Kilimanjaro: Climbing Africa's Tallest Mountain
Trekking in Africa
by Roman Skaskiw
Coca Cola road signs marked the road to Moshi, Tanzania, a small Tanzanian town in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, popular among trekkers. We arrived through the Coca Cola traffic circle, and drove past the Coca Cola post office.
I could have sworn the map on worldtimezones.com showed a break between Kenya and Tanzania to the south, but when we got to Moshi, everybody told me it was still 2:50, not 1:50, true to the bus manager’s prediction of arriving around 3:00 after a seven-hour trip.
Everything about the ride had seemed just on the right side of chaos.
The narrow strip of asphalt cutting through the African plain was blocked occasionally with mounds of red dirt, and the bus driver veered onto the crude by-pass much faster than I would have attempted even in my coupe.
We repeatedly threaded the needle between oncoming traffic and the shoulderless side of the road. There was no centerline. I reminded myself that bus transit from Nairobi to the towns around Kilimanjaro, has been common for decades. Surely, there was nothing to worry about.
I found distraction in spotting distant zebras, giant ostriches, unusual flat-topped trees, Massai Villages, herd of goats and cows, and, toward the end of the trip, the startlingly lush hills of Mt. Meru, Kilimanjaro’s little sister, which we circled en route to Moshi.
Also, there were Canadians on the bus. In remote places, I’m always comforted by the presence of Canadians.
Anyway, my friend Derek and I arrived at the Buffalo Hotel, which, at $25/night for a double room, lived up to the praise in Henry Stedman excellent guide Kilimanjaro -- The trekking guide to Africa’s highest mountain. (Somehow, the book proved a useful reference when travelling, and compelling reading during down-time, and still fit into my cargo pocket.)
Later in the trip, we moved to the nearby Kindoroko Hotel for five more dollars, two singles instead of a double, nicer rooms, and a shorter walk to their gorgeous roof-top restaurant, which had the best tasting food of the entire trip - well worth the sluggish service.
Finding a Trekking Company
I’m an advocate of resolving the details of a trip upon arrival at the destination. If you book a hotel or contract with a trekking company over the phone or internet, it’ll easily cost you double what it costs on the ground.
Finding a trekking company is easy. In fact, they found us. Bird doggers greeted us with an enthusiastic “Jambo” at the bus station, helped us cross the street, asked where we were going, guided us to the ATM or bookstore or restaurant, and even waited outside our hotel to see if they could be of service.
By our first evening, we had a half-dozen business cards, and another half-dozen verbal solicitations. The attention approached harassment, though they remained friendly, even in rejection.
In the morning, I called Derek onto the balcony. We spied Kilimanjaro’s summit for the first time. The peak shone clearly every morning, and became shrouded in clouds by nine.
A guide from Wonderland Tours who’d been especially persistent (which is saying a lot) told us a story as he walked us to a grocery:
A Cautionary Tale
Once, a trekker on his tour insisted he was incapacitated and needed immediate evacuation. It happened at 3 am, and the man refused to wait until morning or to descend under his own power, which the guide felt he still sufficiently possessed.
The park rangers arrived and strapped the man in his sleeping bag to the wheeled stretcher, as is their normal practice. Once they reached rugged terrain and were less than careful navigating pits and rocks -- the guide swooped his hand down and up, imitating the stretchers bouncing -- the man very suddenly regained his ability and desire to walk.
I appreciated our rapport. The story held a little hostility toward certain types of tourists, and I felt his telling it showed trust. We might have gone with Wonderland Tours, had we not done the easy thing and relied on someone else’s judgment.
We’d met two Dutch guys on the bus, Stephen and J.P., and ran into them again under the corrugated-tin roof of the porch of the Indo-Italiano Restaurant across the street from our Buffalo Hotel. Again, our guidebook was right -- the food was good, despite the unlikely combination of Indian and Italian dishes on the menu.
From what I gathered through the haze of one or two Kilimanjaro beers, and a couple Tusker beers (which tasted exactly the same as the Kilis), Stephen and J.P. had completed an impressively rigorous comparison of various trekking agencies, and even verified some of their findings on Dutch-only internet forums.
