A Stroll on Kilimanjaro - Roger L Melvill

Guillaime's mid life crisis took a healthy turn towards the Great Outdoors, taking expression in the desire to scale the highest peak in Africa, Kilimanjaro.  Merle and I agreed to accompany him in order to test ourselves against the effects of rarefied atmosphere at high altitude.  Eric joined the team on the spur of the moment, hoping to walk off the aches and pains of a recent Namibian motor accident that had cut short a holiday of a different sort.The last day of July found the four mountaineers loading rucksacks onto a dilapidated Land Rover outside Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. 

The journey thus far had been uneventful apart from Eric having his deluxe Swiss Army knife confiscated by airport officials for fear that the pacifist would somehow undergo a violent transformation in mid-flight.  Our driver, a talkative Tanzanian, bumped us along the two hour journey to the Marangu Hotel, on the slopes of our objective.  At first, the sky was overcast, obliterating our view of the mountain.  As we drew closer night fell, hiding Kilimanjaro in its inky African blackness.  We never did see the peak from the plains, it remained shrouded in cloud throughout our week-long stay.  We had to earn our view by climbing through the cloud barrier to the clear skies above 3700m. We were introduced to our three guides and seven porters arranged by Seamus Bryce-Bennet of the Marangu Hotel.

Sunday morning found us signing the "going up book" at the Marangu entrance to the Kilimanjaro National Park.  Thirteen men and a woman would spend a week toiling up 5985m of volcano for the sake of one man's mid life crisis dream.  The first two days of our climb were spent on a broad muddy path winding its way through rain forest, always upwards, gradually beginning to notice the effects of altitude.  With our energy slowly seeping from muscles and limbs, we were amazed at the strength of the acclimatised porters who effortlessly balanced their loads on their heads as they danced along the slippery path.

By the afternoon of the second day we were glad to break free of the rain forest into the zone of highland heather.  Yet, still there was no peak to see, all was enveloped in mist as we trudged up to the camp at Horombo and 3700m.  Passing a forlorn heap of stones beside the path we were told by Stanley, our chief guide, that this marked the spot where a young girl had ended her journey, struck by lightning.  A few flowers picked from the heather beside the crude memorial paid the respects of passing climbers to the nameless fellow traveller.  Did she ever see her mountain, or was it lost in cloud?  I wondered if her loved ones know that she is receiving a constant bouquet of wild flowers from men and women from all corners of the globe as they make their own pilgrimage to Kibo.  I lifted an old dried flower from the cairn and placed it in my day pack; if I reached Uhuru, I would leave it there for her.

The path seemed endless as we pressed on through the mist, the view restricted to a grey circle a few meters in diameter.  The effects of walking at over 3000m were beginning to tell when out of the gloom emerged the unmistakable shape of an A-frame hut.  Horombo, the staging post for the upper reaches of Kilimanjaro was a hive of activity.  This is the most populous camp on the mountain as climbers passing up to the higher reaches of the mountain frequently rest here for a day, hoping to acclimatise, while those returning from the summit of Kibo spend a well-earned night's rest on their way back to civilisation.  Sleeping facilities in the A-framed huts are adequate, but the toilets are legendary:  dark unlit holes in wet slippery cement floors, designed to test the tread on any climbing boot.  Not for the squeamish are these toilets!  We sank onto our bunks, glad to be able to rest out of the damp mist.

It was not long before Merle murmured about a headache.  At first we were not particularly concerned but as the evening wore on so the headache became progressively more troublesome, rising to a bursting feeling that reduced her to a curled up heap in her
sleeping bag, arms folded over her head in silent agony.  At this point we thought of cerebral oedema, one of the potentially dangerous manifestations of altitude sickness.  Eric dug into the medicine box searching for dexamethasone hoping the drug would relieve the problem.  I worried about a night time retreat through the rain forest to a lower altitude, progressive high altitude cerebral oedema incapacitates the patient and kills quickly.  If she did not respond to the medication, an urgent retreat from high altitude could become imperative.  Fortunately, within hours of talking the dexamethasone the patient announced that the headache had cleared.   We were safe, the journey would continue on the morrow.

The next morning the clouds had subsided.  Horombo sat on a clear hillside, the snow-capped peak of Kibo emerged above a ridge beside the camp in a clear blue sky while the rest of Africa seemed lost beneath a blanket of billowing cloud at our feet, stretching as far as the eye could see.  Kilimanjaro was showing herself to us, rewarding us for a two day slog through mist and mud.  We had decided to avoid the usual tourist routine of resting a day at Horombo.  Instead our party moved out of camp, heading over the shoulder of Kibo's little sister, the beautiful Mawenzi to an almost deserted campsite at Mawenzi Tarn, a days walk away.  This excursion gave us the opportunity to get away from the crowded tourist route and enjoy the solitude of the mountain.  With the help of regular doses of dexamethasone, Merle kept the cerebral oedema at bay and moved well as we continued to gain altitude.  We passed from highland heather to high altitude desert, the volcanic rock supporting little more than an occasional tuft of hardy grass or multicoloured lichen.  Far below us were the immense desert plain of the saddle between the twin peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi.  We looked across to the classic volcanic shape of Kibo and could make out our objective for the next days walk.  Kibo hut, the path up 1000m of scree to Gillman's Point, then across the

crater rim, and past receding icefields to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the African continent.  We turned and made our way over a rocky ridge, then down 300m to Mawenzi Tarn as clouds rose up, obliterating the crags of Mawenzi north corrie from view.

