The routeThe Marangu Route, more known to some locals as "Coca-Cola Route"
Previous highest altitude: unknown.
*Nieves - From Pamplona, Navarra. Mountaineer and swimmer, she's the person who had the original idea: "Why can't we go to Kilimanjaro?".
Previous highest altitude: 3718 meters a.s.l.(Mount Teide, Spain)
Other significant peaks: Pico de Aneto (3404 meters), Monte Perdido (3355 meters)
*Pilar - Also from Pamplona, Navarra. Mountaineer, swimmer and runner.
Previous highest: 5416 meters a.s.l. (Thorung La, Nepal)
Other significant peaks: Mount Teide (3718 meters), Pico de Aneto (3404 meters)
*Enrique - From Pamplona, Navarra. Mountaineer and cyclist.
Previous highest: 5416 meters a.s.l. (Thorung La, Nepal)
Other significant peaks: Monte Perdido (3355 meters), Bachimala (3177 meters)
Carlos and Francisco - From Huesca and Ayerbe, in the spanish province of Huesca. Though not exactly members of our original party, we all shared guides and porters up to Horombo Hut, where they would stay an extra day in search of the ideal acclimatization.
The guidesKabila One and Kabila Two- We can only guess at their names, though Kabila One was called "Nico" (Nicholas?) by some other guides and porters. They had both climbed with us Mount Meru a couple of days before, and proved to be an honest and hard-working pair. They enjoyed joking when the car did not arrived in time (that's most times), and Kabila One even managed to learn a few words in spanish. Not much, just the right ones to call us when breakfast was ready.
Day One - September 7th, 2001
It seemed a long time ago, for I was longing to start walking towards Uhuru Peak, but only twenty-four hours had passed since we came down Mount Meru. But the previous afternoon had worked real miracles: there is nothing like recovering your lost luggage and being able to change into really clean garments. That had been an unexpected pleasure and was completed by a luxury shower and a dip at the swimming pool of our Hotel in Moshi. An impressive dinner had finished the miracle and turned me into a new man. We had also met our new climbing partners and fellow spaniards: Carlos and Francisco. All six of us boarded the bus to our dreamed-of climb. We were accompanied by a small dutch group and a couple of americans (greetings, Jack, in case you are reading this). The traditional stop at a roadside grocery allowed some people to buy additional food, but we soon found ourselves arriving at Kilimanjaro National Park.
When we got off from the bus, the big grassy explanade at Marangu Gate looked extremely busy. There were a few guides around starting to organise their groups, but your sight was immediately attracted by the crowd of porters waiting to get their loads. It was quite hot and we had to wait for about ten minutes before our guide Kabila summoned us to the Park Headquarters. That's where you sign the entrance book and the climbing officially starts. A matter of a few minutes before we began walking behind Wilfred, the new porter.
The entrance to Kilimanjaro National Park at Marangu Gate gets through an impressive forest and seems to follow a normal road. But this is only a deceptive impression. The road is reserved for the use of Park personnel and their vehicles. I was also tempted to wonder what kind of a climb was that, but after about a hundred meters forgot all about it: Wilfred left the road and turned left to enter a forest trail. It was a small path winding across the mountain forest, with good earth ground. At first it seemed to be quite flat, but soon began to climb and gain altitude by means of a small series of wooden steps. It was about one hour and a half of wandering across the forest enjoying a few good sights of cascades and hearing the monkeys' noise, and then the track turned left to start a more abrupt section. The flat ground turned into stones and rocks for a while, changing shortly afterwards into another flat trail traversing a smaller forest of high bushes. No more monkeys to be heard in this area, but occasional slim cows crossed the path from time to time. We were all going "pole-pole", which in swahili meant very slowly. It was getting quite hot, for the rain forest did not provide any more shelter from the sun, but after about three hours walking the bushes turned apart and let us into a clearing with some green-roofed huts. Kind of a small village by the name of Mandara Hut.
We all sat down in the grass and took out our packed lunch to find out that roasted chicken can be tasty in the middle of Africa. It felt great to be at last thousands of miles away from any problems of our "civilized" western world. One could even forget for a while that we had no place to sleep, a situation that anyway lasted for only some fortyfive minutes. Long enough for Kabila One to arrive, have his usual "hi-there-how-are-you-guys" talk with the hut keeper and remember that we needed somewhere to sleep. When all the process was finished he finally showed us to the biggest hut and we were able to occupy the bunks with our sleeping bags.
