Delta Flight 72 left Atlanta on time today, February 3rd, heading towards Amsterdam. I am on my way to Tanzania. Arusha, Tanzania, to meet up with Cheryl and Kurt as we begin our climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. The flight lands in Amsterdam where I will catch a KLM flight for the final segment. Each leg of the trip is 8 hours of flying time. At takeoff, we headed into the sunset, clear, red and beautiful. As the sky darkened, we passed over Chattanooga, the city lights visible below.
Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. Now an extinct volcano, it formed on the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley that is splitting the continent of Africa in two. The mountain itself consists of two peaks, Kibo and Mawenzi. Our plan is to climb the Kibo Summit which rises above 19,000 feet. Kilimanjaro was first climbed in 1889 by a German geographer named Hans Meyer. Ever since its discovery by the European explorers, Germany and England have been making colonial claims for this territory. Eventually, it was mapped out by the Germans to become part of Tanzania and not part of Kenya as England was seeking. The British demanded the border be drawn in a straight line from just south of Mombasa to Lake Victoria resulting in Mount Kilimanjaro just inching into Kenya. The Germans won and the boundary between Tanzania and Kenya was drawn taking a turn north at the mountain before heading to Lake Victoria.
Reports of a mountain covered in snow at the equator was considered as a joke when first sighted by Europeans in the early 1800s. People living at the foot of the mountain at the time knew nothing about snow and believed it to be “powder” that was put there by their god to protect the areas below the summit. It is our mission to, once and for all, settle this debate and return with a pronouncement, “Powder” or “Snow”. God help us if it is “powdery snow”.
Arrival in Amsterdam
Landed in Amsterdam after an uneventful flight. We crossed the English Channel on final approach below the cloud layer. The shoreline a string of lights. Outside, it is dark and wet. Cold too, I’m sure. This is Holland in winter. The Dutch love their cloudy miserable weather. As usual, only 4 hours on board were quiet and dark enough for sleeping. International flights have so much activity before you can finally rest. Would be nice sometime if they just handed out lunch bags on boarding and then turn out the lights so you can get more rest. I don’t think the flight crew would object much, either.
Arrival in Arusha
Just arrived in Arusha on board KLM. Flew over the Sahara and Karthoum, Sudan. The colors and shapes of the desert beautiful from this altitude. My seat mate, a young man in his late twenties, also heading to Tanzania to climb the mountain. He had just climbed Japan’s Mount Fuji in the past few weeks. He showed me pictures of the statue at the summit … in a hurricane. Hoping we have better weather for this climb. We talk for a while before he told me he is a B-52 pilot stationed in North Dakota. Incredible. What a lucky man I thought to myself until hearing the details of what piloting a B-52 really entails. Flight controls that you have to wrestle just to turn or climb. Day long journeys with no toilet aboard. Good planning! And original equipment from the 1950s that a good solid whack from a hammer usually fixes. Yikes! Details I probably would be better off not knowing. Sleep tight, America!
Kilimanjaro Intl. Airport
11 o’clock at night. What a mess. Thank god Teresa had me get a visa (required) before entering the country. I am apparently only 1 of a dozen people on the flight who did this. I sailed quickly through Customs and Immigrations and found my luggage. A line of over one hundred people formed for those without a visa. It will be a long time before they all make it through. Headed outside the terminal building to a line of a hundred or more locals to find my taxi driver. “No, I am not Mr. Schneppen.” It is very hot but not surprising. Found my driver (she had a sign with Hildebrand spelled correctly, something impossible in the US) and headed to the taxi. We get in the car and she heads out of the parking lot and she’s “DRIVING DOWN THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD! Oh! That’s right, sorry.” We pass a slow line of cars blocked by a tractor driving at a walking pace. She yells out the open window, “Mjinga”. I ask her what that means and she tells me “idiot”. It’s Swahili. And it’s a new word for me to use. I’m now like a two year old who just learned a new word. Mjinga! Mjinga! Mjinga!
After an hour driving down a very busy two lane highway, we turned left down a pitch dark dusty road to the Lake Duluti Hotel. The room has a bed with Mosquito netting and a ceiling fan overhead that has two settings. Hurricane and helicopter. You have to duck down when getting into the bed to avoid being Vic Morrowed. In the middle of the night, the ceiling fan started to make noises like a digeridoo. “FEB bru ary, FEB bru ary, FEB bru ary” it seemed to be calling. (Hallucinations already?) A strange cricket/anaconda like noise started in a closet. I did not check it out. Some things are best left unknown.
Morning in Arusha
After a quick breakfast (“Scrambled eggs, please, and use the whole egg, not just the white”) and coffee I checked at the front desk to see if they could help me purchase a local cell phone sim card so that I will be able to text back to Teresa to keep her updated on our progress. The hotel manager, named Goodluck, offered to walk me into the village to their Vodaphone shop. We headed out of the hotel grounds past the guard shack and took off down the mile long dusty road to town. Cars and motorcycles (more like scooters) whizzed past inches off my right shoulder from behind flinging up rocks and a cloud of dust. Unnerving. Goodluck stayed to my left. It was a clear morning and Mount Meru was visible straight ahead. Kilimanjaro’s little brother mountain, still the second highest in the country.
After a bit of back and forth in Swahili, I handed my cell phone to the Vodaphone rep. He put the chip in, I signed something, and I was good to go. I also asked to have money put into the cell phone using their M-Pesa system, a means of paying using text messages. We headed to a local 7-11 where I made a deposit equivalent to 20 US dollars. On the way back to the hotel, Goodluck offered to show me the local market getting ready for the next morning (Saturday morning) market day. Cleanliness standards were somewhere between Kroger and Publix. Lots of familiar vegetables and fruits; okra, onions, green beans, peas, etc. But this is real food, not GMO or unblemished. And absolutely no coupons so checkout lines are much quicker.
After returning to the hotel, I explored the property waiting for Cheryl and Kurt to arrive (already on safari for the prior two weeks) with their Yale tour group. The Lake Duluti Hotel is a beautiful property on grounds with a garden overlooking a lake. Around 2 in the afternoon, Kurt entered the lobby while I was sitting nearby using the WIFI signal. Cheryl and the rest of the group followed shortly. Around 4, our tour operator, Ultimate Kilimanjaro, arrived and briefed us on some of the details of the climb.
