Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Kilimanjaro 1925 climb by Kingsley and Stella Latham


Stella and Kingsley made there way from Bagamoyo to Lushoto, a lovely hill station in the Usumbara Mountains to stay with Don and Gwen. The idea was for the four of them to make an attempt on Kilimanjaro in the coming week or so. But this plan failed to materialise. Her journal does not say why, but a hint in my cousin Michael Latham’s “Kilimanjaro Tales”, may provide the answer. “My father had a love affair with Kilimanjaro” he writes.

“He enticed my mother Gwen to accompany him on one climb at lower levels on the mountain. Her feelings were not unlike her mixed emotions about shooting (game)… she enjoyed the hunt but not the killing. She loved the beauty of the mountain …but she disliked the ardour of the climb, the cold discomfort of sleeping out at high altitudes and the common mountain sickness that effects most people above about 13000 feet.”

In any event, Don had to wait a year to make his successful climb.

My mother’s account starts by saying:

It was with despondent hearts and faint hopes that my husband and I left Lushoto on July 4th (1925). The inability of my brother-in-law to accompany us on the climb, the difficulties and dangers that had been impressed upon us by various well-wishers and the dawning fact that I was but a woman, all helped to depress us.
In the train from Momba to Moshi little passed between us, save a few regrets for things forgotten and vague wonderings as to what Moshi would bring forth in the way of porters and such like necessary evils. I, for one, went to sleep that night with visions of cold and cruel glaciers, of tumbling down awful precipices into bottomless abysses, or climbing up impossible ice walls by tooth and nail!
We arrived in Moshi at six in the morning and hoped to get a vision of the mountain to put us in heart. We were not granted it – all we could see was low wooded hills topped by banks of low grey cloud, and Moshi all red dust and dull looking, beside us. It was our misfortune never to see the mountain from Moshi. ”

This is not unusual. The mountain can remain hidden for days at a time. Then suddenly it appears, magically suspended in the sky, clear and white above the grey mist below. Of her first glimpse of the snow-clad cone Mother writes:

“Yesterday we got a short glimpse of the dome Kibo white and glistening above banks of cloud. It looked incredibly high above the world; the clouds which clothed the rest of the mountain, right down to the foothills, gave Kibo an unearthly appearance.”

This atmospheric, ethereal, “unearthly” appearance is quite remarkable and one has the feeling of being slightly disoriented by the huge white cone literally thousands of feet above one. No wonder the local people considered it to be the home of Mungu, The Creator. (Moshi, incidentally means ‘smoke, or steam’ in Swahili. Moshi is common to many of the Bantu group of languages: utsi in Shona, motsi in Lozi and thus “motsi uyatunya” for the Victoria Falls – the “Smoke that Thunders.”)

My parents were put up by the local agricultural officer and there received a great deal of advice from all and sundry, which seems to have added to their depression. However, they managed to be put in touch with a good “native guide” who promised to bring porters for the carry up the mountain. Adding to their worries was the news that they must ascend via the harder and steeper route to Johannes Hut and not via Bismark’s as there was an outbreak of small pox along that route.
She continues:

It was at this stage that I deemed it wiser to say nothing of my trying for the top! I led people to believe that I was merely going as far as the last hut –Pieter’s. I could foresee the storm of protest and warnings that would surely have descended on my head had I suggested that I too had dreams of ascending Kibo. On Monday we had left Moshi and by Tuesday we had started on our long climb.”

Her diary continues:

Monday July 6th – Today we left New Moshi at 4.30 p.m., after a day of shopping, packing, making arrangements with porters and buying clothes for the guide, Mfore (Michael Latham refers to Oforo as his father’s guide a year later when he climbed the mountain, Mfore is probably the Swahili-ised version of the Chagga Oforo) and our cook, Hamisi, who is accompanying us on the climb The porters left first at 2 p.m. and we followed later on the motor bike and found our tent up and all things in readiness. Mwenzi ( Kilimanjaro’s lower peak) rose out of the clouds and showed up clearly for about a quarter of an hour. Unlike Kibo it is a rocky peak and consists of jagged aiguilles of black rock with patches of snow and ice in the pockets. Even from this distance (three or four days away) the blue green ice is evident.

