Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Day 8: The final descent

Our last morning with our crew was fantastic - we had breakfast (no porridge, but Semjon and I loved the pancakes!) and packed up our dust ridden belongings for the final time. We then got the opportunity to say goodbye and thanks to our crew - all 14 of them ( I underestimated the number in an earlier blog post). We exchanged kind words of enjoyment, respect and thanks and sang a few local songs to celebrate the adventure ... it might not sound cool, but it was one of my favourite moments of the entire experience - I guess you kind of had to be there... it was a genuinely wonderful way to say our goodbyes.

We hiked with Bruce for about four hours to our final destination and subsequent shuttle off the base of the mountain (around 2000m). The indestructable Semjon was proven mortal after all, as he had been suffering from painful knees throughout the majority of the decscent ... I felt bad for him as he hobbled down, but I must also admit that his malady made me feel just a little bit better about my relative fragility during the summit climb (sorry Semjon!)...

I am writing this blog entry back at our hotel - the clearing house for Kili climbers. A fresh batch just arrived this afternoon ... it feels strange to be back here a week after we left, as we all agree that we have been through such a rollercoaster of an experience. It feels like we have been away for much longer.

As we sat at the hotel having a beer, I secretly hoped that some newbie climber would approach us so that we would have the opportunity to regale the tale of our adventure and in the prcoess offer some words of support and practical advice ... alas it never happened....

We are all very aware that thousands of people summit Kilimanjaro each year, but it is ultimately an incredibly personal experience and very different for everyone. Somehow it really does feel like an achievement and therefore an exeprience that you want to share and celebrate with others.

We finished the final day by having a beer with Bruce and a couple of our porters - Frederick and Richard. They are really good guys and looked after us incredibly well. We amply repaid them their attentiveness so we were all content with the rewards derived from the last week's experience. They presented us with our official certificates and individual handmade bracelets (which they thoughtfully organised independently). We all feel very lucky to have experienced Kilimanjaro with such a relaxed, experienced and attentive crew. Bruce was a true gentleman - fantastic at planning our days, keeping us safe and healthy (or as healthy as possible under the conditions) and keeping us entertained. He was wonderfully supported by his crew. Considering we spent most of the past week above the clouds, we didn't want for anything... except maybe a proper toilet and thicker porridge... Seriously - thank you for everything guys!

Tomorrow Paul and Semjon fly to Zanzibar - they've found a wonderful boutique hotel and booked the honeymoon suite... I remain in Moshi for a further day and then fly to South Africa (to Richards bay via Jo'Burg) to ride horses.

I will miss Paul and Semjon. The past week has been an incredible experience and it has been wonderful to be able to share it. Our trip doesn't exactly end here, as we will spend the coming weeks exchanging photos and video footage, making photo books and a video diary. Importantly, we will also be working with Charity:Water to organise how the money we have collectively raised (so far about US$25,000 and rising) is spent. We would like to invest some of the money into water projects for Tanzania. We will post updates on how the money is being spent on this blog as well as our fundraising page.

It's amazing how a giant lump of rock can bring together three friends to create a unique story and an unforgettable journey. Our lives and friendships are richer for this exeprience. We all hope that you have enjoyed sharing it with us through this blog...

Anton, Paul and Semjon xx

Day 7: Summit night(mare)

Summit night started out well... after a dinner of potato stew at 5pm we all went to bed to get a few hours of sleep before climbing thorough the night. None of us managed to sleep much as the imminent challenge was playing on our minds - a combination of excitement and foreboding at the prospect.

We were all awoken at 11:30pm by Bruce and immediately changed into our climbing gear. This consisted of many layers. For example, I was wearing four bottom layers (2 thermals (breathable!), hiking trousers, waterproof/ windproof trousers) and five upper layers (2 thermals (also breathable, to avoid becoming drenched in our own sweat), fleece, soft shell jacket, waterproof/windproof jacket) ... I literally felt like I was wearing a fat suit... however, the layers were necessary as we would be climbing in minus ten to fifteen degree celsius temperatures.

Up until that point I had been extremely happy with my general appearance on the mountain... as you all can imagine with Paul and Semjon on this trip significant efforts were made by all to maintain mountain chic throughout... Rather flatteringly, Paul and Semjon both agreed that I was consistently the best coordinated and turned out of the group... dare I say, the entire mountain. This was a totally unexpected and major compliment coming from such fashionistas ... I glady welcomed their plaudits. My mountain 'look', not that I realised I had one until told as much, basically consisted of army supplies acquired from my local army surplus store in Notting Hill. Lots of khakis and beiges seemed to go down well with the the self appointed mountain fashion police... I took considerable consolation that all that anything I might lack in mountain hardiness was more than made up by the 'look'!

