Chapplins Director Martin Hodgson charity Kilimanjaro challenge. REACH FOR THE STARS!!
Martin's Kilimanjaro Challenge
At 7.15am on 5th February 2015, having ascended 5895m (19341ft) above sea level, (which is two thirds the height of Everest) I stood upon the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in minus 14 degrees Celcius and feeling on top of the world I stretched out my arms into the dawn sky as if trying to pluck a star from it. I took on this challenge in the memory of Becky Scrivens, also to raise funds and awareness of the charity SUDEP Action.
My journey started at 4pm on 29th January, with 18 hours of travel from my Hampshire home to the foothills of Mt Kilimanjaro. The following morning started at 7am with a three hour drive to Lemosho gate on the west side of the mountain. I discovered the correct side of the road to drive on in Tanzania is whichever side has the least bumps/pot holes in it, regardless of on-coming traffic!
This first climbing day, 31st January, was a gentle introduction to the mountain. The 22 hikers, plus two lead guides Rob & Jonus along with Doctor Tim, enjoyed a bistro style lunch in the rainforest, whilst around 60 porters and guides busied themselves prepping and packing all the gear needed for the expedition. After lunch, we hiked four hours to Big Tree Camp where we were greeted by the porters with much singing and dancing. This was a daily (and very welcome) occurrence. Enroute we even sighted Colobus Monkeys who watched us watching them!
After dinner that evening, a few of us discussed our guilt. This was meant to be a gruelling challenge that a lot of folk had sponsored us to do, yet so far it felt like a fun, relaxing holiday. Little did we know then just how different we would feel by tomorrow evening. Tonight though at 8.30pm, bedtime. I shared my tent with PJ, a large framed and on the flight over, a loud South African man. However, PJ proved to be a solid, fun hiking companion.
Day two, 1st February, a nine hour hike ascending up 725m (2,400ft) which is 70% the height of Snowdon. Not that high, however, we ended the day at 3868m (12700ft) above sea level. Extreme altitude starts around 3,000m (10,000ft) so now the air pressure was beginning to thin, making it harder to draw in the oxygen needed to breathe and give energy to muscles. As we all began to breathe more heavily, the guides would regularly call out 'pole, pole' meaning slowly, slowly. A slower pace allows the body time to aclimatise to the higher altitude.
By early afternoon, we had left the warmth of the rainforest and entered the cooler, open alpine area. That night as the sun went down we felt just how cold this mountain was going to be. The holiday was over, the challenge had definitely begun. Cold and aching, the guilt melted away and I felt justification for the sponsorship.
Day three, 2nd February, a lay in, waking at 6.30am instead of 5.30am. After our daily morning yoga session (which I really enjoyed) we began a seven hour hike at 8am. The oxygen levels reducing the higher we climbed, so to conserve energy we adopted an apathetic shuffle style of walking, much like a kid walking to school on a Monday morning.
We crossed through the alpine region into the colder barren moon-like landscape, lunching at Lava Tower at 4631m (15,200ft) before descending down to 3961m (13,000ft) to sleep. This method of hike-high, sleep-low aids altitude acclimatisation.
Today at lunch, which was the highest point we had reached so far, I felt very short of breath, nauseated and had a rotten headache, which didn't go, even after four paracetamol. This I knew, was altitude sickness. It may pass, it may stay at this uncomfortable level, it may worsen, in which case I would have to tell the Doc and he would order me off the mountain as server altitude sickness can be a killer. I came here to succeed, my target was a photograph at Uhuru Peak holding the SUDEP Action sign in one hand and a picture of Becky in the other, I was not going to allow a little bit of nausea stop me. I somehow forced my lunch down to give me more energy. The decent that afternoon was a great relief, as my headache passed and by evening I felt better. Phew. I dismissed negative thoughts, convincing myself, I had won the battle against altitude sickness. I went to bed at 8.30pm, cold but content.
