What now?

Five years ago, I wrote about a plan to climb a trekking peak in the Himalaya. At the time I knew of only two – Mera Peak and Island Peak, both in the Nepal Himalaya. I’d met a guide on the flight out to Everest Base Camp who was climbing Island Peak, and our guide, a mountaineer from the UK, was talking about running an expedition to the same mountain. Nothing came of that, but I was interested.  I did some research to see what was involved. Not surprisingly, money was involved. An expedition to Island Peak (on the way to base camp) or Mera Peak (off to the east) was a 20 day + trek with acclimatisation days and bad weather days built in. While neither mountain required technical climbing skills, both required technical kit (ice axe, crampons, climbing harness and helmet) and the ability to use them. I couldn’t afford everything in one go, and I’d need time to prepare, so I decided to collect bits of kit in sales and using special offers to keep the costs down.

I saw this as a long term challenge because I would have to get much fitter than I had for Everest Base Camp, and would be reaching 7-800m higher than base camp, around 6200m. It gave me something to aim for. My decision to climb Kilimanjaro was mostly to see how I got on at those kinds of altitudes, and whether I could reach the level of fitness needed to consider going higher. I got to the top of Kili, and it was hard going. But I got there, the effects of altitude were manageable, and I enjoyed (most of) it.

Onwards and upwards, as they say. Except that circumstances changed and I inherited a Rufus. As part of welcoming him in as a permanent member of my life, I promised not to leave him for any length of time (and after a few days where he stayed at a kennel and was thoroughly miserable the whole time, not to leave him at all). I knew that the day would come when he wouldn’t be with me any more and I wanted us to have a great time together. We had four amazing, adventurous years together which I wouldn’t have exchanged for anything.

After he left me, and thanks to the fitness which I had maintained thanks to a demanding hound keeping me honest, I was able at short notice to climb Jebel Toubkal in Morocco. One of the big attractions of this mountain was that I would get two days of ice axe and crampon training and experience, which brought me back on track with my plan to summit a 6000m peak. One day of sliding down mountains practicing ice axe arrests (“Is this your ice axe, sir? I’m afraid I shall have to take it into custody”) and stomping about jamming crampon spikes into 45 degree ice and another of putting it all into practice climbing the mountain itself. I found it harder than expected because we didn’t have much chance to acclimatise (1700m to 3200m in one day and 3200m to 4160m the next when the recommended safe ascent is 300m per day). But it was (mostly) as enjoyable as Kili.

I started to look at trekking peak again and found that there were more than two, and they weren’t all in Nepal. In Morocco, I had been talking to a fellow trekker who was thinking about climbing Stok Kangri in the Northern Indian Himalaya. Then I found out that the company I trek with (Exodus) were offering a new trek this year to the same region as Stok Kangri, but to a peak called Dzo Jongo. I liked the idea of a new trek (I’ll be on the first commercial running of it) and that it is generally a much quieter mountain than the more famous ones.

Dzo Jongo (not the best name for a mountain – Crag Hard, Ben Nochance and Mount Doom are all better) is 6180m high. Or 6280m according to some websites. Hopefully it’ll be sorted by the time I go. It requires no mountaineering skills but I will probably be roped up to the others during the final summit traverse along a snowy ridge. At the time of year I’m going, the plastic, highly insulated high altitude boots that would normally be needed to cope with the temperatures are not required. Since they cost between £500-800, a significant fraction of the cost of the trip, that’s good news. I’ve still had to invest in a climbing helmet (the risk of rockfall is present) and a climbing harness (which looks like a prop left over from one of the ’50 Shades’ movies) but both were discounted in New Year sales so I saved quite a bit. I have my ice axe and crampons, so the expensive stuff is already out of the way.

Getting all this stuff to Ladakh in Northern India will be fun. As a friend pointed out this week, ‘you’re carrying a sharp pick axe, spikes and bondage equipment to a remote part of India – good luck with that’. Having learnt from previous treks (particularly Kili), I know that I will initially over pack. Bearing in mind this is a high altitude trek (average altitude for the 16 days is  4500m), bacteria doesn’t grow in the low oxygen environment and so it’s perfectly hygienic to wear underwear and clothes for several days at a time. It’s a camping trek, so the important things are a good sleeping bag and a working inflatable mattress – the former I have and can confirm is so warm even in -10c conditions that it is almost impossible to leave for a wee break in the early hours. The latter I have now, my previous one refusing to inflate during the Kili trek and allowing me to feel every pebble of the mountainside.

So all that’s really left now is getting fit. Really fit. There are many hills and mountains to come. I’m sure you’ll hear about some of them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Looking Back II – Looking up.

This time last year I was fast asleep. No big deal, I had an early night. In a tent. Okay, January in a tent isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. At 4700m on the western slope of Kilimanjaro.

I can’t believe that it’s a year ago today I started the long and difficult slog up to the summit of Kibo. We were up at 10.30pm (7.30pm GMT as Tanzania is 3hrs ahead of us) for breakfast of porridge and more porridge and lashings of hot sweet coffee. I remember being fairly sharp the adrenaline was pumping at the thought of what was coming next. It was cold, and I’d worn several layers to bed so that the impact of the cold wouldn’t be too bad. I don’t recall it being a factor at the start.

