Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro
I’m excited to share a post today written by Justin about his recent successful ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania!
I like to listen to audiobooks whenever I’m on a long drive. Just before Thanksgiving in 2013, Kate suggested that I listen to “Into Thin Air” on my drive from Erie, Pa back to North Carolina. She thought I would like it, and she was right. What she didn’t know is that it would awaken a sense of adventure in me that had taken a sabbatical during the past decade because of school and work. The Jon Krakauer book is a first-hand account of the deadly 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest (as I write this, “Everest” is in its opening weekend at the box office – the latest movie based on Into Thin Air). It was in this book that I first heard of the “seven summits challenge”, where one climbs the highest peak on each of the seven continents. Almost 15 years before that, a friend of mine started talking about one day climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the African continent. The idea stuck with me and when I was facing my last semester of grad school it felt like the timing might finally be right for such an adventure. Once my drive was over and I finished the book while sitting in my driveway listening to the epilogue, I floated the idea by Kate of me climbing Kilimanjaro with some friends sometime in 2015. She was totally supportive from the start and I started on the research and the lengthy email to several of my good friends inviting them on this adventure. In the end, three of the seven guys I invited jumped at the chance. The peak of Kilimanjaro is at 19,341 feet above sea-level. At this altitude there is half the effective oxygen in the air, meaning you would have to take two breaths to intake the same amount oxygen as one breath at sea-level. After a great deal of research, we decided to do the 10-day Lemosho route with Peak Planet. Lemosho is one of the longest treks to the top but allows adequate time for acclimatization and therefore has a relatively high success rate. On this route, it is 6.5 days up and 1.5 days down, the “10-day” title of our route includes the day before and after for travel purposes. At 5:00am on Aug 19th, Chris and I set out on the drive to Atlanta, where we would meet at Jose’s and catch up with Shayne at the airport before embarking on the series of flights that would lead us to Tanzania. I should point out here that international flights are infinitely more bearable with the advent of individual screens in airplane seats which allow you to watch whatever you want. After flying about 25 hours and watching more movies in that span than in the last five years of my life we arrived and made it through customs/immigration seamlessly before realizing that our luggage didn’t make it. While filling out “missing bag” forms, we met several other people that were in the same climbing group and began to get to know one another. Because I have a heathy suspicion of airlines ability to get bags where they belong, we booked our flight a day early to account for a situation like this. Our bags did arrive the next day and after negotiating with a local driver for a ride back to the airport we were ready to depart for the mountain the next morning. The first official climbing day began with a 2-3 hour dusty and bumpy bus ride to the trailhead. We got off the bus to see the 42 porters that would be supporting the climb and carrying all of the necessary equipment for camp every night and the 5 guides who would be leading our group. Yes, you read that right, 47 people supporting our 11 climbers. We immediately started walking up the trail as the porters were sorting out the loads they would be carrying. Within 30 minutes we were being consistently passed by porters carrying 2-3 times the loads we were carrying. They were all rushing ahead to ensure the camp was set up by the time we arrived. This would be a regular theme of the entire trip, being passed by people carrying much heavier loads going much faster than we were. We spent several hours in the dinner tent that night chatting and getting to know each other, covering all the usual topics like where we were from and what we did for a living. We had a wide range of careers represented – medicine, real estate, law, technology, engineering, business, and someone between undergrad and grad school. We could have started our own self-sustaining community up there. The first night marked the first time in about 10 years that I slept in a tent. On the second day, the vegetation started to be noticeably shorter as we moved out of the rainforest and into an area that looked a lot like the North Carolina mountains I’m used to seeing. Shortly before arriving into Camp 2, upon rounding a corner, we got our first view of the peak and we were all very energized by the sight. Camp 2 marked the last time any of us would be wearing short sleeves on the climb as it was very windy and cold. At this altitude, no plants grew higher than our knees and visibility was great. As we left camp the next morning we noticed that we were walking at the same altitude as the clouds to the west that we could see. Day 3 marked the last time that we looked anywhere but down to see clouds. We did a brief acclimatization climb (where you go out of your way to climb higher than necessary that day and quickly descend to let your body trigger the creation