This paragraph unselfconsciously illustrates two features of the time and place in which they lived. First, porters were an integral component of a journey, just as important and functional as is the motorcar or land rover of today. Part of the porters’ desturi•, under the eagle eye of the msimamizi or supervisor (in this case doubtless Hamisi) would be to erect the tent and have “all things in readiness.” The other remark is perhaps even more revealing. The mountain was some distance away, so was measured in days, not miles. Even today, if one asks the way and the distance of a rural person accustomed to walking as his habitual means of getting about, he will give as his measure the time it takes to get there, not the distance in miles. One exception only I discovered during work in the lower part of the Gokwe district (Zimbabwe) in the sixties: the unit provided was “chimaira”. The word is a corruption of the English “mile” but really meant “a long way from here.” Somehow the locals had conceived it as a useful response to young policemen on foot or horse patrol who “doing their three, in the BSAP”, fresh out from Britain, would have no idea of the local geography, let alone the language, and would enquire “how many miles to such and such a place. The answer “chimaira”!

She continues:

Tomorrow we have a ten-hour day so early to bed is the cry. We sleep on the ground tonight –no beds – much to Hamisi’s disgust. He says the tent with all the bags of food for the porters and our stores looks more like a duka (shop or stall) than a bwana’s tent! He is also convinced that there must be money on the top of the mountain –nothing else could induce us to be so mad as to climb it. No climbing for the love of climbing in Hamisi’s category (sic).
Johannes Hut July 7th. Left Old Moshi at 7.45 and arrived here at 2.40 p.m.; our guide was surprised we came so quickly and so was I! The way was neither so steep not so rough as anticipated.
For the first hour the path led through cultivated ground and we passed the Lutheran mission set in a lovely position over-looking the plains. The natives seem to have a good idea of cultivation, and one was surprised to see furrows of water being utilised for irrigation – what was more surprising these furrows were neatly bridged. The shambas (fields) are neatly fenced either with aloes or strong looking reeds. Bananas predominate amongst the crops, though there were large patches of maize and smaller patches of beans.
An hour’s walk from the last dwelling place brought us to the forest. The intervening vegetation consisted of short grass, bracken, brambles and low bushes, with maidenhair ferns growing on the banks of the furrow, which we followed for four hours. The forest trees were mostly unknown to us, but we saw some familiar flowers; two kinds of dead nettle, a giant stinging nettle and close beside it our old friend the docken (sic). Giant maidenhair and ferns of all sorts grow in profusion. Higher up we came across tiny dog violets. The trees are mostly large and are so covered with creepers, moss, lichen, ferns and orchids that one wonders how they manage to live thus burdened. Ground orchids there were too, and a flower like a disa. ( Disa uniflora – the emblem of the MCSA. My mother’s passion for flowers is clearly portrayed.)

The mist was thick all the way up, and after a while the constant dripping of water everywhere became a very melancholy sound, especially after we left the cheerful babble of the furrow. The path was the merest track, and we were glad of our guide, as in many places the track was lost in undergrowth and the way had to be cut through.

Thirty year later, I was climbing next-door Mount Meru, which towers over Arusha. With two anthropologist colleagues we had set out without porters or guides. At sixteen thousand feet it is much lower than Kilmanjaro, but is never the less a respectable slog! One climbs up through the same belts of vegetation and so there came a time for us to move through the forest. We became hopelessly lost, and only by working on the assumption that anyway up was better than going round in circles pushed on through the trees, visibility being never more than a few yards. My mother’s observation about the benefit of a guide was more apt than she perhaps realised!

As we sweated and toiled though this jungle, I became aware of a presence, though my companions, both recent imports, one from Britain and the other from Canada, were not troubled by this sense of something being around us. Presently, however, I heard the unmistakeable rumble of an elephant’s stomach as he communicated some sort of message to his herd mates –presumably something like “make ready to stonk these puny human intruders who may be trying to shoot us.” I froze! As I was in the lead my companions responded to the hunters’ signal of hand outstretched behind, palm open like a policeman on point duty.

“What is it?” they whispered, for apprehension is a catching disease.

Without further discussion, my portly Canadian colleague swung his pack off his shoulders and scrambled to climb a sapling beside which he had been standing. It bent under his weight so that he was presently clinging to it like an orang-utan, his back a few inches from the ground, whence the trunk had bent bowlike under his not inconsiderable bulk. After some minutes suspended in this fashion he let go and fell with a thud to the ground. The elephants had by this time moved off. We never saw them, for these huge animals can move silently and with almost perfect concealment through forest and savannah. We asked our Canadian friend what he hoped to have gained by his experiment with the tree, the result of which had done nothing but demonstrate the validity of Newton’s Second Law.

“In Canadian forests it’s bears - and we climb trees if we can to get away from the bastards. I acted on impulse,” he explained weakly.
“Canadian Capers!” was the muttered response from Phil Gulliver, the tall bearded Englishman who was a good few years our senior.

