Climbing Mt Kili

10 February 2007

Mt Kilimanjaro: the snow-capped rooftop of Africa, and at 5895 metres, the highest freestanding, and walkable, mountain in the world. In a nutshell, it shits on Ayres Rock by 5555 metres.


Many of the more than 25,000 tourists attempting to reach its volcanic summit each year (only about 60 per cent do) find it a life-changing experience, and, if suffering from altitude sickness, probably an underpants-changing one as well.


Where else in the world can you watch the sunrise over a continent, traverse across bizarre moonscapes of scattered volcanic rock, scramble up near sheer cliffs and skid down slopes of scree, meanwhile marvelling at how a porter can do all this in half the time while carrying on his head three backpacks, a table, four chairs and an LPG cyclinder, and you’re barely coping to carry two melted mars bars and a rain jacket.


There were five us climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. We had different professions, and were doing it for different reasons. For Nu Zilunder Sarah, an intensive care nurse, it was to confront her fears of balaclavas, enclosed spaces and Australian men; and her friend Jo was doing it because it would be her last chance to actually pay for the privilege of doing excessively hard work in appalling conditions – she’s on her way to work in a London law firm.


Meanwhile Peter from Melbourne wanted the achievement of reaching the summit of the world’s highest walkable peak and to use it as a motivation to quit smoking, and the Kiwi farmer Reuben was doing it because his initial travel arrangements had been wiped out by a cyclone on the Mozambique coast. As for myself, as usual, I just did it because everyone else was doing it. 


With such varied professions, we were never short of enlightening conversation. I asked Reuben the difference between an ass and a mule.

“One’s a cross between a horse and a donkey, the other’s an ass.”

“My brother said there was a difference between if a male horse and female donkey were used, compared to a female horse and male donkey?”

“Only in the pain threshold for the donkey.”


Sarah meanwhile told us what an ‘open-book fracture’ was, referring to the pelvis of a man who’d been hit by a steam roller. Ouch.


Despite our different backgrounds, we also discovered remarkable similarities. For example, Reuben and the girls were all New Zealanders yet none of them had ever worked in an English pub. Myself and Sarah were also both clumsy: I dropped my fork in the dirt at dinner, Sarah dropped the pepper shaker in my soup. I dropped my fork in the dirt again, Sarah dropped avocado all over her pants.


United, and feeling a strong team bond, we proudly called ourselves the ANZAC group – conveniently ignoring the disastrous success rate of campaigns held under this banner, and when Mike the American joined us at late notice, we briefly became the ANZUS group, (then Mike left). We were otherwise referred to as ‘Team Gumby’, ‘Team turn-up’ and, among the 18 guides, cooks and porters, as ‘the laughing fart boys’.


Leading us was Jamaica, a guide of 15 years’ experience whose father had pioneered the camping route, and was assisted by the more than able guide J.J.


We were doing the walk over seven days, taking the popular camping trail known as the Machame route, otherwise known as the ‘Whiskey track’, which conveniently and eventually converges at the summit with another of the seven tracks currently used known as the ‘Coca-Cola route’. For the Russians walking ahead of us, the track could alternatively been referred to as the ‘cheap local Konyagi gin route’, which only seems to go as far as the last camp before summit.


Walking about 85 kilometres over seven days sounded like a cakewalk (or a ‘walk in the cake’ when I mixed my metaphors). “If fatty-bombah tourists can do it, so can I,” I scoffed.


But what none of us realised, me especially, was just how much the altitude would affect us. 85 kilometres can be a very long way indeed when you’re shuffling a pace akin to having your shoelaces tied together, your head is pounding like a year-10 hangover, and your dropping farts like bombs on Baghdad.


The first sign I knew I was suffering its effects, was shortly above 3000 metres, when a smell hit me like a used baby diaper across the face. It was a fart so putrid and of such tongue gagging intensity, that it left no eye-witnesses, only watering-eyed witnesses. And it was my own.


