Former mayor climbing out of grief

Barranco Camp, where climbing Mt Kilimanjaro finally looked attainable to Kerry Prendergast.
Barranco Camp, where climbing Mt Kilimanjaro finally looked attainable to Kerry Prendergast.

I've thought long and hard about where the idea to climb Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, came from. It has been on my bucket list a long time. I'd wanted to do it before husband Rex and I turned 70 and 60. Time was running out.

What turned this into a passionate desire to do it this year was the death of my lovely 30-year-old son, Andrew, in March 2011. Andrew, always mad on - and very good with - horses, was just beginning to retrain a difficult horse. The horse shied while on a lunge-line and Andrew was thrown off, on to hard and rough ground, sustaining what subsequently proved to be a fatal head injury.

I was a religious person until the loss of my first son, Paul, at his birth in 1979. His loss fundamentally challenged my beliefs. Logic tells me not to believe in heaven, but if I'm wrong, then climbing to 6000 metres might bring me a little closer to Andrew's spirit. It's irrational, I know, but there you have it.

Kerry Prendergast and her son Andrew, who was killed in a horse training accident last year.
Kerry Prendergast and her son Andrew, who was killed in a horse training accident last year.

Rex quietly supported my dream, despite sciatica and achilles issues - and he certainly wasn't going to let me achieve something he hadn't. Most of our friends thought we were crazy! Luckily two - Nigel Fyfe and Bronwen Golder - came to keep us honest.

Nigel had climbed the 6961m Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, and is experienced at high altitude. Bronwen, on the other hand, kept telling us she'd never make it. Now, of course, she is confident she could climb Everest!

September 1, Moshi

We spend our first night in Moshi, one of the small towns servicing Kilimanjaro's tourism, reached 36 long hours after leaving Wellington. We had just flown past the impressive Kilimanjaro jutting above the cloud, snow glistening on its three peaks. On arrival we are briefed by our two guides: Going very slowly ("pole, pole" - pronounced "pole-eh"; Swahili for "slow, slow") and drinking three litres of water a day we would make it, they assure us. We are taking the more difficult but picturesque 100-kilometre Machame route (whiskey route), not the easier "Coca-Cola" route.

After repacking our bags for the climb, we walk a kilometre into the dusty little town. Being a Sunday afternoon, shops are generally closed, but stalls along the roads sell cheap clothes and shoes, plastic radios, bits and bobs. No footpaths generally, just broken concrete covers and open storm drains.

The women wear colourful clothes with their hair tightly plaited into wonderful patterns. And the children are stunning! Big brown eyes, tight-knit, short but plaited hair, shy smiles. But many live in poverty we cannot comprehend. Welfare does not exist, these people work or starve.

September 2, tropical rainforest

Our last shower and sit-down toilet behind us, full of excitement and trepidation, we are taken by bus to the Machame gate of Kilimanjaro National Park, where we wait an hour while our guides negotiate with our 12 porters their 20-kilogram loads (plus their gear) and sort out the interminable official paperwork. Everything has to be carried in for the four of us: food; the gas and pots to cook it; tents; a mess tent and chairs; our gear, except for the daypacks we carry, and the porters' own gear.

The first day, 18km rising from 1800m to 3000m (our Aoraki-Mt Cook is 3754m), is relentless but not hard. It travels through tropical rainforest made lush by 1.5m of annual rain, not unlike our South Island bush. Much smaller amounts of rain or snow fall higher up. Luckily we experience no rain and only a touch of snow in our six days. Machame Camp, reached at 5.30pm, is just out of the forest line and we can see the mountain, looking very big and an impossible distance away.

We set ourselves up in our tent, wash, eat, and are in bed ridiculously early, still jet-lagged, tired from the walk and altitude, and anticipating a harder day to follow.

September 3, moorland

The terrain for our second day is rather like the Tongariro Crossing. We leave at about 8.30am and from here on we wear gaiters, unsuccessfully trying to keep the fine red loess dust out of our boots. A 9km steep walk takes us 1000m higher, then drops down 200m to Shira Camp - a short, hard day, arriving in the early afternoon. The camp is very dusty and cold; we begin adding layers of great Kiwi merino wool.

The rubbish on the track distresses us. We can understand the porters' lolly papers to some extent but not the bottles, bags, tissues and paper from the overseas travellers. So we spent the day picking up rubbish as we walked, ending up with a sizeable bag full - to our head guide Thomas' embarrassment. We hope Kiwis are never offenders.