“That way, I know they didn’t go online and type the good review themselves,” I remember J.P. saying.
We shared the same ideas for trip. Both they and we wanted to take the longer Machame Route, and also spend seven days on it instead of six for better acclimatization.
Although Kilimanjaro isn’t a technical climb, altitude sickness is a real threat, and it’s difficult to predict who will succumb to it. Fitness isn’t necessarily a prophylactic.
We joined their trek with Kessy Brothers, and spent the next day disappointing other solicitors and finalizing details with Kessy Brothers.
Only after the trek did I discover a section of my guidebook about the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project or K.P.A.P., which monitors trekking agencies and advocates on behalf of porters.
The guides, cooks, food, service and price, were all great, and I would recommend Kessy Brothers for these reasons, but I’ve since discovered they slightly under-pay their porters.
It’s worth noting that trekkers can influence a porter’s pay directly should they wish to do so, as tips are a significant portion of the pay for porters as well as for cooks and guides.
We ran into a surprising problem with the payment to Kessy Brothers. It seemed their credit card machine, along with all the credit card machines in East Africa - from Nairobi’s YMCA, to the Moshi’s Buffalo Hotel, to restaurants, were out of service. Cash only.
In the end, we made multiple ATM visits to withdraw over a million Tanzanian shillings each. (Just over $1000, $744 of which went toward the Tanzanian government’s Kilimanjaro park fee.)
The Great Count Teleki
Kilimanjaro was not the solitary, man-versus-nature experience I had imagined. Along the well-worn path through a gradually thinning jungle we remained surrounded by other trekkers and porters, passing and being passed.
The porter situation hurt my pride. Twelve men worked as porters, three of whom also ran the kitchen. The twelve carried tents, food, fuel, and bags for us four trekkers and our two guides. We only carried day packs.
“Just in case taking porters up a mountain makes you feel a little less virile,” said the guidebook, “you may like to know that the great Count Teleki took no less than sixty-five of them up the mountain.... before ‘a certain straining of the membrane of the tympanum of the ear’ forced him to turn back.”
Along the route, we began recognizing other groups -- the Swiss couple with little jingle bells tied to their left boots, three older Canadian men with trekking polls and ipods, a large group of women from Virginia with American guides -- we overheard their guide demonstrating breathing techniques during a rest stop, which became a running joke.
Our guide asked us to slow down so the porters could reach the campsite ahead of us and set up. Shortly after we arrived, they served us popcorn and tea in the dining tent.
As we progressed on Day 2, the jungle thinned to giant heather, which shrank to what everybody called moorland.
It seems a little vain to fuss over waterproof zippers and two-ounce vs. three-ounce windbreakers when porters walk just as far (on most days) carrying three times as much wearing only tennis shoes, slacks, or what little actual hiking gear they manage to scrape together.
Shira Camp sprawls on the edge of the rocky Shira Plateau, which, according to my guide book, is believed to be a collapsed volcanic crater. On longer treks, intrepid travelers can explore the scarcely-travelled plateau.
Cool Like a Banana
Guides will smile when you speak a little Swahili, and laugh outright if you repeat something in Chagga, the tribal language of the people of Kilimanjaro. My favorite phrase was a Swahili one: “Kichizi kama ndizi” (I’m cool like a banana).
Clouds blew up the mountain, sometimes dropping a little rain. On Day 3 we took an acclimatization walk to Lava Tower (4640m) then to Baranco Camp (3990m). hiking 10km in 5 1/2 hours.
The shrubs slowly vanished, and we found ourselves decidedly in Kili’s fourth climate zone: alpine desert. (Fifth, if you include the agricultural land our bus passed en route to the Machame Gate.)
Two of our group experienced early symptoms of mountain sickness as we approached the Lava Tower. One had a severe headache which lasted into the night, another’s light headedness slowed his pace significantly.
We sometimes drifted apart on the trail, each of us following our own comfortable pace. One guide remained toward the front, another brought up the rear.
From the Lava Tower, we began a two-and-a-half day traverse of Kili’s southern slope. That afternoon, we descended to the beautiful Baranco camp, with steep cliffs on either side of the broad valley, the snows of Kilimanjaro peeking through the clouds behind us, and villages glimmering through the blue haze on the distant plane to our front.
