KILIMANJARO – Africa’s highest mountain
Robin D’Arcy, Director at Bay Estate Agents seems to prefer heading for the hills when he has time off from his busy working life. Last year he followed the Inca trail to Machupicchu and this year he decided that his annual holiday would involve another high altitude trip – this time to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro raising money for Cancer Research UK.
I awoke groggily to that ominous rustle of canvas. The familiar Swahili hello greeting of “Jambo Jambo” rang out from Haji, our impossibly upbeat guide, who was outside furiously shaking the tent door. This was my early morning mountain wake-up call, except it wasn’t even nearly morning. It was 11pm on Wednesday 13th June 2012. It was Summit Day. Cocooned in fleeces and thermals, I prised myself reluctantly from my sleeping bag with all the finesse of the Michelin Man. As I composed
myself for what lay ahead, I remembered an old Monty Python sketch where John Cleese’s eccentric expedition leader briefs a bemused Eric Idle on a mission to the top of Africa’s highest mountain: “Kilimanjaro is a pretty tricky climb you know, most of it’s up until you reach the very, very top, and then it tends to slope away rather sharply.”
Although probably accurate, for some reason I didn’t think it was going to be as simple as all that.
Six months earlier, buoyed by the foolish ambition of a New Year’s Resolution, I had booked my flight to Tanzania, via a long layover in Ethiopia, and a place on the Machame Route. I had read that this was the most beautiful and scenic route up Kilimanjaro. The trade off was that this was also the most difficult path and known familiarly as the “Whiskey Route”, an adventurous six day hike with strictly tent sleeping arrangements. Apparently, the trekking difficulty is measured on asliding scale of soft drink to hard liquor as the easier Marangu Route, where accommodation is in the relative luxury of huts, is referred to as the “Coca Cola Route” (I wasn’t sure at this point whether there was a lesser mentioned “Ribena Route” that I was missing, which offered piggy back rides and en-suite lodgings – there wasn’t).
I blame Chris Moyles and to a lesser extent Brendan Rodgers (mostly forgiven for leading Swansea City FC into the Premiership). Both had conquered the mountain in recent times, Moyles as one ninth of a band of celebrities who scaled the mountain for Comic Relief in 2009 and Rodgers among a collective of fellow football managers, pundits and chairmen for Marie Curie Cancer Care in 2011. At the time I remember sniping at Chris Moyles, Cheryl Cole, Ronan Keating and Co. After all, how tricky could it be having been flown in by private jet, medical support on hand and flanked by over a hundred porters, loaded down with flat-pack shower cubicles, Moyles’ Benson & Hedges and Cheryl’s hair products because she’s worth it (all unconfirmed). Cynical and admittedly a touch jealous, I resolved to give it a try eventually and take the most challenging route possible, for macho one-upmanship, and to push myself as hard as possible for the benefitting charity.
The last year had seen the sudden and sad passing of two close family friends from cancer and it seemed right to attempt this challenge in their memory as well as for those who have lost their battle and those who are currently suffering. I contacted Cancer Research UK and they sent me a fund-raising pack and a web link to set up an online Just Giving sponsorship page. Immediately, the pledges came flooding in and I was bowled over at the generosity of close friends, remote acquaintances and complete strangers alike. This was obviously a subject matter that touched many people’s lives either directly or indirectly and if I could make even the slightest impact by consistently putting one foot in front of the other (which can sometimes be a trial in itself due to inherent clumsiness) then I would be happy.
So it began. Dressed in dowdy but practical clothing complete with cap and hiking poles, making me look like some kind of mad skiing postman, I set off from the Machame Gate with six fellow hikers, two guides, two cooks and around twenty porters. It was now very real. All being well, in a matter of days we would reach Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro’s highest point at 5,895m. I had read that of some 20,000 people who attempt Kili each year, approximately a third do not make it. Altitude sickness is the main culprit and it strikes randomly and indiscriminately regardless of youth, fitness and previous climbing experience.
At its worst this can result in high-altitude cerebral oedema or high-altitude pulmonary oedema, both extremely life-threatening. Officially there are, on average, two or three deaths annually as a result of Acute Mountain Sickness on Kilimanjaro. I will not spoil the suspense by telling you at this stage whether I actually contribute to those statistics.
