Tanzania 1997


The next day I was picked up from my hotel by someone from the tour company and taken to the Kilimanjaro National Park. This is one of the best organised tourist places I've been to. You were not allowed onto the mountain other than through the Park entrance. The entrance charges were quite high, but everything was properly controlled. There were three official overnight stopping areas each with their own cooking facilities etc. At the first two, there were several lodges each with four bunk beds. Luckily as it was off season, on all but one night I had one to myself. These places were very clean, though the dining room at Horombo was infested with mice. At the final one there were 5 rooms each containing 10 beds. All the routes were well marked, and there was very little litter. You could hire your own guide and porters and equipment at the Park offices, but if you booked through a tour company, they would do all that and also buy enough food for the trip.

There I met my guide, whose name was Felix. He was 24 years old and very friendly He was also extremely fit, as all guides have to be. They go through an apprentice period as porters, and then are taught medical skills, so that they can deal with an emergency. They also learn how to recognise the symptoms of altitude sickness, so that they can prevent possible serious consequences. The first thing he asked me was my age, because that would make a difference to the pace we climbed at. I explained that I did not have a great deal of mountaineering experience, but I had climbed Ben Nevis. When he learnt it was not much more than 4000 feet high, he was not impressed. We were already at about 7500 feet. He also wanted to know if I was taking Diamox, a diuretic which was recommended for preventing altitude sickness. I was not, though I was drinking enough water that I felt I did not need one. Most nights I had to pay at least one visit to the toilet.

After a lot of unaccountable delay (one gets used to it eventually), we set off at around noon. The first day's climb was quite easy, and took less than 3 hours, even though we went at a pretty slow pace. We climbed about 2000 feet altogether. Near the end we caught up with 2 young Americans, Kevin and Robb, who had been college friends. When we reached Mandara camp, we met up with three more Americans, Elaine, Suzie and Andy. They had organised the trip to celebrate their graduation, which by coincidence was from the same college in Tennessee that Kevin and Robb had attended. These were to be my companions for the next 5 days, and jolly good company they were. Elaine talked non-stop without it ever getting on one's nerves, rather it was a very reassuring sound when climbing a steep mountain in the night.

Next day to Horombo camp was a bit tougher, though there were not many parts that you could call steep. This took about 6 hours. The camp is at about 12,500 feet. In fact it is 4 metres higher than the top of Mount Fuji. At this height we were all starting to feel the effects of the altitude - headaches and shortness of breath. The Americans and I had all chosen to do the 6 day tour which involved spending an extra day here to acclimatise. I'm very glad I did, as by the end of the next day I felt fine. It was a pretty boring day. I went for a walk for about an hour and a half in the morning, and spent the rest of the time eating, reading and playing cards.

The other effect of the altitude was that it got very cold at night. The sun would suddenly disappear, and in no time at all the temperature would be down to freezing. The first night there I started to feel very down, as I was not expecting to get so cold. I had hired a thick coat which I was assuming I would not need before the last part of the climb, but I was wearing it already. What would it be like higher up? Did I have enough clothes? However there was a big plus of being at that altitude. The stars were incredibly clear when they were visible. The second night, when I turned in at about 8:30, it was very cold and misty. I got ready for bed, went out to go to the bathroom and the clouds had vanished to reveal a spectacular panorama of stars. Someone up there was telling me I was going to make it!

After 2 nights at Horombo there was a 6 hour, 3000 foot climb to Kibo hut. As well as the 5 who had spent the extra day there with me, there were 2 young Californian dudes, Clay and Jim, and an enthusiastic Japanese, who had not taken the option of the extra day. Jim was probably regretting it, because by the time he got to Kibo he was suffering quite badly from the altitude. All he wanted to do was curl up in his sleeping bag, and it looked as though he was unlikely to get any farther. However after a couple of hours he was feeling a lot better. Mid-afternoon it was still quite warm, but then about 4:15 the sun suddenly went behind the mountain, and it felt as if someone had just turned off an electric fire. About 6:00 we were served our meals, though it was difficult to eat much at that altitude. After that we all had pep talks from our guides, telling us what to wear, what and when to eat and drink, and generally getting us attuned for the big push the next day. I was feeling quite apprehensive, but physically I felt OK. I seemed to be adapting quite well, and my stomach was not playing up. About 6:45 we turned in, as the intention was to set off the next morning at 1:00 to try to reach the summit before sunrise.

It was not easy to sleep. It was well below freezing, and would be about minus 20 by the time we set off. My colleague, Graham, had told me about the night he had spent there, when food poisioning was adding to the other problems. In particular there had been painful visits to the toilets which he had had to endure. About 9:00 my bladder started sending messages, so I knew it was time to make the dreaded trip. I added a few layers of clothing, tiptoed outside, to see a magnificent sight of the heavens in all their glory. In spite of the cold, I just wanted to stay there and enjoy the experience.

After returning to bed and sleeping fitfully, at 12:30 there was the sound of my porter striding along the stone corridor to come and wake us all up. It reminded me of these stories of death row with the executioner coming at dawn to rouse the prisoner for his final journey. There was some tea and a light breakfast, and off we went. I was wearing three t-shirts, a polo shirt, a thick sweater, underpants, long johns, jeans, three pairs of socks, walking boots, the coat I had hired, a rain suit, gloves and a woolly hat. Conditions were as good as they could be. It was a clear night and not much wind, and I was wearing so much I couldn't really feel the cold.

