As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like an empress above the Serengeti…
– Toto, ‘Africa’
Now that that’s stuck in all of your heads…
I was sitting on a beach on Bali, having just finished ‘Travels’ by Michael Crichton, when I decided I NEEDED to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. And it was going to happen soon. In like 2.5 weeks. On my birthday. Why not, right?
I had actually thought about climbing Kili a few weeks before when trying to figure out what I could do that was between Bali and South Africa. I’d planned on heading to Cape Town in mid-November to join friends for a week long hike of the Otter Trail before my friend Joe and I were heading off to Patagonia in December. Kilimanjaro was pretty much right in the middle! And since I now like climbing things, it seemed like a great idea! Upon conducting a little research though, it didn’t seem possible as the trek would have been early November during the annual period when there’s a 4 week rainy season and nobody climbs! Shitty timing… Oh well.
And then I read the book. My friend Justin had given a signed, first-edition copy of it to me as a gift over the summer. He said it was one of his favorites and it reminded him of what I had been doing with my time off. It was a very special and meaningful present- Thanks, Bud…
In short, it’s Crichton’s autobiography about his time spent traveling the world after dropping out of Harvard Medical School to become a writer, and how he discovered his passion for exploration… Every chapter tells a really cool story about a different part of the world he visited, the people he encountered, and how he opened his mind to the many wonderful possibilities in and about life.
As you have probably guessed, one of the chapters was about his climbing of Mt Kilimanjaro, and after reading it, I knew I had to make it happen. It was calling to me. Timing-wise I’d have to leave Bali early and also be up and down before the rain started, so… since my birthday is October 24 and the climb would take 7 days, I decided I’d take my first steps up Africa’s Highest Peak on the first day of my 41st year of life.
So… It was a bit of a last minute scramble (story of my life) sorting everything out. There are a million tour companies (varying prices, routes, etc) so it was challenging to choose one in my limited time! Ultimately I went with Team Kilimanjaro, who Joe had used years before and highly recommended. All I needed now was a few plane tickets and I’d be on my way!
After I booked, I still had a bit of time left on Bali so I used it to do a bit of training. Still healthy eating, yoga, working out of course, but I added a few day hikes as well as an overnighter of Mt Rinjani on Lombok (there will be a separate post on this). Unfortunately this last hike gave be a bit of an upper respiratory infection just a few days before I was set to fly to Africa! Shit. I was coughing up some not so very nice yellow and green stuff all the way through my Singapore, London, and Nairobi connections and was still not sorted the night before my hike when I had finally arrived in Tanzania… This was gonna be interesting.
I checked into my lodge and enjoyed a nice big dinner and a few glasses of wine. The next 6 nights would be spent in tents eating who knows what on the mountain so I treated this like it was my proper birthday dinner. Unfortunately there wasn’t a Red Lobster (a birthday tradition since ~1983) within a few thousand miles so no popcorn shrimp and cheddar biscuits…! Oh well. After the feast, it was time to do final prep and had to bed. As I lay there I thought about everything I’d done since my birthday last year (spent in Bali with 2 of my closest friends). It was a nice trip down memory lane, I’ve done so much! I fell asleep with a massive smile on my face and was ready to take on this mountain. In the morning I’d wake up, greet myself in the mirror for the first time as a 41 year old, and then go climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Fuck yes.
After breakfast and coffee, I headed to the lobby to meet the team I’d be doing this with. My 2 hiking companions, our guide, assistant guide, and then our support team (porters, cook, waiter, toilet guy- yes you read that correctly- etc). All in all there were 18 of us! Huge crew! Was this going to be much harder than I thought it was???
We drove about 5 hours to the start of the Rongai Trail. This is on the opposite side of the mountain from where we stayed in Arusha. It’s meant to be a slightly more scenic route, with a longer gradual ascent. There are 4-5 other routes with varying degrees of difficulty, some of which were already in the rain shadow and therefore not an option. Team Kilimanjaro has their own route they take which advertises less ‘traffic’ than the most popular route, the Marangu (nicknamed the Coca Cola route for it’s appeal to tourists), as well as a time tested ‘receipt for success’ in terms of giving its climbers the best chance to arrive at the last camp in the best shape to attempt the summit. We signed in at the gate, had a quick bite, and we were off!
Hiking Day One (Simba Camp)
My team. I was with 2 ladies, Arielle and Elizabeth. Arielle is 42, California-born but lives in Toronto, works in advertising and runs a ton of marathons. Elizabeth is in her mid-60s, from New Zealand, mother of 3 daughters, and recently retired from a career in the NZ government. Both have done hiking/trekking before so we seem to be in good shape in terms of fitness, attitude, and enthusiasm!
Of course I can barely contain myself. I start flying down the trail, Walter Mitty Soundtrack playing, tons of energy… Immediately I follow one of the porters down a wrong turn and one of the guides comes up to get us back on the right track. This is where I learn the phrase ‘Pole Pole’, which means ‘Slow, Slow…’ As you know this isn’t historically one of my favorite words, but as you also know patience IS something I’m constantly working on. I end up walking on a pace that’s somewhere between the porters (these dudes cruise up and down the trails while each carrying 15-20kg worth of gear!) and our guides who are keeping pace for us. I meet a few little kids along the way who live on mini-farms on the mountain, they accompany me for a 100 meters or so- laughing, smiling, asking me to pick them up (which I happily obliged)- until their parents summoned them back to their chores haha.
