Back to Kilimanjaro

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On a rainy day in July 2010, I was sitting on the train reading the Metro (a free London commuter paper) and I saw a large Alzheimer’s Society advertisement for Kilimanjaro. For some reason this really sparked something inside of me and I immediately signed up on a whim. Apart from hiking boots, I didn’t have one single piece of hiking, camping, exercise-related kit so I had to buy everything from scratch. The other point to mention is that I was really quite unfit and overweight. I didn’t let that put me off though and I did do a lot of hiking training for the trip. When Kilimanjaro came around, it was probably all a bit too much for me – I wasn’t used to camping, not washing for days, drinking slightly murky tasting water and being away from home comforts.

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I was also carrying a bit more excess baggage than I should have been and the rest of it is pretty much a blur. I got quite bad altitude sickness and didn’t make the summit, and when I came back I was broken. For ages when people asked me about the trip and Kilimanjaro, I didn’t have a good word to say about it and now I’ve since realised it wasn’t the mountain I hated, but myself. What I did make though was huge changes to my life afterwards, which you can read about here. The shame and the disappointment kick started this love of exercise and travelling, and in that respect I am thankful, but I have unfinished business with that mountain…

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So I am taking my new-found confidence having taken on Toubkal, Mont Blanc and Elbrus to go back and face Kilimanjaro again, this time for pure fun! Now I know what to expect and I am better prepared. I know that I can do it and, importantly, I can enjoy it this time. I’m also going to make the most of being there by visiting the orphanage and going on safari.

This is who I am now, and I’ve got this!…

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I am climbing Kilimanjaro in August 2015 with Discover Adventure. Come and join me! x

sian

Elbrus 2014: Why I can call myself a mountaineer

When I look back on my recent trip to Elbrus – Europe’s highest peak at 5642m and one of the seven summits – it will not only be the mountain that I remember, but the people I met there.

Yes it would have been wonderful to have had a picture perfect summit day with panoramic views, blue skies and happy faces holding mascots, but it wasn’t to be. Does it make it all the more awesome that 10 out of 13 of us reached the summit? The short answer is yes and here’s why…

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I always try and do some sort of adventure holiday each year and this year was all about mountaineering after having a break last year. Being an incredibly neurotic and anxious person, naturally mountaineering scares me, but then so does meeting people in crowded places and bananas. I simply refuse to be ruled by my many fears and wanted to have one last crack at a high mountain. With barely a second thought, I had booked the holiday and paid the deposit and I was all set for my epic adventure.

Days 1 and 2

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The trip started with a day in Moscow – the thought of flying in to Moscow and then not at the very least seeing Red Square seemed ridiculous so we tacked on a touristy day before heading to the mountains. Getting taxis around the city is just not feasible (the traffic was absolutely horrendous) so we bought ourselves a Metro ticket and headed towards the city centre. Once you get the hang of the metro, it’s very easy to use. The hardest part was understanding the name of the stops!

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Moscow is extremely expensive so rather than wasting our money on a pretty average lunch for more than London prices, we grabbed a McDonald’s and sat in the park doing some people watching . We spent the rest of the day aimlessly wandering around Red Square taking in the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral.

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Day 3

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After a very early start (something of a theme for this trip!), we jumped on an internal flight to Milneralyne Vody (approx 2 hours’ from Moscow with Aeroflot), after which we were met by our guide for the week Vladimir – a very friendly and charming chap who spoke largely in broken English!

We spent a further 3 hours driving via mini bus to the small village of Terskol, our base for the next few days at the foot of the mountain. We met our first trip companions: 3 Russian girls, and the time passed quickly as we exchanged stories about our lives back in the real world. We finally arrived at our hotel (a modest, but comfortable place that would soon look like 5* luxury as the week went on) and met with the remainder of our group over dinner – a large group of German gentlemen made up of 6 friends and a father and son team.

After tasting some of the culinary ‘delights’ of Moscow (I would prefer not to discuss the disgusting cheese slice with raisins and broccoli I sampled over breakfast!), my expectations were at an all-time low, but I was pleasantly surprised by the food. Delicious homemade soup made up of vegetables and fresh herbs, followed by chicken and rice, as well as pasta courses were some of the many  dishes we had over the course of the week.

