Pre-Kilimanjaro: the beginning of my journey…
This journey for me started in February 2012 when Jenny Croaker mentioned that she was climbing Kilimanjaro for Guide Dogs NSW/ACT. For some time I had been looking for a way to give back to this amazing charity so this was it!
I have been a client of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT since my mid teens, some 20 years. I’ve been blind from infancy, having both eyes removed due to bilateral retinoblastoma (cancer of the retina of the eye in both eyes). Guide Dogs staff members started teaching me cane skills as a teenager and were there for me in all my transitions from school to university and college life, further studies and work. They taught me how to reach locations safely and independently as well as technical training in GPS and other equipment to help me navigate through the environment. They also provided my two most precious gifts in my guide dogs Wendy and Meg.
So it was as simple as that. Within the day of hearing about this crazy challenge, I had signed up. I had no idea at that point if anyone who was blind had ever tackled this mountain, but I figured that if it was for Guide Dogs then it must have been presumed that clients would want to take part, and therefore it must be possible. Absolutely crazy and completely illogical thinking on my part, but thankfully it was true! I did not even know where Kilimanjaro was and my first challenge was learning how to spell the mountain’s name!
Kilimanjaro for fitness and weight loss: a personal goal for transformation…
I wanted a physical challenge because I knew I had reached my lowest level of physical fitness ever in my life, and my highest weight. Certainly not points to be proud of and I knew I needed something like this to get me motivated and fit again. I also knew I had a long journey ahead.
Training was challenging, especially in the beginning. I felt like I wasn’t getting any fitter! I seemed to bounce from injury to injury requiring time out of training, and I felt like I’d be back where I started from. Slowly my fitness grew. I mainly focused on cardiovascular fitness to begin with, using exercise machines like cross trainer, bike, step machine and treadmill. Training became more fun once Jen started her regime and we trained together. I was much less fit than she was and hence had to start training much earlier.
We tackled some challenging walks through national park areas to get used to trekking on uneven surfaces. One trek was quite difficult and it took much longer than anticipated due to my slowness in navigation. It certainly made me realize just what a significant challenge was ahead for me. I also learned through this trek that the descent was slower than the ascent!
We also incorporated some strength training into our plan. We had the support of a local business, CrossFit Armidale who gave us free access to their classes as often as we wished, or were able, to attend. It added variety to our training and improved our core and limb strength. We felt strength was important for carrying our day packs and general ability to navigate over the rocks and uneven surfaces. Descent also required significant strength in our legs due to flexed knee position and speed control.
Staying motivated and focused on training… and fundraising!
In order to stay motivated to train, I found variety was helpful. Also having someone to train with made it far far easier. I could train for much longer while Jen and I were nattering away about all kinds of things. Also, the fear of not being fit enough was a good motivator, as was constantly reminding myself of why I was doing this challenge.
The other obvious and significant component to pre-event was fundraising. Fortunately for me, Jenny and I decided to work together on this. We increased our target significantly, and aimed to raise $30,000 between us. We were amazed at the generosity of many in our local community. Fundraising in a smaller rural area meant we were well known among the community for what we were trying to achieve. It also meant that we had to do many smaller events to achieve our target rather than receiving larger amounts for a few big events.
Almost every weekend we were doing something – market stalls, movie events, trivia night, and even barbecue! Shopping centre stalls were very popular, particularly when we had amazing support from local breeders who brought along their young Labrador or golden retriever pups to grab attention. The cute factor certainly worked and it also gave a tangible representation of what we were trying to achieve – the purchase of pups to assist Guide Dogs NSW/ACT establish their own breeding programme. We undertook an online auction which was also very successful, thanks to the promotion of this through media and Jenny’s efforts on Facebook.
We experienced disappointment at times, which were opportunities to learn a lot about fundraising in smaller communities. Much effort went into many applications for sponsorship and support. We received some amazing support from local and family businesses who did what they could. Armidale World Of Hire gave us a donation of $1000 to Guide Dogs, as did Armidale Country Women’s Association (CWA). BJN Graphic Design gave me $500 towards gear costs for the trek, which was very much appreciated. Adventure 195 supported us throughout the year with great advice and discounts on any gear we purchased from them, very valuable since I had no idea about trekking and the variety of gear we would need.