Arrival in Moshi
Just arrived in Moshi, a 2 hour drive east of Lake Duluti. More like a 2 hour game of chicken. A two lane highway filled with double and triple tractor trailer rigs going 1 MPH and cars passing head long into each other if not using the shoulder instead. Anyhow, we got to the hotel in the downtown section. A quaint lodging in the “shabby chic” style for lack of a better descriptor. I had a fit when I found out there is no elevator in the hotel and my room is on the third floor. Really, do they expect me to carry my bags up all three floors? I was exhausted at the end of the stairs.
The Start of the Climb
Day 1 – We leave Moshi this morning to start our climb after lunch. Weather in town is clear and cool. The coolness will definitely not last. The first day of the climb is about 4 km on a jungle rain forest trail. Hoping (probably beyond reason) that “rain forest” is just a euphemism for “dry and cool forest”. We shall see. Having breakfast and waiting on Cheryl and Kurt to show up. Our two guides, Ewand (the professor) and Barako (self described president of the mountain) are due in an hour. Accommodations are a step up from camping and luxurious past this point. Communications going forward via text or Facebook are dubious at best. Enjoying the fresh brewed hot water and powdered coffee. Courage!
On our way. We’ve been briefly introduced to the 14 staff/porters by our 2 guides. A total of 16 people to help three of us reach the summit. Hope it’s enough. There is much excited chatter on the bus and plenty of (probably appropriate) laughter. The summit is clear with some snow and a cap of clouds. It looms immediately to our right and stretches to the top of the bus windows. An incredible sight. I pity the fools who think they can climb that.
An Hour from Lemosho Gate
We are driving around the western flank of the world’s largest freestanding mountain. An extinct (hopefully) volcano. Farms and sunflower fields line both sides of the paved highway. To the left in the distance you can see yesterday’s Mount Meru and smaller volcanic vents. The summit of Kilimanjaro is forming its own weather. Angry marshmallows now conceal its upper half. We are anxious, not knowing what to expect from our upcoming experiences. The crew is quiet and contented following their breakfast and candy bars that Cheryl Davis handed out.
A Short While Later
Well that didn’t take long. The pavement ended. We are now rattling along a desert dusty road. Through breaks in the dust clouds you can see miles of open plains stretching eventually north to Amboseli. The bumps of volcanic vents are everywhere. Everywhere. Just before the end of pavement, we passed a parade of hundreds of motorcycle taxis. Could be some sort of protest action. As we get close to our starting point we are passing through carrot farms and cultivated timber forests.The trees are conical fir trees with pine needles that hang off the limb and look like groomed horse manes. They turn silver in the blowing breeze. The fir trees look out of place. Like something in the Pacific Northwest. We have arrived.
Arrival at Mkubwa Camp
Day 1 (Sunset) – We reached Mkubwa Camp after a 4 hour trek mostly straight up along a narrow trail thru the dense jungle. We are at the 9,000 foot elevation. Our site in the camp consists of 2 geodesic tents for Cheryl, Kurt and me, a mess tent and a kitchen tent. There are a half dozen other guided groups at the camp. Toilets consist of bushes or a tented mini toilet. Luxurious. We are told tomorrow we will leave the jungle behind as we climb to 11,000 feet.
Sunrise at Mkubwa Camp
Day 2 (Sunrise) – After dinner last night, we were briefed on our next day’s plan. Heart rates and oxygen levels checked, we headed to our tents to sleep. It was 8 o’clock and 2 hours after sunset. The camp, however, remained a beehive of activity. Chattering voices in Swahili and some other languages continued for an hour or two and then suddenly, complete silence. At 9,000 feet the cold sets in quickly and I was forced to improvise. The pillow I had created from a nylon bag was too cold to sleep on. I wrapped it in a flannel shirt. Underwear is fine for sleeping in at the equator. But not at 9,000 feet. On went the fleece pants. The Diamox we were all dosing ourselves with made me appreciate the plastic bottle I brought. Sometime in the middle of the night the camp was awakened by loud sounds that I can best describe as growling frogs. Hundreds of loud growling frogs. Coming somewhere from either just outside the tent or overhead or both. The growling horde continued for a little while and then suddenly stopped in unison. All quiet except for the muffled voices coming from nearby tents. A reply from far off was heard. “We are growling frogs too”. Quiet briefly, then our team of growling somethings replied back. This went on for a little while and then stopped. What were they? Frogs? The Monkees? Aliens? And what were doing? Issuing warnings? Threats? I didn’t leave the warmth of my sleeping bag to investigate. I didn’t hear the sound of zippers so I knew my fellow campers were not investigators either. Some things are best left unknown.
The Hike to Shira Camp 1
Day 2 (Late Afternoon) – We have arrived at Shira Camp 1. We left Mkubwa Camp (also called Big Tree Camp) at 9 in the morning. The trail headed east thru the jungle with our target a seemingly short 5 miles east towards the summit and an increase of 2,000 feet elevation to 11,500. The trail started easy enough but soon it was descending and climbing back up through several valleys. At the 10,000 foot elevation we left the rain forest and entered the next ecological zone called moorland. The large jungle trees were gone and plant life took on a shorter more subtle desert like quality. The trail started to become more difficult with steep drops and climbs over rocks and boulders. Progress slowed considerably. We were expected at our new camp by 1 for a hot lunch. As we gained altitude the views to the north opened up towards Kenya and Amboseli. After 2 miles we were becoming very exhausted. Breathing was difficult with the strain especially now that we were over 10,000 feet in altitude. We were told our goal was the top of ridge where the Shira Plain starts about a mile away and up another 1,500 feet. This was the most difficult climb and we were already exhausted. Every step up was a challenge given the steepness and rockiness. It seemed like it took a few hours but we finally reached the ridge. Another 2 miles east on relatively flat trail and we would be at our new camp. Kurt noticed dark storm clouds in that direction as a light rain began to fall. We put on our rain gear and headed off. In a short while the rain turned heavy. The sloping trail turned onto a river of muddy rapids. I was starting to find out that my so-called rain gear was, in fact, not. I was getting soaked from the top of my head to the inside bottom of my hiking boots by the cold rain. That’s when the hail and lightning started. Our options were few. Continue on towards the camp still two miles away and hope that a lightning strike ends our misery. We finally made it to camp and found our mess tent. We entered and took off what soaked gear we could. The floor of the mess tent had rivulets of muddy water flowing across and rain dripped from the tent’s roof. Cheryl and Kurt insisted I take off my drenched shirt to avoid hypothermia. In their day pack they had a dry fleece shirt. They are always prepared and have previous experience from hiking the Grand Canyon. The dry fleece really helped. One of the porters arrived with lunch. Toasted cheese sandwiches and cucumber soup. We ate and warmed ourselves up while avoiding the drips of water. After eating we headed to our tents thru the pouring rain. Covered in mud I tried to remove my clothing outside to keep the tent’s interior dry. I put on my dry fleece pants from my dry bag the porters had delivered when setting up camp earlier in the morning. They have a challenging job tearing down camp in the morning and racing past us on the trail to get the new camp set up by the time we finally straggle in. I laid down on the sleeping bag pad and crashed. I woke up a few hours later to the sound of footsteps next to the tent. The rain had stopped and one of the porters, Mosha, had rounded up my wet and muddy gear and cleaned it and stretched it out over bushes, guy wires and tent roofs to dry. This was greatly welcomed. At this altitude the air can dry things quicker than you would think. Stretches of sun through the broken clouds could now be seen on the western flanks of the summit still miles off towards the east. Kilimanjaro itself was wrapped in clouds.
