The highest baritone beneath the skies

The highest baritone beneath the skies


norman lebrecht

September 13, 2014

Part four of Gerald Finley’s assault on Mount Kilimanjaro:


Day 5

A strange and restless night – get up into the cold to traipse to the bucket tent, or

ignore the rumblings and try to sleep? The sleep needs wins. Eventually sleep is had

in the hour between light and Thomas’ “hello… how are you…? Did you sleep well?

Water for washing is here.” The filter of unconsciousness gives way to the

realization that today is THE DAY. I heard hard coughing in the night, as if to remind

that there are more vulnerable souls here among the hundreds. Breakfast is a big

carbohydrate event today – extra toast, and chapattis, along with the usual porridge

(millet) and fried eggs. I am very aware that my lack of sleep has been partly due to

the internal combination of the chicken cacciatore from last night’s supper. Not ideal

preparation for a long day ahead. We have a sense of how big a day it is. The walking

will be mechanical today and not too far thank goodness. The sun begins to warm

the tent and we open the flap of the tent. The HD clarity of the mountain and its

brilliant white and dark contrasts serves to clear the mind and the cool brisk air fills

the throat with a sterile pack of energy. The sooner we go, the sooner we can rest.

The deep blue above the snow and towering rock mass is vibrant and invigorating. I

plunge back into the tent to finish the packing. It is frustrating. Bits here and there,

choice of socks needing to stay out of dust and clean. Filex has told us that our walk

will be easier, a few hard scrambles will generate a few slower moments, but we will

be in camp not long before lunch, then a few hours of rest before dinner. Then sleep

until 23.00, when tea and biscuits will punctuate the moment we begin our climb.

He has mentioned to me that he thinks he will take another strong porter so that we

will have three helpers for three of us. That seems extravagant to me, but I say it is

up to him. My awareness of the challenge is focused only on my sense of

vulnerability and my slight concern for my heart rate. It seems to be strong – the

beating firm and steady. I am encouraged that after rest, the body seems ready to

plough on. In preparing the Camelbak water bag for drinking water, I pull the tube

out of the bag to enable it to go into my rucksack and the contents of the tube leak

all over the floor of the tent, and drain onto my sock. “Curses” – a wet sock with

everything else packed! I pull the tube out of the bag to enable it to go into my sack

and the contents of the tube leak all over the floor of the tent, and drain onto my

sock. “Curses” – a wet sock with everything else packed! I don’t hide my frustration

as things start to be grabbed out of my big bag, stuffed ready to close. Then a

realization that this is wasted energy, needed for later. Finally a bit calmer, bag is

closed. A very slow and frustrating start, when I know that getting to and setting up

at Barafu is important. I feel I am holding everyone and am very frustrated. Sticks

are extended, and finally I get out of the tent and say I am ready. Filex calmly turns

and begins to lead out of the camp, upwards of course, toward the ridge behind

camp. Below us, the blanket of cloud covers the lowlands, and the mountain looms

over us, with the sun in our faces, and a cool wind at our backs. Within 100 metres I

am hot; too hot for the fleece, so I strip down to my double layer of long sleeved

underwear. As I pack my fleece, the strap on the backpack snaps, and I have to take

another few minutes sorting out the flexi string so that it can hold my fleece. One of

those mornings. Once the rhythm of the trekking begins I am immediately happier.

“Pole, pole, eh, baba?” Yes, definitely, pole, pole!

The trek is very dusty. Thankfully, the wind is behind us. It is very cool, the radiant

sun very warm, a half cold, half warmed body is a bit confused. I pull the buff onto

my head, a sort of wind/sun break against my neck. My thoughts drift into areas of