Wise men usually say about mountain sickness that the best way to avoid it is to "climb high and sleep low". We had already followed the best advices we had been given and walked to Mandara Hut pole-pole, but as for "climbing high", we had no real chances to go much higher for the afternoon. Anyway, it didn't look too clever to stay at Mandara and watch life passing by. So we all decided to take a thirty minute stroll to Maundi Crater. Apparently it was a good opportunity to catch fine sights over the tanzanian plains. Just apparently: low clouds did not allow any sights. Not the plains, nor Mawenzi, which I had hoped to see for the first time. Hard luck. The walk had been nice enough and our jungle sunset had made for a few nice photographs. Dinner and a good card game (as far as I know, ours was the 1st Trans-african championship of mus) were the only things to stand between us and the sleeping bag.
Day Two - September 8th, 2001
During breakfast, Kabila One emphasised that we had to stick together during the day's climb. There was no apparent reason for it. Nevertheless we believed him and honestly intended to be good boys (and girls). Kabila One on the lead, followed by us six europeans and Kabila Two closing the group would be the strategical organization for the climb to Horombo Hut. At first everything went fine. For some thirty minutes we walked along as a single group and harmony was preserved. After that time, having passed the sidetrack to Maundi Crater, everyone stopped for our first real sight of Kibo and that made it. After our little session of photograph taking everyone started walking on his (or her) own and we soon found the group split in three smaller units. Francisco and Carlos were on the lead, furiously walking uphill as if pursued by a wolf pack. Luis and Enrique formed some kind of an intermediate bridge, trying to keep visual contact with the whole expedition, and our invaluable Kabilas walked behind together with Pilar and Nieves. Pole-pole.
It was during the first half of the morning that we all had to step apart from the track in a certain moment, to allow free pass for a wheeled stretcher. Four porters were running down, taking with them a climber suffering from mountain sickness. Only some minutes before, our friends of the Soria expedition had been telling us about their success in the summit attempt. The two faces of Kili had shown up almost in the same time. As far as I remember, nobody said anything about the unfortunate climber. But every one of us thought that this story seemed no joke at all. After hearing about another spaniard suffering from a beginning of pulmonary oedema in Horombo Hut, we had just found out that evacuation means were not just for show.
We had to wait for a little bit while the Kabilas and the girls reached the place, but in no time they rejoined us and we were signing in the hut caretaker's book in order to receive the keys of the hut we would sleep in. We left there our luggage and attended the call of Kabila One: Lunchtime. Warm beans and chips, coffee and some bread allowed us to recover from the morning efforts and begin thinking about an afternoon "sortie" for the sake of acclimatization. This issue was decided in favor of the Zebra Rock. It looked as if we were not going to see it on the way to Kibo Hut, and it seemed to be a place worth of a visit. So we faced the incoming clouds to get back on the trail. It was notably colder than in the morning, but who said fear?. There was a crossroads just after Horombo Hut, and we took the right side track to find that it gained altitude towards the Saddle bypassing some beatiful spots, full of african mountain flora and a bit more misterious because of the low clouds and fog.
It was also the perfect chance to cross over the four thousand meters barrier, which we did just before the Zebra Rock. That rock was to be the turning point of the walk, but also a great spot to take some photographs and rest while breathing the thin altitude air. Not much more to be said about that afternoon. Camp routine called for its rights when we got back to Horombo Hut and our stomachs gratefully received dinner together with huge quantities of coffe and hot chocolate. All for the sake of acclimatization, which does not only require uphill walking. It is also necessary to drink a lot, as much as possible. Three or four liters a day is advisable.
I will not dare to write about that night's card game. It was another milestone in a championship full of disappointments, proving once again that stepping on buffalo shit does not make you any luckier. In short: the girls won again.
