“I don’t know if I can keep going,” I said shivering as I tried to sit on a cold rock.
My hands were trembling from the below freezing cold weather, my vision was hazy, and I was close to collapsing from loss of energy and coordination. ‘What was I thinking climbing this mountain,’ I thought. I was falling asleep on my feet. I wanted to scream in frustration but I was too weak to even talk. Go away negative thoughts! You’re almost there! But just the thought of dragging my legs a couple more hours in this torturous state was horrifying. It wasn’t just a constant physical battle, but a mental one. I had to constantly remind myself to stay strong but this was nothing like what I had trained for. I was now standing at 5,300m above sea level and altitude sickness had gotten the best of me.
I had planned to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for over a year and spent months training for it. I was running 5 to 10ks weekly, cycling and doing long hikes around England to bigger climbs in the French Pyrenees. Kilimanjaro is the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, rising at 19,341 feet and is the highest point in Africa. I knew it would be tough but there was a greater challenge I’d have to overcome. One that I couldn’t really train for - the altitude.
It becomes more of a mental challenge when you start to notice all the things that start to concern you. The constant migraines. Watching team members slowly get ill. Sleep deprivation. Resisting having to use the loo in the middle of the night because you’re too wrapped up in your sleeping bag. You don’t even dare to step outside because you're too cold to move a muscle.
The journey began on August 22, 2017 after we spent the night in a hotel in
Moshi in the Northern part of Tanzania to regain our energy from the long flights and long hours in the airport. There was 26 of us - including our Action Challenge leader and doctor. We started off as strangers, and we came back as companions. It’s incredible how much you connect with people when you’re trekking for long hours.
After one last good shower of the week and breakfast, we made our way to Londorossi Gate by bus. The excitement started to kick when we were surrounded by giraffes and zebras prancing free in the wild. The bus ride to the start of the trek suddenly felt like a wild safari adventure as we gazed out of the windows desperately scanning the hills for other animals.
Our excitement came to a quiet pause when we spotted it. At a distance, we could see Mount Kilimanjaro standing tall as King of the African mountains. We all stared at it in awe. We were speechless, intimidated by the presence of this tall, dormant volcano. The nerves started to kick in, and we were anxious to start trekking. There’s no turning back. In just a few days, we would be up there.
Once we met our porters, had our bags weighed to ensure it was within the 15 kg limit, and had our bellies fed, we were finally off to start our trek via the Lemosho route. Climbing Kilimanjaro means climbing through distinctive vegetation zones and four seasons in just a few days. Our trek started along the Montane Forest, surrounded by incredible flora and fauna. Beautifully moss covered green trees with distinct shapes, winding around us. Walking into a fairytale of dangling branches and elegant violas flowering on the ground made made our trek more beautiful as we walked higher through the lush rainforest.
Along the way, we spotted some black and white Colobus monkeys traversing from tree to tree, some hiding through the dense thicket of branches.
After a 650m elevation gain, we successfully made it to the first camp, Mti Mkubwa and I was feeling good at that point. We all started to bond over tent meals and stories. I was amazed at what the cooks prepared for us at such high altitude. From chips, to beef, and even a cake! I can barely even make a cake at sea level elevation.
The whole crew was really polite and generous. The hard work they do on a daily basis: getting up even earlier than us to prepare breakfast and pack, from carrying a load of weight on their backs, keeping things clean, while keeping us motivated. Their efforts were deeply appreciated by us hikers. They were superheroes.
After dinner, it became routine to try to use the toilet before bed to avoid getting up in the middle of the night while it was freezing. By toilet, I mean, portable toilet inside the toilet tent. That was actually a luxury on the mountain. I expected having to dig up my own hole. Baths consisted of wet wipes and one bowl of water to do some quick rinsing. But the reality was it didn’t matter how many times you rinsed. We were sleeping on a volcano, on the dirt. You just had to embrace it, somehow.
And sleep? For me, trying to sleep every night on Kilimanjaro caused me anxiety. My first sleep at Mti Mkubwa was unsuccessful. I was up every hour of the night with an upset stomach. I was already feeling cold and we weren’t even at the highest point. After only a couple hours, everything went quiet, and I could hear the monkeys coming down the trees and moving outside our tents. I couldn't help but make stories in my head, thinking the monkeys were stealing our boots and I had to stay awake to keep an eye out while Sara slept. I really needed those boots to get to the top! But mostly, I was awake, worried that it was night one, and I already wasn’t sleeping.