We didn’t hang around. At 11.30pm we set off on a short but steep scramble over the rocks that surrounded the camp site before settling in to a steady plod along zig zags that led up the scree towards Gilman’s Point.

It got colder and colder. I went into a daze in which only the person in front of me existed. I saw a procession of lights coming up on a different route that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. The moon sank below the horizon before we’d got half way up but Jupiter kept us company throughout the night. Every time we stopped for a break, I wanted to rest my head on my walking pole and sleep.

And then we got to Gilman’s point around 5.45am. It felt unreal and amazing at the same time. I celebrated with a wee down the drop we’d just walked up as payback for the cold and tiredness (the altitude makes you go much more frequently).

Sunrise was at 6.30am, just as we reached Stella Point. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve experienced – watching the sun rise over Mawenzi Peak and colouring the cloud layer way below us first a pink colour and then orange. It took me another 50 minutes to get to Uhuru Peak – the summit, at about 4.20am GMT. If I’m awake tomorrow morning at that time, I’ll be thinking about how I felt then. My journal, written about two hours later, lists the following to describe how I felt at the top:

“Rush to the head, relief, elation at achievement, happy, tired, a bit fuzzy due to the lack of oxygen, disorientated, in awe of the sunrise above the clouds, cold, aching limbs, pack weightless.”  I wrote that the effects of altitude seemed to disappear for a while.

Then we were descending and I think that is when the effects of altitude came back because the walk back to Stella Point passed in a blurry flash and suddenly I was charging down the slope trying to keep upright, to keep up with our guide and not to fall over. Equally as suddenly, Barafu camp came in to view and suddenly we were sat down in the sun warming up, fuelling up and staring at the top of Kilimanjaro some 1300m above us. The sudden increase in oxygen available made up for the fatigue and the packed 2nd breakfast (it was 9.20am local time) contained a real sausage! We stayed at Barafu for 90 minutes and then took another 90 minutes to descend another 1000m to Millennium Camp, which we reached at around 12.30.

I was fast asleep in my tent shortly afterwards and slept until they started using dynamite to excavate a toilet block some hours later.

 

Looking back

Four little words – ‘this time last year’. I make no apologies. This time last year I was on the way to completing a big challenge and I think I earned the right to use those words.

This time last year I was climbing up to Shira Plateau on the Western slopes of Kilimanjaro. It was the first full day of the trek and a hot and tough one as we climbed through the rain and cloud forest out on to the heathland the forms the crater of Shira. We ended up at 3500m and while the day was hot, the night was cold.

Today Rufus and I did not set out to recreate the event. Instead, we took advantage of the beautiful weather on the Brecon Beacons to get onto the hills again. Our goal – Fan Brecheiniog. It has featured on this blog many times and I hope it will many more times. I drove this way yesterday but the road was clearer today. There were several moments when i though the car might slide off the road on a thin coating of frost and ice, but a bit of care and forward thinking meant I was able to get to the start point for the long walk to Llyn y Fan Fawr. We set off from the car in brilliant sunshine and snow. The wind was cold but before long my hat and gloves came off as the temperature rose. Rufus bounded through the snow, stopping to greet a fellow canine walker as we made our way along the river. By the time we got to the first steep part of the day, the snow was several inches thick.

Rufus followed the tracks of previous passers by, as it was easier than battling through snow which, in places, was up to his belly. I followed Rufus; he has a good nose for the best path and I’ve learnt to trust his judgement. This time last year I was probably as fit as I have every been. Today was very different. I felt every square of chocolate eaten over Christmas, every mince pie and every roast potato. My backpack was lighter than the 8kg one I took with me on the trek but I felt it’s influence as I stopped several times ‘to take photographs’.

Then, after several false summits, there was the lake. And above it, Fan Brecheiniog shone in the morning sun. We stopped for a few minutes for me to get my breath back. Normally I would throw stones into the water for Rufus, but it was too cold for that today and instead I threw snowballs for him to chase. After yesterday’s fun, he’d learnt not to expect too much and it was enough for him to race to the snowball and break it apart with his nose.

Then we made our way over to the start of the short but knee-achingly steep climb to the bwlch. One of the great things about very cold weather is that all the marsh and bog freezes over. But for some reason I managed to step on the only bit of unfrozen bog in the whole place, and it was deep. I felt myself falling forward before I knew what was going on and I managed to stop myself from going flat on my face. But my left leg disappeared into the water and mud up to the knee.

Undaunted, I headed up the steep path. I thought I heard Rufus snigger, but he was so far ahead it may just have been the wind. It was hard going, even taking into account my lack of fitness. The snow was thick and slippery where it had been trodden down and then frozen overnight. At one point, I was conscious that the view ahead looked a bit like photos in a magazine accompanying an article on how to perform an ice axe arrest! After several ‘photo stops’, I made it to the little valley between Fan Hir and Fan Brecheiniog. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go on and I was looking at Rufus to see if he was coping. Apart from a few tiny snowballs on his feet, which I cleared quickly, he was fine. He was watching me to see if we were going on and every now and then he’d race a few steps up the hill as if to encourage me.

