Mountain ghosts: otherworldly encounters in high places

Recently I summited Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, standing at 5895m. It was an extraordinary experience (which I write more about here), and whilst I did have some more unusual moments on my climb these were more of the reflective and awe inspiring kind triggered by the immense beauty of the place. In my research I have, however, come across stories of ghostly encounters on mountains around the world and always found this a fascinating topic. From my own experiences walking Munros around Scotland it also does not surprise me. There have been more than a few occasions when  I have thought my walking companion was beside me, only to turn around and find that they stopped a while back to take a photo. Indeed during an earlier training walk for Kilimanjaro this year, we got lost on a mountain called Ben Chonzie after the weather closed in. This resulted in us descending the wrong side of the mountain to then have to climb up it again before we could find our way home. The cloud level was very low, the rain had drawn in and needless to say after many hours of walking by this point we were all a bit miserable. On the way back up the mountain (for the second time!) there were a number of occasions when I thought I could hear another pair of footsteps right beside me. However, when I turned around they would seem to stop and I would notice that my husband and mother-in-law were a distance behind me. I remember thinking at the time that it was a little eerie, and the misty surroundings and lashing rain did not help with this lingering thought…

I am fairly sure that my own experiences have most likely been a mixture of the weather conditions, feeling pretty exhausted or the environment. It is after all easy to hear things you would maybe not pay attention to if the weather was lovely and you could enjoy the view (such as, for instance, the echoes of my own or others footsteps). However, my experiences do not stand alone and many others have reported unusual encounters in the higher places of the world. Here are just a few of these stories:

Mount Everest, Nepal

The world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is considered the ultimate survival everestchallenge. Standing at 8848m, it attracts hundreds of climbers each year determined to stand at the highest place on earth. Mount Everest, however, has a darker side claiming over 250 lives many of whom have succumbed to altitude sickness or been the unfortunate victims of an avalanche. Due to the height of Everest and difficulty navigating its landscape many of the bodies remain on the mountain leading it to become known as the highest graveyard on earth or ‘rainbow ridge (or valley)’ due to the colourful down jackets worn by fallen climbers. It is perhaps not surprising then, that mountaineers have reported ghostly encounters in such a place. In 2004, Sherpa Pemba Dorji reported seeing dark shadows at the summit of Everest during his speed ascent. In his account he says:

“When I paused at a mound of rocks I saw some spirits in the form of black shadows coming towards me, stretching their hands and begging for something to eat. I think those were the spirits of the many mountaineers killed during and after their ascent of Mount Everest. The bodies of many of those who died are still on the mountain and one climber who died from an accidental fall is still hanging from a rope.”

In an earlier expedition in 1975, climbers Dougal Haston and Doug Scott described how they felt the presence of a third climber with them after they encountered trouble just below the summit. Spending the night in a snow hole, with no food and limited oxygen, they report how this third climber comforted them and talked them through their ordeal.

K2, China-Pakistan Border

The summit of K2 stands at 8611m. Although smaller than Everest it is considered to be K2one the hardest challenges a climber can face and the ‘Holy Grail of mountaineering’. It is also considered to be a much more perilous ascent, with 23% of attempts on K2 resulting in death (compared to 4% on Everest). Perhaps one of the most interesting ghost stories from K2 was reported in 1992 when Thor Kieser and Scott Fisher attempted the climb. Six years earlier during a particularly bad summer, which saw 13 deaths on the mountain, a British female climber called Julie Tullis died after a bad fall. She passed away from frost bite and her injuries at Camp IV. As Thor and Scott were waiting at Base Camp six years later their quiet was interrupted by a radio call that said, “Camp IV to Base Camp, do you read, over?”. The pair were alone on the mountain and the call was made by a British women.

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, USA

Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina gets its name from the rock formations that make up its peak, resembling the head of a bearded old man laying down to 681px-Grandfather_Mountain_NCsleep. Tourists to the area regularly visit the mountain and trek along its trails. It is reported, however, that during these visits a number of people have come across the hiker of an old man who seems out of place. Unlike other hikers he wears old workers clothes, an old army rucksack and carries a long walking stick. He also never acknowledges anyone’s greeting, quickly moving past them and then disappearing further up the trail. Nobody knows who the ghostly hiker is, and whilst some suggest that he is the spirit of a hiker who became lost and died on the mountain, others suggest that he is simply the spirit of an old man who loved the mountain so much that he has returned to continue enjoying it after his death.

Ben Macdui, Scotland

A little closer to home for me, ‘The Big Grey Man’ of Ben Macdui is a fairly well-known ghost story from the Cairngorm mountain region. There have been numerous reports since the late 1800’s of a mysterious and sinister figure that haunts the mountain and surrounding area. During his climb in 1892 Professor Norman Collie reported how he felt as if he had been stalked by an unseen presence that followed him down from the summit of Ben Macdui. Whilst he did not see the figure he could hear its large footsteps and had the feeling that it was a menacing creature. He vowed not to return to the mountain alone again and concluded that there was “something very queer about the top of Ben Macdui”. Others have reported similarly strange encounters on the peak with regular stories of climbers being overcome by a poignant feeling of dread and fear, and the impression of a malevolent presence nearby. Another tale tells of a man who had come face-to-face with a large brown creature staring at him through his tent as he slept at the summit. Terrified he froze, until the creature moved away, and he watched it descend down the mountain. He described the creature as about twenty foot tall. A similar creature has been seen by others up until as recently as the 1990’s, and some claim that these creatures are guarding the land around the mountain chasing away those that dare to trespass. More stories of ‘The Big Grey Man’ can be found here…

Ben-macdui-from-carn-liath

It is perhaps not surprising that mountains are home to ghostly encounters. From my own experiences hiking I can appreciate the often surreal and harsh surroundings that open up the possibilities of something supernatural or otherworldly. I am sure that many of these encounters can be explained away by the effects of the environment, or psychological causes – the ‘sensed-presence effect’ is particularly relevant to some of the encounters mentioned. For those peaks that inhabit the ‘death zone’ and where oxygen is deprived these considerations are perhaps even more likely. However, what interests me from these stories is the variety of encounters that are reported and the different interpretations assigned to them. There is the comforting ghost that accompanied the two Everest climbers, the ‘lost’ ghosts reported on both K2 and Everest, the sinister presence protecting its land on Ben Macdui and the ghost who simply loves the mountain in North Carolina. Whether we walk with ghosts or not on mountains these accounts provide an interesting insight into the way that we see and experience these magnificent landscapes.

