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|Kilimanjaro – the highest free-standing mountain in the world
By Ronnie Muhl
S. A. Mountain Magazine March 2005 edition, M.C.S.A. journal 2004
For many people the word “Uhuru” reminds them of the best seller written by Robert Ruark; to the Swahili nation it means “Freedom” and to most mountaineers it is the highest peak in Africa standing proudly on Kilimanjaro at 5 895 metres above sea level. In all its magnificence, it is the highest free-standing mountain in the world, situated 330 kilometres south of the equator in Tanzania.
My journey to the roof of Africa and to this awesome piece of conglomerate really began when I was 15 years old and got caught in a snow blizzard in the Injasuti Cave, (close to the highest point in Southern Africa) in the Drakensberg Mountains. This profound experience impregnated itself into my entire being and I was gripped and held by the immense energy and power that is to be found in mountainous terrains. Somehow I knew then that I would climb Kilimanjaro at some stage in my life.
But perhaps the question needs to be asked, “Why climb a mountain in the first place?” It was the late George Mallory who lost his life on Mt. Everest in 1924 who said, “Because it is there!”
There is no doubt that climbing mountains is synonymous with so many aspects of life. It represents that path which is symbolic of the journey we all travel on a daily, which in my humble opinion is about dealing with challenges, those apparent insurmountables hurdles, striving for excellence and seeking to serve our fellow man in which ever way we can.
Nine of us flew Air Tanzania via Dar-Es-Salaam to Kilimanjaro airport, where we were met by our main guide Honest Mtui. We travelled by bus to the Nakara hotel which was situated just south of the Marangu gate, the start of the most popular route up the mountain.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of churchbells drifting up through the valley and the smell of fresh coffee, bacon, eggs and toast wafting up from the hotel kitchen. After breakfast we made the final adjustments to our gear, before driving for 1½ hours to the Umbwe Mission Station and the start of our route up the mountain.
It was here that our gear was weighed and distributed amongst our porters and final departure arrangements were made. It was pleasantly cool as we walked “pole, pole” (slowly slowly) along a former forestry track which eventually became a very picturesque path, which was extremely well worn and made easier at times because of the roots and branches which provided comfortable assistance along the way.
Camp 1 was situated at Umbwe Cave (2 850m) in the forest and was reached after about 5 hours of walking. The team of 22 porters were absolutely amazing in the way they carried all of our gear, as well as the food, mess tent, their own personal equipment and more. In no time, our tents were pitched and dinner was being prepared. We were served a three-course meal which was exceptionally well presented. This incredible service continued throughout our time on the mountain and the communal mess tent became a venue for discussion, sharing, lots of laughter and fun.
The next morning we were woken by the porters and served tea and coffee in bed. This was service that none of us were accustomed to on a mountaineering expedition. The overnight low in the forest was 2ºC, surprisingly cold for where we were positioned at this stage of the journey up the mountain. What awaited us? Today’s walk took us out of the tropical rain forest and into the high moorland. At times the path was extremely steep with sheer drops on either side. As we exited the forest we sighted Kilimanjaro for the first time. We were all overwhelmed by the size of this awesome mountain and the summit still seemed unbelievably far away. As you leave the forest and enter the moorland you find yourself surrounded by gigantic lobelias and groundsels, some of them over one hundred years old.
The clouds rolled in and soon the mountain was no longer in view. We reached the Barranco Hut (3 980m) after 5 hours walking and for many of us this was the highest we had ever been. A few members of the team starting complaining about a headache which is not uncommon as you begin the acclimatisation process. This camp was to be our home for the next 2 nights.
Soon after we arrived, we were served a late lunch and as we sat around chatting, the clouds lifted and the Western Breach Wall and Kilimanjaro revealed herself in all her magnificence and beauty. We could not help staring at this amazing sight and as the sun dropped down behind us, the golden warm glow that was reflected off the sheer rock walls of the mountain sent us all rushing for our thermal gear, as the temperature plummeted to a few degrees above zero within a very short space of time. Getting into one’s sleeping bag at 8pm is comforting and warm, but is makes for an incredibly long night, as we found ourselves getting up at around 6:30am.
Day 3 dawned beautifully clear, but cold, with the overnight low – 4ºC. This was to be an acclimatisation day and so after breakfast we followed the route in the direction of the Southern Circuit and climbed up the right hand side of the Western Breach Wall to a height of 4 380m, before descending once again to our camp at Barranco. A warm afternoon gave us all the opportunity to have a wash in the river flowing down from Arrow Glacier. The water was extremely cold.
On day 4 we made our way to Arrow Glacier (4 850m) which took us about 4½ hours. By now most of the group were feeling the effects of the altitude ranging from a “muzzy” head to a blinding headache, nausea and coughing. The views of the mountain from here were exquisite. At 5pm we had an early supper, but most of us had lost our appetites completely and all we could manage was some soup followed by tea. It is very important to try and eat and to keep consuming liquids at altitude, even though one doesn’t feel like it. This was the time to discuss our summit strategy and for everyone to share how they were feeling at this stage of the expedition. Everyone crawled into their sleeping bags at about 6pm for a few hours of rest before our summit bid. Most of the team were using Diamox at this stage, as well as various forms of headache tablets, to ensure their success.
