September 10, 2011

Towards the summit of Kilimanjaro

Simon Mtuy

(info about Simon Mtuy)

A great runner on Mount Kilimanjaro

Thomas Kieller

Photo – Copyright United Athletes Magazine

Simon Mtuy: Among volcanic rocks.

Born in Mbahe Village, Simon grew up on the flank of Kilimanjaro in a family of ten children. Quickly, he was attracted by the emblematic Tanzanian mountain which offers numerous possibilities for work. At 14 years old, he started as a porter where he was confronted to the volcanic dust and the high altitude. He worked hard by transporting the necessary equipment during the ascents. By discovering the rigour of the job, he became a cook, after an assistant-guide than a guide, a work that he does with enthusiasm for 20 years. Besides, he is also a great runner. Tall and slender, he has a powerful stride and he is also very agile. Truly passionate of nature and mountains, this Tanzanian adores running outside because he feels free there. The path that he took in the world of running led him slowly from marathon to 160 km event which he covers in one day! Whatever the terrain or the weather, he is ready for those ultra-long distance races. By adopting an athletic lifestyle, he understands well what he has to do in order to be competitive. No doubt that this humble sportsman is also a determined man in everything he undertakes. He reached the summit of Kilimanjaro more than 400 times for his pleasure and in the context of his work. Like he says with a beaming smile, he feels always a good sensation at the highest point of Africa because of everything one must do to reach it. Each time, the ascent is different. Moreover, in memory of his brother who died from AIDS, he ran on Kilimanjaro where he established two records of the fastest ascent and descent. One must not forget that with his enterprise which organizes many adventures, he likes to share the culture and the natural landscapes of his country. He is really proud of that. In the end, Simon adores running like he has Tanzania and Kilimanjaro in his heart. For him, it is a part of his life.

The interview took place on October 12, 2010 at 16:50 at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

Prelude – After seven days of ascent, Simon and I arrived at the summit of Kilimanjaro. Happy to have reached the final objective, we took a well deserved break to observe the landscape. The crater with all its different colors and the ancient glaciers are contrasting with the blue sky and the clouds. After a few photo-souvenirs, we sat down respectively on a small boulder in order to discuss around fifteen minutes about Simon’s passions, Kilimanjaro and Tanzania.

Being a guide on Kilimanjaro

Thomas Kieller: Could you tell me how you became a guide?

Simon Mtuy: I became a guide because I was born right on the foothills of Kilimanjaro in a small village called Mbahe near Marangu. Actually, I discovered slowly this mountain over the years. I started as a porter and after a while I made it to assistant-guide. Eventually, I followed a training to become a guide. Today, it is almost 20 years that I’m a doing this.

Thomas: Right away, did you have an attraction for mountains?

Simon: Yes, I had many opportunities around Kilimanjaro as a guide or during my previous jobs. I truly enjoy the spirit of this mountain and it is why I chose this work.

Thomas: However, initially, you took the path to become a police officer?

Simon: Well, my parents really wanted for me that I become a police officer, especially my father. Nevertheless, it was not really my interest. I should rather say that it was not my cup of tea. I chose to become more a physical being and it is why I wanted to be a guide on Kilimanjaro. I was not interested to be a police officer because I don’t really appreciate the spirit of this profession.

Thomas: What is the satisfaction you get by doing the job of a guide?

Simon: I enjoy meeting people from all over the world who come here to achieve their dream and I really like to be part of it. Also, Kilimanjaro is a real beautiful mountain and I believe it should be a natural wonder of the world! Each time I look around this mountain, I feel that there is no other place like Mount Kilimanjaro which has so much to offer.

Thomas: Mountains and especially Kilimanjaro represent what for you?

Simon: Kilimanjaro to me is my livelihood and also it made me realize that this mountain brings dreams for many persons. A man in London can dream of climbing it. For me who grew up right here, it gave me a job like it did for many other Tanzanians who live around this mountain. They have work and that’s quite good.

Thomas: Also, you can do a lot of activities around this mountain...

