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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Kilimanjaro

Day 1
Moshi, TZ to Machame Gate to Machame Camp, 2952 feet to 5905 feet to 10, 021 feet




For three days, since Christmas night in fact, I had been staring down Kilimanjaro. Literally and figuratively. It is easy to get wrapped up in the group, the pageantry, the adventure, and forget the mental resolve it takes to scale a mountain. Even a mountain that requires little to no technical mountaineering like Kili.

I sat quietly in our ten-seat van, as we rolled towards the park entrance, and contemplated the visage of an unnamed German man I sat with at Christmas Dinner. He had gone up and come down, unsuccessful in his attempt. His group was on their way back, having continued up the mountain while his nausea and severe headaches kept him from the summit. I could see the resignation in his face, the pain in his head, and the doubt in his eyes. Listening to this man recall what it took out of him, how much he wanted it, and how deflated he felt, steeled me and scared me straight. This wasn’t going to be a jubilant procession up a hill. It was going to be tough.

Machame Gate, 11 a.m.
Just getting on the trail was a chore. First we drove an hour, then waited to sign in, then waited to weigh our packs, then waited s'more. By the time we actually got moving it was almost noon. Gray, overcast skies blanketed the early moments of the hike, as the four of us blended in with the hundreds of other climbers ascending. Right away, I was made aware of the presence of the hundreds of porters. They flew up the mountain, toting ten times the weight we were carrying (maybe more) on their heads, backs and hands. Any time they approached we ditched to the bushes so they could pass.  They wore whatever they owned. Keds, flip flops, Army boots, second hand tennies. Some had rain gear, some didn't. Some wore heavy clothing, some didn't. They were mostly young, mostly all men, and incredibly fit.

Machame Gate, day 1

Kibacha giving some tips to Lisa before we set off on the trail

After our packed lunch from town (burger, chicken, pineapple, mango, juice box, etc.) we got back on the trail just as the rains hit. And hit hard. I was wearing cargo shorts, gaiters, and boots, a grey dry-fit t-shirt, and visor. By two p.m. I had my jacket on and should have put on my rain pants but didn't. Every single inch of my body was drenched in minutes. We slogged through relentless rain and (at times) heavy downpours in search of our first camp.


Walking through the rain forest on Day 1


Porter totes gear to campsite after wet slog on Day 1

We reached just before 5 pm, shivering, numb and wet, following Kibacha towards the ranger hut to sign in as the porters set up our tents and prepared for snacks, tea, and then dinner. Every climber seemed worn out but glad to be at the campsite. It had been a brutal introduction to the mountain. In fact, it was almost as if the mountain had spoken to each of us personally. "Remember who's boss. You're in my backyard and if you thought this was going to be an easy glide up my spine, think again. Beyotch."

I hung my gaiters, boots, socks, jacket and shorts on nearby trees and changed into dry clothing. In minutes we were all happier, inside our dining tent, feasting on popcorn and hot tea. This pre-dinner snack was a staple on Kili and was something I looked forward to each and every afternoon.

Dinner each evening was also a much-anticipated event of the day. We got a hot plate of soup (leak, carrot, cucumber, to name a few) before our main entrée was served. On Day One we engulfed the plate of macaroni and fried fish, more soup, and bread. High on carbs, even higher on satisfaction. After a miserable slog through the rain forest, the dry clothes and hot food set us right before we hit the sack.

Day 2
Machame Camp to Shira Camp, 10,021 feet to 12,470 feet

After breakfast of toast, omelets, sausages, porridge, tea and coffee, we set off towards a steep ridge leading toward a further expanse of moorland and heather. That was the game plan. The fog and rain gave us a narrow perspective of the vegetation we were plodding through. Visibility was less than a quarter mile for most of the morning but, on the bright side, this would be our shortest day. Intermittent rain and clouds pervaded. All in all, however, the hike was much more enjoyable than the previous day's slog. We were in our tents at Shira Camp by ten minutes to two in the afternoon.



