Climbing Kilimanjaro: personal experience

You may remember Bill’s excellent African safari vacation plan that included two separate plans, one for climbers and one for normal folk. By the way, there may (and I’m not positive) still be time to sign up for the Novemeber Mekong River cruise from Saigon to Siem Reap that benefits the Landmine Relief Fund.

Bill and his party of 12 just got back from the African Adventure, climbing Kilimanjaro and photo safari in Kenya. He has kindly written an article about his experiences.

I present to you an excellent article just awesome and inspiring to read, Climbing Kilimanjaro.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Palm Springs, Ca – August, 2006 – It sounded like it would be a lot of fun, when Jack called and said, “Let’s go to Africa next year and climb Kilimanjaro”. At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is the tallest free standing mountain in the world, the tallest in Africa and one of the Seven Summits lusted after by climbers.

I’d known Jack for over 30 years, ever since we were in the Army together. At 58, he’d just finished his 60th marathon, had climbed a couple of mountains in the past and thought he knew what he was getting into. I on the other hand, while having run 11 marathons, was in reasonably decent shape for a 58 year businessman who had never climbed anything higher than a couple flights of stairs. I’d skied at 14,000 feet, but sliding down a mountain of snow is way different than climbing a mountain of jungle, desert, schree (think gravel pits), and boulders (we’ll talk about coming down later). I figured I’d better do some reading up on mountain climbing and figure out how we were going to get there and back without breaking the bank, my neck, leg, arm, back, or any other important body part.

Putting it all together

I’d been to Africa in 2002 and had traveled with Private Safaris, a company located in Nairobi, Kenya who specialized in customized trips. This had to be a real customized trip, because my wife said I wasn’t going to Africa by myself, and the only way she was climbing Kilimanjaro was if I carried her ashes to the top of the mountain. So I had to plan a trip that had some of us climbing while others went on photo safaris. Since Jack and I, and anyone else we could get to climb, didn’t want to miss out on the animals, I needed to plan a trip that included an additional photo safari after the climb, which takes 5 days.

And we had to do it all on the smallest budget we could manage.

We eventually had 12 people take part in our little adventure. 8 of us climbed Kilimanjaro, while my wife and 3 friends safaried. They then met up with us in Moshi, Tanzania after the climb and we all went to the Masai Mara for 3 days and saw some truly amazing sights. Private Safari put the whole trip together at an incredible price: $1,300 for the climb and safari in Kenya and $1,600 for the Tanzania and Kenya safari package. This included all hotels, transportation, English speaking guides and all our meals. We had to get to Nairobi on our own.


Of the 8 of us who climbed, Jack and I were the oldest at 58. Michelle, Jack’s niece, taught 3rd grade and was the only woman. Jack’s son-in-law Scott, a veteran of Iraq, made the trip along with his brother Bryan, a grad student at Auburn. Adam, my godson, is in his 3rd year at Clemson, and he’s done a lot of dumb things with us over the years, much to his mother’s chagrin. Nate and Gabe rounded out the group. They’d done a lot of climbing, and I think they were the only ones who really knew what we were getting into.

It took us all day to drive from Nairobi to Moshi. The roads are not quite up to western standards. Actually they are barely roads at all; huge holes occasionally surrounded by asphalt were the norm. Scott, our war vet, slept the whole way. We figured since no one was shooting at us, to him, it must have been a pretty smooth ride.

The night before we started the climb we stayed at the Springland Hotel, a climbing lodge located in the middle of Moshi, about a kilometer from the local mosque. The first thing we had to do was weigh our gear. We each carried our own day pack that held our water, which we replenished daily, a jacket, cameras, batteries, and of course, our Ipods. The porters carried the rest of our stuff, which we had been told needed to fit in a medium sized duffel bag and weigh a max of 15 kilos (33 pounds). Except Adam, he brought a suitcase.

We started climbing late Friday morning. We met our guide, Frank Mtei, who Gabe soon named “Frank the Tank”, at the lodge. Our climbing crew, who all work for Frank, included 4 assistant guides, a cook and 16 porters. You don’t leave anything on the mountain (except your naivete); the porters carry all your gear, all their gear, and all the food. They carry down all the trash and hopefully none of the climbers. We bussed to Kilimanjaro National Park, signed in and started climbing. We started at 6,000 feet and climbed through a beautiful rain forest until we stopped for lunch in the early afternoon. Our box lunches consisted of a bottle of juice, a piece of chicken and a couple of rolls; carbs and some protein. We reached Mandara Hut, at 9,052 feet, late in the afternoon.

