Mount Kilimanjaro

Metamorphosis

2001-11-02

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  • Massai Steppe - Tanzania - Africa
  • 5,895 m / 19,340 ft
  • S 3o 05’ W 37o 21’
  • Expedition length: 6 days
  • Summit: November 2, 2001

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Among the many sporting activities in which I have taken part and, in numerous cases, excelled at both the national and international levels, mountaineering has gained me plenty of positive attention. Nevertheless, my main sport, cycling, has brought me more, and it was actually thanks to a 2001 mountain bike stage-race in Kenya that I climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and got to know – and fall in love with – the high mountain.

Now, if you’re puzzled, let me explain.

After trying nearly every sport imaginable, I discovered cycling relatively late and became enamoured with it during the mid-1980s. I am inextricably drawn towards the bicycle – which the French refer to as La Petite Reine (‘The Little Queen’) – and I also like the fact that, although biking can be physically and mentally torturous, it isn’t hard on the body like other sports in which your feet pound the ground and wear the joints. Cycling involves very uid movements, so it doesn’t do any damage – unless there’s a collision or fall. Unfortunately, that is precisely what happened when I competed in the 2000 Kenya International Sport Safari bike race and dislocated my collarbone during the fth and penultimate stage. At that point, I was in the lead, with more than 11 minutes on my nearest opponent.

Following surgery back in Beirut, I lay in my hospital room at l’Hôtel Dieu de France, looked out of the window towards a place not far from my home, and contemplated where I should go from here. At the age of 38, I knew that, with my best years behind me and many of my aspirations still unachieved, there was no way I could revert to a routine daily existence – work, rest and grow fat – just because of a mishap. I needed more from life. I had always thrived on pushing myself and rising to the challenge, whatever that might be, and in this moment of introspection I had no doubt that I must adhere to my beliefs and pursue my dreams. The alternative would have been futility, and I couldn’t settle for that simply because I happened to have been born and raised in a war-torn country where the government had, understandably, more important concerns than taking care of a local talent, sporting or otherwise.

When I am presented with the opportu- nity to try something new and exciting that fuels my imagination and ignites my love for adventure, I nd it virtually impossible to resist.

Had I grown up somewhere else, then I may well have become a professional athlete. In Lebanon, I had been number one in not only bike riding, but also tennis, squash, skiing and water skiing. What’s more, I had captained rugby teams in England, rep- resented Greece at the Rosslyn Park World Seven- a-Side rugby tournament, rowed for the London School of Economics and even played sports like ice hockey, cricket and lacrosse. Having subsequently been denied the chance to challenge others and myself at the uppermost level on the international stage, I still had the re within me to train hard and compete as if I were trying to qualify for the next Olympics. Surely, a dislocated collarbone wouldn’t preclude this.

I therefore decided to complete my rehab, resume training and, in October 2001, return to Kenya for some un nished business at that annual mountain bike stage-race. The result was a victory among a global eld of close to 90 competitors, illustrating how, when I suffer a setback, I bounce back more de- termined than ever. And when I am presented with the opportunity to try something new and exciting that fuels my imagination and ignites my love for adventure, I nd it virtually impossible to resist. So, it’s hardly surprising that, after being informed by the race organizer, Pierrick Ethouin, that he was leading an expedition to Africa’s highest peak in neighbouring Tanzania, I didn’t hesitate to accept his invitation to count me in.

Having done a great deal of skiing and a fair amount of rock climbing, I was familiar with Lebanon’s tallest mountains, including The Barouk (1,928 metres), Mount Sannine (2,650 metres), Mount Hermon (2,814 metres) and Qurnat as Sawda (3,088 metres). Furthermore, in September 2001, after attending a bike fair in Cologne, Germany, and then travelling to Geneva, Switzerland, I had driven to Chamonix in France and climbed Mont Blanc, which at 4,810 metres is the highest point in the Alps. (It was while having a hot drink just below the Nid d’Aigle refuge, during my descent from the summit on September 11, that I learned from a passing climber about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Finding this hard to believe, I turned to Toni Clarasso, my Mont Blanc guide, and asserted that the man must either be drunk or suffering from severe altitude sickness).

Beforehand, when an assistant at the Chamonix Guides’ Association of ce had asked me if I had any experience of using crampons, I had lied and told her that I’d used them on Kilimanjaro. What I – and presumably she – didn’t know, was that crampons are rarely required on Kili. Yet I was about to nd this out, because with the Kenyan bike race on my upcoming schedule, climbing nearby Kilimanjaro must have been in the back of my mind.

Training and then racing for nearly a week on the 2,000-metre high Kenyan plateau partially prepared me for Kili’s loftier altitude. And when I discovered that hiking there requires tness and determination rather than any real technical skill, I knew I was amply quali ed. It would be far easier than Mont Blanc, where I had learned to use not only crampons but also an ice-axe (which Tony had initially instructed me to transfer from my lower hand to my upper hand before almost short-roping me up and down the mountain). The one thing I wasn’t aware of was that Kilimanjaro is one of the Seven Summits, and this was for a very good reason: I had never even heard of them.

Located in the northeast region of Tanzania, which is home to some of the oldest human fossils on Earth, Kilimanjaro is a stratovolcano made up of multiple layers of hardened lava and volcanic ash. Its summit, Uhuru Peak, lies atop Kibo – one of Kili’s three dormant volcanoes, alongside Mawensi and Shira – and was to be reached on this expedition via the Marangu Route (also known as the ‘Coca- Cola Route’ due to its touristy nature). This is the shortest, easiest and most popular of the six trails that converge at a path circling the Kibo cone. Known as either the Northern Circuit or Southern Circuit, depending on which side of the mountain you are on, it is from here that everyone heads to the peak of the craggy colossus whose name is often translated as ‘Mountain of Greatness’. A trek to the top takes in ve different climatic zones: a

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.