Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021
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Killer climb

A family physician stretches her legs on an exhilarating trek to Africa's highest peak -- Mt. Kilimanjaro

I was flying back to Nairobi from Zanzibar City when the captain mentioned that we could see Mount Kilimanjaro on our left. I didn't need to look: I could picture its snow-covered summit very clearly, with its crater peeking through the clouds like the socket of an eye.

It brought me back to a month earlier when I had been walking on the crater rim, near Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa. Emotions rushed through me, along with a series of images of my seven-day trek on the slopes of this majestic mountain.

Mount Kilimanjaro was born a million and a half years ago as a volcano. It was later flanked by two other volcanoes, Shira and Mawenzi. These eventually became extinct while Kilimanjaro continued to erupt, covering Shira's collapsed crater with lava. Kili, as it is called, is now considered a sleeping volcano, and sulfuric-smelling fumes occasionally still emanate from its crater.

Our group of five people from Montreal, ranging in age from 30 to 59, had opted to take the Shira plateau route to climb Kili. Ten trekking routes start on the lower slopes, crossing each other to reach the north and south circuit paths that go around the base of the Kibo dome at around 4000 metres of altitude.

From there, the routes merge and only three reach the summit. The Shira plateau trail, less travelled and longer than the popular Marangu or "coca-cola" route, would give us time to savour the mountain while adapting to the increasingly high altitude.

On day one, we travelled for two hours by jeep from the nearby town of Arusha, Tanzania, before reaching the Londorosi gate of Kilimanjaro National Park. With us were our guide Elias, our assistant guide Protas and our cook Panga. All the equipment we'd need was packed to allow a maximum of 15 kilos per porter, while our personal share was not to exceed 15 kilos as well. Altogether, 18 porters were required.

It's All in the Altitude
Once inside the park, we continued for a few more kilometres by jeep and began our trek at 2500 metres. We walked on a dirt road flanked by tall grasses dotted with a multitude of pastel-coloured wildflowers. A mild breeze bent tangerine-coloured gladioli and brought us the sharp scents of wild mint and thyme.

After a three-hour walk, we reached Morum camp at 3500 metres. Our porters had already put up a rectangular army-style tent to serve as a dining area for us during the day and sleeping quarters for them at night, a blue teepee-type tent for Panga's kitchen, and small light-green dome tents for us. As we rested, sitting on rocks, we were stunned by the beauty of the snow-covered dome of Kilimanjaro, called Kibo Peak, right there in front of us; it was so far and so close. Would we reach the top? That seemed to be the question on all our minds as we stared in awe.

On day two, we prepared for the five-hour hike to reach Shira camp, at 3840 metres of altitude. The grass became sparse and was gradually replaced by the occasional tree or shrub anchored among black volcanic boulders. Delicate shaggy strands of deep golden moss, called "old man's beard," adorned the branches of the trees and hung tightly on the rock's edges while being jolted by the cold wind. We walked past the collapsed rim of the old Shira volcano.

Ahead of us, the impressive view of the summit above the clouds rekindled our energy to continue. Our meals were plentiful and delicious. Our lunch boxes contained chicken or beef turnovers, carrot and cheese sandwiches, juice or a fruit, and all sorts of other goodies that varied from day to day.

The next day we started early for a six-hour acclimatizing hike that brought us to 5000 metres, before descending to camp at Barranco hut (3950 metres). On day four, we started our seven-hour trek by climbing the tall Barranco wall. We tied our walking sticks to our backpacks and for the first hour and a half used our hands to grab the rocky structure and pull ourselves up. The sun was out and the climb was fun.

We continued on the trail, up and down through clouds and along cliffs bordered by green shrubs. We camped at Karanga hut (4000 metres). The nights were cold -- well below freezing -- and we survived by tucking ourselves snug into our heavy sleeping bags.

Here Come the Zombies
Day five was the last one before the final ascent to the summit. We had four hours of slow trekking ahead of us to reach Barafu camp at 4600 metres. The vegetation was scarce and the trail snaked through boulders of black lava. Our tents were set on rocks and protected from the wind by a cliff. We took an nap before dinner and slept a few hours later in the evening until 10:30pm when we were woken to get ready for the demanding night hike.


