Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

What's the logical thing to do if you're in Africa and enjoy hiking? Climb a mountain! Seems easy enough, doesn't it? I'm not sure why I imagined trekking to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro would be fun and easy. Fun—yes. Easy—not quite.
I called my dad a few weeks ago and told him about my brilliant plan to climb this massive volcano. That obviously included an invitation to the only person I knew that might be crazy enough to accompany me. He arrived February 17th and the excitement began.

We took a 12 hour bus ride up to Arusha, Tanzania. I was told that it should only take about 8 hours, but we were detained at a police station for a while because someone reported theft. I was too enthralled in the pounds of candy my dad brought and endless Tanzanian soap operas playing overhead to notice any delay in our arrival. No complaints here.

We stayed overnight in Arusha and headed to Kilimanjaro the following afternoon. This is the first time I noticed how massive this mountain really is. Uhuru Peak reaches 5,895m. It is considered the world's largest free standing mountain because it is a stand-alone volcanic peak, not a part of any mountain range. This gives it a very large prominence (mountain term for height of peak in relation to the ground level around it). As we approached the mountain, we were driving on flat ground for two hours. Out of nowhere, the ground shoots up above the clouds. I think we found it...

Many people attempt to climb Kilimanjaro because it does not require any technical climbing skills, though they are still prone to severe altitude sickness. Climbing slowly reduces the symptoms, but headache, nausea, vomiting, and fluid retention (resulting in life-threatening edema) are common struggles for all climbers. That is generally the reason why less than 40% of climbers actually reach the summit.

In spite of all these factors, dad and I set out on our journey. We filled our day packs with 3 liters of water, a box lunch, rain gear, and some other equipment that totaled about 15lbs. We met our guide, Herment. He grew up around the slopes of Kilimanjaro, and has reached the summit over 200 times! We also needed an assistant guide, cook, and five porters to carry all the supplies and food for the week.

We were dropped off at the Marangu Gates (1980m elevation). The first day of climbing was 12 kilometers through dense rainforest.

There was a clear dirt path the whole way, sometimes held together by rocks and thick branches. We started around noon and reached the Mandara huts (2700m elevation) by 4pm. There were several groups passing us on their way out. Many were smiling and saying “Jambo” (hello), except for one man. He made a point of telling me that it was a terrible experience and he was very unhappy about the climb. Awesome. That's exactly the motivation I needed on the first day. Most people we passed were from Europe and Asia, but we met three climbers from New Jersey! After dad told a lame Jersey joke from like the 70s they got really excited and told us what a great time we were about to have. They said the last day is completely miserable, but if you stick with it, it feels like the whole world is yours in the end. Slightly better words of advise than that first guy.

I was really surprised by the Mandara huts. There were four bunks in each small wooden hut, but they were quite cozy.

There were also bathroom huts with real toilet seats!! Herment directed us to the dining hall for some snacks.

He said that as we ascend, our bodies will begin rejecting food. We won't be hungry, even if we have been walking for hours. It is important to keep up your food intake and energy level because it gets more difficult as each day passes. Dad and I had no problem scarfing down the fresh, hot popcorn and biscuits, accompanied by tea, coffee, and hot cocoa. That was just the first snack!

We went for a walk just before dark. We were told that there was some crater a couple kilometers away. The crater was probably the least exciting landmark I've ever seen. It was a grassy pit, smaller than a basketball court. But along the way, we were able to see one of the peaks for the first time. It was HUGE! And so far away! What had we gotten ourselves into?? I found out later that night, that the peak we were looking at was Mawenzi peak—the tiny one blocking our view of the bigger Kibo peak that we would actually be climbing.

For dinner they served a four course meal, which could have filled up at least 6 hungry men. Herment was disappointed that we left most of the food untouched, and reminded us again that we must eat and drink more than we can bear. Eating all that food might be a bigger challenge than climbing the mountain!

