The journal of my climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. For pictures I took of the event, please visit

Fri 24 August 07 - On the Plane ...

It's easy to imagine the worst part of this uber-adventure is simply getting there. Three flights, twenty-plus hours on planes, 32 hours home-to-hotel. Add in a nine time-zone change, and you have one major shock to the system.
I've flown overseas many times, and have seen a fair share of terrain from the air. Flying over the heel of Italy's boot was something new, but northern Africa - whew! Over an hour of nothing but mostly featureless sand. Not until we angled across the Nile did the picture change. Now the sun has set again, and I'm minutes from touching down on the dark continent.
The true impact of what I've signed up for has not yet hit me. For the past three weeks, I've focused on climbing my first fourteeners since college, and taking my first wilderness backpack since early in the Litterwalk. Still, it feels like running a 10K race and pronouncing yourself fit for a marathon. Did I bring the right equipment? Will my body hold up? Will my luggage make both flight connections?

Sat 25 August 07 - Arusha Flycatchers

Hakuna Matata. Que sera sera.
That's apparently the philosophy we need to adopt here. Heaven forbid I should try to force our manic, driven American pace to this isolated outpost.
My flights ended uneventfully - which, of course, is the best way for flights to end. Kilimanjaro International Airport ranked as the smallest airport I've flown into in 25 years or more. We walked across the tarmac into a building that was mostly closed at 8:00 p.m. Tanzania time. Only customs and the visa office (where seventy people rushed to get in line) greeted us, followed by one adjacent baggage carousel. Through the next door, a gaggle of tour guides waited, holding up signs with the names of their clients.
I had to wait for the hoped-for arrival of my co-climbers Deb and Ken, so I purchased Tanzanian shillings to the currency exchange (which closed behind me) and bought bottled water at the one shop still open (which closed soon after). I then sat in the one lounge that had lights on and read until the driver showed up. We chatted until he got the phone call that Deb and Ken missed their connecting flight, at which time he drove me to Arusha.
I slept in until 8:00 this morning - a rarity for me. (I guess all that flying wore me out.) That let me adjust quickly to the new time zone. Breakfast at the Naaz Hotel was fresh mango, orange, melon, pineapple, and avocado, an omelet, juice, and tea. A short while later the climbing company transfered me to the Outpost Lodge, where Deb & Ken had arrived a short time earlier.
Together, we decided to walk downtown for lunch and the sights. When we reached the main drag, two 'flycatchers' (to use the local term) glommed onto us, appointing themselves as our tour guides. They walked with us, telling us of Arusha, asking about our trip, recommending a restaurant. When we got to the lunch spot, I gave them a tip of all the small bills I had (about $3), since my friends had not yet changed money.
When we finished lunch, they were waiting for us, complaining about the size of my tip. We tried to shoo them away, saying we had a meeting back at the Outpost, but they continued harassing us. Not until Ken started talking to a policeman standing nearby, complaining about their stalking us, did they finally melt into the crowd. Still, it made us fearful to wander further, so we gave up notions of visiting the village market and went to sit by the pool instead. (With little industry and few jobs in Tanzania, we realized that flycatchers would be waiting whenver we left our hotel.)
As we sat around the pool, an intermittent breeze kept bringing us sounds of drumming. We finally roused ourselves to check it out, successfully avoiding flycatchers. A short walk revealed a wedding reception, with brightly garbed people and a band producing the soundtrack. It took a few minutes for the peculiarity to sink in: this reception took place on the small grass island in the middle of a traffic roundabout! [It must have been a popular spot, since I saw another reception there two Saturdays later.]

Sun 26 August 2007 - Climbing Through the Jungle

Machame Gate (~5700') to Machame Camp (~9800')