To Shira Camp 2
Day 3 – Morning and the entire summit of Kilimanjaro is briefly visible in the cold saturated air. The south face is covered in new snow. An effect one assumes from our icy encounter yesterday. Briefly, I say, because within 15 minutes the summit is covered again in clouds. Our waiter porter says to me as he is wiping off the mess tent’s wet dishes that it looks like it will be a rainy day. Not good to hear especially in light of the fact that the hot water is not yet ready for the coffee powder. New lessons are quickly learned every day here. To hell with sensitive electronics. They can go in porter bags. Clothing layers must be packed in the bag I carry. The only thing yesterday that had an effective rain proof cover. Ex-Officio underwear never dries. Not “quickly” as their marketing materials would have you believe. We prepare to slog on. We departed Shira Camp 1 at 8:30. The trail headed out gently up the moorland towards the east. After a short while we crossed the first of several fast flowing rocky creeks. The trail was pretty level with occasional climbs up and over ridges. After an hour we stopped to look at Cathedral Rock on our right towards the horizon. Our original plan called for following the trail to Cathedral Rock but the trail would have taken us through a swampy area now filled with runoff from the rains. Cheryl Davis, Kurt and I quickly vetoed that idea. We continued our trail eastward for another hour. Dark storm clouds formed ahead. The first drop of rain is all it took for us to quickly encase ourselves in any possible water proof items. Ponchos, water proof pants, back pack covers. We trudged on swaddled in plastic. In a little while ice was falling again. At our elevation of 12,000 feet we all concluded this was more likely sleet. The air seemed cold enough. The lightning and thunder 30 minutes later made me wonder, again. The trail turned steep and rocky. Rain water flowed between the rocks. Clamoring over the wet and slippery rocks was tough and I struggled for breath due to the altitude and effort. Up and down over several ridges we finally spotted our destination. On top of a ridge of boulders was Shira Camp 2. A large green roofed ranger’s station was clearly visible along with 2 fenced in weather stations. The final climb to the camp was over big rocks. Difficult. We reached camp and tried to catch our breath in the ever thinning air. Thunder rumbled loudly from a lightning strike nearby.
The Test Climb to 15,000 Feet
Day 4 – Weather conditions have been terrible since our arrival at Shira Camp 2 yesterday. At midnight last night, the skies opened up and torrential rains fell accompanied by high winds until day break. Temperatures were so low I slept in multiple layers of clothing. Huddled in the sleeping bag starting at 8 in the evening I remained at least comfortable. A luxury. When the first drops fell I wondered whether it was ice falling. As the storm’s ferocity increased, I realized it must have warmed above freezing. I got only four hours of sleep due to all the commotion outside and worried as Day 4 coming up was going to be the toughest day on our schedule short of Summit day still days away. A test day. Day 4 would require us to climb 3,000 feet to 15,000 feet, an elevation that threatened severe elevation sickness effects along with the most mileage so far, 8 miles. All of this in miserable weather. I got out of the tent at 6 in the morning to a light rain. It was completely fogged in. Visibility was no more than 100 feet. We ate anxiously and followed it up with the pulse and oxygen test. My heart rate was 104. Anything above 100 prevents you from climbing. I explained that I had just been wrangling with my day pack to put on the water proof cover. I sat down and relaxed and the rate dropped to 93. Passing. Oxygen was 91, good. We headed out. I was dressed in multiple layers and water proofed as much as possible. Light rain was falling and visibility was low due to the fog. Bodies of other Mjingas moved slowly, dark hooded figues in a ghostly scene. We started to climb. Slowly, slowly our guide said softly. Poalee poalee in Swahili. One step then another. Like moon walkers in a grainy black and white film. The climb was continuous. Gradual at first and then steeper and steeper. Silhouettes of large rounded boulders could be barely seen through the mist. Only four hours before we could enjoy a box lunch at our halfway point. It was miserable. If it was clear, I’m sure the view would have eased our struggles. Two hours in we hit a crossroad. Signs pointed to various destinations. Our destination, Lava Tower, pointed straight ahead. In a hundred yards the trail dropped between two massive boulders. A narrow stairway descended into the cold deep haze. At the bottom the trail turned left hugging a stone cliff. To our right the cliff dropped off uncomfortably quickly to the unseen. Thankfully for once the thick fog was an ally. I would not have wanted to know how far down things went. The trail eventually merged into what appeared to be a tilted table strewn with 10 foot boulders. Finally a ridge with a dozen human shapes moving to the left appeared ahead. As we approached this busy highway of fellow thrill seekers things got thrilling. The icy winds picked up to at least 30 MPH blasting us with fog and ice particles. My poncho, held together with four flimsy snaps, blew apart and turned into a blue sail obscuring my vision. I tried to find a place to take off my backpack and re-secure the poncho. I was getting drenched, again, and my face was quickly becoming frozen. I found my balaclava in the backpack and put it on. I was able to put the poncho and backpack back on but it took all my effort. I was out of breath. An easy condition to find yourself in at 15,000 feet. Just amazing how thin our atmosphere really is. We continued our march east to the Lava Tower along with groups of Brits and Japanese (properly attired in the best Outdoors Magazine gear-of-the-month collection) I can only say I was warned by Teresa that I did not have the proper gear. She was right and now I was struggling more than necessary because of it. I thought maybe there will be some rain or snow but I was certainly not expecting to be playing an extra in the new Ice Station Zebra remake. We got to our lunch spot. The rain and frozen ice was unabated and we as a group decided to skip it and backtrack to our next camp, Moir Hut. Back across the cliff wall and up the narrow boulder crushing steps. We turned right at the first trail crossing of the morning. Two hours ahead through the frozen fog was our new camp site. We followed the trail down paths strewn with slippery little rocks. After fording several flooded streams we emerged into a fog filled flatland. As we continued into the fog a yellow shape started to take form. It appeared to be a large domed community tent. We had reached Moir Hut and were now back to 12,000 feet elevation. The yellow tent was a competitor’s tent. Our meager camp site was just forming out of the haze beyond. I found my tent and climbed in and crashed. I slept for an hour and when I climbed out of the tent to find that the fog had lifted. There was sunlight. Unbelievable. The camp site was at the bottom of a lava canyon with walls climbing over a thousand feet. I found my box lunch and headed to the mess tent. I ate the little chicken wing wrapped in foil along the two orange slices. I thought how lucky that Cheryl, Kurt and I did not suffer any of the effects of altitude sickness (headache, vomiting, dizziness, disorientation). We had passed our test. I craved a coke.
