You raise me up so I can stand on mountains
Seven days, climbing up, and down, Mt Kilimanjaro in Africa: the highest free-standing mountain in the world (5,895 metres, 19,340 feet)…
19 of us in single file, walking up, up, up. On Day 1 we wished we could go faster. By Day 5 we knew why we walked so slowly. One woman, climbing solo with a guide, was stuck behind us, tutting and sighing at our lack of speed. She raced ahead when she saw her chance – only to return 30 minutes later, pretty much unconscious, being held up by two porters dragging her down the mountain. A victim of altitude: a sobering reminder that, on this mountain, it’s slow and steady wins the race; to keep you alive.
Summiting Kili sounds glamorous – and straightforward. Most people make it, unless you succumb to altitude sickness. Simple, right. Isn’t it?
That’s what I thought. I knew it was a feat of endurance after my sister did it a few years ago and shared with me her story of overcoming challenges at all odds. But I didn’t fully appreciate what’s involved. Until I did it, of course. It certainly turned out to be one of the hardest, most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life.
The harsh reality of discomfort, which all our group experienced to a degree, isn’t often discussed:
- You’re up about four times up in the night, to go to the toilet in the great outdoors, because you have to drink so much water to stay hydrated and overcome altitude sickness. The endless sky with a sea of stars keeps you company, blowing your mind with the vastness and brilliance. I am so grateful to have experienced that, high above any clouds.
- Tenting with 18 others in close proximity, hearing each other’s bodily functions, a choir of snoring, little privacy and nothing is spared.
- Uncomfortable ground to sleep on, freezing cold; wet gear meant often wet sleeping bags.
- At times, sick with nausea and headaches. Vomiting all day or all night, or just from time to time. A couple of our group had no vomiting at all, which I think was mostly by luck, not design.
But the pros far outweighed the cons:
- We were invigorated, inspired and supported by Team Alpha; our group of friendly, fun, successful, motivated legends from all over the world, with hearts of gold. Led by our encouraging, inclusive, daring leader, Mike Allsop.
- Playing cards each night, not an iPhone in sight (in fact no coverage for seven days), insightful, meaningful conversations as we walked each day. We all made friends for life.
- Our awesome group, the comraderie and intentional connection, made this a trip of a lifetime for me
- The extraordinary African Porters. They really are legends! What they can do, day after day, is truly exceptional. Carrying our gear, looking after us, dancing, cooking, walking up every day with group after group, wearing the least-likely gear you can imagine and not even being cold or disadvantaged was awe inspiring.
- Every morning the Porters woke us up with The Jambo Song. I’ll never forget it. It moved us so much: their joy and gratitude for the life they have, when we think we need so much and we’re too often miserable. That was a great life lesson! Of course, I had to give, and not just receive, so we returned their gift of song. I led our team with a poignant, if breathless, rendition of How Great Thou Art and we gave our all in a choreographed version of I Love You Baby, which at that altitude would have made The Jersey Boys proud.
After getting up at midnight, walking in the dark for eight hours, getting to Stella Point, 45 minutes from the Summit. I needed sugar as my blood sugar level plummeted. Calling out for help to my porter, he rummaged for a protein bar in my bag, to save my life. I knew this feeling before, from collapsing at the London Triathalon about 10 years ago when I pushed myself too hard, too fast, in extreme heat. I knew this time I had to stop; eat, drink. In that moment, my usually competitive self knew that racing to the top to be first was really dumb; staying alive for my family was the most important thing in the world.
At the Summit, we were blessed with clear skies and no snow. 100% of our 19-strong group made it to the top. That’s sensational! And quite rare. One of the guys brought a rugby ball, carried carefully all the way up, so we could do the world’s highest line-out at the top. So we did. There may not be photographic proof for the Guinness Book of World Records but there were 22 witnesses! Somehow we ended up doing a rolling maul afterwards, which was insanity in those conditions at that height. How one of us, or all of us, avoided having a heart attack is a mystery, but a miracle.
The way down is challenging too. It can still make or break you, it’s not just getting to the top that’s hard! 11 hours of walking up then down, in one day is no mean feat. A few struggled, and got by with a little help from their friends.
At Mweka camp, we farewelled our Porter mates, grateful and emotional for their lifesaving support. In their graceful, glorious way they sang their daily song to us, for the final time. Deeply touched and passionate, we sang back to them what, to me, was the theme of the trip – the thought of our loved ones keeping us going in the darkest hours:
‘You raise me up so I can stand on that mountain…
you raise me up to walk on stormy seas,
I am strong when I am on your shoulders,
You raise me up, to more than I can be.’
I think there are so many people in our lives that we’ve got to thank, who raise us up to greatness – and those porters were living, breathing beacons and a testament to that. To have them singing to us every morning and on the Summit night definitely raised us up. When words are not enough, music takes over, and that’s what unites and connects us all on a deeper level.
One of the guys on the trip was looking for his ‘Why?’ and his wife said, ‘Don’t come back without finding it!’ At the conclusion of our adventure, we knew the ‘why’ we were looking for. It’s not a word, or a destination, it’s a feeling.
Life is a daring adventure or nothing…