Climbing high

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And they are right.

I enjoy a challenge; all true business ‘types’ do, but climbing Mount Kilimanjaro ranks as the most challenging experience in my life to date.

The mighty Mount Kili is the highest mountain in Africa, located in Tanzania, on the boarder of Kenya, 200 miles south of the equator – and for those that know Africa, it has a magnetic draw. I’d already been twice and needed little temptation for a third trip. Plus Kilimanjaro claims the title of ‘highest free-standing mountain in the world’… Nuff said. Anything Cheryl can do… And the cause was to be Helen’s Trust: a small, incredibly worthwhile charity working to support those with a terminal illness to stay in the comfort of their own home.
My training programme and fundraising campaign were set.

There are various routes up Kilimanjaro; mine was to be the Machame (or ‘whiskey route’ – more on that later…) a challenging route but reportedly one of the most scenic. It was to be a six day, five night adventure.

Eighteen of us made up the final team. And each and every one of us played our part during that adventure.

Day one was tough, but overwhelmingly rewarding. We were trekking through dense rainforest: the scenery was incredible and the experience exhilarating; despite the physical effort and the overloaded back pack.

Night one was tough too. Sleeping in a tent was cold, very cold; uncomfortable; and at times frightening, but strangely cathartic. There was no socket to plug in the iPhone.

By Day 2 and 3 we were burning, and consuming (not such an issue), 6,000 calories a day – and drinking six litres of water. We had turned our bodies into machines.

Day 4 and the effects of altitude hit many. Blood vessels swell; causing bloating; headaches and nose bleeds. Par for the course. The emotional journey was hard for many too; we were all exhausted yet hanging on tightly to the good and personal causes we were doing this for.

The night of the final ascent is still as real as if it was yesterday; the same feeling I had on the morning of my degree final and the morning of that big pitch…

Adrenalin pumping. Anticipation. Anxiety. Excitement. Interpretation.

“Find a happy place in your mind,” our leader told us at the briefing. The mental journey turned out to be the toughest of them all for me. Leaving camp at midnight having forced down a bowl of pasta we slowly made our way out of camp. A snake of head torches in the dark. I was wearing everything I had. It was minus 10.

We passed the 4,500m point at what must have been about 5.30am; then the 5,000m point came (Kili’s summit is 5,895m) and at that point I didn’t think I could go on. Feeling had left most parts of my body, except for my head. My headache was excruciating and I was walking as if I had drunk a bottle of whisky (the route’s name was no coincidence) – although chance would have been a fine thing. I couldn’t rest because I would freeze. Sobbing, when I had energy to sob, I trekked on in a hypnotic trance, but carried in many ways by those around me, talking to each other to comfort when we could, and offering looks of encouragement, which ultimately was down to why I was able to make the final push.

Looking back and seeing the curvature of the earth at dawn will stay with me for ever. Victory at that point was in sight.

And at 7.30am we reached the summit. Strangely numb; if not a little delirious. It was only in hindsight that I was able to absorb and understand the achievement.

The trek wouldn’t have been possible without the porters. They were with us every step of the way – helping people to find hand and footholds; keeping our spirits high; ensuring we were safe, and also responsible for carrying our water; food and medical supplies.
“Pole, pole rafiki” they softly repeated to us for hours (“slowly, slowly my friend ” for those that don’t speak Swahili).

Seven hours from base camp to summit. Three hours down. But the descent was tough. At no point did I feel in control as I slipped and fell about; full of blisters and dehydrated. A long, very long, three hours.

But I did it. I climbed a mountain and it was gracious enough to allow me to.

And so what did the experience teach me? Allow yourself to dream. Set yourself challenges. Take yourself out of your comfort zone and push yourself beyond any boundaries you believed you had. You’ll surprise yourself.

And team work, this was the biggest lesson. You need a leader, but you need a full team in order to make things happen. With a focused, dedicated team, all determined to reach the same goal, you can climb mountains. I know.