John, during a break on Day Two

A perfect illustration of the weather and the traffic on the mountain. We weren't the only ones who had the bright idea to summit Kili for New Year's.

Ax, our waiter and assistant guide, posing at Camp Two
I felt good after two days on the mountain. The hikes had been – by most measures – easier than expected despite the weather. We were above 10,000 feet and my gear and clothing had held up. It would get tested again the following few days but for now it seemed inevitable that we would reach each camp as expected.


During each day, we would see the same groups, the same faces, the same smiles, frowns, and grimaces on the trails and in the camps. A group of 6 Aussies and one Canadian were such a group. A happy-go-lucky guy from Vancouver had come to Kili without any rain gear or climbing shoes. Each day, as the rain continued to pour, I thought of Brandon and how he was coping. And at each camp he wore a smile on his face, proving the weather couldn't dampen his spirits. 


A blind Chinese man was attempting to climb Kili with his female confidant and local guide helping him literally each step of the way. On Day 2, we spotted him struggling up a rock face with a 2010 Iron Man Triathalon Shirt on his slight shoulders. The courage, the resolve, the guts....I can't even imagine walking blind on the autobahn let alone a 19,000 foot mountain in Africa. 
A Blind Chinese man gets assistant from his guide on Day 2

A Swedish family of five was also at our hotel and in our camp each night. The father, Jens, was ever-ready with his SLR Nikon. Along with his wife were his three boys, 13, 15, and 17, respectively. Each day we saw them moving up the mountain, as a family, on an adventure they each would remember for very different reasons.

Just before dusk we had a brief glimmer of sun slice through our plateau, sending porters rushing to hang wet clothes and gear on nearby rocks to dry. But as quickly as it had come it evaporated in the thick cumulous clouds which engulfed the campsite just before dinner.

Kibacha led the four of us on a short jaunt to Shira Cave and the helipad nearby to get us out of our tents. Despite the language barrier and age difference he was making an effort, as were all the crew. It was hard to state how tough and hardened they were and how – comparatively – pampered I felt each day on the mountain.

While I toted my camera, 3 liters of water, rain gear, and poles, they toted my entire 40 pound bag filled with first-aid equipment, heavy clothes, clean clothes, dirty clothes, extra shoes, snacks, and other gear. When they got to camp, they didn’t relax or wait for popcorn. They set up all the tents, laid out our sleeping bags and mats, unpacked the food, and began preparing dinner for our imminent arrival behind them. They made our ascent manageable and enjoyable.

Day 3
Shira Camp to Barrancu Camp, 12, 470 feet to 12, 959 feet

Another ominous morning turned wet by 9 a.m. We had not walked fifteen minutes before the mist turned to rain drops and our mood soured from eager to disappointed. It was time to get out the jackets, ponchos and rain covers yet again. At higher elevation, I felt numbness in my extremities for the first time, especially on my hands, which were shielded by wet rain gloves that neither were protecting or warming my fingers. I wasn't the only one suffering.

At 10:30 a.m. the rain relented just enough for me to come up with a better plan: I draped my jacket over my head, day pack and shoulders, discarded the wet gloves and trekking poles, stuck my bare hands inside my fleece liner and warmed myself up. It worked. Coupled with a snack of fruit roll-ups and Clif bars (thank you, Auntie Margy and Mom!!!) and a few gulps of purified water, I was back in a positive frame of mind as we wound up a valley of red rocks and craters towards the Lava Tower just below 15,000 feet.

The rain and cold were attacking others in our group and, with our guides focusing on their discomfort, I pounced ahead to get in front of a burgeoning bottleneck of hikers for an hour or so. I had a great morning alone, traipsing gleefully past 4200, 4400, meters and approaching the tower itself just before noon. Catching my breath, I waited for the others, relaxed, and stared up ahead at the powder blue sun breaks trying to pour through a charcoal sky. Irene, John, Kibacha, and Lisa caught up with me just before the tower and the group proceeded under the shelter of large boulders to eat our packed lunch and rest before our descent to Barrancu Camp, 700 vertical meters below.