I set off again, adopting a slow plod as my tactic for making the ascent. The snow was deeper again and in places it was like walking up a sand dune – my feet would slip back as I pushed forward. The usual path on to Fan Brecheinog was completely covered in snow; I’ve never see than before. One set of foot prints led off tot he south and up in a curving climb and I decided to follow them as walking on the compacted snow would be easier. Rufus was now reduced to a plod as well as he battled through the snow but he kept going every time I took a breather. But eventually I decided that I was struggling to go further and it would be silly to exhaust myself and risk slipping on the way down. I called Rufus, who was a few paces in front of me.

I swear a big grin appeared on his face. Before I’d finished saying the phrase ‘lets go back to the car’ he had raced past me and was standing on the bwlch again, about 20m away. I love watching him run in the snow. He bounds like a big cat and the snow flies everywhere from his back paws. He usually races down from here and meets me at the lake. I was a little worried that he might slip on the snow going down, but I needn’t have been concerned. He is sure footed. We passed several walkers descending gingerly but I was using my walking pole now and I found it much easier than I had feared. One of the walkers had just put on a set of mini crampons but I knew from experience these wouldn’t work well in the deep snow. Sure enough, both Rufus and I sailed past him.

At the lake, I threw more snowballs for Rufus and we posed for a couple of buddy selfies. Then we set off back down the slope and the car. I don’t like the last mile or so; it tends to be boring. But snow changes everything and I was able to get some nice photos of the Brecon Beacons stretching off to the East. By now the snow was melting from the lower part of the hill. I had to avoid a few boggy patches I’d walked over with ease on the way up. The last bit of this walk is a short, steep climb of no more than 10 metres, and I found this really tiring. Slumping down into the car, I decided I needed to work at getting fit again.

As I drove off, around 12.50, I remembered that this time last year, I’d made it to Shira campsite, at 3500m after climbing 719m and I felt good. Today I’d climbed around 400m and felt shattered. More work required!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Happy New Year

Happy new year everyone, I hope 2015 year brings you all the things you wish for and for some of you, the things you deserve!

2015 is a science fiction year. When I was a kid, I read any science fiction story I could lay my hands on and a lot of them talked about the 21st Century (Gerry Anderson’s company, the one that brought us the original and best Thunderbirds, was called 21st Century TV). We have now passed George Orwell’s 1984, we are about half way through Wells’ “Shape of Things to Come” and we’ve passed two of the Arthur C Clarke Space Odyssey novels. We have devices that fit in the hand and connect us with all the knowledge of the world (although you still have to know how to access it). The only thing we haven’t got right yet is the interface to that device.

Of course, we also have people who claim to be experts in making the most of this device and its ability to communicate with the world. The world has filled up with experts, gurus, leaders in their field, and there are so many fields. There are so many of them that 2015 is likely to become the year of the expert expert and the guru guru. Who knows where we’ll be by 2016, but a speaker at a recent conference I attended said that the people who claim to be experts are undermining the professions to which they associate themselves because no one can know everything in enough detail to make that claim.

This time last year I was talking about exercise and I was in the last few days of training for my climb of Kilimanjaro. On 26 January, I made it to the top of Kibo – 5895m – and what a fantastic experience that was. But since then I’ve let the training go a little and although I now have a Rufus to keep me active, it’s not quite the same. And since, for he second year running, I have not given up chocolate, I suspect there is more of me than this time last year, particularly around my middle.

My photography stats

I ‘only’ took 12720 photographs in 2014. That’s almost 4000 down on the year before. I suspect (I hope) it’s because I’ve been a little more discerning and taken my time over each picture rather than machine gunning the views. That said, I took 1775 images on the Kilimanjaro trip alone. But almost a third of those were RAW copies so they don’t count!

Apparently, the photos in my catalogue for this year have been taken on 22 different kinds of camera, although some of those will be other people’s and some are HDR or panoramic images processed on the PC and designated as some unknown camera. Once again, 30% of the images have been taken with one camera – a Nikon D7100 – and 67% of those were taken with the excellent Tamron 18-270mm lens.

Understandably, given the trek, January was my most productive month with 2236 photos taken. I must have taken it easy while recovering in February when I took only 321 images. Looking at them, it was a month of bad weather so I guess I have an excuse. Most of the photos  from February were of huge waves crashing in at Bracelet Bay.

I took 399 macro shots, mostly with a Tamron 90mm macro lens. I think most of those pictures were of spiders in the garden!

All the best for the next 365 days!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Time flies

Time flies when you’re having fun. It’s six months since I climbed Kilimanjaro. I was reminded by one of my friends from the trek, and also by a tweet announcing that they’d changed the sign at the top.

All the while I was researching the trek, and during my training, the pictures I saw of Uhuru Point had a dilapidated old sign announcing the summit. But it had been changed to a more modern green one well before I set off. The photo of me in front of it shows its age, with stickers and graffiti partially obscuring the words that tell you where you are (as if you needed reminding after the ordeal you’ve gone through to get there).

Now I understand that the tattered green sign has been replaced by a nice new brown one. I guess I’ll have to go back and have my photo taken by it again!

