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Bless the mountain

Triumph: (l-r) Nelly, tour guide Andrew, Victoria, Alex and tour guide Aaron

BORN in Africa, I had never entertained the idea of climbing a mountain. Fast forward a couple of decades and here I was entertaining the idea that had eluded me and sounded outlandish in my youth; I was actually thinking of climbing a mountain.

The first time I laid eyes on Mountt Kilimanjaro in late 2005, I was sitting comfortably in an aeroplane, 20,000 feet above ground. It never crossed my mind that some six years down the road, I would be clawing my way up to reach Africa's rooftop.


From the mountaintop: Mount Kilimanjaro
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BIRTHDAY

At 5,985m above sea level, Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world, and as my 30th birthday loomed on the horizon, I decided this was a suitable gift to celebrate such a milestone.

A group of friends (insane ones, clearly) jumped onboard and soon, the internet and other friends became our main sources for tips about Kili, as she is lovingly called by those who get acquainted with her.

Finding and booking the trip was one of our biggest challenges (withstanding the actual climb, obviously), as we soon discovered what a tedious task it was to actually choose a company.

Everyone who’s ever climbed her will tell you that choosing a company depends on a number of factors, but it all boils down to one major factor: budget.

We settled on Climbing Kilimanjaro and chose a seven-day trek, which allowed us one day of acclimatisation (getting your body used to the altitude changes), a blessing, which I, alongside anyone who’s ever climbed her, can vouch for.

After an overnight flight, my sister Nelly, (who still blames me for her frozen and swollen toes), good friend Chris and I landed at the aptly named Kilimanjaro Airport in Arusha, Tanzania. For Chris, who hails from Derby, this was his first time in Sub-Saharan Africa and the smile on his face upon arrival, was a sight to behold.


Starting point: Machame route

We were scooped up by a van that drove us to our hotel in the city and as we checked in, I quizzed the staff on whether they had ever climbed or considered climbing the mighty mountain. “Never,” they answered unanimously.

When I pushed for a reason, I was told that growing up, there had been “horror stories” of family and friends who had gone to visit her but never returned. Simply put, most local people feared Kili.

As night fell, Alex, the last original member of our group arrived from New York, and with her, she had two other climbers, who turned out to be fellow Norwegians. (Did I not say I’m Norwegian? Yeah, I was born in Rwanda and half raised in Norway, before relocating to the UK.)

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WELCOMING

Before we knew it, they had joined the team, everyone welcoming them with a “the more, the merrier, innit?” kind of attitude. A representative from the company then came over in the evening and gave us a talk-through.

Settling in that night was easier than I had feared, considering what awaited us the following day. The next morning, we all tucked in a big and hearty breakfast from the vast and elaborate buffet; a luxury we were going to be without for a full week.

Our trek began with picking up Australia-born Kat, the final member of the trip, and getting some of the gear we had rented on the ground (a useful tip to anyone who doesn’t want to drag around sleeping bags and what not after the climb).

With the group finally together and luggage securely strapped in, we set out for Machame gate; our gateway to the gracious Mt Kilimanjaro.

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SLOWLY

One of the first things we were told by our skilled and experienced guides was “pole pole”, the ubiquitous Swahili phrase, which means ‘slowly’.

Day one of the trek started in the lush and green scenery of the rainforest and after a grueling eight-hour long trek (or what we thought was grueling), we arrived at the first camp, 3,020m above sea level.

The first night out in the wild was an enjoyable adventure for us all. We joked and laughed our way into deep, dreamless sleep – one of the few we truly had on the mountain.

Day two started bright and early and we had been warned against bits and fits of headaches. But no matter how well you prepare, the mighty lady always has a surprise or two up her bosom breadth. It was a short day in terms of hours and distance, but by far one of the days that tore me down the most.

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SICKNESS


On cloud nine: part of the trek

On day three, my altitude sickness lessened, but worse was waiting for Kat, our in-house comedienne. She had previously been a trooper and, brightening up our days and gloomy nights with anecdotes from Down Under.

