Arrival into Tanzania
Jake and I left Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi after spending one night in Kenya’s capital and we left in search of answers. Answers to what it was about Kilimanjaro that had attracted us and attracts 25,000 people annually to attempt to climb its magical landscape. Answers to why we spent a small fortune to try something completely out of our normal realm. Answers to the most underlying question: could we do it?
About twenty minutes before we landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport, I looked out the window and saw something I’ll never forget. I saw the summit of Kilimanjaro peaking up above the clouds, above the altitude of our airplane. It was spectacular. We were so excited that we weren’t sure what to do at first. It was a long journey to get to this point, but it actually hit us that we would be climbing this monstrosity the next day. We took some phenomenal pictures from the plane and that view will always be embedded in my mind.
We finally arrived and were greeted by Babu, our driver that was sent by BootsnAll Travel Network to bring us to the office for our orientation for the following day. After meeting everyone and setting up a time later that afternoon for a gear inspection at the Zebra Hotel, we had lunch at the Sikh Café–home to the Moshi Lions Club meeting on the first of every month and some excellent Indian food.
After our inspection we met our guide, Jamaica, and bought him a Safari beer. We had no idea at this time how instrumental he would be in our success up the mountain. After meeting him we were hungry and tired. We ate dinner at the Indian-Italian place in Moshi town. At the time we thought it was pretty uneventful with bland pizza and a dead bird at the foot of our table. I asked the waitress if they could get rid of the dead bird and she gave us a look of disdain and picked up the dead bird with her bare hands and threw it in the garbage. We were thrilled that she would be serving our food after she clearly didn’t wash her hands–I love Africa.
After dinner and a few beers we headed back to the Zebra Hotel to try to fall asleep before we embarked on what would be the outdoor journey of a lifetime for two beach and city kids.
We arrived at Machame Gate at approximately 5500 feet after a long ride on a very bumpy road. We took care of all the beaurocratic formalities of signing in and registering at the gate. We then met our crew of porters, which included four porters, a cook and an assistant guide in addition to our guide Jamaica.
As we were about to start up the dirt track, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with excitement and nerves. This trip was a long time in the works. It was booked nearly eight months before we actually started to climb and the anticipation had really built up. We were both pretty pumped as we began the journey of a lifetime.
As we made our way up through the rain forest we noticed the weather was changing rapidly. This would become a theme on Kilimanjaro. It suddenly became cold and cloudy. As we ascended, we began to actually walk through the clouds. We thought it was cool but then it started to rain. The track became very muddy and it got even colder. We had to stop to put ponchos over our clothes but we were still in decent spirits because we were prepared for the rain. What we weren’t prepared for was what would happen next.
Jake had mentioned a few times throughout the course of the morning that his stomach was upset and he felt nauscious. I told him it was just nerves and that certainly made sense as I was tense as well. The discomfort continued for a few hours with Jake and just before lunch we stopped to rest. He didn’t look well and I knew it was more than just nerves. All of a sudden he started vomiting a lovely array of Tanzanian food. He looked a lot better after that episode and Jamaica explained to us that it was probably the cheese we ate at the Indian-Italian place last night because there is no pasteurization process in Tanzania and a lot of times the cheese is bad if it’s not imported.
We continued up the cold and muddy (and I mean muddy) track. It was really a miserable experience. We had prepared our gear for the rain and bad weather but you obviously hope it doesn’t occur. It did and it was a very unpleasant way to spend the first day of a week long climb.
The thing about climbing Kilimanjaro is not that it is terribly strenuous and overly difficult but that you have a lot of time to think. That first day, Jake was sick and miserable. I was cold, jetlagged, wet and miserable and over the course of a seven hour slow ascension you have a lot of time to yourself with the demons on your head. You can’t help but think to yourself, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ and “I can’t believe it’s only the first day of seven days on this fucking mountain.’
As we mercifully arrived at Machame Camp at 10,000 feet after seven miserable hours we took off our wet and muddy clothes and looked forward to dinner. Jake was still feeling ill but we figured after some good hearty food he’d feel better. We ate in our dining tent for the first of many times and got to know out cook and porters a bit. They were really funny and even though they didn’t all speak English we could see their unique personalities and we loved watching them interact with each other. They always climbed together so they knew each other like family and we felt very comfortable with them and Jamaica.
After dinner Jake puked again. It was in sharp contrast to the first time, he looked a lot better and his spirits seemed to rise. Hopefully with a good nights sleep he would be good to go in the morning. As it turned out, there was absolutely no sleep to be had that night and we both just laid there in the tent absolutely miserable.
