Mount Kilimanjaro… A Flatlander’s Tale
We came to Tanzania for a couple of basic reasons. Nicola has been here before so it wasn’t her idea really… it was mine. I wanted to go on a safari and I wanted to climb Kili. Ever since we were in Borneo a few years ago and I went up Mt Kinabalu at about 4200m, I wanted to try something higher. Kili is almost 5900m so a good 1.7km higher in the sky. These are what some people call trekking climbs meaning that it is essentially hiking up a mountain. We have heard some varying statistics from only 18% making it up to the peak of Kili to 50% are able to make it. When I climbed Kinabalu, I got altitude sickness on the way up but was able to make it.
Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is not a cheap thing. I bought a 6-day package for $1330 USD and I had to rent some gear which was another $100 USD and then at the end, you tip your guides, porters, and cooks anywhere from 10-20%. All in it was close to $2000 I am sure. Nicola had no desire to do this for four good reasons in order of priority (in “Nicolese”):
1. $2000, are you out of your mind? Do you know what I can do with $2000?
2. It gets how cold. Are you out of your mind?
3. Are you out of your mind? I could not breathe on my way to Machu Pichu… I am not going higher.
4. Thanks but no thanks… I will stay right here at sea level.
The adventure began two days before I would start my climb when we arrived in Moshi. My package included one night before and one night after at a pretty nice lodge owned by the same people who own the tour company. I paid for an extra night which was $150… way over our accommodation budget. The Weru Weru River Lodge was completely invaded by British high school students who were on a month-long trip that they had planned and fundraised for two years. I got to meet Abel from Ahsante Tours who I had been emailing with and talking to on the phone to organize my climb. I also met Lawrence who would be my guide on the mountain. They checked over my gear and arranged for whatever else I did not have. The rest of the time before was R&R. I learned that I was on the same climbing permit as the kids so I was a bit concerned that I would be hanging with these kids for the next six days.
On day 1, I was picked up at the Lodge a little later than planned. Nicola came with us to the gate and then after she was dropped off at the Kilimanjaro Backpackers Hostel ($6 per night in the dorm…. more her style). I was climbing the Marangu route which is often called the Coca Cola route because it is apparently the easiest in terms of slope and terrain. You can do it in 5 days if you want but my package included an acclimatization day on day 3. The Marangu gate was more than an hour’s drive from Moshi and then we had to wait for the kids to show up as everyone had to sign in who was on the same permit. By the time we got going, it was much later than was planned. Lawrence and I climbed together. A porter named Walter (until day 5 I thought his name was Alto) carried my bag up the mountain on his head and served me all of my meals, brought me warm water to wash up, woke me up and basically was my waiter. Another porter brought up my food and a cook prepared all of my meals. Essentially I had a team of 4 people there to serve me. The porters are amazing. They shoot up and down the mountain with things on their head, backs, and more at speeds many times faster than me.
Day 1 is about a 7.6km hike from about 1900m to 2700m altitude. It usually takes about 4 hours and is through a rainforest kind of terrain. It was quite hot and I was quite overdressed. By the time we got there, I was feeling the heat and the altitude. My head pounded and those who know me know that when I got overheated like that I often get physically sick. Needless to say, at the Mandara Hut which was our stop after day 1 I was vomiting. After we had a snack and cup of tea, neither of which I could stomach, we did an acclimatizing hike. We went up to Maundi Crater which was about a kilometre away and up a few hundred metres back down. It is intended to help your body deal with the altitude and sleep better. The idea is to climb high and sleep low. I could barely eat any dinner and more or less slept from 7 pm until 7 am the next morning.
My guide, Lawrence, was trying to get me to eat more and drink more even though I had been vomiting. Two of the rules of Kili as with all climbs is that you need food for energy and you need water to keep hydrated. Water for Life as he said repeatedly to me along the journey. He taught me a lot about Kili, the Tanzanian language, and culture. Kili was once the third-highest mountain in Africa but the other two collapsed almost 750 million years ago. Kili is a volcanic mountain and lies dormant. He was teaching me more Swahili than I knew so far including the term Rafiki which means friend. I was thinking about The Lion King.
