July 29, 2014: Welcome to Tanzania
I made my plans for Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain, while in India. About 3 weeks before coming to Tanzania, I was Skyping my friend Erik. He asked if I had a Tanzania plans and I said I was going to do it on the fly. He said that since it was the high season, I would have problems finding a reputable operator at a good price. He gave me the contact info of Evarest my Kilimanjaro guide and Raymond my safari guide. Everything was finalized with Evarest and Raymond only about 1 week before landing in Tanzania. It turned out that the two guides are friends so when Evarest picked me up from the airport, we immediately drove over to meet with Raymond to organize payments.
Paying for the two trips was more difficult than expected since the guides only accepted Tanzanian cash, some of the national parks only accepted Visa credit cards (no MasterCard) and NGorogoro Crater only accepted US Dollars. Additionally, there was a limit in the amount I could withdraw from an ATM and Tanzania was far from cheap (the national park entrance fees to Kilimanjaro and Serengeti alone were more expensive than my entire month in India). Eventually, we worked it out so every day in Arusha I would withdraw the max from then ATM and one day I would take a cash advance on the credit card to get the US dollars. Tanzania accounted for more than 50% of my entire trip budget, so this was no small task.
After going to the ATM, Evarest got me dinner and put me up in a budget hotel in Arusha.
July 30, 2014: The Hike Begins
After packing and making the run to the ATM, we were all ready to go. I got picked up in a safari jeep with the team: Evarest (guide) Samson (cook), Manuel, Christopher, and Kawawa (porters). Kind of crazy that there were 5 people whose sole goal for the week was to get me to the top of the mountain. We then drove the 2 1/2 hours to the Marangu Gate, the start of the hike.
The hike today was only 3 hours and went through a thick jungle. We got lunch at picnic benches halfway. Evarest was a great guide; he taught me about all the plants and some Swahili words. Apparently Taco means ass in Swahili so he will never eat at a Taco Bell for that reason.
We never actually saw the porters on the walk- they had a separate path that was more direct than our hiking trail and they walked really fast with bags on their heads. It was a sight.
Arond 3:30 pm we made it to Mandala Hut. It was much nicer than expected as the “huts” were built by the Norweigan government (in exchange for free entry to the park). They looked Norweigan with the slanted roofs. Each hut had 4 beds. There was also a bathroom hut, dining hall, clean pillows, a reception. Impressive! I really loved the awesome staff. Right after putting my bags in the room, Manuel came over to my hut with hot popcorn, biscuits and tea. They then gave me hot water for a sponge bath.
Since we started the climb on a Wednesday, it was not that busy. My hut-mate was Franz, a 52 year old engineer from Germany. There was a team from the Canary Islands that’s filming a documentary about a blind man climbing the mountain. There was also a Korean family and a British family.
Dinner was awesome: cream of zucchini soup, fish with red sauce, a side salad, and fresh avocado for dessert. The dinner had a table cloth and tons of condiments. It felt like a nice restaurant. Franz’ staff even brought a candle so it was a candlelit dinner. So funny to see this kind of luxury on Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Tomorrow is apparently the longest day besides summit day. Going to get some sleep.
July 31, 2014: Up to Horombo
It rained all night which sucked because I had to get up 5 times during the night because I drank 5 liters. Still, I managed to wake up dehydrated. It was a long hike out of the jungle and into the scrubland (every day the scenery changes with the elevation).
We met up with everyone at lunch- 4 1/2 hours into the hike. My favorite group was the Korean family They took pictures of everything and were so excited about everything. They even took “action” photos while eating lunch. I also enjoyed how the mom carried a mini chair with her.
It rained on an off throughout the day. Luckily it was a light rain so I wasn’t bothered. Evarest conveniently brought a Chelsea FC umbrella. The hike was a lot of uphill but nothing crazy. 6 hours after leaving Mandala hut, we made it to Horombo hut.
I got paired to room with Franz again. Walked into the hut while he was changing his shirt. He had a huge flaming skull tattoo on his back, which he said was to cover a scar he got from riding Harley’s. He claims to be a food therapist (whatever that is) but I think he might have been either an occultist or an EDM producer.
Once again, the dinner was awesome: carrot purée soup followed by spaghetti bolognese followed by the best mango in the world (Tanzania is the home of the mango).
Event though we were so close to the equator, it was freezing cold outside. Additionally, the hut was on the side of a precarious cliff so I tried to do everything in my power to not have to go to the bathroom during the night.
August 1, 2014: Zebra Rocks
Woke up and it was sunny outside! We could actually see the summit of the mountain and the legendary snows of Kilimanjaro.
After breakfast, we did an acclimatization hike to the Zebra rocks about 2 hours away. The were calcium with black lines. So it looks like zebra stripes. Afterwards, we scrambled up to the ridge above the rocks and checked out the straight-shot view of the two peaks on Kilimanjaro (there are actually 3 summits but the third was on the far side of the mountain and was very short). The other peak required a technical climb and was shorter, so nobody climbed it but it was there.
We then hiked back down to Horombo. It took an hour and my legs were sore because walking downhill used different muscles that I haven’t used in over a month (all the temple pilgrimages in India had downward transportation).
We then got lunch and did absolutely nothing for the rest of the day. It was the calm before the storm. Tomorrow morning is the start of 26 hours of absolute misery to make it to the summit. Mountaineering is a funny hobby. Everyone hates doing it, but loves the results. I don’t enjoy walking uphill for days on end one bit but I know they once I make it down, I will be so glad I did it.
