Tanzania Kilimanjaro Kilimanjaro National Park
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Summit Day 02/18/2012
Kilimanjaro…. The largest free standing mountain on the planet @ 1,500 sq/miles or about the size of Rhode Island. The tallest mountain on the African continent (19,340 ft.); its summit sits just shy of 3 degrees south of the equator. The sleeping vocano of Uhuru Peak sits on the southern rim of the outer crater and is the highest point on the mountain. Since 1912 Kili has lost 82% of its ice cap. Since 1962 it has lost 55% of its remaining glaciers. It is projected that within 30-40 years all the plateau ice will be gone, with only some of the slope glaciers remaining.
25-30,000 climbers attempt the mountain annually with @60% success rate. As a “big” mountain, Kilimanjaro is unique in that no technical skills are required to climb it. It can be scaled by virtually anyone with the grit to endure the climb. The biggest obstacle is the debilitating effects of altitude. Many climbers experience AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Symptoms are usually headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, lack of thirst, disorientation, and loss of coordination. Most failures occur as a result of climbing too quickly, and not acclimatizing to the elevation.
The Tanzanian government is rightfully exploiting its natural wonders, parks, and Kilimanjaro for revenue. The average porter, which requires no education or experience, can make more in a month than a teacher makes in a year. As a result there is a huge incentive to porter. The path to becoming a guide usually starts with being a porter. There is clearly a pecking order inside the porter community, as well as in the guiding community. Guides compete based on their ability to get people up the mountain and on the summit. The higher success percentage, the more likely the tour operators will hire them.
This is a good example of getting what you pay for. The shorter the expedition, the faster you climb, the less experienced the guides are, the lower probability you will summit. Our guides, hired by Zara Tours, one of the largest, and the length of our expedition (8 days) accompanied by acclimatization hikes (climb high, sleep low), allowed for all but one person to summit. Polè, Polè, (slow, slow) was the mantra during the entire climb. The theory being the slower you climb, the better you acclimatize.
It began to occur to Leonie and I at the airport gate in Amsterdam on the way to Kilimanjaro International Airport that we were not a part of a small cadre of travelers heading to Tanzania to climb a big mountain. It seemed everyone in the gate area was a motley group of “Crocodile Dudee” types; we would later be asking ourselves: “Are we the only people in the world who haven’t climbed Kilimanjaro? After 18 hours of air travel and 8 time zones we landed in what was a major wind/sand storm. We would later discover that wind and sand would be a part of our lives for the entire time we were in country. Tanzania, sitting just south of the equator does not have seasons. The sun rises and sets just about the same time every day; @ 6:30. We arrived during the tail end of the dry season. Despite being on the equator the humidity was not oppressive; my guess on average was dew points in the high 50’s, low 60’s. Being just below 3,000 ft and during the dry season made it just bearable given the fact there was no air conditioning. Afternoon highs were in the mid-90’s but the winds kicked up in the afternoon, as did the dry sand storms, and temperature were in the low 80’s by early morning.
Entering the country through customs at the airport was our first experience with third world mayhem. As we passed through the gates, we were accosted by a sea of black Africans all shouting and offering to drive us in their taxi’s, or carry our bags, or sell us trinkets. Fortunately, both Sierra Club leaders were on our flight, so we were told to just look for a person holding a sign saying “Springlands” our base of operations off the mountain. Soon we were on a bus heading to Moshi @ 45 minutes away.
The town of Moshi (pop. 150,000) which means “smoke” in Swahili is the spoken language. It sits in a coffee growing region surrounded by wheat, maize, sugar, and banana plantations. The lack of infrastructure did not hit us until the following day. Our drive was blurred by the dust storm, our jet lag, and desire to sleep. We were traveling a day earlier than the main group as was our Sierra Club leaders. Apparently the Springlands Hotel did not have rooms available for us, so we were all put up at the “Panama Hotel” in Moshi. We didn’t care, we just wanted to get out of our “way too warm” travel clothes and to bed.
Our experience with the lack of basic infrastructure began with electricity. It seems power outages are common, but more common are brown outs. The lighting was so dim it was difficult to make out the tile floors from the steps. Hot water also was in short supply. Each room has a small water tank inside the bathroom that you must pre-heat. Water pressure, for-gedda-bout it! And, you can’t drink the water. Nor can you eat any unpeeled fruit. Ice is absolutely unavailable (I don’t think their freezers ever get cold enough due to the brown outs). So having a cold beer quickly became something I fantasized about. At breakfast the following morning I saw my first Norway rat scurry across the floor.
