Royal Patron: HRH The Duchess of Edinburgh GCVO
Hikes for Bikes – Climbing Kilimanjaro for OSCAR

At the end of July last year, seven underprepared and overexcited would-be mountaineers set off on a challenge to reach the summit of the highest mountain in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro. At 5895m (19,341ft) Uhuru Peak has high winds, rain, snow, temperatures averaging -7°C and less than half of the oxygen available at sea level. Over 70% of climbers experience acute altitude sickness and more than a third fail to make it to the summit. Undaunted by the conditions we would face, we set off for Tanzania.

Our trek was set to take 6 days, averaging 10 kilometres a day. This would give us a brief taste of the distance that children in rural regions of India walk every day to get to the nearest school. While we’d be in the latest weather-proof hiking boots, these daily treks are often undertaken with old, ill-fitting or entirely absent footwear and in conditions ranging from dry heat to freezing cold, all year round. The OSCAR Foundation has worked tirelessly to bridge the gap that systemic inequalities have opened in front of underprivileged children in India, providing them with education and opportunities that have and continue to change lives in amazing ways across these communities. With their support and infrastructure and donations from our fundraiser, we provided 50 bicycles to these rural communities. The bikes, aside from offering two kids a quicker and safer ride to and from vital education they provide a life-changing freedom of movement. This goal was our motivator, giving us the drive to reach the summit.

Our first glimpse of the mountain, viewed from the plane really drove home the scale of the mountain. It is massive. A vast, dark island adrift in a sea of clouds. The peak seemed to cleave the sky itself and towered higher and higher as the plane made its final approach, before fading eerily away as we passed through the thick mantle of cloud, leaving only an ominous shadow across the clouds above.

First sighting on final approach…

The team assembled steadily at our home base in Moshi. Greeted by the wonderful Altezza team, we were plied with snacks and juices and shown to welcome showers before the adventure started. After a quick introductory briefing our gear was checked to ensure we had properly prepared. The following hour consisted of excuses and naïve justifications and listening sheepishly as we were told that no, ‘you cannot just wear all your clothes at once on summit night’, and ‘no, your £20 plastic sunglasses will not prevent your retinas from melting under the glare of sun and snow, regardless of how cool you’ll look’. Any gaps in our kit were filled and we re-packed and tried to sleep through the excitement and jet-lag.

The vital gear check

The next morning we ate a huge breakfast before hopping in the Altezza van, headed for our starting point. The drive quickly turned into an impromptu safari as we passed through herds of zebra, giraffe, gazelles and baboons. At around 3500m, the air at the drop off point was already thin enough to make us foreigners breathless, but lung capacity was no issue for our guides, who swung huge bags onto their heads and sang as they marched into the distance. We followed slowly and began our first forays into Swahili and the many songs of the mountain, while the dry, dusty landscape began its first forays into every crack, crevice, wrinkle and nostril it could find. Arriving at Shira 1 and after a large dinner and some card games, we had our first (increasingly competitive) health check. Who has the highest blood oxygen level? Who has the lowest heart rate? Who is feeling best, out of ten? A flurry of ‘diamox breaks’ (it makes you pee more!), we wriggled into our cocoon-like sleeping bags.

First night at Shira 1.
Morning view!

Morning 1 on the mountain and the first casualty of altitude sickness had appeared….me. After a very rough and nauseous night, I struggled to get any food down at breakfast. We kitted up and set off, all buckles, braces and rosy cheek. The heat and dust steadily rose and before long my breakfast followed. Some pep talks from our huge, smiley teddy bear guide Justin and rehydration from the ever-cool Dr Diamox (Victor) soon had us on the road again and we continued plodding on through the wide, flat plateau. Shortly, we found ourselves rounding a large rocky outcrop to the unexpected and rather incongruous sight of Joseph offering ginger tea and ‘EET-SUM-MOR’ biscuits neatly arranged on a maasai shuka covered trestle table. How civilised! We continued winding our way southeast around the side of the mountain that sat impassively across the eastern horizon, an inscrutable, immovable bulk that stubbornly refused to grow any larger. During this trek our continual pauses to remove, re-apply, and then remove again our myriad layers earned us the moniker of…. Team Faff. Finally (much faff later) we arrived at Shira 2, where the sick and infirm enjoyed a nap and a view of Mt Meru across the cloudy sea, while the rest of the gang embarked on their first ‘acclimatisation hike’ up the mountain. After dinner and a slew of dust and altitude inspired nosebleeds, we stripped off crusty outer layers and returned to our nests for the night.

The view of Mount Meru, from Shira 2.

