Mountains of calm

Think of a mountain. Think of a mountain that stands on its own. Think of a mountain that stands on its own and can be seen for miles all around. Chances are you’re thinking of Kilimanjaro, the highest free standing mountain in the world, with its snow capped, flat looking summit and perhaps elephant or giraffe on the savannah below. I don’t know whether it’s that image, or the fact that I spent the first four years of my life not too far away in the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon (properly called the Ruwenzori), but when my friend Andy and I were talking about doing something significant to mark turning 40, there was only one possible choice for me. We had to climb Kilimanjaro, one of the Seven Summits (to be frank, probably the only one I’ll ever climb).

I’m sure that if you’re interested, you’ll find plenty of accounts of the climb, of the vegetation and landscape: this isn’t one of them. To cut a long story short, I failed to summit when I went with Andy, due to altitude sickness: I went back three years later and was probably the last tourist to reach the summit on the day (my cousin Chris had been to the summit and was on his way back down when I got there).

What I found fascinating was that when Andy got back down, he said “never again”; Chris came home and signed up to go to Everest Base Camp (after that trip he said it would be a long time before he went high altitude trekking again); and me? A month after I got home it was announced that my work were looking for people who wanted to climb Kili (I’ve been told you can only use the abbreviated term if you’ve been to the summit) the following year, for charity. I was sorely tempted, and would still love to go back.

The mountain is huge. Once up out of the savannah, rainforest and moorland (on my trips that took the best part of a couple of days), you leave most of the vegetation behind and arrive on a moonscape. Black volcanic rock and dust everywhere, with lighter coloured well worn paths crossing the landscape, and giant lobelia, mosses and lichen for company. And this is the bit I still remember most, which permeates my thoughts and dreams. Walking around the main summit cone of Kibo for several days as part of acclimatisation. Walking up and down the valleys which run down the sides, some of which are dry, some have a little water – that’s when it hits you.

You are tiny compared to the bulk of the mountain. You are flesh and blood, it is rock. It’s been here for thousands of years, you will be on earth (comparatively speaking) for hardly any time at all. I hesitate to use the word spiritual, but the realisation of how insignificant I was in terms of size and presence was a revelation, and brought about a massive feeling of respect, awe, and humility. It also brought a huge rush of calmness, of acceptance, of peace.

And yet, humans are doing untold damage to the mountain, its glaciers, its animals and its vegetation. And there’s a real conundrum at play too. The local people rely on tourism to provide money and jobs, and in order to get there the tourists tend to fly. But the glaciers on the summit have shrunk, which means the streams lower down have less water, which makes life for those who live around the foot of the mountain much more difficult, which means they need to rely more on jobs from tourism related businesses. And the cycle continues.

A final point. Would I go again? Yes! And again? Yes! If only to recapture that feeling of my true place in the grand scheme of Mother Nature i.e. a mere speck on the surface of our planet, but I’d like to find a way of doing it which didn’t contribute to the damage being done.

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