TANZANIA: Men of the mountain

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At lunchtime, Mooba is uncharacteristically quiet. No beat boxing, no crazy dance moves, no slapstick joking. Instead he drifts lethargically outside the tent flaps, quietly filling up everyone’s water bladders, pink-rimmed eyes avoiding ours.

Kilimanjaro’s altitude has got to him.

Here at Kibo Camp, 4750 metres above sea level, the lack of oxygen in the air makes itself known in a number of ways – headache, nausea, fatigue.

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Sheltered from the damp wind, we ply ourselves with thick peanutty stew, fumbling forks with mittened fingers. We chew on chunks of sweet potato and yam, dripping gravy onto our scarves until exhaustion smothers us. It doesn’t take long. We’ve walked for six hours to get here, now we have just five hours to sleep before we take on the ten hour walk to the summit.

When we push back the tent flaps, Mooba has disappeared into the mists.

Until now, we’ve taken it for granted that our porters and guides are immune to the effects of the altitude. They stride ahead of us, urging us on when we lag behind, or overtaking us with a week’s worth of supplies and camping gear on their heads. Meanwhile, we carry just a daypack, caught up in our own daily struggle up that mountainside.

But Mooba’s deflatedness is a sudden reminder that these guys are putting their bodies through exactly the same ordeal as us.

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A couple of days earlier, we had asked head guide, Peter, how many times he had climbed the mountain.

“Around 100 times,” he said, a little proudly. He started off as a porter on just $10 a day, and has worked his way up through the ranks to his current role, the best paid position in the team.

But not all of the porters will be so lucky. Peter admits than many of the guys don’t handle the heights so well. It’s so hit and miss, whether the altitude will take its toll on your lungs, head or stomach – it can make itself felt in so many ways.

If they can’t handle it, they have to quit what is one of the better paid professions in Tanzania.

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In pristine darkness, we set out that evening, climbing against a pitch black wall of wind and sleet as sheer shingle crumbles beneath our shuffling feet. Muscles, lungs, skin brace against the freezing temperatures, the vertical climb.

Mooba is transformed. He coaxes us up the side of the mountain, kicking warmth into our toes and breathing heat onto our fingertips.

These are tricks learned from climbing the mountain, time and time again. These boys are no strangers to this surreal world of swirling glaciers and crumbling ice that lurks above the clouds.

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I am feeling the crushing weight of the icy thin air now, gasping desperately for each breath. But Peter and Mooba stay with me every step of the way.

Summit finally behind us, Mooba takes my hand and we swoosh gracefully back down through the mountainside scree using my walking poles as skis.

With each sweeping stride down, the mountain’s burden gradually eases.

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Mooba tells me about his three month old baby and how much he enjoys being a father although it’s difficult being away for such long stints up the mountain. Like many of the other guys, he wants to quit arduous Kili and instead run safaris. But he needs to study first and improve his English. And that takes money, he tells me.

He asks me if I have kids and I tell him, not yet.

But one day? he asks. Yes, I smile noncommittally. Once I have got mountains, adventures and dust out of my system.

We’ve taken an hour longer than everyone else to return back to camp, and they are all snoozing in their tents when we finally arrive. I hug Mooba, overwhelmed by the prospect of rest.

The next time I see him, he is body popping once again as he refills the water bladders.

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