MORE THAN A PEAK
Growing up in rural Warwickshire I was surrounded by countryside that resembled J.R. Tolkien’s descriptions of ‘the shire’ in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was a great place for young children to roam freely, to let their imaginations run riot and to engage in adventurous activities: building dens, climbing trees, creating rafts etc… So, imagine the effect that a single black and white image of a mountain in ‘far-away lands’ would have on a young adventurous mind.
It was a cold, wet autumnal morning and none of my friends were around so I found myself scanning my parents’ bookshelf finding a large two-part encyclopaedia set. I wasn’t much of a bookworm as a child but I was fascinated about how other people lived and what occupied those countries that spread across the globe. The books were huge, thick and heavy. Luckily they were located on the bottom shelf so I managed to slide one of the two-part series onto the ground. The encyclopaedia fell onto its spine and opened up onto a random page; that page was an image of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was the most evocative image I had ever seen; the steep gradient slopes emerging from the flat land and topped with an ice cap really caught my imagination. From that moment my interest was ignited and, over time, became an ambition to one-day visit Tanzania and attempt to summit the mountain myself. It would take me over a quarter of a century before that black and white image became a reality.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a volcano located in a national park to the north of Tanzania close to the border with Kenya. It is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world measuring 5895 metres (19,341 feet) at its highest point. It has three peaks: Shira [extinct], Mawenzi [extinct] and Kibo [dormant]. Due to past eruptions the peaks of Mawenzi and Kibo have melted together. However, it is Kibo that is home to Uhuru, the highest point of the volcano and what is affectionately known as: ‘the roof of Africa’. Being that Kibo is dormant and not extinct then it is still entirely possible that an eruption could take place. The last eruption recorded was approximately 360,000 years ago. However, volcanic activity has been measured as close to 200 years ago. Although an eruption is entirely possible the likelihood of one happening, without prior warning signs, is slim. The first successful summit was in 1889 by German geographer Hans Meyer alongside an Austrian mountaineer, Ludwig Purtscheller and an 18-year old from the Lauwo Clan of the Chagga tribe, Yohani Kinyala Lauwo. This tribe was so intertwined with Kilimanjaro to support their livelihood that Meyer was convinced that by having someone from the Chagga Tribe, as a local guide, would increase his chances of success. And, on the 5th October that year, the three men reached the summit at Kibo. Since that date, Kilimanjaro slowly became an attraction to high altitude adventure seekers and, over the years, the ‘tourism’ trade increased. Kinyala himself went on to leading groups to the summit for 7 decades after that first ascent. Some say this helped him live to the ripe old age of 124.
Over the years ‘tourism’ has increased exponentially with the slopes hosting in excess of 25,000 people each year (and climbing). Far from being an easy‘walk’ almost a third of that number fail to reach the summit owing to a range of issues including altitude sickness, hypothermia or some form of physical trauma (e.g. a falling injury), which do lead to a number of fatalities each year. The weather can be somewhat unpredictable on the slopes and due to the sheer size of the mountain does have its own microclimate. It can be possible to experience rain during the dry season as moisture can be drawn from the lower grounds and valleys and brought up to the higher regions. This is possible because Kilimanjaro has five distinct ecosystems beginning in the village and farmlands before transitioning through the rainforest, heath and moorlands, alpine desert and finally the summit. It is possible to experience all four seasons in one ascent. As a child this felt like a new and exciting world that I was really eager to explore.
Fast forward 28 years and I find myself perched on a boulder 4600 metres above sea level, cradling a hot chocolate and watching the sun easing its way towards the horizon line. It had been a short day; ascending 640 metres within a 3-hour timeframe, the affects of altitude were obvious to see with simple tasks like visiting the bathroom, sorting out bags and even eating becoming exhausting activities. As a result the whole camp was functioning at a snails pace giving the illusion that time had somewhat slowed down. Sitting alone on that boulder a short distance from the main thoroughfare I was in quiet contemplation, my mind was drawn back to that black and white image I stumbled upon as a young child: still vivid and clear as though it was there on the page in front of me. I felt content. I hadn’t yet reached the summit and there weren’t any guarantees that I would. For me, just sitting at that height above the clouds watching the sunset on this ‘dream’ mountain brought a huge smile to my face and a feeling of calmness from within. It was the first time in my life that I realised that the final destination wasn’t the only goal. More importantly it was a journey I was on that made it so special; for example, witnessing the local wildlife in their natural habitat and the exchanges I had with those along the way – an epiphany for life maybe? Whatever happened on summit day felt like it would be a bonus. As the last slither of sunlight began disappearing below the horizon taking with it the final light of the day, I looked up at the summit that was still towering 1215 metres (3980 feet) above filled with excitement. I hoped that by sunrise I would be witnessing the new day from the highest point. Until then, darkness was falling fast and the temperature was dropping. I drank the remains of the hot chocolate and returned to my tent knowing that in just over 6 hours the summit day trek would begin.