We were supposed to be transported via shuttle bus today to Springlands. This turned out to be a journey in itself despite the fact we were in the same town of Moshi. So many visitors were transplanted to the Panama Hotel the bus could not take all the people. Leonie and I decided to explore Moshi by foot awaiting the next shuttle. This was our first true immersion into the local population. I was shocked to see unpaved side roads, with deep ruts, and even deeper drainage ditches that contained not so pleasant looking trash of all kinds. It seems there in no public trash collection so residents burn their trash openly. Maybe that’s where Moshi got its name? The acrid smell of burning trash, people cooking on open fires using either charcoal or wood, was prevalent.
As we walked around town it was impossible not to notice just about every male staring at us, or should I say staring at Leonie. Most of the women were busy transporting what appeared to be impossibly large and heavy objects balanced on their heads; from huge clutches of un-ripened bananas heading to the public farmer’s market to construction materials. Things that we dispose of here in the states were being turned into products the locals would sell. Old tires for example were being carefully sliced from the carcass, and turned into sandals. Scrap metal was being banged and cut into shapes for what I don’t know. Wood, or should I say lumber, was being processed everywhere. From what amounted to twigs that were then cut into ever so smaller pieces for cooking, to rough skinny logs that were then run through a tiny saw mill, cut rough, and then sold.
This is a thriving community; small shops selling everything imaginable and unimaginable. What we were witnessing was a developing third-world country in real-time. Street vendors cooking on an open fire selling banana fritters, or fried dough. There was little mechanization. It was pure human toil. I watched as a man pulled a wagon overloaded with what looked like sacks of flour, an old tire was secured to the rear. If he wanted to control the speed of the wagon going downhill he would lift the wagon back onto the tire. I watched as he entered from a dirt side road onto what was “Main St.” with cars and busses whizzing by, honking horns. But everywhere we looked were crowds of unemployed black men staring back at us, or was that Leonie?
By noon just before our shuttle bus finally arrived, I enjoyed an incredibly intellectual conversation with the manager of the Panama Hotel standing outside the front door. He was a young man not more than 30 years old, and was dressed in a sharp tailored and pressed long sleeve shirt and creased black pants. We discussed the problems associated with the poaching of game animals in the parks, and how the guards who protected the animals had limited authority to deal with the problems. He described in the greatest of details how giraffes feed, and how when he worked for the park service, he taught an orphaned giraffe to take a cookie from his mouth with its tongue that is 18 inches long. Then he asked me how his cousin was doing? I asked: Who? Obama, he said. Apparently he was a Kenyan from the same tribe and considered our president his true cousin. I laughed hysterically! As the weeks passed I would learn how kind and friendly the local population of Charra people were; quick to smile, and just as quick to laugh.
When we arrived at Springlands, our base, after passing though its guarded gates, we immediately were transported into an oasis. Greenery everywhere, exotic plants, exotic birds twittering and chirping around. Once again, white western Europeans transported into a walled compound, in-ground swimming pool, outdoor dining under thatched roofs. It felt weird, an entire staff of African blacks serving us in every way, but it also felt safe. I kept saying to myself: “The per capita income of the average Tanzanian is $552, these people are being provided the opportunity to make much more than that working here, and they are happy, jovial, quick to smile people who love their jobs. Stop feeling guilty!”
Our room was bigger than the Panama Hotel (sans rats) containing three single beds. We used the center bed to sort out or luggage and climbing/hiking gear. Plumbing was identical. But what stood out in my mind was the mosquito netting that hung over each bed tied into a knot that somehow reminded me of the movie “Aliens II”, the pod scene!
Superb buffet meals were served at Springlands. All the food was locally sourced, and fresh however the lack of refridgeration and freezing limited certain certain items from the menu.
After meeting the other 10 people we would share the next 8 days on the mountain and then be with on safari, we were taken on a short hike into the jungle where I would see for the first time in the wild Columbus Monkeys. These beautiful creatures rarely leave the trees, and have very long whispy-white tails and beards. Our trail companions were for the most part fit, middle aged, well-traveled professionals either working or retired. Leonie and I, could not stop sizing them up. Who will crap out first on the mountain? Who is going to be the biggest pain in the ass. Not being a group person, will I be able to deal with all of them in close quarters on the mountain. We’ve been told, and have learned that the youngest and fittest of climbers are the ones who have the biggest challenge making the summit. Well at least the youngest part was not my problem.
