The Sorrows of Kilimanjaro

People don’t always go on holiday to relax. If they did, there would be little tourist industry around Mount Kilimanjaro. So what happens when you head for the hills with the minimum of preparation. Gareth Mason explains…

Few people climb Mount Kilimanjaro and then keep the story to themselves. Some, wordless but proud, wear the T-shirts. Others warn you not to take its challenge lightly, the grave nodding of their heads interrupted by a psychotic twitch which speaks more than words. Up to 80 per cent of trekkers don’t make it to the top, they tell you. Scary words like ‘death’, ‘training’ and ‘preparation’ were thrown at me while I stubbed out my cigarette and finished my beer the night before I went...    

I was careful not to sound over confident about my alpine adventure. I said the right things like: ‘If I reach the summit’ and, ‘well, of course altitude sickness can strike down any of us.’
But deep down, I thought differently. Had I not sprung with goat-like enthusiasm up the Andean heights to Machu Picchu? And much of my adolescence was spent running up hill and down dale in bleak English mid-winters. I’d even run a ‘team’ 24-mile crosscounty race in which I’d been tied by the waist to three other runners. It was awful. And then I did it again. So five days to climb a mountain and back? Surely no problem.

Know thy mountain

Preparation is not my middle name and for good reason. It’s James, and to me, planning has always got in the way of a good idea.

So when I turned up at the gate to Kilimanjaro National Park, I was sure that the contents of my midi-sized rucksack would cover my needs. At first, I declined the offer to rent some gloves, a woolly hat and ski-pole. ‘I’m warm-blooded,’ I breezily told my girlfriend while the man in the kitstore looked at me with the narrowed eyes he reserved for idiots.

With commendable commonsense, my girlfriend told me that warm-blooded creatures are adapted to warm climates not cold ones, before shoving a balaclava on my head. She had decided not to join me on the basis that after the stories she had heard, she didn’t want to climb any mountain ‘that much’. Later, I realised she was onto something.

Booted and suitably equipped, I hauled on my rucksack – a harmless seeming action which caused an immediate ripple of amusement among the gathered porters and guides. My mistake? I didn’t even have to carry it! ‘Easy life!’ I rejoiced inwardly, my confidence now dangerously inflated.

Easy does it

The gentle walk up to the Mandara hut was a pleasant morning’s work. We strolled slowly onwards and up along the winding paths leading through the rainforest which hugs the lower slopes. Tramping over the root-strewn path, we passed close to where coffee was grown, orchids popped up and waterfalls gently flowed.

My mind was free to wander about life’s more trivial matters interrupted only by the odd monkey, either Colobus or Blue, and the odd group of daytrippers. These could be identified by their small daybags, large cameras and air of happy innocence. ‘Part-timers,’ I thought, inflated by the self-importance of my own mission. They were not to be confused with another species whose clumping rhythmic footsteps was usually heard some time before their bodies followed. These dirty, worn-out people with faces devoid of expression were less like a blank canvas than one which has lost meaning through being painted on too much. Near-silent walking machines, their movements were economical, simple and repetitive, mere shells of once enthusiastic tourists. 

I might have asked: What happened to these people? Where do they come from? But my guide Dismas’ understanding of English was different to mine and I would, no doubt, find out soon enough.

Three hours and seven kilometres later, climbing from just below 2000m to around 2700m, we arrived at Mandara Hut. The only pain I’d felt thus far was guilt at the sight of my staggering guide wearing my rucksack round his head like some kind of bizarre fashion accessory. Personally, I’d barely broken sweat and considered suggesting we carry on to the next stage. Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut and instead went off to read my book in the pleasant mid-summer sunshine.

Despite failing to convince myself that 8pm was a normal time to go to bed, sleeping pills aided a surprisingly restful night in my shared bunk hut. My only problem had been finding the right bunk in the right hut when, last to bed, I crept in like a thief in a night, under a blanket of darkness.

Over a leisurely breakfast, I watched the other 100 or so walkers set off before our team of three followed. We were now supplemented by a cook, Tomasari. His enthusiasm to over-feed me improved my Swahili no end as I struggled to find new ways of explaining why I couldn’t finish the mounds of pasta and chips accompanying my many-coursed meals.

The second day took us 14km out of the forest and into open scrubland from which life sprang in bright bursts of colour in the form of exotic plantlife. Fire and rain has sculpted the landscape. Wide black swathes of burnt heather gave way to head-shaped clumps of mud – topped with mohican-like tufts of grass. Rising now for sharper, longer stretches, our route stretched into a visible far distance. Out of which rose the black and white peaks of Kilimanjaro: Mawenzi and Kibo.

