Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
It was 11:30 pm when the familiar sound of the Tanzanian porter/waiter named Shabe (Sha-bee), gently woke us from just on the other side of the tent rain fly. I responded through a half-yawn, "jom-bo, Shabe" which is Swahili for hello. Shabe said that breakfast was available in the dining tent. I thanked him and began to slowly pull pieces of clothing, one by one, in to my sleeping bag to warm them as I continued to extend my consciousness. I had slept maybe a grand total of 4 hours since I went to bed shortly after dinner around 7 pm that same day. Needless to say, my half-asleep body was still confused. "Why was I waking up in the middle of the night?" it asked. I stuffed another ice-cold shirt that I had been using as a pillow from outside my sleeping bag into the warmth of the air trapped by the goose down inside the sleeping bag. The contrast of cold clothes to warm sleeping bag was as stark as the idea of breakfast at 11:30 pm.
When I had finally pieced together the last bit of my outfit for the day, I looked and felt a little like I was planning for a nighttime trip to a snowball fight. I wore a thick pair of leather hiking boots and 2 pairs of wool socks. My legs were layered in a respectable 4 layers including long-johns, hiking pants, rain pants, and snow gaiters/leggings. My core had 5 layers of its own including long-johns, a t-shirts, a long sleeve shirt, a fleece pull over, a down jacket, and a rain coat. My clothing attire was completed by my warmest pair of ski gloves and a winter beanie/hat. I finished zipping up my last jacket and unzipped the tent door, ready to tackle whatever the night may bring.
I stood up, closing the tent door behind me, and looked around out into the darkness. I had placed my headlamp on top of my head strategically so I could find my way to the dining tent where Shabe had left breakfast. I quickly realized that I would not be needing my headlamp. The light from the full moon high above in the cloudless sky, lit up the campsite like an overhead light bulb. I did a quick 360 degree inspection of my surroundings. In front and behind me were the 2 tents for my hiking group. Off to my left about 20 yards was the dining tent and further on there were 3 tents used by the porters and guides of our expedition team-- one for cooking and 2 for sleeping. I smiled and began to walk toward the dining tent. Not only was the full-moon over my head illuminating the entire campsite, but the layers I had dressed in were turning out to be pleasantly warm, if not too hot, for the 30 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. This was what it felt like to be at base camp at 15,239 feet above sea level ready to "kill the Kili."
I arrived at the dining tent for breakfast and was greeted by a "breakfast" of toast, porridge, fiber cookies, and fruit. I poured myself a glass of hot tea from the thermos and waited for my 3 friends/ hiking companions to arrive for breakfast. After a few minutes of silent tea sipping, I was joined by my 3 friends all looking about as half-awake as I and dressed in a similar fashion. It was neat to be sitting there and know all 4 of us had flown from all over the world to be together for what lay ahead. I had flown from Europe and met up with Scott, Lisa, and Lindsey who had all flown from the state of Washington in the USA. Within moments, a big grin on Scott's face aimed to end the sleepiness. Scott said, 'guys can you believe it is here?" Scott's grin was returned by myself and others. In spite of the current "breakfast" hour, he was right; this moment was a long time in the making.
Three years ago, Scott and I had played around with the idea of attempting to climb Africa`s tallest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro. At 19,341 feet above sea level; the massive, free standing, dominant volcano of Kilimanjaro has long attracted hikers from all over the world. The expansiveness of the mountain coupled with the views that can be offered from the summit of the "roof of Africa" over the plains of the Serengeti below attract more about 25,000 hikers every year to climb the mountain. So many hikers flock to Tanzania each year, to hike the non-technical slopes of Kilimanjaro that an entire industry of guided tourism has emerged and infused the local community with both jobs and relative wealth.
A year ago, I had half-jokingly and half-seriously sent Scott a Tanzania Lonely Planet book as a birthday gift. And by 6 months ago, we were looking at plane tickets. Even all the years worth of playing around with the idea of attempting such an adventure of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, it could not have prepared the 4 of us for what we had already been through to arrive at that moment-- midnight breakfast in preparation for a summit attempt. For 5 days we had walked slowly from the jungle-like base of the mountain to arrive at summit base-camp. The previous 5 days of walking had been filled with an incredible amount of learning (to speak Swahili), gorgeousness (the expansiveness of the mountain), comradery (both within our group and with the expedition team of 15 Tanzanians we employed), and challenge (it rained for hours and hours every day). In fact, those 5 days were as much about a cultural orientation of the "Kilimanjaro experience" as they were about slowly acclimatizing our bodies to the elevation of Africa´s tallest mountain (i.e. climb high, sleep low).
Just after midnight, the 4 of us companions, grabbed our day packs and stood next to our 3 guides ready to take on the next 13 hours of walking that lay ahead. 6 hours to summit, 3 hours back to base camp and 4 hours from base camp down to victory camp below. Everyone was ready and with the moon lighting the way overhead, we set off. With the first steps I spouted off "Twin-day ju-ya blima", Swahili for "Let's go up the mountain". Mahamut, our lead guide, smiled his usual and sincere half-smile and responded as he always responded "pole-ay pole-ay", "slowly, slowly". He was right as always. We began to slowly putter our way through the tent city that formed summit base-camp. At over 15,000 feet in elevation, the air was already thin and even 2 or 3 quick, powerful steps would instantly cause any tourist's heart to begin pounding with intent to supply more oxygen to the body. "Pole-ay pole-ay" was the motto used by the guides on the mountain. The slower the ascent, the less likely that anyone would get altitude sickness. Our guide, Mahamut, knew this well. For twenty minutes, our group of seven (4 friends and 3 guides) crept our way forward out of summit base-camp and up the valley towards the assent of the final bowl.