On the morning of Day Two, we got called by one of the crew at about 5AM who offered us some tea and biscuits. ‘Hello! Good morning!’ they’d say cheerily outside our tent. We had a full 10-12 hours of trekking ahead of us. Surprisingly, I managed to start the morning laughing with my tent mate, Sara, even after getting zero hours of sleep. We weren’t even delirious on altitude, it was just natural bonding. The group thought we had come together as friends because we got along so well, but we had just met a day ago. We managed to keep each other in good spirits throughout the whole journey even when we were at our most miserable state. It makes such a difference having positive people around you.
As for the usual morning routine: we’d get our kit ready, repack our bags, have breakfast, refill our water bottles, and start our day’s trek. I tried to ignore the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach and focus on my steps.
“Pole, pole,” Swahili for ‘slowly, slowly’, is one of the key secrets to acclimatizing on Kilimanjaro. The guides set the pace for us each day and I made sure to practice my breathing since day one. I never dared to walk a bit faster because I knew how much energy I needed to conserve for the next few days.
Day 2 was a long, exhausting day. It was about ten hours of trekking under the heat of the sun. I found myself feeling out of breath slowly. Our Action Challenge guide Steve talked me through some breathing techniques and eased my fears and I managed to push through the long hours. We walked at a steady pace to allow our bodies to acclimatize as we crossed the Shira plateau. Getting through each day was always a relief but also a slight increase in anxiety as summit night approached.
‘Pole, pole...’ One foot in front of the other. The mountain guides kept us motivated as we walked, constantly reminding us to walk slowly.
On the morning of Day 3, just before we departed for our trek, the whole crew of 92 men, sang the Kilimanjaro song and introduced themselves while dancing and singing in Swahili. ‘Jambo, jambo bwana...’ I shed a tear because I was already feeling quite worried at that point, and hearing them sing really lifted my spirits. I have no idea what they were saying but it was inspiring, calming and just the motivation that we all needed. The people really make the experience a much better place.
One of my favorite days was on Day 4, climbing the Barranco Wall. It was a very slow climb because of the amount of people scrambling but this allowed for more bonding as a group. We scrambled over the Barranco Wall using all 4 of our limbs. If you decide to do this, it’s recommended not to use your trekking poles on this portion of the trek.
Once we reached the top, we were at about 4,000m(13,000 feet) with a stunning stop above the clouds where we took some photos, and relaxed before we made our way to Karanga Camp. I took some time to relax while I sat above the clouds drinking a fruit juice.
I had forgotten what day it was. And I loved it. We were completely immersed in the moment, in the now, above the sea level of clouds in complete serenity. Mount Meru was standing tall across from us, just above the cloud line and sunset. It was another life up here. This was the beauty of climbing without technology. No distractions. Being able to appreciate each other's company while really being present in the now.
The night sky was glistening with mesmerizing stars. My eyes danced across the dazzling infinity of the milky way and the glow of distant galaxies on different shades of purples, blues, and hints of red. As cold as I was, I must have stood there for about thirty minutes in awe of this glorious infinite sky. I would have slept outside the tent stargazing all night, feeling little in this immense universe but fascinated in this incredible environment. It was the most beautiful, magically packed sky I had ever seen. I was frozen, not because of the cold, but because of the moment.
There were only two nights where I managed to get a few hours of sleep in the whole week. The rest, I’d be lying cold in the tent, growing more nervous as I felt the altitude kicking in. I could hear the sound of people coughing in the surrounding tents. I was constantly blowing my nose, which was filled with dirt and blood. The tissue was always black. People were slowly getting ill(two had already turned back down) and we still had the biggest night to face - the summit. Breathing at this elevation was becoming a challenge. Every exhalation was a race to inhale again. Sometimes I'd fall asleep and then immediately my body would jerk, gasping for air. I was suffering from on and off migraines during the treks. Migraines so strong, I could feel my head bursting. I was sleep deprived. It was becoming increasingly harder to stay positive with everything I was feeling. But I kept going.