Falstaff, and phrases tend to become repetitive with the rhythm of the walking, and

my tussle between wanting to leave the mind free and open, and the hope that my

memory is hanging on to the music results in a win for anxiety. The dust swirls, and

we plod on, over unstable flat rocks, occasionally on pumice-like boulders. The

surrounding landscape is barren of plant life, we comment on how moonlike it

seems, or a scene from Mordor. Onwards and upwards, the mountain seems to be

leaving us on our left hand, although we continue upwards across the scree. We

encounter “singing” rock, which rings out as our “tap, tap” of poles hits their surface,

like iron bars. The stream of porters, and banter between them and Filex is

incessant. The feeling is like a grand trade route with precious cargo being hauled to

its next market. Filex seems to know them all, and if not, it is clear by the laughter at

the end of the conversation that they won’t forget him. Little by little, the sun climbs

higher; our shadows shorten, and eventually, the mountain peak of Mawenzi

appears to our right, shrouded in clouds – Filex says, “not long to Barafu, then lunch,

then rest!” He times this well, because soon, we meet some people coming the

opposite way, those who have summited that morning, and who are heading down

the mountain to the lower camp. Barafu, at 4600 m, is certainly very high and

although we are not exhausted, it is time to stop soon. The camp appears behind a

ridge ahead, and it seems utter chaos, with hundreds and hundreds of people: tents

being put up, and tents coming down. We find our two tents and loo shelter at the

higher end. The ropes are secured by rocks of ironstone, which clink underfoot,

different to the crunch, crunch of previous camps. We gladly tumble into our tent,

and immediately get our sleeping quarters arranged. This is the highest camp, and

only one more night. We try to comprehend that within 24 hours, we will have been

to the top and back, and will be on our way down to our final camp. The mountain

time seems to have curiously vanished. After a quick lunch, I drift into semi-
consciousness, not really sleeping, and into a dream-like world full of dreams and

strange scenes. Excitement, thin air and “afternoon” napping not really allowing for

deep sleep. The sun through the fabric is still very hot and only by balancing my sun

hat over my head, with a bit of the tent flap open, is the balance of temperature

achieved. After a period of suspended time, the “knock-knock, flap-flap” of the tent

signals from Thomas that dinner is ready. It seems incredible to think of eating

again, but I am ready and so the boys also appear. Into the confined mess-tent again,

where a further carbo-rich platter is served with more fruit. We are not ravenous,

but we do eat most of what is there. Chapatti, rice, and chips! All excellent and

happily devoured. My cup of honey water is refilled twice, and we finish our

mouthfuls, anxious, in my case, to get on with the clothes preparation for the

evening. As we leave the meal tent, the sight of the rising moon over Mawenzi peak

stops us all in admiration. It becomes a magical scene with light of all hues

surrounding us. The sun starts to dip behind the looming peak in a half-sunset,

although still quite bright. And the coolness, stripped of radiant heat, immediately

pervades. The impending cold becomes reality – what will this chill become? Layers

may not keep it out! In final preparation, I lay out everything ready. It seems to take

ages. I look at the phone and consider whether to write a pre-summit text, then

decide it would be better to write the success now, and just press “send” when at the

top. Given my previous anxiety, I realise this could be a risky presupposition and

decide to word it as if it has been very difficult: “We have made it somehow, but all

is well”. At least, if I send it within 24 hours, it will cover all eventualities. I look at

the phone as I turn it off and it is already 8 pm – less sleep time than would be

preferred, but everything else is ready to go. The glow of the full moon means it is

not completely dark, but I wriggle half-layered into the warmth of the sleeping bag.

The drift into sleep is very slow, and eyes closed seems to heighten the nagging

anxiety of feeling tired, not quite warm, and a full bladder. But drifting happens.

The conversations in the camp begin to lull, then quiet, as if everyone knows that

silence and a bit of prayer is the best option. The semi-conscious awareness of

voices increases again and it seems that the wake-up call is not long in coming.

“Hello – it is time for tea now”, the gentle voice of Thomas invades the half-darkness.

I begin dressing. Each layer over the long underwear seems to get tighter and in the

confines of the tent, my heart and breathing rate increase. My heart begins to work

hard and a bit of sweat breaks out, along with a sense of frustration at the labour of

dressing. I really want tea, but the effort of getting boots on begins to overwhelm

me, so I leave the laces half-done. Only one pair of socks because the boots are

warm, and I like the room to wiggle my toes as in skates and ski boots. I haul myself

to the tea tent and decide on honey water, and stuff four biscuits.