Around the North Face
Day 5 – The morning started out with the summit of Kilimanjaro visible and so close that Uhuru Peak was no longer visible. The western face was covered in freshly fallen snow. It was partially sunny and very welcomed. From the top of the sides of the lava canyon fog spilled down. A beautiful and mesmerizing sight. Our path today took us up and out of the lava canyon we had overnighted in. The initial climb was about 1,000 feet. At the top of the ridge we took a break and talked to a couple who were following the same trek to the summit. A couple in their early 60s. They told us that major flooding was occurring in the south of Tanzania. No surprise given the weather we had been experiencing. Our guides said the weather was different now due to global warming and dry seasons are now wet. We are supposed to be in the dry season. The trail continued across plains of lava rock. Gradual descents and climbs. In the flatter areas, the rock was broken up into flat sheets and sounded like we were walking on broken dishes. You could hear other hikers in the group clinking their way forward. We came across what appeared to be a road of well cut cobblestones. Apparently a different type of lava that had formed and bubbled up before cooling long ago. We decided to break for lunch and along the top of the next ridge could be seen two large yellow dome tents, the same ones for the couple who we talked to in the morning following our initial climb out of the valley. Their tour guides are from Tusker Trails. A nice setup and a hot lunch on the spot for the lucky couple from Canada and Durbin, South Africa. We slinked through their camp and made another 100 yards before settling down among some larger rocks. At last a break and lunch. A cold boxed lunch. Hot lunches are for losers from Canada and South Africa. I glanced longingly at the yellow domes and high flying flag with Tusker’s logo. Next time, I thought, for this once in a lifetime event. After eating, the lead guide, Ewand, told me he was receiving cell phone signals from Safaricom in nearby Kenya. I turned on my phone and could not believe it. I was connected. I texted Teresa “RUthere”. It was noon where we were and very early morning in America. In a minute Teresa texted back, “Yes how are you”. This was the happiest moment of the trip. I quickly updated her on a few details. “Everyone is OK”. “Went to 15000 feet yesterday”. “Rain. Lots of rain”. “Dont have rainproof gear. U were right”. She was happy to hear we had not gotten altitude sickness. I looked over at the guides and could tell they were ready to go. “Gotta go. Love U”. “Love you too”. Onward we continued now heading generally east as we had rounded the western flank of the summit. Off in the distance about 20 miles you could see the plains of Amboseli in sunlight. We were just under a ceiling of fog. The trail got steeper and more difficult. Before long we faced a 100 foot tall wall of lava. We were going to have to get over it. The trail got very steep with very short switch backs. We reached the rock wall and now it was apparent the trail was going to go over it requiring climbing over large rocks. Climb over one rock and rest on a little flat spot of dirt. On and on. And don’t look back or down. Somehow I thought the trail we were on was supposed to be the easy trail. Nothing here is easy. Then again, it probably IS the easy trail. Now we had to come back down the wall. Same thing. Rock by rock and trying to find a place to position your foot so that you won’t break your leg or worse. Rock climbing is not my thing. Especially for a soon to be 60 year old thing. We made it to the bottom and continued a short way before another lava wall was before us. Once again, we knew the routine. I was now an expert in something I didn’t want expertise in. After we climbed down from the second wall the trail flattened out and in the distance to the east could be seen two large yellow dome tents already at Buffalo Camp. Tusker!
