In September 2011, a 46-strong HSBC team climbed Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro for charity, raising over £80,000 for Prince’s Trust and Kids Company. At 5,895m (19,341ft), Kilimanjaro is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain, and 34 members of the team made it all the way to Uhuru Peak at the top. Everyone had their own unique experience of the climb - Pascal, Executive Management Trainee, writes about his own.
How would you feel if you’d climbed nearly 6 kilometres? How would you celebrate when you reached the top, after 5 days of climbing? I wanted it to be a sprint finish to the end, a cinematic slow-motion euphoric flailing of limbs with tearful shouts of joy towards the sky as I ran to the finish line.
I’d had a year to plan my celebration; I signed up for the Kilimanjaro charity climb in September 2010, a few months before I’d even joined HSBC and started the Executive Management programme. Organised by previous Executive Management Trainees Kai and Ben, this gave a remarkable first impression of the bank.
As the climb drew nearer, all participants set about raising money for our sponsored Graduate Communities Committee (GCC) charities, The Prince’s Trust (2010) and Kids Company (2011). Soon I had milked my friends and relatives for all they could give. There was no turning back.
Come September 2011, 46 of us were ready for the climb. With many of us meeting for the first time at Heathrow airport, we were ready with our vaccinations and visas, our rucksacks full of high-tech anti-stink thermal hiking gear, and enough energy snacks and altitude pills to shake a hiking pole at. And ginger tea (it helps with the altitude). Chance happenings in Addis Ababa’s connecting terminal, such as French people running after us and waving random coats in our confused faces, formed the basis of new friendships.
We met our tour leader, Chambo, as we spent our first night in a hotel in north-eastern Tanzania at the foot of “Kili”. Basking in views of the snow-capped former volcano on the horizon, we enjoyed not-so-traditional delicacies such as frankfurters, baked beans, chocolate porridge-slop and a family-friendly vitamin drink called Milo. For the next week we would rely on Chambo to coordinate over a hundred porters, looking after every aspect of our climb from setting up tents to transporting our bags and water. Chambo explained the plan to us, inspected our “particulars”, and we rested for one last night in civilization with its clean clothes, warm beds, hot showers, and beer.
A couple of hours’ drive the next morning, traditional frankfurters for lunch, and we were set down at the foot of the volcano. In what looked like the launch of a covert military operation, nearly 200 people were lined up with bags and equipment at the edge of an alpine forest that marked the start of Kilimanjaro National Park. For every one of our 46 members, there were three porters to carry equipment. We each found the man who would carry our own rucksack that day and shook his hand. Porters walk much faster than tourists up and down the mountain, while carrying as much weight as possible. One can’t help but be humbled by their role, particularly as porters are reliant on tips for income.
Our group featured many members who had never hiked or camped outdoors before. Even the most urban members of the climb soon mastered the “long-drop” (holes cut in the ground and surrounded by a small shack), and we rarely climbed up more than 500m in one day. Days were warm and dusty, with a sustainable pace set by Chambo as he glared at overenthusiastic climbers going too fast. Legendary porters – including the aptly-named Heaven – brought up the rear of the group and made sure no one was left behind.
Nights were cold and featured our familiar frankfurters and chocolate slop for dinner. The first night’s camp was guarded by men with machine-guns, presumably as tourists still near the foot of the volcano make for lucrative pickings. Accommodation every night was in twin tents, meaning that the end of each days’ walk featured an everyone-for-themselves dash to claim a well-placed pitch. I paired up with fellow Executive Trainee and ET Forum member Neil to share tents.
As we progressed several days into the challenge, we increasingly came up against problems to overcome. Most climbers felt some altitude sickness by 3,000m, often opting to take Diamox altitude tablets. Or ginger tea.
On day 3 we ran out of water while in-between camps. When you have glaring equatorial sun, no cloud cover, and brains swelling with the altitude, this is a bad thing. Normally we all picked up boiled water from the porters in the morning, and carried enough for the day. But that morning there had been no water, and none was brought as we walked. Eventually there was no choice but to stop in shade and wait. Carrying extra water, I distributed what I had, we waited, and eventually help came.
That night the porters sang, danced and clapped a traditional Swahili performance. Moved, our group then searched for traditional songs from home to sing in return. Split between “we all live in a yellow submarine” and “bah bah black sheep have you any wool”, the plan was however soon abandoned.
After four days of climbing, we reached Kibo Camp. At 4,700m, this is the last installation before climbers make their final push to the summit, no matter which route they navigated up the mountain. Not everybody makes it as far as Kibo and many choose to go no further. That day’s climbing had seen us ascend nearly a kilometre already by the time we arrived, and the fact that all 46 members of our group made it this far is a huge achievement. But we didn’t spend that night sleeping at Kibo…
The final ascent:
Resting for only six hours in the evening (lying down increases the risk of fluid in the lungs), that night from Kibo would be the night we launch our final ascent – another 1.2km up. I could barely move, I felt nauseous and my skull felt crushed. I’d run out of energy bars. How would this be possible? How could we leave at 11 at night and keep walking beyond sunrise? On the verge of giving up and staying at camp, I accepted an offer of Diamox altitude sickness tablets from Neil, and slept for two more hours. It made all the difference.
