Feeling: AT THE PEAK OF IT
The big kahuna.
It was the day (well, technically the next day as the summit mission started at midnight, but go with it).
We awoke (as per), packed (as per), had breakfast (as per, but earlier) and set off (as per, but earlier). But this day was a little different in that it involved a climb over of the Barranco wall, going up then down then up then down (and I don’t mean a little undulation; I’m talking massive rise then down, five of them), a settle at Base Camp at 1pm for a rest, an early dinner at 5pm then bed at 6pm, to be awoken at 11pm for a midnight departure for the six-hour trundle to Uhuru Peak.
Oxygen: 91. Pulse: 97.
First up was the Barranco Wall; one hour and a half of pretty much scrambling up on big rocks. I have to say, it was my favourite part as far. All the strategic placement of feet, looking ahead to the next step – brilliant.
At one point Joshua turned around and said the flat rock in front was called the Kissing Rock; I assumed it was lucky or something, and people pecked it for well wishes, but he explained that it was so as you had to clamp yourself to it and side step along, making sure your back didn’t touch it, so you didn’t fall off the ledge.
(Rene, this was the one point I was glad you hadn’t come with me). (Just to give some context; when first planning this trip one of my best friends Rene was potentially going to come, and she doesn’t deal too well with heights).
Once atop the wall, we spent some time taking jumping pics (always fun) then continued on with the deep down and steep ups.
About and hour on, the trek got a lot harder than the preceding days; not in a physical sense – physically, I feel in fine form – but on a mental one. About noon I got taken over by a little grip of panic. What if I die? You see, this often happens in such situations; an illogical part of my mind tries to take over and sets scenarios in my mind that make me terrified. In the past, I used to sit with the sensation and not do anything to counteract – I didn’t realise what was happening. But now, I’ve taught myself (very Pole Pole) to overcome it with rational speak. You know; Joshua has done this more than 300 times, there’s at the very least 500 people doing the same as you all over this mountain, you’ve been in altitude before and your body remembers and adapts accordingly.
All I wanted to do was speak with The Pedaller. The desperation to somehow call him and have him reassure me surged through me so strong. But I qualmed it; I’m trying to teach myself not to rely on other people to calm me. I need to learn to calm myself.
I talk to my Bampga a lot when I’m walking (and day-to-day at home too). It sounds a bit silly, but I have little chats and ask him to sit on my shoulder (this doesn’t count as relying on other people to calm me, by the way). And believe what you want to believe, but I genuinely feel him there and it soldiers me on.
(Just to clarify; my Bampga passed away ten years ago, in case you’re picturing me shoulder riding a full grown man up a mountain).
After a very, very, long rise we reached Base Camp; it was another very long rise before we reached the registration hut, the iconic sign to have a photo with and our tent.
I was feeling a little rattled when Joshua came up, touched my arm and said, “You are a strong little lady.”
It refuelled some fight in me.
I dropped my bag and sprinted down to the toilets (well, as much as you can sprint on shafts of rocks). Nothing like the scent of a fresh long-drop squatter to bring you back to life a bit.
It’s funny; in Swahili there are two main greetings – “Jambo” as the more polite and formal “hello”, and “Mambo” as the kind of, “What’s up”. With the porters we pass (more, pass us) it started out as “Jambo”. As we saw them more and more each day, it became, “Mambo”. And now with a handful, I’ve graduated to, “Sup brother!”
Lunch, nap, dinner, nap (with two pees between). (And Raddick treated me to a typical Czech biscuit – the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in a long time). I lay down to sleep confident and ready to do it, and woke up in the same state.
Oxygen 91; pulse 90 (always quickens when I see the finger reader come out).
And the day dawned.
Well, 11pm hit and our alarms went off. Me being me, everything was laid out that I wasn’t already wearing – headtorch, another pair of gloves, over pants, two beanies and my day back all packed and ready to go. (I already had on two pairs of socks, a pair of undies, yoga shorts, two thermal tights, gloves, two singlets, a thermal then a therma top then another thermal, a jumper and my superdown).
Light “breakfast” of cookies and a hot berrocca (accidentally added hot water instead of cold – that shit was yum!) and we were off.
And so was everyone else.
We were right in the middle of a long Pole Pole line of people. It was actually quite beautiful; it reminded me of a string of Christmas tree lights, snaking it’s way down the big rise we were all shuffling up.
