The largest group recorded in history to climb Mount Kilimanjaro assembled at the Machame Gate entrance to the mountain on the 29th January 2013. Paraglider pilots, tandem passengers, a medical team, a safety team, film crews, photographers and mountaineers made 100 people. The other 450 plus were porters and guides.
I stood amongst the mass of people, the immense piles of luggage and took in the apparently organised chaos that surrounded me. It was finally time; Wings of Kilimanjaro, a project three years in the making, that aimed to see a huge group of people attempt to climb and then fly from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro – in the process raising $1 million for charities on the ground in Tanzania – was about to begin!
Organised into sub groups of ten teams of ten our coloured caps matched those of the porters who would be climbing with us and slowly but surely we began trekking through the rain forest and towards our first camp. It was an easy day, just a few hours hike to 3000m.
I was excited to get going but equally, if not more excited to begin to get to know and meet some of the incredible people who were part of the team. Kari Castle, (legend) trotted past with an umbrella when the heavens opened and the huge rain drops fell. Very generously Kari gave me one of her spare umbrellas (she’d brought three in town the day before!).
I also had the pleasure of hiking some way with Babu Sunuwar, who told me how after flying from Everest as part of his Summit to Sea expedition, things got tricky when he and Lakpa were kidnapped, held hostage and robbed during their Kayak to the Indian Ocean! The hike to Camp 1 seemed very tame all of a sudden!
Despite the rain it was a good day – cloud cover kept the sun off us and the temperature remained perfect for hiking. Arriving at Camp 1 to the vast sea of yellow tents just centimetres apart from each other brought home to me the size of the group that was now moving slowly up Kilimanjaro. Our bags arrived, a delicious meal was served and as I put my ear plugs in I wondered if I’d actually get any sleep.
Day 2 began with the realisation I’d slept through my alarm! After a filling breakfast of tea, toast, porridge and eggs the team began moving once more and soon we were back on the now steeper trail heading up. We had our first glimpse of the landing field and you could feel the general buzz and excitement knowing that in just a few days time we might all be in the air heading towards it. We arrived at Camp 2 to Mike Kung who was ground handling his paraglider up a rock – easily the most impressive ground handling I’ve ever witnessed! The porters, who were just as impressed and mesmerised decided to sing and dance to celebrate the occasion. The sound of their singing and vibrations through the ground from their dancing feet gave the same feeling you get when you are at a music concert. It was electric and we were buzzing.
The rain through the night hadn’t stopped by morning and day 3 had a wet start. A few people weren’t feeling too well and Colin Downer, who I was hiking with looked grey…he rapidly deteriorated and it became apparent todays short easy hike to Camp 4 wasn’t going to be so easy after all. Several people became ill and the doctors prepared for the the fact that a sickness bug was amongst the team and could well be upon us all if we weren’t very careful. It was on this particular day that I think everyone realised just how blessed we were to have three incredible doctors on the trip. Dr Matt, Dr Luke and other Dr Matt were capable, caring and very, very good at what they did. I’ve certainly never been on an expedition before with such a great medical team. We reached camp early afternoon, and in search of phone signal I went for a hike upwards and was pretty pleased when I snapped this picture with my iPhone of Adrian Leppard who was looking for a quiet spot to do some yoga.
Lots of hand washing, drugs and electrolyte drinks seemed to stem the spreading sickness and people were a lot better by morning. Day 4 was a long one, with an optional acclimatisation hike up to Arrow Glacier (the height of Mt Blanc) before heading to our camp below, at 4000m. It would be the first taste of going downhill on this trip, often a forgotten part of training for mountains and people really felt the 1000m decent – particularly in the knees. For a few reasons this camp was a favourite for me; there was an ice cold stream that I washed my hair in, I randomly bumped into Samuli, an old friend who was guiding another group and who I haven’t seen for years, we had a very clear night and the stars were amazing. To finish it off I spent time with AJ who had packed in her luggage some extraordinary items including; the biggest tube of hand cream you’ve ever seen, a huge bottle of spa massage oil, a white pair of Ugg boots, a white down jacket and some very impressive striped leggings – AJ was definitely glamping!
