Conquering Mount Kilimanjaro the ‘Roof of Africa’ – Gemma Smith
I booked my trip at the start of the year and it was quite a spontaneous decision. I had no idea what I was in for, all I knew was that I was embarking on something bigger than I have ever done before in my entire life and I had many mixed emotions about it.
When I first booked it I was extremely excited. It brought back many memories of how I felt when I went travelling before back in 2012 to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, all of which I done on my own. The way I can describe jetting off solo is that a sense of freedom just washes over you. Not knowing where you are going, what you will be seeing or whom you may meet is such an addictive feeling, and it’s okay to say that I definitely have caught the travel bug.
I first got inspired to travel because I have always been interested in the ‘bigger picture’ – the world. I mean we live in such a huge place that is free (not literally) to roam around in by car, boat, train or even jet, so why not explore what’s out there and discover new things? Your vision becomes instantly wider and the connections you make along the way become such a huge part of your life, and opportunities come flooding towards you as you realise you have endless more doors open for you that otherwise would never have been there if it wasn’t for travelling. Sure, going alone is pretty scary, but what isn’t nowadays? I say take the risk because every day in this living life is a risk, and what you don’t do you will probably regret for the rest of your life, but you’ll unlikely regret the stories you have to tell.
Why Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa?
I have always been extremely fascinated with Africa – it is the motherland. I thought to myself that it must be a truly touching experience to go there, as you hear all over the media how different it is and how little everybody has. I was in awe to open up my eyes even more, to learn about the local people and communities as well as immersing myself in a whole new culture that I have never seen before.
I questioned different ways of travelling around Africa and I sat back and said to myself, ‘I would really love to climb a mountain in my lifetime, like a really big one’. Then I remembered all the stories a few of my friends have told me about Kilimanjaro and how incredible it was for them. They said it literally changed their lives, so I wondered how, why, and by what? Then I thought, why don’t I go and experience it all for myself? And that was when I took the leap of faith. We all have fears and we all go through times where we doubt our capabilities and ourselves, and it is during those hardships we become afraid of what we can achieve rather than what we cannot. So that is why I think we all need to face our fears headstrong and use our inner-strength, our drive and stubborn determination to spontaneously book our dreams because there really is no better day than today!
We have all probably heard people talk about travelling and many people say that it’s a great quest in life but wait until you have financial stability and a backbone to fall back on. I totally disagree with that attitude because I think we should all do it while we are young, chase our dreams and never give up until we get there. When you travel you grow, you inspire and you feel inspired. Plus, you never know, it could change your life…
So setting off for Africa on the 6th June 2014 I felt the nerves run through me. My friends and family showed their support and simply couldn’t have done more for me, so I felt the love to keep me moving forward. It was a big step up from anything I had ever done before, and I thought bungee jumping and skydiving was a huge achievement: I was just about to tackle the tallest freestanding mountain in the world with asthma and barely any training! To say that I am crazy is an understatement, but deep down who isn’t? The truth is, only some of us are willing to show and express our crazy side!
I had spent a lot of time, money and research on my mountain equipment and clothing list and finding out what brands were better than others. To say the least, the stress I went through in purchasing all what I needed was astronomical, and that’s without putting aside all of the medication, EXPENSIVE medication, that I had to buy just to keep me protected, alive and healthy during my travels. (This wasn’t something I had researched well before booking my adventure trip, as I usually book my travels spare of the moment, but I like it that way!) The unknown is so much more exciting, so that’s probably why I decided to not train hard for the climb.
It was quite a reckless move of mine to be perfectly honest, because if I had trained I would of been a lot more confident, but I wanted to be humble about the experience and see exactly what my body, mind and spirit was able to accomplish. Plus, I had many people telling me – or should I say nagging me – about training that it began to put me off. I booked it so sparingly on the spot that the nerves were heightening as it was. If I had climbed a mini-mountain in Wales and had an awful time it may have dampened my attitude about the mountain and I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted a clear mind, a strong mental stamina and a positive attitude and all of that combined with a fantastic group and team spirit would – I was certain of it – be enough to make me reach the top.
So when I reached Africa the whole country electrified me instantly. I felt incredible and the natural beauty of the land stunned me straight away. All of the African people were so friendly, and having everything organised and set in place really put my heart and mind at ease; and my parents too of course.
I met the group and the agency I would be travelling with for the week up the mountain, and despite the nerves that were naturally present, I was preparing myself mentally for what was to come.
The whole climb took six days in total: four days and one night up to the top, and one and a half days down. Every day we experienced a different climate zone, which was very bizarre for the body, and it took me some time to adapt to it. On the first day I wore shorts and light clothing because at the bottom of the mountain it was very humid, and we was trekking through the rainforest to our first campsite. We walked uphill for five hours solid on our first day, and I was completely shocked by the physical demand this was already having on my body. At this point I regretted not training, but it would have been a bit useless of me to give up after day one, wouldn’t it? So that just wasn’t going to happen.
