To the Roof of Africa – Part Two

The conclusion of a two-part series chronicling our trip halfway around the world and up the tallest mountain in Africa, along with my reactions to it. If you haven’t yet, be sure to read the first entry.

Trek Day 1 – To the mountain

“How are doing? You will be good. Remember, just polepole.” says Leo, as if sensing our slight apprehension when the van full of porters arrives.

Polepole is a Swahili word meaning “slowly” that we had already heard a few times prior to our trip, and way more often upon arrival to Tanzania. It has become an unofficial slogan of Kilimanjaro and the surrounding areas, as it is the best advice for travelers seeking to summit the 19,341-foot mountain.

The morning of our departure for the mountain is crisp and the massive 23-passenger van (with two porters having climbed atop) sits in the lodge driveway being loaded. Once our gear is packed up and the cargo strapped down, the porters hop off the roof and into the back. Brian, Jared, Phil, and I climb in after Leo, and the massive vehicle jostles down the bumpy road onto the streets of Arusha. As the van pounds over speedbumps and potholes, it’s filled with the jovial conversations of porters in Swahili (not a single word of which we can understand). Leo leans back from the passenger’s seat and lets us know it’ll be about 45 minutes until our next stop.

Our van fully loaded.

The trip from Arusha to our first stop just outside of Moshi takes us over roughly-maintained highways where road rules are impossible to decipher and hardly enforced. Leaving the concrete complexes of the city, we begin to pass through villages made up of collections of shacks built from corrugated metal mixed with small, single-story cinderblock stores and bars. Occasionally we careen by a fenced complex with a larger Western-style home at its center.

Once through Moshi, it’s another hour and 15 minutes to the Mount Kilimanjaro National Park entrance at Marangu gate. Here our guide pays all applicable fees and completes the necessary paperwork as enforced by the parks agency.

Back in the van we return to even rougher and more narrow roads for the final two hours around to Nao Maru on the north-east side of Kilimanjaro, nearly over the border to Kenya. We’re taking the Rongai Route up, the only trail that travels through the northern half of the park. I ask Felix if any Kenyan trekking companies are allowed to bring groups up the mountain.

“This is a Tanzanian mountain.” he replies, with an intense amount of pride in his voice.

Our guides: Leo (left) and Felix (right).

While the van’s cargo is unloaded into dozens of smaller bags, we’re brought lunch in a covered lean-to overlooking the Kenyan plains — service that we were not expecting. Soup, fresh fruit, vegetables, and tea are spread out before us and are a welcome sight after a long morning drive.

Once lunch is finished and we’re packed for the day’s walk, we start to head out with Felix while the porters and Leo measure out portions of cargo. Tanzanian park regulations limit the carrying capacity of a single porter to 20 kilograms (over 40 pounds) and park rangers strictly enforce this rule; on our way out we pass the Rongai Gate ranger screaming orders to a growing line of porters waiting at the scale, divvying up gear to come as close to 20 kilos as possible without going over.

Our porters depart.

Encumbered with only cameras, water, and rain gear, we make our way through the first climates zones of Kilimanjaro. The path is well groomed, and only slightly sloped. Passing through farms and tended forests of lumber trees, the trail slowly tapers and enters the rainforest.

The porters, carrying far more than we are, swiftly walk by on their way to the night’s camp. When we arrive, the camp is completely assembled — a remarkable feat for having just outpaced us on a four-and-a-half-mile hike carrying 44 pounds of gear. We’re brought another delicious meal with locally-grown tea. After dinner and a quick game of cards, Leo arrives in our tent to brief us on the next day’s travels.

Lala salama.” he says as he exits the tent. “Sleep well.”

Trek Day 2 – Entering the clouds

View Larger Map

Though a bit chilly getting out of the sleeping bag, the morning is comfortable and clear. The day starts at 6:30 a.m. with breakfast and the re-packing of sleeping bags and daypacks. While the porters carry most of the clothing and equipment, trekking companies encourage hikers to pack a smaller personal bag with rain gear, snacks, water, and anything else you might need on a single day’s hike. Our daypacks (each with a CamelBak reservoir) weigh in around 12-16 pounds when full — an embarrassingly small amount considering.

