I think a lot about traveling. I think about future travels and also about past travels. When I travel I like to try to keep notes or a journal if possible. Sometimes I’m better at it than others. I plan on remodeling or posting some of my notes from previous trips on this blog occasionally. I know I have shared this one with others in the past. It was such an amazing experience that I decided to put it on this blog, so here it is: (some names have been changed)
This is something I wrote on July 8, 2010, after an epic journey through Africa!
Holy crap! It’s hard for me to come to grips, but I just hiked the highest free standing mountain in the world! 5895 meters high!!! I just came down after 7 days on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. This was by far the most extreme hiking and camping that I have ever done. I’ll just have to say it again: holy crap.
So, I may as well get on with my story for those who have interest.
I was just dropped off from an overland truck tour and I waited in Arusha, Tanzania for the shuttle to take me to Moshi, at the base of the mountain. Of course the shuttle came an hour and a half late. I pondered life and my vacation as I sat and waited. The people at the shuttle station told me I could set my luggage outside the station, that it was safe. The reason that it was safe was that a man in a beret with an AK47 was guarding it. I sat around for a while with Esteban from my tour group, he also got off in Arusha to do some volunteer work and will be hiking Kili later this month. We ate a buffet breakfast for about 3 hours straight, or well, Esteban ate for at least that long, it was a good way to kill time. Finally he took a cab to his hostel and I was alone for the first time in 40 days, still waiting for my shuttle. I really miss the people from my tour group a lot already, it was such a great travel experience.
As I sat there I watched large groups of people get on other shuttles and african men jump on the shuttles and tie luggage to the roof. People were walking around with live chickens in their hands and people in uniforms wandering about with large firearms, I smiled to myself that this seemed normal to me at this point, I fricken love Africa.
So anyway, I eventually did make it to the hotel in Moshi. Dana wasn’t there yet. She didn’t arrive until 11pm. I was very happy to see her. She brought some gear along for me that I packed for this hike two months ago and left with her to meet me with. Now I had everything I needed except I still needed to rent a “warm jacket” from the hotel.
We got some sleep for the night. The next morning we got up early and went to look at rental items. The rental room of the hotel was packed with what appeared to be people’s donated gear and clothing. A man in the room offered assistance by digging through piles of clothes and letting me try them on. I found a “warm jacket.” It was a ridiculously huge puffy down coat, it took up half of my backpack.
We each had packed a daypack to carry and we could also pack a large backpack for a porter to carry. (The “warm jacket” took up half of my large backpack)
We met our tour guide, Abdi. We met Bill and Danny, who were in the group with us to go up the mountain. We had ourselves a little group of four hopeful summit achievers and we four hikers turns out needed 16 people to help us up the mountain. We had Abdi the leader, Godfrey, the assistant guide, a cook whose name I don’t know and Kitenja, who was our food server also working as a porter as we ascended, and we had 12 porters to haul shit up and down the mountain. Bill and Danny were from Colorado, but Bill has lived in Uganda the past 4 years and Danny lives in Taos.
Turns out I had booked not the easiest route (my mistake). I actually booked the most scenic route that had an extra day on the mountain for altitude acclimitazation and is known also as the “whiskey route”, as apposed to the much more popular “coca cola route”. The whiskey route is termed this because it is much more hard core (again, didn’t really intend to plan it that way – shit). I really had just picked it because it had an extra day and a fairly high success rate to reach the summit, as well and it said it was scenic. Really my only goal when picking a route was to pick the route that gets me to the top. If I had known that the Machame route was considered for “the hardcore hiker” I never would have picked it. But these are things that aren’t easy to know until you get there.
The first day was hiking into the rainforest surrounding the mountain. The next several days were above the clouds and above the tree line. It was scenic, very very beautiful and was crazy to see the top of the mountain (kibo) from below. “Pole pole” was repeated over and over, it means slowly slowly in swahili. It was reported to be best to hike up Kilimanjaro (commonly just called “kili”) slowly for best altitude acclimitazation.