But a funny thing happened as the sun came up, the weather was nice. The nice weather energized our tired, jetlagged bodies and we were ready for our pancake and fruit breakfast and to start day two.
After breakfast we packed up our gear and headed out in search of Shira Camp at nearly 12,000 feet. This day was only supposed to be about a four hour hike because the day three hike was supposed to be brutal. We set out through the unique landscape that appears only on Kilimanjaro and appears to always be like it’s another planet.
Day two’s hike is still kind of a blur to me. I remember that is was a fun hike and seemed to go pretty quick. I remember it most because that was the day where Jamaica convinced us that we should try to use walking poles. We didn’t want to use them because we thought they were wimpy and annoying. Maybe they are but boy did they help. Once you actually got used to the somewhat awkward style of using them. Walking the same arm and foot each step they really did help with balance and even more so with absorbing some of the shock from our bodyweight.
Additionally, I remember day two for another strange reason. I filled my camelback which is an absolute necessity on Kilimanjaro with raspberry crystal light mix. I loaded five packages in there to adequately cover the three liters of water inside. I can honestly say that I will never drink or eat anything raspberry ever again. I still have flashbacks to the taste. Every subsequent day of the hike when I tried to change flavors in the main camelback, all I could taste was raspberry so I just had to go with it and always use raspberry mix. Sitting here writing this right now, I am quivering with the thought of that taste that loomed for the entire climb.
The final part of the day two hike was a fairly steep and fun climb up some jagged rocks that was reminiscent of something you’d do as a kid for fun–just not at 12,000 feet. After arriving at Shira camp we thanked Jamaica for making day two a lot of fun and we got settled in. We arrived at around 2pm so we had some time to check out the camp and dry some of our wet and sweaty clothes off on the random trees around camp. We were also able to use this time to get acquainted with some of our fellow climbers. After day one, we were so tired and miserable that we didn’t socialize with anyone and just slept, so this was a lot of fun for us.
As we spoke to people and exchanged climbing tales my head started to hurt really badly. It hurt enough that I was forced to go into the tent to lie down while everyone else was relaxing around camp. After lying down for a while Jake came into the tent and told me to get up. My first reaction was, ‘Fuck you my head hurts’. He then convinced me to get out of the tent and come get some food for dinner. When I walked into the dining tent I was shocked when I saw that Jamaica and the boys had made me a cake that said, ‘Happy Birthday Lee’ written on it in strawberry jelly. I couldn’t help but be taken aback and smile. Then the porters and Jamaica sang Happy Birthday to me in Swahili with a little English thrown in there. It was funny and very genuine and warm. Up until that point I had really forgotten that it was my birthday, being as though time doesn’t exist on Kili, only days matter.
I thanked Jake for telling them and it really did help my headache for the time being and for a second I forgot we were trapped on another planet. After dinner though, the altitude sickness really set in with a headache so bad that I had trouble seeing properly. It was at this moment that I decided to start to use Diamox. Diamox is a controversial drug that is supposed to help with adjusting to high altitudes and lessen the symptoms such as headaches and nausea. I had hoped to be able to avoid taking this drug because I am not a big fan of medicine in general. The problem was Diamox takes 24 hours to get into your system so it wasn’t going to help with my current massive headache. Luckily, Jamaica had the answer.
He pulled out of his bag a bunch of pills and told me to take it because it would cure my headache. Normally I would never take a pill from a person I had known for 2 days, especially in Tanzania from a guy named Jamaica. However, given the circumstances of this awful headache and the fact that we had four days until we summited, I gladly accepted without hesitation. Almost instantly I felt better and nicknamed it the “Magic Pill”. Jake then developed a sympathy headache and took the magic pill and felt better too.
After dinner and our pill popping extravaganza we headed off to bed because there is absolutely nothing to do on Kili after the sun goes down. It is simply too cold and there is no electricity or light. Once in the tent Jake and I unilaterally decided to take Tylenol PM to help us sleep because we both knew we would never make it unless we got some sleep. Day three was supposed to be the hardest day before the summit attempt so we wanted to be rested. At about 6:30pm we took Tylenol PM and were asleep about 10 minutes later. We didn’t wake up until about 6:30am and we felt great!
