By Ian Kutschke
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Day 1 “Pole Pole”
I awoke to the roar of a truck engine rumbling down the street. It was 5:45 AM It would be a while before the alarms Lizzy and I had set would go off. My beautiful wife lay restfully in her bed. The day before she had magnanimously offered to pay for half of my ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro. The cost was too high for one of us to go let alone both of us, but she knew that hiking up Mount “Kili” was a goal of mine ever since I read a hiking magazine that my brother sent me two years ago. Mount Kilimanjaro is a “walk up”, no rock climbing gear necessary. I love hiking and though I have done a bit of indoor wall climbing, with all the gear and some outdoor rock climbing, walking in the bush and over mountains was more in my element. With the loosey goosey run-around-town-style of organizing that is characteristic of lots of tour organizations in Africa, our tour operator had me trying on boots and gear every half an hour and then Lizzy and I running to the bank finding US$ to pay for park fees. Now it was morning and we had to get the day started, as we were to meet with our tour organizer at 9:00 AM.
I was worried to be leaving Lizzy behind. A few months back while in Namibia, Lizzy and I had parted ways for a couple of hours. I went into town to email, and Lizzy to take groceries that we had just bought, back to the house, a 15-minute walk away. On the way home, Lizzy got mugged and we have stuck together like glue ever since. I prayed over and over that Lizzy would be alright and that I would see her happy and well again at the end of the trip. But that wasn’t the end of my worries.
I had second thoughts about the organization that we fiscally committed to. First, there was the questions of “Did we pay too much?” which happens to a lot of tourists, and secondly, “Would they follow through on their proposed services?” Lizzy perceptive as always could read my anguish. With the look and reassurance that only a woman who loves you can give you, she told me not to worry. We got up, packed, ate and set off to meet the tour operator named “Paradise” at the prearranged time. After waiting for 15 minutes, I began to worry that they would not show up. Also, I hadn’t yet met the other three hikers that I would be traveling with, so I began to wonder if they even existed at all. I got the feeling that I was being kept from them as long as possible. With visions of my trekking organizer laughing all the way to the bank and never seeing my money again, I gave Paradise a call. Paradise told me that they would be 45 minutes late. No surprise there, but wondered why they were not organized by this time of the day. I then looked around for my fellow trekkers and located them in the restaurant lobby. Toby and Lisa from England and Meredith from U.S.A. sat excitedly anticipating their adventure. Finally, our tour operators arrived and we repacked and rechecked our equipment. A minibus arrived and our driver, decked in dark sunglasses, gold chains and watch, silk shirt, cashmere pants and leather sandals greeted us. But, money matters still needed to be sorted with my fellow trekkers and it wasn’t until 11:30 and a hasty goodbye from Lizzy that we departed for Machame gate, the start of our ascent of the tallest free standing mountain in the world.
Forty minutes out of Moshi, we turned onto a dirt road and began to climb up the slope toward Machame gate. The bus driver deftly maneuvered the rear wheel drive minibus up the slick, brown muddy and bumpy road to an elevation of 1800 metres at Machame gate. Immediately, porters, cooks and guides began unloading our equipment. Elli, a porter, grabbed my yellow Jack Wolfskin backpack and claimed it as his bag to carry for the duration of the trip. We signed the guest register book while all of our guides, porters and cooks filled out the necessary paper work. The amount of climbing crew to assist the tourists up the mountain is astonishing as it created a long line up and it took some, more than an hour to fill out the paperwork. All porters had to officially weigh all the gear and bags that they were carrying before departing. A porter carries a maximum of 20 kg, 25kg including his own clothes needed for the climb. For our group of four tourists, including me, we had a crew of 12. Two cooks who carry food and cooking equipment, eight porters, one assistant guide and one head guide. On the day that we departed, there was about 125 to 150 people altogether, aiming for that first campsite at 3000 metres.
