Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Climbing Kili as a novice

About twelve months ago, I accidentally fell against my iPad and ended up agreeing to climb Kilimanjaro in the company of ten teenagers, an ex-marine and a Real Tennis coach. I had done some gentle rambling in the Lakes, but never something as serious as this. Never something with so much 'up'. Never so many contours in uncomfortably close proximity.

Seriously doubting my inner Diana Ross and clutching an impenetrable equipment list that was four pages long (what is 'wicking'? Does it hurt?) I arrived at Lockwoods in a state of near-gibbering terror and confusion. Thankfully, over the course of several visits, Hayley was able to reduce the epic list into something more manageable and, with her calm and expert advice, sorted me out so that I was raring to go (well, squeaking with faint terror, but in superb kit). A significant part of my subsequent enjoyment of the experience is down to her and when I do it again I know exactly to whom to turn.

Here is a selection of her advice which proved so useful:

1. Feet

In ordinary conversation, the word 'Kilimanjaro' is usually followed immediately by the phrase: 'have you walked in your boots?' I had an old, cheap pair which I had had for years and which worked beautifully. Socks, however, were a different matter. Here too, I thought I was sorted as I went out and spent a fortune on a known market-leader. I strutted out wearing them for 14 miles and my big toenail promptly fell off. Hobbling up to Hayley, she prescribed some merino blend Teko socks which proved much more comfortable and which could be worn a couple of times up the mountain. On her advice, I also kept a clean pair in reserve for summit day. Despite taking enough Compeed to resurface Heathrow, I didn't have a single blister.

2. Rucksack

One of the most wonderful, but equally utterly galling, elements of Kili is the amount of porters you end up taking (Roman Abramovich took 105, by the way, and he still didn't summit). They will carry your pack with most of your kit and you get used to seeing it being whisked past you as the porters accelerate up vertical slopes, all the time calling 'Pole Pole' ("Slowly, slowly") to the Englishmen below who are climbing with the rapidity of moss. There are times when you will wear your bag however, and Hayley was able to suggest a range both in price, weight and complexity. I have a long back and she was able to select ones tailored accordingly and helped me to adjust it so that the straps fitted comfortably (to be clear, I only put it on upside down once). We settled on the Osprey Talon 33 and as it turned out, my pack was the smallest on the trip (some of the boys had brought ones worryingly reminiscent of bodybags), but ample for my needs and much less tiring for me (or, more usually, my porter).

3. Wicking

At least when it came to clothing, I felt I was on firmer ground. I had some old skiing base layers, some fleeces, a few cotton t-shirts to throw into the mix and a good solid jacket. When I explained this, the expression I received was as if I had kicked the family puppy. Cotton, it was declared, was verboten. If photos were to emerge of me wearing cotton on the mountain, then there would be repercussions, I was told. My jacket was also dismissed with a pitying glance. Apparently, attempting to wear it at altitude would be like boiling myself in a bag. If I wanted to emulate a sautĂ©ed potato, then I should go right ahead, but if I had sense then I should consider my ability to wick.

I had not encountered wicking before and was concerned lest it was another element of climbing that I would be able to fail in. Luckily, I was provided with a couple of tight-fitting layers, some more generous long-sleeved base layers and a couple of light jumpers all in Merino wool by Icebreacker. Over the top of this went a breathable and waterproof Berghaus Paclite jacket, which was incredibly light.   I was also recommended a Rab Microlight down jacket but as I tend to over heat I refrained, but it looked very warm and very light!  When compared to the kit that everyone else had brought, I seemed perilously underweight. I had no heavy fleeces nor voluminous down jackets. As the night of the summit drew near, I began to fear, at the least, a frost-bitten nipple or two. However, the advice of Lockwoods was not to be doubted and stepping out of the tent at 4800m at midnight, I was toasty warm and continued to be, even up to 5300m in the clear, wintry, early hours. What was even better was that everyone else was dressed like a cushioned barrel, while I had the freedom to swing my arms; and when the sun rose over the roof of Africa - and I burst into tears and the boys burst into the Lion King (blame oxygen deprivation and exhaustion) - I could easily strip off as the heat rose rapidly.

4. Water

This tip was from Moira-Ann and was a life-saver. Unless you are taking a water purifying filter pump (I think this is what it was called) you will need to purify your water on the mountain. Chlorine Dioxide tablets are instantaneous and tasteless and so is ideal for the mountain. Unless you run out halfway up, like we did. We were thus reliant on the standard Katadyn water purification tablets which take half an hour and leave your mouth tasting as if a badger died only a little way upstream. Moira-Ann suggested taking Robinson's Squash'd as a lightweight way of flavouring the water. These proved essential and really helped some of the boys consume their 2 and sometimes 3 litres of water a day.

5. Toiletries and Mosquitoes

Strangely enough, personal hygiene somehow loses its importance by the fourth day. Everything - let's not get too detailed here, but believe me, everything - is covered in or contains the very fine mountain dust. However, as we discovered, a stomach bug can go round a group seemingly in minutes, so it's important to keep as clean as you can. Here the all purpose soap that Hayley recommended was very useful, along with a lot of hand sanitiser.

If you are staying below the mosquito line (which starts around the gates, usually), then many people recommend odour-free toiletries as ways of avoiding their attention. Hayley also provided me with an easily-assembled mosquito net.  Most hotels and hostels will provide one, but if you get a new one then the insecticide will still be fresh.

6. Sleeping bag

Finally, it seemed like a luxury at the time, but a black silk sleeping bag liner (again, just a little uncomfortably close to a shroud - perhaps buy the pink one next time) proved essential. We were hiring our bags from the tour company and we were pleased to discover on arrival that they had been freshly washed. However, this meant that they were VERY damp and possibly had been laundered due to the previous occupant dying in residence. The liner also added an extra layer of warmth, essential on mornings such as day 5 when my trousers had frozen to the outside of the bag, leaving me resembling a grumpy Jabba the Hutt.

7. Diamox

Just a contribution to the eternal debate on Diamox. None of our team took it and all bar two summited (the two that did not were due to the stomach bug and exhaustion). However, we did encounter a lady from China who had been taking it since arrival in country. She was being sick so frequently that she walked with a roll of loo-paper around her neck. We did not see her again after day 4.

Overall, I am very grateful to Hayley et al at Lockwoods for their advice which made climbing Kili such a fantastic experience. To put it in perspective, I was taking out some of my purchases from a Lockwoods bag I had with me in camp at 4800m, and my ex-marine tent-mate turned to me and said: "Lockwoods? Amazing place. Did you know they are the best boot-fitters in Britain? And great for  other outdoor stuff?"

Well, yes, actually, I definitely did know..

Posted by: Tom Barfield - customer

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