Day two on the other hand was a moorland climate zone which meant that because we was going higher, the rain had stopped and I coped a bit better on my second day as I had a deeper understanding of what I was in for. I found my own way and my own tactic and it worked really well for me: I stuck at the front next to the guide while the others walked behind me. They thought I was super-fit and I was the team leader in a way, but little did they know! I needed time to concentrate on my steps, digest what was happening to my body, and me, as well as following the footsteps of the main guide and not getting caught up in conversation with my friends in the group.
I found that talking while trekking upwards really made my breathing a lot heavier, so I had to focus on every breath and control my asthma sensibly. It also gave me more time to get to know the guide and ask him questions about the African culture, and he told me some funny stories about previous groups who clashed, had fights, took drugs at the summit and other crazy stuff. I remember something someone had told me before I left for the climb and that was to really appreciate the scenery, because every day would be completely different, and I started to understand that now. It is quite easy to get caught up with looking down at the floor all the time because you are concentrating so much, but then when you sit back and realise what you are doing, you feel completely blessed.
On the second day I started to feel the deprivation from having a toilet and from having a shower. I am the cleanest person and I come from a very clean and tidy household, so this mountain climb was challenging for me in more ways than one. My parents were shocked at the thought of no technology and me not showering for a week, as well as having no electric. It was a week of raw living, getting to know myself and pushing my limits further than I have ever pushed them before. I was breaking boundaries and proving to myself just how much a human being can achieve just by putting their mind to it when all feels impossible.
The third day was a desert climate, so it was a lot warmer but colder at the same time as we were getting closer to the equator but going higher which meant the air was colder. I was really starting to feel the transition on this day, and the exhaustion too. I was relying upon my mental strength more than ever at this point but I pulled through it step by step. Our guides constantly told us to not look ahead and to ‘respect each day’, and I think this helped me more than I realised at the time. I took every day as it came, and felt that I had achieved something, without looking ahead to the night of the summit.
The team guides and porters were absolutely amazing, and every time we reached our camp the porters would already be there with the tents set up and food already prepared. I was eating more than I have ever done before but that was important to give me the energy I needed for the next day climb. I was also drinking at least four litres of water a day that I purified and cleansed myself with tablets. Although the mountain water was reasonably clean, I still wasn’t used to their way of life and I didn’t want to risk feeling ill.
“You can all do it”, our main CEO tour guide told us as he took our heart rate and oxygen levels every night after dinner. I felt so safe and reassured, and their team spirit really gave me the boost I needed when times felt hard and my body was weak. Every one got on so well and I loved the diversity in my group. I also loved the fact that I could write about my travels in my journal, and when I got back from my trip I blogged about it at www.gemmaleighsmithblog.wordpress.com. Being a writer it is important for me to travel and share stories with the world from a first-hand perspective.
Day four and the night of day four was the summit night so this was perhaps the biggest part of my climb for me: it was my time to shine, it was my time to make it happen and only I could do it. We had to conquer the Barranco Wall on day four which horrified me as I have a huge phobia of falling. Through blood, sweat and tears I reached it to the top of Barranco Wall, and it was important for us to acclimatise and get used to the high altitudes, so this was a very big moment for everyone.
So the summit night soon came around and we had to be up at 11:30pm to set off at midnight and trek through the night to the top of the mountain. The whole idea of doing it through darkness seemed quite daunting at first, but it was because they wouldn’t want us to trek up to the top during the day when the sun would be shining on us, as we were getting even closer to the equator. It also meant when we had to come down it would be bright, so we would see where we were going easily, and during the night we relied on our head torches and our guides to lead the way.
It took me eight and a half hours to reach it to the top, and oh my, I have never felt so close to giving up in all my life. I think it got to 5:30am in the morning and I was quite behind from the others in the group, and the main CEO who patiently pushed me along stayed with me giving me the motivation I needed. I reached a point where I sat on a rock and broke down in tears, telling him how tired I was and how I didn’t know if I could do it. I kept falling over, my lips were bleeding from the sharp winds and oxygen was becoming thinner so my asthma was worsening.
I was an absolute mess to say the minimum, but Sam – the main guide – told me that because I was lucky enough to not have any headaches or sickness I would be okay, and I would make it to the summit because feeling tired was ‘normal’. This gave me the hope I needed at this very moment in time. I looked up and saw the sunrise approaching in the distance, and looked at him in desperation as I felt his belief in me. It gave me the courage and willpower to carry on, and I remembered how far I had come, feeling all of the love and support from my family back at home and with me every step of the way.
I was alive, I was happy and I was free. I made it to the top and I was the happiest and proudest girl in the world. I cried with happiness as I reached 5895m above sea level – which is just over 19,000 ft. high. My dream had come true as I reached Uhuru peak (which means Freedom in English, and you can understand why because that is just how you feel when you make it): to the ‘Roof of Africa’.
