Killing the Kili

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Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
By Debby Merickel

The first words out of the driver’s mouth after picking me up at the airport and hefting my oversized duffle bag in the back of his Range Rover were, “so you’re going to kill the Kili, huh?” When my response was not forthcoming, he repeated his little joke. I was still pondering the question. This mountain’s peak was not visible that first day and I suspected it had a hidden pit as well. My goal was to survive my encounter with Kilimanjaro, not conquer it.

I was taken to the Mem Tours headquarters in Moshi, Tanzania where I settled all outstanding debts, met my guide, and was put through an extensive gear check which included me dumping out all of my clothes to make certain I was properly equipped to manage my six days on the trail. The lists they had included in their information packet served me well. I was ready. I was nervous. And I was alone.

Frankly, I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing here as this trek was not a life-long dream of mine, but, I was in good shape, I was competitive and I was already in the area as my daughter and I had just enjoyed an incredible safari in both the Serengeti and in the Ngorongoro Crater. She needed to get back to work so she spent all her remaining money on a beautiful Tanzanite ring and I opted to tackle the climb; both of us spending about the same amount.

The climb started the next morning so the tour company took me to a small local hotel close to their office. My decision to continue with my malaria meds was reinforced as the mosquitoes buzzed and bit all night long. Upon awakening early that morning I momentarily thought my sheets had become polka-dotted in red. The emptied dead carcasses of those insects meant that I had been quite active in my sleep.

My previous research had me going up the “coca-cola” trail, also known as the Marangu Route, because it was known to be the easiest, the shortest and the cheapest of all the pathways. It is generally considered the route of children who drink sodas unlike the “whiskey” trail where one needs to be a certified climber who can handle the ruggedness! I was on the right road for me. Part of my excitement was that I planned on reaching the summit on the morning of my 58th birthday. The drama of that was important to me.

As I disembarked at the Park Entrance I was introduced to my “team”. Eugene was the name of my guide, my constant companion for the better part of a week; Julius who would porter supplies and serve me my food and a bowl of warm water for washing twice a day; Johnson, with a first name I could not master, was the cook who also carried my bag and finally, George, the porter who carried the week’s food for the team. While I signed in, they weighed in, and the park entry fees were paid. Apparently only one other person was starting the trek this day, as it was during the off season when rain was a constant threat. As I started out, I carried in my backpack two bottles of water, my rain gear and the lunch Johnson had packed. My immediate goal was to eat and drink everything to lighten my load. Day one was a relatively easy hike, only 3 hours and a high of 9022 feet. Due to the early arrival at the Mandara Huts, I did a little extra sightseeing after setting up my sleeping bag. The elusive Columbus monkeys were heard but not seen.

There were huts placed at three strategic intervals along the trail, allowing a protected sleeping area for hikers, guides and porters. They resembled mini-villages with a dining house, a toilet area, an office for registering and tented like huts that had sleeping areas for four in each half. I discovered they also housed a secret stash of bottled water that could be purchased from the caretaker even though it was progressively more expensive the higher one climbed.

That night gave me a clue about coldness, midnight hikes to the toilet and the lack of privacy as I could hear others breathing, coughing and shifting in their sleep. I went to bed with the sun and waited patiently for it to rise.

The next day we trekked a good five hours, which brought us at least 5600 feet higher. I began to feel the affects of high altitude. A dull headache became my constant companion and I was not missing my daily dose of chocolate and glass of red wine. I tried not to be picky about the food and there are few things I won’t eat, but there are ways of cooking them that caught me by surprise. I swear that one day I was served a deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The Horombo Huts were to be my home for two nights. I would hike much higher the next day but return to “sleep low” – part of the plan to acclimatize. This village was much busier than Mandara, as people were spending the night on their way down, climbers who failed to manage the high altitude were seeking refuge, and the new hikers that had opted to only spend one day at this camp also threw down their bags for a few hours sleep. The first night I had half the hut to myself, and the next night when 40 school children from Dar Es Salaam descended I was joined by a young man from Australia. Initially I was shocked that the huts were not segregated by gender as the youth hostels I remembered from almost 40 years ago. Now if you were a single traveler you were put in the same hut with other single travelers. I quickly learned how to change inside my sleeping bag and how not to snore (by staying awake). The meals were now held in shifts to manage the crowds, and I helped by eating quickly, mostly because of the number of mice scampering at my feet. It was considerably colder, I was aware of my lungs, and I worried about altitude sickness. Experiences and knowledge were handed out freely by other hikers and I learned more with every question I asked. I had no desire to take diamox but I did want to overcome any altitude sickness. As it was, the malaria pills were messing with my stomach. I was worried about how little water I managed to drink and was concerned that my appetite was diminishing. After listening to advice, some conflicting, I decided to take note of my own body and if I suffered from high altitude, rather than take anything, I would just go down.

