Climbing Kilimanjaro was the biggest dream I ever allowed myself to fantasize about. I first became familiar with Kilimanjaro when I watched David Breashears IMAX film To The Roof Of Africa. At that time I was inspired but not yet into mountaineering. Later, as my interest in peaks grew, I spent many hours poring over photographs of Kilimanjaro here on SummitPost.
The main thing that fascinated me about this mountain was that to reach it's summit you must ascend through 5 distinctly separate zones. In the first zone around the base of the peak, there are many villages which grow coffee and bananas. Above that, between 6000 and 9000 feet, is the forested zone which could also be called a jungle. The vegetation is thick, the rain is frequent, monkeys, baboons, leopards, and elephants are present but not often seen near the climbing routes. Between 9000 feet and 13,000 the heather moorlands are much more open, a place of grasses and brush.
The next zone, between 13,000 and 16,400 feet, is a high altitude desert. The clouds rarely gain enough strength to drop water here so the ground is mostly barren and strewn with volcanic boulders. There is one big exception though. The amazing Dendrosenecio or giant groundsel is a type of cabbage bush that grows up to 30 feet tall and thrives in some of the mountain's gorges. Seeing photographs of trekkers shrouded in mist, standing next to these incredibly exotic looking plants was like looking at pictures of another world. It really spurred my desire to go there. The highest zone, above 16,400, is where there is potential for snow any day of the year. Near the summit, above the volcanic scree, there are several receding glaciers with steep walls of ice. There's also the crater itself which spans over a mile and a half.
Finding A PartnerSo I wanted to climb this peak. I allowed myself to daydream about it. The main problem being who was going to go with me? Not many people can afford to take so much time away from work. Then the recession started in 2007 and many construction projects in Washington State came to a grinding halt. My friend Gareth was laid-off from his job. I invited him over and began telling nice details about the country of Tanzania and all the things there were to do and see there. I knew it was a long shot but he definitely seemed interested.
Since Gareth was not a peakbagger, Kilimanjaro was not my main selling point. In fact, I suggested that he wait for me in the town of Arusha. But to my surprise he was very excited about the prospect of climbing Kilimanjaro. We bought our flight tickets and I organized a short training program to strengthen his legs which included some overnight hikes in the cascades and one night at 10,000 feet at Camp Muir on Mount Rainier. We decided it would be more rewarding to be self-sufficient on Kilimanjaro without personal porters. So contrary to convention, we agreed to carry all our own personal gear.
Out my window I watched the red African soil rise up to meet the plane. We passed over makeshift huts and bright green grass which contrasted the red dirt. A wave of intense anxiety and nausea hit me and I had to fight the urge to be sick. The dream was real now, full and overflowing with the unknown. I was thinking of my last trip to Africa 6 years prior. What a disaster that had been. Living in Morocco for 3 months, I had nearly died. I fought back the panic and it was the last time that I lost my composure.
Stepping off the plane in Dar es Salaam, the humidity hit us like a truck. I had never felt air so oppressive. It made me wish I could shower about every 30 minutes. After 34 hours of non-stop travel, all we wanted was to eat and then sleep but airport formalities required that we wait another hour, and being Americans, we had the extra privilege of paying $100 cash for an entry visa.
The next day we didn't waste any time as we made our way to the small village of Jambiani on the east coast of the island of Zanzibar. I had selected this remote and quiet beach as a good place to fight off our jetlag and become acquainted with Tanzanian culture. The sunrises on this white sand beach made the pastel colors in the sky, which were also reflected on the water, more impressive than any fireworks show. Laying awake at night, sometimes I would rise and walk out to the beach to gaze up at the stars, some of which were new to me since I live far north of the equator. During the day the heat was oppressive but laying near the beach it was 20 degrees cooler and a constant breeze in the palm fronds made a hypnotic sound which inevitable forced us to stay two days longer than we had planned.
One day we hired a Dhow boat captain to take us further out on the Indian Ocean to snorkel the reef. On the ride back to the mainland we met a man named Giovanni. When we landed, he drove us in his taxi to our hotel and refused to let us pay for the ride. At first I was skeptical and thought he must be after something. Later that night he took us out to an expensive restaurant explaining that he was rich and again refused to let us pay for anything. He gave us his phone number and told us to call him when we returned to Dar.