The porters have nearly broken down the entire camp by the time we’re ready to go, and we set off down the trail with a sense of urgency and optimism that is sure to fade by the end of the week. The first hike of the day is only three and a half miles to the lunch stop, but we ascend nearly 3,000 feet.

Second Caves

This stop at Second Caves camp is often the end of the day for trekkers doing the six-day Rongai, but since we’re taking an extra day on the mountain to increase acclimatization, we hit the trail again for another six miles and 600 feet of elevation gain.

Our day is spent mostly in the moorlands of Kilimanjaro with open skies above us, constant far-reaching views of the Kenyan plains below us, and Kibo Peak looming in front. The sun keeps the day nice and warm, but we begin to make our way into the clouds by evening, and the night’s camp is shrouded in a dense fog.

Trek Day 3 – Feeling the elevation

Now that we’re over 12,000 feet, packing and unpacking gear begins to become more of a chore as heavy breathing is induced by the smallest effort. Today is a shorter day’s hike (just over two miles) to a hollow at the base of Miwenzi, one of Kilimanjaro’s three volcanic cones: Kibo (the tallest), Mawenzi, and Shira. Now mostly above the clouds, the views around our camp are magnificent; puffy white fields with blue skies above them.

Felix (top), Jared, Phil, Brian, Austin, and Leo near the top of Mawenzi

Our camp is at ~14,000 feet tonight, but we take another short, two-mile hike, gaining another thousand feet of elevation to better acclimatize before we return to our camp in the hollow. This method of hiking high during the day and sleeping at lower elevations optimizes acclimatization.

Trek Day 4 – Across the divide

We’ve gotten used to the daily routine now, although the changing landscape keeps things entertaining. The day’s five-mile hike brings us back down 2,000 feet of elevation, giving our bodies time to recover after the previous day’s acclimatization excursion. As we leave our camp this morning we come across the wreckage of a small passenger plane. In 2008, the plane crashed at over 14,000 feet killing all four tourists on board and severely injuring the pilot. This sudden encounter with mortality momentarily sobers the mood and brings to mind the dangers we’re facing in this alpine desert. In the distance we have a completely clear view of the peak and the trail we’re going to take to the summit in under 48 hours.

The passenger plane that crashed near the base of Kilimanjaro in 2008.

The lower elevation of camp means slightly easier breathing and a better mood for the team overall. Playing cards and drinking tea in the mess tent is a great way to pass the time and spend a few hours taking our minds off of more hiking, more camping, and more of the food that, after having started as delicious and filling, has started to become a chore.

“How do you feel about our chances?” Phil asks during our evening briefing.

“You’re good. No worries at all. Just polepole.” says Leo, casually. “Kesho. Tomorrow.”

Trek Day 5 – Coping

The morning of day five.

The promise of the fifth day — being only hours from the start of the summit bid and only days from being back to civilization (and a shower) — fades quickly as Phil and I begin to realize we’ve been stricken by a horrible, horrible water-borne illness. My aunt and uncle that had traveled to Africa before had warned me that this was guaranteed, but I was hoping to get lucky. The day’s hiking cannot be prevented, so we hope it is just an upset stomach, take an assortment of antacids and heavy metals, and begin the walk to the last camp before summit. With my stomach in pieces, eating was out of the question, so not only am I hiking with some sort of intestinal bug, but I’m also running a deficit on calories. Not a good start to the day.

Although the walk from Third Caves to School Hut is only two and a half miles, we gain just shy of 3,000 feet in elevation in a matter of hours. Hours made even more excruciating thanks to my severe lack of energy. The cocktail of medication improves things, if only slightly. Our guides notice my extreme drop in energy and strength and offer to carry some of the weight in my daypack. Reluctantly, I offer Felix my camera and hefty lens to lighten my own load — something I had hoped would not be necessary during this trek. After only a few stops to regain my strength, the whole team (everyone else faring much better than me) arrives to camp at roughly 15,500 feet. The elevation becoming incredibly apparent, making the simplest tasks more difficult — each breath unrewarding.

