Diary of a Nacoa Volunteer – ‘Climbing Kilimanjaro’

There’s something about growing up as the child of two alcoholics, watching them crash into the abyss that is their rock bottom and somehow managing to claw their way back out, that makes you realise you can do anything. I have my parents to thank for everything in my life, the good, the bad and the ugly and they’ve all made me the person I am today…That’s someone who has just climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and raised £2000 in the process. So it can’t all be that bad. I dedicate my climb to them.

On March 1st myself and two friends embarked on the experience of a lifetime. I’d like to be able to tell you that I had done the utmost preparation and felt confident in the challenge that lay ahead but I can’t. In hindsight, I could have done a thousand squats a day and it still wouldn’t have prepared me for the physical, psychological and emotional struggle that we encountered over the next 7 days.

 

Day 1; 12 km, 7 hours hiking

After a nervous nights sleep in the hotel in Moshi town we were collected by Nteze, our guide for the week. We quickly realised he was our guide in mind as well as body and his experience of 200 previous successful ascents proved its worth over the following days. Now, in the pre-reading I had done on the daily itineraries, day one was expected to be a gentle, and clearly misinterpreted flat walk. In hindsight I was naive to think we could ascend 4000m from the bottom by walking along flat terrain. What we later realised was when Nteze said flat, he meant a path clear of boulders which we didn’t need to clamber over.  With that being said the walk was made easy by how beautiful our surroundings were. Trees that you couldn’t see the sky through and flora indigenous to the mountain were a sweet reminder that this wasn’t a Sunday stroll and there was no turning back to get a cup of tea. In the last hour before arriving at camp, the heavens opened, initially thankful to be covered in rain rather than sweat, the novelty wore off when we arrived and the temperature had taken a sudden drop. We weren’t expecting to be so cold on day one and the reality of what was to come began to set it. Far quicker than expected, we turned to home comforts we’d bought with us for the night of the summit. My partner had given me two packets of mini eggs and some Yorkshire tea which seemed to do the trick.

Our team prepared our tent while we changed into warm clothes and went to find the ‘toilet’. Of course this was something we thought about prior to the climb however nothing could prepare us for the long drops which we located from the smell of sulphur and the buzzing of flies. We always went together and one of us would shine a torch under the door so we didn’t pee on our feet. However, with the speed at which you were trying to get out of there to avoid swallowing a fly, weeing on your feet was unavoidable. Lets just say we were all grateful we had invested in waterproof hiking boots.

We were summoned to our eating tent which became our social hub for the week and were blown away by the meals we were presented with. I still don’t quite know how they managed to prepare the calorie loaded three course meals they did but they put Bear Grylls to shame. With full bellies we retired to our tent. One of the highlights of the trip for me was getting ready for bed. Three girls in a two man tent, freezing with no light and what felt like no oxygen. It was a carefully executed mission which we had perfected quickly. Once you were in the sleeping bag there was no getting out, trying to do anything at altitude is exhausting and you couldn’t afford to do the routine more than once.

 

Day 2; 7 km, 5 hours.

Today was the first day the effects of being at altitude truly presented themselves. Nteze had told us many times that eating was crucial to our success but the nausea in the morning was overwhelming. The porridge, eggs, sausages and pancakes turned our stomachs and all we could muster was a small bite of each. Over ridden with guilt at our poor attempt, our chef bought us some more hot water and encouraged us with his gentle smile to have small bites and swallow it down with tea. I’ve always said that tea can solve any problem and this was no exception.

We began our hike which today was steep. It took us 5 minutes before our breathing became erratic and we had to stop for water. Success seemed hopeless. Every time we looked up we could see the peak of the mountain and even though we were moving forward it seemed to get further and further away. How on earth were we going to make it up there? Nteze would just keep saying ‘pole pole sisters’ which translates to slowly slowly and low and behold, six hours later we were at camp number two. Barren land inhabited by crows, we had walked into the middle of a thunder storm and what felt like the longest night of my life.

We had been in the tent for 4 hours, not a wink of sleep. The weather outside was terrifying, thunder, lightening and wind so strong it eventually blew away a girls tent. My friends lay next to me, somehow sound asleep, and suddenly I felt overwhelmingly lonely. Growing up in the environment I did, loneliness is not a feeling I am unfamiliar with but one I have spent most of my adult life striving to avoid. Quite like my childhood, as in the tent, people being near you doesn’t take away the emptiness inside. What I was most grateful for at that time was how I’ve learnt to cope with it. My family, friends and Nacoa have enabled me not to be overcome by such invisible powers. Unlike many years ago, I wasn’t frightened, I wasn’t tearful and I sure as hell wasn’t going to be defeated by it. Your mind is the most powerful tool at your disposal and mine was being stretched more than any muscle in my body but it wasn’t backing down.

 

Day 3; 14 km, 7 hours

After the challenging uphill climb the day before, Nteze’s words of “sister’s, today is flat”, was music to my ears. Stood at the bottom of an eternal hill however, I couldn’t help but question this and we soon realised that the meaning of the word flat had been distorted in translation. Regardless, the only way is up and so we began.

