NOTE: For the sake of protecting peoples’ jobs and avoiding lawsuits, the name of our tour company, guides and the people in on this have been changed. If you are the Tanzanian government here to collect your $880, sorry we already spent it.
SATURDAY, MARCH 23, 2013
Yes, I’m aware that gorilla tracking was a once in a lifetime experience, but by Saturday night I was pacing ridiculously around the lobby, regretting not setting foot on Mt. Kilimanjaro.
What, you really can’t have your cake and eat it too? Psh.
We had decided previously in the exhausted Gorilla Tracking vs. Kili debate that Kili held far too many uncertainties to deserve the win: We could get altitude sickness and not make it, now in rainy season we were nearly guaranteed to summit and see nothing but dense cloud cover, our bank accounts would take a $1400 per person hit, and the whole experience could prove to be a lame, non-challenging, patience testing, undesirable ego boosting experience.
So, now on Saturday evening, we were working with three hiking days and willing to dump about $800 per person to find something that could give us a taste of the tallest mountain in Africa.
We quickly sent out emails to several companies that evening inquiring about a three day hike which would take us just halfway up to the summit. We were redirected through multiple national and regional offices and were left with no promises, just a suggestion to show up to Springlands Hotel in Moshi and sort it out when we got there.
Not ideal for this planner, but we went to bed hopeful that somehow this could work.
SUNDAY, MARCH 24, 2013
We were picked up at 7:30 a.m. for the 350 km shuttle trip to Moshi. We arrived by 4 p.m. and immediately suffocated the tour office.
“Hi. We would like to do a halfway Kili hike. Tomorrow.”
An “Oh good god you’re kidding me” smile accepted James request.
James pressed on with his “lets do this last minute attitude,” while I nonproductively walked in anxious circles. He knew I wanted to do this too badly to give it up. After just 45 minutes, I heard a genuine “Hakuna matata” from behind the tour operator window and I knew this thing was on.
Excitedly I jumped up, and as we walked to our room James told me that we would meet our tour guide in two hours so he could brief us on our trip.
Sure enough, that evening Ice Cube greeted us and introduced himself as our tour leader. He reviewed our itinerary:
DAY 1: Starting elevation of Marangu Route is 1850 m (6000 ft). Gain 850 m elevation to Marangu Huts, final elevation 2720 m (9000 ft). Total hiking time is just three to four hours.
DAY 2: Starting elevation 2720 m, hike six to eight hours to Horombo Huts (3700 m).
DAY 3: Descend from Horombo to Marangu gate. Total hiking time six to seven hours.
He asked about our packs and equipment. We convinced him we didn’t require hiking boots, rain/snow pants, hats/gloves, walking sticks, multiple pairs of socks, or a change of clothes.
“It’s just an easy three day hike. We’ll be fine,” we said reassuringly.
He agreed, since we wouldn’t be hitting high enough altitude where there would be snow cover we would be fine with simple gear. We reviewed some final details and then Ice Cube told us to be ready at 8:30 a.m. the next morning.
Excitedly we ate dinner and then returned to our room to redistribute our things. Since we didn’t have much, we decided to take just one pack for a porter to carry. Our day packs on our own backs would carry cameras and water. We filled our shared pack with sleeping bags, rain jackets, pants, some snacks and playing cards. At just 10 kg we called it good and went to bed.
MONDAY, MARCH 25, 2013
Our bags and water were sprawled across the hotel driveway as Ice Cube came inside the gate and greeted us good morning.
“Where is your second bag?” He asked confused.
“We only have one.” We replied.
As he picked it up he seemed to be calculating what the heck to do with his now extra porter (each hiker is required to have a porter which can carry up to 15 kg each).
We jumped in the van and drove nearly an hour to the base of Kilimanjaro. By 11:00 a.m. we signed into the Marangu route base gate and then began the hike.
It was dense rainforest with gentle waterfalls scattered throughout the clean smelling vegetation. It felt so familiar, like hiking Snoqualmie, that we had a tendency to want to pick up the pace.
