Good evening. This post is typed from Jambiani, Zanzibar, at a small wooden table in a hotel bar. There’s a bottle of Tomato Ketchup (label in Arabic), Chili Sauce (label also in Arabic), and Tabasco to my right, and a rather exquisite beach to my left. It’s getting a bit dark, as the sun is currently setting, so the blues and greens and turquoises and cyans and periwinkles aren’t quite as impossibly brilliant as they were earlier, as loosely shown here:
First world problems in third world luxury. Life could be worse.
You will notice that I am currently at a hotel, and you may suppose that this type of accommodation conflicts with my travel style and preference. In fact, hotel is rarely my first choice, but freebies definitely are: while this locale – which many would label paradise – usually commands a fee of $49 each night, I will be paying $0, and $0 tomorrow as well. Details in the next post.
Kilimanjaro. Mount Kilimanjaro. This is what you came here to read about, yea?
I climbed from base to summit, and it was one of the coolest things I have ever done. I began the ascent on a Tuesday morning, and I concluded the descent seven days later. I arrived at Uhuru Peak just as the sun was rising, almost 20,000 feet in the air, and was privileged to one of the most aggressively serene panoramas I could ever imagine. I stumbled upon a villager who, for a week, had been living in a cave without a single crumb of food. I peed more times than I previously thought remotely healthy or human. I climbed up Mount Kilimanjaro –
– and here is how it all went down.
January 17th, 2012 – Day One:
It’s about 6:30am in Moshi, Tanzania, and Will’s iPhone 4 alarm rings. However, he is already awake. The climb begins today, and Will has been excited for almost 18 months. Here-we-go.
I pack my shit, arrange to rent some gear (long underwear bottom, top, beanie, gloves, hiking poles, gaters), and wait to be picked up. My ride is supposed to be there around 8:30, and he is a bit late. I’m doing pushups in the driveway to pass the time.
We arrive at the gate around 11:30am, and I sign in at the main office. There are a few hundred people surrounding – porters, guides, cooks, park officials, and about-to-embark hikers of all ages and nationalities. I am alone, and I soon meet my team: two mountain leaders, Romli and Kamanda, and five porters/chefs who carry the things and cook the food. I never imagined requiring a borderline-emasculating seven people to get me up to the top, and at the time, I found it a bit unnecessary. Much more on this later.
Around noon, and after befriending a few Israeli hikers and a few American, we finally get going. I start my climb with Kamanda, and the rest of the team follows. I learn a bit more Swahili, inquire about life as a porter, his family, and if he swears to get me to the top and back alive. He was a bit soft-spoken.
The climb starts out on a pretty generic dirt trail – trees lining each side and forming a canopy across the top. I begin my water intake, litre one of the requisite daily six, and take a few pictures.
About two hours later, and the landscape begins to change. The trees get very, well, swirly, as the trunks and branches are bent in circular, wavy patterns. Moss becomes more frequent, with long streamers of the springy green hanging from every which way. While this may sound a bit dramatic, the scene had a very ethereal, special quality to it, almost Avatar/Alice in Wonderland-esque. The water intake continued, a lunch of chicken-something, fruit-something, cookie-something and juice-something ingested, and the hiking went on. While I was the sole hiker in my group, I was never alone. There are tons of hikers on Kilimanjaro.
At roughly 5pm, we arrive at the first camp – Machame Camp. I sign in, chat with a Kiwi about his motorbike trip through South America, and get ready for dinner. The day’s hike was not particularly hard, and arriving at camp with my tent set up, backpack inside and a hot dinner on the table seemed, again, unnecessary. When camping, you usually don’t expect or even desire such service, or rather, any at all. Can’t complain though. I finish dinner, an all-too-big portion of rice-something and meat-something, hang out with the Israelis, read a book, and head off to bed. Lala salama.
Up at 7, picture at 7:05 –
– breakfast at 7:30, hiking by 8. I believe we started at around 2,500 meters. Thirty minutes in, and the trees begin to disappear. We catch a nice glimpse of Mount Meru, a smaller, adjacent, and also-popular mountain in Tanzania. Meru shown here:
I befriend a few more hikers, Swedes and Aussies I believe, and keep ‘er going. Still pretty warm out, and I grab a quick picture for the grandkids in front of that beautiful summit. Shout to Crystal Harrison for the bandana inspiration.
As the hiking continues, I begin to realize how intensely athletic these porters are. They all carry a backpack, roughly 10kg, as well as a big bag of whatever – food, cooking gear, tents, chairs, clothing, gas, etc – on their heads, which weighs an additional 15kg. The climb isn’t the hardest, but it definitely isn’t the easiest. Porter illness shown below.
I tried carrying one of the bags for a few minutes myself. It is f*cking HEAVY.
