Climb every mountain? A recorder player's impressions of Mount Kilimanjaro

Climb every mountain? A recorder player's impressions of Mount Kilimanjaro

Earlier this year, recorder player and baroque oboist Elspeth Robertson set off to climb the giant stratovolcano that is Mount Kilimanjaro, in order to fundraise for Muscular Dystrophy UK. Breathing is pretty important for most people, wind instrument players especially - so how did Ellie deal with the extreme altitude? We're thrilled to publish some of her thoughts on the challenge and what she took away from it, much of which is relevant to music making as well as mountain climbing...

Mount Kilimanjaro? 

Tallest Peak of Africa. 

A mighty 5,895M above sea-level.

The highest free-standing Mountain in the World. 

One of the Seven Summits. 

Formed a million years ago, constructed of three dormant volcanic cones.  

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So, now that we have the text book facts out of the way I can tell you a little of my experience when I set off to climb it earlier this autumn… 

When I had first thought of Kilimanjaro I had in my mind a hazy, glorious snapshot of paradise. A few elephants or giraffes meandering lazily in the foreground on bright sun-beaten planes and in the distance the mighty snow-topped peak itself standing in all its glory amid a swirl of magnanimous cloud. It was indeed an impressive first glimpse - as I opened a sleepy eye on the flight from from Doha to Tanzania after 17 hours of QuataAirways.

Why? I was climbing for Muscular Dystrophy - a condition that my brother has. I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money for a cure.

For the climb, I chose the 6-day Machame route. A tough route: allowing just four days to acclimatise to almost 6000 metres. Still, it was a challenge I had accepted and we started our trek fresh faced after a night under mosquito nets in Moshi, northern Tanzania, bearing ample sun cream and enthusiasm.

Day 1

We set off through the rainforest - incredible scenery with air dense and thick. After around 4 hours of trekking I had noticed a sharp pain in the back of my head, shortly followed by dizziness. With hindsight, altitude sickness had just begun… We reached camp that night at 3,000m after 6 hours of trekking.

Day 2

The following day saw a change in surroundings. As we ascended above the trees the vegetation became sparse, the trees replaced with heather. We reached 3840m.

Day 3

The heather succumbed to rocks. The jungle transformed gradually into what appeared to be the moon… Desolate and dusty we clambered on. Stopping for lunch at 4,600m the head pain and dizziness from the previous days was followed by intense pressure around the eyes - as if someone was tightening a metal helmet too close to your scalp. The only way forward was to breathe. Inhale for two steps. Exhale for two steps.

Day 4

The toughest day of all. We woke around 5am and faced the first of many challenges - the Barranco Wall. It was a hard climb - using four points of contact and very slow movements. After 8 hours of continuous trekking we reached Base Camp - 4,600 metres. Being fair-skinned and of Scottish descent I had managed to get myself a very sunburned nose but kept in good spirits. The last few hours before reaching camp felt like a blur of exhaustion. We slept for only four hours that night waking for the night ascent at 10pm. Pitch black darkness greeted us and at minus fifteen degrees we readied ourselves for the summit. On waking I had already started vomiting and was feeling terrible. However, with my determination firmly in place I set off with the others in the darkness. 

The picture that stays in my head most vividly from the ascent is that, although in utter darkness with only your head torch for light - gazing upwards there are tiny specks of other lights ahead of you very very high up. Every half hour or so I would look up again, hoping to have reached closer, but the lights stayed ahead - a reminder of how far we had to go. It felt like we had not moved an inch.

With each monotonous plod upwards my condition worsened. After two hours and forty minutes of the night ascent I found myself on the ground vomiting and shaking with exhaustion. I had reached my physical limit. This was the toughest mentally and physically exhausting challenge I had ever undergone. I then heard the words I had been dreading : “you have to go down.” I had made it to 5,000 metres. 

As I started my descent - and it is an incredible feeling - each 100 metres or so you go down you feel your body change. With the increased air pumping through my system I started to relax and enjoy my surroundings. A most impressive vast expanse of night sky covered with stars spread out before me. And, unlike the journey up, I was walking down into utter darkness with just a local guide by my side. No rush. All the time in the world. And all the air I wanted to breathe. 

Of course having prepared for this trip for months it is a big disappointment not to reach the top. However, after the initial emotions wear off you start to see the situation for what it really is. When we become so set on the end goal - winning, conquering - we lose sight of the enjoyment of the moment along the way. In the end you have to ask yourself - why is it important? To be able tell people that you “conquered Kilimanjaro?” Maybe, but a lesson far more worth learning is to conquer yourself. To simply accept what is beyond your control. 

Some people suffer from altitude sickness more than others. It has nothing to do with physical fitness or preparation. 

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My advice for anyone thinking of setting out on this climb would be to take a lot longer - 9 or 10 days - for a more comfortable acclimatisation. The local guides who are able to take you up are absolutely incredible. One of the highlights of the trip was getting to know them. I will not forget the famous words ‘pole, pole’ (slow, slow) or ‘hakuna matata’. Aside from cooking for us, preparing tents, carrying extremely heavy weights (and managing to run up the Mountain at lightening speed!) they were incredibly kind. We simply could not have done it without them. When the conditions are that tough the smallest act of kindness goes further than you can imagine.

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Elspeth Robertson is a freelance Baroque oboe and Recorder player based in London. Aside from teaching and performing she is an avid tea drinker, passionate horse rider and fond of a challenge. It's not too late to donate to her Kilimanjaro Climb challenge here!

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