Travel: Preparing to climb Kilimanjaro

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About a month after I lost my Dad suddenly to a catastrophic cardiac arrested, I decided to climb Kilimanjaro. It was a decision made in the hazy early days of my grief, and it was one made pretty much on a whim.

I remember when Mihai and I had only been dating a year or so, we'd been out for drinks, and the conversation turned to the things we wanted to do with our lives. And on both our bucket lists, taking on Kilimanjaro before 30, was pretty high. I had even wrote about it just 4 months beforehand, about how I'd love to take the trip in 2018, never imagining how transformed our lives would be.

I had no idea that in a matter of months I would lose my Dad. And that I'd be heading up that mountain to raise awareness and more than £8,000 for the British Heart Foundation, with a heavy heart, to wave a flag in his memory at the summit.

And I can honestly say that now, 7 months after reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro, I've had no idea how to even begin start writing about our journey. But here goes nothing...

Signing Up

I can't begin to explain to you, nor write about what you go through when you lose someone close to you suddenly. Having lost grandparents, relatives and family friends to diseases like cancer, I can tell you the experience of losing someone who looks fit and well, is entirely different. There's no closure, no process of acceptance in the lead up to their loss. They just suddenly thunder out of your life. No time for proper goodbyes, nothing. And while grief is different for everyone, even between my own family, I found that in my grief there was something compelling me to take action. Something driving me to do, to put my body and mind through so strenuous a test that I felt my way through the numbness, the shock and the disappointment of losing my father. Mine led me to sending a text to my partner telling him that I was about to head to China (although in the end it didn't quite end up like that) ready to do something that felt meaningful.

For me, that meant finding something I could attach all my energy and focus my grief into, and it started late one night when I was alone at home for one of the first times since my Dad had died. I was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook when I came across a post from the British Heart Foundation about a woman called Lesley. At least I think that's what she was called. Lesley was about the same age as my Dad and had lost her partner a year before to Cardiovascular Disease. He died suddenly and without warning, just like my Dad, and the post was about Lesley's efforts to raise money for the British Heart Foundation in memory of her husband, in the hope of preventing more people from losing their loved ones like she had by funding the vital research that's needed into Cardiovascular Disease. Lesley had raised about £4,000-£5,000 I think, by trekking the Great Wall of China, and after I'd finished reading the post, I sent Mihai, (who was working night shift at the time), a short text. The text said: 'going to China. Hope you will come'. And Mihai, knowing my impulsiveness simply replied: 'ok. Let's talk about this in the morning.'

By the time the morning came, I'd spent hours pouring over the BHF's website, only to find the Kilimanjaro and Himalayan treks. And since Kili was something we'd already talked about, I felt like it was settled. Knowing I was still very much in the throws of my grief, Mihai told me to wait a month before we committed to signing, just to make sure I was ready to take on such a physical challenge and that I could be committed to the regime needed to get us both into shape. A month passed, and still I was sure that this was the right thing. Something we both needed to process the terrible tragedy that had taken place . And sure, conquering Africa's highest free-standing mountain seemed like a pretty good place to start. Albeit I think at that point, I genuinely had no idea what I was about to put myself, well both of us, through. Or how it would shape our lives for almost the next year as we prepared for our climb and to take on the challenge of Kilimanjaro.

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Funding our trek

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If you've looked into taking on the challenge of Kilimanjaro, you'll already know, the financial commitment involved is not to be sniffed at. We both committed to contributing around £2,000 to fund our trip, and the British Heart Foundation required us to reach £3,500 each to participate. But we were determined. At my Dad's funeral, where over 200 people came to pay their final respects, we raised more than £1,000 for the British Heart Foundation, and we knew that friends and family alike were deeply affected by his sudden loss and would be willing to support the cause, both to fund the research of the BHF, and to honour his memory.

We were incredibly lucky to have their full support and generosity, and to have met many people through coverage in local newspapers and radio, who felt touched by our story. But it's not just funding for the trip we needed, Kilimanjaro is a serious trek requiring a serious amount of equipment. And it was here that we received a generous donation from Regatta, who provided almost all of our equipment and gear for the trip. I'll go into more detail about what was provided further down in a section about our kit for full transparency, but I would like to add that Regatta did not pay me to write this post, nor have they asked me to write anything on their behalf, all views are my own based on my use of their products.

Getting into shape

I feel like it's really important to say that for all accounts and purposes, I am not a sporty person. Nor am I an avid mountain hiker. Or a regular gym-goer. While me and Mihai had been known to partake in a Lake District trip here and there, I wouldn't go as far to say I was a naturally outdoorsy person. And up until me and Mihai had started dating, I had never owned a pair of hiking boots in my life.