Simon: Yes and I do many things here like guiding, running and biking. At my village in Mbahe, I enjoy farming where I grow mainly coffee, but also vegetables. Actually, 75% of the vegetables that I produce are used during the expeditions on Kilimanjaro. I’m almost self sufficient for all the food which is used for the cooked meals on the mountain.

Thomas: On another subject, what are your preoccupations concerning Kilimanjaro?

Simon: I’m more concerned about the ecological aspect of this mountain. Now, there are more people who climb Mount Kilimanjaro and I’m sort of worried to see the ancient glaciers melting. If you look around, there are lesser amounts of glaciers remaining. I know the conditions around Kilimanjaro and I try to do my best to give something back to this mountain. I can help in conservation like planting trees around the mountain, educating people and cleaning out when I come here. However, sometimes I feel sad to be here because there are more people who climb the mountain and obviously there is an impact on it. Of course, it is great for the economy of Tanzania by creating jobs and giving many opportunities for the local people. So, I’m not sure what will happen for Mount Kilimanjaro in the next 20 years. I hope we will all join together in order to make the right decision for the people who live around the mountain.

Records on Kilimanjaro

Thomas: You made two records on Kilimanjaro. Could you tell me more about your ascent and descent with assistance in 8 hours 27 minutes and without assistance in 9 hours 22 minutes?

Simon: First, let me give a little bit of my background. I’m an endurance runner and I compete in races between 50 km and 160 km all over the world.

In 2004, my brother Joachim passed away with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). I was left with his three kids, to care for them and to give them an education. I took an initiative which is to run on Kilimanjaro for my brother’s memory and also in order to raise funds for his children’s education. I wanted also to break the silence concerning this illness by beating the record on this African mountain which I did in 2004 in 8 hours 27 minutes. Two years later in 2006, I made another record but this time I did it in an unsupported manner in 9 hours 22 minutes.

One of my records has been taken away, the one in 8 hours 27 minutes, by Kilian Jornet a Spanish runner who just beat my record a few weeks ago, September 28, 2010. I was very proud and very enthusiastic to meet Kilian, a young athlete, who wanted to break my record. It was a great deal for me to train Kilian and to run with him and to help him logistically to put his record up which is now 7 hours 14 minutes. I believe this record will remain for quite a while because he is a respected world athlete concerning endurance and sky running. He is a great young runner who did on Kilimanjaro an awesome performance.

Thomas: Concerning you, how did you prepare for the ascent and descent without assistance?

Simon: I spent a lot of time on the mountain to acclimatize. Actually, I spent a few days in Umbwe, a few days in Barraco, a few days at Lava Tower Camp and finally a few days at Crater Camp. Afterwards, I did the route all the way down to Umbwe. I took around 12 days to track down the route and to be physically fit. I rested for a day before I started my fast ascent and descent of Mount Kilimanjaro. The starting point was Umbwe Gate and I went up to the summit and I ran down in order to finish at Mweka Gate. It was a good challenge and I look to do better in the future.

Thomas: What was the most difficult thing about this accomplishment?

Simon: The physical training was very challenging. Secondly, I can say that the goal was also a preoccupation for me. I was doing this record for a purpose and I felt the spirit of the mountain. When I ran in 2004 and afterwards in 2006, I was thinking about my brother who I sincerely miss. I ran in his memory and, like I said, I ran to raise money for his kids’ education. It was a great deal for me.

Long distance runner

Thomas: Could you tell me what type of race you do?

Simon: I do endurance races and I did approximately 50 competitions in the last ten years around the world. My background was marathon and I did many in the past. Eventually, I went to trail running which is between 50 km to 160 km. So, I do a lot of running.

Thomas: How do you train for a 160 km race?

Simon: For an athlete, there is no problem to train for such a type of race. It is more about the spirit and the way you feel. You must have the spirit of training and performing. You have to put many hours outside in the wilderness in different conditions and on different terrains. It is a way of life like any profession. You can describe the life of an athlete like the one of an architect or a reporter; you have to put the hours to be successful. For a runner, you have to train a lot outside in order that the homework is done.

Thomas: I know that you went training for a few months at the police academy where you ran a lot. How determining was this in developing your physical conditioning?

Simon: When I was at the police academy, it is where I started training more physically and especially for marathons. It is really where I developed my style of running. I was there for four months and I continued running after I left the police academy.

