Travails with a Mule

Sequel to the Totem Pole, THE LONGEST CLIMB details the epic road back to the mountains. Mount Kenya, Djebel Toubkal, Federation Peak and Kilimanjaro all feature. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 6, “Travails with a Mule”. 

How I would have relished the pain of a thousand metre slag-heap, the burning that I knew so well, like my muscles were on fire. How I would have cherished the freezing cold in the early morning, the dry thirst in my throat as we ascended, the glare as we contemplated the horizon of late morning, from up high. I would have given my right arm, literally, to climb to the summit of Jebel Toubkal. It only got in the way anyway.


After the guys had eaten lunch we headed on down. Worried as I was that I was still suffering mountain sickness I wanted to descend as quickly as possible. I mounted the mule with the help of my two friends and once again, less than twenty hours after arriving at the Neltner Refuge, rode down the narrow path in the direction of Imlil.

The descent was excruciatingly difficult and, as my legs were still not in stirrups, I felt the full weight of the right one. When the mule jumped down a one and a half metre drop I would almost be bucked off, but much more furiously than on the ascent. Over the beasts head I would repeatedly be thrown, but not completely, as I had my left hand firmly gripping the back of the saddle. The only way I had any chance of preventing this from happening was to lie on my back all the time, almost resting the back of my head on the mule’s backside. It must have looked very strange indeed to the other trekkers, a man, seemingly of good health, lying down on the back of a mule with a look of horror in his eyes. In this manner I rode for a few hours until what I had most feared happened:

Grids and Phil had ran ahead to have a cup of tea at Sidi Charamouche leaving me alone with Sid, and Mohamed the muleteer. We were traversing a particularly unstable scree slope, which fell away to the right, my weak side. The dead weight of my dense, limp leg coupled with the ever-loosening saddle strap around the mule’s belly to affect a disastrous consequence. The saddle swiftly spun around the mule’s girth with me loosely sat in it.

Suddenly I found myself upside down with my head between the mules kicking legs. There was a vertiginous, ballbearing scree-slope dropping off by my shoulder. On looking up I could see the Mizane River raging several hundred metres below though the rucsacs, on which I had been riding.
The rucsacs were strewn across the path and one sack was balanced awkwardly on top of a crag. Sid went down to the bag and gingerly grabbed it and lugged it back up to the track. If it had rolled off down the slope it wouldn’t have stopped until it reached the river.

Unfortunately I had omitted to wear my climbing helmet; I normally would wear one during such a hazardous pass-time as horse riding but it was packed deep in a rucsac (I forgot to ask for it when the mule was being loaded up). When I am wearing the helmet I get rather odd looks from other trekker’s; I expect they must think, and rightly so, that I have epilepsy. My head hit the rocky path with a thud and, momentarily, I feared that I had cracked my head open again though I soon discovered that it was with little impact.

Because of the hole my skull it feels vulnerable, delicate like a paper lampshade, brittle like an eggshell,. With a 10-centimetre gash in my head it feels as though the skull could be squashed in a fist, and it seems open too, for it is only covered by a thin mantle of scalp and dura mata.

The mule stilled quickly and stood quiet while I clambered and squeezed out from between the piteous creature’s legs. Noticing a rock by the path I dragged myself over to it and perched there, holding my head in my hands, beneath an over-zealous sun. After four hours of dangling my legs were as if dead.

Where were the guys?
They were nowhere in sight as I fell into a new chasm of despair. I wasn’t feeling any better than I was in the refuge even though we had shed 400-metres. This gave cause for some hope though; hope that the affliction I was experiencing maybe wasn’t due to the altitude. It was an occasion for jubilation really, that I had only got a stomach bug and that my head was fine with this altitude, but I was in no mood for rejoicing and anyway, I wasn’t out of the woods yet.

Mohamed loaded down the mule again as Sid ‘urged’ me to get up onto my feet and mount the beast. A sweeping motion of the hands accompanied by a deep growling accomplished this ‘urging’. When I attempted to get back on the mule my spastic right leg repeatedly kicked the poor creature in the face. Sid kept motioning for me to stop my involuntary action and shook his head in dismay as if to say, "How could you be so cruel to a lowly animal."

Finally I was back lying in the saddle and the mule clopped and clambered down the steep, rocky path...