Sarah had previously told us the only way to stop from dry-wrenching was to not start, and I tried my darndest. But even with the benefit of forewarning (it was, after all, me who kept dropping them), it was still hard to avoid. However, by 4000 metres, most of the others had started doing farts of various descriptions, even if Sarah only admitted to it at the end.


(At the very least, it made sharing tents fun. While the two girls always shared a tent, us three boys rotated two between us. My one was invariably called ‘the gas chamber’, or else on the first night, the ‘snow dome’, after my sleeping bag burst and filled the tent with goose feathers. The next night, the zips fell off my sleeping bag. They were both severely corroded.)


With each 1000 metres climbed, the scenery became more unusual, and effects of altitude more marked. Jo kicked off with a bad headache in the rainforest at 2500m, followed by my gut in the alpine desert over 3000m. Then Sarah felt nauseous in the alpine moors of 3500, and by the fields of volcanic rock above 4500m, we were all so short of breath that conversation was limited to welfare checks. (At 5100m  I remember asking Mike the American about the selection process for the Supreme Court, but he couldn’t answer, and I couldn’t hear).


Mike was an extremely likable 24-year-old American who worked as a speechwriter for the president of Washington’s leading conservative think-tank. He joined our group on day 4 after realising that, due to altitude sickness, he would unlikely reach the summit with his own group which was due to do so a day earlier.


We felt sorry for him, as up to that point the only other person in his group was a ‘no hablo ingles’ Spaniard. After we welcomed him with “so what is America’s foreign policy, anyway?” I’m not sure whether he wouldn’t have preferred the Spaniard, but he competently, articulately (and therefore infuriatingly) threw our lefty questions righty back at us.


On summit day however, there was no room for differences. Liberal/Conservative, Russell Crowe, thongs, flip flops or jandals (I know! Jandals! What a stupid word), it didn’t matter, we were all one team, reliant on each other to succeed up the last 14kms of mountain.


Now, I’ve once landed on the cross bar of a BMX bike square on my nuts while teaching myself to ride with no hands, but summit day was even more hellish. We left at midnight, in –15 degrees, and on the coattails of an ice-storm.

It would be 40 kilometres and 17 hours before we could rest our heads on thin foam mattresses at the next campsite.


We left base camp of 4600 metres, and 400 metres higher we were all feeling poorly. Jo was throwing up with the regularity of a Swiss clock chiming every third footstep; Sarah was nauseous, had a pounding headache and was trying to work out whether she was actually seeing thousands of spiders coming out of the rock cracks; and I had the coordination of a sight-impaired grandma reaching for her zimmer frame, and was also suffering from altitude. Meanwhile, Pete, Reuben and Mike all seemed relatively unscathed.


After seven hours, and just in time for sunrise, Pete, who had hither till been supremely unaffected by altitude admitted “I’m really struggling here,” and then we reached the crater edge.


With still 100 metres higher to climb until the highest peak, Uhuru, we continued. It was a narrow slippery rim, which, barely 500 metres away, should have taken 45 minutes. It took twice that.


A short way further and Sarah collapsed on hands and knees. Face bent towards the crisp, blinding ice, she would later tell us she felt so utterly exerted that she “saw only black”. 


I called our guide Jamaica, and he wrenched her up to her feet. Together, the three of us  -me on my second wind - linked arms and trudged towards the summit. Behind us, similarly linked were Jo, assistant guide J.J, and Reuben.


Of the 30 people who left the campsite that midnight, all six of us were among the 20 who reached summit. And as with our separate motivations for attempting the climb in the first place, it was also different factors which got us to the top; a combination of willpower, gritted teeth, pride, a guide’s expertise and a timely kick up the pants. Yet for me, it was the overriding desire to get it over with so I could descend to a lower altitude and resume normal bodily functions. As for Pete, yes he did manage to kick that cigarette habit…even if it was for just a few days.

Mike's Kili pictures