The porters were crazy to watch. They carried so much crap. Carried it on their backs and their heads. I saw my backpack go by on someone’s head while that person had another very large backpack on their back. The porters were carrying so much and would just stroll by us. They carried luggage, water, tables, chairs, some had portable toilets (our tour group didn’t use these), they carried food and of course their own personal items. The porters were all very friendly and would say “jambo” (hello), “pole pole” (slowly slowly), “hakuna matata” (no worries) and “mambo” (how are you?), and we were only taught to say “poa” (cool/good) in return, so I guess we needed to feel good the whole way.
Overall I would say I excelled at the “pole pole” style of hiking. We hiked a lot everyday. We always hiked very slowly, which was exactly my style.
The third day on the mountain was ridiculously cold. I had decent gear, and did okay. I didn’t even need to use my stupid crazy “warm jacket” yet and was getting very sick of stuffing it into my pack repeatedly, as it was hard to do. We hiked with Godfrey as our leader most of the time and hung out in a mess tent and were served food by Kitenja. The food was pretty good, soup every day and a lot of fried stuff, lots of tea. I even got special food because I was the vegetarian. Unfortunately for me, I got stomach sickness, which was likely just a continuation from my being ill previously toward the end of my overland tour, but all the dirt on the mountain and lack of running water probably didn’t help my situation, blah blah blah, (what I’m trying to say is it was less than hygenic on the mountain), it all probably added to the sickness. Also, by day three on the mountain I noted mold growing in my camelback. I tried to kill it with chlorine tablets, but it was still there. I didn’t really have a choice but to continue to drink from it. So, the “runny tummy” continued. Fun times on the mountain (sarcastic voice).
Along the way up one day we saw a man with a huge gash/cut on his head, he had two doctors with him who were sewing him up while he sat there. We saw the sewn up man the next day still going, I think I would have turned back down if that were me.
I had my own issues to attend anyway. I had had diarrhea all throughout the hike and had to stop at about every “toilet” along the way and also make some other stops in various places to make my own “toilet.” The toilets along the camps were sort of like outhouses in that they were little wooden shacks, only they didn’t have “seat” toilets, they had what was called “long drops,” which means they had a wooden floor with a hole cut into the bottom that one has to squat over and aim into. The hole really weren’t that big, usually 6 inches by 12 inches or sometimes smaller. These things were usually disgusting, with poop and urine around the hole from people whose aim wasn’t that great. My aim wasn’t always that great either. There are a lot of challenges to Kilimanjaro’s toilets. Challenges include: wearing multiple layers, having tired legs from hiking, slipping on pee or poop, feeling like crap, being very cold, and not breathing easily due to altitude. I almost preferred to go behind a rock along the trail.
We seemed to spend several days hiking “around” kibo, the peak or upper part of the mountain. I kept looking up at it and thinking it looked crazy high up there. The 5th campsite on the mountain was at Barafu camp, around 14,000 feet. We got there in the afternoon. We ate some dinner and spoke with Abdi for a while regarding the climb. Abdi knew that I was frequenting the toilets and asked me how I felt. I told him I felt ok. I definitely didn’t want to tell him anything otherwise because I didn’t want him to tell me I was too ill to hike to the top. Abdi asked me if I had a headache; I told him no. He asked me if I had diarrhea; I said yes. He then proceeded to ask me if I had it more than six times per hour or if it were bloody; I told him no. He told me that I would be fine. ‘Jeez,’ I thought to myself ‘if I had diarrhea six times per hour or if it were bloody that would be pretty extreme. That’s his cutoff for ‘being fine?’‘
We had to try to get some sleep and wake up at 11pm to hike to the summit in attempt to summit by sunrise. Me and Dana did manage to get some sleep before we left, but we were very excited, I was also pretty nervous. Nerves seemed to run high in the camp, as Dana and I were about to go to sleep we heard the couple trying to get some rest in a tent near us (the girl was very hard to hear):
Girl: “move over.”
