Monday, October 10, 2011

Mount Kilimanjaro (the super long version)

Warning: This post is ridiculously long. Feel free to just check out the photos.

All photos are now posted.

The last post told you the punch line, so here’s the back story. A long, long time ago Jeanette decided that if we were going to Africa, we were going to climb Kilimanjaro. I went along with it. We sort of haphazardly looked up information and tour companies as we traveled around the continent, but as of Sept. 19, we hadn’t actually booked anything. Most people book months in advance. However, as luck would have it, we met up with an old Peace Corps acquaintance of mine in Dar, and she suggested a guy. Within 24 hours we had a hike booked for about $300 less each than we’d seen on any website. 

We arrived in Moshi on September 28 and proceeded to do exactly what you aren’t supposed to do four days before hiking the tallest peak in Africa: I bought new shoes. For $30 I got a pair of used men’s Soloman trail shoes which were fairly similar to Jeanette’s. Hiking in the Usambaras taught me that two months of sandals made my feet entirely too big for my old boots. 

To test out my boots and get us going steeply uphill, Pasian, our hike arranger, set up a short day hike to a waterfall nearby Moshi. The hike took us briefly into the rainforest in search of Colobus monkeys. After about 15 minutes, our guide for that day said we had to turn around because he thought he heard rangers. Turns out it was highly illegal for us to be there, and we’re pretty darn sure the guy pocketed the “village conservation fee” we had to pay to go. In situations like this I like to try to change perspectives. I think of it as the dude pocketed about $7, not the dude pocketed 10,000 shillings that could have paid for half a semester of secondary school for a kid I know. Stuff like that really puts a sour edge on things. The waterfall we saw was nice, though, and it was good to stretch our legs. Also, my new shoes fit wonderfully.

The next two days we spent mostly bumming around Moshi. Pasian also had us accompany three of his other clients to the Marangu gate, another part of the park we wouldn’t normally see. He thought it would be good to get to a higher altitude. Near as I can tell, these guys prepared even less than we did. They didn’t even know how warm their sleeping bags were and they planned to summit in just four days instead of the typical five on that route. Well, who knows…

We also rented some gear from a nearby shop – one -30°C sleeping bag for Jeanette, one pair of gaiters, two balaclavas, two warm, puffy down jackets, and two thick pairs of socks to sleep in.

Finally, October 2nd rolled around and it was time for our hike.

Day One - Park Entrance 1800m/5900ft to Machame Hut 3000m/9850ft

Jeanette: I didn’t start the day out with a tremendous amount of confidence.  Other than Lushoto I hadn’t done much hiking in the past few months and know that I tend to wear out quickly when hiking uphill.  For some inexplicable reason I still really wanted to hike Kili.  Maybe just because it’s there, maybe because I like grand challenges, maybe I wanted to see the glaciers before they are all gone, maybe the idea got in my head years and years ago and I couldn’t let go of it.  Either way, it was suddenly 8:45 AM and we were climbing into a van and meeting our porters and guides.  There were paperwork and park fees to take care of, and then we were off.  Once we got out of the van we didn’t see our porters again until camp.  Our guide, Tino, and assistant guide, Frederick, had a few small tasks to take care of and told us to just start hiking pole pole (pronounced po-lay po-lay and is Swahili for “slowly”, advice we would hear and heed about a gazillion times in the next five days).  We followed a dirt road (for rescue vehicles) the first 45 minutes before it turned into an exceptionally well built and maintained wide trail.  We were passed continuously by porters carrying really large loads on their heads.  It seems that most have a small backpack on and then a large duffel bag or basket propped up on the backpack or on their heads.

Tino and Frederick caught up to us within an hour and we were immediately given a pole pole warning by Tino before he stepped in front of us to set our pace.  An hour later we had a lunch break near some pit toilets.  I was surprised to see toilets here but they are a necessity given the sheer number of people on this trail (I will complain, err, talk more about this later).

The trail remained an easy, gentle grade the entire way to Machame Hut, and that evening in our tent Anne and I talked about how surprised we were how well today went.  My confidence rose considerably after Day 1.  Hiking uphill isn’t so bad when you are constantly instructed to slow down.