Back to the diary:

“After we left the forest we came to the giant heaths. These plants presented a very ghostly appearance in the mist, as they are covered with long grey lichen. The giant heath persists for a long while but near this hut the ground is like open moor-land with clumps of heath here and there. We found some sedges here and the rose coloured ‘everlasting’, known as Kilimanjaro Rose.
The mist persisted all day and at no time could we see for any distance, which was disappointing. Now it is raining steadily and we are glad to be under a roof. The porters are still settling down for the night by their fires. The atmosphere is a bit thick but one suffers smoke gladly provided one is warm and dry.
Hamisi kept in front of me all day in his new jersey, socks and sandals and carrying the famous umbrella on his shoulder while he used my stock with great effect.”

I can see this little cameo so clearly. She makes no mention of my father who was doubtless far ahead. I remember so well his stocky shape moving with steady hill-man’s strides, thrusting up from the thighs as he relentlessly widened the gap between himself and those behind him, leading on upwards to his chosen resting place or destination. My mother’s short legs (she was only five foot tall) were no match for his impatience to be for ever climbing higher. But she was a dogged and tireless walker and always got there in the end, even if he had to wait for half an hour, lying in the grass and smoking his pipe, a gentle smile teasing his wide mouth.

I was introduced to the mountains when I was about eleven, and it became desturi for Mum and I to bring up the rear of our little caravan, when we were climbing in the Drakensberg or in the hills and mountain near our home in the Transvaal. She called us “the good companions.” Often she had a long “stock” fashioned after the Alpine stock used by climbers in the Alps, to help her get a good purchase on a long steep reach. She wore khaki skirts, a loose blouse and stout leather boots. She was “good at the tramping” she would say with a smile, marching along ever in pursuit of the dwindling figure of my father, high above us on the skyline, pausing to look up to where the crags and cliffs he loved so much were beckoning him.

And of course the ludicrous figure she paints of the ever dignified Hamisi in his jersey, socks and sandals and the umbrella, evokes an immediate comparison with Huri Chunder Mukergee, Kipling’s incomparable babu and Kim’s companion in the Great Game, as he marched over the huge outreaching shoulders of the Himalayan foothills.

She goes on to describe Johannes Hut.

July 8th: Johannes Hut:

Alas the mists never rose and we were forced to spend the day here, amidst more smoke. Apart from our streaming eyes and noses, due to the smoke, we are feeling very fit. Let us hope that tomorrow Fortune will smile and we shall be able to get to Pieter’s Hut.
This hut must have been very comfortable once but vandals have torn out the woodwork, ceiling and floor boards and now only the corrugated iron roof and four walls remain. The hut nestles comfortably in a hollow.
Apart from a short walk we have been nowhere today.

Pieter’s Hut, July 9th

Left Johannes Hut at 8 a.m. and arrived here at 11.15 a.m. not nearly as long a day as we had anticipated. So far we are both feeling quite fit, though I got terribly puffed coming up; otherwise the altitude (12000 feet) is not effecting me disagreeably. Nevertheless we deem it wiser to wait here a day (to acclimatise: JL) which will make us two days behind schedule.

July 10th Pieter’s Hut:

Spent the day here and are feeling very fit for tomorrow’s effort. It was lovely and clear all night and until about 9.30 this morning. Kibo looked wonderful in the starlight, a great star with two smaller attendants was hanging over it. The mist cleared again about 4pm and we got a snap of Mwenzi from the ridge we climbed. Mwenzi does not look more than 3 and half hours away and from here does not seem so difficult of attainment. From the ridge Kibo looks a very long way off. From the ridge one can see how much higher Kibo is.
The five extra porters went back today bearing letters for Don and M).Our party gets smaller and smaller. Hamisi is still with us and accompanies us to “Nyumba ya Muungu” (sic). He says he wants to see what it is like. He came into the hut this morning proudly bearing a piece of icicle-hung heath.
I am looking forward anxiously to tomorrow, as to my mind it will be the real test of what I can stand. I think that if I can get to the cave I can get to the crater rim (one dare not write top). Well to sleep and dream of green glaciers and bottomless craters!