Third Cave Camp
Day 6 – Got up around 7 in the morning after a relatively quiet night. After stepping out of the tent I turned on the phone to see if I could get a cell phone signal as I had the day before. It was cloudy, no sun. No signal by the toilet tent so I moved to the rock outcropping sitting 20 feet higher than the camp. Still no signal. The first rain drop fell. Then a billion more. Yep! Another day of struggling around the north face of Kilimanjaro in the cold rain. I rushed to the mess tent and waited for the porters to bring hot water for the tea bags since the all powdered coffee had long been consumed. Everything was delayed by the rains. The rain let up a little bit and we decided to leave at 9. The day was planned to be a short hike, 5 miles and a relative drop of 500 feet. The rain and fog did not let up. The terrain consisted of lava rock ridges separated by flatter terrain with dirt and gravel trails. The ridges required some rock climbing but not nearly as strenuous as the previous day’s. I felt better with the climbs and breathing was easier. I was acclimating to the altitude. One of the reasons for choosing the longer, 53 mile, Northern Circuit. It seemed to be working. Our altitude was around 13,000 feet. After a couple of hours we decided to break for a snack. Lunch was to be served at our destination. The guides found a cave in the face of a lava cliff. It was about 5 feet tall and dry on the inside. The sandy floor showed evidence of recent buffalo activity. At least buffaloes are smart enough to get out of the rain and stay out until things improve. We ate snacks of peanuts and M&Ms. Hard, cold M&Ms. The best ever. Cheryl had a bag of pretzels and asked Ewand and Barako if they had ever tried them. They had not. They ate them and loved them and engaged in a long conversation as to what they were and how they were made. After fifteen minutes, we finished up and proceeded back out into the rain with the trail continuing eastward with the same terrain we had been on. After another hour, our camp appeared thru the fog with the ever ubiquitous yellow domed tents. A large 50 foot gully separated us from the camp. After climbing out of the gully we found our mess tent and stripped off wet ponchos and covers and rested a while. The rain continued. Our guide came by to tell us that conditions were bad for the final summit climb beginning tomorrow night. Snow was continuing to fall and would for the next two days. Snow elevation was 15,000, the same altitude of our next camp site at Kibo. We started to take inventory and made of list of clothing we would wear for tomorrow night’s finale. Three layers for foot wear; thin socks, thick wool socks and plastic baggies. Five layers for pant wear; underwear, long underwear, fleece pants, regular pants and rain pants. Seven layers for upper wear; long silk underwear, two shirts, down jacket, wind breaker, poncho. Three layers for head gear; balaclava, wool pull over cap and hat. Sounds comfortable. I think if I fall from the summit, I will bounce like a beach ball all the way back to Moshi. Extra provisions will include snacks, batteries, flashlights. We will start the climb at 11 PM after eating lunch at Kibo at 2. So we must try to catch as much sleep as possible once we arrive. We should reach the Uhuru peak, altitude 19,341 by around 8 AM. Sunrise is 6 AM so, weather permitting, yea right, we will see an amazing sunrise. After reaching the peak we will spend fifteen minutes before starting a four hour, seven mile decent to a camp where we will eat lunch. We will continue on another four hours to our final resting place, um, I mean sleeping camp. We are all anxious about the scope of the planned activities. A 4,000 foot climb, many miles, many hours starting the evening before. We are nervous and cannot wait for this “adventure” to end.
Arrival at Kibo Hut
Day 7 – Got up at 6:30 to an unusual sight. Off and down to the north I could see the sun’s pink on the clouds over the Amboseli plains. Overhead was still cloudy but in 15 minutes the clouds broke revealing the summit of Kili right in front of the camp. Snow covered and beautiful in the early sunlight. We quickly took several pictures and a selfie before the clouds hid our destination again. Today’s hike would be three miles up the saddle of the mountain between Mawenze Peak and Uhuru Peak climbing 3,000 feet. We took off a little past 8 and headed south. The trail was dirt and gravel, no big rocks, but a continuous climb. As we progressed, Mawenze Peak came into clear view. A mile high spire of volcanic rock flanked by knife like shards of stone. It looked fictional. Behind us we could see the top of the cloud layer most assuredly occluding the view of the sun from the elephant’s early morning grazing in Amboseli. The trail continued on for two more hours. At a ridge, we could see School Hut Camp to our west sitting on a shelf of rock. At the next ridge our new home came into view. It looked like a small city with several permanent structures. Tiny figures of porters could be seen moving slowly to and from Kibo Hut Camp with bags on their heads. We were another hour away. Light snow started falling. We entered Kibo Hut Camp. It was crowded with many porters and dazed westerners wandering around in long underwear and wool caps. The scene looked like something out of Star Wars. The only thing missing was a cantina. Too bad. Two of the permanent buildings were dormitories for the porters. A very primitive arrangement but luxurious compared to what is available elsewhere around the mountain. Our campsite was located in the southeast suburbs. Far enough away from the village center to reduce the sounds of ceaseless foreign chatter. Good thing since our plans are to go to bed at 2 and get up at 10pm and start the steep climb in the dark at 11. We finished lunch and headed out to our tents for a nap. At 5, we were awakened for a light dinner. After dinner we stepped out of the mess tent to an incredible sight. The sun had set behind Kilimanjaro but was still lighting the lands and clouds to our east. Strong crepuscular rays streaked across the sky heading toward Mawenzi Peak. The bottom of stratocumulus clouds to our south turned a bright red. A lighting storm brewed over Amboseli. The sound of thunder echoing off the mountain of stone to our back. This was the first real light show Kili had offered us after a week. It was time to head back to our tents to try to grab an hour or two of sleep before the big ascent. God knows what will greet us tonight.
Day 8 (The Night Before at 10:30) – This is the raw stuff of nightmares. We were awakened at 10:30 for a cup of tea and porridge. It was dark and very cold outside. Looking inside the mess tent with a head lamp, the tent roof was frosted and looked like like a million stars twinkling in the dark sky unlike the million of steady stars blazing in the night sky outside the tent. We were all suited up in multiple layers as advised. It was like walking around in a moon suit. We finished our tea and porridge and agreed to start our ascent. We headed out of the mess tent and thru our newly discovered metropolis of Kibo Hut Camp. The streets were vacant. Silent. A lone solar powered light lit the corner of one building. We continued on to the start of the trail. The trail was mostly smooth. As if made of crushed gravel. Easy to walk on. It started to climb and switch back and forth against the eastern flank of Kilimanjaro. We climbed steadily and slowly. After a while we looked back down to see a parade of lights below us. Fellow climbers with headlamps. The sky was stunningly clear and still. The constellation Orion visible to our west up the hill with the nebulae below its belt visible. The Milky Way was bright and stretched