Today the grand adventure began. It took a two hour drive from Arusha to get to Machame Gate. On a clear day, views of Mt Kilimanjaro would dominate the landscape, but a low cloud ceiling blocked all views of the mountain. Still, images of the drive stuck in my mind: bicycles with passengers clinging on the back. Men pulling trailers that looked like small pickup beds. People walking the road shoulder with loads balanced on their heads. And the names on the shops and buses amused me, like the Happy Shop, the First Left Bar, the Passion Express, the Peace Kiosk, or (on a station where you coud get your oil changed) House of Lubricants.
We came onto a virtual mob scene at the Machame Gate, with buses dropping off tour groups and porters assembling loads. Our group of three climbers was accompanied by ten porters, two guides, and a chef, and they busied themselves divvying up the equipment - no porter was allowed to carry more than 20 kg (45 lbs) of gear in addition to their personal gear. As they sorted it out, we hurried up to wait, standing in line to register for the climb, then idling while the guides bought the permits. A little later they fed us a light lunch as we chatted with other climbers. Finally, near 11:30, we started hiking.
It took only minutes before the guide reminded me, "Poley poley!" ("slowly, slowly!") I did try to moderate myself, and eventually they let us choose our gait. Many porters (again, often with loads balanced on their heads) passed us, but to my amazement, we actually passed some slower porters - something I never expected to do.
We hiked through a tropical rain forest for around four hours, gaining over 4000' of elevation. Parts of the well-built trail were very steep, staircases with steps up to a foot high; other parts were nearly flat for short distances. The lush vegetation blocked any sweeping views, while overcast skies kept it cool (though luckily it stayed dry). We saw no sunshine the whole day, though shadows started to appear a couple of times.
As we neared Machame camp, the vegetation changed abruptly. Within 200 yards the rain forest ended, and we entered the low moorlands. Now strands of moss dangled from the spindly branches of trees, lending an ethereal quality to the scene. The suddennes of the change shocked me.
Our porters staked out a remote spot above Machame Hut for our camp site. "It's quieter here," the guide Deo told us. "You need your sleep." Indeed, I'd read that the camp sites - miniature villages on the mountain that sprung up every day - could get noisy with all the tourists.
Machame Camp lay right at the cloud line. As the light faded and we supped on the first of Joseph's marvelous creations, I watched the tendrils of fog invade our territory. The high humidity made it feel colder than the 50 degrees Ken's thermometer registered. It's likely to be a cold night!

Mon 27 August 2007 - In the Shadow of Kibo

Machame Camp to Shira Camp (~12450')

I peeked out of the tent this morning, looked up, and exclaimed, "No clouds! Wonderful!" It took me a few minutes to realize I'd looked the wrong way. There was a near-complete cloud cover - it had just dropped below us.
Today we started early, around 8:00, finishing shortly after noon. The low moorlands soon turned into high moorlands, where most of the trees disappeared, replaced by shrubs and brush. The Everlasting Flowers - green bushes topped with small white blooms - felt like paper, and according to Deo, will last for six months if you place a cutting in water.
Where yesterday's trail was dirt with log steps, today it turned to dirt with stone steps. Portions yesterday were steep, today it was nearly constant climbing for 2/3 of the hike. Where the trail ascended steep notches, the steps grew to knee-high or taller.
Today we passed no porters. Jacob and Deo firmly enforced the poley-poley law, slowing our pace so we could acclimate. As they hauled their 20kg loads up the hill, they earned my respect. At one point, the trail ran along a ledge with a cliff wall on my right. I edged along it, grabbing the rocks with my right hand, using the trekking pole in my left for support. Directly in front of me, a porter with a load perfectly balanced atop him (I call them the 'look Ma, no hands!' porters) slowly worked his way across the ledge - of course, without using hands.
After heading straight uphill for 1 1/2 days, the trail finally turned to angle over a ridge. We still climbed, only not as sharply. Once over the ridge, the trail dropped slightly into Shira camp. This campsite was a wide, gently sloping expanse of dirt, grass, and rocks. A hundred tents or more dotted the landscape, a migratory city on the mountain: tents for tourists, tents for guides and porters, tents for dining. To the west, the jagged Shira peaks (which were no higher than we were) formed a crater rim of the oldest of the three extinct volcanoes here. Jumbled high-elevation clouds rose from beyond the crater and danced among the rocky spires.To the east, the massive bulk of Kibo (the main Kilimanjaro mountain) had finally come into view, looming over the land. Kibo - which means 'surprise' in Swahili - would take three more days for us to reach.
The landscape surprised me. In Colorado, timberline - that elevation above which the cold and the short growing season prevent trees from growing - lies at around 11,500-11,800 feet. With Kili only a few degrees south of the equator, I expected a much higher timberline. However, most of the trees disappeared from the landscape before 12,000', and only a few scraggly trees graced Shira camp. It turns out the cold or a short season is not the limiting factor here. Instead, moisture (or the lack thereof) determines what grows. The clouds normally top off around 10,000', and rainfall drops rapidly as you rise above that. Our hike today took us into a virtual alpine desert.
We had the afternoon free, to relax, read, write, wander about. Like yesterday, Joseph whipped up popcorn for our midday snack, then came soup, chicken, and French fries for lunch. Later we would savor a beef curry over rice, soup, and quiche.
The dramatic afternoon landscape did not prepare us for the treat in store at dusk. As the last sliver of sun sank below Shira crater, I turned around to see the full moon rising beside the bulk of Kibo. Several porters, who had not seen such a simultaneous event before, stood watching in as much awe as us. 'Tis a sight I will not easily forget.

