Arrival into Tanzania
Jake and I left Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi after spending one night in Kenya’s capital. We left in search of answers. Answers to what it was about Kilimanjaro that had attracted us and attracts 25,000 people annually to attempt to climb its magical landscape. Answers to why we spent a small fortune to try something completely out of our normal realm. Answers to the most underlying question: could we do it?
About twenty minutes before we landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport, I looked out the window and saw something I’ll never forget – the summit of Kilimanjaro peaking up above the clouds, above the altitude of our airplane. It was spectacular. We were so excited that we weren’t sure what to do at first. It was a long journey to get to this point, but it actually hit us that we would be climbing this monstrosity the next day. We took some phenomenal pictures from the plane and that view will always be embedded in my mind.
We finally arrived and were greeted by Babu, our driver who was sent by BootsnAll Travel Network to bring us to the office for our orientation the following day. After meeting everyone and setting up a time later that afternoon for a gear inspection at the Zebra Hotel, we had lunch at the Sikh Café – home to the Moshi Lions Club meeting on the first of every month and some excellent Indian food.
After our inspection we met our guide, Jamaica, and bought him a Safari beer. We had no idea how instrumental he would be to our success. We were hungry and tired so we ate dinner at the Indian-Italian place in Moshi town. It was pretty uneventful with bland pizza and a dead bird at the foot of our table. I asked the waitress if she could get rid of the dead bird. She gave us a look of disdain, picked up the dead bird with her bare hands and threw it in the garbage. We were thrilled that she would be serving our food after she clearly didn’t wash her hands. I love Africa.
We arrived at Machame Gate at approximately 5,500 feet after a long ride on a very bumpy road. We took care of all the bureaucratic formalities of signing in and registering at the gate. We then met our crew of porters, which included four porters, a cook and an assistant guide in addition to our guide, Jamaica.
As we were about to start up the dirt track, I couldn’t help but feel both excited and nervous. This trip was a long time in the works. It was booked nearly eight months ago. The anticipation had really built up. We were both pretty pumped as we began the journey of our lifetime.
While we made our way up through the rain forest, we noticed the weather was changing rapidly. This would become a theme on Kilimanjaro – sudden cold and cloudiness. While we ascended, we began to actually walk through the clouds. We thought it was cool, but then it started to rain. The track became very muddy and it got even colder. We had to stop to put ponchos over our clothes. Still, we were in decent spirits because we were prepared. What we weren’t prepared for was what happened next.
Jake had mentioned a few times throughout the course of the morning that his stomach was upset and that he felt nauseous. I told him it was just nerves. It made sense because I was tense as well. Jake continued to feel discomfort for a few hours. Just before lunch we stopped to rest. He didn’t look well and I knew it was more than nerves. All of a sudden he started vomiting a lovely array of Tanzanian food. He looked a lot better after that episode. Jamaica explained that it was probably the cheese we ate at the Indian-Italian place because there is no pasteurization process in Tanzania. A lot of times the cheese is bad if it’s not imported.
We continued up the cold and muddy (and I mean muddy) track. It was really a miserable experience. We had prepared our gear for the rain and bad weather, but you hope it doesn’t occur. It did and it was a very unpleasant way to spend the first day of a week long climb.
The thing about climbing Kilimanjaro is not that it is terribly strenuous and overly difficult. It's the amount of time you have to think. That first day, Jake was sick and miserable. I was cold, jetlagged and wet. Over the course of a seven-hour slow ascension, you have time for the demons in your head. "Why am I doing this? I can’t believe it’s only the first day of seven days on this mountain."
We mercifully arrived at Machame Camp at 10,000 feet after seven miserable hours. We took off our wet and muddy clothes, looked forward to dinner. Jake was still feeling ill but we figured after some good hearty food, he’d be better. We ate in our dining tent for the first of many times and got to know our cook and porters. They were funny. Even though they didn’t all speak English, we could see their unique personalities and we loved watching them interact with each other. They always climbed together so they knew each other like family. We felt comfortable with them and Jamaica.
After dinner, Jake puked again. It was in sharp contrast to the first time, he looked a lot better and his spirits seemed to rise. Hopefully, with a good night's sleep, he would be good to go in the morning. As it turned out, there was absolutely no sleep to be had that night. We were both absolutely miserable.
A funny thing happened as the sun came up – the weather was nice. It energized our tired, jetlagged bodies. We were ready for our pancake and fruit breakfast and for day two.
After breakfast we packed our gear and headed out in search of Shira Camp at nearly 12,000 feet. We would do only a four-hour hike because the next day was supposed to be brutal. We set out through the unique landscape that appears only on Kilimanjaro – as though it were another planet.
Day two’s hike is still kind of a blur to me. I remember it as being fun and it seemed to go quickly. It was the day when Jamaica convinced us that we should try to use walking poles. We didn’t want to, thinking they were wimpy and annoying. They were but they also helped, once you got used to the somewhat awkward style of using them. Walking each step with the same arm and foot really did help with balance and even more so, with absorbing some of the shock from our bodyweight.