On Day 5, we all, very slowly, made our way to Barafu Camp and ascended to about 4645m(15,287 feet). We could see the summit so clearly from here. It was getting a lot colder now, and I was wearing a lot more layers at this point. I was becoming quieter, conserving as much energy as I could. Breathing, heavily.
On this Lemosho route, we would "climb high, sleep low" which means you reach a maximum altitude and then return to a lower height to sleep. However, six days at high altitude doesn’t allow for long-term adaptations, a process that can take weeks. But this was still the best acclimatization route. And I had made it this far. I had to keep walking.
Sara and I had managed to stay strong even though we started feeling slightly miserable. Once we reached Barafu camp in the afternoon, I could tell something was wrong. Sara was really quiet, concerned. Just like me. I tried to keep her motivated, although I was struggling myself. We were getting emotional and worried about summit night. I started to feel dizzy, and I was losing my appetite. Please be hungry. Please be hungry. I tried doing the “hamburger test.” But it didn’t work. The hamburger test was my test to see if I still had my appetite - I was always craving a big juicy burger on most days of the trek, but this was the second time I had failed the hamburger test. The thought of it made me nauseous. I ran through all my favorite foods on my mind, but I failed to crave them all. Oh no. A sign of altitude sickness, I thought. Loss of appetite. I knew how much I needed to eat because summit night was hours away now.
Sara said she didn’t feel hungry either. It was the first time I had seen her like that. I felt really worried for her and I wanted to take care of her and myself at the same time.
We ended up sitting near the exit of the tent during lunch, as a ‘just in case we have to run out and throw up.’ I told her to eat even though I didn’t feel like eating. And she said, ‘We have to try. We have to eat. We need the energy.’ She slowly started drinking the soup, and I did my best to follow. I probably wouldn’t have if I didn’t see her try, but we helped each other get through those little challenges.
Back in the tent, we prepared our summit bags - I removed everything from my bag that would add to the weight because in thin air, everything weighs a ton more. We got all our summit layers and snacks ready. I put my water bottles inside a sock, and turned them upside down as Steve, our guide told us that it would make it less likely to freeze on summit night. I had found some chocolates I really liked in my “emergency food summit” bag - this I had saved, in case I’d lose my appetite. I gave one to Sara and told her it would make her feel better and we managed to get back to a better spirit and share some laughs.
Although, still emotional.
It was now 5PM, a really early night for us to attempt to sleep before being awoken at 11:30PM to summit.I remembered reading and learning about all the symptoms and consequences of altitude sickness before I left. Symptoms including: headache, difficulty breathing, nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite. I was worried I hadn’t eaten hardly anything in the past few hours because of the nausea. I was checking through the symptoms that I was going through and knew I had to drink more water, get myself to eat more and stay strong to avoid the more serious type of altitude sickness, HACE.
High Altitude Cerebral Oedema is the swelling of the brain caused by a lack of oxygen. The person with HACE won’t realize how ill they are and that they need help. The symptoms including: weakness, nausea, loss of coordination, feeling confused, hallucinations. The only way to treat it? Move down to a lower altitude immediately, take medication for brain swelling, bottled oxygen, if available.
But that’s not all, there’s also HAPE, High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema which is a buildup of fluid in the lungs. Some symptoms including: a persistent cough that produces frothy sputum that may be tinged with blood, tiredness, extreme breathing difficulties.
After running all of these symptoms and illnesses through my mind I was too nervous to fall asleep. Thankfully, a couple times, I must have dozed off. I was at my most emotional state, thinking about my family but at the same time, proud of myself for making it this far.
In the dead of the night it was really quiet. I counted my blessings. All the people who supported me doing this crazy challenge and all the people who I met during the journey. I felt lucky to have a such a lovely tent mate, Sara. And lucky to have have such a good group of people by my side. I was in deep contemplation. I was reflecting on the journey and reminding myself why I did this. For me, it was about attempting an ‘out of my comfort zone’ challenge and doing it in Africa was always a dream of mine. I could feel my family thinking about me and sending me their strength. I missed them. I missed them so much.
We were now at over 15,000 feet. My heart was racing. Thumping, loudly. The time had come. We were awoken just before midnight in the freezing weather. It was long before dawn and we’d have to reach the summit by torchlight. I put on the rest of my warm layers, my thickest mountaineering socks, along with three pairs of gloves, one inside the other and clicked on my headtorch. It was time.
