“The road is never long when the company is good.” That certainly applies to our trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, both to my fellow hikers–my son Adam and our friend Todd–as well as to our crew of sixteen guides, chefs, and porters from Team Kilimanjaro.
Where do I begin?
It’s been a dream of mine to hike Kilimanjaro for many, many years. I think Adam and I agreed to do it soon after he fell asleep standing up while attempting Mount Fuji in 1997 and we left him asleep (and unaccompanied) in some random mountain hut for like 10,000 yen or something and picked him up on our way down. (True story. Not one of my finer parenting moments.) Let’s just say it’s been a long time coming.
And let’s also just say that while many things were not at all like we expected, the experience as a whole surpassed our expectations.
And like many experiences that stretch comfort zones and challenge abilities, this one, too, was plagued by the demons of the “What Ifs“:
What if the weather was awful?? What if it rained every day and we were cold and wet and miserable and really not having fun at all?? That’s a lot of time, money, and effort to be miserable.
The weather was superb. We got caught in one little hail storm at the end of day six, which was actually kind of cool, but otherwise, seven days without rain! For the most part, we got cloud cover when we needed it and clear skies when we needed it. I don’t think we could have ordered up better weather had that been an option.
What if we didn’t have the right kit and our gear failed us (and we were cold and miserable–kind of a theme here)??
We had all the right stuff and not too much extra, except for Todd’s rented sleeping bag whose zipper broke. (I’m so thankful that wasn’t me. I was so afraid of being cold but I’m so happy to report that was never the case, not even on summit night.) In fact, Adam hiked every inch except the summit night in shorts and tennis shoes. Who knew?
What if we had some freak accident and sprained an ankle or wrenched a knee on the first day?
We didn’t. The worst thing that happened was a black toenail from not tying my shoes correctly on the descent. A familiar badge of honor.
What if one of us got the dreaded Acute Mountain Sickness and had to come down??
We didn’t. Although the fear of it hovered around me until we actually summited, in the end, our Diamox did its job and it never materialized. But you just never know. On the second evening, I realized I had a headache, which was soon followed by a tinge of nausea, and I was devastated. Headache and nausea are the cardinal signs of altitude sickness, but how could I possibly be suffering already? We were only at 12,000 feet; I’d been there many times without problems. I knew the cure was to go down, but there was no way I was giving in already. I started the Diamox, slept for twelve hours, and forged ahead, mind over matter and all that stuff. Nothing more came of it, but the scare plagued me with doubts until the summit.
What if I failed??
I didn’t. We didn’t. We all summited and although I don’t think I could put into words what I did expect, I know the entire seven days were not at all what I expected.
Day 1 was a morning of logistics–meeting our team, packing up, driving from Arusha to the gate, buying permits, eating our first of many gourmet lunches prepared by our awesome chef, and getting weighed in. Not us, thankfully, but our gear. There are a number of organizations and initiatives in support of the porters, and in an effort to protect them, there is a weight limit to what they are allowed to carry. Their loads, which they amazingly balance on their heads, of course, were weighed before we started out and again the first couple of camps. If they are overweight, they must hire more porters.
I was somewhat embarrassed but overwhelmingly thankful for the tremendous porter support. I would never have made it without them. Summiting was one thing; summiting with gear would have been a different matter altogether.
Back to Day 1: So the hike part of the excursion didn’t begin until after lunch. We had a fairly easy four or so hour walk on relatively easy terrain to our first camp and our first taste of what this experience was really going to be like.
And let me tell you in a nutshell what it was really going to be like: sixteen strong Tanzanian men dedicated to getting the three of us to the summit. In addition to carrying all of our gear, they cooked three gourmet meals a day for us from scratch; they set up and took down our tents every day; they brought coffee and hot water for washing to our tents every morning; and at just the right moment on summit night, they sang to us. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Much like floating the Grand Canyon, trekking up Kilimanjaro is highly regulated in an effort to protect the mountain and preserve the pristine and precious environment. You must purchase a permit; you are not allowed to hike without a guide; and you must sleep in huts or designated camping areas. The lower down on the mountain, before the groups spread out to their different routes and different paces, the more crowded the camp sites.
I was afraid the crowds might be a negative, but they never were and neither were the big campsites. Since there wasn’t much to do and I craved sleep, we mostly just went to bed after our incredible dinners. Surprisingly, the noise didn’t keep me awake, but I must admit I LOVED having a tent to myself, a coveted luxury to be sure.
Day 2 was a full day of hiking, four hours in the morning, lunch then a full afternoon. By walking slowly and steadily, ( and I do mean slowly–the Kiswahili word which we had heard so much in anticipation of the climb, “po-lay, po-lay” took on a whole new meaning), we had easily ascended to 12,000 feet, which is the highest I’d ever slept.