Having completed the Inca Trail six months earlier, I was quite complacent about the trek at first but I quickly began to remember just how physically exhausting the experience can be as we embarked on the first stint of the journey through humid rainforest, tripping over giant gnarled tree roots, while colobus monkeys seemed to mock from the branches of the towering, moss-draped trees. “Pole Pole” (“slowly”, “slowly”) was the mantra that Juma, our oldest guide, would sing out as our pace threatened to quicken. This was always going to be a chore for me as I get impatient walking behind slow moving shoppers in Tesco. Slow and steady with plenty of water. These were the buzzwords as we trudged on, while nimble-footed porters bounded effortlessly past us to set up camp in preparation for our arrival, our luggage, cooking gear, water supplies and tents precariously balanced on their heads and shoulders.
Several hours later and after a swift guided tour of Machame Camp, taking in the dreaded lavatory tent, an eye-watering toxic torture chamber, and bathroom facilities (a bowl of warm water and a packet of antibacterial wipes), we settled down to a carb-loaded meal of soup, pasta and pancakes before retiring to our tents to get to grips with sleeping in rapidly falling temperatures. All the while in the distance Kili ominously reared its head through the evening clouds.
The next morning, once oatmeal, bananas and yet more pancakes had been consumed and feet began to thaw we made our way onwards and upwards to the top of the forest, bidding farewell to greenery and entering the desolate moorland zone. An eerie climb over rocky ridge and across the Shira plateau followed as mist swirled around us and the only wildlife, giant ravens no less deriding than the monkeys, perched on crags of rock. After six hours of hiking we arrived at Shira Camp at 3,840m with an expansive ocean of dense cloud on one side and Kili, rather depressingly seeming no closer on the other. The night at this exposed camp was even colder than the previous with temperatures dropping to well below freezing.
After a rocky night’s sleep, quite literally after the abject failure of my makeshift pillow (sweater shoved inside a sleeping bag case), stiff-necked I was ready for day three. Today would involve altitude acclimatisation which would see us trek to high altitude before descending again to camp for the night. This pattern of climbing higher and sleeping lower would continue for the next few days to help our bodies adapt to the thinning air. We crossed desert and rock-strewn landscape, eventually reaching the Lava Tower at 4630m after five hours of walking. All the while, our chief guide, Haji, gave us the inside scoop on high profile trekkers who had attempted the challenge over the years, including one specific football club owning, Russian oligarch who cut his losses for the nearest helipad after just three days. Ok, we weren’t billionaires but at least we’d made it to day four.
Descending 680m, we reached the Barranco camping area after the most punishing day so far. My head had been throbbing for the last few hours due to the altitude. So far I had resolved not to take Diamox, the anti-altitude sickness medication. I had experienced the mild symptoms of altitude before. I knew what to look out for and I worried that taking the pills may mask any warning signs. That night the mess tent resembled a care home dispensary as we sat down to our evening meal, nursing aching limbs and doling out anti-malaria, anti-inflammatory, pretty much anti-everything tablets like tic-tacs. Not to advocate peer-pressure pill popping but seeing as everyone was doing it, I decided to take a Diamox as my head now felt as if it was being pumped with water. As it turns out Diamox is quite a strong diuretic so I had just swapped a heavy head for heavy bladder.
A miserable night’s sleep followed with half a dozen trips to the torture toilet where sub-zero temperatures threatened a mid-stream freeze.
By the next morning the headache was gone. We had all hit the wall, quite literally as the Great Barranco Wall loomed imposingly in front of us. This now involved a degree of technical climbing for the first time, which broke the monotony of the endless flat trekking. It was encouraging to be heading upwards instead of across as we now seemed to be gaining ground on Kili. Sure enough, after hours of climbing and as the wall topped out just below the Heim Glacier, Kilimanjaro stood closer than ever with its snowy peaks gleaming incandescently in the mid-morning sunshine. After a celebratory photo shoot which went on for far too long, possibly due to delirium, we set off again across alpine desert and down through the Karanga Valley. At the end of the longest game of eye spy, again possibly down to delirium, and 14 km of ridges and valleys we reached Barafu. We had arrived at Base Camp.