 

Climbing Kilimanjaro 6: The bits between the bits

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a serious business. There are months of preparation to be made. Training for physical fitness take as along as you like; the more you do the better the experience when you’re trekking. Mental preparation is harder to plan and do but is equally important to get you through the tough days when it’s raining, or when the slope is never ending.

For some, the gathering of kit is enjoyable. Testing each item and making the final decision about what to take and what to leave behind. I admit to secretly enjoying choosing which cameras to take as it’s where my interests lie.

But however serious and hard it is, ultimately I trek because I enjoy it. So amidst all the serious stuff, there have to be moments of humour, laughter and hysterics, otherwise what is the point? For every “…the ascent was long and hard and the rains lashed down…” there has to be a “…how we laughed…”. The problem with trying to write them down is that often they depend on the moment and knowing the people and places. So while I will try and convey the humour, I apologise if these stories occasionally come over as a bit insular and cliquey. And, of course, if none of them work, I won’t publish this.

Travelling is always stressful. My journey from Home to Heathrow by train and coach was marked by annoying people. On the train, it was the nasally-voiced gentleman two seats over from me. For three hours he talked to his travelling companion and at no time did I understand a word he spoke, but neither was I able to miss a single syllable of his piercing tones.  On the coach, it was the serial complainer who annoyed. But I left both of them behind.

At Nairobi airport, we had two litre bottles of water bought in the transfer lounge, but we weren’t allowed to take them on the plane unless they were sealed in a plastic bag. So we went back to the shop from which they’d been bought and asked them to seal them up. we were then allowed through the check in. Security at it’s tightest.

Our encounter with an Australian trekker on day one was the beginning of a running joke, She turned up while we were having lunch and decided we were her group. She’d missed a flight and arrived late. It eventually dawned on her that we weren’t her group  and she walked on. Her loud voice faded slowly as she went. We met her several more times and each time she was louder, more shrill and a little more annoying. At the next camp one of our guides convinced her he was from Brisbane, although he spoke very little English. Every time we  bumped into her over the next few day, we reminded her that our guide was from Brisbane. We even told him some place names that one of our trekkers knew from the Brisbane area.

Our campsites were pretty good on the whole. On a few occasions, we found that there was a distinct slope; after all we were climbing a mountain. Often there was a ‘low end’ to the mess tent table. After walking through the cold and miserable rain one afternoon, we retired to the mess tent and as I sat down, I all but disappeared. I found the whole thing funny and started to laugh, but it was laughter that you can’t help, that comes from a mix of tiredness and despair and it quickly turned hysterical! In no time, everyone in the tent was laughing. It was a welcome release from the misery of the day.

Early in the trek, we shared a campsite with another group of trekkers with a different company. Every night, their guides and porters would sing. We watched and listened, fascinated, and were even asked to join in. But after about an hour, it was getting a little jaded and during the second hour it began to grate on the nerves. Especially as the songs were chart hits, not traditional tunes. Our guide promised not to put our tents anywhere near them again, and he was true to his word.

The following night we camped on a tiny site where there was barely enough room for our four tents. As a result, they were cramped together and in my tent, a large part of Kilimanjaro formed a pillow under my head when I lay down. With a combination of careful positioning of my kit bag and a slight bend of the knee, I was able to lie reasonably comfortably. But at this site, the tents were placed on a sloping bit of ground and right outside the entrances was a small but significant vertical drop. At night, this would test us if we needed to go to the toilet tent, which was several metres away up the slope. We joked that we’d have to rope up to climb to use the toilet!

On summit night, our tent was invaded by a little four striped mouse. It was looking for morsels to eat, which we had loaded up the back packs with prior to the climb. When we went to the mess tent for dinner, it had scurried out from the rocks and gone all the way in to the tent. When I opened the flap, it rushed deeper in to the tent and only came out again when it realised there was no escape. I have a blurry photo of a seed eater bird perched on my back pack at Moir Hut camp.

At the park gate where we started, the gigantic sign warned of all the hazards that lay ahead, and the precautions to take. Most of the advice was sound and wise, but one point made us worry. “Do not push yourself to go if you have extreme.” We kept a close eye out for signs of extreme in all of us and although we all came close and some point, none of us suffered complete extreme.

Our card games, mainly ‘UNO’ were played in the evenings after food and invariably when we were tired. What shoudl have been a fast, snappy game was played at a sedate pace with slow reactions, missed opportunities and a lot of laughing. In the end, though, everyone won at least one game! The less said about the games of Pontoon, using miniscule portions of popcorn as betting chips, the better.

There were few laughs on the climb to Uhuru Peak, but at one point I offered to roll rocks down the slope to try and silence a bunch of very loud trekkers who seemed to think making a noise – any noise – was cool. At the Uhuru Peak signpost, we were constantly thwarted while trying to get the photo by a bunch of Americans. In the end, we dashed in between their high fiving and managed to get three individual photos without anyone else encroaching.

On the descent, there was little time for humour as I desperately tried to keep my balance. But on the second day, there was a slightly more leisurely pace and there was time to look around and enjoy again. We kept passing and being passed by a group of Canadians, with a friendly ‘hello again, fancy meeting you here’. They were friendly and it became a running joke to break up some of the longer and more demanding sections. Stopping at Mweki camp for a toilet break, I peed down a chute only to find some kind of flying insect down there. it wouldn’t leave and as I tried not to hit it, it flew around to avoid the stream. had I sat down, I expect I would have got a lovely bite.

