By sheer luck and a flexible schedule my 6 month journey through Europe ended in the most unlikely of places, Africa. The group I traveled with decided to take on Mt. Kilimanjaro in order to switch things up from the regular safaris that they were used to. I never turn down the opportunity for a once in a lifetime experience, even if it is notably difficult. I had no proper training for mountaineering and with two weeks notice, I took on the stair master and increased endurance training. Needless to say I felt extremely unprepared. Oddly enough, good physical endurance isn’t the only factor that will get you up the tallest point in Africa, it comes down to willpower (and decent lung capacity of course).
Day 1: Macheme Camp
We started the day in the late afternoon and learned the most overused saying on the mountain: “Pole, Pole”, which means “slowly, slowly”. Altitude sickness is common and the guides want to give everyone time to adjust. Nothing annoys me more than slow drivers and slow walkers so I ignored the guides telling me to slow down every other minute and sped past everyone. I stayed conscious of my breathing and heart rate and went at what I found to be a comfortable pace, which saved me around 2 hours of average walking time each day. Growing up in elevation had a positive effect, but maintaining my regular fitness training proved most useful.
This day was an easy hike up a dirt road through a beautiful jungle. It’s a 4-5 hour hike to our campsite and I got there before the guides were there to set up the tents. Basically if you can walk up a mountain for what feels like an endless amount of time, everything else is taken care of. It also happened to be New Years Eve, which my group celebrated with a carb loaded dinner prepared by the chefs. We celebrated by passing out in our sleeping bags by 8 pm. At midnight loud cheering and sounds of mini explosives could be heard from the Americans in the camp next to us. I regretted not packing wine amongst my essential items.
Day 2: Shira Cave
It is New Year’s Day and we start our journey around 9 am with a 4 hour hike from Macheme Gate, plus 1 hour for acclimation. I did the walk on my own and arrived when there was only about 5 porters setting up some one else’s camp. The climate changed dramatically from warm tropics to cold and foggy. Sleeping and breathing became harder and it felt as if a weight was placed on my chest. The sound of my heart beat kept me up all night. Once I finally managed to fall asleep I awoke abruptly with the urge to use the bathroom. I refused to used the “demon toilet” that was next to the tent and instead walked uphill in the cold to the tourist bathroom. If the fumes in there weren’t enough to kill someone, they were just about as close as it gets. I marked that moment as one of the worst experiences of my life and went back to my tent to try and catch 4 more hours of sleep. On a bright note the stars appeared so close I could reach out and touch them.
Day 3: Karangahut
I was dreading this day. We combined two camp days into one in order to finish faster. It was a total of 8 hours and 30 minutes, which included a 1.5 hour break. I stayed with the group and endured the extremely slow speed led by our guide for 1 hour. We played games like Name the Celebrity and joked about how we could watch bacteria grow on the rocks at this rate of our walking speed. My extremely fit friend and I broke off and did the rest of our journey on our own. At one point we were seriously lost when the fog rolled in and were lucky enough to stumble upon a porter who knew the way. The scenery began to look like the surface of the moon in some areas. Visibility was low and getting to the next camp required scrambling up a steep mountain on all fours. I’m amazed that older people are able to do this part because it requires a lot of physical exertion and strength. Camp was just at the top of the steep mountain as well as the last point for clean drinking water. I managed to slip into a comatose sleep state after taking two melatonin pills.
Day 4: Base Camp
We had an easy 3 hour hike to base camp, which I completed in 1 hour 15. Surprisingly enough the altitude wasn’t affecting me too much. Shortness of breath and more breaks occurred but I didn’t see walking any slower as beneficial to my own acclimation.
We spent the rest of this day mentally preparing for the midnight trek to the summit. Worrying about the cold was only half of the mental stress, the rest was knowing that this was the day that makes or breaks most people.
Day 5: Summit Day
We were awoken by lights and the voices of our porters. I was awake moments before dreading the inevitable. We sluggishly pulled on 5 layers of clothing, 2 pairs of gloves, and 2 pairs of socks. Every moment at this level of elevation was exhausting so picture yourself doing everything in slow motion.
