Climb every mountain
It's midnight in the high alpine desert, and above us, rising with impossible steepness in the monochrome light of a full moon, is "The Hill".
That is the nickname musician Boh Runga gave to Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, when our little band of climbers met on Auckland's Mount Eden some five weeks earlier, for a photoshoot. The nickname no longer seems appropriate. There is nothing friendly about Kibo, Kili's crater-topped peak. We are 4700 metres above sea level. We've been shaken from our sleeping bags and, despite multiple layers of clothing, the biting chill of the thin, icy air is unnerving. The summit is 1185m above us and it's likely that before dawn some of us will succumb to the headaches, vomiting, dizziness and even blackouts that altitude sickness can bring.
One of our number, Lindsey Talerico-Hedren, social media expert for World Vision, has thrown up so much she is badly dehydrated and will not attempt the climb. Later in the day she'll be stretchered off Kili. We've been schooled in tricks to stave off despair, to cope with exhaustion so intense every particle of your being calls for you to turn back. Whatever illusions we may have entertained in Auckland are gone. Too much has been invested in this to fail.
Those are the words of talkback radio host Kerre McIvor (nee Woodham), the smallest and oldest of our group and, incidentally, the member judged by our Tanzanian guides as least likely to fail. Besides Runga and McIvor, the team also includes Olympic rowing power couple Mahe Drysdale and Juliette Haigh, and comedian Rhys Darby.The celebrities are the public face of a World Vision campaign to raise New Zealand donations for a microfinance scheme in Tanzania.
'Micro', as it's colloquially known, is the making of small loans to small-scale entrepreneurs seeking to better their families' lives through business, perhaps selling petrol by the roadside, perhaps expanding their one-woman seamstress venture, or trading in small quantities of Tanzania's staple, rice. These are people for whom capital - even the $100 or $200 they are seeking - is virtually impossible to get. The extra income they generate can mean the difference between hunger and feeding their kids, between affording a secondary school education or not.
The trip to climb Kili is in part public relations and part an opportunity to shoot the TV ads World Vision hopes will attract donations to help reduce the worst ravages of poverty in one of Africa’s poorest countries.
Before the celebs made it to the mountain, several days were spent meeting micro entrepreneurs, learning about their lives and, quite frankly, coming away impressed by the staunchness and resolve of people trying to better their lots, and those of their children, in the face of pretty tough conditions.
Climbing with the famous five celebrities are World Vision’s New Zealand chief executive Chris Clarke, Talerico-Hedren, Laura Gemmell, the World Vision employee who dreamt up the venture, the film crew of Tim Parsons and Jess Milne – and me, a business journalist with an interest in microfinance.
The team bonded well in the four days of tramping and camping that brought us to the foot of Kibo. Everyone brought something to the riotous affairs that are meals (soup, pasta, stews and increasingly dry bread figure highly in the mix, as well as litres and litres of strong, sugared tea) and the tramping chat has been memorable. It covers everything from how to win gold medals, to politics, to the surreal "Diamox dreams" we've come to believe are the result of our altitude sickness drugs, to just how useful (and desirable) a prehensile tail would be to humans, and whether the New Zealand authorities would allow funeral ashes to be scattered by giant fireworks.
But, for me, two team members' contributions are most marked: If the team was a body, Drysdale would be its courage, McIvor its heart. It is not possible for a bunch of New Zealanders to climb a mountain and not talk of Sir Edmund Hillary, in our case with hushed awe as we climb higher but still get nowhere near his world-beating 8848m. In Drysdale, Darby believes, we have our own "Iron Ed" - both in demeanour and determination.
On our second day of tramping upwards on Kili, our party meets a woman who has decided not to continue her climb because she feels a bit tired. Drysdale's reaction is pretty close to disgust. "Tiredness is no excuse," becomes the mantra for the climb. Another pearl of Mahe wisdom is even less forgiving: "Pain is weakness leaving the body." But while there may be a collective determination not to follow the tired woman into the Olympian's bad books, it is clear we all also have our own motivations driving us to not to fail.
McIvor, who has a unique gift for connecting with other people and frequently has the group and our Tanzanian guides crying with laughter at her jokes, has her own side-story driving her up Kili. Back in New Zealand she'd been asked by the father of a young woman murdered in Rwanda to find out whether a cross erected on Kili's summit to commemorate the massacre in which she died was still there. This is something of a sacred mission for McIvor. The film crew has to make it to the top - though for Milne, altitude sickness brings alarmingly bloody broken capillaries in both eyes and double vision.