from the eastern horizon and ended somewhere up the mountain we were climbing. The Big Dipper was spinning to our north. Polaris hidden beyond the horizon. To our east, Mawenza was visible below us, its shape only definable by the lack of stars. One footstep was taken, one after another. This process was ceaseless. At first, somewhere around 17,000 feet altitude, it seemed surprisingly easy. Altitude acclimatization had worked. At about 18,000 feet, after several hours of steady climbing, I saw the first drops of mud falling. A splotch here, a splotch on the trail there. I thought, what the hell? We continued climbing slowly, one step at a time. Like living in an uphill hell lit only by the headlight on your head. Below us a trail of lights following us. Looking upward was another trail of lights of other climbers further up the trail. The top most light turning a slight red color from the air (or lack of) indicating there was still a very long way to go. I was at the back of our team. I was following Baraka, Cheryl, Kurt and Ewand in that order. A bright spotlight on the ground quickly approached me from behind. I turned around to see a young guide with one climber. A young woman looking barely 20 years old. He coughed and cleared his throat as if indicating he wanted me to step off the path and let them pass. That was not possible. To my right, the path plummeted to the trail of lights in the dark below. To my left was a pile of unsteady rocks not easily stood upon. I inched forward with the line in front of me and stepped aside at the next switch back. The guide and his client rushed past and pushed their way thru our team. After two more switch backs I could see the pair up ahead sitting on some rocks. The guide was pouring his client a hot drink from a Thermos. I thought to myself why didn’t they take their break at the last switch back instead of trying to run us off the trail. We passed them and in two more switch backs, here comes a spotlight racing up on my heals. OK, I’m not going to play this game, I thought to myself, be it on a trail thru hell at 18,000 feet or driving down the interstate to Florida. The guide coughed behind me and then cleared his throat. I ignored it. Why don’t you flash your lights at me, I thought. The guide pushed me. Now let me get this straight. I’m climbing up a one lane trail in the dark following other hikers inching along with a nearly sheer drop-off to my right for a merciful death and this Mjinga wants to play some sort of game of leap frog. I stopped and turned around staring into his headlight. I told him they could pass on my left and that I was not stepping aside for them again. He pulled his client and stumblingly raced past over the rocks to my left. He pushed his way past the other members of our team and disappeared at the next switch back. We inched forward thru two more switch backs before it was déjà vu all over again. Yep, there they were. Sitting on some rocks enjoying a nice Frappuccino or whatever. We passed them and I laughed out loud at them. You can guess what’s coming up next. There was the predictable cough. The throat clearing. And the push. I turned around and said “if you want to have a nice romantic drink with your little honey why don’t the just do it where you’re standing, you little Mjinga!” I was excited. I got to make proper use of the Swahili word I learned for “idiot “. I felt a little proud. Maybe I could really learn to speak Swahili. He got visibly angry and opened his mouth. A bright yellow butterfly flew out. He raced past with client in tow. He yelled something to Ewand who yelled something back. In another minute they pushed past the other members of our team and disappeared once again into the darkness of the next switch back. They were not seen again. I tried to catch my breath and saw another splotch of mud fell from the dark. WTF? The snow on the trail started to move. I saw the beautiful yellow butterfly in the snow. Voices could be heard behind me. They were at first undecipherable. Then I heard one say “Coke adds life”. I was hallucinating. Strongly. It had been several hours since we started to climb, we were at a very high altitude and I had had an adrenaline rush from the Star Trek-like (The Original Series) battle amidst rocks and Gorns. We still had a ways to go to reach the summit at 19,000 feet. It was hell. Looking back to the east I saw Jupiter rising. It shone like a bright red laser. Its color shaped by the atmosphere below us. Saturn followed. Bright yellow in the black sky. We were nearing sunrise. I prayed for a brightening sky. We had been climbing at this point for six hours. Then the fog started to set in. The dark night sky with brilliant and piercing lights faded. Each footstep clomped on the trail, slowly, polee. It was a pure vision of hell. The butterflies changed from bright yellow to dull white. Mud fell and the snow avoided it by shifting shape. Then the rocks appeared. I hoped they were an hallucination but they weren’t. The ever climbing trail of gravel gave way to a crest of boulders. Icy boulders. Covered in shape shifting snowy mud. I was at the back of our group. I could see Cheryl and Kurt along with Barako and Ewand ahead of me.They started with great effort to climb over the rocks. I didn’t know where to step so I kept my eye on the butterfly on the back of Ewand’s boot. I could see him deftly hopping from the top of one rock to another. I followed with much less deftness. Somehow the icy fog started to glow with a peach color. Was I hallucinating more or was this early sunrise? Sunrise! Surprise! Grace Slick’s voice blasted thru my head. It was no hallucination. The rising sun was lighting the ice fog. It was 6 in the morning, seven and a half hours since we started climbing. The beginning of a new day. And, I emphasize, JUST the beginning. Looking up the rock wall I could see what appeared to be a metal pole about 50 feet above us. We climbed toward it. I could see Barako, the lead guide, moving forward horizontally. An indication of a flattened area. I got to the top rock and there it was, Gilman’s Point. The summit had been reached. We were all elated and exhausted. We tried to catch our breaths which was difficult at that altitude. It was photo time. Cheryl and Kurt had a flag from their Alma Mater, Yale, that they wanted photoed. I took off my pack to get my camera. The pack was coated in ice. My hat had icicles hanging down like tassels. They were about an inch long and I thought to myself that it must look like a frozen sombrero. My cell phone camera was dead. A victim of the cold. My Nikon camera was working but not the flash. It was still too dark for a decent photo. Another team of climbers clamored over the rocks. Three young men from Dubai with their guide. We decided to move onward around the rim to Stella Point, the departure point from the summit. A 30 minute hike that would result in more daylight and better photos. As we hiked on I could see down into the caldera to my right. The trail had been cut into a snow bank of about 3 feet. The snow bank dropped off very steeply to my right into the fog. Up ahead, the snowy trail wove between rock cliffs and boulders and undulated into the fog. To my left was the world below, invisible thru the fog. In the growing daylight, it was apparent the fog was clearing, maybe briefly. We finally reached Stella Point. We all sat down against a large rock wall for a few minutes. I struggled to get my camera from my back pack. It was time for pictures in front of the Stella Point sign. Cheryl and Kurt pulled out their Yale flag. Two good shots were taken. Then we posed for a group shot. I have no idea who took the picture. That was it. It was time to go home. It was literally “all downhill from here”.
