Kilimanjaro – An Adventure

Kilimanjaro – September, 2004

Some of the people who might read this will already know that the trip I made to Tanzania in 2004 was not my first attempt to climb the mountain. Details of my first attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with my wife, Carolyn, in early 2002 (I think of it as my “Throwing Up On The Snows of Kilimanjaro” trip), are not very important here. What made me want to go back to Kilimanjaro just a couple of years later? Jokingly, I suppose if that I had been able to lie convincingly about the experience and tell people I had climbed the mountain all the way to the top at my first attempt, I would have saved a lot of time, effort and money. Although I was occasionally tempted to say I’d climbed the mountain, when talking with strangers, I couldn’t bring myself to say I’d done it. I always had to say, “I got sick. I didn’t get above 15,000 feet.”

This situation unsettled me. I tried not to think of it as a failure – how many people have hiked their way up to 15,000 feet, after all? But I thought that I could make it to the summit if I tried again. In 2003 my wife Carolyn and I travelled with friends to Peru and hiked in the high Andes. I took the altitude well, and immediately upon arriving home (within 72 hours) I booked my return to Kilimanjaro. I wanted my summit picture and my climbing certificate. Going back would to me be like taking a college class over and getting an “A” to erase an “F” from my record.

I also wanted to experience Africa again, because that one visit just hadn’t been enough for me. (I have been there a third time, since first writing this story.) The first trip affected me unlike any other. For two weeks after I returned to Minnesota, I dreamed every night that I was back in Africa, and the dreams weren’t about getting chased by lions, trampled by hippos or being eaten by crocodiles. The scenes, the smells, the experiences, the people I was with – they were almost all terrific. A repeat visit to savor the experience would be a plus for me in many ways.

So in September 2004, I was off to Africa, and eager to try again. I travelled by myself, disappointed I hadn’t been able to interest any of my friends or acquaintances to make the trip with me. I talked it up as a great adventure and tried to interest people, but while a few went so far as to check with their spouses for permission, at the end of the day I had no takers. Perhaps it was for the best, though. As someone said along the way or at dinner one night, there was enough suffering had by all along the trail that this wasn’t a trip to have talked someone else into. No. 

Carolyn had booked a flight to visit to our grandchildren in Virginia for the day of my departure so we went to the airport together and I saw her onto her flight to Richmond before heading to my gate to wait for my late-afternoon flight to Amsterdam. I was looking very “Indiana Jones” in my hiking boots and trekking clothes, backpack slung jauntily on my shoulder. The overnight trip to Amsterdam was uneventful, about nine and a half hours in length. I got only a couple of hours’ sleep on the way over and in a night’s reading managed to work my way through most of the magazines that I’d saved up for the trip. In Amsterdam I walked around the airport to get the circulation going in my legs again, window-shopped in the duty-free shops and checked out the book and magazine racks for more reading material. I found the gate for my flight to Arusha, Tanzania and the rest of my climbing group. Nine people in hiking boots with back-packs, sitting near the gate. Hard to miss!

We made our introductions and chatted about what had brought us there and the routes we had taken from our homes.  It was a friendly, outgoing group of people.  Tony and Mila from Boston, Brendon and Carolyn, also from Boston, Kim from Phoenix,  Mike from Los Angeles and his father Jerry from Michigan, and Dave and Anya from Toronto.  Most of them were runners or ex-runners, like me, and most of them seemed in better shape than I was. Most of them were younger as well and I wished I had dropped more than 10 lbs. during my own training.  The Boston area couples often went hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Kim, Mike and Jerry were still active marathoners. My impression was that these were well-traveled people, broad-minded, good-humored, solicitous and helpful.  Good traveling companions! They also looked hardy, I thought hopefully, because none of them really knew what they were in for.

Eventually we boarded the plane and began the next leg of our trip, a flight that was also about nine and a half hours long.  The route to Arusha, Tanzania from Amsterdam took us over the French Alps and down to the boot of Italy, which we saw clearly from 35,000 feet, and after crossing the Mediterranean we spent hours flying over empty desert. Dry country stretched far out to the horizon. Finally the Nile appeared beneath us off to the east, and the plane turned due south.  Night came too soon, it seemed, lights appeared in clusters as we passed over populated areas, and then we were preparing to land at Arusha (KJO), Tanzania, an airport located about an hour outside the city proper. We each cleared customs and immigrations, with our luggage, I located our driver and guide, and we watched them tie our gear bags on top of the Land Rovers that were there to pick us up. It was about 10:00 p.m. local time.

NOTES RE: PICTURES: Except for the first picture, which I stole off the internet, they will enlarge to full screen size for you if you click on them once or twice, and you’ll get to see more detail on the shots you are most interested in. Dates on the pictures reflect the time in Minnesota, not in Tanzania. Tricky stuff resetting times and all.

Above is a picture of Kilimanjaro as it appears from the plains.

