The Lost Story of the First Woman to Climb Kilimanjaro (in 1927)
"We crawled to the summit foot by foot. I am not being dramatic, it really was like that."
Who was the first woman to climb Kilimanjaro? Have you heard of her? Well, her name was Sheila Macdonald and I’d never heard of her either, until a few months ago. My then colleague, Stu Kenny, did an interview with Paula Williams, the curator of the Petticoats and Pinnacles exhibition at the National Library of Scotland. This led him to write an excellent piece about a Scottish mountaineer who didn’t quite make it into the exhibition: Sheila Macdonald.
When I proofread the article, I found Sheila fascinating. She was born in Australia in 1901 and was the daughter of Claude Macdonald, vice-president of the Alpine Club. She climbed in Scotland and the Alps; had summitted Mount Etna; and climbed Stromboli - an active volcano - rowing an open boat across a stormy sea to get away. She never set out to climb Kilimanjaro: she was meant to be visiting her cousin in Kenya. But she met a gentleman in an Alpine Club tie, Mr West, on the ship to Africa and joined his expedition instead.
Stu had found it challenging to uncover good and accurate information about the expedition, with a fair bit of misreporting in newspapers. But I wished that I could read a book about this awesome lady. So I started my own investigation, out of pure curiosity. On the way, I thought, “What about the Alpine Journals?” If her father was vice-president of the Alpine Club then surely someone would have mentioned her climbing Kilimanjaro. Even if women weren’t allowed to be members at the time.
A bit of a rummage and I found it: an expedition report written by Sheila Macdonald herself. The following extract is reproduced by the kind permission of the Alpine Club from their Alpine Journal archives.
KILIMANJARO IN 1927. By Miss SHEILA MACDONALD.
[The substance of this account is contained in a letter to Mr. Claude and Mrs. Macdonald, to whom we offer our best thanks.- Editor ‘A.J.’]
MOSHI, TANGANYIKA TERRITORY, August 2, 1927.
Mr W. C. West of the Alpine Club and I have climbed to the top of Kilimanjaro, and no woman has ever succeeded in getting there before. Kilimanjaro consists of two mountains - Kibo (19,710 ft) and Mawenzi (17,300 ft), separated by a 6-mile plateau. Mr. West and I and Major O. Lennox-Browne climbed Mawonzi first, choosing our route as we went, at least Mr. West did, and got to the highest point which had been reached by two German parties, both in 1912. We found their names and records in an old tin built into the cairn and added our names on the same piece of paper.
Our camp was at the foot of Mawenzi, but we could not stand the height for two nights running, and had to descend to 12,700 ft again before attacking Kibo. Mr. West and I were the only two to reach the top of Kibo, as Major Lennox-Browne, who suffered from the altitude, could go no further than three quarters of the way up. I never knew that mountain sickness and lack of oxygen could be so awful. And now I had better start from the beginning, as otherwise half the account will be left out.
The three of us joined together at Mombasa and came straight on here, branching off the main line at Voi. At Voi we got a ‘water train’ to Moshi, the only conveyance for nearly a week. It stopped every four miles to distribute water at wayside halts, and we travelled all day on the footboards - eight hours, and arrived at Moshi looking like Red Indians from the red dust. Here we stopped the night and just long enough next day to collect provisions, a cook and a personal boy. Then we travelled for two and a half hours on a Ford lorry with our camp equipment all about us, through scrub and up and down gullies-a most amazing road. I sat next to the native driver, and he was the best thing in chauffeurs I have ever seen-nothing abashed him, we took logs and ravines in our stride.
We got to Marangu in the evening and interviewed Mlanga, the Chief of the Wachagga, who was to provide us with fourteen porters to take our stuff to the highest hut on the mountain. He gave us eggs, milk and a leggy fowl, and I gave him a postcard of Kilimanjaro. He let us camp in front of his Council House. All our porters were rounded up by him, he sent out his ‘Royal Crier’, a picturesque gentleman in a blanket, who called the tribe together by making strange noises on a koodoo horn.