Ice Cube frequently had to remind us, “Pole, Pole.” Swahili meaning slow, slow.
Although we were only to reach a final altitude of 3780 m, there was still an opportunity to get altitude sickness if we bulldozed up the mountain too quickly. Altitude sickness (a.k.a acute mountain sickness AMS) can occur after 2500 m. Since it can strike anyone, regardless of age and fitness level, Ice Cubes main job was to set the pace to ensure we got to our destination feeling well and standing upright.
Buzzed from the sweet fresh air and stillness that surrounded us, we curiously asked Ice Cube about the experience of summiting this hill. He reported an impressive success rate for getting people to the summit, and that’s capturing nine years of experience. There’s a trail all the way to the summit that’s exposes you to three varying vegetation zones, although it’s in no way “an easy hike” as we imagined. He made the mistake of revealing the quickest he’s ever done the whole thing is two nights, three days, which was required to complete his guide examination.
James and I quickly glanced at one another behind his back.
Nothing was said, but our eyes shouted “Holy crap? It is possible to do it?” Our minds silently entertained the idea of conquering this thing as we carried on another hour before stopping for lunch.
In the company of only the blue monkeys that whispered overhead, we sat at a picnic table and began to unwrap our lunches.
Sitting quietly I thought “No way can I be so ridiculous and ask James to be up for sneaking out of our hut in the middle of the night to attempt to summit this thing.” Staring at the bottom of my lunch sack, I was convinced I would get the “Tarynne, get over it. Let it go and be realistic” spiel (J: I don’t know what she’s talking about. I’ve never heard of this “spiel”).
James interrupted my hopeless thoughts “We should sneak out and summit at night.”
Nearly spraying my mango juice, excited and relieved he’d been the one to suggest it, we began to sneakily plot our escape.
We’re crazy, yes. But not entirely reckless. We were fully aware that the risk of AMS just jumped from doubtful to guaranteed. Going from 2000 m to 5790 m over 24 hours is just physiologically dumb. No doctor on the planet would deny that it’s stupid. Somewhere around a dozen people die every year, and we didn’t want to be the dummies that thought we were exempt from AMS. We knew if we were both to get sick on the mountain in the middle of the night, we’d be in trouble.
With a gram of sense, we collectively decided we’d ask Ice Cube if we could attempt to do it under his supervision. If he denied us, we’d continue to dump efforts into our sneaky escape.
Ice Cube called an end to lunch. Back on the trail, James and I nervously poked each other trying to encourage one another to look like the idiot and ask him.
“Is there any way, I mean physically is it possible, if we, eh, try to summit tomorrow?” James asked.
Ice Cube smiled and looked to James. “Ha, you really want to go up, tomorrow?”
He looked back at me, I’m sure thinking “Geez, can this chick even make it?”
I smiled back at Ice Cube. Somehow convinced, he turned back to James.
“Yeah, we can try.”
Excited, we picked up the pace. We would now be bypassing a night at Mandara Huts and instead spend the night at Horombo, which would be absolutely necessary to acclimatize.
Another hour through the dense rainforest and we arrived at Mandara Huts. Ice Cube told us to eat and drink something quickly as we had a long hike ahead of us and we wouldn’t be eating dinner until late.
We looked around, “Yeah we would’ve been bored here all night” we quickly decided as we ate our snack of popcorn and meat before Ice Cube told us to start hiking slowly towards Horombo. We were now racing the falling sun.
Excitedly we started up the trail. Within 15 minutes Ice Cube appeared behind us, reminding us to go slow, as now the risk of altitude sickness was nearly inevitable and ascending as slowly as possible after 2500 m would reduce the risk of AMS.
The vegetation quickly changed from dense rainforest to stubby trees, and then to small shrubs that revealed incredible views of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the setting sun.
