There are two stories about what it’s like to climb Kilimanjaro: the one people tell their friends after they get home, which has the benefit of inspiring others to tackle the world’s highest free-standing mountain, and the one they tell each other at the summit, which has the benefit of being true.
The memory of what is endured en route to Uhuru Peak, 19,340ft above the level more commonly associated with holidays, is somehow expurgated and re-edited, the learning curve of painful experience Tipp-Exed out. The same mental process explains why my wife has been able to go through childbirth three times, and why I have eaten more than one battered saveloy.
That said, climbing mountains never made sense, and in the case of Kilimanjaro the contradictions start early. Lying in a Nairobi hotel bed, a mighty oscillating wall fan pressing the humid bed linen to my legs, it seemed an affront to reason that the fat holdall on the floor was filled not with shorts and flip-flops but balaclavas and insulated Gore-Tex.
A glacier-capped colossus slap up against the Earth’s hot waistline appeared so improbable that when in 1849 a German missionary hurried back to Europe with news of his sighting, he was ridiculed. Verification took another 12 years; it had yet to be conquered by 1886, when Victoria had the border between British and German East Africa redrawn to give Kilimanjaro to her cousin, the future Kaiser Wilhelm.
So I read the following day during an eight-hour bus ride over organ-realigning potholes to Moshi in Tanzania, base camp for the blithe innocents who set off towards Africa’s highest point every year. The luckiest of these overnight at the Marangu Hotel, whose four-square colonial bungalows spread out across 12 acres of groomed yet gaudy equatorial loveliness, backed by the mismatched twin peaks of the volcano I had already been persuaded to call Kili. Mawenzi summit’s fearfully serrated talons shredded the blue heavens; the rounded, snow-glazed brow of Kibo, a few miles to the left across a bleak lava plateau, stood higher, yet seemed by comparison benign. This, of course, is what had lured me: nowhere else on Earth is it possible to scale a mountain of such a height without crampons, ice picks and an unruly, frost-flecked beard.
Mingling outside our night-before briefing, I met my seven fellow climbers, a multinational band of fresh-faced backpackers which wonderfully included an emergency-room doctor, a paramedic with Himalayan experience and a psychiatric nurse. All bases covered. The first two had both attended altitude-sickness conferences – plural – and arrived with surplus fistfuls of Diamox, a drug said to alleviate altitude sickness at the expense of prodigious nocturnal urination.
‘Any normally fit, healthy individual can conquer Kili,’ the brochures had blathered. It was a claim that had not hitherto aroused my suspicion, or clearly that of the rival groups who would leave the Marangu with us in the morning. Seven Americans aged from their mid-fifties up; a quintet of middle-aged Germans with fags in one fist and half-litre bottles of Safari lager in the other.
This state of happy delusion endured as long as hotel co-owner Desmond’s first sentence. ‘By going up so quickly, we’re breaking all the rules of mountaineering,’ was the arresting introduction of a speech as candid as the glossy literature had been vague. For two hours thereafter, his dumbstruck audience had their concept of recreation brutally redefined, learning of the bloodied sputum associated with pulmonary oedema, the skull-cracking brain-aches and deluded, aggressive paranoia of its similarly lethal cerebral incarnation.
‘Most of you will experience some head pain, nosebleeds and unexpected vomiting along with fatigue and shortness of breath,’ he continued, pausing while we pictured ourselves in Hieronymus Bosch’s newly discovered Alpine meisterwerk . How unexpected might this vomiting be? Mid-stride? Mid-syllable? ‘You’ve probably heard these symptoms described as Acute Mountain Sickness.’ Someone nodded slowly. ‘Here we call that Ordinary Mountain Sickness.’ Desmond wrinkled his nose and looked from face to panicked face. ‘Listen,’ he went on, soothingly, ‘nearly 25,000 people a year set off up Kilimanjaro, and only 25 die.’ Not since John Gummer wedged that burger in his daughter’s mouth has an attempt at reassurance proved so spectacularly ill conceived.
‘The weather here is like a perfect English summer,’ the receptionist had said, words given squinting, radiant substance as we assembled at 9am in the hotel courtyard. Each of us had our own porter; add in the chief guide, Fetaeli, and his assistants and our party of eight would be supported by a crew of 17. No roads on Kili; no beasts of burden either – the porters would carry it all up on their heads. We’d shoulder only a modest day pack for our anoraks and water bottles, yet there would be times when even that would seem a Sisyphean burden.
Guerba, the organisers of my trip, ensure their porters are decently paid and never overloaded, and have even sponsored a local education project. Depressing but inevitable, such philanthropy is unusual: last September three porters less fortunately employed succumbed to hypothermia in a single night on the mountain, wet, exhausted and obliged to sleep in the open. The tragedy is that, by Tanzanian standards, they represent an elite: more than half the country gets by on less than a dollar a day. It distressed us all, but somehow the Land Rovers and three-pronged UK power plugs made it seem more my fault than anyone else’s.