of more red blood cells) on Day 3 at which point we stood on a cliff where the clouds were running into the cliff below us and sort of rolling up to our location before evaporating in front of us. It was surreal and a scene I won’t soon forget. The evening we arrived at Camp 3 marked the onset of altitude sickness for several folks in our group. Think pounding headache, lack of appetite, and vomiting. All of these things are common at high altitude and there is no way to predict who will suffer. By this time, others in our group were dealing with the unenviable “traveler’s diarrhea”. If you’re thinking to yourself “that’s awful” keep in mind that there is no privacy to be had on the trail during the day. Camp offers a little in the evenings, but whatever you’re imagining – it’s worse. I was very fortunate to be one of very few in our group that never got a headache or any other symptoms of altitude sickness. The next couple of days were filled with lots of hiking and lots of breathtaking views. There were lots of gains and losses in altitude for the sake of acclimatization, including a hike up to the Lava Tower for lunch. The Lava Tower, with an altitude of 15,400 ft, is located around 1,000 higher than any point in the lower 48 states. Most of our group had very little appetite at this point and had to force down some food for the necessary energy that we’d need to descend the 2,100 vertical feet that we needed to descend to get to the next camp. Going down is actually much harder on your legs than going up, so this descent was really brutal at the end of a long day hiking up only to turn around and go down. My knees were shot by the time we finally made it to camp for what the guides call “washy washy” – where the guides bring each person a little tub of hot water to wash up from the day. We scrambled up the Barranco wall the next morning, which is the only time on the climb that you are facing even a risk of a serious fall, without incident and enjoyed our break once we got to the top. The next day, after a very brief hike, we arrived at our final camp before attempting the summit. We mostly just laid around resting and waiting for dinner before we would lay around and rest again before our 11:00p wake up call. I say that we just rested because I don’t think many of us got any sleep as we excitedly waited for the night ahead. Eventually, we all crammed into the mess tent in our puffy jackets, hats, and headlamps and the last meal we’d have until we arrived back at our camp much later that day. The excitement was palpable as we were finally on the brink of why we’d all come and what we’d been working towards for the last 6 days. We set off at midnight to join the long string of headlamps that were creating a string of lights leading up the remaining 5,000 vertical feet of climbing ahead of us. There was a full moon which made for a beautiful view of the mountain and the town of Moshi far below us. The first two hours flew by before we took our first short water break. At which point I decided to put on some music which really gave me a boost before I grew tired of the music three hours later. The time between 2:00 and 5:30a was uneventful trekking, playing leapfrog with other groups as we would alternate short breaks. Around 5:30a our guide mentioned that we were about an hour from Stella Point, where the final 40 minute trek to the summit begins. This was when the altitude, lack of sleep, and lack of good nutrition started to take its toll on my mind and body. At this altitude, the pace is very, very slow. To get an idea of it, imagine walking slowly, and now imagine walking even slower. Think something like one step per breath. I was paying strict attention to my breathing to make sure that I was breathing deeply, trying to take in as much oxygen with each breath as possible. To entertain myself I was counting my breaths, trying to focus enough to count to 10. This seems like such an easy and boring exercise but I surprised how difficult I found staying focused enough to actually make it to 10 before my mind would just wander off to something else. Nearly uncontrollable day-dreaming. I’d never experienced anything like it in my life. Once we made it to Stella Point we had some hot tea and coffee that one of our guides had carried before we traversed the crater rim to Uhuru Peak, the true summit. This was, by far, the longest 40-or-so minutes of the entire trip. We were so close that we could see it, but we were moving so slowly it felt like it took three hours. On this final leg to the top, we watched the sun break over the horizon in a sign that’s difficult to imagine if you’re not seeing it for yourself. It was beautiful. On August 28th at 7:15a, a clear and cold morning, we made it to the summit! After a few high fives and a very muted celebration, the first and only thing on my mind was eating the trail mix that I had in my bag. We each took some pictures of whatever things meant something to us, either a college flag, or in my case, a picture with a stuffed dog named Tuff before getting together for our group shot. Seven of our 11 made it to the peak at the same time and posed for our group picture with the sign, at which time Chris showed up and joined the shot. Following the group picture, and about 15-20 minutes on the summit we put our packs on and started the much shorter return trip to the camp we left about 8 hours before. Ultimately, everyone in our group made it to the summit that morning.
