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U3A Writing: High On Africa

Jo Earle and Keith Manchester tell of climbing Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro.

On the morning of 6 October 1889 two Germans, Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller, became the first humans in recorded history to stand in snow and ice on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Since that time the top of Kilimanjaro has become a popular tourist destination.

At 19,340 feet Kilimanjaro is the tallest free standing mountain in the world and can be ascended by a variety of routes. The long established Marangu route has overnight huts, but other paths involve camping. We have both at separate times successfully climbed to the summit. It is possible to 'do Kili' in a one week excursion and, as one of us found, the prospect of standing on the roof of Africa produces much excitement as the group gathered in anticipation at Johannesburg airport. As Jo wrote in her diary

"Sat in the Shebeen (the local bar) a bit too long and missed the first group photo. Much chirping, beer and rum on plane. Stoically paid for the excesses the next day. Flew over Kilimanjaro, the same view that filled me with the desire to stand on the summit in 1992 on the way to Nairobi in Kenya. It did not seem to be all that far below us! Arrived at Kilimanjaro Airport at dusk. Bought a Kili map describing the route. Had a one hour mini bus drive through the rain on a road with some giant potholes to the Springlands Hotel. Ate a wettish supper. Did the final sort out and, despite cats and kittens meeoowing most of the night, I managed some sleep."

The first day's route is through the rain forest which skirts the base of the mountain. For the early explorers, the dense growth was a major obstacle and the finding of a way through a very time-consuming and exhausting task. Today the forest is much less, but there can still be problems of access.

"Next day woke up early. Stomach in an excited knot. Still a soft drizzle. Breakfast was prepared late so we left 1 hour late [Africa time]. Could not drive to Machame gate as the road was too muddy. Walked through the rain and mist to the National Parks Offices where we signed in. We then entered the magical misty MUDDY world of the rain forest, the vegetation changing from giant tree ferns and pink and orange impatiens to huge trees including yellowoods, and always the mud. It got muddier and muddier and more and more glorious. I started off by trying to keep my newish La Sportiva boots clean but gave up and was soon ankle deep in mud. The mud was thick and chocolaty, very slippery and sometimes quite deep, which made walking slow and difficult. Ate lunch standing up on the edge of the mud. Porters were amazing in the mud wearing flimsy sneakers. One porter, carrying several dozen eggs, slipped and fell. Some eggs fell out and broke, he deftly scooped them back into the egg box and carried on. Reached the top of the forest and entered the fynbos (natural scrub) belt, but no one knew where the camp was. Many other parties on the mountain B including porters, about 300 people altogether! Eventually found campsite. Porters unfamiliar with the new tents so pitching took longer than usual. The cooks were great but we only ate very late and were very tired."

Not surprisingly, it can be hard work climbing the mountain, so one needs to eat plenty to have enough energy. Just to lift our bodies up 3,000 feet requires about 8 ounces of sugar or starch, and to produce the needed energy for our muscles from this food means taking in about 4.6 cubic feet of oxygen which is contained in something like 23 cubic feet of air since most air is nitrogen which is of no use to us. Not surprising that climbing up to above the limit of the rain forest (at about 10,000 feet) involves some puffing and blowing, not to mention getting hot.

"Next day early awakening. Had a huge breakfast [ porridge, eggs (scrambled to use up yesterday's broken ones), sausages, bread, fruit, tomato and cheese.] Misty but not raining. No sign of the mountain we are meant to be climbing. We walked for several hours straight up the hill side. This fynbos zone was most beautiful. Out of the mist loomed rocks and plants with strange shapes like the giant lobelias, Senecios, Ericas, everlasting bushes, Watsonias and red hot pokers. Some rocks were covered by velvety moss. We were told by Bongo, our chief guide, to go 'pole-pole' [slowly-slowly.] No ill effects from altitude yet. I reached the Shira camp on the Shira plateau (12,500 feet) at about midday. Suddenly KILIMANJARO loomed out of the mist, snow covered and with some big glaciers. Very exciting and dramatic. At last I see the mountain that I'll be scrambling up and my heart does a double somersault! Saw the profile in the rocks of the Sleeping Indian - he had to be left undisturbed if we wanted to reach the summit. I think I must have rattled that Indian with my initial shrieks of joy on seeing Kilimanjaro as he didn't treat me too gently on the summit morn. Took it easy and dried out our muddy clothing. Had a huge hot lunch produced by the cooks next to the cave. Went for a slow amble to pick up some more red blood cells. The clouds lifted and we saw Shira Cathedral and Mount Meru sticking high up above the clouds. Ethereal beauty. Climbed up a hill to take sunset photos. Another huge meal [pancake/rotis, deep fried chicken, rice, vegetables, soup, fruit salad, tea, coffee and Milo.] This was all cooked on an open fire and all the equipment was carried up by smiling, fit, nimble porters who had more red blood cells than we. So far my appetite definitely had not decreased with the higher altitude. It had been a most wonderful day."

