STORY : FOR M.E. AND FOR ME
Conquering The Roof of Africa, Kilimanjaro
Mount Kilimanjaro champions the titanic title as the highest freestanding mountain in the world and the highest point on the enigmatic continent of Africa.
Standing at 5,895 metres above sea level, the iconic, solitary mountain sits on the border of Tanzania, supremely overlooking the vast expanse of the Kenyan Serengeti plains from the north face of the mountain.
Ironically, contradictory to its theorised name, Africa’s tallest mountain is technically one of the easiest of the world’s Seven Summits to climb, attainable without any mountaineering experience or equipment. I had gotten into the best shape of my life resulting from my disciplined quest to be fully prepared for my mountain challenge, grinding out six-months of strengthening and conditioning in the gym, local weekend training hikes at home in the UK and a summer walking holiday in the remote wilderness of the Lake District. I had trained to be as ready as I’d ever be and fully aware that this was going to be the most relentless, gruelling physical and mental challenge of my life. But I possessed a reserve of extra motivation to harness my efforts in service to those back home in the UK, who could only ever imagine a world beyond their back garden, including my sister.
When we were both twenty-four, my twin sister Helen was diagnosed with the presently incurable illness Myalgic Encephalomyetltis (M.E.) otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a widely misunderstood long-term neurological condition that causes symptoms affecting many body systems, more commonly the nervous and immune systems. Up until that point, my sister like myself had led a very active, interesting lifestyle, coloured with many perceived dreams, ambitions and aspirations. It was at nineteen where daily symptoms of prolonged tiredness, low energy, muscle pains, nausea, headaches and a struggle with her concentration began to worsen, manifesting into the creeping onset of M.E., completely derailing her ability to continue living a normal, functioning life. Over an estimated 250,000 people in the United Kingdom and around 17 million worldwide are affected by the trappings of M.E. and like my sister, have had to endure the humiliation and neglect of ignorant views from society and misunderstood judgement from the medical profession.
I had chosen to raise £1,500 for ‘Action For M.E.‘ whose mission to tackle ignorance, injustice and neglect for people whose lives have been stolen and detained by M.E., promote funding for biomedical research and awareness programs to support sufferers of the condition. If I was going to invest so much physically and mentally into this tough expedition, I should do it for the benefit of others who were not lucky enough to have the privilege of good health.
Under much research and recommendation, I opted to join Kandoo Adventures to take the longer, less popular, forty-two mile Lemosho Route, approaching the three volcanic cones Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo from the west of Tanzania and through the Shira Plateau over six days to reach Barufu Base Camp, to hunker down before the infamous ‘summit night’. The trekking days would be broken up into smaller manageable chunks with a ‘climbing high, sleeping low’ technique to help with slow acclimatisation. This was the best shot I was going to have to sway the odds of success in my favour.
One of the most popular activities for adventurous travellers on the globe, it is said 35,000 people attempt climbing the serious high-altitude mountain every year, with a success rate of over 60%. All of us had chosen to come to climb Kilimanjaro in the last month of the ‘dry season’; fewer crowds and still dry enough to trek – or so we thought.
The first day to start our perilous expedition was a shocking surprise – torrential rain. Thick, gloopy, unrelenting cannonballs that consistently hammered us as we hid under the hoods of our saturated rain jackets and ponchos trudging through the rain-dampened ground of the dripping lush montane forest. Nothing proved to be ‘Kilimanjaro-proof’ from the elements of the unforgiving conditions, leaving a week of enduring persistent, pelting rain, sleet, freezing alpine temperatures and thick shrouding mist as we ambled ‘pole, pole’ very slowly 5-6 hours a day to each designated camp on the route, soiling the registration book with our wet and shaky hands.
A typical day on Kilimanjaro would start with an early wake-up call at 6.30am by our team of guides, whipping us up to repack our gear for the well altitude-attuned porters to charge ahead with our luggage, in a race to set up at the next camp.
I had made it to Day Six and was coming to the latter stage of the ascent, pushing though the 4,500 metre threshold of Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms of nausea and headaches. With the additional relentless, adverse wet weather and sleep deprivation plaguing our team, things were going to get more difficult and testing for us all in our attempt to conquer the summit of Kilimanjaro.