Our Land Rover Defender – in the daylight

The waiting was almost over now. We couldn’t see the mountain, but we were close. I wished that we could see it during our drive to the Mountain View Lodge where we would be staying for the next two nights.

The smell of the night air, so different from home, made an impression on me as we went.  So many things were intriguing – the smells, the sights, the bumpy rides along bad roads in a stretch Land Rover Defender, the exotic animals and the interesting accents of our guides, Kilimanjaro perched on the horizon, the challenge – the tantalizing thoughts, like can I make it to the top?  Will I be strong enough? This was a complete break for me from the desk and chair in my office in downtown Minneapolis and the weekly flights to Midwestern cities that filled my normal work life. These differences, this discontinuity of experience is a significant part of the allure that travel holds for me.

Few of us lives a life so safe as we suppose it to be, but we have learned and inculcated many of the risks of our everyday lives, the risks of a car accident on the way to work, of a loved one’s falling ill, of losing a job, or even the risk that the Dairy Queen might close early when a stop on the way home from work had been planned. We have measured these daily risks, big and small, and accepted them, and have learned to cope with them, unthinkingly.  An adventure gives us new risks, to recognize, hopefully, and possibly to learn from and to mitigate at appropriate times to keep bad things from happening to us. Will I be bitten by a mosquito? Will it be carrying anything particularly nasty to infect me with? Better use the mosquito netting and repellent. What if  I fall off the mountain? How can I best  keep that from happening to me? What will happen if I don’t eat this food, because I’m really not hungry, it’s turning my stomach to smell it, but we’re going to hike twelve miles up-hill today and I’ll need something in me?  If I don’t force myself to rest and sleep, will I have enough energy to climb the Barranco wall in the morning?  Is my Diamox (a medicine used by high-altitude hikers & climbers to avoid acute mountain sickness, AMS) making me sick or keeping me from getting sicker, or both at the same time?

This, I think, is what makes extreme adventure trips like this example very energizing and is a big reason why people seek them out. Yes, adventure trips are adventurous.

Sunday, September 19 – I awoke at the Mountain Village Lodge after arriving in the late evening. There is a central lodge building with a restaurant and store, and a couple of lines of small cottages built on the surrounding grounds. The rooms were nice and fitted top western standards but the electricity worked only intermittently until Jerry and Mike found an electrical short in their room, next door to mine, and fixed it. Their lights worked, then mine worked, and then the air conditioner worked. We had a buffet breakfast outdoors and received a briefing about our climb, which would begin the next day. (Most trips like this build in a buffer day on the schedule to allow for late arrival of luggage.) Here is a picture of us getting set to climb into two Land Rover Defenders for a day of wildlife viewing in Arusha National Park. For movie buffs and John Wayne fans, this is the park where the 1962 movie “Hatari” was filmed. The park is at an elevation of about 4,500 feet, about the same as the airport; our acclimatization for the climb began when we landed.

Loading up for our wildlife viewing.

I learned at the morning briefing that the guide and assistant guide from my 2002 trip, Bernard and Simon, would be filling the same roles for our group this trip. I was very happy to learn this as I had come to respect and trust them implicitly. To be licensed as a mountain guide required two years of college studying wildlife and ecology and 50 trips to the summit as a porter. Both were very experienced men on the mountain.

Wildlife drive – birds (flamingos?) on the lake in back of me.

Muhummad was our driver for the day, and he drove us out onto the “Little Serengeti” area of Arusha National Park where we saw a large variety of wildlife. There were gazelle, bush buck, waterbuck, dik-dik, cape buffalo, wart hogs, colobus monkeys, baboons, and many different bird species. I got several good pictures of giraffes including this one standing next to the road.

Giraffe in Arusha National Park

We also took a walk in the countryside to stretch our legs, going to a nearby waterfall and back. This included a hike up a small hill, I’m convinced, for the purpose of seeing if any of us were lame and obviously unfit to climb. The area of the park where we walked also took us close to a herd of Cape Buffalo. Our guide told us, “The buffalo are always angry ” and a guard with a well-worn AK-47 in hand was standing by just in case one of the buffalo took a sharp dislike to us.

We have a guard to protect us from the Cape Buffalo.

The day’s expedition was cut short so Muhammad could take us into Arusha to do some shopping before the stores closed. We stopped at a gift shop in Arusha where I found the Tanzanite I was looking for as a gift for Carolyn, before heading back to the Mountain Village Lodge for dinner. Before dinner, though, we each had to weigh our duffels in front of Bernard to be sure they were not too heavy for our porters to carry. I decided to leave a few things behind at the lodge with my “travel home” clothes and by stuffing my sleeping bag into one duffel along with my clothes and gear I managed to go from two trip bags to one.

Monday, September 20– We left after breakfast for a one and a half hour drive from the hotel to the Machame gate of the national park, where our trek began. It rained during the drive up the mountainside, foothills, really, but finished by the time we left the main road and reached the park entrance. You can get a sense of the scene from the picture just below.

