There is no place more arresting, even heart-stopping, than Kilimanjaro
He looked exhausted, drained, absolutely whacked. Stretched flat on his back on the red desert rock which covers the saddle between the peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi on the Kilimanjaro massif, face covered from the cruel sun, he lay, perhaps asleep. And no wonder. At the altitude of 15,000 ft he had already reached, the effort for so heavy a man must have been stupendous. He looked all of 15 stone; quite an achievement. But then 31 December 1999 was a day for final achievements. It was early afternoon. No reason, I reflected, he might not rouse himself to make it to the top by sunrise the following day.
I said as much to his companion - a chap with a German accent standing nearby, in sunglasses. But the man seemed to have little enthusiasm for the climb. Or the crush. 'There are about 200 more coming up from the hut we slept in last night; the Rongoi route,' he said. 'And maybe as many waiting to climb from the Kibo hut.'
He spoke of the final ascent as though that might not be for him. We discussed routes and numbers as the rest of my party caught up, panting in the thin air. My sister and her Catalan husband, their family and I - six people - had spent two days in the company of three friends, Emily, Julian and Bernadette, walking round the northern side of the mountain. Having circled it, we were now about to rejoin the hundreds who had come straight up the southern slopes from the direction of Moshi in Tanzania. We had taken our diversion to acclimatise to the altitude, and because few ever try the and northern circuit. The dry side of this mountain is like the dark side of the moon.
We had been rewarded with spectacular views over the Kenyan plains, hours of walking across moonscapes of shattered, clinking rocks, picking our way through fields of obsidian, a beautiful black volcanic glass whose sharp edges (said Emily, who knew about anthropology) were prized in ancient times for their knife-like blades. Obsidian was hunted and carried away like treasure, she said, and, because various volcanoes spew molten obsidian of a composition peculiar to themselves, its distribution in different hands around the world has helped historians establish patterns of human movement.
Shortly after dawn that day we had come across elephant dung, several weeks old, at 14,000 ft, quite near the edge of the grassline. Kudu droppings were everywhere, and jackal at 15,000 ft. What drives animals so high, to a place where it is hard enough for humans to breathe? Were these rogue creatures, limping up to die - or do great deer, predated upon by big cats and dogs, graze regularly among the ice, heather-trees and giant groundsel? And always as we walked, that huge, silent, blinding, glistening, glacier-topped cap of the Kibo crater in the sky above us, to our right hand. Do animals, too, look up and wonder?
We had been on the mountain for five days, and most of us were feeling strong. Eleven-year-old Cristina, my sister's child, was doing fine, in a world of her own as usual. She had seen monkeys, as hoped, in the jungles below. Her older sister, Tammy, who is 16, was limping badly from an old injury where a horse once kicked her, and dreaming of her own horse, Unique, stabled at Queen Ethelburga's College in Yorkshire where she studies and rides. Rodger, her brother, had powered on ahead of us, 14 being an age when only two gear-stick positions are available: overdrive or park.
Their mother, Belinda, along with Emily and Bernadette, was confirming what women over 30 so often can: that their reserves are deeper, their trudge-capacity greater and their stamina more durable than flashier male performers can summon. Belinda's strong, fit husband, Joaquim, was to need real guts to get to the top in ten hours' time.
Julian felt sick that day but nothing could stop him. I was fine; a slight headache, that's all, but who doesn't when oxygen is scarce? It did not bother me, for I have loved this saddle in the sky between Kibo and Mawenzi since I was first there at 18: like a Martian desert commanded by two peaks; the evil, black, blasted crags of the lower, Mawenzi, a smashed fist raised at snow-smooth Kibo. The landscape has immense presence, an atmosphere as thick as the air is thin. I know no environment more arresting, but it is not a nice place: quite disturbing, really, but for me compulsive.
Anyway, we had only another few hundred feet to climb, though that would take a gasping hour or more. Kibo hut was almost within sight and there we could sleep until midnight, when the final ascent for the millennial dawn would begin. I felt exhilarated.
The German sounded downbeat, a bit flat. Julian and Emily were already there, and by now our other companions had almost reached us. Our African guide, Charles, was in noisy conversation, in the Kichagga language, with the German's guide.
'How many will there be at the top?' I asked the German.
'I believe the Tanzanian government and the national-park authorities were expecting four times as many. It's lucky they never materialised .....
'Yes. One does not want a party.' The fun seemed to have gone out of things for this man, but altitude often takes you like that and he did not seem to have much company in his companion. The conversation was coming to a natural end. I did not expect him to climb.
'Well, we'll be on our way. I guess you'll be resting longer. I hope your friend gets his strength back. He looks like he's dead!'
'Unfortunately he is.'
'Your friend has died?'
'No. It's all right.' 'When?'
'Now. He has just died. He fell down. His heart was stopped. It was immediate.'
And again: 'I'm sorry.... Can we help?' 'Help is coming. It is too late.' His guide had already sent on up to the next hut. Within minutes we would see a young white medic running down, a black porter pushing a wheelbarrow-trolley at a canter behind him. All this, which was pointless, was on its way. The German did not, I sensed, wish us to stay.
'Goodbye. I'm sorry.'
We walked on, leaving him still standing there, in sunglasses, his late companion, head covered, on the ground a few feet away. I never saw the eyes of either, of course.
Matthew Paris is parliamentary sketchwriter and a columnist of the Times.Copyright Spectator Jan 15, 2000