Thick, gloopy, unrelenting cannonballs that consistently hammered us as we hid under the hoods of our saturated rain jackets…
Summit night, and the threat of hypothermia was festering at the back of everyone’s mind, with the anxiety of even harsher adverse weather that could be in store for us, as we entered the sub-zero temperatures of arctic glacial territory. At the 4,673 metre base camp of Kilimanjaro, I had recovered from my AMS headache but the introduction of more stress on the body had irritatingly suppressed my Ghrelin levels and appetite as we were ascending higher into the altitude and hypoxia zone. Not wanting to eat was a frustrating burden with the amount of calories we were burning, clocking up almost thirty-nine miles to get here and the need to keep your energy levels up. Despite the loss of appetite, I felt healthy and was all pumped ready for the summit night, but when I came to my final health check, something was up. My blood oxygen level was fine at 85% for the altitude, but my heart rate soared at 130 bpm as if I’d seen the most beautiful person walk into the room! This couldn’t be right, I thought. I felt fine. I had trained for six months with a breathing mask limiting my oxygen intake so my heart should be used to it. A dreaded feeling of anxiety began to rise from the pit of my stomach as the high red numbers flashed back at me alarmingly with each reading attempt.
I was going to have to let fate or karma decide (or actually the attentive guides really in this case), but I remained optimistic telling them I have to attempt the summit, I knew I had it in me to finish, my body was fine and was just excited and nervous for the final push of the expedition. I was not letting my novice experience at altitude beat me down after overcoming so much trepidation, punishing cold, sleep deprivation and pain on my route to the last camp.
I lay awake for the three hours respite, agonisingly waiting for the time to pass. Imprisoned in the folds of my tent, I was racked with gnawing anxiety about what destiny meant for me, in the next twelve hours of my life. Every ticking second on the clock brought me closer to knowing my fate on the mountain – this I knew was going to be what our last six days had accumulated up to, we were so close to making it to the summit of the great Kilimanjaro and I just prayed that I would be allowed to attempt it.
Ten o’clock finally beeps on my watch. Summit time.
We would all begin the descent in an hour, leaving the base camp at 11 o’clock to give us a chance to ascend slowly and be near the summit for the sunrise, still having enough daylight for recuperation and the long descent to the final Mweka Camp at 3,000 metres. It would likely take us seven or more arduous hours, trekking the remaining five kilometres through the night, up into the volcanic, arctic glacial region. Just seven more hours or so and we’d have done it. No risk, no reward.
Our guides told us that it had been snowing at the summit, forcing me to conjure up a romanticised idea in my head of battling through a thrashing blizzard to complete this great expedition. At altitude, for every 1,000 metres climbed the air temperature drops by 6.5 degrees Celsius and we had no idea if there was going to be buffeting wind near the summit, which could make things worse. I assumed I would need to dress for maximum protection against the coldest conditions and re-emerged from my tent bulked in eight layers of clothing like a walking, talking sumo wrestler primed for battle.
With the distinct chill in the air biting at my face, I was breathing deeply through my nose with each measured step. By 2am, I started to become anxious again, when the creeping throb of a returning altitude headache began to manifest, seeing how far my tolerance could stretch before resorting to the medical aid of Diamox and painkillers to beat it down. My heavy eyes, still stinging with intense drowsiness from my lack of sleep, forced me to close them restfully every few strained moments to cope with the persistent, furious pounding in my head – almost sleepwalking in the escapism of a dream. But this really was a dream come true. I was on my way to the top of Kilimanjaro!
A dreaded feeling of anxiety began to rise from the pit of my stomach as the high red numbers flashed back at me alarmingly with each reading attempt.
After what seemed like the passage of time had eternally frozen through each monotonous step, I soon felt the flooding release of relief at the sight of hikers shuffling above me, over the last ridges of fissured rocks and coming to a halt. The most painful, difficult part of the climb was over.
Every fibre in my thirty-six year old body, imprisoned by my copious layers of arctic-fighting apparel, ached and weighed heavily down on me like a solid suit of lead. ‘How much further to the summit?’ I panted to Kotalieb, my breath threatening to stick in the back of my dry throat with each ragged gasp. I needed to sit down to recover as my heart rapidly pounded, working hard to maintain the oxygen in my tissues. I look up as I take more desperate gulps of ice-cold water from my Nalgene bottle, squinting as I face the glowing sphere of the African sub-Saharan morning sun, slowly creeping above me and my patient Tanzanian guide. ‘About an hour away’ Kotelieb replies with a bite of his Swahili tongue, looking down at the jutting ridge I was recovering on. I didn’t even care if I was sitting on snow now. ‘You can see the sign of the summit there’ he pointed.