My rucksack seems big, but is clearly heavy with water solutions. I decide to wear

all my layers because the air is very cold and breath is freely seen in the headtorch

light. My mood is determined now, but I feel very wrapped up with friction between

every later of clothing. Pulling on the gaiters and finally gloves within mitts

seems very arduous. I am aware that my waterproof trousers being restrictive in

movement as the outer layer seems to be hampering my leg action. The crotch is too

low for lifting the leg over small rocks. I will have to deal with it – a suggestion of

removing the outer layer is rejected. But suddenly, the awareness of light all around,

in support of the piercing beams from headtorches, makes me look up and see a

brilliant moon, and the Hunter Orion in the sky. This immediately raises my spirits

and I say a bit too loudly, “Let’s get on with this!” when actually my heart is full of

peace and joy.

We begin to set off, more slowly than ever, with Filex in the lead, and me behind

him. “Pole, pole”. We say how cold it is, and early on, the chill is already in the

fingers. I adjust my sticks lower, to keep my hands low, and suck on the water tube.

Already the water is very cold. My walking is hindered over small upward steps

by the waterproofs, and quite soon, the effort and the heat seem to build to hard

hindrance – the heart is beating, the breathing is very deep and the heat is rising

centrally, but the arms are being chilled; altogether I am feeling very uncomfortable.

I find, maybe due to contact lenses, that the headtorch does not help the definition

of the ground, and I turn it off. The moonlight is sufficient for depth perception and

seeing where Filex puts his feet. It is slow – parts of Falstaff begin to circle in my

head, phrases repeating with the slow steps, from different parts of the opera. But

the chill invades and the wind on the back of my neck is annoying. Balaclava back

on, hoodie up. Filex brings out the tea and energy tablets, both welcome! Adjust

trousers and plod on, hands now very cold; walking now very difficult on sliding

granules and shifting stones. We seem to be zigzagging every ten paces. Pole, pole.

“Ok, baba?” Feeling very steadily worse. Another tea stop. Need to rest, watch folk

go by, not looking at faces, just at feet. Begin again, foot upon foot, step upon step

and another step. Tablet. Try to suck water; frozen…Blow back into tube. Breath

vanishes, suddenly gasping, heaving for desperate satisfaction; stop; Filex says,

“Pack off –Johnson will take”. Off my back, lightness and energy suddenly. But feet

not quite steady – overbalancing, corners not quite secure, little higher steps need

thinking, then two attempts. Filex says something. Two hands on my hips from

behind, steering me! Holding me on each step, but firmly moving me ahead. Not sure

what is going on, losing sense of location; we stop. My head swirls and I sit down.

Walking better than stopping. Keep going. Going. Hands firm, guiding, poles finding

great weight on them, slow effortful rhythm. Pole, pole. Pole, pole…

“Hey, baba” Hmm? “Look up there.” Filex points up the slope. A trail of people stops

about 100m above. What? “That is Stella Point.” How long? “Ten minutes, baba!”

A surge of energy, disbelief, wonderment. We are going to make it! Personal sense

of urgency; limbs respond, arms, legs, feet. Balaclava frozen around mouth. And

the light around is brighter. “Sun will be up in 20 minutes,” says Filex. It seems

incredible – we are nearly there. Still the hands gripping my hips, assuring my

forward motion and restraining the toppling over. The sticks slam into the dust

and gravel. And then suddenly, we are there. Ground levels off, the troop of people

begins to disperse as wobbly bodies search for places to sit down. The grand vista

opens out – the sky is perceptibly light and the bed of clouds is silvered from below

along the horizon. The Stella Point sign is there, but we immediately head to a rock,

where I am steadied and eased onto. Johnson is in full vision, his Tanzanian hat

silhouetted by the increasing light from behind. “Ok, baba, you can rest now…” My

heart is full and the moment overwhelms me. I blub. “Don’t cry, baba, you have

made it! Don’t cry.” Asante sana, sana! Steve and Dan also sit, legs akimbo on the

ground, facing the ever-brightening sunrise. Filex offers tea, warm and lovely

sweetness, and another tablet. “Ok, we will continue, yes, baba?” Light, energy and

drunken joy surge through me. We stand, and after steadying with poles, we start

again, heading away from the intensifying light, blue, red and orange hues on the

cliffs of snow that we see ahead. But each step is very difficult. No hands to guide,

just determined stick plants and equally determined steps. This time alone!

