Climbing Kilimanjaro, Lesson Learned Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
About 35,000 people attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro every year. Only about half of them make it to the summit. An average of about five people die on the trek each year. Could I be one of the successful climbers to make it to the summit? Hopefully, I wouldn’t be a statistic in that last category.
When we decided to visit Africa, climbing Kilimanjaro was the first thing on my list. I have always dreamed of climbing the highest peak in Africa. If there ever was a “bucket list” item, this was it.
Just the name “Kilimanjaro” was exciting to me. It even sounded mysterious and magical. I found myself humming the song “Africa” by Toto. “I watched the rains down in Africa….. There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do…… As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”.
The flight from Zanzibar to Arusha was a quick one and a half hours. It was a domestic flight in Tanzania, and security was easy. We dropped our bags off with a guy sitting in a chair near the gate and I’m not even certain we had to walk through a metal detector. There were no assigned seats and about ten of us piled into the small plane.
When we arrived, we were met at the gate by a driver holding a sign with our names written on it. We had booked our adventures with Kati Kati Safaris based in Arusha. We had been assured by Sebastian, the owner of the agency, that everything had been taken care of in advance..
We stepped off the plane and immediately noticed the difference in temperature. We had traded the warm tropical climate of Zanzibar for the cool and crisp mountain air in Arusha. We drove the short distance from the airport to our hotel through the bustling streets of this East African city of a half million people. Just like in Zanzibar, it looked as though everyone was hustling to make a living. Shops and stores of all kinds lined the streets and it looked like organized chaos.
We checked into our hotel which was located near all of the activity, but just far enough off the busy street to offer us a quiet retreat. We had nothing on our agenda for the rest of the day and we decided to settle in at the hotel restaurant for an early evening meal. Just as our food arrived, we were surprised when Sebastian, the owner of the agency, walked in and introduced himself. He wanted to personally check on us and make sure that we had arrived safely and that everything that we needed had been taken care of. We were immediately impressed by the level of service he offered.
Sebastian went over our itineraries and told us what we could expect on our different tours. Jennifer had booked a five day luxury safari in the Serengeti. The highlight of her excursion was to witness the great migration. She would have a personal driver and all accommodations and other details were taken care of.
I had booked the six day Kilimanjaro climbing expedition and Sebastian mentioned that he had arranged for me to have a pre-climb meeting with my guide and my chef. They would be meeting me at my hotel the first thing in the morning. Sebastian explained that everyone climbing Kilimanjaro was required to hire a local guide, and that the logistics of the climb required local porters to carry supplies needed for the climb. I needed a tent, food, and equipment for the mountain environment. Sebastian explained that in total I would have a guide, five porters, a chef, and a personal valet as my support team. I have hiked for years and this sounded a bit excessive, but Sebastian assured me that a team like this was the best way to increase my odds of a successful summit.
The next morning, while I was having breakfast, a young man approached and introduced himself to me.
“My name is Ibrahim. Are you Oliver?” He asked.
Ibrahim was young, and strong, and had a quick and friendly smile. He was thirty-something, a native of Tanzania, and spoke perfect English. I later learned that he was college educated and an experienced guide. He had summited Kilimanjaro well over one hundred times. He had lost count a long time ago.
Ibrahim introduced me to the man accompanying him.
“This is Emmanuel. He will be your chef on the mountain. We wanted to meet with you before our climb tomorrow morning so that we could shop for your meals. Emmanuel likes to know your favorite foods so that he can prepare meals that you will like.” Ibrahim smiled.
“He likes pizza and chocolate!” Jennifer volunteered with a laugh, before giving them a detailed list of my favorite foods.
Ibrahim asked about my hiking gear and wanted to inspect it. He found it hard to believe that my entire backpack would be under seven kilos. We had invested in lightweight hiking gear, and even experienced guides find it hard to believe that was enough equipment for such a serious climb.