Busy scene at the entrance gate; fashionably dressed for the trail.

The gate area was chaotic: Five or six groups like ours were headed up the trail that morning and we all had arrived at about the same time. In the picture above hikers are wandering about between their Land Rovers, the permitting window and the packing areas. Men hoping to be taken on as porters are in from the countryside jostling for work. Jobs are scarce here, trekkers pay their tips in hard currency, and this work is highly prized, though backbreaking.

Out of sight, our own stacks of supplies and equipment were broken down into pack-size lots under the supervision of our guides. We were eventually ushered into a covered group waiting area that looked like a three-season picnic shelter from back home. After spending a couple of hours there we received word that our porters had been hired and all our gear was packed and loaded, so we laced up our boots, got our hiking poles out and our packs on our backs, and headed up the trail under the eye of one of the assistant guides.

Our route to the summit called for us to approach Kilimanjaro from the south and hike from the trailhead to Mweka camp, climbing today from 5,900′ up to about 10,000′. The trail north from Machame was a very good-quality, raised-bed trail, maybe the best I’d ever hiked, anywhere. The steep parts of the trail were even stair-stepped, and there were side cuts on every slope to provide drainage in the rainy season and keep it from washing out. As the veteran trekker I’d prepared everyone for the muck and mud I had encountered on the Lemosho trail on my first trip, and we all had our gaiters hitched on.  After five minutes of walking it was clear this was silly and we all had removed them by lunch time.

In six hours of hiking, including stopping for a very luxurious lunch, we climbed up through the forest zone, actually a temperate rain forest, to our camp in the heather zone. We had one of the better camping sites, having sent porters ahead of us on the trail to stake our claim early, but the area was very dusty. Everyone who had passed us on the trail during the day was camping around us, and the grounds were very crowded. There was even a store here. We enjoyed an afternoon snack of tea and popcorn.  Dinner followed a short while later: Soup and spaghetti, runner’s food, washed down by some beer that Kim bought as a treat for everyone. The day had started out warm, and shorts and a t-shirt had been fine for hiking, but it was cold by the time we headed to our sleeping tents for the night.

I was travelling as a single so I enjoyed my own tent, shown below. It was crowded when my pack, both my duffel bags, and I were inside. My day pack felt too heavy during the day and so that evening I looked for things to move to my duffel bag to lighten it for the next morning.

Camp – my first morning on the trail.

At dinner, in the dining tent, we compared notes on our medications to see who was  planning to take Diamox, a medication used by climbers to help avoid a buildup of fluid in the brain, which causes altitude sickness, and who was climbing “drug free.” I have always used it for trips above 12,000 feet or so when planning to climb much higher.  We discovered that each of us had received different dosages and instructions from our doctors and travel clinics! Some of us were advised not to use Diamox, and others to use it only if problems develop. My directions were to take 125 mg 2X daily beginning the day before reaching high altitudes – several people had recommended dosages twice to four times my own.  I couldn’t (and still don’t) understand how there could be such variation but decided to follow my doctor’s directions.

Here is a picture of the dining tent on a typical night.

The dining tent. At night the table and chairs are stowed, and the porters sleep here.

In the late evening, after turning in, we heard a loud whoosh and an explosion, followed by terrible, prolonged screaming. I was sure that a propane cooking stove or heater blew up and badly injured a porter or cook somewhere in the camp but the next morning the guides wouldn’t talk about it.

Tuesday, September 21– We were scheduled for a 4 to 6 hour walk from Machame camp to Shira II camp, climbing from about 10,000 to about 12,600 feet  For our first breakfast on the trail we had oatmeal porridge, bananas, oranges, egg & potato patties, toast, jelly, and tea.  The morning was cold at the start, but it warmed up after we had been on the trail a while to become a very pleasant day, mostly clear with some mountain fog.  As we left Machame and reached the Shira plateau we left the heather climate zone and moved into the moorland  zone.

Here is a picture of us climbing through the heather. You can see two of our porters coming up the trail carrying packs, one high on his shoulders and and another on his head. (You’ll see them best if you click once or twice to enlarge the picture.) These methods and use of a tumpline (not shown) are the traditional way of carrying heavy loads, especially on rough and uneven ground. This utilizes the spine for supporting weight rather than the shoulders as standard backpack straps do.  It was common to see the guides moving very fast on the trail and then pause to rest, rather than moving continuously at a moderate pace. Our guide, Bernard, is in the left foreground of the picture.

On the trail.

As the day laid out, after breakfast we had a steep climb on a good path, and a 4-hour hike brought us to our lunch break, an outdoor lunch of pasta salad and egg salad sandwiches and fruit. Here is a picture of our lunch spot. You can tell that I had a light leakage at some point that affected some of my pictures.

Roughing it on the trail.