Having adjusted to the opposite time schedule we made our way northwest towards the mountain. On the long bus ride to Moshi we passed baobab trees and termite mounds which were a new sight for our eyes. Further north we passed the Usambara and Pare mountains which appeared to be good for hiking. Arriving in Moshi the clouds parted for a moment and I caught a glimpse of the snow covered upper reaches of Kilimanjaro. It was an exciting moment. The giant dome shape looked unfathomably big. This mountain had been such a huge focus in my life it made me wonder how I would adjust afterward if we were to find success. What would I do next?
Everywhere we had been thus far, even on the island of Zanzibar, salesmen on commission tried to get us to buy guiding services. I guess our large packs spoke loudly enough of our intentions. But we held to our money saving strategy which had three parts. 1) bring everything from home and rent nothing, 2) on the mountain, carry everything except food, negating the need for a personal porter 3) don't hire guiding services until the very last town, cutting out the middle men. I have one friend who booked her trip through a website back in the states and her package price exceeded $2000. With our strategy and a bit of haggling, we were able to make reservations for only $800 which included the $450 park fee. I had never before hired a guide to lead me up a peak but it is legally required on Kilimanjaro.
In my research I had selected the Machame route for our ascent which was longer and more difficult than some but seemed to have better varied terrain. The guides jokingly call Machame the "whiskey" route while the easiest route, the Marangu is called "coca-cola". Another route, The Western Breach had been closed for a year after a rock slide killed four climbers. After 4 days on the Machame we would descend the far more direct Mweka route in only a day and a half. The night before the big day we met the two other team members in our group. Nick from Atlanta was an accomplished traveler who had worked for the Peace Corps in Ghana. He had also lost work recently just like Gareth. Nick from Detroit had quit his job and moved to Cape Town to work for a newspaper. He explained to us that his expatriotism was due to the disruptive social politics that take place when you work for a large American corporation.
The van which would take us up to the Machame gate was totally packed with gear including the roof. We all piled in including our two guides Jon and Jon. Jon #1 laughs often and has a good sense of humor while Jon #2 from Kenya speaks fluent English and never stops talking. The engine of the van was severely underpowered and on a few of the steeper sections of the road we all had to get out and walk. At the gate I was surprised to see our guides were hiring porters right on the spot rather than having that part previously organized. We purchased our permits and set off up the trail. Looking over my shoulder I wondered why the men at the end of the road kept trying to sell us large plastic garbage bags. Later I would come to regret not buying one of those.
The forest had a real jungle feel to it. Many of the trees were scraggly and resembled hanging vines. Moss covered all the trees and the ground was muddy. After the first hour on foot it started to rain. This was not a light Seattle drizzle. It was a heavy downpour. Everyone and everything was drenched. I thought about those guys at the gate selling their makeshift pack covers. I explored the meanings of "water resistant" and found that my down sleeping bag was taking on water. I squeezed the stuff sack and water came out. Not good!
We made it to Machame Camp (9,750 feet) in 4 hours and our guides told us that on average it takes people 5 or 6 hours. The trees had thinned out being partially replaced by high bushes. Unfortunatley the cloud cover was still constant. The porters dug rain gutters in the dirt around the uphill sides of our tent. Further inspection revealed that only the bottom of my sleeping bag around the feet had gotten wet. Hopefully that would dry after sleeping in it for a couple days.
The first part of the trail leaving Camp 1 was steep and even though we were carrying more weight than the other trekkers we passed several people. The trees disappeared completely and eventually the tall bushes began to thin out as well. It rained again but not as hard as the previous day and I had strategically placed my sleeping bag in part of my pack which would keep it dry. As we passed above 11,000 feet I noticed the altitude begin to affect my thinking and my thoughts were slowed and became less developed. Having always acclimatized poorly on Mount Rainier I had decided to take Diamox on this trip. Nearing 12,000 feet I was thankful to be free of the pounding headache and nausea I usually experience.
