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Sunday, 2 October 2011

postheadericon Kilimanjaro: my nightmare climb

I had never thought about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro until I learnt of its statistics. Of the 25,000 climbers who attempt it each year, 40 per cent don’t make it to the top and a handful don’t make it down at all. A ghoulish curiosity set in. Would I be a winner or a loser? What price that one moment of looking down on the world?

I am climbing with four others. At the start of the trip we congregate in the Dik Dik hotel, Arusha, for a “safety” briefing. At this juncture it doesn’t occur to us to feel anything but smugly confident. Our tour company is based in Tanzania and comes highly recommended. Between them, our two guides have skipped up Kilimanjaro more than 300 times.

We’ve chosen to pay over the odds for a less-travelled but more technically difficult route, with some reassuring built-in safety features. Over 4,600m (15,000ft), the team will be carrying oxygen, a Gamow bag (used for treating severe cases of altitude sickness) and a satellite phone. Our combined goodie bag also includes such treats as drugs for altitude sickness, a pick’n’mix of sleeping pills, 50 assorted energy bars and, most lifesaving of all, a coffee press.

2,750m A blue monkey shakes its bottom at us, ravens screech. From we human beings, there’s regulation chatting and banter. Our back-up guide Joseph, with his hip-hop gait and rusted-tooth grin, is quick to join in, but our lead guide, Royseems a touch without humour, constantly admonishing us for being rude to one another. Late afternoon we pirouette into camp to high fives from the porters. It’s warm and the tents are the size of airport hangars. The head cook, Alfred, produces packet soup No 1 (courgette) and does clever things with chicken and rice.

3,350m Kilimanjaro is not particularly hard trekking. It’s the climate and altitude that are tough. As forest morphs into foggy heathland, clouds release a deluge of biblical proportions. None of us is carrying adequate wet weather gear, including Roy, and by the time we reach camp, everyone is profoundly cold and wet. Still, nothing packet soup No 3 (tomato) and an imaginative twinning of cream and mystery meat won’t sort out.

“So how are you?” Roy asks, eyeballing each of us in turn. We exchange a look. To be fair, we had been warned to carry wet-weather gear, but the advised pocket poncho hardly sufficed. “Fantastic,” we reply. Roy seems strangely put out. “I saw your faces out there. You were scared.” “Wet,” we tell him. “We were extremely wet.”

“The rain is nothing.” He fixes us with another long stare. “This mountain will kick your arse.” We suppress the urge to giggle, but we’re wondering: what’s with the hint of aggression? Later Roy asks for Nurofen. One of the porters has a headache. Something about this jars, but we happily oblige.

3,950m Walk, talk, pole, pole, drink. Cry “jambo!” at every porter who passes, thanking them for carrying our obscenely heavy loads. There is precious little flora or fauna at this altitude. The most colourful creatures are the dead butterflies on the trail. More walk, talk, vulgar jokes, eat, drink, pee. As the air gets thinner, the ability to do all these simultaneously begins to fade.

We stop to look at a plaque dedicated to the mountaineer Scott Fischer, a Kilimanjaro veteran who died in the catastrophic 1996 Everest expedition. “What went wrong?” we ask. “He broke his own rules,” Roy says. “He broke the golden rules of mountaineering and he died.”

There are three killers on this mountain: pulmonary oedema, when your lungs fill with water; cerebral oedema, when your brain explodes; and hypothermia, which is what usually nails the porters. They cannot afford the gear to keep warm, and at a shaming $5 a day they can’t afford not to take the gig.

In camp, an acclimatisation walk is in order. Roy is nowhere to be found. By the time he crawls groggily from his tent, the fog has come down and he declares the route too dangerous. We are increasingly concerned about our guide. First, we don’t like him much, but there’s something else — inappropriate hugs mixed with glowering stares suggest a sociopathic edge. At one point someone says “penny for your thoughts”, to which he replies, “killing you”.

If it’s an attempt at levity, it backfires. We consult between ourselves. Probably it’s our fault. We are opinionated and pretty silly to boot. We resolve to include him more and tease him less. That night at dinner, he sits, head in hands, refusing his packet soup No 6 (sweet potato). It crosses our minds that he is ill. We flip him the obligatory safety questions. How you doing? What grade is your headache? We instruct him to eat. Loss of appetite is a symptom of mountain sickness.

At 2am I am woken by coughing in the camp. I lie, blinking into the night and doing the maths: 20 porters x 8 days @ $5. We have jointly forked out close to $15,000 for this trip. How many Tanzanian fat cats are feeding themselves at the expense of these men? Porters are chosen randomly from a pool of itinerant, usually illiterate workers. Park regulations forbid portage weight over 15kg, but tour companies, keen to save money, double-load their porters, sending the extra men home as soon as they’re out of sight of the park gate.