Suddenly Joshua off roaded – rather than follow the path all others were, he stepped upon a rock and took a way round to skip out the really slow group ahead. Once we were up in front I said, “Yeah Joshua!” And saw the glint of his smile in the beam of my headlight.
That man knows Mambo.
(To clarify; as above, Mambo means “what’s up”).
So the road to Uhuru Peak is listed on the sign seven hours. A steep rise for 45 minutes, a slightly less steep rise for a few hours, then an intensely steep rise for 20 to Stellar Point. From there it’s about 45 minutes to an hour along the ridge line to get to the infamous Kilimanjaro sign.
I didn’t listen to music at all; all I focused on was the rhythm of Joshua’s feet in front of me and trying to match his steps, then repeating in my head, “I am getting to the top of Kilimanjaro and back down to Arusha again happy, healthy, safe and alive.” It’s funny; at no point was I not going to make it – it was almost like my shakey stint the day before was little wake up call to make sure it didn’t occur on summit day.
I decided I didn’t want to know the time; rather than see it was 2am then 3am then 4.30, I wanted to just go with it and be in the moment. It’s funny; because I had told myself it was going to be hard and cold, when the hardness and coldness came it was fine (apart from the cold at the top and the matter of the hand, which we’ll get to).
It’s pretty scary going up and seeing people not doing so well. Maybe an hour in there was a woman in her early 30s sitting on the ground, wild eyed and struggling to breathe. A little later on a man was slumped over a rock with a guide rubbing his back. And nearer the top, people were literally being led by their arm by their guides like zombies. Quite frightening how altitude can affect different people and how weakened it can make them; and can make you too, if you see such a sight and let your mind fall into it.
We were about 30minutes from the top of Stellar Point (I found this out later) when I decided the swaying and missteps I was taking meant I should pass my day pack along. You see, for the summit the guides don’t bring bags; because it’s such an extreme and exhausting mission, they leave their backs bare to enable them to take on their clients’ should they need to. I waited it out for about an hour, but at one point I nearly fell off the side of a ridge and decided the extra energy expending carrying it would be much better utilised at the last push.
I think Joshua was really happy I asked; he’s pretty clued on and has noted I don’t like to show weakness. When I handed my bag over he said, “Good girl” and I didn’t feel like a wussy.
It was starting to get much colder – at no point during the whole climb did I remove any layers until we came down after. I could see icicles forming in the dirt – for some reason it made me think of Shaun Mendes doing a concert, and that’s the view he must see from the stage. Funny how as oxygen decreases your mind gets a little adled and you ponder off on some funny trains.
I had been told it would be a full moon the night we summited so was a little disappointed to find a not full circle when we began. But it was so beamingly bright, it led my way far more than my head torch did. It was when I was about halfway up I noticed it was filling up with a bit more roundness, then a bit more; I then realised that I was literally watching the moon become full in action. (I found out the next day that it was actually an Eclipse).
Suddenly we were at the top of Stellar Point – Emanuel and Joshua gave us big hugs and said we were almost at the pinnacle. “Straight now,” said Joshua. Mainly a flat with some little rises.”
And then there was the wind.
Holy fuck was there the wind. Honestly gale force; at one point I thought I was going to get blown off the side it was so intense. It was said to be like -20 degrees (temp, not direction, just in case that needed clarifying). It howled around us getting right into our bones – it was then I noticed that the balaclava I’d been sucking on on the way up and completely frozen in the spots with my spit.
It was here it hit me a bit. I was fucking freezing, I was extremely tired and my head was pounding; “How far away are we?” I asked, and I could tell the boys knew that if I was asking, I mustn’t be in a very good way. “Less than ten minutes, more like five!” They said. “Come on Poppy, you’ve got this. And guess what? We’re going to be the first group out of all six routes at the peak.”
I’d noted we’d taken over a lot of groups on the way up, but I hadn’t clicked just how many – I looked ahead and there were no Christmas lights, and only a few a little bit behind. Now, if you know Poppy Wortman you know being first is sort of her forte – I upped my Pole Pole trudging to slightly faster Pole Pole trudging, and suddenly there was the sign, and there was me in front of it – the first person of the day out of 200 of them.
July 17, 5.57am – I got to the top of the highest free standing mountain in the world.