“How are you, baba?” “Mzuka!!” but I stagger to one side briefly, before planting

sticks firmly. My feet don’t quite go where my mind wants, and the poles become

lifelines – slower, steadier. Pole, pole, pole, pole, unending plodding, breathing ice-
air in the intensifying brilliance of light. The cliffs suddenly gain amber, and behind

us, the sun breaks over the clouds below. The light is intense even with sunglasses.

Thankfully, we are walking away from the incandescence. Pole. Pole. “OK, baba?”

Yes, but very tired. “Not long now.” And awareness dawns that we are within sight.

The black soil and the white snow on the surrounding expanse give way to the

wooden structure, now illuminated by the whitening light from behind. It is there,

and we make our every step in that direction. Within ten metres, there are rocks.

“Here, baba, sit.” I place myself to turn and sit, and the world whirls away. Hands

grab me but I am on the ground, at least not bruised, just resting. My balaclava is

tugged off and the cold air hits my face and plunges into my lungs. Better; cold,

but energized. My head clears a bit. The noise from the wooden structure becomes

tangible – people clamouring to have photos, small shouts of glee and triumph, but

mostly organization for photographs. Somehow, focus and energy become part of

me. Photo time, must have shirt.




“Ok, time to go now,” says Filex. Curiously revived, now the radiant low sun

is warming me up, giving renewed impetus. Bear hugs then photos with boys,

celebrating in front of snow cliffs, glacier. I search and ask for the “ash pit”. “It is

here, but we won’t stop,” says Filex. I think it is ok not to demand more – it is a

miracle that I am here at all. But a photo at Stella Point, please, with Johnson and

Thomas, if we can. We trudge back into the light – I cannot look up, it is too bright.

We are on top of the world for now, the immense dome of charcoal grey giving

way to blue shade in the increasing brightness. Clouds far below – “How far can

we see?” asks Steve. Hundreds of miles probably. Oh dear, lack of concentration

and a big wobble brings Johnson to my side – “Ok, baba?” Poa, just. Every step is

thoughtful and effortful. Dust rising in the gravel – buff ready around mouth. We are

going down. Really down. My knees can feel it and each feels the weight –just of me-
Johnson has my pack. There is Stella Point. We place our things by the first rest rock.

Camera out – not too crowded – total group shot. Now – Dan, please, take video,

with me and guides. We line up, I sing: “Verachtet mir die Meister nicht, und ehrt

mir Ihre Kunst!” Do not disparage the Masters, but honour their Art! It seems right

to sing, to honour the guides who have skillfully brought us up. We could not have

done it without them. They are baffled at the singing; others look at us but no-one

comments. At the top, all behavior is forgiven; each is only there by determination

and grit, celebration in all forms permitted. “Ok, baba, we must go.”

We leave and head down over the bank, onto the sliding gravel, seeing the endless

line of climbers continuing to arrive at the top. The sun is warm, the air still cold

and dusty. We take big steps as the gravel gives way under each step. My sticks are

thrust into braking mode, and immediately, I am grateful for the tape around my

knees. Each step carries the relief and weight of burden of body and soul. It is very

hard going. Johnson has grasped my left arm and locked it in an embrace with his

right arm as if we are a couple on a red carpet, sliding down the dusty gravel. Clouds

of dust from others become our breathing space. I am giddy, my balance faltering

with every other step. My big strides allow me to think how small our steps up

must have been. Pole, pole, indeed. Rhythm adjustments every step, down, down,

ow, down. Scree, dust, rocks, gravel, dust, hot sun, dust. On and on. Finally a site to

stop. The water in my silver bottle has a frozen ring around the top but it is good to

drink cold, cold. Consciousness returning but definitely not equilibrium. I want to

shake Johnson off, but in the few moments he lets go, I am a tossing ship, looking

for handholds that the sticks cannot quite handle. Hard, juddering, clouds of dust,

sliding, slipping, ow, wrists now hurting, on and on. Filex keeps us going. I want to

think that the camp is just over that next mound, but onwards we plunge.