Boy: “I am over.”
Girl: (too quiet to understand)
Boy: “I am fucking over, how fucking far do you think I can move over? I’m already halfway off my mattress, I cannot fucking move over any farther.”
Me and Dana heard this just busted out laughing, it was difficult to stop laughing. Anyway like I said, we did manage to get some sleep.
Kitenja woke us up at 11pm, we got some tea and biscuits. It was time for my “warm jacket” to come out, I thought about how I hoped it would be worth hauling it around. (it was so worth it). I wore a long underwear shirt, one short sleeved shirt, one long sleeved shirt, a fleece and the ginormously huge and puffy rented “warm jacket” on the top half of my body. I had a balaclava (robber-type head mask) and a stocking hat and the hood from the “warm jacket” on my head. Long underwear bottoms, digusting hiking pants that I had worn the past 4 days and a pair of “rain pants” on the bottom. Two wool hiking liner socked and one pair of wool socks and my hiking boots. I wore very thick gloves rated “warmest” and designed for “those with cold hands”. I had my daypack with me. Abdi told us that any water outside of the pack would freeze, and water in the pack may also freeze. We were told to keep our cameras inside our jackets as the batteries would freeze and not work. My daypack had about three liters of water.
The summit climb:
So, at midnight we started out the hike to the summit of Kilimanjaro, Kibo is the name of the upper peak and Uhuru point the highest point and our goal, with Stella point being a high point where large glaciers are along the way.
So, like I said we were using the Machame route, and apparently the ascent to the summit along this route is more steep than other routes, much to my dismay.
But: We had our headlamps on and were ready to go. We started hiking following Abdi. Some other helpers were with us, including Godfrey, the assistant guide. The hike was very steep, every step was a pretty big effort. We were told it was about 5 hours to stella point and 1 and 1/2 hours from there to Uhuru point. The hike up was slow. Almost right away I started feeling too warm. I really felt way overdressed and my back was overheating where my backpack was. I felt the need to rest and catch my breath frequently. Abdi asked if I was okay. I said that I was, but that I felt too hot. Immediately Abdi told someone to take my daypack from me, which bruised my ego a little as I thought I’d be able to at least carry my own daypack to the top. Abdi came up to me and unzipped my jacket and my fleece and told me to zip it up again when I was cold and told me to keep going. Immediately without my backpack I felt like a giant burden had been lifted from me, and it was much easier… but it was still hard. My headlamp batteries died, I hiked for a while using ambient light from Bill’s headlamp behind me. Every step was an enormous effort and it went very steeply up with absolutely no flat parts or easy sections. I looked up ahead of me, there was a very huge line of dinky headlamps headed up the mountain, all other hopeful summiters ahead of us. I could not see the mountain itself as it was too dark, but the line of headlamps going up seemed to go on forever. It seemed as though there were no end. It was depressing. Abdi and the other helpers on the mountains were singing songs. I didn’t have the energy to sing, but I liked to hear them. I thought of Cake songs and The Darkness songs and sang them to myself in my own head, not even having the energy to mouth the words as I struggled to breathe at this altitude and steep ascent. I looked at the moon, it was a very large yellow crescent hanging in a sky full of bright stars. It was very pretty. I told Dana, who was in front of me, “Look at the moon”, she did not respond. A few minutes later: “Dana, isn’t the moon pretty?” She did not respond. I started looking at her more closely, she looked very tired. I wanted to tell her to give her daypack to somebody. Within several minutes she did ask Abdi to carry it for her. I was glad, because I knew how much it helped me not to have mine on.