I burst into tears. Even though I’d told myself there was no way I wasn’t going to make it, I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it. In five hours and 57 minutes too! We took my photos then Raddick’s then us together then group (didn’t turn out overly well as it was still dark and the flash ones make me look HORRENDOUS) (though, on second thought, I think I did look pretty horrendous) (honestly, with all my layers I looked like a liquorice-dipped – do they do that? – marshmallow). I looked up and saw the moon was a perfectly circular full circle.
And then I noticed my hand.
Holy mother fucker. I had never been so cold in my life, and my hand was so frozen it felt like it was burning. I couldn’t feel my fingers so I ripped my glove off, and had a panic when I realised my whole hand had seized up in a gnarled position and I couldn’t move it at all.
I had a bit of a freak out. I’m right handed! What will I do? What about yoga? Omg what if it’s like this forever! As the others continued taking photos and gazing around at the beginning-to-rise sun, I was shaking my hand up and down as I jumped up and down and swore. When two minutes had passed and there was no change, I made an alarmed gurgled sound and Joshua turned around to see what was wrong. He saw the unmoving appendages and too looked a bit alarmed.
(Photo below recreated in tent later – at time was a bit preoccupied, plus necessary tool was out of order to document).
He told me to put it in my armpit and warm it up, so I did (as I rasped and gasped and was a bit over the top). Within four and a half minutes it was fully fine and back to optimum functioning – I felt like a bit (ok, a big) dick.
“Sorry, that was a bit ridiculous,” I said bashfully. Everyone laughed and said it was totally ok – I was first up Kilimanjaro, I was allowed to be a bit silly.
On account of the cold and wind, we decided to head back pretty quick smart. I slapped Raddick on the back and gave him a hug and he had a little tear in his eye. It was cool – I knew how much getting to the top meant to him, and it was so awesome to be there with him as he did.
As we passed people still trundling up they sung (well, some rasped) out, “Congratulations.” It was really bouyancing to see them going through real physical strain, but taking the time to acknowledge that we’d done it (I was still crying with euphoria and smiling like a Chuckie doll at this point – and for most of the two hours back down the hill). (“Hill” – what a joke. Fucking incline 10.0). Then suddenly I heard my name – it was Jen and Stefan, the American couple from my safari tour last week! We’d joked about seeing each other at the summit but I hadn’t actually thought we’d bump into each other – but there they were, at the last part of Stellar Peak. (It was the next day I realised Raddick and taken photos of the moment I realised it was them and caught it on cam).
Emanuel and I pretty much ran down, while Joshua and Raddick took it a little slower behind on account of sore knees. Halfway down I realised I’d forgotten to get my rock from the top (always do at significant climbing points) on account of being a bit preoccupied with my mangled hand, so I quickly picked a little tiny one that had glittery bits like a Shaun Mendes concert. (Later I looked at it and realised it wasn’t glittery at all – my dazed and happy self saw stars when there were none there).
All was grand, all was swell, then suddenly I had a bout of dizziness and said to Emanuel, “I don’t feel so good.”
The rest of the down was like a surreal, drugged haze; I felt like I wasn’t really there and kept getting all staggery. I tried to pretend I was sweet, but Emanuel made me give him my bag (I’d taken it back off Joshua at the top) and kept an eye on me the whole way down. I thought the tents at Base Camp were never going to appear, and when I saw them in the distance I kept my eyes trained on them – Just get to your tent and you can lie down and sleep.
I don’t think it was necessarily a real bout of altitude sickness; more a case of having had a raging all-nighter (first in a very long time in any sense of the phrase), not having drunk as much water and then all the excitement of the situation. When we got back to the tent (fucking finally) Emanuel made me drink a big cup of juice and then I fell asleep for an hour, arising to feel a whole lot better.
Packed, had lunch, then descended down to 3010m at Mweka Camp for our last night – in bed at 6.30pm.
(As we reached our point of camp for the night it was raining; I sped in to do my registration, and slipped on a, um, slippery rock. Quick reflex, I landed on my palm and bounced back up. A line of porter boys were sitting on the balcony and called out, “Smooth lady.” Made me laugh, even as I was cleaning all the mud off afterwards with wet wipes).
Our last morning dawned; our crew boys gathered round to sing us songs and we dispersed our tips (as in money, not advice on their vocals). Joshua said how we were a super easy group to have and it made it so much more enjoyable – like “you had wings and flew”.
Maybe it was him saying as such, but the three-to-four hour down to the gate took us an hour-and-a-half. We said goodbye to all the boys, got awarded our certificates (with “first to the top” written on, I was chuffed yet again) then started the journey back to our lodge.
