Climbing Kilimanjaro

“I wonder if there’ll be another time as good as this.”-Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Before a few days ago, the snows of Kilimanjaro were for me more like clouds than anything else. Maybe just a little brighter as they shone with reflected sunlight from their heights above Moshi, Tanzania. I made the decision to climb almost on a whim; a couple of friends were going,  I had finally finished the five major research papers for my first semester as a graduate student of Development Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam, and I was all caught up at work with Kiva and Tujijenge Tanzania. Before I knew it, a South African tour operator named Nikki had my passport and credit card numbers, and I was skimming packing lists, investing in thermal underwear, and researching medicines for altitude sickness.

You cannot exist in this country without thinking of the mountain daily. Kilimanjaro Lager, Tanzania’s most ubiquitous alcoholic beverage, is featured all over the city on signs that proclaim, “it’s Kili Time, make the most of it!” Their slogan a few years back was “if you can’t climb it, drink it.” The wide, snow-capped peaks of the mountain are featured on every label, and when my friend Nitesh’s Tanzanian colleague takes him out for drinks he tells him, “let’s move some mountains tonight.” Tanzania’s bottled water is also called Kilimanjaro, and though it’s owned and operated by Coca Cola, the cool blue plastic promises a drink as refreshing as if it were from the clear streams of the mountain.

Only one of my Tanzanian friends has climbed the mountain, and when I told other Tanzanian friends of my plan they smiled, rolled their eyes, and wished me luck. “Moshi is very beautiful, and not as hot as Dar,” they told me. “But it is very expensive to climb.” Climbing Kilimanjaro, they seemed to tell me with their sideways looks, is the kind of idle passion for those who can afford to pay for their suffering, who seek pain for character building because their lives don’t already provide for it naturally. When I tried to explain hiking as a past-time, my host brother scoffed. “Why don’t you just look around you? See–there is nature. And there. And everywhere. Me, I would rather see a city.”

But our group, having worked hard in our cubicles for months or years, were ready for the challenge, no matter how fabricated. I’d heard (hell, I’d been) that Western traveler-turned-social philosopher appalled at the thought of sinewy, half-starved porters huffing up the mountain bearing Kili hikers’ tents, luggage, food and portable toilets, pausing to have a smoke and laughing at the North Face clad “adventure hikers” who nursed blisters from their newly-purchased Goretex Timberlands and sipped electrolyte-enhanced water from Nalgene bottles as they preened and petted inflated images of themselves as paragons of strength and endurance. I’d even put off climbing the mountain until now, guilty at the thought of spending five times as much as the average Tanzania makes in one year to scale their beautiful, iconic mountain while they toil at the base of it, dark shadows wearing the bright colors of our dreams of them. But let me not be falsely indignant anymore. I wanted to climb the mountain, and I hoped that in so doing some of the cost would serve to benefit the local population.

Raj, Alex, and Linda were the first to sign up. Nitesh followed suit, and then I jumped on board. The four of them are volunteer consultants for Technoserve, bringing to Africa enviable credentials with top universities and firms in the US and UK. They call themselves VolCons (insert StarTrek joke here), and work with local clients to find “business solutions to poverty.” But despite their lofty backgrounds, I suspect they must be chasing some wild wind because here they are in Africa like me, the place for people still searching. The Technoserve volunteer coordinator, Payal, committed to the climb not more than 48 hours before our flight to Moshi. I think Alex and Raj and a night out in Nairobi had something to do with it. I met Raj and Alex the weekend before we left, and Payal the night before. They had come in from Kenya, and we hit the beach at Bongoyo Island, had Italian food, and pretended to avoid getting to know each other because we wanted to save that for the mountain. In a foreign country, friendships are condensed. We find each other and already see goodbyes around the corner, so the reservation that characterizes new acquaintances is done away with. Of course, within hours of the hike we each had nicknames, reminiscent of some bad movie about a platoon in the Vietnam War. Pony, Ginkgo, Boy Scout, Paparazzi, D-Bubs (short for Didi-Meyers-Bubbles–that’s a story in and of itself), and Bionic Woman, ready to take on the mountain. In a sense, our climb took on the aspect of a battle, or a quest. Imagine, our little band of intrepid souls trudging along toward some impossible dream, led by two sprites of the mountain, our guides Kilian and Maganga. Sometimes the mists would roll in and we would walk silently through moss-hung forests, unable to see more than 15 feet ahead. Other times, a large group of chattering teen-agers from a Swiss boarding school in matching blue wind-blazers would come marching past, shattering the reverie. Another recurring figure of the week: a solitary old man, wearing only sandals and shorts and a long, white beard, strolling along with his hands folded neatly behind his back, some philosophical treatise surely grinding through the cogs of his mind. Or perhaps not. Maybe just the image of a single red and bell-shaped flower like the one I stopped to consider along the trail.