We were fed cookies and tea, which seemed like a ridiculous pre summit snack seeing that we our burning all our calories just being able to expand our lungs at this point. Outside the milky way could be seen so clearly along with the head lamps snaking its way up the mountain from those who decided to summit earlier. One member of our group was already experiencing altitude sickness so in stead of stopping every 2 minutes, my friend and I went on our own with one guide. We passed many people going up and a few that turned around. Half way up the summit the real test began and I understood the importance of “pole, pole”. Every time I had to walk quicker in order to keep up with the guide and my friend, my throat would close up and heart would race. I made up a strategy that if I can make it through the first 5 minutes after each stop then I my body will go into autopilot and it becomes easier. It felt like a mass group struggle. Everyone had the same hard and empty look on their face, all in sync with each slow, heavy foot step and pole clanking. This went on for hours and the only thing to change the mood was the beautiful orange sunrise forming.
6.5 hours later I collapsed at the top, got a quick photo of the Stella Point sign and was ready to turn around until my friend told me that we did not make it all the way up here to reach the false summit. I look up and what appears to be a 15 minute walk away at a slightly steeper point is the real summit. There is nothing worse than a false summit, especially one that appears so close but takes you 45 minutes to reach. We finally get to the “real summit” take a quick photo and turn around immediately. I was not overwhelmed by a special feeling of accomplishment, only hunger and exhaustion.
We group with our friends at the false summit and split off again so we can head down. It was literally like walking through quick sand at some points because all the dirt from where we hiked up was loose. If I had skis I could have flew down the mountain but instead it took 4 hours. I laid comatose in the tent ready to sleep and then our guide came over saying that there is no more water and we have to go another camp. I was almost as annoyed then as I was realizing there was a false summit. Regardless, we packed up our bags and walked 4 hours down to Meuca camp. It took my friend and I 2 hours because as the elevation decreased our energy increased, so we ended up jogging a good stretch of it. I’m absolutely amazed by the human body’s abilities.
Day 6: Meuca Camp to Gate
I completed the estimated 2.5 hour walk in a 1 hour and 20 minute job through a lush jungle. It was more so a run to a shower and working toilet but I enjoyed bird watching a long the way. The taste of a Kilimanjaro beer at the gate made the whole experience come together as an unregrettable and amazing accomplishment. For a true test of willpower, this mountain will push you to your threshold. A part of me has changed after that experience because I now feel like anything can accomplished, not just physically, but mentally. My increased self belief shines in everything I do and I always know that I will make it and to never regret the journey.
Starring roles in this adventure go to…
The Toilette: Referred to as “Demon Toilet” by our group. One of the porters was in charge of maintaining this portable toilet, which he was slacking. The tourist toilets are almost traumatizing. If you don’t pass out from the fumes the filthy site is enough to make the jungle look like the best option.
The Porters: These guys make the journey possible. They carry everything from tents, toilets, food for the week, all your supplies, etc. They are amazingly strong and altitude has no obvious effect on them because each has completed this journey more times than they can count.
The Food: The chef carb loaded us so that we would have enough energy day to day. Unfortunately this just leads to bad stomach aches and a strong craving for protein. The vegetable soups given at every lunch and dinner were usually good but a plate full of pasta with some veggies wasn’t anything to look forward to. It’s also common to not have a large appetite at high elevations. The Mt. Killi weight loss journey started day one.
The tourists: There are many types of people you’ll encounter on this mountain. I went during prime tourist season and encountered a lot of middle aged bucket list fulfillers, recently retired American tourists. These are basically the people I aim to avoid whilst traveling due to difference in traveltudes (travel + attitude). When people are physically uncomfortable, not much is being said so I didn’t hear meaningless chit chat.
The Kessy Brothers : This was the group we hired to assist us up the mountain and back. We literally showed up to their office in flip flops and they took care of all our food, supplies and provided a full team of porters. http://www.kessybrotherstours.com/kilimanjaro_trekking.html
The friends I overcame this challenge with: Having a lighthearted group of guys to share this experience with resulted in extreme fits of laughter and a lifetime of memories. They made this journey far easier and enjoyable than if I were to do it alone.