An adventurous Barrowford resident has braved the 5,895m summit of Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Meningitis Research Foundation.
Loughborough University graduate Anna Birtwistle (22), of Wheatley Springs, completed the challenge with her best friend Lydia.
Here, she shares her story exclusively with Leader Times Newspapers:
I first signed up for the trip in October of 2012 with best friend Lydia when we wanted to do something memorable in our last year of uni and this was the ultimate challenge!
Back then it felt like an age away but, after 10 months of fund-raising and organising, it soon rolled round and I found myself in Gatwick Airport with 30 other students eager and anxious for the huge challenge ahead.
After checking in my rucksack, which was nearly the same size as me I could hardly carry a few steps without wobbling, we relaxed and started to get to know each other. We had a 15-hour flight to Nairobi, Kenya, ahead of us so there was plenty of time.
When we landed in Kenya, we caught a bus to Tanzania. It was my first time in Africa and it was different to anywhere I had been before.
I knew I was miles from the Pendle countryside when the hot African sunshine hit me exiting the airport but I felt welcomed by smiles and a cheery ‘Jambo’ from our bus driver.
We passed traditional African huts selling vegetables, clothes and supplies on the sides of roads, we also had to show our Yellow Fever vaccination certificates and Visas at check points to enter Tanzania.
We were grateful to see the welcoming sign of our hotel in the city of Arusha, which meant a well-deserved shower and comfy bed before we started the climb the next day.
An hour drive took us to the starting point of the climb: Machame Gate, at the southern base of the mountain. We were taking the Machame route up the mountain, known for not being the easiest route and nicknamed the ‘Whisky Route’ due to its difficulty. I started to wonder if my supply of jelly babies would be enough to keep me going.
I would soon find out as we started our climb walking on a steep path through dense rainforest for four to five hours. Along the way we started to learn traditional African chants and songs about the mountain from our guide Isaac.
I was touched how the local people treasure Kilimanjaro, which they call the ‘growing mountain’, and how it provides so many jobs.
The first day we climbed to around 3,000m to Machame Camp to find our tents set up by the porters, who had sped ahead with our rucksacks during the day. Dinner was cooked and served in a large tent and was high in carbs and vegetables for energy.
From here we caught our first glimpse of the mountain and I was overwhelmed at how high we still had to climb as we already seem quite high and I was told today was the easiest day. However being in a large group definitely helped keep me going .
The stars at night on the mountain were breathtaking as the sky was so clear and there was little light pollution, they seemed to fill the sky, I could even see the dusky milky way.
Today was the first time some members of our team started to feel the effects of the altitude.
We woke up bright and early around six thirty for a breakfast of millet porridge, toast and fruit. The porridge was tasteless but we learnt by adding sugar, milkpowder and a little hot chocolate powder we enjoyed it a lot more.
We would be climbing to 3,850m to the next camp today. The terrain was rocky with vegetation growing along the path, I enjoyed this day the most due to the amazing views of the mountain ahead and just an hour after we had started climbing, we broke through the rainforest and were looking down on a sheet of fluffy clouds.
Arriving at Shira camp after six and a half hours walking, I began to feel the cold due to the height we had climbed to, but it was soon forgotten when our porter team had popcorn and warm drinks waiting for us.
We had a large team of 80 porters and guides helping us get up the mountain and that night they threw us a welcome party where they introduced themselves and taught us their native songs and dances while the sun set in the mountains.
I loved their energy, charisma and pride and couldn’t help but join in dancing in a circle singing “Kilimanjaro, Hakuna Matata”.
Today we had to get wrapped up warm for our trek ahead.
The mountain summit and glacier were visible from my tent that morning and were glowing a pale orange from the sun. It was at this point I started to feel sick from the increasing altitude.
We climbed from 3,850m to over 4,600m at our highest point, and then back down to the camp, which was at 3,950m.
This was to get us used to the climate change and having a lack of oxygen the higher you climb. We all experienced shortness of breath on the accent and I suffered with a pounding headache as we circled a lava tower formed when Kilimanjaro erupted, a reminder it was a deadly volcano thousands of years ago.
Although we were all taking small steps and going slow, the altitude made it much harder and it felt as if I was running a marathon.
Our guides were always there to remind us to go “pole, pole” meaning “slow, slow” and save our energy.
My headache eased as we descended towards camp but some of our team struggling with vomiting as well so I felt grateful it was just small pressure in my head. We arrived at Baranca camp at four o’clock in the afternoon, after a steep climb down and slept that night at 3,950m.
Being above the clouds meant the nights were cold and having to sleep in tents I found myself with as many layers on at night as I did during the day. The toilets on the mountain were basic to say the least, often they would just be a hole in a wooden hut, but it was all part of the experience and became a talking point in camp.
The whole group were getting along well and we all bonded knowing we were going through the same aches and pains.
On the Sunday morning we woke before sunrise ready to climb a steep cliff face opposite our camp called Baranca Wall.
The sun’s rise slowly followed us up the wall as we climbed over rocks until we stood at the top looking down at last night’s camp. This day was another favourite of mine although each day became progressively harder and challenging.
My leg muscles were aching and my feet burned but we kept going as we wanted to reach our goal.
We were told not to take Malaria preventing tablets up the mountain due to there being no mosquitos past a certain altitude, some of the team had been taking tablets to prevent altitude sickness but they seemed too have many side effects and Isaac told them to stop.