At 1:05 PM we finally started hiking. The whole way to the first campsite is rain forest. Everywhere you look, it’s green. The lush, rich forest grows everywhere on everything. Even the brown, grey bark is covered with green moss. Ferns grow on fallen old trees, while vines snake their way up their host’s trunks and limbs. Every leaf aims for the little spot of sunlight that pokes through the swirling mist. The forest is alive and yet it is decaying at the same time. Everywhere, water drips from the higher leaves of the trees and ferns. Molecules of water collect into a single drop at the end of a stringy piece of moss clinging to a vine. Cobwebs glisten with droplets of water, outlining their magnificent angular shape. I love it. The path is well groomed and I don’t even notice it change from a drivable size to a sidewalk size path. A little muddy, but there is a solid base of gravel underneath. “Pole, Pole”, our porter says, (pronounced polay-polay) using the Swahili term for “slowdown” or “slowly, slowly”. This rhythm of walking is one key to a successful attempt of Kilimanjaro. Elli, the porter, walks with us, getting us used to the agonizingly slow rhythm of walking, while the guides and other porters are still busy filling out the paperwork at the main gate. I pride myself sometimes on how fast I can complete a section of trail. For example, when hiking the Alps in New Zealand I would motor up a mountain (They were shorter than Kili), pass people, especially on the steep parts and get from A to B in a short amount of time, all the while taking the time to take pictures, sit and enjoy the scenery. Sometimes other hikers would marvel at my speed and complement my swiftness and of course, this would stroke my competitive ego. Now, I had to recondition myself to walk at a pace fit for walking in a museum. I asked Elli, how many times he had climbed Kilimanjaro and he replied, ‘In one season?’ Stunned, I said, ‘Yeah, how many times in one season’. ‘About twenty.’ was the reply I got. I needn’t really have asked. The answer was clearly marked by his rippling muscles in his legs and his slender, svelte build. Along the way, we come across a curious oddity quietly maiking it’s way across the footpath. It was a crab! In the rainforest! I wondered what other curious things Kilimanjaro would have to offer us in our journey up and down her slopes.
Meredith, Lisa, Toby and I hiked our way with Elli rather easily to Machame camp (3000m). We were quite surprised to see our tents set up already and that Toby and I got a tent to ourselves, which we hadn’t asked or planned for. The K-Way expedition series tent is huge when you are only one person sleeping in it. Elli gave us hot tea, coffee with snacks served up in Toby’s tent. We registered our names with the park ranger and wandered around our misty campsite. The campsite was full. The vegetation had changed since we started. It was still rain forest but the trees were much shorter and thinner with strands of light green colored moss hanging from them. We had walked the whole time with varying degrees of mist and, at this point of the early evening, we didn’t get much of a view of the surrounding scenery. Dinner was served up in my tent. As it was for the rest of the trip, dinner started with soup, then with a main meal of vegetables on either rice or pasta, some kind of bread and finished off with some fruit for dessert. Another new consistency was that for the remainder of the trip all snacks and meals would be served up in my tent. I guess there was less stuff to move around in my tent. I didn’t mind at all really, I just had to make the tent presentable. The four of us munched hungrily on our dinner and hit the sack. It felt odd sleeping in a tent without Lizzy. It was the first time during our trip through Africa that we wouldn’t be sleeping in the same room. I fell asleep wondering how Lizzy was doing and why my tent had been placed at such an odd angle. I pulled on my balaclava to keep my head warm during the night and would continue to do so for the duration of the trip. It was one of the most important items that I used daily on the trip.
Day 2 Mountain Cheetah
I woke up at 6:30. I didn’t sleep well last night. Originally I had my sleeping bag positioned with my feet pointing down the slope but it was too much of an incline. I felt as if I was sliding down while the part of my body that was in contact with the mat was stuck there. Not comfortable. I eventually rotated 90 degrees and propped myself against my backpack. Got a few hours of sleep. We had breakfast at 7:30 AM. Eli, the porter and waiter for the duration of the trip, brought us drinks toast, eggs, sausages and a packed lunch. Well fed, we left for the next campsite, Shira camp, at 8:35 AM. We had to gain another 800 metres in elevation and hike about 9 kilometers. I quite liked this route as I learned that it allows some time for acclimatization as opposed to the Marangu (Coca-Cola) route, which has a steeper elevation gain per day. We left the porters to pick up the rest of the gear and wound our way through the rest of the campsite and upwards toward the sub alpine terrain. Today was actually the first day walking with our official guide. I had met Yussuph Omary last night but only briefly. I learned that Yussuph goes by another name, “Mountain Cheetah.” Mountain Cheetah stands about four feet, ten inches. He had the appearance of being quick and catlike. I asked him where he got his nickname. As his tale unfolded, I found myself marveling at his words and as it ended, I was left in awe of his fitness, character and spirit. A couple of years ago, two Aussies approached Mount Kilimanjaro Park with the challenge of hiking/running up Kilimanjaro in the fastest time. The paperwork was sorted out, arrangements made and it was agreed that two Aussies and three guides would attempt the peak via the Mweka route. Only two people made it from that challenge. The Aussie, Mark Robinson and Yussuph, a.ka. Mountain Cheetah. Yussuph came in with a slick time of 18 hours up and down. Battling altitude sickness and fatigue, it took him ten hours to go up to the summit and grab the marker for second place. Though the Australian came in first, Yussuph prides himself on the fact that he did not use a walking stick which helps for stability and sometime for pulling yourself up over obstacles. To put this gargantuan feat in perspective, we as a group are going to ascend to the mountain summit in five days with the sixth day left for the remaining descent. Others, in a training program to become a special kind of tour operator for example, have climbed to the top in 3 days! Mountain Cheetah indeed. They will be taking part again this August. For more info. Click. www.teamkilimanjaro.com