So when I say that taking on a trek like Kilimanjaro was a bit of a baptism of fire, or that I truly believe if you've got the right amount of determination, you can take on just about any challenge - physical or psychological, no matter what your physical condition I am not exaggerating.

In the lead up to our trek, I realised while I could go for a walk in the countryside happily, in nice weather; or could enjoy kayaking on a lake, I was by no means really that fit. As I discovered when I decided to try running for 30 minutes, only to realise that after about 5 minutes of effort, I felt like I was going to die.

Not one to be put off easily, I read a lot of posts about getting in shape for the trek that advised running, hiking for 6-8 hours at altitude, and shamefully proceeded to do very little, (mostly down to low moods and serious lack of drive caused by my grief), up until about 7-8 months before the trek. I would not advise you do this.

If you want to take on a trek like Kilimanjaro, a great place to start is by getting better at running. Running is a great way of increasing cardiovascular fitness, and altitude, this is exactly what you need as oxygen starts to become more scarce. Using a similar sort of training technique to the stop/start of the Couch to 5K method, I slowly built up my running until I could run for at least 20 minutes and then 30 minutes before feeling like my chest was going to explode. I think if my drive had been better, this could have been better to, but it was what it was.

We also took on more and more mountains, spending our weekends driving up to Scotland or Northumberland National Park and down to the Lake District National Park, and Wales. We missed out on sunny days during a heatwave to spend our time freezing cold and soaked to the skin, up the likes of Ben Nevis surrounded by fog. Writing it down, it doesn't feel like much of a sacrifice of your weekends, but when everyone else is spending their time sipping beers and enjoying the sunshine or eating fish & chips at Tynemouth, you start to feel extreme FOMO. Every opportunity we had, we spent our time training, and from the Three Peaks, to Mount Ida in Crete, we ticked off so many bloody mountains.

Along with good cardiovascular fitness, another key thing for Kili was endurance and resilience. On so many of our training hikes there was problems with kit (it was during our time in the Cheviots Mihai found out his jacket was water resistant, not proof, leading us to spending more on kit!), blisters, DOMS, and all kinds of disillusionment ('but why, are we spending all of our free time on this?'). But resilience, and knowing that what we were doing was for something bigger, kept us pushing forward.

And when it came to Kili, it was this psychological training that really came into play. Slow is the walk up Kilimanjaro, and keeping your mind focused is key to beating the effects of altitude and extreme fatigue, to help you make it to the summit.

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Our Kit / All the gear, no idea

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When we first signed up to the trek, we were given a kit list of what was needed. And I have to say, if you're taking on Kilimanjaro, which is so large it has its own micro-climate, there's no such thing as travelling light. Like most organised treks, we had our accommodation before and after, our tents and sleeping mats, and food during the trek provided. But our list of required items included the items I've listed below under clothing and equipment.

We were incredibly lucky to have the support of Regatta who provided a number of items needed for our kit.

CLOTHING

Boots
Having never owned a pair of boots in my life, up until about 2016, I had a trusty pair of Decathlon boots that came with us through most of our training treks. Realising they weren't exactly suited to Kili's range of terrains, I upgraded to a brilliant Scarpa pair a few months before we headed to Tanzania. These were the Scarpa Women's Ranger Active Lite GTX which I'd highly recommend to anyone looking for a sturdy pair of boots that are still incredibly comfortable. They're pricey but worth every penny and have never given me a single blister!

Socks
We were told just to bring a few pairs of socks and to rewear them during the trek and told under no circumstances to bring new socks! I chose the Regatta Two Layer Blister Protection Socks and made sure I'd worn and washed them a few times before we left.

Base Layer (long sleeved tops and long johns) should be ‘wicking’ fabric eg knitted polyester

Although everyone will tell you to go for Merino because it's warmest, my skin is incredibly irritated by wool. So after trying on a few Merino pairs for good measure, I just ended up ordering this base layer top and pants, which proved really warm.

Second layer: medium weight fleece and pullover
Because as a person I run cold, I decided to actually opt for two fleeces - a thicker one and a lighter one. For the thick one, I went for  the Regatta Raneisha Knit Effect Bonded Fleece*, which is lined with a thick cosy pile. For the thinner fleece, I opted for the Emilyn Half Zip Stripe Fleece*. When we had our kit checked by our trek leader, he advised me to leave one behind, and I am so glad I told him I needed it! During the final ascent, I was bundled up in all my layers and feeling incredible grateful for every single one.

