Preparation, Perseverance & Climbing To The Top Of Africa
If anyone understands the importance of preparation and perseverance, it's former AFL star Alex Johnson. The 27-year-old footballer spent countless hours preparing for the big stage of his 47 AFL games, as well as the painstaking commitment to rehabilitation from the inevitable injuries that come with professional sport. He put those two qualities to another test late last year when he aimed up for a summit attempt of Mount Kilimanjaro. Read on to see how Alex's big climb of Africa's highest peak played out.
Taking The Hard Road
Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest single free-standing mountain in the world. It stands at 5,895 metres. Spending a week climbing is not something I had considered too much before, so starting with one of the largest in the world seemed like a reasonable challenge.
Throughout my football career I endured a total of six ACL knee reconstructions and seven more surgeries. There were some tough times throughout my journey, both mentally and physically. I have learnt to confront different obstacles and have overcome anything that has been in my path. I enjoy seeking challenges and overcoming things that many people would find too difficult to do. In saying that, Kilimanjaro is no easy feat, and in fact would prove to be one of the most challenging things I've done in my life.
Given my professional football career and my history with knee injuries, I am - and have been - restricted in the activities that I can do outside of the sport. But over the last 12 months, I have finally been in good health and unrestricted, so it has been the first time in five or six years that I haven't had to think about attempting things that may pose a risk to my body.
The altitude and soft ground underfoot at lofty heights create incredible demands on the body.
Alex during his AFL career with the Sydney Swans, which included the high of the 2012 premiership and the low of several debilitating knee injuries (image courtesy of Ryan Pierse/Getty Images AsiaPac).
Preparation For Reaching Uhuru Peak
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro has never been on my radar, but it was unlike anything I've done before. I had spoken to a few people who had completed the climb and received a couple of useful tips on how to train and prepare. I was in the middle of a football preseason so therefore my fitness would take care of itself. The altitude, however, is something that would obviously be a major factor. At almost 6,000 metres above sea level, there is no escaping it. There are differing opinions on what training prepares you for it, but whichever method you subscribe to, the fact is that altitude doesn't discriminate. I am lucky enough (or unlucky) to have spent my fair share of time doing altitude training whilst rehabilitating my numerous knee injuries.
The number one priority on my list to climb the mountain was to have the right gear to protect me from the weather conditions. The Mountain Designs gear I used was perfect for coping with the wet weather that we braved along the way. The Cumulus GORE-TEX® jacket was an absolute necessity as it was highly durable and provided great protection from the rain. My Mountain Designs gear list included:
- Polypro long sleeve thermal top & pants
- Peak 700 goose down jacket
- Cumulus GORE-TEX® rain jacket
- Escape Multi 30L day pack
- Flip 1000 bottle
Alex's gear list, from left: Cumulus GORE-TEX® rain jacket, Multi Escape 30L day pack, Polypro thermals, Flip 1000 bottle, and the Peak 700 down jacket.
The opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro was presented to me by a friend, Campbell, and it was something that I didn't hesitate in taking on. I have been to Africa once before and understood the beauty of the country and landscape, but I certainly underestimated just how beautiful Kilimanjaro actually is. Completing the climb in late November meant we would be relatively unimpeded on the climb as it is considered off-peak. However, it is also the wet season, so therefore we were met with several days of torrential rain.
We ascended via the Lemosho route which is a seven-day climb, starting through the jungle and making our way around the base of the mountain and a steady incline. The first five days were very manageable and as I would consider myself reasonably fit, there were days where I was wanting to do more and make our way further along the track. I'm glad we didn't. The summit day is one of the hardest things I have done.
Beginning the climb at midnight with little to no sleep, it was pitch black and freezing cold. A gruelling six-hour climb resulted in us reaching the peak just before sunrise with powder snow covering the peak of the mountain. It seems to be luck of the draw in terms of visibility, however the morning of December 1st, 2019 was nothing short of perfect. It was an incredible reward for six tough days of climbing. The summit day ended up being a 50+ kilometre day of walking.
Although there are many people that face much tougher challenges than a few knee injuries, reaching Uhuru Peak at the top of Kilimanjaro is something I am extremely proud of and would recommend it to everyone.
An incredible sunrise greeted the expedition team upon reaching the Kilimanjaro summit.
Alex on top of Africa, tired but triumphant.