Inspired by her mountain-loving grandfather’s dream of having his grandchildren scale a serious mountain, Dr Alex Davidson was 35 when she set herself the challenge of climbing Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. Here, she recounts the highs and lows of reaching the 5895m summit.
My grandfather was born in Saddleworth and loved nothing better than his beloved Moors. He spent as much of his free time as he could roaming the Yorkshire moors with his trusty hobnailed boots on and a rucksack full of Kendal Mint Cake, and when he had annual leave from his dental (and, subsequently, medical) training he would head up to the Island of Skye to climb his much beloved Cuillins. His favourite was Bruach na Frithe and he would delight me with tales of hiking to the top and then scree-running to the bottom. He had been a real daredevil and seemed nonplussed describing the need to go as fast as you could, placing your feet just-so, to avoid tripping and rolling your way to the bottom.
He had always been fascinated by the big mountains – K2 and Everest in particular – and his bookshelf was crammed with accounts of challenging ascents from all sorts of people. One of his favourites was the tale of Mallory and Irvine as recalled in ‘Ghosts of Everest’ – a book I had got him for his 87th birthday. As he got older, my memories are of him sitting in his favourite chair, a well-thumbed tome on his lap, eyes glazed over as he dreamed of dizzy heights and a thin air he would never experience.
One of his dreams was for one of his three grandchildren to scale Bruach na Frithe – for which he promised us a generous £50 for our efforts. I had always had my sights set on something a bit more exotic, and when I was accepted as a Medic on expedition with Raleigh International to Tanzania for a February 2014 deployment, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro became the goal. He was delighted.
Packing and preparation
Just after I had booked my flights and place with Climb Kili I met my now-husband. We had been friends seven years previously but had fallen out of contact, and he had got back in touch in the autumn of 2013. Our friendship quickly blossomed into a romance and we were very lucky to spend 8 weeks prior to my departure together, travelling around the UK and not working. James had just got back from several months cycling the French Alps and was incredibly fit; he is also a keen walker and so my training was arduous trails in the Peak District and subsequently Cornwall, where we spent Christmas and New Year. I wasn’t overly concerned about my level of fitness – having done the Inca Trail at a peak fitness I had found it hadn’t protected me at all from the effects of altitude and I had still struggled. In honesty, I was also far too distracted on nights out raving and dining with James and, it being November/December weather, there weren’t many opportunities to get out for a stomp…
I packed light because I was going straight from Kili (via a luxury sojourn in Zanzibar!) to Raleigh. I had two pairs of walking trousers with built-in UV protection and mosquito repellent, thermal tops, SmartWool socks, Goretex gators, Goretex waterproof jacket and some sturdy Salomon walking boots. We would have porters ferrying everything except our day packs to the next camp. I also decided to take Diamox to combat some of the effects of altitude – this I hadn’t taken for the Inca Trail but I was able to get it very cheaply in Tanzania once I landed.
The Kilimanjaro adventure begins
I was full of mixed emotions when I flew out – huge excitement at having a five-month adventure staring me in the face, much trepidation at the ascent I was about to tackle, and sadness as I said goodbye to James for four months (he had decided to accompany me to Mozambique at the end of my trip and carry my bags home!)
I opted to use Climb Kili as my tour company for the trip; this was largely because I wanted to summit at full moon and the dates they offered for the Machame route coincided with this.
Photo Credit: Antonio Soletti
There were four of us in my group – the other three were a New Zealand family made up of a father (a keen, regular Ironman) and his teenage son and daughter. They were friendly and full of energy, and I was to share with the daughter for the trip.
Day one: Wet and humid
We set off in high spirits on the first day, which dawned sunny and humid. Our trek was easy-going and took us through humid rainforest where we were rained on a few times and I was glad of my waterproof and gators! This was an 11km hike up 4000 feet and we arrived at dusk to our tents being erected and warming fire lit. It was noticeably nippy and I began to fear I hadn’t brought enough of the correct clothes, although I had hired a down jacket and thick sleeping bag from the company, plus walking poles. I slept fitfully, feeling cold and damp and nervous about what the next day held in store.
After a stodgy breakfast of porridge, toast and tarry instant coffee we set off up what was a three-hour stair machine of stone steps and rocky clambers before flattening out to moorland for the last couple of hours. It was exhausting but the view over to Mount Meru was spectacular and a good excuse to stop and rest and take photographs.
Acclimatising and sleepless nights
The third day was very much about acclimatising, trekking through semi-desert and taking us up to 16,000 feet at the Arrow Glacier. Temperatures were icy and I had to wear my snowboarding gloves and down jacket on top of my fleece. It snowed as we arrived at our lunch spot at the highest altitude, where we would remain for an hour to help our body adjust for the imminent summit day.
I had already noticed my exercise tolerance reducing, feeling more out of breath as we walked. My appetite was also waning, though this may have been in response to what was now functional, repetitive and mundane food! We arrived at camp fairly early but the changes in altitude and temperature had damaged my e-reader beyond repair and so I was left to journaling and preparing myself mentally. Night temperatures were noticeably colder so I slept very little, and the Diamox was exerting its diuretic effect on me at least once a night, meaning a rapid and icy dash to the makeshift toilet across the barren plain. Sleep was becoming a luxury.
