Diabetes no obstacle for Kilimanjaro Summit! – By Jos Reeves


7am on the 1st of July 2013. Packed and ready to go to the airport! I had been very young the last time I flew so this was, in a way, my first flying experience. Our flights out to Kilimanjaro went well. We had to be aware that my insulin pump, tester, spare tester and holiday loan pump couldn’t go through the security scanners. I had a letter from my consultant explaining why they were needed but the loan pump did cause an issue in Istanbul, both on the way out and back.

Security wanted to open the new sealed box to examine it but Meditronic request that we only open it if needed for use. In future I would have a letter from Meditronic explaining what it is and why it needed to remain sealed, copied in the languages of the countries I was going to, as this would have really helped.

The day before the climb started we had to empty all our bags and repack, taking only what we’d need on the mountain and the rest staying in a safe at the hotel. That was difficult. You didn’t want to take too much as you knew the porters would be carrying it and you could only take what you could fit in your main rucksack and your day sack. But you also didn’t want to find you left something important behind. Trust us to need something we didn’t bring, ‘after-sun’ for when Tandi got sunburnt. I took as many cereal bars as I could fit in, along with high-energy bars which I knew I’d need for the summit attempt.

I wrote a daily diary when I was on the mountain and in the front of it was a photo of my mum and one of my granddad, who died 3yrs ago. I also had written ‘Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.’ Isaiah 41:10. I knew I wouldn’t be alone and I wouldn’t be doing this in my own strength.

When we arrived at the gate we met our guides and porters. The 2 main people were Niche, also known as 99% because of how many he gets to the summit, and Abul. My thoughts as we started were ‘Here we go; this is where the challenge of a life time begins’. That first day we climbed through rain forest, hearing monkeys cry and the sound of running water. We walked for 6 hours, stopping for rests when the guides felt we needed it and lunch in the middle. We had a roll, biscuits, banana, boiled egg and orange juice, which seemed a good mixture of carbohydrates and glucose. I was drinking about 3 – 4 litres of water a day the whole way up, because I knew I needed to. Got to Machame camp and what a feeling, the first day down. Found what my home for the week was going to be, a little tent for Tandi and me to share, a mess tent to eat in and the necessary toilet tent, with a specific ‘toilet man’ to look after it! 1 down, 4 until the summit.

We were woken by the call for breakfast at 6.30am and I tested immediately, everything was as it should be. I’d had a good first night. There was about 3mm frost on the outside of all our tents and it was cold.
Putting cold clothes on is the worst thing! When we climbed out of our tents we had our first view of the summit. Put into good language my thoughts were ‘holy fuzz balls’!! It turned out to be another hard day, with 6 hours of walking and lots of steep, rocky, uphill climbing. The scenery though was fantastic with some lovely views, especially of Mount Meru, which helped keep me going. By the time we got to Shira camp I was again very tired. Supper was rice and FRIED chicken! Fried chicken on the side of a mountain and it was good. 2 down, 3 until the summit.

Early start again and it was a long day, 7 hours walking in total. This was the ‘Lava Tower’ day, where we began our real acclimatisation. It is at 4600m, the same height as base camp, and is 300 feet tall. The plan was to climb to the top of it but Tandi was being hit by altitude sickness and threw up at the base, so we rested and then moved down to Barranco Camp at 3950m. This follows the climber’s saying “climb high, sleep low”. During this day my bloods were dropping all the time. I was struggling to keep them up and had to adjust my basal rates to reduce my insulin. I was tired and it was tough. It was a real relief when we walked into camp that night. 3 down, 2 until summit.

Not such an early start on Day 4, we got an extra hour in bed! We also didn’t walk as far, only 3 hours but the Barranco wall was the steepest and narrowest part of our climb. In some places we had long sheer drops below us and, at one point, ‘the kissing rock’; we had to step across a chasm while we leaned into a large boulder to keep our balance. At the top the view looking back down at the camp we’d come from was a great feeling. I was aware that my bloods were still running a bit low but for me it was better than being high and I just ate lots of cereal bars and glucose tablets. Our camp that night was Karanga which was at 3930m; actually 20m lower than Barranco where we stayed the previous night. Doing it this way was so important, giving our bodies’ time to acclimatise and get used to the altitude. 4 down, 1 until summit.