A few hours later, we arrive at Shira camp, roughly 3800 meters in the air, if I remember correctly. Dinner, reading, and some nighttime long-exposure shots. A few came out pretty nicely I think.
Habari asubuhi, chakula, hiking by 8. So far, our pace has been rather slow, as acclimatization is the biggest issue when climbing Kilimanjaro. We move slowly once more. About an hour in, my head starts to hurt from the altitude – roughly 4,000 meters. This is normal. I take two Panadol, or what Tanzanian pharmaceutical manufacturers consider to be Panadol, and feel OK a bit later. What may not have been normal, however, were the two “plant-watering” breaks I would take – every hour. It probably had something to do with the monumental amount of water we were required to drink, or maybe the Diamox (altitude medication), or maybe the altitude itself, or maybe all three, #1 and #3, #2 and #3, or none at all. In any event, there was enough urine to keep Aaron Rolston alive for another 127 days, or to soothe every jelly-fish stung foot in the Southern Hemisphere, if the rumor is true. Man – glad that part is over.
A few hours in, and we have finally broken through clouds. Always a cool feeling. Quick shot of some hikers and porters behind, and one of the summit ahead:
The landscape begins to take a very lunar, immediate-post-volcanic tone, with lots of hardened lava, alien trees, and frosty-green shrubs; Where The Wild Things Are’s artic alter-ego, if you will. Clarification:
Very cool indeed. Again, the day started at around 3,800 meters, and while we reached 4,600 by midday, the night’s camp, Baranco Camp, was only at about 3,800 meters itself. This is intentional, to help with acclimatization.
We only did about 6 hours of hiking on this day, which isn’t so bad. However, hiking at altitude is a different animal. I was beat. I took a nap for a while, woke up for dinner, and then went to grab the camera. I threw on my headlamp, grabbed the wired remote, a small tripod, and a towel in which to envelope the whole operation. Next, I lined up my shot, climbed up on a rock, set up the camera, and let the light gather. As I waited, I must say I had a bit of a moment, lying under the aggressively vibrant stars and listening to one of the more beautiful songs I’ve ever heard – Radiohead’s Supercollider. To set the mood, and for your acoustic pleasure:
Yes. I felt very lucky to be where I was. After 20 minutes, I collected my shot –
The hiking got a bit more technical on this day. The pitches were steeper, and the rocks were more numerous. Lots of fun. The porters continued to impress, because again, they make the climb as you, but with almost 60 pounds of gear on their back and head. Yip:
In addition, they do it faster, so as to beat you always to camp, and set up your things before you arrive. True, unequivocal, freak-of-f*cking-nature sickness. It is probably even more spectacularly difficult than it seems.
After about four hours of hiking, we arrive in a small valley, and see a group of roughly 20 porters crowded around a woman. She’s about 70 years old, wearing a skirt, tennis shoes, something on her head, and yea, something else. I don’t know women’s clothes. In any event, she would have been cold. I ask a few questions, and quickly discover that this woman has been without a single crumb of food, and has been sleeping in a cave, for seven days. Seven, seven, seven days. She lives in a small village in the woods of Kilimanjaro, and a week ago, she was “lost.” We don’t know if she went out walking with a group and was left, or just started wandering about herself. Seven days. I was freezing my ass off in a tent, inside of a sleeping bag, with 4 layers of clothing, eating a massive meal every 6 hours, and this woman was sleeping in a cave without food for a week. Holy-wow-shit.
One of the porters quickly gives her a bag of edibles. She grabs a banana, and instead of devouring this thing whole, she calmly, carefully, and patiently peels the thing, and begins the slow indulge. Her meticulousness was baffling – wasn’t she starving? I don’t get it. What I do get, however, is that the mental composition of such a warrior is beyond comprehension – accepting frostbite and starvation, but never losing hope. I’m not sure many Westerners have that type of resolve. I sure don’t. Two pictures:
Since we are not at one of the camps, emergency evacuation was difficult. The next camp was a few kilometers ahead so, like Madame Zeroni in Holes, this woman was carried to the next site by one of the porters. True, unequivocal, freak-of-f*cking-nature sickness. What a hero.
A few hours later, and we arrive at Karanga Camp. Again, we sleep at 3,800 meters – acclimatization is key. Chilled with the Israelis I think, read some more of my book, and grabbed that camera once more. 90-minute exposure; this one worked out well:
Day Five is summit day, and I am really excited. We begin the hike at 8am, and head towards Barafu Camp, situated at about 4,800 meters. Hiking to Barafu:
Very lunar still. Four hours later, and we arrive. Barafu is the last camp on Kilimanjaro’s Machame Route, and once you arrive, well, you sleep. You sleep all day. You sleep because, while today is summit day, the actual ascent doesn’t actually happen during the day; it happens at night. O baby.
