We came into Africa on a heat wave, and it was the best feeling ever after leaving a very cold Naples Italy just after the New Year. From Rome we stopped in Addis Ababa Ethiopia and then headed down to Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania.
Our tour company Zara Tours was waiting for us at the airport and after we had our temperature checked (for ebola symptoms) we were filling out custom cards and getting ready for our visa. During the medical check if you are wearing a heavy jacket from traveling somewhere colder take it off, you don’t want to heat up while you are waiting in line and then be stuck at the airport longer than needed.
A tourist visa to stay in Tanzania for 90 days costs $100 for multiple entrance and exits in the 90 day period. The representative from Zara helped us fill everything out, told us which line to stand in to get the visa and then the passport stamps. Before we knew it we were through customs and picking up our luggage at the turn stiles.
Walking outside we were brought to our @ZaraTours van which we would be spending the majority of the next 3 days in on our African Safari, much more about this later…!
After our safari we were brought back to the Springlands hotel which is also a @ZaraTours owned hotel located in Moshi (near the Kilimanjaro airport) for the night where we met our guide Macon Dunnagan whom might I add, has broken the record for most consecutive Kilimanjaro summits in one month with 4, and the rest of our group.
There were 11 of us in total, the 5 of us who had come from Naples, Macon Dunnagan our guide, and then 5 other Americans who we met the night before the climb began.
After a few drinks and some reassurances about our climb from Macon, we all headed to dinner together and afterwards decided to turn in early so we’d be able to wake up when breakfast began, rent some gear from @ZaraTours, and have time to pack our bags to be on our way.
It was a 3 hour drive to our start point and there was no hope for a nap during the drive, I was wayyy too excited, which resulted in me chatting away as we climbed ever closer to the elusive mountain which I still had not seen (it was hidden by low hanging clouds). We were dropped off at a pavilion where we saw a big group of Porter’s (people that carry the supplies with them during the hike) preparing their wares for the trek and after waiting on the permits and signing into the logbook we gathered our things and were off.
BUT FIRST, DID YOU KNOW?
That Mount Kilimanjaro was once owned by Kenya? In 1886 Kaiser Wilhelm of Tanzania complained to Queen Victoria of Kenya that it was not fair that she owned 2 mountains while he had none. So, to shut his whining ass up, she gave him one of them (Mount Kilimanjaro), and to this day the Kenyan’s still aren’t very happy about that… I’m not sure what possessed her to give up “The Roof of Africa”?!
A missionary, John Rebmann, first saw Kilimanjaro in 1848 and said it was called “Mountain of the Caravans” by Arab slave traders. The local Wachagga people called it Kibo (snow) which is how the base camp at the bottom of the mountain probably got it’s name. That’s just my guess?!
We climbed to the summit by way of the Rongai route, and descended by way of the Marangu route. January is peak season month for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, especially during the full moon. They sell “Full Moon” packages like candy around these parts and if you would like a smaller influx of people during this month go right after a full moon, which is exactly what we did. One of the most popular routes is the Machame Route which is usually very high in pedestrian traffic while climbing.
You might not recall, but in 1988, our 39th president, Jimmy Carter climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Joseph Meela in the picture above was one of the guides during his climb. Years later, in 2012 Jimmy Carter himself signed a copy of his peace prize lecture for Joseph, which he now carries around with him.
Joseph began climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in the 1970’s as a porter. Over the years he rose to the rank of Lead Guide and has summited over 450 times. He is the oldest most well known guide on the mountain, and the most humble.
About an hour and a half into our climb on the first day we passed through a small village filled with laughing, screaming, children. Macon had told everyone to bring candy for the kids, but I didn’t remember reading that note. The good news is that another couple from Charolette North Carolina did bring candy for the kids and here’s some of what ensued.
We couldn’t stop long because sunset loomed ever-nearer and we wanted to make camp before nightfall.
Onward we trudged ever so slightly slanting upward slowly but steadily. ‘Pole Pole’ the guides always reminded you, ‘slowly slowly’ in swahili. As you increase in altitude you want to go ever so slowly so you can adjust to the oxygen escaping the air and your lungs.
As the daylight started fading we came up over a ridge, and looking back, at first I thought I was looking at water, but then I realized in the haze it was definitely land, and Macon pointed out that we were looking at Kenya. You could even see boarder patrol down below.
Just over the hill and we arrived at our first camp (or Cave 1 Camp as the map dictates). It was perfect too because just as darkness settled in and we got our bags into our tents, the rain came. Just a bit of mist from the mountain (which I still hadn’t yet seen) and so we settled about keeping dry between our own tents and the mess tent where we would be having our dinners.
It was a quiet night, there was boxed wine, popcorn, tea, some amazing food for dinner. Afterwards we played a couple of games of Catch Phrase (HINT: Make sure to have plenty of games on the mountain!) and then we decided to head to bed snug as a bug in a rug in our sleeping bags.