I later learned that the pre-climb meeting was more about Ibrahim evaluating me, more than my equipment or my food. He wanted to lay eyes on me to get a better idea of my ability to climb, and more importantly, what exactly he would be getting into with me as a client. I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t comforted to find a fifty-nine year old fat American looking back at him across the table. Ibrahim later told me that I was in better shape than I looked. Although he meant it as a compliment, I didn’t quite take it that way.
The next morning, precisely at eight o’clock, Ibrahim arrived at the hotel in a van that was loaded with supplies strapped to the roof. Emmanuel and the six porters hopped out and introductions were made.
“These are the men who will be carrying our supplies up the mountain with us” Ibrahim explained. “They will each carry twenty kilos and they will set up our tents and prepare our camp.”
We posed for a few pre-climb photos and piled into the van for the sixty minute drive to the gate to the park. We would be taking the Machame Route up the mountain on our six day hike. The route is named after the Machame Tribe whose village is located on the lower slopes of the mountain. We would climb for four days and take two days to descend.
Just before entering the gate we stopped at a convenience store with local vendors selling fruits, vegetables, and other food items. I went inside to get one last coca cola for the road when I noticed Ibrahim handing cash to some of the porters. I asked why he was giving them money.
“Some of these men don’t have enough money to buy their supplies for the trip. They asked for an advance on their salary so that they could buy some personal items. These men are appreciative that you are doing this climb. If you weren’t climbing they wouldn’t be working” Ibrahim said.
While the porters all went shopping for their personal items, I returned to the store and purchased a case of coca cola, snacks, and fruit for each of the men. I placed the items on each seat in the van. When the men returned to the van they saw the snacks and began laughing and talking excitedly in Swahili.
“The men are saying that this is a great start to our climb and they are very happy. They say that no one has ever done that for them before. They are very excited to climb the mountain with you” Ibrahim translated for me.
We reached the Machame gate and the men rapidly began unloading the van. The gate is located at 5,400 feet above sea level. Ibrahim situated me in a picnic area and provided me with a boxed lunch. He had paperwork to fill out and forms to sign before we would be allowed to proceed.
While waiting on Ibrahim, I noticed a young man sitting alone and eating a boxed meal. I introduced myself and asked if he was also climbing.
“My name is Joseph. I’m from Morocco and I’m doing the six day climb” he said.
“It looks like we are on the same schedule” I said. “I’m sure we will see each other again over the next few days.”
Ibrahim returned and asked if I was ready to begin. He said that the men had already gone ahead of us and would set up camp. Everything would be ready when we arrived. All we had to do was to hike the eleven kilometers to camp.
The winding trail began in the rain forrest on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro. We immediately began our climb as the trail continued upward. A light rain fell as we departed the gate and the trail was muddy and slippery.
“Po-lay, po-lay” Ibrahim said. (It is spelled pole, pole but not pronounced that way)
This was Swahili for “slowly, slowly” and it would become the mantra for the entire trek up Kilimanjaro. These words were used as a warning when we were moving too fast up the mountain, and they were used as a greeting to others passing us going up or down.
The rain forrest was lush and green and large trees dominated the landscape. Moss, lichens, and small flowers were abundant in the warm, moist environment.
After a five hour climb we finally reached the Machame Camp. My clothes were soaking wet from a mixture of rain and sweat and I was happy to have a dry tent waiting for me when I arrived. I was surprised to find that my personal items had been arranged in my tent and my sleeping mat was inflated and ready for my use. I quickly changed clothes and dried off and took a few minutes for a rest on the air mattress. We had climbed from 5,400 feet to 9,400 feet and I was tired. My backpack was only seven kilos. I don’t know how the porters, each carrying twenty kilos, were able to race ahead and set up camp before we arrived.
After about an hour, Ibrahim came to my tent. He told me that dinner was almost ready but that he wanted to go over a few things with me. He pointed out his tent, the dining tent, and the bathroom tent. He explained how to use the portable toilet and told me that it was exclusively for my use. He also told me that there was someone he wanted me to meet.