Day 4

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After a hearty breakfast of fried eggs and porridge, we set off on our first acclimatisation hike, which saw us take an incredibly steep and exhausting path up towards the cable cars from the foot of the valley up to around 3000m.  I started chatting with Andreas, who is in fact a doctor and we shared our various healthcare/pharmaceutical experiences, and Alex who had come here with his father. I am so envious of people who do things like this with their parents and siblings. In fact, watch out Alex – I may adopt Heinz as my honorary dad! 😉

I must confess it had been a long while since I’d hiked anywhere (does trail running count?) and I was feeling quite exhausted after the first hill, which was a little bit demoralising.

Day 5

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Another early start as we set off on our second acclimatisation hike up from the valley this time to the observatory at 3100m. This hike wasn’t quite as steep as the previous day and I found it much easier going. In the evening, Vladimir did a quick kit check and told me that my beloved La Sportiva B3 boots would not be suitable and that I’d have to hire horrible plastic boots as well as a Michelin man-style down jacket and ice axe.

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I felt quite annoyed because I was sure the all this talk of ‘extreme temperatures’ was complete overkill and that he just had a deal going with the hire company. Oh how wrong we were.

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Day 6

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After breakfast, we headed up on the cable car and the chair lift to the infamous barrels at the Bochki camp (accommodation made out of old oil drums) at 3800m (the start of our snow-based trekking) armed with all of our kit and supplies for the week. The weather was absolutely boiling (think sahara desert with snow) and I started to worry that it would be too hot and that plastic boots were a waste of time! We did a short acclimatisation hike to get used to the hideous plastic boots up to around 4100m and returned for lunch in the the battered old caravan.

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Maria our cook (a lady with more gold than white teeth!) managed to cook up some homemade soup in her make-shift kitchen. The lunch also included cheese and ham, bread and sweets to keep our energy levels up. We sat in the caravan drinking tea and listening to dreadful Russian Europop interspersed with the Cranberries until we were kicked out and the next group came along.

It is worth mentioning the toilets, or ‘the spa’ as it was later referred to, at this point. I have seen my fair share of disgusting toilets over the years (most of which have been in France), but these were probably among the worst I’ve had to endure – a smelly hole in the ground. Every time I visited the toilets I wanted to dowse my entire body in iodine.

Day 7

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For the last of our acclimatisation hikes, we headed up from the barrels to just shy of the Pastuckhova rocks at around 4500m. It was a tiring day finishing at around 3pm, but the majority of the group were really keen to attempt the summit in the early hours of the following morning, which actually turned out to be perfect conditions (clear blue skies). Unfortunately, our guide suggested we instead take a rest day at the barrels.

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Day 8

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We had a later start as we were scheduled in to have a rest day and do some ice axe arrest and crampon training for an hour of so. Ordinarily, a rest day would be most welcome, but the lack of home comforts make the barrels an unwelcome place to spend any time. I decided to nap in the afternoon knowing full well that I was very unlikely to get any sleep that night ahead of our start in the early hours of the morning.

Day 9 – Summit day

elbrus-routeOur guide had told us that because of the predicted conditions, we would be getting the snowcat (an enormous snow plough type contraption with seats) up to 5100m (above Pashtukov rocks) and walking from there. This meant a 3am start. I was quite disappointed as I would rather have started where we left off.

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The snowcat seemed like fun for the first 2 minutes, but the novelty quickly wore off when I realised I would have to hang on just to keep myself from sliding down for 10 minutes. Not the most ideal preparation for an exhausting day ahead.

As we emerged from the snowcat I realised just how cold it was, how high we were and how steep the section of the mountain was! I was breathing quite heavily for the first 5 minutes and honestly thought I couldn’t go on. I kept plodding along though for what I can only imagine was another 45 minutes and looked behind me and saw that nobody was there. In fact, one of the chaps had gone back down.  As we came over the saddle between the Eastern and Western summit and headed left for the Western summit, the cold and the wind hit me like a thousand shards of glass into my face. My face hurt, my lips hurt, my fingers hurt. In fact, given that the boots were the most uncomfortable footwear known to man, they were pretty much the only thing that didn’t hurt from the cold.