Looking back down towards Kenya on the way up to School Hut.

Leo suggests Phil and I take the Ciprofloxacin (an incredibly powerful antibiotic) that was prescribed to us by our travel physicians. We hastily oblige, and I slowly crawl into the tent for a long afternoon nap to hopefully give my body time to recover.

Waking up in time for dinner, I attempt to force down food to make sure I store up some energy for the hike to the summit that starts at 12:00 a.m. I hadn’t worried about my ability to make it to the summit until now — the altitude seems worse than when I went to sleep, I struggle to find the energy to walk between tents, and organizing my clothing and gear for the midnight hike seems impossible.

“Still think we’ll make it?” Phil asks Leo after dinner.

“Absolutely. 98 percent sure. Polepole.” he says.

Polepole.” I mumble.

Trek Day 6 – To the summit

Awake at 11:00 p.m. and miraculously feeling mostly better, I stumble out of the tent, choke down a cup of tea, but am sad to discover my appetite hasn’t returned. That said, I’m better off than Phil, who at this point refuses to get out of bed and doesn’t make an appearance until just before we’re set to head up the trail.

Today’s final ascent of almost 4,000 feet is only a bit more than three miles, starting on switchback trails up a loose scree slope. The team today is reduced to the two guides along with two porters while the rest of the crew is led around the lower slopes to the camp we will return to after the summit.

Stars over Kilimanjaro.

The six hours of hiking under the stars to the rim of the volcanic crater are grueling, but not impossible. In the early-morning hours, all I see while hiking is the path in front of me lit by our headlamps and the twinkle of other groups in the distance below and in front of us. A few hours into our hike, our trail joins with the summit trail of the more popular Marangu route. As we approach the path, lights from hundreds of hikers zig-zag up and down the mountainside.

We begin to pass by others headed to the summit. Some simply resting, others having reached their limit; laying on the ground or retching behind large boulders, a sight I try to push from my mind as we continue up the seemingly endless slope. The back and forth up the trail goes on for hours. The temperature continues to drop, and our water bottles and reservoirs begin to freeze completely.

Though difficult, the climb at night is oddly peaceful. Especially when I turn off my headlamp and look above to the crystal clear skies full of stars, or down below to the endless path of headlamps bobbing their way along thousands of feet down the western face.

Finally the monotony breaks as we reach Gillman’s Point at ~18,700 feet. Here the trail changes from switchbacks of deep gravel to a somewhat flatter path between large boulders and through six inches of snow cover. The sun is starting to come up, and the breathlessness and lack of energy are momentarily driven from my body. We start to gain amazing views of the crater to our right and the Tanzanian plains to our left. From here it’s just over one hour until Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa.

The elevation is punishing, and the pace incredibly slow for the grade of the trail. Polepole, I remind myself and keep trudging forward behind Felix and Phil, now recovered from his bout of demotivation this morning and charging up the mountain. Passing by Stella Point with only a quick break, we carry our momentum forward, now incredibly close to the summit. Thoughts of fatigue and rest wobble in and out of my mind — I think the lack of oxygen, energy, and nutrients has limited my ability to really comprehend anything but moving forward.

A view west from near the summit.

Emerging from between two large piles of boulders, the sun streams down on an open, flat area about 50 feet wide — the ash crater on one side and a steep slope dotted with glaciers on the other. In front is a crowd of people, and a sign made up of multiple pieces of green plastic with yellow lettering. We’ve made it to the summit, now only yards away. The emotion is overwhelming as the thoughts of the previous six days of hiking and months of preparation come to mind. I’ve done it. We’ve done it. We’re at the top.

The team at the summit marker.

Nearly sixty people are collected around the summit sign. I stand beside it for a moment and stare, and then the guides and my teammates gather around to celebrate and take photos with our banner. After a few moments, the glory fades a bit and the stinging wind and bitter cold slam back into mind. Time to go down.

