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“We have met fear, and we have conquered it!”

Maria Fsadni, February 2019
An old black and white photo shows two people standing on a vast mountain landscape covered in snow.

Fifty years ago, on 20 February 1969, seven young men with visual impairments climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain.

Sightsavers organised and supported the expedition, which aimed to combat the negative beliefs held by employers and communities about disability as these prevented many people from getting jobs and going to school.

The idea was met with an immediate enthusiastic response from blind people throughout the region, many of whom rushed to apply to take part. Given the risk of altitude sickness and the sharp differences in temperatures on the climb, only a few of the fittest applicants could be selected to ensure the expedition had a good chance of success.

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An old black and white photo showing four men training for a climb in rugged bushland.
Members of the team in training.

Heading for the summit

A hard, two-week training camp was held for the chosen trekkers, who came from Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. They were taught skills including rock-scrambling, how to climb and abseil using ropes, and how to use radio equipment.

The attempt to scale the mountain began on Monday 17 February. After climbing through the wet, dank rainforest, the trekkers made camp at 8,000 feet. The second began the ‘long haul’ up to the 15,000ft caves where the trekkers would spend the night.

On the third day, the company passed through dusty, rocky country, and as they ascended, the men were excited to experience snow and ice for the first time. But by now some were suffering from altitude sickness, sunburn and the bitter cold, and one trekker was forced to turn back.

That night, in the severe cold and with a lack of space, the men had to pile up on each other to stay warm. Setting off for their summit attempt at 3am on Thursday 20 February, they moved slowly and with difficulty, having to pull out the ice-axes to keep silently cutting steps through the snow.

Just after noon that day, after nine hours of clambering – the last 3,000ft against high winds and sub-zero temperatures – the remaining trekkers and their guides made it to the top.

As they struggled, exhausted, onto the summit, one of the guides shouted into the walkie-talkie: “This is a moment of glory!”

His words, picked up by radio, were the first broadcast made from the peak of the mountain.

Old black and white photo showing a group of men in cold weather mountaineering clothing holding a sign saying 'Keep fit and give sight'.
The team after achieving their goal.

Returning heroes

A few minutes later news of this extraordinary achievement was relayed by the press agencies from Nairobi and was covered internationally by newspapers, television and radio stations throughout the world.

After they successfully reached the summit of Kilimanjaro, the young men were received in their hometowns as heroes. The three men from Uganda arrived home to a state welcome and their boots, worn out and beyond repair, were preserved in the Uganda National Museum.

Perhaps one of the most telling comments was made by 25-year-old trekker Andikati, son of Lemarleui, who was a member of the Samburu tribe in Kenya.

“We were blind; we are now new men. We have met fear. We have conquered it. Though we still cannot see, we have walked through the gardens of the gods and they were not angry. Soon we will be safe. It has been a fearsome and beautiful experience, has it not, my brothers?”

His words were met by murmurs of approval from his exhausted fellow trekkers.

Author


name of person followed by a fullstop.Maria Fsadni
Maria is Senior Media and PR Officer at Sightsavers.

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