The next morning we woke at sunrise and I ran down the hill to see if I could see Kilimanjaro off in the distance. Still nothing. The clouds were hanging too low for us to see anything. I decided to try again after breakfast but as we packed up camp and prepared for the day 2 hike I still didn’t see the mountain and so we set off.
Since it was futile staring up into a cloudy haze during our trek, I decided to look down and watch my feet since my mom and dad were very concerned that I may just “fall off the mountain” as they deemed it. Wouldn’t want to disappoint them and actually do that. While stopping for a break one of the guides found this guy, a chameleon.
We immediately came up with some ideas of what to put him on to see if he would change colors but it wasn’t instantaneous enough for our short break and when he refused to turn dark grey like a sweatshirt we dropped him on, we let him walk off.
Okay fine, there she is in all her glory. We hiked for about 4 hours on day 2, making it to Cave 2 Camp (I know, these names are real original) and after a hot lunch we lounged around for the rest of the afternoon. Some people took naps, and the rest of us played card games, rummy, hearts, phase 10. Oh and for an hour every afternoon before dinner we would hike ahead with no packs to help acclimate us to the elevation. Those were good hikes, weight free!
We always saved catch phrase for after dinner because it was the only thing that had a light, HA! I did bring cards against humanity but somehow it didn’t make it all the way to Africa. I think I left it in the shuttle we drove to Rome which was a bummer but new one ordered and on the way.
During this night I learned my first lesson. I had packed my own sleeping bag rated at 20 degrees Fahrenheit for the trip and it was pretty obvious as the temperature dropped into the negatives, frosting the ground, that this sleeping bag just wasn’t going to cut it. I had one of the worst nights of my life then. I woke up shaking and added 2 layers but there was no warmth for me on this night. I had to sit up about every 40 minutes and try to shake feeling back into my toes.
I was wearing gloves. And I was doomed. I wanted to be anywhere else in those hours except laying in that tent on the side of the mountain. Even opening the tent door and seeing the stars bright as day did not make me feel good about my freezing body. As the morning sun rose and warmed the frozen ground, it also thawed me out but I realized that we would only be climbing higher and the temperatures would only be dropping lower and I had to say something because frost bite was definitely a factor here…
Luckily, 3 of the people from my group had brought thermal liners from their sleeping bag and one of the guys offered his up.
Later when he was telling someone about his “act of kindness” he stated that when he looked at the situation there were two options: his own happiness, or my enduring a painful death by frostbite. Turns out my enduring a painful death by frostbite won, but just barely. Geez, thanks.
Another 3 hours of climbing and we reached the third camp “Cave 3 Camp” and while we sat and bathed on a sun rock like lizards, Taylor climbed up on the rocks and sat above us looking out at the mountains. It was always so warm in the afternoons and it grew so cold so quickly as soon as it got dark.
This afternoon we played more games and went on an hour long hike. After a dinner of rice and fish (RICE AND FISH!) we settled in for bed. I had pulled out all the stops this time and was wearing my neck warmer and hat. Macon had also given me hand warmers and I threw one into the bottom of my sleeping bag to hopefully keep my toes from freezing off.
The next morning we would only be hiking a few hours, but we would be reaching Kibo camp, the camp at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. We would then eat lunch and sleep for a few hours and at 22:30 (10:30pm) they would wake us up and we would begin our ascent to the summit.
It was hard to sleep because it was the middle of the day and I was not prepared to fall asleep on command, not to mention that the sun was heating up the tent like a slow cooked roast so it was like a hot box inside. They woke us up to eat dinner and as the sun went down I did fall asleep for at least an hour and a half before 22:30 rolled around. It felt like we’d just been zipped into our tents and had fallen asleep when they were tap tapping waking us up again to get ready for the climb.
I put as little as possible into my day pack. It was going to be slow going and strait up so there was not need to bring anything extra. We drank some tea, woke up, warmed up, formed up, and we were off. ‘Pole Pole’.
So it began…
I have no pictures from this part of the trek as the moon was only half full and the best light came from our head lamps. We were guided by the lead guide out in the front, about 5 Porter’s in and around us constantly checking to make sure we were doing okay, and one guide in the back. We stopped often always forming up into a single file line to continue on.
At the second stop I started to feel the nausea. I’m pretty sure it was the lack of oxygen that was making me feel dizzy and I started to feel like I was going to vomit. A couple of people did at the second stop but I was hacking/dry heaving all over the place and still my body refused. The cold was never a factor for me. My hiking boots were good, I wore thin socks, same as when I’m skiing, I was wearing some of my best ski gear layers and fur lined pants with thick gloves. If the cold would have been a factor for me I just don’t know…
The climb continued in a stead rhythm. ‘Pole Pole’, climbing climbing, stop, rest, drink, ‘Pole Pole’, climbing climbing, stop, rest, drink… you get the picture. This continued for 6 steady hours.
Then we hit a bunch of rocks that we had to climb over to get to the top instead of the gravel volcanic terrain we had been climbing up earlier. We were near the top. This is where I couldn’t carry my back pack anymore because I’d try to climb one rock and fall back from the weight on my back. One of the porter’s took my back pack and I was still struggling as I forced myself to climb the boulders. I knew we were close but the exerted effort and the lack of oxygen were making me very sick.