At the day’s halfway point, the porters all take a little rest in the shade. By now I’m pretty far ahead of my team so I figured I’d chill for a bit as well. Nick has now caught up to us and asked me if I was running! Reminded me about pace and ‘pole pole’. I made sure to tell him I was in decent hiking shape dropping in a bit about Everest, India, NZ, etc. He said when everyone else caught up he’d send me along with Freddie (our asst guide) at a quicker pace if I wanted. Cool. Also… At this little rest area was a lady selling candy bars, chips, water, etc. This would be the only place along the trail for the next 6 days if we wanted to buy anything else. She ALSO had a few beers! Kilimanjaro Lager. I asked Nick if it was cool, and he said that generally the park didn’t endorse bringing beers (or even water that wasn’t in Nalgene/Camel Backs) up as it’s a UNESCO site and they try to limit the garbage. But, I mentioned to him it was my birthday and that I’d been keen to have one with dinner (Arielle said she’d join me!) and I also showed him the pic of me drinking an Everest on Everest and said I’d love to hopefully recreate the same photo… He said as long as I kept them out of sight, and was ok with trekking them up and down with me, he’d be cool with it. Enough said… Though once the lady heard I wanted them for a photo, she raised the price by 10! Supply and demand at its finest…
The rest of the walk was fairly uneventful. Freddie and I kept a good pace and chatted a bit, getting to know each other. And before I knew it we were at our first camp. The porters went to work setting everything up, they were amazing! Was like a bunch of worker ants that just knew their task backwards and forwards and in the blink of an eye, everything was sorted! A ‘Mess Tent’ where we’d eat our meals, 3 individual tents for us, a Toilet Tent (complete with a bucket that featured a wooden toilet seat!), and a tent for the chef to cook and the porters to hang out/sleep. After getting situated, we were served some tea and popcorn and the three of us spent some more time getting to know each other etc until dinner was served. Meals were always 3 courses- a soup, a starter, and a main. We had Hashim, our waiter, come in every meal and tell us about the menu. It was really endearing…. He took a lot of pride in his role and always had a smile on his face as he also got to practice his english telling us about ‘Zanzibar Chicken’ or ‘Pumpkin and Ginger Soup with Ve-ge-ta-bles’.
After the meal, Elizabeth turned in and Arielle and I cracked our beers and chatted a bit more. It was nice to have someone to share a birthday drink with, a friend, even if only a new one. As I was up on the mountain there was zero cell service and therefore no way for me to get any messages from friends/family, check Facebook, etc. Those who know me know I LOVE my birthday, but this felt right. Even without the messages, I could feel the love, and also knew I’d have something to look forward to after coming back down from the mountain… After the beers we both retired to our tents to get ready for bed, tomorrow was going to be another big day! As I drifted off to sleep I thought about the moment. Where I was. What I was doing. And although I wasn’t throwing myself a Funky Brunch Birthday party with all my friends (and all the fun/craziness that generally accompany those), my heart seemed fuller than ever. I spent my birthday with me. And in this past year I’ve really gotten to know and love myself, so I was ok with the company…
Hiking Day 2 (destination Kikelelwa Camp)
On the trail you wake up pretty early… you’d probably gone to bed pretty early (930 is a late night!), the Porters are up and moving around, people’s tent zippers are opening/closing, so the day tends to get going right as the sun is coming up… which I love. I got out of my tent, took some photos of the morning’s sunrise, and then did a meditation along with some yoga/exercises to get the body awake and ready! The porters brought tea to our tents every morning along with a bowl of warm water to wash our hands with (nice touch) and then invited us to the tent (or table outside if it was sunny/warm enough) for breakfast. Breakfast was pretty standard most days- porridge, some toast and fruit, and a few sausages (which they then stopped serving after Day 2 when nobody was keen to eat them. The table always had an assortment of tea, instant coffee, milo, and cocoa, in addition to peanut butter, jam, and other assorted condiments. I always experimented with trying to make a ‘mocha’ out of the instant coffee and cocoa/milo, but I never quite nailed the combo and eventually got pretty tired of drinking my weird morning potion…
Guess what? The Mountain is Out (a Seattle expression we use when we can actually see Mount Rainier)! We are treated to an amazing view of Kilimanjaro! If this isn’t inspiration for the day I don’t know what is. Later I learn I’ve been pretty off with my knowledge/verbiage this whole time. I’m ON Kilimanjaro, of course I can see it. Kilimanjaro has 3 volcanic cone ‘summits’, Kibo- which is the main one that I’ve been incorrectly referring to as Kilimanjaro features the highest points, Mawenzi- is the beautiful jagged summit on the other side of the ‘saddle’ from Kibo, and Shira- the shortest ridge. Ok, now we’re all on the same page.
Before we left, Nick asked all of our crew to line up and introduce themselves to us and let us know their role (porter, waiter, toilet guy, etc). As I said there were 15 total of them so it was hard to remember everyone’s name off the bat, but we were able to put a few names with faces which was nice- and then we returned the favor by introducing ourselves to them.
