The Kilimanjaro Story

Do you remember the dreams you had as a teenager?  And I don’t mean the steamy, hormone-driven kind that keep you awake at night.  I’m referring to those grand ambitions we each had – the wants and needs that influence your outlook and drive your actions. The obsessions that determine your reading list and which movies you watch.  Those events about which you romanticize, constructing magnificent mental imagery of the actual experience, what it’s really like and how you will feel when you live through it. For me, that was Kilimanjaro.  And this is the story – taken from our original Summit Sistas travel blog – of making that dream my reality.

The Planning period

Well, tickets are purchased.  And the planning and preparing has begun for a new adventure!!  My name is Jill, and my last travel blog was from a few years ago when my sister, Jaimi, and I traveled together to South Africa.  We had a wonderful time as safari sistas, and before the end of our trip, we vowed that our next adventure would be to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.  And now, the date is set.  This December, we will be flying to Tanzania, where we will embark on a 6 or 7 day climbing expedition to reach the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  We hope to end our trip with a little safari or beach time.  In the meantime, we are fixing all the details (Jaimi), getting in shape (Jill), and making lots of lists on what to bring.

So far, I personally have been preparing by perusing outdoor gear sites on the internet, and watching scary climbing movies.  This is what I like to call the mental prep phase.  Soon I will start the physical prep phase (the mental prep helps scare me into the physical prep, so you know.)

Jaimi, of course, has a slightly different tactic.  She has been creating excel spreadsheets as her mental prep – tarinig plans, packing lists, travel itinerary…you get the idea. Between the two of us, we should have all the bases covered!

 

Final plans in place; luggage overflow and insomnia

The countdown has been on for the past 6 weeks, and we are now only days away from the start of this adventure.  I have now banned myself from reading any more blogs about Kili climbs (a couple days ago I read one where half the group got altitude sickness, one guy summited but vomiting 6 times going up on summit day); reading as preparation a few months ago was fine, but now so close to the actual climb it just makes me nervous!

It is amazing to be only days away from something that I’ve wanted to do for 18 years!

As for the packing…while everything was listed in my excel planning file, it seemed harmless enough: sleeping bag, inflatable mattress, hiking boots, sticks, 2 hiking pants, 2 fleecee, etc.  Now that I’ve tried to cram it all into suitcases, I am feeling a bit more overwhelmed.  Don’t be fooled by all the lists and literature: this is a big undertaking!  and I have the luggage to show it!

Finally convinced I can’t re-arrange any more effectively, I went to bed early to have a last really good night’s sleep before my journey begins (and by the way, Jill is already on the road – the first text message from her says that connection #1 is concluded and travel is less than ideal…not sure what’s happening but will find out soon enough).  Unfortunately at 1:30 am I found myself wide awake again. Is this is the sleeping pattern I’ll have to get used to up on the mountain? Argh.  Just threw a few more melatonin into my bag to ensure better sleep at least during nights 1 and 2 at the hotel, before we commence the climb.  I have a feeling we’ll need all the rest and strength we can get.

 