We stopped to eat our packed lunch at 11:06 AM. As with the breakfasts, lunch was more than enough to eat. We had chicken, juice, fruit, sandwiches and a muffin. We had an ephemeral view for lunch. We had crossed the cloud layer that obscures everything below 3000 metres but there was still plenty of cloud activity at this height. Despite being able to see parts of the mountain higher up, the entire scene would vanish under the veil of grey cloud in a matter of minutes. We continued walking at 11:52 AM and reached our campsite around 1:00 PM. I was feeling a bit dizzy so I decided to take a nap after tea. I felt better after an hour or so and chatted with Yussuph for a bit. The rest of the day was spent writing, taking pictures, chewing the fat with Toby, Lisa and Meredith and just hanging out. From Shira camp (3800 m) we could see the crater wall and the glaciers on it. We later learned that we would not be able to see the summit until we attempted it on day five. The terrain at our campsite now only consisted of a few small plants, grasses and boulders strewn across the ground. I went to bed at 7:00 PM but I couldn’t sleep due to sore muscles and later, the cold. I got up and for 30 minutes I stretched and mentally visualized climbing to the top. I used every positive affirmation, thought and mantra I could think of to motivate me to make it to the top and down again. I put six layers on my torso, wore my balaclava, two sleeping bags and had three pairs of socks on. Only then was I warm. And then I had to go to the bathroom. I felt like I was walking on the moon. The rocks lightly reflected the bright light coming from the stars. I marveled at the clarity of the sky and jewels of the night. It was so cold outside (or perhaps I was so cold) that my teeth were chattering. I scurried back into my tent, wriggled myself into my sleeping bags and popped two panadols for my aching muscles. I finally drifted off to sleep at about 8:00 PM
Day 3 Wind ‘n’ toilets
Didn’t sleep that well. Slept on and off all night. Breakfast was late because the stove froze apparently. We ate and just before departing, I decided to breakdown and actually use the long drop toilets.
Let’s just say they’re not The Ritz. Despite digging a hole and throwing a loosely constructed outhouse over it, it’s an experience all too intimate for me. They are never consistent with their sizes, from the hole in the ground to the walls surrounding you. Some have doors that don’t lock and others have locks but no doors. Just kidding, the latter has no door but a wall separating you from the outside. It’s like walking in straight and then you turn around a corner 180 degrees like you are doing a u-turn and there is that wonderful black hole of filth and poor aim staring right back up at you. The problem sometimes is that when you squat down, you can almost, and sometimes can, peer around the corner of the dividing wall and tell anyone approaching that you are busy (in case they didn’t notice). Another issue is the hole. Sometimes they are big, sometime they are small and I found myself adjusting by a couple of inches each time I used one to make sure everything fell into place. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I wish people were as conscience as me about that particular junction of the gastrointestinal journey. On top of this issue, if you had the misfortune of choosing a long drop toilet with huge spaces in between the wallboards, you can swap climbing stories and compare dinner menus with your neighbour while dealing with matters of human nature. To deliver the game winning home run, Toby stepped up to bat and delivered this horrifying thought, ‘What if you fell through the floor boards?’. The image was quickly scuttled to the back of the deep dark recesses of our minds, hopefully never to return. After a few minutes of sheer bliss, I returned to camp and we started our hike at 8:56 AM.
I was miserable the whole morning. The wind blew all the time and if it wasn’t for our windbreakers, it would’ve cut through and chilled us to the bone. Despite wearing them, I was hoping it would die down soon. It didn’t. After an hour of walking, I stopped, found shelter behind a rock from the wind and stripped off my bottom two shirts because they were wet from sweating and it was making me cold when the wind hit. With dry clothes back on and a few gulps of water, we were off again. As the day progressed, we came closer and closer to the crater with its glacier clinging to the rim. Walking among large boulders strewn across this desert, we stopped frequently, sometimes behind boulders for water breaks and snacks. Eventually the highest pointy of our hike for the day was reached; 4250 metres above sea level. Lunch soon followed at 12:18 PM. Our assistant guide, Rich, chose a large group of boulders to find shelter in and we managed to wedge ourselves in and amongst the outcrops. Despite our efforts, I was frustrated to find the wind blowing at us from several directions. You just couldn’t get away from it. At 1:00 PM we continued on toward camp. After having gone in one direction all morning, UP, I was delighted to see us hike over a couple of ridges and then down to Barranco camp at 3950 m. It was not only a welcome change in direction but also gave us a break from that bloody wind! After 14 kilometers and an ascent to 4250 m for acclimatization and then descending to 3950m, I felt great walking into camp at 3:35 PM. With all the tents set up for us, I plopped down into mine for a bit of a rest and then some tea. We were blessed with a spectacular view that reminded me of my days in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada. On one side of a valley that spilled into the clouds below, we had a low ridge, dotted with rocks. On the other side, a mountain of a crater that went straight up into the sky with glistening glaciers on the top. I felt as if I was under it all we were so close. That view would change with the clouds passing by. Now you see it, now you don’t. With it’s craggy rocks, the sunlight striking it’s iron rich flank and white bits of snow and receding glacier draped over the top, it made for a peaceful yet majestic view for the afternoon. The significance of the fact that current estimates of the glaciers that rest on the tallest mountain in Africa would be gone in about twenty years due to global warming was not lost on me.
