“There’s no doubt the joys of climbing Kili are manifold; unfortunately, so are the ways in which it can destroy you.” — Henry Stedman, Kilimanjaro: The Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain
“… and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.” — Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Prelude to a Major Undertaking
Let’s face it – trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro is not your typical vacation. Standing majestically tall at 19,341ft., Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest “free-standing” mountain (i.e., not part of a mountain range) in the world. So what possessed Nigara and me, no longer spring chickens at the ages of 50 and 48, respectively, to tackle such a daunting challenge and still have the nerve to call it a “vacation”? Believe me, we asked ourselves that question several times during our 7-day trek while we tested the limits of our mental and physical endurance. When you are climbing straight up in the middle of the night in freezing cold temperatures at extreme altitude, every once in a while you think to yourself, “Remind me again why we aren’t sipping frozen drinks at an exotic beach resort instead?”
The seed for this trip was planted immediately after our Machu Picchu trek in December 2011 (see that entry below in this blog). We had never taken a trekking/camping vacation and we were pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable, rewarding, and inspiring it could be. Nigara had a bit of a “runner’s high” immediately after the Machu Picchu trek when she blurted out, “We should do something like this again, only more challenging the next time. Let’s do Mt. Kilimanjaro!” This suggestion wasn’t quite as out of the blue as it may sound. In fact, there were two factors that made Mt. Kilimanjaro a reasonable choice for our next trekking destination. First, we had traveled to Kenya in the summer of 1998 when I taught a course in International Environmental Law at the University of Nairobi Law School. At that time, we had considered doing Mt. Kilimanjaro but we opted for the more “vacation-like” and romantic destination of Zanzibar, which we thoroughly enjoyed. So, Mt. Kili was already on our radar screen well before the Machu Picchu trek. Second, and this factor brought it much closer to home, Alek wanted to train in Kenya’s Rift Valley this summer at the High Altitude Training Center in Iten, Kenya, where elite runners from around the world come to train. So, now trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro seemed like a sensible thing to do under the circumstances. We spent a week with Alek at the training center, where I reaped the benefits of double-session workouts on hills and mud at 8,000 ft., and then Nigara and I left Alek, who stayed at the training center to continue to train with the other runners there, while we traveled to Tanzania to conquer Mt. Kilimanjaro. For a detailed account of our adventures at the High Altitude Training Center, please visit Alek’s running blog, www.faranjiruns.blogspot.com.
But I’m oversimplifying a bit. Trekking Mt. Kili is a big deal. It’s far away (even from Iten, Kenya, it was 10-12 hours away by van), it’s potentially life threatening for a variety of reasons, and it’s incredibly expensive (which comes as a surprise to most people). For all of these reasons, Nigara agonized over whether we should proceed with the plans for Mt. Kili. She tried to talk me into going to Zanzibar again, which would have been much cheaper, safer, and more relaxing. I had to force the issue and insist that we follow through with our plans. This was a potentially “now or never opportunity” for us given how many other destinations in the world are on our “bucket list,” so we ultimately moved forward with our plans for the trek very late in the game (about two months prior to our journey) after debating the idea for months.
Preparation Is the Key to Success
Once we committed to undertake the trek, we resolved to fully prepare ourselves for this challenge. There were two dimensions of preparation: logistical and mental. We were a bit unprepared mentally and logistically for our Machu Picchu trek and we planned to learn from our mistakes. There was really nothing that we needed to do to prepare ourselves for the physical demands of the climb because both of us are well-trained athletes and the surprising reality is that many non-athletes are able to climb Mt. Kili without much trouble, just like many non-athletes are able to walk a marathon in about 7 hours. In fact, even smokers tend to fare well with climbing Mt. Kili because they are well acquainted with functioning on a limited supply of oxygen on a daily basis; therefore, the altitude tends not to affect them as much.
As always, Nigara handled the logistical dimensions of our preparations exceptionally well. She ordered several items for our trek via the Internet, all of which served us very well: warm gloves, hiking books for me, warm clothing “layers” for our tops and bottoms, etc. On the mental preparation side of things, both of us read Henry Stedman’s outstanding guidebook, Kilimanjaro: The Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain, which was extremely informative and refreshingly entertaining. We also both read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which described the author’s adventures as a thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail. Reading Bryson’s informative and humorous account helped put things into perspective – what he endured over several months was much more challenging that what we were about to undertake for one week. Everything is relative, right?
