Scottish Charity Number: SCO36069

20th September 2005

The Roof of Africa – In Hazels Footprints Kilimanjaro Expedition 4th – 9th July 2005

Home | News | The Roof of Africa – In Hazels Footprints Kilimanjaro Expedition 4th – 9th July 2005

Kilimanjaor Expedition Report, written by Bill Scott Aiton

On Monday 4th July 2005, 25 rather nervous and apprehensive people stood around at the Machame Route gate waiting while our chief guide Abel organised all the 52 porters, 4 guides, 6 assistant guides, 2 cooks and 4 assistant cooks into some semblance of order, making sure that they all had their fair share of the incredibly heavy and awkward loads which make up the logistics and supplies for almost 100 people on the mountain for six days.

Kneeling from left: Joan Scott Aiton, Tabs Becker-Kahn, James Hayhurst, Col Flynn, Katie Scott Aiton, Anna Smales, John Widdowson, Iain Smales.
Middle row: Victoria Watt, Annie Finch, Elly Warwick, Peter Scott Aiton, Georgie Brewer.
Back row: Alex de Trafford, Chris Plews, Ben Newman, Pete Moore, Will Bonas, David Watt, Matt Bell, Tom Harris, Ed Widdowson, David Mortimer and Ben Russill.

Assembling the Kili team

It crossed my mind, and I’m quite sure many of the others too, how on earth we had let ourselves sign up for the expedition so many months earlier when we sat around one night deciding on fundraising ideas for the newly formed Hazels Footprints Trust and some bright spark piped up with why don’t we climb Kilimanjaro like Hazel did and we will literally be following in her footprints? 

Over the next few months, many victims – sorry volunteers – came forward, some with connections with Hazel from school, university, etc who wanted to do the climb for strong emotional reasons and others who just wanted a stiff personal challenge, which at the same time would raise money for a charity they were interested in.  There were several different groups of four or five who knew each other well and usually knew some of the others a little. A strong memory of the trip for me will be how well everyone got on and inter-mingled. Even with the stresses on the hill, I never heard a wrong word or argument.

Onwards from Machame Gate

The Machame route we had chosen is a camping route and goes up the left hand (west) side of Kilimanjaro, looking from the Tanzanian side, for two days. It then crosses right-handed across the face just below the summit mass. A final night-time assault leads to hopefully reach Uhuru Point (19,400 feet) on the top shortly after sun-rise on the fifth day. The following day, is a direct descent to Mweka Gate by mid-day.

So, 25 chirpy souls set off from Machame Gate (1,800 metres) up the mountain through a tropical rainforest scenario. Thank goodness there was no rain that day!! We were flanked by huge trees reaching away up into the sky on all sides of us on a good path, which those who had been there in 2003 with Hazel marvelled at, since they had had to slip and slide and slither through deep mud all the first day.  Due to the improved conditions underfoot,  we reached the first camp at 3,000 metres a good 1½ hours earlier than they had two years previously.

The guide August, aged 55, set the pace at the front at a very slow amble. Any faster than that and you risk burning yourself out completely.  As we climbed higher it was noticeable how much more stunted the vegetation was becoming and we could begin to see a bit more than just trees on every side.

First night at Machame Camp

Machame Camp was memorable for introducing the group to the joys of the infamous Kilimanjaro long-drop loos which are dotted around all the camp-sites and consist of a square wooden box with a hole cut out the floor and a very deep and smelly hole below and a couple of planks for foot-rests!!!  An acquired but necessary taste!!!  The ones higher up the mountain where there is no soil are perched on top of rocks and it has been known for people to visit them at night and turn left instead of right on exiting them in their stupor with disastrous results!!

Our first night under canvass passed relatively peacefully.  However, a sharp frost greeted us the following morning to remind us of where we were headed. After a hearty breakfast in the large mess-tent, and a ritualistic filling of the water bottles, we headed on upwards through scrub-land.

The trials of Kilimanjaro mountain sickness

Background headaches and sickness were starting to creep in and no more so than with myself. By lunchtime the sight of Joan’s piled-high plate of food was too much for me and I was the first to succumb to mountain sickness behind the rocks.  I know we were following in Hazel’s footprints, but there was no need for my body to mimic her early problems quite so accurately!!  However, this was Africa and nothing goes to waste and so within a couple of minutes the ravens had arrived and what a feast they had!!!  The problem with mountain sickness is that you feel so, so lethargic and just can’t be bothered to do anything, never mind eat or carry on drinking water.  However, Joan managed to coax me gradually over that evening and night into carrying on drinking hot water and by the next morning I was beginning to brighten up a little and even managed to keep down a piece of toast!!!