As I suppose is often the way with climbing mountains, it wasn’t too bad at first. With my tender heels plastered and padded by our psychiatric nurse (on honeymoon – honeymoon! – with her Glaswegian groom), day one was no worse than a humid three-hour tramp, up from the Kilimanjaro National Park gates to 8,500ft through a lush but oddly quiet rainforest. The air was as thick as it would later be thin; enough hot oxygen for respiration and conversation. Every half hour or so Bambi-legged descenders would stumble by, gung-ho encouragement in their voices but a haunted vacancy in their eyes.
The bijou four-berth huts at Mandara, our first camp, were of an A-frame design; one day someone will seek inspiration from elsewhere in the alphabet and we’ll all be spared a few banged heads. (‘H’ springs happily to mind, at least for those on the ground floor.) Still, the accommodation was as acceptable as anything that’s been carried up a big mountain on someone’s head has a right to be. As indeed was the food, for the first two days at least. There’s water at Mandara, but no electricity for refrigeration, and the ‘meat sauce’ devoured with reasonable gusto that first night thereafter lay undisturbed beneath its thickening meniscus. Appetite declines in proportion to altitude, and despite the draining rigours of a day’s march, Fetaeli and his boys regularly carried full plates and bowls away from our trestle table.
A night interrupted by multiple Diamox-fuelled visits to the footprint latrines led to a 6.30am wake-up and a gut-bucket breakfast ingested with patchy enthusiasm. Desmond had warned that our bodies would feel they were in a hostile environment on day two, and with the sun and clouds already below us, altitude was becoming an issue. Yesterday I’d been kept up to speed with developments in the Scottish Premier League and cardiothoracic surgery as we had loudly traded banter up and down our jaunty rambling formation, but as the rockily rutted red-earth track rose and narrowed, the eight of us fell into a silent single column.
‘Poli-poli! ‘ trilled Fetaeli, urging us to proceed slowly. Until last summer, this stretch had been the verdant realm of gaudy red-hot pokers and the cactus-like giant lobelia, but a party of honey-hunters had got it all wrong with their bee-smokers and for seven hours we rasped and shuffled across a charred stump-land. It was very hot, then a Spinal Tap mist wisped up out of a valley and it was very cold.
I never really knew what I was supposed to do with the iron-tipped walking stick they’d given me at the hotel, but I twirled it like a pissed-up majorette when at length Horombo camp materialised through the fog. The floor of its dining hut was alive with what we charitably dubbed Alpine chipmunks, but gritted and sore, and always at least slightly nauseous, no one cared. No one else, anyway.
In the interests of morale, all discussion of the grandiose awfulness that lay ahead, of The Last Day, had long since been proscribed, yet cheery badinage is always a challenge for the man facing his fifth browned banana in as many hours. At the next table a young couple sat in tragic silence, tears dripping into her untouched broth, and blistered flakes of forehead into his. On the way back to our huts I noted a rank of well-used wheeled stretchers messily stacked by a fence.
We were at more than 14,000ft now, comfortably the highest ground my feet had ever stood upon, and even the slightest gradient proved bewilderingly onerous. We had slept in our cook-chilled clothes, and out of the sun it was still painfully cold; porters who for days had worn sandals and basketball vests were now in boots and padded jackets. The elderly Americans had already left two of their party croaking spew into Horombo buckets, and we shuffled past as chest pain claimed another.
Heathery moorland gave way to Martian desolation as we broached The Saddle, a windswept, sundried plain of lightly rubbled lava. Kibo hut’s crude whitewashed flanks glared out clear and sharp in the hazeless air at the foot of a towering flank of scree, yet it took another three hours of stumbling toil before we could rustily lever off our packs and creak down into a bunk. Some eating took place, but I’d prefer not to dwell on it.
In fact, it’s probably unfair to dwell on anything that occurred in the ensuing 26 hours, except to say that my fondest memories are of the first five, spent wide-eyed and bagged-up in a barracks dormitory haunted by shivering moans from within and echoing, apocalyptic retches from without. Kris, a Sri Lankan accountant, had been mired for two days in the unfortunately vivid throes of full-blown amoebic dysentery: debilitating before, but desperate at waterless Kibo. The facilities here were described as ‘long-drop toilets’, though it was memorably apparent that at this stage the drop was not nearly as long as it had been.
At 11.30pm we were roused brusquely and coerced into layer on layer of clothing; ‘Sun cream now or you forget later,’ barked Fetaeli. Dressed almost to the point of limb inarticulation, we fumbled out into the starry, frosted darkness, the mouthholes of our balaclavas luridly ringed with cricketer’s zinc paste.