September 4, alpine

As we pass huge boulders, lava flows, dust, scree and occasional tough flowers and plants, the mountain towers in the distance, but now looks attainable. We walk 15km, up to 4600m and back down to 3900m, passing many imposing and top-heavy Senecio Kilimanjari trees, to sleep at Barranco Camp on a sloping sheet of lava. A long, exhausting, dusty, at times very hot day. Our tents are pitched in the swirling mist and once the sun sets the temperature plummets. Our porters talk incessantly, in their local sing-song dialect, and Swahili, their official language. They all pass us en route and set up camp. It is lovely to come to a pitched tent with a warm bowl of washing water. Then coffee/tea/milo and popcorn, followed by one of the cook's carbo-rich meals. He makes the best soups, each day simpler and more vegetable-based as supplies dwindle.

Going higher and then coming down helps us acclimatise to the lack of oxygen, but to sleep at a more comfortable level. We are taking half a Diamox pill night and morning to allow our lungs and arteries to take up more oxygen, but walking and climbing are a struggle. "Pole Pole" really works - it allows the body to go for much longer in the oxygen-sparse air.

Kilimanjaro is known as one of the more difficult mountains to climb because, being a volcanic cone on a plain, its higher altitudes are accessed quite rapidly compared with, say, the Himalayan mountains. The recognised acclimatising is three days per 1000m but we have only one day per 1000m.

I'm having trouble sleeping on my left side as my lungs get compressed, I get breathless and panic from lack of oxygen, so need to sleep on my back.

The stars are amazing with no artificial light to mask them. Could Andrew be one of them? Somehow he feels closer.

Oh, yes, I haven't mentioned the toilet situation, have I? Long-drops, no water, some seldom cleaned though serving up to 300 people a day in this off-season. I was dreading them and my expectations are, unfortunately, surpassed. We had turned down the optional extra two porters to carry up a chemical toilet as our consciences wouldn't allow it.

September 5, Barranco Wall

This morning we descend off the edge of the lava sheet with high valley walls around us, swirling cloud below us, the mountain above us, a perfect sunny morning, and what appears to be a cliff in front of us. For the first two hours we climb the 200m-high Barranco Wall, poles clipped to packs to free our hands for this steep hand-climbing section. Challenging, but satisfying and fun. Fortunately there are frequent rests on tiny ledges and steps as porters move past, one hand balancing the load on their heads - while we hold on tight with both hands. Amazing. ACC and OSH would be most unappreciative but we are thoroughly impressed.

Having climbed the wall, we descend a steep, slippery stream bed. But up the next heavy climb is the promise of a cooked lunch - carbo loading for our ascent tomorrow. The last water on the mountain is in this valley so our porters traipse back with large containers for our lunch, and then on and up to base camp. Water-purifying tablets cater to our pampered Western stomachs.

After a relentless three hours of steep uphill climbing through swirling cloud, we reach 4600m Barafu Camp about 4pm. This is base camp for the ascent. It is cold, bleak, and cloudy, with the imposing, somewhat daunting, snowy slopes above us. The long drops here are hung over a cliff!

We have an hour to settle into our tents and prepare for our ascent - no washing water here. The preparation involves three pairs of socks, two pairs of long-johns, trousers and over-pants, three woollen layers, our ski jackets covered by our waterproof jackets, two pairs of gloves and warm hats and neck warmers. Of course, we have our trusted tramping boots and walking poles, which give vital stability on difficult terrain.

Each evening we've received a briefing to prepare us for the day ahead but this one has two extra messages. To Bronwen, who has said she can't make it: "Open your mind to the possibility." To me: "Stop asking us how long to go."

An early dinner of celery soup, stale bread, and spaghetti with a vegetable sauce is really hard to force down, but eating is critical. We are in our sleeping bags by 7pm. Rex sleeps - as he can any time, anywhere - but sleep evades me, not helped by the noise of the porters, the cold (it's below 0 degrees Celsius), fear, and a headache and nausea caused by the altitude. By the time they call us at 11pm I have a migraine so take medication plus two double-strength Nurofen with a cup of hot tea.

September 6, the ascent

We set out at midnight, pitch-black and minus-12C, but mercifully without wind. Our headlamps blazing, we obediently follow Thomas; there are cliffs on both sides in places. A string of headlamps weaves ahead - it is a seven-hour, 7km slog up 1300m to the rim. Walking is extremely slow. We are told to breathe really deeply and this helps. The frequent stops are welcome.

We are supposed to drink two litres of water on the way up - containers are cosseted under jackets to prevent freezing. We also have energy bars, jelly beans, chocolate, but I refuse it all as I'm so nauseated. I am bitterly cold, my fingers numb.