Kevin and Robb and their guide were the first to set off, and Felix and I started shortly afterwards. It was a most unusual feeling in the pitch dark setting off into the umknown to try to climb 3000 feet before dawn. Felix adopted an even slower pace than usual which I assumed was to conserve as much energy as possible. After quite a short time I realised from the continuous chatter behind that Elaine, Suzie and Andy were not far behind. They were playing some game that involved thinking of words, no doubt to take their minds off what they were doing. We decided to let them pass, so a procession that also included our Japanese friend made their way up into the blackness, and were soon out of earshot. A short time later Robb appeared on his way down. He had started to feel very nauseous and realised that he wasn't going to make it, so he decided to call a halt while he was able to get down under his own steam.

It was not long after that that I discovered why our pace had been slow. I couldn't imagine that Felix was struggling, but that was the problem. He had been suffering from an upset stomach which he thought had cleared, but then he had eaten something that disagreed with him and it came back. He was very apologetic and he told me later this was the first time this had happened in seven years, but he wasn't going to make it. Not long after, Jim and Clay and David their guide caught up with us, so I tagged onto them, and Felix went back down.

By this time it was about 3:00 am, and all things considered I was not feeling too bad. Clay was OK, too, but Jim was struggling. However this was the one who 12 hours earlier didn't want to know, so he had obviously recovered some energy. At 17000 feet there is a cave where we had a longish rest, but most of the rest of the time we would walk for a few paces, catch our breath and then walk on. At 4:00 am the moon came out, and from then on the heavens were gradually changing all the time, first a glow on the horizon behind us, gradually getting brighter and then the sun eventually appeared. Our progress was so slow - by this time there was a fair amount of snow around - that we did not make it to the summit by sunrise, but that did not matter. It was still a spectacular view.

I suppose it was about 18000 feet when I really started to struggle. After a few paces I was doubling up and struggling for breath. David was leading the way, I was next with Clay right behind me and Jim struggling to stay with us. I probably made matters worse for myself by trying to stick as close to David as I could, as if we were in a race and I was letting him pace me. Every now and then I was starting to lose my balance if there was not a rock to hold on to. The altitude sickness was beginning to get to me. Whenever there was a particularly steep bit to step up, David would grab hold of me and pull me up. Though it was getting lighter, it wasn't until we were almost there that we had much of an idea how far there was to go. The very last bit was the steepest of all, but David had a good hold of me, and made sure I made it, and suddenly we were at Gillman's Point. While David, Jim and me were embracing each other, Clay, the one who had seemed to be taking it all in his stride. was throwing up noisily into the crater.

It was 7:10 and we had made it to 18675 feet. The main impression was a relief that it was all over, though there was still the option of a further 600 feet to Uhuru, the actual summit. This was much flatter, being just around the edge of the crater, but would take another 2 hours. I said I wanted to do it, but not merely were the others not interested, they were unanimous that I was not in a fit state to attempt it. When I tried to stand up and promptly fell over, I agreed that they were probably correct. So after a mere 10 minutes at the top we started to descend.

This was a bit of a problem at first. It was rather like being drunk. I knew where I wanted to put my feet, but they refused to go there. David told me to put my arms round his shoulder, but all that meant was if I fell over I would bring him down too. It was beginning to get embarrassing, so it was necessary to execute the main cure for altitude sickness - descend as quickly as possible on my own. Since the surface was a sort of volcanic scree, this was not too difficult though a bit alarming. I came a cropper a few times, but got back to Kibo hut relatively unscathed in a lot less time than it had taken to get to the top.

Apart from my team and Robb, all the others had made it to Uhuru, and 8 out of 9 to Gillman's was a good result. Robb's night too had been eventful, as he had got lost in the dark, so he had sat down against a rock and waited for sunrise so that he could see where he was going.

Once back at Kibo, I lay down for a sleep, and the prospect of a 4 hour walk back to Horombo did not seem too appealing. However an hour later I felt a lot better, though a feeling of anticlimax was beginning to set in. All the effort of the last few days had resulted in 10 minutes spent not quite as far as I had wanted to go. And I was not sure I could even claim to have climbed it, as David had pulled me up the last bit. Once I had some food inside me, the desire to get to the bottom overcame any tiredness I felt, and with Felix feeling much better, we were ready to set off.

At Horombo we regaled those going up with our experiences, and I put one Australian off somewhat with my description of the executioner's footsteps. The next morning was all photographs and goodbyes as we set off for the final stretch to the gates and back to Moshi. I then spent a relaxing day exploring Moshi, and the following day it was another coach trip back to Dar.

By this time the feeling of anticlimax had been replaced by one of euphoria. Back at Dar, Harry and Alison had new guests, Fiona, another work colleague, and her partner, Dave. We all had a very pleasant meal out that evening which, apart from the occasional reference to Kilimanjaro, was mainly taken up with bringing our hosts up to date with what had been happening at Ambridge during the last year.

My last words to Harry and Alison were to warn them that though this had been intended as the holiday of a lifetime, I was determined to come back again. This did not prove possible, and they are now back in the UK, but I thoroughly recommend the country, its scenery and the exceedingly friendly people there.