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A Hundred Ways to Die on Kilimanjaro

A Hundred Ways to Die on Kilimanjaro

THE SKY began to darken with the sun somewhere behind the clouds. It was now time for us to go for our briefing, to meet our tour leader. The others hadn’t been on an Intrepid tour before, but I had a very good idea of how the briefing would go – or at least until now I thought I did.

There was a room hidden under an archway that had the sign “Briefing Room” outside of it. We entered, being the first there. A few other people shuffled in and sat in the row behind us. We all quickly introduced ourselves.

In the front of the room were a couple of maps and pictures of the mountain. I suddenly felt quite nervous. Although knowing that this was going to be an easier climb than Kinabalu or the Inca Trail, so I had been told, this one was going to go to much higher altitudes.

There was one thing missing though. No leader. Every other trek briefing I had been to, the leader had shown up early to get us settled. Not this time.

Desmond finally came into the room. He was one of the owners of the hotel, and not a tour leader as such. He was aged perhaps in his mid sixties and was far too overweight to be considered a trek leader. He quickly started the briefing with us introducing ourselves.

There were nine of us in the room. He said there were two groups. A group of eight were with my group, and a group of two was going with another group. A young Jewish honeymooning couple on the end, Levi and Rachel, were in their own group. The rest of us were in the other group, but there was one missing. Mark piped up and said there were supposed to be three in his family. There was himself, his son and his daughter. His daughter had pulled out of the tour right at the last moment before boarding the plane out of Toronto. She didn’t think she would be able to do it.

Desmond running the briefing
Desmond running the briefing

With that said we were all now accounted for, Desmond introduced himself. He had moved to Tanzania about thirty years ago with his brother, buying the hotel. He has lived here ever since. The hotel has been one of the main bases for people travelling from all around the world in preparation for climbing the mountain.

Desmond has obviously done many briefings over the years. He spoke with great gusto and expansive gesticulations. He said he was now too old to climb, but he has been up the mountain several times in his early years.

He pointed to us on the map where we will be going. On the first day we will be climbing up through the cloud forest to Mandara, the first hut just below the bush line. This is a relatively short walk. The second day will be going through subalpine scrub up a thousand metres to Horombo, the second hut. This hut is quite a bit bigger as it accommodates people going both ways. The third day will take us up another thousand metres to our base camp at Kibo hut. We will be taking a scenic route though, on the upper route towards Mawenzi Peak. It is a much more attractive route and is known locally as the Marangu Hotel Route, as it seems only people who have stayed here at this hotel ever hike to Kibo that way.

The third night will be spent at the base camp at Kibo, where we will get an early night and get up about an hour before midnight to climb the scree slope up to the crater at a place called Gillman’s Point. Once there, it will be another two hours walking around the crater rim to the summit.

It all sounded so easy watching Desmond going through it on the map. That was until he started outlining the one hundred and one ways we could die on the mountain.

The most serious of these was altitude sickness. He asked us if we had Diamox. Everyone else did, but I had the natural Gingko Biloba. That will be an interesting test to see which would work best. We were going to be at high altitude for four days. Last time I had been at altitude was in Peru where I had been constantly at high altitude for about three weeks without taking anything at all for altitude sickness.

Desmond mentioned the side effects of taking Diamox. The first side effect is any fizzy drink would taste absolutely dreadful. That explained why Gary had complained about his coke tasting like shit at lunch time. One thing interesting about Desmond mentioning that was the informal name for the Marangu route is the Coca Cola trail, named because you can actually buy Coca Cola at the different huts along the track. I couldn’t imagine anyone taking Diamox wanting to buy it.

He said that one in fifty people suffer from serious altitude sickness. Everyone gets some degree of altitude sickness, but some people develop severe symptoms. He mentioned the symptoms like getting fluid on the brain causing very severe headache and vomiting and disorientation. My stomach started to feel queasy just hearing this.

My doctor had mentioned these symptoms a few weeks ago when I was doing my medical check-ups in preparation for this trip, but she hadn’t mentioned it in such graphic detail as Desmond was telling us. Obviously she only had an academic knowledge of the condition. I’m sure Desmond had seen many real live cases.

He said the only cure for severe hypoxia was rapid descent. Now I don’t believe in rapid descent, but that was the cure. People have been close to death from severe altitude sickness, but were suddenly cured as they descended. Now often they want to turn around and give the mountain another try, but in most cases that would be fatal. They have to continue heading downhill as fast as possible to recover.

Desmond mentioned that most cases of severe altitude sickness happen on the third day going between Horombo and Kibo base camp. Some cases happen close to the summit though, including one lady he knew of who had to turn back just two hundred metres from the top. I imagined having to do so would be torture.

I had heard a story a couple of years ago that a Japanese lady had paid her guides a lot of money and told them to photograph her at the top no matter what happened. She passed out on the crater rim and her guides had carried her up the rest of the way, photographed her unconscious at the summit, and then carried her back to Kibo. That was insane.