“This is Mahmoud. He will be your personal valet over the next six days. If you need anything at all Mahmoud will get it for you. He will take care of everything.”
Ibrahim and Mahmoud left and I was again alone in my tent. A short time later Mahmoud returned with a bowl of warm water.
“I would like to wash your hands and feet before dinner” he said as he reached to untie my boots.
Not used to the personal attention I protested. I was a bit uncomfortable having someone else offer to wash me. But, Mahmoud insisted and began washing my hands despite my protests, telling me that it was his job. I refused to let him wash my feet. He then told me that dinner was ready and that he would escort me to the dining tent.
We arrived at the dining tent and a table was set for two. Ibrahim and I would eat together while the porters would eat separately. Mahmoud poured me a warm cup of tea and placed a bowl of soup on the table in front of me. He then turned and waited on Ibrahim.
After clearing the soup bowls from the table, Mahmoud returned with a plate of fish and chips for the second course. I have eaten fish and chips in restaurants around the world, and the fish that I was served in a tent on Mount Kilimanjaro was among the best that I had ever eaten. The fish was perfectly battered and fried. I have no idea how Emmanuel was able to do that in a tent without a kitchen or electricity. On this first evening, he was able to prove that he was indeed an incredible chef.
After dinner, Ibrahim briefed me on our schedule for the next day and told me to get a good nights rest. Mahmoud accompanied me back to my tent and asked if I needed anything else for the evening. He made sure that I had full water bottles and told me that if I needed anything during the night I should call for him. I assured him that I would be fine. I took my anti-inflammatories, put in my earplugs, and was quickly comfortable and soundly asleep in my sleeping bag.
The next morning, I was awakened by Mahmoud who had a thermos of warm tea and a bowl of warm water for washing. He told me that breakfast was almost ready and that I could get dressed and packed up for the days hike and that he would be back for me shortly.
A little while later, Mahmoud returned to my tent to escort me to the dining tent. Again, Ibrahim and I were seated at the table and were served an abundant breakfast. Mahmoud brought me a bowl of porridge followed by eggs, bacon, bread, and fruit. I had a choice of coffee, tea, or warm milk to go along with fresh squeezed fruit juice. Again, the food was delicious, but it was too much for me to eat. I made sure that Mahmoud and the porters had what was left to go along with their breakfast.
After breakfast, Ibrahim and I put on our backpacks and set off for the days climb. We left the porters behind as they had to break down our camp and pack up all of our supplies. Our plan was for a short but steep five kilometer hike from Machame Camp to Shira Camp. Ibrahim explained that we should be able to cover that distance in about five hours.
The trail consisted of rocky uneven steps that at times felt as though we were climbing straight up. I was quickly winded, but I was adjusting well to the altitude. Soon, we were out of the rain forrest and entered the Moorland environment. We were above the clouds and it was much drier and cooler at this altitude. The large trees and thick undergrowth had given way to shorter shrubs and and small flowers. The steep rocky ridges were covered in heather.
About half way into the hike, I was amazed to see the porters quickly scurry past us carrying their twenty kilo bundles. I was struggling with my light backpack and couldn’t believe that they were practically running by us with their heavy loads. They were barely breaking a sweat.
“Po-lay, po-lay” Ibrahim called out as the porters passed us.
A few hours later, Ibrahim and I arrived at Shira Camp and the porters were busily setting up our tents. We had climbed from 9,400 feet and were now at 12,500 feet and it was just after noon. The porters saw us arrive and immediately began working faster. The head porter approached Ibrahim and apologized for not having camp ready when we arrived. Apparently, we were able to hike faster than we had planned. What was supposed to take us five hours had only taken a bit over four hours. I told Ibrahim to tell the porters not to hurry. I did not mind waiting for them to set up our campsite. I wandered around the camp, resting and taking photos of the surrounding mountains.
