I sat in a canvas folding chair hunched and tight the way you are when you’re trying to conserve heat. All around me porters were hustling to set up tents and toilets. The sun had set behind Kilimanjaro which meant it had gotten cold–very cold. Simon, the lead guide on our climb, sat down in a chair adjacent to me. “I don’t know how I’m gonna do this,” I said in a somewhat dejected manner as I stared nowhere in particular ahead of me. It wasn’t the climbing that concerned me. It was the cold. And given that we would keep climbing higher, I imagined it would only get worse. “How am I going to stand this for one week?” I thought.
It was Day 1. We had spent most of the day driving to the entrance gate and then walked for three hours covering just under 7 km (always “pole, pole”–slowly, slowly–to help with acclimatization) through a pine forest followed by a rainforest to Simba Camp, the first camp site on the Rongai route, one of six routes you can use to ascend Kilimanjaro. On our walk, we had already gotten clear views of Mawenzi, the second highest peak on Kilimanjaro, and Kibo, the highest peak. We were at an elevation of 2,626 meters, the lowest we would be until the final day of our descent. Simon paused, seeming to weigh the options of how to respond to my semi-despairing state after we had barely begun the climb, and said the only thing he could in that moment: nothing.
When I imagined the climb before I started, I had visions of myself heroically summoning my determination to keep me from giving up on the summit day. Little did I know the only moment giving up would even flash in my mind would come sitting in camp on Day 1.
We woke early the next morning for breakfast in the mess tent–porridge, bread, sausages and fruits. The weather was clear and sunny as we walked through moorland scenery reminiscent of climbing Table Mountain in Cape Town–protea and everlasting flowers, as well as light green moss covering rocks. It was fitting given I was doing the climb with three men who either lived in/had lived in South Africa. Two of them–Galen and Luke–were brothers, and David was their uncle. David and Galen both now lived in the U.K. They teased each other lightly about things like Luke having to wear board shorts for the climb after his bags were lost en route to Tanzania and made videos of themselves doing a chicken dance at each camp site. I enjoyed them and felt like I had the perfect trekking companions for me. Simon labeled us the “super, duper” team (as I imagine he calls every group). “How are you feeling?” he would ask. “Super duper?” It was a bit of an eye-roller at times, but I understood he was trying to keep us positive.
We continued our pole, pole pace 12 km to Kikilewa camp, which was perched on the side of a mountain at 3,679 meters. From camp, we had views of cloud blankets ahead which the sun tinted a pale pink at sunset. To my delight, it was somehow warmer in this camp, and I learned from the previous night to layer up before the sun set. Before I had started the trek I had met a man who had just completed it. “You will have good times and bad times,” he said, “and just know that if you feel bad it won’t last forever.” True that.
The Rongai route is generally drier than the other routes up Kilimanjaro, but as dark clouds gathered the morning of Day 3, we all wondered if rain was in our near future. The trek was short–only 3.7 km–but uphill nearly the entire way. The mountainside was dotted with rocks and more everlastings. Clouds passed through several times, bringing a mist with them that was generally light, though heavy enough at one point that we put on our rain pants and jackets. Simon had suggested that each of us take diamox, a medication that can potentially help to prevent acute mountain sickness. We started today with a half of a tablet. I had read about diamox before the trip but decided against it. There was no guarantee that it would help, and it had a side effect of making you need to pee more often. I didn’t want to get dehydrated or spend sleepless nights racing back and forth to the toilet. Still, Simon had summited Kilimanjaro 500 times, so I followed another piece of advice I had gotten before the climb: “Listen to your guides.” We planned to visit the glaciers on the crater floor after summiting. Simon said it would take extra strength to both summit and then visit the crater floor, so he suggested the diamox to give us the best chance.
As we arrived at the Mawenzi Tarn camp (4,303 meters), it was windy and soon started raining heavily. The porters struggled to erect the tents as the wind whipped through camp. Once my tent was up, I crawled in and stayed there until the weather seemed to ease a bit. We had lunch in the mess tent–the wind nearly knocking part of it down at one point–and David took on a challenge from the brothers to stuff four rectangular pieces of watermelon into his mouth at once. Success!
