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Kilimanjaro

My pursuit of better: Climbing Kilimanjaro

Marlin’s mission is the Pursuit of Better. This means we work with and want to continue working with brands and people who build and adopt innovative technologies in order to bring about a greater good: to make life easier, have a social mission or simply make fun happen. But the Pursuit of Better is about so much more than who we work with; it’s who we are as people, striving to achieve our best both in and outside of work.

One of the ways this is brought to life is through one of our ‘perks’: every year we are given a day extra of holiday and a £200 stipend to pursue our individual better (if you want to find out more about our culture please click here). For me, this meant flying to Tanzania and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and I can honestly say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

In February me, my husband, one of my best friends and her husband started on our nine day trek to ascend and descend the highest mountain in Africa. Standing at 5,895m above sea level it was intimidating, but having done similar hikes around the globe previously (the Inca Trail in Peru and Table Mountain in South Africa) I was excited for my next adventure. Jules, my lovely colleague, had climbed ‘Kili’ and her advice was invaluable and encouraging, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to come!

What is pretty extraordinary about the trek is that there about five markedly different terrains on the trail: savanna bushland, sub-montane agro-forst, montane forest, sub-alpine moorland including alpine bogs and alpine desert. The first five days were easy and fun, we usually ascended by about 400-600m per day and averaged at about 4-6 hours walking. The food we had was incredible and we were treated very well. There were 23 staff to the four of us! This shocked us, but we really valued it as it meant the staff weren’t carrying too much (I say this but honestly the pace and strength of these guys is simply phenomenal)

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Us and our porters sharing some Scottish whisky at the end

Among these 23 we had two guides, a lead (Goodluck) and an assistant (Alex). We literally trusted them with our lives and they were such a unique duo.

When we selected the route we chose we wanted to give ourselves time to acclimatise (lack of time to acclimatise is the main reason people fail to make it to the top) and so we chose the Lemosho route via the Western Breach. This isn’t a common route taken, we later learnt is really quite risky and usually only tackled by professional mountain climbers!

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When we set off I saw a steep set of steps of about 10 metres and I pretty much ran up them. Goodluck laughed and was like “that won’t last long” and boy was he right! Walking at even that ‘beginning of the mountain’ altitude was hard (7,752ft above sea level), and I quickly learnt that what I can easily do on British soil is not the case on the mountain. We walked through beautiful humid rainforest, watching long haired black and white monkeys eating and swinging through the trees and stopping to smell exotic flowers. The first camp (Forest Camp 9222ft) was really busy with tents back-to-back with one another and we were silently a little worried that this would continue. We quickly learnt sleeping was easy as we were always knackered.

Day two was fun, more rainforest and crossing babbling brooks for most of the morning then into drier, wilder country. It was hot and there were some steep climbs. Abbi (my friend) and I became firm ‘wee buddies’ and saw chameleon when we were in ‘the ladies’ (a friendly bush) which was remarkable - neither of the guides had ever seen one. This camp (Shira Camp 11,520ft) was quieter, and it became quieter still with every night proceeding.

Day three was arid and filled with cacti. We were walking flat a lot of the morning, which meant we were all singing lots (Daniel Beddingfield if I remember correctly?!). We had an amazing view of the mountain much of the way and it felt pretty odd to think we’re actually aiming for the top of that when it looked so huge and so far away. We had passed a few times another small group and a lady had been struggling with altitude sickness from the first day. It felt very real that we may not even make it, it’s so out of control as to whether you’ll be affected and there’s no way to know. We later learnt this couple had to return down the mountain that day and we heard stories from our guides about deaths they’d dealt with on the mountain due to people being struck down quickly. Sleeping that night (Moir Camp 13,700ft) was harder.

Day four was probably the most fun, we awoke to an amazing sun rise and as a group we were jovial and full of energy. Rich (Abbi’s husband) tripped up and we all laughed at him so hard.

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The views of the mountain were stunning and the terrain was volcanic. Clear skies and cold - the weather felt similar to skiing. As we ascended the last 150metres to Lava Tower (14,235ft) I started to feel my first bit of altitude sickness. I was dizzy and felt nauseous. I luckily slept it off with an afternoon nap whilst there was a huge hail storm. They were the size of pound coins! We had a lot of down time at this camp and it was our favourite place we stayed. We had it all to ourselves and the views were incredible, looking down on the city below us.

