Dan Sadgrove is not a novice traveler – he’s been to Indonesia and Jordan, among many other of the world’s beautiful places. He is, however, a novice trekker; not one for big mountain climbs. Regardless, he agreed – on a whim – to join a group of 26 others and ascend Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Was it challenging? Absolutely. Did he make it? Read on to find out.
Kilimanjaro – Africa’s tallest mountain at 5,898m – is not an easy climb. What motivated or inspired you to give the trek a go?
To be honest, I had never really given much thought to climbing big mountains, but I received a call from a friend who was planning on doing the trek and he mentioned that his group’s photographer had pulled out. He asked if I could take his place; I’d be joining a group of 26 others. It was a Friday night and I was feeling pretty relaxed; I though ‘why not?’ It was for a great cause – my friend was raising money for his charity Tri-Life that supports Charity Research UK. He organises three large physical challenge events a year, like a London-to-Paris bike ride, or a marathon, or in this case, a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro. I decided to throw caution to the wind and say yes. Had I received the call when I woke up the next morning it probably would have been a different story, but as luck or fate had it, he got me at a good time and I agreed to the adventure.
That’s a big commitment to make. Are you normally a spontaneous traveler?
I had second thoughts for sure; you always do with these kind of big decisions. It ended up being a pretty big financial commitment too, but it was an experience I had never done before and I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to do something like that again – it’s not everyday you get an offer to travel up the highest mountain in Africa; the highest free standing mountain in the world. I’m not normally that spontaneous and would never call myself a spontaneous traveller. In saying that though, I once turned up to an airport in Medan in Sumatra without a flight and booked one on the spot. Believe me, it’s not as romantic as it sounds.
Prior to your departure, did you speak to others or read others’ accounts of their experiences with the trek? How did those shape your expectations, if at all?
I spoke to some Kiwi friends who climbed it the year before wearing Rhino suits in support of the Save the Rhino Foundation; they didn’t seem to be too worried about my lack of experience or knowledge about the mountain. I think the old ‘she’ll be right’ Kiwi attitude probably sufficed as much as gaining any valuable insight to their experiences – I would be just fine. I did watch a ton of YouTube documentaries, though. I think that was to calm my nerves more than anything else. I told myself: ‘If those people can do it, then I should be able to, too.’ My old boss had said that he came within 200m of reaching the summit before he turned around due to altitude sickness. 200 metres! I respected him greatly, but I knew I had to beat him as well.
What else did you do to prepare, both physically and mentally?
The first thing I did do was buy a decent pair of hiking boots. I tried on 16 pairs – the key is when walking downhill, your toes aren’t supposed to hit the front of the boot. 15 pairs did and 1 didn’t. I also stopped riding my bike and walked everywhere instead so I could wear them in properly. I think I ended up walking about 100 miles in those boots before we left.
My main worry was altitude sickness – it doesn’t discriminate between ultra marathon runners and couch potatoes; it’s just pot luck really. I had read that being a smoker might actually be beneficial as your lungs aren’t used to having oxygen, so when you reach the higher altitudes and oxygen becomes weaker, you should have a greater chance of handling it. I appreciated this hypothesis and regardless of whether it was true or not, I was a big believer in it.
I suppose in hindsight, there’s not much else I could have done differently. People in our Kilimanjaro trekking group had been preparing for over 6 months, doing walks up the mountains in the UK as practice and everything. But my agreeing to this opportunities happened rather quickly, and I got ready in the time that I had.
Describe the ascent. How did you feel gearing up to day one? How did your feelings change as the days went on?
Gearing up to day one, I was excited. We took a bus ride up to a carpark where we hired some last minute gear – super large jackets, waterproof trousers, and hiking poles – then we went a bit further up and sat down for lunch before heading off. It was a lot of nervous anticipation; lots of smiles and laughs and getting to know you chat between members of our group. The kind of chatter and bemused laughter that you share with people when you undertake something you all never thought you would be doing.
