This year when I, on the wrong side of 50, was seized with the urge to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Soaring to a height of almost 6,000 meters, this peak ranks as one of the seven grandest summits on the seven continents. It was not until June this year that I realized my ambition.
My first sight of Mt Kili, as it is known, was from the aircraft when I saw the mountain towering over clouds. And what an adrenaline rush it was! I landed in Moshi, a bustling town in this peaceful and politically stable African country. There I sojourned for two nights and steeled myself for the task ahead. On June 12, I went to the 1,800 metres high Marangu Gates that provided access to one of the 7 trails leading to the peak. I was accompanied by my guide, Alfred, with whom a bond was to be forged on the trail, a cook, Amadeus, who called me “Daddy”,and three porters.
Alfred assured me repeatedly that he would ensure that I accomplished what I had come for. “Hakuna matata”, he would often say, meaning “no problem” in Swahili. I recalled that Martina Navratilova, the tennis great, climbed Kili for charity in 2010. She prejudged the venture as “a basic hike” but had to pull out of the running to save her life when she developed signs of High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema,or HAPE,which causes the lungs to fill up with water leading to a collapse.
When we finally got on our way, it poured incessantly as we walked through a pristine forest. That was the easy part. The haven of moss-laden trees,enveloped us in a foggy, living mantle as we wended our way over the slight gradient of the path to our first pit-stop. A cacophony of chattering monkeys and chirping of birds kept us entertained. I noted the welcome absence of trash up and down the trail, thanks to the professionalism of the Tanzanian Tourism Department.
We arrived at Mandara Huts in the afternoon, still cloaked in thick mist, after three and some hours spent walking at a leisurely pace. We were now camped at an altitude of 2,720 metres. I was to bunk with two amiable Canadian brothers whom I reckon were in their late teens. Their father had had a crack at Kili in 1976 and he had arranged for his sons to follow in his footsteps as a sort of a rite of passage. I could feel they had the right stuff in spades. Their sobriety and friendly,demeanour reflected their inner resolve.
As I stepped out of the hut,to get my bearings, I saw some fleet-footed, uninvited guests scampering across the manicured lawn separating our spare settlement from the tree line. This rowdy bunch of high-spirited black monkeys cackled raucously as if in derision at their clumsy biped cousins.
The next day,after breakfast,we set out for Horombo Huts. While the past day’s physical activity had been conducted at a relaxed pace, this portion was not a cakewalk as we were gaining substantial height. As the mist cleared, a surreal scene revealed itself. We were no longer marching underneath a verdant canopy but through shrub land the likes of which I had never seen with bushes and heather of various hues blanketing the earth. We traversed transparent streams spanned by simple,wooden bridges,and foaming waterfalls. Large ravens circled overhead and tiny creatures that seemed like a cross between a grey squirrel and a mouse darted furtively in and out of the dense undergrowth. I saw tall cactuses with vivid yellow blooms, strange ferns and a variety of flowers covering the floor of the valley. The scene belonged more to the Jurassic era than the third miilennium.
It took us around 7 hours to arrive at Horombo Huts perched at a giddy height of 3,720 metres. The cloud-base below us looked like fluffed up cotton-wool.
This time I had a different set of brothers to room with. They were of Central American origin but settled in Norway. One of them asked if I would mind if they broke wind that night. What could I stay except to sputter, “of course not”. But nothing could have prepared me for the thunderous explosions that rent the mountain air that night.
I diverted myself by peering at a coquettish moon flirting with translucent clouds, and the outline of the massif, so close as to seem within my grasp. Few mountains appear difficult to scale when you see them from a distance; it is only when you start the ascent that you comprehend the effort it involves.
The next day was spent in acclimatisation. We made a brief 4 hour sight-seeing excursion up to 4,000 metres to visit an unusual geological formation characterised by vertical black stripes, dubbed Zebra Rocks.
By this time my feet, susceptible to blistering and eczema, were bothering me. I also had backache and altitude headache. Worse, the anticipation had robbed me of my sleep – it was time to make a pact with myself. I would remain indifferent to my aches and pains and focus on what I had to do. I was picking indifferently at my food that night when a kindly fellow-climber urged me to eat in order to climb. I was reminded of my mother’s urging when I wouldn’t finish my food as a child. I was grateful for the lady’s advice and made short shrift of my meal. All along my way to Mt Kili, I encountered nothing but friendship and solidarity, as if all of us climbers were united in our pursuit of the summit.
