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Rutland columnist Allan Grey describes journey up Kilimanjaro

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“Polé, polé”, our guide keeps repeating to us as we plod ever upward, stopping after every couple of steps to take at least half a dozen rasping breaths, writes Rutland columnist Allan Grey.

This is all that is physically possible in the increasingly oxygen depleted air, in the pitch dark, save the minimal light of a fading head torch, and heading for just shy of 20,000 feet above sea level. Polé polé, the Swahili for ‘proceed slowly’, has been drilled into us from just before midnight when we left a warm sleeping bag behind in the very basic wooden dormitory at Kibo Hut.

We have two key objectives, firstly to reach Gilman’s Point, 3,200 feet of unstable shale and scree above us by 6am, all in order to witness sunrise over Mount Kenya, and where we also hope to be able to see the curvature of the Earth.

Allan Grey at the top of Mount Everest
Allan Grey at the top of Mount Everest

My good friend Richard and I are on our first major trek, and on our way to the top of the tallest free standing mountain on the planet, the famous Kilimanjaro. Our second objective, a further 700ft higher, is of course the summit, Uhuru Peak, at 19,340 feet above sea level and where the effective oxygen level is less than half that at sea level. Of the seven official routes, we have chosen the Marangu, or Coca Cola route up Kilimanjaro, the quickest, and therefore the one that gives us the least time to acclimatise to the extreme altitude. It does however provide us with the relative comfort of wooden hut accommodation as opposed to the longer camping routes. The consequence of this decision is that we are at greater risk of succumbing to altitude sickness, and many that choose this route do not reach the summit, overtaken by gross fatigue at best, severe headaches, or worse still, HACE or HAPE, high altitude cerebral or pulmonary edema.

Some 35,000 people attempt to summit Kilimanjaro every year, sustaining a wide range of employment for this rural area of Tanzania. However, only two-thirds of those that set out are successful due to altitude sickness and other health problems, with an average of 10 deaths each year.

We are well prepared for this eventuality, or at least we think we are; we are fully stocked with the magic pills...Diamox, or Acetazolamide to give them their proper name. Without going too deeply into the mechanics of Diamox, it works by decreasing the build up of bodily fluids that cause the edema. The corollary of this of course is that it is also a powerful diuretic, meaning that the vast quantities of fluids that are needed to maintain the necessary hydration at high altitude, are going in one end, and straight out of the other. Not so bad during the day, with many pit stops necessary behind large rocks, but tucked up in a sleeping bag at night it means learning the art of using the wide neck plastic bottle in the dark, not only with great frequency, but also with great accuracy to avoid any unpleasant spillage.

The Diamox does its job, just, as we arrive at Gilman’s Point, completely wasted at 6.20am, after over seven hours of polé polé, and are treated to the magnificent sunrise promised. Having participated in many sports since my teenage years, these seven hours have been by far the most physically demanding when compared to anything that has gone before, and the sense of achievement on reaching the rim of the volcano that is Kilimanjaro is overwhelming.

The final 700ft to Uhuru Peak is relatively easy going by comparison, and utterly spectacular as we pass the receding glaciers on one side and the ash pit, or caldera of the volcano on the other. Sadly, since 1912 some 80 per cent of the ice cap has been lost, and it is estimated that there will be no ice remaining on the top of Kilimanjaro within the next 20 years.

At Gilman’s Point at 6.20am the temperature is somewhere between -15C and -20C, but in the very thin, dry air, the radiant warmth increases very quickly as the sun rises.

Eventually, at just after 8am we reach the famous summit, strip off a couple of layers down to matching rugby tops, ready for a photo that eventually features in the regular programme competition for the most unlikely place to see a Tigers shirt.

Soon it’s time to return along the rim of the volcano to Gilman’s Point, back to the top of the shale and sand scree, which we descend in a fraction of the time it took to ascend just a few hours before. We very quickly learn the art of scree running, ensuring our heels are firmly planted first, to achieve some level of control, but as much as we want ‘polè polè’, we get ‘zungu zungu’, Swahili for ‘rushing around’, careering down the scree totally out of control. The other pleasing thing we notice is that oxygen is quickly returning to the air, and breathing soon becomes much easier.

Our rapid ascent has taken us just five days, including a single rest day, uniquely passing through five ecological zones, first cultivation, then through forest, moorland, Alpine desert and finally Arctic summit climate zones; our descent is even quicker, just a day and a half, what on earth took us so long going up?

None of this would have been possible without Lamek and his trusty team of five porters plus our cook, allowing us to travel very lightly and remain fully sustained for the duration.

Once we’re safely back at the park entrance, nearly 13,000 feet below the summit, with time to draw breath, it dawns on us that we are part of the successful two thirds who summit Kilimanjaro, and that this trip has massively wetted our appetite for future adventure.

Planning for next year, the Himalayas, and the Annapurna Base Camp trek, takes place soon after we return home, watch this space.

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