“Pole Pole.” Slowly, slowly. Life moves with no rush, the sun rising and setting with a relaxing flow. The world’s largest free-standing mountain looming above.
This adventure was different from all others. A foreign continent, red from its iron rich soil; a foreign language spoken, erecting a roadblock on communication; and a unique mountain, standing alone above savannah and lush jungle.
|| Day 0 – May 11, 2018||
Miami –> Istanbul –> Zanzibar –> Kilimanjaro
Africa is different; that really is the simplest way of putting it.
It’s crazy to think that “day zero” is really 3 days; my body definitely agrees. Our flight ended up leaving Miami in the early morning hours of Saturday en route to Turkey.
Sleep is normally hard to come by for me on planes. This time, however, was more fortunate. Using Dad’s lap as a pillow, I rested my head on our initial leg. On our brief layover in Turkey, Dad tried some Turkish coffee, which was quite entertaining (both because of the coffee maker who photobombed Dad and Dad drinking the grounds).
Onto Africa! On a nearly half-full plane we travelled to Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania (not where I thought it was). Time moved much slower in Africa, as the pace of life took a huge step backwards.
At long last we made it to Kilimanjaro, with appropriate rain falling at our entry. The smell of Africa was noticeably different, reminding us of our exotic location.
Gibson, a representative from the Key’s Hotel, met us at the airport and shuttled us to Moshi. Along the drive we were witness to the poverty of Africa, with homes made of scrap materials and people walking for miles with sacks and other heavy items on their heads.
We were given a grand welcome to the Key’s Hotel, nestled into the town of Moshi. Hotel staff slugged our bags up the stairs for us, and immediately we went to sleep in the refuge of our mosquito nets.
Tomorrow we will begin from the Lemosho Glades, and up the mountain we will go!
|| Day 1 – May 14, 2018 ||
Lemosho Gate –> Mti Mkubwa Camp (9,602′)
2.7 miles; 1398′ climbed
Sleeping so much yesterday left some restless hours early this morning. Rain poured down nearly all night long, reminding us of rainy season.
As the sun rose we headed down for breakfast, seemingly the only ones there. We were initially treated to some tea and coffee, and then feasted with spanish eggs and potatoes.
With food in our bellies we packed up and were ready to hit the road. An entire van full of porters followed our 4×4 as we headed to the Londorossi Gate.
The drive in the 4×4 gave us a genuine view of the Tanzanian countryside. Motorcycles, corn fields, and Tanzanians walking for miles were constant sights.
We stopped in a local town for a “grub stop,” as our guides and porters filed in line for soup and barbeque.
Road turned to hard packed ground as we kept on our journey. As we inched further into the countryside we met more and more farmers, and motorcycles with bundles of wood strapped behind.
At Londorossi we waited for porters so we could weigh their carrying amounts. By Tanzanian law, porters are not allowed to carry more than 20 kg each. (yet that is in addition to their own packs!)
Back on the road we went, to the Lemosho Gate, as we prepared to begin the climb. An armed guard with an AK-47 met us and checked for our permit. After taking some photos and loading up, we were off!
“Pole pole” means slowly slowly, and that’s exactly how fast we went. The first day on the Lemosho up to Mti Mkubwa is short, only 3 km. The trail is hard-packed mud, surrounded by dense forest. My slow pace seemed lightspeed for our group, likely due to hauling 20 kg on their heads!
Up at Mti Mkubwa camp we set up our base camp. There are huts for the rangers, who make 10-day rotations on the mountain, as medical and rescue crew.
The camp they set up for us was nothing short of luxury. A mess tent with a table and chairs just for ourselves, with a separate cooking tent for the porters. I honestly prefer the more modest set up, sitting and writing this on the ground overlooking our camp.
Our first course: tea and popcorn prepared by chef Jeff. And it just kept coming after that. Next up, banana soup. And finally, peppered beef with fried potatoes, salad, and a vegetable sauce. It is no exaggeration to say that we are being waited on like royalty.
The final wrinkle to the day came at 2 AM when Dad woke up to his first bout of diarrhea. Uh-oh!
|| Day 2, May 15, 2018 ||
Mti Mkubwa Camp → Shira I Camp → Shira II Camp
9.9 miles; 4000’ climbed
Long days make for BIG memories!
We woke to the shrill of monkeys, reminding us of our camp in the jungle. The jokers would snatch away food in a heartbeat!
Up, up, and out of Mti Mkubwa camp we went on our way to Shira II camp. Dad’s lack of sleep last night did not help his pace, as we continued “pole pole.”
In and out of the rain we continued, unsure if we should keep our rain layers on or off. We settled for numerous de-layering breaks, not wishing to drown in our own sweat.