Day four, 3rd February, a shorter day again starting at 6.30am, five hours of hiking designed mainly to aclimatise to the altitude and aid the chances of success on summit day. The highest point reached today was 4059m (13,300ft) - less than yesterday. By the end of the day we had descended 100m (300ft) - lower than we had started the day, finishing at 3865m (12,700ft). This may sound easy, but it wasn't.
The assent took us up and over the Barranco Wall. Shuffling apathetically like a school kid was not an option. We had to clamber over volcanic rock with deadly drops at the side. I thought to myself, It would have been easier to go rock climbing at the seaside on a cold winter's day immediately after crossing the finish line of a full length marathon!
As a suffering asthmatic, I'm used to exercising with shortness of breath, but this was a whole new ball game. I had to look down to find a foot or hand hold, then look up to see where I was going, ensuring that as I pulled up I didn't bang my head.
Nausea return to me very early this day, and did not fully dissipate until I was lying on my deflated mattress in camp in the late afternoon. I missed 5pm tea and popcorn today as I felt drained and had no appetite. I rested, wanting to maximise recovery time for my body as tomorrow was another day and I wanted to be prepared for it. I gained comfort as I lay there, hearing others in the mess tent enjoying a loud game of cards and Yahtzee. These hikers were not suffering as I was - that was good. If some can be okay, then I can too.
However, others were suffering and had informed the Doc. I elected to stay silent, for fear of being removed from the mountain. Having hiked the Camino in Spain and part of the Appalachian Trail in America, I felt I knew my body's ability, even though altitude sickness was a whole new experience to me. I decided not be foolhardy though; If I did not recover overnight I would tell the Doc in the morning.
At 7pm I forced myself into the mess tent and ate supper - a wonderful mishmash of protein and carbs. I felt sick after but wasn't.
In bed again by 8.30pm, I awoke in the early hours, finding myself pinned into my sleeping bag having rolled on top of most of it. Swaying back and forth, I freed myself, then lost the head section of it, found it, but my pillow (which was my warm coat) had slipped off somewhere. In the dark I found that too, (somehow avoided waking PJ) flopped onto my back after this five minute tussle, exhausted and fighting to draw in the little oxygen that was floating around in the freezing night air. Eventually, I drifted off into slumber land once more.
Day five, 4th February, today a six hour hike to Barafu Camp. From here I would commence my final assault for the summit at midnight. I rose at 5.30am, hiking starting at 7am, after yoga. Today was a climb up over the ridge, through cloud, mist and a sprinkling of hail stones. We start the day with a chat from our head guide Rob, who declared that people cope with altitude sickness in different ways. Some hardly suffer, some talk about it openly, some like to complain about how bad they feel whilst others go very quiet and try to hide it. I could feel his eyes burning into my forehead as he said that. So, Rob and the Doc knew all along then?
By the end of the day, we're at 4608m (15,200ft) equaling the highest point so far (Lava Tower) and although tired, I feel okay, even hungry and confident I'd won the battle against altitude sickness. Bring on midnight and the final assault.
With a new found spring in my step and full of confidence, I headed for the mess tent. Enroute, some fellow hikers had gathered around a tent with Rob and the Doc, I learned this was the end of the road for one on my fellow hikers, Teresa - after suffering all day, her body was no longer able to fend off altitude sickness and although her mind was strong and ready for the summit, her body had reached it's summit. Therefore, she concurred with the Doc and started her decent to the lower camp where the rest of us would join her tomorrow afternoon. For me, an early supper and in bed by 6pm.
Day six, actually 11pm on 4th February, Rob woke us- I enjoyed a small energy-filled 'breakfast', then at midnight, with head torches on and five layers of clothing including my not-so-sexy thermals, it's off to the summit. Already freezing cold, I was glad to start walking, (more of a shuffle) that warmed my body. The plan was to arrive as the sun rose. Before setting off I was told, we hike this section of mountain at night because it's easier to climb whilst frozen. I soon learned just how hard this final section is.
Image, seven hours of hiking up a sand dune with gravel in it, at night, freezing and with very little oxygen - which is now down to around 25% of the amount enjoyed at sea level. During these seven hours I ascended 1288m (4225ft) in these conditions. Snowdon is 1085m (3559ft) so this was 120% the height of Snowdon. Plus, I had to get back down, past the camp where I had set off from. This was going to be a long day.
