A very ambitious project, gathering nearly 100 people between pilots, tandem passengers, medical staff & TV crew plus more than 600 between porters and guides to climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain in the world and fly down from the summit on paragliders. All this done legally with the permission the Tanzanian authorities and all this in the name of charity. The main objective indeed would be to that to raise money (at the end it was more than $ 500,000) to donate to local charities. This was the dream of Adrian McRae, a 37 years old Australian, paraglider pilot and construction entrepreneur.
One of the largest expedition ever assembled to climb Kilimanjaro consisted of 93 pilots and tandem passengers from 27 different countries , all with the dream of paragliding from the roof of Africa. Each person would raise a minimum of $5,000 for charitable work in Tanzania, thus raising over $500,000 USD and having an incredible adventure in the process. Sounds too ambitious? Without a doubt. Crazy? A bit but not entirely. As I came to appreciate both before and during the climb, this was a very well thought out endeavour involving truly inspired and competent adventurers. We were all up for the challenge and in the end all 93 people summited (100% and amazing result) and over $500,000 was raised for Plant With Purpose, World Serve and the One Difference Foundation ; three important Tanzanian charities.
On January 28th we all gathered at the beautiful Ngurdoto Mountain lodge hotel near the city of Arusha to attend the safety briefing and have all the details bout our adventure. We were showed the landing zone, a huge field near the town of Moshi, the glide ratio we would need; 4-1 to clear the great forest at the foot of the mountain; we should all carry satellite tracker devices and 2m radios to maintain contact with the staff at the landing. Our launch site would be Stella Point at 5780mt facing east-south-east.
The safety committee headed by Peter Bowyer explained that with a favorable weather window, we should be able to take off with winds of 30-35km/ h, and be down and landed before 9.30 in the morning after a flight that could last up to 1 hour and 15 minutes depending on conditions. The last safety advice showed on the huge presentation screen was “DON’T F……. CRASH”… Scheduled launch date would the morning of February 5th, 2013, and could be extended to the 6th , 7th and even February 8th. In purely statistical terms, they told us that early February would be the best time to take off from the roof of Africa on a paraglider since winds and jet stream would be weak; well Hakuna Matata then (no problem).
I decided to rent an oxygen system (as many other pilots) to maximize my chances of flying and taking off and with the necessary clarity from almost 6000mt. My flying equipment would be a small size intermediate glider (Gin Tribe ENC), an Advance Impress II harness with a pod, a lightweight reserve parachute and a Variometer/ GPS to navigate towards the landing zone. As we had two individual porters available for each person to carry the flying equipment plus another bag (max 20 kg per porter), flying with lightweight equipment was not my priority.
On January 29th we all gathered at the Machame gate, 1800mt high to begin this adventure of a lifetime. The journey to reach the summit would be through the Machame route, it would take about 7 days to almost circumnavigate and climb the highest mountain in Africa, 7 days (usually it is 4 or 5 maximum) for everyone to be well acclimatized and have the best chance to reach the summit and take off. Therefore in order to ensure an optimal acclimatization for everybody, the organization decided to go through the seven-day and very scenic Machame route stopping at Machame Camp, Shira Camp, Moir Camp, then Lava Tower and Arrow Glacier, descend down to Barranco camp, Karanga Camp, Barafu Camp, Summit and Crater camp). All pilots, tandem passengers and crew reached the summit, a 100% success rate, amazing!
We started our first walk in the middle of the jungle to our first camp at 2800mt, a four hours hike. Among the pilots and adventurers who were part of the expedition there were a few top class and very experienced (Mike Kung, Mario Eder, Babu Sanuwar, Kari Castle etc), but also I have to say that there were several pilots who in my opinion, may not have had all the necessary skills to successfully complete such a difficult flight should consitions be leas than perfect; a flight that could indeed hide many traps (4200mt of vertical drop, strong wind shear, clouds hazards , turbulence during the glide down and on landing etc.). Some clearly underestimated the challenges and difficulties of this flight. Amongst the members of the expedition there were also several climbers who had crowned summits of 8000mt; a highly impressive field indeed. The huge number of porters, over 600, which would carry tents, equipment, water, food and even portable bathrooms) was dazzling to see. A huge line of walkers which could be seen for miles from high above the hill. The meals were three per day, breakfast, lunch and dinner) and were served in big communal tents.
