51-year-old defies age to tackle Mt Kilimanjaro

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

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

Suddenly, she stopped. She turned to her guide, Mr Hosea Massoud, and told him that she could not 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 (5,730 metres above sea level), the second largest peak at the top of Mt Kilimanjaro, is a seven-hour trek.

The hike is done at night 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.

When Ms Chalo woke up at 10pm on Wednesday and sipped hot black tea and ate crunchy biscuits, all she had in her mind was how she would 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,” Ms Chalo said.

Kiliclimb-Bridge the Gap is Nation Media Group’s initiative to raise Sh60 million and pump it into famine eradication projects. The fund-raising is ongoing and, according to NMG’s head of corporate affairs David Maingi, all those who had made pledges are asked to fulfil them while those keen to contribute are urged to do so.

Back to Ms Chalo. 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, Ms Chalo 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.

Altitude sickness

But with the help of torches — the type used by miners, with the spotlight held on the forehead by an elastic band — the trek to the highest point on the continent continued.

After a few steps, Ms Chalo sat down, declared with certainty that she was not going up. Altitude sickness, she said, had set 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!” Mr Massoud urged.

Unlike the first time, his optimism failed to make Ms Chalo rise. “I’ve got a problem breathing,” she said. With that Ms Chalo had to descend. “Her spirit was willing, but her body was weak,” said Mr Steve Kiteto of Tanari Trust, the team that organised the expedition.

Ms Chalo had thought about descending on the third day of the week-long expedition but Mr Kiteto and the team of tour guides convinced 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,” Ms Chalo recalled about the third day when the team made the trip from Shira Camp to Lovers Tower (4,600 metres above sea level), then down to Barranco Camp (3,950 metres above sea level).

“It was tough. That’s the day I would have quit. 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,” she said.

But after that day, which saw two more employees throw in the towel, Ms Chalo continued to Karanga Camp, then to Barafu Camp and was two hours away from the peak when altitude sickness, which 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.

Ms Chalo has worked in NMG’ Finance Department for the last 22 years.