Off and running. Once again I left my team behind and was kinda in my own world. Not that they were going particularly slow, but I just knew the pace my brain wanted to go and even though I was going along at a ‘pole’ pace of 60% of what I really wanted to, I was still well ahead of the gang, keeping pace with the porters. When I arrived at our lunch destination I figured I was pretty far ahead of everyone so I journaled for a bit, explored the area for a bit, and then waited for everyone else. About 45 minutes later the ladies arrived and we all enjoyed a nice lunch. Nick came to fill us in on what the rest of the day would look like- a little up and down, but just a pretty gradual climb until we reached camp. He then pulled me aside as we were packing up and said I had to walk slower (Pole Pole) and stay with the guides. A little frustrated, I explained that I was walking slow for me, and I couldn’t possibly slow down any more… He said that his team could get in trouble if a park warden saw any of his hikers doing the trail without a guide (apparently it’s a big no-no) so he asked that I stay with everyone for a bit, and then he’d catch up and if I (and Arielle who was in great cardio shape) wanted to go a little faster then we could go ahead at a quicker pace with Freddie.
At first I was in my own head a bit. Impatience crept in. I felt like we were barely walking. My brain hurts going this ‘slow’. We’d never get where we needed to go. Why can’t I just run ahead? I’m in the best shape for hiking I’ve ever been in. He just doesn’t know it. This is killing me. (DEEP BREATH) Seriously. What’s my hurry? Do I have anywhere to be? Why do I always feel the need to run? Yes, I like challenging myself and testing my fitness, but is it going to kill me to just chill and go at a slower pace than my ego wants to for a bit? Is it possible that Nick has seen other people ‘think’ they know how to climb Kilimanjaro and know better than he (a guide for over 15 years)? So… lesson learned. Take this moment in. Enjoy where I’m at (not at a desk!). Breathe, relax, smile… Be present.
Of course my outlook didn’t fully change immediately and this was a lesson that came up many times over the course of the hike, but in this moment I did slow down- and what do you know, life was still good. Nick caught up. Arielle and I got to move along a little quicker. And everything was fine… Patience.
Nothing too noteworthy the rest of the day. We made camp, hung out, ate tea and popcorn and then dinner and then everyone journaled/read for a bit. I reflected a lot on what went on in my brain over the course of the day and promised myself I’d be more aware of this for the rest of the hike. There is seriously no hurry. I’m trekking on Kilimanjaro and these guys want me to make it to the top Time to let them do their job and I’ll just simply enjoy the ride…
Hiking Day 3 (destination Mawenzi Tarn)
Another early morning, another great sunrise meditation, another bowl of porridge (I’ve been adding honey so it’s a pretty decent way to start the day)… and another failed attempt at a mocha. I’m still coughing and feeling a bit sick in the lungs, but it’s not been an issue yet and as I have to drink a ton of water anyways to combat the altitude I must be getting a little better…
I should mention another something about our porters. These guys really make life easy for us. I mean, the setting up/breaking down of camp is seamless. They are carrying all the tents, bags, supplies, food, etc along the trail for us. They are venturing off to nearby streams to collect and purify water for us to drink and to cook with… I mean, these guys are solid. And always smiling. They love their mountain and take great pride in their work!
Same rules applied to today’s hike and it was a rhythm we were all settling in to. We’d all three set up together and then after Nick supervised the breaking of camp, he’d catch up and then Arielle and I would move along a little quicker and Elizabeth would catch us at the various stopping points. Elizabeth, mind you, is amazing. Here’s a lady who was in the New Zealand Army, traveled the world, had a few children, retired from work, and is now getting after it! If I’m still doing this when I’m in my 60’s I’ll be happy. She’s a lovely woman and an inspiration to both Arielle and I. I know that things aren’t so bad now on the trail but the summit is meant to be really tough, we both are hoping she is able to complete the trail!
The weather is pretty consistent every day. Clear morning. Sunny skies until 10 or so, and then the clouds and wind roll in. The rest of the day is usually intermittent sun breaks with a slightly chilly evening that usually features a mid-night rain shower.
This morning, during the sunny part, we are treated to more amazing views of Kibo as we all leave camp together… Pole Pole of course. Today would be a short but steep day. We’d cover only a few kilometers but would be jumping up 730m in elevation. We’d arrive for lunch and then spend the afternoon there getting used to the altitude and would even be doing an additional acclimatization hike to get our bodies even further used to ‘the air up there’. This was reminding me more of my time on Everest.
We broke camp walking at (in my mind) a snail’s pace. I could feel the impatience beginning to creep in again, but I nipped it in the bud. Put a smile on my face, some Beatles in my ears, and just enjoyed the morning! We all walked together with Freddie and then Nick caught us and then we split up. Arielle and I went ahead while Elizabeth took her time a bit. It definitely was a bit of a climb, there were parts where the path was nice and clean and others where we were scrambling up and over rocks. As we looked back down the mountain from where we came you could see this amazing cloud layer just sitting over Kenya, it was pretty surreal. Like clockwork the sunny morning we were enjoying turned cold, cloudy, and a little drizzly around 10am. By the time we made it (a little out of breath) to Mawenzi, it was officially a gray, overcast day. My body felt great though. I can totally feel the difference after all the hiking, yoga, eating right etc on this little journey of mine. If I was trying this last year it would have been a much different story.
