On Saturday, 29 January, at 12.45 South Africa time, our entire team of six barefoot climbers (that’s me on the right – pics of the whole team coming soon!), and four support crew (in shoes) reached Uhuru Peak, at 5,895m, the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro and the highest point in Africa.
The trip, as I explained recently in my “pre-expedition” post, was both for the challenge and for charity. There will no doubt be much more said in the coming days – I will post a series of pictures and talk you through my own personal experience with my feet as soon as I can – but for now, we are all proud of achieving it and very grateful and thankful for all the great support we have received.
“Crazy with a capital C”
Before leaving, I wrote a post and tweeted to say we were on the way with the goal of reaching the summit entirely barefoot. What was striking to me was the number of disbelieving replies that came in soon after. They ranged from “hahaha – that’s ridiculous”, to “I hope you’re kidding”, to “Crazy with a capital C”, and perhaps most intriguingly, someone who felt that it was “disrespectful to the mountain” to attempt to walk barefoot.
My take was different – back in November, when I was first asked “Is it possible?”, the obvious answer was “yes”. I remember saying at the time that it needed a lot of research, and possibly some creative solutions and planning, but of course it was possible.
It would be wrong to say “anything is possible”, because that’s the stuff of fairytales, but this was so clearly possible IF we played the preparation cards right, that it was a project worth doing only to show that sometimes, when we stop at identifying the problems, we limit ourselves so significantly to “conventional wisdom”. I was taken aback by the strength of the sentiment AGAINST our goal. I mean, sure, there would be challenges – the cold, the risk of frost-bite, the altitude, the terrain – but those are challenges that can easily be overcome through good planning, and I couldn’t understand that it was dismissed as “impossible” without thinking through those solutions first.
We as a team make no claims about this, physiologically or otherwise. You’ll see a lot of hype around people who do “unusual” things. Firstly, I don’t believe we did anything “unusual”, at least from a physiological point of view – it’s perfectly explainable, the difference is that it goes against conventional ideas. But ultimately, we were five very normal guys and one girl who did something that was eminently possible all along. The fact that it was THOUGHT to be crazy, ridiculous (pick your synonym) is merit-worthy, but it’s not a physiological feat that demands anything other than acknowledgement of what is possible. No “awe” or “wonder” here, just basic planning and principles. Challenge beliefs – it’s amazing what becomes possible!
I realise that walking up a mountain barefoot is “odd”. But if I may speak personally, apart from the great charity that it supported, the most appealing thing to me was to show up conventional wisdom by doing with 100% success rate. I was not alone – many of the team were motivated by the ‘nay-sayers’ and I can honestly say that when all six of us got to the summit, with no drama, there was a feeling of vindication mixed with the happiness. All it took was planning and preparation with intelligence, foresight and discipline.
Clinical and “easy” thanks to the 80% done BEFORE
Ultimately, to be perfectly honest, we were clinical, precise and got to the summit relatively easily. I’d go so far as to say that probably 80% of expeditions to Kilimanjaro have MORE problems and issues than we had, despite being entirely shod. Perhaps being barefoot forced on us a more stringent approach, but it worked, and that should, I would hope, shake a paradigm or two.
It’s never “easy” of course, and I don’t wish to downplay the whole effort. But the 80-20 principle is in play – I believe that the success of any “performance” is determined 80% BEFORE the performance ever happens. It is the result of the months of preparation and training, and the actual achievement is only 20% of the challenge. The team on this trip was super strong – 5 months of barefoot training, including a month of cold-weather preparation, plus real discipline about the altitude, meant that by the time we took our first steps in the Rongai Rain Forest, we had done pretty much all we could to prepare. The remaining 20% was about adapting, learning on the go, and making sure we stuck to the plan.
We had the best support possible – Sean Disney of Adventure Dynamics International was, in my opinion, THE key player in the team, and he planned the route, controlled our pace, and guided us expertly throughout the five days to summit. If you’re interested in this climb (or others around the world), that would be my first port of call, and it obeys the # 1 principle – get the best people on board.