As we descended down to a verdant valley filled with green flowers and foliage, the rain began again. The fog grew thicker around us as we scrambled down in silence from rock to rock, over streams, stepping on loose pebbles, avoiding twisting ankles and melancholy as our campsite grew nearer in the distance.

When we arrived, for the second afternoon in three, Kibacha could not locate our tents. This seems like a minor hiccup, but with four wet and tired souls looking to get off their feet, it becomes more of a pronounced irritant. The area was speckled with every color and shape of tent you can imagine, and not until we heard a return echo from Kibacha’s cat call of “Machame!!!” did we know we were headed in the right direction.

As it turned out, this was the best spot we had the entire five nights. Our toilet was only twenty paces away (both good and bad news) and our two tents sat on the edge of a vast plateau leading down to a steep ridge of flora that faced out at the Barrancu Wall (our destination the following morning).

At dinner, I could see out the dining tent far enough to notice a change in the weather and went outside to confirm it. What I saw was breathtaking. The sun had broken through and the summit was in plain view for the first time on our climb. Three long days of hiking had paid off. We could finally see our goal. We could finally relish in how far we had come. We were 36 hours from the roof of Africa. It was an amazing fifteen minutes.



Taking Diamox (a preventative altitude sickness med) has one serious side-effect: you can’t stop peeing. During the day, this is of little detriment for men, but at night, cozied inside a tent and sleeping bag wearing layers of clothing, it is decidedly inconvenient. However, on this night, at 10:30 p.m. and again at 3 a.m., I was treated to one of the most amazing night views of my life. Not only were the stars seemingly winking at me from every vantage, but a crescent moon hung over the summit ridge itself. The sharp angles of the mountain’s highest ridges protruded against the midnight sky and stars. The skies had cleared and the mountain was in full view. I could see the shape of my breath as I exhaled calmly in the freezing night air. But standing there, alone on a patch of earth 13,000 feet above the sea, gazing up at Kilimanjaro, was one of those slap-in-the-face-moments of your life. Diamox or no diamox.

Day 4
Barrancu Camp to Karanga Camp to Base Camp, 12,959 feet to 15,091 feet


Day Four at dawn

We were on "The Wall" by 9 a.m., stuck behind a glutton of climbers, porters, and guides as the wall's exposure and treachery slowed the pace from steady procession to a trickle. 

This was the only really exposed part of our climb to date and by far the most exciting. I loved it, using the limited rock climbing experience I had to grip foot and hand holds, scramble up rocks and boulders and move across the wall when there was a gap in front of me. All of us seemed to enjoy the morning, as we moved up the wall and onto a promontory at 14,000 feet by 11 a.m. Time to snack, snap a few photos and wait for the fog to roll in yet again.
Kibacha and I at a mid-morning break on Day 4
We would ascend and then descend, through valley after valley, in thick fog and mist, finally arriving at Karanga Camp at 11:45. The morning had been long and winding, but we were closer to base camp. And as the porters, chef, and crew prepared a steaming chicken stir fry lunch inside our dining tent, a brief, hard rain showered the promontory we were seated upon. It relented just in time for us to regain our strength and warmth to push on, moving slowly up the barren rock and scree towards base camp at 15,000 feet.
From left to right: Lisa "Vight to the" Vinish, Jon Santos, Irene Toledo, and I
For the first time, I could feel my shortness of breath. I could feel it walking up the large spine towards base camp, and I could feel it my tent, as I attempted to rest before dinner. I knew I had no shot at falling fast asleep as I wanted. 
Our perch at base camp, 15,091 feet
The triumph of reaching our highest camp was subdued by the schedule that was to ensue in the coming hours. We didn't reach camp until 4 p.m., meaning we had just three hours to hang our wet clothes, find the facilities, and eat dinner before bundling up at 7 p.m. for a rest that would last – at best – four hours. 


As exhausted as we all were, I knew it was going to be next to impossible to fall asleep. Not with three layers of clothing on. Not with freezing temperatures. Not with the impending summit night staring at us in the face. Not with the summit so close. I tossed and turned. I wiggled and flipped. I exhaled. I drank water. I meditated. But by 10:45 p.m., it was all useless. I had got maybe 45 minutes of shut-eye. 