Arriving at Shira Camp we were surprised to see so many different parties and groups of people from all over the world. There were so many tents that after wandering around it took me 15 minutes to relocate ours. Shira Camp is named after Shira Peak which is the oldest and most eroded of the three volcanic cones of Kilimanjaro. Kibo, located at the center of Kilimanjaro, is the highest, but on the far side of Kibo stands Mawenzi which is much higher than Shira. Shira Camp at 12,600 feet overlooks Shira Peak and also nearby volcanic Mount Meru (14,980 feet) which is the fourth highest mountain in Africa.
The days walk had been short so we took a side trip over to explore Shira Cave. Jon and Jon explained that in days past, the porters without tents would cram into this tiny cave to get out of the elements. Back at camp I noticed some African white-necked ravens hanging around on the outskirts waiting for someone to leave food unattended.
It was amazing to me that the porters, carrying giant sacks on their heads and lousy footwear on their feet were still able to move much faster than us on the trail. We left Shira Camp to go up and around the lava tower at 15,200 feet. Our path was the alternate way to reach Baranco Camp but it was good for our acclimation. On the way up, the trail wound in and out of many knee high boulders. Only occasional tufts of grass grew here. It really did look like an alien landscape.
At the lava tower, the clouds which had been present since the beginning were still obstructing any possible view. We couldn't even see the tower. Getting up to this point had been tough. The altitude was definitely playing a part now. After a short break the wind picked up forcing me to put on my warm gloves for the first time. Then it started to hail. I wondered how many people had been in an African hail storm before. Not many I reckon.
We descended down some steep slippery rocks into the Baranco Valley. Here in the mist we saw those incredible Dendrosenecio plants, standing as high as trees. There were also some Giant Lobelia and massive thistle bushes. As we were coming down into Baranco Camp at 13,000 feet, some porters rushed by us heading back up toward the lava tower. We asked what was going on and they explained that someone in another party had fallen on the wet rocks and had broken something.
I was feeling very tired after the days trek but my main concern was for Mark. Apparently he was suffering from some kind of stomache bug and was losing hydration and electrolytes fast. I mixed up an emergency salt drink for him and stressed the importance that he drink it. He didn't like the taste and refused to have very much of it. I remembered the time I nearly died of amoebic dysentery in Morocco, taking a lot of salty food was probably the only thing that kept me alive.
I awoke before anyone else and poked my head outside the tent. The sun was rising somewhere out of sight and for once it was clear enough to see something. Baranco Camp was up above rolling pink clouds. I jumped up and grabbed my camera. It was difficult to get a good shot in the low light but I photographed the Breach Wall, Baranco Wall, Diamond Glacier, Heim Glacier and Messner's Icicle. Looking at the 800 foot Baranco Wall on the other side of the valley, it was hard to believe there was an easy way up it. We had to climb it if we were going to make it to high camp by nightfall. By the time the others woke up, the clouds were already rolling in.
The Baranco Wall was much easier than it looked from afar. It was one of the most interesting parts of the route. Although exposed in places, it rarely necessitated the use of hands. Beyond the wall we crossed barren volcanic slopes and the two Jon's told us that a porter had died of hypothermia at this one spot. There was a lot of lost elevation as we crossed over minor ridges and troughs on the way to Barafu Camp. I was feeling sort of exhausted by the time we got there and I hoped that there was enough left in me to go for the summit when midnight rolled around.
Barafu Camp, just short of 15,000 feet, was by far the most interesting camp. Located on a rocky ridge and finally above the majority of the clouds, we could look out over the vast high plateau which stretches between Kibo and Mawenzi. Our first sight of Mawenzi left quite an impression on me. Now that must be a difficult peak to climb. The precipitous eroded features were much more striking than Shira.
We each prepared a light day pack with some water and the warmth essentials for the next day and then we layed down to rest if not sleep. At this moment I had to face my doubts. I thought I could probably make it to the top but who knows for sure until they try? The night before a big summit is a hard time to try and rest. All the months of planning and physical conditioning, all the hope and desire sort of come to an apex and at that moment you're supposed to relax and let go. I don't know how much sleep I got before midnight.