Both in front of us and behind us, dozens of other groups milled about. Some groups moved slower to mobilize from their slumber in summit base-camp. Others were 20 minutes or more ahead of us up the trail. It was not a race and we knew it. Our pace was our pace. We had trusted Mahamut and his fellow guides, Prosper and Mrundoko, thus far and they had not led us astray. We trusted now that hiking all night would lead to views from the summit at sunrise in 6 hours. With this in mind, I settled in to a mellow rhythm and pace, admiring the expansiveness of the situation unfolding all around me. Scott pointed out that there was no need for head lamps because of the moonlight. He was right, the entire path and bowl of the mountain was lit up and was compounded by the snow on each side of the dirt trail reflecting the moonlight back up of the ground. Lindsey pointed out that she had read that many people intentionally plan their summit of Mount Kilimanjaro around the lunar cycle. Admittedly our being present for the full moon was sheer, dumb luck. But the sentiment certainly made our ascent seem like destiny.
Our group continued to skirt forward slowly at the pace of an almost crawl. Up the mountain ran the dirt trail which was sprinkled with at least a half-dozen other groups in front of us. The silhouettes of hikers always moving slowly higher and higher, each silhouette topped with a small glowing orb of light from the headlamps that most every hiker used. A zig zag string of glowing orbs all bobbing up the mountain in unison.
After an hour of non-stop walking, our group of 7 was within a 15 yards of people who had started as much as 20 minutes before us. Our pace had stayed steady and slow but our group was strong and we sensed it. Then Scott came forth with the famous words that would describe the slow waddle of our 7 up the mountain. Scout exclaimed, "this penguin train's catching up” What a perfect metaphor to describe the moment. The waddle of our team slowly up the side of a snow covered mountainside. It really did feel like the march of the penguins. Although our group quickly passed a mass of about 30 other hikers bunched together, it still was not a competition. At least 3 other groups lay ahead of us which we would never catch, nor pass, and our slow "penguin" waddle past the other 30 hikers was one of mutual, shared respect and admiration. At 16,000 feet there was still a long way to go.
For hours and hours the march of our penguin line trudged forward. The path ascended quickly and Muhamut knew that slow was the key to success. He intentionally led us off the dirt trail "superhighway" to the summit and onto a small, packed trail along the snow. We switched backed the snow trail back and forth to slow our unceasing pace. And what the switchbacks did not slow, the ever increasing altitude did. Rather than fixate on my molasses-slow footsteps or my labored breathing, I chose instead to begin to craft this written story in my mind. The description of the switch backs, with 3 teams of glowing orbs of light higher ahead on the mountain. The description of the state of my right foot and the frozen nature it had taken on that I compared to downhill skiing with a frozen foot. I looked down to find that the leather on the boot had never dried from 5 days of rain and now the cold of the night had turned the leather to ice and frosted it over for good measure. I scrunched my toes into a ball and kept walking clinging to the hope that 2 wool socks would keep me a little warm. The description of the moonlight casting shadows below our group of 7 on the slop-ed snow below. Seven shadows swaying silently higher and higher up the mountain. And finally the description of the labored breathing. Not labored from altitude sickness, but labored from being 2,000.... 3,000.... 4,000 feet higher than I had ever stood in my entire life. My lungs were challenged to just keep breathing, each large breath felt so good and yet.... never enough for the SLOW pace of the penguin waddle.
Finally, maybe 1000, vertical feet from the summit and less than an hour walking time from the summit, the crux of the entire climb presented itself. The trail narrowed and took away Mahamut`s ability to take us "off road" and switchback in the snow. We were forced back onto the dirt trail, "superhighway.” It was steep. We could see the ridge-line less than 100 yards away. But the steepness of the trail pointed only up, up, up. Scott cried out, "this is it guys, this is the crux of the whole climb". His statement filled my mind with courage but did little to fill my lungs with oxygen. What I needed was just a little more.... just a little more to make it to the ridge line and see the summit.... just one more hour away. With the wisdom of having climbed the mountain countless times, our guide Prosper began to sing. At first it was the Africa trail songs that we had learned over the previous 5 days. Prosper would sing and we would respond in unison song back to him. But as our breath for singing gave out, Prosper and Mrundoko filled in the void that our breathlessness had left. Back and forth they sang and chanted-- an Africa ritual for urging the team slowly forward. If ever my life felt like a movie, the power of African songs belted out on the side of a mountain willed me to keep moving forward. Sometimes Prosper would cry out words of Swahili encouragement and I would will the lung strength to mimic. Other times, my breathing was too labored to do any more than listen and trudge.... forward.
When the ridge-line came and the summit was in sight just 45 minutes of not-so-steep away, I looked at Prosper and thanked him. There is nothing on earth like the voices of traditional Africa song to will a person up a mountain. More importantly, the voices had names and were people I had grown to know, Prosper, Mrundoko, and Mahamut. Thanks to our fearless guides, all of our group summit-ed just after Sunrise. What a sunrise it was! The African sun rising over the cloudless Serengeti plain below.
“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Ngaje Ngai', the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcas of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.” - Ernest Hemingway