Mt. Kilimanjaro: Not What I Expected; Part 1

When I initially proposed the idea of knocking off a bucket list item it was to my wife forSummit Day: Made it to the first peak at 5am! 18,815 ft! a world class adventure. We were going to climb Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro. She’s a good athlete and a pretty sturdy soul however one look at the pictures of the bathroom facilities and I was advised to go and have good time. The next call was to our sons knowing they couldn’t care less about where the loo is and what it looks like. A week of father-son bonding; what could be better? Right? Part 2 posted in a week or two will deal with that aspect but first, the nuts and bolts.

They got their marching orders to begin a course of fitness training for the excursion. I gave the twenty and thirty somethings a list of things to pack, the seven day itinerary, and a rundown of website links to do the appropriate pre-trip research. The day arrived and off we went.

After plane rides covering 18 hours broken up by a two hour stop in Amsterdam for a breakfast of Heinekens and ham sandwiches, we landed in Tanzania. A two hour ride followed by a 3 hour hike to our first camp and we had our first glimpse of the snow capped monster in the distance, Mt. Kilimanjaro – the highest peak in Africa. It actually didn’t look all that imposing from that distance. Rookie mistake. We had six trekkers in our group with me being the oldest by 20-ish years. I didn’t feel so old until our first dinner together when most of the conversation left me in the dust. I couldn’t even pretend to know what they were talking about half of the time. Apparently the next generation doesn’t talk much about world events, sports and politics anymore?

The days quickly became repetitious. Up at 6:30 a.m. when a porter brings a bowl of hot water to wash up and cup of tea to enjoy. The first few days I enjoyed the tea over the wash water but that soon changed when I stopped noticing the ‘aroma’ of our Tanzanian porters. By the way, we were assigned 28 porters to accommodate our small group. All were under the age of 25, of incredible spirit, spoke fluent English, personable, indefatigable, and were quick to flash the widest of white toothed grins. “Poa, poa” – Swahili for – everything is fine, no worries.

Breakfast of porridge, some sort of eggs and meat, toast and tea was followed by a 3-5 hour hike to the next camp. These hikes always combined steep climbs followed by a requisite descent of smaller value to acclimatize the body and lungs for the final ascent to Kilimanjaro’s peak of 19,340 feet. Lunch and dinner always began with Cream of ‘Something’ soup and ended with lots of potatoes, rice or pasta, meat, bread, and fruit. Bedtime came shortly thereafter (7:30-8:00, this killed the young bucks – I loved it, once a day they were on my turf!)

The weather throughout was uncharacteristically sketchy at best; temperatures slightly above freezing, 20’s at night, overcast or foggy with a mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets. Sightings of an ever growing and imposing Kili after day one were minimal even though we camped on its slopes.

Everyone in the group got altitude sickness at various times. It’s a strange ailment that comes and goes with an quick onset in the form of a headache ranging from dull to piercing, shortness of breath, nausea, and intestinal strain that can progress from cramping to outright diarrhea. Ugly, most of it. Normal, all of it. My body was reminding me it was still alive but not very happy with me. Descending to a lower altitude (usually not an option) and feeding the body typically put it in remission. “Poa, poa”, it wouldn’t be gone for long.

The final ascent began at midnight on the sixth day. We had a 4000′ ascent that would take approximately six hours and deliver us first to Stella Point and on to Uhuru Peak, the two designated summits of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The beginnings of altitude sickness of the intestinal strain variety hit me earlier in the night. I had become one with the “Berger” portable commode. Fear of failure became my motivator.

We departed base camp under a cloudy night sky using headlamps to illuminate our way. The moon we hoped for never materialized. Before we had ascended 1000′ out of camp it began to snow. At 16,000′ the wind picked up to 30+ knots and made the narrow switchbacks overly dicey. At 17,000′ my intestines revolted. It’s interesting what one does, sans inhibition, behind a rock just a few feet away from an icy trail active with total strangers. At 18,000′ my right lung began to hurt, another issue that comes with high altitude.

Hubert, my Tanzanian guide slowed my pace and shortened the steps “Poa, poa”. He turned and smiled saying, “Pole, Pole” (pronounced po-lay, po-lay) meaning; slow down old man.

Hubert and I summited at Stella Point; temp -27, wind gusts in excess of 50 knots, driving snow. Our group huddled behind a rock for a hot drink however the steaming tea poured from the thermos was ice cold by the time it got to our lips. We had reached the summit faster than expected and the climax of seeing the sun rise from Kilimanjaro’s peak wasn’t going to happen. The sun wasn’t due for another 45 minutes, we were in the middle of a blizzard and nobody was in any mood to hang around. All group summit pictures taken that morning were in the dark. I didn’t have to worry about my camera, it had frozen. I recall congratulations but very little elation at the summit, just business. Keep warm, keep sight, keep moving. It was a daze.

At 19,000′ the air only holds 50% of the oxygen that the body normally enjoys at sea level. The youngsters followed two guides through the blizzard to Uhuru Peak whereupon they quickly found the descent path and headed for lower altitude. Hubert and I had already begun the trek to lower altitude where my right lung thanked me by working again.

The descent was as painful as the ascent was exhausting. I am minus two toenails to prove the point. With each 500′ we descended through the lava scree my body began to come back to life. By 7:30 a.m. we were back at Barafu base camp. Seeing my two boys arrive 30 minutes later leading a “USA” “USA” chant as they marched with their guides through the diverse international population literally brought me to tears. It was pure exhilaration.

The day wasn’t over as we still had another 5000 painful feet to descend to the next camp. But the pressure was off, the building stress each climber felt in facing their own fear of failure leading up to summit day was now over. Now all we had to do was cope with jammed toes, tired quads, and aching knees as we made our way to our exit point. Poa poa.

Part 2 will tell what I learned about myself, my sons, and a renewed perspective of life.


10 Responses

  1. Enjoyed this very much Scott. One of my TN friends did the climb last year with a group of 40 women. Looking forward to your next post.

  2. Fun to read – Congratulations! Woohoo. Sorry you didn’t get a sunrise. Next time 🙂

  3. Have wanted to tell you since I returned …. I have a renewed respect for your guts and spirit … I can now return the compliment to you as well with a certain credibility, Well Done!
    Cheers, sr

  4. Thank you for sharing this story!

  5. Heading to Tanzania for the hike in late summer. Excited to see it for myself. Well done, sir.

  6. Really wonderfully-told story so far. Looking forward to reading more.. Congrats on the endeavor, by the way.

  7. awesome Phill, enjoy the experience … you’re going to kill it!!!

  8. Can’t wait.

  9. “My body was reminding me it was still alive but not very happy with me”
    My favorite line. Loved reading this! Congratulations on this accomplishment. I’ll keep this story in mind when I’m someday (hopefully) making the same ascent.

  10. Nicobor, you crack me up! What is funny now wasn’t so funny then as I remember …. My boys will likely never let me forget it either …. Thanks for your kind words, come back and visit …. Should write something new in the next few days – as soon as I figure out what is got my attention this week/month!
    Cheers, BasicMan aka scott

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