the chance to camp overnight on not a particularly high mountain in Vancouver so this gave me my first experience of being cut off from the ‘real world’ while experiencing breathtaking views from high on a mountain.
The expedition team told me that I needed to prepare by having a reasonable level of fitness. So as I work shifts, I made sure that I hit the gym by signing up for a half marathon. I’d run when I could, outdoors and in the gym depending on what my friends were doing. I found it so much easier to get motivated if I’ve made plans with someone else.
I pulled on my walking boots and took on Snowdon and the Peak District in the UK and I started to gather the kit that I would need for climbing Kili. I really feel the cold and became slightly obsessed with having the right equipment, especially a warm sleeping bag.
On the morning of the trip when my parents, brother and his wife waved me off at the airport, I think I then realised what I was about to do. It wasn’t so much that I was worried about pushing myself or the lack of creature comforts, but I was nervous of failure. My worst fear was succumbing to altitude sickness and having to make the heart-wrenching decision to turn back.
I chose to do the Lemosho route, which winds its way from a remote area on the west side of the mountain. We started off with a steady stroll through the rainforest. The pathway was marked with wooden steps and it felt like walking through a national park, albeit a very tropical one. The next day, the landscape began to change and we were treated to more of an alpine view with clumps of heather by the side of the pathway. This proved to be a gentle introduction to our trip. It was the perfect way to get ourselves used to this slower pace of life and to get to know the people we were walking with.
We were incredibly lucky with the conditions. Most days there was a short heavy downpour. But most days were clear and bright and we could see Kibo in the distance getting ever closer.
The trek started to become a little more difficult as we climbed further up the mountain, however the scenery would always spur me on. I remember looking down on the clouds when we reached the Shira Ridge and up towards the summit in the distance – it was pretty awesome.
With each step my confidence was growing. In fact, when we reached the famed Lava Tower at 4,500 metres and I was invited to climb it, I jumped at the chance. When I reached the top of the 100-metre-high volcanic plug I couldn’t have been happier. While we faced the worst rain we had all week on the walk back down the valley to camp, I honestly didn’t care. I was so happy that I’d taken on this extra challenge.
That evening I wandered to the outer edge of the camp and spent a while just taking in the views. You could see the foot of one of the summit glaciers, and the evening light on the Barranco Wall – it was stunning.
The nights were pretty cold, but I slept well as a result of all the fresh air and exercise. In the morning we would gather in the pop-up dining room and tuck into a nutritious breakfast. I ate better on the mountain than I do at home. We had three square meals a day, all very nutritionally balanced, and zero junk food.
As we climbed higher up the mountain I noticed that it had started to become a little busier as the routes started to merge. I really enjoyed the remoteness of the early camps and their jawdropping views. On the Lemosho route we also had the chance to take in the Barranco Wall. We were able to scramble up the 300 metres of rock face and I loved every moment of it.
Feeling confident we then headed along the pathway to Karanga Camp. We were trudging along the mountainside with our day sacks and poles, while the porters put us to shame as they strode past us with our kit balanced on their heads.
Barafu Camp was the last place we would rest our heads before we made our final push to the summit. But like every other night, we were treated to an Instagram-worthy sunset.
Summit night was by far the most challenging time. We left camp at about midnight feeling a little tired and disorientated after a mini cat nap in our tents. The temperature was falling and it was a long, slow trudge to the top of the mountain. We spent the next six hours tackling the wind, scree terrain and the altitude.
Spirits were high as we left camp, but as time went on people were digging ever deeper into their reserves of energy and mental strength. The guides set the pace, which initially seemed frustratingly slow, but they told us that it was all about energy conservation and halfway through the night we would be begging them to slow down. Around 3.30am I hit my lowest point. I was tired, feeling really weak and I began to question my ability to succeed. I tried to eat the flapjack I’d diligently carried all night, but I really couldn’t stomach it by then. The guides however, were constantly checking on us and making sure that we drank water as often as possible.
When I wasn’t staring at someone’s feet when I was trudging through the volcanic ash I was looking up at a blanket of stars. Somehow I kept finding the strength to move forwards.
But I was pleased I did for when I reached the summit three hours later it proved to be one of the best moments in my life. As the sun rose over the mountain we could see the sparkling glaciers and the lush Tanzania landscape beneath us.
My emotions ran riot – it was a mixture of joy, excitement, pride and relief combined with absolute exhaustion. I had to dig deeper on a personal level than I’ve ever done before, but the rewards were so much more than I’d ever expected. Not only did it give me such a buzz, but the confidence it gave me and the desire to do more. I didn’t expect, I suppose, to feel so at home and so wonderfully happy on a mountain.
Now I’m back I have signed up to climb Aconcagua in Argentina this autumn. It going to be an even bigger challenge but after Kilimanjaro I honestly feel like I can do anything I set my mind to. It’s a longer expedition, it’s a higher mountain and it’s another continent that I’ve never yet been to. Preparation for that will involve some winter walking in Scotland and a winter skills course out in the Pyrenees in February, followed by a 27 mile hike in the Peak District in June – 2017 promises to be a very exciting year. I also intend to do more local climbing with the climbing club I joined this summer, the motivation for which came from that day on the Lava Tower.