Once changed into our fat suits, we had a cup of soup and set out into the dark of night, illuminated only by the moonlight and the head torches strapped to our foreheads. We immediately started up a significant slope...

The climb itself lasted just over six hours. We were at the head of all the climbing parties so hundreds of spotlights snaked into the darkness beneath us ... during the climb we were passed by a few climbers who were ascending with considerable velocity ... personally, I couldn't see the point of rushing up the mountain, as you would reach the summit well before sunrise and have to sit around in the cold and dark ... Contrastingly, Paul seethed everytime we were passed by anyone, prefacing his actions with comments like, "I know it's not a race, but I really want to get to the top first ...".

At the point where we were passed by the first group of climbers we were about 3 hours into the ascent and stood at 5450 metres. It was at this point that I started to find the climb difficult ... my head had begun to pound and my legs were putting the brakes on ... the summit climb was probably the most physcially gruelling and demanding experience of my life. Each individual's body handles the climb differently - while Semjon was basically feeling "great!" most of the way up (more about that later...), I suffered every step of the way. A severe headache, bitterly cold extremities, a constant feeling that I was about to violently throw up at any moment and dizziness converged upon me ... consequently the energy and spirit began to drain from my body and mind... this inhuman feeling was effectively my personal hell for the rest of the climb and subsequent ascent (lasting just over 5 hours in total).

While the actual climb itself is by no means the toughest in the world (the 8 to 10 hour total duration is an energy sapper), the combinbation of freezing temperatures, near darkness and the worst hangover you have every experienced (those of you that know me well, will certainly attest that I can speak with significant authority about brain splitting hangovers) made my personal experience nothing short of a living nightmare. Nevertheless, I wasn't about to give up after putting so much effort into getting to Tanzania, Kilimanjaro and then 450 metres from the summit. Also, we were raising money for charity so I would have felt like a fraud had I given up a any point.

Constrastingly, apart from a mild headache and finding the climb physically tiring Semjon was basically really enjoying himself... to the point where, at about 6am as were were approaching the Uhuru Peak and the sun was beginning to creep over the horizon, he burst into a gleeful rendition of the Beeatles "Here Comes The Sun". Paul was feeling poorly, but was coping well, as he clearly still appeared to be more bothered by not being first to the summit than his symptoms... I guess I am just not cut out for altitude ... from now on I'll be sticking to significantly more terrestrial pursuits...

We all reached the Uhuru peak (5895m) a little before 6:30am, just in time to see the sunrise above the clouds. We were surrounded by massive, brilliant white glaciers to our left and an expansive volcanic crater to our righthand side. I don't remeber how long I remained at the summit ... enough time to take the obligatory pictures (in spite of everything, of course I managed to muster up a few smiles for the occasion!!!), get some video (although most of our cameras were frozen) and exchange hugs with Semjon, Paul and our guides.

Sadly, I don't remember much more about the summit experience. Anything else I try to recall is masked by an overriding sensation of devilish pain. I personally regret that I was unable to enjoy the beauty of the summit more than I did... however, at the earliest opportunity I grabbed our assistant guide (we had Bruce and his assistant, Charo, bookend us up the mountain) and commanded him, "Down!".

The descent takes about two hours and consists of skating down steep slopes of loose gravel, while trying to avoid large rocks and precipices on either side. I continued to feel awful all the way down, as I got increasingly overheated in my fat suit when the as the sun got stronger. I didn't stop once on the descent. My overwhelming compuslsion was to reach the preceived safety of the camp at 4900m. Once at the camp, I collapsed into my tent swallowed a handful of painkillers and passed out.

Meanwhile, back somewhere up the mountain Semjon was having the time of his life - individually congratulating every climber on their achievement and cracking open beers. To his credit Paul, in spite of his naseua and massive disappointment that he didn't "get there first", persevered with Semjon's summit euphoria. Paul hung around for as long as his body and mind could cope, which was he tells me about 25 minutes, until he ushered Semjon downward.

If there was an award for happiest climber on the mountain, Semjon would have surely won it (as well as the runner up prize). I noticed no other climbers on the mountain enthusiastically greeting eachother. Most people either wear pained experessions or just shiver with cold - or both. WELL DONE SEMJON!!! You summited the way it should always be done...