Breakfast was usually coffee, tea, eggs, sausage, toast and porridge; lunch and dinner were usually soup, rice, vegetables, potatoes, and some meat. We were being well fed and kept happy indeed. Soon though health problems arose for several members of the expedition (me included) with gastroenteritis, diarrhea and viruses mainly due to poor hygiene and food contamination in the camps. The antibiotic Chiropoflaxin was widely administered and seemed to resolve most problems. There were three very good doctors available in the expedition who would be plenty busy in taking care of all of us. After 5 days up and around the mountain with very nice acclimatization excursions (Lava Tower, Arrow Glacier), we descended back to 3900mt Barranco camp where we had the first cloudless night of the journey; the view of the stars in the sky and the lights of the towns down below was truly impressive. A lot of laughter and camaraderie in the camps (where we spent several hours hanging around after several hours of hiking in the morning).Friendships that will last for a long time were being formed. In these first five days the weather did not cooperate much and started to give us some indications of the difficult conditions we might expect during the flight ahead; strong winds coming from the North and towering clouds that formed very early in the morning and rose quickly up the flanks of the mountain.
Kilimanjaro especially in the first 3 days started sending us early weather warnings of forms of huge downpours, thunder and lightening, strong wind gusts, powerful sunshine and relentless heat. Diamox was generously administered preventively against the dreaded altitude sickness. Doubts began to appear gradually amongst many about the success of a flight that would be performed possibly in borderline conditions and with little if any previous references, history or feedback.
In fact it was the more experienced pilots and mountaineers, after the first four or five days on the mountain, which seemed to have some concern. Instead of participating in the party atmosphere in the camps, they sometimes chose to carefully observe the weather and climate of the mountain, and soon realized that the area of the summit of Kilimanjaro was being brushed daily with very high winds and Jetstream. On top of this, each day the wind direction (North-North-East) was not the right one needed to take off (south-southeast) Weather information in the hand of the organization seemed mainly based on statistical values of the past and not on current and very accurate forecasts (balloon soundings, weather models etc..).
On the sixth day on the mountain, we finally got into Barrafu camp (4800mt) where we would leave for our assault on the summit the day after. The sunset view overlooking Mount Meru and the Mawenzie volcano was spectacular. Here several people began to feel the first nasty effects of high altitude. The morning of the 7th, while we were getting ready to start our climb to the summit, we noticed something different between the porters and guides as if something serious was happening.
We did not take too much notice and our entire group began the very hard climb to the summit, with the impressive result that everyone (some earlier than others) reached the highest point on the African continent (5850mt). I reached the summit at 12.15 on February 4th 2013, a tremendous joy and satisfaction. The views were breathtaking, especially the glaciers. One hundred meters below the summit, in the crater of Kilimanjaro, our next camp awaited us; we would camp the night of the 4th there and hopefully early the next morning we would have the flight of a lifetime; little did we know what was in store for us.