It felt like the camp at the end of the world. Barafu is the Swahili word for “ice”, appropriate for this bleak and inhospitable place. In sombre mood we collapsed in our tents for four hours sleep before beginning the through-the-night attempt for the summit.
It’s a strange sensation being nervous and cold. Shivering seemed to take on an extra vigour as adrenaline pulsed through me with anticipation, excitement and anxiety in equal measure.
It reminded me of that long repressed feeling when you wake up for school on a dark winter morning for exam day. Enveloped in layer upon layer of Gore-Tex and a shamelessly fluffy fleece, which looked like it could have been a Jim Henson creation, I joined the rest of our group as we nibbled half-heartedly on a last supper of popcorn, bourbon biscuits and jam sandwiches. Even the novelty of children’s tea party comfort food was doing little to calm nerves.
At just before midnight, we shuffled off into the night to begin our assault on the mountain, joining a long train of other parties as they slowly snaked, single file up the mountain. It seemed a bit self-defeating, assaulting a mountain with a shuffle. Nevertheless it was essential to conserve energy and oxygen to the muscles. “Pole” “Pole” was the mantra, as well as the occasional motivational cry of, “If Moyles can do it..”. We were a chain gang, eyes fixed on the heels of the person in front of us, every now and then gazing up to see the inky silhouette of the mountain against the night sky and an endless stream of head torches zig-zagging slowly upwards into the distance. I was surprisingly rejuvenated now, ear phones in and ipod turned up loud to a cheesy mountain playlist, trudging slowly up the mountain, rather uncoolly but fittingly to Toto’s Africa.
The hours before dawn were the toughest and also the coldest. It was bitterly cold as temperatures sunk to below minus fifteen degrees celsius. Heavy scree turned to ice underfoot and even the frequent rest stops were unwelcome as perspiration rapidly cooled on the body. The contents of my water bottle began to resemble a slush puppy and then froze altogether.
I would have to manage without water from here on but thankfully had no signs of altitude sickness, aside from a brief hallucination of our old family West Highland Terrier in the snow. Other members of our group weren’t so lucky and porters buzzed around heroically tending to the sick and exhausted and offering up their own jackets to keep people warm. After six hours of physical and mental exhaustion, we reached Stella Point at 5685m on the crater rim just as the sun began to rise over the horizon in glorious orange. The immediate warmth of sunlight had given us the boost to make that final push for the summit through the snow and at just before 8am on Thursday 14th June we reached Uhuru Peak. Emotional, fatigued, relieved and overwhelmed we congratulated each other and took turns to be photographed in front of the famous, rickety sign post, festooned with flags and marking Africa’s highest point. In case you were still in doubt, I can now reveal that I did make it. We all did.
Kilimajaro had taken us eight hours to climb and we were down it in three, using our hiking poles to slalom down the loose, sandy shale of the mountain side. The descent seemed as endless as the climb and my legs were like jelly as I frequently turned my ankle on the rubble and ludicrously swore at the rocks. Eventually one of my legs gave way completely and I tumbled spectacularly, gashing my hip. I lay there prone for a few minutes, legs splayed like a contorted giraffe. I now realised that the night time ascent had not just been about the romanticism of watching the sunrise at the summit. It was more about not seeing how far there was to go and how mammoth the task ahead was. Also, the icy cold night knit the loose stone together, ensuring a stable path underfoot. I picked myself up stiffly and carried on. On the bright side my fall had covered quite some distance.
After a brief rest back at Base Camp, leaden footed and weary we trekked a further 20km to the final camp of the journey. The next morning we were back in the rainforest in heavy rain and after three hours of sliding along a trail which resembled chocolate pudding, the Mweka Gate, the finishing post, appeared like a mirage in the distance. Euphoric and with very few toenails left, this had been the most exhilarating and memorable week of my life.
I have many people to thank for making this trip such a success, including the group of friends I made on the climb, the porters who kept up morale and would do anything for you, most importantly the generous people who donated and helped raise over £1700 for Cancer Research UK, and I must not forget Chris Moyles. I have promised to take it easy from now on and opt for a beach holiday next year. The trouble is, as Nelson Mandela once said, after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.
In memory of Brendan Minney & Helen Reynolds.
Donations are still gratefully accepted at www.justgiving.com/robin-darcy-kilimanjaro