After lunch we had just 45 minutes or so of additional hiking to get to our new camp. It felt like a long day even though it wasn’t, and while I was quite tired and my back was sore, it could have been worse. I was getting sick of all the dust in camp and on the trail at this point, though, because it was becoming impossible to stay clean. I decided that I had to try to lighten my day pack some more, somehow. My nose started to bleed after dinner.

Very good meals were provided for us every day on the trail and for dinner at this camp we had soup again, grilled chicken, and potato. Porters came and went every day bringing us fresh food. This was the point of the trip where our group ran out of the bottled water we had brought with us from the hotel, so we had to break out our water purifiers and iodine tablets. My water purifier was very difficult to pump, and for the rest of the trip I borrowed someone else’s every morning to fill my water bottles and camel pack.

Here are a couple of pictures taken from Shira II camp, which was not located at the same site as in 2002; the park service moves camp sites regularly to avoid permanent damage to the terrain from all the climbers. Kili is obscured by clouds but you can see we have moved completely out of the heather climate zone to the moorland; only very low scrub vegetation and rock was around us here.

Shira Camp


Shira Camp

You can see from my clothes that the weather got cooler as we moved up the mountain. The short sleeves and hiking shorts are gone.

I learned this day that Edward, the person that helped me down from the top of the Barranco wall to Rao camp last trip when I became ill, was a porter in our crew this time as well. He came to reintroduce himself and I got to thank him.

Wednesday, September 22– A long hike was planned for the day as we moved along the trail from Shira II camp at 12,500 feet to Lava Tower at 15,000 feet and then down the Barranco valley to camp at 12,800 feet.  It was a cold morning. We had a beautiful view of Kilimanjaro as we started out, with Mt. Meru in the distance (not in sight in the picture below) and the Shira ridge with clouds below it (on the horizon in the picture below).  This ridge is what remains of one of the three ancient volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro. In the picture below you can see some of our porters again carrying large baskets and packs on the trail.

The Shira plateau.


Shira plateau in the foreground, view of Kilimanjaro and my hat hair –  we will climb the slope directly behind me, known as the Western Breach.

This was a very exhausting hike, a full 8 hours on a very hilly trail. We saw the Western Breach wall in detail for the first time – the picture above captures it from a distance – and as we got closer, the mountain was increasingly intimidating. You can also see from the absence of vegetation in the picture that we have moved out of the moorland into the “arctic desert” zone, where almost nothing grows besides moss and algae. My energy level was very low by the time we reached our camp down in the Barranco Valley and I was still dealing with an annoying nosebleed. This site was also crowded and noisy with other climbing parties camped all around us.

I was keeping up with my group, but often found myself towards the back of the hiking line. I was  getting used to the weight of my back pack, however, and despite being a laggard (or because of it), at the end of this day I wasn’t as sore as I had been the evening before. I was happy to spend some time in my tent reading and listening to the English-language service of Deutsche Welle on my short wave radio in my tent before going to dinner, and headed to bed soon afterwards.

Here is a picture taken from our camp site.


Thursday, September 23– This was scheduled as a rest day in Barranco camp (12,800′) with an optional climb up the “breakfast wall” on the east side of the valley offered as a morning activity. In the pictures below you can can see something of the interesting micro-climate in the valley, and the wall I’m referring to is straight ahead. You can make out the trail up the wall to Barafu if you zoom in just right of center. There was sporadic vegetation here and unique, giant groundsel plants that look like a sort of cactus, that have learned to adapt to the extremes of heat, cold in this valley, and to a seasonal lack of rainfall. You can see a groundsel in the left foreground of the first picture below, and several more in the next picture – click on it and you will get a better view.

View down the Barranco Valley on the way to our camp.


Waterfall in the Great Barranco Valley.

I began the morning by brushing my teeth out behind my tent, and then vomiting over and over until I was empty, and ached with cramps. I felt poorly at breakfast (duh) but tried to eat a little oatmeal, and then went back to bed after throwing up again. I skipped the side trip as did another climber, Brendan, who also stayed in camp with G-I problems. By the end of the trip each of us had spent at least a day or two feeling ill. My nosebleed continued, and my handkerchiefs were getting really disgusting even though I washed them and hung them in my tent to dry every night.

For a while that afternoon I began to wish I could turn back, and my energy level fell to a very low point. I managed to eat some dinner and kept the food down, and in the middle of the night I felt my strength return, like a warm glow passing through my body, and a sense of calm and confidence came over me.  I knew at that point that I would be able to make the climb, after all. I don’t know what the feeling was – was it an adjustment to the altitude taking hold in my body?  I don’t know.

Friday, September 24– We got an early wake-up call for the climb from Barranco camp at 12,800′ back up to Lava Tower at 15,000′, about a 4-5 hour uphill hike. Here is a picture taken when we were an hour or so from our destination. If you zoom in on this picture you can see hikers on the trail in the lower right corner about two inches up, and also next to the tower.