Left Pieter’s Hut at 8.30 a.m. and arrived here at 1.35 p.m. Today has been a perfect day. The mist cleared right away and early this morning we could see Johannes Hut and the forest below us, and later the whole plain and distant mountains were visible. It was a wonderful panorama and the effect of the drifting banks of cloud below was very beautiful. After two hours walking all vegetation ceased except for a few silver and yellow everlastings here and there. At this point we had to collect firewood and water to carry to the cave.
The middle stretches between Mwenzi and Kibo, are a desolate stony desert, yet close beside the cave I found one or two plants of a little daisy flower. Both Mwenzi and Kibo were clear all day and we had a good opportunity of studying ways of ascent. We are staying a day here before trying for the final climb. Kingsley is feeling puffed and tired but it is probably due to the fact that he took over one of the porter’s loads. The porter was exhausted. Now the guide is sick and the cook too, so we are rather a groggy collection. It is not so cold as we had imagined it would be. The cave is a good size so we can all fit in without being unpleasantly close. The porters have taken the back of the cave and we the front. They, the porters, were loath to enter the cave at first but when they saw us looking warm beside the brazier, which we made out of an old paraffin tin, one by one they conquered their fear of spirits and came in. Now they are sitting round their brazier while Hamisi tells them stories, mainly about the kind of food Europeans eat.
From here I can just distinguish the Kenya hills and plains faint and blue in the evening light.

July 12th

Spent the day resting and recovering from a bad head that I woke with this morning. It is better now which is a relief. The guide, Hamisi and three porters turned back today, Hamisi looking very sick and sorry for himself, likewise the guide. We are left with six porters, four to accompany us on the climb tomorrow and two to remain here. Today was spent by the porters fetching ice for water, a very lengthy process, and firewood, as stocks are low. I spent most of the day in the cave and towards afternoon recovered sufficiently to go outside and rest in the sun, and by evening felt well enough to wander over to some rocks from which we could get a view of Kibo.
What tomorrow will bring forth is the burning question. We dare not even imagine the humblest of victories. The climb from here does not look big, but in our puffed condition it will take us all our time. I forgot to say that yesterday we had a large herd of eland at about 14000 feet.

July 14th Pieter’s Hut:

Pieter’s hut again – was too tired last night to write anything. We reached a point some hundred feet higher than Hans Meyer’s Notch (Gillman’s point) the lowest point on the crater rim and the point at which the crater was first entered by Meyer.
We started at 4 a.m. from the cave with four porters, one carrying a brazier and a little firewood, the other two with a rucksac apiece and the fourth going free as a relief. The cold was bitter and numbed one to the bone.

We forget that in those days they had very elementary clothing. The cold must have reduced endurance considerably and consumed massive amounts of calories in the business of trying to keep warm. See photograph.

About a thousand feet above the cave we made what I think was the big mistake of the day. We turned to the right round a buttress instead of the left, and so caused ourselves much hard work and tired ourselves out quicker than we need have done. We rested for an hour just before the dawn, lit our fire and had some food. The cold had eaten so into us so that we felt we could not go on without fire and food. It was between the cave and this first breakfast that I felt most tired and sick. Starting from the cave I did not think I should be able to get far. However, I held on until we rested and after a light meal of very thin porridge, black coffee and a slice of bread and a stick of chocolate, I felt much better. At this point we left the brazier, and one rucksac with one of the porters to take back to the cave.
We proceeded on our way with the three porters and the one remaining rucksac between them. Very soon one of the three dropped out but the other two stalwarts accompanied us to the crater rim. The climbing was very tiring, heavy shale into which we sank up to our ankles, had to be contended with in addition to the altitude. We left our breakfast point at 7.15 a.m. and reached the crater rim at 12.10, so the arduousness of the process can be imagined. At about 9 a.m Kinglsey began to get very winded and sick. The last half hour the climbing was not so trying, for we crossed the ridge of rock between our path and the slope we should have ascended, and came almost directly to the snow. On our left was the Ratzel Glacier, green-white and dazzling. The snow and ice ends abruptly in places and a wall of green ice falls precipitately to the edge of the moraine. It was a joy to get onto the firm snow slope. Getting to the notch was a thrilling moment And tired as we all were it put fresh life into us.
After opening the record tin and examining the flags left by Mr. Gilman and Mr. Stewart together with their records, and those left by Mr. Millar and his party, we rested for a few moments and indulged in some light refreshment in the form of chocolate. Then we proceeded Kaiser Wilhelm spitswards, leaving our two porters at the Notch. The highest point as far as we could make out is not a true “spits” but the snow cap to a rocky cliff opposite the Notch. For this we aimed. We started first on the ice rim round the crater, on finding this getting unsafe we worked our way back and down on to the rock which lines the one side of the crater. We got about half way to the point aimed at when Kingsley found he was too exhausted and sick to go further, so we decided to abandon our attempt to reach the point opposite the Notch. We were at this time at the base of the highest rock pinnacle in the crater rim. We climbed this pinnacle, leaving our record in a glass jar. On our recording card we named the pinnacle “Point Stella”, provided it had not been previously named.
The return journey to the Notch was made very slowly with frequent rests, but without difficulty beyond that of breathing. The two porters we had left at the Notch greeted us enthusiastically. I felt really exhausted after we got back to the Notch and could do nothing but lie down, close my eyes and pant.
Brandy and a little coffee helped us and we commenced the descent. We took two hours to reach the cave and almost resented going down so quickly. Special mention ought to be made of the two porters who got to the Notch. They were really good fellows.
I attempted to sketch the geography of the crater.
The walls of ice on the North side of the crate are high and very beautiful, the ice falling sheer to the bottom of the crater. The crater, near and north east of, the Notch is very deep and there are two curious looking potholes at the bottom. To the South and West of the Notch the crater walls are lower, rocky and with patches of ice and snow.

