When most people think of vacations, they envision themselves lounging on a sunny beach, sipping a drink out of a coconut, while hotel staff tend to their every need. Although there is nothing especially wrong with this type of holiday, my wife and I tend to favour something more adventurous and active.
This past summer Marina and I took some time off to travel in Africa, visiting Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Namibia and South Africa. One of the highlights of our time in Africa was our summit to the top of Africa’s highest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro. In this two-part post I will summarize the 8 day hike using notes I made each evening in our tent.
Day 1 – final altitude 2650m (8694 ft)
Despite our best efforts, Marina and I got severe food poisoning two days ago. Personally, I’ve never been that violently ill. I’ll spare the details, but at one point, when I fainted, fell over and threw up on the floor, we both thought we’d be heading home much sooner than expected. Luckily, after holding down some water mixed with rehydration powder, and starting antibiotics, we both began to recover. Last night, when everyone was enjoying the last regular meal prior to the hike, Marina and I were struggling to eat plain white rice. Great start, to be sure.
Our group consists of 10 hikers: a father and son from the US, two couples and a girl from the UK, one Aussie, and the two of us. Our support staff consists of 40 Tanzanian individuals – porters, cooks, guides, etc. This fact makes me somewhat embarrassed and uncomfortable. We learn later that for the locals, getting a stint on a Mt. Kilimanjaro expedition is one of the most lucrative gigs around. This eases some of the guilt, but I still feel a bit like a spoiled tourist. The porters carry most of our stuff – clothes, tent, sleeping bags – while we carry our day packs consisting of water, change of clothes, snacks, and medical supplies. Also, one of the porters gets the honour of carrying our portable toilet. (For over a week we either did our business behind a bush [when available at lower altitude], behind a rock, or using the limited-capacity portable toilet.)
Today was an “easy day”, consisting of about 4.5 hrs of walking up a moderate grade. I certainly noticed the increased effort required to walk even at this altitude. My heart rate during the hike was approximately 117 bpm, as we were constantly reminded by our guides to walk “pole, pole” (slowly, slowly). Since we’ve been told to drink as much water as possible, I managed to drink about 2L during the walk.
As we’re still in the jungle at this altitude, a ranger kept watch over our camp during the night. A couple of times during the night, the sounds of monkeys up in the trees woke me up. As did the sharp pain in my stomach.
Day 2 – final altitude 3550m
Packing up in the morning is a major pain in the butt. We’re woken up very early in the morning, at which point we have 30 minutes until breakfast. During this time, we change out of our pyjamas into our hiking clothes, pack our daypacks, pack the rest of our stuff in another bag, pack up the sleeping bags, get cleaned up – all the while inside of a 2 man tent.
The highest altitude we reached today, while trekking for about 6 hrs, was 3700m. So, we gained about 1km in altitude since yesterday – and you can certainly feel it. As soon as we got to our camp, I developed a pretty bad headache. After a couple of Tylenols and some water, the headache was largely under control. Throughout the hike, I managed to drink 4.5L of water, which meant I was running to the bathroom every 5 steps.
As we arrived at camp, having walked above the tree line, we caught our first glimpse of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s quite motivating finally being able to see the challenge we’re facing.
Day 3 – final altitude 3840m
The temperature is starting to dip – we had frost on our tent over night.
Today was billed as a “short day” by our lead guide, Passian. However, it actually ended up being the longest and hardest day thus far. Part of the reason for this is that we went off on an acclimatization walk after making our camp for the night. This walk got us up to 4000m, and added another 2.5 hrs to our day’s walk. Once again, I developed a headache that was mostly alleviated with some Tylenol. The discussion around the dinner table in the mess tent now revolves around if and when people will be taking Diamox – the medication that is supposed to help you acclimatize to the altitude. So far, no one has admitted to taking any, but a few are now complaining of headaches.
In the middle of the night, I woke up to go to the bathroom. As I unzipped our tent, I looked up to see the moon overhead, and more stars than I’ve ever seen dotting the sky. The glaciers on the face of Mt. Kilimanjaro appeared to be illuminated. With everyone sleeping in their tent, the world was perfectly still and silent. Despite the biting cold and the beckoning of my warm sleeping bag, I stood there for a while, captivated by the beauty and the serenity.
Day 4 – final altitude 3900m
In the morning all the tents were covered with frost; getting out of the tent was an even greater struggle than usual.