I woke up and put on every single item of clothing I had with me. Looking like the Michelin Man is a small price to pay when you’re about to climb in sub-zero temperatures in the middle of the night. Lining my water supply as much as possible to stop it turning into a block of ice, we all slowly congregated with only our head-torches and dim moonlight to guide us. We huddled in a single file; each person’s source of navigation through the darkness would be staying close to the person in front, with Chambo leading. We could see the glistening head torches up above of climbers who had set off earlier than us. This was going to be steep. This was going to be very steep.
And so we set off, with motivational shouts echoed down the line: “All the way to the top! All the way to the top!” We were accompanied by Chambo’s more experienced guides, who kept an eye on us and were ready to help us back down if it became too much.
It was relentless. Our path was punctuated by drops of blood on the ground from nose-bleeds. Breaks to rest were few and far between. One of the guides kept on checking on me, because I could barely prop myself up and my eyes were rolling in my head. As we climbed slippery scree and gravel from the cone of an ancient volcano, every two steps up meant sliding back another down.
It got worse. Reports came from the back of the group that one friend had gone blind and had been taken back down. I started hallucinating, with sparks of colourful fireworks darting across my vision to punctuate the dark landscape at times – at one point I was looking at a rock which I was sure was a pig.
Then my main water supply froze over, as people warned it would. It was 3am; it wouldn’t be another two hours at least until it thawed. I let myself slip further back in the group as I took longer breaks and had to sip water kept wrapped deep in my bag. All the time, as we arched our necks upwards, we could still see the twinkling head torches of climbers far, far above us.
When you’ve travelled in a plane, and looked out of the window, you’ve probably at some time in your life seen a sea of cloud below you, stretching into the horizon, seemingly ready for you to jump onto and bounce off of. Imagine looking at that sea of cloud, far below you, as it meets the mountain you’ve almost reached the top of, as it gradually becomes visible with the sun emerging over another nearby peak.
As the slippery climb wore us out, headaches pounded, water froze over and friends were taken back down, the moment I was telling myself to keep going until was sunrise. We sat down a while to watch the sun rise over the completely barren landscape. Our water began to thaw. It was less cold. We could see where we were going. We could see that we had nearly made it.
Some short hours later we could see a ridge, a flat point at the end of the endless climb we had persevered with for more than nine hours by that point. Scrambling up a short stretch of near-vertical larger rocks, we emerged in a zone with people sitting, celebrating, looking over the landscape in all directions. There was a seemingly congratulatory sign saying “Gilman’s point”. For a moment I thought we’d made it.
Then I realised; 300m short of the peak, Gilman’s point is the place where most climbers decide to turn back. Chambo was sitting, congratulating everyone, telling them they could turn back now and that everyone had done very well. Nearly every member of the group had made it this far, adding to the sense of achievement of what we had done together. Every cell in my body wanted to turn back towards rest. Friends were preparing to make the descent. It was 8.30am and we had been climbing since 11pm in the night. It would be another hour at least to Uhuru peak.
I sat and thought for a moment. Had I prepared for a year, raised £2,000 for charity and climbed for five days to then stop just one hour before the end?
The world’s most bizarre obstacle course (apart from what they come up with on Japanese game shows):
No longer a single-file group conquering the mountain together, everyone had their own unique story after that point, of how they made it to Uhuru, how they celebrated, and how they made it back down again. Perched on a ridge, on the edge of the cone of the ancient volcano, the final ascent is mostly flat, with narrow mountain ledges, obstacles, narrow rock passages and a winding path that gradually works its way up the rounded top of Kilimanjaro. The views of glaciers and sweeping cliffs are stunning. The only problem is that there’s no oxygen and by that point you’ve been on your feet almost constantly for a day.
Exhausted, everyone propelled themselves to the finish line in their own painfully slow way. Zimmer frames were my main inspiration. My system was to hobble two steps, lean against my hiking poles, croak for breath, then repeat. My school motto was “slowly but surely” and now I was living the dream. Kai was nearby, and his main strategy appeared to be zig-zags. David, a Sales and Services Manager, I had worked with in Birmingham, intermittently strolled with nonchalant purpose, and then decided to sit down for a few minutes at a time, somehow looking cool and un-phased the whole way. Shani, a friend I made in Addis Ababa airport (when concerned French people waved coats at us), got to the end with the hand of a guide. As we passed Stella point (200m below the peak) everyone made statutory jokes about beer.
All the time as we were walking along the final stretches, we passed people who had just finished and who were now on their way down. “Just 10 more minutes! You’re nearly there! Just a few more steps!” These were all words of encouragement offered by sympathetic passers-by who had just completed the same challenge. The feeling of camaraderie was, however, shattered by the sentiments of a British team we walked past: “Waste of time! Turn back! What a load of rubbish! I’m going home! What was the point in that??” This was precisely the inspiration I needed in the final moments.