The oxygen that our tissues need and which enters our bodies through our lungs is only slightly soluble in water, so we have developed red blood cells whose function it is to carry the oxygen we need to the tissues. As the altitude increases, down goes the amount of oxygen available to us in the air. The capacity of the red cells to carry oxygen decreases as the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere declines. Without question we feel our hearts beating faster as they pump more blood round the body to our muscles and we experience greater difficulty going up inclines.

"Next day left at 7 am (no breakfast!). Slowly, pole-pole upwards at a comfortable pace. Had a great brunch on a huge outcrop of rock. A few were laid low with altitude sickness but the rest slowly ascended the 1,300 feet to the Lava Tower to acclimatise. Not as bad as I had anticipated and no ill effects. We now entered a moon-type landscape. Enormous outcrops of lava. Descended down to 12,800 feet again, past a dramatic ravine with lots of giant Senecio kilimanjari. Prehistoric looking plants that keep growing new 'limbs'. Big everlasting bushes. The moorland zone. One of the group was taking strain, especially on the descents. We waited for her at the bottom of the Barranco Wall. She was ushered in by her shepherd, Ian. Would she decide that she was able to go over the Wall that afternoon? Yes! The cheer went up. The ascent was scenic, steep and megalithic. No nausea, no headache [slightly breathless on the steeper sections.] Panoramic view from the top of the Wall in the late afternoon light. Barranco Camp (12,800 feet) was pitched in pristine wild, wonderful scenery with the imposing, sobering Kili behind us. Later that night, while tucked up in my Ice Wolf sleeping bag, I heard the thunderous sound of an avalanche moving down the mountain. I hoped the Sleeping Indian hadn't been disturbed. It had been a long (10 hours) but splendid day."

The oxidation of foods to give us energy produces carbon dioxide and it is over how the body disposes of this that altitude sickness may arise. Although carbon dioxide is a waste product of our metabolic activity, in principle to be disposed of, the body has evolved to use its hydrated form, carbonic acid, for a totally different purpose, namely to balance the acidity of the body. People who possess swimming pools are very conscious of the need to keep the acidity, or pH as it is called, of their pool at a specific constant value. So it is with the blood - a very constant value must be maintained for normal function. Too rapid a loss of carbon dioxide from the body at high altitude due to deeper breathing to get the oxygen we need can lead to a condition of too little carbonic acid in the blood and too much alkali. The brain does not like this, and one gets a violent headache - one of the symptoms of altitude sickness.

"An urgent call of nature [first symptom of altitude effects?] Started walking at 7:20 am through alpine desert landscape (we are now climbing up from 13,000 feet). Rock formations, everlastings, lichens and mosses. Walked up, pole-pole, and over into the Karanga valley through which runs the clear, cold, clean Karanga stream. Our wonderful, sturdy porters set up a huge brunch for us with the dramatic backdrop of an ever changing and seemingly higher Kili. Brunch consisted of hot dogs, a great vegetable stew, yellow bread, jam, peanut butter, honey and fruit - still no noticeable signs of decreasing appetites. Filled water bottles with Karanga Stream water. Up and down and up and down, a final big heave and some fast breathing, and we arrived at Barafu Camp, 15,000 feet, on a narrow flattish neck with plenty of spent toilet paper. Our tent was perched on a ridge where we had a magnificent view of Mount Meru in the west and to the east Mawenzi, a toothy, craggy mountain. I got all my things ready for the big haul up later that night. This was done at a leisurely pace. Accompanied by much chatting and a steady increase in my adrenaline level. The sunset was spectacular with Mount Meru sticking up above the clouds which changed colour from pink to red to blue to purple. Also quite eerie as the huge Kilimanjaro threw its giant shadow over towards Mawenzi on the other side. Had dinner at 5:15 pm - not too hungry. To bed at 6:40 pm, dressed and ready to go. Full moon shining its bright light upon us all."

It is well established that people who live permanently at high altitudes have increased numbers of red cells to compensate for the decreased ability of each red blood cell to carry oxygen when the oxygen in the air becomes less, but it takes a few weeks for such adaptation to take place. It proves to be the case that this decreasing ability to carry oxygen to the tissues becomes increasingly serious at about 16,500 feet when the available oxygen has dropped by 50% compared with sea level, and at this point many people begin to feel extreme muscular weakness. But for some the problem is worse - splitting headaches, breathlessness, insomnia, nausea and vomiting, indeed all the symptoms of acute mountain sickness that make it difficult and in fact unwise to carry on. Why this problem hits some people so much more severely than others is not known, but it is not related to age, nor specially to fitness.

