First off, I want to dissolve all misconceptions that I am some sort of extreme sports enthusiast. As cool as that would be, I’m pretty much the opposite. I love the outdoors—love camping, hiking, kayaking, etc, but most importantly, I love to be within my comfort zone. That generally includes a cooked meal and a hot shower. Except for the shower bit, Kilimanjaro was within that comfort zone…for the most part. For starters, you have to be at least ten years old to climb the mountain. Didn’t see any of the cheeky rascals up there, but the realization that some pre-teen was probably bouncing up the mountain definitely helped me suck it up and trudge on when the going got tough. Secondly, you only carry a day pack on your back. In order to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, you must register with a certified company. There is a certain ratio of guides and porters to climbers that must be maintained. In our case, it was twelve of us climbers, 6 guides, and 30 porters. It’s pretty ridiculous when you think about it, but tourism is huge in Tanzania and that’s just the way it’s done. Plus the dangers of altitude sickness are very real and severe. Even with the ten-year-olds and the light packs, climbing Kilimanjaro was the hardest challenge I’ve ever faced.
Our group decided to take the 8-day Machame route. This is a bit longer than most, but we wanted the greatest odds of summiting—which at that altitude means more time to acclimatize. The first day, we woke early from the Marangu Hotel, met our guides and porters and got briefed on the dangers of the mountain and the hippie mantra—leave only footprints- take only pictures- dig-a-hole-for-your-poo yada yada. Next, we piled into two huge trucks for the bumpy 5-hour drive to the Kilimanjaro National Park gate. The road conditions were the worst I’ve ever seen and the whole ride I was terrified that the truck would flip over and fall off the edge of the cliff. It was really exciting to see the mammoth snow-capped Kilimanjaro looming from the sky line, and I took a lot of incredibly blurry, horrible pictures trying to capture the vista from the window of the truck. We were supposed to spend the first day hiking though the rain forest at the base of the mountain, but when we arrived at the park gate, we were told that the road to the start of the rainforest trail was completely washed out and we would have to find another route. So we drove an hour further and hiked about three hours to our first camp site on the Shira Plateau—Shira I. When we arrived at camp, the porters had already pitched our tents and were cooking a hot meal. Life is rough.
Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro is not technically difficult so you don’t need special shoes or climbing gear. The biggest danger is AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness. AMS can strike anyone and has nothing to do with how physically fit you are or how many times you have already climbed to high altitude. In fact, it generally occurs in younger, physically fit persons. Going into the hike, I believed that at the first onset of a headache, one would be suffering from AMS and the only solution is to immediately turn around and decrease altitude. Our pre-hike briefing at the Marangu Hotel dispelled that misconception. We were told that at one time or another, we would all most likely have an intense head ache and stomach pains. Many of us would throw up. The real danger (and one the guides are trained to recognize) comes when people begin to lose proper functioning and coordination and sort of act like they are drunk. I saw one person in this state and it was very disturbing. Even more deadly, is when fluid builds up in the lungs and people show no symptoms at all except for a raspy cough. The guides can also recognize this and know to immediately get you off the mountain. Other symptoms of altitude include loss of appetite, inability to sleep, slowness of breath (sometimes with ten seconds between breaths when you are sleeping!) and extreme fatigue. Personally, I got just about all of them short of having AMS. There were times when I had a splitting head-ache, I threw up once, I had to force myself to eat at every meal, and I panted like a dog with pretty much every step. It was great fun!
At such high altitudes, it’s vital to keep hydrated, so we had soup with every meal and were instructed to drink at least 4 cups of tea at each sitting. This is all in addition to the three-four liters of water we were each drinking per day. High altitude is also a diuretic, so basically, we had to pee every hour or so. This was hell at night when temperatures were well below freezing. We were told by the adorable, British owner of the Hotel that our urine must be ‘clear and copious’ at all times [you must read in a British accent.] We thought that was hilarious and kept on inquiring after one another’s bodily functions.
Our second day, we hiked about 2,000 meters and then returned to low altitude at Shira I to camp again. The third day, we gained altitude in a six-hour hike and slept higher at Shira II. At night, we would all linger in the mess tent after dinner and play games of mafia, zoo, and cards. I pretty much knew no one going into the trip, but the group dynamic was perfect and I couldn’t have asked for better travel companions!
The forth day was my favorite. One of the most extraordinary things about Kilimanjaro is its incredible ecological diversity. The mountain is like its own country in terms of sustaining every sort of flora and fauna imaginable. We started off the morning from Shira II on a dusty, rocky incline of volcanic ash that looked very much like the surface of the moon. There were almost no plants and it was incredibly barren. After 5 hours, we stopped for lunch at Lava Tower, a huge spiky outthrust of rock caused by seismic shifts millions of years ago. Not far from the tower were the remains of a campsite where two climbers had been crushed by falling rocks in 2004. We were at about 4,500 meters or 13,500 feet. To put this in perspective, the highest mountain in Virginia is around 4,300 feet. Kilimanjaro is 19,600 or so feel altogether. It was here that we really began feeling the effects of the altitude. I started to get a headache and very breathless with every step. Luckily, from there we descended about two thousand meters into the Barranco Valley to camp for the night. My symptoms declined with each step I took and the physical relief coincided with the visual gratification of the changing terrain from dusty moon to fertile-lush. Icy streams fed by the glaciers nourish this valley as well as a constant presence of mist and there we found the most incredible plant life. Vibrant bushes of flowers, towering palm-like trees that looked like they were stolen from a page of a Dr. Seuss book, spiky cacti and lush ferns were everywhere. At Barranco campsite, we were just above the clouds and all you could see for miles and miles were puffy white cotton balls and the peak of Mount Meru (Kili’s smaller sister) rising from the mist. It was absolutely breath-taking. The night sky was equally beautiful and just as we were leaving the mess tent at around 9:00, the clouds below parted to reveal the twinkling lights of the town of Moshi. It looked as if the starry sky was mirrored in a reflecting pool and I got the sensation that I was halfway between heaven and earth.
