We made it!

I came, I saw, I stumbled a bit but made it! At 8.50am on the 22nd January 2008, after 3 years of planning and preparation, I finally reached Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro and became the first European with Cerebral Palsy to get to the top, and I believe the first disabled person ever to complete the Umbwe Route. Here’s how, and there is a short film at the end…

Mount Meru

Standing at a height of 14,980 feet in the Arusha National Park 44 miles west of Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru is an ideal mountain to climb for acclimatisation prior to the ascent of Kilimanjaro. Accompanied by our team of porters and guides, Nelson and Emanuelle, we were joined by Bennet, an armed National Park Ranger. It’s a requirement for any groups in the park to be accompanied by a ranger due to the proliferation of large animals including Giraffe and Buffallo.

This was to prove an invaluable 4 days, partly to get to know our guides and team a little better, but acclimatising too. We didn’t summit Meru, but having reached Rhino Point (12,616 feet) just before dawn, crossing an awkward short ridge in the darkness, we had learned all we needed to and felt the additional effort of going to the top would be surplus to requirements, we returned to the top hut (Saddle hut, 11,852 feet), spent a second night there before descending to the road and returning to the Keys Hotel in Moshi the following day. Tomorrow we would start climbing Kilimanjaro.

Umbwe Route

The locals around Kilimanjaro have a beverage system for nicknaming routes on the mountain. Easier routes such as Marangu and Machame are known as Coca-cola routes. The Umbwe route, the shortest route on the mountain and therefore very steep and direct, is a Brandy route. This means the height gain over a shorter timescale than longer easier routes would make the time acclimatising on Mt Meru even more important.
Day 1: Umbwe Gate to Umbwe Caves
After breakfasting, loading the truck, getting supplies and waiting for the permits to arrive at the park gate, we started our ascent. A relatively easy first day on tracks and paths through the rainforest to our first camp. We were all excited starting and inpatient to get under way, so the delays with the park permits etc was a frustrating start but a fact of life. We finally began our 6 hour walk at around 11.30am.The forest is thick and heavy low down, and the atmosphere was hot and humid as we climbed though. Just before we reached camp, one of our guides disappeared ahead on some invented pretext, but actually told the porters of our impending arrival who surprised us by singing us into camp!
Day 2: Umbwe Caves to Baranco Camp
As we continued to climb the vegetation began to thin slowly, and the broadness of the terrain became a narrow ridge in places. The biggest challenge of the day was an awkward 20ft – 30ft scramble up a slab. We deemed it of sufficient nastiness to protect the pitch with the rope the guides had brought along. Unfortunately, they clearly hadn’t used a rope too often, but Nigel Gifford was able to give them help on what they needed to do. The rain began to fall on day two too, but rather than dampening spirits it was welcome relief from the humidity of the forest.

Day 3: Baranco Camp to Karanga Valley

A great day! Climbing the Baranco Wall was something I admit to being a little worried about, and actually asked if there was a way round it. From the camp it appeared to be a steep and difficult scramble but Nigel assured me the fault line running through the middle of it made it much easier. He was right.

Wearing my big mountain boots, climbing, scrambling and clambering through, over rocks and boulders, solving the occasional little problem it presented, high up on the mountain, made me feel fantastic, made me feel like a proper mountaineer again.

The mountain really came alive that day. Reaching the top of the Wall, I wanted to go back and do it again…

The rain continued to fall and by the time we reached camp most of our gear was sodden. But by some miracle, most of mine had escaped a drenching and never had I been so pleased that my sleeping bag was packed in a dry-bag… Just before arriving in camp, the rain stopped and we were treated to a spectacular sunset.

Day 4: Karanga Valley to Barafu Camp

A relatively short day of only about 4 hours to the top camp. Nigel insisted on asking a group of American girls if they thought he was better looking than me. They voted. He lost. Deep down, I always knew Americans were a people of taste and decency, though they could have let him down a little more gently.

We reached Barafu Camp (Barafu means Ice, and for good reason) in the early afternoon to rest, sort our gear and prepare for the big day to come. I felt fit and strong and as ready for the challenge as I possibly could have hoped.

Day 5: Barafu Camp to Summit, return to Barafu Camp

Barafu Camp sits at around 15,500 feet, so we’d planned to sleep with the Oxygen, but I struggled to sleep because the PDA (Pulse Dose Monitor) clicks with every breath, and I found I was listening out for the click so was never going to get to sleep. I took it off and managed about 3 1⁄2 hours sleep before getting up about 11.15pm.

