Okay, it’s not a Himalayan giant. In fact, it barely qualifies as a scramble. But when you are 72, your knees are shot, and your VO2 max is edging toward VO2 zilch, Mount Kilimanjaro (5895 metres) can be a personal Everest.
For me, climbing Kili was an afterthought. I had booked a 12-day safari in Tanzania. When I learned how much time would be spent just getting there and back, I looked for a way to extend my stay. And there it was: the highest free-standing mountain in the world, rising in snow-capped splendour not far from where I would land at Kilimanjaro airport. Maybe I wanted to prove that I wasn’t over the hill yet by climbing the biggest hill in Africa.
Some of the tour companies I contacted wouldn’t take anyone my age. Most offered only group climbs with fixed schedules. The website of Tusker Trail revealed an attention to safety and detail that spoke to the mountaineer in me. They also offered solo climbs, enough luxury for an old lady (private biffy!), and a willingness to meet my demands: a rest day on the way up and three full days for the descent, 11 days in total.
Nothing but Climb
On the morning of December 10, 2009, a truck crammed with 11 porters, my guide and me, plus seemingly tons of gear, wallowed through muck to the Lemosho trailhead. We had box lunches before hiking, and as I looked for a dry hummock to sit on, two armchairs materialized, one for me, one for my guide, Thobias Meella. The protocol for the trip was set. I would do nothing but climb and Thobias would do nothing but guide. The porters saw to everything else, cheerfully and skillfully. I have never been so well cared for, as this experienced crew anticipated my needs before I was even aware of them.
Our daily routine varied little. After breakfast Thobias did a medical check using a questionnaire, pulse oximeter and stethoscope. I would carry a light daypack. Thobias had the medical kit, a tank of oxygen and some of his own gear, while Ernest, a trusted porter, followed close behind me with a hyperbaric bag, stretcher, other emergency gear and all of his how equipment. Not long after we hit the trail the camp porters would rush by us, carrying enormous loads. Most days they served us a hot lunch on the trail. The first time I topped a ridge at noon and saw the mess tent, cook tent and my biffy, I could scarcely believe it. After lunch it usually rained. Camp was always fully set up when we arrived, wet and cold. Porters would race to relieve Thobias and me of our packs and show us to our tents, while Ernest had to fend for himself. Tea, rest, dinner, another medical check, and then bed.
It should have been easy. The trail is good and there is only one section, the Barranco Wall, where you have to take your hands out of your pockets. But even 40 years ago I would have found it a rugged hike. As we climbed steadily through the wildly different vegetation zones, I devoted more and more attention to the trail and my ability to handle it, and less to the incredible scenery. I finally handed the camera over to Thobias and as a result I have a unique record of myself in action.
“Pole, pole,” (slowly!) is the mantra of Kilimanjaro. Go up too quickly, push yourself too hard, and you risk acute mountain sickness. People die on this mountain every year. Although altitude defeats some climbers even before the midway point, the summit day breaks more hearts. Most groups leave Barafu Camp (4600 metres) at midnight in order to reach the top at sunrise. Thobias, Ernest and I left after breakfast. As we pushed upward we met several disappointed climbers being helped down by porters.
My O2 saturation (the level of oxygen carried in the blood) declined as we gained elevation, returned to normal (95) after the rest day, then plummeted above 5000 metres. As I approached Stella Point on the summit ridge, Thobias stuck the oximeter on my finger and got a reading of 68! I put the camera on video and told Thobias I wanted a record of O2 68. In the video I look like a climber nearing the summit of Everest, six breaths to every step.
For the Joy of Climbing
We didn’t go to the top that day, as I had already been climbing for 10 hours. Instead, we camped in the crater at 5600 metres, where I enjoyed the best sleep I had experienced in days. On the morning of December 18, under a cobalt-blue sky, we slowly made our way up a steep little trail to the ridge, then along it to the summit. As we neared the ugly sign that marks the top of Africa, I was overcome with emotion. I thought of all the joy that climbing had provided over a lifetime that has seem me on summits from Denali and Logan, throughout the Alps, into Nepal, to Huascaran in Peru and from the west coast of British Columbia to Baffin Island. This would be, I knew, my last great mountain. There were tears. Then the obligatory triumphant summit photo and we headed down.
A Fitting End
Why did I make it to the top when younger and fitter people sometimes fail? Tusker Trail, with their professional attention to my welfare deserves a lot of the credit. The Lemosho Route has a better success rate than the popular, but brutally short, Machame Route. Fortunately I had a wealth of experience to draw on. When my body faltered, I could put my head down and remind myself, “You’ve been this tired before and toughed it out. You know you can take the next step, and that’s all that matters.” It was not only the stately beauty of Kilimanjaro that made it a fitting end to my climbing career, it was also the fact that the summit did not come easily.