There was absolutely no respite from the biting 50+ km/h winds and every time we stopped everyone chose to preserve their fingers rather than risk taking their mittens off to eat or drink. We pushed on towards what would normally be a narrow very exposed snow path, however, the recent snowfall meant that the path had all but disappeared and we were blindly relying on the grip from our crampons and ice axes. Walking through fresh snow is exhausting at the best of times, but even more so when you are terrified of falling.

A particularly steep section of the path had a fixed rope attached and we clipped ourselves in hoping that the rope would break our fall should the worst happen. I nervously and gingerly worked my way across – by this point there was nobody immediately in front or behind me. I was shaking and terrified – I looked back and I saw Heinz a few feet away and he nodded in approval. I was doing OK.

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Another flat section – phew! I cried with joy, disappointment, elation and fear. ‘What the hell kind of stupid thing am I doing?!’ I asked myself. My fingers were in agony. I felt completely alone – I couldn’t see anybody and I couldn’t talk to anyone as the wind was too strong to have a conversation, and I didn’t have the energy to shout. We rested for a while. I sat down and leaned forward and shut my eyes. I couldn’t get up – ‘Maybe I’m going to die here?’ I thought: ‘I’m too tired to get up’. ‘Get your shit together’ a voice in my head shouted and I collected myself. Vladimir came over to ask if I was OK and got my drink out of my bag for me. I took a few sips and it lifted my spirits a bit and I got up. ‘Just another 40 minutes until the summit’ he said. ‘OK 40 minutes – I can do this’.

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The path towards the summit was relatively flat, but completely exposed to the winds blowing grown men off their feet. At one stage I remember standing watching as Alex stood unable to move because of the strength of the wind. Slowly but surely though we reached edge of the summit. What I can only imagine in reasonably clear conditions would take 2 minutes to walk up, seemed to take a lifetime. I had to crawl up a 3 metre slope to the summit using my ice axe and crampons as the wind was too strong to stand. I was almost there when 2 hands reached out and pulled me up. It was Rich and someone else – I don’t remember who. I had made it. I lay there exhausted for a minute and then stood up. Rich took a picture. My mouth hurt too much to smile.

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This didn’t feel like the summit at all – there was no view to speak of, only snow-filled air all around us. The summit was absolutely crowded with Chinese climbers too. I just wanted to get away. I bashed my hands together to try and get the circulation back into my thumbs. They didn’t feel right and I panicked: ‘I need my thumbs for typing’ I thought.

Given that the guide said it would probably take 6 hours to reach the summit in normal conditions, we had done so in an impressive 7 hours.

We headed back down and the wind was so strong it was blowing my hood off and exposing the side of my face to the biting wind. Back at the fixed ropes, the path looked even less defined than before. I cautiously placed every footstep in the snow and made sure that my ice axe was firmly placed, but the snow was so soft it was giving away and then I fell. Only about 6 feet, but it felt like 3 times that. I dug in my ice axe and crampons and lay there. I couldn’t see or hear anything and then I saw Vladimir come over. He told me to flip over and dig in my crampons. I felt ok on my front and moved across quickly to to next section of ropes. I saw the Russian girls in front of me and then I heard some shouting in Russian. I looked over and I saw that the group of Chinese climbers were practically walking on top of us on what was arguably the most dangerous section. I felt angry as all I wanted to do was get back onto the flatter section, but we kept having to stop to let them pass us. We unclipped ourselves from the fixed rope and the guide fashioned a rope tethering us all together. I didn’t enjoy this at all – I felt like I was being pulled backwards and forwards unable to find any kind of rhythm. I just wanted to walk at my own pace. I heard Dasha cry out in terror and I felt her pain. ‘Should we really be here?’ I thought. ‘If this was the Alps you wouldn’t be allowed up’. We carried on though and it suddenly hit me how utterly freezing I was. As we arrived back at the drop off point at 5100m, Vladimir asked if anyone wanted a lift down in the snowcat. I decided that I was just too cold to carry on and took him up on his offer. This time I sat outside at the front of the snowcat hanging on for dear life with virtually nothing between me and ground beneath me. I was shivering to the core and Vladimir gave me a hug and made sure I was ok. Back at the barrels, I removed the wet clothing, added several layers and lay there in my sleeping bag for 2 hours before the rest of the group arrived back – it took 4 hours before my core temperature returned to normal. I decided to forego lunch and get some rest. By dinner time (8pm) I was back to normal though and just glad the whole thing was over. All I could think about was having a nice shower, wearing clean clothes and proper toilets. We had to wait though until the next morning. For the first time in the whole trip though I slept solidly and soundly for 5 hours!