But let me go back to the beginning. We got in to Moshi on February 4th. The Springlands hotel, owned by the Zara tour company, is purely a pit-stop for those headed to climb the mountain or go on safari in the nearby game reserves. Beautifully landscaped, dotted with lanterns that fill the space with warm light at night, the hotel makes promises of comfort and luxury that its inner rooms do not quite meet. The staff are aggressively friendly, energetic to the point of intimidation. I slept fitfully under my green mosquito net. February 5th was the first day of our climb. We left the hotel after a few frantic hours of renting gear (hiking poles, gaiters, gloves, insulated pants, thermal underwear, balaclava, headlamp, check, check, check), stashing luggage, weighing our bags, and settling our accounts. An hour long drive to the base of the mountain filled my mind with blurred images of green banana leaves, small Tanzanian shops, and women in colorful kangas carrying bundles of sticks on top of their heads. School children in uniforms skittered into the tall grass as we sped by. We stopped to let a herd of cattle and goats cross the road in front of us and I felt my ears begin to pop as we climbed in altitude. Our guide, Kilian, sat in the front seat. He had a wide face and nose and creases by his cheeks when he smiled. On our first day we hiked through rainforest and into the heather ecosystem. From the Machame Gate to Machame Camp was 10.8 km, and over 1200m of elevation gain. By the end of day one, Kilian’s laugh was forever imprinted in my memory. His English, though good, wasn’t perfect, and whenever he didn’t quite understand what we asked or said, he just laughed. Nitesh tried a joke on Kilian: “What do you call a cross between an elephant and a rhino?” Kilian let out a long, loud laugh. “And elephant and a rhino?! Man!” and then after a pause, “Fucking elephants. They’re crazy, man.” He then proceeded to tell a story about angry water buffalo. The punchline to the joke never came around. Maganga, his assistant guide, had a different strategy. When unsure of what to say, it was always, “hakuna matata.” One of Maganga’s jobs was to bring in our food at mealtimes. He’d enter the mess tent with a steaming pot of food and announce “Hey guys. It’s Mr.Vegetable,” then a few minutes later, “It’s Mr. Soup-u,” and then, “It’s Mr. Beef.”  Before the end of the week, “Mistah Veggie-teh-bull” was a good friend of mine. Every night, we flooded Maganga with questions as he brought in the food. “What time do we wake up tomorrow? What elevation will we reach? Should we take altitude sickness medicine?” He’d grin and say, “Ah, Mr. Killian, he will come. Ask Mr. Killian. Hakuna matata.” We ended the first day at 3020 meters, and collapsed into our tents, exhausted.