Today we walked for approximately 8.5 hrs, from 3850m up to 4600m and then back down to 3900m to our current camp. At the highest altitude it was freezing – despite layering all the clothes in my pack, I was still shivering as we ate our lunches, leaning against the rocks.
Later that day, as we sit in our tent, listening to Patrick Watson on our iPod, a thought crosses my tired and foggy mind that I must share with Marina:
“For the first time since we started walking, I actually feel that I can do this. I can make it to the top.”
“Do you have tears in your eyes?” asks Marina.
“This music is making me really emotional…”
“Me too.” Marina’s eyes also get watery.
Clearly the altitude is making us delusional and emotional.
But in truth, until this very moment, I had been counting down the hours until I got so sick, my headaches became so severe, that I’d be taken down the mountain prematurely to wait in a hotel for Marina to finish the climb. From prior travels in South America, I was well aware that while Marina deals quite well with altitude, I do not.
On today’s walk, I got to chat quite a bit with our assistant guides – Cerafin, James, Julius, and Alpha. They’re such gentle and encouraging souls. I can foresee them being vital in keeping us all focused and relaxed on summit night.
As we were having dinner this evening, the mess tent suddenly started flapping around violently. As if someone flipped a switch and turned on the wind, a dust storm had fallen upon our camp. As we left the mess tent to get to our individual tents, we could barely see through the sand blowing around in the dark. Once Marina and I got into our tent, we quickly realized we wouldn’t be sleeping tonight as the sides of our tent were being battered by the wind and dirt. To make matters worse, fine dust was getting blown into our tent, getting into our eyes and mouth. It was becoming uncomfortable to breathe. We both covered our mouths with t-shirts, using them as face masks, closed our eyes and tried to weather the storm. Every few minutes the condensation from my breath and the swirling dirt would clog up the fabric of the shirt, forcing me to find a new patch of fabric to breathe through. As if breathing at ~4000m wasn’t challenging enough…
Eventually, despite the dust, the noise, we both drifted off to sleep.
Day 5 – Final altitude 4000m
When we woke up in the morning, shirts still wrapped around our mouths, we were relieved that the dust storm had passed. Unfortunately, everything inside of our tent was covered in a film of fine reddish-brown sand. That stuff got in everywhere. Normally, being covered in dirt wouldn’t be too much of a problem, since you could easily clean it off with a quick shower. However, there are no showers on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Our daily “wash-wash” consisted of 400ml of warm water in a shallow pail. There is only so much you can do with that little water, hunched over inside your tent. Thus, we’d be carrying much of this dirt with us all the way to the top of Africa.
Today we climbed the Barranco wall – one of the harder parts of the trek, which required the use of hands and feet. At sea-level, this would have been quite easy, but at this altitude, when every step forward makes you gasp for air, it was a bit more challenging.
Again I developed a bit of a headache today – seems to occur when we go up and back down again numerous times.
Tonight will be our last “wash-wash” for a couple of nights, as there is no more water source above this altitude. All the water that we will need has to be carried up. Not surprisingly, the priority is drinking water.
Around midnight, as I headed out to the bathroom, I came across a woman walking alone in the dark.
“Do you know what time it is?” she asked me.
“Not sure – around midnight I think…”
“In the morning?”
“Ummm… no, at night.” It was clearly pitch black outside.
“Oh, cause I’m packed and ready to go,” she continued, staring at me with wild eyes.
“Well, its midnight, so you might want to get back into your tent and get some sleep.”
She looked puzzled, as I continued past her towards the toilet. When I came back, she was gone.
Day 6 – final altitude 4600m (base camp)
Today we walked for only a few hours until we reached our base camp at 4600m.
We had an early dinner, followed by a debrief about our summit attempt starting at midnight. We headed off to bed around 6:30pm, sleeping in the clothes we’d be wearing as we made the final push to the top of the mountain – some 2 kms higher in elevation. At 11:00 pm, we were woken up by the guides. It was go time! We quickly got dressed, checked our bags, topped up our water supply, and headed off to the mess tent for a cup of tea and a final pep talk from our head guide.
The mood was tense. Some people seemed groggy and tired, while others were running high on adrenaline. It felt like we were going into battle against a formidable foe.
As the clock struck midnight, and our guide gave us some final words of wisdom, our group of 10 set off into the darkness towards the roof of Africa.
TO BE CONTINUED…