Our final task in preparing for the trek was to choose a trekking company and a route for our trek. There are many, many companies that serve trekkers on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Trekkers are not permitted to climb Mt. Kili on their own. After much deliberation and agonizing, we opted to go with Team Kilimanjaro. Let me say at his point that there are several outstanding trekking companies that could have served our needs as well if not better than Team Kilimanjaro did, and choosing one company from so many options is a somewhat arbitrary calculus of cost, reviews on trip advisor, and just a sense of what the company appears to offer. Ironically, we were attracted by the fact that Team Kilimanjaro offered the opportunity for a “day summit” instead of the typical “all-nighter” trek to the summit that most companies offer. I say “ironic” because we ultimately elected to pursue the “all-nighter” option ourselves once we learned more about the details of what the day summit entailed (two nights of camping after reaching the summit, which we didn’t want).
Our final preparatory task was to choose one of the six routes to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. After much consideration, we opted for the Machame Route, which earned the nickname the “Whiskey Route” because of its difficulty. In fact, it is the second most difficult of the six routes to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It stands in stark contrast to the most popular route, the Marangu Route (also known as the “Coca Cola Route” because of its easy terrain and the fact that trekkers sleep in cozy huts instead of in tents). Would you like HBO in your rooms while you’re at it, lightweights? If Mt. Kili was going to break us mentally and physically, we at least wanted to go down with some pride remaining, so the Machame Route seemed to be a good fit. It also was reputed to be the most scenic of all the routes.
One last planning item was deciding whether this would be a private trek (just the two of us and our crew) or if we would opt to join another group. We had enjoyed the experience of trekking with a group on Machu Picchu, so we thought it would be nice to do this one as a private trek. That decision proved to be a good one for the most part as we drew closer together during our journey and managed not to kill each other during the more stressful moments.
Now we were ready to embark on our challenging 60-kilometer journey (37 miles) over 7 days.
Day 1: Machame Gate to Machame Huts (“A Walk in the Rainforest”)
After meeting with our guide, John, on the previous night to get a brief orientation about what we were about to undertake, the full Team Kilimanjaro crew picked us up at our hotel in Arusha at 8:00 a.m. to start our 2-hour journey from Arusha to Mt. Kili. The full crew consisted of a guide, an assistant guide, a cook, and 9 porters who would carry our provisions up the mountain and set up/break down our camp each day.
We reached the Machame gate and prepared ourselves for our long journey. Trekking poles are a must for this undertaking. We owned one set and we had to rent another set. Another must are gaiters, which are strapped around your calves and attach to your shoes. We each rented a pair of these nifty accessories, which work wonders in keeping the omnipresent dust and mud from the trail off of your pants.
We enjoyed a scenic and pleasant first 75 minutes of trekking before we stopped for lunch. We were told it would be a “light lunch” and they weren’t kidding. It consisted of a few slices of mango, a few mini-bananas the size of my thumb, and two small and stale squares of tea cake to accompany our tea. Nigara and I were a bit taken aback by this lunch after we had seen other trekking companies that day on the trail (companies that cost less than ours because we had researched them on the Internet) serving their clients full hot lunches at nicely appointed banquet tables. What we were served was indeed a light lunch if you were a medium-sized rodent, but for humans I’m afraid that it barely passed as a light snack, especially when you are engaged in rigorous physical exercise all day. Fortunately, Nigara and I had packed some energy bars in our backpacks and that did the trick until dinner. We later learned that our light lunch was a function of some miscommunication among the porters as to where our lunch site would be that day. Things ran much more smoothly from that point forward and we enjoyed nice hot lunches for the rest of our trek.
The trek on Day 1 was a gradual and mostly pleasant incline through a lush rainforest with many exotic flowers. We trekked for 6 hours on Day I before reaching our destination for the day, the Machame huts. Don’t be deceived by the name, though. This was our campsite and we would be sleeping in a tent (not in huts) for the duration of this 7-day trek.
We were pleased with our modest accommodations, though. Our tent and sleeping bags were well-insulated and felt warm (at least for our first night of sleeping anyway). The tent had two compartments – one for sleeping and one for storage and getting organized. We enjoyed a nice candlelit dinner featuring cream of cucumber soup and beef stew.