Strangely, as delirious and exhausted as I was, I was euphoric upon exiting our tent. I put on my outer layer (parka and fleece pants), strapped on my boots and gaiters, fixed my poles, attached my two sets of gloves, and said hello to the crew, preparing biscuits and tea before our ascent towards the summit ridge.


Day 5
Base Camp to Summit to Mweka Camp, 15,091 feet to 19, 340 feet to 10, 170 feet

I was in a really good mood as I layered on clothing for our ascent of the summit. Really good.

At midnight, the entire camp burst into "Happy New Year!" chants and screams as the seven of us (Lisa, John, Irene, Kibacha, Ax, Mayenu, and I) began the stiff walk up the dark slope.

After a quick bathroom break and layering down (I was already sweaty after ten minutes of climbing), we set out on the trail headed for Stella Point and Uhuru Peak.

Within fifteen minutes of shedding a layer the wind picked up and began tearing at the very fiber of our core. We were challenged physically, thrown off balance, besieged by cold and dust, and it wasn’t even an hour into the climb.

After climbing Mount Rainier nine years earlier at nearly the same hour, I knew it was best to focus on anything but the task at hand. Azizi had prepared me well the week before. “Kili has a way of taking control of your mind. It is better to think about something else when you’re on it. Don’t concentrate on what you’re doing.”

The toil had its way with Lisa, who soon broke off to climb at a slower pace with our assistant, Mayenu. John and Irene were struggling as well, stopping to eat, drink and warm themselves at each chance. “How much more of this, Kibacha?” John asked. I didn’t have to look at my watch to know we had a long way to go.

The mental struggle was a personal one. Daydreaming was one way to alleviate it. Another was to just put one foot in front of the other. I trusted the path. I trusted the guides. I trusted the climb would take care of itself. If I wavered, got thinking about the big picture, started staring up at the endless procession of headlamps dotting the night sky above me, the mountain would begin to win.

Meanwhile, I noticed my hands begin to numb as – for the first time in 48 hours – I was using poles to balance myself. My liners and leather gloves were not protecting my fingers from the elements. I knew – as early as it still was – that rubbing them together and clutching my two fists would not sustain warmth over the length of the brutal night. I had to drop my original strategy and discard the poles, in favor of warming up my hands. So at roughly 2:30 a.m. I handed the poles to Ax and began climbing the mountain without poles, tracing the steps Kibacha was making, mimicking his small footsteps to ensure good footing and balance. With wind gusts up to 50 mph, any egregious strides that had no solid purchase on the mountain would leave me susceptible to a fall or worse. Again, concentrating on each step was all I was trying to do.

The five of us (Kibacha, myself, Irene, John, and Ax) continued up the mountain. The first time I checked my watch it was 3:32. John and Irene had slowed and Ax continually was screaming up at Kibacha (in the lead) to stop and help out the struggling couple. Whether it was a physical or mental hiccup, I really can’t say. But I was worried that the two of them would succumb to the night wind and retreat down with Ax. I didn’t want that to happen. Not for them. Not for us. I let the guides deal with the problem while I tried to stay warm at each pause. It was imperative to keep moving even when we weren’t on the path. I had a slight headache so I tried to stay hydrated with ice water and nourished with Clif bars any chance I got.

To their credit, each time we stopped and I looked back, Irene and John kept coming up the mountain. They were tired and knocked off guard by the relentless wind but didn’t quit. They didn’t stop fighting.

At a quarter to five, I began to notice an orange layer rising up over the black outline of Mount Mawenzi. Dawn was approaching. Despite the fatigue and wind and biting cold, each step brought us nearer to our goal. When the sun rose, the worst mental hurdle would be behind us. We would be able to see our enemy with clarity for the first time. The mountain could not disguise itself after dawn. The sun was its kryptonite.  We just had to keep going.