By the time the others got back to camp (around 9am) I had passed out. We were all awoken again at 11am, packed our belongings, had a light lunch and then commenced a 5 hour hike down the mountain to 3100m. A 9 hour summit climb and descent followed by a 5 hour hike down a further 1800m was pretty brutal - by a significant margin it was the hardest day we experienced during the trip.

Talking with friends back home, there appears to be a common perception that climbing Kilimanjaro is not great challenge ("after all Cheryl Cole's even done it..."). All I can say to that is you must try it for yourself. Trying it firsthand may change your opinion (as it did for me). Its impossible for one to pass judgement without knowing how your body will react to the conditions. We all, even the bionic Semjon, have much more respect for the mountain than when we first arrived at its base.

The presence, beauty and challenge of Kilimanjaro is not something that one should underestimate easily...

We arrived at our final camp on the evening of the Summit night/day. We polished off a quick supper of chicken and beef stews and promptly fell into our tents for 10 hours of uninterrupted slumber. The camp was the first location where I got a decent signal for my iPhone so I finally made contact with the outsdie world (apart from the blog of course...). I spoke to my girlfriend - it was great to be able to share the news of the successful summit with her ... I went to bed feeling happy and content with the days work!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Day Six: Turning point

We all awoke on day six feeling like Semjon - "great!". We all slept really well and the nausea of the previous day had gone. The only downer was the porridge. It was practically water and the usually unflappable and uber positive Semjon was beside himself - downcast and genuinely upset. The only time Semjon ever has a sense of humour failure revolves around a lack of food quality or quantity. Otherwise he is one of the most upbeat and positive people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.

The Baranco Wall turned out to be less of a challenge than we had imagined on first glance the previous afternoon. All feeling well, our collective spirits were high and climbing the wall (it was quite vertical in places and was more of a climb than a hike) was great fun. We all agreed that climbing was the most fun as opposed to descending which is quite treacherous. The climb took about 45 minutes in the strong morning sunshine. At the top of the Baranco Wall we had reached 4200 metres.

We spent the rest of the morning walking around the base of Kilimanajaro to the Karanga camp which sat at 4100 metres. The walk was great fun and the scenery, situated well above the solid blanket of fluffy clouds below (including great views of Tanzania's other great mountain, Mount Mehru's summit poking through the clouds), gave us the opportunity to take as many stupid pictures as possible. I'm sure that you can all imagine that between the three of us, we've spent a fair amount of time taking pictures of each other (Paul and Semjon keep fighting over the travel mirror). We have a lot of serious photos of us in various explorer type poses in front of the mountain or clouds ... from hundreds of angles... Our stupid pictures mainly consisted of us jumping (star jumps, leg kicks and other various contortions against a backdrop of either clouds or mountain... as there's not much else around) or making faces. I'm sure a few of them will make it up onto the blog. During our photoshoot we received a lot of funny looks from other walkers and guides, but we were having fun.

We got to Karanga camp at around 1pm and had lunch. We then spent the rest of the day relaxing. We don't climb in the afternoon for the next couple of days so that we build/conserve energy for the summit climb.

Paul took advantage of the downtime to wash his hair (again), which Semjon filmed (again). They then went off to take more stupid photos while I updated the blog and tried to make calls (unsuccessfully). The evening was spent playing cards and relaxing. The downtime was important because our bodies needed the time to continue to acclimatize. Tomorrow we would be climbing up to 4900 metres, where we would spend the afternoon and evening before commencing the summit climb at around midnight on Sunday morning.

We fell asleep in the shadow of Kilimanjaro... In just over 24 hours, all going to plan, we will be on top of it...

Day Seven: Kosovo

I didn't have a great night's sleep at Karanga camp it was really cold and I kept waking up feeling freezing. As a result I was slow to rise and pack up my stuff.

Semjon had made a point of speaking to our chef before breakfast to ensure that the porridge was of acceptable thickness and was all smiles when it arrived piping hot and syrupy. I really appreciated Semjon's efforts, as the hot porridge really kick started my internal motor, which hadn't really got going this morning...

We walked between about 8:30am and 1pm today from the Karanga camp (4100m) to Kosovo camp (4900m). Kosovo camp is not in the guide books, as it is now effectively an illegal camp. It was widely used around the mid 1990s (hence the reference to the Yugoslavian conflict), but is no longer used because it does not have toilet facilities, etc. Most tours use the Barafu Huts (4600m) as their base for the summit climb. However, Bruce was able to 'arrange' for us to camp at Kosovo.