On February 6 we went from Machame Camp to Shira Camp (3847 m) on the southern edge of Shira Plateau. We walked 5.2 km. The land transitioned from forest to heather to moorland, the plants becoming smaller and lower to the ground. When the sun was out it beat down relentlessly. But then a cloud would roll in and cover us with a cool blanket of fog. At camp, Kilian introduced us to our crew. Eighteen Tanzanian men, from around 18 to 55 years old. They lined up, hands shoved into their pockets, knees bouncing to keep warm. They shook our hands one by one, and I tried to remember their names. Asante, asante, asante, we said to each other. I was thanking them for carrying my 15 kg bag up the mountain, making my food, carrying the portable toilet from camp to camp, heating a bucket full of water for me each morning to be placed just outside my tent flap. I’m not sure what they were thanking me for. We took pictures with our team and then said goodnight to them. Over the next few days we would see them on the trails. They beat us to camp by several hours each time, so that when we arrived our tents were raised and dinner was ready. As these memories start to blur and fade with years, I think what I will remember will be the image of the porters growing smaller as they disappear above me into the fog, bodies taut and swaying under the heavy weight of the bundles balanced on top of their heads. And how when they passed they would grin and say, “pole pole,” slowly, slowly, and leave us behind.

By dusk, the sky had dimmed to a pale purple and the clouds thinned away. There was just enough light to feel like you were somewhere underwater and might be confronted any moment by a creature you’d never seen before. Linda’s calls brought us from our tents. Kili’s peak reached into the sky over the dark ground in front of us, the white snows glowing with light that seemed to be siphoned from the sky and land around it. The mountain shone.

On the 7th we trekked from Shira Camp to Lava Tower (4642 m) where we had lunch in a cold rain mixed with hail, and the descended to Barranco Camp (3984 m). We walked a total of 10.7 km. The landscape turned lunar, we trudged through cold rain, not talking and stabbing our hiking poles into the stony earth. At Lava Tower, the headache that had been taking hold since the day before reached new levels of pain. The throbbing above my left ear and around the back of my skull was relentless. We picked at “Mr. Vegetable Pies” and “Mr. Soup” but couldn’t stomach much. After Lava Tower, we slipped and skidded down a ravine, the rain carving a path before us. By the time we reached Barranco Camp, the vegetation had changed again–this time into large desert palms with rounded tops and a thorny plant with pale lavender flowers. Boulders pretended to be dinosaurs or giants, and I felt suddenly small and insignificant as we approached the Western Breach, the towering wall across the valley from Barranco Camp. “Tomorrow we will climb that wall,” Kilian told us. “You will not use your hiking poles, just your hands. And if you fall… well… You gonn’ die.” I stared at the wall for a few minutes, then crawled into the tent for sleep.

On February 8th we trekked from Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp (4681 m), our last stop before summit. The 257 m high Breach Wall was treacherous. The shaking in my hands only started if I had to slow down enough to think about the fall below me, the sudden significance of inches and the necessity of my muscles obeying my mind. We had lunch at Karanga Camp at 4040 m, then ascended another 640 m to Barafu. The total distance from Barranco to Barafu was 9.4 km. At these heights I had to concentrate on my breathing, reminding myself that I needed more air than usual. Yet the views from the path–the clouds a white cirrus sea that stretched to the horizon, broken only by the island peak of Mt. Meru to the west–were more likely to make me forget to breathe.

Though we had set out to reach Barafu by 2 pm, we didn’t make it to camp until 6. The wind clapped against the side of the tent and even though we still had more than 1000 m to go to reach the summit, the cold was penetrating. In our small red tent, I layered on all of the clothes I would wear for that night: thermal underwear, two fleece jackets, my North Face shell, two pairs of pants, gaiters, gloves, a balaclava, two pairs of thick wool socks, and a fleece hat. I shoved my water bottles into my day pack. For dinner I tried to force down stew and bread, but at such high altitudes your appetite disappears. After dinner I tried to sleep for a couple of hours before our summit climb. In the pre-climb packet provided by the tour company, there was a description of the summit attempt. Here is an excerpt:

09 February 2010
Around midnight (your guide will judge the time that is optimal for you based on your pace thus far) quit camp for the assault via Stella Point (5752m) to the summit. Tonight is very difficult – particularly the final 500m – and you’ll need to commit to fight for the summit. You will inevitably feel like giving up and going to sleep. This is normal and can be overcome with perseverance. When resting please ensure you only stand or sit and do not lie down or close your eyes. Please trust your guide; he is very adept at judging whether your condition will allow safe progress or whether you have succumbed to a potentially dangerous condition and to proceed will not be safe. Nausea and headaches are normal and around a quarter of climbers will vomit at or near Stella Point. While very uncomfortable, these are not symptoms that are indicative of being at risk, per se. The onset of cerebral and pulmonary edema are marked by distinctive early warning symptoms that your guide is capable of identifying. Please maintain regular dialogue with him and frequently update him on how you are feeling.