Much to our surprise, Days 3, 4 and 5 were all half day hikes. All three days, we achieved our campsite by lunch. On the afternoon of Day 3 we took a 90 minute round trip hike just to gain some elevation and enjoy some views, giving our bodies a chance to acclimatize, in keeping with the “climb high, sleep low” maxim, which I had often read about but never really understood until we did it. We slept at 14,000 feet on the evening of Day 3 (like sleeping on a 14er!!!) but then came down to just below 13,000 on Day 4.
Day 5 we achieved our “base camp”, School Hut, at 15,469 feet, from which we would make our summit attack. Our hike that day was excruciatingly, irritatingly, almost impossibly slow. I was inches behind our guide, Max, hoping I could speed him up. When we got to camp, we said, “Max, that was really, really slow.” He looked us straight in the eye and said in all seriousness, “Not many 55 year old women make it to the top.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that on my birthday three days later, I was going to be a lot older than 55. But apparently Team Kilimanjaro has decided that slow and steady wins the race, with an emphasis on slow. Po-lay, po-lay.
For lunch that day, at all of 15,469 feet, we enjoyed deep fried, freshly made from scratch, empanadas. Seriously. We think Rashide, our chef, may have been the best chef on the mountain. After lunch, we slept all afternoon (at least I did), woke up for dinner, slept until 11, then got up to prepare for our summit attack at midnight. I don’t think I’ve slept that much in ages, but it was delicious sleep at altitude.
We kept asking why we were hiking at midnight, but never really received any real answers. Our guide was good, but he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about giving us more information than we needed. It was mostly a “trust me” kind of attitude for most things. All we can say is that we’re so glad we did for so many reasons. First of all, it was super special to make the summit bid in the dark with headlamps. Plus I can’t tell you how thankful we were that we couldn’t really see what we had ahead of us, or we may not have made it.
And to say that seeing the sunrise from the summit was breathtaking may be the understatement of the century.
When we came around the last corner, just at sunrise, and I saw my first view of the glacier, it not only took my breath away, I was overcome with emotion and burst out in tears. The men were all laughing at me, partially confused and partially wondering if they should be concerned, but I was just fully experiencing the moment, and reveling in it.
The guides of Team Kilimanjaro, and I’m sure all the guides, are dedicated to helping each person summit. I credit my summit success to four things: having my poles, summiting at night, the incredible hot ginger tea the guides brought along, and at just the right moment, our guides sang to us. There is a “Kilimanjaro song” that we knew about, and we had heard some of the other guides singing it to their parties at some of the camps, and I have to admit feeling a little jealous, but our guides pulled it out, in soft, encouraging tones, in the dark, just when we most needed that distraction and motivation. It was sweet beyond words and a memory that will never fade with time.
And then there was the summit. Words fail, but here we are: Uhuru Peak, The Roof of Africa.
After the summit, Max looked at Adam and said, “Your mother: strong. Very strong.” I think he probably meant stubborn, but whatever.
And then there was the descent. Many want to know how difficult summiting Kilimanjaro at 19,341 feet really is. My answer: when you go slow and steady and take six days to get up there, not very difficult. Adrenaline (and Diamox) can carry you a long way. Coming down is a totally different story. At one point Adam had gotten way ahead of me and he stopped to wait. When I saw him, I plopped down on a rock and put my backpack down next to me, which proceeded to fall about twenty yards down the mountain. He looked at me and said, “Mom, did you think that pack was going to stay there?” And I answered, “No. Right now I am completely 100% non-functional.” And that about describes my descent. It has never been my forte. Let’s just say we made it all the way down the next day.
With hindsight being better than 20/20 and all, it’s difficult at this point to avoid the temptation to question if we would have done anything differently…could we have made it up to summit base camp in four days instead of five? Probably. Could we have made it all the way back to the gate the same day we summited? Adam–definitely. Me? Possibly. But for what? I conquered my doubts; the demons of the What If’s didn’t prevail; we summited the Roof of Africa; and we saw the melting glaciers of Kilimanjaro, something the next generation will most likely never see–not because they won’t climb the mountain, but because they will be gone.
Would I do it again? Not likely–not because I wouldn’t want the challenge or the effort, but because I’m not sure another trek could ever match this one in its near perfect execution.
But who knows? If you’re interested, ask me again in a month.
And thank you for reading along this far, and motivating me to capture this experience here by your sustained interest in my crazy adventures. Recording this was a chance to re-live it, and for that, and for you, I am always thankful.
The road is never long when the company is good. And you, too, are good company along this African adventure road, far far away as you may be.