Personal thoughts during the ascent and descent of a mountain
The night before
The team has arrived at the hotel in Tanga, Tanzania. The heat is relentless and I’m sweating sitting down. Some of the Brits here are bumbling around the main lobby like lost sheep, hoping to be directed to their rooms. Civilians do the strangest things.
After a long bus journey we are finally at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. The kit is being brought off the vehicles and I can see porters weighing it before moving off ahead of us. The porters and guides are all young but they carry a huge amount of weight over such long distances, on their backs, in their hands and on their heads... I hope they are well paid for such a gruelling task.
I don’t want to be caught out relying on other people during this journey. The army has trained me to be independent and prepared for any possibility, so that’s the way to go as far as I’m concerned.
We reach our first checkpoint after roughly seven hours of climbing uphill. The terrain wasn’t very rocky and instead we moved up narrow trails of dry mud, surrounded by the rain forests. It was difficult from the start and I don’t think a stiff upper lip is enough to get us through this.
My prosthetic leg has fallen off from under me multiple times. It wasn’t designed for mountain climbing. Today is the first day since I left rehab in Headley Court I’ve felt “disabled”. I don’t like it one bit, which is one more reason to get this job done.
After food (leek soup) I’m going straight to bed. It’ll be dark soon and there’s not a lot to do here but look at the sky and wonder about people back home.
We are doing well according to the expedition leader. Slow and steady is the best way to go considering constantly increasing altitude and decreasing amount of oxygen in the air around us.
Terrain has become more difficult and has transformed from dry track into rocky slopes. I had to empty my bag of everything that isn’t absolutely essential. Now it has water, a jacket, and a hunting knife in it. I’m not entirely sure why the knife is essential but as a soldier and outdoorsman, I feel naked without it.
It was the usual morning routine when I woke up, only now two of our team are gone: one wounded soldier and a civilian woman. It isn’t like Johno to give up easily and I think he waited during the night to save the hassle of having to explain himself to us. I’d have probably done the same. I hope he’s ok.
During the day Ricky [a fellow amputee] and I were ahead of the group, probably thinking the sooner we reach camp the sooner the pain would stop. He suspects he has broken his foot on his remaining leg, but wishes to continue.
I’m drinking water constantly but sweating it out just as quickly. We’ve been eating soup for days and I’m losing weight dangerously fast. My wounds are open again but pressure bandaging has stopped the bleeding. I need rest and as much as I can get.
We have logged approximately 32 climbing hours now. The air is so thin I’m gasping with every breath. I’m pretty close to breaking point. I can’t move when I sit or lay down. My back aches and I can’t feel anything in my wounded side. Pieces of buried shrapnel are coming to the surface and I’m able to pick them out like broken glass.
We will do this. We didn’t come this far to fail. When things get too much I remember 2010; the sympathetic looks and the reluctant first steps to being canned by the army... and it drives me forward to prove them wrong.
We woke up at dawn, next to what’s known as the Barranco Wall. It’s a steep and narrow passage (complete with fatal drops if you’re still half asleep) snaking a long way up to higher ground. It was hard going and like clockwork the amputees were at the front of the pack. We crashed down for 15 minutes once we reached the apex and waited for the others to come into view.
We eventually reached what people are calling ‘The Slabs’, which are huge faces of volcanic rock that we climbed for what felt like hours, going as hard we could but covering little distance due to the treacherous footing.
We reached High Camp in the early afternoon but we’re still not finished today. Tonight at 11pm is the night climb when we begin our final stretch to the summit: Uhuru Peak.
We’ve been told that three people have died on this trip. I’m shaken up at everything that has happened in the last 12 hours. Two American climbers and a Tanzanian porter have sadly passed away on the mountain.
There is still blood coming out of my ears and nose. My migraine feels like an axe stuck in the back of my head. I’m going to rest and will continue this in a couple of hours.
We woke up and the tents were covered in thick snow. My prosthesis froze and stopped working 10 minutes after leaving camp. It was like walking with concrete boots.
I was six hours into the night walk with less than one hour until we reached our goal. My headaches came back with a vengeance and forced me to the ground multiple times. I was gasping for oxygen and my vision was blurry. I sat on a boulder with some of the other Rifles guys and they kept an eye on me until Claire climbed up to us. She took my stats and they showed my oxygen levels were lower than they should be at 19,000ft. She asked me what I wanted to do and it goes without saying I wanted to continue.
The doctor agreed to let me go on if she could check my stats in 30minutes.
Claire checked stats again and they were dangerously low this time. She told me my brain was swelling up due to the lack of oxygen, causing severe altitude sickness and blood to run from my face. Devastated to hear it but knowing it was a wise decision, she told me I had to retreat further down the mountain. I knew it was a big risk to continue so I didn’t fight it at this point. It all felt very surreal.
I had to turn back only 400 vertical meters away. Other members of the team are making their way back into camp now and I can hear them cheering from a mile away.
I’m one of the first to arrive back at the gate. I wasn’t going to push my luck and I simply let the porters throw me down the mountain in what was essentially a wheelbarrow.
It ran away from them a couple of times and I was sent crashing into rocks and then trees. We all laughed about it the best we could but I haven’t been this badly beaten up in years!
I am disappointed knowing I was forced down so close from the finish line, but without Claire I’d have likely injured myself further, or worse. I feel as though I could have thrown a stone to the very tip of the mountain, so I’ll come back one day and conquer those final steps. I know for certain though that this has been an incredible and humbling experience.
Expedition leader, Rhys Jones, says:
The main danger on Kili is the altitude and the effects it has on people. Everyone acclimatises at different speeds, and although we take a sensible 7 days to get up and down the mountain, inevitably some people might just not acclimatise enough for an ascent to the summit. Altitude sickness manifests itself in many ways, and my job as an Expedition Leader is to prevent the onset of it and identify any symptoms as early as possible. In terms of falls, it is possible to fall on Kili, but there's very few opportunities to take anything more than a slip, there's no dangling off cliff edges so the usual dangers of rock climbing don;t present themselves. The cold is also a danger, especially on summit day when it's often sub-zero. People are moving very slowly at that altitude, which means they may not be generating as much heat as normal.
We provide close supervision for the team at all times. We had 9 Guides for the amputees climb, plus myself, with an assistant leader from the UK and a doctor. We also had an additional 15 summit porters for support on the final push to the top. We carry bottled oxygen, canvas stretchers, thermos flasks and drugs to treat altitude illnesses. Unlike most teams, we also use radios to co-ordinate any descents and rescues and it enables us to monitor the team much more efficiently. It effectively gives us many more eyes and ears and keeps the channels of communication open between guides and leaders. We make it as safe as we can and have solid rescue plans in place in case of emergency or if an evacuation is needed.
Although the amputees seemed to have little difficulty on the way up Kili, the descent proved very difficult for all of them. The articulation in the ankle of their prosthetics didn't seem to allow a comfortable angle, and the prosthetics quickly rubbed away the skin on their stumps. This meant that all of the amputees were evacuated and none walked down. If they had carried on, the damage done to their stumps may have been irreversible and would almost certainly have seen them in wheelchairs for some time while they recovered.
Daily tip from the lady archive
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