As we passed through the lower slopes by the park gate, we found what could only be described as ‘The Kilimanjaro Experience’. It seemed like a theme park/visitor centre compete with elephant and buffalo noises (but no elephants or buffaloes), empty farm huts and large palms. It was an odd end to the trek.

It’s impossible to do a trek like this without a sense of humour.  I hope I’ve managed to convey a some of it in this blog entry.

Climbing Kilimanjaro 5: Up the hill

At 10.30pm on 24 January, I was awake and lying wrapped up against the cold in my sleeping bag. I’d gone to bed about 4 hours before wearing thermal long johns, lined trousers, socks, thermal base layer and a fleece. I’d managed a nervous 3 hours of sleep but had woken early. I was resting, and thinking about the climb to come. Reluctantly, I got out of the warm cocoon and donned another fleece, my duvet jacket and boots.

We were greeted in the mess tent with hot, sweet tea and porridge. I was getting fed up of porridge but there was no doubting it’s energy giving properties. I put a large spoonful of sugar in and downed the contents of the bowl. I took my last diamox tablet, drank another cup of tea and was ready.

Withe little fuss, we gathered outside, little pools of torchlight in a sea of darkness. Passian led us off towards the gap in the rocks that formed the first, steep climb out of School hut camp.  The scramble over, we started off on the path which climbed steeply right from the start. It was the beginning of a mindless, endless trudging that went on with little to show for the effort. The darkness hid any landmarks that could have shown the progress we were making, and that was probably a good thing.

We stopped for a short break after about an hour and I checked my altimeter. We’d climbed 100m. As we set off again, and aching limbs protested, I started to do the calculations. If we’d only done 100m in an hour, it would take us 12hrs to get to the top. It was a depressing thought and only after a few more minutes did I realise that I hadn’t recalibrated the altimeter at School Hut camp. I guessed the readings were wrong, and resolved not to look at the altimeter again.

We carried on along a series of zig zags, climbing steadily but with no idea of how far we’d come. I longed for each break, but when they came, they merely served to make me feel the cold and for my limbs to develop cramp. Starting off again was harder as a result.

Suddenly, ahead, I saw a line of tiny lights stretching down to my left and up to my right. We had reached the junction with the path from Kibo huts, another popular summit route and the lights were the head torches of the other climbers heading towards Uhuru Peak. We turned sharply right and joined the line. Behind, one group was singing but this soon petered out and there was a strange silence despite the number of people on the path. We stood to oe side to allow faster groups to pass, and we passed slower groups including some people clearly in trouble and being tended to by their guides.

We stopped briefly at Hans Meyer Cave, which I knew to be around 5300m. I had no idea how log it had taken and knowing we were about half way didn’t help either. After the cave, the zig zag legs got shorter and steeper. Lights high above gave an indication of the steepness. A chill wind picked up and blew across the face of the slope. This part of the climb was the hardest as by now I was digging deep for reserves of mental strength. The climb was never ending. Although the pace was very good, I began to have some doubts about whether I could get to the top.

But I started to think of the people who had supported me; my friend’s little boy who had drawn a good luck card which I had with me, and friends and colleagues who had helped me get ready. I also had in my head a song that I used to listen to when doing the harder parts of the training on the Brecon Beacons. All of that gave me an extra boost of determination, and I carried on placing one foot in front of the other as we climbed higher.

All of a sudden, the slope got steeper and we climbed over a series of rocks to a flat area and our guides stopped. They pulled out flasks and gave us all a welcome mug of hot sweet tea. It slowly dawned on my fuzzy brain that we had reached Gillman’s Point; the place where the steep path upwards crests the crater rim. Gradually, as the tea warmed me, I remembered that this was the end of the steep section and from now on the going would be much easier. To the North East, a faint glow was in the sky.

We set off from Gillman’s Point around the rim of the volcano towards Stella Point. By the time we reached the large sign, the sun was just below the horizon and the colour in the sky was deep and beautiful. We stopped to watch the sunrise from just beyond Stella Point, and the peak of Mawenzi was silhouetted against the sky and the layer of cloud hundreds of metres below.

Although the path was far less steep, there was still an incline and the altitude meant that it was still hard going. I passed a number of people sat by the side of the path, head in hands. None were alone so I wasn’t worried about leaving them. There were a number of false summits before I finally spotted the big sign that marked the highest point. I reached it at 7.15am local time.

The feeling of actually getting there after all the time spent preparing, the delays caused by injury and the last 8 days trekking, was amazing. It’s hard to put it into words even now. I’d read about this place but until recently I’d never dreamed I’d actually get here. The 45 minutes I spent on the summit went by in a blur and looking back, many of the memories are through the photos I took. Not because I didn’t stop to see with my own eyes, but because I was tired and my mind was trying to take everything in.