Day 5 saw us leave camp following an up and down trail until we finally reached our camp at the same height as we started that day. With plenty of space in camp, I decided this would be the ideal place to test my Handy Hammock out. It was easy to put up – thank you Darren! and provided the perfect resting place to view both Kili and the valley below.
Silliness reined supreme in the evening and we possibly kept a few people awake with general fun and games. I had no idea that setting a camera on a long exposure in the dark whilst writing something with a torch could be so entertaining…sorry to all those who were trying to sleep!
The next day – Day 6, things stepped up a gear and we were en route to high camp. So far mild altitude sickness had only hit a few but as we reached 4,800m lots more of us were starting to feel the effect of it.
The sunset over Meru Peak from this camp was up there with the best I’d ever seen. An early night followed as tomorrow would be summit day.
Things on Day 7 began a little differently – there seemed to be disharmony amongst the porters and something was going on, most of us were unaware what. The group started for the summit early, the intention was to all be at the top around midday for a group photo. Stocked up with water and chocolate I contently headed up the mountain. As you can imagine with a huge group moving at different paces some people reached the top much sooner than others. Out of the 100 people in our group I believe 99 of us made the very top. The largest single group to climb the peak with an almost 100% summit success. This was a wonderful milestone. A summit on a mountain should never be presumed – I was proud to stand amongst the Wings of Kilimanjaro team for this great achievement.
Dropping down just 100m below to crater camp, our base for the next few nights, it became apparent what the mornings disharmony had been about. A large number of porters and guides had left the expedition and gone down due to a misunderstanding about transporting more water up the mountain. This loss of porters meant things in Crater Camp would be little different and food and water would be in short supply. It was now that things became more complicated.
Tired from the summit I headed to my tent. I had some water left over and a few snacks. News spread round the camp that supplies would be with us before the day was out; new porters had been arranged to bring food and water up to our camp with a drop from a helicopter as a back up plan. It was now early evening, the clouds rolled in and it became obvious the re supply was unlikely tonight, I was ok and I drifted off to sleep. Early the next morning I learnt some people had waited in the dining tent and there had been some food and water, others though, as I had, just went to their tents and had very little or nothing.
My concern at this point was people at altitude; tired, with little or no food and dehydrated. The porters who were due to arrive with supplies had apparently been turned back by the porters heading down – they informed the new guys the expedition was over and we would be heading down also! The heli drop had been called off as a result of the wether. It was apparent that everything possible was being attempted to resolve the situation we were in, the issue was, despite best intensions things weren’t happening.
Some breakfast and a little water from melted snow appeared in the dining tent. Not everyone was aware of this and a few people began Day 8 with nothing. The group hiked up the short distance to Stella point, our designated take off area. Cloud cover and high winds meant it was pretty clear that no one would be taking off. Concerned about the conditions at Crater Camp, bad weather and feeling unwell made it the obvious choice for a number of the group to head back down. The doctors also sent down people who were suffering with AMS. Porters were arranged to join those descending. I guessed about 30 people left the mountain. The rest of us returned to Crater Camp, where snow was being melted and remaining food was being prepared. Not at any point did we have no food and no water. The issue was things changed. From being served three course meals with plenty of water in a highly efficient and organised manner there was now limited food coming out of the kitchen tent in huge pans, to one central dining tent with no seats. It was cramped, people had to make best use of cups, plates and bowls, share utensils and take smaller portions. The water was not bottled, it was cold and needed treating.
Things were not as comfortable as they had been, however things were ok.
From the moment we reached crater camp my thinking process was a simple. Was I ok? Could I get down the mountain on foot feeling like this? Was I able to help and support my team mates and porters, at the least recognise if they were in trouble or needed help? Being honest on a mountain is one of the most important things you can do. To realise when it’s time to go down can be the difference between living or not.
