A trio of Muscateers set out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. It would prove to be the hardest thing any of them had ever done in their lives.
Mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted, the climbers had to dig deep into their bodies’ reserves to find a last drop of energy to make the final push to the top.
The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Uhuru Peak, some 5,895m above sea level, was in sight and Sarah Cook and Heather Duncan knew the end was in reach if only they could summon up the strength.
Also battling on the mountain, on a different route with a separate climbing party, had been Chris Fisher, programme director and presenter of our sister station, Merge 104.8.
There could be no underestimating the potential dangers that the three were facing. Only 45 per cent of climbers who attempt to conquer the mountain make it to the top. Only two weeks ago, the South African rally driver Gugu Zulu – referred to as “the fastest man in Africa” – died during a charity trek up Kilimanjaro on the same route (Marangu) that Chris Fisher was on after falling ill with flu-like symptoms (a sign of altitude sickness).
Here, in their own words, Sarah, Heather and Chris each tell the story of their personal Kilimanjaro journey.
Personal Trainer and Mother of two
Before we left Muscat, people kept asking me: “Are you ready?” and I said I didn’t think I would be ready until I actually started walking.
There were four in our team: Heather (Duncan); an American woman and a Syrian guy who lived in Dubai, and we only met when we all arrived in Tanzania.
The first day was overcast, drizzling rain, as we walked through a rainforest area. It was only then that it really hit me and it became real at that moment.
It was a long walk and when we got to the camp, I remember thinking to myself: “Can I do this every day?”
We stayed in tents, which the porters would set up each day before we arrived, and Heather and I shared a tent.
We had a good group, we gelled well, and as we walked along in single file we would be playing music, singing and telling jokes, playing word association games; anything to keep up morale.
When you are walking up to nine hours a day, climbing upwards with a backpack weighing up to 11kg, you need to keep your spirits up.
Our guides called us Team Raha, which means “happy’ in Swahili and that word became synonymous with our group.
Our route (Machame) is known as one of the most scenic; from rainforest to desert scrubland.
On Day four we reached the Barranco Wall, which is like a cliff face. You have to scramble up 800m and it’s steep. Here, you have to pass what is known as the “Kissing Stone”, a large rock, which had fallen from above onto the path. To get past, you have to hold on to the rock and keep your face pressed against it as if you are kissing it and slide past. The guides always say “don’t look down”. I wasn’t looking forward to it and just tried to stay positive and focused. When I did it, it was as if a big weight had lifted off me.
We started walking through the most beautiful valley; the peak of the mountain is to your left and the path winds its way between these odd-looking trees, almost like stunted palms, which only grow on Mount Kilimanjaro. It was so perfect that it was almost not real.
When we arrived at base camp before the summit attempt, we saw a Chinese lady being carried and rushed down. She was delirious and screaming. She had heat stroke or something. It was a scary moment.
We left for the summit at midnight after having tea, chocolate and some biscuits. I was nervous but feeling quietly confident. There had been tough times but up until that point, I felt that we had nailed it all.
It was pitch-black and you are wearing a head torch so all you can see is the person in front of you.
I remember looking up and seeing a line of lights going up – the head torches of all the other climbers on the mountain attempting to summit. I had expected there would be a few other climbers but there were about 400 people following the same path.
We would take breaks but you cannot stop for long, only a few minutes, as it’s so cold, -25 degrees Celsius.
After about five-and-a-half hours walking, two thirds of the way through the climb, Heather was not doing so well with the cold. She was in a terrible state. They were going to send her back down. She was shaking uncontrollably and could hardly speak.
The guide said I had to make a decision whether she could carry on but I said it wasn’t up to me. I went to speak to Heather and she said that she would be better when the sun came up. I told the guide to give her one more walk before the next stop.
Before going to Kilimanjaro, Heather and I had spoken about what would happen if one of us succeeded and the other didn’t or what we would do if it got to the point where one of us couldn’t continue. We agreed that the other one would carry on to the summit and succeed for the both of us. But neither of us wanted to be that person.
