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Fearless Fridays: Dreaming of Kilimanjaro

“You need to combat your fears of failing first and after that, simply take it step by step.  Even if you don’t get to the very top, you’ll get an awful lot from the experience as a whole.”

Last September, travel writer Lindsay Hawdon achieved a lifelong dream of hers – to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. So far, so adventurous. But she also climbed it with her two boys Orly and Dow, aged 12 and 14. Womenclimb talked to Lindsay about how this particular dream turned to reality; her motivations, fears, and appreciations.

Can you explain a bit more about the significance of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro? What was your motivation?

Africa has always been a particularly special place for me.  I first went there when I was three years old, lived there for a year with my parents. Aged 18 I returned, spent a year hitching my way around and sleeping under mosquito nets, naive and passionate, it was my right of passage, where I used up my nine lives!  And then on from that, I’ve returned frequently with my travel columns.  Many times, on those previous trips, I’ve passed beneath the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, have longed to climb it, but somehow been diverted by other missions. Always its remained illusive and otherworldly, a mirage in the clouds. But since they were little, I’ve promised the boys that I would take them to Africa and that one day we would climb that mountain together.  It’s always been a pinnacle trip for us to aspire to.

Dow, Lindsay & Orly on the approach to Mt Kilimanjaro

What were your greatest fears when preparing for your summit attempt? Did you discuss your feelings with Orly & Dow?

Far flung travel is not unfamiliar to the boys.  Twice I’ve taken them on year long trips, the first when they were aged five and eight, we travelled around South East Asia and Australia for eighteen months.  The second, when they were eight and ten, we went around the world in search of the origin of colours, those first pigments made by the first colour men.  And indeed on those trips, as on this one, there were moments when I doubted the wisdom of such a venture.  But maybe some people are more prone to bouts of wanderlust than others, and I’ve made my living from it since my early twenties.

Whilst climbing the world’s highest freestanding mountain may not be an opportunity for many youngsters, pushing young people to the edge of their comfort zone, with the right scaffolding in place, can play a significant role in developing their self-efficacy, confidence and ability to flourish when the going gets tough – whether that be physically, emotionally, or intellectually.

The main concern with children at altitude is that they can’t express themselves like adults, so even more caution is required. Older children can be asked about symptoms; headache, tiredness, and feeling sick. With younger children you need to look for more subtle things; their appetite, and general irritability.   Certainly I discussed the risks and the fears with the boys, and had they shown any inkling of not wanting to go, we wouldn’t have done so.  And I guess my take on it is that I feel my boys are more at risk when they play rugby, which they do frequently.  I’ve been to A & E more times for sport injuries than anything else, and not once had to venture there on our travels.

What tactics did you have in place to deal with the fears, once you were en route?

It is especially important to use a slow and cautious ascent profile, with enough rest hours added in. I also needed to think about food and water hygiene issues, and the higher risk of sun burn and dehydration at high altitude.   Regularly we sipped water, always used sun cream and scrubbed our hands with antiseptic gel before every meal.  And with young kids, especially Orly who had only just turned twelve at the time, it was important to think of things to distract him from the endless walking which could become tedious to him at that age.  We played lots of word games along the way, also carried nuts and raisins and sweets to keep up his energy.  We’d guess the flavours of tropical skittles and set small land marks posts to get to where we could then rest.

The group really helped with all of that, helped to keep each other’s spirits up, laughed and joked and told anecdotal stories along the way.  You’re getting to know a group of individuals as you climb and the people we climbed with were especially generous to the fact that two young boys were walking with them.

On the third day of the climb we reached 4600m.  This is a day of acclimatisation because you only stay at this height for a few hours before descending back down to 3800m to spend the night.  You then take another two days to climb back up to this height again, by which time you hope your body has acclimatised.  The boys felt very sick on this day.  It was hard, for my eldest especially, and we immediately descended to the lower camp.  This is when you need the reassurance of the professional team around you, people used to climbing and the process it involves. Jon, our team leader and an expert in high altitude climbing, was always calm and reassuring and it turned out he was right to be. The boys were fine two days later when we climbed up to 4800m, buoyant and full of confidence.   Had they not been, we wouldn’t have continued.

Sometimes it’s the little things that prove more challenging.  Like going to the toilet.  I’d much rather pee behind a bush than clamber into a grotty prefab toilet pit.  But I’m also quite shy about those sorts of things.

Lindsay & boys at the summit

As it turned out some of my best memories were of venturing to the loo in the middle of the night.  I’d wake at intervals to check the boys were still breathing, heard the comforting sound of zippers being unzipped, the soft pad of unlaced boots over rocks, as individuals stumbled to find a place to pee.  I’d wait for silence and then venture outside myself, crouching beneath a sky blazing with stars.  It felt like you had the whole night to yourself at those times.

What guidance would you give to other women considering climbing peaks – of any size – who might be too afraid to take their first steps?

I’m certainly not an expert on mountain climbing, but I think it’s a good parallel for everything else in life we have to face, in that you need to combat your fears of failing first and after that, simply take it step by step.  Even if you don’t get to the very top, you’ll get an awful lot from the experience as a whole.  There is so much more to climbing a mountain than simply reaching the summit. The comradeship and friendships you make along the way, sleeping beneath the stars, the integration with locals, your porters who are the patrons of this mountain.  You could not climb it without them.

And most importantly allow yourself to be awed by the natural world around you, because that’s what you really counts when you reach the top of a mountain.  The fact that you are rendered exquisitely insignificant amidst the wonder of it all.

What’s your next adventure?

Our next adventure is a desert one.  We are going to walk from Alice Springs to Ayres Rock, camping out along the way.

Read more:

Read Lindsay’s original article in the Telegraph
You can follow Lindsay on her website and on her twitter page
Lindsay booked her trip through Mountain Expeditions
Lindsay’s Just Giving Page for War Child

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