Charities helping charities…
When fundraising for a charity, it is amazing to receive support from other charities. Apart from CWA, some of our local Lions and Rotary Clubs also made donations. We even had promotion of our event through Labradog Rescue and Rehoming, Golden Retriever Rescue and Labrador Rescue. Labradog Rescue raised $250 for us through hosting a donation tin on their table at one of their major fundraising stalls in Sydney. Very generous given the function of their presence was to fundraise for their own charity.
Despite disappointments we hit our target… together.
One of our major disappointments was having to cancel our Christmas in July ball due to low ticket sales. This reinforced to us the need to undertake many smaller activities where attendant numbers could be lower and still make some profit for Guide Dogs NSW/ACT.
When we achieved our target we were both very excited and amazed to have done so. I was fortunate to have been able to work with Jenny on this project. She is an incredibly creative, talented, passionate and skilled person who was able to create many of the flyers, posters, displays and Facebook posts that I had no idea how to undertake. Visual aspects I find particularly challenging, and these visual presentations are so important in terms of obtaining exposure and attention. I will always be very grateful to Jen and the huge amount of time, effort and energy she put into this challenge for us.
The Mighty Kilimanjaro
On 25 November 2012, I flew out of Armidale bound for Tanzania, Africa, for a life changing trip. Here’s a photo of us at Sydney Airport waiting to board our international flight:
I felt uncertain and apprehensive as I left; wondering if I was capable of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. Many said it was incredibly hard, but definitely worth the challenge. I couldn’t imagine how it could be rewarding, given some estimates I’d read said that a third and up to a half of people who attempt Kilimanjaro do not succeed. However I was with a great team (see above image) and this included a very skilled emergency physician, Dr. Steve, who was ready to intervene if any of us showed any signs of altitude sickness. We were taking a route that was longer but allowed us to acclimatise and we also had a very experienced team of Tanzanian guides and porters to support us. Even still, I knew it would be difficult, and probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.
“Team Doggies” is born…
We were a team of 10 Australians and we called ourselves “Team Doggies” because we had raised funds for Guide Dogs NSW/ACT. We had 6 Tanzanian guides, with an extra 3 for summit night. We also had a team of 39 porters and cooks so we were incredibly well supported and we were in great hands.
There were two of us in the trek team who were totally blind. Myself, and a Melbournian Henry Macphillamy. We each had a very experienced guide to help us the whole way. The team also rallied around us as much as they possibly could; certainly not easy given they were facing the tremendous challenge and newness of the experience for themselves.
The trek took 5 days and 1 night to reach the summit, and 2 days to return down the mountain via a different route.
An adventure full of ‘firsts’…
Climbing Kilimanjaro brought a number of “firsts” for me. It was my first encounter with long flights – a sum total of approximately 20 hours flying time each way! Also, camping was a real eye opener. The first night I wondered whether it would be camping that would bring me undone. By day 2 the shock had warn off and I started to get into the groove of camping.
On top of camping and long flights, there were cultural differences; hygiene issues given we would not be showering; limited hand washing (we made great friends with hand sanitizer); and we were used to very different methods of toileting. Our supporting team spoke Swahili, although most of them were very skilled speakers of English as well. Then there were the obvious physical and psychological challenges to contend with, so I could safely say it was challenging on all levels and very different to what I was used to on a day to day basis.
Then there was the mountain, and the altitude. We had to walk very slowly. “Pole pole” we would constantly here from our guides–Swahili for slowly slowly.
I was very fortunate regarding altitude sickness. I couldn’t seem to sleep more than 3 or 5 hours a night. I’m not sure if this was the altitude or whether it was due to not having any light perception so my body clock may not have reset properly. I’d fall asleep but then lay awake for hours afterwards. I experienced some nausea, loss of appetite, some headaches and some dizziness. I couldn’t think clearly and my usual problem solving skills seemed to be completely absent! But talk about emotional–I don’t think I’ve ever been so teary before. I was relieved to discover it was a normal part of altitude, but I also think for me it was testing me on all levels and many times I found I struggled with the challenge. I find it particularly difficult to ask for help and during this challenge I constantly needed assistance. Being in a different camp each night meant I never really learned my way around, so I couldn’t even go to the toilet without help to find it! And speaking of camps, I am phobic of rodents and at one camp there seemed to be a plague of them. Of course, it had to be the only camp on the whole trip at which we spent two nights!