After a short stroll around camp, Mahmoud came to find me to let me know that lunch was ready. He escorted me to the dining tent where Emmanuel had prepared another incredible meal. When I hike my metabolism changes and for some weird reason I do not get hungry. Again, it was more than I could eat.
After lunch Ibrahim told me to get some rest. He said that I’d need it over the next few days. Mahmoud escorted me to my tent where I again found all of my personal belongings neatly arranged and my sleeping mat inflated. I decided to take a short nap.
Later in the afternoon Ibrahim came to get me for a short hike. He wanted me to go up to a higher altitude to help with acclimatizing. We would then come back down to the camp for dinner. We climbed for about an hour and he pointed out the various plants and flowers found at this altitude. We then turned around and headed back to camp.
When we arrived in the camp Mahmoud was waiting. He announced that dinner was ready and escorted us to the dining tent. I was surprised to find that Emmanuel had prepared a chicken tetrazzini pizza. How did he make a pizza on a mountain with no oven? It was delicious.
I noticed that when the other porters wanted to get Mahmoud’s attention they would yell out “Bah-dee”. Mahmoud would then go assist whoever was calling out. I quickly figured that “Bah-dee” must be a nickname that Mahmoud answered to.
My water glass was empty and I asked Mahmoud if I get get more.
“Bah-dee, could I please have another glass of water?” I asked.
The porters erupted in laughter.
I looked at Ibrahim who was also chuckling and asked why everyone was laughing.
“You called Mahmoud ‘Bah-dee’ and they think that is very funny” he said. “The other porters call him ‘Bah-dee’ because he is the body man. You are the body that he takes care of. It is funny for you to call him Bah-dee” he laughed.
Over dinner, Ibrahim told me of the next days hiking plan. We would leave early in the morning and climb to the lava towers, also known as the “shark’s tooth”, where we would have lunch. We would then descend to Barranco camp. We would hike about ten kilometers but at the end of the day we would not gain much altitude. Again, this was to help with acclimatization and better prepare me for the summit. It would be a long tough hike. Mahmoud then escorted me back to my tent, filled my water bottles, and made certain that I had everything I needed for the night.
The next morning Mahmoud again woke me at sunrise and brought me warm tea and a bowl of warm water for washing. Again, Emmanuel had prepared another large breakfast before we set out on our hike. I asked Ibrahim if it was possible for us to carry a light lunch with us up to the lava towers rather than having the entire team hike up there with us. The porters could then proceed straight to our overnight camp rather than hiking up the mountain just to prepare my lunch. The porters were happy to oblige.
Ibrahim and I then began our climb to the lava towers. We were climbing from 12,500 feet up to around 16,000 feet before we began descending again. Our goal was to reach Barranco Camp where we would sleep at 13,000 feet.
Ibrahim and I climbed for several hours before reaching the lava towers around noon. We stopped to admire the strange lava formations, ate a quick lunch, rested, and began our descent to Barranco Camp. It was a steep descent down from the lava towers and a long hike to camp. After a few more hours we finally made it to camp which was again set up and waiting for us to arrive. Clouds had set in and and we couldn’t see much of the surrounding area or the view from the mountain.
My tent was prepared and Mahmoud brought a bowl of warm water for washing and snacks. He told me to rest and that he would come to get me for dinner when it was ready. Ibrahim wanted to do another short acclimatization hike but because of the weather it wasn’t possible.
I rested for a while and then wandered about the camp. I saw Joseph, the Moroccan I had met at the beginning of the hike and we compared notes and commiserated about the difficulty of the trail. I learned that Joseph was an engineer and was moving to Houston at the end of the year. He wanted to know about Texas and working in the United States. His job is currently located in France and he told me that he would be going from forty-nine vacation days a year to fourteen days a year. He asked if it was normal that workers in the United States received so few days off.
