By JP Bennett, for the Redoubt Reporter
The six-day climb up Kilimanjaro began by ascending a slope similar in angle to Cooper Landing’s Slaughter Gulch. We passed through a forest lush with blue-flowering jacaranda and imported eucalyptus trees that provided a canopy of protection from the equatorial sun and flavored the air with subtle sweetness. Impatiens kilimanjari found only on these slopes were easy to spot with their orangey-red flowers. Pinkish-white and purplish clovers added color to the verdant underbrush.
Carrying only daypacks with rain gear, snacks, water, camera and personal items, I hiked along with Judith, the only other client in our entourage, and with guides, Adonis and William. We had set out well before the porters, but an hour or so into the hike, the crew, each laden with around 40 pounds, shot past us. This pattern repeated every day. By the time we reached a campground, the porters had tents set up and water drawn.
The first site we came to would shock anyone who might be expecting a wilderness experience.
In a space the size of a basketball court, I counted more than 40 tents, all pitched haphazardly and compactly. Our crew set up our accommodations on the edge of the congestion, a practice they would try to repeat each night. The effort reduced, ever so slightly, the unwinding evening din of all the porters as they settled in for the night.
Each morning’s routine began with coffee delivered to the tent and savored as I rolled up my sleeping bag and pad and sorted out what to carry in my daypack. Breakfast was then served in the dining tent, which also doubled as the sleeping tent for three of our men. The cook tent served as the sleeping quarters for the other four.
Leaving the porters behind to break camp, Judith and I set out with the two guides. After a
couple of hours of steady climbing, we left the forest and entered the moorlands. The plan was to hike about four to six hours to the Shira 1 campsite. Despite what seemed a slowish pace, we arrived in the campground well ahead of schedule. The guides suggested that if we weren’t tired, it might be good to make this day a bit harder and gain more elevation sooner. Each successive day’s hiking would then be shorter but include more acclimatizing rest. It made sense.
So we soldiered on through the Shira Plateau, the collapsed dome of an eruption that had
formed part of the mountain. The scant vegetation consisted of giant heathers scattered amid volcanic rocks in a desertlike landscape. Clouds swept in with a building breeze and it began to rain. The temperature dropped and the precipitation turned into hail just as we began the climb to the Shira 2 site on the lower crater’s rim. Breathing began to become labored as we approached the camp, which was just under 12,000 feet, almost a mile higher than the trailhead.
By the time we arrived, I was totally whipped and had a slight headache, one of the first signs of acute mountain sickness. Rest, dinner and copious amounts of fluids restored most of my energy level. By sunset, the clouds had dissipated and we now had our first view of Kibo’s entirety. That clarity created a buzz throughout the camp. From that day
on, the prize remained almost constantly in view.
As promised, we only had about three or four hours of hiking each of the next three days. The first of those found us approaching the base of Kibo’s massif in the high moorlands. We took our lunch break by the aptly named Lava Tower and had to take shelter from the headwind that had been building through the morning. Vegetation became sparser and weirder. Several varieties of the cactuslike Senecio, including the giant cotori, is ubiquitous in these high moorlands. Hugh columns of lobelia also are endemic to the area.
Shortly after we trudged into the Barranco Valley camp, I had to put on a couple of layers to ward off the increasing chill. Leonard, our camp’s steward, served an afternoon tea with cookies and all we had to do the rest of the day was to relax.
In the jumble of tents, crews and clients, we caught sight of Terry, a civil engineer from Minnesota that we had met in Moshi before the climb. He was climbing with his brother, a plumber from Wisconsin. Terry was an avid bicyclist back home, but his brother hadn’t done much exercise for the past 20 years and was suffering.
“Jimmy’s in the tent, sleeping,” his sibling responded to an unasked question. “After each day’s climb, he has nothing left. His legs ache and his head hurts.”
Our dinner followed a few hours later. Edward, the “Stomach Engineer,” constructed meals designed to restore our energy, replenish our reserves and replace lost fluids. Typical breakfasts would begin with our choice of tea, hot chocolate or coffee, followed by a soupy porridge and then supplemented by eggs with sausage and crepes. Lunch was packed along in our day bags and consisted of boiled eggs, sandwiches, juice, snacks and fruit. Dinners began with soup for the first course, salad and bread or chipatis for the second, and then meat and veggies with rice, pasta or potatoes. Dessert and a thermos of hot water to make tea or chocolate would cap it all off.
