I’d rather run a marathon! (Kilimanjaro 2013)

by Derek Goodchild

Several months ago, Mike Letheren started planning a family adventure holiday to give a send-off to his younger son, Liam, before he went to University. Mike, Marlene, Ryan and Liam settled for Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania as their preferred destination and made arrangements for the trip.

As so often happens, after a few beers following a run, Mike suggested to some of the gathered company that they would be welcome to join the trip and several semi-drunken hands were raised. A final party of the Letherens, John McGarry, Chris Plakowski, Roger Bradley, Patrick Joseph, Angela Lee, Peter Francis and me confirmed we would go and duly booked the flights and the package of accommodation and transport to get us to the top of Kilimanjaro.

Most of us undertook a number of lengthy walks as preparation but finding hills of up to 6000metres height proved difficult so we limited ourselves to the Downs and Salisbury Plain. Lots of money was invested in boots, sleeping bags, warm clothing, etc., with an abundance of guidance from the English company we had booked with (Travel and Trek), as well as numerous websites and tips from others who had made the trip (including Aurelio Bello).

Masquerading as a local bee-keeping group, we were transported to Heathrow in the Colden Common Community bus and flew with Qatar Airways, via Doha and Dar-Es-Salaam, to KilimanjaroAirport at Moshi. Coming in towards Moshi we had fine views of Kilimajaro standing above the clouds, a sight we would not see many more times as the weather was clear for most of the actual ascent and we had constant views of the peak as we progressed.

We had chosen the Lemosho route to the summit, one of several alternatives but the one with the longest acclimatisation time, giving the greatest chance of success and avoidance of serious altitude sickness. The local company who organised the trip, Bryson, were superb. The 11 of us were accompanied by 2 guides, 3 assistant guides, 2 chefs, 2 waiters and 31 other porters, who carried our gear (apart from our daysacks with water, waterproofs, spare clothes, food, etc.), tents, food, cooking equipment and even portable toilets. Each day the team would go ahead and set up camp and prepare food and then, the next morning, clear it all up and overtake us on the way to the next camp, where the process was repeated. We slept in two man (person for the P.C.) tents and dined in a mess tent, complete with tables and director-style folding chairs. The food, cooked on a two-ring burner, was different every day and was plentiful and tasty. Breakfasts included oat or millet porridge, toast, omelettes and fruit; lunches were either packed or included fresh soups, pasta, sauces and fruit; afternoon tea included popcorn and biscuits; evening meals included soup, meats, vegetables and fruit. We even had chicken and chips one day and fresh doughnuts another.

Hot water for washing (a bit of a futile exercise as we were covered in fine dust for most of the time) was provided regularly, as was boiled water for topping up drinking bottles. We had our blood oxygen levels and pulse rates tested twice a day, as well as completing a comprehensive questionnaire on our general health, appetite, etc.

LRRs on KilimanjaroThe six days of the preliminary ascent involved between four and six hours of steady walking on paths that varied from dusty tracks to rock-strewn slopes, all undertaken at a steady, slow pace – the Swahili instruction was “pole, pole” (slowly, slowly) – and as we climbed out of the rain forest, through scrub and onto the barren slopes of the volcano, rising from 2100m to 4600m, the going was bearable because of the pace. On several days we walked higher than our night’s camp site, to assist with the acclimatisation but, the higher we went, the more noticeable the effects of altitude became – even moving around inside the tents, getting in and out of sleeping bags, and dressing left one breathless.

John pulled out on the day we ascended the Barranco wall – it is a steep rock scramble rather than a pure climb – but John is not comfortable with going up steeply and decided that this was a step too far. The frustrating thing with going up the wall was the steady stream of heavily laden porters who were passing us at great speed, with little apparent effort – a bit like being lapped at an RR10, when the top runners just glide past!

After 6 days of trekking, it was time for the final ascent with a climb of 1300m ahead of us. We set off at 10pm, on a cold but still night, with head torches, zig zagging up a rough and rock strewn path, with four guides and two “summit porters” carrying emergency equipment to accompany us. Roger, at 70, the oldest in the party, decided it was all too much, having had a few stumbles on previous days, and turned back after a few hours, helped by one of the team. Chris carried on but was feeling very nauseous and eventually stayed back with one of the guides while we pushed on. Chris finally made it to the summit as the rest of us were coming back down. I struggled to find enough oxygen in the air but was assisted by another guide and we finally caught up Angela, who was very cold and tired, and reached the summit, a short distance behind the others, just as the sun came up at about 6:45am.

After a few minutes to take photos, with a Union flag and a Lordshill vest much in evidence, and having had Angela wrapped in a foil survival bag, we started the steep and dusty dash back to an acceptable altitude and, after a lunch break, the push down to the final camp. I was still feeling wretched and had a guide to help me down, missing the lunch, which I am sure would have reappeared rapidly if I’d tried it. Chris, the last to reach the summit, was the first one back for lunch as her guide almost carried her in a headlong charge down the mountain.

On the final morning, the whole support group (minus one of the cooks, who had succumbed to a bout of malaria and had to be taken down the mountain) serenaded us with an a capella rendition of the Kilimanjaro song and our head guide told the crew what tips they were being awarded by us. For most of them, the tip amounted to about an extra half of their wages and they seemed genuinely pleased; the local economy relies heavily on the tourist industry and jobs as porters and guides are much sought after, all for peanuts as far as westerners are concerned!

We still had several hours of steep downhill trekking on a rough path before we reached the final exit from the national park, to be greeted by John, who commented that we all stank – we had become used to the general odour after the minimal washing we had had.

Welcome showers were followed by beers, food and sightseeing, with a constant bombardment by street vendors whenever we ventured outside the hotel. After a full day’s rest we were driven back to the airport for our flight to Doha. Peter left us, to go on safari for a few extra days. Our 9 hour stopover at Doha was not the tedious nightmare we had feared as John and Mike marched off to the Qatar Airways desk and secured hotel rooms and a meal in a large hotel in Doha city for all of us, at no charge! Nice one! A big recommendation for Qatar Air as well!

All in all, a great experience. Great company and fantastic memories and photos.

Would I do it again? NO! NO! NO! I have never felt so knackered in my life! Give me a marathon (or even two marathons in two days) any time.

Derek Goodchild