Emmanuel had prepared another amazing dinner and I could not eat as much as he had prepared. Ibrahim briefed me on our plan for the next day. He said that we would have to get an early start because the next day would be our hardest before the summit. He told me to get a good nights sleep.
Mahmoud woke me before sunrise the next day and brought his usual bowl of warm water for washing and a thermos of warm tea. When I stepped out of my tent I saw that the clouds had lifted. I immediately noticed a huge steep rocky wall and cliff just in front of our camp. The Barranco Wall had been just a few yards away from us but I did not see it because of the clouds. It is probably best that I didn’t see the wall because if I had seen it I would not have rested as well as I did.
We ate another full and delicious breakfast before Ibrahim said that we should get started. We walked out of camp and I immediately was confronted with the wall. A trail led straight up the side of a sheer cliff. It was more of a climb than a hike and when I looked up I could barely make out the climbers that had left camp before we did. There were no ropes or other artificial hand holds and I had to use my hands and legs to pull myself up the wall. There were no railings or other barriers to keep us from falling hundreds of feet straight down.
“Po-lay, po-lay” Ibrahim warned. “Go slowly up the wall. Do not hurry.”
After more than an hour on the wall we finally made it to the top and found a spot to rest for a few minutes. Joseph was at the top and had made it just before we arrived. I had a chance to visit with him again. We drank some water to stay hydrated, posed for a few photos, and got back on the trail. We walked several hours before reaching the Karanga campsite located at about 14,000 feet. Many hikers doing the seven day climb would camp here, but it was merely a lunch stop for us. I was doing the six day climb and therefore If I was going to summit in the morning I would have to continue on to the the next campsite. I was already tired from the strenuous climb up the face of the Barranco Wall and the long hike.
We finally arrived at Barafu Camp at about 4 p.m. We had climbed and hiked for about nine hours and covered nine kilometers. One kilometer an hour is not a fast pace but with little rest and little oxygen I was exhausted. We were now at 15,000 feet and the air was thin and I could feel that it was harder to breathe at this altitude. Fortunately, I was not having any symptoms of altitude sickness. The view of the summit, which was about five kilometers away, was magnificent. It was worth the climb.
Ibrahim announced that we would eat at 5 p.m. and we would go to sleep at 6 p.m. because we would be leaving for our summit at 11 p.m. This was a change from our previous routine of going to sleep at sunset and waking at sunrise.
“Why are we leaving at 11 p.m.?” I asked. “Today we hiked one kilometer an hour and that was a very slow pace. The summit is five kilometers away. At that pace that would put us on the summit around 4 a.m. It will still be dark then, Why would we leave for the summit so early?”
“It will take us seven hours to reach the summit from here. We should arrive at the summit at sunrise if we stay on pace. Climbing at this altitude is much slower than what we have been doing. Trust me” Ibrahim said.
We ate quickly. I still didn’t have much of an appetite and I could tell that Ibrahim was worried that I wasn’t eating enough. Mahmoud stood to escort me back to my tent.
“Try to get some sleep. Even sleeping is difficult at this altitude, but you are going to need some strength for tonight. Try to rest” Ibrahim instructed.
The air was chilly so I got into my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. I put in my earplugs so that I wouldn’t be disturbed by the camp noise. I tried to sleep but it wasn’t easy. I was restless. Maybe it was thinking about the climb to the summit, or maybe it was the altitude, but sleep did not come.
After a few hours of tossing and turning, Mahmoud arrived at my tent. It was 10:30 p.m. and he said that it was time to pack for the summit. He brought me my warm water and a thermos of hot tea and said that Emmanuel had prepared a breakfast for us.
I stepped out of my tent and it was pitch black. I couldn’t see anything but the stars in the sky and they were incredibly bright at this altitude. I looked up and I was a bit disoriented when I noticed that some of the stars appeared to be in a line and they were moving. I then realized that some of the stars were the headlights from some of the hikers who had already left for the summit. The blackness of the sky had blended with the blackness of the mountain and I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
We quickly ate breakfast when Ibrahim announced that it was time to go.