After breakfast and our now daily routine of Diamox and the magic pill, we packed up our gear and were ready to leave. But first I had to go to the bathroom. Going to the bathroom is something that is rarely discussed in any Kili blogs I have ever read but I think it deserves mention and especially this experience. I was walking to the lovely outhouse at Shira camp and was nearly there equipped with bandana to cover my face and nose when I felt a strange breeze go past me. It turned out to be a crazy fat German lady who blazed into the outhouse in front of me. So slightly irritated I just stand there and await my turn. Finally she comes out of there and the wretched woman goes to me, “Don’t go in there someone shit on the floor”. She then literally ran away. I had no choice but to go in and investigate and it was as she mentioned. After doing what needed to be done I knew that it was her who had soiled the floor and was very rude about her bathroom etiquette. I was personally very happy to hear that her and her three other female German climbing partners all failed to make it to even day five (I am not a cynical person but we witnessed them being rude on numerous occasions to others as well).
As we set off Jamaica was filling us in with what our task for the day would be. We were to climb to 15,000 feet reaching the Lava Tower where we would eat lunch and acclimate and then descend about 3000 feet back down to Barranco camp for the night. It sounded easy and we started climbing. The ascent on day three from Shira camp was straight up a ridge with very boring scenery, all of which looked like you were on the moon. We were trying to be sure to hydrate as drinking a lot of water is good for dealing with altitude. Aside from stopping to pee every ten minutes we were doing pretty well and eventually made it to about 14,400 feet to eat lunch just about 200 meters below Lava Tower. As we were eating at this high altitude we were feeling OK but it was as if we were on the brink of getting a bad headache or worse. After lunch we trudged forward for the final 200 meters up to Lava Tower.
Jake and I were both feeling it really badly as we approached the Tower (which is actually just a big rock). Literally as we made it up the final 10 meters up the steep terrain I thought that I had no more strength. When we got to the tower we just plunked down as if we’d been shot. We were both really feeling it here and Jamaica told us that it was normal to get it bad at this point which is why they bring us up here to acclimate. After staying up there for about 15 minutes it was time to descend over 300 feet down an incredibly long and steep valley.
Each step down that we took we gained more and more strength. It really is amazing how much better a little more oxygen can make you feel. Our biggest problem now was that it really hurt your knees and big toes running down the valley. We weren’t trying to run but because of the steepness we were effectively running. We had to stop several times to catch some air and also to give our feet a break. It seemed like it took forever to get down to Barranco camp and it did take nearly two hours. It is very hard to believe that it can take fit grown men moving quickly two hours to descend 3000 feet but Jamaica told us it would take that long and that’s how long it took-very strange.
As we arrived in Barranco camp we saw some of our friends from the previous night. We became better acquainted with everyone here at camp because we had some time before dinner and from Barranco camp the views toward the end of the day of the summit are absolutely stunning.
This night at camp was probably my favorite because we really got to talk to people and hear why people from all different parts of the world wanted to climb the devil of a mountain. People were very different and had different reasons for doing it but the overwhelming reason was the same as us: to push yourself to the limit to see if you can do it.
After dinner and pill popping we were off to bed and after a few Tylenol PM’s we were fast asleep in the coldest camp on the climb. Barranco camp is at the bottom of a valley surrounded on both sides by high mountains so it got very, very cold at night and didn’t get warm until late in the morning. We both hoped we could make it through the night without having to leave the tent to pee. That didn’t happen this night or any night and each night we would have to bundle up and subject ourselves and other body parts to the brutal cold while still under Tylenol PM sedation. It was always a brutal experience but we can laugh about it now, haha.
The day four hike was by far the best day of the climb. It was a short four hour climb from Barranco camp to Karanga camp. The beginning was straight up the infamous Great Barranco Wall. This wall of rock goes literally vertical for hundreds of feet. It is very fun to climb for most people but very difficult for those who may not be fit enough or have the guts to be on the edge of falling a lot of the time.
After we made it up the Great Barranco Wall we were in the sun and it was some of the most amazing scenery we had seen yet on Kilimanjaro. We could see forever, down over Moshi and the lower portions of the mountain it was nothing but flat cloud cover. In the distance Mt. Meru looked divine and so close. We tried to take it all in and snapped some great photos. We also had to try to remember to drink a lot of fluids.
The second half of the day four hike involved going down to the bottom of Karanga Valley via a water drip to the stream below and then vertical up the other side of the valley to Karanga camp. We really enjoyed this portion of the climb as well because the water made it slippery and caused us to have to use our whole bodies to do some crafty climbing maneuvers. This is also the portion of the climb that really took its toll on certain climbers including our favorite German women who failed to make it past this part and had to go back.