And then it was off up the scree slope zig-zags, one step forward, two steps back, following the torchbeams and Fetaeli’s Swahili singalong. ‘Poli-poli; rest; drinking.’ That was his catchphrase, and it worked on us as it has worked on others for nearly 30 years. Fetaeli’s success rate is more than 75 per cent: no guide can boast a better record at inveigling dispirited inadequates up to Uhuru. That much was obvious from the many hunched and puking invalids we passed, abandoned by rival parties whose distant lights flickered almost vertically above. Asked to explain the scene before him, any rational outsider would have listened for a rapidly gaining search party of Alsatian-led stormtroopers.
It got steeper and colder. We ate broken biscuits in a cave. Someone muttered that we were resting every 15 paces, though trying to keep count I accepted that double figures were now beyond me. A few more zig-zags on, I posed myself the concussed- footballer test: far too many fingers on both hands and Gerald Ford installed as our current Prime Minister. After six hours, I’m told, the scree evolved into a cliff of house-sized boulders, which I seem to have surmounted, because abruptly there we were: Gilman’s Point, Kili’s most dramatic peak but 600ft – and two hours – below Uhuru, the roof of Africa.
Improbably, Kris had made it; in fact, whey-faced, air-headed, numb and dumb, we’d all made it. All except the paramedic, who dropped off the back of our group, then succumbed to mountain madness, hurling his gloves into the painfully glacial night with a giggling whoop before being gently escorted down by an assistant guide.
‘Close to sunrise, now,’ said Fetaeli, glancing at the ochred enormity of the Great Rift Valley taking shape below our convulsively twitching feet. The brochures had gone on and on about the summit sunrise, but even at the best of times I couldn’t imagine feeling adequately rewarded by a slightly more distant horizon going slightly more orange. Of course this was not the best of times, and, reanimated by a deep-frozen Mars Bar the Scots had forced into the relevant hole in my balaclava, I regret I may have belittled the forthcoming celestial phenomenon with startling frankness, indeed to the ungracious extent of wishing it intimately repositioned about my person.
The slender path to Uhuru clung perilously to the iced rim of Kibo’s deep, snow-sided crater. Every year a couple of climbers fail the equilibrium challenge and slide to an exhilarating death, something I would have borne in mind if I’d had one. The walk ing stick that had scratched and scrabbled through the scree was now being wearily, carelessly prodded into compacted snow with a feeble squeak.
Encircled by mighty glaciers and a 360-degree sweep of African dawn, the summit somehow managed to seem commonplace. Those with the wherewithal were posing for inane, thumbs-up snapshots. In place of the anticipated gale-shredded flag or humble, aged cairn was a stolidly Ronsealed sign that would have been more at home welcoming visitors to a picnic area in the Peak District National Park.
‘If your body is exhausted, do not force yourself to continue,’ intoned a blank Glaswegian voice, a warning we had read at the park gates and which now elicited a rattle of hollow mirth. ‘Down,’ announced Fetaeli. You don’t hang around at this height.
After a reckless blunder down the scree, there was a final slap in my gaunt and broiled face: the three-hour yomp back from Kibo to Horombo. Descending introduced a whole new set of muscles to be twanged viciously out of tune, but also granted access to our higher brain functions.
It was universally agreed that here was the most appalling voluntary activity one could undertake in peacetime, the worst thing anyone with a compact zoom round their neck could ever pay to do. I proposed a high six-figure sum in sterling when debating what financial inducement could persuade us to turn round and do it again, and proved comfortably the lowest bidder.
So why had we done it at all? Scanning the carved graffiti above my Kibo bunk – ‘Dmitri of Kazakhstan’; ‘Fernando Quevedo – I came, I saw, I conquered’; ‘Fuck Le Kilimanjaro, Paris 15eme’ – I’d imagined the impulse was a hangover from the flag-planting heyday of colonial exploration. A willingness to undertake a feat of epic stamina and determination to claim some notable piece of hostile geography for one’s people, assuming they’d agreed to name it after you.
Yes, I had handsomely atoned for at least a decade’s worth of sedentary emasculation. Yes, there was certainly something almost religiously profound about the first shower back at the Marangu, the first shave and the first beer. Ask me next year if it was worth it and I’ll squint at the horizon in enigmatic silence. Ask me now and one of the care assistants will quietly ask you to leave.
Tim Moore travelled to Kilimanjaro with Guerba (01373 826611) which offers a seven-day trip, entitled Kilimanjaro Peaks – Marangu route. The next departures are on 2, 16, 23 and 30 March. The land-only cost is £850 per person (with no local payment). For other 2003 dates, the land-only cost is £590 per person, plus a local payment of $400. Prices include two nights’ accommodation with breakfast at the Marangu Hotel and four nights in National Park huts with all meals, plus mountain guide service.
Flights are not included, but can be arranged by the firm on request from about £395.
Guerba says this trip is suitable for fit, experienced walkers, though it involves extended walking at altitude, over rough terrain. The average walking time is between six and eight hours a day, but can be much longer. The best months to travel are January, February or September. June and November are the worst owing to rains.
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