When you reach Stella Point you will sit and rest. At this point the body often thinks you have finished your uphill fight and will be trying to coerce you into giving up and turning around. While you may genuinely believe that you have already exhausted your reserves in reaching this point, this is actually very unlikely to be so. Remember that you are only 143 vertical metres short of the summit, the journey from here is much less steep, and you have plenty of time for further pauses. If you do feel the need to give up at Stella Point please proceed towards the summit for just two minutes before making your final decision. In most cases this act of re-establishing momentum is enough to persuade the mind and body to co-operate with your intentions and you will ordinarily find hidden reserves for a final push, reserves that you were not aware you still had.

On the summit your guide will advise how much time you can spend there in consideration of your condition, your timings, and the weather. The brain does not function very intelligently at this altitude so please remember to take many photographs in all directions or you will probably regret not having done so at a later stage.

Our group was awake by 10:30 pm, not having been able to get much sleep before the aptly named “assault” on the summit of Mount Kilmanjaro. The Alpine Desert around us was barren, the rocks sounded like sheets of glass breaking as we walked on them. Kilian entered the mess tent after us, more serious than I’d heard him yet. “How are you feeling, man? Rafiki, niambie.” Friend, tell me. Not everyone would be starting the climb. We could hear retching from another tent. It was pitch black outside, save for the sky, which was covered with more stars shining brighter than I have ever seen them. The big dipper was just to the right of our destination point, and Orion was above and to the left. Kilian added two more porters, Ephraim and Kasanga, to our group going up, in case not all of us made it and needed to be brought down. Despite the dazzling beauty of the stars, I was miserable within minutes. My calves, which had been cramping for two days already, were unbearably tight almost immediately, sending shooting pain up my legs and making my feet numb and clumsy. The wind sliced across my uncovered face; the balaclava made me too claustrophobic to wear it. Though Kilian’s pace was a slow as he had promised, we were nevertheless climbing up a sheer rock cliff, at times climbing up stairs, and others scaling up flat stone. There wasn’t enough air for me to talk, let alone breathe without gasping. Kilian, Maganga, and the other guides were laughing and shouting to one another as if they were taking a stroll down the beach. For a while I tried to decipher their conversation in Swahili. I think they were talking about a girl, beautiful of course, named Faraja. Every five minutes or so Maganga would let out a whooping war cry of sorts that would echo in my ears and then disappear into the night. I tried singing to myself, tried counting stars, tried some sort of meditation, but my legs did not want to keep going. At every break I collapsed to the ground, whimpering. After about an hour and a half in I was ready to quit. Linda suggested we let the boys march on. They disappeared ahead of us with the porters, with a half-hearted “see you up there at the top” that I could tell they didn’t believe. Maganga took one of my hiking poles, wrapped my arm in his, and started pulling me along. I leaned my weight on him, but had to keep moving my legs. Every minute or so my breath would turn into a sort of rapid, uncontrollable wheeze. Maganga would wait patiently while I calmed my breath and then move steadfastly on. “I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I can make it,” I said over and over. “Never give up. Hey! We never give up, okay?” Kilian’s face loomed in front of mine, smiling, nodding. “Just do it. We’re going to make it.” He clapped his hands on my slumped shoulders. I shook my head no, but pulled myself up and kept walking. Every time we stopped I would tell Linda, “You can keep going. You’re doing better than I am.” She would deny it, even though she was, and insist on only going as far as I could go. After 6 hours of walking we reached Stella Point (5752 m). There was snow on the ground and it was still dark. Linda and I fell against each other. “We can watch the sun rise from here.” But our men would not have it. They pulled us up again, promising it would only be another 45 minutes to Uhuru Peak.