Throughout the night, Kibacha never took a drink of water or a morsel of food. He never once complained or wavered in his assault on the summit. He would sing songs to keep our spirits high or shout out “Happy New Year!” at a pause in the action. When the sky began to lighten we stood on a flat promontory and focused on a plateau up one more flight of rock and snow, which led to the hallowed ground of Stella Point at 18,625 feet.

Idiotically, I raced straight ahead, avoiding Kibacha’s advice to use switchbacks and the path to subdue the gain in elevation. Within seconds I was gasping for air, with my head bent over my knees sucking some serious wind. With Stella so near, it seemed so enticing to bomb up the hill. But I could do no better than 3-4 steps before sucking more wind, heaving in and out, and then resuming with the same routine. 


Nearing the top, dust and ice particles ripped across the mountain, adding insult to embarrassment. Not one person was moving effortlessly. Every single person was struggling up that last incline towards Stella.

Finally, at 6:11 a.m., just minutes before sunrise, I was on top of the hill. The green sign that read, “Congratulations….you have reached Stella Point” was a beautiful thing to see. I smiled and turned around, expecting to see the others. But they would be minutes behind. So I set down my bag, took a long swig of ice water, took out my camera and snapped some photos of the scene before me. 

Who's the dork with the Cubs scarf?



The summit ridge and Uhuru peak off in distance (top right)







Beyond Stella was the summit itself, its own green sign visible at the far corner of the ridge’s spine. Below and to the right was an enormous snowy crater. Large chunks of ice and snow mounted on three sides of the mountain. Wispy cloud floated below us. It was cold. It was windy. It was early. But the worst was behind us. All we had to do was walk one more stretch of snow and ice to a flat expanse leading to Uhuru Peak and the highest point in Africa, some 19,340 feet above sea level. Within 45 minutes, we would be there.



Irene and Kibacha soon joined me, followed by John and Ax a few minutes later. The five of us celebrated Stella together before the two guides were ushering back on to the trail. “It is freezing. We go to the summit now. Let us go!” Kibacha repeated vehemently.

The entire night, Ax hadn’t worn gloves. He had been stuffing his hands in his pants to warm himself up. He was carrying John’s bag and my poles. Kibacha had control of Irene’s bag. How the two of them kept warm with a flimsy cotton bandana over the face and a rainproof jacket hood over the head is for another discussion. They – along with the other porters and guides on the mountain – were simply remarkable.
At 7:15 a.m., I stepped up to the Uhuru Peak sign and snapped a few photos with Irene. I basked in the glow and euphoria of a sunny morning on the roof of Africa. Somehow I felt fantastic, considering I had slept just 45 minutes the past 36 hours, I had been climbing for seven hours, and had been eating nothing but frozen energy bars and fruit bars the entire night.



Meanwhile, between Uhuru and Stella, it was a veritable emergency ward. Guides were ushering clients down the mountain at lightening speed. Countless clients were powerless and semi-conscious. Men and women were slipping, falling, and tripping as if an invisible line of banana peels had been purposefully laid out on the trail. A man nearly fell in my lap as we waited to take photos at the summit. It was Jens from Sweden. I didn't realize it until minutes later, when the two of us embraced in congratulations. His oldest son had made it as well, while his wife and two youngest boys each were being carried down by a guide, fully exhausted and wrought with altitude sickness. The youngest's eyes were rolled back. 


Guides dragged them as quickly as they could towards lower elevation. The cold, the altitude, the night, and the pressure had taken its toll everywhere you looked. People were dropping like flies. 


Ten minutes earlier, Brandon from Vancouver and four of his Aussie buddies had made it to the summit. They celebrated by downing two bottles of Champagne. Below, the two girls in their group were struggling to make it back to base camp. One had fluid in her lungs and would spend the next two nights in a Moshi Hospital. At the time we left the hotel, the preliminary indications were she either had cerebral edema, pulmonary edema, or both. She did make a brief appearance at breakfast January 2nd, which assuaged the concerns of her entire group. 












