The hare, the tortoise and the mountain

My friends and I, along with an inflatable elephant called Paula, climbed Kilimanjaro and fundraised for Tsavo Trust – an elephant conservation project. Our fundraising page will remain open for a few weeks, so if you’d like to support us, please do check it out:


Kilimanjaro preparations


One of the wonderful things about preparing for the Kilimanjaro trek was having an excuse to get out and see more beautiful places. Some of that was local to Cambridge and just involved walking to nearby villages, but we also went to some actual hills too. Cambridge is spectacularly flat, and the nearest hills are pretty far away. So during our preparations, we went for a few trips to Scotland to climb some Bens (Ben Lomond and Ben Nevis). We also went to Germany for a wonderful trip to Zugspitze (which we nicknamed Big Zug) and a few other nearby mountains.


A lot of people say that the real challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro is psychological, and I definitely agree that this is true. During training, one of the things that came up was that when we got tired after a lot of climbing, different people had different ways of carrying on. For example, some people found it easier to take breaks, then move in quick bursts, while others found it easier to move continuously. Different people’s pace could also be quite different at times.


The hare and the tortoise

During these trips, I found myself thinking about the hare and the tortoise a lot. Or to be more precise, I found myself identifying with and channelling the tortoise. I found that when I was exhausted, I couldn’t go particularly fast, but there was a particular kind of gentle stride I could fall into, that I think I can literally keep going forever. This isn’t a massive revelation, but it can be quite difficult – if you’re with another person or in a group, the natural instinct is to keep up and keep pace with people. This isn’t always the best thing to do, as sometimes your own pace can take you much further. But what you need is, shall we say, a certain confidence in your own footsteps. After all, the goal isn’t to keep up, or to be the fastest – it’s to reach the top. And the way you reach the top is just to keep on going.


Pole pole


The thing that any blog about Kilimanjaro will tell you, is that the guides will make you go really slowly. The phrase “pole pole” means slowly/gradually in Swahili, and it’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot. But like every other blog, I have to say – you won’t believe just how slowly they will get you to walk. While I felt well prepared with my tortoise philosophy, the truth is that the tortoise would have easily run circles around us on the mountain. The pace throughout was incredibly slow. For us, at any rate. Our support crew consisted of 12 porters, who would rush ahead carrying truly superhuman quantities of stuff, and set up the next campsite hours before we reached them. Their superpowers persisted too, well into the sort of altitude that made the “pole pole” pace not seem at all ridiculous to us any longer.


Throughout the trip, we would walk at whatever pace the guides set, and that was almost invariably unimaginably slow. So with the whole group going “pole pole”, the ability to set my own pace turned out to be a bit redundant. We even went so slowly that my muscles only felt at all tired on 1 of the 8 days of the climb (the day we did the scramble up Barranco wall) despite walking for hours every day. And even then it was a gentle kind of tired. Seriously, I get more muscle soreness from an average trip to the gym. But the pole pole pace wasn’t there to let our muscles get off easy – it was essential for fending off altitude sickness. If your heart rate goes up, you’re using more oxygen and are more likely to get ill.


The tortoise at altitude


The tortoise only came to me a few times, and interestingly, rather than being a safety net, it ended up being a warning sign. The first time was on the first day that we went up to the height of 4600m. In the last 50m or so of the ascent, I found myself thinking about the tortoise and trying to pace my footsteps again. And as soon as we hit 4600, all of a sudden I felt incredibly ill. I was shocked what a difference an ascent of only 50m or so made, and how quickly altitude sickness hit me. The headache and nausea went away completely after hyperventilating for 10 mins (pro tip: if you’re feeling altitude sickness, make yourself hyperventilate on purpose. At sea level, it would make you dizzy from too much oxygen, but on the mountain, it’s just what your body needs), but it was an interesting lesson in coping with altitude. Your pace should be so slow that you basically don’t exert yourself at all. The tortoise is ominous, because if you’re going at tortoise pace, that’s actually way too fast. It signals that you’re getting closer to the edge of your abilities, and you shouldn’t be anywhere near there. For the rest of the trip, if I felt the presence of the tortoise, I did my best to heed the warning sign.


The interesting thing about the challenge of Kilimanjaro is that in many ways, none of the people in our group were climbing the same mountain. The difficulties and obstacles we encountered were highly personal, and happened at different times for each of us. Whether it was the cold, lack of sleep, altitude sickness, problems eating, or a fear of heights, it’s certainly true that none of us found it easy, and that at different points of the trip each of us had to encounter our own tortoise and find a way to keep going.


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  1. Pingback: Mountain genetics part 2: Reaching the summit |

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