All too soon the wake up call came, midnight on August 18th. The sound and feel of the tent being shook from the outside jolted me to consciousness. I felt delirious and slightly confused, for a moment even forgetting where I was. I reached for my head torch, turned it on and starting putting layers upon layers of clothing on – 5 on the top, 3 on the bottom. It was cold, so cold; I was tired and slightly clumsy. The only sound from the camp was a chorus of zips opening simultaneously with a baseline of yawns and rustling bags. Breaking free from the confines of the tent, the cold air hit me like a dagger to the chest and instantly I felt wide awake. Even though I didn’t feel hungry I thought it was best to try and force-feed myself ‘breakfast’; it was going to be a long day.
From the very first step the going was tough: our bodies were starved of oxygen, every step was emptying the lungs of the little air that was available to us, our hearts beating faster and faster to keep our legs moving. The further we ventured away from camp, the quieter it became. Silence enveloped the mountainside, only broken by the sound of tired bodies shuffling along the rocky outcrop with the odd groan, grimace of pain or slurp of water. All we could see was the beam of light provided by our head torch illuminating the ground directly in front of us, our world was a void of blackness outside of that beam. All we could do was follow the boots of the person in front as we trudged upwards and into the emptiness of the night, breathing heavily as we went unable to fully satisfy our need for air. After a while the group split into two: one faster and one slower. I had somehow managed to fall somewhere in between the two, walking alone with only my guide as company. The lack of oxygen was acute as we climbed higher and higher snaking our way up the steep mountainside towards Stella Point. Just putting one foot in front of the other was becoming an almighty mental and physical battle. After only a few steps I would hunch over my trekking poles gasping for air. “Po--le, Po--le” [slowly, slowly] my guide would repeat over and over again as I struggled to place one foot in front of the other.
The progress was painfully slow as we entered the ‘graveyard hours’. Mentally this was the hardest time as our bodies’ were craving sleep:
my eyelids felt heavy, steps became even more of an effort and I just felt numb. Luckily, the moon had risen bringing with it some natural light illuminating a wooden signpost: ‘Stella Point – 5685 metres (18,652 feet)’ – the crater rim - we were getting close. With it brought a shallower incline and an icy -15 degree Celsius (5 degree Fahrenheit) wind. We continued pushing onwards. With every passing moment the night-time sky was slowly getting lighter and, with it, I could feel my energy levels begin to increase as we got closer and closer to the peak. In a little over 6 hours 20 minutes since leaving camp the summit was in view. I was going to make it; I was going to actually make my re-occurring dream that stretched over a quarter of a century into a reality. It was going to happen. Before I knew it, I had made it and just as the sun began rising into view. An orange glow circled the horizon bringing with it much needed warmth and a welcome relief from the freezing temperatures. I was there at the highest point: 5895 metres (19,341 feet) and, with it, I was standing on 'the roof of Africa'.
That day confirmed to me that no matter how much time passes, how many years you put it off and allow everyday life to get in the way you should always endeavour to pursue that dream. By doing so you may find that, like me, the actual summit, which for years I thought was the dream, was actually just the ‘icing on the cake’. It was being in that environment experiencing every moment first hand that turned out to be the roots of my dream. That penultimate night sitting alone watching the sunset will forever be my abiding memory. Months later I stumbled across that same black and white image of Mount Kilimanjaro that ignited my imagination as a child. Now, when I look at it, I don’t just dream about what it would be like. I remember with an even bigger smile stretching across my face.
Words & Pictures: Marcus Samperi