We were exhausted by the time we finished dinner, after alternately exchanging yawns and smiles at each other throughout our romantic dinner. We were fast asleep by 9:00 and slept soundly until our morning wake-up call at 6:00 a.m. We would maintain this sleeping schedule most nights. Some nights we fell asleep as early as 8:00 p.m. And I was often asleep before Nigara.
Day 1 started at 5,942 ft. and ended at 9, 911 ft. after trekking 11 kilometers.
Day 2: Machame Huts to Shira Camp (“Channel Your Inner Mountain Goat”)
In Stedman’s guidebook and other sources online, Day 2 was described as the shortest and easiest day of the trek. Both of these statements are lies. Our journey on Day 2 took 6 hours (the same duration as Day 1). The sign at our Machame Hut camp said it was 4 hours to Shira Camp. That might be true if you have an outboard motor attached to your butt; however, the rest of us mere mortals need 5-6 hours to complete this stretch of the journey. There were very steep and narrow passage on this segment of our journey that had to be navigated very carefully, often without trekking poles because you needed to use your hands for balance and traction.
Nigara struggled a bit toward the end of this stretch, largely because of low blood sugar for having eaten so little at our 7:00 a.m. breakfast. We were very hungry and cranky for our late lunch at 1:30 (we passed several other tour groups that had stopped for lunch at 12:00). After consuming fried fish, grilled cheese sandwiches, and cream of carrot soup, we felt much better and ready for a nap.
The remainder of our “short” day included a 1-hour “acclimatization walk” at 5:00 to a nearby ledge for some nice views, followed by dinner at 6:00, and then to bed by 8:00.
As we settled in for the night at Shira Camp, we heard these strange sounds immediately above our tent that sounded like people were having a catch with a large boomerang at our camp site. We later learned that this loud “woo-woo-wooshing” sound was the almost-mechanical sound of the slow-flapping wings of ravens, which are among the few species that live this high up the mountain.
Day 2 started at 9,991 ft. and ended at 12,595 ft. after trekking 7 kilometers.
Acclimatizing to Altitude: The Double-Edged Sword of Diamox and the “Pole Pole” Mantra
I want to briefly digress here to stress what makes climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro so challenging compared to other hikes you may undertake at home. It’s all about the altitude. There are two principal coping mechanisms to combat the low-oxygen reality of trekking at altitude. The first is to monitor your pace very carefully. The word for “slowly” in Kiswahili is “Pole Pole” (pronounced Po-lay, Po-lay). “Pole Pole” is the name of the game when trekking Mt. Kili. You would be amazed how slow the pace is when climbing this mountain. It’s so slow that if we had placed our arms out in front of us parallel to the ground, we would look like we had just escaped from the set of a zombie flick. You must proceed at a “Pole Pole” pace to ensure that you are processing an adequate supply of oxygen for your lungs and brain and to avoid the perils of dehydration.
Directly related to the need for “pole pole pacing” is the wonder drug for altitude trekkers: Diamox. Altitude sickness is serious business. Our guides were well trained in evaluating the warning signs of altitude sickness and engaging in early intervention measures to ensure trekkers’ safety. Diamox helps prevent/diminish the debilitating symptoms of altitude sickness – severe headaches, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, lightheadedness and dizziness, pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, unresponsiveness, and–perhaps most horrifying of all—skin that turns blue. So, the guides are under strict orders that if any of their trekkers start to resemble Papa Smurf, they must be evacuated immediately. Needless to say, altitude sickness is nothing to be trifled with – apart from spoiling your vacation, altitude sickness could cause you to become seriously ill and die. So, it’s a no-brainer to take Diamox as directed and avoid that potentially gloomy fate, right? Yet some trekkers don’t take it … and for good reason.
Like all drugs, Diamox is not without its annoying side effects. The principal side effect is frequent (and I mean FREQUENT) urination. While this may seem like a harmless and tolerable side effect, let’s probe a little deeper, shall we? When I say frequent urination, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had to stop to pee every 20-30 minutes on every day of our trek, thanks to Diamox. Again, this seems like a mere annoyance, but there are two related impacts that are worth noting. First, by peeing so often, you run the risk of dehydration and, worse still, dehydration is one of the chief precursors of altitude sickness! So, you have to monitor your water intake very carefully. We needed to consume 5-6 liters of water every day because we would pee away about 2/3 of that water due to Diamox. And that’s occurring in cold to very cold temps, so we were lucky not to have to worry about excessive sweating to compound the dehydration dilemma (sweating-induced dehydration got the best of me on Day 1 of our Machu Picchu trek). The second problem related to frequent urination is that it’s freakin’ cold out there! The more you have to pee, the longer you are exposed to the harsh elements. It’s a small miracle that all parts of my anatomy are still intact after that week-long parade of indecent exposure in frigid temperatures.
