Climbing Kilimanjaro

My flight to Africa leaves Heathrow at 6:35 a.m., so I have a car booked for 3 a.m. I get dressed in my full hiking gear beforehand (including boots) in order to travel on the plane – this is recommended as it’s not unusual to lose luggage in African airports and although you can get shirts and trousers on the other side the key items are virtually irreplaceable in the short term. I meet up with 14 other members of the team at Heathrow – Shannon, the the 16th team member, is coming from Australia and meeting us there.

We arrive at Kilimanjaro airport 12 hours after leaving Heathrow, meeting up with our guide, a former marine called Jaz. Our tour bus, which is suitably dilapidated, awaits – we are at the hotel 40 minutes later and the rooms are surprisingly nice (although my expectancy wasn’t high – Tanzania is not a luxury destination). We have a late beer and head to bed – I am paired for the week with Liam, my brother-in-law and good friend and a man bearing a similarly corpulent frame to my own. I realise I have left all my pills (Malaria etc.) at home.

We rise early for a trip to one of the local primary schools. The roads are lined with women in attractive african dress with large baskets of bananas on their heads. The 1,000 children in the school are as happy as any children I have seen anywhere despite their apparent shortage of material possessions by Western standards – it makes me think more about the excesses of my life than the material deficiencies of theirs.

We head into Moshi town centre where we are mobbed by street traders. I get some money out of the ATM. I decide to buy a couple of paintings from one of the traders – he wants $40 and I spend ten minutes beating him down to $30, but having done so I pay him the full amount. Back at the hotel we have a swim before dinner and bed.

In the morning we leave after breakfast on a 3 hour trip to the back of the mountain. We arrive at the registration point and there are long delays for reasons that are not explained – I eat my packed lunch and have a kip under a tree. Later we travel in a 4×4 along the bumpiest road I have ever been on to the start of our climb – we meet Killian, head of the African team and a man with a loud laugh and a broad grin. We finally get going up the mountain, and 30 seconds in we have our first accident as Nigel H takes a tumble and bruises his leg. No disaster fortunately. 3 hours later I am joint first to arrive at our first camp alongside Lisa, one of four girls on the trip. The camp is at 7,000 feet.

We sign in and pick a tent. All tents are the same – small and old, generally with zips that don’t quite do the job – and the secret is to be as far away as possible from the toilet tents which do not have a flush and smell worse as the evening goes on. Liam and I make our pick, and after a quick kip we are called to the mess tent for dinner. It is now very cold and the mess tent isn’t quite big enough for the 16 of us – I am the last to arrive and I am half in and half out. The food is extremely basic and changes little from day to day (or from meal to meal). I have become nauseous and I don’t want to eat (I will have diarrhoea for the whole trip and still do as I write).

We have a decent night’s sleep and set off on a long day after an early breakfast. We are on the ‘Lemoshu’ route – the hardest of the 5 routes up the mountain that do not have a technical climbing element – and today will be a long day. We travel through jungle in the morning and it is hot – it gets steep but there are no difficult rocks to negotiate. We have lunch alfresco on a rocky outcrop, and I feel miserable about the limitations of the food on offer. As we leave for the long afternoon’s climb I surprise myself by suddenly becoming tearful, perhaps feeling sorry for myself as I had not imagined I would be deprived of my creature comforts to the extent that I clearly will be. The afternoon is a long uphill climb, but we come down 800 feet to camp at around 10,000 feet, arriving in the early evening.

In the tent I tell Liam that things will get easier now – I have noted that the next two camps are not much higher than the one we are in. I am wrong – days three and four involve climbing up some very steep hills only to climb down the other side as there is very little flat terrain. The closer we get to the peak the less vegetation there is and the more rocky and arid the land becomes. Our days are interrupted at regular intervals by the porters, who pack up all of our gear after we leave and rush past us to get to the next camp before we do in order to set up our tents and prepare our food – it is slightly humbling when straining to make it up a steep mountain path, to have a porter bound past like a mountain goat with a folded up table balanced on his head.

At the end of day four we sleep at the bottom of the Barranco wall – a huge and scary black cliff face that represents the only part of our ascent that is properly intimidating. Day five begins with an hour long ascent of this 1,000 foot high wall – an easy start and an easy finish but narrow paths back and forth sheer vertical rock face in between. At one point we are required to climb four feet onto a boulder before finding a hand grip and stepping out onto a little jutting out rock about the size of a pad of butter – from there it is a fairly straightforward step back onto the path again. Easily done in your kitchen but with a 300 foot void immediately beneath you there are psychological issues to deal with. I don’t look down as I go across, but I look down afterwards and immediately wish I hadn’t. As I lie in my tent at the end of the day it is all I can think about.