The guys set up camp and we enjoyed some tea and lunch- and then all crashed hard. Ah, I love an afternoon nap. Especially when you’re up this high and your body is trying to adjust to the lack of oxygen. It rained pretty hard for a bit, the sound of the rain hitting the tents added to the relaxation factor. I was out cold. At 4 the guys woke us for our side hike. We’d jump up another few hundred meters and spend 45 minutes there to prep our bodies. I was definitely a little sluggish as first but once my legs got going, my brain woke up. They said we could go up a little faster if we wanted- say no more! I started bounding up the hill like a mountain goat! Was so much fun finally being ‘turned loose’! From somewhere below I heard them tell me it was time to stop so I found a nice little spot to settle into and did some more meditating. The sun was back out and shining on us and life was good! As we made our way back down to camp, the sun was starting to set. Mawenzi Tarn is right next to a little mountain lake which was giving off some nice reflections so we stopped for a little photo shoot before our tea and popcorn (yes, we had this every day).
We had a decision to make over dinner. In the morning, the standard route would take us back down in elevation to the Third Cave Camp and then we’d hit School Hut Camp the following day (where we’d leave for our summit). Reason for this is to give your body a chance to ‘reoxygenate’ and get some fresh life into your lungs and cells before attempting the summit. BUT. If we did it this way. We’d get to School Hut around 3pm. Have to go to bed around 6pm. Wake up at 11pm for ‘breakfast’ and then begin the summit at midnight. This is to A. get you to the top for sunrise, and B. allow the rest of the day to get back down the mountain, pack up, and THEN walk 12 more kilometers to the next camp! Ok, this sounds to me a like a pretty aggressive day. As a group we’d have to decide if our collective fitness would allow for this- and also how we were feeling with the altitude (did we NEED the night back down in elevation). OR Option B would be to skip the trip to Third Cave- go straight to School Hut and spend 2 nights there. We then wouldn’t have to leave at midnight for the summit as we wouldn’t have to walk to the next camp once we got back down, we’d stay there again and begin our trek down the following morning… Decisions. We talked it over and opted for option B. Seemed like the better decision for everyone…
So, decision made, we ate our soup, starter, and dinner and headed to bed. Another long day tomorrow!
Hiking Day 4 (destination School Hut)
The day began (of course) with another beautiful sunrise! I always woke up around 530, it was great. I love getting up early and then just being exhausted at the end of the day! I had a notion of getting up and doing that side hike again before we left, but then thought better of it. I don’t need to tire myself out with summit day rapidly approaching..
After porridge we set off to cross ‘The Saddle’, a barren alpine desert area which spans between Mawenzi and Kibo summits. It was a bit breezy as there are no trees and no mountain to block the cross winds. But, it was another sunny morning, so we were in good spirits. We were approaching our destination. Tomorrow morning at this time we’d (hopefully) be at the top of the beautiful mountain that was currently staring us down as we walked toward it.
This. Was. A. Long. Walk. The awesome size of Kibo created an optical illusion (much like Las Vegas) where everything seemed much closer that it really was. Every time I felt like we were ‘almost there’ it seemed to take a giant leap backwards, teasing us. The wind was gusting, so although it was sunny we were all bundled up. We could see the Kibo Huts (which is where trekkers along the Coca-Cola Marangu Route stay) ahead, we’d be taking a side trail just before we reached there which would take us over to School Hut. But still, though everything seemed close, the walk dragged on. After we veered off the main path it was up and over a bunch of rocks and another 100m up before we finally reached our camp for the night. We were ready to be done walking for a bit…
But just a bit. We had another acclimatization hike scheduled for the afternoon. Everyone was dragging a bit. I think the altitude was starting to sink in. We’d gotten up to 4800 meters in 4 days without a ton of acclimatizating! For reference, at Everest this same altitude gain took us 7-8 days- a longer trail, but still… and people were still feeling the elevation then! Not gonna lie, I was feeling it. No real symptoms of altitude sickness- but I’d been having trouble staying asleep every night (waking every 2 hours with sore back/hip/shoulder), I had a persistent mild headache, and of course I was still coughing up crap from my lungs and needing to blow my nose all the time. I passed out for a bit again, knowing we’d have to hike up further in a little while and also knowing that banking a few extra hours would probably come in handy the next morning when we attempted our summit…
I awoke (again fairly sluggish) when Freddie came to collect us for the afternoon hike. Arielle was ready to go, but Elizabeth was out cold still. Nick had also suggested that she start the summit at 2am while Arielle and I would leave camp at 4am. He wanted to give her a little more time to keep a ‘Pole’ pace and since we’d be staying the night at this camp again, we didn’t have the worry about getting to the top and back, then packing up and heading on down the mountain. So while Elizabeth rested, Arielle and I did our final acclimatization hike. The next time we’d head up this way it’d be during our summit run!
Similar to yesterday, once I got moving my brain and body woke up. I still had cobwebs, but I was on a mission now… and it was almost complete. Once up and down we started making final preparations for the ‘morning’. Elizabeth woke up and joined for our dinner. It was a little early as we’d be eating breakfast much earlier tomorrow (130 for Elizabeth and 330 for Arielle and I!). Nick came to check on us as we went through our summit checklist- he asked if we had any final questions. We were all pretty anxious for tomorrow, lots of nervous excitement… There were other campers staying at School Hut that had come up a different route- they’d be leaving at midnight for the summit- I didn’t envy them at all… Though I initially thought I’d be watching the sunrise from the top, hiking only 2 hours in the dark rather than 6 seemed a lot nicer to me and we’d of course still get to watch the sunrise as we trekked up. I liked our plan. I liked our chances. We all crushed a bunch of water and headed to our tents around 730pm. I felt ready. This wouldn’t be too bad. Time to climb a mountain. I journaled for a bit then fell asleep watching Star Wars on my iPad. THE Hero’s Journey. As I watched, I thought about where I was… on my own journey, in the middle of Tanzania on the side of a massive mountain. I decided to hop out of my tent for a second to take a final look at all the stars in the sky- it really did feel like I was in a galaxy far, far away.