Day 2, and we began our winding hike up to Lava Tower. At almost 100m tall, the huge block of dark volcanic rock sits at 4650m, about 700m above our camp and giving us an early taste of the breathlessness we would experience later in the hike. Our trek took us across a truly lunar landscape, a scree slope of dusty plains strewn with boulders and large rocky outcrops running down from the mountain to our East. Shortly after our departure, we were overtaken by the daily stream of porters skipping lightly up the mountain, weighed down not one bit by the giant bags, complete with protruding pot handle, chair legs and kitchen sink, resting on their heads. Our puffy red faces amused them, almost as much as our breathless cheers and attempts at Swahili. Still unable to eat much, my own energy levels had failed to return so, when a few hours later we made it up to the tower, I promptly fell asleep. Obviously feeling very at home, I later awoke to eat some chips and then fell asleep again. I’m told I even had sunblock applied. Fortunately for the lazy adventurers of the world, acclimatisation does not require consciousness, so the break to help thicken the blood benefitted all and before long we set off southeast and downhill. The rest of the day’s hikes largely consisted of a descent into increasingly misty, heathery valleys, providing both a welcome break from the dust and our first encounters with the alien giant groundsels. Arrival at the mist-shrouded Barranco camp found Joseph awaiting, rag in hand and ready to provide a good beating to clean off our dust-caked outer layers. Here we rested, though a parting of the clouds gave the gang a brief and daunting view of the morning’s ascent route; the sheer, rocky Barranco Wall, spotlit in the hard shadows of an orange sunset. As we wound up for the night the evening clouds dissipated and we climbed into our tents beneath a spectacular starry sky.

Up, up, up to Lava Tower!
A giant groundsel in its wooly coat.

Day 3 began with the morning ritual of buckling, zipping and tying ourselves into protective cocoons of branded clothing, before convening in the main tent to receive breakfast and health checks. Our blood oxygen levels had begun recovering from their initial shocks and driven by the ‘climb high, sleep low’ mountain philosophy and our own bravery, impressive physical fitness and undaunted mental fortitude (and not by an increasing array of discovered tricks, which did not include heating hands on hot water bottles, heavy panting, re-takes on different fingers and general competitiveness), were climbing steadily back towards the high 90’s. One of our gang had unfortunately begun to feel the strain of the altitude, aided not at all by the Barranco wall that looms forebodingly over the camp. But she soldiered on, braving the increasing line of climbers winding their way up to the start of the morning’s ascent. Three hours of frequently four limbed scrambling, hugging (and even kissing) rocks followed, all the while being passed by a steady stream of porters, luggage on heads and smiles on faces, hopping casually up demonstrably less safe and well-defined routes that wound about the ‘tourist’ path. For the second time that day, curiously enough, we found ourselves licking walls, coming across a large hollow that (we were told, and perhaps naively instantly believed) leaked baking powder. Clearly this had to be investigated, and much to the amusement of our guides and bemusement of any passing hikers, we dutifully set to the scientific examination. Tasted like rocks, unsurprisingly enough. Results concluded (and HACE possibly setting in), we continued on our voyage and climb to Karanga camp, where we were fed, watered, and patted down ready for the afternoon acclimatisation hike. Our brave and fearless team member was suffering increasing fatigue and breathlessness, which resulted in oxygen tanks being provided to help breathing difficulties.

Climbing the Barranco Wall!
The view from behind Karanga…
…and the view from the front!

Day 4 broke over a stunning view of clouds stretching out over Tanzania, parted neatly by a huge shadow from behind that carved the morning light; a bright V stretching far over the horizon. The summit towered high above and seemed more inaccessible and distant than ever. The big day had arrived. We would make our way up to Barafu camp this morning, rest until evening, then up again at 11pm to begin the summit push. We broke camp and split into two teams, giving those in need a chance to go at a steadier, unbroken pace. The gentle stream joined a rippling river of colourful climbers that snaked its way up the long steady slope, steam rising from panting breath and beating sun on drying ground. Stopping for our daily tea and biscuits, our valiant team member made the tough decision to part with the group. Oxygen provision had provided no relief from pervading breathless exhaustion and the prospect of the lush dense air that awaited below the clouds was tempting. Many tears and hugs were shared in the farewell. The debilitating sickness had dogged for days and the prospect of a few hours’ sleep before spending the better part of the next 24 hours on foot in arctic conditions, she decided it was time to go home. We parted ways at this high point, and she began an epic voyage from peak to the hotel. For the rest of us, the summit awaited. We reached Barafu camp, 4640m high, for dinner and some rest before setting off on the final push.

Heading for Barafu!
Why is it always uphill?