My preconceived notion of deepest, darkest, Africa; “Stanley I presume!” was constantly challenged. My thoughts of suffering in the thickest of heat and humidity were surprisingly dashed with the dry-season’s lower dew points. So was my idea of jungle. Here we were in Moshi, and then in a few minutes we are walking into farmland and eventually rice paddy which borders on a forest which in fact is the jungle. Within a short 30-45 minutes we are walking on worn paths with hundred foot exotic trees, moss, and monkeys. As we looped around inside the jungle more and more monkeys including the black and blue-ball. Yes that’s right, bright blue set of balls.
Our next small mishap occurred just around the bend. Apparently we walked into what was poachers caught stealing wood from the forest. Its illegal to take wood, and the forest patrol had caught a group of young men with a big load of wood. Our guide was speaking Swahili for some time with authorities. He kept saying: “Hakuna Matata” which means “no worries”. But the way the guards were acting (all carrying weapons including machetes) I was worried. We’ll never know for certain, but it appears the guards were looking for a bribe and then they would let the poachers go (with the wood) and that is what we came upon.
Our trek was finally upon us. After dinner, we needed to re-sort our gear. Since porters would be carrying the heavy loads we needed to pack all of our gear, with the exception of the gear required to be carried in our large daypacks. Basically it was carry rain gear, water, camera, trail snacks, first aid, etc. Average pack weights were @ 20lbs, very manageable. Our duffels were loaded with the rest but could not exceed 15 kilos (or 35lbs). I also carried my personal backcountry water filter; I did not want to drink boiled water treated with iodine.
DAY 1: We are finally on the way. Outside the gates of Springlands is a huge military looking 2 ½ ton truck outfitted with passenger seats, and a huge roof rack. We had met Johnny, our head guide, and Frankie the second guide the evening before for what amounted to a pep talk. Mostly it was “Polè , Polè”, the key to success is going slow! The truck would transport us west on the highway back toward the airport, and then north up a dirt road past poor small villages. Everywhere, women were carrying heavy loads on their heads, and the men were just lingering around. Dust devils popped up occasionally, as the reddish soil was very dry awaiting the wet season. Everywhere there were children waiving and yelling “Mzungu” (White people). Again I was reminded how poor this country is. Small brick buildings with tin roofs, some with windows, others just openings. Some chickens and goats in the yard, clothes hung on lines, women cooking on open fires outdoors. There were enclaves of Masai tribes who have stuck to their traditional ways, living in thatched huts, wearing brightly colored robes. The men carry sticks or clubs. They are traditional herders, so cows, goats and the occasional camel are ever present.
As we headed deeper north and west of the park we were also gradually rising in elevation. Soon it became noticeably drier, and cooler especially after rising to about 6,000 feet. We were heading for Londrossi Gate just outside the park. All of the roads leading into the park are protected by these “gates”. It is here that we are registered, and where the fees are paid. My GPS recorded 7,350 ft. At the gate large crowds of porters were gathered looking for work. I don’t know how Johnny managed our 35 porters, but considerable time was spent at this gate. I can only assume he sent his porters out ahead of our truck, and he quite possibly hired a few more might here at Londrossi.
We then headed back south to enter a side road that led to the Lemosho Glade Trailhead where we would actually start our journey (boots on the ground). The trip to the trailhead was one of the most harrowing drives I have experienced, and that is saying a lot. The dirt track (dry fortunately) was no wider than the truck we were in. As we drove down, and then up this steep, winding dirt track past tree farms and potatoes fields, we eventually entered through the jungle. Vegetation was everywhere, and as high as the truck. I could see occasionally, looking out the window, the soft shoulders that the truck lurched over onto at times feeling it would surely tip over on its side and we all would perish sliding down a deep ravine.
When we finally arrived at the trailhead, 4 ½ hours had passed. It was late afternoon and we still had to hike into Mti Mkubwa (Big Tree) Camp several miles of trail higher and deeper into the park. But we were finally on the trail; and I was a happy camper. I was chomping at the bit to get the show on the road. All the delays, all the hurry and wait ordeal was over. We were on the way to climb Kilimanjaro.
There are seven routes up the mountain all varying in the number of days on the mountain, the scenery, steepness, etc. Anyone planning a trip should seriously consider the tour operator and route to be taken. Our route, the Lemosho, is remote, beautiful, long and as a result, more expensive but allowing for more acclimatization. It is relatively new but gaining in popularity and since the Shira route is no longer being used, there is more traffic on it since it shares some of the old Shira route. It is considered the most scenic.