John a lawyer from Tulsa Oklahoma was behind me. He told me that there was one song that he sings to his boys at night when he’s putting them into bed. He began, “Country Roads, take me home, to the place, where I belong… WEST VIRGINIA.” He sang that song twice through and on the second round others joined in. I remember all the words from the WV band. Suddenly I forgot about the nausea and the dizziness and I focused on the rocks and the peak, just above me.
That’s how we came over the top of that mountain, at the same time as the sun began to rise… on a high note.
Little did I know, making it over the peak to Gilman’s was just child’s play. We still had another 2 hour climb to Uhuru and we were all so exhausted at this point. Luckily it was flat as we trailed along the ridge around the crater so we could catch our breath as we trudged on, this time tracking through the snow.
I knew that if I stood any chance of making it all the way over there, I was going to just have to keep going, no sitting, no stopping, and so that’s what I did. Our group broke up at this point, some of us slower than others, and I’m not really sure where I fit in there, all I knew was that I was on a mission and I was going for it.
As I slowly and steadily continued there were all kinds of people coming down, blowing by us as we hiked. They applauded us, cheered us on, and it was very refreshing. I started smiling, we were so close. That’s when I saw the sign for Uhuru up ahead and just let my feet take me there. This time the nausea was back ten fold and I felt like I couldn’t breathe even though I was sucking in air like a hoover vacuum.
As I approached I didn’t see anyone else I knew and just kind of dropped my hiking poles and fell down onto my knees, like a sack of potatoes. I was very close to loosing it at this point and was just deciding how ridiculous I was willing to get when Roland was there shaking my shoulders telling me to look around.
I stopped focusing on myself and did look around, mouth agape. It was so peaceful and beautiful up here. That moment of wild hysteria passed and I stood up, looking around, and smiled, we were standing on the “Roof of Africa”! Moments later the rest of the group arrived and the summiting pictures began. We had an American flag with us and I brought my Alma Mater WV flag with me too!
As we started our trek back, other people in our group were just arriving. To put this summit in perspective for you Mount Everest South Base Camp in Nepal sits at 5,364 meters. Mount Kilimanjaro Uhuru Peak Summit sits at 5,895 meters. We were over 500 meters higher up than the Mount Everest Base Camp and they sit there for almost 2 weeks acclimating to the altitude before climbing higher.
I didn’t want to stay up here too long because every movement was even more exhausting with the lack of oxygen, so after the pictures I decided to be on my way.
We all dispersed again and I ended up trudging back over to Gillman’s Peak with Macon and one of the Porter’s Robert. I left snow messages along the way for the group behind me :). All I could think about at this point was collapsing into my tent. On the trek down we discussed how they needed to put in a zip-line that let’s you fly down to the bottom in just a few seconds flat.
The trek down was horrible. We had zig zagged our way to the top but going back down was just a free for all. There was no time for zig zagging, we wanted off the mountain stat so instead we skii’d down scree to make it to the bottom. One of the guys in our group was so exhausted he laid down right next to a rock and fell asleep. Later I saw him again as I was trying not to pass out myself and this time he was sleeping on top of another rock!
After what seemed like FOR-EV-ER I finally was feet away from the camp and I picked up the pace. Out of nowhere someone came and handed me a cup of pineapple juice, I gulped it down and threw everything inside my tent. Stripped down to my most under there layer, cuddle dud’s pants and a black tank top and toppled onto the bed. The sun was shining, I had both vents open so I had a nice breeze and I passed out in the most exhaustive sleep I’ve felt in days. One of the guys fell asleep half in and half out of his tent with his boots still on. ha!
When I woke up I was drooling all over myself, like all over myself. I didn’t want to do anything except sleep. But alas, we still had 4 hours down to the next camp so we had to eat lunch, pack up, and head out. This was flat open plain area. We hiked quickly along this route and stopped at our final camp on the mountain that night. I was so exhausted I didn’t even take any pictures here.
The next morning we would be waking up early, at 0500 so that we could make it down to the gate and back to the hotel in time for my group to catch their flight to Zanzibar. I would be staying behind for the night.
It was a long walk almost 8 hours down the Maranga route to the gate. We got to watch the sun rise again this morning and walk through the rain forest which was very inviting. It shaded us from the sun, was full of monkey’s and waterfalls (how can you go wrong?). Here I began to struggle. My legs were over it. The scars from my dislocated hip started pulling on my right leg and I started falling more and more behind.
DONE SIR DONE! Summited Mount Kilimanjaro: 16 JAN 2015
That night we celebrated with cold beers, and John provided the cigars which was a very pleasant surprise. I took 2 showers that day, 1 in the afternoon and 1 in the evening. It was glorious to sleep in a bed again although “when the mountains are calling, I must always go”. The next trek of my journey will be to Qatar, more about that soon.
This article appeared first on the Cassey Excursion.