Just the name Kilimanjaro makes me excited. There’s something about it. It sounds enchanting, dangerous, African, exciting, and difficult. It’s in fact all of these things, but less difficult than you’d imagine. When I found out it was just a really long walk, I was intrigued. Then, in Winter 2009, I took a class from the famous climate scientist/professor Stephen Schneider. On the record, I thought he was a brilliant mind and I believe my quote in his Stanford obituary was “a living encyclopedia.” Off the record, he was a bit… pompous. That’s polite. He was pompous. Anyway, he was going through a slide show of pictures of himself with famous people and he showed a picture of himself and someone like Kofi Annan in front of Mount Kilimanjaro. He then made some off hand comment about how the snow on the top of the summit would be completely melted in the next 5 to 10 years, lamented global warming, and moved on. I was stunned. The snows would be gone from Kilimanjaro? That was sad. That was the death of literature! It’s Hemingway! I didn’t really consider that it was also the end of agriculture and irrigation for the Chagga tribe of Tanzania, but there’s that too! I was profoundly affected by the story and I made a private vow to myself to climb the mountain before the snows melted.
Flash forward 3 years and I was planning an extended trip around the world. I knew that I had to add Kilimanjaro to my list. This was something I actually planned for. I started research tour operators before I left, but I didn’t actually book anything until I knew I was certain I wanted to do it, spend the money, and I was mentally prepared. I booked some time in July when I was in Bangkok (Remember how I used to be in Thailand? What a summer!). I did ridiculous things like call taking the stairs at a subway station training and I considered Emei Shan (the nightmare mountain from China) the best emotional preparation ever. Counting the 3,000 meter plus Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as acclimatization, and I was good! I realized even then that this training was not adequate, but it was what I could do and I moved on with my life.
When I got to Arusha, I didn’t realize I was already doing acclimatization. The elevation here is about 1,500 meters and parts of Ngorongoro are upwards of 2,000 meters! Win! I spent the day after my safari and before my climb in Arusha buying some extra essentials. I spent most of my day trying to buy an extra camera battery. I never considered that being gone for 8 days would not be good for my camera battery. After wandering all over Arusha, I ended up finding ONE store that had the exact lithium battery I needed and in fact, it had a capacity three times as large as the one I had so the one new battery ended up lasting the whole trip. Since I was packed for Thailand in June and I was really well packed for India in August, I also went to one of the local second hand clothing markets in Arusha and bought a pair of fleece pants, hiking boots (a couple of days earlier and I broke them in on my safari), and a sturdy rain coat, rain pants, and a pair of gloves. All of these turned out to be lifesavers.
I went to the fancy hotel where my briefing was being held and I met the group I would be going up the mountain with. I would get to know them VERY well by the end of a week but included a good mix of Brits, Americans, and 1 Australian, and people of all ages and training levels. We were certainly a motely crew, but we were all determined and hopeful to make it to the summit.
We were briefed on the four golden rules of climbing Kili:
1) Have good equipment – I didn’t really meet the requirements of this rule, but I was proud of myself for having hiking boots and renting a down jacket. Surely a mountain in Africa would be warm, right?
2) Pole Pole – Pronounced “Poh-lay poh-lay,” this is Swahili for “slowly.” We chose the Shira Route for its extra days and longer acclimatization and we were always going to be walking slowly. I can walk slowly.
3) Drink Water – I love water and I brought my camelbak. Check.
4) PMA: Positive Mental Attitude – It’s a long hike and you need to stay positive. We got this!
We started getting to know each other that night at dinner and we left to drive to the mountain the next morning.
On the drive there, Kilimanjaro was somehow bigger than I expected it to be. It’s the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, so when you approach it, the rest of the land is just low and flat. Then, Kili rises out of it, long and tall. It’s so wide that it seems impossibly large and that we will be walking for miles and miles (not untrue). Our drive took us about two hours total as we made our way there and then twisted our way up the mountain base. In the beginning, there was just brush and flat fields of crops. However, as we quickly gained in elevation, we watched the scenery around us completely transform. The trees turned from acacia to evergreen, the land became lush and green as we entered the Kilimanjaro water table, and most of all, we were going up. We drove up to the Londrossi Gate, checked in to the park so they knew who to contact if we died, and then we kept driving up. We drove up more than halfway!
We briefly celebrated and then began our short 2 hour walk to the first camp – Shira 1. When our guide told us we would be walking slowly, I don’t think any of us quite realized how slowly that was. It was definitely faster than a shuffle, but slower than a stroll. We couldn’t have covered more than 2 miles in an hour that’s for sure. And just to make sure we didn’t get too pooped out on our first day, we took a lunch break halfway through. They had packed us simple boxed lunches with cheese sandwiches, a banana, a chocolate bar, some cookies and a couple other things.
We continued our walk for another hour. The landscape was like nothing I had ever seen before. I want to say it was like the desert, but there were lots of small dusty bushes and rocks. And always, looming in the distance was the peak of Kilimanjaro itself, never out of sight. As the days went on, this would become something almost mythic – our goal set in front of us, never to be reached, always mocking our fatigue. But on Day 1, it was just plain cool. After crossing a small stream fueled by the regular melting snows of the mountain, we could see our camp ahead in the distance.
One of my favorite parts of each day was stumbling across our camp. Yes it meant a break, a place to lie down, and usually food, but it also seemed so adventurous. I’ve never done anything like this before, and to see this little camps just sprout up out of nowhere was incredible. Of course, it didn’t sprout up out of nowhere. When you climb Kilimanjaro, you have a team of porters helping you up. Four us 9 climbers, there were 39 porters. That’s right. 39. This included 1 head guide, 4 or 5 assistant guides, a cook, and everyone to carry the food, the tents, our own clothing and gear, not to mention their own gear. We were with the African Walking Company who treat their porters pretty well so they were only allowed to carry 15kg in addition to their own stuff. We just had our backpacks with water and a rain jacket. Also, we would depart every camp before them, but about 30 minutes later, the porters would come running, literally running past us, eager to drop our shit at the next camp so they could take a break. This meant our camp was always set up by the time we got there which was the greatest luxury.
We spent the evening at camp getting to know each other and just bracing ourselves for the coming night. At dinner, we were fed like kings. Every meal in the mess tent had three courses – always a vegetable soup and then followed a couple of different things, maybe beef stew with rice or fried fish. Whatever was served, we always had the opportunity to eat well, even if our appetites couldn’t keep up. Already Andy, the father in a British father-son duo on our trip was starting to feel sick.
That night, we tucked into our sleeping bags. We were only at 3,500 meters so surely the night wouldn’t be that cold, right? I had one of the more miserable sleeping experiences of my life. We went to bed at about 8:30PM and I was up by 11, unable to sleep anymore. I also had to pee, but that meant leaving my tent and venturing into the freezing cold night. My bladder won. Several times. I spent most of the night trying to will my sleeping bag to be warmer, wondering why I had dreamed of climbing Kilimanjaro, and cursing my idiocy for packing without any warm clothes. The only thing that brought me solace was that everyone else who was much better prepared than I was also having a terrible night. As I lay in my tent shivering, I could hear every time someone went to the bathroom cursing, every time someone coughed, and usually just the fact that no one was sleeping through the night.