Cartoon-like trees called Senecio Kilimanjari in my guide book stood throughout the valley.
The porters, who’d walked directly from Shira to Baranco, had already set up camp. They rested in their crowded little tents or stood with hands in their pockets, joking with one another.
I was lucky. My body adjusted well to walking and altitude and I had been wondering if it wouldn’t be truer to the spirit of adventure to carry my own tent, food, fuel, but I quickly grew accustomed to the luxury porters provide.
My only task upon arrival at camp was unzipping the door of the tent they had pitched, pulling some belongings from my pack, and waiting for the assistant cook to summon me in his broken English to dinner.
The Breakfast Trail
On Day 4 we hiked 7 km to Karanga Valley Camp in four hours. By the time we finished our morning tea, a trail of people could already be seen as specks of color zigzagging up the steep eastern wall of the valley, the Baranco Wall, along what the guides called the Breakfast Trail.
It was narrow and steep, and required some scrambles up the gnarled lava rock, which looked as lumpy and unlikely as the hardened wax drippings of a candle.
We rested atop the wall, then crossed two valleys, first a grey one filled with desolate boulders, then the lush and slippery Karanga Valley.
The stream at its bottom is the last fresh water point before the summit. I know this only from reading the guidebook. The ferrying of water, handled by porters and supervised by our guides, was generally invisible to us.
We arrived at Karanga camp in time for our first hot lunch of the trek, though at this point, we no longer ate chicken or fish or eggs, but potatoes, fruit, various soups and bread.
Had we been on a six-day trek, day four would have been another full day of walking to the Barafu Camp.
Steffen and JP taught us a card game with resembled the American Drinking Game “@sshole.” I taught everybody a variant to spades called “Oh Hell.” The guides taught us a game called “Last Card” which very closely resembled Uno.
We learned the Chagga nicknames of our guides. One was Maresi, the fast one, the other Kichwa, or head.
The Alpine Desert
On Day 5 we made the short hike to Barafu Camp. For the past day, we’d been skirting the upper reaches of moorland with half buried boulders matted with moss, but on this short, uphill hike, we again left it behind for the alpine desert. Here, crumbling shards of stone slid over bare lava rock, and made progress difficult.
Barafu Camp sprawls on both sides of a rocky ridge. There were tent-sized flat spot scraped bare of loose stones on which the porters pitched our tents. (I want to call the loose stones shale for the way they crumble, but I’m not certain this is technically correct.)
I rested outside my tent for a while enjoying the desolate view. Clouds blew up the mountain toward me, and a mountain buzzard glided sideways over the camp on the thin breeze.
Some of us continued to rest, while others went on one more acclimatization walk, up the beginning of the route we’d attempt shortly after midnight.
I heard two explanations for what seemed like the universal practice of beginning the summit attempt around midnight, neither of which satisfy me. Dastan, the assistant guide mentioned the sun, and dust. Joseph said something about how the sky is clear in the morning.
I personally prefer sun and dust to cold and wind, and wouldn’t have minded beginning at, say, 3:00 and arriving at 8:00, still in time to enjoy a vista.
At dinner, Derek measured his resting heartrate at 120 beats per minute, and for the first time, I became genuinely concerned about his chances.
On Day 6 we hiked 7 km in five hours to Uhuru Peak (5895m/19340ft), then another 7 km to Barafu Camp (4600m), and then another 14 km to Mweka Camp (3090m).
Not an Officer Anymore
Since we’d kept a relatively quick pace the whole trek, we had decided to leave at 12:30 instead of 12:00, but we ate slowly, then my companions spent time putting things into their packs, removing them, and putting them back in again.
“Relax. You’re not an infantry officer anymore,” Derek told me.
We began shortly after 1:00. The moon shone brightly and we barely needed our head lamps. The temperature was between five and fifteen degrees Fahrenheit, and a relentless wind blew across the trail. Derek, who’d rarely seen weather outside his native Texas later told me he thought he would die from cold.
