“Kilimanjaro is a walk in the park,” they said. “My aunt did it and she’s really old,” they said. What they don’t say is that ten hikers a year will die trying to climb to the top of ice-crusted Uhuru Peak, standing shy of six kilometres above the African plains. Altitude Sickness? Isn’t that something that happens to the ‘other guy’? It was at 4,600m that we realised my friend Mark was the ‘other guy’.
He had shown signs of it all day: blurred vision, slurred speech, and pounding headaches. We reached the forbidding shark’s tooth formation known as Lava Tower Rock and it hit him hard. He couldn’t stand, let alone walk. His breaths came fast and shallow. When he coughed up blood, I didn’t care that our climb was over, it was now about survival.
But survival at that altitude, and at night, and in that state, isn’t always a phone call away. Our guides said it would take too long for a helicopter to reach us. We needed to get him down the mountain, fast. It’s a funny thing, altitude. A drop of five hundred metres would be enough to save his life. Make it down a thousand and we might even see a smile on his face.
Dusk fell as I paid two porters to break off from the main trek and take us down a knife-edged ridge. We slipped and fell as much as we walked, dragging Mark between us. Darkness closed in. We were still too high on the mountain, my friend was critically ill, and we had no choice but to continue. He had to get to a lower altitude.
The extreme cold played havoc with our torch batteries and spares had been left with the main party. The darkness and perilous terrain forced us to stop sometime around midnight. We set up make shift tents and then I kept a bleary-eyed vigil over my semi-conscious friend through the night, checking his vitals, dutifully taking notes, unsure what else to do.
When the first rays of sun touched the mountain, Mark was awake and making a rapid recovery. The drop in altitude was all it had taken. A porter called us from the tent. Stepping out into the sunshine, we were greeted with magnificent views across the savannah below.
We sat on the top of a mighty cliff as he passed us a plate of rice and chicken. It was the simplest of meals but at that moment, in that place, we felt like kings.