Day 10

We took the cable car back down to relative civilisation, showered and had some lunch where copious amount of beer and vodka were consumed. I headed to market to buy some souvenirs to mark our epic adventure. Rich chose a t-shirt and I decided I was more likely to actually use a baseball cap.

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For the celebratory dinner, we headed to a local restaurant to try out the traditional shashlik – Russian shish kebab – and smoke a shisha (first time for me). We all had a very early start so after only a few beers we all decided to call it a night. The trip had come to an end and we were going home.

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Day 11

As we took our flight home, I felt a sense of loss that I would never see these people, who had practically been my family for the last 10 days, again. If I did see them it just wouldn’t be the same. It’s the end of an era and we’re back to normality.

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Looking back now, I realise just what I had achieved and how amazing each and every one of the group were. There was absolutely no shame in feeling exhausted or turning back – the conditions were like hell on earth. One thing is for sure – we can all call ourselves true mountaineers.

I said no more summit bagging after this, but right now I feel such an amazing sense of pride that I may well go back on my word…

sian

Mountaineering plans

Mount Toubkal, Morocco – January 2012

A lot of the topics covered in this blog are running and fitness related. Initially if you had asked me why I run, it would have been to keep fit for my mountain climbing adventures – something I am extremely passionate about. Now I’ve found that I enjoy the running and the fitness in their own right. They kind of fill a hole when I’m not galavanting up mountains as it can be quite depressing coming back to reality (we call it ‘low altitude sickness’). Having lots of running events, meeting other people, running club, fitness classes and even the exercise DVDs help to keep me focussed on my goals and keep me sane!

This year kicked off with an absolutely brilliant trip to Morocco in January with our winter climb of Mount Toubkal (if you’re going to do it – winter is by far the best and much more challenging than summer climbs!), and a weekend away hiking in March in the Peak District with the Toubkal crew. Next month I’m meeting up with the Toubkal crew again for another adventure. We will be climbing the Dolomites in Italy along the Via Ferrata.

Via Ferrata in the Dolomites – image from http://www.chamex.com

The Via Ferrata (“road of iron”) is a mountain route comprising fixed cables, steeples, ladders and bridges. They were originally built in the first world war to aid the movement of military, but are now used as a means of traversing the Dolomites for fun! I am really looking forward to this trip as 1) I have never been to Italy; 2) I fly in to Venice so I get to check out Venice; and 3) the Dolomites look incredibly beautiful and I’m really looking forward to the views.

Here’s a little video about the Via Ferrata in the Dolomites:

The next trip for this year is my Mont Blanc climb in September. I’ve done lots of trekking in the past and hiking, scrambling and I’ve used crampons and an ice axe, but Mont Blanc is going to be the real mountaineering deal. There’ll be high altitude, proper climbing, long and extremely tiring days of non-stop ascent, and there’ll also be new techniques to learn during the evenings.

Here’s a little video about Mont Blanc:

After Mont Blanc I’ll be able to take on some of the Himalayan mountains, such as Cho Oyu. Who knows eh? I’m justing enjoying learning new skills, meeting new people and seeing the world as I go.

Run Forrest! Run!

© Caroline Janssens 2012

Where there is a will, there is a way.  Always.