Curious was the feeling of fatigue from just walking from the bathroom back to the tent (No, it had nothing to do with the toilet experience). All of us felt it. Despite being only a hundred metres higher than the night before, to do simple things like walking to the bathroom and back brought about feelings of fatigue and slight dizziness as if we had done some huge feat. By dinner time, 6:00PM, I got a headache and Toby felt just miserable from aching all over. I never really got a full on headache type of feeling during the trip, only a dull throbbing at the base, or back, of my skull. After an hour or so my headache went away and I got ready for bed. I stretched for half an hour, went to the loo, loaded on the clothing in anticipation of another cold night and lay awake thinking about my wife. I really missed her.
Day 4 Porters
I took me a little while to fall asleep, as I was too hot at first. I couldn’t believe how toasty I was, as I had to unzip my sleeping bags and take off a few layers. I felt great when I woke up and was pleased to have had the most restful sleep on the trip thus far. We left at 8:50 AM and encountered the best part of the hike. The night before Yussuph briefed us on the next couple of days and it left at least Lisa and I a little nervous. But with the day starting and with excellent views of the crater, we forgot our nervousness as this section of trail was always changing giving us breaks from just going in one single direction like up or down. One section had us climbing rock ledges; hand over foot for an hour. Awesome!
During the course of each day’s hike, there were times where we had to step aside and let the porters go past us. From the moment I saw them on Day 1, I had respect for them. With loads of camping and cooking gear piled high on their head and backs, they would motor past us up the mountain to the next campsite, sometimes wearing appalling gear, or lack there of. As a rule, all tourists who climb the mountain must have guides and porters, as you are not allowed do it alone. You can make special arrangements to carry some of your gear to reduce your trekking fees but there will still be porters and guides going up with you, just not as many porters. So, as the deal was explained to me in Arusha town, the tourist walks with his day pack and one head guide and one assistant guide. The porters, including those who double as camp crew, waiter, cook, assistant cook and dishwasher, pack up the gear including their own and hoof it up to the next campsite to set it up and have it ready by the time the weary legged tourist trudges in. Considering that they do most of the grunt work, I was shocked to hear that they get paid the least. A paltry sum of 7000 Tanzanian shillings (Tsh), about 7 dollars US a day. Some of the clothing they wear is good climbing gear that has been donated to them by the clients after their trek, donated for temporary use by a porter association or bought locally. But a lot are lacking what is necessary for their comfort sand safety. My eyes bugged out when I saw porters wearing sandals or sneakers, otherwise known as a twisted ankle or bad fall waiting to happen. Others, sweating under the exertion of their load were poorly protected from the elements. A lot of them wore trousers or jeans and a T-shirt or thin long sleeve shirt. That is OK for the lower part of the mountain but just plain wrong for the upper part of the mountain. Despite “government intervention” (pressured by activists risking their personal safety) to regulate the amount of weight a porter carries, little else is done by the government or the industry to support and protect them. The same goes for the guides. According to our guide (read: unofficial), 6 or 7, possibly more, porters die a year. On the fifth day of our climb, we came across a memorial marking the site where a porter had passed away while being transported back down the mountain to the nearest stretcher. He was discovered sick in his tent and it was decided that he should be transported on someone’s back to the nearest stretcher, a few km down the mountain. He never made it. A memorial is the only indication that something went horribly wrong, that the national park/ government and tour operator failed to provide for one of the hardest workers on the mountain; the worker that earns 7$/day to make a tourist’s life easier walking in a national park where a huge chunk of the park fees go to the government, (much of it to line the pockets of these so called leaders in my opinion). If you look at the numbers, things rarely add up to the government putting sufficient amounts back into the community. A tourist will pay about 35$ US/day (which will increase to 50$/day in 2006) for trekking fees, 30 $ /day for camping fees and 30$/day for rescue fees. (Cheekily, the national park requires all local workers to pay for their own entrance fees as well. Despite being reduced prices for residents, on 7 $ /day, porters are not left with much after a silly and costly expenditure). People spend on average 5 to 6 days on the mountain and there are about 20,000 tourists a year (year 2002) that attempt to climb Kilimanjaro. On those rough estimates, it works out to a lot of coin!
