Kilimanjaro – all 19,341 ft of it!

Kilimanjaro. The roof of Africa. The tallest mountain in Africa. One of the seven summits. Standing atop this behemoth of a mountain has been a goal of mine since I first heard the word, “Kilimanjaro”. The cool thing about Kilimanjaro is that at 19,341 feet above sea-level (that’s 5,895 meters), it is one of the tallest free-standing mountains in the world. In hiking this mountain, you experience 7 unique ecosystems, or another way of looking at it is that you would experience the same climatic change climbing Kilimanjaro as you would if you walked from the equator to one of the poles. Kili has been on my life list for so many years that I’m still tickled pink as I write this, still taking it in that I achieved this long-standing dream of mine. Another goal of mine was to go to 6 of the 7 continents by the age of 30. As my plane touched down in Tanzania, I realized that I was visiting my 30thcountry at the age of 30 (if I didn’t forget any countries in my counting).
Arriving in Africa, the plan was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with my friends Arielle, Becky, and Nate. As Arielle and I tore our neatly packed bags apart and re-assembled piles of clothes the night before our climb, we discussed the possibility that one of us might not summit and what we wanted the other to do. We both agreed that the other should continue. The next morning, packed and nervously excited, I went to make sure Becky and Nate were up. When I went to their room, Becky was as sick as a dog and had unfortunately come down with a terrible bug that morning. She put forth a valiant effort, riding along on the uncomfortable bus journey to the Machame Gate for the start of our hike. As we waited for paperwork and the porters to organize, it poured rain. We were supposed to be hiking during the dry season, but yet, the rains came down. Finally it was time to start and Becky made the wise decision of not hiking due to her inability to keep anything – even water – down. Nate, the ever-doting husband, stayed by his wife’s side.
And with that, Arielle and I bade Nate and Becky well and begin our slow ascent. Arielle and I didn’t know each other that well prior to this trip; we had met while traveling in Patagonia last year and only briefly spent time together – and in a group the entire time, so both were pleasantly surprised that conversation flowed so easily and that we had so much in common. Our trusty Assistant Guide, Marame, kept reminding us to drink water, make sure we were ok, and tell us to go, “Pole, pole” (slowly, slowly). We’re both very fit and athletic and were only hiking to ~9,990 feet, so didn’t feel the need to heed his advice.
The first day was hot and by the time we started hiking, the rain had thankfully stopped. We arrived to our campsite in a few hours and since I had heard that the food on Kili was all fried, I was pleased to be given delicious soup and a curry dish for dinner.
Day 2 started off nicely, but a few sprinkles turned into a down-right downpour and we were soaked before we had time to put on our ski pants. As our fingers turned to prunes, we sang Broadway tunes and in spite of the weather and absolute lack of any view, our spirits remained high. We arrived to Shira Camp (~12,600 ft), andhung our clothing to dry in our tent. When we woke in the night to go to the bathroom (we drank copious amounts of water which resulted in constant bathroom stops, which is a healthy way to deal with altitude, but annoying in the middle of the night), I gasped, as it was the first time I got a good view of Kilimanjaro by moonlight. The sky had finally cleared and the mountain, while imposing, was stunningly beautiful. We snapped some photos and went back to sleep. In the morning, we took advantage of the fortuitous 15 minutes of sunlight to dry the last of our wet clothing before taking off.
On our third day of hiking, we started gaining some serious altitude – we were to hike up to ~16,500 ft and then descend to 13,000 ft to sleep that night. Whenever we asked our Guide, Godlisten, for an elevation, he always gave it in meters. On this day, Arielle and I decided to do the math in our head to convert meters to feet. We had both learned this in school, but forgot. Altitude is a funny thing; it certainly isn’t healthy for one’s brain and I find it particularly interesting and perhaps disturbing to witness the effects of it firsthand. It took us about an hour to come up with a math formula and do equations in our head. I don’t remember how we came to this, but at some point, we decided that 16 divided by 60 equaled X (and honestly, who knows if our math was right). All of a sudden, viola, I had a brain-child (so I thought) that I eagerly (as eagerly as one can when all of our energy goes to breathing and walking) exclaimed to Arielle that figuring this out would be simple. All we had to do was say that 16/60 = x/1. If we did that, then 16×1 = 60X. X therefore equaled 16/60, which is right back where we started. Arielle laughed at me as my math skills were horrific in that moment. In fairness, hers were no better. It took us approximately an hour to come up with a conversion from meters to feet that neither of us were sure worked. Though I know it’s really bad for my brain, I do find it fascinating to see the deterioration of basic brain abilities when at altitude.
As we were taking a break from mental math, we were hiking up to Lava Tower (~16,500 ft) and on our way, we passed a seemingly crazy Danish man. He was loud and obnoxious, acting like a drunk. He even admitted to me that it was crazy how drunk he felt. I looked him square in the eye and tried reasoning with him that he was very sick. He got mad at me and ignored his guide’s pleas that he turn around and continued his “drunken” ranting and stormed up the mountain. While we were having our lunch at Lava Tower, we watched as Yen, visibly suffering from HACE (high altitude cerebral edema), tormented his guide, waved his hiking poles at anyone who came near him, and dangerously leaped from rock to rock with a drop of ~50 feet within inches of his hiking boots. We quickly finished our lunches and powered down the trail, aspiring to get as far away from Yen as possible. We learned from other hikers that he fell multiple times and continued to act extremely drunk.