Day 5 was another short day of 3 hours walking with a late start. The mountain peak was getting bigger and more detailed. We could see and begin to comprehend the size of the glacier on it. It was a scary thought that we’d hopefully be up there the next morning. The day seemed to drag on and on. In the valleys we saw streams that were frozen and there was ice everywhere. I wasn’t feeling the cold too much yet as although the air temp was low the sun was hot. We got to one point and dad said it looked as though we only had 10 minutes walking left because he could see the camp on the next brow but our guide said no, it would be at least an hour. That’s when we discovered the huge valley in between! When I walked into base camp my main thought was being anxious about the night ahead. Barafu camp is on a rocky ridge and our tents seemed to be jammed in between big boulders. We went to sleep in the warm afternoon sun after lunch for 3 hours before being woken for dinner. Then we had 4 hours sleep before that wake up call for the summit climb. I slept well but just when it feels like you’re getting into sleep you’re being woken. It was so windy; the whole tent was rocking around. We put on as many layers as possible. My pump, test kit, glucose tablets, Glucogel and disposable insulin pens were in a bum bag under my 9 layers, not easy to get at but necessary as I didn’t want them freezing. A midnight breakfast of popcorn and biscuits would hopefully fuel us for the climb.

We all had our walking poles and head torches. The climb began very steep and rocky. The majority of climbers had already started; we could see their lights bobbing along the path ahead of us. The plan is to leave base camp while the scree is still frozen, its dark and its cool. The aim is to get to the ridge at Stellar Point in time to see the sunrise and our guides knew we were walking well so they upped our pace and pushed us to overtake as many as we could very quickly. So having been nearly the last to leave the camp, we were very soon near the front. As we passed everyone and got up into more exposed areas I began to feel the cold. The wind was just cutting through us and became a major problem for me. After a brief stop I put waterproof trousers on and pulled my hood over my balaclava. This was all the extra I had. A short while later we stopped again and I was ready to go back down, I was so cold.
The diabetes seemed to really affect my circulation so I just wasn’t keeping warm. Psychologically as well as physically I felt like I’d hit a wall. This was when dad took off his coat and gave it to me. It totally engulfed me, it was huge. He encouraged me to carry on, told me I could do it. All that was running through my head was memories of my granddad. I wanted to do it for him.

It was still black and I almost zoned out, all I could concentrate on was one foot in front of the other. Dad and Tandi were the same. This went on for about 2 hours before we reached Stella Point, which is at 5865m and on the crater rim. We were elated. It hadn’t come a moment too soon. We all knew there was more to go but this was the lift we needed. We followed the ridge path up a slow incline. I was still freezing but forgot about it because I was concentrating so much on moving forward. We saw a point we thought was the summit but it wasn’t, it was a rock formation that we had to walk round. Then it’s a big, long, straight incline and you can see the top with the sign and those who have made it already but it seemed so far away.

At 6.15am, on the 8th July 2013, we finally reached the sign; we’d made it to the summit. I sat down; I was so cold and exhausted. The sun was just coming up and around me I could see the glacier and the clouds below us but I found it hard to take it all in. It was almost too much, physically and emotionally. I certainly hadn’t taken on board what I’d done and I still haven’t really. I’d successfully reached the summit of Kilimanjaro and it didn’t feel real.
We stayed on the summit for about half an hour. Tandi sat with me while dad looked around, taking photos. Then it was time to move down.’

The way down is very different to the way up. You are ‘skiing’ as they call it, it’s almost a run. My blood sugars started to dip at this point. We weren’t surprised; I’d pushed my body to its limits, not only with the walking but also the struggle against the cold. I was eating glucose sweets and cereal bars but they didn’t seem to be making any difference. Finally dad said I needed to take some Glucogel, which I’ve never had to use before. I squeezed the whole tube into my mouth. I just kept going until we got back to Barafu camp, about 10am. All I felt was absolute relief that I could rest. We were given the chance to have 3 hours sleep before we had another 3 hour walk down to Mweka Camp. From being so low my blood sugars were now going up too high as we came off the mountain. I had to do lots of tests again and increase my basal rates. But at last I could fall into my sleeping bag. We were woken for dinner, chips and salad, and then straight back to bed.

When I woke the next morning dad and Tandi seemed to be feeling it a lot in their legs and knees but I was ok. It is traditional for the guides and porters to sing their Kilimanjaro songs at this point and they didn’t disappoint. We’d had a brilliant team and a fabulous trip which I will never forget.

Then it was time
to leave our last camp on the mountain and all I could think about was the hotel bed! It took about 4 hours, down through the beautiful rain forest, before we got to the bottom. It was such a good feeling seeing the cars, minibuses, buildings and civilisation again.

Well, what can
I say the challenge of a life time finished and what a great time it was. I still can’t believe I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. When we finally got back to the UK I found that I’d reached my £1000 target, Wow!

Thank you all so much for all your support!

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