Breakfast on day 6, and I realise that I have a new ailment to add to my long list – I have not applied my sun protection as I should have and my bottom lip has burnt away and become jelly. I pop a little piece of pineapple onto it and the pain is so sharp that there are tears running down my face. My teeth have been agony all week, so at least they have been demoted to the places in the pain stakes. I am nauseous, I have a headache, I have pulled a muscle in my leg and I have some sharp back pains from carrying the heavy rucksack all day long. My biggest worry though is my heart, which has become very irregular as it did once before, causing me to go onto beta-blockers for 18 months – I am fretting a lot about this and possibly becoming a hypochondriac. Liam thinks I am and has told me so – he refuses to allow any negative thoughts into his head, and I am slowly coming around to this despite my early negativity.

Day six is an uphill slog to base camp, but we leave early and get there in good time in the late morning. There is plenty of time to relax before we try for the summit – we will leave at 11 p.m. and hope to reach the high point in time for sunset. It will be exceptionally cold and there is very little oxygen in the air – it is a total ascent of 1200 metres which is twice as big as we have attempted in any given day to date. It won’t be easy. Liam is typically upbeat – ‘it’s very simple’ he says, ‘all you have to do is tell yourself you’re going to do it and you will do it’. I don’t have a better philosophy at this point.

After lunch we watch as a Scottish guy is brought down off the mountain on a stretcher. Initially it does nothing for the team’s confidence, but when they finally arrive at camp we have a chat with his father. He is suffering from exhaustion, but his is a remarkable story as he is blind and consequently it has been a very long and difficult climb for him. If anything it leaves us in better spirits than before – if a blind man can climb this mountain then we ought to be able to manage it.

We have a series of tests to see how our pulse rates and oxygen levels are coping with the altitude. Jaz informs the group that he has told Antonio from Portugal that he will not be making the climb – Antonio has been a strong member of the group from the start, but perhaps because he has lived his entire life at sea level his body is not adjusting and his blood/oxygen level has fallen well below 80% – by far the lowest in the group. I am gutted for him as I walk away. There are others in the group whose stats look borderline, but we all go forward.

We get up at 10 and fall in line at 11 – I am at the head of the group with an African guide in front of me – behind me is Ally from Dublin who has struggled with nausea and a high pulse from the start. Liam is towards the back. We have our head torches on and five layers of clothing – when I look back all I see is a line of white dots. We head off up the mountain for the final time. The first hour is tricky with a few rocky bits to negotiate, but after that we are walking back and forth on scree on a steady and steep uphill path to the crater of this massive extinct volcano.

About two hours in we have our first incident – I hear shouting back in the line. Tony, a city trader, has completely lost his sight and is having a vocal exchange with Jaz – low oxygen levels in the blood can do strange things and the body can choose to shut off functions at will in its efforts of self preservation. Tony is soon heading back down the mountain with a porter to look after him – I am not surprised that Tony is in trouble as his stats had been poor throughout the week and he was not adjusting as he should.

An hour after this another incident occurs – Ally is in trouble and is lurching around. She rushes over to a rock and throws up behind it – Jaz is quickly on the scene. Ally has been sick all week but she hasn’t let it get her down and her cheerful nature and infectious laugh has been a big plus for our team spirit. Her stats have been poor though and I am sad as I sense this is the end for her campaign. I am wrong – there is a lot of shouting and with a fierce look across at Jaz she is suddenly back in line and will make the summit.

We carry on and I am struggling badly now. The idea is that we go up really slowly and never stop – I am on my last legs and keep having to stop, but we are barely past half way. Nigel Payne is shouting at me to slow down, but I’m feeling very groggy and I don’t seem able to do it. I am replaced at the front of affairs by 64 year old Brian, but he too seems to be going too fast. Eventually Nigel himself comes forward to take the lead and he guides us slowly and steadily towards the top.

As we near the crater I am struggling more and more to keep on the path – I keep falling over sideways and lurching around like an old drunk. Nevertheless I am getting there. News comes from Jaz that he has sent Brian down as he was looking too shaky – a tough deal for Brian who would be gutted. Jaz calls me to the front of the line as he sees I am looking shaky – I tell him I would like to walk with Liam and Liam is pushed up to the front, but he doesn’t look in a good way. We push forward, step by agonising step, and suddenly we are there on the crater rim 6 hours 15 minutes after we have started. This is Stella Point, and many would consider it enough to get to here as it is on the top of the mountain. Most consider the top to be the highest point of the crater – Uhuru Peak – and this is a 45 minute walk around the crater. We have a cup of tea before setting off on this final stage of our journey.