On the mountain, depending of which route you take, are fixed camps. These camps are spread across and up the mountain and all but the highest camps have access to water. As camps go, these are Spartan (no picnic tables here folks). There are latrines at the camps, but I must say, with the exception of a latrine I happened upon in Havasu Canyon Grand Canyon, these are the filthiest things imaginable. All of them employ an eastern terminology called “squatty potties”. Folks who have travelled to Nepal, or other far away locals know what I am referring to, and unless you have had the chance to experience this, no words can describe how fowl they are. Fortunately, being on this expedition had its plusses. Not only did we have porters who lugged these heavy loads up the mountain, there was also a porta-pottie porter. Yes, that’s right. One, maybe two porters carried on their back a porta-pottie, then erected a small stand-up tent around it. Our expedition had two pottie tents, with toilet tissue. Don’t ask me what the porters did with the waste after each days camp tear down. But my guess is it was all dumped into the camp latrines.
There are seven eco-zones on the mountain. In Moshi and the surrounding areas which are all part of the greater Kilimanjaro area is the “cultivation” zone which tops out around 6,000 feet. Here pastures, plantations, grass and cropland exist and this is where most of the settlements locate. We were on the edge of this as we began our trek. Between here and 9,000 feet is the jungle, or forest. As we climbed to Mti Mkubwa Camp we traveled through this pristine rainforest with beautiful and exotic trees and flowering plants en-route. The higher we climbed the less vegetated the forest became.
Our first lunch break stop was remarkable. I’ve never been on a expedition supported by so many porters ever; so all of this was new to me. I’m more a solo backpacker, carrying everything on my back. The goal is to get to night camp well before dark before you settle into any relaxation. Here, on top of a knoll, the porters are setting up a mess tent where we will eat snacks, fruit, soup, etc. They have humped in portable tables, and chairs. Although not elegant, it sure beats sitting on a rock. This was also the first time we experienced the afternoon wind storms and the corresponding red earth dust that goes along with it. Everything gets caked with dust, and there is no orifice that escapes it. Nothing like eating a sand-wich.
By the time we arrived in camp it was almost dark. Ahead of us, the porters diligently had set up our sleeping quarters, porta-potties, and mess tent. Our tent was spacious by comparison to what I carry in the backcountry. These were large three person all mountain tents with a very large vestibule. Each tent was equipped with two mattress pads. The vestibule area did not have a floor. However, I carried what amounted to a space blanket (orange on one side, foil coating on the other). We used this to cover the vestibule floor, and then placed the two provided mattress pads on top. Shortly after we arrived, we found our duffels, and started prepared for the evening.
Soon a water porter arrived. This person’s sole responsibility on the trip was to provide every client with a small plastic wash basin of warm water for cleaning. While we were hiking with our 20lb packs, the porters had been speeding up to camp, setting up all the tents, and then collected water to boil so we could clean up before dinner. This person also filled our drinking water bottles, and then during dinner, when we were all in the mess tent delivered the filled bottles. I could get used to this. But I was not having any part of iodine in my water. So I somehow communicated to Jeffrey (our water porter) that I wanted to filter my own and Leonie’s water. He brought me over to the porter area where 5 gallon jugs were being lugged into camp. When I showed him my Katadyn Vario dual action pump filter, all the porters in the area stopped in awe. They had never seen such a contraption. And for what reason? These guys are drinking right out of the stream. Jeffrey wanted terribly to pump for me. So I gave him a lesson on how it worked, and for the rest of the trip Jeffrey would do all my pumping for me. I wouldn’t let him do it without overseeing the operation, since I wanted to be sure he did not cross contaminate the water by accident. In the end I tipped him 5,000 Tanzanian Shillings for his service ($3.15).
When dinner was announced (Jeffrey would come to each tent) The group would arrive at the mess tent. This was not a elegant set-up. There was barely enough room to sit around the tables, and there was virtually no head or leg room, at least for me a 6 ft tall. It was cramped, I was bent over, so all I wanted was to eat, and get out of there; otherwise known as chew and screw. But, once again, someone else was cooking for us. I didn’t need to carry a stove, fuel, pots and pans, food, etc. Dinner always started with hot soup. It was then followed by a robust amount of food that I was amazed the cooks were able to put together under the conditions, which would be harsher as we climbed the mountain.