Tues 28 August 2007: Over Hill, Over Dale

Shira Camp to Lava Tower (~15180') to Barranco Camp (~12880')

Today's hike was the longest yet - 5 1/2 hours, vs. 4 and 4 1/2 the last two days. Thankfully it wasn't as steep, though it did rise steadily - no staircases. After ascending to the Lava Tower (the first time I've ever topped 15,000') through a volcanic landscape, we then lost most of that altitude dropping into Barranco camp.
As we began the hike, other hiking groups paralleled us heading to the trail. We all had the same slow gait, plodding or trudging along. I thought we looked like condemned prisoners, dragging our feet to the gallows.
After hitting the Lava Tower, the trail declined steeply then rose again before our descent to Barranco. For two days we would traverse the base of Kibo, circling to the east side for our final ascent. As we proceeded, magnificent views of the peak and the glaciers accompanied us, ever changing. Descending to Barranco, the trail followed a stream which supported vegetation on its lower reaches. Besides the lobelia (famous for closing overnight and opening each morning) and the Everlasting flower, a forest of Sinecio Kilimanjari dominated the scenery. They reminded me of Joshua trees - scaly trunks topped with a wig of long narrow leaves like palms, the lowest leaves providing color (orange and yellow in this case) before shriveling onto the trunks. Their presence provided another surprise for me - at this elevation in Colorado (~13,500-14,000') you'll only find tiny alpine flowers an inch or two high, but the sinecio range up to 8-10' tall.
Today was cooler - the solar warming was offset by the chill breeze as we climbed. In Barrance, though, the wind died, and the temperatures climbed into the 60s, even at almost 13,000'.

Wed 29 August 2007: Positioning for the Assault

Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp (~15255')

I remember from skiing vacations in my 20s that I usually had a drop in energy, in vigor, on the third day of any week-long vacation. Yesterday I felt the same way. Luckily I always bounce right back - I doubt I could have survived today running at anything less than top condition.
We started by climbing up the Barranco Wall - almost striaght up! The climb involved huggnig ledges, scrambling over rocks, shinnying up chutes - the closest we would come to rock climbing on this vacation. To distract us from the climb, I challenged Ken and Deb with mindbender riddles where I set forth a scenario, and they could only ask me 'yes' or 'no' questions as they attempt to solve it. For example: a man and woman are found frozen for centuries in a block of ice. Before thawing them, an expert looks at them and declares, "It's Adam and Eve!" How did he know? * OR * A man is dead in a room with 53 bicycles scattered around. What happened?
When we topped out on the Barranco Wall 800' above camp, the trail entered the Karanga valley - a long gentle downhill followed by a steep wall we inched down to reach the Karanga stream - the last running water before our ascent. From here, everything is uphill.
From the stream, the trail ascended sharply to Karanga Camp. We only rested there 20 min before continuing to climb the wide, steep, volcanic slopes. Fewer and fewer flowers dotted the expanse, leaving only boulders, gravel, and dirt. The trail peaked, then dropped slightly to traverse another slope before ascending another wall to Barafu Camp.
This last camp was unlike any other: a steep slope littered with boulders big and small. It amazes me that they could find enough flat spots large enough to pitch tents for all the various groups. Of course, it forces the camps to spread out over a larger area than the other camps.
All put, this was the most strenuous day yet - a true challenge. I set no speed records - Deb and Ken finished in five hours, while I took six. Still, I classify this as the best day yet due to the variety of terrain - and for the scenery, dominated by the looming (and growing) presence of Kibo. Now, as I sit here and watch wispy clouds race across the face of the peak, we have only a few hours left before rising at midnight for our ascent.

Thurs 30 August 2007: The Roof of Africa

Barafu Camp to Uhuru Peak (19341') to Mweka Camp (~10170')