After grabbing a bite to eat and a brew, we rigged up the oxygen and left the camp at 12.30am on a fabulous clear crisp moonlit night and soon found ourselves climbing on fresh snow. Conditions were perfect and so much light was being reflected off the full moon, head torches were near irrelevant.

I felt fine for the first few hours, but then, an hour or so before dawn, I started to struggle. Just as I had before while on the 3 peaks challenge, I began to have internal battles, fighting depression and feelings of self-doubt. The summit was so far away and I began to seriously question whether I could finish. Nigel came and asked if we were going up or down. “Up.” I said, “For now anyway.”

But then, rapidly and not a moment too soon, the sun rose and just as before, lifted the darkness and took my black mood with it. Within a few minutes, my mindset changed from “I can’t do this” to “if it takes me all day…”.

That wasn’t the end of the trauma though. I felt good for an hour or so, but then the lack of sleep and subsequently lack of caffeine began to eat into me. I began to feel an almost overwhelming feeling of exhaustion. But Emanuelle, the guide who was with me most, would not let me rest too long for fear of me going to sleep, and kept encouraging me. He did a good job.

We reached Stella Point on the crater rim. By now we had been going for about 7 hours. I was extremely tired and sat for yet another rest. The only thing that stopped me from aborting and descending, was glancing round the rim and seeing the people gathered around the summit sign. Come on, last push.

The walk to the summit from Stella point may be the easiest part of the day but its safe to say the effects of fatigue, lack of sleep and caffeine, and of course the altitude made it the toughest hour of my life. I have never had to work that hard before.

The last 5 minutes to the summit are something of a blur. I knew I couldn’t stop again because I would collapse and not get up. I was totally focussed on the summit sign and totally committed to it. I could hear Nigel behind me shouting at the people gathered by the sign “GET OUT OF HIS WAY! GET OUT OF THE WAY!” Fortunately they all parted – if anyone got in my path I think they’d have been flattened. Nothing was stopping me now.

Finally, I was there. I reached the sign, touched it, and my legs could hold me no longer and I tasted snow. With pure emotion pouring out of me I sat, propped up against the sign for I don’t know how long. The realisation of what I had achieved was tempered by the recognition that the job was only half done. I still had to get down, and I had no idea how I was going to manage that. I was spent. I had nothing left.

Except the bar of chocolate, and managed to force half of that down, while someone gave me a carton of juice. Feeling a little more energised, we began to make our way down. But by the time we reached Stella Point it became clear this was not going to be easy. I needed some help.

Nigel came in again and had our two guides take one side of me each. By now it was about 10am, and the firm crisp snow we climbed up had gone and we were rapidly descending the steep loose scree. We were moving at a rate towards Nigels’ last piece of genius – tea and porridge.

The previous evening, Nigel had negotiated with the support team, Harron, the chef, and Charles, the waiter, to meet us on our descent with a flask of tea and a container of nice thick heavy porridge. I cannot say the lift that gave. When Nigel saw me next the transformation was spectacular. I was walking independently, the exhaustion had gone and I was lucid again. Tea and porridge, caffeine and calories.

We got back to Barafu Camp in the early afternoon, and decided to stay the night there, and descend to the park gate the following day.

Day 6 – 7: Barafu Camp to the gate, Moshi and the bar…

It took us about 6 hours to get all the way down to the park gate. A good long sleep the night before and plenty of food had me relatively refreshed. I can’t remember much of the day as we spent most of the day reflecting on the previous day in our own ways. We got back to the hotel, and I went straight for a shower and freshened up before going for a well earned beer, with my slightly battered hands.

The following morning, surprisingly without a hangover, we met our whole team again, tipped them and did some photos. All of them earned every penny, and deserve more than we could give. All I can say to them is thanks, they live long in my thoughts.

What next?

It should come as no surprise that before we got back to the hotel in Moshi, thoughts had already turned to the next expedition. At this stage, based on the success on Kilimanjaro, we are looking favourably on an ascent of another of the 7 summits. The target is to climb Mt Elbrus in Russia, Europe’s highest mountain. At 18,510 feet, it is a little lower than Kilimanjaro but as part of a mountain range and an obviously colder environment, it presents an altogether different set of challenges.

That’s all for now, hope you enjoyed reading my story.  Click the link below to watch a short film of still images from the trip.



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