And then the final sign of Uhuru peak came into sight. The barren obstacle course gave way to a large flat area full of celebration. Some of us had already finished and were waiting to celebrate with the rest of the group.
I’d had my year to plan this, to plan my celebration over the finish line. The first three steps went perfectly as I steamed to the goalposts, and then I realised that this was a stupid idea. Taking a minute to catch my breath, with the end in sight, I Zimmer-framed it to Uhuru peak.
Getting back down:
But when I reached the peak, there was a problem: Where was the zip wire that would take us straight back down to Kibo camp, back to rest? Where was the water slide to ride back down, care-free? The teleportation chamber? The helicopter? It dawned on many of us at roughly the same time… Now we had to get back down again.
So how would you feel if you’d climbed nearly 6 kilometres? What would you do when you reached the top? I thought I’d be triumphant, celebratory, with a great sense of release and achievement. Wouldn’t you? In fact I was pretty grumpy. I wanted everyone to hurry up and take the group photo so we could get back down again. In the community spirit of the day and with about as much charm as Mr Bean, I started shoeing away other tourists from the Uhuru peak sign and trying to shepherd our own group around it so that we could get on with it and go home.
With group photos taken, people started to trickle back down to Gilman’s point. Another navigation of the obstacle course, this time I was the one uttering those words of encouragement to other groups as they passed us on their way up: “You’re nearly there! Keep going! But whatever you do - don’t think about how you’re going to get back down again!”
Back at Gilman’s point – three hours after my first opportunity to turn back from here – I waited. I needed a rest more than I had ever needed one in my life. More of us collected, waited, delayed the inevitability that we would need to move again and get ourselves down the sheer drops, large boulders and slippery scree without destroying our ankles. Kai, Ben and Neil were amongst the group. Heaven, the legendary guide, then joined us. And so we began the descent in earnest.
The dusty scree slopes resembled a ski slalom, and so I started winding my way down, which was far more entertaining going down than up. Everyone else shot ahead of me. Unimpressed, Heaven took my hand, promising that he had a much faster way down. And so suddenly we started running together in a straight line, facing straight down the mountain, hurtling down a 45 degree slope. I could barely move yet gravity and the pull of Heaven’s arm meant I was going full speed ahead with a plume of dust piling high above my path. All I needed to do was keep moving my legs as fast as possible.
Within 5 minutes we had run down a section of the mountain that must have taken an hour to climb. The end was nowhere in sight, my legs and lungs were burning, I stumbled a few times but kept on my feet.
And then I fell. Running directly down a steep slope, this didn’t so much resemble a small trip, but instead a dramatic Italian football dive by a striker set on winning an Oscar. Dust settled and I asked Heaven for time to recover. Laying exhausted and half-buried in gravel half-way up the peak of a mountain in Northern Tanzania, miles away from civilization, I did what any sensible person would do…
I phoned my mum. Now, somehow I had managed to work for six months at Birmingham New Street branch (on one of the UK’s busiest shopping streets) without a hint of mobile reception. But in the middle of a mountain in Africa, nowhere near anybody – full reception. Normally when I phone my mum, the conversation is cursory at best: “yep, nope, ok, uh-huh, bye”. So doing this from near the top of a mountain while sitting in gravel felt particularly out of place. “Any news? Not that much this end, except that we’ve just climbed the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. Anyway catch you soon bye”.
With only two hours of rest back at Kibo camp before continuing the descent, we wound our way down the mountain with many of us still walking by the time of nightfall the following night – we had been mostly on our feet for 36 hours. Worse for wear, a couple of the group needed stretchers, others had been taken down the mountain the previous night. One of us was in hospital.
Lush jungle lined the route of our final day of descent – going down is much faster than going up, barely taking two days. Awarded certificates from Kilimanjaro National Park (stating precisely how far up the mountain we made it), civilization, clean clothes, hot showers and frankfurters and chocolate slop awaited us back at the hotel. The hotel was populated by fresh-faced tourists about to start their Kilimanjaro climb and I took pleasure in exaggerating my limps and aches and pains to try to scare them about what was coming.
The sense of achievement:
Sitting with drinks in the hotel’s garden, one girl leaned back, looked to the sky, and remarked: “Do you see those clouds, far above us? Well we’ve just climbed miles above those.” Standing on tiptoes and jumping up to touch the clouds illustrated the point. Just two days earlier we had been peering down upon them as we watched that sunrise.
Tips were distributed generously, goodbyes were said, and the group dispersed the next day to various holiday destinations. Looking back on the climb, there are a few things I’ve realised, such as that I can’t actually remember anybody’s name. But the experience was something that will stay with us all for a lifetime.
34 members of the group – about three quarters - made it all the way to Uhuru peak, whereas over half of climbers normally turn back at Gilman’s point, moments before the end. As a group achievement this is nearly unprecedented. Congratulations to everyone involved on a huge achievement and for raising over £80,000 together for worthy causes, no matter how high each individual climbed!
And there’s talk of a further challenge together some day…