All the web sites I saw on climbing Kilimanjaro recommended that trekkers leave at midnight on summit day, so they can watch the sun rise over the crater, then bag the peak before mountain weather turns inclement later. However, Deo mentioned another reason: in the dark, climbers can not see how challenging the route is, keeping them from losing heart, allowing them to concentrate only on putting one foot in front of the other. Plus, they risk overheating if they tried taking it in the warmth of daylight.
I have NEVER pushed myself so hard, or so long, or in such extreme conditions. The route to Stella Point (on the crater rim) was 'only' 4 km (2.5 mi). It aslo gained more than 3300' feet. If you take away the two short flat or downhill portions we started on, the trail rose at a gut-busting rate of 1500'/mi - almost a 30% average grade. (To compare, two of the three Colorado fourteeners I practiced on rose ~800'/mi, while the other hit 1000'/mi. With considerably more oxygen available at those 'low' altitudes.)
Jacob led Deb and Ken away to climb at a brisk pace early, leaving Deo to accompany me. I struggled up the steep, moonlit slope, stopping often. My legs felt like lead stumps as I dragged them forward. My arms cursed me every time I used the poles to push myself onward. With every deep breath, the lungs replied, "Yeah, right. What do you want me to do with that? Send us some oxygen!"
Luckily, the weather cooperated. No clouds hid the light of the near-full moon, which let us hike without headlamps. No wind hammered us, freezing us with wind-chill factors. Of course, it was still Kili-cold - 9 degrees Farenheit on top at sunrise. We kept warm by layering.
We started our ascent at 12:20 a.m., and I reached Stella Point (the crater rim) six hours later - just as Deb and Ken returned from Uhuru Peak (the highest point on Kilimanjaro). I sat there, fatigued beyond words, as Deo handed me a Red Bull energy drink from his pack. "To recharge you, to hit Uhuru!" With assurances from my friends that the last kilometer to the peak was a cinch (and I could see that in the morning light), I set off to bag my peak.
Despite the agony of the climb, the rising sun shining off the glaciers made the effort worthwhile. The scenery continued to awe me as I took the short hike to Uhuru. After getting the obligatory pictures of me next to the sign, I nearly broke down sobbing, overcome by the emotion of it. (I did collect myself, though, holding everything back until later, in the privacy of my tent.)
I now had to descend, first to Barafu, then to Mweka Camp. The path down from Stella Point varied slightly from the ascent, heading down a long scree field (a steep slope of loose dirt and rocks). I used to snow ski a lot, and 'screeing' had a lot in common with that sport. If you do a short hop with each step, the landing will slide you a bit further down the hill. I turned my trekking poles into 'scree poles' to maintain my balance as I tried this new routine.
As fatigued as I was, I could only 'scree' for short distances before walking a bit. (Deb and Ken - with Jacob leading them - had no such issues, and they screed so well they turned their 5-hour ascent into a 1 1/4-hour descent.) Unfortunately, the screeing I did further weakened my legs, and I fell twice on rocks while making the final descent into Barafu. I finally got back to that base at 11:15.
In camp, I had but an hour rest before packing my bag, downing some soup, and heading down another 5100' to our final night's camp at Mweka. I dreaded the miles in my exhausted state, but the trail - all three hours of it - didn't turn out as horrid as I'd feared. Now I'm relaxing in camp, trying to recover from 14 hours on my feet.

Fri 31 August 2007: Strolling Out

Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate (~5400')

Yesterday's descent left me with a rale, and a blister on one toe. Thankfully my weak knees held up. Today's hike dropped ~4800', and I almost felt sorry when it finished. The three of us strolled together through the rain forest, talking of our lives, admiring the vegetation, the moss-covered trees, the lianas (vines), the unique plants. We descended from bright sunshine into the clouds, where the mist softened the landscape. At one point Deb asked if monkees inhabited this jungle. Jacob said yes, colobus monkees, though its very rare to see them. Minutes later we heard animal calls echo through the forest. Colobus, confirmed Jacob, "but they're far away. You can't see them." Minutes later, we saw three of them nearly hidden by the fog, swinging through the branches high above us.
Three hours of hiking took us to the Mweka Gate. As we stood there accepting congrats from the porters, an American woman standing nearby waved in our direction and eagerly started pushing through the crowd toward us. I assumed she had seen someone behind me, but she made a beeline for me. "Aren't you the person who was doing the mind-benders two days ago? I overheard you, and since then i've been racking my brain. What IS the secret of the 53 bicycles?" (For those interested: they were Bicycle-brand playing cards. Someone paid the ultimate price for cheating at poker.)
Officially completing such a task is bound to be anti-climactic, possibly depressing. Getting mobbed by all the trinket sellers, tee shirt vendors, begging kids, and others out for your money accentuated that depressing note. We also had concerns with the amount of tips we needed to pay. The emails from Destination Africa (the tour operator) suggested a total payment of around $120 per person to cover the guides, chef, and porters, so we planned accordingly. Then yesterday Jacob told us the total tip for a group our size should average $600-650. We settled on a compromise of $160 each, which upset at least two of the porters.

Powered by Blogger