December 10, Summit Day
In the dark I heard stirring and I knew it was time to get moving. We ate some food and then headed out into the cold. It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. The scree was steep and a bit loose but not really hard to walk on. With little to look at in the dark and even less to think about under such oxygen starved conditions, my mind didn't think about much except for moving one leg at a time. It was like meditating but better. Each step we took brought us higher than we had ever been before. Jon #1 often reminded to go "polay polay" (slowly slowly). Even when climbing with a group, the struggle remains a very personal thing that you face alone. We reached the crater rim and I could see the Rebman Glacier off to the side.
Some other people were coming up behind us and I watched their headlamps for a time. Then a strange thing happened. We were at that famous sign. What! It couldn't be? Had we really done it just like that? What had happened to all those night hours? There we were standing alone at the highest point in Africa (19,340 feet), one of the Seven Summits, and it was hard for me to accept the fact. It had been so much easier than I had expected. I felt I could push out another 2000 feet easily if there had been any higher ground left. All four of us made it, including Mark who was feeling better.
It was still dark and we were the first on the summit. I regretted not being able to see down inside the crater but it was too cold to linger here, so after 15 minutes we headed back down. Back at Barafu Camp we rested for a couple of hours and then packed up to head down to Mweka Camp. The guides expressed a wish to go all the way to the gate but we refused on the grounds that we were tired and had paid for a 6-day trek. I understood that part of their wish was to get some real food. For the first few days we had had nice things like fried chicken, but for the last couple days, the menu had been pretty sparse. I'll never forget those meals of cucumber soup with a sliced hot-dog on the side. I guess you get what you pay for. We had chosen the cheapest option in town.
In Mweka Camp the porters offered to sing us a victory song. Hell yes! Just let me get my camera first. Not long after the song, Jon #1 whom we had come to call Rasta Jon (he was often stoned) explained to us that we would be expected to tip him and his porters a certain amount after we had gotten down the mountain. We didn't let his bold claim tarnish the day's great success.
Later we were told that one of our porters was being sent down sick with malaria. Gareth and I were on a regiment of doxycycline to protect against malaria but we didn't expect to actually see anybody sick with the disease. Then Nick explained to us that it wasn't necessarily malaria. He said that whatever people come down with in this part of Africa, if they're not sure what it is, they call it malaria.
We walked down from Mweka Camp to a small village on the lower slopes. On the way through the jungle we spotted a couple of Black and White Colobus monkeys up in the trees. Back in Moshi we were all anxious to get showers. Mark, Nick, Gareth and I got together with the two Jons to have a celebration dinner at an Indian restaurant. It was wonderful to have a variety of food again and the Indian food in Tanzania was the best I ever had. The next day, Nick returned to South Africa and Mark headed north to Kenya.
Gareth and I discussed our possibilities for the remainder of the trip. We agreed that we didn't want to pay exorbitant sums of money to go on safari and watch wild game. Having seen Mount Meru I suggested that we climb it but Gareth wasn't up for that. I mentioned the possibilty of going north to Kenya but he didn't want to do that either. We finally agreed to visit one of the Maasai villages located on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. We took a bus to Arusha where we made the arrangements.
We chose to visit the village of Ilkurot, home to over 4000 people, located on the lower northwest slopes of Mount Meru. If I couldn't climb the peak at least I could be close to it and have another look. Walking into the village, people stared at us just as earnestly as we stared back at them. Apparently we looked very odd in these parts with our light skin and synthetic western clothes. These tall skinny people wore sandals fashioned from the rubber of old tires. Their robes looked purple from a distance but closer inspection revealed that cross patterns of red and blue cause the illusion of purple.
We were shown to our "boma" which is a sort of sectioned off family group owned by one man. Each separate building is similar in size and shape to the Tibetan Yurt and houses one of the Patriarch's wives and their children. When a family is ready for a new building the men of the community come together and set up the frame with poles in a single day. Then the women of the community come together and fill in the walls with cow dung. Pop bottles are included here and there to allow sunlight to enter. Finally the roof is covered in sloping elephant grass. Rather than sleep in these cow dung buildings we set up our tent for the last time. We were cautioned not to leave the borders of the village at night where wild hyenas and larger predators roam.