One way to minimise the symptoms of altitude sickness was to drink plenty of water – at least three litres per day. That was crazy. I have never drunken that much before. Three litres per day I thought would be enough to drown us.

Desmond mentioned that a three litre camelback would be ideal. That is what I had. But then he said that in the final ascent it will get so cold that the water will freeze inside the tube, so we will have to carry another bottle of water inside our clothing. That would explain the old lady who checked my gear insisting on giving me a small water bottle to wear inside my clothing.

Another symptom of altitude sickness is a lack of appetite. Desmond mentioned that before we do the final climb from Kibo, we should only have a very light snack. There is a story that one of the earlier climbers had written in his journal that on the final ascent, you get up during the night, you eat breakfast, you throw it up, and then you start the climb. No thanks!

Then Desmond told us about our crews. The larger group which I was in had a head guide, two assistant guides, a chef and ten porters. The other group had six guides and porters. He suggested how much we should tip them at the end. The amounts seemed pretty reasonable. Levi and Rachel didn’t have to tip as much per porter as their group was a lot smaller. He told us not to help them out with cooking or any of the other duties. We were paying them to do this.

Our group was going to take five days, but the smaller group will take six days, with an extra day of acclimatisation at Horombo half way up the mountain. Taking the extra day actually increases the chances of reaching the summit by a large margin. Desmond mentioned that we had about a seventy percent chance of reaching Gilman’s Point, and a fifty percent chance of reaching the summit. Those were pretty high odds, but the groups that leave this hotel seem to have a much better chance of success than those staying in hotels in Moshe. I found that quite scary – statistically I only had a fifty percent chance of reaching the top having travelled half way around the world. That was a bit low for my liking.

With that in mind he said the best thing for minimising the chances of onset of altitude sickness was to walk slowly. He said our guides will be deliberately taking us uphill very slowly to assist with our acclimatisation. He told us to ignore the signs saying how long it takes to do each section of the track. The times are too fast, and we need to go a lot slower, otherwise we will not acclimatise and therefore not reach the top.

He said the people most likely to die are the young and the very athletic. Older people had a higher chance of reaching the top than young people, perhaps due to their willpower. I recalled Sapinggi from Borneo telling us that the successful achievement of a mountain was ten percent physical, ninety percent mental. The same applied here. The mentally strong will conquer the mountain. Those with great physical stature are the ones in danger here. Perhaps Desmond was saying that because he looked very unfit and overweight.

I mentioned that I was turning forty at the summit, and wondered if people often did things to celebrate at the top. I wasn’t going to have any birthday cake or candles, but just wanted to celebrate turning forty at the summit. He mentioned that many couples proposed marriage, and did other major life milestone things upon reaching the top. That was really interesting. He wished me well.

Then he announced the briefing was over. Now that was strange. He had clearly indicated he wasn’t coming up the mountain with us, and we hadn’t met any of our guides or tour leader. We were still on our own, with instructions to meet everyone outside the reception at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. Hopefully they will be there. Typical Africa…


With the briefing over, he led us through his rather bare office towards the dining hall where we all had a large table for us. I didn’t initially have a big appetite at all after the stomach churning briefing, but once the menu came out, I was starving.

To my left was Vicky, who was from Brisbane – there were four of us from there now! She was a doctor. Fantastic – we’re all going to be in good hands now. I had travelled around Borneo with a vet and a nurse, and this time around we had a doctor. Excellent. I wondered if Vicky knew about the three hundred metres per day rule that my doctor had told me about.

To my right were Levi and Rachel, the young couple from New York. He was a recently graduated lawyer and she was a teacher. They were on their honeymoon spending six months travelling the world. This was one of their first destinations having come from Zanzibar relaxing by the sea. Now they were going to conquer the mountain having only booked the trip a couple of days ago. I wondered if they had a clue what they were in for. To make matters worse, they revealed they were vegetarian. Gosh. I thought all mountain climbers were meat eaters. Well they had the opportunity now to convince me wrong.

Ashley directly opposite me was also a teacher from New York, and in her bubbly fashion she hit it off with Rachel straight away.

Actually we all hit it off really well, which was a great sign. We will all be hiking together for five days in very challenging conditions, so to be getting on very well so quickly in the piece was a very good thing.

During dinner one very fit woman walked into the room. She had climbed the mountain with a few others and had spent last night sleeping in the crater near the summit. She had climbed the summit at sunrise this morning and had hiked the entire forty six kilometres out during the day, having just arrived back. She looked amazingly fit.

Once our dinner banquet was finished, we all headed off to bed, knowing that it would be the last comfortable sleep we would get before returning off the mountain in five days time.

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13 August 2011


Mount Kilimanjaro



1100m ASL


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