Following his arm, I turned to scan the hazy bank of the skyline in the distance through the filter of my polar Bloc sunglasses; the stark, illuminated, uniform coat of pearly, pallid snow spilt over the rocky pocked-marked crater rim of Kilimanjaro, curving around the crest of the dormant volcano. A faint sign the size of my thumb stood on the end of the ridge with the minute, bright coloured figures of other hikers already gathered at its base – Uhuru Peak, the 5,865-metre summit was in my sight. It seemed so close, but yet still felt so far away. ‘But we can finish here if you want to’ he suggested, slipping my backpack off his chest and sending it thudding into the snow, flakes flaying upon its impact.
I opposed. This was not going to be the finish here, in this instance ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’ I was going to forget! My Kilimanjaro challenge was about reaching the top, not Stella Point. Uhuru Peak was the ‘true summit’ of Kilimanjaro and I was not going to give up the fight easily now just being 139 metres away from having my head truly in the clouds to fulfil my long-held dream.
I was tired, like incapacitated tiredness I’d never known. But I was not going to quit. It was one last leg of pure mental grit and dogged determination to get myself to the summit. I didn’t care if I had to stagger another hour in the oppressiveness of the altitude. I knew I had the stubbornness to do it. It was just one more hour and it’ll be over. This overwhelming fatigue, temporarily paralysing my body up there on that mighty mountain in Africa would eventually come to an end for me, reinforcing an extra personal motive to keep driving, to honour the thousands of people who cope with this debilitating fatigue daily, and who I was helping and raising awareness for through my alpine struggle, including my sister.
As we pressed on, it wasn’t too long before my kind guide and I was now being approached by the striding figures of climbers retracing their steps back down the crater rim. Now deserving ‘summiteers’ of the morning beginning their descent, they briskly marched past my glacial pace with words of encouragement ‘Well done, nearly there’.
My heart was skipping, intoxicating joy spreading to every inch of my being. I had a surge of hope overtake me. I was going to make it. I was going to realise my dream and summit Kilimanjaro. With my lungs bursting, I mustered up every last ounce of energy with a final flare of determination and reached the sign in a daze of euphoria, roaring like a lioness, raising my poles to the African skies in triumph to be immediately met… by another English woman, another Londoner in the pool of finishers gathered by the sign. ‘Well done, mate’ she says sternly, patting my shoulder and shaking me further in reverence. ‘Well done’.
Every fibre in my thirty-six year old body, imprisoned by my copious layers of arctic-fighting apparel, ached and weighed heavily down on me like a solid suit of lead.
As I stood in victory under the warmth of the equatorial sun, the elated swell of empowerment and immense gratitude emanated from my weary bones. I felt overwhelmingly privileged to be looking down from the highest point, over the great continent of Africa, finally at peace with the spiritual energy of the ancient mountain. Adventures and challenges can strip you down to the person you are inside, as I had awakened a realisation to myself how persistently tough I can be, to push through hopeless adversity, to push through the merciless extremities of nature and sickness for M.E. sufferers who could only dream of being here – to climb with my heart when my legs got tired. Underneath the cocooned layers protecting my aching fragile body through the harsh initiation of Kilimanjaro, beat the heart of a wily survivor. After all, we are so privileged to have good health and never know what might come our way, whether to our own body or mind, or family, or friends. I had finally conquered The Roof of Africa – for me, my sister and M.E.
Photos first published in Adventure She Magazine
Sal Bolton read Geography at the University of Chichester, England where shortly after, her first solo explorations took her to the open highways of the USA. Spending five months living in Ghana, West Africa volunteering in teaching tennis to children led to the founding of the non-profit organisation ‘Africa Tennis Aid’. At age 26, she journeyed to South America to discover the enigmatic Amazon Rainforests of Ecuador, spending two years thereafter travelling around Australia, living in an Aborigine community and writing her first travel book ‘The Show Must Go On – Being with an Australian Travelling Zoo’. In recent times, Sal spent time with Buddhist Monks whilst building houses in Cambodia and a year hitchiking around New Zealand, waka sailing with Maoris and visiting indigenous villages.
Sal’s blog has been awarded ‘Wanderlust Blog of the Week’ and she has also written for ‘UK Tennis’, ‘Tennis Today’, ‘Adventure She’ Magazine and an adaptation of ‘The Show Must Go On – Being with an Australian Travelling Zoo’ was first published in 2013 in German for travel book ‘Australien wie wir es sehen’. You can hear Sal talk more about M.E and her Kilimanjaro adventure in an upcoming ‘Inspiring Adventure’ Podcast with Vertebrate Publishing out in 2021.
She lives in London, currently working on her new adventure book ‘Letters From The Amazon’ about her adventures living in the enigmatic and endangered Amazon Rainforest of Ecuador which you can follow at this Facebook Group.