By mid-morning we exited the jungle and entered the moorlands, with low shrubbery. My eyes would wander from horizon to horizon as we continued to trek above the Shira plateau.
By lunch we had made it to the Shira I camp, the normal camping location for an 8 day itinerary. We stopped for a brief rest, lunching on grub, and got a brief escape from the rain.
The Shira Plateau reminds me of parts of Iceland, with it’s volcanic rocks and crater shape. It was an odd feeling walking across, a hybrid between a savannah and moonscape, yet at 12,000’!
The steeper grade of the morning gave way to more gradual slope in the afternoon, as we finished the last 10 km up to Shira II camp. I took one good stretch to put on “Sam speed” up to the camp, letting my legs run loose a bit.
Collince and I reached camp before sunset, allowing me to dial Mom on the SAT phone and take in the orange glow before Dad made it up.
At Shira II camp we got our first glimpse of Kibo, covered in snow and towering above, reminding us of the distance still to cover.
In my experience, I have found that adventure often follows mis-adventure.
After a long day, it was hard for Dad to work up the energy to eat and drink, resting in his tent while food was prepared. Once our meal was served, Kassim watched over us like a parent, monitoring Dad’s progress a bit awkwardly.
Finally, POP! Without much warning he made a mess of our mess tent, spilling dinner everywhere.
At first it was hard to hold back brief laughter, mostly at how unexpected it was. It was even funnier when he remarked, “I feel much better now!”
Hopefully this purge will serve him well as we climb higher tomorrow!
|| Day 3, May 16, 2018 ||
Shira II Camp → Lava Tower → Barranco Camp
6.7 miles; 2362’ climbed
This morning we woke to Kibo in full glory, her snow capped peak looming above. After the clouds gave way, the mountain towered above, transporting us to more of a Himalayan landscape than tropical jungle.
Dad’s surprises continue, as his breakfast gave an encore, again! After some rest and needed sleep we believed his troubles to be over. NO! Trying to swallow his Diamox pill made him vomit, losing his meal with it.
Our morning climb took us up above 15,000’ to the Lava Tower, at 15,209’. It was quite a rewarding feeling to set a new highest elevation, as we passed over Mt. Whitney’s elevation. From here on every step higher will be a new record!
The afternoon descent down from the Lava Tower reminded me how much I prefer climbing to descending. My knees screeched with each step down, gravity only pushing me harder with each leap.
We arrived to camp quite early, and my ambitions nature yearned for more climbing.
|| Day 4, May 17, 2018 ||
Barranco Camp → Barranco Wall → Karanga Camp
3.2 miles; 1509’ climbed
A bit of a restless night last night, as I woke to Dad’s extremely loud breathing for hours. At around 4:30 AM I was again able to fall back asleep.
After our breakfast we headed up the Barranco Wall, a nearly vertical section requiring extensive scrambling for approximately ¾ mile. On all fours I chuckled at times at the slope, having a great adventure!
We kept on pushing towards Karanga Camp, only a short “chip shot” from Barranco. Down, up, down, up. On the way we passed through some incredible foliage, drooping vines and the unique Kilimanjaro cotton trees.
Just below our final climb to camp Collince noted our LAST water source! Up to Barafu and for the summit day our porters will need to carry all our water, in addition to their loads!
We arrived into camp very early today, allowing for acclimatization at 13,000’! A heavy lunch knocked me out for an afternoon nap.
Dad and I stayed up late chatting about life for a while, retiring to our sleeping bags when the cold beat us.
Up to Barafu tomorrow for rest and a summit!
|| Day 5, May 18, 2018 ||
Karanga Camp → Barafu Camp
2.1 miles; 2054’ climbed
What a great start to the day! An absolutely stunning alpine sunrise above the clouds, with Kibo standing high above unobstructed.
The short distance for the day allowed for plenty of time for photo stops, especially a spectacular one atop a boulder. Above the clouds, I felt as if I was flying.
Climbing up to Barafu, we began to encounter more groups, as the routes on the mountain converged. Kassim and Collince noted how in high season groups can easily reach 100! Crazy to think of the crowding that comes then, as now we still have some degree of ownership of the mountain.
Mountaineering is a sleep-intensive sport. Climb, sleep, climb, sleep. It appears fairly rhythmic, an enjoyable one. “Acclimatizing” is another word for nap.
Preparing for our summit tomorrow has many thoughts running through my head: everything that got me here, the people supporting me, the memories to create, the stories to tell. This night will be filled with excitement, with a summit dance to celebrate!
|| Day 6, May 19, 2018 ||
Barafu Camp → Uhuru Peak (19,341’) → Barafu Camp → Mweka Camp
11 miles; 3898’ climbed
A legendary day!