From Marangu we climbed up to Bismarck Hut through dense forests very much like those Knysna forests in South Africa, but more tropical - amazing creepers and lots of signs of elephant. Bismarck Hut suffered a lot during the fighting with Smuts, etc, but still offered the shelter of thick walls and a tin roof. It is high up on the mountain with a wide view of the plain, copper-coloured in the sun, while we were in shadow and mist in the middle of the cloud-belt which always encircles Kilimanjaro. This is one of the things that make the mountain so wonderful. It rises straight from the plain in one sheer mass, but the base of it is always separated from the top by this circle of mist and fleecy cloud, so that the great dome of smooth snow looks completely detached from the earth like a great moon hanging in heaven, especially at night when it looks too beautiful for description.
We left Bismarck Hut on July 27, and got above the cloud-belt into the sun again through a district of sweet-smelling shrubs, protea, giant heather and gladioli to Pieters Hut, where we turned in on very comfortable grass bunks. We saw plenty of elands standing as high as cattle. Major Lennox-Browne and I crawled towards a herd on our tummies with great success, while Mr. West (otherwise the ‘Skipper’) diverted their attention with his white helmet. We got near enough to take a photo when one of the porters dropped his load; it crashed down into the undergrowth and frightened the creatures away. We all sat outside the hut trying to spot animals with field-glasses. I found a big shaggy brown thing like a grizzly bear and distinctly saw it wag its tail, but in the morning it turned out to be an ant-hill.
The way from Pieters Hut to the foot of Mawenzi leads over rough country and crosses a corner of the plateau. We put up our tents near the foot of our proposed climb and spent a very cold night in them. In the morning, tea, ink and the Skipper's mixture of whisky and lime juice were all frozen ice. I was feeling giddy and headachey, Mr. West was violently sick and could not eat. The difficulty about Mawenzi is that there is such a mass of pinnacles and jagged ridges that the highest point is impossible to distinguish except from high up on Kibo. Several people have been up and thought themselves on the summit, discovering later that they had been on a minor peak.
It is the most lovely mountain for climbing; the difficult part was the first half before we got into the couloir that leads to the top. We used the rope for a few difficult steps leading up into the NW gully. This gully reaches almost to the top, broken by one sheer wall, where we had to climb out on to the righthand side of it again. There were excellent hand and footholds, mostly alternating with exhausting slopes of scree and loose rocks. At the top of the gully were three pinnacles, which seemed to us of equal height.
We found the cairn and records of the two German ascents on the most southerly and insignificant looking of the three pinnacles. This is Hans Meyer Spitze (17,300 ft). We rested here a few minutes and shuddered at the tremendous drops on the E side of the mountain. The summit is split into jagged pinnacles of every size, some of them only a few feet thick and piled to heights of 40 and 50 ft. From them precipices drop to sheer depths of thousands of feet.
We had meant to go straight from Mawenzi to Kibo, but decided that it was worth going down to Pieters Hut to have a good rest in between, especially as Mr. West was really suffering from the height, so we had a cup of Bovril each when we came down from Hans Meyer Spitze at 5 pm, and started back for Pieters Hut, getting there at 8 pm. Major Lennox-Browne was rather seedy, and suggested a day's rest, which we had and enjoyed, though I rather wanted to have a ‘go’ at Kibo while keyed up to the struggle.
So Friday was a slack day, and on Saturday, July 30, we climbed up to the plateau again and made for the foot of Kibo, where there is a cave (Hans Meyer's Höhle), where we meant to spend part of the night. The plateau was a horrid grind, slightly uphill all the way, drifting sand and the wind in our faces. When we got to the other side we discovered that the four porters we had chosen for the last lap to the cave did not know where it was, so we hunted about the rocks until I found a beauty, well sheltered, with a sandy ground- ‘The Sheila Cave’ this is to be called. We turned in while the boys built a large fire in the entrance.
Mr. West 's idea was to start the climb at midnight, so as to get to the top at sunrise, before the heat of the sun made the ascent too difficult in soft snow. However, we only had a lantern, which was quite inadequate; it went out five times before we decided to wait till daybreak and risk the soft snow at the top. We settled down in the scanty shelter of a rock and waited 3 hrs for light to come; then started the most awful climb for hours upon loose rocks, stones and sand; everything you put your foot on slipped back with you, and after 3 hrs’ hard climb we looked up and seemed to have made no progress.