Nairobi

We are sipping hot cappuccinos in the humid Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi, Kenya after a very long journey, and we are happy to have only 1 more short flight to go.  The sun is just now coming up.  Our travel was not without incident, but overall ran fairly smoothly considering the number of flights and stops to deal with.  I (Jill) started my journey some 30+ hours ago in Portland, Oregon where my luggage was accepted readily but my flight to Denver was delayed, causing me to miss my first connection.  I was wandering around Denver airport trying to figure out a new plan when I was lucky enough to reach a real person by phone who informed me I had already been rerouted on a Lufthansa flight – I just barely made it to the gate in time to board.  In Frankfurt, I was so happy when Jaimi found me (since verizon failed me and I did not have phone service) and ushered me into the fancy Lufthansa senator lounge where I was able to shower and eat good food.  We celebrated the beginning of our journey together in the comfy leather seats with our cute matching packs, before boarding our flight to Cairo.  Unfortunately, we failed to get seats together on our long flight from Cairo to Nairobi.  I tried to do a seat exchange, but despite all the talk about africans being laid-back and relaxed, they were very adamant about sitting in their assigned seats.  So, I had to sit in the back with the screaming children, and Jaimi got harrassed by her overly-friendly seat mate who was very interested in the women’s underwear ads in the magazine she was reading.  But… it could be worse, I realized, as I was sitting next to a girl from Moscow who’s trip was delayed 24 hours and is scheduled to start her Kili climb today!!  The Kenyans really wanted to sell us a visa here, but we insisted we did not need one to walk through the airport and finally got directions on where to go to get our new boarding passes and ensure our luggage transfer.  So finally we are set, excited to get to our final destination, glad to have a couple of days to unwind from our journey, and trying not to think too much about the climb itself just yet.  We have been practicing Swahili and have down about 3 words.  Habari za leo (yes, we did just have to look that up!)

 

Moshi, Tanzania – trying to complete another post before Jill passes out (again…)

Wrapping up our first day in Tanzania, and the end of a very long travel day, we’re eating chocolate and trying to stay awake just a bit longer.   The flight of delirious giggling from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro was great fun;  at least we thought so – the other passengers just may have found our behavior a tad obnoxious to begin with, but were laughing along with us by the time we landed.  Walking from the plane into the Kili International Airport we were on a high; during landing we had gazed down on lush green countryside and even had seen the mountain faintly through the clouds, then upon arrival we were greeted by friendly people and beautiful landscaping.  Once entering the building, it quickly became apparent how they afford the uptake of the grounds, as we were duly informed with much smiling that a “multi-entry one-year-visa” is compulsory for Americans (only) and costs $100 per person.   Talk about a buzz kill.

As we tried valiantly to get over the $100 visa issue, we exited the airport and found our driver waiting as planned.  Another climbing pair joined us shortly after and we sheepishly acknowledged that they had about half as much luggage as what we’d loaded into the van.  We chalked it up to just another gender difference; but then our last passenger arrived – and she also was more appropriately laden, able to carry her complete gear with her own two hands.

 

Driving from the airport to the hotel we were very aware of how long it’s been since we were last in Africa.  As we passed through a number of villages and saw (hundreds) of people everywhere, just milling about the streets, children playing in the dust by the side of the road, free range goats and cows wandering aimlessly, we realized we’re going to need a bit of an adjustment period.  As we arrived at the hotel we were pleased to see the beautiful gardens and pool; then entered the room and realized this is no Club Med.  This also helped the puzzle pieces fall together on why all the other guests were so amused with our luggage – we’re packed up for a 4-star vacation and staying in a backpackers hotel!

We spent the afternoon unpacking, relaxing by the pool, and getting a brief introduction to Moshi town by our safari guide, Seth.  The highlight of the day came on our way back, when Kilimanjaro made a very grand appearance from behind the cloud cover and we got a good up-close look of what’s in store for us.  It hovered there majestically, far above town, covered in freshly fallen snow and gleaming in the sun.  This perked us up, and we’ve been talking with the other guests about the climb – so far, the consensus of those who have completed it is, “Great climb, but it’s hard.  Really hard.  And a cold like you will never experience anywhere again.”  And so on that note – maybe we’re not sorry that we’ve packed so much!

P.S. Jill is very distraught by the fact that her ankles are still swollen from 36 hours of coach class.

 

Hakuna Matata

And yes, they really do say that here, so now we know 5 words!

Today is a great day.   We are finally getting our traveling legs back, I think.  This morning we woke up before our alarm went off, thanks to the cheerily chirping birds outside – and were actually in good enough shape to appreciate them.  We started off in good spirits, feeling well rested despite our fears of wildlife visiting during the night (the creepy small kind, that is).  Following breakfast we started the next phase of packing and perhaps the most fun – the pharmacy.  While sitting on the bed with our supplies strewn around us, popping our vitamin and malaria pills, we were glad we were in Africa where drug raids are less common.

