THE MOST MENTALLY DRAINING DAY OF MY LIFE
I was about 30 minutes away from reaching Moir Camp on the third day of the #Climb4Cord when I had officially run out of steam – for the third or fourth time.
Moir Camp is perched at the end of a massive gorge which allowed me to hear the songs of our porters, already in camp, echoing off the rocks as I struggled to finish.
I had already drawn strength from thoughts of wife Jess and our two boys. I had thought of friends and colleagues, childhood moments and months of successful training hikes. I even recreated the awful taste that was left in my mouth from a failed summit bid on Victoria’s Mt. Finlayson back in May. But now, I was out of options to propel me into camp. Getting to camp was the only option I had to buy some valuable rest time – rest that would make the difference on whether I could continue on the #Climb4Cord.
I had been struggling for a majority of the 8-hour day that began at 11,500-ft (3,505-m) at Shira 1 Camp. Thanks to the help of Eddie Frank – the owner of Tusker Trail – and the two official doctors on our climb, Dr. Neil McGee and Dr. Paul Doucet, I managed to drag myself within earshot of that night’s camp. We were now approaching 13,650-ft (4,160-m), but my tank was empty.
I took a knee and closed my eyes.
I’m not religious. I don’t consider myself spiritual (Eddie would disagree). However, I had no other option than to close my eyes and ask my late father, my inspiration for participating in this climb, for help.
I asked my dad to give me the strength to make it into camp and to keep my dream and pursuit of the summit of Kilimanjaro alive.
I’m not sure how long I stayed down on one knee, but when I finally open my eyes I was overcome with an incredible burst of adrenaline. I struggle to recall the final 30 minutes on the trail, except for the moments before we reached camp and Eddie told me that the singing was for me.
This was a bit of an exaggeration on Eddie’s part – generally the porters, cooks and guides welcome all climbers into this particular camp via song and dance. It just so happened that I, along with Neil, Paul and Eddie, were the final group to reach camp.
I don’t remember who took the pack off my back as I approached the massive cluster of singers and dancers. I did dance for a few moments before retreating to a rock to absorb the moment and reflect on the past several hours. The sun was still strong, beating down on my broken, dust covered body.
“Your father was with you,” whispered Graham Sher, the leader of both Canadian Blood Services and the #Climb4Cord.
I cried. Tears hidden only by my sunscreen stained sunglasses. I stared at this incredible scene of colour, song, and dance trying to recap in my mind what had transpired and why months of training and preparation had failed me. With so much on the line, what had I done to deserve this cruel fate?
My day got off to a poor start. We were just two minutes along the trail and I couldn’t get my backpack to sit properly. I continued to fidget with it while I walked, loosening and tightening straps in hopes of finding the right groove. I hadn’t slept well, but I figured I just needed a few minutes to get my blood pumping and everything would return to normal, as it had on each of my 25-plus training hikes.
I’m generally a slow starter when I hike. I take a while to warm up, but once I’m going, I gain strength with each stride. Unfortunately, this was not the case on this day. In fact, things turned from bad to worse.
After a taxing uphill section of the trail forced me to take deep lunging strides, I finally came to rest on a large rock at the rear of the group. While everyone else started snacking, I couldn’t move. My mind was cloudy, my body weak. I no longer had a desire to talk, Tweet or eat.
I’m not sure how long I sat alone on the rock before Eddie and the rest of the guides in the rear of our expedition reached me. But Eddie instantly recognized what was wrong with me – I had altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness – or acute mountain sickness (AMS) – remains a mystery in the scientific community. While it is widely understood that it is caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes, it is unclear what factors lead to people acclimatizing at different rates.
I was feeling fatigued, light-headed, and had little desire to eat. A lingering headache was also among the symptoms of AMS afflicting me at that moment.
Eddie, along with the two docs, helped me to eat and drink. The rest of the group packed up and proceeded up the trail. I stayed behind to hike slower and take more breaks to try and overcome what was now ailing me and potentially jeopardizing almost seven months worth of training.
August 8th, 2013 would become one of the longest and most mentally draining days of my life.
My tears began to flow not long after I called out to my dad for help. They blurred my vision for the duration of the trek into camp.
“You showed a lot of courage,” I recall Neil telling me at the time. He, too, wiped away tears.
It was an emotional time for all of us. Proof that climbing Kilimanjaro was as much mental as it was physical.
Had it not been for Neil and Paul and the stories they shared throughout the afternoon, I’m not sure that I would have made it to camp. This simple act of teamwork disproved any illusions that climbing a mountain was an individual act. At this moment, it became abundantly clear that there was no way I was going to reach the summit on my own.
Despite the climb getting off to an inauspicious start – I slid back down a mud hill only minutes into our ascent, nearly wiping out a half dozen climbers – the first two days on the mountain were fantastic. Our team had been reaching our destinations in “record time”. We arrived at our first camp, a 4-hour hike to Mti Mkubwa, in only 2.5 hours.
The second day was similar to the first. It was our first full day of hiking and a sign that the weather gods would be on our side on this journey. As we raced out of the rain forest and across the Shira Caldera we saw the sun for the first time since arriving in Tanzania. It poked out from behind the clouds just before 10 o’clock in the morning and guided us all the way to Shira 1 Camp.