Anne: When we arrived at the gate it was pretty hilarious to listen to other groups of hikers talk about their high-quality new gear while we putzed about in mismatched used clothing. The first chunk of the trail was through cloud forest – exceptionally green, lush, tall trees with hanging moss and hidden monkeys. It was a fairly easy hike and we were met at the camp by fresh popcorn, hot drinks, and a huge tent just for us. Talk about luxury hiking. (Though other groups also had mess tents and even portable toilets so they didn’t have to use the group squat ones. Sucked for the guys who had to empty the portable toilets every day then carry them on their heads.)
At the starting gate...

Day Two – Machame Hut 3000m/9850ft to Shira One 3600m/11800ft

Anne: The second day of hiking took us through alpine moorland. The trees were much smaller and the landscape was dotted with large volcanic rocks. During our hike we first encountered “Grandpa,” an 84-year-old man who was hiking the mountain with his two grandchildren. Later we learned that he won the hike in an auction and hoped his wife would hike it with him. When she said no, because she had hiked it 30 years earlier, he had others join him. If he were to summit, he would make a world record.

 After four hours or so on the trail we arrived at Shira One, a large camp on the Shira Plateau. The area was open enough for us to finally see the sheer numbers of people who were hiking with us. Fredrick said that one group of 30 people brought 70 porters with them. That wasn’t too surprising. For just the two of us, we had four porters, one cook, and two guides. All in all, including the groups camped at Shira Two, there were about 300 people on that section of the mountain that day.

After resting at camp for a bit, Fredrick took us on a short walk to the Shira Two campsite which is on a different route up. On the way he showed us some small caves and overhangs. He said that until 1989, all of the guides and porters were required to sleep in the caves and cook with firewood. They weren’t allowed to set up tents and mingle with the guests. Though now everyone camps together, the porters and staff still keep to themselves. Mario, our “waiter,” always set up a dinner spot for us separately from everyone else, often in the vestibule of our tent. Even when we took breaks along the trail, our guide would tell us to sit one place then he and the assistant would sit elsewhere. It felt odd to be served, but it was also nice to have a bit of privacy. Overall it felt a bit awkward. 

At the end of day two we were both feeling pretty good. We had started taking Diamox, a drug that helps relieve altitude sickness. It makes you pee a lot.  

Jeanette: Anything that makes me pee more than I already do is kind of tough on me.  I mean seriously, I already have the bladder of a two year old.  Diamox also has some other interesting side effects like making my hands tingle/sting similar to the feeling of when they are waking up from being numb, and it makes my face occasionally feel like it is vibrating.  Very weird.  These symptoms usually seem to last for a few minutes at a time.

We awoke this morning to blue skies above and a sea of clouds below us with Mt. Meru poking out in the distance.  It was so beautiful.  Even though we still had a heck of a long way to go, just having all of the clouds below us somehow made me feel like we were on top of the world.

The hike this day was much steeper than the previous day.  As we were hiking in forest moorland today (shorter stubbier trees, significantly less vegetation that the rainforest) the views were much more accessible.  What shocked me was the literal parade of people (hikers, guides, porters) going uphill.  You could watch the line of people ahead or behind you and I was in awe of my lack of solitude.  One of the reasons we chose this route was because it’s 1) not the one dubbed the “Coca-Cola Route”, 2) you don’t sleep in huts, 3) it’s more scenic, and 4) one guidebook or website I read said that even though this route is gaining in popularity the mountain is so big you still feel like you have it to yourself.  This was complete and utter crap.  The Machame Route was packed with people.  We were constantly leap-frogging with porters and other hikers.  Plus, the larger groups, of which there were many, hiked at a significantly slower pace than we did.  

It turns out that Anne and I were able to keep up a pretty decent pace despite the steeper climb.  At camp we were both feeling well but were surprised at how chilly it was.  We camped on a completely exposed plateau and the wind whipped right through us.  While I first I utterly scoffed at the idea of a mess tent (I mean it’s already weird enough that someone else is carrying my pack for me), it was here that I kind of got it.  It was very cold and windy and I really didn’t want to sit outside and freeze while I ate.  So yes, Mario set up our dinner in the vestibule of our tent and we sat with down jackets on and sleeping bags over our legs and ate a meal with real silverware and napkins.  Far classier than any of my previous backpacking experiences, but I guess I wasn’t backpacking here.  I was only responsible for my day pack.