Meanwhile, largely unnoticed by me, we had camped at Shira Camp (3,840 metres). We found ourselves on an open plateau with wonderful views to the west over the Shira Mountains with a view the other way up to the massive summit top. Kilimanjaro looked very close due to the sheer scale of the mountain, but was probably still about 20 kilometres away at that point. Throughout the night Leonce, Abel’s cousin, had climbed up to join us having just taken two clients to the top. This allowed Abel to drop back down and organise the Durham DUCK climb who were starting out four days after us.

Marioland trees & Breakfast Wall

The next morning’s long trek was probably the most boring part of the climb scenery-wise and the endless hours up the plateau were spent playing word games which passed up and down the plodding line and did at least keep the brain active!!  By lunchtime, with the Lava Tower in view, and at a height of 4,300 metres several members were feeling the effects of altitude strongly. None more so than Annie Finch, who had not been right since camp that morning.

We had the option of carrying on up and around the Lava Tower just below the huge face of the Western Approach to the summit or dropping down immediately to Barranco Camp at 3,950 metres. So, the group split in two depending on how fit everyone felt.  The descent to camp was down a beautiful valley filled with what Hazel called Marioland trees (named after the Nintendo computer game character) in her account of Kilimanjaro which is so vividly portrayed in her journal book A Gap in the Life which (as you ought to know by now!) is on sale from the Trust.

Barranco Camp is set in a very imposing valley with the summit towering over you on one side and the impossibly steep-looking Breakfast Wall which has to be climbed the next day looming over you from the other side.

Once we were down at camp most people recovered appreciably and there were only one or two absentees from supper (a fact which really upsets the attentive mess-boys who serve the meals and they make sure that there is at least a thermos of hot water available in the tent of those affected so they can hopefully re-hydrate). Annie’s condition was giving cause for concern however as she was finding it very difficult to take any water without being immediately sick again. The result was she began to associate drinking with the latter in her mind. Mind you, the taste of the water treatment using iodine or chlorine doesn’t do much for palatability even when you’re feeling good!!!

Next morning the 1½ hour climb up the Breakfast Wall was not as daunting as it appeared from below, with a good track wending its way up through the rocks and plenty of good hand-holds to hang on by and provided us with a bit of variation from the eternal trudging with our poles which we had done for the previous three days.  A highlight of this part of the climb was seeing the heavily laden porters scurry up past us like mountain goats, making us feel very inadequate as we slowly wheezed our way up!!

Heads in the clouds

We had been away up above cloud level ever since the first camp. In the late morning, the mist and cloud came swirling up the mountain and gave us a very damp and cold lunchtime halt just after the last water point on the mountain at a stream which is fed by the glaciers on the top of Kilimanjaro.  Annie and Victoria Watt had struggled on gamely all morning but didn’t get into lunch until very late and feeling very weak. So it was agreed that, with only a faint hope of being able to launch a summit bid in their condition, they should cut down to a lower camp and recover there and we would meet them there the following evening.  By 5 o’clock the rest of us had made it to Barafu Camp at 4,600 metres which is perched on top of a ridge at the base of the summit cone of Kilimanjaro. In the swirling mist and drizzle it is not the most exciting place on the planet after 9 hours of walking.

We had a quick bite of supper for those of us who could manage it and headed into our sleeping bags for a couple of hours of rest before being woken up by the mess boys at 11 o’clock to prepare for a midnight start on the last leg of the assault.

Final ascent of Kili

What on earth had given me the right to presume that at 53 and with two Birmingham Hip Replacements I could expect to conquer the huge darkened shape which loomed above us?  But, by now, I was fully mended and can honestly say the further up the mountain we had come the better I felt. Later on that night I almost began to feel guilty that things were going so well for me. Everyone else began to feel fairly severe altitude effects, particularly on this last summit bid.

We looked a sorry collection as we stood around waiting to set off and in fact Ben/Dave Russill couldn’t even get out of the tent as his legs wouldn’t work at all. Perhaps he’d been carrying too much weight in water the day before. Or perhaps it was also hi yomping up a steeper bit in an effort to catch the rest of us up having spent the morning selflessly helping Annie and Victoria.  Of the rest, Peter and Katie Scott Aiton were in fairly bad shape, but wanted to give it a go and most people had a headache.  Team spirit came to the fore very soon with the fitter ones egging on those who were struggling as well as coping with their own deteriorating condition. 

It was an eerie scene with the night sky full of the clinking of everyone’s poles on the rocks. When you dared to look up, there was a sinking realisation that the line of twinkling lights you could see away up in the sky were not star constellations, but climbers’ head torches several hours ahead of you. 

Altitute sickness and difficult decisions

Katie Scott Aiton eventually had to turn back after a couple of hours. Soon afterwards Tabs Becker-Kahn went sick having pushed a bit too hard catching the rest of us up after trying to help Katie.  She struggled on to halfway up the cone, giving her best and was joined by Col Flynn who was getting chest pains having started the climb with a heavy cold. Tabs prudently decided she should also drop back down to camp.  Every time we stopped for a rest people were falling asleep even on their feet and I remember thinking at one stage we would be lucky to get a handful of us to the top at the rate we were going. However everyone was digging deep within themselves mentally as well as physically.