After that, we ventured into town.  We ignored the multiple recommendations and offers for a town escort (apparently that is the modus operandi) and wandered about on our own – kind of like the chickens and goats. Despite our aimlessness we ended up feeling quite successful!  We managed to purchase bandanas of the Tanzanian flag (we think) from a one-eyed street vendor, learned not to follow random people on the streets who offer to take us somewhere “around the corner,” and found a lovely lunch destination atop a quaint downtown hotel offering a view, a breeze and the best food we’ve had yet.

After lunch we practiced our negotiation skills, and discovered that buying a painting means talking and negotiating with a minimum of 7 people. Meanwhile, 7 more people are hovering in the background waiting to take you to their store next door.  In the end and with a lot of patience (it took about 45 minutes to close the deal, which included stories of not having eaten yet today and needing to sell so they can buy food,…), we walked off with our works of art.  And true to their word, the artists all headed up the street to get lunch.

So we’ll go for a bit of pool time now, followed by re-packing #4, and a meeting and pre-climb briefing this evening with our mountain guide.

 

Last preparations

We are in bed.  It has been a busy day and I have to say I’ve been amazed at Jill’s energy; after such a horribly long trip, I expected today to be more filled with siestas than sightseeing but we didn’t take a nap at all.  No wonder, I guess, that upon exiting the shower, I found Jill asleep over the laptop instead of completing the photo uploads.   I woke her up long enough to properly get into bed, now she’s already slumbering while I post the last real update for a few days.

The briefing with the guide was good and to his quiz of: “do you have….?”, we could consistently provide positive responses, so we’re feeling well equipped.  Whether or not we’re ready is another question altogether!  He informed us that we’ll have to slightly change our route to avoid spending 2 nights at a high camp – there has been a lot of precipitation and temperatures are well below zero so he’s worried too long “up high” is unnecessarily taxing. We also received confirmation that summit day will be between 12 – 14 hours with very short stops (3-5 min) at Gillman’s Point and Uhuru, then a longer break on our way down again to enjoy a hot breakfast.  After the briefing, we came back and started packing (and re-packing – everything now sealed in Ziploc bags to avoid getting drenched in the downpours they’ve been having); Jill suddenly mid-seal looks at me and says, “Wow. I just really got bungy-stomach!”  And she is right; this is definitely reminiscent of pre-Bloukrans Bridge!

We won’t have the computer with us on the mountain, so the updates during the coming 7 days will be brief (typed in with the phone when we have a signal).  But keep your comments coming!  We will be avidly reading them for motivation at each camp!

False start

2:30 am and we are ready to go…. I guess we should have taken that melatonin last night.  Plus we have been up 3-4 times to pee already.  In these early hours we are second-guessing the new route proposed by our guide.  Does he have our best interests in mind, or some other motivation?  Juli, we wish you were here, too, but hopefully thoughts of you rushing us up the mountain will keep us going when it starts to get tough.

Well, I guess we will try to go back to sleep if we can get our minds to quiet down (and Jill’s incessant chatter to cease.)

Kili day 1

Wow, it has been quite a day. We have finally embarked on our mountain trek and are now reminiscing over the day’s many events with a cup of hot tea, at our table, in our dining tent. The popcorn and cookies are already gone, but dinner is on its way.

The morning began with mass chaos, as numerous guests checked out and headed up to the mountain today. People, luggage and gear seemed to be everywhere. We managed to make it out roughly on time, but our supposed 2.5 hour drive to our trek starting point turned into a 5 hour odyssey. The highlight was when our van got stuck in mud directly behind another van stuck in mud with a large truck stuck in mud behind us.  It was apparently the entertainment for the village, as there were a couple hundred bystanders enjoying the show, as we attempted to get un-stuck again. At one point, we offered to climb out of the van, but were instructed that the weight was needed to get the van out again.  Go figure!  We also found it astounding that none of the bystanders offered to help push any of the vehicles out; I guess that would have resulted in a premature end to the fun.