Mount Meru

From the rocks near the campsite

Day Three – Shira One 3600m/11800ft to Barranco Hut 3950m/13000ft

Anne: This was the first day that took us up to an altitude of over 4,000 meters then back down again. The change was meant to help us adjust to the lack of oxygen. A steady incline led us up to a lava tower, a protruding mass of rock. Then we lollygagged our way back down through alpine desert to our fourth camp.  (Yup, that’s all I got for you.)
Jeanette: Shortly after today’s climb began we quickly left the forest moorland habitat and entered an alpine desert.  Vegetation became sparse and the earth was various shades of brown.
The hike to the Lava Tower at 4600m was up an extremely gentle grade.  The ridge we hiked up was very wide and open with expansive views.  You could clearly see where you were going and where you were coming from.  We seemed to be able to keep up a good, steady pace with no problems.  As per usual we passed the larger groups with ease as they tend to plod uphill in a losing race to a snail.  With no vegetation to block our views, the sheer number of people seen hiking on our same footpath was staggering – porters by the hundreds, some racing ahead of you at impressive speeds, some taking long breaks.  There were hikers galore and by today we definitely recognized certain groups as we passed them (the Really Large Group, the German Group, Grandpa, etc.).  Grandpa was of great intrigue to us and we both wanted the opportunity to chat with him and his grandkids but the timing wasn’t right.

After the Lava Tower we did a short down and an up, and then a long down to Barranco Hut.  As we began our descent we headed into a valley and the views became more limited.  As we approached the camp the views really opened up to a lovely plateau and we could see all the way down to the town of Moshi.  To our left was the Barranco Wall, a giant wall of granite that we had to make it up and over the next morning.  We had a little bit of hail on the descent which turned to a drizzle the lower we got.  The exposed hiking gave the wind free reign to chill me through and through, but nothing too bad.  Yet.

Day Four – Barranco Hut 3950m/13000ft to Barafu Hut 4600m/15092ft

Anne: The trail from Barranco to Barafu was the only section of the hike that included actually slightly difficult terrain. For a small portion of the steep ascent on the Barranco Wall we had to climb up small sections of rock with footholds and our hands and then walk along short, narrow ledges. This is the sort of stuff I hate, but it really wasn’t that bad. In fact, in comparison to a lot of the hiking we did in South Africa and even in random places in Unalaska, it was nothing. I didn’t even get scared. As we were walking down to a river after the Wall, I casually greeted a hiker as we passed, saying something banal like “nice trail today, huh?” He responded with “Nice? Sure, but scary at points.” It made me feel like I’m much less of a pansy than I usually think. 

Halfway between Barranco and Barafu is Karanga Camp. If we had done the mountain in seven days instead of six we would have stopped there. Instead, we stopped for a hot lunch served to us inside of our tent and listened to it hail then rain. Our last two hours of hiking were in rain and hail. We were freezing by the time we reached the campsite, where our tent had already been re-erected. We crawled inside and tried to rest as much as possible before our 11 pm wake-up call and final mountain ascent.
Jeanette: The hike today was very scenic when it was not obscured by clouds.  A common phrase in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor was “don’t like the weather – wait 5 minutes!” and that could certainly be applied to Mount Kilimanjaro.  Clear skies in the early morning seem typical but by mid-morning the clouds start billowing up and blowing in, and then some quickly pass while others linger.  Most of our far-reaching views today were largely blocked by clouds but it was still a very pretty hike.

I enjoyed the varied terrain today although I was surprised at how much my knees hurt by the downhill stretches.  I still blame the Appalachian Trail for wrecking them.