We stopped a few times for water breaks. During the first few stops my water was starting to freeze, but I could thaw out the mouthpiece of my bottle by sucking on it. I also got to replace my batteries in my headlamp, which was good. It was really starting to get very very cold. I had re-zipped my fleece and “warm jacket’ and pulled up my hood nice and tight. My feet were absolutely starting to freeze. I started to wonder if I could lose toes to frostbite within a 8 hour period in the cold on the mountain. I began to move my ankles more and attempt to wiggle my toes with every step. It helped only marginally. The trail then went from bad to worse. The trail had been very steep and rocky, but then became sandy. We were on a huge “skree slope” which I noted was just like hiking a sand dune. Every step up was very difficult and steep and with every step up, I slide about halfway back down to where I started. It went on and on. My feet felt like solid ice blocks. My hands were starting to freeze. I looked up at Dana and noticed that she had her hands in her pockets: totally genius, I did the same, it helped, however it made balancing more difficult. We stopped only for very very short breaks. I tried to wiggle my toes and move my ankles during the breaks. The porter carrying my daypack would get my water for me during the breaks. During one short break I was trying to defrost my mouthpiece to my water bottle my sucking and chewing on it like a dog, it wasn’t working. I was also trying to catch my breath. Before I could even get a drink Abdi said “okay, lets go”. I said “but I didn’t get any water yet, does anyone have any water that isn’t frozen?” Abdi grabbed my water from me and immediately scolded me for trying to use water that I stored outside of my pack, he said “I told you your water would freeze” I realized that I wasn’t thinking clearly and that I did have other water in my pack, but I didn’t get it, the porter did hand me my frozen water, but I didn’t think to ask him for other water. Abdi gave me some water and I drank it. It was so cold, it seemed to make me even colder. Porters and helpers helped me put my gloves on better. They helped try to warm me up by rubbing my hands and patting my back, they were very nice and encouraging. Me and Dana tried to be brave for each other and gave each other five.
We had to hike more. Abdi said if we didn’t keep moving that we would freeze. The steep and horrible skree just continued relentlessly. I was starting to get really really exhausted. I still had at least another hour of hiking it. My hands and feet were ice blocks. Each step was so difficult and so heartbreaking because I would slide down so much after exerting such a huge effort to make that step. I remember thinking: “this is so hard, each step is so hard” I was starting to lose my balance and not placing my feet as carefully which resulted in more backsliding with each step than previously. I said to Abdi “can we go slower and take more breaks?” He didn’t respond. “Abdi?!!! Abdi??!! Can we go slower and take more breaks?” He said “No!!, If you are allowed to make your own pace you will give up. Just keep walking.” I really had the desire to beg him, I wanted to tell him that I promised I wouldn’t give up, but I just really wanted to go slower and take more breaks. I won’t give up, I promise, I promise. But instead, I just shut up and kept walking like he said. Holy shit, did the trail just keep going up. I made the mistake of looking up the mountain. The line of headlamps still went seemingly endlessly up the mountain, I could not see the end. I kept hiking up. Each step seemed monumental, it was so hard. I couldn’t believe how hard it was. The wind was whipping at me and I couldn’t feel my feet at all anymore, which was good because they didn’t bother me anymore, I stopped bothering trying to wiggle my toes. I started to slip more and more. I reached the point where I thought I might cry. Abdi then told me to hold onto Godfrey’s arm for support. Godfrey appeared on my right out of thin air and I linked my arm into his arm. I was grateful. Abdi helped Dana with support by having her hold her backpack (which he was wearing) from behind him for support. We continued to hike… up the skree….. forever….. I started to use Godfrey’s arm for support more and more until the point that I didn’t think that I could stand without him being there. Still we hiked up the skree. One step up, sliding 1/2 step down, over and over and over. Godfrey was so nice. We stopped for very very brief breaks, about 30 seconds at a time, Godfrey rubbed my hands and patted my back. Sometimes as we were walking he would rub or pat my hand that was holding his arm to help keep it warm. My other hand was in my pocket. I felt so helpless letting him help me like that. When I thought about how nice he was and how grateful I was for his help, I wanted to cry. Then I thought about how hard the trail was and I wanted to cry. Oh my god, it just kept going with no relief… at one point I looked up at Dana who was hanging onto Abdi heavily and I said “this trail is so horrible, every step is so hard” I don’t think she heard me, Godfrey did and he rubbed my hand.
