We have all experienced a moment where we question why we did something, and Gemma Lumley definitely asked that when she trekked Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Here she shares her challenging journey reaching the summit, and how positive thinking and an amazing guide pushed her limits further and further to achieving her goal.
Lying in my sleeping bag waiting to be called for “breakfast” at 11.20pm I desperately wished to be back home. This was a stupid, STUPID idea. Who the hell did I think I was thinking I could do such a thing!?
The previous days of trekking up towards Kibo huts have already taken their toll. I’m exhausted and while I believe in the support and friendship of my Kili trekker friends, I know that this is something between me, myself and I.
But I’m terrified. I struggled to get up the small hill into camp this afternoon. The higher altitude is really affecting my breathing already. Lovely Ryan walked behind me encouraging me into camp, “Just a step at a time Gem.” At the top of the hill I sat on a rock and cried panicked tears.
I don’t feel like talking. Over a breakfast of porridge, biscuits and Milo, trek leader Jenny looks positively excited. I’m in the “fast” group. Heavens knows how; I’m always at the back!
Outside the mess tent we get our kit together. It’s freezing and the darkness is suffocating. I feel rushed and we start before I can get my gloves on properly, so I end up carrying one in my mouth.
Just one step as a time
The seven layers I’m wearing for warmth make me feel claustrophobic and it makes my breathing worse. Thirty minutes in I can feel myself panicking and “I can’t do this” starts a demoralising chant in my head. It matches my footsteps. I feel sad that I won’t make it. I’ll let so many people down.
I undo my coat and sort out my gloves in a brief opportunity to stop. I feel better, but the rush has left me much more breathless than I wanted it to be. I can see all my plans for motivation, visualisation and positive mental attitude unravelling before me.
It wasn’t meant to be so difficult so soon. It’s just so bloody steep and I can’t get proper foot holds. I’m trying to lose myself in my own world. If I’m not really here my calves and lungs won’t hurt as much and I’ll be able to manage.
A guide asks if I’m ok and I tell him I can’t breathe. I can hear how shrill I sound. My own panic feels alien, like I’m detached. It’s such a weird feeling, but instead of taking comfort in it I take it as a sign I’m already giving up. Pathetic after less than an hour but the negativity sucks me in.
The guide takes my bag and I walk closely behind him. I can see the group has stopped for a break under a large jutting rock. Paul asks if I’m ok “I feel like someone is sitting on my chest” I say. Hugs and sympathy but they have their own battles to fight and they move off. I want to stay a bit longer, maybe never move again. But it’s too cold to stay still for long.
Positivity creeps back into view. I feel a bit better. It’s steep and I hurt but “One step at a time baby” replaces “I can’t do it”.
I can’t see my group anymore and I realise it’s just me and Crosmar, my guide. He shouts up the mountain “I’m stuck with this one” is probably what he says. I don’t mind that they’ve gone. I trust this man. I can feel he’ll protect me. I don’t know him, don’t recognise him from previous days, but he’s all I’ve got and that’s ok with me right now.
We’re getting higher. Painfully slowly we are getting closer to Gillman’s Point. I look up and it makes me panic. It’s so far and high ,but somehow, I’m still moving forward. I tap Crosmar on the shoulder and he turns. He’s got a balaclava on and the hood of his coat is fur trimmed, I’m going to get to know that face well in the next 11 hours. “Don’t let me give up” I tell him. He seems to search my face, no smile, he just replies: “Don’t worry, be happy”
We don’t talk. I don’t have the breath even if I’d wanted to. My breathing begins to get worse and I’m so very, very sleepy I can barely keep my eyes open. I’m stumbling all over the place. I have never felt more exhausted, desperate or ill in my life.
I sit down at the very edge of the path. It’s dark, cold and, as I look down, I’m overwhelmed with the urge to go back to camp. Up above the lights of other people’s head torches are snaking up the path. It’s impossible. It’s too huge a challenge. I sob uncontrollably. I’m giving up and I hate myself.
Crosmar hands me my poles and helps me up. I wobble and he stands me upright. He doesn’t say anything, just looks at me and then sets off. I follow, too tired to argue. And so we begin a pattern that last’s for the next 3 or 4 hours. I walk, I feel ill, exhausted and want to give up.
Don’t worry, be happy
I stop, I sit, I cry. Crosmar hugs me and asks how I am and what I want to do. I want him to let me stop but I say instead: “I’ll try again” He nods, pleased. “A bit more effort please, you must not sleep” is all he says.
And so we go on. “Try again?” is his mantra. He’s a sly one. He knows I want to give up but he knows I won’t tell him straight. So he uses that, and he keeps his promise. I don’t give up.
He guides me through other climbing groups, he moves people aside, he gets my water and my snacks and is my shoulder to cry on. His luminous green gloved hand grabs mine when the climbing is tricky. We claw our way up the scree slope and eventually reach scrambling rocks. Crosmar shows me where to put my feet and his reactions stop me falling.