Long nylon or acrylic walking trousers
For my walking trousers, I opted for a simple pair of Regatta stretch walking trousers similar to these ones. 

Outer layer: waterproof jacket and trousers (preferably breathable ones)
I chose the Regatta women's Cross Penine III hybrid jacket because this offered the most waterproof protection, but Regatta has a huge range of waterproof jackets. The key is really to look for which can withstand the most water in a downpour to make sure it keeps you properly dry.

1 pair of gaiters (to protect trouser legs on snow/scree)
This was one of those things we didn't really have to use much because we had such great weather during our trek. But on the final descent, the ground is covered in thick ashy, sand which is difficult to walk in and gets everywhere, so these are very useful.

Warm jacket for nights at altitude
After a lot of research, Mihai and I decided the North Face Thermoball would be the best option of down jacket - giving both the convenience of a compact jacket that's really warm, and would combine well with our fleeces and layers.

Good gloves – suitable for sub zero temperatures with glove liners and/or warm mittens
We used snowboarding ones which had smaller thin gloves inside them. These were useful for parts of the trek where we needed gloves but not necessarily super thick ones. But when you're taking on the final ascent - every bit of insulation counts!

1 warm hat and/or balaclava
We both just used wooly hats we already owned but requested some buffs / multitubes from Regatta. These come in really handy because you can use them as a sort of snood / balaclava over your face in cold conditions to protect your nose and mouth, or over your head for extra insulation. Or in sunny conditions, they can be worn bandana style to protect your head.

T-shirt and shorts for lower altitudes
I opted for some simple walking shorts that would be comfortable during long treks, and for tops I ordered a range of Regatta's Hyperdimension t-shirts, and Mihai chose a range of their men's Regatta Volito t-shirts. Both styles are Regatta's lightweight, quick drying t-shirts designed as active wear. 

1 Sun hat with broad brim
We both ended up with these from Mountain Warehouse, although in the end my was a little too big and I gave it to one of our porters as a goodbye present.

1 Scarf to protect the neck and shield face from dust
We used our multitubes (see above) for this!

 

*All items marked with an asterisk were kindly gifted to Mihai and I for our Kilimanjaro trek.

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EQUIPMENT

Day Pack (25l - 35l)
I opted for the Regatta Blackfell II 35l Rucksack* which has enough capacity for a hydration sack (knowing we'd need to carry our own water with us every day).

Kit bag (10-12kg max weight)
For my kit bag, I used my trusty old Regatta Survivor, that I bought many years ago for a backpacking trip across India and which has survived multiple trips across the UK for music festivals and a more recent trip to Thailand. Mine is a hardy old 65l Survivor, and they do still sell similar models in the Survivor range if you're looking for a reliable kit bag. Mihai opted for the Blackfell II 60l + 10l Extendable Backpack*  which is another robust kit bag.

Waterproof Liner
We didn't need to purchase these separately as both our Regatta kit bags and day packs had these built in to protect them from the rain.

Packing Cubes & Dry Bags

These were listed as optional but we found them very useful for keeping important things dry and just generally organising your kit bag. I just went for these cheap packing cubes on Amazon because I thought they may get wrecked during the trip.

 

EQUIPMENT

Sleeping Bag (4 Season preferably with hood - must be suitable for -20°C)
Knowing we needed a heavy duty sleeping bag to cope with the minus temperatures at night on Kilimanjaro, we both opted for the Regatta Hilo 300*, although technically a 3 season not 4 season, the Milo 300 can be used in extreme temperatures down to -18 and we thought coupled with our sleeping bag liners and fleece layers, this would be fine for the trek, which they were.

Fleece or Silk Sleeping Bag Liner
I used a sleeping bag liner which I previously had purchased from my India trip, and Mihai purchased a new one from Amazon. While they're only a thin little layer, I can't begin to tell you how much extra warmth we had from using the liners at night. Definitely not one to skip although our kit list had it marked as optional!

Telescopic Walking Poles (with rubber tips)
During our training, I found my knees took a pounding during our decent. Sometimes this was due to my boots (it wasn't until a month or two before Kili that I realised the cheap Decathlon boots I'd been using weren't going to cut it for our trip - in support, water-poofing or weather-proofing). But sometimes, it was due to the weight and strain I was placing on them during the descent. About 3 months before we left, I finally decided to invest in some decent hiking poles, opting for the Black Diamond Women's Trail Poles. Using walking poles not only takes some of the impact away from your joints, they also help provide stability during uneven terrain - and even help you lost weight because you burn more calories using them when you walk!