We trusted the guide’s advice and were told to describe any symptoms of sickness straight away, as they knew the mountain and its effects better than anyone. I felt safe with them as they were experts, Isaac told me he had been climbing Kilimanjaro all his life and leads groups up to three times each month. The porters joked they had lost count of the times they had been up and down the mountain.
The food the porters prepared for us was very unfamiliar in taste and ingredients, but by this point we were hungry and knew we had to eat it to have the energy to complete our challenge. We had dinner at Barafa camp in preparation for our night walking to the summit and what turned out to be the hardest night and day of my life.
After a restless sleep we woke at 2am for a hot drink and snack before setting off in the dark to climb the last 1,200 meters to reach the peak.
It was extremely tough walking at night but we had split into three groups based on our walking speed and each had five guides for extra safely.
We climbed slowly using head torches to lead the way, but after three hours the sun began to turn the sky a pale orange and peak over the thick blanket of cloud, however we weren’t even half way up there was still along way to go.
The assent was steep and rocky and it took all my energy to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, at the same time I had a headache and felt sick which didn’t help. I knew I just had to keep going.
The group was spread out in small chunks with everyone sticking with people walking at a similar pace to themselves, Lydia and I stuck together for moral support.
At 11am I was close to giving up when my guide pointed to a sign just over the ridge, which marked Stella point. I was so relieved as this marked the 5,739m point and it would be flat from now on until the summit, which was only 200m away!
I knew then there was no way I was stopping and from there we could see the final sign in the distance, so we powered on but only after a quick photo opportunity.
Some of our friends were struggling with sickness feeling dizzy and even slightly drunk. I am so proud of everyone for carrying on to the top, we all helped encouraging each other if anyone was struggling and the guides were amazing.
My guide, Adub, carried my daypack, which felt 10 times as heavy towards the end, which helped me to carry on further. The last leg between Stella point and Uhurua should have taken an hour, I am not sure whether I was so eager to get there or it was just the altitude playing games with my head but it only felt like 15 minutes.
We passed the Arrow Glacier, which dominated the horizon to our left as we approached the summit, it was beautiful and sparkled in the sunlight.
At midday on Monday, September 9th, I reached Uhurua Peak, the highest point of Kilimanjaro. We all felt terrible but everyone of our team made it to the top, and we all stood at 5,895m. looking out on the world. There were lots of photos, hugging and tears of joy at the top and not just from the girls.
After 10 minutes some of the boys were feeling particularly bad and we set off down the way we came. It soon became clear two of our team, Reece and Michael were badly affected by the altitude and needed help getting down.
We were left with one guide while the others rushed the boys down to a safer height. We were all worried as Michael was so bad he needed an oxygen mask, but they got down safely. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking and expertise of the guides the boys could have been in a lot of trouble especially that high up.
We came down quickly in around three hours down a steep scree covered slope. It felt like skiing using our waling poles to help us descend. I got back to camp at 5pm, to be greeted by Jacoba and dinner.
My headache cleared in time to hear we would be walking another two hours to the next camp due to the lack of water. Altogether we walked 16 hours that day, and it is safe to say it was the hardest of my life.
I can assure you that, after reaching the top, walking down hill seems a breeze so we reached Millennium camp, our last camp in record time at 9pm in the dark. Supper was rice and veg again, which we ate before heading into our tents for a well-deserved rest.
To compare the height we climbed to, Pendle Hill is 557m and the highest point in England is Scafell Pike, at 978m. Uhurua Peak was 5,895m, the most we climbed in one day was 1,200m and descended 2,000m in one day.
This day was one last day of walking down to the final gate where we would be picked up and taken back to the hotel.
We woke up and had a final breakfast before thanking our porters and saying goodbye for good.
The climate slowly changed back to rainforest and got warmer as we descended to the gate before heading back to the hotel.
Once back and showered we had a celebratory meal with Issac and Benso our lead guides and were presented with certificates for reaching the top.
It isn’t often all members of such a large group reach the top successfully and I know we couldn’t have done it without team work and the help of the guides and porters. I am extremely proud of myself and my team, I took up the challenge which was well out of my comfort zone but I would highly recommend anyone to take on the challenge as it has been the hardest but most rewarding journey of my life.
The next day after the mountain we were aching all over but packed up and Lydia and I travelled to the Island of Zanzibar for a well-deserved break.
The rest of the group headed out on a two-day safari organised by Student Adventures, too, they would be meeting us in Zanzibar after that.
Flying from Kilimanjaro’s airport, we got a small plane which flew lower than we climbed the previous day which was mind blowing.
We arrived in the capital Stone Town and travelling to Nungwi, a small town at the north of the island. Our hotel was on the beach which had pure white sands and the brightest turquoise sea I have ever seen.
Zanzibar was lovely and warm, full of lush vegetation and traditional wooden huts with roofs of woven palm leaves.
During my trip I visited Stone Town’s markets, a spice farm which grew herbs and fruit such as lemon grass nutmeg and ginger and went snorkelling around the island’s coral reefs.
I was a great way to unwind after and reflect on the huge journey we had been on together and we by the end of it we all felt like a big family.
I would not have been able to start my journey without the donations of all my family and friends helping me raise £2,650 for Meningitis Research Foundation.
Special thanks to the donations of clothes and equipment that helped me up the mountain, particularly Burghaus for my jacket.