‘It’s all about the attitude, not the altitude’ as East Anglian charity climbers conquer Mt Kilimanjaro
PUBLISHED: 06:00 02 February 2017 | UPDATED: 08:04 03 February 2017
A journey to the roof of Africa proved a major challenge for EDP reporter CHRIS HILL as he joined a charity trek to scale the 5,895m summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, the continent’s highest peak. In the first of a two-part series, he describes the drama of summit night.
Dizzy and breathless, shuffling leaden legs up rocky slopes in the freezing darkness, I was reminded of my earlier gung-ho confidence in this expedition.
“Just a long walk uphill, isn’t it? Piece of cake,” I remember saying. How wrong I was.
Despite its vast size, it’s easy to underestimate the challenge of Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest free-standing mountain and the highest point in Africa.
On a clear day from the sweltering plains of Tanzania, the 5,895m peak looks beautiful and benign – almost inviting.
But as we neared the climax of our seven-day expedition, our unpredictable host decided to put away the welcome mat and see what our team was made of, summoning a perfect storm of plummeting temperatures, powerful winds and freezing fog.
Even before the weather turned on us, summit night on Kili would have been tricky enough.
Our group left camp at midnight for the eight-hour climb, wrapped up tight against the sub-zero chill, with only head-torches to pick out the footsteps of our guides and team-mates in the blackness ahead.
I had been looking forward to this for months. As someone who spends a lot of his spare time bounding up and down hills in the Lakes or in Scotland, I imagined I would be in my element here.
But I hadn’t factored in the effects of altitude and oxygen-starved air on a body not accustomed to this environment.
It seemed completely arbitrary – it left some of our team sick as a dog, and some completely unaffected. For me, it brought constant headaches and bouts of nausea and diarrhoea, all of which were fairly easily sorted with a handful of pills. But it was the ensuing loss of appetite which really dented my optimism.
In the days approaching the summit I had not been able to stomach the necessary calories required to power a body that must work much harder than usual to compensate for air with half the available oxygen than you would find at sea level.
When the time came for the final push to the top, I felt a lack energy, occasionally swaying and stumbling as I struggled to co-ordinate my hollow legs.
The pace was deliberately and necessarily slow. Most of the way I needed two breaths for every step.
Throughout six hours of numbing darkness, we were motivated by the rhythmic African songs of our guides and the reassurance that all we needed to do was keep putting one foot in front of another, with the promise that soon the sun would rise.
But the dawn never came. Instead of a warming morale-boosting red glow on the horizon behind us, we were submerged in a dense cloud of freezing fog, with temperatures dropping and the winds gathering pace, coating climbers and their equipment in a crust of rime ice.
There’s a popular saying up here that mountaineering is “all about the attitude, not the altitude”. So it was time to dig deep. We joined in with the songs, kept each other focused and, looking around, everyone seemed to determined to pull each other onwards.
When we eventually hauled ourselves onto the crater rim, the exhaustion was immediately overcome by jubilation, with a round of hugs and high-fives preceding the final hour’s trek to Uhuru Peak, the mountain’s highest point.
Here, our defeated nemesis was gracious enough to allow us a glimpse of clear sky for the obligatory summit photo. A rapid retreat from the biting wind and a brisk descent down a scree slope quickly brought us back to camp, oxygen filling our grateful lungs with every downward step.
Within hours any hardships were all but forgotten, and all that remained was the sheer joy at having battled the mountain, and the elements, and won.
As our expedition leader, the inspirational adventurer Jo Bradshaw, is fond of saying: “Difficult is good. Difficult makes you feel alive. Difficult makes you stronger.”
That’s all true, but in the end it is not the “difficult” that makes the challenge so memorable. It is the satisfaction of pushing your own limits to overcome it.
A VARIED LANDSCAPE
The expedition to Kilimanjaro was undertaken by a team of trekkers from across Norfolk and Suffolk, raising money for the Zoological Society of East Anglia (ZSEA), the charitable trust which runs Banham Zoo and Africa Alive.
Their seven-day route carried them through dramatic volcanic scenery, including traversing steep rock walls and river valleys, and crossing landscapes ranging from dense rainforest to alpine moorland and windswept alpine desert.
All the while, gradual acclimatisation was a priority, with a slow ascent and regular hydration the two best ways to control altitude sickness – as illustrated by the two most common instructions given by the guides: “Pole pole” (slowly slowly) and “Sippy sippy” (the self-explanatory “drink more water”).
The speed of the ascent at times was less than 1km per hour, and the trekkers were drinking as much as six litres of water per day.
Of the 13-strong team, nine reached the summit, with the expedition so far raising more than £23,000 to help endangered animals around the world.
The extraordinary team effort which propelled the charity trekkers to the summit included a local crew of 49 people – part of an industry which has become an important part of Tanzania’s economy.
It runs like a military operation as tent crews, chefs and water carriers work to build overnight camps and prepare meals before the team’s arrival, while an energetic gang of porters carries equipment between camps – often greeting the climbers as they pass them en route.
As a beneficiary of this monumental effort, it seemed perverse to accept thanks from this crew, who we could not have succeeded here without – although it was always fun joining in their celebratory singing and dancing.
But one of our senior guides explained that the community was grateful for the career prospects and earning potential which would not exist if not for Kilimanjaro and the thousands of tourists it attracts every year.
Patrick Cesar, 33, has been working on the mountain for 12 years. He started as a porter, which he said offered a similar social status and salary as a primary school teacher. After saving money and training to achieve the demanding qualifications required to become a guide, his earnings are now more equivalent to a lawyer.
“If Kilimanjaro was not there I would be getting maybe 30pc of the money I am getting now,” he said. “It would be very hard. Maybe I was doing a very small subsistence farm, selling off small stuff to my local market.
“We have a big problem with unemployment in Tanzania, but we have Mt Kilimanjaro that can offer people a job. At the end of the day these people who go and get the water or cook the food or do the packing – they get the same amount of money as the hotel guards or the public teachers.
“It is very important for you guys to come, because that is how we get the job. If you guys didn’t come, I would not be here. If Chris was not climbing the mountain, Patrick was not here.
“There are 1,500 people working on the mountain, but I think you have to multiply that by five – then it is 7,500 people that will benefit directly. You have your father and your mother and it goes back and back, so it is a very big thing for us.”