Later in the day, porters started to leave the camp. Quick reactions from the organisers, who realised it was because they were concerned they wouldn’t be paid meant reassurance was given and that afternoon the remaining porters sang and danced and united by our struggles in camp the mood shifted. We returned to Stella point, however there was no flying to be had. Another evening in Crater Camp, no re supply came but we did eat and we had water. People were becoming anxious. In these situations I think it’s vitally important to act according to the reality of the situation and not the hope that things will work out.
Day 9… I was up before 5am collecting water bottles from tents for refills with the doctors and trying to ensure everyone had something. I felt that resources were on the edge and if a window to fly didn’t happen this morning, I would most likely head down the mountain on foot. We headed to Stella point. The weather looked bad, it was really the huge lenticular clouds that made my decision easy – I would not be flying.
The next few minutes were tough. Any mountaineer who has to turn back from a summit or any paraglider pilot who has to make the choice not to fly, especially when you are so close to your goal; one that you’ve spent months even years preparing for, when you are not only financially commentated, but mentally an emotionally committed too will know this is a difficult call to make.
We had the option to stay one more night, the plan was always that we would have three days to use as a weather window to fly. This was only day two. Perhaps the weather would change? Probably I could do another night in crater camp? I was going in circles in my head.
Then we heard the helicopter, it took some time and clearly a lot of skill but we got a water and snickers bar drop! There wasn’t loads but there was enough for everyone to have something. People and porters were using the drop as fuel for their journey down.
I couldn’t escape the thought things didn’t feel right. Despite best efforts to restore order in Crater Camp things were not happening and resources were stretched. The weather too wasn’t playing ball. It was time to go down.
Most of the team made the same call. The doctors and the safety team too. Just a handful of pilots remained on the mountain, at their own risk. They made the choice to camp lower and return high the following day to attempt to fly.
I had the pleasure of walking/running down! Mt Kilimanjaro with Mike Kung.
We made the gate in good time and waited for the others who were coming down. United by our summit success and struggles at the top there was a good feeling amongst the team. Everyone was ok.
The next day we received news that the remining pilots, except Babu Sunuwar were heading down on foot. It was not flyable and Babu was reported to be staying another night.
Just hours later I heard the words, “Babu has landed!”
Everyone was safely off the mountain and Wings had flown!
Of course lots of people had a lot to say about the events that had unfolded. That evening we heard from Babu in the team debrief. He talked about taking off in 70mph, high rotary winds and crashing to the ground several times before he successfully flew out from the mountain into thick cloud which he then navigated through using glimpses of the sun and eventually found the landing field. He had taken off with an African Guide who had never flown before.
Under these circumstances, I, along with most other pilots would have made the choice not to fly.
As a Wings of Kilimanjaro team member, as a mountaineer and a paraglider pilot, as someone who embraces adventure and takes risks myself, I accept that risk is relative to who you are and it’s up to the individual to take responsibility for his or her own actions. I also respect the choices made by others. In these situation you are within a team but always making your own choices. I can not express enough how strongly I feel that we must take responsibility for our own self and our actions.
I think there will be a variety of conflicting accounts of what happened on the mountain. For sure we all have our own version of events… and very likely different experiences.
In summary and just for the record here’s what I think.
Adrian and Paula McRae, with incredible vision, hard work, determination and enthusiasm dedicated the past three years of their lives to an event that saw the largest group of people ever summit Mt kilimanjaro successfully. One amazing man, Babu Sunuwar, and his African guide, flew from the summit. The project raised a huge amount of money for charities on the ground in Tanzania and is already making a much needed difference. I am proud to have been a part of Wings of Kilimanjaro and have been delighted, impressed and inspired by the people I’ve met along the way.
If nothing great was attempted, nothing great would be achieved. Thank goodness for people like Adrian and Paula…. and all the Wokkers!