At 19,341 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro is a challenge for even the fittest able-bodied person. Days of rugged, rocky paths lead to a steep 3,281 foot climb on loose shingle to reach the summit.
Raising money for the Meningitis Research Foundation and the Shaw Trust, Aaron Phipps defied the odds to reach the top of Africa’s highest mountain — but not without pain. His mountain trike only took him so far. When things proved too much for it, it was all down to mind over matter.
"I ended up crawling up the mountain on my hands and knees. That was hard ..."Aaron Phipps
How hard was this challenge?
“It was all really tough, but the last bit, when the trike couldn’t handle it and I ended up crawling up the mountain on my hands and knees, that was so hard. The last nine hours I was crying. I was so exhausted at the summit. I was a mess. I touched the sign and was just sobbing.”
How did you prepare for it?
“Mentally, I’ve had coaches who pushed me to my absolute limit in the past. I’ve trained until I passed out, thrown up on treadmills in wheelchairs — so I probably have a better idea of how far I can push than many people do.
"To cope with the altitude, I was advised to go to Chamonix and sit on top of Mont Blanc for five days. I also used an altitude trainer, so I didn’t get much altitude sickness. But there were other challenges ... ”
"The guide said I was too slow. I needed to prove a point!"Aaron Phipps
The wheelchair was good, but only up to a point.
You used an all-terrain "mountain trike" — how did that work?
“It has poles you push with your arms to drive cogs that turn the wheels. We modified it so I could be in different positions as I planned to be pushing for eight hours a day. But it’s not really designed to climb a mountain."
"The first day took six hours rather than three and the second day took nine. We put down wood for me to push along, but the chair couldn’t cope with some terrain — and that’s when I had to get out and crawl."
That must have been tough!
"Yes. But the chief guide said I was too slow to make it and I needed to prove a point! So I basically had to jump out my chair and just pull myself along as quickly as I could.
"At the end of that day I had blisters developing and a doctor checked them over. They weren’t great, but they weren’t in a really bad way — so that was a good feeling."
How much did you use the wheelchair and how much were you on hands and knees?
"The first few days I used the chair a lot and just jumped out for sections, but toward the end it just couldn’t cope at all. One day I used it for about five percent of the day — so I did nearly four miles on my hands and knees.
"It was easier when it was rocky because my arms are strong from my sport so I could pull myself up on big boulders. It was the steep shingle bits that were the worst."
Did you ever feel like giving up?
"Yes, several times, particularly on that final climb on the loose shingle. I was so incredibly exhausted. I was struggling to keep down glucose tablets, my stomach was churning and I had to do it all on my knees.
"It was so steep I was constantly sliding. I had to create divots with my hands then put my kneepads into them. I had a speaker in my backpack pumping out tunes to get my head into it."
The final climb was almost Phipps’s undoing.
How was the final climb?
"The rock face at Gilman's Point was like Lego or Jenga — you’d get a bit higher then someone had put another piece on! When I got there it was amazing, but there’s still another 45-minute trek on the rim to the summit.
"I could feel myself drifting away at times, wobbling, and people were trying to steady me. I had a great team around me and I just had to keep putting my mind back and get on with it."
"I could feel myself drifting away at times."Aaron Phipps
Unfurling his daughter’s sign was a magic moment.
How did you feel at the summit?
"It was unbelievable. My little girl and her school had made a poster, I felt so proud when I was holding it and having my photo taken — that was really special."
And what was your happiest moment?
"I really loved the way down! Getting to the summit was amazing, but I was so exhausted it was more a relief than happiness.
"On the way down, you go down a huge wide path like something out of a sci-fi film, just fields of big boulders everywhere. I was carving down the path in my chair, people running trying to keep up with me, and I was thinking yeah, this is cool ... "
Phipps had meningitis type C when he was 15. He was in a hospital for a year and nearly died. He became a bilateral below the knee amputee and lost the tops of his fingers.