My heart is beating strongly, victoriously almost, but each lungful of air is like

London traffic smog. It begins to flatten out, and the downward vista is now

more horizontal, the clouds below defining the scene. A stumble here and there,

Johnson holds me steady. Down through the view of the “Kosovo” camp and a long

flattish trail ahead offers no reassurance. Where is Barafu? Finally, the round huts

and tented features appear, but from a high vantage point. Down gingerly and

protectively, slower than I would like. Just to sit and rest and stop. It is more like

hobbling as we enter the top of the camp. It is ideal that our tents are at this end,

I can make them out and they are beautiful to see. As we reach them, the sun is

warm and the light is brilliant. Legs, limbs and body stay upright. I can’t seem to

consider sitting. Then a porter called Peter appears out of the meal tent with one

of the chairs and places it on the stones, making sure it is steady. The feeling of

letting go, relaxing into the chair seems to let all the energy drain away. Then I am

aware that Peter is untying one of my boots, then easing it off, and he finds a flat

rock to rest my foot upon. I want to hug him, but he does not notice my emotion and

proceeds to take off the sock, which feels amazing. Then the other boot and sock.

I am overwhelmed, like at Stella Point. Peter then goes and finds my bottle of cold

water, which he hands over with a smile. “Ok, now?” oh yes, yes, asante sana, asante

sana! Filex appears and says I have about an hour and a half to rest, then lunch. My

spirit is very revived and calm. He then says we should make it to Mweka Camp,

since we will have about 5 hours to reach it. “No problem” I say whatever he thinks.

5 hours does not seem like too much, considering we have just come down the same

distance in about 3 hours, it should be easier. He nods, “Now rest, baba – you made

it to the top!” Asante sana, Filex. “Karibu, baba!” My God, we actually did it.

Waking from sleep, which was just one long opera dream, was a bit of a relief.

We got ourselves into the meal tent where we agreed the next bit would be hard

since all our knees were hurting. Lunch was perfunctory: some fruit and bread.

“Better food at Mweka,” said Filex, where there were supposedly fresh supplies. “A

traditional Chagga stew of green bananas.” We all felt better, concentration back,

limbs a little sore, but ready for the next stage. We packed as best we could, and

changing socks was a blissful process. Same familiar and easier routine- everything

for the summit now packed, everything else was not much – just water and a few

bits. We needed all out strength for the dusty downward slope.

We set off, and the scamper of porters began again, along with hasty trekkers.

Initially, ironstone pieces, small everlastings and then into heathland. I just couldn’t

quite believe we were starting at 4600 metres, and would finish at 3100 metres.

The slow pace of previous days was abandoned now as both health and camping

situation depended on getting down quickly. We trod through scattered rocks, then

dusty heathland, eventually encountering almost a dry stream or riverbed, with

rocks and boulders to scramble over. Downwards we hauled ourselves, treating

ourselves to unused sweets and biscuits. It was the reward journey, but hard going.

Eventually down through high forest, winding dry streams. Each step was more

difficult as thighs and knees joined with ankles in the protests from joints


muscles. The last part of the journey down to Mweka was on a slightly improved

path. Stories of rescues and other adventures gave us distraction as we descended

further into the lush forest and the hubbub and singing of the Kilimanjaro song

through the trees guided us into our very wooded, damp and cozy campsite, as

the light of the day fell. Our bodies ached, the mind was clear but drained, and our

appetite was enormous. The Chagga stew of green bananas and rice was scraped

out of the bowl, and watermelon and mango crowned the meal. Our sleeping

arrangements allowed the boys to share the tent, as Dan said he found me bulk and

snoring a little constricting! And so, finally, to bed.