Dinner consisted of at least some meat, previously fried chicken usually, some grain, pasta, rice, etc. and vegetable, bread. Although it was nothing to write home about (Isn’t that what I am doing right now?) it was the best part of the day on the mountain.
Breakfast always started with a loose liquid of porridge, which I called gruel, and everyone else started calling it the same. But once again, they made toast and served up eggs (how they got fresh eggs up this mountain is beyond me) and sausage. There were copious amounts of coffee, and tea to stay hydrated which would become an ongoing problem the higher we climbed.
By 8:00-8:30 am we were on trail. The porters would knock down camp, and within a very short period of time were tear-assing past us on the trail on their way to the next camp to set up ahead of us, heavy loads balanced on their heads. This saga repeated itself like clockwork every day.
Day 2: “Polè, Polè” is getting on my nerves and wearing thin. As we moved into the second day we are now heading higher into the heather zone which rises to 11,000 ft. This zone rises to the Shira Plateau and is usually shrouded with mist and fog. The forest gives way to heather and the views begin to open up.
It is the first time I get a chance to get a close up view of Kilimanjaro which is partially shrouded in clouds. I can also see the talus slopes ans scree fields and a few of the snow fields and glaciers higher up on the mountain. It’s a ways in the distance, but the size of the mountain in growing on me, and I can see a formidable climb ahead. This is the easy stuff we are on right now.
The group is coalescing into the fast group, and the slow group, and then there is Leonie and me. I’m not blowing my own whistle here. But give me a break… This “Polè, Polè” thing is painful. I didn’t pay all this money to walk at a 1 mph pace looking down at the person backside in front of me and their boot heels. I know the goal…. Go slow, make it to the top. Johnny, the big cahuna guide in charge is taking up the rear along with Melinda from the Sierra Club. They are making sure no client is left behind.
Jim (in his late 60’s) from Santa Fe, NM is a retired career National Park employee. He is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to birds, and other animals. He is here with his partner of 20 years Susan who lives in Tuscon, AZ. She is also a birder. Jim is strong but a big man. He’s slowing down as we rise in elevation. Bill Y, the oldest in our group is having problems of his own. He is extremely underweight, and barely eats. I watched him one evening attack a French fry as if it were a steak. He must have cut into that one fry 10 times. By the time he ate that one fry I consumed to two platefuls. Melinda was concerned about how little he was eating and his need to consume a lot of food if he had any chance of making it to the top.
I was having my own problems with the slow pace. I had been training back east with a 40 lb weight vest every day power walking at 4 mph. Now I’m reduced to a 1 mph crawl with 20 lbs. I decided to have a discussion with Deirdre and make my case that if my heart rate was not going up, how was that helping me acclimatize? I argued that the pace Johnny had prescribed was for the benefit of getting as many people to the summit as possible (good for his percentages) but I was not having fun. Leonie remained silent about it, but in private she was saying the same thing. The concern expressed to us by the Sierra Club volunteers was that we should never be out ahead of the guides. So much for liability issues.
We arrived at Shira 1 Camp (11,500 ft) early since we had all day to travel 5 miles. Once again the wind was picking up and tossing that red sand around. We were covered in it. Today we had the traditional British tea. Inside the tent was popcorn, and cookies, and lots of tea. We were all turning to rag-a-muffins and it was only the end of Day 2. I could not imagine what we would look or feel like at the end of Day 8.
Today we had our first pre-dinner acclimatization hike to 12,500 ft led by Johnny who kept the pace “Polè, Polè”. For the first time I was directly behind him and Leonie behind me. The fact that we were nipping at his heels caused him to physiologically speed up. Within a short time others in the group lamented he was going too fast. We were doomed. When we reached the high point, and it was time to turn around, I decided to make a break for camp with Leonie in lock step with me. We practically ran down the mountain into camp. For the first time I felt unconstrained.
Day 3: Valentine’s Day February 14th. We are now on the Shira Plateau climbing to Shira 2 Hut at just under 12,800 ft and 6.8 miles further up the mountain. There is actually a hut there, but we were in our trusty tents. We have now left the heather zone and are in the moorland zone. Its much cooler her, and tonight for the first time we have frost on our tents when we wake up. There are clusters of the Lobelia Tree. This is a beautiful flowering cactus. There is little growth in this zone. Mostly grasses and sedges.