The ascent and the thin air…
As we ascended I found I became increasingly breathless. Small tasks such as climbing out of the tent, standing up quickly, walking slower than I’ve ever walked in my life–and I’d still be breathless. On summit night I was literally counting steps at one point. I’d say in fifty double steps I can have a rest, and then it became 50 single steps, then in 30 steps, 20 steps, and 5 steps! I’d often say to my guide, Elias, “small rest”. Of course we couldn’t rest for long due to the cold, and a few seconds rest didn’t result in any significant decrease in my rapid breathing. “Breathe deeply” Elias would say, but I just couldn’t seem to get my breathing under any real control. It was as though I was running, and yet I was walking as slowly as possible! Often when Elias had to navigate me over particularly tricky ground, he would say “wait” as he stood and looked for the best path to take. My response on these occasions was to say “happy to wait, small rest”. We would laugh. I was happy to take any rest that was on offer, no matter how brief!
I’ve often been asked if there was a point at which I felt like quitting. I can’t say that there really was. There were definite points at which I wondered and worried that I’d not be able to make it, that I wouldn’t be strong enough emotionally or determined enough. There were certainly times when I wished and hoped we were closer to the summit than we were!
My guide, Elias, was incredible. I’m sure that guiding Henry and I wasn’t a task that just anyone could do, so we were so fortunate to have guides with such a lot of experience. Elias had climbed the mountain hundreds of times, all routes. He had never guided or summited anyone who was blind before. The first day I think he spent much of it observing and learning. He listened to the words members of the team were using around him to tell Henry and me what was in front. Gradually he started using these same words. He held on to me just above the elbow on the left side almost all the way. At times he’d have to walk behind or on my other side due to the terrain. However, he’d often walk very close to an edge with a significant drop off, walk over far tougher rocks, or where there was no trail, just to be able to continue to stabilize me and direct me as required. To have someone walk beside you and take such a difficult route to enable you to walk an easier path is incredibly humbling–and my gratitude for his assistance I have to say lead to the majority of my tears.
Elias (see image above) and Peter (Henry’s guide) worked incredibly hard for us to ensure we achieved the summit. They had to constantly tell us where to place our feet and what was in front:
“big step up”
“small step left”
“big step down to the right”
Often when we were most tired, I’d do the opposite to what Elias had said; and sometimes he’d say the opposite to what he meant. At these times we would just stop, say “sorry”, and laugh. Then keep going. I joked with Elias on the descent that he would either be dreaming these words for weeks, or instructing his family and friends on how to navigate the house!
On summit night we left Kibo Huts (summit base camp) at around 11pm. Or at least we were meant to, but I got two beauty nose bleeds. Dr. Steve helped me stop them – a nose bleed mid walk would have been a challenge. We couldn’t stop for too long because we would cool down; I do not know what temperature it was, maybe minus 10-15 with significant wind chill factor, but it was the first time I’ve experienced frozen water bottles! The wind, particularly at the summit, was incredible. I also had two trekking poles, one in each hand, which I needed to use to balance myself and use to feel the ground. To then have to hold my nose and walk would have been very tricky. Steve did a great job, and I didn’t get another bleed until heading down after the summit!
We trekked, and we trekked and we trekked. There was a point at which I think I started to panic a bit. The terrain became quite tough with steep rocks, and I was no doubt tired. The breathlessness was much worse. I felt I needed to use my hands as well as my feet to scale the rocks. I started to hand the trekking poles over to Elias and his response was “no”. I took a deep breath and continued on walking. Again I felt my instincts telling me to use my hands. Again I offered the trekking poles to Elias to take for me and again he refused. “But it might make it easier” I tried to explain. “No”. He said, “You will hit your head”. Of course he could see the overhanging rocks that I could not.
“I have done this many times, I know what to do. I have hold of you, you will not fall. You must trust me”.
And of course he was right. He’d climbed this mountain hundreds of times, and he’d showed me many times that he certainly did know what he was doing. I knew I trusted him absolutely and completely.
To trust someone so completely with our safety isn’t something we often experience in such a conscious way. Especially someone we’d only met a few days before! I did not fall once and I did not receive any injuries. Elias was absolutely incredible! I will always be grateful for his skilled presence and strength.
