Climbing Africa's Highest Mountain

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Ruth Jeffery ticked off another physical challenge when she climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.

The stars are out, but it’s dark and very cold. I take another slow step upward. Ahead of me I can see an endless array of headlamps moving slowly up the mountain. I suck in vain from my CamelBac mouthpiece – but the water in the tubing has frozen. I whistle a short tune and smile. I’m at 5,000m above sea level, it’s 2am and I have been 50 years old for two hours. I feel great!

It’s summit day on Mt Kilimanjaro and we are heading to 5,900m. We started at midnight, aiming to hit the crater rim for dawn and summit an hour later. My travel companions are all suffering to varying degrees from the effects of altitude, including nausea, headache, vomiting and breathlessness. I alone am symptom free and actually enjoying the climb.

Mt Kilimanjaro was on my ‘bucket list’ and after an in-depth conversation with my partner John (“I think we should climb Mt Kilimanjaro for my 50th birthday”–“OK”) and some extensive research we booked a trip. I looked for the least popular route over the longest possible time to allow for altitude acclimatisation, settling on the eight-day Lemosho route, with a max of six people in the party.

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The tour package included porters to carry our gear, pitch our tents and cook our food and guides to get us there safely. Another friend came with us from New Zealand, and we were joined by two other women in Tanzania who were both great fun.

Training for altitude isn’t really possible in New Zealand (Kilimanjaro being over one and a half times the height of Mt Cook), so we settled on lots of tramping and day walks up as many hills as possible (easy in Dunedin!).

World Nomads provided the best solution for insurance for hiking with diabetes to altitude. We debated whether or not to take Diamox to reduce the effects of altitude, but the possible side effects with diabetes convinced me not to and John also decided to go drug free, but to carry some in case (interestingly everyone else we met used Diamox).

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Further research confirmed that all glucose meters are unreliable over 10,000 feet, and the reliability of insulin pumps is not guaranteed either. Oh well. I decided the convenience of the Freestyle Libre continuous glucose monitoring system would be worth the expense (and inconvenience of sourcing it through friends in the UK). It proved to be the best decision, making control if not easy, then at least hassle free.

We reached the summit at 8am, after seven stunning days of trekking through rainforest, moorland and then into alpine desert. On the summit my companions managed to smile and sing me happy birthday. In turn I tried to whistle a tune – but sadly at 19,340 feet I couldn’t manage it. But what a way to celebrate turning 50!

Ruth Jeffery, has previously written about running the Kepler Challenge and sailing from Alaska to Scotland. Ruth has had type 1 diabetes since 1992.

Ruth shared her story in the Autumn 2017 issue of Diabetes magazine. Subscribe to Diabetes NZ today to receive your copy.

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Jo Chapman