As Anne mentioned earlier, once in camp or on a break the porters and guides seem to go to one side and us to another.  This was never more pronounced than during our hot lunch break at Karanga.  As we arrived I thought it was overkill to see our tent erected but then the light hail quickly worsened before turning into pouring rain.  At least it sounded like pouring rain from inside the warmer, dry confines of our tent.  The tent was huge, easily a 3-person tent with two large vestibules.  As Mario brought our lunch over we asked him to tell everyone to sit with us inside the tent so they would stay dry but he was aghast at this suggestion so we sat in our tent, fully appreciating the cover while eating a fantastic meal, all the while feeling like chumps because there were seven guys sitting out in the rain just waiting for us to finish.  I kept wanting to explain that there doesn’t need to be this division, we’re just not like that, but whatever small efforts we made seemed futile attempts.
When we arrived at Barafu Hut our confidence was high.  We had done really well today despite the harder terrain.  I distinctly remember getting out of the tent at 7 AM this morning and already seeing the Really Large Group halfway up the Barranco Wall, and then when we passed that group before lunch I felt really good.
It was very cold at 4600m/15092ft and the rain/hail had chilled me to the bone, so we holed up in our sleeping bags waiting for dinner just trying to get warm.  One unfortunate side effect of the altitude (at least she is blaming it on the altitude) is that it gave Anne horrendous, and I mean horrendous, gas.  In the tent.  That we were sharing.  After our meal we knew we had to get some rest.  The plan was to wake up at 11 PM, have tea and biscuits at 11:30 PM, then start hiking by midnight to reach the peak at sunrise.

While brushing our teeth before bed we ran into Annie, the granddaughter of Grandpa and it was chatting with her tonight that we got the full story about them.  Annie explained that both he and his wife are avid hikers and skiers so this wasn’t entirely a wild hair for him.  However, should he reach the summit, it would be a record-breaking ascent.

Day Five – Barafu Hut 4600m/15092ft to Uhuru Peak 5895m/19340ft to Mweka Hut 3100m/10170ft

Anne: I am shocked that I don’t have frostbite on any of my digits. Seriously.  When hiking up the mountain in theoretically Gore-Tex gloves and two pairs of socks, I pondered whether I was better off losing fingers or toes. (I decided fingers, since I can always use a voice typing system, but I can’t hike well without real toes.) Long and short, it was cold, it was so exhausting I honestly thought I would fall asleep while walking, and ultimately we made it in awesome time. Jeanette will tell you the rest.

Jeanette: The roughly three hours of broken sleep that I got between 8 – 11 PM last night hardly prepared me for the day’s events, yet I still awoke with an air of excitement.  It was bloody cold so we quickly dressed, ate some biscuits, and were off.  I was dressed, head to toe, in my wool cap, long johns, a long sleeve hiking shirt, a down jacket, down mitten gloves, a pair of pants, rain pants, two pairs of socks, gaiters, and my boots.
Within about 45 minutes the exercise had finally done the trick and for the first time since arriving at Barafu Hut I was genuinely not cold.  The hike began up a steep, rocky incline followed by a short, flat plateau.  As we were leaving camp we could see headlamps dotting the darkness above us, once again we got a later start than many.

While the summit hike began on a good note, within two hours the cold and fatigue I was feeling caused my confidence to drop and with every subsequent hour my confidence plummeted even more.  We had been force fed food nonstop this whole trip, yet before the summit hike we were given a pile of biscuits.  Anne and I each ate a Luna Bar, but whatever energy this provided was quickly sucked up by the exertion.  

I haven’t heard the snow crunching under my footsteps since leaving Alaska, and I always enjoy that sound.  Within an hour of setting off that morning we were already in snow but it felt colder here than ever before.  My feet and toes were freezing and with each step I would wiggle the toes of whatever foot I lifted just to keep the circulation going.   As the altitude increased I couldn’t tell whether I was hungry or nauseous.  We stopped to eat half of another Luna Bar and it helped momentarily.  I had to add my balaclava and rain jacket for protection against the wind.  The previous four days of the hike came so easily that I guess it surprised me to feel so exhausted on this day.