Day 3: Shira Camp to Barranco Camp (“A Tale of Two Halves of Our Day”)
If Day 2 helped prepare us for some of the steep and treacherous inclines that we would face during our assault on the summit on Day 6, Day 3 also had value in preparing us for the mental endurance necessary for summit day.
The first half of Day 3 was eternally long and mind-numbingly dull as we trudged up and down in a desolate lunar landscape of rock and dust. We had a nice lunch under the impressive Lava Tower landmark. Lunch was served in frigid and windy temperatures (unusually cool even for this altitude on Kili – just our luck). Shivering through a body-numbing lunch and enduring the mind-numbing morning climb helped build our mental toughness for Day 6.
But Day 3 was only half over. After lunch, things changed for the better. First, the terrain changed in that our afternoon would be spent almost exclusively on a steep descent to Barranco Camp. This was also good mental prep for Day 6 because it required focus and agility to avoid falling, which would come in handy in our ascent to and descent from Uhuru Peak on Day 6. In addition, the temperature rose, the wind died down, the sun came out, and we were treated to glorious vistas of Kibo (the summit). Nigara snapped several nice pictures and chirped, “This is my favorite part of the whole trek,” on the same day that she had moaned that morning, “This is so mind-numbing.” The only thing that’s certain when trekking Mt. Kili is that you never know what you’re going to get (like Forrest Gump once said in likening life to a box of chocolates).
Day 3 started at 12,595 ft. and ended at 13,077 ft. after trekking 11 kilometers. There were several ups and downs on this segment.
Day 4: Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp (“A Rollercoaster of Challenges”)
On Day 4, I began to unravel. The day didn’t start well as I awoke with a severe case of dizziness. I tried to walk outside the tent and stumbled around like a drunk. I was scared and concerned. Fate had thrown a cruel curve ball. On the day that we would tackle some of the most steep and treacherous ascents and descents of our entire journey, I was going to have to tackle those with a case of vertigo. As you may recall, dizziness is a symptom of altitude sickness and it had picked the worst day to pay a visit. Over my objection, Nigara force fed me a large dose of Diamox to combat this troubling symptom. The small dose of Diamox already had me peeing like a fire hydrant. I worried that this larger dose might make me incapacitated.
The Barranco Wall: Agoraphobes and Claustrophobes Should Stay in Bed
The Barranco Wall is well known for the challenges it poses to trekkers. A straight up ascent along a treacherous path of narrow passages along a cliff is enough to make agoraphobes and claustrophobes (like me) want to cry. At several points during our two-hour climb up the Barranco Wall, I felt like I was tip-toeing along a window ledge on the 25th floor of a skyscraper. Mind you, now I had to conquer these challenges with an extra dose of concentration—making sure that my dizziness didn’t play tricks on me while executing these death-defying maneuvers. Somehow I managed to get through the Barranco Wall and its traps.
One of the most well-known of its hazards is the famed “kissing rock,” which requires trekkers to snuggle up body and face with a boulder, which makes you look like you are engaged in a passionate embrace with a rock (kind of like geology’s version of a tree hugger). There was a guide on the other side of this perilous tightrope walk who guided and pulled us to safety.
Smooching with the “Kissing Rock.” Pucker up!
A Sense of Relief at the Top of Barranco Wall
After reaching the top of the Barranco Wall, the second half of day four was challenging in its tedium. Lots of ups and downs through the Karanga Valley on our way to Barafu Camp proved to be a bit monotonous and challenging at times. Nigara brought her iPod with her to combat the boredom and she told me it helped a great deal. I always used my iPod on my long runs back home (which were about 2 hours), so why wouldn’t I use the iPod to help overcome the tedium of a four-hour trek? Nigara insisted that I borrow her iPod, which I finally did, and my mood improved immediately with head bobbing and lip syncing. Her play list had an eclectic mix of some of my favorite bands from the ‘70’s and ‘80s (including some tracks from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” which was particularly well suited for this desolate lunar landscape) and some more modern selections from Alek’s playlist (Radiohead, The Strokes, etc.)
