Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 14.03.19

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From Skye to Mt Kilimanjaro conclusion

Sheila Combe continued: ‘Each day was quite different from the one before. After the forest it was all dwarf shrub and giant heather, with lots of eland [antelope], and then it was like a rock garden. By the third night we were on the plateau about half way between Mawenzi and Kibo. By then West was already feeling rather sick and suffering from the altitude, so we decided to spend two or three nights at that level to allow him to recuperate. It was very, very cold. I had a bottle of ink, and it froze absolutely solid.

‘We decided to climb Mawenzi, which is by far the more interesting of the two summits. It is real, good, rock-climbing, and we climbed it with the help of a postcard which West had bought in Nairobi. Otherwise, it would have been difficult to work out which of the mass pinnacles was the summit.

‘We enjoyed that day very much indeed. It is the most lovely mountain for climbing, with excellent hand and foot holds. We used the rope and at the summit we found the names of the Germans who reached there in 1912. They were on paper in a tin box, and we added our names.

‘Having climbed Mawenzi we thought we ought to go back down to the plateau as we were both feeling the effect of the altitude. We spent the night in Pieter’s Hut built before the war at 12,700 ft. Next day we started back up towards Kibo. Four of the porters came with us until darkness fell when they refused to go any further because to them it was a holy mountain. We continued on alone.

‘West had planned to ascend by moonlight but got his calculations wrong. It happened to be a totally dark night. We had one small lantern, which made it very difficult. The person in front lit up the next person, but the one behind could see nothing at all. We managed to stagger on but then it began to get really dangerous, because it was completely dark and there were praecipes here and there, and we could see nothing.

‘After resting there followed the really terrible, exhausting climb, because of the lack of air. You couldn’t possibly think of the summit, because you’d just fall. All you could do was to look at the rock just a few feet above you and think “I must get to that rock”. When you got there you collapsed then, taking three or four deep breathes you carried on; just rock by rock.

‘Then suddenly Lennox-Browne said, “I cannot do any more, I’m finished, I can’t go any further”, so West sent him back with the lantern and the blankets. So we left him and went on and on. There was no end to it. It was terrible, the gasping was appalling.

‘Finally after a good dose of whisky and lime juice, we reached the crater’s edge at Johannes Notch. We went to the left round the crater rim and crawled to the summit, foot by foot. I am not being dramatic. It really was like that.

‘You can’t imagine the relief of leaning up against the summit cairn and realising we were there, at Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze. We wrote our names in the pocket-book hidden inside the cairn. We had brought a bottle of champagne – as if we hadn’t enough troubles without carrying it. We opened it; whoosh. There wasn’t a drop left in it because of the altitude. Not one drop. We had carried chocolate and sultanas in our pockets. We had just that, and then we started down again.

‘A few women had managed to get to the crater rim, but very few people, and none of them women, had been round to the summit. The inside of the crater is amazing. Imagine a huge bowl of ice with hanging glaciers all round its inside walls and two great lakes of greeny-blue ice at the bottom. I have never seen anything like it.

‘The way down was ridiculously easy. We just glissaded down steep slopes of lava dust. The porters were not where we left them; they were further down at Pieter’s Hut. As we got closer we could see their camp fire. We reached them about 10pm. Next morning we walked 25 miles to Marangu and from there we went on to Moshie and took a lorry to Nairobi.

‘My friends were not in the least impressed. All they really thought about was that we had been through the jungle without firearms. They assumed it must be alive with dangerous animals. So that was that.’

News of Sheila’s ascent soon got out. West and  Lennox-Brown must have had excellent contacts in the media because in no time at all she was on the front pages of just about every newspaper and magazine in the free world.

Leaving her climbing companions in Nairobi, Sheila went on safari with her cousin Captain Archie Ritchie, the most famous of Kenya’s Colonial Chief Game Wardens. From what she told me, this was much more interesting and exciting for her than her recent climb.

The countryside was teeming with wildlife in a way today’s visitors would scarcely believe – as the West Highlands were less than 30 years ago, even although many animals were being killed by big game hunters such as the American ex-President Teddy Roosevelt. It is on record that in 1909 he and his son shot more than 500 species, including 17 lions, 29 zebras, 27 gazelles, nine black and white monkeys, eight hippopotami, two ostriches, a pelican, four crocodiles, and goodness knows how many elephants.

On one occasion in some remote place, Sheila was attacked at night in her bed by an intruder but managed to throw him off unaided – a story she enjoyed telling in graphic detail.

Following a brief and unsuccessful marriage, she went to India with the WVS and later, in the Second World War, worked in the ophthalmic wing of Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital at Millbank, London.

But her real love was the Highlands and it was to the west she returned, making her home in Lochaber at the Studio in Glen Nevis. Here she painted and made a garden out of a jungle.

In 1983 Sheila successfully nominated her postie, Jimmy MacDougall from Inverlochy, as Postman of the Year in a UK national competition and accompanied him by train from Fort William to watch him receive his award at the prestigious London Westminster Hilton Hotel.

She died in May 1987 and was buried in Cille Choirill in the foothills of Lochaber in a spot chosen by herself a few months before her death. As we carried her coffin shoulder high from the car park up the slope and past the 15th-century Roman Catholic church dedicated to St Kerrill, a golden eagle appeared high overhead soaring on the thermals, and when her coffin disappeared into the earth, it too vanished out of sight in the mist –  something that was remarked on at the time by all those present.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com

Image and caption

Cille Choirill, Glen Spean; last resting place of Sheila Combe, nee MacDonald. (Photograph Martin Briscoe)