A wise man once said it is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves. I say never go on a trip that ends with you sealing your laundry into vacuum packs before disposing of it like nuclear waste. Honestly, these Kilimanjaro climbers are mental. My own team was dominated by six previously sensible family men who faced with a mountain peak were ready to trample women and children underfoot in order to get to the top first. Consequently, we took the second toughest route and went way too fast.
I know we went too fast because we kept passing Mr Switzerland. Seriously. Mr Switzerland 2009 is now a top mountaineering guide and was leading a party of Swiss climbers, mostly women. He was dressed in skin-tight ski pants and a belt with studs in the shape of safari animals. And he was walking really slowly.
My lot were stomping so fast I was left at the back with a 19-year-old girl with epilepsy who was attempting the climb against the advice of her doctor.
On the second day she felt so ill she only just made it out of bed. I didn’t spot the fluffy cotton poking out of her ski jacket until it was too late. ‘Sophia, please tell me you are not climbing Kilimanjaro in your pyjamas,’ I said, as we passed 3,000 metres.
‘I carn ’elp it,’ she whinged, in that winning way teenagers have. ‘I’m so tired, innit.’ As she struggled to put one foot in front of the other and asked me questions like ‘if I ’ave a fit up ’ere I’m gonna die, aren’t I?’, the rest of the group marched ahead until they disappeared over the horizon and we were left alone with two Tanzanian guides.
The clouds swirled around us, the path stretched out endlessly in front of us. ‘They’ll be just around this rock waiting for us,’ I told Sophia.
The clouds came down. We were in a white-out. After the second rocky outcrop that they weren’t behind I burst into tears.
‘But we haven’t even had our lunch,’ I wailed. ‘We could at least have had our lunch together.’
The Marangu route has a reputation for taking people apart. And if you’re only loosely put together in the first place as I am you really are in trouble.
‘Please don’t cry, ma’am,’ said one of the gentle Tanzanian guides. ‘But I’m so angry. I’m going to kill them,’ I sobbed. ‘No, ma’am, you’re a Christian and you must forgive.’ ‘Sod that. I’m going into the atheism business.’
At Kibo huts at 4,700 metres we reassembled. But instead of a day to acclimatise and a half-night’s sleep we had only two hours before the porters woke us up to attempt the summit at 10 p.m.
To satisfy some kind of crazy macho desire for manhood to be vindicated, we were attempting to climb 5,800 metres in three days.
Sophia decided against going further after her nose started to bleed and the blood froze to her face. She got into her bunk and went to sleep.
After one hour’s fitful doze, I launched myself out of my bunk, fumbled into my clothes and joined the others to start battling in the dark to the summit. The men were joshing and whooping as if they were off to watch Arsenal v. United. Soon they were picking up the pace.
‘Please,’ I gasped, ‘slow down, I can’t get any air in.’ It was too late. Altitude sickness had me in its grip. A guide called Israel took me back to Kibo and I crawled into my bunk praying for death. The next morning, holding our heads in our hands, Sophia and I started the walk back down with the cook and a porter no older than 16 carrying all our bags on their heads, with a few gallons of cooking oil and some pots and pans balanced on top for good measure. Now that’s macho. Halfway down we passed Mr Switzerland on the way up still, leading his merry band of ducklings, none of them looking as if they were feeling remotely sick — though whether that was because of the slowness of the walk or the sheer analgesic of his boyish good looks was unclear.
As for our team, six got to the summit where the form was very much projectile vomiting and psychotic hallucinations — one man took his mobile phone out and tried to call a taxi. When they got down they could barely walk, breathe, talk or move their crusted blue lips.
Sophia and I, by contrast, were feeling quite pukka. ‘I need to get my nails done,’ she mused, looking down at her acrylics as we slurped hot chocolate. I nodded deeply. It was the smartest thing anyone had said for days.