Slowly, very slowly, we started our ascent in the darkness. ‘I'm okay, I'm okay, I got this,’ I told myself. I did feel okay at first, but for only about thirty minutes.
I felt something strange happening to my body. I suddenly felt immensely fatigued. Every step up, the fatigue worsened. I kept thinking, I should have gotten more sleep. I was trying so hard to stay awake and focus on the steps in front of me, in the dark, but now my vision was becoming hazy. Everyone was so quiet. Occasionally, you'd hear a guide singing brief motivational words in Swahili. I wondered, how they did it in such a torturous condition. But they were experts. Heroes. And even those brief words, helped me.
After a couple of hours of dragging my legs, I felt drunk. Out of my mind. Delirious. The scene felt apocalyptic, like a horror movie. As if we were all chained up slowly dragging our bodies to the top. I could hear the sound of the wind howling and the sound of our boots swishing up the slippery bits of scree and gravelly sand. Sometimes, it was so slippery and steep that I’d fall onto the mountainside from loss of balance. I was too fatigued to even use my trekking poles to stop my fall and was slowly collapsing onto the scree slope. Every step a painful reminder of how far I had come and how many steps we had ahead of us.
I tried not to look up because when I did, all I could see was a trail of torches in the long, dark, steep trail. Slowly blinking in a haze, I couldn’t tell which ones were stars and which ones were torches. The mountain kept going, the headlamps glowing far in the distance. Where was the summit? How much longer? Climbing in the darkness was a real challenge. I couldn't see the top, nothing at all. And I was falling asleep on my feet.
‘Focus..’ I told myself. I didn’t want to think negative thoughts but I was at my weakest and most miserable state. Immediately I brushed those thoughts away and tried mental tricks to try to stay awake. Every type of trick I could think of. Quick flashes went through my head. Mom. Dad. Dani. Leo. Sun. Warmth. Bed. Bed. Bed. Oh no, I might puke now. I thought about stopping, it was the first time nausea had really hit me. I had to stop a few times but I didn’t throw up. Nothing was working! It was hard not to become emotional. I was grunting in frustration. I was sadly going mad. At one point, I remember trying to take a few steps and actually falling asleep. I didn't realize that I was slowly dying, that I was suffering from severe altitude sickness.
I suddenly started thinking about every person and every moment that made me happy. I quickly imagined my mom hugging me, and my dad smiling at me, telling me that I could do this. I remembered that amazing steak my sister and her husband cooked for me in Canada, and that time my brother told me I was ready to climb Kilimanjaro after we trained in the Pyrenees. I saw all my friends waiting for me. They were cheering. When I shook my head, I was still walking in the dark, losing my balance, still climbing in this 45 degree incline with the speed slower than a turtle. When I looked up again, I saw a line of blurry torches walking in the dark, my head slowly falling - still confused. Were they part of the galaxy night sky?
Come on, sunlight! Where are you!? I was desperate for a hint of sunrise. I felt that if the sun started to shine, it would make this terrible, miserable, weak feeling go away and give me some hope.
As we climbed higher, I was weaker. The oxygen, so thin. There was barely enough air to breathe. I don't even know how I had dragged myself that far. I had now lost my coordination.
One of the guides saw me in the dark, struggling to walk alone and told me, ‘You can't be sleepy, we're almost there.’ He wrapped my arm in his and helped me to walk. He dragged me slowly, step by step. I couldn’t even use my trekking poles to balance myself anymore.
‘I'm...so.....tired..I don't know if ..I can.....I need to stop and take a nap, please, let me sleep’ I felt frustrated. I wondered if I should have taken altitude sickness medication, eaten more, slept more. But I knew that wondering about the past wouldn’t have changed anything now.
My head was spinning in fatigue. I could no longer feel my brain with my body. Now, there were two men dragging me to the top. They knew how close I was. They struggled to carry me because I could barely even walk anymore and I was falling all over the place. I didn’t even know if I was on the edge of a cliff or close to a fall. It was pure darkness. I needed to sit down, my hands were shivering strongly from the cold. My water was slightly frozen. I remember someone trying to give me some juice but I could barely even open my own mouth. They were trying to change my gloves and keep me warm.