We finally reached Barafu Camp late in the afternoon, which was a cold and forbidding place that looked like an earthquake had hit it recently. There were fragmented lava rocks strewn throughout the camp site, which sounded like broken glass when we walked over them, and the place had the depressing air of a concentration camp. The howling, freezing cold winds made it even less welcoming. It was nothing short of a crying shame that we had to spend two nights here. The dark side of the moon surely was better suited for camping than this grim place.
These were some of the nicer toilets on our journey
Day 4 started at 13,077 ft. and ended at 15,200 ft. after trekking 13 kilometers. There were several ups and downs in this segment.
Day 5: Acclimatization Walk to Kosovo Camp (“Preparing for the Main Event”)
After a miserable night of sleeping in the freezer section that featured sub-zero Celsius temperatures and fierce winds, we were relieved to see that the day warmed up nicely by the time we began our acclimatization walk at 9:00 a.m. It was so “warm” that we only had to wear three layers of clothing instead of five layers like we had the night before. But our fatigue from the previous day served us well. Even in the inhospitable conditions at Barafu Camp, we slept for a full 7-8 hours. That would not be the case tonight, however.
Our “walk” was a steep climb to Kosovo Camp, which was about the first 20% of our long journey that would begin at 11 p.m. later that day – the all-nighter ascent to the summit. Only this walk was a mere “training run,” like previewing the course on the day before you run a marathon. But in our case, we weren’t previewing a course by car—we were actually doing the hard work of climbing up to Kosovo Camp and then back down to Barafu Camp in this 2-hour outing. While it was good to get a glimpse of part of what was in store and see that we show any signs of altitude sickness in the process, it was depressing and frustrating to put that extra mileage on our weary legs only to have to do it all over again later that evening (anybody read “The Myth of Sisyphus”? – if so, you understand what I mean).
The rest of the day was spent relaxing and getting ready. We gathered all of the many layers of clothing, gear, and accessories that we would need for the ascent. The list was dauntingly long: summit jacket (very warm), headlamp, hat, balaclava (a facemask that is popular with bank robbers and always gets me in the mood for a nice piece of baklava whenever I hear the word), several inner layers on top and bottom, (fleeces, tech shirts, tights, etc.), glove liners, gloves, two pairs of socks (four pairs if your name is Nigara), gaiters, rugged summit boots, power bars, medications bag, water, and of course, Diamox. We had an early dinner at 5:00 and then we were sent to bed at 6:00. The plan was to sleep for at least three hours before our 10:00 p.m. wake-up call and 11:00 p.m. start of the ascent up “Mt. Kill Ya Tomorrow.” But thanks to the frigid howling winds at Barafu Camp, coupled with our nervous anticipation of what was in store for us, we didn’t sleep a wink. That fatigue was yet another challenge we would have to confront in our assault on the summit.
Day 6: Barafu Camp up to Summit and down to Mweka Camp (“It’s Kili Time!”)
The slogan, “It’s Kili Time!” is for Kilimanjaro Beer, brewed and bottled in Tanzania. This slogan sounds disturbingly similar to the “Now it’s Miller Time” slogan of Miller Beer, brewed and bottled in the U.S., don’t you think?
Well, our date with destiny had finally arrived. We were about to tackle the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We could finally put all the hype and urban legend surrounding this experience behind us and experience it firsthand. In his excellent Mt. Kilimanjaro guidebook, Henry Stedman describes the summit ascent in these words:
“In my opinion, this is the hardest part of the climb, when the cold insinuates itself between the layers of your clothes, penetrating your skin, chilling your bones, and numbing the marrow until finally, inevitably, it seems to freeze your very soul. The situation seems desperate at this hour and you can do nothing, nothing except keep going.”
