Background: Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and fourth highest of the Seven Summits. It is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, with Uhuru Peak rising to an altitude of 19,341 ft.
“Kilimanjaro has intrigued modern man for the past century. Mount Kilimanjaro was “discovered” by the western world in 1848, when the German missionary Johannes Rebmann came within sight of the mountain, explored the area and traversed the lower slopes. He submitted his findings to the Royal Geographical Society, but his description of a snowcapped mountain in eastern equatorial Africa was doubted by these “experts”. During the following years there where a number of unsuccessful attempts by various explorers to conquer the summit and it was only on the 6 October 1889 that Dr. Hans Meyer, with Ludwig Purtscheller an experienced alpine mountaineer, managed to reach the summit successfully. The expedition consisted of many porters, guides and advisors. It took the intrepid Meyer almost 6 weeks to reach the summit, 6 times as long as it takes the average climber today.”
Really? Did this just happen? We did not just climb the tallest freestanding mountain in the world? Did we? DID WE?!
Ok, so I guess I would consider myself a “hiker”, but my typical hike usually consists of a couple miles with the end goal of lounging on a mountainside enjoying a nice picnic of cheese, bread, chips and salsa, and maybe a glass of wine or a cold beer.
My typical hike is not a 7-day climb up a huge mountain.
Here is how it all began. Two years ago at a music festival my friend Joseph and I got to scheming, about Africa, and beyond. With my wheels turning and developing this trip, and his family venturing to South Africa, we developed a harebrained scheme to climb Kilimanjaro. Also, both of our dads had done it, so we decided we needed to follow in their footsteps. Annalie, looks like you’re next!
On the bus from Dar es Salaam to Arusha, our harebrained idea had quickly become reality. As we passed by Kilimanjaro peeking out of the clouds on the right side of the bus, a panicked face turned to me. “How did we get here, and what the heck are we thinking!” Alas, we continued on, although some of our party would have much preferred to stay lounging on a beach in Zanzibar.
From Dar es Salaam it took 12 hours to get to Arusha. It was a beautiful drive through the hills of Tanzania, although I thought I might have to jump out the window because I was going to pee so badly. Have no fear! The bus driver pulled to the side of the road to a desolate area with tall grass and people started filing off the bus. We had no idea what was going on. Was this lunch? Where was the lunch? Was it where people got off to catch another bus? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It was the rest stop. Women, in the tall grass to the left, men, in the tall grass to the right, so I bound into the tall grass and squatted. Oh, the joys of traveling.
After our informal rest stop adventure, we continued down the road to the “food stop” for long distance travelers. For $3 we got a heaping plate of greens, rice, beans, and potatoes- yum! We got a mere 15 minutes to eat before our bus departed, so we shoved it down and hit the road again
We arrived in Arusha, the nearest town to the climb, late at night, and our guide Willy picked us up from the bus station and took us to our hotel for some rest and relaxation before the big ascent. The hotel was luxurious for our standards, complete with sheets, soap, and, get this, even towels!
The following day we met our guides, rented necessary gear and prepared for departure. This included buying candy for the summit day, phoning family to let them know the deal, watching local TV (awful but amazing), resting and chatting about what we are to embark on. OH, and showering. Little did I know that I would spend countless hours over the next 7 days daydreaming about this hot water shower.
Day 1- We woke up at 8, the 4 of us loaded into a huge van with our 14 porters, 2 guides, cook and assistant cook, and headed to the gate and entrance to Kilimanjaro, which was about a 45 minute drive from Arusha. We decided to take the Machame Route, which takes 6-7 days. This was recommended because the more days you take, the more likely you are to make it to the top, because of acclimating to the altitude.
We ate a quick lunch, packed up our gear, loaded our daypacks, paid the park fees (we may have solely financed the entire country of Tanzania) and began the assent.
The first Swahili phrase we learned on this trip was Pole, which means slowly. Every single porter or guide who passes you on the trail says, “Pole, Pole, Dada (sister)” We took their advice, and set off on our trek slower than I have ever hiked in my life. We hiked through the jungle that day, playing word games and wondering what the next 7 days held in store for us.
After about 5 hours of hiking, we were greeted at the campground by freshly popped popcorn and hot tea in our food tent, and then an amazing dinner of cucumber soup, rice and veggies, with mango. Each dinner was followed by an intense game of rummy, but eventually it would get to cold and we would have to retire to our tents, where we would suit up in all of our layers and crawl into our sleeping bags.
Our Guide, Erasto
Our alarm every morning was one of the porters banging on the tent and chirping “hot water for washing, hot water for washing ” in a think Swahili accent. The mornings were FREEZING until the sun rose, but after those first rays hit our faces; we were ready to move along. “Ok, we go, everyone ready? How doing? How doing?” our guides would say, and we would take the first steps to venture along the trail, knowing a long day was in front of us.