View of Lava Tower on the way from our camp in the Barranco valley. We will camp this night to the right of the tower where you can see some hikers ahead of us on the trial if you zoom in.

The feeling of strength and confidence from the previous night was still with me as we hiked, and from this point I was no longer worried about being able to keep up with everyone.

Almost to Lava Tower. You can tell by the clothing the temperature is dropping as we ascend.

Although the day’s hike was relatively short, it was tiring. We had taken a different route up than the one we took coming down from Lava Tower to Barranco two days before. We made camp here next to this landmark. The campground was much less crowded here, and quieter, as most of the groups around us the night before had ascended the Barranco wall that morning on their way to the summit via the Barafu route.

Here is a picture taken looking up at the mountain from our camp. You can see the edge of a glacier above, and a beautiful rock wall behind our tents (we’ll see it from above in a later picture).

Lava Tower camp.

It was very cool here at 15,000′ despite the bright sunshine, and the views of the Shira plateau below and the peak above were tremendous.  I skipped the optional scramble up Lava Tower, though. I don’t have much experience scrambling up rock like this and didn’t want to slip and injure myself at this point in the climb, so I stayed in my tent listing to my short wave radio for the afternoon, reading and resting.

Lava Tower campsite – the tower is in front of me and to my right.

We were able to see the Western Breach very well from our campsite and before dinner I pulled aside both Bernard and Simon and asked them to point out the trail up the escarpment of the Western Breach to me. I couldn’t see how we were going to get to the top. They just laughed. Was this a good sign or a bad sign, I wondered?

Because it was very cold this night (and the next two) we were each given a Nalgene bottle filled with boiling hot water at bed time to put down inside our sleeping bags with us. Warm toes! My sleeping bag, rated to zero degrees, was very efficient. The water was still warm the next morning, and I used it as drinking water for Saturday’s climb.

Saturday, September 25 – Our schedule called for us to hike from Lava Tower at 15,000′ up to Arrow Glacier Camp which is situated at about 16,300 feet. Because we had a short day ahead of us we got to sleep in. Here is a picture taken as we started up the hill. This section was the steepest part.

Trail up to Arrow Glacier camp.

Overall we had a mild climb of about two hours or so over easy ground which staged our group just at the bottom of the Western Breach for the next day’s “assault”. Below is a closer picture of the Breach – if you draw a line straight up from the peak of the tent, this is the route we took the up the mountain the next day, hiking and scrambling from 16,300′ to 18,750′. This was the toughest challenge of our trek, with almost 2,500′ of vertical for us to climb, at very high altitude. (We have had other hikes since then, with 3,000-5,000 of vertical daily but 2,500 is a respectable number at this height.)

Below the Western Breach.

When we reached the new camp we found it was quite a bit colder there, though it was only about 1,500′ higher than Lava Tower camp, and in the afternoon it began to snow, turning our tents white as the snow accumulated. This was our first precipitation encountered on the hike.

As the tents were being set up I spent more time staring at the mountain face, looking for the clever route that would let us avoid the rock outcroppings and steep facings, but still without luck spotting it. Simon and Bernard laughed some more when I asked them about it; funny tourists.

At this camp we had to significantly lighten our gear bags so that our porters would not have to carry more weight than necessary up the escarpment, so a fair amount of time was spent this afternoon packing and repacking our gear. What we left behind would be taken ahead to Mweka camp on an easier route by some of the porters, and we would catch up with it on our way down. I used my evening wash water to again rinse out a couple of my handkerchiefs as my nose was still oozing blood, perhaps due to the low humidity and high altitude.  After supper we spent more time than usual visiting and talking in the dining tent than we usually did at dinner – tomorrow was the big day, we hadn’t been worked to the bone for a change and had some energy left, and for as long as the meal tent stayed warm we talked away into the evening before turning in.

Sunset at Arrow Rock & Arrow Glacier Camp, snow on our tents.

My tent seemed OK when I first crawled into it but the snow continued to fall, the temperature kept dropping, and despite the hot water bottle I put in the foot of my sleeping bag, it was a cold and very unpleasant night. The tent walls frosted up from my respiration.

Sunday, September 26 – This was the big day for our assault on the Western Breach and we needed to climb, as I said, from our camp at 16,300′ up to the crater’s rim at 18,750′, and then hike on to our campsite. We hit the slopes at 6:30 a.m. after a fumbling repacking of our sleeping bags, clothes and the gear that was going up with us, and after eating a very early breakfast. We began the climb by ascending a very steep slope, taking a narrow loose gravel trail with “African switchbacks” (short, steep switchbacks), up the gravel ridge prominent in the middle of the Western Breach. We then came onto a series of steep scrambles up the rocky outcroppings. In the picture below you can see what it looked like as we climbed. The large dark rock in the cloud just down and to the left of the center of this picture is Lava Tower, our camp site two days before.

