Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro: Insights


Life at 50. I took off 3 years ago with The Brit, an ex-pro cyclist, to travel the world. What an adventure its been.

After 30 hours of flying – including a 5 hour layover in Doha, India – we land in Moshi, Tanzania, in East Africa. It is near midnight and there are no taxis, Ubers, or rental cars around. We have at least 50 lbs of luggage each and the road through the airport is pitch black. I, of course, am a bleach blonde, middle-aged Americanized sitting duck. I consider, for a moment, how pissed my mother would be at my decision to do this.

The Brit and I proceed to enter into a lengthy argument because he is insistent that we do NOT call a regular taxi but, instead, ring for an Uber. I remind him we are in Tanzania………and that its midnight. Statistics cite that fewer than 1 in 10 people actually have a car, let alone are offering an Uber service. But, of course, I lose. I always lose.

We wait. An hour. An hour and a half. I’m literally spewing smoke. However, I have learned over the past 3 years, that arguing with this particular Brit does me absolutely no good. And so, we finally get our Uber ride. The only Uber in Moshi, Tanzania.

Landing in Moshi, Tanzania
We drive at least an hour to our air bnb location, which is down a dark alley, full of mud and pot holes with cement walls on either side. Had I not been with The Brit, a tall, muscular athletic looking dude who looks like he can take care of himself (and me too)…….I would have been scared as hell. I wasn’t, though.

We finally get to “the house” and my heart bottoms out. I have been relatively patient most of my trips with the Brit, but today, I am at my end. The air bnb smells like cow manure and there are chickens running everywhere. The electricity looks to be off and the actual room seems to have creatures scampering everywhere as we open the door. I have a moment to decide how to react, but it takes less. For the first time since we started traveling, I tell The Brit that I don’t want to stay here…… 1am, after 30 hours of flying. We have no car and no way to get anywhere, from this location, except to step through piles of dung, which no longer seems as “crazily adventurous” as it once did. My attitude could use an adjustment, but not tonight.

After another hour, and significant coaxing of our sole Uber driver, we settle into a hotel which seems better. Its late, so my approval rating system rachets down a bit.

Downtown Moshi

The next morning we begin our quest to find a guide to take us up Mount Kilimanjaro. This is after a lovely breakfast of eggs, served by uber-friendly waitresses who ultimately become friends over the month stay, fascinated by my whiteness. We walk through the center of Moshi and find one of the “less expensive looking” guide groups – Chief Guides – to assist us. The Brit negotiates with the owner as I sit by. Not my typical role, but I’ve learned, once again, that I’m better to go this route. Far faster.

We’re decided and have 2 days to prepare ourselves for the 3-4 day trek up the mountain, to the summit at 19,341 feet. We have successfully negotiated to NOT have a porter – only 2 guides (required) – which is not typical. We had to get approval from the government excusing us. This means that The Brit and I will be carrying ALL of our food, water, gas, sleeping needs and clothing, for the 5 day overall trek. Not an easy task at 50% oxygen levels. Also, as a bit of punishment for not giving revenue to the government, aka using a porter, the Brit and I are required to carry food and water for the guides as well. The net result is that The Brit starts our hike carrying 75 lbs and I carrying 40 lbs.

We had decided well in advance that we would take the most arduous route – the Umbwe route – up Kilimanjaro. This particular route is the most vertical and is projected to take between 7-9 days. Most guides suggest a minimum of 6 days. We, of course, are arrogantly planning on 5 days in total. They also cite that the chances of success at summitting are low. Of course, we pay little attention to these facts at the beginning of the climb. The good news is that most people do NOT take this route, so we were alone in our hike, which brings peace and solitude.

We had to take a bus from Moshi, to the starting point at roughly 5200 feet. The ride covered 2 hours of banana plantations, children on their way to school and small markets along the way.

School Children, Tanzania

Market, Tanzania

Our hike up the mountain begins at Umbwe Gate, where we must weigh our packs. It is here that it is posted that the guides may not carry more than 50 lbs, hence we take on our new roles as Sherpas. It was ok, however, as both The Brit and I wanted a good workout and not an easy hike.

We hike for 7 miles covering 4300 feet of elevation. We are, essentially, in the rainforest at this point. Absolutely breathtaking trees, plants and lush surroundings everywhere. Surprisingly, I take the lead and find myself alone, a half mile ahead of the 2 guides and The Brit. I suspect this is because I am carrying 40 lbs and they all have much more. I wait for them at various points and we ultimately all take a pretty long, deserved rest after 4 or more hours of hard hiking.

Beginning of Kilimanjaro Hike

Umbwe Camp, first night, 10,000 feet
We continue on after the break and ultimately end up at Umbwe Camp, elevation almost 10,000 feet, where we will sleep for the first night. I am the only woman among 30 men. And very clearly the only American (queue the Lululemon yoga pants and Buff). This is not a place for the faint-hearted, as the toilets are holes in the ground with spiders, beetles and other crawlers scattering as you do your business. Face washing? Ha! Teeth? Well, it has to be done, but there is truly no solid cleaning done until after the summit. No………hygiene is for the weak. Legitimate hiking is having sweat and grease in your hair for 5 days

Rainforest Trails, Day One Kilimanjaro

Rainforest Trails, Day One Kilimanjaro

Taking a break!

Up we go, on Day 2. Today, we are climbing from Umbwe Cave (camp) to Barranco, where we may hook up with others who have taken the less vertical trail. On this day, we begin to see sky through the trees and are at the beginning of some breathtaking views. Our elevation at the end of day 2 is 13,000 feet and we covered around 4 miles. I still feel fine, as altitude issues don’t typically hit me until at least 16,000 feet.