Last September, I successfully climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.  It is high, very high (5895m).  It was hard, very hard.  I trained for it, not too much, not too little, just enough for my feet, legs and body never to hurt on the way up.  What was hard was the altitude, the headaches, the walking hours, the sleepless nights and for that, there is no training, you just have to go with it.  I had always wanted to climb that mountain.  I had some experience with trekking and camping at high altitude which I built very gradually (skiing in the Alps, hiking in Austria, hiking Los Picos de Europa in Spain, trekking along the Inca trail in Peru, climbing Mount Toubkal in Morocco, etc.).  On each of these occasions my body responded well to high altitude.  Mount Kilimanjaro was therefore simply the obvious next step in altitude and level of challenge.  I was confident I could do it.  I had purposely chosen that challenge as a pretext to raise money for a charity that is close to my heart and that surely helped building the mental strength I needed to get to the top.  I enjoyed every single minute of the entire trek, even the eight hours of the summit night.  I felt a level of focus and contentment that I had never felt before.  I can’t express what I felt up there but that gave me the wings to get to the top. 

And then there was Sian, my training and trekking buddy.  She had never been to Africa and she had never set a foot on a mountain.  She had simply read an advertising about the challenge in a paper, gave little thoughts about it and signed up for it.  She trained as hard as I did (and probably even harder) but she did not make it to the top.  She got altitude sickness from day 2 and never managed to recover.  It was heart-breaking to see my training buddy not being able to make it.  There was nothing I could do to make her feel better and, selfishly, I was so focus on my own challenge.  She was immensely gutted but failing the ascent did not stop her.  To the contrary.  When she got back to the UK she pulled herself together and in the space of 6 months she run a couple of half marathons, she successfully climbed Mount Toubkal (4167m), and completed her very first full marathon!!!  I was blown away.  I am not a quitter myself, but it is great to see how she regained confidence and focus.  With Midula, another training buddy who climbed the Kili pretty much at the same time as we did, they set up a motivational fitness blog ( https://dashing-divas.com/ ) where they share their experience as newly runner, climbers and fitness divas!  Check it out, it is entertaining.

Where there is a will, there is a way.  Always.  But rather than being impulsive I like to do things gradually, I like to listen to my body, know where I stand and it works for me.  So my next step in the climbing venture is to spend 6 weeks in the Himalayas next September/October!  Travel buddies are welcome; email me if you’re interested.

Next week, I’ll tell you about Playtime, a Belgian band I discovered recently.  Bye for now.

Climbing: the stuff they don’t advertise – Altitude sickness

Okay, so you are off to climb your first mountain.

You have done your training, bought lots of cool equipment, got your camera to record those “amazing moments”, and are raring to go.

Little do you realise that you could be one of the many who suffer from altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness can hit anyone. – the frustrating thing is it doesn’t matter how fit or healthy you are, you could be struck down with it!

In my case, on both my trips to Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, I suffered from it quite badly (check out below – “High Altitude – How It Impacted Me”)

On my trip to Aconcagua, I was so ill that the guide refused to let me go on any further, despite reaching 6,700 metres!

Has this put me off climbing?

No. Why?

1)      I love climbing

2)      My body is acclimatizing to higher altitudes with every mountain I climb. When I climbed Aconcagua, I didn’t start to throw up until ~6,300 metres – Amazing, considering on Kilimanjaro I started to throw up at ~5,600 metres.

This gives me hope that one day I will be able to climb a mountain without throwing up!

3)      I am learning to enjoy the journey rather than focus on the summit. This may mean that I don’t make the summit on a climb (as with Aconcagua). BUT I am not worried about it – I plan to enjoy the experience!

4)      I have guardian angels looking after me, in the shape of the guides. The guides want you to enjoy the experience whilst making sure you come back in one piece. My advice is to listen to them, even though in the heat of the moment you may not agree with their decision!

