... and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that was where he was going.
Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
In the Summer of 1989, I traveled with a friend, Mark, to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro. This is the story of our climb.
At 19,340 feet (5895m), Kilimanjaro is the world's highest free standing mountain. It is the highest mountain on the African continent and soars 16,000 feet (4700m) above the surrounding plains. There are various interpretations of the name, the majority of which are along the lines of the 'shining mountain' or the 'white mountain'.
Kilimanjaro is a volcano that was born during the upheavals that created the Great Rift Valley some two million years ago. Eruptions created three peaks, one of which, Shira, was eventually smothered in lava from the other two, Kibo and Mawenzi. These two peaks continued to grow until about 100,000 years ago when a final eruption formed the cone of Kibo's rim. This is the highest peak, its highest point is called Uhuru (meaning freedom). The volcano is dormant as opposed to extinct, though little further activity is expected.
The summit was first reached by Hans Meyer and Ludwig Putscheller in 1889. We would be making our ascent in the centennial year.
The story starts in the early hours of the morning when a bus dropped us off in Moshi, a small town just south of Kilimanjaro.
Our bus arrived in Moshi at 3:00 in the morning. We were deposited in a small square between low ramshackle buildings. Before departing, the driver warned us "do not walk around, there are bad men". Having only arrived in Tanzania fifteen hours earlier, most of which time we had spent on the bus, this was a little unnerving. This situation was made worse as the only other passenger who had got off the bus was a local and appeared absolutely terrified.
After a while, a man came over to us from a group who were sitting around a fire on the other side of the otherwise deserted square and offered to give us a lift in his taxi. We were rather suspicious as he did not appear to have a car. Having decided to wait for dawn and then find the YMCA where we were intending to stay, the taxi driver reappeared with his car. Mark and I agreed a price to the YMCA and our fellow bus passenger agreed a price to continue on to his family's house.
When we arrived at the YMCA, it was 3:30am and the gates were locked. This presented no problem for our driver who just held his hand on the car horn until the night watchman came out brandishing a club. We paid for the taxi and were then made very welcome at the YMCA and given a room despite the hour.
We awoke at midday, having had very little sleep for the previous two days. Our first task was to visit Trans-Kibo Tours who operated from an office at the YMCA and arranged climbs of Kilimanjaro. A six day climb with us providing our own food cost us US$310 each.
With our climb arranged to start the next day, we headed into Moshi for a look round. We were not expecting to see the mountain as there was near total cloud cover. However, just after leaving the Y, a hole appeared in the cloud revealing the main snow covered Kibo peak. This sight certainly livened us up as we wandered round the mostly shut Moshi.
We ate an early breakfast at the YMCA and then repacked our equipment. The gear we would carry ourselves went into our rucksack and anything to be carried by our porters was put in orange polythene survival bags.
We eventually left the YMCA at about 10am after buying paraffin for our small stove. We travelled to the park gate in a shared taxi with some of the other members of the party we would be climbing with. On arrival at the park gate at Marangu, we were told we would not be allowed to start our climb that day because of a shortage of accommodation in the mountain huts.
We were then introduced to our guide for the climb (it was compulsory to hire a guide), his name was Happy. We explained to him that we had a lightweight tent with us and asked if we could climb using this for accommodation. Happy thought this would solve the problem, but the park office did not agree and still refused permission to climb.
Meanwhile, another member of our party had contacted Trans-Kibo Tours and had arranged for us to be put up in the Youth Hostel at the park gate for that night. A rumour then started to circulate that the real reason we could not climb was because an official Ethiopian team was climbing so other climbers were being kept off the mountain.
After a late lunch at the hostel, we went for a short walk in the temperate rain forest above the park gate. We met some of the local people of the Chagga tribe. They were collecting fire wood and grass for their cows. On our way back to the hostel, we were accompanied by about twenty young boys who were also collecting grass. They followed us back to the park gate constantly asking for pens. When we eventually persuaded them we had non with us, we had a limited conversation with them in Swaheli, English and a little of the local Chagga language that one of our party had picked up.
That evening, after a dinner at the hostel, we discussed Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). This is probably the most common cause of a fit climber failing to reach the summit. The symptoms of AMS can include headache, nausea, vomiting, anorexia, exhaustion, lassitude, muscle weakness, a rapid pulse even at rest (100+ per minute), insomnia, swelling of the hands and/or face and reduced urine output. It is especially important to make sure you drink plenty of fluids as dehydration occurs quickly at high altitudes. More serious than AMS is high altitude oedema, there are two forms, Pulmonary Oedema and Cerebral Oedema These are fluid build up in the lungs and on the brain respectively. Both are very serious and require the climber to descend at once as death can occur quite quickly. The speed with which climbers can ascend Kilimanjaro leads to large number of climbers suffering from various degrees of altitude sickness.