There are several unions in the area that claim to help porters, like Kilimanjaro Porters
Association in Marangu for an example, and attempt to lend support to porters and guides in the way of providing climbing gear and helping out anyone who got injured on the mountain. The porters and guides would pay a small membership fee and then expect the service to be rendered when needed. Like so many other “aid” organizations that we have come across in Africa, this one too has let the local people down. Financial support and gear comes from abroad and some local guy, who runs the place, pisses away the money and sells the gear on the side to make extra cash. Consequently, porters and guides have left that organization disgruntled and look for other ways to make money. If they last or get proper treatment, a porter can work for two years and then move up to be a cook (and porter) where they earn about 10 000Tsh (about 10$/day). After experience and some training they can become assistant guides for the same pay and then advance to head guide for about 15, 000 Tsh (15$/day). Still not a heck of a lot. Not all NGO’s are corrupt of course. There is one very good aid organization IMEC that is trying to better the situation and improve the lives and safety of porters by lending clothing to porters for free (with the condition that they return it cleaned), offer English and First Aid classes for free to porters and educating tourists on what are the acceptable and unacceptable standards of porter treatment are.
Every time a porter would pass, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Particularly for the ones that carried idiotic things like portable toilets and plastic lawn chairs! Irregardless if the lawn chair gang of tourists paid more $ for their climb, the porters still get the same flat rate and the clothing they wear isn’t always any better. Their strength not only amazed me for the weight that they carried but also for carrying it on their head! Sometimes it is because they don’t really have a choice because they don’t actually have a bag that fits on the back. Despite being told that it would be easier and would keep both hands free for them to carry it on their back, most porters are used to carrying things on their head and alternate hands for climbing and balancing the package on their head. And these guys can carry! I’ve seen backpacks, duffle bags, reed baskets with food, clothing and stoves in them, tents sleeping bags, 5 gallon water cans, fuel and lawn chairs being carried on the top of a very stubborn head. Humbled amazement.
We had lunch at 12:30 PM. We munched our chicken, and samosas while white collared ravens and mice poked around us looking for crumbs. At 1:00 PM we departed for Barrafu camp at 4650 metres where we would stay for the night. It was up and up and up andâ€¦I could really feel my heart pumping in my chest and I began to lag behind a bit. I was content to go my own “pole” “pole” pace and trudged on through the bleak misty scenery that was uninspiring piles of large boulders scattered on what appeared to be shale and gravel. Thankfully the terrain leveled off a bit before going up again and I got my second wind. Reenergized, we arrived at “Base Camp” at 3:30PM, I felt great. I seemed to get on a high while hiking and then after about 30 minutes of sitting in camp, I would get a little heady or dizzy. I figured that I didn’t have much up top to swell so now worries, eh? Heh heh heh. NOT! We all experienced these altitude hiking induced symptoms usually at different times from each other. Check out this web site for a really good description of what high altitude symptoms are: http://www.high-altitude-medicine.com/AMS.html
We had dinner at 6:00 PM. I didn’t really feel like eating much. Not because I was sick but I just didn’t feel like eating a lot like we had done before. Apparently, a loss of appetite is a symptom of altitude sickness but I didn’t really care. I felt that I knew what I needed for the ascent and that sleep! Yussuph came and briefed us on the itinerary for the next day. We would head to bed ASAP and be woken up at 11:30PM. We would take about 30 minutes to drink some tea (we weren’t aloud to drink coffee as it makes the heart work harder and we couldn’t have milk as it upsets the stomach) eat some biscuits and then head for the summit at midnight using our headlamps and guide to lead the way.
I prepared my clothes and inserted my earplugs. I didn’t want anything, including the porters jawing with each other in the tent beside me (they don’t climb to the summit. They just wait for you to come back alive), to keep me awake as I had less than 5 hours sleep to be rested for the summit attempt. I checked my pulse and it seemed alright. The night before, my heart rate was at one point 88 beats per minute just lying in my sleeping bag and then I got it down to 60 bpm before dozing off. Satisfied that I was now ready for a power nap, I shut my eyes and told myself to sleep.
Day 5 Summit Attempt!
My body didn’t listen. I had less than two hours sleep before Elli woke me up by jiggling my toes. Bleary eyed, I looked toward the door and saw Elli’s face eerily lit by the candle he was holding in the surrounding blackness. He was saying something but I couldn’t hear properly. I pulled out my earplugs and he said that he was calling me for a long time. Apparently, Elli had come to the tent and was calling my name, only calling my name, for about five minutes and then went away before coming back and trying again. After 15 minutes and curious as to why I hadn’t replied as I usually and readily did, he unzipped the door and continued to call my name before grabbing my toes and shaking it. Lisa, Meredith and Toby were all wide awake in their tents kaking themselves laughing at the one sided inquisition outside, “Ianâ€¦â€¦.Ianâ€¦â€¦..Ian?……..Ianâ€¦” It was 11:55 PM. None of us slept that well. We gulped down our tea and cookies and suited up. With all the clothing needed and the minimal amount necessary to carry for the summit, we donned our headlamps and gazed towards the crater rim where Uhuru peak lay beyond. There was a long line of bobbing fluorescent blue lights leading the way up the crater rim. The other groups had left earlier and were already making their attempt. We checked our gear, looked at each other, took a deep breath and walked out of camp at 12:25 AM August 1st, 2005.