At first we rested every hour, but at about 18,000 ft we dragged ourselves for about 20 ft at a time with stops between each bit to get our breath in working order. However much one gasped and panted, nothing seemed to get into one's lungs. I was rather ahead of the others, because I had found some firmer rock at about 800 ft from the crater's rim. When I found that the others were not following I cooeed several times, and finally Mr. West came round a mass of rocks - by himself! Major Lennox-Browne was completely finished, and could not go a step farther. I can't understand how Mr. West could keep going, when he had been sick and dizzy with nausea. I think he was feeling rather weak just here, though he didn't give in.
Well, up to this point I had been wondering several times how long I could stick it out, but I braced myself up and was comforted by feeling that I was not the weak one of the party. Mr. West and I had a good dose of whisky and lime juice out of our drinking bottle, pulled ourselves together, and went on. We reached the crater's edge at Johannes Notch, and bore round to the left, past Stella Point (reached by the Kingsley-Lathams last year) and on round the crater to Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze, the highest point, reached once before by Mr. West, in 1914, when he was the first Englishman to make the ascent.
We crawled to the summit foot by foot. I am not being dramatic, it really was like that. It was just in front of us, and I thought we should never get there. You can't imagine the relief of leaning up against the cairn and realizing that we were there. We inscribed our names in the pocket-book that is hidden in the cairn, and split a bottle of champagne carried all the way from Moshi for the occasion. We had poor Major Lennox-Browne's share as well, but unfortunately had to drink out of the bottle and got very little but fizziness - better than nothing, though.
Several women have reached the crater's rim, but very few people have been beyond - no women. 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 of it, huge crevasses and seracs around its rim. I have never seen anything like it. The cold made it impossible to stay up there for long, so we took one or two photos and followed our tracks back to the crater's rim.
The way down was ridiculously easy; we just ‘glissaded’ down steep slopes of lava-dust and small stones, and it took us less than 2 hrs, though we took a wrong turning near the bottom and found ourselves in a narrow gully with a sheer cliff at our feet, dropping a good 80 ft to the plateau. So we retraced our steps again (more upward scrambling!), reached our cave just in time for a 20 minutes' rest and a cup of tea before starting on the 4 hrs' tramp to Pieters Hut again - anything for comfortable grass bunks and a good night's rest.
Darkness overcame us on the way, and we got lost and had to squat down where we were, with a huge fire lit as a signal to the boys at the hut. They found us at about 10 pm and led us to Pieters Hut with great torches of sweet-smelling shrub. There was much waving of branches to make the sparks fly. What a day! and the next morning we had to walk 25 miles to Marangu; dropping 8000 ft in 7 hrs.
So now it is done, and I would not have missed it for the world, though I cannot say I ever want to do Kibo again. Mawenzi I should like to do dozens of times. We have a lorry to take us and our luggage to Nairobi to-morrow, about 250 miles, as the train does not go until Saturday. You cannot imagine how splendid Mr. West has been on this expedition, always cheerful and most optimistic. The boys loved him, and he always managed to get things done, though none of them spoke a word of English, and all we could say in Swahili was ‘tea’, ‘coffee’, ‘water’ and ‘prepare food’.
The report is then followed by a commentary from Mr West, refuting claims that other women had summitted first. It seems there was quite some controversy at the time. It also contains a few black and white pictures of what Kilimanjaro used to look like. You can view it on the Alpine Journal Archive 1928 Vol 40.
Many thanks again to the Alpine Club for allowing us to share this story. It’s worth saying that women most definitely can join the Alpine Club nowadays! In fact, the club recently organised a ‘Women Rise Up’ meet, recreating some famous female first ascents. They are also partnering with the Pinnacle Club (the UK’s only national rock-climbing club for women) to run an exhibition called 'Women with Altitude' which will profile female alpinists from the last 100 years. This ties in with the Pinnacle Club's centenary and will run from November 2021 to January 2022.
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