Day Three - September 9th, 2001
Climbing as high as three thousand and seven hundred meters in a couple of days is too fast for a reasonable adaptation to altitude. That's where Horombo Hut is placed, and two members of our group sure felt it during our night there. Episodes of anguish and subjective asphyxia were our theme of conversation during breakfast, together with the splitting of the party. This was the day where we left behind Carlos, Francisco and Kabila Two. They stayed at Horombo for another twenty-four hours, in search for optimal acclimatization for their summit attempt. The rest of us would follow Kabila One to Kibo Hut.So after farewells and best wishes climbing began once more. This time on the western path to the Saddle (that's the name given to the huge col placed between the summits of Kibo and Mawenzi). At first there was a little bit of fog left from the previous day, but it soon cleared and let us enjoy our first real close sight of Kibo and Uhuru Peak. We enjoyed it together with the austrian group from Spittal, who had been sharing all our holidays since we first met on Mount Meru. A light breeze came from the north but otherwise it was a perfect day to walk in the mountains. As it had always done up to this moment, the Coca-Cola Route showed no difficulties apart from those derived from altitude. But the Saddle is some other thing. Though I can only speak for myself, the Saddle fully deserves the name of "alpine desert" given by the national park signs. It was a rather eery feeling to leave behind the Last Water Point, even knowing that Kabila and Wilfred would take care of that. And the wind. The wind started blowing strongly from the North. Kenia sent us what we felt to be a hurricane, throwing into our faces the volcanic dust and earth of the Saddle. Rocks provided a nice shelter to eat something on the way up, but when you got back to the trail it was always against the full strength of the wind. We all had to take out our warm jackets so as not to get frozen while we crossed the huge plain of the Saddle.
In the end, after another five-hour stage, we managed to reach Kibo Hut. Altitude was already claiming its rights and our bodies recovered quite slowly from the easy walk up. The pulse seemed as if going to stay forever higher than a hundred and twenty heartbeats per minute. It didn't matter if I walked or not. And the headache was beginning to build up in a way I had never felt before. Our meagre lunch did not improve our condition much, but made our stomachs easier...
It was a short afternoon, indeed. From the very moment of lunchtime Kabila warned us that dinner would take place at six o'clock p.m. We were supposed to get into the sleeping bags right after it. So we followed our tradition of the previous days and set off for the uphill trail. There was no other way to climb higher than to take the path to Gillman's Point, which we were to follow on the next day. It took about one hour up and half an hour down. We all felt much better during this afternoon and almost forgot everything about mountain sickness, distracted by the beauty of the sunset. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance: we simply had to push a little bit further on our summit bid and the highest mountain in our lives was waiting for us. It deserved one more effort. This afternoon walk was probably the first known example of psychological (and therefore unsuccesful!!)acclimatization.
Day Four - September 10th, 2001Kibo Hut - Uhuru Peak - Horombo Hut
I don't know what did my friends feel, but I shall always remember the moment to get out of the sleeping bag in Kibo Hut. That was the most miserable minute in my whole life. It surely looked like. Sleeping had proved absolutely impossible, for my headache had gone worst during the first half of the night. It was eleven o'clock in the night, it was cold, the hurricane was blowing outside. In the very moment I got up, I felt almost unable to stand, almost on the edge of vomiting. And those were the good news: in that physical and mental state, I was supposed to get dressed, go out and walk for some seven hours to reach the highest peak I had ever attempted to climb.
Somehow we all managed to get over these first moments. A glass of hot chocolate proved good enough to put us on the move and -some way or other- we swallowed a couple of biscuits hoping that was better than to eat nothing at all. After that it was time to go out and face the summit attack. Out into a dark world where we were received by a chilling wind coming in from Kenia. More good news. It was cold, so cold, but in spite of everything we formed a circle and started singing for the protection of St. Fermin as the runners of our town's "encierro": nos guíe en este monte dándonos su bendición. Then we had to start walking after Kabila. Three of our four headlamps were knocked out by the cold in no longer than ten minutes. That left the dim light of the moon and the feet of our friends as the only references to follow on the way up. No one was in the mood to speak much. And Wilfred, who was closing the group so as not to leave anybody behind, was suffering a really bad cough. The first bad news of the night were those of his turning back to Kibo Hut.