It continued to snow through the morning as we climbed. We left the gravel slope and reached the rocky ground two-thirds of the way up the Breach, finding there that we could not use our hiking poles to steady us any longer. We had to stow them, or hand them up ahead to the next climber as we went up from ledge to ledge. We worked our way around and up one rock column after another as we advanced up the slope, staying close as we went and helping each other a great deal, almost with every step. This part of the climb was a group activity, not an individual effort. I wished I’d had more practice with rock climbing and scrambling techniques. Our East Coasters liken it to the White Mountain hiking trails they know well.  It is very different from the Superior Hiking Trail which meanders along the hill crests overlooking Lake Superior, from Duluth up to Thunder Bay.

Here is a picture taken just before we left the gravelled area of the slope.

Our guide (center) and climbers.

We stopped for a very uncomfortable lunch at about noon, but by doing so we lost all the warmth that had accumulated from our physical activity. The perspiration from the work was not completely wicked away through despite our technical gear, and we all became quite chilled at this point. The snow kept falling, we finished a miserable meal and then faced the mountain again.

The snow obscured our view of the mountain from this point up, which was good for keeping me focused us on the slopes immediately ahead of me, but rendered every step treacherous.  Apparent footings were often false and did not hold firm, and I often had to drop to my knees on the rock ledges and use my arms to pull myself from one position to another.  I became thankful for the abrasive surface of the stone here, which was dependable when I could scrape away the snow and ice to gain a purchase.

Here is a picture of the other side of the Breach, the right-hand side as we ascended.

Snowy slope high on the Western Breach.

As we moved up this jumble of rocks and outcroppings towards the upper end of the escarpment, the drop-offs next to us became even more extreme. A slip would tumble us down 30 or 40 feet here, not just 5 or 6, and again I was thankful for the limited visibility – as the wind swirled the snow about the visibility was very poor looking down or to the side of us. This helped me to  concentrate on each single step and on each footing and handhold.

Gradually, in the middle of the afternoon, the fact that we were near the top of the Breach became apparent through the falling snow, and although I was tired to death, it felt terrific as we finally reached the crest, and then, our climb was over. The emotions I felt were overwhelming, like finishing my first marathon. I knew that I would make it to Uhuru peak the next morning, absolutely for sure.

The glaciers at the top of the mountain were spectacular as we walked past, but I was too tired to really appreciate them. The ground under us at the top of the mountain was black, volcanic rock and sand that contrasted sharply with the blue/white of the Furtwangler Glacier. You can see it in the picture below.

Glacier at 18,000′ in the crater on the mountain top, on the way to our campsite.

The emotions I encountered coming over the crest of the crater were overwhelming. I cried for a while as we walked to Crater Camp, knowing that I would be able for certain to summit the next morning. I cried for the relief of the accomplishment; I cried for the memory of my son-in-law, Dan Barker. I remembered the excitement in his eyes as he lay in the hospital or at home in hospice care when he would ask me, “You’re going for it, huh?  You’re going to go back and do it?” He had passed away of leukemia six months earlier, and I thought of him often on the trip. It took some time afterwards to release and process all of these feelings, to examine and gain some understanding of them.

After crying came hallucinations, and here also I was not the only one who experienced this. That several of us had hallucinations is probably not surprising to people more experienced than I was – we were exhausted, sore, calorie-deprived, probably dehydrated, breathing air with 1/3 the normal amount of oxygen, and finally near the end of our quest. This was a time for visions in the wilderness.  Mila thought she saw a Jeep Cherokee parked at the top of the mountain, and was teased for it when she asked us if we saw it parked there, too. My hallucination consisted of an imaginary conversation with our new minister, Peter Johnson, as we walked to camp. I didn’t know Peter at the time, I think he had arrived in town shortly before I left for my hike.  As I stumbled to our camp I imagined he was greeting me on my way into church on the Sunday after the trip home and I thought he asked me, “Didn’t you feel the Lord with you there, didn’t you feel him helping you on the way?” My answer to him was, “No.”  I didn’t feel Him with me. I did not feel alone because I had good people, nearly friends, all around me who helped me as I helped them, eagerly, and supportively. But I did not feel the hand of God helping me along the trail or keeping me safe as I was climbing. As I had this “conversation” with Peter I tried to work out how to say this to him respectfully, without sounding rude. Not to make an issue of it, but no, I just didn’t.

It was a quest – I guess spiritual things are bound to bubble up, but the conversation and the topic is a puzzle. Better that than seeing a car that wasn’t there, though.

From the crater rim we had a final 30-40 minute walk to our campsite and again I passed up an optional side-trip, to the ash pit and the core of the volcano. My excuse was doubting whether I be able to see it with the snow, but the real reason was that I was thoroughly exhausted. When we arrived at camp we stood around in the cold waiting for the tents to be erected as the light snow continued; I let Kim take the first single tent that was ready. As soon as mine was done being set up I located my gear bag, crawled in dragging it behind me, and simply collapsed for a half-hour or so.