Some 150 between guides and porters had left the expedition after spending a very cold and windy night in Barrafu Camp, and would not climb any higher and camp in the crater, unless (seemingly) paid a lot more money than agreed. Many porters did not have adequate clothing to spend two or three nights at that altitude and with that sort of chill. A strike was on, porters and guides on the way down began to sabotage the bottled water and food on the way up the mountain; the result was that we would be seriously undersupplied for the hardest parawating days. Things began to get very complicated. The first night at Crater Camp was very cold and several people who were poorly hydrated by lack of water also began to suffer the effects of altitude and needed medical help. It was a night to remember for sure. In the early morning we got up and left our frozen tents heading for Stella Point our take off location in -15C temperatures; there the wind was gusting at 60km/h, completely cross, clouds already raising fast up the mountain; it was clear that nobody would attempt to launch in such conditions. We waited a few hours in the freezing cold and thin air to see if conditions improved but no chance; we then headed back to camp (about 1.5 km away from Stella Point) to wait. About 30 people, given the situation, decided to walk down the mountain, giving up the chance to fly( which would have meant to wait another night up there). The cold, altitude and fatigue began to show. Before we were served three meals a day and we had plenty of bottled water (at least two bottles a day per person) in a very efficient and organized way, while now we would only have one meal a day and the water was rationed to half a liter (the snow and ice that could be melt from the porters at that altitude). Water would have now to be treated with chlorine tablets and drops. Only one mess tent was there instead of the usual four, where we were usually crammed up to shelter from the cold in the hope of having a hot drink. Cups, plates and cutlery were not dirty and could not be washed. Most of us decided to spend another night in the camp in the crater at 5700mt in harsh conditions where the only way to get drinking water was now to melt snow and ice. Everybody’s concern at this point was people at high altitude; tired, with little or no food and dehydrated. The additional porters who were due to arrive with supplies had apparently been turned back by the porters heading down – they informed the new guys that the expedition was over and we would be also soon walking down. The helicopter drop of food and water had also been called off as a result of the bad weather in the afternoon. It was apparent that everything possible was being attempted to resolve the difficult situation we were in, but despite the best efforts, things weren’t really improving. February 6th dawns windy again and lenticular clouds in the valley can be seen, a clear indication of strong winds at altitude; several more porters began to abandon the expedition (we were told that they feared for their lives up there, dressed scarcely and with little food and water) and we headed back to the launch but it is immediately clear that none will launch in those conditions. For me it was seeing the huge lenticular clouds that made my decision easy but also very hard to accept at the same time (after all the time, efforts, money and commitment spent in this adventure) – Flying in those conditions would mean to accept a huge risk with a very high probability of having an accident. And a 6000mt mountain in East Africa is the least of places where you want to have one.
Everyone, at the orders of the medical team decides to start walking down the mountain at about 9.30 am, after a helicopter had finally succeeding in discharging water and chocolate bars for us. Only about 8 people chose to wait another day high up to see if conditions changed; I decided to go down as the weather forecast was the same every day and decided that unfortunately my dream of flying was over.
8 hours and 28km hiking; we went down in one go from 5700 to 1700mt and in the evening of the 6th of February we were at the hotel where we enjoyed the first shower after 9 days on the mountain and the luxury of a comfortable bed. The next day we learned that the seven pilots who had spent the night high above, are also walking down the hill, all but Nepali Babu Sanowar who already flew a paragliding tandem from the top of Everest in 2011 and was chosen by the National Geographic as the Adventurer of the year 2012; we suddenly get the news that he had successfully landed in a field near the town of Moshi.
Babu had possibly made the boldest, most dangerous paragliding flight ever attempted. In his own words he was happy and lucky to be alive. He said he attempted several times to launch his tandem glider in rotor and leeside conditions with gusts of up to 70km/h in extreme turbulence, with three broken lines. He spent almost an hour in a towering cloud without instruments to navigate, cell phone, radio etc. He said he was guided only by the sunlight that filtered through the clouds. He would head towards where within the cloud was whiter. He had his African porter with him, a guy who knew nothing about paragliding and who in all honestly I don’t think he may have had a very pleasant flying experience. They landed OK; Babu is already a legend, congratulations and respect. I did try and gave everything up there, but it could not be. Thanks to all who have supported me in this adventure and have contributed to the charities. We managed to raise over $ 500,000 for the people in need in Tanzania and this is the most important thing. We could see in the aftermaths of the climb, how the money was used to bring clean water to a Masai village or is used to build a school ; this was definitely the most beautiful thing to see. It has been a great adventure; I’ve met some wonderful people and made many new friends.
Thanks to Adrian and Paula McRae, who with incredible vision, hard work, determination and enthusiasm have spent the last three years of their life to organize an event that saw the largest group of people to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro successfully. An extraordinary pilot, Babu Sunuwar and his very brave African guide and porter managed to fly from the summit. The project is ongoing and continues to raise money to change the lives of many people in Tanzania. If you want to donate you can still do it on www.wingsofkilimanjaro. I am very proud to have been part of Wings of Kilimanjaro and I am already thinking about what can be my next challenges; the adventure never ends!
Advanced Preview Wings of Kilmanjaro 2013 by Silvio Zugarini from Silvio Zugarini on Vimeo.