“It is 11:10 and we are already behind schedule” he said.
Mahmoud loaded three full water bottles into my backpack.
“You must stay hydrated if you want to make it to the summit” he said. “Good luck. I will be here when you return.”
We turned on our headlights and stepped out of the dining tent. Two of the porters were waiting and would be climbing with us to the summit. This was unusual because Ibrahim and I had always walked alone and the porters ran ahead of us to set up camp. I had assumed that it would be just Ibrahim and I going to the summit. I later learned that these would be the men who would carry me down the mountain in case of an accident or injury.
“I always take at least two porters with me to the summit for safety reasons. We will hike in a single file. I will lead the way and you follow me. The porters will be behind you” Ibrahim said.
We started up the trail out of camp and immediately began to climb.
“Po-lay, po-lay” Ibrahim warned. “remember to go slowly”.
It was dark and I couldn’t see anything at all except for the many stars and the lights of other climbers. My headlight illuminated the back of Ibrahim’s legs and the ground where his feet stepped. Other than that I couldn’t see anything. Little did I know that that would be my only view for the next seven hours.
The trail was as much a rock scramble as it was a hike. Loose rocks and large boulders dotted the path. It was eerily quiet. The only sound was the sound of our boots finding a footing on the gravel beneath our feet. Our line eventually merged with other climbers who were also making their way to the summit. Some were passing us and we were passing others. There were a few large groups, but these usually moved slower than the smaller lines. Even around large groups of people there was an eerie silence in the early morning darkness.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but speaking used up too much precious oxygen at this altitude. I wasn’t told not to speak, it was just a natural instinct to conserve oxygen. Occasionally, someone would say “po-lay, po-lay” “good job” or “you can do this” to offer a few words of encouragement. But, other than that there was only silence and the mountain.
After about a half hour of climbing, I was already tired. The combination of the strenuous hike from the previous day, little rest and sleep, and the lack of oxygen was making the climb difficult. After an hour or so I needed a break so I stopped for a short rest on a boulder. Ibrahim warned me that if we kept stopping to rest we wouldn’t make it to the summit.
After another hour or so I noticed that I wasn’t thinking clearly. Time became irrelevant. I didn’t know if I had been hiking for an hour or for five hours. I was also becoming disoriented and started stumbling on rocks where I would normally be sure footed. The altitude and the exertion was taking a toll on my body. I told Ibrahim that I needed another rest.
“I don’t know if I can do it. How much further do we have?” I asked Ibrahim. I noticed that my speech was slurred.
“We still have a very long way to go. You have to decide if you want to go on. I’m not going to make that decision for you” Ibrahim said.
I sat and looked off into the darkness. I could only see the stars. Or, was that other hikers above me? I couldn’t tell. Where did the mountain end? If those were other climbers above me in the darkness, it was a very long way to the summit. My heart sank.
I reached for my water bottle and noticed the three bracelets that I was wearing on my arm. I had bought the bracelets from the Maasai tribesmen who were selling them in Zanzibar. The Maasai assured me that these bracelets would bring good luck on my climb. I took a long drink, knowing that staying hydrated would help at this altitude.
“Let’s keep climbing” I said to Ibrahim. “If I don’t make it off the mountain, make sure that each of my children and Jennifer get one of these bracelets. Tell them that I was wearing them while I was climbing” I said half-joking.
“We are going to make it to the summit” Ibrahim smiled.
After what seemed like several more hours in my disoriented state, I was completely exhausted. I reached for my water bottle to take a drink. I put the bottle to my mouth and nothing came out. That was odd, the bottle felt full. I tried again. Nothing. I looked closer and noticed that my water bottles were frozen. I had not even noticed that we were climbing in freezing temperatures.
“How much farther?” I asked Ibrahim.
“Stella Point is about a half kilometer away” he reassured me.
“I’m stopping at Stella Point” I said. “I don’t think I can go on.”
