During October 2019, a team of 20 personnel from RAF Odiham undertook a 7-day trekking expedition in Tanzania, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. The challenge was to complete the Lemosho route within 7 days, approximately 70 km of trekking to reach the 5895m summit. The Lemosho route crosses the Shira Plateau from west to east and traverses below Kilimanjaro's southern ice fields on a path known as the Southern Circuit, before summiting from Barafu via Stella Point.
Day 1. The teams adventure started from a small village called Moshi located in the shadow on the south side of Kilimanjaro. After meeting their local guides and porters, the team made a 3-hour “off road” bus journey on mud laden roads, which would have been a challenge for most 4x4’s. Lemosho Gate (2100m) would be the team’s starting point and from here they set-off on a 4-hour trek through the luscious green forest to Mt Mkubwa camp (2780m). A relatively easy day to break the team in, the guides provided frequent reminders of moving ‘pole, pole’ (slowly, slowly), which would be the secret to a successful summit. The gradual ascent led to their home for that evening, a camp site situated under a colourful canopy of trees, inhabited by the impressive Diademe ‘Blue’ and Colobus monkeys and to the irritancy of many, a jungle floor crawling with hundreds of feisty ants.
Day 2. A glorious and mild morning with a 5-hour climb, crossing the epic Shira ridge (3600m) before then dropping down to Shira 1 camp (3500m) situated on the plateau. The sun was shining, and the views were breath-taking, keeping spirits high. Today’s lesson was “climb high, sleep low”; this approach allowed everyone’s body to start acclimatising to the altitude under short exposures. As such, the team embarked on another 2-hour walk, gaining an additional 300m in height before returning to camp. As the sun set the team got their first glimpse of what lay ahead, the clouds broke just as the moon crested the northern shoulder of the glacier capped peak; a spectacular sight.
Day 3. A gentle 4-hour walk, gaining only a few hundred metres in altitude but travelling some greater distance across the moorland to Shira 2 camp (3840m). The guides had planned to undertake a further 2-hour climb to further acclimatise, however as the heavens opened with force, the decision was made that the ‘juice wasn’t worth the squeeze’ and the team set up camp for the day. With the tents beginning to saturate with the heavy rainfall and some of the team already starting to feel mild symptoms of altitude sickness, the team took some much-needed rest. It was during this evening and unbeknown to the group that 10 of the Tanzanian porters, who could see the adverse weather conditions encroaching, turned back and left the mountain. Fortunately for us, we had a strong team, better equipment and a “you are only here once” attitude.
Day 4. The team awoke to the familiar sound of heavy rain dropping onto their tent canvases; donning their Gore-Tex and a trusty $3 umbrella, now their most important piece of kit, the group began the trek to Lava Tower (4630m). The conditions were unrelenting; rain, sleet and even some snow challenged the team during their greatest ascent so far. The conditions were certainly testing the team and the limit of their Gore-Tex. The rocky descent from Lava Tower was challenging to say the least. The team were forced down a small but fast-flowing river, which two days precious had been a well-trodden path. Upon reaching Barranco camp (3960m) the team had mixed emotions; another day closer to their goal but all their personal kit had become completely saturated. It was time to slide into damp sleeping bags and hope for the rain to pass.
The seasoned porters were working extremely hard, but they too were struggling with the conditions, especially with the limited kit they could afford. The team later discovered that further porters had been evacuated off the mountain, with one being hospitalised due to hypothermia. Furthermore, the Head Guide, Johnny, admitted that he had not seen conditions to rival these in over a decade. SAC Kelly Whitaker reflected that “The weather conditions and altitude sickness made the climb more mentally than physically challenging”, whist CT Rob Cruikshanks also mirrored these thoughts: “To say I underestimated the trip would be an understatement”.
Day 5. Under a 2-hour break in the clouds, the team continued on route to Barafu base camp (4640m); this was a relief as the route included a steep scramble up the Great Barranco Wall, which offered incredible scenery. Sadly, the rest bite was brief, and the rain returned with vengeance however, a solid team spirit took everyone onwards to Karanga camp. After lunch, the team continued with the 7-hour day, ascending to Barafu camp; it was at this point that altitude sickness became even more prominent.
Day 6. It was evident that the conditions on the summit were going to be challenging, especially with the recent snow. With just 5 hours of rest available, the team prepared for their summit attempt, starting at midnight. The team awoke to a beautiful crisp and dry evening and amazingly the conditions were perfect. Headtorches lit up the snow kissed peak, and the team began their big push to the summit, albeit very ‘pole, pole’. Despite taking regular breaks to reduce exertion and increase oxygen intake, the greatest effects of altitude were now being felt. Most were out of breath and some were feeling nauseous. Despite this and with great camaraderie, they inched their way to Stella Point (5739m) for sunrise. It was a phenomenal achievement to reach this point, but the challenge was not over yet and the team still had an hour of climbing to reach the summit. After a short rest period, some layering of sunscreen and a bag of Haribo, the team began their final journey to reach Uhuru Peak. By now the sun was beating down and the temperatures had swung wildly from freezing to tropical and at last everyone’s equipment had a chance to thaw out.
After six months of planning, training and preparation the team successfully summited Kilimanjaro (Uhuru Peak 5895m) at 8am on 19 October 2019. The views at the summit were spectacular and despite the previous bad weather, the visibility stretched as far as the eye could see, with a deep blue sky and beaming sunshine. The snow filled crater and distant glaciers were a sight to behold and no photo could do it justice. Unfortunately, time at the summit was short, with the oxygen saturation levels low and altitude sickness effecting most of the team, a quick and safe descent to lower altitude was vital. After a quick break and celebratory photo, the team made the impressive and exhausting 6-hour journey all the way down to Mweka camp (3100m); an impressive effort by everyone after an 8-hour ascent.
Day 7. With success firmly in their minds, the final 4-hour descent to the end gate passed quickly, despite the tired knees and aching feet. That afternoon, the team reflected on their incredible achievement over a beer: “Truly a once in a lifetime experience, the team were pushed to their absolute limits but supported each other unconditionally to achieve their goal. These are the moments that make you realise what a unique and incredible job we all have”, Flt Lt Wilkins, Expedition Leader. Having battled against the most treacherous weather conditions seen by our Head Guide since 2006, it was a phenomenal achievement for 19 out of 20 RAF Odiham personnel to make the summit.
This once in a lifetime opportunity would not have been possible without the support and financial contributions from the RAF Charitable Trust, Nuffield Trust, RAF Odiham Junior Ranks Welfare Fund and JHC. To whom the entire team are all extremely thankful. Furthermore, the expedition would not have taken place without the hard work and dedication of Flt Lt Christian Wilkins; this receives a deserved thank you from the Seventh Summit team.