Gaby Parker is originally from Brighton but has been living in London for the past ten years. She works for the NHS as a Clinical Psychologist with people with neurological and physical disabilities. In addition, she is an avid traveller! Read her story as she takes us on the journey of climbing the famous Mount Kilimanjaro!
Why did you decide to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
Because I could! I loved the idea of being out in the wilderness for just over a week and taking on a seriously difficult challenge. I wanted to see what I was capable of, knowing that ultimately the mountain chooses who reaches her summit.
I was fortunate that my sister (and partner in travel crimes!) was also keen and came with me. We chose to go with a UK company (Action Challenge) that we have completed various challenge events with and so knew we could trust. It was also important to us that we used an operator that is signed up to fair pay and conditions for their porters.
Ready for the off!
What route did you take and why did you choose that one?
We chose the Rongai route, which approaches from the north side of Kilimanjaro. I wanted a quieter, wilderness experience and this route tends to be the quietest of the recognised routes. We also wanted to take a route that allowed an additional acclimatisation day, to maximise my chances of reaching the summit.
The Rongai route is sometimes reported as being the ‘easiest’ of the recognised routes, in that it allows the extra acclimatisation day and the ascent is fairly gradual until the summit night. However the summit stretch itself is longer and steeper than any of the other routes. I wouldn’t describe it as ‘easy’ at all!
Early morning, looking towards Mawenzi
Did the experience match up to your expectation?
It did and more! It was incredible to walk through the different vegetation zones as we climbed, and notice the impact that the gradual reduction in oxygen had on my mind and body. We were accompanied by our UK guide Abbi Naylor & medic Rich Wain-Hobson , and a great team of local guides and porters (led by Jonas Rutta from Big Expeditions) who kept our spirits up with great food, stories and songs. The speed at which the porters ran up the mountain past us- carrying our bags on their heads whilst barely breaking a sweat- was very humbling!
What was your most memorable part of the experience?
There were so many incredible moments – way too hard to pick just one!
The first time we saw Kibo (highest of the three volcanic peaks making up Kilimanjaro) was awe-inspiring. We hiked up onto a ridge to watch the sunset over Kibo, and Jonas led us in yogic breathing to help us acclimatise.
Seeing the sun rise up above the clouds on the summit stretch was also incredible, although I was not in the best shape mentally or physically to appreciate it at the time!
Sunrise over the clouds at 5500m
But what really made the experience was the group of people we climbed with; the challenge is so intense you can’t help but bond really quickly. Not to mention the complete lack of privacy when it comes to all bodily functions (‘the trowel’ became legendary!)
Did you have any doubts on your way up?
Of course. It’s a serious challenge, and every person responds differently to altitude. You can be super fit and still succumb to altitude sickness. In my case, I was aware when we reached Kibo base camp the afternoon before summit night that I was starting to struggle to breathe and losing my balance (both signs of altitude sickness). At that point I knew there was a reasonable chance I might not make the top, but I was determined to give it my best shot!
Ultimately I reached 5500m, a heart-breaking 185m shy of the crater rim and 395m short of the summit at Uhuru Peak, when I was advised to descend by our doctor. Health has to come first, and who knows maybe one day I’ll go back for a second try!
What 3 items could you not do without on your way up there?
There’s a fair bit of kit needed, but I wouldn’t have been without good quality wet wipes and pear drops!
One of our group also had a fantastic stargazing app, which meant we could admire the skies of the Southern hemisphere and stare for ages identifying all the constellations and planets on display.
How did you feel when you got up there?
Physically, I felt pretty dreadful to be honest! And I was also so disappointed not to reach the summit, particularly knowing that I wouldn’t be there to support my sister on that last push (she made it to Uhuru though, tough cookie!)
But to focus on that would be to ignore the amazing experience of walking way above the clouds for days on end, learning Swahili and Kilimanjaro songs from our guides, and watching the sun rise and set on this beautiful mountain. I only smile when I think about it, and I’m proud that I went absolutely as far as my body would let me.
– Pole-pole! Which means slowly-slowly in Swahili. Take it slow, breathe deeply, admire the view. The faster you go, the less time your body has to acclimatise and the more likely you are to suffer with altitude sickness.
– Pick a good company that takes care of their guides and porters. Your guides make your climb; they carry your bags, prepare your food, bring you tea in bed, hold your hand when you think you can’t go on, and lift your spirits with songs and smiles.
– Finally take a good camera – your photos will be incredible as I hope you can see!
**Photos are courtesy of Gaby Parker
Thank you Gaby for taking us on this incredible adventure!!