I thought I was going to have to go to Africa by myself. The plane was slated to take off in fifteen minutes and Graham still hadn’t showed up. He managed to clear security with a couple minutes to spare. We were both a little weary about Nairobi because of the bomb that had gone off there a couple days before. However, we arrived uneventfully and got transferred to a hotel near the bus station. The next morning we spoke with another American who told us that there had been a bomb threat at the airport at 8pm the night before. Our flight landed at 7:58. At least we didn’t start with a bang.
Staying mosquito-free in our hotel in Nairobi
After ten dollars worth of phone calls and several hours of negotiation in Arusha, we ended up booking a six day trek up the Machame Route on Kilimanjaro with Victoria Expeditions. It’s not the Marangu Route which is also known as the Coca-Cola or tourist trail. It’s a tougher climb that is camping only but has more rewarding scenery.
Packed and ready to go waiting on the bus to be picked up
Graham and I both got a little overzealous with our day packs on the first day (he more so than I). At the weigh in mine was 9kg and his was 14kg. The initial hike from the gate to the Machame Hut was through the rain forest for most of the day. We ascended from 1800 meters to 3000. We hiked the majority of the day with two Danish pharmacists and a French guy and completed the 5 hour hike in only 3:20. However, by the time we made it to the top we both vowed to streamline our day packs for tomorrow’s trek.
Trekking in the rain forest during day one's hike
Whitey and Graham
Arrival at the Machame Hut, day 1
Flowers and Kili from campsite one
Kili and flowers from campsite one
The beginning of day two's trek to Shira Camp
The clouds rolling in from under us
Looking back down from Shira Camp
Graham and Whitey coming into Shira at the end of day two
Sunset at Shira Camp
Looking back at Mt Meru from Shira Camp
We had a guide (Whitey), cook (Paul), and three porters with us. Paul somehow managed to consistently make great meals with nothing more than a Bunsen burner and a frying pan. Dinner was eaten over a small blanket with rocks as make-shift chairs. The days were pleasant, we often stripped down to a t-shirt while hiking during the day, but as soon as the sun went down the temperature plummeted. We ate dinner and breakfast with every piece of clothing we had on. It’s difficult to manage forks and spoons when you have on gloves designed for summiting mountains.
Not our porters, but still porters
Dinner is served
The second night I managed to kick a hole in the seam of my sleeping bag around 2am. By the time I got up at six I thought they were going to have to amputate my feet. Our other major dilemma was balancing the amount of water we drank during the day. We need to stay hydrated and keep altitude sickness away but didn’t want to have to leave our sleeping bags at night, it was a painful experience that I only endured once.
What I looked like every morning before the sun came out
Some of the flowers along the way
We were the first ones into the next camp every day, usually covering the distance in half to three fourths of the time the book called for. We also met some Spanish guys from Madrid and hiked with a Canadian (real Canadians for all you Vanderbilt people) family for half a day. The toughest day aside from summit night was the third. The morning started off with scrambling a sheer rock wall. There wasn’t anything technical about it, but you had to watch your step pretty carefully. Some of the passes were pretty narrow and one of the descent areas was riverbed rock covered with ice.
Lunch at the Lava Tower on day three
The trees coming into camp three, Barranco Hut
Sunset at Barranco
The moon coming over the horizon at Barranco
Graham at the beginning of day four, heading from Barranco to Barafu camp
Whitey and I working hard to get up the face
Scrambling around some narrow paths
We decided to stagger our starts on summit night in an effort to go at a pace that would keep us warm while still summiting together. Most everyone tried to get to bed around seven and leaves for the summit around midnight. I jealously watched Graham sleep from about 8pm on. I managed to stare at the ceiling of the tent the entire night. He got going about five minutes after midnight. We gave each other five and wished each other luck in case I didn’t catch up to him.
I headed out of the tent at 1am and met up with the assistant guide, Paz. Paz was actually one of our porters but had been drafted to assistant guide because Paul didn’t feel up to the task that night. We took off with one light between the two of us. I could see other groups and their lights on the hill. Paz kept telling me “Pole, Pole” which means “Take it easy”. But I was anxious and kept asking him if we could speed up. We caught up to Graham and Whitey after about an hour. I asked him if he minded if I kept going and waited at the summit because I felt good and didn’t want to slow down and get cold. He told me to go for it and Paz and I continued up the hill.
We ended up hiking for three hours without a break but I could tell Paz was slowing down and he looked confused on what route to take. He kept telling me “Pole, Pole” while I kept pushing forward. Eventually he stopped me and said didn’t feel good and needed to go back down. I tried to process what that meant in my oxygen depraved state for a minute. I basically had gone too fast and had given my guide altitude sickness. I sent him down and waited for Graham and Whitey to catch back up.
I sat behind a rock to try and shelter myself from the wind, which had picked up substantially, for about 10-15 minutes before they showed up. Paz took our light so now we were down to one light for the three of us. The pace was a little more reasonable especially given that it was difficult to see. The three of us made it to Stella point and sat behind some rocks so I could try to regain the feeling I had lost in my hands while I waited behind the rock earlier. I managed to get a hand warmer activated but it wasn’t heating up fast enough. I decided the best thing was to get moving and try to create some warmth that way.
Because of the altitude, forty mile an hour winds, and exhaustion, the last kilometer took us about forty five minutes to navigate. We reached Uhuru Peak (5896 meters) at 5:59am right as the sun was breaching the horizon. The sunrise over the crater and ice falls made it all worth it. It was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. After 17 minutes on the summit we decided to head back down.
The beginnings of the sunrise from the summit
I can't remember if I was falling over or dancing (probably falling over)
Definitely dancing here with Graham
Graham, Whitey, and I
The Ice Falls at sunrise from the summit
One last shot before heading down
Graham’s knees had been giving him a little trouble on the downhill so he told me to go ahead and we’d meet up at camp four, Barafu Hut (3600 meters). The descent was almost as bad as the climb. We took the Mweka Route down and the trek to Barafu was all loose stone. You could either walk excruciatingly slow or stone-ski through it with your boots. It was very hard in my quads but I wanted to get down.
Two hours later I was back at Barafu. When I came in the guys said I was “Nchezy cama kuku” which means “Crazy like chicken” and “Poa cama ndizy” which is “Cool like banana”. I gave a half asleep, half brain dead smile then grabbed some food and laid down to wait for Graham. He showed up about two and half hours later saying he didn’t think he wanted to stick with the original plan of making the descent in one day instead of the two that the tours called for. After going back and forth with Whitey and the office we found one of us needed to get down to finalize our safari for the next day. I was happy to volunteer because it meant I got to sleep in a bed instead of on spine realigning rocks.
Paz was feeling better and volunteered to take me down. I think he decided to pay me back for the night’s activities because we absolutely flew down the mountain. Barafu to Mweka is listed as a 3-4 hour hike. We did it in 1:20, no breaks. Mweka to the gate calls for 4 hours of hiking. We exited the park after another 1:40. We had finished a two day, eight hour hike in three hours. At the gate I collected my certificate for summiting and headed for the bus station. Since we had come down a day early, they didn’t have transportation ready which meant we had to walk another 45 minutes to the bus station. I would have paid a taxi $100 but there wasn’t one anywhere to be found.
Graham spent the niht at Mweka Camp as I guiltily enjoyed a steak, french fries, a beer, a hot shower, and soft mattress at the hotel. I also was able to call Lauren and my brother to recount the summit bid earlier that morning. He rolled into the hotel the next day around lunch, cleaned up, and then we headed out to the wilderness again for a camping safari.