Most Maasai tribal groups are semi-nomadic and live by raising cattle. They eat the meat and drink cow's milk and cow's blood, taking up to 2 liters of blood at a time. Another common food they eat is ugali. Ugali is a stiff porridge made with white corn meal and water. It doesn't have much flavor but isn't so bad when you eat it with some sauce. Since their existence is based on their cattle, caring for the cows is most important and the majority of social disputes arise from grazing rights and property boundaries. We were shown that rather than fences, property lines were indicated visually with rows of stiff cactus plants.
We were told about the different stages of male life in Ilkurot. At the young age of 5 boys become Sheppard's and are expected to spend their days in the field tending cattle with a long stick. At the age of 15 they become warriors and trade the cattle stick for a spear. Together they must be able to fight and kill a lion if one attacks. After 7 years of service, at the age of 22, they are expected to retire and raise a family with one or more wives and children.
As a parting ceremony we had the pleasure of being spectators to some traditional Maasai song and dance. At first we felt quite reserved and awkward in realizing that these people had dressed up for us and were adorned in their best ornaments, dancing in the hot sun just for our benefit. The women wore these rigid beaded necklaces which would bob up and down as they moved with the music. We timidly took some photographs and I made a couple of short video clips but the act of recording made me feel rather obtuse. Then a man in the performing group smiled and gestured to me to "come over there". I pretended that I didn't understand what he meant and tried to look away but he persisted and after the second and third invitation I couldn't refuse so I joined the circle and began the funny process of learning to dance Maasai style.
The performers laughed at me and I laughed with them. After a few minutes Gareth put his camera down too and joined the circle. Then we were all together. As photographers we had been awkward outsiders looking through a social barrier into a foreign culture. As dancers in the circle, we were all just human beings together on this earth. It was one of the best moments of my life. I later asked what the songs had been about and I was told what one song said.
The rain is here now
We are happy
The rain makes the grass grow
The rain is sent by God
Thank God for the rain
We are happy
After leaving Ilkurot we travelled to the coastal town of Tanga where we rented bicycles. One thing I was determined to see was Amboni Cave, the largest known cave system in East Africa. The unusual passage ways of this limestone cave were carved out by sea water during a time when the level of the ocean was higher. Of the 6 major caverns, only three are officially open to the public. The other three are likely to be inhabited by wild animals and have been closed by officials. We rode our bicycles over to the cave and took a guided tour. We crawled through a couple of small passage ways, noticing areas where tree roots came down from the ceiling. We also some had close encounters with bats, which was awesome.
After the cave we rode over to visit the Tongoni Ruins, the oldest mosque in Tanzania which was build in the 14th or 15th century. The caretaker gave us some dried baobab fruit to sample which strangely tasted like lemons.
Going south from Tanga we took a small ferry across the Pangani River which is said to have crocodiles further upstream. We settled in the very small, extremely remote village of Ushongo, home to about 200 people. The community of Ushongo acts like one giant family. Wealth and burdens are shared alike. Gareth and I rented two small bungalows on the beach. We wanted to spend our last days in Africa relaxing and eating fresh fruit.
On Gareth's 24th birthday went out to Maziwe Island which is an aquatic life preserve. The snorkeling was very good and we saw lobsters and giant clams among other creatures. Back at the bungalows, I taught the only other tourist there, a German man named Ollie, how to play Texas Hold'em. Once he had learned, the three of us did a little bit of gambling using match sticks and raisins as poker chips. Interestingly, I noticed that the owner of the bungalows sits out awake every night, with an ancient looking rifle, listening to a radio and staring out to sea. It made me wonder what kind of threat he was guarding against.
Brahim, the captain of the snorkeling vessel invited Gareth and I to come over to his family's house for dinner. When we entered the hearth of his home constructed out of braided palm fronds. I could recognize extreme poverty when I saw it. But the family members seemed happy and their welcome was warm. Brahim who spoke very little English kept looking at us and saying "welcome home". At first I thought he meant welcome to his home but after awhile his manner suggested that it was our home too. They fed us tuna and red snapper which the men had caught early that morning. Brahim explained that his younger brother was actually a village orphan whom the family had adopted.
Going back to Dar es Salaam we called our friend Giovanni and he helped us get a hotel for the night and gave us a ride to the airport the next day, stopping on the way to buy gifts for our families and reminding us to come back and visit him some day.