Day 8 – We had all practiced and trained hard for this “once in a lifetime” adventure with the goal of reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro. And we accomplished it. At the summit we were all elated and very exhausted. We had spent all our energy climbing to 19,000 feet for almost 8 hours. But, while at the summit, my elation started to fade as I realized I had been focused on the wrong goal. The goal was not the top of the mountain, but the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain. We were only half way there and I was 100% shot. Was I expecting a luxury helicopter to pick us up or maybe a water slide down? The guides moved us forward to the trail down from Stella Point. The fog had lifted more and you could see down the trail for about a mile. The far off horizon was still out of view. The trail consisted of soft brown and frozen soil mixed with melon sized rocks. The slope of the trail was steep, maybe a 30% gradient. The trail swooped downward following a path more suitable for snow skiing. We started down the trail. Almost immediately I was having trouble. My walking poles were too short. Barako tried to lengthen them but they were frozen and wouldn’t adjust. He gave me his with a much longer length. That helped a bit but it was a real struggle trying to maintain moving downward without falling. I had to stop several times to catch my breath. We were still above 18,000 feet and hiking down a very steep trail was exhausting. Around 16,000 feet the trail flattened out a bit and we stopped for a break. My knees were hurting terribly as they bore the brunt of the descent. The guides chastised us for going so slowly. We still had seven miles to go and another 7,500 feet to descend to our next camp site. At the rate we were going, we were not going to make it. I think the guides expected us to run down the mountain with 25 pounds of gear on our back like we were some sort of 20 year old thrill seeker. In fact, the day before we saw someone riding a bike down the trail. GoPro’s dream client. Well, we are not GoPro candidates so that wasn’t going to happen. At about 14,000 feet the trail turned and approached a sharp drop off. Down below, another 2,000 feet was a camp, I can’t remember the name, I think maybe Barafu, that could be seen perching on a rock outcrop. One permanent green roofed structure surrounded by many colorful tents. I thought, fine, if that is our destination, then I will make it in a while. That was not our destination. The trail left the soft brown soil and now was running thru a series of large rocks. It grew steeper and the rocks on the trail were broken and easily slipped on. It was difficult to find the proper footing. We took a short break and continued the steep descent. The Barafu Camp was close, maybe 200 feet down. We reached a low point on the trail and climbed back up briefly to arrive at Barafu. It turns out this camp is another base camp for hikers ascending so it was very busy and crowded. We rested for a few minutes at the ranger station. I ate a few jelly beans Cheryl had brought. It looked like rain was moving in again so we wrapped and adjusted our gear. We continued heading south. The trail took us down a hill to a camp for the porters. A busy place like a freight yard. Trails led out in all directions from here. We could see porters head in and out in all directions like leaf cutter ants with loads on their heads. This was truly a high-speed trail system. We continued south. The trail now was mostly flat or slightly downhill. It seemed to be following a dry creek bed filled with a loose jumble of rocks and marble shaped gravel. We crunched on for hours with my knees on their final legs (if you will). A cool fog rolled in from the lower lands. The trail we were on was an apparent super highway for porters. Many loads heading north and south, balanced on the porter’s heads. They roared past us like we were driving 1980 Yugos with high mileage and low horsepower. Which effectively we were. I reminded everyone that slower traffic should keep left. A few more hours of stumbling through this rocky plain finally delivered us to our new camp, Millennium Camp. A new camp in Kilimanjaro National Park it had a permanent structure for toilets and a ranger station. It was at about 10,000 feet set among small scrubby trees that had recently appeared after descending thru the desert like environment. We collapsed in chairs set up for us outside the mess tent. The porters circled us applauding. I felt a little embarrassed by the spectacle coming from a group of people for whom this hardship is just a normal part of their daily routine. It had been 18 hours since eating after climbing and descending over 12,000 feet and walking, stumbling and falling over 10 miles. This has been, by far, the toughest day of a very tough week. We ate what we could and crawled into our tents to rest until the morning. Tomorrow, at last, the journey would end.
The Long Hike Out
Day 9 (Millennium Camp) – I woke up to find the tent glowing with light. Orange, white and black. A little confused and very sore, I crawled out of the tent. The first thing I saw was something I think called “a shadow”. There was sunlight, bright and cool, fresh, slightly less than saturated, wet, air. The porters were moving around more excitedly than normal. I turned around and there was Kilimanjaro behind the camp, fully lit in the morning sunlight against a deep blue background. No clouds or fog at all on the flanks or summit. It was if Kili was calling us back to play some more. This time she would behave. I don’t think so, I thought. After a quick visit to the toilet tent I headed to the mess tent for some fresh boiled water and coffee powder. Mmmmm, mmm, good. Cheryl and Kurt showed up. Everyone was still damaged and sore from the day before. We had a long day ahead of us, 7 miles and several thousand feet of descent to the exit at Mweka Gate. It was going to be a real challenge to complete the hike given our conditions. But the thought of getting off the trail and getting back to Moshi inspired us. After breakfast a flurry of activity started outside the mess tent. Through the open flap of the tent we could see the porters gathering and becoming increasingly excited, more so than usual. And this was coming from one group who seemed to never not be excited. The cook was headed our way with a cake. The porters began singing “Happy Birthday” followed by a rousing rendition of “Hakuna Matata”. It was payday. It was like we were living in some sort of black and blue version of the Lion King. Don’t worry, be happy. (It never occurred to me that the singing of “Happy Birthday” was for me. The past week made me forget what month or year it was.) Some signal was given and we exited the tent. We knew from the day before that there was a tipping ceremony planned for the morning. Cheryl, Kurt and I agreed to the amounts we would tip and that it would be above and beyond the recommended guidelines. We were told that we could not give the cash payments directly to the porters or staff but that it would have to be given to the “union boss” and that he would distribute the proceeds. We were told we should write down the amounts we were tipping and the name of the person who would receive the tip. The guides and cooks were paid a little more. Union rules, I guess. The porters proceeded to sing and clap and some danced and gesticulated in front of us pointing back towards the mountain. I couldn’t understand what they were saying and the gestures pointing back to the mountain suggested that they were saying something like “Boy! Did Kili really kick your BUTTS!” They were absolutely right. It was a good show and everyone seemed to have a good time. Lots of laughing but that was something else normal for the porters. I took some pictures and we broke up to get our gear. Back inside the mess tent the “union boss” was sitting with a pile of US dollars distributing them to the recipients. The union system has really helped to stem the monetary abuses porters were subjected to years prior. Ultimate Kilimanjaro is a participant in the program and I have to tip my hat for their support. These guys (and one or two gals we saw as porters during the hike) have it tough enough without having to worry about being shorted come payday. In about half an hour at 