CLIMB: Failure still haunts me

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I refer to the article in the September 18 issue of the Guardian about David Wilkinson’s Kilimanjaro climb.

I am always interested in reports of people undertaking charity climbs of Mount Kilimanjaro as I undertook an attempt to climb the mountain in July 1967.

My father was seconded from the Royal Air Force to the Kenya Air Force from 1965 to 1967 as an instructor and our family lived in Nairobi.

Among the many adventures we undertook during our stay, in July 1967 I and three friends from a neighbouring missionary school decided to climb Kilimanjaro.

The recognised climbing routes nowadays originate on the southern slopes of the mountain in Tanzania but we drove to Loitokitok on the northern slopes in Kenya. Parking our little Renault R4 car in a forestry plantation, we put on our haversacks and started up the mountain following little-used forest tracks and trails.

The first day was spent moving through the natural rain forest and moorland zones and at night we made camp in a crack in a rocky cliff face. The second day saw us reach the “Saddle” (the valley between the snow covered crater peak of Kibo and the volcanic lava “plug” peak of Mawenzi) and then up the 45 degree scree slope below Kibo until we arrived at Gilman’s Hut at 15,000 feet.

The dawn of the third day saw the four of us set out early to ascend the last 3,000-plus feet to the summit of Kibo. Within 100 yards of my starting up the steep slope I realised I was in physical trouble. For every step forward, it took five minutes for me to recover from the exertion and so I told my friends to continue without me.

Returning to the hut, I knew that altitude sickness had struck me down. As a 16-year-old, active in many school sports and already living at an altitude of 6,000 feet in Nairobi, I thought that I was fit enough to undertake the climb but the mountain proved me wrong. In subsequent conversations , I found that altitude sickness affects people on a random basis. That is why you will read of pensioners with artificial hips making it to the summit whilst others fall by the wayside. The number 19,340 ( the height of Kilimanjaro) haunts me to this day as my failure.

I wish David and his brother every success in their attempt on the mountain next month.

Bruce H Hayes