What seemed like another two hours passed. We still had not reached Stella Point. Time was meaningless. How could we have climbed for two hours and still had not covered half a kilometer? I knew where I was and what I was doing, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. The altitude was affecting me.
“We are very near Stella Point” Ibrahim assured me. “Do you hear the people in the distance? That’s Stella Point.”
I couldn’t hear anything.
Another line of hikers passed us. The porters in this group started singing. I could make out the low deep baritone voice saying “Kili-manjaro.” It sounded more like a religious chant. In my disoriented state, it was almost hypnotizing. It gave me the strength to continue.
Suddenly, time seemed to move more quickly. In what seemed like just a few short minutes, we reached a large sign that read “Stella Point”. We were at 18,600 feet above sea level. I sat down on a boulder. We had finally made it!
“The summit is just a half a kilometer away. Are you ready to summit?” Ibrahim asked.
“I don’t think that I can make it. The last half kilometer nearly killed me” I replied.
“There is no more climbing. The summit is just a slight uphill walk from here. The hard part is over” Ibrahim assured me. “You can do it.”
“Okay” I said. “Let’s do it.”
I quickly jumped up and immediately began feeling dizzy. My stomach was queasy. I felt the urge to vomit. Dry heaves. I had nothing in my stomach.
“That is the altitude” Ibrahim said. “You will be okay.”
After a minute my head cleared and I felt better than I had all morning. We started walking toward the summit. It was indeed much easier than the climb to Stella Point. It was still dark but I could see the first rays of the morning sun on the horizon.
I could see another line of climbers walking toward us. It was my friend Joseph. He was just returning from the summit. He sprinted toward me and offered a huge bear hug. He had tears of joy in his eyes.
“Congratulations! We made it! I can’t believe it!” He said half-laughing and half-exhausted. It was the sound of pure joy.
We walked for another few minutes before I could see a sign in the distance. It was Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the continent of Africa.
“Kilimanjaro Summit 19,431 feet” the sign read.
“You made it!” Ibrahim smiled. “And look at the horizon. We are the only people at the summit and we are here at sunrise. We have the most beautiful sunrise in the world and we have it all to ourselves.”
It was about ten or fifteen below zero and extremely cold. A very strong wind was continuously blowing. It cut through our clothing. We stood there and admired the view. It was indeed the most satisfying sunrise I had ever seen, not because of the view, but because of what it took to get to that point.
“Let’s take a few photos and then we have to go” Ibrahim said. “We can’t stay for very long at this altitude and temperature."
We were at the summit for about five minutes before we turned around and headed back down the mountain. Before I knew it we were back at Stella Point. It looked different in daylight and I could actually see where we were. The mountain was beautiful.
I could see the Rebmann and Ratzel glaciers that I could not see in the darkness earlier.
I could now look down and see the camp five kilometers below us. It looked like a long way, but being able to see where I was going was also very reassuring. I was still feeling the effects of the altitude, but I was not as disoriented as I was in the dark.
“The trail down is this way” Ibrahim pointed.
I looked and saw nothing but loose gravel and scree. I took a few steps and began to slide. There was no sure footing. With each step my feet would slide a foot or two downward. It felt as though I was doing more surfing and balancing than I was walking or hiking. If I lost my balance, I would fall on the sharp rocks and loose gravel and tumble a long way before I could stop. And, I was doing this in a disoriented state of mind. My balance was already suffering because of the altitude. Was this the only way down?
“Po-lay, po-lay” Ibrahim reminded me.
I then realized that if climbing up Kilimanjaro was one of the hardest things I had ever done, climbing down Kilimanjaro was probably the second hardest thing I’ve done. And I was doing both in the same day!
What took seven hours to go up took about three hours to come down. My feet were hurting. They were used to hiking and climbing and that was not a problem. But, coming down was entirely different. My feet slid to the front of my boots and my toes jammed the front. They were bruised and battered.