The Summit Attempt

"Didn't sleep but had a good rest and felt a great peace descend upon me. We were woken at 10 pm. Got dressed [3 layers of polyprops, polarlite tops, and trousers, outer wind/rain jacket and pants, woollen hats, gloves, mittens, headlamp and my La Sportiva boots which were wonderful in mud or snow.] After a cup of tea and biscuits we set off at 11 pm - 35 of us plus our guides in a long single file snaking up the mountain in the moonlight with Mawenzi on the right and Kibo, Stella Point and Uhuru above us. The full moon will forever be a Kili moon for me. There was something Biblical about the whole scene and for many people it was a pilgrimage. The guides were interspersed between us and were shouting to each other and singing in Swahili in the moonlight. It was a spiritual, soul touching, incredible experience. When they sang 'What a friend we have in Jesus' in Swahili there were many moist eyes. We walked very slowly. As soon as someone staggered or weakened a guide was there to help them. The higher I walked the nearer I felt to God, my Creator and the Creator of the awesome challenge that lay ahead of me. I felt humble B like a tiny ant crawling up a very steep slope in the vast Universe and how reliant I was on my God and my guide's help. I felt fine and strong till about 16,500 feet and then I felt terribly nauseous [the dreaded altitude sickness had zapped me!"]

It is in this last 3,000 feet that altitude sickness is most likely to strike and one must be attentive to the advice of guides who have had experience of other climbers in distress. Acute mountain sickness, if not heeded, can in the extreme cases, kill. The only remedy is to get down to lower altitudes as soon as possible. The need to proceed 'pole-pole' - it becomes difficult to do otherwise, together with frequent rests, cannot be too strongly stressed. Many parties going up Kili fit in a day at 10-13,000 feet with little altitude change (as both our parties did) to help the body to acclimatize to the increased altitude.

"I sat on a rock to rest and out of the night my guardian angel appeared in the form of a guide called Useful. He was wonderful and helped and supported me through my nausea when I just felt like curling up and sleeping under a rock. "Mama, don't sit here too long or you'll freeze." "Mama, we are nearly at Stella Point, only 2 more minutes." "Mama, after Stella Point it's not so steep, you can make it." I felt really awful, was sick a few times with little care for those who had to watch and had to rest often. I received much encouragement and sympathy from so many people who were also feeling sick. I kept repeating the 21st Psalm, 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh even from the Lord who has made heaven and earth'. Mama got to Stella Point - it was very, very cold. Moved on through snow and ice. Breathtaking scenery, but I felt too sick to appreciate it. The sun rose above the mountain at about 6:30 am, while the moon was still shining. A huge glacier wall on the left and a valley going towards the crater on the right. I made Uhuru peak, 19,340 feet, the very top, at about 7:15 am."

Kilimanjaro is the remains of a volcano which erupted about one million years ago (quite recently, in geological terms). Stella Point is one of the points of access to the rim of the crater which is still largely intact; another commonly climbed route is to Gilman's Point. Neither one is the actual peak of the mountain. Uhuru, the summit, is roughly 650 feet higher and is reached by walking round the rim, past spectacular mountains of glacial ice.

"Was pale and wan. Couldn't see properly, strange lights in front of my eyes. Felt exhausted but happy to have reached Uhuru, thanks to my angel Useful, and to see my friends there. Then the long haul or slide down the scree. I had one vision and that was of my tent and sleeping bag. As I descended, the severe symptoms decreased. Got back to Barafu Camp at 10:10 am. Slept, after which I felt much better. Had a lunch of tea, soup and peanuts. Left at 1:45 pm and descended to Mweka Camp at 10,000 feet. Three more hours of downhill. Tough, but increasingly beautiful [heather, ericas, proteas.] Beer and coke at Mweka. Everyone exhausted but justifiably proud to have got to the summit [a special achievement for many who had never hiked before.] Sank into the most wonderful sleep."

"As wide as all the world, great, high, unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro," wrote Ernest Hemingway in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, so catching the magnificence of this great mountain. But we had conquered it, and had stood on the top of this giant plum pudding with the 'white sauce' of its snow line creeping down from the summit. Now as we descended to lower altitudes our energies returned - in fact we felt almost supercharged.

"Early start down into magical, lush, green rain forest. Path muddy and got increasingly muddier and muddier as we descended. I learned two new Swahili words - matope maningi - which means plenty of mud! My linguistic prowess much appreciated by the passing porters. By the time we arrived at Mweka Gate we were all very muddy - I enjoyed it and wished that I could have wallowed in the mud! My 'angel' met up with me and escorted me all the way down [chatting most of the way.] Sang the song 'Kilimanjaro' to me and explained the meaning. At the end the porters sang to us [most moving.] We gave money to Bongo and Tom, our Tanzanian leaders, for their teams, and our leader thanked them all in Swahili. Walked back along the road, banana groves and trees everywhere. Women and children came out to greet us [all looked cheerful and well fed.] Had lunch and then back to Springlands Hotel. Got a room far from cats. Went to Chinese Restaurant for handing out of certificates and T-shirts by Bongo and Tom. We all stood up and said a few (or more) words. For me the trip had been a wonderful, humbling, life turning experience."

If you are thinking of having a bash at 'Kili' it might be worth checking with your doctor before signing on, but it is in principle possible for any fit person to reach the top. Do not underestimate the importance of having sufficient warm and waterproof clothing, and good waterproof boots, since there is minimal opportunity to get dry at the camps and before making the final assault. Moreover, to get caught in a snowstorm in the final stages and to suffer hypothermia in consequence could be dangerous. Make sure to take a thermal blanket. Otherwise - bon voyage!

Copyright (C) 2006 Jo Earle and Keith Manchester


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