I took huge gulps of air and occasionally fought the urge to cry. Godfrey told me that once we get to Stella Point that the trail will flatten out to Uhuru Peak and that it will be “very easy”. He said we only had about 20-30 minutes more of the steep trail to Stella Point. i told him I was happy to look forward to the easy trail.
Finally, oh FINALLY, we made it to Stella Point. The trail became flat and the wind picked up to a very very strong gust. Dana was there, she grabbed me by the arms and said “we are gonna do this, we are gonna fucking do this, it’s gonna fucking kill us, but we are doing this” I looked at her and didn’t have the energy to respond. I started to get tears in my eyes. I saw a very huge glacier right behind her. Godfrey was gone for the moment. It was still dark outside, but slightly lighter than pitch black. It was very very very cold. I started to have an upset stomach and thought that I had to have diarrhea. I wasn’t sure, maybe I just had to pee. I walked behind a glacier to make my toilet. Actually, kinda to the side of a glacier, it was so dark out that no one could see anything anyway. It was hard to take three bottom layers down with frozen hands, but I managed and indeed I had to have diarrhea. I won’t even mention how difficult it is to deal with toilet paper with frozen hands. Diarrhea on the side of a glacier? Yes, now I get to check that off my bucket list. Godfrey was waiting for me and he walked behind me for a while. Dana and Abdi were ahead of me. They waited for me. I was previously told that Uhuru point was 1 and 1/2 hours from Stella Point. I discovered that although the trail was flatter and much much much much easier, it was still difficult for me to walk. Abdi offered his right arm for support, Dana was on his left arm. I started to feel extremely dizzy, I was trying to walk, but basically was hanging off of Abdi’s arm. I told Abdi “Abdi! I’m really really dizzy, I can’t walk straight” he held my arm tighter and said: “just keep walking, you will feel better in five minutes” and I did keep walking, and I did feel better in 5 minutes. The trail went in between glaciers, and then on top of glaciers. The trail seemed to narrow out and was too narrow for me, Abdi and Dana all at once. Godfrey again magically appeared and offered up his arm. I took it and walked with him, babbling on about how I liked the flat trail much much better than the trail up to stella point.
Much sooner than I expected, Godfrey told me: look, there is Uhuru Point. I looked ahead and saw in the distance a sign post and people gathered around it. I looked down at my feet on top of a glacier and saw the “trail” which was really a glacier, and it was fairly flat all the way to the point. Then it hit me: I was going to make it, I was going to make it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in the entire continent of Africa, the tallest free standing mountain in the entire world. This is something that I had wanted to do for so many years, something that I had decided that my life would not be complete without doing it, something on my life’s list of goals to accomplish. I was doing it today, right now, and I was going to make it. I was going to achieve this goal. I was doing it, it was 7-7-2010, approaching 7am. I am 33 years old, I wanted to do it before I turned 40. I am on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I was so overwhelmed. I started crying, A lot. Tears flowed freely from my eyes until I couldn’t even see where I was walking. I still had quite a bit of walking to do. I had to fight the urge to sob openly. I didn’t want Godfrey to see, but I’m sure he did. I made it to the top. Dana was there about 30 seconds before me, she was all but hopping up and down. I was crying and couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t stop crying. I told Godfrey through sobs and tears “thank you so much for helping me, this is something I really wanted to do in my life” I wanted to say more, but I was too choked up. Bill and Danny grabbed me and hugged me. Oh yeah… I forgot they were with us. They made it up there too!! I was happy. We all did it!!! Abdi offered to take photos of us by the sign. I took out my camera from inside my jacket. It didn’t work, it said the batteries were dead. Abdi said that would happen in extreme cold. I had spares in my inside pocket. I changed them, they also didn’t work. He told me to take them