Inaction brought the cold seeping back in again quickly as my inner layers of clothing were still very damp with sweat from the climb. As I went to change into dry clothes I found that I’d left behind my dry set of thermal underwear when I’d stripped my pack down the day before. I hung up my damp clothes anyway, hoping they would dry somewhat overnight, and put on a couple of layers of odds & ends. My nose was still bleeding and I told myself that my handkerchiefs would have to be thrown out when I got home, there was no hope of them ever coming clean again.

The picture below was taken the next morning when the sky had cleared. If you zoom in you can see our tents still erected among the rocks on the near side of the craters, and the porters standing near them. It’s very cool.

Another view of the ash mound and Furtwangler Glacier.

After changing clothes I asked for a hot water bottle to get warm and crawled into my sleeping bag with it. I would guess it was around 3:30 or 4:00 p.m.  The snow stopped falling in the late afternoon, and the temperature cooled off sharply as the clouds lifted and the sky cleared. I dozed, snug in my tent and mummy bag until dinnertime, emerged for my meal and tried to eat but found it difficult as I had no appetite. I went back to my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag again. I listened to my short wave radio before falling asleep hoping to find an exotic, new station at this altitude but had no luck. I got up a couple of times in the night to go to the bathroom and the view of the full moon in a clear, dark sky at 18,000′ altitude was astounding.

It was a frigid night, zero degrees or cooler. I was awakened twice by the guides, who made the rounds of all the tents, and was asked odd questions like my birth date and home town to be certain I could speak clearly and reason, and was not suffering from AMS.

This was a frightening day. I had not let myself feel fear on the climb, but I certainly had concentrated very hard. Climbing the rocky shelves on hands and knees in the snow was harrowing though looking back it was not so in the moment. If I had not deliberately controlled my feelings, and known that I needed to do that, I would have been less sure-footed, less confident in my steps and jumps from one rock to another, more clumsy in the shifting of my balance, and wary of the strength and coordination of my aging athlete’s hands and arms to bear me up out of peril to safe ground, not as if on wings of an eagle but by gripping, elemental contact with the rock and soil of the cliff.

Before that day, as I have said, the two days before as we were camped at Lava Tower and at Arrow Glacier camp, I would look up at the face of the mountain and ask my fellows in turn, “Now, how exactly are we going to do this? Do you understand where we are going to climb?  I can’t see it.”  The answer was that we went up at just that place that I couldn’t see a way to do it. With leadership showing the way, confidence in our abilities, and in the company of comrades, we just did it.

Monday, September 27– Crater Camp – 18,750′. This was our last day at high altitude, and we woke up very early for a quick breakfast and to fill our water bottles and bags.  We began hiking at 6:30 because this would be a very long day. There was one stretch with a moderate “scramble” (for hikers this means you have to climb using your hands and legs; it cannot be walked), otherwise we encountered mild switchbacks and easy hiking until we reached the summit at 19,340′. Here is a picture I took as we climbed. You can see the far wall of Kilimanjaro’s crater in the distance.

Early morning view of the glacier on the last 1,500′ climb to Uhuru Peak.

Once at the top we strolled over to the summit marker sign and waited in line behind a couple of other groups to have our pictures taken. Here is a picture of our group with our guides – I am standing in the middle of the back row behind Bernard.  Our group at the summit marker.

After this picture was taken the action began. Mike decided he would strip down to his socks for a nudie shot in front of the group, encouraged in this by his dad – the spirit of streaking was still alive in California, I guess. Then Dave from Toronto got down on one knee and proposed to Anya, who accepted. After that I got my picture taken, below, but I decided to keep my clothes on for the snap.

At the summit.

Feeling like this morning was something of an anticlimax, I headed back down the mountain with the group. Our goal for the day (not like a work goal, we really have to do this) was to descend from 19,340′ to 11,000′ by dinner time, and we would have to make good time on the trail to accomplish this. Quite a drop! As we started down I discovered that I had let my water tube freeze (I was using a camel pack rather than water bottles) by forgetting to blow it dry after every drink, so I couldn’t have anything to drink for the next couple of hours until it thawed. Going down was easy at first as we walked the rim to the other side of the crater, where we came to Stella Point. After that we encountered scattered, small scrambles as we moved down, long stretches of “African switchbacks” and then steep slopes of soft gravel where we indulged in slowly running down taking giants’ steps all the way. In an exhilarating half hour or so of doing this we covered a lot of ground quickly, but at the cost of grinding exhaustion in the thighs, like skiing all day on deep powder but without getting into shape first. My legs were shot from this point on.

We encountered a tougher scramble just above Barafu camp. This is on the path for climbers taking the Barafu route to the summit pass in the dark, who usually rise in the late evening to pick their way up this hill in the midnight hours, over these same rocks, to the crater’s edge at Stella Point, avoiding the Western Breech. I gained an appreciation of the difficulty involved for those who have to do this in the dark. We walked through a very dirty Barafu camp to its lower edge where our lunch tent was erected for us. It was a good stop, we were grateful to be able to sit down for 30-40 minutes to eat and rest and were gaining a steady appreciation of the lower altitudes as we went.

