I’ve always prided myself as someone who is eager take on a challenge… although when boarding the plane to Tanzania I realised that this challenge might, quite literally, be a bit too big.
In theory, putting one foot in front of the other seemed like quite an easy thing to do. The trouble is that once you get to 2,500 metres, a strange feeling creeps in that makes it all a lot harder.
Being at altitude is a really hard feeling to explain. It’s not something you can prepare yourself for, and you can never predict who it will affect. Even being at peak physical fitness will not exempt you; altitude is not picky like that.
As the air becomes thinner and less oxygenated, your body works overtime to take in as much as possible. A simple act like doing up your shoe laces now makes you slightly out of breath, and a trip to the toilet and back feels as if you have run up a flight of stairs. Your concentration wanders more than ever, and simple tasks take more effort and planning. As scary as that might sound it is something you eventually get used to, and for most other niggles a trusty paracetamol usually calms it down.
With all this extra energy your body is now using, it starts looking for fuels to burn. Carbohydrates become a diet staple – porridge in the morning followed by pasta or noodle based suppers and dinners are usually on the menu. For those lapses in energy on the trail, Jelly Babies go down a treat. Water intake is critical and you are expected to take in at least 3 litres when walking, plus another few back at camp. The obvious result of this keeps you dashing behind a rock or bush quite often, but turns strangers into friends quite quickly…
After ambling through the lush rainforest, the trees started to disappear and rain began to pour. The mood was in no way dampened, as the thriving friendships within the group began to gain momentum; nicknames and gentle ribbing were starting to become common place. As we approached midday, the rain seemed to feel curiously harder until eventually changing to marble sized hail as we ran towards the mess tent for lunch. As soon as the storm had passed, a rocky decent followed. Initially reported streams were now full-scale river crossings as the hail continued to melt down into the valley.
That evening after being loaded with carbs once again, a Band of Sister, the H4H fellowship of loved ones of our wounded, injured and sick, stepped forward to share her story. As the light grew dim and the team cradled mugs of tea for warmth, she bravely told the tale of the moment a single phone call changed her life forever.
Our usually rowdy and excitable team fell into silence, the only sound was the rub of jackets as everyone tried to franticly wipe away their tears. At 3,900 metres up, half way through a journey that would test our bodies and minds to their absolute limit and the culmination of months of incredible fundraising efforts, a member of the group came forward with a question.
“What can we do to help?”
I have always found the enthusiasm that our supporters hold for H4H quite simply, staggering. For them, the plea to ‘do your bit’ has no limitation or expiry – Help for Heroes intend to be there to those who need us for their entire lives; and our supporters have also made that same commitment to be there every step of the way. Not even scaling a mountain would ever be enough.
After we thanked our speaker for her contribution, it was time for bed. As the group moved towards their tents, hopeful smiles replaced the sniffles and the motivation for the next day’s early wake up call was set.
The next two days became shorter, sharper ascents and in the afternoons we adopted the life of newborns – a constant cycle of eating and sleeping as we banked as much energy as we could. Eventually, summit night was upon us.
In the pitch black bitter cold, we silently shuffled single file into the unknown. We were one of many groups that would attempt the summit that night. The only clue of their presence in the darkness was the biblical zig-zagging sight of tiny lights, spaced neatly and equally apart; a mass candle lit migration to the Promised Land, sound tracked by the crew cooing Swahili songs down through the troops.
By this point the crew had become an integral part of the wider H4H team. They were not there to just carry the kit or direct us through the terrain, but provided the motivational backbone of the group; dancing, chanting and making rousing speeches at any given opportunity. Our entire group could a pick personal low moment and credit their recovery to our selfless guides – no thanks would ever convey how much they meant to us.
Eventually it was time for the last break before the final push. Our guides handed round some sweet, hot tea as we scrunched our fingers and toes together to keep them warm. Exhausted, we silently watched the thin orange band on the horizon that had started to creep into view. Suddenly a croaky, tired voice cut through our focus.
“Thank you, everyone”, said Dan, our much loved Band of Brother. “Thank you for doing this.”
I know at that very moment, Dan’s gratitude had reached a place inside everyone. For the first time since we started in the pitch black 6 hours earlier, everyone sprung to their feet when asked without question. It was go time.
The mountain was now bathed in an orange glow and one by one the head torches were turned off. For the first time we were able to look back at the path below, amazed at the ground we had covered in the previous hours. Every step became broader as we finally saw the point at which we would go over the top. One final scramble later, and suddenly, the hill was no more. We turned to greet the rest of the team as they popped up one by one, the ice white landscape quickly filling up with a mess of hugs and tears.
But it wasn’t quite over yet. Along the summit path Uhuru Peak was in excruciatingly clear sight, and we were now running on empty. Our guides were all too aware of the wind chill that had plunged the temperature into double minus figures, and pushed us on whenever our legs decided to come to a stop.
On such stops, it was sobering to remember that our hardest Kili moments may have been nothing compared to those encountered by the men and women we support – both at the moment of injury and into a recovery that requires more courage and perseverance than we ever had to dig deep to find.
For some, simply reaching out for help will be the biggest mountain they’ll ever climb.
Slowly but surely, we officially made it to the roof of Africa, elated and gasping for air. As the adrenaline wore off, exhaustion kicked in and once the photos were taken, it was most definitely time to go down. A bleary eyed decent followed, before once again crawling back into our sleeping bag cocoons.
When I first returned home, I was unable to comprehend what we had actually accomplished. Returning to normal life almost seemed too easy; old habits and routines came back quickly and Kilimanjaro seemed like a very vivid, strenuous dream.
There was one thing though that felt very much real; a semblance that everything now seemed… achievable. There is now that small part of me that always says, ‘if I made it to that summit, what can’t I do?’
Help for Heroes will return to Kilimanjaro in 2016. To be part of the team, click here.
Photo credit: Tim Price-Bowen/Tony Schofield/Andy Denton