muggy rainforest that starts at about 2,000 metres; a heath at around 2,700 metres; grassy moorland at 3,200 metres; an alpine desert at 4,500 metres; and the frigid, glacier-inhabited arctic region at around 5,500 metres.
My rst sight of Mount Kilimanjaro was from the Lake Challa lodge where I stayed before commenc- ing the trek, and without a doubt it was impres- sive. For one thing, unlike many other mountains, Kili isn’t surrounded by additional high masses of rock. It stands alone. And for another, there’s some- thing awe-inspiring about how it rises majestically through the clouds and is ice-capped in a relatively hot location.
Starting at the Marangu Gate, the climb took three-and-a-half days, with the last of the climatic zones being negotiated by way of the saddle , a 5 ki- lometre-wide semi-desert that separates the peaks of Mawenzi and Kibo. From there, it was an hour’s walk to the Kibo Hut high camp at 4,730 metres, where we made an early start on summit day, as- cending a steep scree slope to Gillman’s Point (5,681 metres). This is on the crater rim, and after continu- ing around the rim for a couple of hours I was one of just four to actually reach Uhuru Peak that day, along with Joseph our guide, another guide and an elite runner. Like me, Stéphane had just won the Sa- fari Sportif International du Kenya – the running counterpart to the bike race.
At the outset, we had been advised to climb as slowly and steadily as possible, in order to conserve our energy for the nal push towards the summit. Certainly, the bike race had enhanced my tness and helped me get accustomed to extending the physical boundaries at a higher altitude. However, no amount of preparation for a mountain can
compare to actually acclimatizing on its slopes – or at least trying to. It was while climbing Kili that I rst saw a few individuals succumb to ‘acute mountain sickness’. I had heard about AMS and the dire consequences of ignoring it, but watching some victims being transported back down towards Base Camp on special wheel-equipped stretchers certainly served as a wake-up call. This was a serious business and, two days later, near the top of the mountain, I would kneel before a cross marking the burial site of someone who had died en route, and say a little prayer both for the dead climber, as well as for myself.
Assisted by the local porters who carried our backpacks and food supplies, my teammates and I proceededcautiously,withtheextremely tStéphane taking this to ridiculous lengths by moving almost in slow-motion. Pierrick, meanwhile, kept asserting, “Le Kili, c’est magique,” meaning ‘Kili is magical’. And it is, featuring stunning sunsets in addition to vegetation that I have never seen anywhere else, including heather that grows over ten metres high and strange-looking plants that somehow survive the hot days and freezing cold nights. For me, it was like stepping into another world.
As we ascended the mountain and encountered people making their way back down, the look of exhaustion on their faces was a telltale sign that they’d reached either Kili’s summit or the limit of their own abilities. Regardless, many of them imparted information, including a British guy who commented, “This is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” Turning to one of my colleagues, I asked, “How does he know what we’ve done before? What if we’ve already climbed Everest or K2?”
It was all about staying focussed on the main goal while paying attention to my body, the landscape, the elements and the task at hand.
Of course, I hadn’t, yet it was clear to me that, with the requisite willpower, it wouldn’t be impossible to reach the top of Kilimanjaro. The terrain isn’t icy, dangerous or technically challenging, and the deaths that do occur there are often due to people taking the test too lightly. I didn’t. Since I was t and strong, with many years of sports training and competition behind me, I was con dent that, barring an injury, the only thing that could prevent me from reaching the summit was my brain, and I wasn’t about to let that happen. It was all about staying focussed on the main goal while paying attention to my body, the landscape, the elements and the task at hand.
On the eve of the nal summit push, while our seven-person team tried to grab some sleep at the Kibo Hut, the weather took a turn for the worse and there was, quite unexpectedly, a heavy snowstorm. Having dozed with ice cold feet in my cheap, light blue, Boy Scout sleeping bag, I woke up to loud thunder and strong winds a few hours later, feeling warm and ready to continue my pursuit of the summit. However, when it was time to commence the nal ascent, some of my teammates felt otherwise. I had already seen a couple of guys suffering from mountain sickness, puking violently outside the Hut, and on summit day, due to the adverse weather conditions, Stéphane was the only one of my colleagues who wanted to keep going. The rest had decided that enough was enough.