The fifth day was shorter and more challenging than the previous four. We woke early, ate and packed our bags lightly (meaning the porters had more to carry ) and headed east across the valley to a seemingly sheer rock wall. For the next hour and a half, we pulled our bodies up the steep rock face and it wasn’t until I lay panting at the top and watched the porters climb nimbly past balancing huge loads on their heads that I realized how unimpressive we were. We then hiked about two hours to Barafu Camp, entering a moon-like terrain once again. At Barafu, we camped in the crevices of a rock cliff. Going to the bathroom was a pretty dangerous affair. We reached camp around 1:00, ate lunch, and then had about 8 hours to relax before we began the final ascent. All of us were pretty nervous at this point and it was already pretty freaking cold. My fleece had been stolen in the Nairobi airport, but Kerry lent me one of his for the summit. I also had a parka, gortex gloves and liner gloves and hand warmers, a balaclava, a snow beanie, three pairs of pants, and four layers of shirts. Even with all that, I was cold. I couldn’t sleep and there wasn’t much to do in the down time except lighten your pack, sterilize three liters of water, make sure you had enough warm clothes, and put fresh batteries in your head lamp. Many of us had brought along chocolate bars that we broke into small pieces in our pockets for extra energy. They were quite frozen and very hard to crack. I was incredibly lucky that Nick Gorham (second year med school student) was on the trip because he masterfully wrapped my blisters each day so I hardly felt them.
We rose at 11:00 and met in the mess tent for tea and biscuits. At midnight, we lined up and began the final ascent. At this altitude, we only had about 50 percent of the oxygen at sea-level and my body was definitely registering that reality. We walked ‘pole pole’ [slowly, slowly in Swahili] and I mean that in every sense of the word. It was all I could do to lift one foot at a time and place it heel-toe above the other. I was panting so hard I thought all my careful efforts to hydrate would escape from my mouth as water vapor but I simply couldn’t get enough air from breathing in through my nose like we were supposed to. It was a six hour hike to Stella’s Point and my resolve nearly cracked about twenty times. The head guide, Geoffrey, observed I was struggling and took my pack from me. After four hours, two of our number had to turn back. One guy was really sick and a girl was unbearably cold. I’m glad I didn’t know they were turning around at the time because I would have certainly gone with them. Geoffrey pretty much got me through the climb. I walked directly behind him and placed every step exactly where he did (I felt like the squire in Good King Wenceslas). He had high spirits and was actually singing as we walked. His body blocked a lot of the whipping wind from me. It was a very mental climb, but his presence was a sort of force-field of strength. The final hour was the hardest—especially since the first rays of sunlight framed the remaining ascent like a great, looming shadow above us. At this point, we were walking on frozen loose soil called scree sp? and it felt like we were walking straight up. I closed my eyes at several points and stumbled along monotonously.
When we reached Stella’s point, the sun was just rising and I had such a rush of emotions that I started crying. The tears froze as they fell from my cheeks and as I hugged my fellow hikers, I realized that many were doing the same thing. I have some pretty funny camcorder footage of the sun rise. I’m so overcome in the shot that the camera is shaking in silent sobs and you can’t really see anything at all. Despite my happiness, I was feeling pretty rotten at this point and we still had about an hour long hike to the real summit, Uhuru Peak. I really didn’t feel like continuing but I was too cold to wait alone, I really wanted to walk on the glacier, and I wanted to get the cool certificate that says you made it all the way, so I trudged along after everybody. The guides walked about 10 feel below us on the glacier to try to catch people if they slipped. The side was so steep, it sort of seemed like we’d both by screwed if I fell, but it was a little comforting. It was here that we saw the man suffering from AMS. He was falling all over the place and couldn’t even walk. His friends were practically dragging him across the ice to get down and I rather perversely got it all on video. We had all these grandiose plans of doing a mooning shot on the summit and spelling out various inside jokes with our bodies, but we were all so sick and cold, that it was all we could stand to snap a picture and turn around immediately. Some routes have you camp in the summit crater and I really don’t understand how that’s physically possible. The next nine hours were a blur as we descended rapidly down the scree (you slid 5 feet down the loose soil with every step and if my feet weren’t so miserably painful, it would have been quite fun). We stopped at Barafu Camp for lunch and a quick rest and then continued for three hours down a steep descent. By the time we reached camp at 6:00, my body was completely rejecting me and we were at a lower altitude than we’d been for the entire week. We had summitted and descended 10,000 feet in one day! Needless to say, I slept like a log that night.
The next morning, we only had a three-hour hike down to the park gate. We drove back to the Marangu Hotel and took our first showers in 8 days. We joined the porters and guides on the back lawn for heartfelt goodbyes and beers. I developed a deep respect for Geoffrey over the week and as we parted, I gave him my winter coat for his son. Without a fleece and a coat for the rest of the winter here, it may have been a dumb move, but it felt great to do it and I’m sure I can buy a cheap one somewhere in Kigali. Later that night, we put on our gators and headlamps at the hotel bar and dubbed the mixer “Porter Bros and Kili Hoes—Bro’in out on Chilimanjaro” in true W&L fashion.