Hiking Day 5 (destination Uhuru Point)
It’s Go Time. I woke up so many times in the few hours I slept. It was like Christmas Eve (if on December 24 you tended to sleep on hard ground in a sleeping bag). Finally at 3am it was time to get up. I had slept in most of my gear to save a little time in the morning. Plus it was pretty cold in the middle of the night at this altitude! Arielle and I ate breakfast at 330 while Nick did a final inspection of our gear and got us all our water etc. Arielle had a few extra hand warmers and she graciously offered them to me- thank God, it was gonna be a cold few hours before the sun came up!
At 4am on the dot we took our first steps towards our goal… 5895 meters about sea level… the highest point in Africa. Nick had told us this would take 6-7 hours, maybe longer, depending on our pace, conditions, etc. After 5 minutes of dragging myself up the mountain I thought to myself, ‘6 hours of this??!!!’, that seemed like forever. It was cold, it was dark, we had headlamps lighting the path but otherwise we couldn’t see anything. My toes were already numb, my legs were already burning- this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. I can see why 1 out of 4 climbers don’t make it all the way to the top!
Left foot, Right foot… Left foot, Right foot… Pole, Pole… Once again it feels like we’re making zero progress. The series of switchbacks is helping to make the super steep climb slightly less so, but it’s also serving to make it longer- not sure which I’d prefer at this point. We felt like prisoners in a Siberian Camp, trudging through the Tundra on the way to some unknown destination. Heads down. Attention deep inside our bodies. Willing ourselves forward one step at a time.
About 45 minutes into our hike we caught up to Elizabeth (this was around 5100 meters). She was going to turn around. She had given it her all but the mountain was just a bit too challenging on this morning for her. We all shared a hug, she wished us luck and we told her how proud of her we were for her effort. Seriously, she did so well, and she was happy with her accomplishment as well- even if it wasn’t the top, she made it damn far. Freddie headed back down with Elizabeth and one of the other porters, Habib, joined us- carrying extra supplies (water, biscuits, special treats…). Onward and upward.
Left foot, Right foot… Left foot, Right foot… I was listening to Walter Mitty but my headphones had been acting up and the battery was draining. I’d likely only have music for this first bit, luckily though as this was the tough part. Not to say the rest didn’t kick our ass too, this climb was challenging- but add in the dark AND cold and this was a huge initial hurdle to get over. Let there be light…
Sunrise was simply amazing. For so many reasons. For me, any sunrise is special, it’s the start of a new day. A blank slate full of possibilities. When you witness it in a special place, it becomes even more magical, more profound… it connects you to time and space and you truly do feel at one with the universe. Up until now, watching the sun rise over Mount Everest has been by far the most special moment of my trip… this is also right there at the top. Very different experiences, but both so absolutely incredible.
We stopped every so often to take in the moment, to watch the sky and land change with the colors of the new day (and of course for some photos). Crichton had mentioned something in his book I couldn’t wait to see for myself. He said being up so high and looking out across a vast and pretty flat landscape (different than Everest in the middle of the Himalayas for example), you could actually see the curvature of the Earth. He was right. There were no words for the beauty of this moment- I felt so small, yet so large at the same time. Pure Bliss.
The light of the new day has energized us! We’re about 2 hours in now and although we’re still sore/tired, we’re moving along at a good pace with a renewed spring in our collective steps. We stop ‘half way’ at the Hans Meyer Cave to catch our breath and grab some water. Although looking up we can see we still have a pretty far way to go, we are encouraged by our progress and keen to get moving again… This isn’t so bad. Away we go.
Left foot, Right foot, Left foot Right foot… Up, up, up. The ground now has snow and ice, we are getting higher and higher, and the air is getting thinner and thinner. We can see people (far) up ahead! These are the midnight hikers heading back down! This is also encouraging as it mean we have to be getting close to something… We’re climbing up directly up rocks now in between the switchbacks. In my mind this is saving us some time, ‘shortest distance between two points’ and all. Wait, is that the sign!?? We’ve made it! Holy shit! NOW there’s a huge rush of energy as we keep climbing up! I check my watch, we’ve been at this just shy of 4 hours- we’ve made great time!
My celebration (and bravado) is short-lived though as Nick says, ‘Congrats guys, we’ve made it to Gilman’s Point. Only 2 more hours to go!’ What??? Yes. There are 3 ‘summits’ on Kibo, and this is only the first. Gilman’s Point, elev 5685m. Ok, not the summit, but I’m officially now higher than I’ve ever been (Kala Pathar at Everest was ~5650), every step I take from here on out will be setting a new elevation record for me! There were a few groups of hikers here. Some on their way down from the actual summit, others were turning around from here (many people- including Crichton- consider reaching Gilman’s accomplishment enough… I have to say I was 30% on that page!). Most guidebooks encourage those who want to head back to just give it 20 more minutes, get your legs moving again and see if you can continue, but there was no thoughts for us of heading back, not after coming this far. AND. We got another boost of energy in the form of Red Bulls! The guys had brought them up for this moment, to keep us on track… they really knew what they were doing! So we downed our cans and kept the party going! Red Bulls on top of Kilimanjaro, not bad at all.