The following is a copy of the record we left at the Notch:-
“Estella M Latham
Kingsley Latham (Mountain Club of South Africa.)
Reached this point at 12.10 p.m. on Monday 13th July 1925 .accompanied by natives Filipos and Sambuananga. We then attempted to reach KW Spitz but were unable to reach it due to partial snow blindness, mountain sickness and exhaustion on my part. My wife was fit to reach the Spitz and she led on the return trip here as I was unfit to lead. In her honour I have named the point we reached “POINT STELLA”. It bears 290 degrees E of North i.e. 70 degrees West.
Kingsley Latham 13.7.25.”

After reaching the cave we decided we were too tired to reach Pieter’s Hut as had been our first intention. The tireless Filipos, he who carried the ruksac and went sockless and in native sandals to the crater, went on his way to the hut accompanied by two of the other porters who had remained at the cave. They took most of our cave loads, leaving Sambaunanga and two other to bring the rest in the morning. Poor Sambaunanga was afflicted by a touch of the sun and snow and kept shaking my hand for the next two days!
Today we left the cave early and took our time to get here, stopping frequently to gather flowers and rest. I feel very stiff and tired today. Found Hamisi and the guide at the hut, still sick but recovering. They were greatly surprised we had got up, and the guide is very ashamed of himself. He impressed on me that I was the first memsahib to get up.
Tomorrow we should reach Moshi.


Back to civilisation again. We left Pieter’s at about 8 a.m. and reached old Moshi at about 3.30 p.m. Here we retrieved our motor bike and rode into Moshi. The porters arrived an hour later and we paid them off and bade farewell to our companions of eight days.
We came fairly slowly from Pieter’s Hut collecting flowers by the way. We got into the mist again just after leaving Johannes Hut, so could see nothing of the forest on the down trip either. Nor can we see the mountain now. I had hoped we would get a good view of the mountain from here and so get a true idea of its magnitude.
Since our return here it has been ascertained from descriptions that “Point Stella” is possibly the actual Kaiser Wilhelm Spitz - the highest point in Africa.
The memory of those cool snows, thousands of feet above all petty turmoil and strife, shall be a blessed and precious memory to carry through the years.
EM Latham.”

For some time there was a belief that Point Stella was in fact the highest point on the mountain, but this is not the case. Also my father’s compass bearings show quite clearly that Point Stella and Uhuru Point as Kaiser Wilhelm Spitz is now called is not the same place. There is now a rather “tatty” notice board announcing Point Stella but no explanation as to how it came by its name. A great friend of mine, Colonel Lionel Dyck recently climbed the mountain by the route taken by my parents, and wrote to me that it was a shame that such an historic site should not be better remembered. He suggested a stainless steel memorial plaque should be erected there and told me the Kilimanjaro Park staff would happily erect it for us of we were to manufacture such a notice.

Lionel made the climb in December 06 as a sort of “recce”, ahead of a climb that he and I and another old friend (another old soldier and one time commander of the Rhodesian Squadron of the SAS) were contemplating. Lionel commented on his return: “It was hard work.” He is a super fit sixty something who has climbed in the Himalaya, Andes and even the mysterious Ruwenzori, so knows a thing or two about high mountains. I think it was a gentle hint that perhaps the proposed trip may be a bit too arduous for a seventy something old geezer. But we intend to take it slowly, stopping off for a day or two to acclimatise where necessary. It would be a great moment for me to get there for I promised my mother as a young man in Tanganyika that I would not go for it, so have never been high on the mountain. She was really concerned that I might suffer the same sort of trauma as my father did in 1937.

1 comment:

  1. I came across your blog while researching Stella Latham for a piece I'm writing about women pioneers on Kilimanjaro -- really interesting!