We were back at Stella by 8 a.m., stopping for a brief rest before scrambling down the mountain for a brutal three hour retreat to base camp. By this time, fewer and fewer climbers were ascending. Most people who had made it to Stella were on their way back. The sun was extremely warm. The wind had relented but was still a nuisance. My face felt battle-worn and leathery.

We continued to hold out hope for Lisa and Isiah, but common sense and logic told us we wouldn’t see them until we were safely back at camp. And we were right.

The scree, dirt, dust, and rock proved a tough adversary on the descent. But not simply because they were treacherous. It was the fatigue and exhaustion that absolutely destroyed the will to keep going. At several points under the hot morning sun, I wanted to lie down and fall asleep. Seeing base camp from miles away only tortured us more. What seemed so attainable kept getting further and further away to the eye. Draped in four layers of clothing from head to toe, the warmth of the sun coupled with the lower elevation began to wear thin. I was sweating, tired, and mentally beaten. I just wanted to be back in my tent and go to sleep.

I saw Ax at 10 o’clock and handed him my parka to carry. I ate the last of my peanuts. I drank another swig of ice cold water. And then I stumbled wearily down the last stretch of dirt and scree towards our green tent.

When I returned, I was greeted by Isiah and Paul, who put a cold glass of Coke in my hand and a chair down to rest in. I took off nearly every stitch of clothing I wore, laid them on nearby rocks to dry, and enjoyed the glass of cola before entering my tent.



Knowing Lisa was inside and that she hadn’t made it, tempered my enthusiasm. “Sorry,” was about all I could say, as I patted her on the back. Before I knew what hit me, I was fast asleep. It was a good few minutes before I arose to the clamoring sounds of tents collapsing, peaked my eyes outside, and saw our table for four basking in the sunlight, with my three fellow climbers already engaged in our last lunch on the mountain.

For all intents and purposes, our day was over, yet we still had three and a half hours of descent to reach our campsite for the night. Three and a half grueling hours of scrambling to go. Kibacha led the charge. I had changed into shorts, cotton socks, and running shoes. I had water and a bit of food left in my day pack.
I had never been more tired in my entire life. Seventeen hours of climbing and descending had pushed my body to the limit. But finally, at 4: 55 p.m. we reached Mweka Camp, our two tents, and my beautiful red sleeping bag.



Day 6
Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate, 10,091 feet to 6,000 feet

It was surprisingly cold in the morning. I awoke  - as I did most mornings – before 7 a.m. I put on my two fleece sweaters and windbreaker, hat, and gloves and went outside to survey the morning. It was hard to believe our journey would soon come to an end.
Ax brought hot water for washing to our tent, a bar of soap, and let us know breakfast and tea was ready. Just like every morning, we had toast, jam, butter, porridge, eggs, and sausage brought to us. We figured out the tipping trigonometry as we ate, dividing up our remaining shillings into fifteen unequal parts to reward the efforts of our fantastic porters and guides. As we finished up our meal, Kibacha summoned us outside to watch the porters and guides sing the Kili Song, which was followed by our handing out the tips to each of our helpers. Afterwards, we broke camp, packed up, and descended slowly but cheerfully in the morning sunshine. I broke free of the group and got a chance to reflect on the week that was. In the quiet of the rain forest, amid the firs, palms, ferns and flowers, I had a strong sense of accomplishment and happiness. I had done what I had set out to do. I had climbed Kilimanjaro and welcomed 2012 from nearly five miles above sea level. There was no sadness as we signed in for the final time, exchanged war stories with other climbers in line, exchanged photos and emails, and packed up our gear in the van for the short trip back to the hotel.

When I returned to Bristol Cottages in Moshi, it was back to reality. I had to change a tire, charge my battery, return my gear, and clean off the scum, dirt and sweat that had lingered on my body for the past six days. After receiving our certificates, saying goodbye to the crew, donating some gear, and having lunch, I felt almost normal again. An overnight, rest, and a two day drive back to Kampala were all that were left to do. 

Our last view of the summit on day six's walk to the park's exit

1 comment:

  1. matt, You are unbelievably brave! I am so proud of you!

    ReplyDelete