Climbing Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa and climbing to nearly 6000 m is a significant challenge for a city-dweller with only the most basic of "equipment". This was (literally) a high point of the African experience.

While the rest of the EO group repaired to the seaside at Mombasa, Pius (a Swiss), Herbie Hasler (a Liechtensteiner) and John (an Australian) prepared for their adventure. We hired a guide (Williamson of the Chagga tribe on his 197th ascent) and four porters.

The following is an account of that effort, described in a letter written to J's parents.

Mandara Hut, 9,000 ft (2,727 m) up on Kilimanjaro, Tanzania 3-8-77

So far, so good. Our first 2½-hour tramp today (vs. 3 hours recommended) was without incident, through a beautiful rainforest with lichen-covered trees in places forming a sort of tunnel and the mist/cloud lending a fairy-tale air as it wreathed through the branches. Muddy underfoot, and still no sight either of the mountain we are climbing or of the valley below on account of the all-enveloping cloud. Above about 10-12,000 ft there is said to be constant sunshine.

Out of 12 EO bods originally interested, only three of us finally paid our c. $40 (at best black market rates!) for park fees, hut fees, guide and 4 porters (one each for our luggage and one for the porters' food, wood and, later on, water). Apart from the money, people were turned off by stories of the bitter cold up there and altitude sickness (splitting headache, vomiting - sometimes with blood - gasping for breath and rubbery legs). They say only 2 out of 10 who attempt it make it right to the top. The faint of heart and weak of lung don't even attempt it.

I am writing by the guttering light of a candle (because the kerosene lamps have run dry) in a very pleasant A-line hut which serves as refectory - all in light-coloured timbers with large open fireplace (empty) and copper chimney. Our bunks are in another smaller hut (also unheated). The whole complex was officially opened only last month by President Nyrere. The cold is not too bad just now, after a dehydrated stew, coffee and whisky.

I'm sure my pack weighs about 50 lb (with food etc.) but the young porter added his own luggage and carried it all up with no apparent difficulty. My companions are a Swiss and a Liechtensteiner who babble away in their equally unintelligible versions of Swiss German. We have also discovered a young Canadian here who is apparently sharing our guide. He was on an earlier EO trip but did not quite make it to the top of Kili and has come back for another go.

(The only reason I am waxing so prolix is that I have very little reading matter with me.)

After gorging ourselves on more enormous steaks in Nairobi, those of us who didn't want to climb Mt. Kenya or stay in Nairobi headed south with the truck to the border with Tanzania. Since they don't allow unaccompanied foot-travellers across, the whole truckload had to come into the country (more currency-form nonsense, more Kenya visas for re-entry) and bring us to the gate here. The rest should by now be on the beach at Mombasa; then back to Nairobi to pick up the strays and back down to Arusha where we have to meet them on Sun. p.m or Mon a.m., to go to Ngorongoro Crater. We stayed last night in the "youth hostel" at the gate in beds with sheets (first since London!) Perhaps more tomorrow if I am still capable.

Horombo Hut(s), 12,340 ft. (3,780 m) 4-8-77

Today was easier than expected. The hike was more long (14 km) than steep. Don't yet notice the thinning atmosphere but starting to feel cool when the sun isn't shining. After a very steep half-hour climb through the forest this morning, we came out onto sunny uplands with low (gorse?) bushes, mountain flowers and above about 11,000 ft some very strange palm-like vegetation. Enormous black birds called something like "kunguru" (!) in Swahili. Took full recommended 5 hours for climb, to conserve our energies for the effort ahead of us. These huts are in the same picturesque style but the toilet block is 100 yards down the hillside, hanging over the edge of the cliff. It is the object of some very derogatory remarks in the visitors' book!

Still no glimpse of Kibo (our goal), obstinately shrouded in cloud, but neighbouring Mawenzi (16,890 ft) emerged late this afternoon.

Germans and Swiss (even well into middle age) are most dedicated climbers. So status-conscious are the Germans, they enter themselves as "Dr." in the visitors' book, one step better than the ridiculous Austrians who include all their academic titles.

Kibo Hut, 15,520 ft (4,730 m vs. 4,807 m Mt. Blanc) 5-8-77

Now completely out of reading matter, so the saga continues. Morning dawned bright and clear after a sleepless night (altitude?) with distant views of both Kibo and Mawenzi. Climbed slowly up steepish track for 2½ hours, over a crest and down into the "Saddle", a long gentle descent and an even longer gentle ascent toward cloud-shrouded Kibo Hut (which kept getting farther away) and mountain peak. Some hard granular snow fell. It is now bitterly cold. When Kibo emerged this afternoon, it displayed the almost vertical 3,000 ft scree we have to climb starting at 0100 hrs tomorrow morning. The night climb is better (1) because of frozen scree, (2) to see sunrise from high up, (3) so as not to see how far you have to go, and (4) because most people cannot sleep anyway due to the altitude. I tried again this afternoon and just had the same kaleidoscope of ideas running through my head.

At least our snail's pace (13 km in 5½ hours) has obviated the common headaches for the three of us (though there is a nagging suggestion of one all the time). The Canadian has come down with a bad one again. We had to leave one of the porters at Horombo, too, with a splitting headache.

Our Chagga (tribe) guide is called Williamson! He is quite a nice chap. He has promised to "wake" us at midnight. Most people recommend not eating the night before the final climb, but we have filled ourselves up on hot soup and crackers.

Horombo Hut (again) 6-8-77

The masochistic deed is done. After our midnight réveille, we set out at about 0115 by the light of the half-moon for six hours of torture. For over 4 hours we climbed the scree to Gillman's Point (18,635 ft), every step a triumph of mind over matter; then another 2 hours to Uhuru, the highest point in Africa (19,340 ft, 5,895 m). Apart from aching limbs, the altitude gave us little trouble. I felt slight headache and nausea for a while but deep breathing kept them at bay. After we got back down to Kibo Hut (mostly by skating down the scree, ruining our boots in the process), the Swiss and Canadian got bad headaches with some vomiting. They hastened farther down the mountain.

The sunrise from on top, behind Mawenzi and the crater and the glaciers, was quite spectacular. However, taking one consideration with a nuther, Kilimanjaro, apart from the snob value and perhaps physical exercise value, does not reward one's investment in money and hard work as richly as many Alpine climbs. A personal opinion. On the other hand, I heard the classic middle-aged German bore becoming quite metaphysical about the whole experience.

We are all dead beat tonight (after another 13 km back to here) and we have to get up at about 0500 tomorrow to make the last bus out of town (still 6 hours' descent). I haven't had more that a couple of fitful hours' sleep in the last action-packed 60 hours. Last night I went to bed fully dressed with 2 pairs of trousers, 2 pairs of woollen socks, 2 T-shirts, 1 army shirt, woollen pullover and balaclava. Bed was sheet liner, sleeping bag, doubled over Moroccan blanket, "space blanket" (silver paper) and groundsheet on top! Finally managed to get my toes warm but they went numb again on the mountain.