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Seeing heaven – extraordinary experiences at 5895m!

On Sunday 16th July 2017 at 6.55am I summited Kilimanjaro with Mo, my mother-in-law. It had been the accumulation of 2 years of planning and preparation, walking plentiful Munros across Scotland, going to the gym several times a week, and talking LOTS about what it might be like to climb the highest peak in Africa. It took us 7 days along the Lemosho route to reach the summit, and another 1 day to descend. It was a significant challenge, but also an extraordinary and beautiful journey!

Needless to say climbing Kilimanjaro was far removed from my normal day-to-day routine which is, to be fair, pretty ‘kushti’, and certainly does not require much thought about oxygen levels, heart rate and where to go to the toilet (which turned out to be daily concerns on the mountain!).  It was also a completely different environment, nestled in the heart of Africa yet the ascent took us through four completely different climates – from the thick jungle to barren desert, from mid 20C to -15C degrees. It was a physical and most certainly, mental, challenge.

Day 3 O

Now that I am back at sea level and have had some time to consider the journey, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on a side of climbing Kilimanjaro that I have been able to find little written about since I returned. This being the ‘extraordinary’, and what some may consider ‘spiritual’ experiences, encountered on the mountain. Whilst I do not align myself to a particular religion, there were moments when the beauty and immensity of the journey probed at deeper philosophical and spiritual questions. I found this particularly valuable at a personal level, but it also made me consider the role that these experiences play in a broader society that in many ways strips us of these moments for philosophical and deeper thought. Perhaps finding these moments is what makes touristic experiences such as climbing Kilimanjaro so popular in our modern Western world…

During our 8 day journey there were numerous moments of reflection, and I guess the fairly long days of walking (usually single file), focusing on getting to the next camp, fostered this. However, there were a few defining points along the way that made a deeper connection more pronounced. Firstly, the environment was phenomenally beautiful. At night the stars stretched vastly across the sky and as we neared the latter part of our trip the Milky Way appeared brighter and deeper. One evening, myself and one of our group, Rob, stood and stared at the stars for what must have been half an hour. This combined with the silhouette of Kilimanjaro as a backdrop and the lights of Moshi in the distance made for a truly stunning scene and a real sense of ‘smallness’ in the immensity of the Universe. Day 2 Z24We were also above the clouds. The beauty of this took me by surprise, and even now when showing people the photos, I can’t stop pointing out the carpet of clouds laid out below us! Whilst not religious, I had grown up with the socially constructed image of what heaven would be in my mind, and this was it – I was seeing heaven. Day 5 Baranco 16Secondly, the physical challenge and effects of altitude impacted people differently. For me, altitude did not effect me in the way I expected – most usually headaches and nausea – instead I could not sleep….for three days! By day four I was utterly exhausted, and had begun to have some rather trippy visions. To try and help me sleep I had started to meditate and on the third night had experienced a vision of a floating head of a bearded tribesman hovering over me! It was incredibly clear and difficult to shake, leaving me wondering the next day what it might mean…fortunately Mo, was carrying some Diazepam, and I managed to knock myself out for the following four nights! Although I am not one for usually taking pills, without these I am sure I would have either run out of energy or gone slightly loopy! Finally, summit night was perhaps the most physically challenging but also mentally exhausting experience of the trip (and indeed of my life so far!) . We arose at 10pm after very little sleep to start our ascent at 11pm. Not only was this surreal, but trekking at night in the cold and dark with nothing but a head lamp and the feet in front of you is somewhat of an assault on the senses! However, even in what was a fairly gruelling 8 hour trek to the top there were some truly wonderful moments. I saw my first ever moonrise over Mawenzie Peak, a stunning golden glow emerging over the cloud lined tops of Kilimanjaro’s second highest point. About two hours from the summit as I lifted my head to look towards the top where I could now see head torches disappearing, I also saw the most amazing shooting star. It literally appeared for the few seconds that I took to look towards the summit and shot across the sky in the direction we were heading. At that point in time, I don’t know why, but I knew we were going to make it.

We arrived at Stella Point, the first stage of the summit, as the sun started to rise. We walked for a short while longer before stopping, having a seat and some cold tea. We watched as the golden glow of the sun appeared over the top of the clouds, the glow somewhat more beautiful as it was the first warmth we had felt in 8 hours of climbing.NOVATEK CAMERA

At this point I knew why there were stories of people finding God at the top of Kilimanjaro. Indeed the Chagga people believe that the underworld can be accessed at this point where the sky and the earth meet. According to this belief you may find heavenly paradise, or the gateway to the “ghosts”, depending on which gateway you pursue.

For me, I did not find God or indeed a gateway to another world. However, I did feel an extraordinary connection to the world at that point and the beautiful immensity of it all – so much so that my first reaction on reaching Uruhu peak was to cry. I had seen heaven at the top of Kilimanjaro but not in the divine sense – instead heaven appeared to me as a window into the breath-taking beauty of our world and the extraordinary possibilities that we have to experience it.

Day 7 Summit M

Day 7 Summit V