8:30, we were back on the trail, descending to our exit. The trail headed south. It was more of a groomed trail with bowling ball sized white rocks lining both sides and a mix of brown dirt and smaller white rocks in the bed of the trail. The descent was at first gradual. To our west, in the unfortunately timed clear air you could see Mt. Meru in the distance now reaching up above the horizon. In front of us and to our left the view looked like something out of the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. A cascade of mountain ridges and spines covered with green forest. After about an hour we had descended into the real rain forest. The tree canopy occluded any views and the trail was now in shadow. Tall dark trees covered in vines and other growth lined both trail sides. The going quickly got tough given the fact we had not thoroughly been able to recover. Each step or hop down from rocky perch to landing was painful. We began to ask “Are we there yet?” like some bored kids on their way to Disneyworld. It would have been nice if our problem had been one of boredom. After a couple of hours we reached Mweka Hut Camp. We sat on the wooden benches outside the ranger’s station. This was an ambulance station. And by ambulance, I mean a gurney made from chain link fence perched on top of a single bicycle wheel. The local ranger explained that the “ambulance” is available but requires a team of 16 porters to operate. A team of eight lift and carry the gurney and a back up team of eight follows along. I asked the ranger if the porters made a sound like NEE-nur-NEE-nur-NEE-nur (tip’ o the hat to Minions) as they raced down the final miles of the trail to civilization. The ranger laughed out loud. He seemed to get a kick out of that comment. Sadly, I suspect at some future date a poor injured hiker will be subjected to this routine. We declined the chain-link-fence-unicycle-gurney-ambulance and stumbled onward. The trail continued for seemingly days in the darkened rain forest, continually stepping downward. We asked Ewand to tell us when we had reached the half-way point so that we might get a boost in morale. Ewand’s response was automatic. “Don’t worry. Be happy”. It became apparent to me that the Tanzanians have a different sense of time and distance and don’t seem interested at all in the metrics. They seem to just live in the moment. That could explain the lack of Burma Shave signs along the way. We, on the other hand, have had a lifetime of measurement and feel comforted to know that the next exit is only a mile ahead or that we scored 100% on some trivial test. Hakuna matata. After a couple of hours sounds of voices could be heard from the trail ahead. I thought, at long last, the exit gate. It turned out to be merely a porter/trucker confab. A gossip session between porters heading up and down from station to station. Time stopped and finally we turned a corner and there it was, the Mweka Gate. Several small vans waited in the parking lot. Our true goal had been reached. Looks like we made it. We headed to the ranger station to sign in and to post our time of summitting. Suddenly, a strong rain started to fall thru the jungle. A parting gift from Kilimanjaro. We climbed in the van and headed back to civilization. To Moshi.
Back in Moshi
Day 9 (Late Afternoon) – We arrived back in Moshi after about a 30 minute drive from Mweka Gate. Our small van was crowded with porters and bags, everyone squeezed together. One large mass of unwashed bags and filthy humans. We drove thru the suburban outskirts of Moshi. Farms and clusters of homes, some under construction. People and motorcycles lined the street. After circumnavigating a large roundabout, we turned left and entered into our hotel from which we departed. The Bristol Cottages. Luxurious, six star, Bristol Cottages. We made the stop to drop off baggage and for me to once and forever surgically remove my hiking boots. The porters waited patiently with smiles on their faces. They had been paid and paid better than their normal fare and Cheryl, Kurt and I offered to take the entire team out for a late lunch and beer at the restaurant of their choice. With boots removed and dirty shoes back on, I climbed back into the van. We headed out and stopped by an ATM for cash. None of us had any cash left. I think I had four 5 Euro notes but that was it. The lunch spot would only take cash. Kurt and I each withdrew 200,000 shillings worth a total of 200 USD. We drove one more block and turned left. This was the spot. A sports bar and it was Sunday afternoon. Football afternoon and Arsenal was playing Leicester. We entered. The bar was dark and Bar-B-Q smokey. The walls were lined with bamboo (most assuredly fireproofed I told myself). The only source of lighting was from two large screen TVs and two overhead skylights. Very dim. The place to be after getting eye drops from your ophthalmologist. The entire team was there sitting around a large boat-like table. They all beamed smiles at us as we found our way to two round tables. The bar had about 100 men in it. Cheryl being the odd-man out, if you will. A round of beers was ordered for all. Either Tusker or Kilimanjaro Beer. I ordered a Kilimanjaro beer but first things first. I somehow, having fallen victim to decades of marketing propaganda, craved a Coke. I understood that it could “add life”. A luke-cold tall bottle of Coke was delivered. I gulped it down in one swig. OK, maybe two or three but you get the point. And let me tell you. It added nothing but some gas, nothing about life, and it was, on the whole, not satisfying at all. I quickly headed for the Kili beer. That did the trick. We ordered Bar-B-Q for the team. After ensuring we had consumed two more beers, the sports bar staff came to the table with platters of pork. Small chunks of meaty, fatty pork burned to a crisp on one side. The pork chunks were dipped in some sort of hot sauce in small stainless steel bowls. Absolutely the best thing I had ever eaten. Especially after two beers. The bar was filled with excited chatter and laughter (in other words, the norm) and everyone apparently was an Arsenal fan. Arsenal scored and the room exploded with claps and hand slaps. Ewand, sitting at our table, asked us to spell our names on a piece of paper. We handed him the paper and he pulled out of his bag the certificate. THE CERTIFICATE. The certificate certifying (what else) that we had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. The certificate that some are willing to die for. Ewand filled our names in the blank spaces provided and handed them to us congratulating us on the accomplishment. I think we beamed. Don’t know. We finished our burnt chunks of pork and beers and it was time to pay the tab. I think the final bill for all the food and beer for 19 people came out to about $100 USD. 100,000 shillings. We walked back to our hotel. We said some goodbyes and headed out the door. Outside, somehow strategically located, was an ice cream vendor. You’ve got to know your market, I told myself. With no bells ringing or no “Turkey in the Straw” song playing, Cheryl moved towards the cart. Beeline I called it. With ice cream deals completed, we headed back to the “cottages”. In the entry way was Mosha, who had helped us with our wet gear throughout the journey, and a few other porters. We had offered to donate some clothing items that were necessary for the trip. I went up to my room to take inventory. There it was, filthy, but donateable. I pulled out the down jacket, two pairs of silk thermal underwear, three long thermal T-Shirts, rain pants (Columbia) and the ever functional and utilitarian “water-proof” non-water-proof-and-still-wet red wind breaker. I headed back downstairs. The guys were standing next to their van as I approached. Mosha had the first pick and chose (wisely) the down jacket. I thought he would pick the Columbia pants as he had eyed them early in the trip when I was wearing them and said “Columbia”. At least that’s what I thought. The other porters selected items until it was down to the sad wind breaker. I forced one of them to take it as they tried to give it back. These Tanzanians are no dummies. With gear in hand they climbed back into the van. A final good-bye and they were on their way. It was Sunday afternoon. A good Sunday. And Arsenal had beaten Leicester.