Much of the ground in and surrounding our campsite was made of millions of thin flat pieces of rock, resembling slate that made tinkling sounds as if we were walking on a massive pile of tiles. I think the whole group including Yussuph, Richard, our assistant guide, felt pretty good, considering. I was full of piss and vinegar for the summit and followed Yussuph so closely I was almost tripping on his feet. Yussuph, ever the pace setter, dispensed his two words of climbing wisdom, ‘Pole, pole.’ and began to walk exaggeratingly slow up the gravel slope of the crater. It was like taking a step every two seconds and frankly, it couldn’t have been a better pace. We really couldn’t see much except for the stars, a sliver of moon looking like a white bowl in the sky and the dark shadow of the mountain looming above us with a faint string of lights demarking other trekkers that had passed before us. Not that I spent much time looking up. Most of the time I saw the faint blue light of my headlamp illuminating Yussuph’s hiking boots, as they crunched their way up the lose gravel slope. A couple of times I stumbled because of fatigue and misjudging some steps as I got used to taking such small ones. With the exception of the one-hour rock ledge climbing we had done the day before, this was the steepest part of the trail. It would be 15km of slogging our way up the crater to an elevation of 5732 m at Stella’s point, the second highest point of Kilimanjaro and 5895 metres at Uhuru peak, the highest point in all of Africa! So, water and rest breaks were short but frequent. At one point, I was feeling so good, so positive that I bragged to anyone who would care to listen, “That f*#@er is going down!” I almost ate my words.
Be it just like mother nature and Kilimanjaro to turn their head slightly, wag their finger in my face and say, “Ah , ah, aaaahhhh.” Not long after my bold claim, about halfway up the crater I was a bit behind the group as they continued on upwards as I was farting around in my bag for something. After taking a leak and with Richard’s urging to not stand around for too long, we continued up after the rest of the group. Now I swear to you that I didn’t run, sprint or hurry up after the group, I only walked half a step quicker than usual. Once I reached the group, a wave of nausea hit me and it took a long time to catch my breath. Those feelings would be with me for the rest of the way. It seemed easier to breath if I looked down. If I looked up, I would get a throbbing sensation at the back of my skull. Worse, the nausea would make me want to vomit but I tried not to think about it. Lisa wasn’t having the same luck and was ducking behind rocks to throw up. It was in anticipation of this symptom was the reason why I didn’t eat a huge dinner. Despite having similar symptoms of altitude sickness prior to this day, once we attempted the summit, we all reacted differently to the demands of the altitude and hike. I couldn’t walk more than 10 metres without stopping to catch my breath. It was as if I had run flat out for 200 metres without training for it. I was winded! Lisa was ducking behind rocks and throwing up, sometimes dry heaving. Toby, who had Stella’s point within reach, found that his legs would not respond to his liking. Meredith, who seemed to cope the best, just kept right on trucking up the mountain. At one point, Lisa said she thought she wasn’t going to make it but that she was going to keep trying. We were always checking our watches and we all seemed to be hanging for the sun to come up as if it would uplift our spirits and give us the energy (and warmth) to continue. It was 3:00 AM, then 3:30AM, then 4:00AM, surely the sun would start coming up at 4:30AM??!! We looked back down the mountain at the faint glow of headlamps making their way towards us. Relieved that we were not them, not that far down, coupled with meeting the few tourists who, for whatever reason, had decided that they couldn’t make it to the summit, began their descent to base camp, no doubt disappointed at their failed attempt but perhaps content with their efforts and experience gained, spurred us onwards and upwards.
At one point, I rested on the ground in fetal position, hoping to catch a few winks before Richard chastised me for sleeping. “No sleeping, no sleeping! Sleeping is dangerous.” The sweat on my back pooled around my spine and became cool along the length of my spine from the slight breeze and minus 15 degrees Celsius temperature until it reached the point where it was more insulated by my day pack. Adjusting my clothes to minimize overheating and sweating too much, I tried to maintain a comfortable temperature and shifted my bag from back to front occasionally. I could feel the right sole of my hiking boot getting stiffer and stiffer from the cold. Wave after wave of nausea came over me and at one point; I said to the group, and myself “I would be happy just with Stella’s point.” The guides wouldn’t hear any of it. Somewhat attentive to our physical condition, they knew that we could make it and gave us the few mental and physical boosters that we needed. “Come on, pull your socks up.”, said Yussuph in his gritty Tanzanian accent. “You can do it”, said Richard. “It’s only 45 minutes away”, said Yussuph.
