The first in a two part series documenting the journey two brave women took to tackle Africa's highest mountain for charity.
Exhilaration and anxiety on Kilimanjaro
"Jambo,I'm Goodluck Charles, your mountain guide." At least we were off to a positive start. Charles shook our hands with the same collected demeanor that he maintained throughout our journey on Kilimanjaro. This sense of calm, I later found out, was a godsend, quite possibly a lifesaver, regardless of whether we conquered the mountain or not. Razan and I were far from calm. Before Charles arrived at the b&b to give us our pep talk, we reassured each other that there was nothing to worry about. After a few seconds of silence and smiles, we'd go into panic mode again and ask: what were we thinking when we booked this? What if we get severe altitude sickness? What if we don't make it? This excite-fright cycle was repeated for most of the night.
Charles spoke about the mountain with passion, as if it was his longtime friend. He exuded a wisdom that seemed to have grown, climb after climb. When Charles told us that we would make it, we were compelled to start believing it ourselves. He then scrutinised our gear for weight and warmth. Clearly this wasn't a casual weeklong hike we were packing for. Eager to carry as little as possible, we laid out all our belongings on the bed and attempted to pack the bare necessities. Ensuring there were head torches, ropes, baby wipes, sub-zero sleeping bags, sunscreen, fleeces, gloves ... we were completely prepared practically but our mental readiness was still trying to catch up. Nerves began to creep up on us again and we got on the phone to our loved ones, desperate for any last words of encouragement.
Day one we dubbed "the fairytale forest". Having slept surprisingly soundly, we popped some Diamox (a strong pill which helps prevent altitude sickness), enjoyed a hearty bowl of Weetabix, drank some fresh passion fruit juice and began our journey. Razan and I jumped into a bus along with nine porters, Goodluck Charles and an assistant guide, Salim. All these people for just two climbers? We realised why by the end of the week. The entrance gate to the Machame route displayed a large sign warning climbers of the dangers of taking on Kilimanjaro. Charles reminded us this was the last time we'd be able to use a toilet all week. Razan and I turned back for one final visit.
While the porters were weighing in at the gate, we met three medical students from Denmark working in a local hospital for the past month, who claimed to have done little training. I felt a bit better, albeit still slightly anxious. Dwende (let's go or ready in Swahili). We began climbing up a 4x4 dirt track until we reached the start of a forest. We lost track of time among the trees, walking through a low cloud and admiring the beauty of the mountain. We camped for the night at 1,210 metres and, although the day was long, I felt fine. No muscle aches, no fatigue, no harsh temperatures. This isn't so bad, I thought.
On day two we rose above the clouds. "Coffee?" I was awoken by the soft voice of Peter, the kitchen porter, coming through my tent. I inhaled the spicy scent of fresh Arabica coffee every morning at 6am and it turned into one of my daily highlights. Then followed a long, fairly steep six-hour trail up the mountain with plenty of rocks to break up the pace. At lunch we reached a small plateau and stopped to marvel at the views of Kibo peak (one of the three main peaks of Kilimanjaro) and the hovering white-neck ravens. My legs and head hurt only slightly, but the promise of a camp above the clouds that night made any pain vanish quickly. I could feel my body beginning to get stronger as Charles, Salim, Razan and I sang our way through the final hour. When we reached the Shira Cave camp, we took an acclimatisation walk to coincide with sunset. Standing at 3,839m, we were now above the highest point in Southern Africa. It was only day two but watching the sun set over a boundless sheet of clouds, I already felt a sense of achievement and completely humbled by nature's magnificence.
Day three was characterised by thoughts of "how are we going to do this?" We began what would be our longest and hardest day (except for summit night) on Kilimanjaro. It was a steady incline in strong sunshine for six hours until we stopped for lunch. By now, the altitude had begun to affect me. A throbbing pain circled the circumference of my head and then there was the nausea, lots of nausea. We weren't even halfway through the day. We stopped for lunch but I had no appetite. Razan and Charles forced me to eat something for energy and I knew they were right. Moments later I threw up breakfast and whatever I'd managed to eat at lunch. Charles didn't even bat an eyelid: "Don't worry, this is good." I felt better, but extremely weak.
After lunch, we made our way through the arctic desert terrain with sand flats and strange tree trunks. I began using walking poles as my legs had become too weak to walk any faster than a window-shopping pace. We reached Lava Tower, a base higher than our campsite but necessary for acclimatising. "Take a photo here, Izzy, you'll appreciate it later." I forced a smile and obliged. As it turned out, I did appreciate it later. The headache had subsided; we were almost there. By almost, I mean three hours. And Razan had also become weak by this point.
It was torture being able to see the campsite during the last 90 minutes of our trek. We dropped to the floor upon reaching the tent, didn't talk much and quickly ate our dinner with Charles. "Tomorrow is the Breakfast Wall," he said. A wall? Great. We both got into the tent, still not talking to each other. Once we'd changed and set up our sleeping bags, we looked at each other and began to cry like teenage girls. "It was so tough ... My legs ... My neck." Razan pulled out her BlackBerry in an attempt to find reception. We were in luck, and we both made a quick phone call for words of encouragement. We needed to pull ourselves together. We were halfway through an amazing adventure. We were camping above clouds at 3,986m, the stars were gazing down powerfully and it felt pretty special. What could be better than that? I stopped focusing on the how and began focusing on the now.
And now, I'd like to take advantage of anyone sympathising with our weariness: please visit www.justgiving.com/ismatrazan-kilimanjaro to find out about our attempts to raise money for women in Tanzania through our climb. Next week: the lead up to the. summit - follow Ismat on her next round-the-world adventure