I’ve been having problems sleeping on just my pad. The ground is extremely hard and I am getting very little sleep. Having sleep apnia certainly doesn’t help. We decide to make a change and bring one of the funky provided sleeping pads into the tent where I place my pad on top. It makes all the difference in the world. I will have my first night of real sleep.
We both did not forget Valentine’s Day. Each had a card and chocolates to share in our tent. I had been lugging this small wooden box with chocolate mice up the mountain. The box will eventually wind up on the summit with me and forever hold a special place in my wood shop. Leonie also brought chocolate hearts, and at dinner tonight she placed a heart onto each climber’s dinner plate. It was an instant hit.
Day 4: Shira 2 via Lava Tower (15,213 ft) to Barranco Camp (13,044 ft). Today will be our toughest day next to summit day. We are finally on the shoulder of the mountain. The rhythm is coming back to me. Knowing what goes into the duffel, what stays in my pack, getting water, hydrating myself for the next day. I don’t feel under the gun to move, move, move… I’m ahead of the game and feeling strong.
At this point just about everyone is or has taken Diamox. It’s a diuretic used in treating glaucoma, epileptic seizures, and hypertension. Recently it was discovered that it helps with altitude sickness and is now being widely used for that purpose in the climbing community. It fools the body into thinking they are at lower elevation. Taking it allows you to climb higher, and faster, without the effects of altitude sickness. The downside is you pee a lot.
Leonie has experienced altitude sickness at 15,000 so she began taking it early into the trip. By now only Melinda (who travels to Nepal and is married to a Nepalese), Kathryn Canon a lawyer from Austin, TX, and Ron Maxon a retired accountant from Plano, TX and myself have not taken it. I have been up to the high peaks of the Colorado Rockies at 14,500 and have not experienced AMS. I decided I needed to find where my acclimatization zone is. Everyone has a threshold, and as time goes by this can change. There is no solid evidence as to why. Some super fit athletes can have a low zone, while everyday, ordinary folk can have a high zone, its genetic.
Today, I hiked to the highest elevation I have been at, Lava Towers. Today, we also broke loose. We through caution to the wind and decided to break away from the team to climb to Lava Tower ahead of the guides. It was exhilarating. We were more than 30 minutes ahead of the team, and neither of us experienced any AMS. Here I was sitting at 15,213 and not having any altitude issues. I celebrated by eating a slim-jim.
From Lava Tower we crossed just under the Arrow Glacier and the Western Breach which is now closed to climbers. A few years ago several climbers were killed when boulders dislodged from the glaciers and rained down on them. Three climbers and a guide were killed. You now have to have special permission from the park and wear helmets to climb this path.
Being this close to the mountain one can really feel the size of this behemoth. It’s still standing almost a mile higher. We are now traversing the shoulder of the mountain and the glaciers are right in our face. They would dwarf a human standing next to them. We work our way down off of the lava tower plateau toward Barranco camp. It’s just the two of us. We have had our acclimatization hike, and now we are crossing over to Barranco.
Before heading to Tanzania I purchase GPS mapping software for Kilimanjaro. I’ve been using it all along, and now that we are basically solo, the need for accuracy is paramount. Although the trails are well trodden, there are feeder spur trails porters use that are not on the map. There is also the southern circuit which is used by porters to shuttle supplies to other camps since the porters do not climb to the summit. This leg will drop several thousand feet, and then re-climb a ridge up to Barranco Camp.
When we arrive in camp we are only minutes behind the porters, many of them high fiving us for our speed. Porters are always competing with each other, and never, ever, do they want a client to beat them to a destination. And based on how fast these guys can walk carrying the heavy loads they carry on their heads I am awestruck at their speed and strength. Barranco Camp is also on the Umbwe Route and merges from the west also with the Machame Routes. The sheer number of climbers camped in this location all at one time is mind numbing. There is barely a place to pitch a tent. There must be 150 tents here.
We are now in the Alpine Desert zone. Nothing grows here. There is intense solar radiation, high evaporation, and daily fluctuations in temperatures exceeding 60 degrees. I am consuming 6 liters of water daily and I am still not fully hydrated in the morning.
Day 5: Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp. Only 3.5 miles away, Karanga Camp (13,233 ft) is intentionally a short day. It gives us one last opportunity to climb higher to acclimatize and another day at high elevation. We are also challenged by the Barranco Wall. A vertical cliff 1,000 ft high. This is the equivalent to the Hillary Step on Everest. It went below freezing last night, and we have to cross a stream that is slick with frost. The sun has yet to warm it up. Once the sun is up we will be slathering on sunscreen. The UV rays are intense at this altitude and glacier sun glasses are a must.