Every 24 hours, after the last meal of the day, Alfred would monitor my vital signs to record my blood pressure, temperature and oxygen level. I was well taken care of; Alfred had everything I needed on tap, except for Coca Cola!
Along the way, some climbers fell prey to altitude sickness and had to abort their climb. Thankfully, I lumbered on. Finally, we made our way to Kibo Huts. As we crossed the last water point and entered the inhospitable alpine zone, the terrain changed dramatically as the vegetation vanished. We found ourselves navigating a lunar landscape. When finally Kilimanjaro appeared before us in full view, it had shed its alluring female persona and was staring down at us in all its masculine glory.
As we approached the base-camp I came into brief contact with the fiercely flatulent Latin brothers, on their way down from the summit. They were flush with victory and shouted encouragement to all of us.
Kibo lived up to its notorious reputation as it was really cold and windy up there. We were urged to eat a good lunch and prepare to commence the climb at 11 pm. Finally, bundled up in layers of warm clothing, we moved towards the mountain. Our headlamps lit the way as we trekked gingerly up the slope.
I vomited twice and felt my energy draining. But I kept going and was rewarded by the sight of a magnificent dawn. As we closed in on Gilman’s Point, the first port of call on the way to the top, the going got perceptibly tougher. Now we were advancing parallel to the edge of the central crater stained with patches of snow. It was vast and deep and seemed to be handing out a chilling warning, ”Better not come too close!”
As we approached the roof of Africa, we saw small clusters of people returning after paying homage to Uhuru. Most of them bucked me up and urged me on even as I was feeling severely debilitated and as if on my last legs.The adverse effects of oxygen depletion were taking an additional toll. “Not far to go now. Just another 5 minutes and you’ll be there.” I felt fortunate to have such a supportive guide.
To our left the topography underwent a complete transformation while I steadily made my way onwards relying on my trusty trekking poles. We encountered enormous flat-topped glaciers,that resembled huge icy tables, and on the other side the still formidable crater continued to cast a baleful eye on us ready to devour us in case of a single misstep. That colossal core must have been the source of some violent eruptions,when our planet was still in its infancy, spewing molten lava high into the air and ejecting ash and dust with tremendous force right into the stratosphere. Kili’s fiery past could not be underestimated, even when she appeared quiet and welcoming.
I had been conjuring up scenarios in my mind as to how it would feel when I arrived at the highest point in Africa. I was certain that it would be a cathartic event, which would be a fitting culmination after all that back breaking effort. No such thing happened when I tread that small patch at 9:30 am. Perhaps the lack of energy and oxygen at that dizzying height, conspired to create an anti-climactic moment devoid of emotion or elation.
I come up blank for the most part about that extraordinary,once-in-a-lifetime,experience but I do recollect taking some photos. A good samaritan had left a pack of juice there for a thirsty climber like me to drink which I gratefully consumed and then we did an about-face for the long, grim journey back to base camp.
Even though in descent mode gravity is an enabler of movement it still calls for effort and control to steer a clear path back. We had not yet exited the rim of the crater when I had another bout of nausea and felt totally drained. AMS had crept up on me unnoticed and I collapsed. I urged Alfred to carry on without me and let me sleep but he did not abandon me.
Somehow, I managed to remain on my feet. Vulnerable to acrophobia,or fear of heights, I am usually too frightened to get tired during climbs but this time I was too tired to be terrified. Alfred tried to distract me from my troubles by engaging me in conversation. As the base camp came within sight, I felt even more unsteady on my feet. I told Alfred I just could not go on any further. I was running on empty. I fell to the ground and refused to budge no matter how hard Alfred tried. Finally, he radioed Kibo for assistance and two porters from our support crew were dispatched to mount a rescue effort. They held my arms and helped me scrape along the descent. Had it not been for Alfred and the porters, I would not have made it down alive. For the last leg of the journey, they put me on a canvas stretcher and brought me down.
At base camp, before we all parted I got an opportunity to bid farewell to my friends. I wished the German couple a rematch with Kili from which I hoped they would come away triumphant. I said my goodbyes to the Canadian brothers and the brave Macedonian girl who had overcome all manner of illness to scale Kilimanjaro. Alfred was my enabler, my guide and is now my friend. My trip to the summit of Kilimanjaro was worth every agonizing step – I will cherish it always.
A detailed account of the climb is available at makraclimber.blogspot.com.