Head Torch with spare batteries
Mihai already had a head torch so he relied on his old one, while I opted for the Regatta 10 LED Head Torch*. And despite putting fresh batteries in both before our trip, we took an extra set each. This is really important because when you're in extreme temperatures and at altitude, batteries can deplete much quicker.

Whistle & Penknife
Since Mihai is a typical boy when it comes to penknives, I borrowed one of his and opted for a Regatta Keyring Whistle*. While they are advised in case you find yourself in need during the trek, we didn't have to put either of these things to use during our trek.

 

Water bottles or bladder
With space in our daypacks for them, and knowing this would be easiest for drinking on the go or without needing to use our hands, we both opted for a bladder or hydration sack from Amazon. I bought us both this 3L Beeway one and I also bought this Nalgene bottle which I filled with boiling water at night and used as a hot water bottle (on the excellent recommendation of my friend Lynsey).

Water purification tablets
I just ordered these water purification tablets from Amazon. They make your water taste gross and chlorinated, however they do protect you from a range of things that can give you a poorly stomach and impact on your trip. It is worth noting though that all your drinking water is boiled by team members first so technically all germs should be killed.

Sunglasses (suitable for snow and sun)
Mihai already had polarised Oakley sunglasses so used those, and since I didn't and didn't want to spend loads, I bought a cheap pair of sports sunglasses with polarised lenses from a Tog24 outlet store.

Camera
Although it wasn't the most forgiving weight-wise, I felt like I'd regret not taking my DSLR (then a Canon 70D with a Canon 28mm 1.8 lens attached). We also took our GoPro, and had our iPhones with us - but to be honest, for the best part of most days taking photos was kind of the last thing I wanted to do.

Money belt
Mihai looked after both of our money for the trip for ease, and just got a cheapish money belt from Amazon to use.

Anti-bacterial hand gel
Really can't state the importance of this enough. Post toilet trips, pre-meals, this stuff is essential. Plus during the day, we sometimes had a bit of scramble meaning your hands felt a bit scruffy.

Toilet Paper (bio-degradable)
Enough said! Don't take toilet wipes, even the bio-degradable ones take a long time to break down and they just end up littering the mountain.

Wet wipes
These aren't essential but having experienced life at Glastonbury, I thought these would help me feel a bit cleaner despite our lack of running water for showers and personal hygiene. There's no rubbish disposal on the mountain though (hence why bio-degradable toilet paper is needed), so if you're taking wipes to wash yourself, you're carrying the dirty ones down with you too!

Ear plugs
I'd say these depend on how light a sleeper you are. No one really explained why we needed them but it became apparent on the first night how much noise travels when you're camped on a mountain - so if you're next to a snorer these will come in handy!

Hand warmers
The kind you shake to activate were best - these were saved for our final ascent to the summit! And my god, they were a lifesaver!

Sun cream & lip balm with sunscreen (Factor 30-50+)
Any brand is good but we opted for La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Factor 50+ and a travel size Malibu Factor 30 for our arms and legs.

Travel towel
We got really lucky weather-wise but the micro-climate of Kilimanjaro means that you can experience sudden torrential downpours, so having a towel to dry yourself back in camp is handy!

Snacks

I really can't tell you how comforting it is when you're feeling a bit fed up and tired, to reach inside your pocket and be able to pull out some of your favourite sweets. Snack-wise, we opted for plenty so we could share with our trek buddies but my favourites during the trip were Sports Mixtures, fizzy Haribo and Rowntrees Fruit gums. Mihai took more chocolate, nuts and jerky - which the porters liked a lot! My secret (snack) weapon though was a couple of packs of these - CLIF BLOCKS, that had been sent to me all the way from Canada in care package from Lynsey. The chewy gums are fruity and packed with caffeine, giving you that extra little boost to for the final ascent.

Journal
In the care package I got from Lynsey before our trek, she'd also included a weather-proof journal from Rite in the Rain. It's not an essential but it was a lovely touch, and each night I recorded what had happened and how I'd been feeling during the day, as well as using it to press fallen flowers I'd collected during our trek.

Personal Medical Kit
Mihai prepped and carried this for both of us, and included: antiseptic ointment, plasters, ankle/knee support, bandage, headache tablets, sting relief, dioralyte, ciprofloxacin or equivalent diarrhoea remedy, blister treatment (eg compeed), diamox (for acute mountain sickness - this was purchased from Travel Pharm), toothache and ulcer treatment

And with our enormous amount of kit sorted, we were just about ready for our adventure...

*All items marked with an asterisk were kindly gifted to Mihai and I for our Kilimanjaro trek.

 

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