The crater of Kibo is still largely intact and had I been able to spend more time on the top, I would have loved to have descended into it to explore. But our time on top was limited, mainly because of the cold and the tiredness. Instead, I was able to look out onto the remains of the glaciers, and the snow lying on the path I’d just walked. The views from the top were magnificent. Beyond the Northern icefields was Mt Meru. Down to the south was our next goal, Barafu Camp.

All too soon Passian was motioning for us to leave and reluctantly, I followed him back down the pathway. We passed more people coming up and many were struggling in the thin air. We reached Stella Point and dropped over the side of the crate rim to begin the descent.

Passian set a fast pace down across the scree. The alternative was a three hour trudge down which would have played hell with my knees. Nevertheless, I was reluctant at first to follow him as I was conscious of the potential erosion. I compromised and sought a firm path down, occasionally skipping past the longer bits with a diversion across the scree. Passian and the others all but disappeared ahead of me but I could see where  we were heading and wasn’t too concerned. In no time we were down at Barafu camp, having descended 1300m in around 85 minutes. After a brief brunch stop, we descended further to Millennium camp, our overnight stop.

As we registered at the camp site, we were told that they were blasting to clear a site for a new toilet block. But my tired brain misheard and I thought the ranger said they were blasting to clear the toilet. I thought of an explosion in a cess pit and didn’t want to think any further. Shortly afterwards, there was a dull thud and we were allowed to go to the tents. I fell asleep almost as soon as I lay down and after about an hour, I was woken by someone shaking the tent. It turned out they were blasting again. I staggered over to the ranger hut just in time to hear a much louder bang. A huge cloud of smoke and debris rose high in the air and over our part of the camp site. Back at the tents, we saw that one of them had been hit by debris which had torn through the fabric.

The following morning, after we’d distributed the tips and said good by to the crew, I took a last look at Kilimanjaro in the morning light, and then we headed of to begin the 2200m descent to the waiting minibus. By that afternoon, we were back at the poolside of the Ilboru Safari Lodge, showered and rested.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Climbing Kilimanjaro 4: Of mice and men

We survived the sloping camp site and we had a late start today – 8.30am. The route was characterised by more dry flood channels and a distinctly different landscape to the Western and Southern slopes we’d been walking on. Now flora was sparse and composed of only the hardiest of species. We were sown the Scottish Thistle, a surprising discovery but, once we’d seen one, a relatively common sight. Low grasses also popped their heads above the volcanic gravel.

After a beautiful sunrise, we walked in the sunshine for a bit before the inevitable mist descended once more. It was colder now and there was a thick frost on the ground. This froze the scree and made it much easier to walk on. The path was rough and once again undulating. It was impossible to tell whether we were climbing because we were crossing little ridges and dropping down again, and passing through more flood channels.

The passage of time was also hard to determine and everything came together to make an unreal few hours of walking. I’d trained in the mists of the Brecon Beacons but I had never felt anything like this. We came across another flood channel and this was was wide and deep. It wasn’t clear how we’d get to the bed to cross it and in the end, we just scrambled and slithered down the side. At the bottom, we heard voices and suddenly, the big blue toilet tent appeared through the mist. We were at Third Cave Camp. We struggled up the loose scree of the other bank and were in camp! It had taken us 3.5 hours instead of the 5-7 hours in the plan. We were getting fitter and more acclimatised.

We had a short break for dinner in the camp before another acclimatisation walk. Again, we took the route we’d be following tomorrow. This time it was a constant ascent up into the hills, heading directly for Kilimanjaro. We were walking in mist but we soon left it behind as we got higher. Eventually, after about an hour of walking we reached a point 300m above the camp site. It had been hard going because we’d pushed the pace a little but I found I recovered quickly. The trip back down took around 25 minutes. Back at camp, I sat out in the sunshine for half an hour, writing my journal, drinking tea and eating hot peanuts. It was probably the best early evening of the whole trek.

During the night, the diamox I was taking to combat altitude sickness resulted in a need to go for a pee. Despite the absolute certainty of needing to go, it took me 20 minutes from waking up to finally deciding to get out of the sleeping bag. By now, ready for this eventuality, I was already wearing trousers and a fleece to bed so the impact wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

The morning came quickly and coldly. To the north east, the sun was rising over the cloud layer again, making a beautiful sight well worth getting up for. To the south of the camp, Kilimanjaro towered above us. But it was definitely closer, and to me it seemed do-able. Once the sun had risen, it warmed the air quickly and by the time we were ready to leave it was quite pleasant.

We retraced our steps up above the camp and the path that had taken us an hour to complete without packs last night took 90 minutes this morning. Still, that was faster than I was expecting and made me feel comfortable about what was to come. Passian, our lead guide, set a good pace which pushed us a little without  tiring us too much. Occasionally we were passed by our porters who raced ahead to get the camp set up for this afternoon.

Today was a straight ascent from Third Cave, at 3900m to School Hut camp at 4770m. School Hut was our base camp for the final day’s push to the summit of Kilimanjaro and that was at the back of all our minds during the walk. Personally, I was waiting for the headache and nausea of altitude sickness to strike, as 4500m was about the time I’d experienced it in Nepal. I hardly dared think about how symptom free I’d been so far. And I was pleased to find I felt physically very fit and mentally ready to take on the long climb later tonight.