This quote effectively sets the stage for the gut-wrenching drama that we were about to encounter on Day 6, but nothing can fully capture what we experienced other than what I am about to write. The challenges involved in the assault on Kibo (the summit of Mt. Kili) are multifarious. First, not surprisingly, is the cold and forbidding weather. We are from Florida, where anything below 60 degrees Fahrenheit is considered chilly. The assault on the summit features temperatures well below -10 degrees Celsius and the wind chill makes it even more miserable. Second is the altitude. This is the wildcard of the whole experience. You just don’t know how your body will respond (i.e., will you develop altitude sickness symptoms?) until you reach a certain altitude. All we knew is that Nigara and I had essentially dodged the altitude sickness bullet up to this point at 15,000 ft., but we were about to climb another 4,000 ft. on summit day— a whole new ballgame. The third challenge is the sheer duration of summit day—17 hours of trekking in all, including descending several thousand feet after reaching the summit. A very full day of challenges, right? But wait –there’s more. The fourth and perhaps most daunting of all the challenges is that we were to conquer these challenges on no sleep. A full-blown all nighter. Most people struggle to function properly in an all nighter when they are doing activities that are far less demanding than what we were about to undertake, like studying for an exam or driving. How about climbing the steep and frigid slopes of Africa’s highest mountain as the focus of your all-night adventure? It goes without saying at this point that summit day was certainly the most physically demanding day of our lives, if not the most taxing on our spirits as well.
Our “day” began at 11:00 p.m. It was comforting to see that we were not alone in this seemingly insane undertaking. Many others were getting ready to embark on this adventure with us and face all of these daunting challenges. Remarkably, approximately 30,000 people climb Mt. Kili every year; however, about two-thirds of those trekkers use routes that are less challenging than ours prior to summit day. But all roads lead to a base camp and cresting the summit is extremely difficult regardless of which route you have selected for your Mt. Kili trek. Our legs had endured a bit more punishment than the legs of those who had opted for one of the easier routes, but summit day is a grand buffet of mental and physical challenges for all trekkers. You simply haven’t earned your “stripes” (i.e., your summit certificate) until you conquer it.
The beginning of our assault on the summit began like all of the preceding days—slowly but surely. Two things were different today, however. First, it was pitch dark and our walk was illuminated by a breathtaking starlit sky unlike anything I had seen before back home in nature or in a planetarium. Our immediate path was illuminated by our headlamps, and there were dozens of trekkers ahead of us and behind us in a long and winding headlamp procession. It was like a candlelight vigil of sorts or like Halloween with everyone dressed us as headlamp-bearing Arctic expedition explorers. The second new dimension for today’s trek was its length and difficulty. We would trek for a total of 17 hours today on unrelenting steep terrain (up and down). Generally, I don’t even want to do anything that feels good for 17 hours, let alone something that pushes the limits of my mental and physical tolerance with every step.
The first stage of the summit ascent was familiar, albeit difficult. It was the same stretch from Barafu Camp to Kosovo Camp. It was more challenging in the dark because it involved some delicate tip-toeing up sheer boulder-faced slopes. When we passed Kosovo Camp, we were only about one-fifth of the way to Stella Point (the initial summit), but still feeling fine and drinking plenty of water.
Things started to unravel a bit about halfway to Stella Point. Nigara started to develop a moderate altitude-related headache, similar to the one she had experienced two days earlier. She immediately took one Tylenol and continued to press on. By that point, I had been taking frequent Diamox-induced bathroom breaks and was struggling to intake as much water as I was expelling. Let me assure you that drinking ice cold water in frigid temperatures is not too pleasant. I started to feel very weak from dehydration and low blood sugar. We only had a small bowl of porridge for breakfast and that was already a few hours ago. I quickly downed a liter of Gatorade and began to consume a Power Bar. The temperature was so frigid that the Power Bar was frozen. I tried to bite it and almost required emergency dental care for my effort. I was able to gnaw and nibble about half of the bar with some considerable effort, like a dog wrestling a shoe in its mouth, and then we proceeded on our way. Nigara shared her iPod with me and that provided a welcome added boost. By this point in the trek, we already started to see some people giving up and turning around to head for the refuge of Barafu Camp instead of probing deeper into the unknown toward Stella Point.
At about two-thirds of the way to Stella Point, things became more stressful. Nigara had multiple layers of socks on and yet her toes were still uncomfortably numb. Worse still, her headache had not improved. In fact, it had become more severe. She took another Tylenol and we monitored her situation carefully. We both knew that the only way that we wouldn’t reach the summit would be if we were overcome by altitude-related ailments and our health would be in jeopardy if we pressed on. And now it looked like Nigara was on her way to develop altitude sickness. She had a deep throbbing headache that would have sent most people straight to bed, but she persevered like a prize fighter. When we were within an hour of Stella Point, her headache still hadn’t improved. John brought out the heavy artillery at this point—four small orange pills. I asked him what they were and he spewed out a long pharmaceutical word that I could never repeat even if my life depended on it. Nigara took the pills (we were desperate—did we really have a choice?) and we trusted John that he wasn’t feeding Nigara speed or morphine. Nigara started to feel better, but she still struggled from the headache and the thin air. I was so focused on ensuring Nigara’s safety that I failed to monitor my own condition, and that would come back to haunt me later in our journey.