The next morning, we were served tea and coffee in the hut, followed by a big breakfast in the dining hall. Eggs, sausage, cereal, porridge, and fruit. We received our lunches and prepared for the day ahead. We were joined by a furry little guest. He was a blue monkey that my dad decided to name Jimmy.

We continued through the rainforest for a few kilometers, and then began a steep ascent into moorland. There were no more trees; just open plains of grass and smaller vegetation. Along this path, we had our first view of both Mawenzi and Kibo peaks. As expected, Kibo was much more massive and farther off in the distance.

I think hiking through the rainforest was slightly more enjoyable. In this moorland and alpine brush, you can see everything around you, including the endless path ahead. We walked for about 15 kilometers (six hours) before reaching the Horombo huts at 3720m elevation. It was much colder at this altitude. I guess we didn't realize because we were sweating so much throughout the day. As soon as I stopped moving, everything felt cold. I was bundled up in a bright orange fleece and huddled into my sleeping bag.

But first we arrived at our hut, and it was locked from the outside. That meant we had some roommates. They were a Swedish couple in their 40s. They were climbing with a group of over 20 Swedes, led by a woman who has reached all seven summits (highest mountains on every continent). They had been exhausted, and felt like the group was going too fast for them to keep up. This made me realize how fortunate I was to be with just my father and Tanzanian guides. Due to the small size of the group, I had no problem requesting water breaks and sitting down for a few minutes every hour or so. The Tanzanian guides know the mountain better than anyone else because they usually climb about twice a month. Our guide had just completed his last climb 3 days before beginning ours. They understand the demanding efforts needed to successfully reach the top, and they are also aware that a slow, steady pace will allow people to adjust to the altitude without overexerting themselves.

At this campsite, the Horombo huts have a spectacular view of Moshi town, just beyond the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

At night, you can see Kibo peak glistening under the moonlight. It was beautiful.

The next day, we were acclimatizing near Horombo hut. This was an effort to reduce the effects of altitude sickness. We hiked to Zebra Rock, which was about 4200m in elevation.

On the next 15 kilometer leg of the journey, vegetation changed significantly. We entered an area of alpine desert. These funny looking trees called Senecio were scattered around everywhere.

Surrounded by mostly dirt and rocks, with thin patchy grasses, this area gave some of the greatest views of Uhuru peak.

We hiked closer and closer to the peak, ascending with each step, and entered an area called “The Saddle.” This was the passage between both peaks. The wind whipped towards us violently. With the combination of altitude, exhaustion, and strong winds, this part of our climb seemed endless. It took almost 7 hours to reach Kibo hut (4700m), which is the last stop before attempting the summit.

Dad and I were exhausted. This is when I really began to feel the effects of the high altitude. As I tried to get some sleep, I noticed how rapidly I was breathing—30 times a minute! Around 5pm, our guide came in the hut to discuss the plan for summit day. After an early dinner tonight, we would try to get as much sleep as we could, even though the conditions made sleeping nearly impossible. At 11:15pm we would wake up for breakfast and prepare ourselves for the climb. We were set to begin at midnight.

There was no way I was getting any sleep this night. I decided to pump myself up with some inspirational climbing songs. “Ain't about how fast I get there, ain't about what's waiting on the other side. It's the Climb... Keep on moving, keep climbing. Keep the faith.” You got it Miley. Let's do this.

At wake-up call, I was energized and ready to go. We bundled up in layers upon layers of fleece and windproof gear. This was really it. In the darkness, I couldn't see much beyond my guide's footsteps in front of me. We began walking at a very slow pace. Our guide made it clear that if we attempted to go too quickly, we would get extremely sick from the altitude and be forced to descend rapidly for survival.

