Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Jan 12, 2003
|When I was growing up behind the iron curtain I was dreaming of seeing a number of things. Big mountains, oceans, deserts, and Africa.... Turns out that Michelle shared the interest. She was the one who found Good Earth Tours (http://www.goodearthtours.com/) to organize our trip. Good Earth is run by two gentlemen from Tanzania, one of them lives in the US and he was the contact before going on the trip. We have nothing, but good to say about them. For lot less than the big Western run tour organizations they do an excellent job and indeed are good earth, donating part of their income back to their village for community projects. BTW, they did not say this, we heard from others who do not work for them directly.
We flew out of the cold winter, first step to Amsterdam. Here we sat for some time while they were fixing the windshield wiper of the plane. It was funny, they are announcing that it is already replaced, while we are looking at the plane, seeing that a guy just showed up, but no work has actually been done. Sadly this meant that it was dark by the time we were flying over the Mediterranean and the Sahara. However, it was amazing when they opened the doors at Kilimanjaro International, and we walked through the tarmac to the building in the balmy, grass smelly African night.
Next morning after having breakfast on the balcony overlooking a jacaranda tree we were collected and met the others who we would be sharing the experience for the next few days. John, an American guy of our age, a Boston couple who were doing a few months around the world before moving to San Francisco and a really nice British couple. We drove towards the national park, stopping to buy supplies and to take a look in the morning before the clouds roll in to embrace the mountain. Even with the disappearing snow and glaciers around the summit, Kilimanjaro looks fantastic as it sits over the savanna. Ernest - pronounced with a hard rrrrr in it-, our guide was a really nice guy. He and his little brother who was aspiring to take the guide exam picked man from the crowd who gathered at the national park gate as porters.
There are various routes one can take up on the mountain; we went with the second most traveled route, Machame. It is advertised as the most scenic route- back then it was sleeping in tents all the way, but I think by now they either have or are building huts on this route, too. It starts in the rain forest that skirts the low slopes of the mountain and at an altitude that is only little lower than Mt Washington in New Hampshire, the highest place that Michelle has been before. The path started out all right, but soon turned into a mud bath. At first I was thinking that I would want to keep the upper parts of my boots clean of mud, but by the time we were getting closer to the end of the day's hike I was happy not to be muddy waist up. At around 8000 feet up the flora fairly abruptly changes to bushes from trees and one more 1000 feet up we reached the first camp site. In the afternoon this region -10 000 feet up- is all in clouds and we had to wait until next morning for a view.
A bit above the camp the Shira plateau with its moorland a great place to see Mt Meru that overlooks the city of Arusha, where we first stayed. Meru looks like a perfect volcano from the picture book. Second day is up on the plateau, only gaining 2000 feet altitude. 12 000 coming from the lowlands was enough to take away John and Michelle's appetite, which meant more for me. I want to mention that the meals were all right, although pretty much every breakfast was like the day before, and the same held true from the other meals, too. We suspected that perhaps this is the limitation of our cook, but later on the safari a different cook held to an identical menu. Not only him, but once when we camped near other groups every single gringo was eating the same. It's all right, two weeks is not enough to make this into an issue, particularly for those who don't have appetite on the mountain anyway.
The next day again does not bring much of a net elevation gain, however in the middle there is about 3000 feet up. The highest point is the "Lava Tower", which is exactly how it sounds. Most hikers go under it, but Ernest took us above for a lunch break next to the tower. The 15 000 feet did not suite Michelle so well, so the three boys climbed up the tower. Not a giant accomplishment, but it needed a little hand on rock actual climbing. Although we were all clouded in again it was a lot of fun. The second half of the day was downhill into a valley that looked incredibly wild with the huge plants that look like giant scarecrows standing in the fog. We loved it. The late afternoon cleared up the fog and we had some view of the lowlands bellow, as well as the Barranco wall where we were suppose to continue next morning. The wall from the distance really looked like a wall, making us doubt a bit Ernest's sincerity that that would be the way.
But it was and with the meandering path there was only a tiny section that was more than straightforward hiking on a path. It is mandatory to have porters, who did not develop much liking of backpacks. With the exception of Ernest and his brother the rest of the guys preferred to put the backpacks into a sack and carry them on their head. Quite a feat, considering that this fixes their eyes straight, while we kept watching every step on the rocky path. This was the day when the British and the Boston couple parted from us, since they took an extra day acclimatization halfway between this and our next camp. Luckily Michelle felt lot better now and she was doing very well, short of the headaches in the evening. This day was outside of the vegetation, crossing giant rubble fields, ending at 15 100 feet. Also, from here we finally got to see the other smaller summit of Kili, Mawenzi. Of the 3 summits Mawenzi looks the coolest, but it is quite a bit lower than the main one.