As we were walking, the sun started to come up and Heather turned a corner. But as we neared the top, I started to go downhill. My energy suddenly dropped and I could hardly walk. It felt like I was walking super slowly and my legs were lifting up really high, as if I was in space. I’ve since seen a video of me and I’m walking normally and at a decent pace but my mind was playing tricks with me. It happens when you’re at altitude. Some people have told me that they hallucinated or had an out-of-body experience.
At one moment I thought: “I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to make it”. I would walk for 30 steps and then stop for eight breaths. When I saw a sign for the last bit to the summit, I got a last burst of energy from somewhere. When we got the summit, Heather and I hugged each other but we didn’t have this huge exhilaration because you are just so exhausted. We took photos and stood looking at the view.
Coming back down was tough. You are sliding down on this loose scree, in a skiing-like motion, and it’s hard on the knees. The sun was coming up, it was getting hot, and we were still dressed in our thick layers for the cold the night before.
The American lady in our group tore a tendon and had to be taken down by stretcher. At this point, I was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted.
The first day back in Muscat was strange. Not having a schedule or routine to stick to was hard. Everything felt empty. We had been planning the climb for so long and speaking about it and training for it and suddenly it was over. We had been successful, and there was a sense of: “What do I do now?”
I am thinking about what to do next. I need that goal to work towards. I think it would be nice to do something next time with my husband but Heather and I will definitely do something, too.
We were close friends before but our friendship is even stronger now. We have shared quite a big, incredible experience together.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was brutal but amazing. You don’t know your own willpower and you don’t know your own strength until you do something like this.
Lifestyle Blogger and Mother of one
Without a doubt, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is the hardest thing that I’ve done and the most amazing thing.
For the first five-and-a-half days it was easier than I had expected. We had a good team dynamic.
Summit night, day six, was brutal; absolutely awful.
We only had about two hours’ sleep and you’re zig-zagging up the mountain in the pitch black. I’ve been told that one of the reasons you do the summit assault in the dark is that you’d be too intimidated if you actually saw how high the climb was and how far you have to go.
You have no sense of time or where you are. It’s quite a surreal feeling.
The cold got me. There was a wind chill of -40 degrees Celsius. My whole body was shaking violently. I had been crying and it was so cold, the tears were freezing on my face. Twice I wanted to give up. I remember sitting on a rock with my head hanging down and one of the guides was trying to speak to me and hold my head up.
I was a hair’s breadth from being sent back down. I told Sarah that I would be better when the sun came up.
Somehow I got to my feet and carried on walking, just one step at a time. As soon as I could see that tiny sliver of sunlight coming up on the horizon, I knew I was going to be OK. I would start to warm up and the strength would come back.
Then Sarah and the Syrian guy, Amr, were not doing so well. It was a big struggle for them. I looked over at them and could see that Amr was a broken man. It was the altitude, cold and exhaustion. I was a bit hyper by then.
As we went higher, the lack of oxygen hit us. The altitude makes your body and mind do weird things. I felt like I was walking in slow motion. Amr and I were literally pushing each other up the mountain. Sarah also seemed to be walking in slow motion. My lips were starting to turn blue.
I kept thinking of the shame if I didn’t make it. When I’d told some people that I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro they’d said: “You won’t be able to do that”, so I knew that I had to keep going.
I dragged every last drop of energy up. The local guide was a star and if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have made it.
We reached the summit on July 8 at 7.50am.
All four of us summited. It’s not as glamorous as you think. We were all filthy dirty, covered in volcanic ash, exhausted both mentally and physically, and hardly able to breathe.
It feels like you are on the moon up there. There are glaciers, there’s no life up there and it’s so quiet.
We had about 15 minutes at the summit and then you have to leave. Your body is starting to become starved of oxygen.
It took us seven hours and 50 minutes to get up from camp and four-and-a-half hours to get back. It was so steep and harsh, my legs and knees were aching. We had one hours’ sleep and then had to start walking again for another four hours. I lost three kilos in a week.
When we made it all the way back down, we had a party, dinner and drinks, with our team and the 15 local guides who had helped us get up the mountain.
Coming back down to earth, physically and emotionally, has been hard. I didn’t feel that I was ready to come back to Muscat. My husband, Colin, and two-and-a-half year old son, Spencer, were waiting for me but I felt completely lost. All the animals were there (two pet dogs and two cats) and I thought: “I can’t do this. I can’t be a mum.” It was a very overwhelming, emotional experience.