What I learned about strength on Kilimanjaro…
One of the things that really struck me from this trek was that strength isn’t about achievement with little or no difficulty. Strength – true strength is about being challenged, often having many challenges, but continuing on anyway. Both of us, I believe, found strength we didn’t know we had that night. After scaling an area of challenging rocks we reached Gilman’s Point. Elias said to me: “do you want to continue, it is two more hours”. I said “yes”. His response was a deep breath and a quiet “ok”. It was then that I realised just how absolutely exhausted he was. I’d found it tough, but he had found it just as hard as me, probably far harder than me, for different reasons. The guides were incredibly fit but the concentration this took from him and the sheer strength to support me was enormous. This, to me, was true strength and true courage. He continued on as enthusiastically as always, because I wanted to. This is why I say it was just as much an achievement for him as it was for me – probably more so for him in many ways.
Approaching the summit…
Elias and I plodded and plodded and plodded – and I puffed and panted and kept asking for a “small rest”. About 20 minutes out from the summit Elias’ voice changed and became more excited. “You are going to make it” he said. I wasn’t as certain as he was just yet!
“ten minutes to go”,
“5 minutes to go”, “4 minutes to go”, “3 minutes to go”,
“2 minutes to go”, 1 minute to go”,
“you are there”
He counted me in, and we hugged at the summit, and I, predictably, cried! We reached the summit just before 8am. I felt such a mix of emotions. Most of all was gratitude, then elation, relief, and pride. I felt proud of Elias for his amazing achievement in getting me to the top of that mountain, especially never having lead or guided a person who was blind before, just incredible! I was proud of our team and all we had accomplished and all we had sacrificed in order to be there.
We spent maybe a minute or two at the summit to grab photos, due to the high wind levels. Then it was the descent! As I flagged earlier, descent is just as slow, if not slower, for me. I still needed the constant directions of where to place my feet. So the descent was quite a challenge. This was partly due to the fact that it was much slower than for the rest of my team. Henry and I made it all the way down to the sign which indicated we had 2 hours to go. Here the path intercepted another smoother path and so we were taken from there by Jeep to the final gates to meet up with the rest of the team.
One of the miracles of the trek is my desire to go again. From someone who was apprehensive and uncertain, not sure if I really could or wanted to do this. I’d love to do it again and maybe Mt Meru too. Certainly no serious climbing mountains where things like pick axes, shovels and crampons are needed–Kili was certainly enough of a challenge for me.
Advice for those considering taking on Mt Kilimanjaro…
With regard to what I would advise anyone wishing to take on this challenge, I would stress the importance of having a great team. This, to me, was why I made it to the top. It isn’t “my Kilimanjaro” experience but “our Kilimanjaro” experience. Also, physical training, and perhaps this could include some deep breathing training as well. I did a little of this, but I don’t think I did enough. Having great gear is important. Also, I felt particularly on summit night that eating was very difficult, so having liquid energy drinks were great (when not frozen) or hard confectionary that I could suck on as I walked. Thanks Emma for those life saving Honey and Eucalyptus! Not only did they help by providing much needed energy, they also helped with the cough that I experienced, probably due to rapid breathing but also the amount of volcanic grit that was being blown about.
When I think of what Kilimanjaro has given me, the feeling that most comes to mind is gratitude. I am so grateful for having been able to have had this experience, and for the friendships I have made as a result. I also know that the feeling of strength and sense of achievement at having reached the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro will always remain with me and I have, since returning home from Kilimanjaro, had to draw on this feeling to get through some challenging times. I know this feeling will always be there, and will be strengthened by a future visit! While an obvious highlight of Kilimanjaro is achieving the summit, probably more important for me was the feeling of team spirit, comradery and the friendships I have made.
Your support got me there!
I am incredibly grateful for everyone’s support. Whether this be donations to Jen’s and my target of raising $30,000 for Guide Dogs; the purchase of merchandise at our stalls; the attendance at our various fundraising events; the many words of encouragement and support; and the phone calls I received from people when I returned home just to find out how it was and how I was feeling. Our families were also incredible: attending events, making many donations of goods and money, even staying at my home for the two weeks I was away to look after the house and my 5 dogs and 6 cats! This challenge wouldn’t have been possible without your support, so most importantly of all, thank you!
Here’s a great video of our porters celebrating our successful summit: