I am safely down from the summit of Kilimanjaro, looking for someone who can replace both my knees and hoping that the internet service here at Mount Meru Lodge will allow me to complete this post. I’m not sure about including photos; but if I’m unable to do so I’ll send some when I get to South Africa.
At about 8:00 yesterday morning the 12 members of the Serengeti Pride expedition arrived safely at Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa, after an exhilarating, intense and surprisingly challenging 6-day ascent. The remarkable thing about the early days is the rapid change in terrain as you move through different climate zones, starting off in a thick and lush rain forest, moving into a high desert environment and then through a more traditional desert as you cross the Shira Plateau, up into more rocky terrain for a couple of days before taking on the glacier that is the Western Breach.
The Lemosho/Western Breach route we were on is considered the most difficult on Kilimanjaro, but Serengeti Pride adds a day to the trip that assists greatly with acclimatization and makes the route a lot more palatable. They are a terrific company, not one of the big adventure companies but one that provides a more family-like environment and does everything it can to make you comfortable in very uncomfortable circumstances, and most importantly to guarantee your safety. We had 62 guides and porters for 12 people, and to a man they were accommodating, professional and fun to hang out with. It’s an amazing thing to climb for 30 minutes, look back down at the camp you just left and see these guys packing up tents, food, water, toilets and their own stuff, and then an hour later they come flying by you with the huge bags on their backs and heads up to the next camp, which is perfectly laid out by the time you get there.
Early the second day, while still in the rain forest, one of the guides took a strand of white moss and hooked in on my ears and chin like a beard, and declared me “Babu” … old man. And that became my name for the entire trip. Please pass the salt, Babu. Time to get up, Babu. I loved it, especially because I was indeed the oldest on the trip. There were a couple of other guys in their early 60s, one in his late 40s, and everyone else was in the 20s or early 30s. It was a diverse group of terrific people, interesting and fun to be around and extremely supportive of one another.
I think the hiking over the first five days, as tough as some of it was, was not overly surprising to anyone. But the sixth day was a different matter. On that day we went from our camp at 16,000 feet up the Western Breach glacier to 18,500, and I will tell you that any idiot who says Kilimanjaro is just a hike and is nothing technical hasn’t done the Western Breach the way we did it. We started at 5 am in order to get past a certain point before the sun hits that side of the mountain, softens the ice and causes rocks to loosen and fall, the reason we all had to wear helmets on this day.
We had only headlamps to guide us the first hour which was unsettling; I was glad for a bit of early light. As we moved up onto the glacier it wasn’t as Lema Peter, our terrific guide and a co-owner of Serengeti Pride, expected to find it, and he was forced to take an ax and hack out footholds in the ice. I was directly behind him for most of this part, and every time he’d raise that ax I’d duck and let the flying chucks of ice bang off my helmet. A couple of times when I looked back, I’m telling you, it looked like pictures I’ve seen of Everest, a line of people walking straight the face of this icy wall. If you didn’t think about the fact that one misstep would send you sliding down the glacier halfway to the Serengeti, that part really wasn’t too taxing. The hard part was the rock wall that followed: steep and harrowing and relentless. And of course we were doing this at 17000, 18000 feet, and several members of our team were suffering from nausea or severe headaches.
But when we climbed over that last rock and pushed up to the top of the Breach we were greeted with the most glorious site; a huge expanse of snowfield, the 900 feet of rock of the summit climb to the right, and massive chunks of glacier to the left, layered and multi-colored, absolutely stunning. Ever since I saw an IMAX film about it I have wanted to go to Antarctica, and here I was, looking at it. We had a short walk to Crater Camp through the snowfield, all of us probably a bit overwhelmed by the accomplishment of the day and thrilled by the extraordinary scenery.
Dinner that night was not festive. It was about zero degrees. Most everyone was dealing with some sort of altitude ailment. The altitude takes away your appetite but you know you need the fuel so you force something down and hope you can keep it down. And I think everyone was kind of stunned by what they’d accomplished, a day far more difficult and dangerous than any of us had anticipated.
The final 900 feet the next morning were, as Lema would say, “a piece of chocolate” compared to the Breach, and we had another exhilarating feeling as we made the final steps onto the snowfield at the top of the mountain, the sign at Uhuru Peak visible a half mile away. It was an easy walk, with breathtaking scenery in every direction and a feeling of elation washing over us that’s impossible to describe. We got to the sign, took our pictures, hugged and high-fived, all of us sharing this knowledge that we had taken on a challenge that was more than we had ever anticipated, and we had met it head on and succeeded. There is a great sense of satisfaction in that.
I won’t deal much with the descent because I’ll end up using words inappropriate for what is essentially a public forum. Suffice it to say we left the summit and descended 9000 feet the remainder of the day, and I limped into camp that night with both knees throbbing. The early part was kind of fun, sliding down loose scree, falling on your butt and bouncing up and sliding some more. After lunch, though, it was one steep step onto a rock after another, for four hours, and it took it’s toll, even on some of the youngsters. This morning’s final four-hours was difficult only because is was back through the rain forest and it was extremely muddy and slippery.
As for ol’ Babu, I have to tell you he did pretty well. Going to Colorado to climb for 10 days was an enormous help in so many ways; if I don’t go there, I don’t make it here. I was very fortunate I didn’t suffer any of the altitude issues some of my compatriots did, and that’s because of the training I did, some good drugs, and a lot of luck. My hat is off to those that made it feeling crummy, they had so much more than I did to overcome. Mentally, we all had to conquer our demons. Self-doubt can be a formidable opponent and it seemed to find a way into my tent each night. But you take a step at a time, and just keep going until you get there, it’s that simple. Kilimanjaro was everything I hoped it would be … achievable, but not without digging down to the bottom of the physical and mental reserve tanks. You can’t expect any more than that from a challenge.
Tomorrow: the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Plains. Hujambo!