When you trek Mount Kilimanjaro there is a limit on the weight of the bag you can take with you. 15Kg is the maximum as your bag is carried up by a porter. This made for entertaining packing back in Moshi town but whilst climbing this day I found myself watching these porters running past me and I began to think. Rather than being disheartened by the fact that I couldn’t take two packets of baby wipes with me up the mountain, the overwhelming feeling was that of gratitude. I watched these young men carry my baggage thousands of meters into the sky and laughed to myself, reflecting that this situation was quite simply, analogous to my life. This wasn’t the first time I had depended on the strong back, mind or heart to support me through personal trials and tribulations. My achievements in life have been built on the support of those around me and quite like how my success in climbing the mountain depended on these men, my successes in life have depended on those I hold dear to me. To my loved ones, thank you.

 

Day 4; 6.5 km, 3 hours. ‘The wall’

 

Nteze had fore warned us that today we had to climb a wall.  The fear he instilled with us when he said “it looks like there’s no way up it but trust me there is” made for a very hesitant start to the day. It came as a pleasant surprise that although indeed it was a wall, it was also the most fun we had had all week. Three monkeys swinging between rocks and boulders, I felt like a small girl climbing a tree. Reminiscing on all the fun me and my brothers used to have growing up. I said earlier that I have my parents to thank for everything in my life and that includes who I refer to as ‘the boys’.  My brothers, two of the most important men in my life, the people who made home a home and the people made an otherwise heart wrenching childhood something it should have been…happy. My fondest memories growing up are ones with them in and I can’t thank them enough for simply existing.

The days fun continued at the top of the wall. The views were spectacular and we took photos jumping off rocks, gasping for breath with each one. We were on top of the world, or at least we were close now.

 

Day 5; 5.5 km, 3 hours.

Today we trekked to base camp, the last camp we would be sleeping at. A harmless walk into temperatures of -5 degrees. The day focused more on rest and food because at midnight we started the climb to reach the summit. No sleep was had, unsure as to whether the nausea was from fear or altitude sickness it was unsettling. In the tent my mind was racing, would we make it to the top? Could I do this? What will people think of me if I don’t? I listened to the song “Not giving in” by Rudimental on repeat for 4 hours and I played it in my head for the next 6. The hardest 6 hours of my life.

 

Day 6; Summit night

And so it began. We put on all of the clothes we had, topped off with a layer of sheer determination. Head torches on, walking poles in hand. We looked up the mountain to see a string of lights,  like decorations on a Christmas tree, the lights of people who had already started. We had to ascend 1500metres to get to the summit. Five hours to Stella point and a further one hour to Uhuru peak. Initially the walk was just like the rest, a difficult start which eased with a good pace. We could hear the music from the group of twenty Welsh lads that were up ahead of us, they were playing Rhianna and singing along. Slowly but surely the sound of their music grew louder and over the next hour we walked past their contingent. They managed to find the breath to say “well done girls, keep going, we’ll see you at the top”. This was the first of the dominoes that we saw fall and we were naive to think that we wouldn’t fall with them. After three hours we cracked, begging our guides to take us down in-between the waves of nausea and the retching that never materialised into the relief that would have been vomiting. Our group separated, one of the girls collapsed onto a rock and had to be pulled on by Nteze. Myself and my friend broke down into tears, swaying from left to right with the delirium of oxygen deprivation. The next two hours were a blur, trying to focus on anything other than my despair. I could feel the support of Nacoa behind me. I wasn’t just climbing for myself but for children of alcoholics everywhere. Your voices will be heard by us, even 5895 meters above sea level.

We reached Stella point where our assistant guide, Twenye,  poured us tea he had carried up with him and stroked our shoulders in an attempt to console us. He was a vision, I can still see him smiling at me and saying well done, it’s easy from here. On a wish and a prayer we made it to the summit. There are no words to describe how I felt at this moment. The beauty of my surroundings and the serenity of my mind were euphoric. If it wasn’t for the lack of oxygen and feeling in my hands and feet I could have stayed there eternally. Recalling it now floods me with nostalgia and I wish you could see the smile on my face.

The conditions at the top of -15 degrees and less than half the usual oxygen concentration made for a swift descent. Filled with elation at our success we sailed down to base camp. We were met thirty minutes from the bottom by our team with mango juice, I can still taste it now, it was pure gold and I embraced the man who gave it to me.

At base camp we were given the option of going back to the hotel today with a 7 hour hike or stopping off after 3 hours and camping one last time. Our initial response was get us down immediately! However the conviction behind this statement soon withered once we began. Many people, including myself would think that hiking uphill is harder than downhill. After 5 days and 52km our knees buckled with the weight of our exhausted bodies with every step. Once we made it to the camp three hours later, regardless of the swollen knees, aching calves and broken souls, the thought of a hot shower, comfortable bed and a real toilet was empowering and there was nothing that could stop us from finishing that day.

And there we were, back where we started. There was a sense of calm amongst the group. Nothing much was said and nor did it need to be. We collected our certificates and had one last meal made expertly as usual by our team followed by a team photo. We drove the 45 minutes back to the hotel in silence, just looking out of the window. Reflecting on the events of the week before…like it never happened.

Now all is done I can honestly say that I would never do it again! However what I gained over that week (and I’m referring to knowledge about myself as opposed to rock solid leg muscles!) is invaluable, and something I will never forget. It has left me with a sense of modest invincibility. Never will I mutter the words ‘I can’t do this’…because I can.

To protect and respect my parents anonymity, hoping I look to delirious in the photos to be recognised. I sign this article with a wish. A wish that you can all see the light through the dark and use it to become the brightest stars you can be.

From one child of an alcoholic to another.