The slow group is getting larger, the fast group stronger, and we are showing no signs of AMS. I can’t imagine Helen or Bill Younglove climbing this wall. I can’t imagine the porters climbing it. Not only did they climb with aplomb, they passed us going up. We were instructed, with no uncertain terms, that we were to stay with the guides climbing the wall; we obliged. This was not a place to look down, especially climbing above the clouds. I was happy we were off the wall. This would turn out to be the most technical part of the trip.
After ascending the wall we took off once again on our own to camp. Noticeable on the mountain is the amount of trash. We are packing everything in and out, but litter of all kinds is strewn about. There is an effort by the tour operators to clean up behind the camps, but the porters are reluctant to clean up and carry out other people’s trash. With so many climbers on the mountain every day, it’s no wonder there isn’t more trash. At Karanga Camp we are perched on a ridge. The winds are howling; one minute we are getting sleet and snow squalls, the next minute the sun comes out and its 50 degrees warmer, amazing temperature changes. I literally go from three layers, down to one, back to three in a matter of minutes.
The clouds are slamming into the mountain. We are just at the top of the cloud level now. The top of the mountain is visible, and I am beginning to see the route we take to the summit. We will take our last acclimatization hike today.
Day 6: Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp (15,360 ft) We took off once again ahead of the guides. It seems the guides understand that we are strong and not pansies when it comes to trail finding and directions. This is the highest I will sleep ever to this date. We are on another angular ridge with the winds howling, the sand blowing (its gray sand now). This is our final high camp.
We will rest here, and have an early dinner at 5:00 pm. At 11:30 we will be woken (assuming we can sleep) and by mid-night we will be climbing. I am getting butterflies in my stomach. I can see the summit ridge of the crater rim, and the steep scree wall leading up to the rim. Its 4,500 from here to the summit.
Day 7: Barafu Camp Summit Attempt via Stella Point 18,871 feet to Uhuru Peak 19,340 then descends back to Barafu for a few hours rest. Then descend to Millennium Camp 12,530. It will end up being a 15 hour climbing day in total.
Last night I slept in my winter long johns to avoid having to put them on in the dark. All the preparation is now coming to fruition. Last night our team leaders informed us that Bill Younglove would not attempt the summit. I am dressing in layers understanding that as we approach the summit, the temperature with the wind chill will be below zero. Having alpine skied in these temperatures I am procrastinating on how to layer. Climbing will exert energy. If I sweat through my layers I will freeze on the summit. I decide to start with just two layers. I have two down vests and a parka in my pack.
As I look up the mountain the milky way galaxy stands out in stark contrast to the tiny beam of headlamps climbing the mountain. I can not see the crater rim from here in the dark, only the stars where they end do I know where the rim is. The Southern Cross is out. The last time I saw it I was in Vietnam 1968. We are heading up. Frankie does not want Leonie and I to tackle it by ourselves. I protest that he is going too slow, so he grabs one of his guides in training to lead us.
We are now three climbers, the fast group led by Frankie, and the slow group being swept in the rear by Johnny. There must be 150 people on the mountain. I see a string of headlights going up the mountain. We start moving up. We will ultimately climb for 7 straight hours without stopping. As we climb ever so higher I am beginning to feel the effects of the elevation. Up until 17,500 the wind is being blocked by a natural barrier. I am overheated but wicking. Once we pass the barrier the wind kicks in and the temperature feels as if it has dropped 20 degrees. We stop for a gear change. Rather than put on one of my down vests, I decide to toss on the parka instead. That would later turn out to be a mistake.
We are encountering other climbers on the route going slower than the three of us. I instruct our guide to pass them. Our guide in training unfortunately does not know the difference between slow, and faster, no can I explain in Swahili I just want him going a little faster. He just bolts straight up the mountain, avoiding the switchbacks, and wonders why we are not directly behind him. My pace is now slowed to a crawl. I am controlling my breathing using a high altitude breathing technique called pressure breathing. We are at 50% less oxygen and no matter how hard I try I can only get so much oxygen into my lungs.