Additionally, not to pick on females or on Asians but there were some Japanese women who were so scared to go down this area that they actually tried to do it backwards and they looked so silly doing it. Their guide looked absolutely miserable and hapless and Jamaica told us that they would soon have to turn around because they had no chance of making it. It’s funny that after being on the mountain for what seems like forever you try to find humor in whatever you can find. It’s not funny at all that some people who came all this way and paid a small fortune to climb Kili wouldn’t make it. I would be devastated if I didn’t summit. But sometimes certain things are just funny and you really had to see these people to believe it. Jamaica said that he never even would’ve allowed them to start the climb because they were too much of a liability.
Once in Karanga camp, we discovered that this was by far the worst camp yet. The whole thing was at a 45 degree angle and you felt like you were permanently on tilt. It was absolutely miserable, cold and my head was killing me. Our tent was angled so both of us were on a side angle so we would fall on top of each other during the night which did happen. When we woke up the following morning after a wonderful Tylenol PM induced sleep, we looked up and saw the summit and knew that in about 24 hours we would be standing on top of the world.
We set off early from Karanga camp toward our goal of 15,000+ feet at Barafu camp. The hike was brutally cold to start and there was frost everywhere as we set off in a whiteout. We had become accustomed to whiteouts by this point and just looked forward to it passing. After it finally did we were in the scorching hot sun.
It’s funny that this day of hiking I really have no recollection of. We were so excited about getting to camp and about our summit attempt which would take place early the next morning. I really only remember the hike on day five being very short, like three hours or so and arriving at Barafu camp feeling very good.
We arrived at about noon and we just kind of tried to take it all in. We had a lot of time at this camp and the weather was perfect, at least for the time being because the weather changes instantaneously. We met a lot of people at this camp who had traveled from the Lemosho route and also a few people that had summited the night before. Some people choose to take a six day hike as opposed to the seven day hike we did. I really don’t think that it’s smart to do the six day because you improve your chances of success so much by giving yourself the extra acclimatization day.
After lunch we spent most of the time trying to dry our nasty wet clothes in the sun and explored some of the interesting little nuances of Barafu camp. There are some tremendous drop offs and cliffs at Barafu and some of the views are amazing. You can also see the summit in all its glory right above you. It looks so close but you know you have the murderous 6 hour climb ahead of you in the dead of night.
Aside from the early 5pm dinner we spent the rest of the time just lying in the tent trying to occupy our minds with anything other than the task we had ahead of us. We tried to invent new things to talk about but we found that we had exhausted just about every possible topic over the course of the past six days. There is a lot of downtime on Kilimanjaro. It is so much more prevalent than you would ever think. You find yourself sitting in your tent or just relaxing in your sleeping bag for most of the time you are not hiking. The reason is that there is absolutely nothing else to do. There is no electricity, no running water, you are dead tired, it’s freezing cold out anytime when the sun isn’t out, and most of time your head will be pounding–at least mine was. Thank god for the magic pill and diamox.
As we tried to fall asleep before the summit attempt, we realized it was the first night in five that we weren’t taking sleeping pills to help us fall asleep. I had a lot of trouble falling asleep this night. Obviously, I was preoccupied with what ensued and just extremely excited. I may have managed an hour before we got the usual wake up call from one of our friendly porters with his usual morning (in this case night) greeting of “water for washing”. We heard that every morning and I find myself repeating that line ten times throughout the day because it became so embedded in my mind as a wake up call and because it was funny.
As we hurriedly got dressed in all our gear that we spent so much preparation and money on, we were so excited we could hardly imagine that what we had came all this way for was about to happen. We were about to try to summit the highest mountain in Africa.
Day 6-Summit Night
It was a clear, cold starry night. It was quiet, almost too quiet as we set off in search of what we had came for at a little past midnight on September 2, 2006. The first part of the summit night is not too bad, a steady incline up mostly solid rocks. We had to be sure to walk slowly to preserve energy and we had to remember to drink a lot because we knew our camelbacks would freeze as we got a bit higher. It was absolutely frigid out as we started our climb but our gear really kept us warm. In fact I started sweating profusely because of how much gear I had on. I was a little worried but Jamaica assured me that it was normal and I had enough layers on that I didn’t have to worry about hypothermia or anything.