The walk on Day 4 took us across the Saddle, the exposed bridge of land between Mawenzi and Kibo. The walk was a gradual incline mostly through desert alpine scenery with more airplane-like views of cloud blankets hanging below us in the distance. At one point we walked past the debris of a plane crash from 2008. In regular altitude this walk would have been easy, but with the altitude, it was one of the more challenging days for me. I was unusally thirsty and had not brought enough water that morning. Apollo, the assistant head guide, was kind enough to share some of his with me. Though I basically felt good, I had a bit of spacey-ness that concerned me. Apollo said, “Do you know that song…’Don’t worry…’ At this point I thought he was going to sing “Don’t worry, be happy,” which wasn’t a favorite, but instead he sang, “Don’t worry…about a thing…’cause every little thing…is gonna be alright…” It was exactly what I needed to hear. We talked about Bob Marley, and I mentioned that I especially liked the song “Buffalo Soldier.”
The original plan was to cross the Saddle and then descend to Third Caves, where we would spend the night and then ascend to School Hut the next day. Simon suggested an alternate plan: We would stay at School Hut tonight and make our summit attempt the next day, leaving at 4 a.m. instead of the standard midnight push. It meant summiting early and missing out on some extra acclimatization. Simon thought we were all doing well enough that we could do it, and that the later start in the day would help us to make both the summit and the crater floor.
School Hut (4,722 meters) had a view of a steep slope of large boulders, gravel and sand leading to a valley and the Third Caves below. We did a short acclimatization walk later in the day, ascending for somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes before resting and then coming back down to camp. The acclimatization walk is designed to give you the “climb high, sleep low” benefits of sleeping in a more oxygen rich environment than what you had been exposed to earlier in the day. I walked around camp that evening in more careful than usual steps. The altitude had left me slightly off center, though all in all I was in good shape and had experienced only mild reactions to the altitude. We ate an early dinner to get to bed for our 3 a.m. wakeup. I fell asleep in what had become my standard gear between sundown and sun-up: four shirts (two long-sleeve thermal, one short-sleeve hiking and one long sleeve hiking), three pairs of pants (one thermal, one hiking and one rain pants), three jackets (two fleece and one rain jacket), two pairs of wool socks on my feet and one pair on my hands. I also tried to insulate myself by placing the gigantic down mittens I had rented in front of my chest and keeping my bags tightly surrounding my sleeping bag to shield it from any wind. Yes, it was cold, though somehow it was never again as mentally difficult as it was on Day 1.
We woke at 3 a.m. for our usual hot breakfast. I had also developed a new habit of drinking hot water and took the chance to down two or three more plastic cups of it. Simon came by the mess tent and gave us each a pill to help with headaches in addition to the now full tablet of diamox to help us with the summit push. At 4 a.m. we began our climb, headlamps shining, one small step at a time. We would go from Kibo Huts past Hans Meyer Cave, then up to Gilman’s Point, Stella Point and eventually the summit of Uhuru Peak. Assuming we were in good shape at that point, we would then descend to the crater floor to see the glaciers there up close. We reached Hans Meyer Cave (5,243 meters) as the sun was beginning to rise.
Shortly after Hans Meyer Cave, our trail joined with another to lead us toward Gilman’s Point at the crater rim. It was a steep, rocky zig-zag. We saw two people being guided down the volcanic scree to our right because of altitude sickness. I knew seeing that could scare me too much, so I intentionally turned my eyes back to the path in front of me. Occasionally, we passed climbers who had summited and were on their way down. They looked spent. We took short breaks periodically, but Simon kept us moving to help us avoid getting too cold. Gilman’s Point was visible, and I kept thinking we were almost there, only to realize we still had a ways to go. Apollo was walking just behind me. As we got closer to Gilman’s Point I suddenly heard the lead-in music to “Buffalo Soldier.” A smile came across my face as I turned to see Apollo holding his phone in the air to play the song. It woke me up. We all began singing and dancing, and suddenly I was having fun. It was the perfect distraction to this long slog in high altitude.