It was an afternoon of unpacking, swimming, admin and present buying before Raddick and I met the German girls from the first night for dinner. Both having hit pretty intense altitude sickness, they had gotten to Gilman’s Point (before Stellar Point) and were unable to go on. We agreed that it was still the top so it counted as climbing Kili.
I was really proud of myself; the night before Raddick had pulled out some Czech spirits for us to have a shot of and – holy shit! – I turned it down. I explained my year of no alcohol and though he said he wouldn’t tell anyone, I still didn’t partake. At dinner with the girls they were cracking into some Kilimanjaro beers; although they pretty heartily encouraged me to have one, I still refrained. And it wasn’t hard – not drinking has now become the norm, and I find it really easy to stand my ground and say no.
We told our mountain tales (they laughed until they cried when I told them about my hand and re-enacted traipsing around in terror at the top – two beers after being at altitude might have had something to do with the hilarity they found at my story?) and when everyone’s eyelids were drooping too deeply, we said goodnight.
It was sad saying goodbye to Raddick. When you achieve something pretty monumental with someone and spend breakfast, lunch, dinner, plus hours of walking together each day, you get pretty accustomed to their company. It’s funny; if i said to you I had a male Czech friend in his early 50s it might sound weird – yet to me it seems like the most normal thing in the world.
At the sign out gate I bought him and I a little wooden sign with the lyrics to the main song our crew boys sung to us on it; after we left the souvenir shop (stopped by just after the gate), he gave me a little beaded bracelette in the colours of the Tanzanian flag and another of the infamous Czech biscuits. Again, might sound weird for someone not involved in the context, but it again felt like the most normal thing in the world. He’s a very good man with a very good heart.
I sat up outside reception and did a bit more life admin (bought a new duvet cover for The Pedaller and I – he was very alarmed when I informed him about how I was going to fit it in to bring it home, until I explained I bought it online) (and holy shit it was good to talk to him again and see his beautiful face earlier on when I got back) (on FaceTime, just to clarify; he isn’t here). Margaret – my favourite lady here – scooted over and said I hadn’t eaten much at dinner (I totally had smashed the vege curry) and gave me a massive hunk of watermelon. After the obligatory insta post was up, I went back to my cottage-cabin to find my bed set and hot water bottle nestled within the sheets.
Tomorrow I fly to Egypt late afternoon, so I have the morning to pack, swim and just absolutely chill at my leisure. I’m going to attempt to sleep in (when the girl asked what time I would be at breakfast I responded, “Potentially anytime between 6am and 9am”) and immerse myself in the serenity of this place before the chaos of Cairo.
My heart is happy.
Now when I have said I have found Kili quite easy, I don’t mean it hasn’t been a challenge – of course it has. I’m just really tickled with the way my body and my mind has handled it (apart from the 15minutes thinking I was going to die and the hand situation). I thought I was going to go to bed each night absolutely hammered and be gasping for air on the rises – at no point have I felt out of breath at all (aside from coming back up from the toilets at Base Camp – that 20 minutes of steepness was the hardest of it all). I genuinely think this has been a full case of my mind over matter – I’ve kept control of my thoughts (again, aside from my 15 minute moment and the hand instance) and as so, I have held up in a way that I am really proud of myself.
I have loved Kili. Loved it, loved it, loved it. (Especially being the first one to the top). But for me, nothing surpasses Nepal. When in the Himalayas you traipse through little mountainside villages with children running out to greet you, wide smiles and “Namaste!”s all round; Kili doesn’t have that element – rather it’s camp site to camp site with no locals – I’ve loved the tents and the crew and the itinerary of it all, but I really love the tea houses of the Himalayas. Kilimanjaro is beautiful and I hold a strong love for it, but the Himalayas has my heart.
Hakuna matata. Onto the last part of Africa for this trip (with a little stop in Ethiopia on the way). To more trinkets!
(Little addition: now next morning. I Did. Not. Sleep. In. Rather, I fell asleep about 12.30am and then awoke at 3.40, 4.47, 6.18 and 6.29. And you know how I spouted off about prepping the mind and the body responding? Well, it seems now that the course is complete the “matter” has decided to speak up – I feel like I’ve been pummelled in a WWF ring by 89 wrestlers. Just furthermores my theory about my head being handled and thus the rest of me acting in accordance, but by jingoes my anatomy aches. Alarm was set for 9am – what a dreamer). (Or not, as the case may be).