Day 2 began at about 7:30 am. I ate some for breakfast but not a lot. They feed you African porridge most mornings which is quite watery to help get more water in your system. They also gave me white bread with nothing on it. A cup of tea and we were off. Day 2 is an 11.3km hike from 2700m to 3600m. I was doing well for a while but shortly after the lunch stop, I began vomiting again. The lunch stop was 7km into the hike so only 4 to go. Hiking uphill for about 1.5 hours while you are vomiting and nauseous is not a pleasant thing to do. Even putting water in my stomach made me feel sick. I just wanted to get it done because I knew that day 3 was acclimatizing so hopefully I would feel better. In all, day 2 was 7 hours long. We arrived at Horumbo hut at 3600m but Lawrence ended up carrying my day pack for the last couple of hours.
When we arrived in mid-afternoon I slept for a couple of hours and then got up and had tea and a snack. Ginger tea for my stomach and my snack each day was a plate of popcorn. Popcorn …. the snack of choice for serious mountain trekkers. After the snack, I slept for another hour and a half and then got up for dinner. I felt quite a bit better and ate quite a bit of chicken and rice. I was becoming increasingly worried that my stomach would prevent me from going on.
Day 3, oh thank goodness for day 3, acclimatizing day. The night before I slept around the clock… from 8 to 8. I had a better appetite in the morning. I was able to eat but was a bit cautious about how much I ate. Our routine in the mornings was to get up, pack, eat, and go. I think my body was dealing with the altitude and hiking on a full stomach was not helping. On day 3, we did about a 7km hike in total. about 3.5km to Zebra Rock and back. We were able to see the Base Camp on our hike so it did not feel that far. I was optimistic that I could make it. Lawrence was making me go very Pole Pole (pronounced po-lay po-lay which means very slowly). It can be a bit frustrating sometimes going so slowly but I understood why he was making me go so slowly. Every step made me feel a little stronger.
On day 3, Lawrence was very focused on my food and water intake. I definitely ate much more. The night before I took my one and only diamox tablet that he wanted me to take. I had enough for three days but when I was sick and my pulse was a bit fast and I told him that I took medication for high blood pressure he told me only to take one tablet. Diamox is a drug often used for acclimatizing to altitudes. It is also a diuretic though so he wanted me to drink 3 litres of water on day 3. I did.
Our acclimatizing hike was done before lunch and I felt quite good. I ate a big lunch because I knew that I was not going anywhere after lunch. I ate a good supper as well and then got to bed early to get a good night’s sleep before the longest day of my life…. day 4. I took a very cool photo at sunset on day 3 that showed that I was sleeping above the clouds. 3.6 km above sea level.
So day 4 is a killer. It begins with a 9.26km hike from Horumbo to Base Camp. The climb is from 3600m to 4700m. Then you eat and sleep and then begin your summit attempt at around 11 pm that same night. Summit is usually sometime around sunrise or soon after. You only spend a few minutes at the summit and then descend back to base camp in about 3 hours or so… rest for an hour and 3 hours back to Horumbo. Essentially, in about 30 hours or a little more you go up and back down 2300m of altitude. That is way more than is recommended. That is the plan anyway. So when I say day 4 is a killer that is why.
I did really well getting to Base Camp. 9.26km in 6 hours and there I was 4700m above sea level and 500m or so higher than I had been in Borneo a few years ago. I arrived at Kibo Hut (Base Camp) at about 1 pm. I felt good… tired and sore… but good. Lawrence was happy with me and he told me to rest for an hour and a half and then we would have tea and popcorn. My body was more than willing to rest. I slept well. When I woke up at 2:30 though, my head was pounding and I was nauseous. I drank a bunch of water, had some tea and a little popcorn, and then slept another couple hours before dinner. When I woke for dinner, I was even sicker. I had not eaten a lot for lunch on the way to Kibo Hut, had little popcorn, and so there was next to nothing in my stomach. I told Lawrence how I was feeling. I said I could not imagine climbing the steepest part of this mountain feeling like I needed to vomit. He told me to take something for my headache and sleep and then we will see how I feel at 10 pm. I tried to vomit a few times but there was just nothing there.
Amazingly, when I woke at 10 pm, my headache had settled and my stomach felt stable. I had a little soup and some tea. While I thought when I went to sleep around 6 pm that I was done, I now had some renewed energy to give this a go. I ate a couple of chocolate bars for some energy, packed a few more in my day pack, bundled up in several layers, and was off at 11 pm.