Additionally, I remember day two for another strange reason. I filled my camelback (an absolute necessity on Kilimanjaro) with a raspberry crystal light mix. I loaded five packages to adequately cover the three liters of water inside. I still have flashbacks. Every subsequent day of the hike, when I tried to change flavors in the main camelback, I could only taste raspberry, so I had to always use a raspberry mix. Sitting here writing this right now, I am quivering with the thought of raspberry flavor for the entire climb.
The final part of day two was a fairly steep climb up some jagged rocks, reminiscent of something you’d do as a kid for fun – just not at 12,000 feet. After arriving at Shira camp, we thanked Jamaica for a good day and we got settled in. We arrived at around 2:00 p.m., so we had time to check out the camp, dry some of our wet and sweaty clothes. We also got acquainted with some of our fellow climbers, not something we did after day one, being so tired.
While we were socializing, my head started to hurt so badly that I had to go into the tent to lie down. After a while, Jake came into the tent and convinced me to get some food. When I walked into the dining tent, I was shocked to see that Jamaica and the boys had made me a cake, with Happy Birthday, Lee, written on it in strawberry jelly. I smiled. Then the porters and Jamaica sang Happy Birthday in Swahili with a little English thrown in. It was funny, genuine and warm. Up until that point, I had forgotten it was my birthday – time doesn’t exist on Kili, only days.
I thanked Jake for telling them. It did help my headache for the time being, and I forgot we were trapped on another planet. After dinner, though, the altitude sickness really set in with a headache so severe, I had trouble seeing properly. I decided then to use Diamox – a controversial drug that is supposed to help with adjusting to high altitudes and lessening such symptoms as headaches and nausea. I had hoped to avoid taking this drug because I am not a big fan of medicine in general. The problem was Diamox takes 24 hours to get into your system, so it wasn’t going to help with my current massive headache. Luckily, Jamaica had the answer.
He pulled out of his bag a bunch of pills and told me to take one because it would cure my headache. Normally I would never take a pill from a person I had known for one or two days. However, given the circumstances and the fact that we had four days until we summited, I gladly accepted without hesitation. Almost instantly, I felt better and nicknamed it the “Magic Pill”. Jake then developed a sympathy headache, took the magic pill and felt better too.
After dinner and our pill popping extravaganza, we headed off to bed – nothing to do on Kili after the sun goes down – too cold, no electricity. Once in the tent Jake and I decided to take Tylenol PM to prepare for day three – the hardest day before the summit. We slept for almost 12 hours and we felt great!
After breakfast and our now daily routine of Diamox and the magic pill, we packed our gear and were ready to leave. First I had to go to the bathroom – rarely discussed in any Kili blogs I have read. I think it deserves mention, especially this experience. I was walking to the outhouse, equipped with bandana to cover my face and nose when I felt a strange breeze go past me. It turned out to be a crazy fat German lady who blazed into the outhouse in front of me. Slightly irritated, I stood there and waited. Finally she came out and said, “Don’t go in there. Someone shit on the floor." She then ran away. I had no choice but to go in and investigate. It was as she stated. After doing what needed to be done, I knew it was her who had soiled the floor. Later I heard that she and her three female climbing partners failed to make it to day five – have to say I wasn't too sad.
Jamaica filled us in what our task for the day would be. We were to climb to 15,000 feet reaching the Lava Tower, where we would eat lunch and acclimate, then descend about 3,000 feet back to Barranco camp for the night. It sounded easy and we started climbing. The ascent was straight up a ridge with very boring scenery, all of which looked like you were on the moon. We were trying to be sure to hydrate – drinking a lot of water is good for dealing with altitude. Aside from stopping to pee every ten minutes, we did well and made it to about 14,400 feet for lunch, then up to Lava Tower.
At Lava Tower – actually a big rock – Jake and I plunked down as if we’d been shot. We were really feeling the altitude change here – normal at this point which is why they bring us up here to acclimate. After staying there for about 15 minutes, we descended over 300 feet down a long and steep valley.
With each step we gained more strength – amazing how much better a little more oxygen can make you feel. Our biggest problem then were our knees and big toes. Because of the steepness, we were running down the valley. We had to stop several times to catch some air and to give our feet a break. It took us fit and grown men two hours to descend 3,000 feet. Jamaica told us it would take that long. He was right.
The night at Barranco camp was probably my favorite. We heard why people from different parts of the world wanted to climb this mountain. People had various reasons, but the most popular one was to push yourself to the limit to see if you could do it.
After dinner and pill popping, we went to bed, hoping we wouldn't have to get up during the night to pee. Barranco camp is the coldest camp on the climb because it's at the bottom of a valley surrounded by high mountains. Well, we didn't make it the entire night – a brutal experience – but we laugh about it now.
Day four was the best day of the climb – a short four hours. The beginning was straight up the infamous Great Barranco Wall, which goes vertical for hundreds of feet. Once we reached the top, we were in the sun. We could see forever, down over Moshi and the lower portions of the mountain – nothing but flat cloud cover. In the distance Mt. Meru looked so close.