I missed the tent, I missed the team and I missed Sarah. It is such an intense experience up there and you form a real bond with the team.
Physically, I still feel tired and out of breath sometimes.
I’ve been going to the gym again and I am already thinking about what to do next. Sarah and I are looking at taking part in a wadi adventure race in October. I enjoy the training and having a goal to work towards.
It’s only really now starting to sink in that I’ve actually done it, I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
I think about one day when Spencer is older and they’re studying Africa at school and talk about Mount Kilimanjaro and he can say: “My mum’s climbed that.” That will be pretty cool.
Programme Director & Presenter Merge 104.8
I was feeling very positive and excited on the plane going over to meet my team in Dar es Salaam (the largest city in Tanzania).
The age range of our group was from 29 to 60 years old with seven nationalities: Danish, German, Pakistani, Indian, Emirati, British and Jordanian.
My trip was with Gulf for Good (a Dubai-based charity), which supports various causes around the world, and we went to see the Larchfield Charity Organisation, an orphanage in Tanzania, for which some of our money raised would go to support.
It was great to see the children and it really gave me the motivation to take on the climb.
Our first day was meeting the guides at a briefing and then starting to walk. We would be climbing at roughly 1,000m altitude daily, walking between six to nine hours a day. Our group of 11 had six guides and porters. I always had a guide close by me.
Day two was my toughest day. There were lots of big climbs and I was the slowest in my group and the last person to reach the hut each day. We stayed in huts rather than tents.
I got into a good routine with my walking and breathing. Every so often I would hit a brick wall. I was exhausted and would need to stop, and then I would carry on a bit more. But I had no altitude sickness at all.
After Day Two, when we got to Horombo hut, with an elevation of 3,705m, I remember thinking that I was finding it challenging. The third day was acclimatisation day, when the group would climb up to 4,000m and then come back down. I stayed at the hut because I was too exhausted and I felt that break recharged me.
The next day was a climb of 1,000m to Kibo hut, at 4,730m. We crossed an area called the “Saddle”, located between the peaks of Mawenzi and Kibo. I just powered ahead and felt really good. But for the last 30 minutes, after seven hours’ walking, I hit a wall.
That night, for the first time, all 11 of us stayed in one room ready for the summit attempt. I laid out all my layers ready for the climb. The adrenalin was flowing and it was hard to sleep. I probably only got two hours’ sleep before someone came in at 11pm with some hot tea. At midnight, we set off.
I was leading from the front to set the pace – it needs to be very slow – and mentally I felt it put pressure on me. We were moving at half steps, the slowest pace that you can imagine, and even that was exhausting.
I was trying not to look up and trying to mentally block out that I had another seven or eight hours of this.
Two hours in and at an altitude of 5,000m (895m shy of the summit), my body gave up. My legs said “no” and I couldn’t go on any more. I probably had six hours left to go and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make it.
Forty-five minutes earlier, two girls from our group had already gone back down; one from altitude sickness and the other from fluid in the lungs.
One of the guides started to take me back down. I was so disappointed. I had tears in my eyes. I felt that I had let everybody down. I felt such a failure. I kept thinking about all those people who had supported me and sponsored me. In my mind, I was working out how I would pay them back.
When we got back to Horombo hut at 3,705m, it was freezing cold. I couldn’t sleep; I was so upset. That walk down was so emotional for me knowing that my journey was over.
I was thinking that I wanted to get off this mountain as soon as possible. I wanted to go back to Oman and wallow in my self-pity.
I got talking to a girl from another group who said it would be a real shame if I didn’t finish with my group at the same time. I realised that it wasn’t about me; I had started with the team and I was going to finish with the team.
I started to think about all the positives and began to enjoy the climb back down. Those 36 hours gave me time to digest what had happened and focus on what I had done, not what I hadn’t done.
Out of 11 from our group, six summited, including a lady from Germany and the 60 year old.
It is the hardest thing that I’ve ever done but I can look back now and see that I probably needed an extra month of preparation and I definitely didn’t drink enough water.
And while I didn’t actually summit, I can say that I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
I’m going to go back one day. I see it as unfinished business. I’m determined to summit.