I would say that for about the first hour or so things were going well. We were going very Pole Pole. It is extremely steep. I think we were the first ones off. I focused my head torch on Lawrence’s footsteps right before me. My breathing was very laboured but I just focused on slow deep breaths. I needed to rest perhaps an hour into the climb. It felt like my heart was going to pound out of my chest. I could feel my heartbeat in my neck as well. My legs were not too bad but between my breathing and my pulse, I knew I needed to stop to slow things down. Once I did we were off again, but this time maybe only for about 30 minutes before I needed to slow my heart and breathing. The next time it was more like 15 minutes, and then 10 minutes. All the head torches that were climbing behind us were now passing us regularly. Lawrence told me to focus on just getting to Gilman’s point at about 5400m and then I would get a certificate. I kept going but kept stopping… at this rate, he told me that Gilman’s would be another couple of hours. Frankly, the last thing I cared about was a certificate.
I finally made the decision at about 5200m that I could not go on. I asked myself questions in the decision like:
Why are you doing this?
Why does it matter to get to the top?
What are the risks of going on?
Is it worth it?
I decided that I was the only one who cared about doing this. Remember Nicola asked me why I wanted to do it and thought I was kind of crazy right from the get-go. I have loved ones, Nic/Em/Mom/Dad/Michele, who would not want me to take stupid risks. I have never felt my heart pound like that before and I guess that made me think that there are risks. I do not want to make myself sick. I have about 11.5 months of travel to go and the rest of my life to live. So the answer for me at gut check time was that no, it was not worth it. So I told Lawrence that I needed to go down. He agreed with me.
The next day, after Lawrence and I discussed how I had felt and how I had slept, he told me that I had made the right decision. I had a hard time sleeping… I kept almost hyperventilating while I tried to sleep. I struggled to catch my breath back at base camp. Everything that I told him about how I felt made him say that he felt that that could be dangerous. Good decision. I made the right decision to go down.
It took me about 2.5 hours to go from 4700m to 5200m. It took me 30 minutes to go back down to Base Camp. When I woke up the next morning, my breathing was not great but was definitely better. My heart did not feel like it would pound out of my chest. At 7 am, based on the number of people who were around camp (just after sunrise) it was apparent to me how many people did not summit. If they had, they would not be there. Lawrence informed me that when we went back down to Horumbo that morning he would also be guiding two of the British school kids and one of their teachers.
The hike from Horumbo to Base Camp on Day 4 took 6 hours. Going back from Base Camp to Horumbo on Day 5 took 3 hours. I felt better and stronger with every step. At Horumbo I just relaxed and ate. I ate a lot actually. As I was going down, everything was getting better… including my appetite. Day 6 was a long hike downhill. Close to 20km from Horumbo to Mandara to the Marangu Gate… 3600m to 2700m to 1900m. We left at 7:35 am and were at Mandara Hut, 11.26km down, at 10:15 am. Lawrence said we would have to wait a while for the cook to get lunch ready… I said I did not want lunch and would rather just go. So after a couple of chocolate bars and lots of water we were off again. We arrived at Marangu Gate at about 12:30 pm. About 20km in 5 hours felt like a good pace.
I was right, Nicola was glad that I did not make myself sick. My family all said the same thing. I did not summit and none of them cared. They only cared that I was alive and well.
Overall, it was an excellent experience. I climbed to 5200m, a kilometre higher than I had before. Lawrence taught me an important lesson along the way. He kept saying to me, enjoy and be happy. I had trouble doing that because I was sick and was worried about not making it. The lesson is that you have to enjoy the journey and not worry about where you get to. I think there are some important lessons in that for me about life.
So this flatlander tried to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, the rooftop of Africa and didn’t make it. But after all that, I am not upset or even disappointed in myself. I took a journey, tested myself, and got stronger in mind, body, and spirit through it. Now I am ready to go on with the next thing that I came to Tanzania for… a safari. Bring on the lions, zebras, giraffes, elephants, rhinos, hippos, cheetahs, and more African wildlife. And by my side, through this next leg of our Amazing Race will be the rarest animal, the African Nicola, and I will count my blessings that she is with me every step of the way.