My legs were aching. At this point in the journey, we had walked nearly 30 miles uphill! This was the steepest part of the trail so far. The face of this mountain seemed like a nearly vertical ski slope made of small rocks. Footing was so important, and there were a few times when I started slipping downward. My dad almost lost his pack down the mountain! We ascended in a zig-zag pattern, creating our own path. I requested breaks frequently. My guide said I could sit down, but only for less than a minute each time. If he allowed me to rest for longer than that, there was a greater chance that I would get too cold and be unable to continue. We took a break every 20-30 minutes, for 1-2 minutes each—not satisfying, but I understood why we must continue moving.

About two hours in, my legs decided to stop working. Each movement brought a striking pain through my muscles. My back hurt, even though my pack was light. My entire body felt like it was falling apart. My breathing was rapid, and my face was being attacked by the bitter winds. This was the toughest part of the entire climb. I needed one more minute to rest, but my body didn't want to continue. I changed my step pattern to tiny baby steps. I had to keep going.

The struggle continued as the terrain changed again. Bigger rocks became prevalent and we had to crawl over them in order to continue. At least this was working some different muscles.

Just keep climbing. We can't be too far now.

I worked my way over some bigger boulders until I realized the steep face had ended. We had reached Gillman's Point!!! This was the lower side of the volcanic peak at 5,681m. We still had a ways to go before reaching the summit, but I didn't care. The hard part was over. I suddenly had a burst of energy. We cheered and took pictures.

This was an unbelievable feeling. Our guides pulled out a thermos full of hot tea, and we rested for about 10 minutes. I had forgotten all about the biting cold winds and each painful step it took to get here. Nothing was going to stop me from reaching that summit now.

The next section took us around the crater rim of the volcano. Jagged rocks jutting out from ice and snow lined the path.

We walked up, down, and around all sorts of rock formations. Even though this was the highest altitude I had attained, we moved at a much quicker pace. This became extremely difficult as we got closer to the peak. Everything was covered in snow and the slope gradually became more prevalent. This went on for two hours. My guide could see that we were physically and mentally exhausted. We could see the summit atop the next big hill, but all our energy was gone. After one last water break, I started to sing. The guides instantly recognized this song and joined in. We were chanting Tanzania's National Anthem as we marched up that last snowy embankment. “Mungu Ibariki Africa” (God Bless Africa). The words fell in tandem with our footsteps and gave just the motivation we needed to make that last ascent.

At 6:06am we reached Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the African continent.

We posed with the Fairfield Rotary banner at the summit. A tribute to the ones who made this possible by giving me this opportunity in Tanzania!

Just minutes before sunrise, we set down our packs and congratulated each other. We had spectacular views of the sunrise over glaciers and Mawenzi peak.

Uhuru means Freedom in Swahili, and I completely understand why that name was chosen. We were on top of the world. I could not believe the beauty that surrounded me at this very moment. Every bit of effort was worth it for the things I saw and felt at that summit.

That was the hardest I had ever worked to see a beautiful sunrise! I wanted to enjoy every moment.

We could see detailed stratifications in the massive glaciers that lined the volcanic crater.

As we stood at the peak, mesmerized by the beauty surrounding us, I started to feel every inch of my body tingling with cold. The temperature at the peak is approximately -20°C, not including the wind chill. Our guides alerted us that we needed to begin descending quickly. I forgot about that part. I just used up all my energy to get to the top!! This was not going to be easy...

If we thought for just one moment that any muscle wasn't sore, we learned now that it was. This descent would certainly be a battle. 

It took only an hour to reach Gillman's Point where we stopped for another round of tea and biscuits. We had a gorgeous view of the sun still rising over Mawenzi peak, and many climbers continuing their way up the steep mountain face. Looking down that slope was much more frightening than I imagined. The average angle of the mountain face is 45°. It seemed completely vertical from my view. We took it slow in the beginning because we had to climb back down over large rocks at the top. Once we got to the area of small rocks, the guides said they had a trick to show us. The main guide, Herment, grabbed my left arm and started skiing down through the rocks! It was far more efficient than the zig-zag pattern we used to ascend, but not so friendly on our weary legs. I needed to stop every couple minutes because my legs kept cramping up. Aside from the pain, it was a lot of fun. We spent the next hour skiing down towards Kibo hut as the sun beamed down on our faces. My sunscreen had frozen on the way up, so I was in for a nice sunburn after summit day. 