At last the sky began turning lighter and lighter and we neared Stella’s point. Toby took one step and slid back. He took another step and hadn’t gotten any further due to the round pebbles underfoot. “My legs won’t work”, he said quietly. Richard came up behind him and pushed him up the last few metres to Stella’s point. I was doubled over trying to catch my breath after what felt like another mad phantom 200-metre dash and slowly raised myself as Richard encouraged me onwards. Lisa, Meredith, Toby and I had reached Stella’s point. Richard turned around and scolded Toby who had collapsed onto the ground trying to sneak a nap. From Stella’s point we could see the beginnings of the most glorious sunrise I have ever seen. Perched high above the white clouds we saw the sun spread its orange turned golden yellow richness over the cloudscape. Bathed in its sunlight, I couldn’t help but feel emotional and shed a couple of tears. It had been so hard to get to this point.
“Much windy”, said Yussuph, as there was a a slight breeze coming over the rim of the crater so he had us move toward some rocks further up along the rim for some protection from the wind. Resting at the rocks, I went behind them and got on my hands and knees and buried my head in my hands. It was the best way I could think of top sneak a bit of shuteye without actually looking like it. Chest heaving, I slowly managed to catch my breath. I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to breathe, especially when it didn’t seem to affect the others. In retrospect, I wonder if I brought it on myself psychologically. Prior to embarking on this challenge, one of the reasons why I wanted to do it was to experience the lower levels of air at a high altitude and see how difficult it would be to breath. Wow! What a difference!
Yussuph said that we still had to make our way to Uhuru peak along the outer crater rim, an hour’s walk away. I really didn’t feel like slogging another hour but Yussuph took Lisa by the arm (still nauseous) and ushered her and Meredith onwards while Richard brought up the rear. Toby would walk a little ways and then sit down and seemed to be quietly contemplating the inner workings of his legs. I wasn’t about to stay behind and by the time I caught up to him, I had to crouch over and support myself on my thigh to catch my breath. This went on for a little while. People who had already reached the summit were coming back down, almost power walking their way towards the descending trail. As we passed them, we couldn’t help but wonder where they got their energy from. Here we were digging deep to make it around the next bend and there ahead lay the famous Uhuru Peak signpost where everybody who makes it gets his or her picture taken. Lisa, who thought that she wouldn’t make it and was at the end of the group most of the time, perked up when she saw the end in sight, dug deep down and motored straight to the end, arriving first at the peak. Meredith soon followed.
Toby and I were sprinting to the end, NOT! Toby was so busy just looking at the ground trudging along that he hadn’t noticed he was almost there until Rich lifted his chin up and pointed at the sign. That brought a tear to Toby’s eye. I was just a heaving pulping mass with watery eyes from the shear exhaustion and mental fatigue I had endured. Toby and I finally reached the end where a group was still busy taking their souvenir photos of this momentous occasion. We had made it! The highest mountain in Africa! Wooohooo!!! 5895 metres! It was 6:50 AM. A full six hours and twenty five minutes of mentally and physically grueling and draining slog! I had wanted to do something different at the top, like doing 10 pushups when I got there but I just couldn’t muster the energy and decided not to do it for fear of passing out. Just to rub it in, Rich, unbeknownst of my intent to do pushups, dropped down and polished off six push ups. Sigh. We congratulated each other and shed some more tears. The scenery was spectacular and we stood and ogled it for a while. We didn’t stay long. Maybe we were there for about ten minutes.
Once the group had left, we did the obligatory pictures and began our walk along the crater rim to Stella’s point. As we walked along, I noticed that we wouldn’t be going anywhere near the glaciers as I had hoped. Though we were in fact above the glaciers now, there wasn’t any snow on the ground. I would have to settle for a few snowy patches that we had come across on the way up the crater. At least I can say I saw snow in Africa, right near the equator! Not such a hard thing to believe nowadays.
As the sun rose in the west, Mount Kilimanjaro’s shadow was cast to the west and at one point completely blocked Mount Meru from the sun. The shadow was a perfect triangle. It was brilliant seeing a mountain’s shadow from the peak and we were right on top of that shadow. (Not that we could make little hand or men shadows or anything but it was just brilliant)
I couldn’t help but get emotional thinking about how difficult it was to get there. It was so hard! At that time, I imagined that when I told anybody of this story I would be a wuss and get teary eyed but once I was back in my tent, I was fine. I never did get that way since.
Walking back all smiles and some of us teary eyed, we noticed that we too, were now walking down the gentle slope around the crater rim much quicker than we had coming up. We had one last look from Stella’s point and then made our way down the crafter slope back to camp. The trail was mainly loose volcanic gravel and made going down quick like quasi skiing but unsteady. I found a patch of snow, picked up a clump and carried it for a while. I was still feeling nauseous from the altitude and I wanted to get down ASAP. Yussuph let me go ahead while he and Rich stayed behind with the others. I slid and skied and walked my way down, taking a breather now and then to rest my legs and marvel at the steep slope we had taken five and a half hours to climb. I descended from 5895 metres to 4650 metres in about two and a half hours and to my relief, the feeling of nausea went away. I stumbled into camp, slate tinkling beneath my feet and collapsed in my tent by 9:30 AM. I told Elli that we all made it and the rest of the group would be back soon. I visited the immaculate loo, went back to the tent and crashed for an hour. We had brunch at 11:30 AM and left camp at 12:30PM.