Head of the trip Chris Clarke has most personally invested in the trip, given the transformation he hopes microfinance will bring to poor families in Tanzania. In 1961, just before Tanzania achieved independence, the country's founding father Julius Nyerere spoke of his desire to light a candle and put it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, where it would shine out "giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate and dignity where before there was only humiliation".
The World Vision chief executive recalled that speech to the Tanzanian television journalists who came to film us at the gates of the national park in which Kili resides. It wouldn't have done to get the candle only halfway up. And so we set off at a shuffle on the gruelling final ascent, zig-zagging at an old man's plod up the slope to the crater rim, a slope that would have been dizzying had we attempted it in daylight. As the climb begins we travel at the speed of the slowest, but towards the crater rim the party breaks up with guides attaching themselves to smaller groups travelling at their differing, painfully slow rates.
We all make it to Gilman's Point, the 5681m point at which climbers breast Kibo's crater rim, to watch the mountain's double dawn of the sun rising, first below the clouds, and then above them. Darby, in particular, has given his all, with a heavy chest cold and infection that should really have kept him off the mountain altogether and which made his climb by far the toughest any of us faced. Later his wife Rosie tells everyone: "If he'd had his legs chopped off at the knee, he'd have gone up on his stumps."
The tears he sheds at Gilman's Point before deciding he has to go down testifies to the strength and resolve it took him to get there. It is a reminder of the risks the five celebrities have taken - both physically and to their reputations - by signing on to climb Kili. Darby isn't alone in facing a battle against his own body to make the rim. Gemmell earns the respect of all (and the nickname Chucky) by fighting through an attack of debilitating altitude sickness, vomiting five times between the camp and the crater rim.
Runga, who brings a lovely mix of grace, intelligence and wit to the trip, struggles through the triple effects of a frozen water supply, lost food from a split supply bag, and the numbing cold, which can dip to as low as -20°C towards the upper reaches of Kibo. Bent double by the rigours of the climb, she makes the peak through sheer force of will.
It is a summiting that leaves some of the party nothing for the final 200m that remains to be scaled in the thin, icy air - an hour and a half trudge around the crater rim. Among the group, an African proverb is used to steel our resolve to complete this last demanding push. "When you have eaten the body of the elephant, why stop before you have finished the tail?"
But while that is easily said by those who have dodged the bullet of altitude sickness and illness, Darby, Runga and Gemmell had no option but to end their ascents there. Even after making the crater, the attrition continues. Constant self-monitoring for signs of altitude sickness is unavoidable on Kili. New symptoms can appear rapidly and cause discomfort and fear quickly. The height of Kili is dramatic, and climbers do die on the mountain, some carried off by the two most dreaded forms of altitude sickness: high altitude cerebral edema and high altitude pulmonary edema - effectively, fluid build-ups in the brain and lungs respectively.
So when the staunch Haigh feels pain rising in her chest on the final push to the summit, she is forced to turn back. This is where I hit my personal wall. Though I have no symptoms of altitude sickness, I am bone-weary. A sub-zero wind blows, and the bright dawn shining on snow and glaciers seems to remind me how we have not slept in the better part of 36 hours. But we are there to do a job. We are aware the eyes of New Zealand are on us, following the progress of our climb from far away. As long as mountain sickness stays away, there can be no stopping.
And then we are at the summit, on the roof of Africa, and Drysdale, still showing no sign of human weakness, is planting a New Zealand flag with the names of the Kiwis who have given generously to fund microfinance loans already. The indefatigable McIvor, accompanied by the equally tireless Clarke, is off further round the crater to the cross of the murdered Kiwi woman, which still stands against the fierce blue sky. The vista is awesome: The snow-filled crater, the glaciers, the crystal-clear blue sky, the ocean of cloud so, so far below.
I feel no triumph, but there is a quiet satisfaction. I think of my fellow climbers, my daughters, my wife, my colleagues back in New Zealand. I haven't let anybody down. I have no excuses to make when I get back. For me, the descent is greater than the summiting. I come down the mountain with Drysdale, scree-surfing the last kilometre or so in the wake of the giant Olympian. "Not bad for an office boy," he says to me, as we make our way into camp. I admit it. I could punch the air. That's a contender for my headstone. But I'd be leaving you with a false impression if I didn't also mention that Drysdale is now talking about going back and climbing Kili in a day.That wouldn't be bad, even for an Olympian.