Kilimanjaro is the “the Roof of Africa,” and it’s the fourth highest of the Seven Summits. At 15,100 ft (4,600 m) from base to summit, it’s considered the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. Uhuru Peak, on the Kibo volcanic cone, is the highest summit of Kilimanjaro; it is 19,334 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level. At 6:30 a.m. on February 9, Linda, Kilian, Maganga and I reached that point. The path from Stella Point to Uhuru is long and slanting. It curves to the left, and is flanked by a long, gleaming glacier. A thin line of orange broke at the horizon as we walked alongside the plateau of ice. Before we reached the summit, groups began to pass us going the other way. They were beaming. “You’re almost there!” they shouted to us. We were both still leaning against our guides, unable to stand without them. I could see the wooden sign that marks the peak ahead. A short man in a puffy red jacket jogged up to me. “You don’t look good. You need medical attention. I’m a doctor, let me get you some oxygen.” He grabbed me around the right arm and we continued on. Then I saw Nitesh, Raj and Alex. Nitesh ran over and hugged me. I think I tried to smile. They were rushed down the mountain before we had time to say anything.

For the first time in hours, I felt I could stand on my own. The dawn light was brighter now, lighting up the yellow lettering of the summit sign and the multi-colored cloth of the Tibetan prayer flags that someone had tied around it. I turned around in a full circle. The clouds were orange and pink, the soil black against the white of the snow-peaked mountain. I started to cry. I think people were worried. The doctor found me with a can of oxygen and I took deep breaths in. We took the obligatory photos, I held onto Linda and said over and over, “it’s so beautiful, I can’t believe we’re here.” Soon Kilian and Maganga had my arms again and we were headed back down.

The day before I left Dar I met Shash at the Tujijenge office in Dar. He works for Unitas in India, a partner of Tujijenge. We found out we would both be climbing Kili, but thought we were going up different routes. On the 3rd day of the climb we ran into each other and exchanged a few words. Thereafter, whenever we passed each other we lifted an arm, saluted, shouted a hello. At Barafu we compared quick notes and wished each other luck making it to the summit. Shash appeared just as we were leaving the summit. Seeing the sorry state I was in, he had soon committed to seeing me down the mountain. For the next 4 hours we slid down the scree arm in arm, stopping to rest every fifty yards or so. “See? This is kinda fun, isn’t it?” he asked, trying to keep me going. In his article on climbing Kilimanjaro in the New York Times, Tom Bissell wrote, “My life is in the hands of a stranger, whom I suddenly love. So there’s one compelling reason to climb a mountain, then: to ascend into a strange, airless heaven with a person whose existence is foreign to you and to feel fundamentally altered because of it.” Without Maganga, Kilian, Linda and Shash, I would not have made it up or down Mount Kilimanjaro.

Back at Barafu camp I collapsed into the tent and slept for two hours. After that, I had to get up and we started our descent to Mweka Camp, another 6.3 km away. All in all, our summit and descent on that day was 15.3 km and took more than 13 hours. After the first full night’s sleep I’d had the whole week, we made it the 8.5 km from Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate, and back to 1641 m elevation. Every breath we took seemed easier, and I ran part of the way down the mountain. Kilian and I swapped soccer stories, and he helped me practice my Swahili. He told me about his family, and promised to call us when he comes to Dar in a few weeks to visit his mother. When we finally reached Mweka Gate, we cheered and sang. Jambo, jambo bwana. Habari gani? Nzuri sana. Wageni wakari bishwa Kilimanjaro. Hakuna matata! The Swahili children’s song bounced back and forth between guides and climbers. Our porters were all in a big safari vehicle waiting to drive away, and I reached my hands through the windows to shake hands and high-five with them all. They seemed just as joyous as we all did to have made it back down. I found it amazing they seemed so proud of us for doing burdenless what they do weekly carrying more than 30kgs on their heads. They couldn’t have been impressed, so they must simply be the kindest and most sympathetic men I can imagine.