out and he would warm them up and try again. He did and they worked for one photo of me at the top, then stopped working. Luckily, Dana had better luck and got some photos. I had my left glove off and was trying to mess with my camera and batteries and suddenly, I shit you not, my hand fricken froze in place and would not move, it was like a block of ice. The nice porter who had my day pack grabbed my camera from me and put it in my inside jacket pocket for me and put my glove on my hand for me, it wouldn’t go on completely. I had to use my right hand to shove my left hand in my pocket. Godfrey magically appeared again and walked with me to descend the mountain. The sun was rising, it was beautiful, the timing of the hike was actually quite perfect. I could not feel my left hand for at least 15 minutes, and when I began to feel it again, it was so horribly painful. The pain lasted about 20 minutes or so before it began to feel somewhat more normal. Godfrey and I made it to Stella point. It was there in the daylight that I got to look down and see the horror of what I had climbed up previously. It was a huge slope of sand and rock that went on and on and on. Godfrey offered up his hand and he and I walked, slid, ran down the skree of the mountain. Even at a near running pace down, it took over 2 hours to get down the sandy slope. It was baffling to think that I had just climbed up it. It was probably a good thing we did it in the dark. If I had seen that on the way up, I may have wanted to give up. Godfrey and I were quite fast in our decent. I made it down at least 10-15 minutes before the rest of my group. At the camp Kitenja was waiting for me with Gatorade. He exclaimed “Melissa!!!” and gave me a big hug. After we were all back, we got to sleep for a couple of hours and then we hiked down to a lower camp for the night.
We came off the mountain today, the hike down was brutal, was very steep and my toes are suffering. A word of advise: trim your toenails before descending a giant mountain. I think my toenails may fall off.
On the way down we saw some poor young guy getting strapped into a large stretcher attached to a old crappy looking motorcycle wheel on the front, appearing sort of like a makeshift wheelbarrow. We passed him and I felt sorry for him. A short time later we heard screaming from behind and that very stretcher was coming down on the old motorcycle wheel with multiple porters screaming while hauling the guy. They guy was bouncing so much and seemed very very very much in pain. Abdi said they guy hurt his leg on the peak yesterday and was taken partway down yesterday and is headed to the hospital today. Then I remembered that I did see the red cross coming up the mountain on my way down it yesterday, it must have been for that guy. I felt sorry for him. The trail down the mountain today through the rainforest was very steep and slippery, and I very much didn’t want to end up in a stretcher being rolled down the mountain. (another group of people later reported that they saw that stretcher miss a corner and hit a tree on the way down). I had more help today from Godfrey (support in steep and slippery areas with a helping hand) and some teasing from Bill and Danny that I must have a crush on Godfrey. Seriously, he was so helpful, and I was so grateful for his help.
I got a gold certificate today, says I made it to the top!!!
So, I did it! I was hard, it was the most difficult and extreme hiking I have ever done. I heard another hiker say: “I have a great sense of accomplishment but didn’t enjoy it”. I would agree with that for the actual summit day, but I really did enjoy the hike overall. The staff was great, the food was good, camping was fun, Dana was great company, Danny and Bill were nice guys to have in the group. It was a great experience.
I fly to Amsterdam tomorrow, and home the next day.
I’m going to be sad to leave Africa. I have loved this trip so much! Africa will hold a very special place in my heart.
On the way up, Kibo in the background
Our four successful summiters, July 7, 2010
My victory picture!
Me and Godfrey and Dana finally made it back off the mountain.
Me and Godfrey, my Kilimanjaro hero!
I must also make note of Abdi, who was a great trip leader, and his tough love, help and desire for us all to make it was fantastic, without Abdi and Godfrey and all of the other support staff on this trip, I wouldn’t have made it to the top!