We also stopped in the town of Marangu while the guide fetched the park permit from the gate; during the wait, we took a nature walk and encountered a boy with a chameleon on a stick.  When we declined paying him for the opportunity of taking a photo with this particular chameleon on a stick, he informed us in outraged tones, “This is a business here!”  (again: a chameleon on a stick…)

Finally, we reached the Rongai route starting point, where we met our team.  Well, kind of.  We were introduced to half of 20 men and became very confused at the number of people posing for our team photo, which was exacerbated by introductions that included “our waiter.”  Ummm.. waiter?! On a mountain expedition? Little did we know at the time, that he would become our favorite team member.  We then provided entertainment for the multiple groups when we suggested that to compensate our luggage, they not carry chairs up the mountain for us.  This was clearly a ridiculous suggestion, as over a hundred guides and porters laughed and told us not to worry about such things. At this point, we did not realize that accompanying the chairs would be a table, dining tent, and portable toilet.

The hike started in the rainforest and we were excited to put our new gear to use when the first downpour hit.  The campsite was a bustle of activity with several groups arriving at the same time.  We were surprised to see that our group carved out an area in which to pitch 3 tents – for the 2 of us.  A sleeping tent, dining tent, and our bathroom tent.  We’ll just call this Cyrus City from here on out!  As soon as things were set up, Ladilos (our waiter) summoned us to the dining tent for popcorn and tea.  Talk about roughing it!

 

New Year’s Eve

Today is the last day of the year, and we are spending it on Mt. Kilimanjaro!  This is the second day of our climb and thus far it has been fantastic. Last night before going to bed, we wandered around in the moonlight and enjoyed the view; the clouds partially cleared off and we had a starry night with a full moon.  Above us in the distance stood Kibo (the main peak), and the snows of Kilimanjaro gleamed in the moonlight.  Once in our tent, we had a few last bouts of giggling as well as a final success of the day. Finding spiders in our tent, we deftly (and with only a minimum of squealing) managed to exterminate them so we could go to bed.

This morning dawned clear; we woke up to a delivery of hot tea to our tent (by our waiter) and relatively quickly got dressed as we were excited to step out into the inviting sunlight.  The sky was brilliant blue, and Kibo looked near enough to almost touch.  We were thrilled that the team had moved our table from the dining tent out into the sun and enjoyed a full breakfast of porridge, eggs and sausage. The day’s hike went by fast, as we passed through heather and moorland, ending at the second cave campsite. After lunch and a nap, we then did our first acclimatization hike, with our assistant guide, Sylvan. Kibo was visible for the first half of the day, making this all seem real as we take steps closer towards that final summit day.

 

Kikilewa

We are at camp site three, and at lunch our guide brought in a bottle of wine in celebration of the New Year.  The team was only too happy when we shared the wine with them.  It seems that all we do here is eat, walk and sleep.  We’ve settled into a routine that includes tea 5 times a day, a morning hike, a nap, an afternoon hike, and three full meals plus popcorn and cookies.  We also get wash buckets delivered twice a day. We feel like we are acclimatizing well, as we pea 8 times a day and are farting endlessly (those are both good signs of acclimatization, and Jill’s favorite saying has become “Farting well means faring well”). In addition, we are getting to know our team a bit better, and gaining popularity by sharing our power bars and chocolate.

 

Mawenzi Tarn Hut: 4330 m, 14,200 feet

It is cold here.

