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Chilly on Kili

Written by George Fisher

Image for article Chilly on Kili

In January I went to climb in East Africa, and started off by ‘warming up’ on Kilimanjaro. It didn’t entirely go to plan…

The trip didn’t get off to the best start. I was delayed, and arrived at Heathrow eight hours late. I found a new flight to Kilimanjaro International and actually arrived before my partner-in-crime Charles Sherwood, who had left on the London flight without me.

My next problem was that I didn’t have $50 for a Tanzanian entry visa. I was told to go to an ATM and withdraw an unfathomable amount of Tanzanian shillings (about 80,000), then go to some dodgy guy who would convert them into dollars. Unsurprisingly the ATM was not working, so back I went; then a very strange thing happened. An American, who had overheard my predicament, just handed me a $50 bill! Problem sorted.

Charles arrived, and we were whisked to the fantastic Moivaru Lodge in the middle of the jungle. Our plan was to climb Kilimanjaro as a way of acclimatising for the challenge of making the complete and rarely achieved traverse of Mt Kenya. We gradually picked up the people who were going to help us; first the cook, then Onex the guide, then a second guide called JV (we were never really sure why we needed a second guide). We stopped for an hour so they could all have breakfast, went through a mountain of paperwork, met our porters (all eight of them), and finally
set off.

The route headed through the Montaine rainforest, which lived up to its name by raining torrentially. Fortunately this coincided with lunch, and as we rounded the corner our rather colonial-looking tent had been erected, table was laid (complete with tablecloth) and tea was served. All this rain did create a load of thick mud so when we arrived at Macheme camp (3,000m) we were already filthy.

The next day our destination was Shira Cave campsite, 3,850m. It wasn’t long before it was raining again; cold, wet and pretty much like an average Scottish day. However by late afternoon the weather did clear, to reveal impressive views towards Meru peak and the first real view of Kilimanjaro. This was more like it.

The trek from Shira to Barrunco Hut (3,950m) involved walking up to the Lava Towers at 4,600m before descending to the Barrunco camp - all part of the acclimatisation. It wasn’t long before the mist socked in and it started to rain, hail then snow. At least it cleared in the afternoon to reveal what a fantastic spot the Barrunco camp is - situated slap bang under the giant Breach Wall of Kilimanjaro, home until 20 years ago of some of the finest ice climbs in Africa.

The next day we set off up the steep scramble towards Barafu Hut at 4,800m. The first part was really enjoyable, yet as we got higher the landscape changed and became very lunar. The challenge lay with the porters, because there is no water at Barafu and it has to be carried. A herculean task, balancing 20 kilos of water on your head and struggling uphill at over the height of Mt Blanc.

Rather embarrassingly we had to wait for them to catch up, and so we were forced to stop for an extended lunch in our colonial tent. We arrived at camp late afternoon, and it was over dinner that Onex broke the news that our summit attempt would be at 11.30pm. This was to be a big day; 1,300m of ascent. Unfortunately, after an hour, it proved too big a day for JV who was complaining of a bad headache. Onex, Charles and I continued, overtaking everyone on the mountain and arriving on the summit well before dawn.

It was super cold. Full Mont Blanc style clothing, duvet jackets and big mitts. What I had not anticipated was just how fantastic I would find the summit. I have been lucky enough to stand on a lot of summits, but the top of Africa at 5,894m ranks among the best.

After a lot of photos it was back the way we came; firstly around the giant volcanic rim to Stellar Point, then back down the track to the campsite where we arrived at 8.30am, Charles and I feeling pretty tired. After a couple of hours sleep the next challenge was the four-hour descent to Mweka camp (2,950m). Again, this was a seemingly endless moonscape, made even less inviting when it started to rain, monsoon style. With this came lots and lots of mud, making the campsite reminiscent of a battlefield. Then during the night there was real alarm about a lion being loose in the campsite. This, in fact, was me snoring. I was tired.

Next day an early start saw us arriving at the Park Gate at 8.30am, collecting our Kilimanjaro summit certificates, then on to the airport for our flight to Nairobi. Once called for our flight, we headed out onto the tarmac but our plane was not at all what we were expecting; a single-engine propeller-powered Cessna. There were 4 passengers. The flight was brilliant. The aircraft didn’t climb higher than 2,000m and bounced around in the thermals as it flew across the savannah. Nor did it land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, but instead at Wilson aerodrome. After filling in the Ebola forms and passing through immigration, a taxi whisked us to the wonderful Fairview Hotel - the day had run pretty much perfectly.