At 6.08am, six and a half hours after starting, I reach Gillman’s Point. The sun is rising over Africa and I can hardly believe I made it. We find a quiet place to rest and we celebrate with my last cup of warm water from my flask (my Camelbak froze an hour into the climb)
Crosmar points out Uhuru Peak. It’s a long way in the distance, around the crater rim. The air is so very thin but I’m feeling like I have a few more steps in me:
“Shall we try for Uhuru Peak then?”
I’m rewarded with the slightest smile:
“Don’t see why not.”
“Will we make it?”
“I think we might.”
It’s less steep now but the altitude is much more potent, and we are pushed for time. We shouldn’t be up here for much longer, but I can’t rush. I just keep going and hope.
It’s beautiful, like being on the moon where, I imagine, it’s just as hard to breathe. I start feeling sick and my head is banging but an Ibuprofen clears it.
My Kili buddies are heading for me. They are on the way back from Uhuru Peak. Lots of hugs and squeals: “We thought you’d gone down!!” The message had been confused and they all thought I’d given up. Everyone seems thrilled and they urge me onwards.
Just keep going and hope
Matt tells me: “An hour of pain but a lifetime of achievement!” while Lynne says: “Don’t be surprised if you can’t see when you get there!” Bless her…but at least I’m prepared.
Closer and closer. People pass by being rushed from the peak. They look like they are dying. Crosmar tells me “Don’t look!”
I eventually see the summit sign and crawl towards it. My eyes take in the magnificent glacier to my left and the impressive crater to my right. But I don’t really register how spectacular the scene is. I’m aware of people round me but it feels dream-like.
It’s just me and my guide. He lets me go first and I just stand a few metres away. No elation, no joy, I feel numb and just want to head back down. It wasn’t meant to feel like this; it wasn’t meant to look like this. I feel the loss of my Kili buddies, someone to share it with.
We wait a minute or two for the crowd around the sign to clear. It doesn’t. Crosmar pushes me forward and I’m clutching the teddy my Mum gave me. He expertly engineers a picture of me alone with the sign. No-one messes with him and I get my precious summit photo.
I questioned if the picture mattered, but now I know, that if I didn’t have the evidence, I wouldn’t have believed it happened. I snap away at the incredible scenery and I’m in my own little world as Crosmar and a couple of other guides chat and mess about with my teddy.
He presses the paw to hear my Mum’s tearful message of support. Suddenly I’m crying again. I lean against the man that got me up here, my absolute hero.
“Why are you laughing?”
“I’m not, I’m crying.”
“Because I’m happy”
“Oohhhhhhhh, ok! Well, welcome to my office.”
“It’s a beautiful office.”
Time to go. I can feel myself getting more and more ill. I’ve taken a lot longer than I should to get here and it’ll be a race to get back. We quickly walk, still slow but it feels like we are flying down. The rockier part of the crater rim makes me feel terribly sick. The undulations make the altitude worse. Crosmar looks ill now too. We’ve been up here for far too long.
Welcome to my office
He holds my hand for most of the way back down to Gilman’s Point. I still need to stop to rest “to get my breath back”, but it’s for a shorter time. I try to remain steady on my feet but it’s impossible and we both fall a couple of times. I’m making this so much harder.
I take layers off as it gets warmer and feel desperate for water. I share out some jelly babies as other guides have joined us now. One of them takes my bag off Crosmar. I feel so guilty; he’s dragged himself, me and all my stuff up too.
I endure the scree run with a guide on either side. It’s disturbing and exhausting but we need to be quick now. I’m two hours behind everyone else. I still need breaks and Crosmar tells them to “Pole Pole” (‘Slowly, Slowly!)
I wonder if I’ve been a huge pain in the ass to the man I can now see sat far ahead on a rock. A porter answers my question: “You have been a good partner. Crosmar wants us to look after you”
I enter camp and collapse near my tent. Everyone is having lunch in the mess tent. They cheer when they see me: “Amazing effort!” “Courageous!” “Epic!” I feel none of these but I’m thrilled to see them as I had expected them to be on the way to the next camp already. I have 10 minutes to get organised and join them on the walk. There is no argument. I can’t stay any longer at this extreme altitude.
I find Crosmar to say: “Thank you” He’s as straight faced as ever and just says “Are you ok now?” I can’t find the words to express how much he’s helped me and don’t think I ever will. He didn’t really know me, but he made it his mission to get me to the top of that mountain that night.
Grateful for kindness and empathy
He knew just how I ticked and let me do it my way. He was exactly what I needed and I’ll be forever grateful and for as long as I live; if I’m struggling with something, I’ll remember his voice saying “One more try” and “A little more effort please.” He was, is and always will be my hero.
So, I made it. I did it on my own but with a tower of strength to lean on. I faced my ultimate struggle on the route up to Gilman’s and somehow overcame it. I guess once I knew Crosmar wasn’t going to send me back down it was either give up or carry on, I chose the latter and I’m so very, very glad I did.
It was an incredible experience. It wasn’t uplifting and there was no epiphany on the roof of Africa, but I’m so proud I survived that brutal climb and grateful for the kindness and empathy I received.
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