But the higher we climbed, and the more altitude we clocked in, the sicker she became. Blinding headaches, loss of appetite, nausea and dizziness became far too much for her and it was decided she would have to head back down. That day affected everyone as our bodies struggled to adapt to living at 4,642m above sea level.

We said our goodbyes to Kat, and saw her off and we headed for the hills. Literally.

Day four proved to be the second toughest for me, as we had to get around a 257m high wall. Suffering from a not so mild form of vertigo, I dreaded the trek around the infamous Barranco Wall.

As I sweated and puffed my way up the impossibly vertical wall of rocks, I exploded in a tirade, heavily packed with F-words, that lasted a good five minutes, as wide-eyed trekkers and guides alike looked on in bafflement. This prompted softly-spoken mountain guide Andrew to turn to me and say, “No, Vicky. Not f*** the mountain, but bless the mountain.”

Walking in my solitude, I thought about what Andrew had said and I soon found out that he had indeed been right. This mountain is feeding a whole community and sending kids to school. And despite our battered bodies and psyches, she is a source of enjoyment and happiness, to both those who visit her and those who live by her.

Day five was when I turned the big 3.0. With the sun shining brightly on the chilly and crispy morning, the group broke into a Bollywood-style sequence as they belted out ‘Happy birthday to you’, and Chris brought out a cake with candles!

The poor man had brought a Buzz Lightyear cake all the way from London, and carried it with him for over five days. As crumpled and misshaped as it was by the time it was revealed, I had never tasted a more delicious cake in my life.

As night fell, happily satisfied with having had a fabulous birthday I’d forever remember, we turned in earlier, as our final ascent would start in the middle of the dead night. We were woken up at 11.30pm and our customary warm porridge, teas and energy bars were passed around.

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FROZEN


View: a stunning glacier

Getting started was a slow procedure, despite having gone to bed in my full summit attire. By the time we lined up to head towards the top, I was frozen to the core. Disparities vary in how cold it really was, but we all agreed it was bloody cold. As a Norwegian, I have experienced temperatures, as cold as minus 30 degrees, but this was, hands down, atrocious.

Darkness and the never-ending mob of headlamps in to the dark night aggravated the situation.

By this time, no one was talking and we were all lost in our own thoughts, as we painstakingly inched our way towards the goal. Notion of time and distance was no longer a primary concern, as survival took over.

The narrow and sliding trail made everyone’s nerves as thin as a supermodel’s upper arms, and by the time we stopped for our real first break, we were frozen and miserable.

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SUNSHINE

As the first rays of sunshine broke out and bathed the sky in a warm and beautiful tangerine colour, we reached our runner-up destination, Stella Point at 5,752m above sea level. The night before, Aaron, our no-nonsense guide had told us that reaching that top would be the “s***tiest day of the trek”. He wasn’t lying.

With over 15 years and triple-digit treks on Kili, he knew what he was talking about.

A mere 233 meters from reaching THE top, I stood there, watching grown men who could barely stand on their feet, being held up by three or four people. With many of my body parts frozen, the tiny bit of will I had remaining was slowly being sucked out of me.

Through tears and sweat, Alex and I soldiered on, as we passed them, the few remaining beautiful glaciers on the top were paid no attention.

Huddled together, we finally reached it: Uhuru Peak, Africa’s highest point, at 5,895m above sea level.

Chaos soon ensued, as climbers, all out of our wits, vied for the perfect spot to take a photo to treasure. But as soon as that "perfect" picture was snapped, we headed right back down.

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TRIUMPH

Through tears, nausea, headaches, swollen toes and aching muscles, we had reached Africa’s rooftop. We had triumphed.

Going back down to a much more comfortable 3,090m camp for our final night on Kili, I don’t think I had a single thought in my head.

I had expected a few tears, but instead I had a huge grin, well aware I had achieved what I had come to do and the gorgeous Lady had carried my burdens and pushed me to succeed.

People told me I would long to come back after the pain and exhaustion had settled and I heartily laughed, calling them crazy. But truth be told, now, it doesn’t sound crazy at all.

Wise Andrew was right indeed: Bless the mountain.


Triumph: (l-r) Nelly, tour guide Andrew, Victoria, Alex and tour guide Aaron

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