August 2, 2014: The Kibo Hut
Today we hiked up to Kibo hut at 15,500 ft. The hike went through what was called the alpine desert since very few plants grow here. Just after the halfway point, we reached the saddle in between the two main peaks of Kilimanjaro. It was quite windy. The last hour from the saddle to Kibo hut was the most difficult. the trail got considerably steeper than the rest of the day and the hut loomed in the distance. When I first saw the hut, I figured it was only 10 minutes away. However, those 10 minutes turned into a very difficult 60.
Eventually we made it around 1:30. The camp was different from the rest. Instead of scattered huts, Kibo was one large stone building with dormitory style rooms and dining tables. That way hikers didn’t have to walk outside to get food although the pit toilets were 100 meters away from the building. I was placed with the Korean family. It felt like I was invading their family vacation. The son wasn’t feeling well so I gave him some of my Advil. In exchange, the family gave me some of their pasta for lunch. They were so organized- everything was compartmentalized in plastic bags. Franz, my old roommate, was placed just across the hall. Dinner was at 5:30 pm since we would be waking up at 11pm to start the climb. I’m nervous but I’m sure it will be fine- 80% of people make it and I have the best guide in the game.
August 3, 2014: The Roof of Africa
This was the big day.
I woke up at 11pm and got “breakfast” at 11:30. By 12:10 am we were off to summit the mountain. Since we were at 15,500 ft, it was cold but I was dressed right.
The first push was supposed to take 5 hours although I did it in 4 1/2. We trudged ever so slowly up the endless switchbacks on the mountain slope. Eventually we made it Gilman’s Point on the rim of the caldera at around 4:40am. From Gilman’s it was another 30 minutes to Stella Point where we met the trail from the Machame Route up the mountain. Looking down, I could see a stream of headlamps working its way towards me. From Stella Point, it took 50 final minutes of walking past the tops of the massive glaciers. The sky began to get light. By the time we finally reached Uhuru Peak (19341 ft) at 6:18 am the sun had just broken the horizon- a beautiful and perfect moment.
It turned out that I was the second group on the whole mountain to reach the summit that day and the first on the longer Kibo Hut route. I really felt fantastic the entire way up! We very quickly took pictures and enjoyed the view before heading down after about 5 minutes on the summit. The day has just begun and I had much more to accomplish. The first task was to get back down to the Kibo hut. On the way, I passed by all the fellow climbers: Adlai from the Bahamas, the Korean family, the British family and Franz from Germany. Everyone seemed to be doing well except Adlai. He made it to Stella Point and had bad altitude sickness. I gave him my apple and a pep talk. Also noticeably missing was the American cross country runner who was talking a big game about the mountain. Turned out he got altitude sickness a mere 2 hours into the hike. He should have respected the mountain and taken the rest day since it’s a looooong walk of shame. From the summit, it was a simple walk to Gilman’s Point and then essentially a boot ski down the 3,000 ft to Kibo Hut. About 30-40 minutes before getting to Kibo, I got a bad headache. Finally, altitude sickness had got me but luckily I had already summited the mountain.
After returning to the hut, I tried to nap for an hour but the headache was too bad. I took Advil, drank the last of my water and waited until brunch at 10:30. I felt so horrible at brunch that I couldn’t eat any food. Evarest and I decided that it was time to hike down to Horombo Hut another 3 hours down the mountain. After an hour or so of walking, I started to feel better.
After getting to Horombo, I learned the fate of Adlai from the Bahamas. Turned out he did summit the mountain and made it back to Kibo hut. There, he developed a cerebral edema and went crazy. He struck a porter before being tackled to the ground. The park authorities ended up driving him down to Horombo where he recovered but then decided to take him off the mountain.
Since it apparently was Sunday (I had no concept of days on the mountain), a lot of people who started on the weekend were in Horombo, over 100 climbers and 200 porters. 50 of the climbers were on a school trip from the UK and 30 were in a group from Korea- they brought all their own food so there was a ton of kimchi everywhere here.
My roommates were the American cross country runner from New York and a brother/sister from Savannah Georgia. The New Yorker turned out to be only 17. He apparently sold some code to Snapchat, made a lot of money, and decided to travel through Africa for 3 months. He talked way to much and talked nonstop about how Europe, America, and Australia need to remain majority white. He also called Zimbabwe by it’s colonial name Rhodesia despite having spent 2 weeks in the country (he also called Istanbul Constantinople, aborigines “Abos”, and Israel British Palestine) While he sounded like a neo-colonialist racist, I got the feeling that, at age 17, he wanted to sound smart/worldly, but failed miserably. The sister of the combo (probably around age 30) actually worked now for an NGO in Dar Es Salaam focused on international aid and public health. She has worked all over southern Africa and, oddly enough in Kazakhstan. Needless to say, she and the New Yorker had quite the debate.
August 4, 2014: Back to the Bottom
Woke up to another beautiful day. I was seated at breakfast next to the family of a just-retired marine. The dad was celebrating retirement by hiking the Appalachian Trail and in the meantime his wife and kids climbed Mt Kilimanjaro. Since the dad worked in Embassy security, the family has actually lived all over for the last 10 years: Sudan, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Kenya, Nigeria, and most recently Washington DC.
After breakfast, we assembled the team for a photo. They then sang to me before we all started down the mountain. The trip down to Marangu Gate took 6 hours. I saw groups on their first and second days and definitely didn’t envy them. Evarest and I got a laugh when we passed by an Indian family because there is a spot (where my New Yorker roommate turned back) called Bombay Junction named for all the Indians stop here, look up at the mountain and then decide to give up (from experience Indians don’t hike unless there is a temple and return transportation at the end). Evarest brought this place up about 5 different times throughout the week. At the gate, we had a big hug then got lunch before heading back to Arusha victorious. Would I do it again? Hopefully not, but what a journey. I am so proud to have made it.