Last November, a friend from my undergraduate days secured a summer internship at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. After the obligatory congratulatory e-mail, we discussed visit dates. I was excited to set foot in Africa for the first time. We began to pin down more details in February, and among them was one goal: to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa.
I had never climbed a mountain or undertaken any sort of serious multi-day hike. Hailing from a near-sea level city and having spent the last three years in possibly the flattest major city in the Western Hemisphere, I wondered if I had signed up for too much. It turns out that with the proper pacing and acclimatization, any “reasonably fit” person can reach the peak – it requires no technical climbing skill. There were bursts of planning over the next 4-5 months, and when the dust settled, we were a party of five tackling the mountain over seven days on the increasingly popular Machame Route. During that time, I didn’t think or worry about the climb much; I didn’t read other accounts or look at any pictures. I wanted to approach it without expectations or preconceptions.
Our guide, John, picked us up from my friend’s house in Arusha on August 2. One of the members of our party had his flight cancelled the previous day, so he landed when we started the climb and caught up with us at the campsite later that night. This unforeseen development had caused some anxiety the previous day, but it worked out fine as we were one of the last groups to start the climb. For five climbers, we had two guides, a cook, and seventeen porters. If this seems outrageous, the weight of each porter’s load must be measured to ensure that it does not exceed the maximum of 15 kg, and the total weight includes water, food, tents, sleeping bags, personal baggages, a toilet, and equipment. The first day’s six-hour hike from 1800 m ASL to 3000 m ASL is through the rainforest; the lush flora benefit from the constant moisture and 15-20C temperature. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any notable wildlife near the trekking route. We reached Machame Camp in the evening, using our headlights to find our way among the many tents. The porters are much fleeter of foot, and the tents are set up before the climbing group arrives at the campsite. This is particularly impressive given that the porters are carrying much more weight on both their backs and heads, and are usually wearing worn-out shoes or flip-flops.
At least 100 climbers start each day on Machame, and one gets a sense of this the next morning. Since everyone starts hiking around the same time, there is a continuous stream of people making their way up the narrow path. John is a firm believer in ascending “pole pole” (slowly) to avoid altitude sickness, so we were often passed. The demographic with the highest failure rate for Kilimanjaro consists of 20-25 year-old males because they are typically the most fit, and as a result, ascend too quickly and succumb to altitude sickness. It was a foggy day, and already we had passed into a new zone (the heath), with sparser and shorter vegetation. With not much to see around us, we entertained ourselves by singing (parts of songs, since none of us seemed to know a complete set of lyrics to any song) and by playing Botticelli, rhyming games, and city-naming games. Eventually, we climbed through the mist into the moorlands above the clouds. The awe inspired by waking up and stepping out of the tent to be greeted by an ocean of rippling cumuli is indescribable. It’s one of the things I miss most about Kili.
At this point, I’ll digress into describing life on the mountain. Your main concerns are eating, drinking water, staying warm and protected from the sun, sleeping, putting one foot in front of the other, and going to the bathroom. These are complemented by taking pictures and enjoying the scenery. The experience is refreshing, and although there is cell phone reception on the mountain, it is mostly free of the distractions of modern technology. Frank, our talented cook, ensured that eating was never a chore. One underestimates the amount of energy that the body uses: we’re accustomed to equating a good workout with copious sweating. As John puts it, “No one gets fat on the mountain”. I ensure you that the human body also demands calories when it is simultaneously trying to stay warm, manufacture red blood cells, and keep you walking for four to seven hours a day. The guides constantly remind you to drink water, and if one has prepared well for the climb, the third task is not an issue until summit night. Bringing sleeping medication is often recommended, but a warm sleeping bag and a comfortable air core are more important for a good night’s sleep. I don’t have a problem sleeping normally, and fortunately this skill was invariant with altitude. Accomplishing the last task at nighttime was taxing. Most tents sleep two people, but we were a party of five. As it is too cold at night for one person to sleep alone, three of us shared a tent. Exiting the tent without disturbance, putting on one’s boots, trekking to the bathroom, and reversing the previous steps in darkness requires considerable effort (more so if a private toilet is not included in your climb). Most North Americans take the altitude medication acetalozamide (Diamox) for the duration of the climb. It is a diuretic, so I was awakened at least twice a night by a full bladder. I won’t complain too much, as some of its other side effects are much more unpleasant – my greatest fear was the possibility of diarrhea. At any rate, one of the things I do not miss about Kili is being out of breath after a nighttime trip to the toilet.
The middle days of the climb are spent “climbing high, sleeping low” for acclimatization purposes. We climbed to 4500 m and descended to camp at about 4000 m. Some of the most picturesque regions of Kilimanjaro are traversed during this period. On the third day, we moved into the alpine desert regions, with beautiful rock formations covered in orange moss. The sky was cloudless, the sun was bright, and the view of the summit was spectacular. We took a late lunch in a little valley next to a stream, beneath the nearby Lava Tower and Arrow Glacier. The descending path to Barranco Camp is surrounded by senecio trees. The fourth day is an alternating sequence of three ups and two downs, opening with a scramble of the Barranco Wall. From afar, it’s daunting to see a line of people crawling up a seemingly vertical plane. At the top of the wall, we were rewarded with the most spectacular view on the mountain: white clouds below us and the white of the glaciers above us. Unfortunately, I ended up forgetting my warm mittens on a rock; my hands and fingers constantly reminded me of my carelessness the next night. The last descent took us to a valley and across the Karanga River before we began another steep climb under an imposing, monolithic wall of rock to the Karanga Camp.