Tuff is the EHE Foundation’s mascot. EHE is short for Epithelioid Hemangioendothelioma, the type of cancer I have in my right leg. I had Tuff in my pack the entire time and wanted to inspire others diagnosed with EHE that they can still do amazing things, specifically Delaney, a 14-year old girl in Virginia whose mother is selling Tuff as a fundraiser for EHE research. You can send an e-mail here ([email protected]) if you are interested in more info about Tuff!
The descent from the summit couldn’t be more different from the ascent. It is blazingly fast. Lots of little rocks and dirt make up what’s known as “scree” on the slopes leading to the summit. This scree is completely loose and gives way as you step on it, which allows for what’s called “screeing” where you are practically skiing without the benefit of skis. If I was to guess, I’d say you cover about eight to 10 feet with each step after you get done sliding. We covered the same exact route and distance in less than 20% of the time it took to ascent. I was crawling back into my tent by 10:30a thoroughly exhausted. Even at our high camp, the altitude made zipping the tent an out-of-breath experience, so that coupled with the events of the last 12 hours made that simple task seem unreasonably hard. After getting the tent zipped up, Shayne, my tent buddy, and I both fell asleep before even bothering to take off any of the bulky clothes we had layered for the summit push. Fortunately, being in the first group back to camp meant we had a relatively long break before we packed up later that afternoon to begin heading down.
I had promised Kate that I’d take a lot of pictures from the summit, but my camera was broken so I ended up taking pictures with my phone. Before we started to climb that day, I put my GoPro battery inside my jacket to keep the battery from freezing but I didn’t have the energy or motivation to get it out and fiddle with putting it in the GoPro. Thankfully, others in our group captured better pictures up there than I did. I also stashed a couple of Clif Bars in my jacket to keep those from freezing too, but that didn’t work and they were too hard to eat within a few hours of climbing. This really messed up my plan of keeping calories in my system during the ascent. Which is why I was fiercely hungry once we finally made it to the top and I could get to my trail mix. We continued our descent later that day and covered a few thousand vertical feet. We celebrated at dinner that night that our entire group was successful. By this point, most everyone was feeling pretty good with signs of altitude sickness subsiding as we went lower on the mountain, therefore getting more oxygen with each breath. The final morning on the mountain included the tipping ceremony where the clients formally thank and tip the support team of guides and porters. It is a celebration and truly fun time for everyone. We verbally thanked them and tipped them and they rejoiced by singing several traditional songs. It should be noted that the tip almost doubles their pay for the entire trip, so it is indeed a celebration. The last day of walking is a mixture of joy and torture. Everyone was happy to have made it, but walking downhill for more than five hours is tough on the legs and I think we all kept hoping that the road was just around the next corner. Finally, it was, and people were able to get their first coke or beer that they’d seen in what seemed like forever. After a boxed lunch at the bottom, we loaded back onto the same bus that dropped us off 8 days before. I can’t say enough about our entire group. We had great chemistry from the start, everyone truly supported each other by sharing anything they had to ensure each other’s success. I couldn’t ask to be a part of a better team:
Luther Dietrich – North Dakota
Antione Mondoloni – France
William and Ashlee Dance – Georgia
Andrew and Danielle Sharp – Washington DC
Jose DeJesus – Georgia
Chris Evans – North Carolina
Shayne Walsh – California
Justin Bryan – North Carolina
Notes: As a bit of background, the local Tanzanian government requires all climbers be a part of a guided group and mandates the use of local guides. There are a dizzying number of guide companies but one that stood out from the rest was “The African Walking Company”. Unlike many options, they have a great reputation for their treatment of their guides and porters. Peak Planet is a US-based company that teams with The African Walking Company on Kilimanjaro. This was a major factor in choosing Peak Planet.