We walked over to the huts at around 9:15am where we were greeted excitedly by all the porters. They all held out their hands and said “Nipe tano!” (Give me 5!). They made it known that we were the first climbers on the Marangu Route to make it down from Uhuru Peak that day. Many other climbers turned back before the summit, or were still on their way up. How cool is that? I know it's not a race, but it made me feel more accomplished for actually reaching the summit. It still hadn't occurred to me what an amazing feat that was.

We walked into the hut and sat down for the first moments of relaxation. This was the most physically exhausting day of my life... and it was still just the morning! Our guide joined us to explain that we should get some rest, and he'd be back to wake us up in half an hour. Oh, yeah, that seems like plenty of rest. When he returned, the cook was setting up lunch in our room. There was soup, chicken, bread, tea, and African french toast. I hobbled down from my bunk with a killer headache and nausea. Altitude and exertion were finally setting in. My body could hardly move. I set my head down on the table and couldn't eat a single bite. I could hardly sip my tea! Herment said that these were normal symptoms of the altitude and we needed to descend quickly. The plan for the remainder of the day was to continue down to Horombo huts that we had stayed in the previous night. That's still 15 kilometers away!! Were they serious?! I moved at a snail's pace to pack my things and start down the trail.

The beginning of this passage was extremely unpleasant, just because of my body's condition. Baby Steps. As long as I kept moving, I'd get somewhere eventually.

The symptoms of altitude sickness subsided with each passing step, but my muscles weren't improving. I limped and staggered for four hours all the way down to the next huts. This was when I finally felt like celebrating. The most exhausting day of my life was winding down. We made time for popcorn, tea, and a delicious meal, and then called it a night. It felt so good to finally lay down, stretch out, and relax for a while. This was the first opportunity I had to reflect on what I accomplished that day. Looking so far back at the mountain, I couldn't believe I was up there. We did it! It was unreal. I was so proud. And I know that I'll always have these incredible memories to share with my dad.

The next morning we woke up for an early start back to the gate, 27 kilometers away. That distance might've seemed impossible a few days ago, but after reaching Uhuru peak, we could do anything, right? Maybe those thoughts were a bit too arrogant considering my body's weakened state. We took it nice and slow.

We enjoyed all the passing scenery, and even a bit of wildlife through the rainforest. Our little monkey, Jimmy, came back with some friends!

Reaching the gate was such a wonderful moment. I know the exciting part was supposed to be reaching the summit, but that gate really meant freedom to me. We finally completed our journey!

With all the pain and struggles, I have to say this was one of the most rewarding adventures of my life. It would've been so easy to turn back at any moment, but we persevered. Every time I think about being up there, I get this rush of excitement and satisfaction. I still can't believe we did it!

I think I'll set my mountain climbing aspirations aside for a little while... but who knows what could be next! 


  1. OMG, I love you so much! I'm so proud of you! This sounds like such a great experience, and I'm glad you got to do it with your dad. You really do deserve that S! Get some rest and start to heal <3

  2. Holy cow. I'm so proud of you!!!! And I'm sure Jimmy is really happy that you named a monkey after him. And really, it's all about the climb :-)

    Just realized that you really love the challenge. Remember the 5k? I do! Hehe. Love ya! Stay safe!

  3. What an amazing accomplishment!! I am exhausted just reading your adventure... this is truly an experience of a lifetime.
    YOU CAN DO ANYTHING you set your mind to doing. I have never doubted you. I am so proud of you, your spirit and your perserverence. You are truly an inspiration.
    I love you Chrissy

  4. yay christina!!!!!!!!!! That's certainly something that not everyone has done/ will do in their life. I know I couldn't do it.
    And as for mountain songs, I was totally, thinking "Aint no mountain high enough!" but miley works as well, lol.