The last 20 minutes to Stella Point were miserable—extremely steep and slippery because of the loose rock underfoot (known as “scree”). The finish line at the top of the ridge seemed to retreat with every step we took. Nigara struggled mightily like a combat warrior with every step until she paused two times and bent over. I felt a sense of dread because she looked like she was about to vomit (another symptom of altitude sickness). But she was just trying to muster the strength and oxygen necessary to complete the last 100 yards. I had nightmarish images of marathon runners who collapse within spitting distance of the finish and cannot continue. But Nigara pulled through like a trooper and we held a long and teary embrace at the sign for Stella Point and then triumphantly posed for pictures.
Climbing to Uhuru Peak: “My Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”
One of my favorite offbeat hits from the ‘80s comes in handy here to describe our uphill climb to Uhuru Peak. We were now surrounded by snow and glaciers on all sides. You have already heard of the myriad ways that Kili can destroy you. Well, add one more to that list – snowblindness. The bright sun beating down on the white terrain is hard on the eyes, so sunglasses are more than just a fashion statement up here – they are an essential piece of equipment to ensure a safe journey.
I would have been happy to turn around after reaching Stella Point. Reaching Stella Point is a big deal and you get a certificate for reaching that point. In addition to being worried about Nigara’s ability to proceed to Uhuru Peak (the highest point on the mountain which involved another hour of uphill trekking and more potential altitude-related problems), I was also beginning to become aware of how spent I felt. Our guides were eager to proceed immediately to Uhuru Peak. I wasn’t ready and should have insisted on more rest. But we proceeded anyway because we were on a mission and we needed to close the deal and descend as quickly as possible.
The weather is unpredictable and harsh at the summit. Just two days prior to our ascent, there was a severe snow storm with temps at -40 Celsius with the wind chill. So, the unfortunate reality is that reaching Uhuru Peak is a bit of a drive-thru window experience because of the ominous weather threats and altitude-related ailments.
One of those altitude-related ailments was about to hit me between the eyes—lightheadedness and dizziness—like I had experienced two days before. Our walk to Uhuru was very difficult. With every step, I felt a “I need to stop now” sense of exhaustion setting in, but I continued to trudge ahead. My breathing became ragged. Nigara noticed that I was struggling and encouraged me to keep moving with some “We’re almost there” urgings. After running 22 marathons and 28 half marathons in the past two deacdes, my least favorite phrase of encouragement is “You’re almost there!”
By the time we were within 20 minutes of Uhuru Peak, I was flying on nothing but adrenaline fumes and stubborn determination. I felt miserable, much worse than my worse marathon meltdowns when I ended up in the medical tent after the race. I need to add an important note here so you grasp the full sense of my debilitated state. I had a bad case of diarrhea on every day of the trek. I was having difficulty absorbing sufficient nutrients for sustained energy even on the easier days of our trek, and I feared what that would mean on summit day. Well, I was about to find out.
We finally reached Uhuru, but by that point I was too exhausted and delirious to care about our achievement. I posed with Nigara for a few pictures, feeling like I was in another world.
We immediately began our descent from Uhuru and that was when the full-scale imploding began now that the adrenaline rush was over. I couldn’t walk in a straight line and started to stumble like a drunk again. Our assistant guide, Felix, noticed my condition and immediately assisted me. He propped me up for the next 45 minutes back to Stella Point. I was like an injured football player being assisted off the field, only poor Felix had to walk about 10 football fields with me clinging to his arm and staggering with every step. We finally returned to Stella Point where John and Felix administered the “emergency provisions” to me—Red Bull and Kit Kat. I also greedily consumed an orange and a piece of stale tea cake as I desperately tried to re-enter the land of the living. I was having difficulty propping myself under my own power, like Wesley in the movie, The Princess Bride, immediately before they stormed the castle. But, to rely on another movie analogy, I sprang back to life very quickly after consuming the Red Bull and Kit Kat, like Michael J. Fox did while performing on stage at the “Enchantment under the Sea dance” in the movie, Back to the Future. Nevertheless, I was still fighting traces of delirium, as I felt burning hot in the sub-zero temperatures at Stella Point and I wanted to tear off most of my clothing.