Each camp consists of a number of A frame huts, lit from solar powered lights with 4 beds per hut. We’d put out our sleeping bags and try and relax a bit after the climb. Card games became popular, as did the nightly rehash of nearly every Seinfeld episode ever made. We’d usually crash between 8 and 9 each night. A few of the group had a hard time sleeping at altitude. Those of us that took diamox, an anticonvulsant drug used to lessen the effects of altitude sickness, seemed to sleep the best. I woke up early the first night with a couple pairs of shoes, a shirt and a book on top of me. Seems I had slept all too well, and began snoring early in the morning. Adam, who fought altitude sickness a good part of the time, and never slept well, hit me with everything in reach. All to no avail. I snored on.

Toilets were either western style, except at Kibo, or a hole in the ground. And we had to supply our own toilet paper. Let’s say they were basic. Each night and each morning we’d get two bowls of warm water and a small bar of soap delivered to our hut. One bowl was for washing while the other was for rinsing. You didn’t want to be number 4 in line. But we all brought baby wipes. We may not have looked good, but we smelled like a baby’s (clean) butt.

Each camp has a central dining hall used by all the climbers. The cook for each group prepares the meals and you’re summoned as tables are available and your cook gets his time in the small kitchen. Dinners were simple but filling. The cooks concentrated again on a lot of carbs and a lot of sugars. There was always enough to eat, and we never felt rushed. Breakfast was a challenge for me. There are two things I detest: oatmeal and most of all, porridge. And each morning, bright and early, a great big pot of steaming hot porridge was dropped right in front of me. Unlike Oliver Twist, even if I was starving, I’d never ask for more. But I ate it…one bowl a day. Then I washed it down with lots of hot coffee, toast and eggs.

Day 2 we climbed out of the forest and through the moorland to Horombo Hut, at 12,408 feet. Some groups stay an extra day at Horombo to acclimate to the altitude. Frank the Tank thought it unnecessary. Since most people don’t sleep well at altitude he thinks the lack of sleep is more detrimental than the help you get from an extra day of acclimatization. Or maybe he just said that since we were doing the 5 day climb.

Horombo is above the clouds. With no moon and more stars than I’ve ever seen, it was quite a sight. We stayed outside late that night just to enjoy the show. The next morning we headed for Kibo, our base camp, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Kibo is 15,609 feet high and you reach it by crossing the Martian desert. At least that’s what Gabe thought it looked like. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Nate and Gabe a lot during the day. They were always a few hundred miles ahead of me on the trail. They were the ones who were ready. They were also the ones who were constantly encouraging and slapping the rest of us on the back.

We started to feel the effect of the altitude on the way to Kibo. You get winded quickly. You don’t just walk up the mountain, you pull yourself up with your hiking poles. Each night I felt like I’d done 200 sit ups; all from pulling myself up the mountain with those poles.

Kibo is different from the other camps. It’s a stark, working camp, not a resting camp. The mountain is right there staring you in the face, shrouded in clouds, cold and waiting. We reached Kibo around 1PM. No A frames here, just one long building with lots of rooms, 12 beds to a room. You don’t climb to the summit in the daytime. You rest and start your final push in the dead of night. A good thing too; if you saw the final climb in the daylight you’d run away screaming. You’re still far enough away at Kibo Camp, that the magnitude of the final climb isn’t apparent. They fed us stew at about 2PM and then we went to bed. Frank would wake us at 11:00.

I actually slept, but 11:00 came all too soon. We got up, layered up in thermals, overshirts, ski jackets, ski pants, gloves, and headlamps. Adam didn’t have a headlamp, so we duct taped two flashlights to his head.

The Summit

Poley poley, hakuna matatta: Slowly, slowly, no problems. That’s your mantra on Kili. We began our final climb at 11:50PM on Sunday night. Our first stop was Gilman’s point a mere 6 kilometers (3.75 miles) away. It took us an hour to climb the first 600 feet. Bryan, who couldn’t take diamox, had been having altitude problems for at least a day. Scott was sick, and Adam hadn’t started taking diamox until the day before, and the effects hadn’t kicked in yet. At 16,200 these trekkers knew they were holding the rest of us back and that they were not going to make the summit. With best wishes for the rest of us and pats on the back all around, they headed back to Kibo with one of our guides. While they may not have summitted, they’d climbed higher, at 16,200 feet, than any mountain in the continental United States. No mean feat, and something few others have ever done.