It was around now, where the temperature drops to zero, that an unusual sensation crept up on my left knee. Mildly irritating at first, I walked with the leg completely straightened for the last two hours as we climbed the boulder-strewn path up into the clouds. When bent, it felt as if the surrounding ligaments had been stretched tight before receiving hundreds of tiny electric shocks. Apparently, it was my blood thickening – something I’m quite happy to have discovered later. Nobody commented on why half my body was engaged on a silly walk.

Head in the clouds

After five hours, we reached Horombo hut, perched on a hillside above a yawning empty space filled only by the cloud which swept past our faces. At 3700m, it was for me an all-time high, and explained my shorter breaths and the slower motion activity around me.

That night, a fellow trekker sensibly advised me that the slower you ascend, the longer your body  acclimatises. So our headlong progress ahead of the pack wasn’t so clever then? What’s more, everyone else seemed to be taking a day’s rest to adjust to the altitude. My bunkmates asked me whether I’d taken a course of Diamox for altitude sickness or done any training. I had to laugh, of course, but afterwards felt a little glum. Later a trained nurse, saw the burn on my neck left by the day’s raw, high sun. She winced like she was back in the accident and emergency ward.  

By the morning, my left knee seemed to have regained its ability to work as a joint at the expense of both my thighs. It seemed a fair trade.

At breakfast, I’d met two Australian girls on their way down from the summit. Both had been badly ill, one crawling her way up to Kibo Peak while swallowing dangerous handfuls of paracetemol and Diamox between regular bouts of vomiting. With this dubious medical advice, they gave me the few pills they had left over. Dropping one ‘D’, I booted up gingerly and set off for the dread Kibo hut. I had perused the guide book the night before and it made grim reading. A lot of walking, a lot less oxygen and 48 hours away from my next night’s sleep. I had nothing to do but walk and get used to the idea.

By day three, there is little to distract you from your task. Here, neither animal, vegetable or mineral live in any abundance – the big black crow-like birds are lords of the barren, rock-strewn wilderness they survey. The path stretches thirteen kilometres ahead to The Saddle which bisects the two looming peaks. Our bodies now faced the twin assault of the cold and a high, unblinking sun.  

I made a renewed attempt to pace myself. Previously, my intentionally half-speed moonsteps had still swept me past my fellow walkers. I’d even heard a mutter of ‘He ain’t so pole-pole’ levelled at me as I passed. It means ‘slow’ in Swahili and appears to be repeated for emphasis. So I figured my survival depended on adapting my stride to more pigeon-sized moon steps. It lasted about five minutes – the effort of deliberately walking so slowly was more of a strain than the ravages of altitude sickness.

The rise was more gradual now and physical effort became more laboured as we slowly reeled in the clusters of large boulders which monopolised the landscape. A sign stating starkly ‘Last Water’ summed up the desolation while the young guy who passed us had little positive to say from his stretcher. By the time we reached Kibo Hut, my head was pulsing with increasing urgency and I needed my arms to help lift my legs.

We weren’t here to stay the night, but I was assigned a dorm to lie back before our midnight assault on the summit. Photogenic sunrises apart, it’s said that leaving in darkest night stops people from giving up before they start by keeping them ignorant of what’s ahead.

My dormitory resembled a Great War casualty ward. The only words spoken were uttered in subdued muffled tones amid the bodies strewn about the beds. Several, huddled tight and shaking in their sleeping bags, lay with their faces turned to the wall, alone with their ugly symptoms. One was spoonfed by his porter, presumably before a priest came to administer the last rites.

By now, my brain felt as if it was roughly pinioned in a vice while being steadily pounded with a small wooden hammer. Over the next four hours, it got worse.

I pushed away my dinner and retired to my bed  to try and shut out the reality. Slipping in and out of sleep, I felt like I’d woken up on my kitchen floor after downing a large bottle of Tequila. But while Tequila abusers can counter its symptoms with water and sleep, climbing the summit now would be like getting off the kitchen floor and attaching myself to a moonshine whiskey drip.

Fortunately, by late evening the pain had eased enough to lessen the odds of my skull exploding. I didn’t need the alarm call to wake me a little before midnight. Like zombies, we rose silently from our private torment, as one.