My personal account – bad timing complicated the climb, but still doable
Speaking personally, I made life difficult for myself by getting frostbite on Friday 13 January (I’ll always remember the date!). My timing, in hindsight, could not have been worse. The frozen areas of skin formed blisters, and the blisters decided that they would start peeling on January 23rd, which was the very first day of the hike. So as I climbed in altitude, my feet lost more and more skin, and by the end of day 3, in Mawenzi Tarn, I had no skin left underneath (the pic on the right is from the Tarn – the color is because I threw Friar’s Balsam at it to try to dry out the soft, raw skin. I don’t think it really helped, but just doing something helped me in other ways! I’ll show you a pic of what my feet looked like at the summit in tomorrow’s post!)
So I lay in my tent that afternoon, January 26th, full of anxiety, not thinking I had it in me to do another two days to reach the summit. But I decided to go hour by hour, for even one more day. Get to Kibo Huts, the final base before the strike for the summit, and see whether that would be the motivation and source of one big, final effort for the summit. That worked, and then it was summit day, and another “hour by hour” exercise, all the way to the top. In the end, it worked, and yes, it was difficult, but the pictures made it look worse than it was, and had it not been for the frost-bite and blisters it caused, I think it would have been a relatively clinical and “easy” week for me too.
I’ll explain a little more of what I felt during those last two days when I show you some pictures, and that will perhaps come tomorrow.
But for now, here are some videos – I tried to do a daily video diary. They’re fairly short, only a minute or two, but they show where we are on the mountain, how the ground looks, what we’re doing day by day and how I’m progressing. If there are any questions, I’m happy to answer them in the comments, and as I said, I’ll do a picture diary tomorrow, with more detail about the feelings and emotions as I dealt with my own little issues on the final two days!
Day 1: Rongai Rain Forest – a relatively sedate start
Day 2: The longest day
This was a super long day – 8 hours 51 in total, but with a long break for lunch. Also a challenging day, the gravel and rocks were difficult and was probably largely to blame for the loss of skin in my case! But it was a good day, an optimistic day because it showed us what we were in for – we got a taste of the terrain, the temperature and altitude. Probably just what we needed.
Day 3: Mawenzi Tarn
A short day, but a key day for me personally. By the end of this day, my skin was largely off and I had doubts about making it to the summit. The team coped brilliantly though, and so this was the day I grew 95% confident that we would get 5 people, at least, to the summit. The other great thing about this day is that I was finally convinced that the cold would NOT be a factor in our summit – the African sun was just too strong and would prove decisive in minimizing the frostbite risk. That became crystal clear today.
Day 4: To base camp at Kibo Huts
Perhaps the toughest day for me, mentally, because it took us 5 hours from Mawenzi to Kibo, where we’d be based for our “strike” to the summit. For me, this was tough because it was not the final big effort, but it was difficult enough to be a real challenge. Difficult terrain and a relatively long day. The team again handled it well, and if I was 95% confident yesterday, I was 98% confident today.
Day 5: The summit
This is a really short video of us arriving at the summit. Interestingly enough, this was not the greatest moment of the trip. In fact, the summit was actually a little bit of an anticlimax for me, because my “peak” had happened about 45 minutes early, at Stella Point. That was the moment when I KNEW, with 100% certainty and beyond any doubt, that all six of us would make it. It was a huge release, and that was the single best moment for me. The summit was still amazing though, don’t get me wrong! Big celebration!
Day 5: Descending
This video didn’t quite work out – the day before, we’d checked out the climb and run down a section of the steep slope (it’s about 40%). It’s a real rush – you slide with every step, and churn up shale and dust big time. I tried to do it on the way back to Kibo, but by this stage (almost 9 hours of walking, most of it above 5,000m), I was pretty stuffed! And the lack of perspective from the way I filmed it doesn’t do justice to the speed of the descent, so it didn’t quite come off! It was still really fun to do though!
Day 5: In the tent
I nearly didn’t put this video up – I filmed it only minutes after getting back to base camp. I was tired, a little cold, and quite drained. I didn’t realize quite how tired until I watched myself – I look and sound shattered! But it’s from the moments after the mission had been accomplished, just some thoughts! A longer clip, but with the key message, so bear with me!
Picture diary to come
That’s all for now – I’m working through all my pictures, and I’ll get a nice story out of that, mostly where I can talk you through the challenges of terrain, cold and altitude, and how we progressed. It also tells the story of my feet quite nicely, but that’s for another time!
In the meantime, for more thoughts from the other team members, and very importantly, to make donations to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital Trust (a great cause), please visit the official site of the barefoot Kilimanjaro trip!