Not once could we finish all the food that was presented, although all meals were delicious. Edward, now with nearly 10 years experience on the mountain, had also gone to guide school to study being a camp cook, and the results confirmed the title bestowed upon him.
Darkness came early to Barranco as the sun set behind steep mountain walls. As the light
faded, a nearly full moon rose over the cliffs. The clear nighttime sky offered unfamiliar southern constellations and I played with a planetarium app on my phone attempting to identify the star patterns seen on this other side of the equator.
The next morning’s climb began with what appeared to be a near-vertical ascent of the Barranco Wall. The trail required four-limb drive to get up or around Volkswagen-sized boulders and to gain nearly 1,000 feet. While a misstep might end with a plummeting descent, the effort was, for me anyway, fun, as the rocks provided excellent foot and handholds. Not so for the porters. Most balanced the heavy loads on their heads, and patiently waited to scamper around those who struggled up the constricted trail.
Occasionally, porters would have to push their cargo up on a higher boulder as they labored upwards. A few guides had to gently coax clients over obstacles. One German woman of a certain age was pale with fright. “Pole, pole (poe-lay, poe-lay) Mother.” her guide gently encouraged with the Swahili phrase meaning slowly, slowly. “Don’t look down, don’t let go.”
To accelerate our adaptation to the increasing altitude, each day’s hike included a section that
was at a higher elevation than where we would stay that night. In addition, after we arrived at camp, snacked and then rested a few hours, we took an afternoon stroll upward another 500 feet or so and sat for about 30 minutes before returning to our site.
Adonis accompanied us on these acclimatizing walks and we learned a lot about our 54-year-old assistant guide. He had worked the mountain since 1984, first as a porter, then as a cook and now as a guide. He also trained new guides, and there was little he didn’t know about Kilimanjaro. Although slightly built, neither his energy nor attitude ever flagged. His success as a guide provided upward mobility for his family. One son was studying to become a doctor and a daughter had finished her university courses and was now a teacher.
Crews are as susceptible to AMS as the trekkers and the mountain began to take its toll. One of
the biggest and strongest-looking porters developed high altitude pulmonary edema. Unable to carry his load, he now became the cargo of the guides of his group. The antidote to the life-threatening sickness is a quick descent, but at this stage of the climb, the fastest and safest way down was to go up a few hundred feet to the next valley and follow a trail that quickly descends the mountain. Porters don’t come along on the final summit push, so their top elevation is around 15,000 feet, but they certainly do the brunt of the work until that point.
I had the notion that a porter’s job got easier each day as weight loads diminished as we consumed each day’s food. I was wrong.
When we reached the camp at the Karanga Valley, I noticed that there was now a stream of porters carrying water jugs up toward the next and final campsite before the final ascent. This valley is the last place to get water, present there as runoff from Kibo’s glaciers. Porters are paid a bonus to schlep 20-liter containers four hours up to the next site. While this labor is considered voluntary, I got the feeling it was a task impossible for them to refuse. The three porters in my group that took on the job seemed to do so gladly. Considering that porters get paid less than $10 per day and maybe work just one weeklong trip a month, the extra pay was welcomed.
We began the penultimate hike of Kilimanjaro early on a Friday morning and followed an
undulating trail up through a Martian-like landscape of reddish scree, void of vegetation. We could see the town of Moshi below us, but my eyes were constantly drawn upward toward the journey’s ultimate challenge. We arrived at the Barafu Hut station before noon, anxiously anticipating the final push upwards. At around 15,000 feet, even our resting breaths were deep as our lungs pulled whatever oxygen it could out of thin air. Some 30 percent of trekkers who attempt to summit fail and it was impossible for either Judith or I not to wonder if that would be our fates.
Judith, from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, reiterated her purpose for being on the mountain. “I like to be outdoors, I like to hike. I love Africa,” she said. She had previously spent considerable time in Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania. “Climbing Kilimanjaro just seems natural.”
Despite being the being the senior member of our mob and the smallest of us all, her hiking prowess so impressed the crew they nicknamed her simba jike (dgee-key), “lion woman.”
Our head guide, William, reminded us that after lunch we had to rest before we began our midnight assault of the peak. But first, our stomach engineer prepared a carb- and fluid-laden lunch designed to fuel up our depleted systems. We then caught what catnaps we could before being summoned for a light dinner around 6 p.m. As the evening’s light diminished, the winds picked up, rattling tents and adding dread to the now-imminent task.