The first few days when we were under 3500m or so were great. Physically, the hike wasn’t too demanding; we walked very slowly each day only carrying our day packs and we never walked all day long. It got progressively more challenging, though, as the days went on because the oxygen got thinner as we climbed. The threat of altitude sickness was looming.
Ultimately, you did suffer from altitude sickness. How did that impact your experience?
First, I started suffering from pretty intense headaches. Then came the vomiting and hallucinations. I lost my appetite completely and my stomach was weak. The sickness sucked the life out of me. I begged the guides to take me back down on the night we were trekking to the summit, but they said that the descent was on the other side of the mountain, so they couldn’t. I was very reluctant to keep going but I did, to the credit of the guides and the group. We all made it to the peak together. Funnily enough, the descent was on the same side as the ascent, so I could have gone down, but I’m glad the guides took my ignorance as an excuse to motivate me to get to the top.
Describe that feeling of reaching the peak.
Total and utter relief. Summit night was a long walk; we started at around 10pm, just after a 2 hour snow dump, and were expected to reach the summit by sunrise. I think we arrived a few hours later than intended. It was a slow, long, monstrous walk to the top with lots of false peaks that got our hopes up; we’d climb to what we thought was the top only to see a taller peak in the distance. It was desperate times. We were all trying to stay together, but I remember a few others running once they saw the true peak, just absolutely desperate to get there. There was a range of feeling and celebration at the top – one guy was sucking back on an oxygen tank, his face pale and kind of green from the altitude sickness, while others were sucking back on whiskey and having cigarettes. We took a large group photo in front of the sign and a few others had individual photos taken as well. One of the guys in the group proposed to his girlfriend up the top – he had the ring with him the whole time. It was pretty funny – I don’t think he was feeling too hot and his girlfriend had been vomiting as well, but she said yes! What courage and determination in the face of it. I had my head in my hands and my only regret was not getting a photo with the other Kiwis on the tour. I just couldn’t do it; I couldn’t stand up or move or anything. I remember them calling my name but all I wanted to do was get back down the mountain.
Did you immediately begin to feel better once you started your descent?
We had lunch at a camp that was around 2 hours from the summit. I remember laughing and joking there, which was amazing, seeing as only hours earlier I was miserable. It’s incredible how altitude can affect your mood so much. My appetite had returned and the headaches were a little less painful than before. Unfortunately, that wasn’t our basecamp; we still had to walk to our next camp which was a long, long way away. The porters kept saying “only half an hour more” but I think that was from a lack of English proficiency, and from their desire to not see us breakdown into tears knowing that we wouldn’t reach the next camp until 6pm – 20 hours after we had started the ascent.
When we finally reached basecamp, we had a subdued celebration. Everyone was dead tired; we had been without sleep for 2 days and we still had to walk another 20km to our bus the next day, which would ultimately take us back to our hotel. Once we got there though, we were met with everything we had been dreaming about on the mountain: long, hot showers, clean clothes, some cold beer, and fresh food. We toasted to the recently engaged couple and shared our relief as we all agreed that we successfully completed a major accomplishment.
What was the biggest takeaway from this experience?
That the body can go on far longer after the mind quits. On summit night, as I stared up the black wall of Kilimanjaro and saw the torches of other groups thousands of feet up fading into the starry night sky, all I wanted to do was quit. My mind was consumed with the idea of quitting. But with the help of the guides and the group, I made it to the top along with everyone else (it helped that they loved to sing, too). Because of that, I learned that you can push yourself far past any mental boundaries you may have, and this lesson has served me well on several occasions since where I’ve found myself exhausted mentally or physically and wanting to give up. I just think: ‘It may be hard right now, but nothing is going to be harder than summit night on Kilimanjaro.’
I also learned, unfortunately, that I’m not cut out for high altitude and mountains. I’ve set myself a 3,500m maximum altitude now for future trips, so Machu Picchu and anything in Tibet are out. Maybe with a little more preparation I’d be able to do it, but ultimately big mountain climbing isn’t for me.