We passed one scary site: a man staggering down the mountain with legs like wet noodles. He bend over at every step, pathetically bracing on this or that boulder, the cone of his headlamp showing weakly before him.
We progressed up the switchbacks for a good four hours, stopping only briefly because of the cold. No one took any photos. I felt my heart laboring, and tried to repress irrational fears of it exploding in my chest.
Occasionally, someone sung a few bars of the melody the guides had taught us: “Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro,” but it never lasted. We’d settle back into the rhythm of walking.
Derek kept his head down and resolutely put one foot in front of the other, walking immediately behind the guide.
One of our party kept struggling to keep his balance. He’d just catch himself. After some time, we decided to let him rest with Joseph, our guide, while the rest of us continued with Dastan, the assistant.
The Hardest Part
The hardest part came just before Stella Point -- again the guidebook was right. There’s a steep fifty-or-so meters of loose gravel sliding down beneath you with every step. I inhaled with one step, exhaled with the next. I felt like an engine, knowing nothing but the movements of my legs and lungs.
Suddenly, the ground was firm and flat beneath me. We’d reached Stella Point (5752 m/18,871 ft). I raised my arms in victory. The hard part was over.
From Stella Point, we walked a gentle incline to Uhuru Peak, stumbling and catching our balance like a bunch of drunks.
We reached Uhuru Peak at 6:00, the sky still dark. For those last several steps before the summit, my thoughts flashed over who I was, my life, and the words “tallest mountain in Africa” (5895 m/19,341 ft).
We took quick photos, warming our hands between shots.
The walk from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak took an hour. The walk back to Stella Point took fifteen minutes. I attribute the disparity to walking downhill, and our bodies’ adjustment to the initial shock of altitude.
The Legendary Snows
The sky grew light and we saw the glaciers, the legendary snows of Kilimanjaro clinging to the slopes of Uhuru peak. We passed the lost member of our party. He summited with Joseph about an hour after us. We spoke encouragements to him and to other trekkers.
The descending route lies separate from the switchbacks we’d climbed. It’s a long chute filled with soft, loose gravel. The technique is “scree sliding.”
Once you gain confidence, you step boldly, swimming a good foot or two through the gravel with every stride, the mountain rolling down alongside you.
Dastan quite intelligently advised us to space ourselves so we wouldn’t breathe the massive clouds of dust rising from each other’s steps.
The brief respite we took after lunch at Barafu camp seemed unworthy of the accomplishment of climbing Africa’s tallest mountain, but we packed our bags, pulled on our boots, and began the long, long descent from alpine desert to the moorland region, past the giant heather and into the jungle, where the air felt wet and thick enough to cut with knife.
Quietly over dinners, we had been discussing the delicate matter of the tip -- whom to give it to, when to give it, how much to give.
We weren’t completely certain about the number of porters. At times, they seemed impossibly few compared to the dozen we’d been told about.
My guidebook referred to various scams of porters cheating trekkers or trekking companies cheating porters. J.P. had wanted to ask for a group photo to count them once and for all, but as we left Barafu Camp they all seemed to be out working, packing the kitchen, or rolling tents. Both J. P. and I counted a dozen porters.
I was short on cash, and borrowed money from Derek, who had a combination of US dollars and Tanzanian shillings. We calculated and recalculated in our pocket-sized notebooks, and read and reread the portion of the guidebook concerned with tips.
We called the head guide into the tent and told him we wanted him, the assistant guide, and the head cook to receive the tip. He bested our attempt at transparency and insisted on including the assistant cooks and two of the porters as well.
We felt relieved to have it settled, seemingly to everybody’s satisfaction, and spent the rest of the evening eating and playing cards, and nurturing the euphoria swelling in our chests for having just climbed Africa’s highest mountain.
On Day 7, at the Mweka Gate, a young boy pestered me to buy a Coca Cola. It was delicious.
Roman Skaskiw served as an infantry officer with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was recently recalled for another tour in Afghanistan with the Kunar Province Provincial Reconstruction Team. He is a 2007 graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, Stanford Magazine, Front Porch Journal, In The Fray Magazine, and elsewhere on GoNomad.com. He is shown here climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.
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