Back at Springlands, Kilian filled out our completion certificates and we handed him our tips. Linda and I gave more, in complete agreement that Kilian and Maganga went above and beyond in taking us to the peak. Perhaps farther than they should have. At just 27 years old, Kilian has been climbing Kilimanjaro for 10 years. For the first four years he was a porter. Getting us to Uhuru Peak marked his 206th successful summit. “After I finished school my parents couldn’t afford to send me to school again,” he said, “so I just looked for work on the streets. Then I decided to try this mountain thing. I love the mountain. Like when I took you to the summit, that’s it, man. That feeling. I love this mountain.” Once, during the low season, Kilian got bored so he went from base to peak in 17 hours. The fastest he ever came down, he says, was 2.5 hours, running the whole way. “I’m fit, I’m like really fit,” he liked to say. He wasn’t kidding, or bragging, just stating the facts. That night we met Kilian for drinks at Glacier Bar in Moshi. He looked surprisingly slight and short in a polo shirt and jeans instead of his underarmor shirt, Spiderman beanie and hiking boots, his huge blue pack on his back. In his natural habitat, perched among the rocks, guiding us calmly towards our conquest, Kilian was larger than life. In the bar that night he seemed delicate, almost frail. I wanted to think of him on the mountain again, urging us on in a strong, clear voice. Three to four times a month he repeats this process just as casually, helping tourists “conquer” Kili, the hardest thing most of them will probably ever do. He claims he wants to do it until he’s sixty. He’s not married yet, says a girl broke his heart, and he’d rather keep climbing the mountain than get married and settle down. I can’t say that I blame him.

The six day hike up Kilimanjaro was beautiful, stunning. My pictures, as I flip through them now, are pathetically incapable of capturing how expansive and grand, how mysterious and mythic and sublime the views around us were every minute of the climb. I close my eyes instead and let my memory recreate them. As we rode to the airport the next day the peak of the mountain was covered with clouds. The base of it rested against the horizon like a giant bruised rain cloud. The white billows at the top that covered where we had been looked so high and far away. It felt strange to think that just hours before we had been above them, unable to see the ground below. For the previous twenty four hours all I had wanted was to get down from the mountain. Now that I was leaving it, I craned my neck to keep it in view, silent, majestic and fading by the second.

I doubt there will be a time as good as this.

*See more photos here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2666611&id=4924831&l=abadbaaf29

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Benjamin Cobb says:

    Beautiful post Rebecca! I’m sure the imagery from your climb will be forever seared into your mind.

  2. Patty says:

    OMG! I cried to think of it. I will never do anything like this, I am living it through your experience. Keep on writing, Rebecca. Thank you.

  3. xiaoxiao says:

    thank you for capturing so much – so beautifully and truthfully.

    i am so indescribably happy that i was able to share this with you. thank you for helping me remember it all.

  4. Mwemezi says:

    There cannot be a better story about ‘conquering’ Kilimanjaro than Rebecca’s. Congratulations!

  5. Annalise Peters says:

    So proud of you, Rebecca! Mt. Kili is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. You’re awesome and I’m thinking about you.

  6. recursouf says:

    Bex.

  7. terry says:

    Hemingway, in a letter to his father said…”You see I am trying in all my stories to get the feeling of actual life across- not to just depict life- or criticize it – but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful, you can’t believe in it.” Love

  8. James says:

    On Mount Kilimanjaro climbing tour, one of the tips to consider are weather, favorite route, menu and Guides.

    Kilimanjaro trekking trips will depend the type of weather from your country also, and which route to take.

    Some routes are easier and others are challenging

  9. Patty says:

    Rebecca, I came across this article and thought of you.

    http://www.more.com/kilimanjaro-preparations

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