Jason Greenhalgh | Building a radio tower in Rwanda

Approx read: 6 mins

Jason Greenhalgh built a radio tower at the summit of Mount Karisimbi in Rwanda.

Getting ready

When we first got awarded the contract to build a full turnkey FM radio station, on the summit of Mount Karisimbi in Rwanda, it was the news we had waited for. Karisimbi, 4,507 metres (14,787 ft) high, is an extinct volcano in the Virunga Mountains, on the border between Rwanda and Congo, formerly Zaire. The air is very thin because of the altitude, and you are tired after a few steps.

As we waited for the signal to prepare for the mountain, we relocated to the Ruhengeri Hotel, Ruhengeri being the closest town to Mount Karisimbi. We spent most of our time drinking beer and eating samosas.

We stayed at the hotel for a few days to be sure that it was the correct time for us to ascend. There was not much room on the summit and the Belgian civilian contractor was still up there, installing the tower leg stubs.

Eventually, it was the big day. This was the late 1980s, no telephones, no internet, no comms at all; it would be a fiasco if we had spent two days climbing the mountain and then discovered there was no room for us.

The climb

You need to walk for 6 hours or so through bamboo before the actual climb. The mountain gorillas live at this altitude, but not on this side of the mountain.

I arrived at the crater level, about halfway up the volcano. My father had purchased two chilli con carne meals from the UK; just pull the ripcord and they heated up. I was as amazed as the Rwandans; the porters wanted to take the ‘stone slabs’ home to heat their food at home. I explained that they are a one-time only solution, but they didn’t seem to understand how anything can only work once.

After a couple of weeks, we decided to eat goats instead of chicken, as they can walk up the mountain alone.

I pitched my small UK tent and settled down for the night. High altitude makes you have very vivid dreams. After a restless night, I woke with another 5 hour climb to the summit.

The vegetation on the volcano is like nothing on earth. I don’t know if it has to do with the altitude or the volcanic soil. At last, after what seemed like days, I finally reached the summit. I was a little disappointed, the place was so bare and barren. The Rwandan government had sent a small detachment of soldiers for our protection.

The soldiers had erected a big army tent, and I negotiated with them to erect my small tent inside theirs. The air is so thin at this altitude that it is very difficult to breathe and almost impossible to take a deep breath.

Visitors to the tower, 2004

Ice duty

The next morning, we checked all our steel etc and started erecting. The tower fitted together well, and the foundation stubs were all perfect. The biggest problem was the ice build-up every evening. My first job every morning was to whack each tower leg to try and knock the ice off.

There would still be ice on the derrick, which was hanging from four pennants in the centre of the tower. I would take a mash hammer with me to dislodge the ice. Free climbing up the outside of the tower with air and melted ice water flowing down your legs was bad enough, but occasionally lumps of ice came down as well.

 

Once the entire tower, including the antenna support steel, was completed, we decided to go to Ruhengeri for two days or so. At this point, it had been two months since we showered or had a proper bath.

R&R

We set off down the mountain the next day. I made it to base in around six hours! A record I think, but I still had to wait for a few other people to catch up, so racing ahead proved pointless. Finally, we were all back at the hotel and straight in the shower.

After we had cleaned up, we met back in the bar and ate chicken for the first time in months.
We had been standing at the bar for some time when a middle-aged American woman introduced herself. She told me that she was a tour operator and she wanted to send US tourists direct to Virunga mountains to see the mountain gorillas.

Unlucky break

The next morning, I was having breakfast and coffee when I heard a commotion in the hotel garden. I looked around the corner and saw the American lady lying on the grass screaming. The cabins we were all sleeping in were about 12 inches above ground level and there were about four steps to climb. The steps were 4×4 timbers. Somehow, she had slipped between the 3rd and 4th step, fallen forward and snapped her shin bone; a bad break as well, bone shards thru the skin. We lifted her and placed her in the back of our land rover, and quickly took her to hospital. Luckily, the doctor on call spoke a few words of English. We managed to arrange to leave the lady at the hospital (the doctor said he would not allow her to medivac until her leg was better). We left her there and returned to the hotel.

Gorillas in the mist

The following day, we met at the foot of Karisimbi for our trek to see the gorillas. There were around 10 people in our trekking group, including me and two Rwandan guides. There was a young American girl who was coughing and spluttering even at Ruhengeri altitude.

We started the long walk through the bamboo and began climbing in the rainforest. The American girl started to cough and couldn’t seem to get a proper breath. She quickly became worse until she was having a fit. One of the guides agreed to return to base camp and the rest of us would continue to the gorillas. We walked again for two hours or so until we finally saw the gorillas.

The mountain gorillas are awesome, so black against the green jungle. The guides warn you not to get close to them, their immune system is not as advanced as ours and the common cold or ringworm could kill them. The baby gorillas want to come up and climb on you, but you must back away.

 

You only have 20 minutes or so and then it’s time to go.

We set off down to base camp then and the guide/driver said that he had taken the American girl to the hotel. Back at the hotel, we discovered from the manager that the girl had already left for Kigali.

The following day, we went back to the summit again to continue our job.

 

battleface interview: 5 Minutes with Jason Greenhalgh

 

Most little kids don’t say ‘When I grow up I want to build things on mountains in conflict zones.’ How did you end up in Rwanda?

Followed  in my father’s footsteps: I wanted to travel the world, too!

What happened to the radio tower? Did you leave a team behind to bash the ice off it every morning?

Every night it snowed with very strong winds and extreme cold temperatures. Keeping the ice down was a constant problem. Climbing the tower each day, when it was ice covered and freezing, running water was very dangerous. HSE would create bedlam if they heard of this.

Did you have any safety training beforehand?

I have lots of training for building masts and towers, but no high altitude training, This was a one-off job, nothing like this had ever  been done before, so nothing to prepare you for.

Did you have any plans in place in case something went wrong?

We did have a German engineer who was responsible for installing solar panels, he got high altitude sickness, all  the blood vessels burst in is eyes and his hands swelled up to double their size, but these symptoms are only temp, like a diver going through decompression, he was fine after being at normal altitude.

Who took care of the goats? Who had the very clever idea to have dinner walk up the mountain?

Actually, when we first climbed the mountain we were getting the porters to bring chicken, but  its like 3 days to the summit…for one chicken!

And water boiled at low temp, and it was possible to put your hands in boiling water. Wierd!

UK-born Jason met his German wife in Afghanistan. They live in Nuremburg.

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