From Barrafu camp we walked 11km down to Millennium camp at 4150 m for a break and then another 8 km to Mweka camp at 2850 m. When I started hiking down, my head was still a bit cloudy and I was tired but it was as if I got a second wind and felt great the rest of the way. We picked and maneuvered our way down the dusty track, talking at times and reflecting upon our grandiose achievement from hours before. Unfortunately, the dust that was kicked up by trekkers and the wind caused Meredith’s contacts to be unbearable to wear and had to be assisted down the trail for a while, careful that she wouldn’t trip over anything. Also, the daily dosage of sun and wind had made Lisa’s lips swell and blister and Lisa was not a happy camper for a while. Another good reason to wear a balaclava I thought though, I too had gone without one for a few hours. We came across the porter memorial that I mentioned before and continued on until we found an old stretcher lying on the ground. That was the stretcher needed to carry a sick person down to the next stretcher we saw, which had one wheel underneath it like a wheelbarrow. With the brakes on this stretcher gone, the driver had to be careful to maneuver the patient down the mountain until they came to the point where a truck could pick them up near Mweka gate.
Down and down and down the mountain we walked descending into the clouds again. By the time we reached the last campsite, Mweka camp, we were back in the rain forest again. It was 4:30PM and our blistery feet, toes and knees hurt from the constant downward walking. With ripe blisters, we hobbled into my tent for our last tea and dinner. Afterwards, I scouted out the long drop toilets only to discover that the doors didn’t lock or close properly. Wonderful. I was relieved to be back in the forest and not on the desert slope. I slept soundly to drops of water dripping from on the tent.
Day 6 The finish line
We got up bright and early, swapped our personal reflections of our climb over breakfast and learned that one member of our expedition from the day before spat up a wee bit of blood. In retrospect, we all should’ve had to wait a bit longer to acclimatize before attempting the summit; otherwise we would be endangering our lives. This is one reason why the suggestion to change the park fees from per day fees to a one time fee because too many people motivated to save dollars climb the mountain when they are not fit to do so.
We broke camp and finally got introduced to our camp crew (at our requests) and took their pictures. Whenever we arrived in camp, they would always be busy in the cooking tent or hanging out with each other in their tents so we really didn’t interact with them much. In fact, when we first started, we were surprised that we didn’t eat with the crew, which we would’ve liked. However, it wasn’t a reflection upon their services rendered. They lugged the equipment up and down the mountain like He-Men and fed us good food. We were well taken care of. We didn’t have to worry about a thing except walking with a daypack. They did the rest. We were very happy with our crew.
From Mweka camp it was a hop skip and a jump of 5.5.km to Mweka gate at 1750 metres through lush green rain forest. I found a huge vine hanging from a tree and gave it a tug. Yup, solid. So, of course I had to have a swing on it. I could’ve swung on it all day. I was right in my element.
We arrived at the gate amongst a throng of tourists chatting it up congratulating each other their climb. We were hustled over to the register book and signed in our names as having completed all 83.5 km of trail and a successful ascent of Uhuru peak, the tallest mountain in Africa, the tallest free standing mountain in the world and one of the world’s largest volcanoes. We had done it! Yay!
We milled about while Yussuph and Richard did some paperwork and I took the time to smell the beautifully arranged flowers. Looking at other tour groups, it was easy to see who had paid more. One group had a beautifully set table with brunch ready and waiting. Others had their 4X4 pick up vehicles waiting to drive them to the airport or to town.
We had to walk another km down because our tour company didn’t have a 4X4 to get to the gate. Hawkers selling their wares immediately swarmed us and they followed us all the way down. I didn’t mind the walking as it took us through villages and coffee and banana plantations. Little children waved at us and some even ran up to us to shake our hands and ran away giggling. When we arrived at the meeting point, all the porters were waiting with a big pile of equipment on the ground. The minibus got stuck! Toby and the girls had a friend meet them and they shared a beer before we all had to walk another kilometer down to where the bus had gone as far as it could go. I was eager to see Lizzy but Paradise said that she left a message with him that she would meet me in Dar Es Salaam. No worries, I thought, as that was one possibility of a meeting place that we discussed before we parted ways. Twenty of us including equipment piled into the minibus and we were shuttled back to Moshi with the crew singing jolly Swahili songs. They were really in a party mood. I got dropped off at Buffalo hotel, handed back the rented clothing, picked up my belongings, paid my tip and received my certificate of completion.