We were roused at 11pm for tea and biscuits and by midnight we had all donned our warm gear and headtorches and were on our way to the summit. The temperature was a few degrees below zero and very manageable without any wind.
Our summit bid involved an enormous amount of scrambling and there were many times when I wondered how comfortable everyone would have felt had they known how exposed they were on occasions. I kept reminding myself that we were on the steepest and most difficult route on the mountain and this was all part of the deal.
There was one party ahead of us and at about 3 am they went off-route and dislodged some rocks. We heard the sound of rocks falling and in that instant we all realised how extremely vulnerable we were, as we could not see how big they were and whether they were heading in our direction or not. We all threw ourselves down in an attempt to hide from these unseen projectiles. The front few members of our team gazed upwards to try and assess whether these rocks were heading in our direction, when suddenly they saw them in the light of their torchlights, which has a beam of approximately 10 metres only. There was lot of panic and fearful shouts and then a hysteric scream from one of our members, as a rock connected the side of his head. Down he went and there he lay concussed and in a lot of pain. Fortunately he was alive. How lucky he was that this rock had not connected him squarely on the head. Two other members of our team had been hit by smaller rocks on the arms and legs, but they were only bruised. We spent 45 minutes reviving our climbing partner whose head needed bandaging. He really needed to get off the mountain, but we had gone beyond the point of a safe return down to Arrow Glacier camp. It was decided that three of the five guides would carry his pack and literally carry him up onto the mountain. By now we were all freezing, as we had been stationery and exposed for too long at this height and temperature. A light breeze had picked up and the temperature had dropped to –10ºC. We desperately needed to push on and keep climbing.
The route got steeper and we struggled with each step as the air got colder and thinner. At the summit the air is half as thin as it is at sea level. In places our climb graduated from some basic scrambling to some rock-climbing which can be rather unnerving considering that we were not roped and that we were using headtorches only.
After 6 hours of climbing in the dark we finally broke through the headwall and found ourselves on top of the mountain. The temperature was –15ºC. It was a fantastic relief, but we were still not on the summit, which required another hour of heavy breathing and hard slog. At 7:30am seven out of the nine of us stood on Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro. For one brief moment we were indeed the highest people on the African continent and we all felt extremely proud of our achievement. One never made it to the summit because of the rockfall accident and the other because of nausea. As I gazed upwards in gratitude for being able to accomplish this climb, I became aware that the sky was a darker blue than normal and I realised how high I actually was.
An expedition of this nature puts you more in touch with yourself, with who you are and with where you are headed. It gives you a perspective on life that is not easy to find in everyday existence.
We took the celebratory photographs and spent about 45 minutes gazing around at the awesome beauty of the glaciers and ice fields, which sadly are retarding rapidly. According to research, the glaciers would all have melted by 2020. We were above the clouds and way above Mt. Meru and Mt. Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro’s two neighbours.
It was time to leave this special place on the African continent and head down the ridge to Stella Point and then down the scree slopes to Barafu Hut. We gathered ourselves together, packed away all the warm gear and headed down to Millenium Camp. For most of us, 15 hours had passed since we had left Arrow Glacier camp at midnight and now it was 30ºC. These extremes are remarkable, but then Kilimanjaro is unique. Nowhere else in the world can you travel on foot and in one week experience such geographical and botanical diversity from tropical rain forest, through to moorland, tundra and ending with snow and ice. It is a remarkable place.
Day 6 dawned clear and cool and all that was left was a magnificent walk down the Mweka route to the exit gate. Just before we ducked under the cloud level and into the drizzle. I gazed back one last time to see Kilimanjaro standing proudly as she has done for millions of years. She was ready to receive the next group of climbers and initiate those who were awaiting her call and challenge.
As I stood in awe and humbled by her magnitude, I knew that I had been transformed by being in her presence. I was uplifted, renewed and made whole again by all that she had given me and she challenged me to go on and do bigger, better and more profound things in my life, but she had also revealed her power and potential danger. We were an experienced, organised and well-equipped team of climbers who ended up with a real problem on the mountain, which could have become a major crisis or perhaps even a fatality. Of the 28 000 people visiting Kilimanjaro on an annual basis, most of them attempt the climb, without really understanding the possible dangers. There is no helicopter rescue service and the “ambulance” on the mountain happens to be an old hospital bed with four handles welded on either side and a bicycle wheel in the middle. This “stretcher” is used to get someone off the mountain as soon as possible in the event of an emergency. Many climbers have been strapped to this device and run down the mountain, but many have not made it. I would suggest that before you journey to the highest summit in Africa and one of the seven summits in the world, you choose your equipment carefully, plan your route according to your climbing experience and skill and become familiar with the problems associated with being at altitude. If you decide to do the Umbwe route I would recommend that your guide carries 30m of rope and that you wear a climbing helmet.
Kilimanjaro is a beautiful mountain and one of those climbs that all mountaineers should do in their lifetime, but she deserves careful consideration and respect. If you answer her call, know that you will be transformed, uplifted and made whole. You will enjoy an experience of a lifetime.