African safari dream led to lifetime physical challenge

When Alix Steward approached her two friends to come along on their African safari holiday, in the bargain she got the toughest physical challenge of her life.

“What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that their plans included a six-day trek up to the 5,900-meter peak of the highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania,” says the City of Edmonton IT Branch procurement and sourcing program manager.

Kilimanjaro is not a technical ‘straight-up’ climb, as the summit can be reached via well-traveled pathways requiring up to eight days of often steep uphill trekking. Alix’s group took the six-day trek.

Mother of three boys in their 20s, Alix is a runner who has competed in half-marathons, one just a few weeks before the holiday.

Alix Steward just wanted to go on safari with her friends. In the bargain, she got a trip to Africa’s highest peak, and the physical challenge of her lifetime.

Alix Steward just wanted to go on safari with her friends. In the bargain, she got a trip to Africa’s highest peak, and the physical challenge of her lifetime.

“So I thought fine, I just wanted the safaris, but now I’ll climb Kilimanjaro too.

“Before I went, I climbed from the Lake Louise ski resort up to the tea house, and to the mountaintop gondola lift at Jasper. That was it for prep,” she smiles.

It turned out that while the climb may not be vertical, it can actually be deadly, since there is a very real danger of high altitude sickness leading to fatal swelling in the pulmonary system or the brain. One of her group saw a young climber being brought back down the mountain in a body bag. No wonder only 44% of trekkers make the top!

Trek Day One: first view of Mount Kilimanjaro, from the valley floor.

Trek Day One: first view of Mount Kilimanjaro, from the valley floor.

Alix and her friends were grouped with four trekkers from the UK.

They headed off with a guide, three assistants and – get this! – 23 fully altitude-acclimatized porters who each day carried camping gear, an incredible array of fresh food and even a porta-potty past the trekking tourists to the next night’s camp.

“By day 2, we felt the altitude. I was profoundly sleepy. At one rest, I dumped tea all over myself when I fell asleep sitting up.”

Each day they’d climb, deliberately walking slowly to better process what little oxygen there was. Just before supper, they’d trek upward another hour, stay there 15 minutes to further acclimatize to even thinner air, then return to camp.

“The guides engaged us in conversation from the start so they could spot personality changes as a result of altitude sickness. One of our group was sent down the evening before we made the summit because he was staggering back two steps for every one he took forward.”

With a full moon in a clear sky, at 10 pm on day 5, the group began the last climb to the 19,300-foot peak, where they saw a ‘totally incredible’ sunrise.

Still wary of danger, guides wouldn’t let them linger. Once they’d seen the view and taken photos, they quickly began their descent.

“I was incredibly tired at the top, but I started feeling better as soon as we began our descent.

“The way down involved actually running on very long stretches of skree. Suffice it to say the way down was a lot quicker and easier than the way up had been,” says Alix.

So what was the trek’s most profound experience?

“On the way up, one of my friends and a British pastor in our group began singing How Great Thou Art. The bearers, many of whom are Christian, began singing along…in Swahili!

“I thought to myself, now this is really neat.”

Five of the six trekkers who started the six-day trek up Kilimanjaro with Alix made it to the 5,900-meter summit. Alix is in the centre of the back row (red toque).

Five of the six trekkers who started the six-day trek up Kilimanjaro with Alix made it to the 5,900-meter summit. Alix is in the centre of the back row (red toque).

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