At about 11pm, I wake up. I’ve tried to sleep for the past several hours, but unfortunately to little avail. So pumped was I. I hastily throw on my summit gear, including long underwear bottoms, long underwear top, waterproof trekking pants, two pairs of wool socks, t-shirt, flannel shirt, North Face sweatshirt, waterproof jacket, beanie, gloves, hiking poles, and headlamp. iPhone 4 out, music on:
“It has come to our attention that mysterious force is loose! – somewhere in outer space. The mysteries of creation are there.”
“Up in the sky?!”
“Up in the sky. The moon and the planets are there – and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there! And therefore as we set sail – we ask God’s blessing – on the most hazardous, and dangerous, and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
F*CK I was excited.
I leave my tent, look up in the sky, and a smile the size of Orion’s Belt finds my face. Incredible. Headlamp goes on, and the general awesomeness of summiting the giant under an immaculate night sky in East Africa almost overwhelms.
11:15pm, and we start moving. Slowly-slowly, pole-pole – roughly 1,200 meters to go. I find myself turning around, and frequently, to look back on the stars, and the dim glow of Moshi in the distance. Truly an amazing sight.
Three hours later, and my mood has changed a bit. It’s about 0° F, and the winds are blowing at about 40mph. I do not want to see another star ever again. The hose on my Camelback is frozen, and getting water from my aluminum bottle becomes a daunting prospect for the health and comforts of my fingers. We are still moving very slowly, as the pitch is still steep, and I am exhausted. Breaks are frequent, but not easy; we are basically hiding behind rocks to avoid the wind as we rest, and we can’t rest for too long, as the body only gets colder. At this point, if you really did want to turn around, you’d still be walking back several hours to Barafu, which doesn’t help that much at all. You’re there, and you’re summiting. Keep ‘er going.
At 5:00am, we arrive at Stella Point. It was the first time I had asked for the time, and I was rather surprised to hear how late it was. Stella is one of the first summit points on Kili, and only a mere 45 minutes to Uhuru Peak, which is the real summit – The Big Show. Although colder than before, I did not want to arrive at Uhuru before sunrise, while it was still dark; I wanted the whole climax, the lights on, the hands in the air as the sun begins to shine. That is the memory I wanted.
To kill time, Romli and I walk halfway to Uhuru, then back to Stella, then rest, then eat cookies, then do jumping jacks, until the clock finally hits 6:00am. Off to Uhuru. Romli tells me I looked pretty bad at this point – slightly nauseous, slightly dizzy, slowly and clumsily prodding forward. So close to the summit.
Eventually and finally, at 6:30pm on January 22nd, 2012, I reach Uhuru Peak. The sign is ahead, glaciers are to my left and right, Mount Meru is in the distance, the reflection of Mount Meru is in the other distance, and a fully panoramic, far-beyond-incredible sunrise is behind; it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been, and something I’ll never ever forget. Below is a picture of me at the summit, and a video which best summarizes my thoughts. Before watching, kindly take a deep breath, and try to put yourself in my deliriously tired, biblically excited shoes. Two more breaths. One more.
Mount Kilimanjaro. F*cking beauty.
We only stayed at the summit for about 15 minutes, and then hiked 2 hours back to Barafu. One hour nap, lunch, and then another 5 hours to another camp on another route. Dinner, 12 hours of sleep, 4 more hours of hiking, and I was back at the gate. An amazing feeling to finish. Romli, myself, and Kamanda:
Two more things to note:
1) The porters are key. Again, they seemed unnecessary at the beginning. By the end, you are so exhausted each and every day that you really do appreciate having them there to, well, help. Honestly, I probably could have done without the guys carrying the table, the dining tent, and the 7 types of tea and hot chocolate and powdered milk which I was offered each day. However, this is part of the experience: Kilimanjaro is a bit of an economy in and of itself, and the 5th, 6th, and 7thproverbial porters essentially create jobs for themselves by carrying a few extra amenities. You’re in no position to complain – this is not the first world, after all.In addition, I’d like to extend a massive thank-you to everyone from Adventure Alternative for your help throughout. If you’re ever thinking of climbing Kilimanjaro, or doing a safari in East Africa, I highly and enthusiastically recommend enlisting their services.
2) If you enjoy hiking, are in reasonable shape, are moderately coordinated, and are 10 years old or above, you can climb to Barafu Camp. To get to the top, well, you need a bit of an extra gear – that no-quit-power-through-can’t-stop-won’t-stop game face. If you have it, and many do, Kilimanjaro is definitely something you should try. Summit night is most definitely a grind, though – you’ve been warned.
Thanks so much for reading. This was definitely a long one. I’m at the back end of a week on Zanzibar, and will be writing about that next.
Life is really good,