At the top, glaciers surrounded us all around us as well as the huge fluffy clouds. We couldn’t stay at the summit for too long because it was absolutely freezing and oxygen was scarce, so after ten minutes we began walking down back to base camp. Trekking downhill is actually a lot more dangerous than going up because your knees are majorly confused and they feel like they just want to crack into two. You get so used to climbing upwards it is hard for your body to adjust to a new pressure. You have a higher chance of slipping and falling on the rubble, and I fell over many times! It got to the point where I fell over that much it didn’t bother me anymore. I had made it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, and the adrenaline rush was indescribable and enough to ‘move mountains’ within me. The moment was perfect.
It took a day and a half to make it down to the gates, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was a completely different experience to going up, and I listened to my music and spoke to everyone in the group a lot more as I began to breath normally again and not struggle for air; which was an amazing feeling. It made me appreciate just being able to wake up every morning and breath easily. It’s all of these little things we fail to appreciate, but I see it all so differently now.
So my boots became my best friend, and they really were made for walking. I think it is the most essential piece of equipment you need and to spend most money on, because without a comfortable pair, blisters may get the better of you, which could ruin your whole trip, potentially.
I made the most incredible memories with the people in my group who were from all over the world. Three guys were from America, one person from Brazil, two from Switzerland, a couple from England and then we had the Africans who made this whole journey possible for us. They were absolutely fantastic and I would recommend G Adventures to anyone looking to do this trip. They couldn’t of done enough, and the food was wonderful on the mountain! We ate fresh, homemade soup every night followed by a freshly prepared meal. Breakfast was delicious too: I ate a bowel of porridge, toast, fruit and a fry up. It sounds a lot but you can feel your body needing as much fuel as it can get to prepare for the long eight hour treks each day.
All of the porters carried our main rucksack whilst we had our day pack with us, as well as all of the food, portable cooking equipment and rubbish that they carry with them leaving no litter at all on the mountain. It’s inspiring to hear the porters and guides talk about the mountain like it’s their baby. It is practically their home and so many of them have trekked to the top over 100 times. It is also eye opening to see the way that the 40 porters and seven guides gathered together when we reached the campsite for the evening, and it really touched my heart hearing them sing and dance around us when we finally arrived. It gave us an abundance of encouragement, and made the whole process enjoyable and completely worth it. You would reach camp feeling like you truly knew the definition of ‘exhaustion’, something I will never say and use recklessly from now on, and then they would give you a positive energy that you needed. I would pinch myself with happiness, and especially when we were all above the clouds after day three; it really seemed quite surreal.
Did my horizon broaden? It did beyond expectations. Not only did I learn a lot about myself and how great the body at adapting and fighting through muscle aches and pains, but I learned a lot about other people and how they deal with things differently to you. I have made new friends from all over the world, and I have a huge attachment to Africa too. It is such a beautiful country and the people there are so ‘real’. They don’t have a lot, and the porters climb the mountain for their job carrying 25kg plus in worn out shoes, but they all still have a huge smile on their face and refuse to complain. They are so grateful for us, and they adore the British people!
The people and families in town in Tanzania and in Zanzibar – where I went after to relax for a few days after my climb – don’t have what we do in the Western world, yet I would say that they are a lot more content and happy to just ‘be’. It puts life into context and it made me see it from a different angle. I realised that I didn’t really miss my phone on the mountain or electricity. No one judged me; everyone was there to do the same thing as me, and despite not showering like I’m used to, it was far from a concern at the time. My priorities changed and other things seemed much more important, like survival.
There was so much more to life, and I feel so appreciative for everyone at home who loves me and had given me the inner-courage to pursue my dream. They never stopped believing in me, and although people said I wouldn’t make it and I wouldn’t cope I proved them all wrong. The negative comments and doubts I used to my advantage, and I knew that it didn’t matter what anyone thought or said, it was all down to me. You can do anything when you put your mind to it. The world is yours.
So I would say face your fears and live your dreams. ‘Live right, look left’, and you will never regret one day of your life. If you live it the way you want to and you don’t let your fears override your determination and your dreams, you will live the best possible life there is and you will, most importantly, be happy.
Travelling is a priceless experience, and I think the things you learn along the way cannot be taught in a classroom or in your hometown. What you know now is as far as it goes, so how can you possibly grow? Yet imagine how much more you can learn by throwing yourself in the deep end, and doing things you have always wanted to do despite being stopped by limitations…
It really is about the small things in life: like good company, unexpected achievements, being happy and living in the present moment and not alienating yourself with your mobile phone zoning out from the real world, because all of that is fake and isn’t real life. On the mountain I was living in the moment and that was the best feeling in the world. The phrase Hakuna Matata is Swahili for ‘No Worries’ that was used often on the mountain, and you can probably relate to that from the film The Lion King.
So, no matter what life throws at you or how hard times can get, don’t stop believing in yourself because through hard work, perseverance and sincere passion, success is the only possible outcome. Every one has their mountain to climb, and I am extremely overwhelmed that at the age of 21 I have climbed mine.
If you have any travelling stories or dreams that you would like to share I would absolutely love to hear about them! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
And remember, love yourself, believe in yourself, follow your intuitions and you will never go wrong! Enjoy the freedom with every part of you, feel energised and see the world that we live in because it really is such a beautiful place. Climb a mountain if you have to; it will undoubtedly change your life.