About halfway up the summit night hike I started feeling really weak. My feet started to get numb, I was exhausted and I was having a difficult time with the lack of oxygen. As I continued up, my feet became number until they finally started to kill. I was so weak that I had to take a break every 15 minutes or so just to catch my breath and regroup. With about two hours to go before sunrise I started having negative thoughts.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is extremely difficult not because of the technical aspects of the climb or the extremeness of its difficulty. It is hard because of the elements that make up the personality of Kilimanjaro. The mountain takes on a personality of its own and acts as kind of an overlord to its wannabe conquerors.
Kilimanjaro teases you with nice warm weather immediately followed by cold weather, whiteouts and rain. It messes with your head because one second you feel fine and the next you can barely see because the headaches can be so painful. It messes with your body because you can be the strongest, most fit person and Kilimanjaro will zap the strength right out of your body. It toys with your stomach whether it is from nausea, from the altitude or the inevitable stomach ailments that ensue after a few days of eating mountain food and drinking mountain water. But most of all it fucks with your mind.
In order to conquer Kilimanjaro and summit you need to win the psychological battle with the mountain. You need to process and deal with the physical demands but more importantly, you need to overcome the mental challenges that Kili throws at you. I am a very strong willed and head strong person and on summit night with two hours to go until we made it I started to doubt myself and that’s something I never do.
It was so cold. I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet. I had no strength and I was a having a lot of trouble breathing. I sat down for a break and basically closed my eyes and started talking to myself. I had to convince myself that I wouldn’t be denied. At this point it was a mental battle of wits between me and Kilimanjaro. Physically I was exhausted and really had no business being up there anymore. At this point I was going to make it on heart and guts and heart and guts alone.
The last two hours of the climb I found myself talking shit to the mountain psyching myself up. When you are at this altitude and this tired you can’t really talk as you hike up like we did on previous days. You find yourself alone with your thoughts and your fears. For me, my only fear was failing which I knew would never happen. My thoughts basically centered on the one concept that everyone who has ever climbed Kili will attest to, “I can’t believe I am actually paying a lot of money to torture myself like this”.
As I came to the conclusion that the only way I would ever have an answer for that would be to summit, we started the hardest part of the climb by far. The half hour climb before you hit Stella’s Peak is brutal. It feels like you are walking up quicksand because you take one step up and you slide right back down seemingly to where you started. This feeling was so annoying. It was as if Kili was throwing one more jab at you right as you are at your weakest and most vulnerable. This thirty minute portion of the climb is enough to make some climbers stop at Stella’s Peak and not continue on to Uhuru Peak-the true summit of Kilimanjaro and just an hour past Stella’s Peak.
When we mercifully arrived at Stella’s Peak there was a porter waiting there with hot tea. I found this to be very strange but I tried to drink some nonetheless. It was very hot and very difficult to drink because of how weak I was. After a second of break we decided to just start toward Uhuru Peak. It was too cold to stand around. Jamaica wanted to us to time the sunrise perfectly and arrive at the summit at 6:15am but we said we would walk slowly because we just wanted to start moving again.
As we walked, I started to become energized. The realization of what we were about to do was getting my blood flowing. We started to walk faster and we noticed a light ring was coming up around the horizon. The walk to Uhuru Peak is illuminated even in the dark because of the reflection of the moonlight off the massive glaciers that surround the path to the summit. It was truly awe inspiring to see them up close. Most people know that scientists claim they will be gone in 15 years because of global warming and certain environmental factors. They were awesome! They were neatly positioned, big, bright and simply stunning. I had seen many glaciers all around the world but none could possibly live up to how beautiful these massive glaciers, nearly 20,000 feet in the air.
Finally, in the distance we could see the sign that marked Uhuru Peak. Every climber that embarks up Kilimanjaro dreams of reaching this sign and even though you have seen a thousand pictures of it nothing can actually prepare you for how you feel when you reach it.
From atop Uhuru Peak we witnessed the most amazing sunrise that you can see in Africa. We saw a 360 degree sunrise where you could see forever in all directions. The sun reflecting off the glaciers made it even more amazing. It was incredible.
As we walked the final approach toward the sign arm in arm, we were in awe of what we had accomplished. We had come to Africa and conquered the mystical Kilimanjaro: the subject of many dreams, fears, films and a Hemingway novel. We had done it the hard way, taking no short cuts and doing something completely out of our element. We worked hard and we persevered through all the hardships, ailments and the altitude. We did it on heart and guts. We had done it together and we were on top of the world. It was the proudest moment of my life.