All this time though, despite my weakening condition, we were still passing people right and left.  Although the quicker pace was tiring, I needed it for warmth.  Every time we stopped to eat or add a layer I had to take my gloves off and it felt like my fingers were going numb before I even got the gloves all the way off.  My energy was zapped and I was extremely light-headed.  I remember thinking several times “I wonder if Tino will make me turn around if I pass out?”  As I was seriously considering whether summiting was worth it or not, Frederick said that we were only 5 to 7 minutes from Stella Point, the rim of the crater, and it wasn’t until this moment that I realized I could make it, that I would make it.
After a short break at Stella Point we continued on slowly.  We were completely exposed to the wind at the top and it stung my face but the trail flattened out as we followed the crater rim around and then gradually up another 100m or so.  During this section two guides and three hikers passed us on their way down.  We came around a final bend and in the break of dawn just ahead was the sign firmly planted on Uhuru Peak at 5895m/19340ft confirming that we had made it.  In fact, we were the fourth and fifth hikers there that day (at least from the Machame Route) and we arrived at 5:52 AM.

We had a brief few minutes to ourselves at the top before a large group arrived during which time we frantically tried to take photos.  There was one mishap after another when the batteries in BOTH of our cameras died.  We had spare AAs for the point and shoot, and after we fumbled through that with our cold hands, we had three different people take a photo of the two of us at the top but somehow every single one of these came out blurry.  The ones we took of each other are perfectly clear, however.  At least we’ll always have the memories.  And, of course, this incredibly long account.

I often feel that when a place touts its “sunrise views” they are often overrated.  I know that may sound pessimistic but I can’t help it.  However, I am happy to say that this morning was the best sunrise of my life.  The sun came up golden and red on the horizon and lit up the glaciers to perfection.  

Just as we started the return journey we saw Grandpa and his entourage on their way to break a world record.  It was a wonderful moment.

So here we were 1300m/4265ft above our camp, elated and freezing, ready to head down.  We had gorgeous scenery to inspire us but it didn’t take long for the euphoria to wear off and an exhaustion headache and aching knees to set in.  It was a long slog down, but we were in camp at 9:30 AM that morning, a mere 9.25 hours after setting off.  We had a brief nap and then wolfed down soup and bread before packing up and continuing down another 1500m/4921ft.
At camp I barely stayed awake until dinner, then went to bed at 7:35 PM and I had 11 ½ of the soundest hours of sleep in my life.

Anne at the spot when we knew we were home free.

Just wanted to post this again for good measure.

We really are proud of ourselves.

Best Sunrise Ever.

Glacier whose name I don't remember with Mt. Meru poking up in the background.

Day Six – Mweka 3100m/10170ft to Park Entrance 1800m/5900ft to Moshi

Jeanette:  I could have kept sleeping for hours, but the alarm clock beckoned me awake.  After breakfast it was a short 2 ½ hour walk through the rainforest where we saw several black and white Colobus monkeys in the trees above.

At the park entrance we were given really nice certificates for our accomplishment.  We had one last meal here before heading to Moshi in the car where a lukewarm to cold shower awaited me.

Anne: Walk down was awesome. Trees are great. Monkeys are great. Chipsi mayai (french fries fried with eggs) are great. Also it was nice to be warm again. And, I finished the hike in new-to-me boots without even a blister. It rocked.

It took these seven men to get us to the top.

Rainforest views (sans monkeys because the lighting was horrible).

It was funny at the end. We had our last lunch in a small bar-like-place not far from the gate. A massive group of porters was there changing the money they got from tips from US cash to shillings from some random money changers. The well dressed men and women were giving the porters a decent but not fabulous rate, but it’s way easier for them to change money there than to try at a bank.  It’s a side of the whole business most tourists don’t get to see.  Tourism is such a weird thing…

And with that, the hike was over and less than two days later we were out of Tanzania and onto Kenya.


  1. Wow, you two are amazing! I am living vicariously because I would never even make the attempt (although Rich is sitting here saying he wants to go right now!)

  2. I am so impressed. The photos were amazing. Years ago (um, like 20 years ago) I planned to someday hike Kilimanjaro. Now, I can hardly make up to the top of my hill after taking the trash down. :(

  3. Wow! What an excellent account of your journey. I got cold just thinking about how cold you probably were. What an incredible accomplishment! Enjoy the rest of your journey. We miss you though! See you in 2 months.
    Love you,

  4. How absolutely incredible!! You two are amazing. Congratulations on your summit! How cool. I am so jealous. :)
    Hope the rest of your trip is fabulous.
    Smooches Pookie and Anne!

  5. Way to go ladies!!!!