Until then we had all withstood the altitude quite well, but the main challenge was ahead of us. Dressed with several layers of clothing to tolerate the deep cold that could dip as low as -15°C without the wind, at 11pm we set out at a slow march with our two guides, five porters, provisions of water and energy bars, and a good dose of will power. When we were well on our way, our guide Elias started signing a popular Kili climbing song in Swahili, while our porters replied in a chorus.

Our footsteps followed the rhythm of the melody creating a warming sense of togetherness and making us forget the harshness of the hike for a short while. Other climbers were also attempting to reach the summit that night. The lights from their headlamps marked the trail zigzagging up to the summit, dotting the darkness with a touch of magic.

We trekked continuously uphill, occasional taking very short rests. At the beginning, we asked "What time is it?" or "What altitude have we reached?" By about 5200 metres, we lost interest. We found just enough energy to put one foot ahead of the other and in a zombie-like state, we continued what seemed an endless walk up.

At one point, Protas said: "Look!" I turned my head to admire the ragged summit of Mawenzi (5149 metres). This volcano is often compared to a medieval cathedral, but from high up on Kili, the dim moonlight painted shiny silver streaks reflecting on its pinnacles, making the crown resemble a gigantic diamond.

When it was 5:30am, Protas congratulated me. "You are almost there, only 45 minutes more to go! Look at the cameras flashing up there!" I could hardly tell the camera flashes apart from the star-studded sky.

As the sun rose shyly, draping the horizon with a deep pink and golden-orange ribbon, I reached the summit at Stella's Point (5732 metres) on the crater's rim. I was the last one to arrive; we had all made it! I just sat on the ground while emotion brought tears to my eyes. The rays of the sun reflected on the glaciers enhancing their beauty with sparkles of light and I could admire the elegant silhouette of Mount Meru (4565 metres), 50 kilometres away.

On Top of the World
After a short rest we began a lovely 45-minute promenade to Uhuru Peak, (5895 metres) past the Decken Glacier and Southern Ice Field. The air was thin and I had to stop often to rest and catch my breath. The night hike was taking its toll on me and I was overcome by tiredness. When we were two thirds of the way there, I told Elias: "I don't think I can make it all the way!" He replied with a firm, "Yes, you can!" I couldn't gather enough energy to argue so I continued until I stood at Uruhu Point, the highest peak in Africa.

Hikers were lying on the ground letting the sun warm their tired muscles and stressed joints. And after the classic photo, we started the downhill stroll past Stella's Point and then along a different route to Barafu camp. I looked down at the scree slope and the mirage of a toboggan appeared before me. It would have been fun -- and fast -- to hop on one and get down there. But no such luck! The mirage was reduced to my two feet which I used to ski down the dusty pebble surface.

After two and a half hours, I was back in my tent and I fell right to sleep. I woke up a couple of hours later to have lunch and begin the four-hour walk down the Mweka route to Mweka camp (3100 metres). It was like watching a film in reverse: rocks were progressively replaced by dark green and deep yellow ground cover. Then shrubs and short trees made their appearance.

I stopped to take a picture of large, red everlasting flowers. It was late afternoon and the forest remained quiet and still. The eerie silence was broken only by the reassuring chitchat of the guides walking behind me and the shrill cry of ubiquitous white-necked ravens.

I don't need to tell you that we slept very well that night. The next morning, our cook Panga brought us a breakfast treat of banana crèpes with honey before our final hike on Kili. We descended through a luscious rainforest of tall trees covered with hanging moss, the sight and scent of which relaxed and calmed my body and mind. On our way, we admired the delicate impatiens kilimanjari flowers, tiny yellow and red blooms whose petals gather at the back in a cute curl.

After three hours, we reached the Park's Mweka gate where our jeep was waiting for us. I turned my head slowly to look back, as if feeling the urge to return. Only weeks later, while I was flying out of Tanzania, did I fully experience a comforting sensation of contentment. I had enjoyed every step of this amazing hike, including the most demanding ones. The mountain had welcomed us, making our journey on its slopes a feast for the eyes, the mind and the soul.


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