The fourth day saw us completing the Southern Circuit of Kili and we had views of the summit from several different angles. We had trekked through Alpine desert and all of us were taking our time by now; I was very glad of my walking poles, which I had never used before and which I’m not sure I will ever trek without! Dinner was early in anticipation of the very early morning wake-up call of midnight, and with my nerves I don’t think I slept at all.
Midnight alarm call: Summit day
The wind had been getting up after sunset and our tent was flapping wildly by the time the porters arrived with a bowl of warm water and a cup of tea. I was highly concerned by just how little thermal insulation I had as it became increasingly clear the temperature outside was dramatically colder than anything we had experienced thus far on our trek. Eventually I put on merino tights, thermal leggings, walking trousers and waterproof over-trousers. I had on two thermal vests, a merino jumper, a Polartec fleece and the down jacket, plus my waterproof to act as a shell. I had a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits but was advised against having anything else and at this altitude of 15,300 feet I had no appetite and an increasingly bad case of heartburn.
Our group of four assembled with our two guides and we set off; given how quickly we had got up and out I was surprised to see snaking lines of head torches in the distance, making their way up between the Rebmann and Ratzel glaciers. It was absolutely freezing and the high winds made it feel far colder. Our group felt rather subdued as we trekked forth, passing some boisterous groups but being overtaken by large groups swelled by rousing songs. The moon was full and high and gave more than enough light for us to follow our path – I was delighted as my goal had been to summit without using a torch at all and it looked like this was going to be a real possibility.
Fairly early on into the climb the teenage girl I had been sharing with felt very nauseous and wanted to stop; at this point standing still for more than a few seconds wasn’t an option as the chill set in and extremities starting to numb. She wasn’t able to make her mind up as to whether to carry on or not, and so one of the guides opted to stay behind with her. Her father and her brother took the decision to summit without a guide and set off very rapidly, leaving me with the other guide to accompany and encourage me to the top. I must have cut a sorry figure as I re-started my summit attempt all on my own – my heartburn and nausea were awful and the Snickers I had decided to force down as a sugar boost was sitting very badly. I was stopping every few minutes to hang over my walking poles and retch. Eventually things improved and I got into a very slow, but steady, rhythm.
No end in sight
Above me were snakes of lights climbing ever further away and it felt like I was on a never-ending step machine buried in quicksand. No matter how much effort I put in and how much time passed, there were still lights so far vertically above me and it felt like there was no end in sight. I couldn’t feel my feet or hands and I was shivering almost uncontrollably in the adverse conditions. The guide was astonished at how windy and icy it was – in his 17 years of almost back-to-back guiding he had never trekked through anything as extreme as this. I’d never done anything of endurance before in my life and had to learn the hard, but obvious, lesson that I was standing between success and failure. I began to envy the large, jovial groups full of singing as they stomped past. There began a repetitive chant in my head – and occasionally out loud when it was peppered with expletives as I continued to get colder and more exhausted – which I timed with each footstep.
When I was much younger I used to walk to the local farm with my grandfather to get the milk and eggs and to keep my tiny legs going we would chant this: “Left my wife and forty nine children, an old grey mare and a peanut stack. Did I do right, right, right, right. Right from the country where I came from, hayfoot, strawfoot, shift by-jingo, left, left, left, left”. This became my Kili summit mantra and it spurred me on; I arrived at Stella Point at the crater rim just as the dawn was starting to break the horizon. It was an incredible feeling to see that fiery stripe just break the indigo sky and see the enormity of the glacial crater revealed. As I arrived the father and son from my group were, incredibly, also pulling in and we had a jubilant and restorative mug of delightfully sweet tea. I was full of emotion and momentum and indicated I wanted to summit alone, as the sun continued to rise, and so I set off on the 30-minute trek to Uhuru Peak.
My memory of this part of the trek is hazy and I suspect I was hypothermic as I staggered the last part, but I do remember tears freezing instantly on my cheeks as I stumbled and staggered backwards and gazed out over Africa and thought of my grandfather and how proud he would be of me.
I was seventh to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro on January 16th, 2014, and made it in time to watch the sunrise properly, and as the rosy dawn became day I removed my gloves and reached into the inner pocket of the down jacket and pulled out two photos – one of me and my parents and one of me and James. I had to cling on tightly due to the ongoing gales, but managed to get photos of me at the summit with the most important people in my life. Not long after, the father and son arrived, and after about twenty minutes of photos and general congratulations my tent-mate appeared with our second guide, triumphant having succeeded in her personal battle. The look of profound and intense pride on her father’s face was something I will never forget.
The descent to our last camp of the trek was arduous, with a steep descent through sand and loose gravel playing havoc with my knees, and arriving at Mweka Hut and taking off my boots for the penultimate time was utter bliss. I had summited this incredible beast on my own, guided by the light of a full moon and arriving in time to see a new day dawn across Africa.