Despite experiencing shortness of breath, I still felt capable of setting personal altitude records with every step. So, together with my guide, Joseph, as well as Stéphane and the other guide, I set off on the last part of the journey during the early morning hours of November 2, 2001. We arrived at our snow-covered destination at precisely 5:02 am, just before the sun appeared over the mountain. Not that this was facilitated by my forgetting to bring water and having to share some with Joseph, or by the abundant fresh snow forcing us to break trail – something that is rarely done on Kili, where it is usually dry all the way to the top. Still, there was no one ahead of us, and so we were the rst ones to reach the summit on that particular day. In fact, we managed this so swiftly that it was still pitch dark, so we had to wait for the sunrise, in order for Joseph to take a photo of me looking towards Mawenzi.
Following my victory in the bike race, summiting Kilimanjaro lled me with great pride. Others hadn’t made it, some had not lived to do so, I was very, very thankful while also reminding myself that I still had to make my way back down. As it happens, whereas mountain descents are often more dangerous than the climbs, with accidents and fatalities occurring due to exhaustion or over- con dence, descending Kili isn’t all that dif cult. By the afternoon of the following day, as rain fell and the snow on the summit melted away, my colleagues and I were once more at Base Camp.
From the foot of the mountain, we had to drive along dirt roads that, due to the rain, had been turned into mud. Trucks – including the one that I was sitting in the back of – couldn’t cope, and pretty soon everything had come to a standstill. It was complete chaos. My ight from Mombasa to Cairo was scheduled to take off within six hours, and I knew that, should I miss it, the next one wouldn’t be until a week later. I was desperate. Then, out of the blue, a man appeared in a Land Rover, driving skilfully past the stranded cars and trucks. When he stepped out to check the depth of a large puddle I told him I was anxious to get home and see my family.
“Have you got any luggage?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” I replied, “I certainly do. I have a big Globetrotter suitcase and I’ve also got a bicycle inside its box.”
“Throw them in the back,” he said, pointing towards the back of his Defender 90. I immediately accepted the offer.
The man’s name was Damian; he was a Brit living in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, and I soon learned that he had a passion for skydiving. Back on the ground, he evidently knew how to handle a car, slamming through the rain-soaked mud as I sat between him and a local man, both chewing on some sort of grass that they had wedged between the dashboard and the windscreen, while the small Land Rover jerked violently up and down. The windscreen wipers worked overtime to clear the dirt-spattered glass and the journey was pure mayhem, but I loved every minute of it, and somehow Damian delivered me to Mombasa’s Moi International Airport right on time. It was nothing short of a miracle.
“Damian, how can I pay you back for this?” I asked with all sincerity.
“Pay someone else,” came his reply as he stood by the car door. Then he climbed back in and drove away.
That was a huge lesson – when you do a good deed you don’t have to expect anything in return. If most people adopted this attitude, the world would be a far better place, and I only wish I could now locate Damian to somehow thank him for what he did and what he taught me.
You are not competing against any- one or anything, and this includes the mountain, which is far bigger than any of us. Instead, you are competing against yourself.
Unaware of the Seven Summits, I hadn’t climbed Kilimanjaro as part of any overall plan. However, doing so had certainly helped me discover some very important things. One of them was that, when you reach a mountain’s highest point and can go no further, there are no ifs or buts. You’ve made it, and that provides you with a wonderful sense of achieve- ment. Another was that, although I had been used to competing against others between a start line and a nish line, on the mountain it is never a race. You are not competing against anyone or anything, and this includes the mountain, which is far bigger than any of us. Instead, you are competing against your- self, and on Kili this helped me realize that I had far more potential than I’d ever been aware of.
A short time later, I came across the book Seven Summits by Dick Bass, Frank Wells and Rick Ridge- way, and that’s when the idea embedded itself in my mind. Having made it to the top of Kili, which I’d never imagined I could do, why not try to climb the highest mountains on all the other continents? That would be an amazing, multi-faceted adven- ture. And it would also help me prove to myself that I could have made it anywhere, had I been given the chance.