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Day five was slow and steady with very rocky terrain. We stopped frequently to admire the metre long icicles forming near the streams, snapping them off and pretending we were ice queens. We arrived at Arrow Glacier camp (15,978ft) early in the day and again were the only ones there. There was a sign which dictated the beginning of the Western Breach, it stated no one can start this route past 5am. We learnt this is because as the snow begins to melt later in the day rocks at the top of the mountain start to fall and this can be extremely dangerous.Things started to feel more real and a bit scary.

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Camping amongst the clouds: Arrow glacier

Day six begun at 3am. It was minus nine degrees. As opposed to our usual 400-600m ascent, we were doing a climb of over 1,900m today. We had breakfast, were given helmets, and started climbing at 4am in the dark. About an hour into the climb I couldn’t keep up. Our usual ridiculously slow pace was sped up slightly. My chest was tight and I started hyperventilating. I stopped for a moment and Goodluck told me “I know you’re finding it hard right now but we cannot stop, we need to cut through this bit quickly, we’re in what is called ‘the death zone’, the rockfall corridor”. Encouraging words, for sure. We continued and Alex took my bag. All of our water froze up in our camelbaks and we had one litre of water for our six hour trek between six of us. We were literally rock climbing (pulling our bodies up by our hands) on a sheer rock face without ropes in the dark. My hands were freezing despite wearing two pairs of gloves. We rested for a few minutes infront of this fearfully intimidating sign...and we thought we’d gone through the tough bit!

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The fear is real

The next few hours were horrifically monotonous. It was so cold, it was so dark, there was limited water and I was finding it increasingly hard to breathe. And then the sun rose. WHAT A VIEW. For a small segment in time, life was good. And then we continued.

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This does not do the view justice!

I looked up and saw the top of the section of the mountain we were climbing. It was unbelievably steep and so far away, a sheer gradient and a distance of about 200 metres. I remember thinking “there’s no way we’re going to the top of that, we must be veering off to the right or something”. Oh how wrong I was. We continued to ascend. It was simply one foot in front of the other. I was getting slower and my chest was getting tighter, whenever I took a deep breath in I started coughing. Looking back I can hardly remember a few hours of time here - I think my mind is protecting me from how hard it all was, I was simply focusing on keeping on keeping on. We were told by the guides that even if you are dying the only way is up the mountain as it’s too steep to go down from here, which in some weird way I think kept me ascending.

After what felt like a lifetime we made it to a rest point. This was in the sun. OH MY GOD THE SWEET SWEET WARMTH OF THE SUN. We had a picnic (force fed chocolate and peppermint tea with sugar in it) and our porters - who raced past us during our climb - all sung for us. We were in heaven. Goodluck checked my nails and warmed by hands, he was worried about me. Your nails go white when you start to have significant altitude sickness and the fact I was coughing when I took a deep breath meant I was starting to get water on my lungs - a very serious condition.

We climbed another hour and arrived on the moon (Crater Camp, 18,500ft). Honestly no other words can describe it. There was a colossal glacier just jutting out of nowhere on this flat scree wasteland.

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Kenny and Alex on Furtwangler Glacier

I staggered towards the camp and we tried for the life of us to eat lunch (with altitude sickness comes a significant lack of appetite). Abbi and I were very unwell, after lunch we slept on the floor of the kitchen tent. I woke and asked Kenny (my husband) to walk me to the toilet, I couldn’t walk unaided, I was so dizzy and couldn’t walk straight.

The original plan was to camp that night at Crater Camp but because of our poor health this was revised - we were to ascend the extra 1 hour/200m steep climb in the snow, to reach the peak that day. Abbi and I were astounded that we were able to continue and the psychology of this was incredible here. It was trust and teamwork at its best. Goodluck simply told us we were ascending: he didn’t ask if we felt capable, he just informed us. Due to his experience and knowledge of altitude sickness (and undoubtedly our exhaustion), we simply followed.

AND WE ONLY RUDDY MADE IT!!!

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Abbi and I on top

So what have I learnt from all of this?

  • It is simply great to have a full on digital detox. I properly switched off in a way I haven’t for years and focused on one goal alone
  • Yes, it’s twee but: “I can achieve anything if I set my mind to it”
  • Trust, teamwork and expertise is everything. It’s empowered me to develop my expertise and to help others find and develop theirs
  • Through adversity you cement relationships. As teams we need to share our struggles, lean on one another and get through it all to reach our collective goal. We stumble, the precipice can seem unachievable but to reach the top together is sheer elation

If you’re interested in joining Marlin, we’d love to hear from you.

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Date Published

May 31, 2018

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