The second half of the day involved going down to the bottom of Karanga Valley via a water drip to the stream below and then vertically up the other side of the valley to Karanga camp. We enjoyed this portion of the climb because the water made it slippery making us use our whole bodies to do some crafty climbing maneuvers.
Karanga camp was the worst camp. The whole place was at a 45 degree angle. You felt like you were constantly tilting. Because our tent was angled, we fell on top of each other during the night. But when we woke up in the morning, we saw the summit and we knew that in about 24 hours, we would be standing on top of the world.
It was brutally cold to start – frost everywhere. We set off in a whiteout, having become accustomed to them by this point. After it passed, we were in the scorching hot sun.
We arrived about noon trying to take it all in – the interesting little nuances of Barafu camp. There are some tremendous drop offs and cliffs and a few of the views are amazing. You can see the summit in all its glory, right above you. It looks so close, but you know you have go through the tortuous six-hour climb in the dead of night.
There is a lot of downtime on Kilimanjaro. When you're not hiking, you find yourself sitting in your tent or relaxing in your sleeping bag – nothing else to do. There is no electricity, no running water, you are exhausted, it’s freezing whenever the sun isn’t out, and most of time your head is pounding – at least mine was.
We realized it was the first night in five that we weren’t taking sleeping pills. As a result, I had a lot of trouble falling asleep. Obviously, I was excited. The usual wake up call from one of our friendly porters came, "water for washing". We heard that so often, it became embedded in my mind.
Day 6 – Summit Night
The night was clear, cold and quiet – almost too quiet. We set off for the goal we had come for. It was September 2, 2006. The first part of the summit night was a steady incline up on mostly solid rocks. We had to walk slowly to preserve energy, and we had to remember to drink a lot because we knew our camelbacks would freeze as we got a bit higher. It was frigid, but our gear kept us warm. In fact, I started sweating profusely – no worries of hypothermia.
About halfway up, I started feeling weak. My feet were becoming numb. I was tired and I was having a difficult time with the lack of oxygen. As I continued up, my feet became more numb. I was worn out. I had to take a break every 15 minutes. With about two hours left before sunrise, I started having negative thoughts.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is extremely difficult not because of its technical aspects, but rather for the elements that make up its personality. The mountain acts as kind of overlord to its wannabe conquerors. It teases you – warm weather followed by cold weather, whiteouts and rain. One moment you feel fine; the next you can barely see because the headaches are so painful. It messes with your mind and your body.
To conquer Mt. Kilimanjaro and summit, you need to win the psychological battle with the mountain, to process and deal with the physical demands, but more important, you need to overcome the mental challenges. I have a strong will but with two hours to go, I was beginning to doubt myself and that’s something I never do.
I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet. I had no strength and I was having trouble breathing. I sat down for a break, closed my eyes and started talking to myself, convincing myself I wouldn’t be denied the prize. At this point I was going to make it on heart and guts – and only that. I found myself talking to the mountain, psyching myself up. At this altitude and this level of exhaustion, you are alone with your thoughts and your fears.
My big fear was failing. I kept thinking (like everyone else who has climbed this mountain), "I can’t believe I am paying a lot of money to torture myself like this". I concluded that I had to summit. It was then that we started the hardest part of the climb. The half hour before you hit Stella’s Peak is difficult to endure. It feels like you are walking up quicksand because you take one step up and you slide right back down seemingly to where you started. This thirty-minute portion of the climb is enough to make some climbers stop and not continue on to Uhuru Peak – the true summit of Kilimanjaro – just an hour past Stella’s Peak.
When we mercifully arrived at Stella’s Peak, a porter waited with hot tea. I found this strange, but I tried to drink some. It was hot and difficult to drink because of my weakness. After the short break, we started towards Uhuru Peak. Jamaica wanted to time the sunrise perfectly, arrive at the summit at 6:15 a.m., but we said we would walk slowly. Because of the cold, we wanted to move.
Walking energized me. The realization of what we were about to do was getting my blood flowing. We went faster and noticed that a light ring was coming up around the horizon. The walk to Uhuru Peak is illuminated even in the dark because of the reflection of the moonlight off the massive glaciers that surround the path to the summit. What a sight up close!
Scientists claim these glaciers will be gone in 15 years because of global warming and certain environmental factors. They were awesome – neatly positioned, big, bright and stunning. I had seen many glaciers, but none could live up to the beauty of these, nearly 20,000 feet in the air.
Finally, in the distance we could see the sign that marked Uhuru Peak. Every climber who trekks up Kilimanjaro dreams of reaching this sign. Even though there are a thousand pictures of it, nothing can prepare you for the feeling you have when you reach it.
From atop Uhuru Pea, we witnessed the most amazing sunrise in Africa – a 360 degree one – visibility in all directions. The sun reflecting off the glaciers made it even more fantastic. And incredible. As we walked the final approach toward the sign arm in arm, we were in awe of what we had accomplished.
We had come to Africa and conquered the mystical Kilimanjaro: the subject of many dreams, fears, films and a Hemingway novel. We had done it the hard way – no short cuts and out of our element. We worked hard and we persevered – through the difficulties, ailments and altitude. We did it on heart and guts. We were on top of the world. It was the proudest moment of my life.