Christopher, the senior porter, leads the descent.

We hastily retrace our steps, a bit more energized than before. Waving and wishing good luck to the familiar faces heading up the trail. Once more quickly passing through Stella Point, we arrive at Gillman’s and the porters produce Pringles and candy, possibly the greatest snack I’ve ever had. And we’re thousands of feet above the floor of Africa.

After Gillman’s Point, we’re brought to the edge of the scree slope we meandered up in the dark. Now I can see why this single part of the climb took six hours (and I’m glad it was in the dark): six- to eight-inch deep crushed stone on a slope nearing a 50-degree angle. After watching a couple of other hikers and Felix start to descend, I start cautiously down the path. I quickly learn that this is not the way to do it. Instead, long running strides that bring you ten feet down the mountain are the least stressful on the legs. It’s also the most fun.

One of the Maasai porters slides down through the deep scree.

Thousands of feet of descent fly by as we quickly climb down from the summit over the next couple of hours. A short stop for lunch at Kibo Hut (~15,500 feet) and we descend 3,000 more feet over nearly six miles before arriving at Horombo Hut.

Trek Day 7 – Leaving the park

The last view of Kilimanjaro before we depart Horombo Hut.

“The last day, Christopher.” I say to the senior porter after he arrives with tea.

The abundance of oxygen at this relatively low altitude is invigorating and, even though my appetite is still spotty, the trip down the remaining trail moves quickly. Today’s hike of nearly 12 miles brings us down another 6,000 feet. Stopping only a few times on the way, we outpace most of the other descending groups of climbers and soon arrive at Marangu Gate, where we first stopped to pay fees, get permits, and stretch our legs. Here, the team signs out while the porters finish packing the van.

Returning to the bumpy roads is jarring both literally and figuratively; the week in the wilderness is finished, and we’re back to traveling at speed down bumpy Tanzanian highways. We stop for a lunch of burgers and fries back in Moshi (close enough to American-style to pass after too many days of soup), pick up a few souvenirs, and then travel the rest of the way back to our hotel in Arusha. A shower, a few beers, and another meal brings the week of trekking to a close.

The team and Leo with the certificates we received for successfully reaching the summit.

Back Home

We spend the better part of the next three days relaxing, and take a too-short adventure to Ngorongoro crater (more on that another time). Time is passed playing cards and talking with other hikers on their way to the mountain. So far it’s difficult to really comprehend the achievement of the previous week. The evening of our departure arrives; we bid farewell to the friendly lodge manager and clamber into the car taking us back to the airport — still a bit sore from the trip to Uhuru.

It’s good to see the tiny airport again, and soon enough we’re packed back into an Airbus A330 bound for Amsterdam (after a stop in Dar es Salaam). Unfortunately, a mishap with seat assignments has left the team scattered throughout the plane, so I’m crushed in a middle seat next to a well-muscled fellow whose neck and shoulders take up the entirety of his seat and a good portion of my own. Luckily, I sleep through a majority of this flight.

Through another round of airport security, along the jetway, and buckled back into a less-crowded plane. We’re hours away from home, but still sad to have left such a remarkable place.

It’s peculiar to see Logan again. Without much thought, we’re swept along with the crowd through customs (my box of delicious stroopwafels officially declared), to baggage claim, and out the door to our ride back into the city.

Down Storrow Drive in what seems an instant, Phil’s dropped at his door and I’m suddenly back in my apartment with little left of the trip but memories. The experience is hard to put into words, but it was amazing. We were lucky enough to travel to a part of the world very few can or will get to see. We put in months of work and planning. Hours of exercise and fundraising to make sure our efforts aren’t just a vacation to Africa, but a way to raise awareness for a good cause.

Before leaving everyone said this trip would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Having traveled halfway around the globe to a third-world country and up a 19,341-foot mountain, I now completely agree. Not because I don’t intend to have similar adventures in the future, but because the entire trek was so enjoyable and so unique, that there’s not a chance that it will happen twice.

More photos of our trip can be found on Flickr.