Okay, it’s not a Himalayan giant, but when you are in your 70s, your knees are shot and your VO2 max is edging toward VO2 zilch, Mt Kilimanjaro, at almost 6000 metres, can be a personal Everest. I’m not sure just what possessed me, as I hadn’t done any serious climbing in almost 20 years, but since I had already booked a safari in Tanzania, I succumbed easily to the lure of this magnificent volcano. The recent death of a dear friend gave me the idea to use the climb to raise funds for Dogs With Wings, the agency that had trained a guide dog for her.
It’s December, 2009. The rainy season was supposed to have stopped in November, but it didn’t get the message. The narrow, rutted track to the Lemoshu trailhead is a sea of mud that the driver navigates by bouncing the vehicle off the banks on either side, providing the porters in the open back with a really fun ride. Tobias, my guide, proudly informs me that most companies drop their clients off several km from the trailhead. I decide I like the truck.
At the trailhead the porters are laughing and singing. I’m handed a box lunch and look around for a dry hummock to sit on, only to find two arm chairs set out, one for me, one for Tobias. The hierarchy is pretty clear: I will climb, Tobias will guide and the porters will take care of everything else. Unbelievably, there are 11 porters just for me.
Tobias is a senior guide with Tusker Trail, the company that I chose to take me on this venture. I liked their emphasis on safety and professional training and their willingness to adapt the itinerary to my needs, not to mention the luxury of having a private biffy! Our gear includes oxygen, a hyperbaric chamber, a stretcher and an enormous medical kit that Tobias is trained to use. I figure that if anyone can get me to the summit, this guy can.
We start our trek in a dense rain forest, where vegetation creeps over the trail and flowers bloom in profusion. A few short hours see us to our first camp, with only a little elevation gain.
The porters have raced ahead and have the camp all set up. Freshly popped popcorn and tea await, and dinner will soon follow. After dinner Tobias does the first of the twice-daily medical checks, using a questionnaire, pulse oximeter and stethoscope, and I retire to my tent. Still somewhat in a daze, I realize that the adventure has finally begun. I drift off to sleep to the sweet sounds of singing from the porters’ tent.