Not much sleep and we were on our way to the summit. It was full moon and at times it was better to go without headlamps than with, since the moon allowed to take the environment in better than the tiny pinpoint of a headlamp. We were moving very slowly up on the dirt/gravel field. The black of the mountain loomed above and every time we though we have a view of the crater rim only a little higher, we could see headlamps from an earlier group even higher. It was cold, but not terribly. Eventually something white showed up on our left, one of the ice field. In the distance much bellow the street light of distant villages. By the time we hit 18 000 feet I was not happy. My stomach was all over the place, my head hurting, etc. Michelle, who took the earlier days worse than I now looked as strong as it gets, marching on like nothing. At some point during a break John disappeared on the right. Later he told us that his digestive track said to him that he must, well must go. He felt lot better right after, until he realized that he had no paper whatsoever with him. So, he took off his boots and one of the pairs of socks in it (he had it doubled up). He realized that they were the super expensive brand new REI socks, making this officially his most expensive toilet experience ever. Just about as the sun started to light up the mountain we reached the edge of the summit rim. At this point there is still a few hundred feet elevation gain to be had in a matter of another 1 hour. My internal organs were all over in me and I really just wanted to get over the thing, so I just followed my honey who just kept marching on stronger than a tiny tank. I had no idea how altitude sickness is suppose to feel (by now I have a lot better grip on that), so I was a bit concerned. The thing about the snow of Kilimanjaro disappearing- when my boss at Harvard climbed Kili perhaps a decade earlier, he crossed a good amount of snow. If we wanted to take an extra step for it, we could touch the snow of Kilimanjaro, but could also reach the summit without ever making contact. The summit of Kili is not impressive. It is great to reach it (in part because then you can turn back and get some oxygen), but it is only special because of the sign on a non-descript flattish area on the ridge. You can see into the inside of the crater, see the ice fields a bit further away on the edge of the rim, but no amazing view, unless the large number of tourists amaze you. After the mandatory pictures we were on the way down, swearing that we will never take a vacation higher than 1000 feet above sea level ever again. As you can see from later entries, we of course failed at this miserably, although almost every single time we broke 17 000 feet we swore to the same thing again. It takes a month or so before the memory of the misery of high altitude dissipates and the memory of the total awesomeness of high mountains crystallizes. Here is a secret of high mountain climbing that is not very apparent from the Media. They get the part right that climbing a mountain is hard, but typically the picture end with the climbers hands in the air celebrating on the summit. Here is what they tend not to talk about. Going down is so much more miserable than going up!!!!! Now it can be hot, while you are still wearing your cold weather gear, there is still no oxygen and while you are going downhill, but faster and as clumsy as ever. The motivation was to summit, and getting down is not what you write home about. But you have to do, and so we did, running on the dust field head straight don, taking 10 feet long leaps flying like a bat out of hell. Heads are spinning, you sweat like mad and your lungs are filling up with the volcanic dust. No grace, but at least it is over in an hour or two, although it feels like eternity. At camp the porters are genuinely happy for us - I think 40-50% of climbers make it up all the way as oppose to our 3 out of 3. They greet us with nice food; I think it even broke from the usual pattern. Which reminded me that we had chicken last day and was wondering how did that happen, considering that we did not bring up either live chickens, or a freezer up for 4 days...? But I digress. So they were very nice. After a short rest we kept flying off the mountain all the way to 6000 feet lower. It was amazing to see green and take in some 'real' air. We spoke to a good number of tourists camped here. One was a very interesting middle aged guy from NY, who realized that he had a boatload frequent flyer miles and cashed them in for an impromptu trip to Tanzania. He planned to climb Kilimanjaro, not even realizing that no single hikers are allowed, so he had to hire a whole expedition to meet the official criterion. He was laughing, for his one person he had a team of 5 taking care of. This last day is also the time for the tips. Tips are a major part of the guys' income. At the time, if I recall well, the running rate was $5/porter/day, cooks a dollar or two more and the guides at like 10 or 20/day. We felt that we'll not follow the conventional wisdom to the letter, since we did the trip 1 day shorter than usual. This meant over $100 less national park fee per person for us, but the guys worked just as much, only in 1 day fewer- so we gave them the tip for the day we saved for ourselves. As oppose to us I talked to a Scandinavian woman, who was agonizing over if she should give them 2 or 3 bucks a day. I almost told her that at home she would feel bad about tipping a waiter this little at a restaurant for a tiny work, while these guys hauled a lot of stuff up there for her convenience. I was poor, but it would have not crossed my mind to try to save a dollar or two on people lot poorer than myself.
Kili is great! If you ever think about doing a high mountain, this is it!!!! We have now done a few and Kili really has a variety that very few other one has.