As the sky began to lighten, the leading group reached Stella Point on the crater rim, followed half an hour later by our Old Harrovians, Will Bonas and Alex de Trafford who, although suffering greatly, just kept plugging away until they had made it.  Last up, but probably the greatest achievement was Peter who in spite of being sick at least a dozen times and being told it was maybe time to pack it in and descend by both his parents, ignored them and finally made the rim to a great roar and cheer from all the others gathered there.

Tough at the top

The guide books all describe the rest of the climb as a fairly gentle walk of about ¾ hour to the summit at Uhuru Peak (5,895 metres). But I can assure you there are many in our group who thought it was the hardest and longest ¾ hour they have ever done!!  The effects of being at that altitude were really kicking in and showing themselves in many different guises. This included David Watts, polite as ever, “‘m terribly sorry but I’m going to be sick!”; Edward Widdowson thinking the rocks had turned green and walking into them without even putting his hands out to save himself; and another member (name withheld to keep mother ignorant!!) wandering trance-like towards a big drop only to be grabbed and steered away from it by an ever-vigilant Leonce.

At the summit, we took a quick group photo and decided we had better get the walking wounded off the top as soon as possible. So we descended, some with the help of a guide’s arm, back down to Stella Point. There, we had a small, but very moving ceremony and scattered some of Hazel’s ashes into the crater while David Watt said a few kind words. We would like to thank Ben Newman for carrying them up so much of the mountain.

The descent

Everyone recovered quickly as we lost height. The fitter ones were able to enjoy some great scree running back down to camp. Others were continually falling asleep and had to be woken up several times and put on their feet again. However, everyone made it back down to camp by about midday to some very welcome eggy bread, hot drinks and an hour’s sleep, before we were on the go again for a further three hours to Mweka Camp down in the Tropical rainforest belt. God, was it muddy!!!! 

Those of you who are still with us and of a mathematical bent will realise that we had done quite a few hours walking over the last couple of days namely 25 hours. So I’m afraid small matters such as being in a mud bath were of little consequence to the majority of us!!!  It was great to meet up with Annie and Victoria again and find them fully recovered. My relief as organiser was immense – we had got so many of us to the top and more to the point got everyone safely down to a low level again.  Even Katie was fully restored by now having had to accept a carry from the guides due to her legs being so shaky only to repay him by bowking up down his back!!! 

The great thing about the group was there was no feeling of we got up, or we didn’t get up the mountain as altitude sickness is indiscriminate in who it attacks. You are either lucky or unlucky and those who were affected badly probably put far more into trying to fight their way through it than some of the others who cruised to the top relatively unscathed, but obviously have less to show for all their suffering.

Return to Moshi

We walked the following morning for three hours to Mweka Gate only to find the buses couldn’t make it up the muddy road to us. So we had an extra 4 kms to walk after all that. Overall we had walked 52kms up the mountain and 27 kms down again making 69kms in total.  The sheer scale is difficult to comprehend. Kilimanjaro has its own ecosystem and is usually covered in cloud from ground level. In fact, in the 2½ weeks we were there we never got a clear view of it which was maybe just as well!!!!

A couple of Kilimanjaro beers were too much for our mascot after his epic climb!!!  He is to be auctioned off at the dinner/auction on October 28th so keep your eyes open for the pledge catalogue on the web site in early October.

To us the Keys Hotel in Moshi had become a lot more luxurious since we had last been in it or so it seemed after 6 days on the mountain living in tents.

A huge tally and heartfelt thanks

At our Moshi hotel, amongst mutters of  “never, never again”,  we had a quick total up from everyone. We reckoned the group had raised over £50,000 (although it will be some time before the final sponsorship monies are gathered in) for Hazels Footprints Trust which is an incredible total.

A huge thank you to all those who came and made it such an unforgettable experience and we would like to thank Abel, Leonce, all our guides, cooks and porters and the people of Marangu and Tanzania for making us so welcome. 

Whilst out there we met up with Katy and Dilly Allen of the Village Education Project (Kilimanjaro) and the HFT trustees have decided to make their first award under the Trust’s third aim and send £600 to help with purchasing textbooks in the five schools that their project covers. Our idea is that this is a small thank you for the children, who gave Hazel so much pleasure when she was out there. If I may quote directly from A Gap in the Life:-

“Along the way we adopted three kids who came all the way with us.   One was so cute and jumped down the path holding my hand & laughing I’ve missed being around such loving eager kids more than I thought!”……….” We met a girl whos working out here teaching she made me so jealous yet I felt bad for all that when I’m having an awesome time just made me remember the feeling you get from teaching a kid something.”

Written by Bill Scott Aiton

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