Mount Kilimanjaro: A free-standing, ice-crowned, dormant volcano in Tanzania and the highest mountain in Africa rising to 5,895 metres (over 19,300 ft) above sea level.
For some, it’s the ultimate test of endurance – trekking firstly through lowland tropical forest, then open moorland, and finally Alpine desert with intense weather and temperature fluctuations.
Our very own Susan Arkley braved this journey last month. She shares her experience with us here – from why she did it and how she remained motivated throughout the climb, to what advice she’d offer other individuals looking to embark on such a challenge.
Susan, you certainly don’t do hiking holidays or sleeping in tents so tell us, what motivated you to climb Kilimanjaro?
Five years ago, at the age of just 50, my uncle David took his own life; to say the circumstances were tragic would be an understatement. The anniversary of his death occurred during our journey to the summit.
Mental health issues shouldn’t be kept secret. Telling someone “och we all have bad days” only serve to highlight how oblivious people are to the issues and does more harm than good.
I took on this challenge, along with my very good friend Angela, to raise awareness and £2,000 for SAMH (Scottish Association of Mental Health). We smashed that target and so far, (donations are still being made) we’ve raised £12,123.75.
Can you talk about what you experienced as you climbed? What did you learn? How did you stay motivated?
We were lucky to be climbing in a small group – just myself, Angela, and four other guys. We travelled with guides supplied by the trekking company we booked with as well as Sherpas [local men working as porters]. Mainly it was the camaraderie in, and encouragement from, the group that kept me going physically. The guides kept telling us “pain is temporary, pride is forever” and I thought about that all the time, it kept you going.
I learned you only need the basics to survive, and a positive mental attitude to get you through it! Thinking about the donations and messages of support from family and friends was also motivating – I couldn’t let them down.
Which route did you take and what made you decide on that one?
We took the Lemosho route and travelled with world class guides Ian Taylor Trekking. They have a not-too-shabby 98% success rate on reaching the summit with this route and if I was having to camp and hike for 8 days then I wanted to be sure it was going to worth it!
Although it takes a few days longer to complete than the other routes, the Lemosho route is the best for scenery and acclimatisation (which in turn increases the chances of success). The route stops at Shira Camp 1 and Shira Camp 2 but for added acclimatisation, we also stopped at Karanga Camp which is at 13,300ft.
We passed other groups with individuals who had to turn back; it was such a shame for them.
How did you prepare for the climb?
Before I did this I wasn’t averse to going to the gym and doing a few classes a week so I kept that up and then about 10-12 weeks before I left I started following Ian Taylor Trekking’s guidance for physical conditioning. This strongly recommended spending some time in the hills so I donned the hiking boots and climbed eight Munros. I also increased my gym time spending 90 minutes on a treadmill and 90 minutes on the stepper with a weighted backpack, and each week I added more weight to the bag. We carried about 5kg a day on the trek so it was important to train with at least 10kg so that our muscles would experience and be ready for similar pressure at high altitude, but with less weight in our actual bag.
What did you pack and wear to stay warm?
Ian Taylor Trekking supplied a kit list and I followed it to the letter. I packed base layers, down jackets, hats and gloves. At night, the Sherpas would fill bottles with hot water and we’d take these to bed. In the morning, we’d drink from them. It’s quite surreal thinking about that now!
How about the camps; how did you find the conditions?
Apart from the fact they couldn’t be further from 5 star luxury? On the whole, the camps were fine. I was so exhausted it didn’t really matter! Occasionally the tents would be wet but the Sherpas would dry them and build moats to keep the camp dry as much as possible.
How did the altitude affect you? Did you have any problems with altitude sickness? How did you cope?
We were advised to take Diamox which helps with the symptoms of altitude sickness. I only had 3 or 4 headaches but over-the-counter painkillers helped – I was very lucky; I can’t imagine how I would have coped with altitude sickness on top of the physical stress and freezing weather conditions.
Fuelling your body for such a gruelling climb must have been essential. What did you eat from day-to-day?
Surprisingly the food was fantastic in the camps and was made for us by the Sherpas. Breakfast was porridge, toast, fruit, and tea; lunch was soup followed by spaghetti Bolognese or fish/meat with veggies. On arrival into camp each day they would serve us popcorn and biscuits, and then for dinner we’d have soup and a great refuel meal. I ate more on that mountain than I do at home! The boys also kept snacks for during the day – jelly babies and Haribo.
Did you pack a bottle of prosecco to toast your achievement when you reached the top?!
I did seriously consider it! But no, I didn’t - the boys had miniature bottles of whisky but the altitude was so bad they couldn’t drink it. And anyway, I don’t think it would have agreed with the Diamox…
What were the three best parts of the trip? And the worst three?
[Best] (1) I definitely made the right choice in choosing Ian Taylor Trekking (2) my fellow climbers for keeping me going and giving me some fantastic memories to keep (3) the achievement of making it to the top; I still can’t believe I’ve done it!
[Worst] (1) Camping; you won’t see me on a glamping holiday anytime soon! (2) Not washing – after a few days it just wasn’t worth it plus it was bitterly cold to strip down and wash (3) Seeing the poverty in Africa was heart-breaking.
Do you have any tips for people doing the climb?
Yes – pack a lip balm with SPF! In terms of preparation – you can’t do enough training and while you’re on the mountain: enjoy the climb and have faith that you can do it.
What would be the three most important pieces of advice you would offer someone about to embark on climbing Kilimanjaro?
- Follow the training plan – it works.
- Listen to and watch the Sherpas.
- Enjoy it
You own your own telecoms company. What part did telecoms and tech generally play in preparing you for Kilimanjaro? And during the climb?
Social media was used heavily in the weeks before the challenge to raise awareness and donations.
I used my FitBit during training to reach daily targets such as tracking my steps and calorie burn. On the mountain I used it every day – on average I’d be burning between 3500 and 4000 calories/day.
I took pictures every day using my iPhone 7 and I managed to make a call from it at the summit camp after we’d been to the top of the mountain. I used an external battery pack power bank which gave me up to 5 full charges but because I wasn’t using apps such as Facebook, etc. my iPhone battery lasted a lot longer than it usually would so I only need to charge it a few times.
I also had a GoPro for filming as well as taking photos.
SAMH must be delighted with the amount you’ve raised. Can you tell us what the money might go towards?
Mental health issues affect a huge number of people in the UK, as well as their loved ones enormously; and this I know from experience.
The money that we have raised will go a great way towards helping create positive change where it is needed and directly improving the lives of a lot of people in Scotland. SAMH has confirmed that a donation of this size could support their national programmes, such as their work in suicide prevention, as well as buying essential equipment for their therapeutic gardening services, benefitting 60 trainees per year.
Do you have another challenge on your bucket list?
I’d like to do the West Highland Way – if nothing else but to compare Devil’s Staircase with the Barranco Wall on Kilimanjaro!
The National Three Peaks Challenge looks interesting and I’d like to say I’ve climbed the three tallest mountains in Africa, England, Wales and Scotland.
I’m also seriously considering Everest Base Camp - I’ve started my research and I’m more than likely going with Ian Taylor Trekking again.
Where can people donate?
Donations, however small, are still being collected and are greatly appreciated. They can be made online via Virgin Money Giving: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/SusanandAngela