Midula and altitude sickness

1)      Zero sleep – When trekking up Kilimanjaro I didn’t sleep a wink until after I had summated

2)      Loss of appetite – The day before summit day on Aconcagua, I hardly touched my food. My taste buds had stopped working – Everything tasted of cardboard. Result – I didn’t load up on enough calories for summit day

3)      Continuous vomiting – # of times throwing up on Kilimanjaro summit day – 8. # times throwing up on Aconcagua summit day – 4. Continuous vomiting equals loss of calories and inability to take in food or water. Result – I quickly ran out of fuel.

4)      Queasy feeling – See above

5)      Inability to talk – The mute button was switched on permanently on Aconcagua summit day

6)      Bad Attitude – Despite trying to keep a positive frame of mind, I found I was suffering from a bout of “feeling sorry for myself” on Aconcagua.

Sian and altitude sickness

1)      No sleep – It’s hard to isolate the altitude sickness from just the new surroundings and not being used to camping, but I also got absolutely no sleep for 8 days of trekking on Kilimanjaro and that just zapped my energy levels completely.

2)      Loss of appetite – Now I love my food (see above picture for evidence), but I could hardly eat anything at all. The thought of food made me feel sick and I had no energy to chew.

3)      Nausea – Unlike Midula, I wasn’t sick much (only once), but I had terrible nausea. The worse nausea I’ve ever experienced. It makes you feel so weak.

4)      Diarrhoea – Altitude plays havoc with your bowels and I was really quite ill and had to have diarrolyte and antibiotics.

5)      Negative attitude – I’m known for always smiling and laughing, and being quite good fun, but I was utterly, utterly miserable and negative.

7)      Breathlessness – Even walking from our tent to the dinner tent (up to 100 yards), I was so out of breath.

Reading all of this would make you think why the hell do they do it? But, doing Kilimanjaro and failing to reach the summit was the turning point in my life. Even though, if I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy Kilimanjaro at all, I can’t fail anything so I went off and lost 2.5 stone, got fit running in half marathons and tomorrow a marathon.

For Toubkal (4160 metres), although not as high as Kilimanjaro, I didn’t suffer any of the effects of altitude at all (on Kili I started suffering around 3800 metres) – not sure if this is linked to fitness, but I felt fine the whole time. I laughed a lot, ate a lot (3 course meals 3x a day) and had no nausea.

Prevention and treatment of altitude sickness

I’m no doctor, but I am a scientist and I understand the mechanisms of altitude sickness. Lots of people think that as you go higher there’s less oxygen, but that’s not entirely true. As you go higher, the air pressure is much lower so the oxygen molecules are further apart hence why you may experience rapid breath. Consequently, your body has to adjust (acclimatise) to having to use less oxygen. The other point is that because the air pressure is lower, water starts to leak out of your cells (the sea level air pressure holds the water in your cells) and in some people, that water can accumulate in the lungs and the brain (pulmonary and cerebral oedema).

So here are some of the things I have learnt along the way (most of these are still theoretical as the fact is we still don’t really understand why altitude sickness affects some people more than others):

1) Drink lots of water – you can lose quite a lot of water at altitude so the best thing to do is keep well hydrated.

2) Eat well – keep your energy levels up. Altitude sickness can creep up on people when they are not at their fittest so you need to keep your strength up!

3) Don’t over exert yourself – there’s no point in running around and pushing yourself too hard. Just take it one step at a time.

3) Diamox (250 mg once daily; consult with your doctor before taking) – The most well known treatment for altitude sickness. It’s actually not licensed for treating altitude sickness at all, it’s a drug for glaucoma (pressure on the optic nerve). I have taken diamox and it really helped improve my symptoms, but the jury is out as to whether it actually works or is just a placebo effect.

4) Ibuprofen – some recent research has shown that Ibuprofen may alleviate altitude sickness, although it’s unclear if it’s providing pain relief or actually treating the underlying cause.

5) Gingko – Randomised controlled trials have shown that this over-the-counter plant extract may also help treat the symptoms of altitude sickness. I took this on Kili and I don’t think it did anything at all, but that’s just me. As long as you are not taking any medications that are contraindicated with this (again, consult with your doctor first), it can’t hurt to take it.

Finally, don’t be put off by altitude sickness, remember to enjoy the experience, and always remember to KEEP SAFE to rule another day!

 &