We arrived at Baranco Camp and continued to experience much milder effects of altitude on our brains. We posed for a picture with a sign that had our elevation in both feet and meters. Pointing to the 13,000 ft, Arielle said to me that she would remember that our elevation was 1,300 ft. We laughed because she couldn’t get the elevation right. After relaxing in our tent for a bit, I ran into Yen and the Danish couple that were also in his hiking group. Much calmer, I sat down to talk with Yen about the seriousness of his condition. He didn’t understand why he needed to go down; as he said he felt fine, yes a little drunk, but no headache, otherwise fine. I guess, because I live in Colorado, that my advice actually had an impact. He was told to go down and went down to the bottom of the mountain that night – a decision that undoubtedly saved his life.
Our 4th day of hiking was the most fun! It was New Years Day and Arielle brought noisemakers, which were a huge hit with Godlisten and Marame. As we hiked, we rang in New Years on the east coast, 2 hours later for Denver, and 1 hour after that for San Francisco. We also climbed the Baranco Wall, which was all Class 2 and 3 scrambling, which is my favorite type of hiking to do. How the porters do it with the unwieldy loads upon their heads and sandals (in some cases) on their feet is ridiculously impressive.
We spent the night in the Karanga Valley (as we opted for a 7 day hike as opposed to the “standard” 6 day hike, which is a move I would recommend for anyone). Our guide, Godlisten, was amazing, and always encouraged us to start our days early, which, when the rain poured down as we sat in our dining tent over lunch, we were incredibly indebted to him for his sage advice.
The next day was cold and we felt the altitude as we hiked. Fortunately, our day was short and we arrived at our campsite, Barafu, at 10:30am. As the next day, was our summit day, we were instructed to stay in our tent and rest all day. While in our tent, it started to snow and lightening. We learned that this was the first time in 3 years that the mountain had lightening and the first time in 5 years that there was snow this time of year. Lucky us.
We ate our dinner early and went to bed around 5pm and were awoken at 10:30pm. We started hiking at 11:30pm as snow came down. After about 2 hours of hiking, the snow ceased, the clouds parted and we could see city lights from the town of Moshi, thousands of feet below. For two hours, we enjoyed good weather. Hiking was, of course, laborious. I tried drinking a lot of water, but that in and of itself was an exhausting exercise. It went something like this. Ok, I want water. Breathe. Breathe. Suck air out of water line. Breath. Breath. Take a sip and swallow. Breath. Take a sip and swallow. Breathe. Breathe. Blow air back into water tube (to prevent freezing). Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Every single breath took effort. Getting water was exhausting as it diverted energy I needed for walking to another task. After 2 hours of clear skies, the snow re-commenced and our slow caravan continued. About 45 minutes from the summit rim, our guide, Godlisten, felt dizzy and contemplated turning around. We tried encouraging him to do so, but he rested for a few minutes and continued. Only when we were 15 minutes from the summit rim, did we learn that once on the summit, we had to walk for another 45 minutes to get to the actual summit – another 200 meters in elevation gain. When you’re at 18,000 something feet, the thought of having to walk an extra 45 minutes, no matter how “flat” it is is incredibly disheartening and demotivating. As I wondered to myself if Stella Point (at 5700-something meters) was good enough for me, day began to break. We finished our short break and robotically continued on our quest for the summit.
The temperature was freezing, the snow was blinding, and my mind was completely void of thoughts and focused solely and entirely on my only two tasks at hand – sluggishly putting one foot in front of the other and breathing. Within minutes of our trek across the mountain’s rim, Arielle and I both donned the weather’s defacto mascara: freezing white snow. Five minutes from the proper summit, Arielle turned to me and said, “I need some encouragement.” I lamely squeaked out, “you can do it; we’re almost there.” It’s hard to describe how utterly gassed we were, but I remember it vividly. Two minutes later, and through the sideways snow, clouds, and wind, I saw a cluster of people gathered. Tears welled up in my eyes as we approached the sign that advertised the summit. Even though the sign wasn’t the one I had recognized from so many other’s summit photos, I believed Godlisten when he told us we did it. Godlisten and Marame hugged us and we smiled. I grabbed my camera and we impatiently waited for our turn to take our photos with the sign at the summit.
I feel like every photo I’ve ever seen from someone at the summit of Kilimanjaro is on a beautiful sunny morning, whereas our view (and photos) give no indication that we’re on the top of Africa’s tallest mountain. We stayed at the summit for precisely 5 minutes, and elated because of our accomplishment, our feet felt lighter and we eagerly began the long descent. Our 6thday of hiking totaled about 4,000 feet of elevation gain and 9,000 feet of descending. We returned to our campsite from the day before with pounding headaches, and for me, a queasy stomach. I hadn’t had enough food or water and got a bit sick. Because of that and our nagging headaches, our guide let us rest for an hour and a half before he prodded us to continue down the mountain. A bit of sleep cured our ailments as my stomach recovered and our headaches had disappeared. Hiking down to Mweka Camp was downright miserable. As we descended, snow turned into a wet, cold, miserable rain. We were exhausted, our knees hurt, and we were cold and wet. We slept well that night and finished our hike by 9am the next morning. Happy to be done, we celebrated with an aptly named Kilimanjaro beer and dried our wet belongings in the sun as we waited for our mini-van to pick us up.
In sum, Kilimanjaro was awesome! Even though the summit was exhausting, it was amazing. This was definitely the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken in my life, despite my thinking that Kili would be “easy”. It was hard, but I’m so happy that I did it as I loved nearly every moment of it (many moments on summit day notwithstanding). For anyone who is in reasonably good shape, this mountain is totally do-able. For the climb, I can’t recommend Good Earth, and in particular, Godlisten and Marame enough.

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