The plan of action, which worked well, was hike (shuffle) for an hour, rest for 5 minutes as it was too damn cold to stand around any longer, then 'shuffle' on for another hour and so on. After six hours of this I arrived at the crator rim - a place called Stella Point. This was classed as the lower level of the summit, which for some was far enough and I saw several hikers turn around here and go back down. Others - appeared to be carried or dragged like a rag doll to the true summit. Our group had dispersed over the past couple of hours, each having to cover these last, very difficult hours at their own pace. I found myself hiking, sorry 'shuffling', with a lass from my group, Sheila, a cheerful nurse from Gordieland, along with a very helpful guide, who did tell me his name several times (I think it was Pension Bishwar).
My heart was beating out of my skull by now and with the minus 14 degree wind whistling past my ears, I was no longer sure what I was hearing. Although past Stella Point on the way to the ultimate summit at Uhuru Peak, with every morsel in my body hurting and feeling like god had created this truly awesomely beautiful place but forgot to oxygenate it, I heared Sheila ask me to accompany her to the crator rim so she could take a photo. What? I thought, that's five whole steps (shuffles) away and five more back - are you kidding me?
An hour after leaving Stella Point and with a couple of crator photos locked into Sheila's camera, we fell against the sign that declared we had reached Uhuru Peak. The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point on the whole of the African Continent and the pinnacle of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. There I stood, with the SUDEP sign in one hand and the picture of Becky Scrivens in the other. I had done it. I had reached my goal and was on top of the world, well almost. But oh no, my camera was frozen, so I could not take a photograph. I fumbled tiredly through my many layers of clothing into my pocket, found my phone, switched it on and waited, praying it worked. While I waited for it to power up, I checked the time - my watch stated 6am. I later learnt it was actually 7.15am and my watch had frozen too along with my three insulated water bottles. Finally, my phone came to life, I handed it to 'Pension' who proceeded to take a few photos of me. Now, I had finally done it! (Exhusted and in self focus mode, I never thought to simply ask Sheila to take a photo of me with her camera. Doh).
Time to get off the beautiful but oh-so-cold mountain top. The three of us took a further three hours to slip and slide down the scree to Barafu Camp. A snack, hot drink and an hour kip, and we were off again heading down the mountain for another three hour hike to Millennium Camp. Finally, flopping into my tent at 3pm, some 15 hours after setting off, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I just went numb and feel asleep.
Day seven, 5th February, glory does not allow for much of a lay in, up at 6am, hiking by 7.30am, five hours all downhill. Don't be fooled, downhill is as hard as uphill, except I could breathe. Halfway down, I lived up to my hiking nickname of Jelly Legs. With all muscle power failing me, I went over in a heap of dust and pain as my ankle gave way. The pain shooting up my leg reminding me of my football days back in the 80s. I had climbed a mountain, a twisted ankle was not going to stop me getting down.
Several times a porter saw me hobbling and offered to take my back pack. I refused, this was my journey and I was going to fully complete it. Once back in the rain-forest region with full oxygen levels, I had walked off the pain and was striding out - even overtaking some porters from an American group that were descending at the same time.
Having met up with Teresa again at Millennium Camp, we all gathered together one mile from the finish, and walked, not shuffled, but walked home together as one mass of dusty, smelly, pride and success. The porters and guides were there already, singing and dancing as we strutted into camp. My journey was completed by being presented with a certificate and medal - tangible conformation of my success, Immediately followed by a pint of Kilimanjaro beer. Deep joy! :)
My hike was over, but the fund raising goes on. Thank you, to all who have supported me in spirit and sponsorship. My charity page remains open if you still wish to sponsor me or know anyone else who would enjoy my story.
So my journey ends, but epilepsy continues to change and take lives. I hope my story and your support helps others to be aware of SUDEP and how the charity SUDEP Action can assist.
Many, many thanks to all of you.
The hiker formally known as Jelly Legs, now Mountain Martin :)