The trail continued along the back side of the crater ridge for a bit. This wasn’t in the sun so was a little colder and had more of the night’s snow still on the trail therefore we had to watch our footing a bit more. Although the distance we had to travel was still a bit far, we’d only have to climb up another 200m so that was something positive. Now we were really on top of the world as we traversed across the top of the cinder cone. The views were incredible. You could see forever! Mawenzi looked majestic across the saddle. Beautiful glacial ice walls clung to the back side of the mountain. We were slowly but surely making it. Hey! Another sign! Not fooled this time into thinking we were done though… We approached Stella Point ready for a photo and a very quick break, but we wanted to keep moving! Pole pole, they reminded us. We were now at 5756m… and counting…
The final push. We can see our goal off in the distance. A nice gradual climb to pay dirt. Of course there’s no such thing as a gradual climb when you’re up over 5700 meters! A 3% incline feels like 50% up here, especially after how far we’ve come! Still, I want to run. I want to run so badly, but Nick reminds us where we are… Pole pole… we’ll get there. And we will. There’s no hurry. Let’s just enjoy this moment, look around, take this in, appreciate what we’re accomplishing- rather than focusing on the finish line and crossing it as soon as possible. Another good reminder.
And before we know it, we’re at Uhuru Point, elevation 5895m. The highest point in Africa. We had made it. Total time: 5 Hours 10 Minutes…
It’s hard to put this moment into words, but not for the reasons you might think. I had so much running through my brain that when I look back I realize I wasn’t as present as I wish I had been. Don’t get me wrong, I have an epic memory of this moment, one that will be with me forever. But between the celebration, all the photos we took, chatting amongst ourselves, dealing with the cold/breeze, I kinda forgot to just have a moment to myself take a few breaths and let this sink in. But enough about that. I was here and it was fucking awesome! And so are the pictures…
As I had been carrying my second Kilimanjaro beer up with me this whole trip, it was time to crack it open and celebrate the summit! I like this trend 😉 Just have to keep climbing mountains that have a local brew named after them. Although I just finished slightly bashing our photoshoot, it WAS pretty fun. Why not celebrate? Well, it was pretty cold and windy up there and clouds were starting to move in so Nick said we should get moving just in case. Makes sense. BUT I did gather everyone together for a couple mindful breaths. We threw our arms around each others shoulders and did silently rest in the moment for about 30 seconds… It was pretty cool.
And cold. And shit, now we had to get all the way back down off this mountain! Nick said given our pace it’d probably be 90 minutes. OK. Let’s get moving! And move we did. So much easier going the opposite direction! Each step brought a little more oxygen into very thankful lungs. Left foot, Right foot, Left foot, Right foot…
‘Easier’ is getting less easy as my legs are slowly but surely turning to jelly. It has been a long, tough climb. And now more than ever you have to concentrate on your footing as each step asks your body to support its entire weight on what feels like a pair of wobbly noodles. Thankfully the clouds never really hit us so the day stayed sunny and relatively warm. When we got back near Hans Meyer cave we saw another group of hikers making their up, which we thought was pretty odd timing (most are back down by now) until we realized they were our guys! Dude. 5 of them trekked halfway up the summit, with decently full packs, just to congratulate us (free high-fives!) and bring us lunch! These guys are simply badass. And so we all sat there in the sunshine on the side of the mountain enjoying some hot pumpkin/ginger soup, some bananas, and some fresh water. It was just what the Doctor ordered. Almost done…
Whereas we’d mostly been on a rocky trail, or on rocks themselves, the last part down involves running down the ‘scree’, a mixture of small loose stones and sand. Thank God we didn’t have to climb up this stuff (like my summit on Rinjani!) as it was slick. And so we continued down the mountain, our steps were a mix of skiing, skating, and running down the side! It was fast and it was fun… at first. But it too felt like forever and what was pretty easy at first soon became a massive workout for our already tired legs! But eventually we made it to the trail that would shortly lead us back to camp. Or so we thought. Shit, this was longer than we remembered it too. My legs were burning. Arielle’s were also. One of the Porters even took her arm to help her make it down the hills (I’ll admit it looked pretty nice and probably wouldn’t have turned it away if offered!) After what seemed like a long while (but was actually probably only 10 minutes) up and over lava rocks and small hills we were at the spot where we had hiked to less than 20 hours ago for our acclimatization hike. We were almost home. And then we were. We had made it. All the way to the top and safely back down again.
Our team all came out to congratulate us as Arielle and I shared a well-deserved hug. I was exhausted, but exhilarated at the same time… It was a pretty surreal feeling. Much different than Everest. Not better or worse, just different…
We checked on Elizabeth as she emerged from her tent looking all nice and refreshed. She said she’d come back down to a great breakfast and had just finished an amazing (and also well deserved) nap. She was happy for us, and herself… we were all simply happy in this moment.