The only thing we could do was to descend as quickly as possible. Felix assisted me at the beginning of this challenging descent, and then I was soon able to descend on my own. The commercial is accurate—Red Bull really does give you wings. Much to Nigara’s and Felix’s chagrin, I was soon downhill skiing on the scree at a pace that made their hearts stop, but I was having a ball. The slope was so steep that you simply had to dig your heels into the scree one stride at a time to feel like you were skiing (without the need to snowplow). Nigara didn’t take to this new hobby of mine and she slowed our descent considerably. I downed another can of Red Ball and another Kit Kat and I was good to go for the remainder of the long descent to Barafu Camp, which involved some more tricky maneuvering on the boulders near Kosovo Camp.
We finally returned to Barafu Camp at 12:00 noon, 13 hours after we began our journey. John permitted us to indulge in a 90-minute nap before lunch. Immediately after lunch, we continued trekking for another 4 long hours to Mweka Camp. This stretch was utterly miserable. Our legs were completely trashed and now we had to cope with an unrelentingly steep descent with sharp rocks and steep steps. This segment ruined our quads and caused blisters on our feet. Worse still, Nigara dislodged both of her big toenails from all of the pounding. She decided to paint all of her toenails black when we returned home to match the fashionable color of her big toenails.
We had to resort to our headlamps once again for the last hour of our journey to Mweka Camp. We finally arrived at 7:30 p.m. after 17 hours of trekking on this summit day. Both of us had completely unraveled physically and emotionally by that point. We ate dinner and immediately went to bed.
Day 7: Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate (“Are we there yet?”)
The honeymoon was indeed over by Day 7. We only had 3 hours of trekking remaining (10 kilometers) before we would reach Mweka Gate, the end point of our journey and our ticket back to civilization. If you’ve been paying attention for the past several pages, nothing comes easy on Mt. Kili, and Day 7 was no exception. This last stretch of trekking was all downhill, which should have been easy, right? But no, this downhill segment featured steep steps that pounded your knees—and just about every other joint in your weary body—with every step that you took. It also included many loose rocks covered in mud. I almost slipped several times and was saved only by my trekking poles from a humiliating and saturating bath in the mud. It would have been nice to have had a smooth and flat path into the finish line so we could have savored our return to the pleasant scenery of the rainforest. But no – all we could think about was not falling and making it to Mweka Gate in one piece after all the challenges we had overcome in the past week.
Upon reaching Mweka Gate, we eagerly washed up in bathrooms that felt like the Taj Mahal after the nasty pit toilets on the trail and the lack of running water for the duration of our 7-day trek. We then haggled with some vendors to purchase t-shirts and paintings while sipping a Coke. We posed for photos with the full crew, proudly displaying our “finisher certificates” confirming that we had reached Uhuru Peak.
It was good to be back in civilization. John and Felix took us to a great local place in a neighboring town, Moshi, for some excellent cheeseburgers and fries. Later that evening back at our hotel in Arusha, an overwhelming sense of soreness started to settle in that would last for the next two days. But we didn’t care—we had accomplished what we had set out to accomplish and now it was time to rejoice and relax.
Seven days of facial hair growth without a shave while trekking Mt. Kili. Sexy or shabby?
Cast your vote now. Our operators are standing by.
When we were preparing for this trek, I was convinced that my 22 marathons and 28 half marathons would propel me forward with the mental and physical toughness that I needed to successfully conquer Mt. Kili. What I learned after my 7-day trek was that climbing Mt. Kili has toughened me up mentally and physically in ways that will serve me well in my fall racing season. Climbing Mt. Kili changes you in a good way. Like the saying goes, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I can’t think of a better example of that mantra than what we had endured for the past week. If our Machu Picchu trek helped me run my second fastest half marathon in Florida since moving here in 2006, climbing Mt. Kili and pursuing the altitude training in Iten, Kenya should provide a strong foundation for success in my upcoming half marathon (October) and marathon (November) in Florida. Now I just need to get reacquainted with the Florida heat and humidity.