Thomas: You did some 160 km races such as the Western States 100 Miles in California, United States. Running a marathon is already quite challenging, what pushed you towards ultra distance running?

Simon: Running 160 km is just running beyond the human limit. For me, running a marathon (42.2 km) and eventually 160 km was simply a thing that I developed progressively. I ran and I developed the endurance and the spirit which goes with it. Concerning long distance races, I have to say that I enjoy running in the wilderness. I really like to be outside where I feel myself.

Thomas: In competition, what is your most memorable experience and why?

Simon: There are a lot of things I remember like the races I won, I met some of my old friends during races and I finished numerous times in the top 10. I always remember the moment when I complete a race and when I arrive at the finish line with a smile on my face. I really enjoy all those things.

Mount Kilimanjaro

Thomas: We are currently on the summit of Kilimanjaro. What is the sensation you have when you reach this point and what do you like about it?

Simon (says on a happy tone): When I come out here at the top of Kilimanjaro, I feel free and I feel that really nothing can bother me. I feel that the world has so much to offer. Moreover, this mountain has so many beautiful views: glaciers, landscapes and the environment around us, right now, is grasp-taking. There is also a vibe here. At the same time, there is the spirit of the mountain and the lack of oxygen. I don’t know why but I feel inspired in this place.

Every time I reach the summit which is now more than 400 times, it is always different because to come here it is a whole journey, meaning from the day one starts the ascent in order to reach the peak. I truly appreciate it.

Finally, I like to see the clouds moving in and out. The spirit, the view and the good sensation I feel here, I enjoy it.

Thomas (while laughing): It seems you don’t feel too much the lack of oxygen because I’m feeling it big time!

Simon (smiles): Well, it is almost 6,000 meters. I spent all my life near here. I’m 38 years old and I’m running around this mountain for 20 years. The altitude does not bother me too much. I’m always here because of my business and at the village where I live we are at 2,000 meters of altitude. So, I’m always on the run on Kilimanjaro and I don’t really feel the altitude. Of course, I may have a little bit of a headache here and there or I have a hard time to sleep but so what... if you enjoy the great view, if you enjoy the journey and if you enjoy the spirit of the mountain, there is no place for complaint. We simply have to enjoy the moment.

Thomas: You’re right; to be here after all the journey, it is quite a good sensation. It’s my first time up here… imagine! We can see the clouds move in and out and it’s incredible.

Simon (tells with passion): Yes, the clouds are moving around... We can describe Kilimanjaro as the mountain in the sky and with many faces. When we are sitting here, there are some clouds and there is some sun, but you can have also snow, hail and wind. Here, you have everything the weather can offer. We have to remember that we are only three degrees south of the equator!

Thomas: You enjoy sharing the culture and the beautiful sceneries of Tanzania?

Simon: Yes, because Tanzania has so much to offer. Kilimanjaro is one of them. We have quite an amazing diversity in our culture because Tanzania has more than 120 tribes. To speak about all those tribes is quite interesting and you can experience it here.

It’s really an amazing country with many different landscapes: the Indian Ocean, the savannahs, the tropical vegetation, the moorlands, the alpine desert, the ice cap on Kilimanjaro... You can find all of these types of landscape in Tanzania.

Also, I’m very grateful to the first president Julius Nyerere for bringing, in 1964, the freedom that the population hoped for so long. A torch was lit right here at Uhuru Peak and represented the light of freedom. So, you can understand that I’m very grateful for the efforts of this president and what the whole government made for this country. Still, we have a lot of work to do to show even more about Tanzania.

Thomas: Simon, I’m glad that you shared your passion with me during this journey to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. You made me discover this mountain and Tanzania. And now, I want to see your village Mbahe. So, thank you for everything.

Simon: “Asante sana1”. I’m very glad to be here and to be your guide in order to show you all this because yes the summit is the peak of Kilimanjaro, but it is also all the parts of Tanzania, the culture, my village and all the surroundings. All this is truly the summit. I’m glad that I could share it with you. Thank you Thomas!

1. In Swahili, “Asanta sana” means “Thank you very much”.