Altitude was making itself obvious as we got on climbing. The headache was still there, and definitely I could not breathe normally. While walking slowly everything would go almost normally, but I had to stop every ten steps or so for a little rest. And catching up with the rest of the group meant that I had to adopt a pace a little faster, which brought me on the verge of nausea. Not nice feelings, surely, moreover when I thought that the headlamps of the other climbers did not seem to stop. It looked that it would not be my summit day. I felt able to go up to Gilman's Point if walking at my own pace, but did not believe in my chances to reach Uhuru Peak. Not that night. Not in that cold Kenian hurricane.
But all these dark thoughts were forgotten when we saw that one of the women in our group seemed to be suffering real problems. In short: she was falling asleep in every one of the short breaks we took. Not that she fell down or anything like that. She just leaned on Kabila's shoulder and got to sleep without seemingly being able to avoid it. And when we asked her she could only say something like Hay que subir. We have to go up. This situation was already clear by the time we had reached Hans Meyer's Cave, at about 5200 meters. It was the moment to make a decision, I was not climbing fast and our friend had to go down as soon as possible. It seemed so obvious that she was suffering from mountain sickness and I feared that a brain edema could be building up. So I asked Kabila to get on with the summit bid and take care of our two remaining friends. I would undertake the withdrawal to Kibo Hut, to put our unlucky partner in relative safety until the summit party returned.
I will not say much about the way down. Just that it was one of those times where you get physical and mental strength from places you did not know about. In what seemed to be an eternity, without any functioning headlamps and trying not to miss the hut, we both managed to get back to shelter. Getting rid of the wind did surely make a change, and when my sick friend was in her sleeping bag and got to sleep the really hard part of the night began. Long hours would elapse in the cold hut while I did not dare to sleep in order to watch how our patient was doing. A couple of austrian mountaineers shared with me some of these hours (thank you, Helmut and Rika, I will always remember you) after abandoning their party and the biggest prize of that night was a most beautiful sunrise behind the ragged spires of Mawenzi. Unforgettable, one of the best natural shows I've ever witnessed.
When the summiteers returned they told us about their strenuous walk on the screes of Kibo. They got to Uhuru Peak but were not sure about how they had done so. The wind had kept blowing for the whole morning and thoughts of frozen fingers had been around their minds on the way after Gilman's Point, but some hidden strength had kept them going on up to the highest point of Africa. I guess I can understand that. Too many efforts and dreams were set on that day, even if you can't consciously enjoy something as simple as the sights at almost six thousand meters. Yes: they also said something like that. The sights were wonderful but "we will have to see them in the photographs".
A light lunch was ready in no time after Kabila came back to the hut. It was only 11.00 a.m. but we had been on the move for twelve hours now. I still felt horribly though not worried about it. I knew the feeling would disappear as soon as we got down to Horombo. It was a nice calm walk to say goodbye to the Saddle and return to the small village in the moorland. About two and a half hours to take some last photographs, take a break for a piece of chocolate at the Last Water Point and talk about the day's events.
There's not much more to be said about the rest of the day. Exhaustion claimed its place as the hours passed. We had dinner, sure, but after that only a short card game was feasible. Our bodies yelled for rest and we set off to the sleeping bags under a bright starry sky which made me believe every story I had read about the enchantment in african nights.
Day Five - September 11th, 2001
Yes, we were in Tanzania on that fateful day: September 11. And we were probably the only persons in the world not to know about it in the very moment it happened. But let us not distract from the main target of this text: to share our expedition to Mount Kili with whoever dares to read about it.This last day was a short one. Kabila suggested an early wake-up in the morning, so as to be down at Marangu for midday. It was no problem for us. The sooner down, the faster we would be able to take a shower. We did not fully believe so, but our guide also told us that a bus would be waiting at Marangu Gate by twelve o'clock. On the way to breakfast we were greeted by and incredible sea of clouds covering the whole plain south of Kili. It was a fresh sunny morning, extremely nice when I remembered the temperatures of the previous day. And the walk was downhill for a change. Really nice. Every meter of the path held memories of the climb and our eyes kept turning back for the last sights of Kibo. I didn't feel as the same person who had trekked up that path three days before, or slept in Mandara, or seen the japanese group. Too many things had happened and I was happy to have experienced them.
By the way: the bus was not at Marangu Gate by twelve o'clock. But that's another story. As Kabila One would say: in ten minutes…