The “day” really started yesterday, as Dad’s summit bid began at the change of the days.
The night was mostly sleepless, as my anticipation and excitement for all that was ahead kept my mental motor going. I would toss and turn, and take intermediate breaks to snack and distract myself, but all to no avail.
In my semi-awake state I heard the other groups head out for the summit as I waited. Because of my pace, Kassim delayed my start by 2 hours, giving me even more time to lie awake!
As the clock ticked closer to 1:30 AM, I got out my music and began to jam out, hyping myself up.
Out I went as soon as the clock struck, to a pre-summit “breakfast” of popcorn and nuts, which I probably burned off just chewing.
Collince managed to keep me at bay until around 2:15 AM, and then we were off! With headlamps illuminating the way, we scrambled over rocks as we set out, determined to reach the others before the summit.
Our pace constant, we both were in hyperdrive, accelerated by the drama of the night hike. After an half hour or so we began to hit icy snow on our way up, and my mountaineering footwork began to engage.
Resting only briefly for a snack break, as the popped corn did not suffice for energy, we caught up with Kassim and Dad in just around 2 hours! (most likely a combination of our pace and theirs)
While Collince and I’s pace kept my body’s internal heat pump at full blast, once we caught Kassim and Dad and matched their pace, that heat pump turned to a refrigerator. The 1-2-step froze my toes and fingers, and made me restless for the summit.
The altitude was clearly affecting Dad in a significant way. Once over 17,500’, he began to notice a headache and nausea developing. To my surprise, and pleasantly so, my body adapted incredibly well to the thin air, showing no signs of slowing. This, however, did not mix well with the group’s pace. To warm myself, I would climb up a ways, and then pace back and forth and jump in place to retain body heat.
It took 2 hours for Collince and I to intercept Kassim and Dad around 0.2 miles before Stella Point, the entrance to Kibo crater. We crawled those 0.2 miles up, as the sun began to peak it’s head above the clouds. Once we hit 18,000’, I knew in my head that the summit was within reach. Dad was not so sure. He recounted later that there was a brief second during which he doubted his ability to crest Africa. Kassim coached him up to Stella Point, from where our goal was within sight.
The moment reaching Stella Point was equivalent for me to reaching Forester Pass on the JMT. With Uhuru Peak in sight, my mind and body knew at that moment that we had achieved our goal, even if we hadn’t touched the top yet.
I wanted to race to the top, but realized the value in taking those final steps together with the group. Realizing there was no need for speed, I enjoyed our victory stroll to the top of Africa.
Staring down the sign I had seen so many times in pictures, it hit me what I had accomplished. Taking those final steps and tapping the sign with Dad, I let out a victory cry that could be heard for miles.
After hugging Dad and rejoicing with Kassim and Collince, I realized this moment would not be possible without certain people in my life, and I was eager to share it with them. (through a satellite phone)
The cold and wind of the high alpine made the rest of the group anxious to leave, yet I still wanted to capture a few remaining memories. I felt no guilt, however, in keeping them longer than they wished, as it was a special moment.
The hike down changed the dynamic drastically. Climbing up crusty, icy snow is no small task, but completely manageable with proper footwork. Going down with gravity, however, is an entirely different task.
The snow now a soft mush, we glissaded down the icy slope we had climbed up in the early morning hours.
We rested briefly back at basecamp, the altitude and early rise lowering our gas tanks. Little sleep was had, and the time was mostly spent packing lazily.
The final task for the day was descending to Mweka Camp, our final night out on the mountain. For the initial part of the descent I enjoyed walking slowly, taking in the amazing scenery for a last time.
As the miles rolled on, however, I felt in a daze, moving mindlessly down the mountain. I couldn’t quite point to hunger or fatigue, but I was happy to see camp when it finally came. Back into the jungle today! And out to celebrate tomorrow!
|| Day 7, May 20, 2018 ||
Mweka Camp → Mweka Gate → Key’s Hotel
The end of this journey has prompted significant reflection.
The last trek down to Mweka Gate was filled with thought. Rhythmically, I trotted along with Collince and two other porters, yet my mind raced.
What an experience! There were so many memories created, lessons learned, and of course, photos taken.
This trip opened my eyes to the poverty of the third world, driving along unpaved roads down through Mweka. Shanty wood huts as makeshift homes, children walking nearly barefoot.
It opened my eyes to how different our countries are. “Pole pole,” slowly slowly, is how life is. There is no rush. Hospitality is their specialty, and it is respectful to let them treat you.
They all seem to enjoy life. Chatting endlessly, laughing vibrantly, making light of the weight they carry.
The feeling on top of Africa was unbelievable, don’t get me wrong. But I will remember experiencing a small dose of Tanzanian culture much more vividly.