We finally made it back to camp. When Mahmoud saw us coming off of the mountain he ran towards us with a huge smile and a big hug. He immediately escorted me to my tent and offered to wash my hands and feet. I was too tired to protest.
Ibrahim came to my tent and told me to get a few hours of rest. It was only 9 a.m. At noon we would leave. We had a three or four hour hike to our next camp. I got into my sleeping bag and had no problem falling asleep. A few hours later I was awakened by Mahmoud who was telling me that it was time to go.
The rest of the day was a blur. We made it to Mweka Camp, our last stop on the mountain. The camp was much lower on the mountain. We had descended from 19,341 feet at the summit to 10,000 feet. We had climbed five kilometers and descended twelve kilometers, all in one day.
I think I offended Emmanuel who had prepared another wonderful meal, but I was too tired to eat. I just wanted to sleep. Emmanuel insisted that I have something and made me some fresh watermelon juice before he would let me sleep. It was exactly what I needed.
The next morning, I did not wake up on my own, but Mahmoud was there with a thermos of warm tea and a bowl of warm water for bathing. We ate a quick breakfast as I was ready for the final trek to the gate and out of the park. Ibrahim and I set off for the final few hours to the park gate.
The hike was all downhill and the steps were very steep. It was not a strenuous hike, but my feet were still sore from the descent from the summit. We made it to the gate in a few short hours and a vehicle was waiting to whisk us back to the hotel in Arusha. I had never been happier to see a van and driver. I knew that it was only a short drive until a warm shower, a soft bed, and Jen, who would be waiting with a million questions.
When we arrived at the hotel I asked Ibrahim if it would be appropriate to give gifts to the porters who had made my climb successful. He said that they would appreciate it greatly. I ordered a beer and offered to buy each of them a drink from the bar. Being devout Muslims, most of them chose fruit juice over beer.
I noticed that the hiking gear of the porters was old and worn. I went through my hiking gear and gave each man a piece of clothing or equipment. They were extremely appreciative. I had noticed that Mahmoud hiked the entire six days in tennis shoes. He did not have hiking boots. He was much smaller than me and my boots would not fit him. I grabbed Jen’s boots from the hotel room and asked him to try them on. They were a perfect fit. I gave them to him and asked him to think of me on his future hikes. He hugged me and said that he would always remember our hike.
I turned and gave Ibrahim a huge hug. I would not have made it without his expertise and encouragement.
“Kilimanjaro is a difficult climb but you did it” Ibrahim said humbly. “You made it to the summit because of your own hard work.”
I shook my head no. I knew that this was a lie.
“I could not have done this alone. I could not have done this without the porters, and more importantly, I could not have done this without you as a guide. You encouraged me when I needed it and you had confidence in me when even I doubted my abilities” I said. “Thank you.”
Later that evening, Sebastian, the owner of the agency arrived at the hotel to make certain that I had no complaints, that everything was taken care of, and to see if I needed anything else.
“It couldn’t have been better. The food, the chef, the porters, the guide, the equipment, the facilities, everything was exceptional” I assured him. “If any of my friends ever want to climb Kilimanjaro, do a safari in the Serengeti, or just visit Tanzania, I will be sure to recommend Kati Kati Safaris. Thank you for everything.” Sebastian smiled satisfyingly.
When I look back on my climb of Kilimanjaro, it is not the photos at the summit and it is not the beautiful views that I will remember. I will forget the difficulties on the trail, the sore feet, and altitude sickness.
When I look back on my climb of Kilimanjaro, what I will remember will be the people I met along the way. I will remember the smiles of the porters who shared in my joy and who made my climb possible. I will remember Mahmoud who was there to eagerly take care of my every need, and to do it with a smile. And, I will always remember Ibrahim whose expertise made my climb successful. He encouraged me and had faith in me when I had doubts.
The best memories are not made by achieving a goal, the best memories come from the long struggle to reach the goal.
It is not about the destination, it is about the journey.