Up we go, on Day 2

View Above the Trees

Camp Barranco, night two
Day three is the hardest day as we decide to continue the arrogance streak and push past the Karanga Camp (13k feet as well) and head toward Barafu, the last camp before summit. It makes for one long-ass day of climbing, roughly 9 miles. And some of it straight up. It is here that I do the happy dance for all of the step-ups I did at the gym with 40 lb weights. And for the hills I’ve climbed, numerous times, on my bike (while swearing under what little breath I had left). Of course, the porters are all around me, schlepping barrels and baskets of other climbers possessions, at twice the weight of what I’m carrying, something they do at least 2 times per month, while I’m patting myself on the back for my one ascent.

The Brit has fallen behind and I begin to have concern. Its not like him to cave in to either pain or fatigue so I worry that something is really wrong.

I find out the next day that I was right to be concerned.

Summit Day. We start the morning with a breaktaking view. This, after a fairly sleepless night, which most nights-before-summit are. It is always very cold, with high winds and the need to urinate during the night almost brings tears to ones eyes. Root canals are preferred to having to pee at base camp.

The clouds are now below us. Its such a peaceful feeling to look down into the vastness and know there is a whole world of activity going on, yet we cant see or impact any of it from here. There’s really something freeing about this.

Looking upward toward the peak is encouraging. It seems so close, as if we’ll be there in minutes. The reality, we still have 4,000 feet to ascend and we then have to quickly turn and come back down to begin the final push down the mountain to our ride back to town. There is little glory in summiting, at times. The time at the top is very little. And the higher you go (think Everest), the less time you can afford at the top.

We start the ascent with our day packs on. This is many times a major benefit of summiting….one can leave the heavy stuff – tents, sleeping bags, water refills – at base camp and pick them up on the way down. We begin the slow trudge, at between 50-60% oxygen, up the beast, at around 5am. Most guides prefer to start the climb much earlier in the morning, say 1am, but I always push for a later departure, as I don’t like climbing in the dark. Ironically, given that I’m paying money, I usually get my way! I find it hard enough to stay on my feet, with rocks and ruts aplenty, in broad daylight. Why up the chances of falling off a 19,000 foot hill? No thanks. I’m ok to miss being at summit at sunrise. The sun will come up regardless of where I’m at.

As we climb the Brit falls behind again. After two hours, I stop and insist we are not going any higher until the Brit is “back to normal”. At this point, he is slightly slurring his words and obviously feeling the impact of elevation. This is so not like him that I begin to worry that we will not make the summit and will indeed need to hurry him back down the mountain to emergency care. I draw the line in the sand. Fortunately, after 20 minutes of rest, some water and a divvying up of his weight, he seems better and ok to carry forward again.

The beauty surrounding us is breathtaking. There are pristine glaciers flowing down the mountain and the air is crisp, cool and dry. After several hours, we hit Stella Point, at well over 18,000 feet. From here, we have another hour of climbing for the final push to Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa at 19,341 feet. This is where your feet begin to feel like they have cement blocks tied to them.

An interesting thing happens at this point, just as I see the peak and feel confident that this bucket list item will be checked by day’s end. We round a bend after Stella’s Point, to head to Uhuru (the peak), and I hear screams. I look ahead and see two African guides dragging a man by his armpits, down the mountain. The man is screaming “help me”, with tears streaming down his face. His feet are dragging behind as he is very clearly in no condition to walk.

I stop in my tracks. I look at my guide and ask “is there anything we can do?”, knowing full well that this man is suffering from Altitude Sickness. The guide says “no”, matter-of-factly and continues walking, as does the Brit and other guide. For me, this is impactful. And emotional. I realize, at this point, that this man is in serious need of medical assistance asap. I also realize that no one within several hours has the ability to provide what he needs (oxygen). I am overcome with feelings of helplessness and find myself tearing up at the thought that he may not make it. Maybe my own lack of oxygen was impacting my ability to think logically, but I was lucid enough to know that this was a serious situation and one for which we had no answer.

At that point, it became crystal clear to me that I had been underestimating the potential severity of the circumstances. I was 200 feet from the top and suddenly feeling panicked, almost claustrophobic. After what seemed like several minutes, I decided there was nothing else I could do, and so slowly started the amble to the top. I will, however, never forget the screams of this man and the shear terror on his face as he was dragged by me.

We finally summit and I feel sheer elation and a serious sense of accomplishment after what I just saw. I am proud to have capped this mountain and already thinking about other like summits I might attempt. Crazy, I know, but the oxygen dep does strange things to the brain.

We take our obligatory selfies and pics in all combinations and think about the descent. The hope is to get to Base Camp with enough daylight hours to make it back to the Umbwe Gate for our ride, all in the same day. It’s a weird feeling to be at the top of the continent, and then be back at street level all in the same day, but many times this is the norm, with mountain climbing. It is so arduous and time consuming on the way up, but then dizzingly quick on the downside.

Fast and somewhat painless. Mount Kilimanjaro summit is comprised of loose rubble referred to as scree. It is nasty stuff to try to walk downhill on, so most people rely on hiking poles and a form of “dry skiing” to move quickly and without harm.

It took an hour to get back to Barafu, where our heavy packs were waiting, and then another few hours to get back to the gate where a sort of “party” atmosphere was awaiting.

Kilimanjaro is a really great climb for those who like endurance feats with a bit of the unknown. It is one of the easiest of the high peaks due to its lack of need of technical skills. I highly recommend it!

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