I sat there on a rock, shivering, begging for a nap. I remember seeing some faces in the dark from my group saying, ‘Come on Ale, you got this!’ I vaguely remembered who they were while in a haze but then I saw their faces. He was determined with a face set hard. She was crying silent tears glistening in the torchlight. They turned and trudged on very weak and very slowly. I wanted to tell her, ‘Keep going! You got this!’ but I couldn’t talk anymore. I was so proud of them all. My eyes were now spinning in fatigue. Steve found me and looked really concerned. He said we needed to wait for the doctor, who was in the back of the queue, to have a look at me. When she got there and measured my oxygen level, it was at about 42%. I was dying. Normal oxygen saturation at sea level is above 95%, usually close to 100%. She said acceptable at the elevation we were in would have been in the high 70-80 percentile and already that was pushing it.
She gave me some medication to ease the altitude sickness, and possibly my brain swelling. My lips were swollen, white from the cold. They strapped me on an oxygen tank and one of the guides had to drag me down to camp immediately. ‘But I'm so close...the sun is coming out now. I can make it,’ I’d said shivering. I still felt drunk and had no control over my words.
‘I’m so sorry Ale. You’re going down...’ said the doctor.
That was it. I felt so defeated. At the moment, I felt like collapsing. I didn't want to accept it but I had to. I started to feel a big disappointment in myself. But I knew I couldn’t argue about continuing on even if I had the energy to speak up, because my life was at stake now.
I shed some tears trying to accept defeat as I stumbled back down the mountain, supported by the guide who gripped my arm tightly. I stared down at my feet watching my footsteps, ensuring I didn’t slip further down the mountain. I was really confused at what had just happened the last few hours. I was slowly waking up from a nightmare. But it had really happened.
And then I saw it.
A shaft of brilliant sunlight broke through the low lying cloud. I hadn’t noticed the coming dawn and I looked around to see that the darkness was lit and I could see my surroundings. I told the guide to stop for a minute so I could take in the moment. The sun, peeking up through the sea of clouds and lighting up the surrounding mountains with its powerful, radiant streaks of red, oranges and yellows. When I looked down, I saw how high we were from the cloud level. Wow. My breath was taken away by the magnitude of the mountain.
I felt alone on Kilimanjaro, but at peace and a sense of absolute gratitude. Mesmerized by the beauty, I closed my eyes and finally felt the warmth I’d been waiting for. I thought it was a moment of defeat. But that moment, brought me back to life. The sun, telling me I had made it. I looked behind me at the top and saw the summit glaciers shining so beautifully. It was so clear and so close, I felt like I was already there. I was at the top.
When I realized where I was standing, almost 5600m(18,300 feet) above sea level, less than 1-2 hours from the summit, I realized I had conquered Kilimanjaro. I was standing on the rooftop of Africa with the most spectacular sunrise and most unique and breathtaking moment I had ever experienced. Suddenly my sadness turned into a blissful happiness. It was strange feeling so sad and so happy at the same time. This is it, this is my journey. This was my summit.
I was alive. And as weak as I was, I smiled.
When I was brought back to my tent in Barafu Camp, I could feel the difference with the oxygen and slight change in elevation. I already felt much better than when I was up there, but still weak and in such a haze. Some of the porters and cooks brought me some toast and eggs and gave me more water.
I sat alone in my tent, thinking about the others who were still up there, and those who had gone back down before me. I just wanted to hug my loved ones. I still felt a bit delusional, confused, my head still spinning like a terrible hangover, wondering what happened up there. The sun was now shining so strongly that I was shedding layers off, and at the same time, passing out in fatigue. It took me about five hours to feel slightly normal but I could barely still have a regular conversation.
Slowly, I heard the others coming down the mountain. When Sara came back to our tent, I was happy to see her. Despite how out of it I was, I congratulated her. After that, I recall us having a very delirious conversation about life. Altitude had gotten to us. But there we were, emotional, yet laughing. I surprised myself when I kept my spirits high after what had happened.