We had our tents pitched on a rocky spur above the Tarn just before a rain storm reminded us of just how quickly weather can change in the mountains.

Dawn broke bright and clear, remnants of mist draped over Mawenzi making her all the more beautiful in the morning light.  We were soon on our way, back up onto the ridge, and a long trudge across the saddle to Kibo.  Eric, paying the price for a dietary indiscretion complained of persistent cramp and did not feel at all well, blaming the stagnant water of Mawenzi Tarn.  He struggled alone across the open saddle desert, distressed by his gut, distressed by the lack of natural protection behind which to crouch.  It was a long day.

Kibo hut, on the lower slopes of the final climb was a welcome refuge.  We were shown into a small room with 12 bunks.  Once we had found our resting place, the room was fully occupied.  Climbers from Britain, America and South Africa, all hoping for the summit, all anxious for the midnight start up "the worst slog in Africa".  No-one slept, thanks to our charged emotions and Eric's restless search for comfort.  It was a welcome relief when the first guide knocked on our door at 23h00 to wake his group.  The English school teacher and his wife would be celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary by reaching Uhuru, the peak of Freedom.  Eric struggled on with his gut for a further two hours before it was our turn to brave the night and the scree that would go on for the next seven hours.

We were finally assembled, four climbers, three guides, dressed in all available warm clothing, against the expected sub-zero temperatures and tempestuous winds.  Head lamps on, we set off at a snail's pace, heads bowed, shuffling over a volcanic scree, following the heels of the person ahead.  Too tired to talk, sentences clipped short by the lack of oxygen.  Each person, alone with his own physical misery, his own mental brick wall, and his own fear of failure, his own inexplicable reason for being at over 5000 meters in bitter cold in the middle of the night.  Thankfully the altitude numbs the brain, so you carry on, following the heels that plod ahead of you.  There seem to be no landmarks to measure progress, time has no meaning.  If one has the energy to look up the African night sky is a blaze of starts, the black hulk of Kibo rising to cut off half the sky above.  Far above, those are not stars, they are the lights of other climbers, moving like us, into the blackness.  Far, far below other starlights are climbing this mountain towards us.  There is a sudden movement ahead, Eric has collapsed, he can go no further.  We gather around and decide that he has been beaten, not by the mountain, but by his gut.  He must return to Kibo hut and on down to Horombo before he is too weak to walk on his own.  This turn of events is a great disappointment for all of us:  he bids a hasty farewell and moves slowly back down the path, helped by Charlie, one of the guides.  We trudge on up the scree.

The sky begins to turn grey in the East, Kibo above us is a lot smaller now as we near Gillman's Point and the crater rim.  We have stopped for a rest and Merle is asleep on her feet!  We have not slept since Mawenzi Tarn camp and the altitude has again taken its toll of her brain.  The cerebral oedema seems to be returning.  We wake her, push her ahead, she stumbles, sits and sleeps.  There is no complaint, only an overwhelming somnolence that beats her 50m from the crater rim.  It is Gillman's Point, we can hear people talking up there.  The sun is shining across the clouds far below, Mawenzi is a dwarf below our feet,

Kibo hut is a spec 1000m below and Merle is asleep!  She can go no further.  Guillaime moves on strongly to reach Gillman's Point while I arrange with Stanley, the guide, to return to Kibo hut with Merle as best he can.  I then turn to make the final scramble for Gillman's Point and the crater rim.  The extra effort induces a bout of uncontrollable retching as my reward for reaching the top.  There is no elation, no victory, just exhaustion and vomit.  The satisfaction in reaching the summit develops slowly during the days and weeks after the event, as one recovers physically and mentally from pushing oneself to one's own personal limit, one's own personal Everest.  As Guillaime pressed on to the ultimate goal of Uhuru to celebrate his 50th birthday on Africa's peak, I turned to help Merle back to Kibo and on down to Horombo.

Kilimanjaro is a wonderful experience, best put by a young American girl who said:  "It is the worst thing I have ever done, and the best."
I watched as Guillaime turned towards the last lap of his journey.  Each slow step an effort of will power as he trudged along the path towards the summit.  The dawn had brought with it a gusty wind which was now gaining in strength.  Each footstep, kicking up a small flurry of dust and volcanic ash, to be caught by the wind and dance ahead of him as an encouragement towards the summit.  By the time I remembered the flower Guillaime was too far along the path to turn back against the wind, he would go on alone without the young girl's flower.  I reached into my bag and felt for the flower.  I put it down beside me, beside the path, disappointed that we would not take it all the way.  Like so many others who climb this mountain I would have to be content that the flower would only reach the crater rim.  Uhuru was too far.  The mountain had defeated me, and once again defeated the girl who lay beneath the rocks far below.

Desperately short of breath and overwhelmed by nausea, I would watch Guillaime no longer.  Slowly, I stood, bent against the wind an began to move down towards Kibo Hut and the journey home.  I was gone, Guillaime unseen, the crater rim was deserted except for the memorial flower.  The petals shuddered for a moment before the wind rolled the flower over, the momentum carried it into another roll, and another, then a bounce, then a dance in the power of the wind - towards Uhuru.