At 18,000 feet, after 3 ½ hours of climbing I just about packed it in. I couldn’t keep up with Jack, Michelle, Nate and Gabe. I collapsed against the side of the mountain and said “I gotta rest”. I struggled with every step to keep up with them to 18,500 feet and that was it, I didn’t think I could go another meter. I’ve hit the wall in marathons, and I’ve hit them hard. It didn’t compare; not even remotely close. Frank the Tank sent Daniel, another one of our guides back to take me wherever I wanted to go. That’s when Nate told me were at 18,500 feet, 500 short of the rim, Gilman’s Point.

500 feet. No way I could bail with only 500 feet to the rim. This was my only chance to climb Kili. I figured I could gut out another 500 feet. The others went ahead. That’s when Daniel and I got lost in the boulder field.

We were climbing in the pitch black of the African night. I had a headlamp that lit the ground right in front of me. Daniel had no light. He was following the path from my headlamp. All the other groups had passed us or were behind us. The path through the boulder field is hard to follow, even in the daylight. We took one wrong turn after another and pretty soon I could tell Daniel didn’t know where we were. 18,800 feet up Kilimanjaro, dead of night, no one around, and we were lost. I got worried. Daniel got up on a boulder. We were only about 5 yards off the trail. I rested and then we continued, poley, poley, up the mountain. At 5:30, with the sun just getting ready to come up over the western horizon Daniel said “We’re here. Gilman’s Point, congratulations.”

I’d made it. 18,750 feet. But the sign said “Point”, not “Summit”. I collapsed on the ground and went to get some water: frozen.

Daniel let me rest a few minutes and said “It’s an hour and a half to the summit. Do you want to try and make it.” Whether it was the adrenalin talking or what, I don’t know, but I jumped at the chance. I didn’t even give it a second thought. I don’t remember the 90 minute climb to the summit being that difficult. Halfway there I saw Frank, Michelle, Jack, Nate and Gabe on their way back down. They were sure I had bailed out and gone back to Kibo. They told me I made their day. That made mine.

At 7AM on Monday morning July 24 I made Uhuru Summit, 19,340 feet. Along with about 50 other climbers. I rested, got my camera out and found someone to take Daniel and my picture. Now I’m a big basketball fan. I’ve had season tickets to the LA Clippers for 17 years. I’d carried a 3 foot by 5 foot Clipper flag all the way to Uhuru and wasn’t going to miss this chance to make “Clipper history”. As I rolled out the flag I heard a voice from the back call out: “Clippers? I’m from Phoenix. We kicked your ass!” I looked at the guy and said “Yeah? Where’s your flag?”

The hike down was worse than the hike up.

We got back to Gilman and Daniel said 90 minutes to the bottom. It took me 3 ½ hours to get off that mountain. The schree field, really a million year old gravel pit, took out of my legs what little I had left. I fell 6 times. Now when you’re going straight down a 60 degree wall of gravel you fall backwards, and you don’t fall far. Daniel said I taught him some English words he’d never heard before. I encouraged him to be careful where he used them. Daniel held my elbow and walked me the last kilometer into camp. I’d never been so glad to finish anything in my life. I gave Daniel a big hug, thanked him profusely and headed for the dorm. For an hour; then we hiked 4 hours back to Horombo hut and rest.

We compared notes. Nate and Gabe thought the climb from Gilman to Uhuru was the hardest. Jack thought it was harder than a marathon. Michelle thought it was harder than childbirth.

We all got back down the mountain the next day and spent the afternoon either in the shower, in the pool or in bar. That night we had a celebratory dinner with Frank the Tank. I made sure Daniel was there. I gave him my gloves, of which he had none, my headlamp, my watch and an extra big tip.

We headed next to Kenya and the Masai Mara where we saw lions, elephants, giraffes, hippos, more wildebeest than I knew existed, and met an amazing woman who teaches second grade. She has 71 students in her class. But that’s another story for another time.

Maybe next year we’ll go back and do it again.


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