Remarkable" Leah scales Mt Kilimanjaro

In the wee hours of Mashujaa Day, Leah Kyalo, 51, became Nation Media Group’s oldest employee to scale Africa’s tallest mountain. Step by step she took upon the rocks of the alpine desert, with ice-cold dry wind blowing across her face, parching her lips, cheeks and nose

. Her goal was Uhuru Peak at 5,895 metres above sea level.

Suddenly, she stopped. She turned to her guide, Hosea Massoud, and told him that she couldn’t go up.

“I am tired. I think I have done enough. Let me just go back to the camp,” she said, with her back on a huge rock along the steep trail on the treacherous terrain on the way from Barafu Camp to Stella Point. 

The guide refused.

He let her sip her water; then he passed her a sweet. She casually thrust the sweet into her mouth and sucked the sweetness out of it within minutes. She got the energy and began taking more steps up.

The journey from Barafu Camp to Stella Point (5730m ASL), the second largest peak at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro, is a seven-hour trek.

The hike is done at night, anytime from 10pm, so that, come sunrise, the mountaineers are at the peak of the mountain and they can marvel at God’s creation as the sun lights the earth. It looks very intimidating during the day.

So, when Leah woke up at 10pm on Wednesday and sipped the hot black tea and crunchy brown biscuits, all she had in her mind was how she’d go up the mountain and conquer it.

“I wanted to do something for charity, something remarkable and that’s why I joined NMG’s Kiliclimb team,” Leah said. Kiliclimb-Bridge the Gap is Nation Media Group’s initiative to raise Sh60 million and pump it into famine eradication projects.

She trekked for two hours and asked for a break to sip her water. It was a freezing dark night. The moon came out of the horizon and peered through the clouds, shining light on the ground below, quietly staring at the hundreds of mountaineers making their way up alongside the Kiliclimb team.

On the ground, Leah and her colleagues took their baby steps. The cold was stinging. The sand, pebbles and boulders were a tricky platform to step on, because they made every footstep an effort. You could slide downhill at any moment. And with the sharp rocks awaiting your downfall, such an eventuality made the muscles tense.

But with the help of torches --the kind that’s worn by miners, with the lamp held on the forehead by an elastic band—the trek to the highest point in the continent continued.

After a few steps, Leah sat down; declared with certainty that she was not going up. Altitude sickness, she said, had checked in and she needed to “lose altitude” to get better.

“How are you feeling? We only have about two hours to get to the peak. Let’s go. You’ll make it!” Hosea said. Always encouraging, like all the guides in Kilimanjaro.

Unlike the first time, his optimism failed to make Leah rise.

“I’ve got a problem breathing,” she said. With that, Leah had to descend.

“Her spirit was willing, but her body was weak,” said Steve Kiteto of Tanari Trust, the team that organized the expedition to Mt Kilimanjaro.

Leah had thought about descending on the third day, of the week-long expedition, but somehow, Steve and the team of tour guides managed to convince her to hang on.

“I was next to Ronnie (Roncliffe Odit of Q-FM) when he had breathing difficulties. He fell down and had to be evacuated. Then I began spitting blood and I was told to just sit and breathe deeply,” Leah recalled about the third day when the team made the trip from Shira Camp to Lava Tower (at 4,600m asl), then down to Barranco Camp (3,950m asl).

“It was tough. That’s the day I’d have quit. You see when I reached the camp, I even refused to speak to people. The chief guide (Tanari’s Muhia Karianjahi) tried to embrace me for making it to Barranco but I was annoyed. It was a bad day,” she said.

But after that day, which saw two employees throw in their towels, Leah continued to Karanga Camp, then to Barafu Camp and was two hours away from the peak when the ‘altitude sickness’-- that comes with nausea and shortness of breath-- kicked in.

To many in the NMG team, it was a surprise that she had come that far. She was the motivation in the team.

“Many people were looking at her and saying, well, if she can take the trip, I surely have no excuse not to. She has a very strong resolve. She is a strong woman. She encouraged many people,” said Annie Gitau, NMG’s Brand Marketing Executive.

Annie managed to reach Stella Point, the second highest peak on the mountain, but she too took a blow from altitude and had to be rushed down.

Mr Karianjahi too noted Leah’s resolve as “remarkable”.

“At her age, we have to recognize her strength…she came so so close to the finish line,” Mr Karianjahi, who has been climbing mountains since 1991, said of Leah.

Leah made the trip back to the camp and she reached her tent just as the rest of the team hit Uhuru Peak.

She told the Nation that she has no plans in the near future to go up any other mountain, but possibly, she’d try out next year. Leah has worked with the Nation’s Finance department for the last 22 years.