And then I notice, 5cm above the top of my left pole, an oval white light hovering. If I look it goes away, but it is there in the corner of my eye and I'm convinced it is Andrew - my fairy - keeping his eye on me, encouraging me, guiding my every step. Later, when I swap to a lighter headlamp the "fairy-light" effect goes away, of course, as the sceptics among you would expect.

We had been told to empty our minds and think only of each next step but my ascent continues to be a time to relive the last days we had with Andrew, and I shed many tears.

For 18 months I have pushed the memories of those last 10 days of Andrew's life to the back of my mind. Even though it is not easy, I now try to remember them in detail in the hope that my nightmares will go away, probably a false hope ... I remember the first panicked call about the accident, the rush to A&E, the bad scan results, the experiences in the ICU, decisions and advice from the experts, our hopes dashed as Andrew doesn't regain consciousness. Then the agonising decision to turn off life support, followed by six days caring for Andrew at home with the support of family and friends, Andrew lying deeply unconscious in our midst, then that last morning as Andrew took his final breaths.

I find it comforting, though others don't, when Rex tells me we are halfway, then three-quarters. I begin to feel it is possible to make the top. Then, about 5.30am, as the sky begins to lighten and we can see the lights bobbing up to the rim of the crater, I know I can make it. The last 500m is a bottleneck. People ahead exhaustedly stop, and then start slowly off again. The rim finally arrives at 6.40am and the relief manifests in different ways to each of us; for me, hugging and crying.

But Stella Point is, unfortunately, not the real top! After a brief pause to see the sunrise completed, we set off for Uhuru Peak. At 5895m (19,340ft) this is the summit, and it takes us more than an hour to reach it. Not a hard walk but that last 150m vertically is dreadful. We shuffle past wonderful views of the snow-filled crater on our right and a magnificent 30m-high glacier on our left. The combination of tiredness, altitude, a migraine and vomiting make this last hour almost impossible for me. With 200m to go I have to be cajoled by our guides to continue.

We queue to get in front of the sign for photos, proudly holding up our Kiwi flag. Photos show me smiling, belying the way I feel. Immediately we head off home. It is a three-hour descent to base camp via a slightly different route, which includes several long stretches of scree. Thomas and I arrive back at base camp 7km later. He has hurried me down on my own to return me to lower altitude as soon as possible. The others arrive an hour later, all of us emotionally and physically drained but elated at having "knocked the bastard off ".

After an hour's rest and a light meal we are offered a choice: a 5km walk to 3900m-high Millennium Camp and a longer walk out on the last day; or 10km to Mweka Camp at 3000m with fresh vegetables and meat? Unlike the majority we choose Millennium, forgoing the better dinner but knowing we'll be more rested for a final 22km day.

Later that day we still can't really believe we've done it. Our reactions run from Bronwen's "I enjoyed it" to Rex and me saying it has been the hardest thing we've ever done, to Nigel's "I would do it again". We'd passed people being carried down, being assisted down, and turning back. Yet we, by far the oldest group on the mountain over the past two days, according to the camp sign-in books, have made it. I can finally hold down water so we celebrate with a small whiskey Rex carted all the way, and we dine on carrot soup and vege and bean sauce on rice. We are in our sleeping bags by 7.30pm and sleep the sleep of the exhausted but elated.

September 7, the walk out

Before our 22km walk out there is a brief ceremony where our porters, tall, strong and proud men, sing us their Kilimanjaro song to say thank you and farewell. Nigel says a few words he's learnt in Swahili, then we give them our tip - more than their monthly income. We finish with a waiata, Te Aroha, which seems well appreciated, and distribute silver fern pins.

Placing one foot before the other - which had been so unbelievably hard those final few hours of the ascent - is a breeze at lower altitude, after sleep, no migraine, and elated by our sense of success. The mountain behind us, the prospect of a shower followed by a couple of beers ahead . . .

From the moorland back through the rainforest we drop 2100m. The rainforest is generally in cloud but we get one last glimpse of our mountain behind us.

The walk to the Mweka Gate takes five hours. Our boots and gaiters are there washed of their thick mud for US$2 a pair - to a quality accepted by NZ Customs on our arrival home! A 45-minute bus ride takes us back to our Moshi hotel for that longed-for beer.

So what have I achieved? We have ticked off a large item on our bucket list - but have also discovered the limit of our endurance, physically and mentally. Rex and I decide four items are now off all our future plans: tents, sleeping bags, mountains, and, for me especially, long- drops!

As for Andrew - have I found him? Was he up there with me? I believe I can answer "Yes". But I also know that for every step I take forward in my grief pathway, some days I feel I fall back two.

The Dominion Post