I wandered a little way from camp and recorded a video memo to myself while everything was still fresh- emotions raw, legs aching, but breath slowly returning! After I finished I headed back to eat a bit more food, I hadn’t realized how hungry I was! The guys had set out more lunch for us and although we were exhausted, Arielle and I found the energy to refuel a bit more. Then it was time to lay down… Once I got into my tent, systems started shutting down… My body had been running on autopilot for 7 hours, pushing all the energy to the ‘mission critical’ areas and distracting me from realizing just how tired I was, mentally as well as physically. I could barely form thoughts. I really could only just… feel. Emotions were up and down, not down as in sad, but down as in sometimes I had the energy to experience them and sometimes everything just turned off- I was just spent. As I reflected on the experience, happy tears made their way down my cheeks… leaving salty trails on my face as I couldn’t even wipe them away. I just lay there. Too tired to sleep, too tired to stand, too tired to think. Just tired.
A few hours passed like this. Never really sleeping, just in and out of awareness. But it felt good to be off my feet, that was for sure. Around 430 we had our tea and popcorn. They said they’d serve us dinner a little earlier as they were sure we’d all want to get some extra sleep tonight- they weren’t wrong. It was a little unfortunate that although we had all done something amazing that day, none of us had the energy to really celebrate, we barely even spoke! Nick came in to check on us and assured us this was normal. I could finally feel the altitude getting to me a bit. DIdn’t have much of an appetite, I had a headache, I felt like I just looked sad- I had given it my all that day and there just wasn’t a lot left. Time for bed. I fell asleep watching Princess Bride, my other favorite Hero’s Journey… I had stormed the castle and won. Time to head home and tell the story…
Hiking Day 6 (Destination Horombo Hut)
I wouldn’t say I got the best night’s sleep. Still woke up pretty much every 2 hours with different parts of me sore from either the ground or the hike, but I did manage to get around 9-10 hours in total (which is pretty easy when you go to bed at 8pm). The sunrise was once again a beautiful backdrop for some meditation and reflection. I felt a bit better, but was looking forward to getting back down to a more oxygen-rich atmosphere! 12km today and then 20km tomorrow and we’d be finished. All downhill from here!
It was a fairly uneventful hike across the saddle. We’d be heading back down the Marangu Route so we’d get to experience a bit of this trail as well. As we passed other climbing parties making their way up, they’d congratulate us and we’d wish them well, they had one hell of a climb ahead of them! Once the legs got going everything loosened up. The trek, although a bit long, was pretty ‘cruisey’. and we made it to our destination in good time. Horombo camp is the acclimatization spot on the way up the Morangu Route. It was a cool little camp site with lots of huts, dining halls, a ranger station, and an amazing view! After being fairly isolated the past few days this felt like a village, like civilization!
After we ate lunch we all just kinda chilled out for a bit, I walked around to explore the camp and take in some of the views. My energy was back! My mood was great. It was a sunny day and life was good! Nick said the guys would be singing us a celebration song around 4pm, sounded awesome 🙂 We’d also have the opportunity to say a few words of thanks/gratitude to them, so we all got some thoughts together for that as well.
The song was awesome! Man, these guys just killed it for us. They were so happy, smiling, energetic, and all in all just amazing. They weren’t just going through the motions as if we were just yet another group of hikers, we could tell they really cared. About us, about each other, about their jobs, about life… It was a great reminder and demonstration of positivity and being present. As we thanked them for everything, Freddie translated for us and you could tell they felt great pride. It was a pretty special moment.
Tea/Popcorn/Dinner/Journal/Sleep. Not a whole lot else to report from the day. There was another couple hiking alongside us that we’d gotten to know- they had done other route, having gone to Third Cave for a night and then did the whole ‘Summit at midnight followed by the 12km walk’… We had gone down to say hi check in on them just before dinner- they looked Spent! Reaffirmed my happiness in the decision to go the route we decided. But they too had made the summit- nice work guys!
Hiking Day 7 (Destination Marangu Gate and then back to our hotel in Arusha!)
Once again, the sunrise was amazing. It was cool to have experienced it from so many different places around the mountain, each one was unique and provided many different views of Africa. Today we’d be trekking 12km to Mandara Hut and then 8km to the finish line! We’d start by crossing another grassland and then finish up through a rainforest/jungle.
Elizabeth had left earlier as she wanted to take her time and check out some of the flora/fauna. So after Arielle and I ate our last bowl of porridge, we grabbed our bags and headed with Nick down the mountain. We were flying! At this pace we’d be down the mountain in no time (and by no time I mean 4.5 hours rather than 6). We caught up with Elizabeth about an hour in and motored on by. About halfway down there would be another ranger station- Nick and Elizabeth would be catching a car for the last bit to save a little time and get us to our team lunch at a decent hour.