I was grateful to be alive and to have gotten that far. I remembered how much I was suffering slowly each day but how I kept walking. One foot in front of the other. To even try was enough. I remembered the sunrise I experienced and how it became one of most special moments of my life. That was my summit. My realization. Not a photo near the summit sign but standing where I was feeling the deepest appreciation for life, the journey and it’s beauty.
Altitude is mysterious. You can be an ultramarathon runner and be the fittest person in the world and not make it to the top. You can be the most unhealthy person physically and still make it to the top. Altitude sickness may hit you, or it may not. It affects everyone in different ways. The important thing is that you recognize it, pay attention to your body and understand when it’s time to turn back down. If you can't walk yourself alone, you shouldn't be attempting to continue on.
I learned that all the training and preparation in the world can't guarantee an easier path to success. This applies to any challenge in life. The important thing is your attitude. How you approach the challenge and what you take away from it. Attitude is everything.
Kilimanjaro was my ‘Everest’. My internal challenge. Constant battles of giving up and pushing through. And if you’re like me, you’ll want to push through no matter the pain.
But it’s also important to recognize your limits. It’s very common that you will face unfortunate circumstances at some point in your challenge; poor weather conditions, lack of supplies, or feeling extremely ill and that’s when you have to say ‘It’s time to turn back’ And that’s okay.
In this society, it is believed that only when you complete something to the end, you feel accomplished. This mentality makes it harder for the dreamers. To the ones who try. People forget to recognize the importance of the journey. Our mentality can get the best of us. But you have the power to make your own decisions.
I had learned all the symptoms of altitude sickness, and I was aware of all the facts, but I was too 'out of it' to understand, in that moment, what was happening to me. I was lucky that my guide found me in my weakened state and the doctor evaluated me and had that spare oxygen tank. I was lucky to be brought down safely. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here today writing this story. I spent many days after, wondering what I could have done differently, if I had drank more water or taken the altitude sickness tablets. But the truth is, I’ll never know and there’s no reason to question it so much. I had taken away something beautiful from this mountain and that was enough.
Before climbing Kilimanjaro, I heard people say things like ‘I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t summit’ or ‘What will I tell people if I don’t make it to the top?’
I realized people had different reasons to climb Kilimanjaro.
For me, it wasn’t about bragging or proving someone wrong. I did it for myself. I wasn’t just conquering the mountain, but conquering myself. The mountain just helped me get there.
When you invest so much energy, money and time preparing for a challenge, it’s really easy to feel disappointed not reaching the summit. But the summit is just a small segment of the experience. Don’t be so hard on yourself if you have to turn around. Being able to turn around is a bold move and will only make you stronger and more prepared for the next challenge. Say yes to challenge but also yes to taking care of yourself. It takes courage to prioritize safety over ego.
The summit will always be there. I had never pushed myself as hard as I did on Kilimanjaro. Mentally and physically. I climbed out of my comfort zone and I was still on top of the world. I learned more getting to where I did than if I would have summited.
Climbing these mountains make us vulnerable and allows us to feel a different sense of being alive. It allows us to transform ourselves, to move beyond our perceived boundaries. For me, it's all about the challenge, the fear. This challenge became a life-changing, growing, and enriching experience. I believe on the other side of fear, there’s always something beautiful. You come out the other side a stronger, wiser, transformed person. Some may not understand that the adventure brings such beauty, joy and satisfaction. That the struggle makes you stronger, and then, make you feel reborn.
When I close my eyes and think of Kilimanjaro, it wasn’t just that moment where I reached my summit. Those torturous, long hours of dragging my legs. It was seven days of unstoppable laughter, stunning scenery and unique mesmerizing skies. Seven days of forming bonds with people, singing and dancing while trekking through diverse landscapes. You realize, wow, the Earth is pretty amazing! I'm proud of everyone and everything we experienced together. And I’m grateful for the patience, encouragement and all the support. It was heartwarming to come back down to the gate and see the crew welcome and celebrate with us with the Kilimanjaro song. They even took our boots off and washed them along with our trekking poles. Everyone was so friendly on this journey and it's them who contributed in making the journey great. When I look back now, it’s those moments that really make me smile.
Mount Kilimanjaro nearly defeated me but I had an amazing journey getting there. Moments where I caught myself completely immersed in the now. In complete serenity. Experiencing things I never have before. This is what life is about. These moments. The experience.