Early the next morning, I was dressed, packed and ready to go. Per usual, I had to wait on my team as they packed my lunch and did the breakfast dishes. That morning I choked down the egg and toast and drank as much of the foul tasting water as I could. Rain that had poured all night was now a mere sprinkle, which at least gave me the opportunity to wear some of that expensive new gear I had purchased. During the five hour trek to the Kibo Hut, which ascended to about 15,500 feet, at least 1000 feet higher than I had ever climbed before, my guide hit me with another option. He had heard of another climber completing the trip successfully on this fourth day and he thought I was strong enough to do it too. I was initially surprised with this advice that went against all the wisdom of the mountain’s mentors. Supposedly it was easier to climb the scree (lots of nothing but gravel that moves) during the wee hours of the morning when it was still frozen, and this plan also allowed the climbers the chance to view the sunrise from the top of Africa. I questioned my guide further. He believed that the loose rock was a fair trade for the incredibly cold weather I would encounter at midnight. He further convinced me that others were planning on doing this as well. By the time we reached Kibo, I was willing to keep going. The place was moon-like with old outhouses that were almost inaccessible. No one was in residence and it was spooky. Eugene gave me thirty minutes to change into my warmest layers, eat a quick lunch and meet him at the onset of the final charge!

The plan called for five additional hours to reach Gilman’s Point and then another hour and a half to get to Uhuru Peak. I didn’t consider the fact that it was already 1 p.m. Before long I was miserable. Unfortunately for me, I hadn’t even remembered to bring Tylenol. My head was hurting, my breathing was labored and I was extremely bored with the continued slow digging in of each heavily booted foot. Scree was a word that I had heard and only slightly understood. Now it surrounded my toes and filled each thought as I struggled with the internal demons that were trying to convince me to quit! I kept asking my guide when the landscape would change, he continually answered, “15 minutes”. After three hours of the grueling drudgery of baby steps, slight slipping, breathing dust from the unsettling of these grisly grey impediments I was cussing the mountain. I couldn’t believe that I had paid $30 something per step and hated it so much. I couldn’t believe that no one had told me how horrible it was; loose rock, loose rocks, and more of the same over and over again. I was no longer talking to Eugene. He didn’t have the right answers. I was screaming out loud to myself, trying to convince myself to continue even though I was positive we were not making any progress whatsoever. Struggling for close to five hours found me atop of some big boulders. Scrambling was a dream come true even though my thighs winced in pain. I was only vaguely aware of the quick shallow loud breaths that emanated from my shrunken lungs. I was totally unaware of the cold until I pulled off one of my mittens to locate my camera.

Reaching Gilman's Point
Reaching Gilman’s Point
After a few moments we were standing on top of Kilimanjaro, at a sign telling me I had reached the summit of Gilman’s Point (18,645 ft). The healing of the moment was amazing. All the pain dissipated; I could breathe and smile simultaneously, and my legs were still under me. I asked the way to the other peak and said I was ready to go. He looked at me with utter disbelief. Here was this crazed woman who only moments before was almost defeated by the challenge. He must have believed that it was the altitude sickness making me hallucinate into thinking I could continue. He strongly suggested that time was no longer on our side and perhaps we really needed to go down. I was not in a good position to argue. I guess I shouldn’t have led him to believe that I was dying only moments previously, too much of my tragic experience for him to comprehend. He took my picture and we turned back down the way we came up.

My suffering now took a new stance. Martha Stewart had climbed higher than I did. Not only that, she probably did more than just throw her sleeping bag on the mat, she probably had mineral water, brie and Belgian chocolate in her backpack. All my pains revisited with renewed force. Defeat weighed heavily on my lungs, stomach and legs. I wanted to sit down, rest and cry but the night was beginning to envelop us and there was that scree that now allowed us to dig in our heels and almost float down as if my boots were skis. The moon was almost full, I was still 57 and I was miserably depressed. My competitive spirit took me on a great adventure but came up short of my expectations. It was a lonely trip down.

I spent my last night on the mountain in the cold Kibo Hut. The caked dirt and offensive odors on my body added a layer of protective warmth but I was frosty to the bone. In the morning I asked to trek all the way back, some 30 kilometers, in order to cleanse myself with the luxuries of civilization as soon as possible. About an hour into our hike, I was met by four young strangers who wished me a happy birthday. They had heard about my quest and the special circumstances from one of my many new friends I had met. I was beginning to feel better. It was a long hard day but by 3 p.m. I collected my certificate from the park personnel.

One more crest stood in my way as my guide informed me that the tips I planned to disperse were not up to current standards. I was astonishingly short of money. As I was unable to meet the highest caps of monetary rewards to my team I tried to compensate by offering up my watch, water bottle, clothes and anything else they wanted in addition to the last of my cash.

When I was driven to the office of Mem Tours on a Sunday afternoon, even the director, Mohammed, was there to congratulate me. I humbly requested that instead of the prepaid hotel I had booked, could I please go to a place that accepted credit cards, had no mosquitoes, furnished a hairdryer, and featured wine on the menu? He graciously arranged for a special rate at an incredible oasis that rested extravagantly at the bottom of my nemesis. He insisted that his company take care of me up until the moment of my departure; hence I welcomed 58 in style and comfort. I didn’t exactly kill the Kili but summit it I did!

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