Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 07.03.19

Sheila Combe aged 79 in 1980. Photograph: Iain Thornber

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Why climb mountains?

General Smuts, the famous South African and British Commonwealth statesman and philosopher, wrote: ‘When we reach the mountain summits, we leave behind us all things that weigh heavily down below on our body and spirit.

‘We leave behind all sense of weakness and depression. We feel a new freedom, a great exhilaration, an exaltation of the body no less than of the spirit. We feel a great joy.’

George Mallory, who climbed in Lochaber and may or may not have been the first man to reach the summit of Everest in 1924, dying on the way down, reputedly said on being asked why Everest: ‘Because it is there – it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.’

Sounds good to me.

The first woman to climb Mount Kilimanjaro had a Lochaber connection. Her name was Sheila MacDonald, later Mrs Combe, who lived in Glen Nevis before she moved down to the Invernevis care home in Fort William.

I first met Sheila in 1978 at Inverailort Castle, the home of her friend, Mrs Cameron-Head, where she went to stay when she got bored with ‘institutional life’, as she called it. ‘Go into the drawing-room,’ I was told by our hostess. ‘There you will meet an interesting lady and if you give her a dram she will likely tell you about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.’

Pouring what I thought was a fairly stiff whisky in any language, she took one look at it and promptly thrust the glass back at me with the words: ‘I’d like a man-size drink please.’

Yes, I thought, here indeed was a character and one capable of conquering the Everest of Africa.

Mount Kilimanjaro or just Kilimanjaro, with its three cones, Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira, is a dormant volcano in Tanzania. At 19,341ft above sea level, it is the highest mountain in Africa. The first people known to have reached its summit were two Germans, Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller, in 1889.

The mountain is part of the Kilimanjaro National Park. It is now a major climbing destination and has been the subject of many scientific studies because of its shrinking glaciers and disappearing ice fields.

Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim. The origin of the name ‘Kilimanjar’ is not exactly known. European explorers had adopted the name by 1860 and reported that ‘Kilimanjaro’ was the mountain’s Kiswahili name.

Johann Ludwig Krapf (1810-1881), a German missionary in East Africa, as well as an explorer, linguist and traveller, wrote in 1860, that Swahilis along the coast called the mountain Kilimanjaro, meaning the mountain of greatness, its height acknowledged long before the advent of accurate surveying equipment.

Sheila was born in Australia in 1901. She was educated at Newham College, Cambridge, where she read modern languages and excelled in rowing, narrowly missing a place in one of the university boat races. She spent much of her early years in Skye, where she began climbing, and in the Alps with her father, the vice-president of the Alpine Club.

Mount Kilimanjaro. Photograph: David Clode
Mount Kilimanjaro. Photograph: David Clode

Sheila gave me her story about ascending Kilimanjaro. ‘It was in 1927, and I was on my way to Africa by sea to stay with my cousin, Archie Ritchie, chief game warden of Kenya. On the ship, I noticed a man who kept himself very much to himself, walking around the deck every day. As he was wearing an Alpine Club tie, I felt I had to stop and ask him about it. He was obviously a climber and I wanted to know what he was doing out here. “Oh,” he said, “my name is William West and I’m on the way to climb Kilimanjaro. I made an ascent in 1914 but that was rushed and unsatisfactory because of the war, and now I am going out to make a second attempt. Would you like to climb it with me?” “For heaven’s sake,” I said, “you know nothing about my climbing ability. I don’t know anything about the mountain.” To which he replied, “I know your father’s reputation. I think that you could manage it quite well. I would be pleased to take you if you would undertake it.” And so I said I would.

‘Later another passenger, Major Lennox-Browne, asked if he could join the party. He had never done any climbing, but he felt that I should not be climbing as a lone woman with a single man. So we were a party of three when we landed at Mombasa.

‘By that time I had collected a pair of trousers, socks, a wide-brimmed felt hat called a terai and a pullover – all from different passengers who were
very interested in the venture – I only had boots to buy.

‘I was met at Mombasa by friends of my cousin and forbidden to do such a thing, and was told that I must proceed instantly to Nairobi. The Nairobi race balls were shortly to begin, with the dances that went with them. I said, “No, I am determined to climb this mountain.” Well, they sent a cable to Archie in Nairobi to say, “Cousin very pig-headed,” and I went back to my friends.

‘My parents, who expected me to stay with them in Australia after Nairobi, were shocked and furious with me.

‘We went by train to Voi and changed for Moshi. This was the local water train; it stopped frequently to distribute water. We were eight hours on the footboards, and arrived at Moshi looking like Red Indians from the dust. Here we disembarked. Then West said to me, “Oh, you can see the summit.” I looked up. No I could only see cloud. “You’re not looking high enough,” West said.

‘I nearly passed out; it was tremendous. I was terrified. I thought, if I can get out of this, I shall. But it was too late. It is not a beautiful mountain. It’s rather like Ben Nevis; impressive by its immensity. And, of course, it
was more lovely because it had far more snow on it.

‘In the town of Moshi we bought provisions and found a cook and a boy to help him. Then in a Ford lorry, we drove for two and a half hours to the village of Marangu and met the headman, Mlanga. He gave us eggs, milk and a fowl, and let us camp in front of his house. He had a large kudu horn brought to him on which the village crier blew a great blast to summon the village. He then detailed off 14 men who were to accompany us. That’s how we got our porters. We started up from there.

‘The first day was through beautiful deciduous forest. We saw no game, but we did see very fresh elephant droppings. We were walking along an elephant track, not a man-made road. There was no path to the mountain summit. West had only one small tent, and the men were very courteous to me. When we stopped for the first night, they said I was to have the tent, and they would just sleep out in their sleeping bags.’

To be continued.

Iain Thornber