We lost track of time again and as the mist descended, of distance too. After a long stretch of walking steeply while weaving between large boulders, I caught a glimpse of several porters resting ahead. Passian saw them too, and they saw him and jumped up to continue onwards. Shortly afterwards, I thought I caught a glimpse of our blue toilet tent in the mist and a quick question to Passian confirmed that we had arrived at School Hut camp.

Years ago, the School Hut was used for trainee guides to stay in while learning how to guide on the mountain but it had long since fallen into disuse. It was now the shelter for the park ranger but still contained communal bunks. We found out later that for the price of a few beers, we could have stayed in there in relative warmth. But for now, although we could see the camp, it was remaining elusive and distant. It seemed that no matter how long we walked, it was no nearer. I adopted my ‘head down’ approach and found that after about 10 minutes, I could see it was noticeably closer. A final, cruel twist was that the last few metres was up and extremely steep and slippery slope. But we were there and after a swift signing in on the register, we were able to find our tents and rest.

We watched Four Stripe mice (large mice with four lighter coloured stripes on their necks) scurrying from rock to rock. The scavenged on scraps from trekkers and later, after we’d had dinner and returned to the tent, we found one inside looking for snacks. It jumped out and ran away but we were careful to check after that.

Passian held our summit briefing after lunch, and it had a more serious feel to it. Tonight would be the final climb to the top. It would be cold, hard going and long. We were warned to wear at least four layers of clothing on top, to drink plenty before setting out and to get as much rest as possible. We were not to wait for anyone if they dropped behind; the guides would do that and to avoid the group getting split up and perhaps walking on their own, we should all make our own progress and pace. This was a sensible if hard rule, which meant that the teamwork that had helped everyone at one time or another through the trek so far would be absent. On the other hand, it meant that everyone had the best chance of getting to the top.

After the briefing, we all retired to the tents to try and get the best 4 or 5 hours sleep we could.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Climbing Kilimanjaro 3: The northern route

Today would be the start of our northern route diversion. Most groups would be heading up towards the Lava Towers and on to Barranco hut. We were turning off to begin the two day traverse of the northern circuit. This was one of the features of the trek that had attracted me; We would get an extra two days at altitude to aid acclimatisation, but also to enjoy being on an unspoilt and largely deserted stretch of the mountain.

Our route today followed the walk we’d completed yesterday afternoon and we soon reached the 4000m marker stone. Shortly after this our path split off to the left and we said good by to the standard trails. Now we were climbing steadily towards our goal for the day, Moir Hut camp. And as we crested the ridge we could make out the pyramid shaped hut, it’s wood bleached white in the strong sunshine. It was a surprise as we expected to be walking for several more hours but in a little over 2.5 hours, we strolled into camp.

We were in a deep and steep sided valley, bordered on three sides by tall cliffs of solidified lava. Where weathering had worn away the scree, flat sheets of lava could be seen edge on. Above the ruined pyramid hut, the three dramatic humps of the Lent Hills could be seen. This afternoon, we’d be climbing the closest, Little Lent Hill, as part of our acclimatisation programme. For now, we were content to be in camp and to have some time to rest.

After lunch and a sustained assault on the crumbs we’d dropped by bold little Seed Eater birds, we set off to scale the nearby Little Lent Hill. We started off with a scramble over a steep section of smooth lava, followed by a long tramp up the side of the valley, Underfoot, the scree was slippery and in parts it was like climbing up a sand dune, with feet slipping backwards.  But before too long we were on the ridge top and then it was a short but difficult walk over loose stones that clinked like china when they knocked together to the foot of the hill.

The route up to the top of the hill was over steep, sharp and grippy rocks and as we started up, we were passed by another group of trekkers. One woman was using supplementary oxygen, At this relatively low level (4300m) it suggested that she was struggling already. the danger would be if her supply ran out on the final climb, She’d be in trouble and would leave her group with a dilemma on whether to help or go on.

We scrambled to the top and were rewarded by magnificent views over the camp, and up to Kilimanjaro. The top of the hill was covered in delicately balanced stone piles; we’d been seeing them all along the trails so far and would continue to see them right to the top.  Coming back down again was much easier than going up apart from the constant slipping of feet on scree.

The following day, we retraced our steps up to the ridge before bearing left to avoid Little Lent Hill. We were now well on the seldom used northern circuit route and we welcomed the break and the solitude. We walked in near silence in single file. The pacing was good and the grounds, while undulating, was manageable. By late morning the mist and cloud descended and brought the temperature down., This made the walking a little easier but made the rocky, barren landscape an eerie place to be. It felt as if it would be so easy to get lost here and, according to a guidebook, someone had done just that and they were still looking for him!

We crossed several dried river channels which would carry meltwater off the mountain during the rainy seasons. They were bone dry and full of rounded boulders. The vegetation had retreated to a few hardy plants sheltering beside rocks, and lichen. We reached a high point of 4370m before dropping back down again until we arrived at Buffalo Camp site around 5.5 hours after we’d started walking.