After Barafu camp we took long curving trails in the open mountainside, eventually descending into the heather region where the path grew steeper, and I really began to regret running down the slopes earlier in the day. My calves and quads tightened up and as my progress slowed further I fell far behind the group. Bernard stuck with me, though, and carried my pack for me most of the way to Mweka camp.

Here is a picture of the third of the ancient volcanic peaks, Kibo, taken on the way down the mountain.

View of Kibo peak on the descent from the summit.

The path was good but I lost more and more flexibility in my legs as the afternoon wore on – I walked fine on the flats but had to step down one foot at a time on any stairs or over logs. We started our day at 6:30 a.m. and I reached Mweka camp around 5:30 or so, about an hour behind the group; a long time to be walking, even downhill.

Mweka camp was dusty and bustling but I was able to buy a bottle of water and two bottles of coca cola before lying down outside my tent on my Thermarest and drinking them like they were champagne. It had been a long, tiring walk but I was in good spirits – I’d made it to the top of the mountain and hadn’t cared what time I got to camp as long as it was before dark.

Our last camp before flying home.

Tuesday, September 28 – Our last day in Tanzania began in Mweka Camp.  Our task was to keep hiking down the mountain, from our camp at 11,000′ to the trailhead at 5,800′ and then head for the airport.

I slept well until the early morning when a loud sleeper in the tent next to me, and talking in camp made it impossible to doze off again. I discovered here that my nose had finally stopped bleeding! We ate a quick breakfast and then started toward the gate on a smooth path. There were few stairs or obstacles but whenever I reached them I still had to halt and lift each foot in turn, which made for very slow progress on uneven ground. When we got close to the park entrance I got a lift in a jeep for the last mile or so. We ate a quiet lunch in the sun at the Mweka trailhead gate, feeling subdued with our trip over. We bought t-shirts and waited to receive our official certificates from a government official. After that our porters sang the “Kilimanjaro song” for us, we distributed our gifts and excess gear to them, and were on our way home.

The ride to the airport seemed to take forever; I was anxious to get cleaned up for my trip home. Since the KLM flight did not leave until midnight we each were given a day room at an airport hotel, the KIA lodge, and I suddenly had both air conditioning and a bathroom available to me, the first I’d seen in 9 days.  I took two showers, ate a late lunch and had a beer, and then left with the group to check in the airport. It turned out the travel company had forgotten to confirm my second flight, from Amsterdam to Minneapolis, and my seat had been given away, but that’s a problem that I solved the next morning at arrival in Amsterdam.

Well, that’s about it for my story of this trip. There was no greater conclusion to the experience than just succeeding in making the ascent to Uhuru Peak, and both having done so, Carolyn and I went on to other climbs and other adventures. Big experiences like this take time to digest and I am still drawing meaning from it. It takes time to find a way to talk about some aspects of the experience, and it is amazing how routines at home and the day-to-day of the office take back life so quickly upon return.

Until the next trip, anyway.

The travelers: Brendon & Carolyn, Boston, Kim,Phoenix, Mike,LA and father Jerry, Michigan, Dave and Anya, Toronto. Tony & Mila, Boston, and myself

The professionals: Bernard, head guide, Simon, assistant guide, Godlove, assistant guide, Edward, server.

Written, July, 2011; edited, April, 2017

10 responses to “Kilimanjaro – An Adventure

  1. Thank you for sharing your great make-up adventure. It was especially poignant for me as I saw
    Kilimanjaro from one of our campsites in 1988. It was at a great distance but so magnificent.
    That night the sky was so black and the stars so brilliant and I looked up and saw the Southern Cross.
    I could hardly believe that it was all real.

    • I’m so glad that you enjoyed my piece, Mitzi! Were you in the Serengeti? Africa is so impressive, I can’t wait to be there again this summer. Thank you for taking the time to read it!

  2. And now I can visualize you and Carolyn on the very peak!

  3. Wonderful tale. Great storytelling. Inspiring stuff. Can’t wait myself.

  4. elisabeth anne Pletcher

    tim, i’m so glad you shared this! I have read perhaps more than my fair share of adventure stories, but yours range true as I realized I was just getting to you know you and Carolyn at this time. I appreciate the honesty of your emotions and thoughts, because the journey is about so much more than the summit. At some point you should share Kilimanjaro stories with my sister Joan….she and my dad hiked it at nearly the same time, when Peter Johnson was our new pastor.

  5. Patty Connelly

    I read every word. Truly a compelling story of determination, courage and true grit. I, too, appreciated your candor. It’s not just the physical beating one takes; our emotions are a big part of the experience. If you ever present this to a group (Travel Club?) I will be there. Thank you. Patty

  6. great story and accomplishment !

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