Jaz asks Liam and me to lead the way, but it is quickly apparent that Liam is not entirely with us. He has fallen into a trance – his arms are hanging lifelessly at his sides, his head is in his chest and he is not responding to comments. He is however pushing forward towards the summit on some form of autopilot, and it is an extraordinary sight. The group that had formed an orderly line up the mountain have now fanned out behind Liam, and their head torches are trained on him silhouetting him on this dark morning. Liam stops for breath and stands there lifelessly, the group behind waiting for him to push on. I am a few paces ahead looking back – it reminds me of Forrest Gump when he came to the end of his long run.

I feel very emotional at this point. This climb has been so much tougher than I expected in so many ways, and so many of our team have had to dig deeper than they imagined they could to get to the top of this mountain, but there is something particularly heroic about Liam’s effort. His mind has long turned off but his body is forging on, like Captain Ahab on the back of Moby Dick.

Jaz appears, and he is concerned that Liam is moving too slowly. I tell him I will hang back with Liam and the rest of the group should push on – he agrees and they move off, leaving a couple of guides behind to look after us. The guides stick with Liam and I wander slowly and aimlessly along, very very tired now. A while later the summit hoves into view – Liam is sitting on a rock ahead of me with the guides. I shout at him – ‘Liam – the summit!’. He seems to snap out of his trance and hauls himself up – we find new energy in our legs and soon we join our teammates on the mountain’s high point.

After the various photos are taken I sit on the ground – I am very emotional now as are most of the team. Liam has tears pouring down his face – he can only remember about two hours of the last seven. The sun comes up and we see the vast glacier appear that is sitting on the side of the crater. I embrace every member of the team and we break out the chocolate.

It’s time to go – it’s going to get hot and we don’t want to spend too long going down. Liam and I shoot off at remarkable speed, arriving at Stella Point in less than twenty minutes. Soon we are heading down the mountain the way we came, almost skiing down through the scree. Liam and I soon run out of steam, Liam more so than me. He is so exhausted he needs to have a kip. We lose touch with the group – Liam stops five times, each time having a cat nap. We arrive back at camp over an hour behind the others – a quick sleep in our tents and we are off again, heading for lower ground. The group hangs together for the first half of this, but then the going becomes tricky – we are in what feels like a dried up river bed going sharply down hill, but there has been recent rain and it has become slippery and difficult.

Liam and Brian are struggling in the conditions. Liam says his legs are on their last legs – Brian’s toenails on his big toes have gone black and will probably fall off in time. I feel fine now but I decide to hang back as the conditions are a little treacherous. We reach camp just before nightfall, and there is a shop there where we can buy a beer. In the morning it is a reasonably pleasant three hour trek to the checkout and we chat cheerfully all the way down.

After the usual delay we are heading off back to Moshi. Half an hour into the journey back to the hotel the rear suspension on the coach breaks and we grind to a halt. We all disembark and sit down in a coffee field – in other circumstances I’d expect a few people to be getting flustered, but no-one seems to be concerned in any way. Back at the hotel, and after a quick shower we are in the bar. Later we have a chinese meal in a reastaurant up the road. Brian and Tony head home early as they are tired – five minutes later Tony runs back to the restaurant shouting that they have been mugged. Jaz is off down the road like a bullet from a gun with some of the younger contingent close behind – I decide to hang back and make sure the women in the group are ok…

Brian and Tony have been set upon by five Tanzanian youths and have been beaten with truncheons – both have bruises but none of the injuries are serious. Brian has lost his camera, but has taken it as well as he could have. We go back to the hotel – Liam toasts the 99.5% of Tanzanians who would never do such a thing to emphasise the point that this is a wonderful country where such violence is extremely rare.

In the morning we head to a nearby souvenir shop and do some bulk buying and arrange a big DHL package. Some of the guys want to buy some tanzanite – a semi precious stone only found in Tanzania. We have a slightly comical tour of the city, ending in the office of a man called Abby. Abby, who arrives after us, is a giant of a man with a deep booming laugh and a withered leg – he moves around with the help of a huge wooden crutch. Sitting in his wood panelled office in the old colonial building he is straight from a Bond film – some of the party spend time examining stones under their magnifying glasses but I just look on.

We leave for the airport in the evening. It is pouring with rain, and there is a big open air bar in the middle of the airport that is completely flooded. I reflect that though Tanzania is a poor country it seems to have a sense of humour and fun.

The trip was a whole lot tougher than I thought it would be, and I reflect that if I had known what I was letting myself in for I would almost certainly not have done it. That would have been a terrible shame – I found this trip incredibly tough but there is no doubt that I am a whole lot richer for the experience.

Many people need thanking, but none more than Nigel Payne who organised this trip and was a positive and inspiring force throughout.