The walk to the Barafu Huts and then up to Kosovo is pretty hard going, especially the very steep section between Barafu and Kosovo. We are the only group at Kosovo Camp. Its a really great camp. It has stunning views of the roof of Africa in all directions and is very quiet compared to the Barafu Huts, where almost a hundred tents are scattered around. We are also really glad that we do not have to make the 300m climb from the Barafu Huts to Kosovo in the dark - its very steep and rocky and definitely requires more climbing than hiking skills.

We had lunch at 2pm - makeshift spaghetti bolognese. We then shared out all our remaining energy bars equally (we will be hiking for about 12 hours virtually non-stop so we will need plenty of energy snacks throughout the night / morning) and checked our clothing for tonight's climb. We are now all resting in our tents. I am finishing this blog entry while the others are sleeping.

We will eat dinner (a boiled potato concoction, which Semjon is not looking forward to) at around 5pm. We will then try to sleep until around 11:30pm when we will put on our multiple, multiple layers of climbing clothes in preparation for starting the summit climb at midnight. We are all feeling good considering the high altitude (the highest we've been so far). Semjon is "great!", while Paul and I feel pretty good under the circumstances. We both have a slight headache. I just took some Nurofen and will now try and get some rest.

We start our climb today, Saturday 1st August, at around 10pm GMT (5pm EST). We hope you'll be thinking of us and are sure that you will be wishing us the best of luck...

Day Five: We're supposed to be on vacation...

I awoke on day five feeling much better than I went to bed. My nausea and headache had dissipated. We all had breakfast together and I had a couple of bowls of porridge (still runny... Semjon's hopping mad!).

All felt pretty good until we started walking... we immediately started climbing a steep slope and I immediately started to feel fatigued. I don't remember much of the morning except that we were walking for several hours that were excruciatingly difficult for me... I was totally knackered. Every step felt like I was wading through thick mud. All I could do was literally concentrate on taking the next step... anything more just seemed too difficult. I have never felt anything like as tired as I did this morning, even when I ran the London marathon. I really was dealing with physical sensations that were totally alien to me and I felt like I could have collapsed several times. I guess it was a combination of altitude sickness and being weak from the previous night's illness. I remember asking myself over and again, "Why am I doing this... I'm supposed to be on vacation".

Thankfully, we all made it to lunch - Semjon and Paul were doing well and feeling energetic all morning - at the Lava Tower, which sits at 4600 metres. Once I got to our dining tent I slumped in my chair. If I had a bed I would have passed out cold. However, head in hands, I gathered myself and forced down lunch, as I knew that my body needed energy. I immediately felt better during and after lunch. This was in stark contrast to Paul who suddenly began feeling pretty ropey. Before long he was around the back of the tent throwing up what little lunch he had forced down. Semjon, on the other hand sat there feeling "great!"...

We started out after lunch, which was basically a long descent to from 4600 to 3900 metres. It seemed pretty pointless to get up so high and then go back down again, but that is the best way to avoid altitude sickness ("climb high, sleep low" is the mountaineers maxim). Paul threw up again on the way down and after feeling much better, I started developing a bad headache.

We all couldn't wait to get to the next camp ... I was feeling physically awful and was questioning the whole idea of climbing the mountain, which was now 2000 metres above us. I just wanted to sleep.

We all collapsed when we got to camp and slept for several hours. I took Nurofen and felt much better when I awoke for supper. Paul also arose feeling rejuvenated.

Feeling quite pleased with ourselves, the way you do when you have managed to get over a nasty hangover, we ate a tasty supper and immediately went straight back to bed.

Tomorrow we would be climbing the Baranco Wall first thing in the morning. It's called a wall because it's a cliff face which must be traversed. However, the climb is literally vertical in some places. I knew that I had to be feeling much better tomorrow otherwise it was going to be a real struggle and there was even a chance that I wouldn't make it to the top. We all went to bed to get a good ten hours of sleep. I shut my eyes hoping for an uninterrupted and rejuvinating night's sleep.

Day Four: Positves and negatives...

Day four started well, except for the fact that our porridge is getting increasingly runny... Semjon's not happy and has had a polite word with the chef. We wonder if it is because there is a very limited supply of oats. It is real logistical and human effort to move a mobile camp up towards the summit of Kilimanjaro. You can only carry so many provisions and perhaps oats is low on the list of priorities. There is a resupply every three days so perhaps tomorrow will bring more oats...

I estimate that we must have at least 8, if not 10, porters carrying our tents and baggage, etc. The porters are amazing, as they carry so much more weight and move so much more quickly up the mountain than us. Its kind of embarrassing, as I huff and puff up some of the steeper sections of the climb and the porters glide by, balancing incredible weights on their heads.

