Killer Kilimanjaro

How my African charity trek nearly killed me

In my dreams, I’m an adventurer who flits from airport lounge to airport lounge, who takes breath only to Instagram photographs of my endless journeys, and who has money to spend on traveling without worrying about the consequences.

The reality is rather different. I have approximately zero money to travel with and the same was the case back in my University of York student days. I did however jump at the chance to go to Africa in my first year.

A friend and I had been to watch Jim Carrey’s Yes Man at the cinema and decided to give the film’s premise a go ourselves. We vowed to say yes to parties, new experiences and adventures. Then we saw a poster for a Childreach International-sponsored Kilimanjaro climb. We had to say yes – what else could we do?

Safari elephant
Safari elephant

Raising £2200 is no mean feat

To go on the trip, each member of the group had to raise £2200, part of which pays for a subsidised trip and most that goes to the children’s charity. The fundraising campaign was fun yet all-consuming. For a few months all I could think about was how to get more money. I needed to go to Africa; I needed to climb Kilimanjaro.

That money was hard to raise. In fact, it was so hard that I failed. Even with the copious street collections and fund raising bar crawls, car washes, bake sales and door-knocking in Derwent, I failed. I had to put £600 of my own student loan into the fund, meaning I was nicely broke for the rest of uni.

Altitude sickness

Before you climb a very tall mountain, people warn you about altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS). Kilimanjaro is more than a little tall, and a challenge for even experienced trekkers. Of course, I took it for granted that I would not get altitude sickness.

I’m originally from the Yorkshire coast and I regularly hike long distances along the clifftops. I think nothing of walking fifteen or twenty miles, and last summer I walked the entire length of Hadrian’s Wall in five days. But obviously, Kilimanjaro’s difficulty is not in the walking itself.

My feet were blister-free, my legs weren’t achy and I was never over-tired through exertion. I just couldn’t breathe properly. Imagine sprinting flat out and feeling out of breath afterwards. That’s how breathing is at high altitude, but without sprinting. The smallest obstacles made me lose my breath.

Sun set on Kili
Sunset on Kilimanjaro

The altitude sickness also brought with it a very painful headache from the third day of the climb, which did not pass until I descended. As well as a headache, I completely lost my appetite. The porters on the trek were incredible men who overtook us hikers carrying just our daypacks with their huge bundles of luggage, tents, food and water for us.

The food they cooked each night was without fault. There were piles of pasta and sauce sat before me and I simply pushed it around my plate. I’d been walking for the entire day and I couldn’t bring myself to eat. Luckily for my health but sadly for my waistline, this is not a problem I’ve ever had before or after the trip.

One positive was that with no food in my system, the AMS didn’t make me physically sick, as it did with a couple of other people in our group. My erstwhile hallucinations, though odd, were only very minor. For instance, on the decent from the summit in the dark, I was convinced there were tiny people’s faces in the bushes at the side of the trail. I like to think those little guys were spurring me on.

Kili group

Bad stomach…

I’ll be brief with this one! Camping is a messy business and as you can see by mine and my tent mates’ hands, there weren’t many washing facilities at 19,341 feet up in the air. Water, although boiled before being given to us, seemed to upset a number of stomachs – mine included.

After the climb, the group travelled to Zanzibar, where I spent my twentieth birthday with a full appetite back, eating delicious food and drinking cocktails in a beach side restaurant. The difference in my circumstances within a couple of days was amazing.

Kilimanjaro didn’t quite kill me in the end, but it had a good go at it. It is an experience I will cherish forever.

Zanzibar birthday
Mission complete!