This camp site was small and cramped. Fortunately we were the only ones there. Three tents were lined up together on a slop – next to the entrances was a drop of nearly 12 inches. This doesn’t sound like much but in the cold and dark of a midnight toilet break, this could potentially cause chaos. Our toilet tent was several vertical metres above the tents and we joked that we would need climbing rope and a belay to safely use the toilet. Inside my tent, I found that there was a large boulder for a pillow – luckily I’m short enough that I was able to avoid it. The slope, which made bothy of us slide down the tent during the night, helped as well. Nevertheless, we survived the night and were rewarded in the morning with a beautiful site of the sunrise over a layer of clouds onto which we were looking.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Climbing Kilimanjaro 2: Across the Caldera

By now we were well and truly on the mountain. Ahead, Kilimanjaro reared up out of the plain and when the clouds permitted, we could see the top, where we would be walking in only a few days. Our guides fostered a spirit of positive mental attitude which proved to be the right way to tackle this trek; physical preparation was only part of the challenge ahead.

We left camp ahead of our porters although they swiftly passed us on this flat stretch of plain. We were walking in the collapsed cone of the oldest of the three volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro, Shira. Where rivers and streams had cut through the rock we could see the strata of lava flow beneath. To the right, south, was the remains of the crater wall, Shira ridge, rising to just under 4000m. The morning was hot and the walking relatively easy. There were few landmarks to break up the landscape but as we passed the most prominent, a large and incongruous boulder, we turned right to head away from the mountain and off towards Shira Cathederal. The Cathederal was a large rock formation which was once part of the Shira cone. The rough volcanic rock had weathered less than it’s surroundings and we would be using it as a small acclimatisation walk .

The pat led over flood channels and dry river beds but remained easy going. We spotted giant lobelia growing off the path and as we had time to spare, we walked over to investigate. They were odd plants, seemingly out of place in this wilderness, but beautiful in their own way. Heading back tot he path, we spotted Malachite Firebirds flying around and watching us from the bushes. Their emerald green feathers stood out and flashed when caught in the sunlight.

It turned out that we were near their nest and we retreated to allow them to return. There were two chicks in the nest and one of our group had seen them, beaks wide open, waiting for food. Not wishing to disturb them any more, we set off towards the rocks, now getting closer.

The path started to ascend and as we were unused to the slope after our walk on the plains, we slowed and felt out of breath. But before long we reached the foot of the cliffs and took a short break before attempting the climb up to the view point. Here we shed packs and started on the scramble up the narrow, rocky path. There were plenty of hand and foot holds, but there was also exposure to quite a drop and I remembered the ‘three points of contact’ mantra I’d been taught when scrambling in Snowdonia. After a few minutes, we were on the narrow ridge that led to the summit.

We’d climbed around 80m in total and although we were at altitude, it wasn’t too taxing. There were magnificent views across the caldera to our camp of this morning, but looking south towards the lower slopes and the route of the Machame path, there were thick dark clouds and they seemed to be approaching.

Back down, after a precarious slippery scramble, we donned back packs and set off over the slightly lower hill that would take us to Shira Hut camp site, our goal for the day. Shortly after we set off, the first rain started to fall. There were the big raindrops of a thundery shower and a few hailstones. I didn’t allow my mind to recall my encounter with a thunder storm during training until I heard the first clap of thunder from the right.

Waterproofs were hastily put on and I noticed the guides weren’t too concerned by the thunder, so I chose not to be. Mind over matter – it seemed the positive mental attitude was working. But no amount of positivity stopped the rain from falling and it quickly became heavy and persistent. To the accompaniment of the odd peal of thunder, we walked in near silence in a world cocooned by our rain gear and the thick rain and mist. In all subsequent conversations, this was deemed to be the worst day of the trek, including the summit day. It was cold, wet and miserable and all we had to look forward to was the dubious shelter of a tent at the end of it.

We straggled into camp after about an hour. Everything was soaked. We were even given dispensation to go straight to the tents rather than registering at the Ranger post first. Wet kit was deposited in the porch of the tents, and we gathered, damp and downhearted, in the mess tent. Hot peanuts and hot drinks helped revive our spirits. The mention of an acclimatisation walk didn’t fill us full of enthusiasm.

After lunch, which was soup and toast, we had some time to gather our thoughts, change out of damp clothes and take a rest before we set off on the short acclimatisation walk. We took the route we’d be following the next day. The plan was to climb another 80m or so and stay for a few minutes, following the acclimatisation rule of climbing high and sleeping low. In the event, we were feeling good enough to ascend higher and we finally stopped at around 150m higher than camp. There we chatted with our guides, who explained the language and tribal system of Tanzania.

Before independence in 1964,  there were 120 tribes across East Africa and they all had their local languages and dialects. Julius Nyerere legislated that Swahili, already a common tongue, would be the national language. The main effect of this was to unify the various tribes and thus the country. All Tanzanians can speak Swahili and their own tribal tongue. Locals can identify the tribe from the accent of Swahili and while I can’t say I noticed too many differences, the way our porters said ‘jambo’ every time they passed us on the trail varied considerably from long, drawn out version, to short snappy ones. This to me seemed to be based on accent.

The walk also had the benefit of drying off our gear, as by now the rains had stopped and the sun was out. We descended with a wonderful view of the caldera, the path we’d taken this morning and the clouds clearing from the slopes of the Cathedral rocks.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.