After breakfast we started our hike (it was pretty flat). After a cold night, the morning sunshine was most welcome. I soaked it up as we walked across the expansive volcanic plains. As every hour passed Kilimanjaro magnified in front of us, looking increasing formidable...

On a less positive note, our guide, Bruce, has hijacked my iPod. It seems that he's obsessed by two things - the first is Whitney Houston. He is playing Whitney's greatest hits on a continuous loop, intermittently giving us falsetto renditions of 'One Moment in Time' and 'The Greatest Love of All'. Paul provides ample vocal support. I chime in too where I can, but don't know many of the words... however, I have a feeling I will know most of the words by the end of this trip. Its all pretty surreal.

Bruce's second obsession is movies... Action movies, especially war movies, to be precise. He watches them so many times that he is able to quote scenes from films like 'Saving Private Ryan', 'Universal Solider' and 'Full Metal Jacket' verbatim... Bruce is a big Jean Claude Van Damme fan and is the only person I have ever known to list 'Streetfighter' as one of his favourite films (if you have tried to ever watch it you will know exactly what I mean)... I got so fed up with his incessant film quotes that I have permanently lent him the iPod... I can handle his Whitney renditions much better than the Jean Claude Van Damme impressions...

We stopped for lunch in a nice spot and we all felt pretty good. Semjon and I had a beer and we took a few pictures of the mountain that now felt almost on top of us, even though it was still some way away. After lunch we climbed for about two hours to our next camp at 4200 metres. We all still felt pretty good, but it was at this point I definitely began to feel the air thinning.

After about 40 minutes after we got to camp, I started to feel pretty unwell. I developed a severe headache and began to feel very nauseas - classic symptoms of altitude sickness. However, I had not been wearing a hat all day and I could also feel that I had had a lot of sun... also there was the beer at lunch... however, Semjon also had one and (as always) he felt "Great!". I took some Nurofen and hoped it would pass...

Unfortunately, I continued to feel worse. I could not face dinner, but sat with the guys (mostly with my head in my hands). Then Bruce came by and I explained how I felt. He suggested taking some Diamox as a precaution. Unlike Paul and Semjon, until that point I had resisted taking Diamox (they both decided to take the drug from day one, as a prophylactic). Diamox is a drug that is prescribed to treat altitude sickness. It works by acidifying the blood, which stimulates breathing, allowing a greater amount of oxygen to enter into the bloodstream. The percentage of oxygen in the air is much lower at altitude so Diamox acts to compensate that. I wanted to attempt the climb drug free and let my body try to acclimatize naturally. However, under Bruce's recommendation I took a 250mg pill... this decision didn't matter much, as Bruce also advised me to eat something. I tried a banana and promptly projectile vomited anything that I had sitting in my stomach. I immediately felt better, but went to bed feeling weak and sorry for myself. I still was bemused as to what was wrong with me, but Bruce gave me some magnesium tablets, which really helped settle my stomach.

Paul and Semjon also got early nights, as the camp was quite exposed and got very cold after the sun disappeared. We were to climb up to 4600 metres tomorrow so we all needed rest, especially me...

Day Three (Part 2)

The Shira Camp sits squarely in front of Mount Kilimanjaro. The plateau is very large - about 6200 hectares. The mountain arises out of the plateau and dominates all else around it. It feels like we're camped on the tips of the mountain's toes...

We finished our evening playing a card game that Paul taught us called 'Cheat' (I had tried to get everyone playing Texas Hold'em the previous night in the hope of financing my trip out of the proceeds of my inevitable poker winnings, but a lack of chips was a problem - we ended up using tylenol and tea bags, which didn't work out so well as we would eventually need to consume both items). Considering he taught us the game, Paul sucked... the game basically involved bluffing and catching people bluffing. Paul's excuse for his pitiful performance (Sejon won) was that he trusts no one and is a compulsive liar... I know him too well to believe this is true, but he does need to work on his cardsmanship! Shame we never had the poker chips. I'd have really enjoyed taking Paul's money and goading his competitive streak...

After taking turns to visit our portable toilet (in the dark using head torches... I'll say no more, as I can assure you that it is definitely worse than you can imagine!) we all retired (shivering) to bed.

Tomorrow we would cross the Shira plateau to reach the foot hills of Kilimanjaro, rising to 4300 metres and thus facing the prospect of increasingly majestic views of the mountain as well as the increased threat of altitude sickness. We can't wait...