Although I told myself it wasn’t a race, I still have a hard time slowing down when I’m approaching the end of a hike. And…as I bombed down the trail I rolled my ankle. Not badly. But enough to serve as a little reminder from the universe to slow down and not be in such a hurry. Thankfully I was just far enough ahead of Freddie and Arielle that they didn’t see, I’d feel even dumber if they had watched with an ‘I told you so’ look on their faces. The jungle canopy was cool, why wasn’t I looking around and enjoying this more? There were cool little rivers with old bridges over them, there were cool flowers that ONLY grow here on Kilimanjaro, there even were a couple monkeys up in the trees. Lesson learned…
And then we were done! It was perfect timing as right as we walked arrived, so did Nick and Elizabeth in their car. We all walked over to the Park Office and ‘signed out’ of Mount Kilimanjaro- in the same book we had signed into a week before. Seemed like both a lifetime and an instant at the same time… Now that I had officially competed the quest, I bought a Kilimanjaro patch for my travel jacket. Another amazing memory added to the collection. 🙂
We snapped a few more photos and then it was onto the bus to head home!But not before our lunch! We’d been told we’d be stopping in Moshi for ‘The Best Burgers in Tanzania’. At this point I’m sure a McDonald’s Cheeseburger would’ve tasted like the Minetta Tavern- and although I’m not eating a ton of meat these days, I felt like this was well earned. Earlier, Nick had said the guys would wait out by the van as only the Head Guide and Assistant Guide usually joined for lunch (the meal was included in our tour package). That seemed pretty lame so we asked if it’d be cool to invite the guys to join (our treat)… Of course, he said they’d be excited for the invite but that many/most groups didn’t offer. So we all ate the meal together. It was cool (and it was Africa so not expensive at all!), and they really appreciated the gesture. They all toasted to us and each ended up standing up and saying a few words of thanks for the week and the meal. As most of the support staff only spoke Swahili, it was special to receive these messages as they practiced their English. I mean, it honestly was maybe $5 per person, but they treated it (and us) like it was Thanksgiving Dinner. They were beautiful individuals. Best meal of the trip!
Home sweet home! Back at the Outpost Lodge we got all our packs, said goodbye to the crew, and checked into our rooms AND FINALLY SHOWERED! This was divine! I finally got out of all the hiking gear and got into some comfy clothing, it felt so nice! It’s sometimes the littlest things in life that provide the most joy. Mine came in the form of shorts and flip flops- which I then wore over to the massage I had set up for this moment! If you know me, you know I love my massages, and this was so just what I needed! I was in heaven as the lady went to town on my neck, back, and legs. Slowly I was becoming a real human again. I was just one proper dinner, a few glasses of wine, and a morning coffee (and still probably a shower or two) from fully being back to myself.
Arielle, Elizabeth and I met that night for dinner. It was fun to see us ‘all dressed up’, which is to say not in trekking clothes and boots, with hair combed properly, makeup on the ladies and everything! Looking around the restaurant at the lodge I could see a few others who looked like they had also just returned and a few that looked to be heading up the next morning. We all chatted about how we had felt, all sitting there eating dinner only one week before, and how we felt now. We chatted about our favorite parts of the trip, what we were most looking forward to doing once we got home, and more about life in general- travel stories, family, friends, work… It was cool. We were much more relaxed, we had no mountain to climb early the next morning, we’d be sleeping in a proper bed tonight, AND of course there was wine… it was a great meal with my new friends.
I still had one more thing to do… Once back in my room, I finally connected to wifi and read through all my birthday messages. They had now been waiting for me for a week! What an amazing gift from the universe this was. Kilimanjaro had already been an amazing experience, and this was the cherry on top. I’m so grateful to have good people in my life and to hear from so many of them was such a humbling experience. In addition to the birthday wishes, many also commented how proud they were of me, were inspired by what I’m doing, and excited for my continued growth… It was scary to quit my job, to burn through savings, to get outside my comfort zone and try new things, but when I get notes like this- I know I’m doing the right thing.
I had a great cry laying there (and am tearing up again as I write this). Life can truly be a magical and special experience. There were so many times in my past- as a kid, in adolescence, even into early adulthood- that I never dreamed something like this was possible for me. It felt so far away from where I was and was nothing I felt capable of or even deserving of. Yet here I find myself, in Africa, having just climbed to its highest point and filled with the love of the universe, my family, and my friends. It’s hard to even find the words…
After an absolutely AMAZING night’s sleep the three of us met up for breakfast. We all had a glow about us. We had shared an incredible experience with each other, and with ourselves… AND now we get coffee! Life was indeed good. Nick would be coming by to say goodbye and to give us our official certificates from the Parks Department, and then we’d be off. Three strangers one week ago, now three friends forever connected by this memory, this moment. As with any goodbye, I wonder if/when I’ll see them again. Facebook makes it easy to keep in contact, but I do hope I get to meet up with them again in person at some point, somewhere in the world.
Arielle and Elizabeth, it was an absolute pleasure to spend this week with you and wish you both many more adventures and happiness. Thank you for being there for me!
And to Nick, Freddie, and the rest of the gang, Asante Sana, Hakuna Matata (yes they actually say this!) and Poa Kichizi Kama Ndizi!
I guess I just feel really proud of myself. One year ago, I had never hiked anything! And I’ve now been to Everest Base Camp and up Mt Rinjani, I’ve been up roaming around the Indian Himalayas and trekked 100 miles across the Scottish highlands… and now I’ve been to the highest point in Africa. It’s good to step back from time to time, to look at one’s achievements and give yourself a mental hug and a high five. To rest for a moment in gratitude- for life, for health, and for friends and family. This was one of those moments. Yes, there was the external act of climbing a huge mountain, but I’m actually reflecting more about where I’m at internally. I’m really happy with me. I’m allowing more time and space to love myself. To appreciate who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. I’m excited about life and still so curious about what else is out there,… and even more curious about what else is inside me I’ve yet to discover…
Thanks for being here with me and allowing me to share all of this with you. Much Love and Bliss,
Just a guy on a hero's journey...