A little rougher start this morning; another cold night with restless sleep and everything starts to feel a little soggy. The novelty of packing and re-packing our stuff has worn off, and today we do not even get a sunny breakfast. Our appetite starts to diminish anyway, and eating our lovely meals begins to feel like duty rather than pleasure. We also discover that our cook, Frankie, has taken ill.  We supply him with Tums, metaclopramide and Advil and hope for the best – this would not be a good man to lose. As we begin our daily trek to the next campsite, we are not feeling our best. Our packs seem heavier, the ascent steeper.  As we continue through the foggy moorland, however, we settle into a slow but steady pace, our breathing evens out, and conversation resumes. Our spirits rise as the landscape changes to alpine desert and lava rock, and we catch a glimpse of Mawenzi peak in the distance (the secondary peak on Mt. Kilimanjaro). The remainder of our hike over rocks and stones is easy and we incessantly chatter the time away. We reach Mawenzi Tarn Hut once again in a great mood as we realize we are higher than we have ever been, and yet feel surprisingly well. It is, however, very cold.  We settle into our waiting tent that and bundle up in warm clothes, looking forward to a long nap to compensate for last night’s poor sleep.

 

The Saddle

A long trek across the saddle between Mawenzi Peak and Kibo peak today.  If you have never fully internalized the meaning of “desolation,” come here and you will.  We followed a several km path through empty, rocky lava desert (well, empty except for the remains of a small aircraft crash from a couple years ago), which ended above the snow line at Kibo Hut. We experienced our first snowstorm in a tent last night, and it looks as if the snowfall will continue through the day; we are praying it stops and clears up before our summit attempt in the wee hours of the morning.

 

Summit Day

Opening the tent at 11:00 pm, we are thrilled to see that the snowstorm has passed and the sky is filled with millions of twinkling stars.  It is time to get ready. We are scheduled to begin our ascent at midnight, and can’t sleep anyway.  So we start putting on layer 1…  and layer 2…and 3… and once layer 7 is complete, we step out of the tent (it is going to be cold up there).

Our waiter serves tea and cookies while we wait for our guides. Jaimi, who is chomping at the bit to get going, ends up delaying departure while everyone waits for her to get her gloves on.  But at 12:02 we are off!

The moonlight is so bright, that we don’t even turn on the headlamps and wonder why the other groups bother.  But later on we decide it’s a nice gesture from them, as we can then easily see where they are, and it looks a bit like Christmas lights strung up the side of the mountain. We begin a windy path up Kibo peak, passing one group after another as we go.  We focus on simply putting one foot in front of another as we watch for our landmarks to eventually appear.  It doesn’t seem like we are walking fast, but our hearts are pounding and we are taking about two breaths per step.  The first landmark is Williams Point, which marks the barrier of 5000m; at this point, Jill mentions that the pace might be too fast, but says she will wait until Hans Meyer Cave for a break (which we should hit in 30 minutes).   Eventually we reach Hans Meyer Cave, the halfway mark up to Gillmans Point (which is where you come out on the crater rim, but not the highest point). We take a break – of sorts – it certainly is not more than 3 minutes long, and then we head into the “zombie” switchbacks; so-called, because the best technique to get over this part of the mountain is to assume a zombie-trance state.  At one point, Jaimi says, “Jill, we are almost to the scrambling rocks!”  Jill looks up and sees that the scrambling rocks are actually a couple of miles away, but doesn’t comment – just keeps walking.

We do eventually make it to the scrambling rocks, the last major obstacle before Gillman’s Point, which usually takes about an hour to get over.  About halfway up, Jill starts to feel nauseous.  We make a medication stop, administering Metoclopramide and Advil, and continue on.  By this point, we are truly “in the zone,” and it is hard to even take notice of the climb over the rocks; we just keep following our guides. Finally, we scale the last large rock structure and came out directly in front of the sign for Gillman’s Point.  There are cheers and hugs all around, and hoots from our guides down the mountain to let the others know we have already made it – far ahead of anyone else!  Crispin does a time check, and then announces his watch does not work and asks to see Jaimi’s.  We all lean over, and see that it matches Crispin’s time, showing 3:30am.  We all do another cheer, as this is at least 1 hour before anticipated arrival time at Gillman’s.  And then, Jill starts searching around, and we ask what’s going on.  She says, “I have to vomit now,” and disappears over the crater rim.  A minute later, she re-appears looking brighter and announces, “I’ve never thrown up with such a good view before!”  We all laugh, snap a few photos, and head off again towards Uhuru (the highest point on Kibo peak). During all this, a thunderstorm hits the plains below us; it is a magnificent sight, to watch the lightening flash and be looking down on it. So with the flashes of light below and behind us, we begin the walk around the crater.