Day two’s hike welcomed us with an extreme change in topography and climate, getting a bit steeper and drier. Lunch was had on a rock around 1. We fueled up for the afternoon with delicious avocado sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cookies and juice.
Our campsite on day two was amazing! We were on a rocky plateau, with the sun beginning to set behind the other mountains.
At the campsite, I put up my hammock between 2 trees, and relaxed in the sunshine, staring/glaring at the peak of Kili, Mt. Uhrhu, wondering curiously if it was really feasible for a little human being to climb all the way to that peak. The porters found amazing joy in the hammock, all staring at it from afar with curious eyes. I invited them to hang out for a while and they loved it!
Dinner was delicious again, and the night significantly colder than the night before. Aka: freezing, freezing cold.
The 3rd day was the hardest, with a 7-hour hike uphill. Grueling, but worth it. To pass the time, I chatted a lot with our porter. He told me all about his work, and lifestyle. To be a guide on Kilimanjaro, you must be a porter for 2 years and then take some pretty extensive courses to become certified. I asked him how many times he has climbed the mountain, and he said at least 75. He also said the youngest person to climb it is 8 and the oldest, 89!!
Arriving at the camp was really exiting today, knowing we had got the hardest day (besides summit day) over with, so we celebrated with a little Kili photo shoot….
Day four we climbed straight up the side of a mountain face. When we were eating breakfast, we asked what our trail was looking like for the day and they just pointed at the side of the mountain that our campsite was nestled next to. Well, we’re already this far in, better continue…..right? Yikes! The first hour was hard, but once we got going, it wasn’t too bad.
The campsite that night was in a huge cloud. When we arrived, you couldn’t see 5 feet in front of you. Needless to say, the mood was a little different than it was the day before. It was freezing and we were tired, hungry and it was only 3 pm. What were we going to do until bedtime? Thank god for playing cards. (Dad, I am now a Rummy master, beware!)
The next day we woke up and hiked to basecamp. It was beautiful there, perched on a mass of huge rocks. We walked around, talked to people who had made it to the top that morning, and prepared for what was in store that night!!
In preparation for the summit, we ate a huge dinner of soup, pasta, veggies, and fruit and headed to our tents for bed around 6 pm. In the tent, I put on the rest of our layers and ended up with a final tally of 4 top layers, 5 bottom layers, 3 socks, 3 jackets, scarf, and a hat. We cut up pieces of candy bars and put in our pockets for the hike and crawled into our sleeping bags, trying to get some sleep before the big night! I could barely sleep because I was so excited, nervous and ready to go. It felt like Christmas eve!
At midnight, they woke us up with some tea and cookies. We put on our final layers and emerged out of our tents into the freezing cold night. Looking around, I could see the brightest stars I have ever witnessed, silhouettes of surrounding mountains, the snowcapped summit of Kili gleaming in the moonshine and faraway specks of headlamps on the trail way above us of those who had already started to summit. I was in awe of how beautifully quite and serene it was.
The ascent was unbelievable. We started hiking around 12:30 am. Each step you take, you slide half of that step back down the mountain. You can hear slate crumbling behind you, and the only thing you can see is what is illuminated by your headlamp. Everyone was so quiet, I think we might have gone 2 hours without talking. (that’s a very long time for this group, mind you)
As we hiked up into the night, getting closer to the summit, we got into a solid rhythm of following the guides footsteps. One………two…….deep breath………one……two………deep breath. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly.
Around 4:30 am we reached the Stella Point, which is 18,652 ft. We had an hour to go to the top. We took a quick water break (the water in our bottles was frozen!) and continued on.
When we finally reached the point where we could see the summit, trudging across the ice fields, I was in shock. Freezing and exhausted, the emotion was overwhelming. It took me a moment to realize that I was crying. The will and determination that I had put into the past week, month and even past year felt like it accumulated at this very moment. Here I was, standing on the Roof of Africa, watching the sunrise over the Serengeti Plain and stretch across the glacier.
Thanks to our wonderful porters:
As some of you know, a dear family friend passed away earlier this year, Julia Strecher at age 19. During the 2nd night of the climb, I dreamt that I was at her wedding and she was on my mind the rest of the trip. During the quiet and tough hours up to the summit, one bright patch of stars kept catching my eye, and filling me with determination and will to continue up this mountain. I had a strong inclination this was Julia’s spirit, memory and love helping me to the top.
I would like to dedicate this climb to Julia, her sister Rachael and her parents Jeri and Vic.