Trouble at top

I took half a Diamox before setting off. I’d been told that it wasn’t recommended for youngish hearts but figured my head needed some kind of bribe before ascending new heights. A near full moon illuminated little to cheer us. The dark scree making up the final climb is broken only now and then by rocky enclaves. Some way up, reaching high into the moonlit sky, could be glimpsed a ridge. I assumed it was simply the end of one stretch of slope. It was actually the summit. Suffice to say, the distance was deceptive.

Our feet slipped through this loose surface making progress slow, inefficient and tiring – the thin air no longer an efficient fuel. The alternative was to walk so slowly it looked like you’d need a timelapse camera to record your movements. And with the cold plummeting further, I opted for what I knew best – getting it done as quickly as possible. As my heart threatened to crash through my rib cage, I was forced to rest every half dozen steps or so setting off again as soon as it calmed to a pounding thump. The contest between premature heart failure and frostbite was finely balanced.

We reached Hans Meyer’s Cave – a lonely rocky overhang which had offered refuge to the first explorer to reach the top. It looked like a good place to die.

This was when preparation began to mean something significant. With walking boots, gloves and balaclava a feeble barrier to the subzero temperatures, my corduroy trousers, extra jumper and thin waterproof top were proving a little lightweight. All I needed was a tweed jacket, monocle and pipe and I could have been a Victorian gentleman explorer.

The 225 minutes of climbing were not what I would describe as ‘quality’ minutes though perhaps ‘character building’. To save me repeating myself, simply keep re-reading these last few paragraphs for the best part of four hours while sitting naked on an exercise bike in an icerink and peddling very hard. It was a bit like that, though the pain and views were far greater.

I welcomed the rocky snow-patched section which followed the scree as it indicated some kind of visual proof of progress. But this proved even harder work to traverse and itself seemed to stretch into infinity. My attempt to switch off all senses than those needed for walking caused an internal rebellion. Muttering aloud, I cursed the mountain and sun alternately, one for being there, the other for its absence.

But all of a sudden, totally unexpected, I stumbled onto one of life’s better surprises. Scrambling over a stack of boulders at what I had assumed was the top of the endless ridge, I  was confronted by a sign which read: ‘You are now at Gilman’s Point 5,680m. Tanzania. Welcome and Congratulations’. The shock would have numbed me it the cold hadn’t got there first. I had done it.

In an instant, all the demons which had whispered thoughts of failure over the last three days dissolved into the very thin air. But this sudden flush of elation disappeared after a couple of minutes of inactivity let the cold tighten its icy grip.

As sunrise was still 90 minutes off – far longer than I reckoned was needed to kill me – I almost went straight back down. The icy path to the opposite and higher end of the summit at Uhuru Peak looked precarious. With no light, and my relief at reaching this summit, I had little motivation to find another. Only when I realised that I’d have to go back down the hellish scree slope in the dark did I decide to go on.

We made steady progress to Uhuru Peak once I was half-sure I wouldn’t slip off the side of the path to my death in the crater beneath it. The sun finally answered my exhortations to rise as we staggered up to its flattish top, all 5,896m of it. Several other people popped up from different routes. Most looked confused.

Despite the beauty of this African sunrise, a few photos taken with my gloves off told me that this panorama would be best appreciated in an atmosphere less conducive to hyperthermia. Turning hastily to the four corners of the world, I took some final shots with shaky, re-gloved hands and entrusted the rest of the scene to memory. Here, on the crown of Africa, the only way was down.

It's all over now

The 2,200m 14km descent we made an hour after returning to Kibo Hut was not my idea of a celebration. But success and oxygen lent an extra spring to my step and a smugness which I failed to suppress.

I met, on the way down, those friends who had delayed for a rest day and survived thus far. I felt transformed now into the wise man of the mountain, dispensing sound advice which could be distilled into: ‘Don’t do anything I did.’ As I met the 30th such person, it occurred to me how less pleasant this would be if I’d instead become the inspiration for a parable of ‘the boy who went too fast’.

The rapid downhill walk home over the next day and a half rendered my stair-climbing muscles impotent for the next 24 hours. And I found out just how many layers of skin my parched lips had lost when I closed them upon a heavily-spiced chicken drumstick on my first evening back. More than I’d realised, my screams suggested.

But if the memories fade and the snapshots reel  me back into some similar enterprise, I will dust down my diary and remind myself of the horrors many of us put ourselves through for the sake of an ‘experience’. Then I’ll pull on on my tweed jacket, don my cap at a jaunty angle and just maybe... pack an extra pair of socks.

African Travel magazine 2001