11pm on Day 4, and we began the now ritual metamorphosis, evolving slowly from large, limbless yellow cocoons to colourful gore-tex butterflies. An ill-placed hole in our tent zip had unfortunately left my partner Sophie exposed to rapidly dropping temperatures and she was frozen to the bone before we even left the tent. After a bleary-eyed last-minute tea, biscuits and health check in the main tent, we donned head torches and became the tail of the glow-worm that wound back and forth, seemingly vertically upward, into the gloom. The sky was flooded with stars, wind picking up and temperature dropping. The cold cut through like a lance and ragged breath vanished in the wind. Every step was herculean, lifting boots with a sudden vast and inexplicable weight against overwhelming breathless exhaustion. Hydration pack hoses quickly froze and water bottles began to crystalise so that every gulp needed crunching and flooded your body with a cold thrill. The oppressive conditions shrank existence down to the small circle of light in front of your eyes and the steady crunching of boots on snow. But through the howling wind and all-encompassing exertion, voices sang aloud. They sang of flowers on the mountain, of walking slowly, of Kilimanjaro and of no worries. Never breaking song, they ceaselessly martialled the line, providing comfort, relief and support wherever it was needed. The energy and enthusiasm of their songs and labours drove us on, but hour after hour ticked slowly by. Each time we reached a crest, a glance up would reveal the same snaking line of lights into the distance, and the frequency of climbers returning in tears and under the support of their guides began to rise. By this point the blasting wind and cold had frozen Sophie so deeply that even under 11 layers she was still fighting to stay warm. My own energy levels, still not fully recovered, had dropped out and I began to miss steps. Then, seven hours into our climb, the night broke. Dawn arrived at last. The world was flooded from horizon to horizon with light, the sun chasing away the icy blackness of the night and climbing alongside us, guiding our feet and thawing our bones. Another hour passed, and we finally arrived at Stellar Point.

Dawn breaks and bones thaw.
Not sure we even knew where we were by this point!

The summit of Kilimanjaro is a large, uneven crater. Stellar point provides an access onto the edge of this crater, but the highest point, Uhuru Peak, is an hour of skirting around and steadily ascending the crater lip. To describe this place as lunar would be underselling the bizarreness. The dry, loose and yet frozen ground, the frozen lake below and the odd, isolated walls of glacial ice are unlike anything I have seen. Like astronauts we plodded slowly through this otherworldly environment, step by heavy step, following the line of the crater. Our guides never ceased their singing and encouragement. Later we discovered the meaning of these songs, as poetic in English as they sounded in Swahili: ‘Who is she? She’s Sophie. Who is she? She’s Sophie. Where is she going? She’s going over there….’. Finally, as we neared Uhuru Peak, our two groups combined, and the voices rose and the singing broke into dancing and hugging in a moment of love, relief and joy that I shall never forget. We had made it. We stood on top of Africa, on top of the eastern hemisphere, we were on top of the world.

Final approach of the Michelin man!
Dance party on the roof of Africa!
Team Faff triumphant on Uhuru Peak!

We remained at Uhuru peak for around an hour, taking photos, crying and laughing with each other. It remains a bit of an exhausted blur. It was now approaching 9am and with many hours of hiking still ahead, it was time to turn home. The sun had risen during our exultations and turned the hard frozen ground into loose silt. Shedding layers like reptiles under the sun’s glare, our descent turned into a high-speed scree run, kicking up a huge plume of dust in our wake, that lasted for several hours. Arriving back at Barafu, we rested for a few hours before setting off on the final leg of the long day. Five hours descent, down into the clouds to Millennium camp, brought us to the final camp of the trek. We had spent more than 20 hours on foot in the last 36, about 10 of which had been overnight and in the most extreme conditions any of us had ever faced, and we slept with purpose.

Finding vegetation again at Millenium Camp.
Finding vegetation again at Millenium Camp.
Down the endless stairs…

Day 6 broke to a final view of clouds below and the return of vegetation. Following in our fallen soldier’s footsteps, we set off on the final trek through the deep cloud forest. Dodging huge roots and winding down the endless stairs, accompanied by monkeys high in the canopy and an endless pattering of dew and rain, we discussed the prospect of a (non-wet wipe) shower and bed with avaricious detail and delight. At long last the mud-packed route broke through a bank of trees and joined a wide road that lead further down and down until, sometime around 3pm, we found ourselves stood beneath the signpost for the park exit, Mweka Gate. We stripped off well-worn boots for a hose down (the boots, not us, though we were all equally in need by now) and sat for a final lunch with our guides, where we shared stories and laughs at the highs and lows of the week past. Hopping in the Altezza bus, we were whisked back to Moshi, where we joined our now squeaky clean, fully recovered and smiling teammate and re-connected to wi-fi and the world at large to share stories and photos and Strava activities. We met in the courtyard with our team and were treated to a medal and certificate ceremony, though by this point none of us were under any illusions as to who the real heroes of the story were. Unfailingly upbeat, energetic and kind, our guides and porters had made this trip for us. Their singing, support and friendship had driven us all the way to the summit and got us home. This was only one of the many trips they would do that summer (some were even headed back up the mountain that very day) but it had been an experience of a lifetime for us and we could not be more grateful to them. Many hugs and laughs were shared at our parting and again later that evening as (after some much needed and exceedingly long showers) we travellers met for the final dinner. The whole group together once more, we shared stories, experiences, favourite moments, and best comments of our trip. Journals were updated with final thoughts and, one by one and with emotional partings, we retired to never-more-welcome beds, ready for early flights in the morning.

Smelly, dirty, tired, smelly and happy, Team Faff returns to base.

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Flying the flag for OSCAR.
The bikes arrive in India!
A lot of them…
New wheels…
Test ride!
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