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RUNNER-UP TRAVEL STORY 2012 - A Walk in the Park - Kilimanjaro - by Rob Tye
A Walk in the Park
When Mark coughed up blood, I didn’t care that our climb was over—it was now a case of survival.
“Kilimanjaro is a walk in the park,” the woman in Accounts had said. “Even my aunt did it and she’s really old.” What the woman didn’t say is that ten hikers a year die trying to climb to the top of ice-crusted Uhuru Peak, standing just shy of six kilometres above the African plains.
We were three days into our trek, at 4600 metres, when Danny and I realised that our friend Mark was the other guy.
The day before had been: glimpses of zebra and giraffe in the grasslands below, black and white colobus monkeys playing in the trees, and sweat soaked clothes in tropical jungle. Then came the incessant whine of mosquitoes. “Don’t worry,” the guide had said. “They don’t like it higher up the mountain.” If mosquitos didn’t like it, would we?
Every step resulted in reminders of “poley poley” (“slowly slowly” in Swahili) from our guide.
We laughed at the lumbering pace then felt guilty as porters whizzed past with our giant bags balanced on their heads. “Jambo,” (“hello”) they said with beaming smiles, as they sped along the trail, filling the air with their songs.
It was a hard push in the glaring equatorial sun. My head throbbed no matter how much I drank. My Camelback ran dry, my muscles ached, and I had to wear a scarf over my mouth to stop choking on the dust.
Then I saw how bad Mark looked. He had shown symptoms all day: blurred vision, slurred speech, and pounding headaches. As we reached the forbidding shark’s tooth formation known as Lava Tower Rock, it hit him hard. He couldn’t stand, let alone walk. His breaths came fast and shallow. When Mark coughed up blood, I didn’t care that our climb was over.
Survival at that altitude, and at night, and in that state, isn’t always a phone call away. “It will take too long for a helicopter to reach us,” our guide said. “You need to get him down the mountain, fast. But I’ve got to stay with the main group.”
It’s a peculiar thing, altitude. A drop of five hundred metres could be enough to save his life. Make it down a thousand and we might even see a smile on his face.
“My friend needs your help,” I said, paying two of our porters to break off from the main trek and take us down a knife-edged ridge.
We slipped and fell as much as we walked, dragging Mark between us. Darkness closed in and we were still too high on the mountain. Mark was pallid, still vomiting, with a faint pulse. I’d known him for years, he was my best man, and I thought he was going to die. We had no choice. He had to get to a lower altitude.
The extreme cold exhausted our torch batteries. The darkness and perilous terrain forced us to stop around midnight. We set up make-shift tents and then I kept a bleary-eyed vigil over my semi-conscious friend, checking his vitals, unsure what else to do.
When the first rays of sun touched the mountain, Mark’s pulse had strengthened and his colour returned. The drop in altitude had worked. Then he woke and mumbled, “Where are we?”
A porter beckoned us from the tent. We stepped into the sunshine and sat on the top of a mighty cliff, greeted with magnificent views across the savannah. A dust cloud rose from an elephant herd.
Mark smiled weakly and said, “Fancy a safari?”
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Bio: Rob Tye worked for the UK Government in aerospace and ran global projects and communications for an oil company. He has climbed and trekked in several countries and has worked across the world. He lives in the New Forest in England where he is renovating a cottage and writing his first novel.
Travel Tips and Facts on Kilimanjaro from Rob:
Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest mountain, standing at 5,895 metres, 19,341 feet above sea level. It is comprised of three distinct peaks, Shira, Kibo and Mawenzi, of which Uhuru Peak is the highest point on the crater rim of Kibo. Kilimanjaro is a huge stratovolcano. Kibo is dormant while the other two cones are extinct.
Climbing any high altitude mountain is a serious undertaking and care should be taken in preparing your mind and body for the adventure. Figures vary but it is widely accepted that around 20,000 climbers attempt the ascent every year. Hundreds don’t succeed. Worse still, ten hikers a year will die trying.
Due to its relative ease of access and no need for technical climbing abilities, the mountain is a magnet for unprepared and inexperienced hikers. The high altitude, freezing temperatures, and challenging routes over difficult terrain, make this a serious trek. Hikers should ensure they are in the best possible health and fitness before embarking on the trip. The appropriate equipment is a must to deal with the extreme climates (humid jungle at the base, and rock/ice at the summit).
It is strongly recommended to engage the services of a professional trekking company with a good reputation. There are hundreds to choose from, but one can judge appropriateness based on ratings from previous customers, ecotourism awards, experience at altitude, work in the local communities, and planned safety measures.
Further still, look for companies that provide treks designed to combat the effects of altitude sickness. Many insist on preparation climbs to the lower altitudes of nearby Mount Meru or Mount Kenya. In recent years, trekking organizations have extended the length of ascents on Kilimanjaro from the 5-7 days, up to 10-14 days depending on selected routes. These extra days allow for varied patterns of ascent and descent to build acclimatisation in the body.
Regardless of preparation, nearly every climber will feel some effects of altitude sickness. Most report constant headaches, nausea, breathlessness, fatigue, dizzy spells, constipation or diarrhoea.
All the dire warnings aside, the trail itself can be breathtaking. Routes such as Machame have stunning scenery, incredible wildlife, and offer a challenging, yet achievable trek up one of Africa’s most magnificent mountains.