I was using trekking poles for the first time and this allowed me to leverage my upper body strength and save my legs. I was feeling great – pleased that my rigorous training and preparation was paying off.
I enjoyed the mist in the rainforest and spotting the odd Colobus or blue monkey up in the trees, but mostly I was excited to finally be hiking after days of sitting around the Bristol Cottages in Moshi eating curry dishes and hydrating with water (and beer).
I was also building a pretty good rapport with the guides thanks to the basic Swahili words I had retained from my trip to Tanzania in 2007. By the time we had arrived at “Big Tree” camp to conclude the first day on the trails, my Swahili nickname had officially stuck. The guides had started calling me Tembo (English Translation: Elephant) because of my size and strength. We even spent time discussing personal bests in the gym, as the guides took pride in their ability to lift weights, too.
With my previous experience travelling to Everest Base Camp (Tibet side) in 2005, which sits at 16,900-ft (5,150-m) and my progress on the first two days, there was no reason to suspect that I would experience such a setback as early as the third day.
The problem with altitude sickness is that all of your strength becomes useless as your body struggles to adapt to its new environment. So leg pressing 700-lbs. 20 times or walking up and down five flights of stairs in a 40-lbs. weight vest meant fuck all at that point in time. In fact, only one stat mattered: My oxygen saturation level.
Each morning and night we were subjected to medical checks by the Tusker Trail crew. They would measure our resting heart rate and our oxygen saturation levels (often referred to as O-Sat) in addition to other variables.
A normal oxygen saturation level is between 95% to 100%. Some of the symptoms of low oxygen saturation levels I experienced at the time included: Shortness of breath, extreme fatigue and weakness, mental confusion and a throbbing headache.
I sat on the rock watching the singing and dancing for about 15 minutes while sipping some tea with sugar. My resting heart rate was measured at 135bpm, which is what it would be after 30 minutes on an elliptical machine at the gym. My O-Sat was a startling 73%.
This was the cue for Eddie and the Tusker team to take me into the medical tent to see if they could provide a short term fix while my body struggled to acclimatize.
Eddie and his crew are incredibly experienced with health and safety on the mountain. Their solution was to put me on oxygen and stabilize my body so that it could then start to naturally acclimatize to the altitude.
Within seconds of breathing in the oxygen I started to feel more alert and my headache subsided. My sense of humor also returned. I was feeling good for the first time in hours. But I wasn’t out of the woods, yet. I would have to wait and see if my body could adapt overnight.
After a restless sleep, I woke up exhausted. My body was feeling physically taxed from the previous day’s events. My legs felt like Jell-O and my knees hurt. It was like I had just played a contact sport non-stop for a week.
I had expected to feel much better, but recovering from altitude sickness was going to be its own challenge.
I spent the morning distressed because I was facing a difficult decision – whether to continue climbing despite my condition (my O-Sat went up slightly to 79% overnight) or descend knowing I had given Kilimanjaro my best shot. That meant failing to reach Uhuru summit like the 59% of trekkers who attempt this beast, in addition to the pain I would feel from failing myself and all the other people who supported me on this very public journey.
Also weighing on my mind that morning was the fact that Tusker had had a 100% success rate on the Lemosho route in 2013. I didn’t want to be the one to break that streak.
Day 4 was going to be a challenge because it started off with a massive uphill hike. In fact, the goal of the entire morning was to reach the 15,000-ft (4,500-m) Lava Tower for lunch. That meant climbing up 1,350-ft (390-m) before descending back down to Barranco Camp at 12,950-ft (3,950-m).
All I had to do was get to Barranco Camp and I would be in a position to acclimatize at the lower altitude. If the trail was flat, my decision would have been easy. But the thought of hiking up to Lava Tower in my condition was excruciating.
In the end, we agreed that I would hike in the back with the docs and my own guide – Urio – and we would go slowly. Reflecting back on Eddie’s words to us the day before we started the climb, he said, “You go slow to win this race.” As it turned out, he was right.
The Alpine Moorland Zone on Kilimanjaro is stunning. We encountered all sorts of unique plants along the route. But as we climbed, the terrain became increasingly rocky. Clouds started to form as the temperature dropped close to zero. Soon, we were hiking through sleet.
By now, the rest of the group had reached Lava Tower, but we were about an hour behind. Given the changing weather conditions, we were re-routed along a porter’s shortcut down towards Barranco Camp. With Neil and Paul keeping me entertained with stories and Urio guiding us slowly, I was starting to feel better.
We descended into the Barranco Valley where we encountered Giant Senecios dotting the landscape. These massive odd shaped trees seemed more appropriate for a Sci-Fi novel than a mountain in the middle of Africa.
About an hour out from camp the sun returned overhead. This was met by giant clouds funneling their way up the valley towards us. The collision of sun and cloud created the most beautiful rainbow archway and welcomed us into Barranco. For some, it was simply a rainbow. For others, it was interpreted as a sign that things were about to change.
The #Climb4Cord featured a group of business leaders who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in August 2013 and raised more than $350,000 in personal donations for the campaign For All Canadians, which is dedicated to building Canada’s new national public cord blood bank.