4,400m I am minding my own business, admiring the epic cragginess of the view, when I feel a sudden rush of warmth in my three-ply Gore-Tex pants. I retreat to my tent. Without warning, copious amounts of excrement have poured out of my body. Horrified, I send for hot water and towels. The humiliation factor is high. The whole camp knows what’s going on. Imodium, Dioralyte, charcoal pills and four emergency stops later, we reach our first camp above the ice line. It’s a desolately beautiful spot, but like those before it, beset by rubbish, decaying vegetables and bits of used loo paper. Behind every rock is the residue of some other climber’s intestinal misfortune.

4,900m Early starts mean rainy afternoons to kill inside the tent. It’s punishingly cold, impossible to concentrate. Suddenly, the weather clears and there are the iconic white snows of Kilimanjaro set against a darkening sky. For the first time, we feel a quickening of excitement. Even Roy perks up and leads the group into spontaneous song. Then the fog closes in, the summit disappears and it’s time for bed.

Tonight the coughing in the camp sounds raw and painful. At breakfast we discover that two more porters are ill with chest infections. Roy asks for antibiotics. We hand over everything, but what’s happened to the company first-aid kit? What the hell is going on?

In hard hats, we begin a difficult seven-hour climb in darkness. Only at dawn do we notice that Roy is not carrying his backpack. He is coughing green slime into a handkerchief and the penny drops. The head in hands, the baleful silences. The antibiotics were for him. Our guide is sick. Five hundred feet more and he collapses.

We are now at 17,000ft on a precipitous incline of black ice and scree. It’s increasingly difficult to catch our breath, hard not to feel the air icing up our lungs. No backpack means no promised oxygen, no Gamow bag, no satellite phone. We leave Roy behind, deeply concerned for him but furious. He has broken the golden rule of the mountain. To climb with a chest infection is dangerous. To guide with a chest infection is irresponsible.

5,650m Glacier camp is deserted. Six days ago our team numbered 27. Today we’re down to three. Everyone else is involved in the desperate attempt to rescue Roy, whose condition has deteriorated into acute pulmonary edema, fatal within a few hours if left untreated. A helicopter has been called but the air is too thin for it to land and below us the weather has closed in making descent too hazardous. Alone, we struggle with the onset of acute mountain sickness. Breathing difficulties, nausea and headaches that no amount of painkillers can touch.

Six hours later the rescue party appears over the crater rim. Roy is in terrible shape, coughing up frothy pink blood. Joseph activates the Gamow bag after which there’s a frantic scrabble in the dark for torches and equipment to carry Roy over the other side and down. The cold is brutal. We do synchronised spooning, huddled together under the stars.

In the morning, Joseph, coolest of cool dudes, is undeterred. “Piece of cake,” he says, grinning at the final 1,000ft to the summit and he’s right. We reach it as the orange glow of dawn spreads across the horizon.

5,895m The summit. And it is, as one might expect, a moment of almost divine mystery and beauty. The banks of cloud far below, the melting glaciers. This is why we push boundaries — to touch the sky, to understand what the edge of our existence looks like.

We cannot and will not spend another night on the mountain. It takes us 13 hours straight to get down, but get down we do, just before night falls, sore and heartily sick of our white tourist dilemma. Do we turn Roy in? Get him fired?

To our horror, at the park’s entrance, Roy is lying in wait for us — freshly delivered by the flying doctors and eschewing hospital in favour of “seeing us safely home”. If he registers the disgust on our faces, he ignores it, scavenging among the exhausted porters for the threads of his former control.

There is no doubt who his real prey is, though. It’s all about the big end-of-trip tip. The porters are about to disperse and Joseph, bound by an “honour system” between guides, which decrees that the leader takes all, will not accept our money — it’s down to Roy to eke out these men’s livelihoods at his discretion. Will Joseph be rewarded for his loyalty? The porters for their dedication and bravery? It’s hard to know and impossible to interfere. After all, this is Africa.
Names have been changed.

The Summer of the Bear, by Bella Pollen, is published in August by Mantle, £12.99

All companies working in the Kilimanjaro National Park should be accredited, but African bureaucracy allows for leeway. A good company will have fresh food and a trained guide. It will provide equipment such as stretchers and tents but clients should hire or buy personal gear. With the last day involving a night climb in temperatures as low as — 20C (-4F), mountaineering clothes and a headtorch are essential.

The Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project says that climbers should use companies accredited by the International Mountain Explorers Connection (mountainexplorers.org/club/partners.htm). Tom Whipple


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