If I move too fast I collapse leaning my weight into my climbing poles gasping for air. Twice I stumble and almost fall. I decide regardless of the guide in training I am going to climb it at my own pace. As we move up we find ourselves in various bottlenecks due to other teams slowing down or stopping. Some smaller teams have to go at the pace of the slowest climber since there is only one guide. As we continued to climb I went into a zone… I just kept focusing on getting one step in front of the other. I would look up to the rim from time to time to see if I could see the crossover. The higher we climbed bodies were lying on the sides of the trail, destined to be stretchered down. Several climbers were tossing their cookies, and a few others were like stone statues, frozen in place as we passed them.
The wind was fierce, and my over-mitts were giving me problems. I made a tactical mistake of not trying on the over-mitts in camp with the heavy fingerless glove/mitts underneath. The combination was cutting the circulation in my hands and I was losing the feeling in all my fingers. My fingers were freezing. We had to stop, but without a knife (another thing I left at camp) I would up tearing the cinches in the over-mitts to improve circulation. This short delay caused my already underdressed body to start going hypothermic. It was too late to take off the parka, and toss on a vest. I had to tough it out.
Then, is what seemed like just minutes I heard screams of joy. The climbers directly in front of us had reached Stella Point on the rim. Within a few seconds we were on the rim. The worst part, the vertical wall of scree, was below us. The sun was starting to rise with a thin band of orange stretching across the eastern horizon. The band grew longer and we could see the curvature of the Earth. Uhuru Peak was 1 hour east, and 700 feet higher.
We wasted no time lingering. Stories have been told about climbers who were melancholy about being on the rim who later lost all desire to climb to the true summit. We took off at a pace much faster this time, but the oxygen deprivation controlled everything. If I moved too fast, I was humbled by the lack thereof. I wound up having to rest/stop three more times before we saw the summit post greeting climbers to the highest place on the Africa continent. We had made it. At @ 6:30 am, just as the sun was rising, on February 18, 2012, we officially summited.
For the first time smiles broke across our faces. I reached into my pack, and transmitted our summit location from my SPOT! Beacon. We then went over to where prayer flags were blowing all tattered on a line and attached the Seacoast Ski Club banner from our ski club which we carried to the summit along with a photographic record.
We then took out a second banner and stretched it across our bodies in the high wind for a second photo. We will bring the banner to our club meeting and present it to the club President. In the thin air we forgot to take a picture of just the two of us. However, one thing I did not forget; my flask of Jaegermeister. We toasted to our accomplishment with a swig from the flask.
The temperatures and wind made standing on top bitterly cold. I collected my pack and transceiver, and we heading back east toward Stella Point. It was here we ran into Frankie and the fast group. They were no more than 5-10 minutes behind us. My delays below the rim put us very close to the fast group. I brought my hacky sack to the top. It’s been a tradition of mine for years to play hacky sack on top of first ascents. I then offered Frankie a swig of booze which he quickly obliged. He was under-dressed for the occasion having learned another lesson. If the sun hasn’t risen yet, it’s still going to be cold. This was the fastest summit for Frankie and the fast team.
Soon, with the sun warming our bodies, and heading down off the rim from Stella Point, we decided to sit on a rock to just enjoy the scenery. It was there were saw the slow team still working their way up. And there was little Helen, plugging away. She, and the remaining team all made it to the summit, albeit 3 hours later. It was quite an accomplishment.
Back in camp we napped for a few hours. We were then awaked to be advised we would be heading down to Millenium Camp at 12,530. There we all celebrated with porters giving us small glasses of orange soda that tasted exceptionally great. At dinner Johnny came in and congratulated all of us. He then looked at Leonie and I and informed us that no one he has ever guided in the 200 trips he has taken over 10 years ever summitted as fast as we had. He called us “Super Fast”.
He then asked if we would join him in heading down the mountain in the morning. He had to sign out all the climbers at two gates, and he was not allowed as a guide to do this. It would take a long time since there were lines of other climbers coming off the mountain.
Day 8: Millenium Camp to Mweka Camp (10,065 ft) then down to Mweka Gate @ 5,000 ft. We started off sharply at 8:00 am with just Johnny and within less than 3 ½ hours we down climbed 7,500 feet of elevation in 8 miles. Before you could blink an eye it was jungle again, and the heat of the rain forest. We were filthy, look what the cat dragged in, ugly. At the gate, our bus was waiting for us. It would be another 2 ½ hours before the rest of the team showed up, equally filthy. But we had one advantage. Being first down, allowed us to purchase the first set of cold Killimanjaro beers from a street vendor with a cooler. They were selling t-shirts that read: “Killimanjaro, If you can’t climb it, Drink It.! We did both!