We are amazed at the silent landscape in front of us; we are the only people atop the peak and it feels like our mountain.  We walk around the crater, plowing the first steps into a half foot of fresh snowfall; the moon is so bright, and the snow sparkles around us like millions of tiny diamonds.  It is a dream landscape. The path between Gillmans’ Point and Uhuru is supposedly 1.3 km; it seems though like forever, reminiscent of those dreams where you walk down a hallway and it stretches as you go.  We now know what it means to be “high;” we were, and felt it.  Brain function fogs and as we round a corner and see a tremendous glacier to our left, we are clearly in the grip of altitude sickness; ataxia has set in and every second step becomes a stumble.

We keep thinking we are almost there, forgetting that our Kili book warned us of many false peaks along the way.  Each time we reach one, we summon our strength for “only a few more meters” and then are frustrated that the sign is not there!  The only remaining thought is “where is the god-forsaken sign, so we can head back down!”  At some point along the way, Jaimi leans over on the top of her poles feeling completely expended; from behind her comes a frantic Swahili dialogue between the guides. Afraid they might turn us back, she waves them off, says she is fine and starts taking steps forward again.  And then, Jill says, “I think that’s the sign.  Am I hallucinating?  I think that’s the sign.  Is that the sign???”  Jaimi just keeps walking.  And then, a few minutes later, we are actually there at Uhuru, the highest point in Africa.

 

The Descent

After photos with the guides and with Flat Stanley, we don our mittens again and head back down.  Shortly after starting, Jill makes another vomit stop, and then declares her fingers are too cold, prompting a complex glove-exchange maneuver with Jaimi; as soon as Jill has something on her hands, Crispin sends her and Silvan running down the slope. As we round the crater on our way back down, it becomes apparent that we’ve become national heroes, as we are enthusiastically congratulated by each passing guide. They all insist on shaking hands and making exclamations of “ very very strong!”, “ so fast!” and “ I saw you flying up the mountain!”  This was fun, despite our advanced state of AMS.  Back at Gillmans’ Point, we saw the sun rise, then began the treacherous descent over the scrambling rocks.  The descent was as close to never-ending as the ascent towards Uhuru; we cannot believe that we actually climbed up so far.  It is probably good that at this point of exhaustion, we were not fully aware of the day’s statistics: a 20 km hike, covering 1200m (4000 ft) elevation gain. Glissading down the scree, we are again in a trance-like state of just wanting to get down – as quickly as possible.  At 7:30, we collapse into our tent, and basically don’t move again until 10:00.  At which point, we need to pack up and hike another 9 km to the next camp.

Our last night is spent at the Horombo Hut camp along the Marangu route, and we rejoice the last night in our tent and being within 24 hours of a shower.  The last day down is a long one, covering 19 km to Marangu gate; it is not uneventful, as we again pass through 3 different climate zones.  In the rainforest, we even site blue monkeys and cows.  Yes, cows.  They are apparently illegally sent to pasture in the national park.  The day concludes with the excitement of working out the tips for our team and making sure each person gets something despite our guide trying really hard to monopolize the available funds, showers and a bottle of wine at the hotel.  It has been an incomprehensible adventure – until you’ve done this, you can’t imagine it.  We are so glad that we have!!!

 

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