At 11:15 p.m. we began the final preparation for our midnight ramble, adding layers, packing snacks and water, and attempting to keep our packs as light as possible while carrying everything we deemed as essential. It was the night before the full moon and there was no need to turn on our headlamps as the four of us began the final ascent.
We were not the first group to set out. The trail up the slope was already snaked with the lights of those in front who chose to illuminate what was already obvious. “Pole, pole” was the constant mantra of both William and Adonis, serving as a reminder for us to go at an easy pace. So it started, one step accompanied by one deep breath and nearly a mile in elevation to ascend.
Our slow pace was quicker than the others, and group by group we gradually overtook those in front. Resting briefly several times, first to add wind protection, then to have a snack or drink water, our guides checked to see how we were doing. Judith and I each echoed a Swahili response, “Hakuna matata,” no problem.
It might have been a little bit of a lie. Later, Judith recalled, “While I’ve done things that took more nerve, nothing else was ever so difficult.”
As an Alaskan, I can be comfortable in the cold. But after hours of climbing rocks and loose
scree with the temperature around 10 degrees, with whipping winds and a dearth of oxygen, there was no pleasure in the struggle to get to the top. Before first light, we arrived at Stella Point, the beginning of the summit’s sloping plateau. After a very short rest, we continued on, not wanting to break our momentum. Forty-five minutes later we were under the sign marking the apex, aptly named Uhuru, Swahili for freedom.
Without it ever being our goal or intention, we were the first to the summit by well over 20 minutes. It took nearly all of that time for fingers and cameras to work well enough to record the event before the masses arrived. With an average age of 61, our summit celebration was a minor victory for seniors. One of the trekkers arriving soon after was an Australian who had come to attempt to summit on his 60th birthday. It was a pleasure to offer congratulations to him.
By leaving Barafu at midnight, we were now able to witness sunrise over Mawenzi, a spiky volcanic peak some miles to the east. The growing daylight began to warm us as it revealed the glaciers on the south side of Kilimanjaro, still massive but receding rapidly.
Rather than linger with the growing crowd on top, we began our descent. It was surprisingly quick and easy, similar to coming off of the top of Seward’s Mount Marathon. With bounding leaps in the pebble-sized scree, we nearly flew down the upper slope. We arrived back at Barafu Hut before 9 a.m. and were greeted by our porters who then performed a celebratory song and danced for us. After an hour’s rest and a hot brunch, our guides proposed that we again deviate from the scheduled plan. Rather than hike down three more hours to the next camp and spend that evening in tents, they suggested that we walk an additional three or four hours to the ranger station and get back to Moshi. A hot shower and a beer were my first thoughts about the idea. My sleeping pad had a slow leak and rather than try to sleep another night on rocks, I was convinced. Judith graciously, if not reluctantly, agreed.
The walk out proved more painful than the morning’s climb to the summit. While not
excessively steep, the descent being similar to Fuller Lakes Trail, the 10 miles and 9,000 feet of elevation loss was not kind to older knees, especially after our early morning summit. To keep our minds off of the growing misery, the normally laconic William began to open up by telling us what it was like to become and then be a successful guide. Bearing in mind that English is his third language and that he also knows a smattering of French and German, he described the process and responsibilities.
“Guide school, difficult. Ten enter, only three complete. There are no new jobs for 10, so that is why. One year training. I know plants, trees and flowers and birds here. I know medicine and signs of mountain sickness. On the mountain, I am for all. I must make people happy and take them top to bottom. I must be sure food is right. I must be sure porters do right and are OK. I must be sure enough garbage is off the mountain or I get a fine. If something is wrong, it is because of me.”
When I asked him if he liked the work, his stoicism returned with a more typical one-word
Like the porters, guides at most do one trip up the mountain every month. Like the porters, they are paid very little for their work and the responsibilities that they have. The crew’s meager wages are supplemented by tips. If you do plan to attempt Kilamanjaro, consider budgeting generously for gratuities.
I wasn’t convinced that leaving the mountain a day early was for the best until I took a long swig of a Kilimanjaro-brand beer back at the Bristol Cottages. The 10 hours sleep I had that night helped soothe my achy knees. As I tested my legs walking to dinner that next day, there was a small degree of satisfaction looking up at the mountaintop and thinking, Hakuna matata.