Though we had renewed energy, we were passing climbers who had started at midnight and were still struggling on their ascent. Simon took the bag of one woman who was sitting hunched over on a rock, slung it over his shoulder and helped her to her feet. He linked his arm in hers and guided her toward Gilman’s Point. When we finally reached Gilman’s Point (5,708 meters), we all celebrated, knowing that the steepest part of the climb was behind us.
The next part of the day, for me, was the most scenic. We walked along the crater rim to Stella Point and then to Uhuru Peak. It was another clear, sunny day. The views were expansive–snow in areas and glaciers in others, as well as valleys of volcanic rock. The walk was tough because of the altitude but otherwise not steep or difficult. When I finally reached Uhuru Peak (5,895 meters), I cried. And then we sang and danced again–to more Bob Marley, as well as Snoop Dogg. We were now at “the roof of Africa.”
I was thrilled not only that I made it, but that everyone in our group made it, and we did it with joy. I heard so much about people getting altitude sickness and having to come down or barely remembering their time at the summit because they were so disoriented. And here we were dancing and singing. It was wonderful.
Simon didn’t let us stay long at the top. He was a mover, and you can get sick from staying there too long. We began our steep descent to the crater floor. We got to the glaciers and then walked along the crater floor back toward Stella Point. The look of the crater floor surrounded by the sides of this dormant volcano reminded me of the dried-up lake of Dead Vlei in Namibia that was surrounded by tall sand dunes. As we ascended back toward Stella Point, we were exhausted. I got my best laugh of the day when I heard one of the brothers say dryly to a guide in front of me, “I am not feeling super duper…”
When we reached Gilman’s Point again, it was time to begin the descent. We would follow the trail part of the way and then run down the scree slopes to save our knees. As we began, I slipped on a rock and fell, slamming first the back of my left hip and then the base of my skull on the rocks as I came down. My head throbbed. Apollo assured me that hitting the base of the skull was the best place I could have hit my head. He and Tony, a porter who who carried my daypack, each took one arm and guided me down the scree. When we made it back to camp, I was relieved to be done with the steepest part of the descent–always my least favorite part of hiking. My tumble and some pain in my thigh from getting smacked by a loose rock on the way to Gilman’s Point detracted a bit from my excitement. Still, I ended the day feeling wowed at the beauty of what we had seen and accomplished. I thought many days during the climb of how far I had come, not just on this trek but in arriving in Namibia and working my way through multiple countries in Africa and finally ending up at the highest peak on this vast, vibrant continent. That night, I had my deepest sleep of the climb.
Days 6 & 7
The Rongai route is unique on Kilimanjaro in that allows you to see the mountain from both the north and south sides. We descended on the Marangu trail, the first day crossing a different part of the alpine desert scenery of the Saddle, eventually coming back to the moorland scenery full of everlastings and some trees that resembled palm trees, the Dendrosenecio Kilimanjari. We could be more relaxed now–we had summited, and the altitude was only getting easier. On the final day, we had a long (just under 20 km) but fairly easy descent. It started in the morning with frost on the ground, later taking us through rainforest with sightings of colobus monkeys, vibrant green moss, soft touches of sunlight that pushed through the trees and the trickling sounds of streams that ran alongside the trails.
Organizing: You must have a guide to climb Kilimanjaro. I did it through Team Kilimanjaro and highly recommend them.
Training: Because of some injuries, my training regimen was a little unusual. My daily practices included various physical therapy exercises I do to build strength in my glutes and core, as well as using a tennis ball (a foam roller when I have a home to store one in) to break up fascia in parts of the body that get tight. The other daily practice I have is Kundalini yoga, which I strongly credit with helping me to increase my lung capacity, as well as in building stamina and determination. As I traveled, I also periodically tried hikes of varying lengths. I went on probably 10 hikes in the three and a half months leading up to the Kili climb. I was both building up strength and testing how my body responded. Last, I spent the month before Kili in Rwanda and the DRC. I was in higher altitude than I would have been in the U.S., often climbing at least small hills just to do daily activities like walking to a restaurant (Rwanda, yes, is called “the land of a thousand hills”), and I imagine this helped to prepare me.