Monthly Archives: August 2012

Four months ago, Phil and I sat pouring over maps of Canada. We had a plan, of sorts. We were going to the frozen north, to seek fame, fortune and adventure amongst the remote landscapes of the Northwest Territories. It was all Boys Own stuff. We were excited. We had months of planning ahead…

…That was four months ago. In two weeks time we fly into Calgary! Our plans have been honed to perfection…and shredded.

We were originally going to be spending some time in Calgary, but Phil has decided that sleep is for wimps. So, instead, we will begin by driving into the Rockies for the first three days. We’re thinking, birthday drinks besides the shores of Lake Louise – mountains, alpine lakes, glaciers and a Labatts…it doesn’t get much more Canadian than that! I have been reading up on bear safety in readiness, just in case. The fundamental rules would seem to involve not approaching them, not feeding them and staying calm. It also says don’t run, but I’m betting on being able to out-run Phil in the worst case scenario!

Our plans for Yellowknife remain equally fluid (both regarding our itinerary and our intake of Labatts). We are planning to meet up with the coastguard at some point and then drive west, along the edge of the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary, to the bustling town of Fort Providence (pop: 759). The town lies in the eastern corner of the ‘Dehcho Drivable Wilderness’, which extends from the southwestern corner of the Great Slave Lake all the way into the Yukon. I like the idea of a ‘Drivable Wilderness’, it offers up a heady mix of comfort and calamity. I just hope one of us remembers to keep a watch on the fuel gauge.

One of our original ideas was to try to meet up with the local Dene First Nations people in Dettah, a township just on the outskirts of Yellowknife. This is still very much part of our overall plan, but the idea had always been to drive to it. Looking at a map the other day though, we realised that it is only about six kilometres across the Great Slave Lake as the raven flies (ravens being very prolific in Yellowknife)…We could kayak that.

No, really, we could…I mean, what could possibly go wrong…

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For Martina Navratilova it was to prove an ignominious end to what had been a particularly tough year. As she lay strapped to a stretcher, breathing from an emergency oxygen supply, the winner of 18 Grand Slam titles had chance to reflect on a year that had begun with her breaking her wrist, had then seen her diagnosed with breast cancer and was now ending with her being evacuated off a mountain with a life threatening case of high altitude pulmonary oedema.

Part of a team of athletes, journalists and volunteers, raising funds for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, the ex-Wimbledon champion had been attempting to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. By day four though, just over 2000 metres short of the summit, the combination of a debilitating stomach bug and a build up of fluid in her lungs had prompted the decision to undertake an emergency night-time dash off the mountain. The next four hours saw her being carried down the mountain by a team of porters, where a vehicle was waiting to drive her to a local medical facility, to be flown on to a hospital in Nairobi.

For me though, this was just one incident in what was turning out to be one of the hardest treks I had ever done. I had been employed to help lead the team to the top, but since we had set out from Marangu four days ago we had seen nothing of Kilimanjaro’s famous snow-capped crater. Instead, we had endured days of torrential rain and driving blizzards and by the time we reached the camp at Horombo many of the team were beginning to feel the effects of both the mountain and the weather. And now we had the added problem of our major celebrity disappearing on a stretcher into the inky stillness of an African night. The team that remained behind though still included some notable personalities, including British Olympic Badminton star, Gail Emms, and Michael Teuber, a multiple gold medal winning German Paralympic cyclist, who over the coming days was to prove an inspiration to many in Martina’s absence.

The morning following Martina’s sad departure we began the long hike up to Barafu Camp, the usual expansive views being replaced again by enveloping cloud and a steady driving rain, which over the course of the next 8 hours turned into a full raging blizzard. By the time we reached our summit camp many were beginning to seriously doubt their ability to make it to the top the following day and I had to admit that without some favourable intervention by the weather gods even I was doubting our chances of making it. The mess tent and the porters’ kitchen that evening took on the semblance of a Chinese laundry, as gloves, waterproofs and hats were hung from every available space in an effort to dry them out.

That night we retired to bed early, ready for the midnight attempt on the summit, and it was with some trepidation that I unzipped my tent just a few hours later to check on the weather. The sky above me though was a blaze of stars! It seems that our prayers had been answered, and as we began the long climb to the top, the valley echoed to the encouraging songs of our Tanzanian guides. As we progressed up the mountain I kept casting nervous glances to the heavens above, wondering how long the skies would remain clear. But as we approached Stella Point and the rising sun began to cast its warming glow across the landscape, it became obvious that we would finally get to see Kilimanjaro in all its majestic glory.

In spite of the weather and the far from favourable condition, 18 of the team made it to the top and it was a very happy group of people that were reunited with Martina three days later at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. For many it had proven to be a far tougher challenge than they could ever have imagined and, in spite of its obvious popularity amongst trekking groups, Martina Navratilova’s potentially fatal encounter had heralded for many a much needed reminder of the dangers of underestimating a journey to the summit of Africa’s most iconic mountain.

Copyright Trevor Gibbs 2012