The fifth day consists of a short hike to Barafu Camp, the high camp before the summit, at 4600 m. The landscape is best described as post-apocalyptic: there is almost no vegetation, and the flat rocks resemble building rubble. Our mental faculties were mostly directed towards brainstorming ridiculous professions to inscribe on the climber registry. Through a special arrangement with the rangers, we were permitted to camp at a site about 300 m above Barafu Camp. This is a significant advantage: the one-hour trip to the higher camp includes a difficult section of rock face, which we unanimously agreed would have been trying to climb at night with headlamps. John informed us that some climbers have turned back to Barafu Camp upon reaching this point at night. The remaining ten hours of the day were spent consuming carbohydrates or catching some shut-eye: lunch, nap, dinner, nap, and breakfast at 11 pm. The caloric intake sounds like overkill, but it was necessary, as I was to discover eight hours later. We set off for the summit at around midnight on the sixth day, on the tails of a large group that had just passed our camp.
John kept us on a strict schedule: cycles of 75-90 minute slow ascents and 10 minute breaks. The plodding pace guaranteed we were never out of breath, and the brief rests prevented us from getting cold. The main portion of the hike to Stella Point (5700 m) on the crater rim is on a steep path covered in scree, and it took us about five hours. Five of our crew accompanied us to the summit: John, Aaron (our assistant guide), and three porters, one of whom had not been to the top. John had previously explained to me that the challenge in climbing Kilimanjaro is mostly mental. Those words had stayed in the forefront of my thoughts, and my focus didn’t waver for the six-and-a-half hours to Uhuru Peak. I had rationed the charge on my iPod to reserve enough battery for summit night, but I didn’t use it. I didn’t care to know our present altitude or the time; my concentration was directed towards the next step and keeping my extremities warm by wiggling the toes and fingers. Having survived a quarter-century of Canadian winters, the discomfort was comparable to waiting for a night bus at 2 am in January. The cold was exacerbated by a steady, biting wind. One pair of wool socks each on the feet and hands (as a substitute for mittens) was thermally inadequate. The loss of manual dexterity wasn’t much of a problem, since I stopped using my hiking poles after the first break. Later, one of our porters was kind enough to exchange his gloves for the socks.
One member of our party had stopped taking the altitude medication due to its side effects. About 100 m below Stella Point, she vomited for the first time. John examined her, determined that it was just indigestion and not a serious symptom of altitude sickness, and urged her to continue. His professionalism in handling the situation was admirable, and underscored the importance of hiring a good guide. He supported her until we reached Stella, where we took an extended rest and drank hot ginger tea for warmth. My mood perked up, and I sang and danced along with the porters. The final 200 m to the summit is a much easier hike, but the temporal relativity of anticipation made the 45 minutes seem much longer. Two porters, one for each shoulder, helped my friend to the peak. I, along with two others, trekked ahead with Aaron. We reached 5895 m shortly before 6:30 am, about ten minutes before sunrise.
The surge of endorphins began with the first glimpse of the sign, and culminated in the purest elation upon reaching Uhuru. A triumphant cry preceded the rounds of hugs and thank-yous. Surveying the surrounding area, I wondered at how the path would have appeared some decades ago. I imagined more ice; now, it is mostly dirt surrounded by glaciers on the side. The others arrived a few minutes later, and my friend displayed great courage in persevering to the top. We took the requisite pictures, but were urged to descend as soon as possible for my friend’s sake. I stayed behind with John and another friend for the sunrise, a sight that I was not willing to miss. It was a clear reminder of why it is good to be alive.
We left Uhuru shortly after, offering encouragement to the climbers heading the opposite direction. About ten minutes after we left the peak, we passed three amputees – a very moving sight. I did not discover until I returned from my trip that these men were American war veterans from different wars – Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – and had one good leg between them. They had obtained special permission to camp at Stella Point, which explained the curious sight of tents at such a high altitude. I had consumed my reserves of adrenaline and energy shortly after reaching Stella, and the rest of the descent to camp consists of sliding on scree, using the heel for braking. A misaligned contact lens and the rising temperature did not help the situation, and my frustration built with every stumble or slip on a piece of rock. Exhausted, I was the last person back at camp, and I sat on a rock in the sun, dazed and trying to collect my thoughts for the notebook. My mind could not form a coherent sentence, so I forced myself to eat and drink some water before passing out in the tent.
After lunch, we set off for Mweka Camp at 3100 m. Passing through the different ecological zones of the mountain in an afternoon was like rewinding the cassette tape of the previous four days. Although descending is faster, gravity takes a toll on the knees. We were sore and tired, and still had 1500 m to go the next morning, but spirits were still high during the celebratory dinner, complete with Konyagi (Tanzanian gin) and tonic. As we had to catch an afternoon flight to Zanzibar, we departed the camp before sunrise and had the muddy trail mostly to ourselves on the way down. It rained, but we were sheltered by the canopy of the rainforest. Our final steps were accompanied by our attempts at Queen’s “We Are the Champions”.
A week before I left for Africa, the woman who cuts my hair informed me that I would be hooked after the climb, as she was after her father took her on similar trips. Two weeks after my return, I’m still disappointed by the lack of clouds below my line of sight.