By 7:30 p.m. the sun had left us, alone on the quiet and deserted trail. We didn’t see a single person for the rest of that day. It was just us three and our two headlamps (James lost his a few countries ago). Ice Cube was walking much slower now. It became noticeably colder. The air now undeniably a bit more unsatisfying.
Just after 9 p.m. we arrived at Horombo Huts.
It was dark, quiet, and cold. Most people had disappeared into their huts for the night and we were left with just the company of the teasing Kilimanjaro summit off in the distance, illuminated by the full moon.
Ice Cube checked in with the camp caretaker, telling him we weren’t scheduled to be here tonight but needed a place to sleep as were a day ahead of our itinerary. He then took us to our hut and told us to get into our sleeping bags to stay warm, but not to fall asleep as we would likely not wake up and it would destroy our appetite.
“You really need to drink water and you need to eat dinner tonight, I know you aren’t hungry or thirsty,” he said as he left us.
We stayed awake by playing cards on the floor of our hut. A bit buzzed by lack of oxygen, we rolled around on the floor laughing and not making much sense.
By 10:30 p.m. dinner was ready and we lazily made our way to the dining hall to eat dinner. Ice Cube was right. The food wasn’t bad. We just weren’t in the mood for eating. You would’ve thought after 10 hours of hiking we’d be shoveling food in our mouths, but we had no appetite. Like five year olds pretending to eat so they can be excused from the dinner table, we swirled our forks and slowly ate.
We then crawled into our two layer sleeping bags and stared into the blackness.
“What do you think will happen tomorrow?” We asked each other. Now already starting to feel the effects of the altitude, we were nervous about the reality of how physiologically impossible summiting might actually be.
“I hope it’s you that get’s sick, I don’t want to be the one that stops us from summiting,” James revealed jokingly.
We both laughed, knowing it was true and in a few hours we would begin to find out.
TUESDAY, MARCH 26, 2013
We were up by 7:30 a.m. and again told we needed to eat and drink something. We had a long day ahead of us. We would be attempting to summit today. We could expect to not return to Horombo until around midnight.
At breakfast we shared a table with several people that had summited the day prior. They weren’t exactly talking it up. They were complaining about how they felt, how you get a horrible headache, it’s freezing cold, you get sick, dizzy, and the hike is far from easy. One girl shared that she had gotten altitude sickness, extending the hike to an even more painstakingly slow pace. She said “If you have altitude sickness pills, take ’em” she advised.
We drank coffee, slammed down some Diamox, ate a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter and called it good.
James pushed back from the table, “You ready?”
I was nervous as hell.
We waited for Ice Cube by the trailhead and he approached us with an unpromising expression.
“We have a little problem. The caretaker says you can’t summit unless you are paying for 5 days. He is going to call down to the gates and ensure you don’t leave until you pay.”
We bitched to each other for a few minutes, arguing that we weren’t in the park for 5 days so why should we pay the additional daily fees. We knew the chances of us actually summiting were pretty slim, and there was no way we were going to pay if we didn’t make it to that infamous signpost. We decided to tell the care taker that we were just seeing how far we could hike today and that we would again be spending the night at Horombo Huts, as planned, tonight.
Ice Cube told us to start up the trail while he wrapped up his conversation with the care taker, convincing him to keep his mouth shut and see how the day unfolds before making calls.
Kilimanjaro loomed before us as we slowly shuffled our feet. Ice Cube caught up and walked in front of us, reminding us that today would be one hell of a patience testing experience.
The sun was out but it was cold and bit at your face. We hiked quietly for four hours before seeing Kibo Huts in front of us. It looked like a quarter of a mile, max, but we were walking so slow it took nearly an hour to get there. My heart was pounding uncomfortably fast, I was breathing heavy and it seemed even more ridiculous because we were barely moving. It was getting noticeably colder with each step forward.
What seemed like a decade passed before we arrived at the caretaker station of Kibo Huts. We were now at 4730m, extreme altitude and holy crap your body knew it. I was shivering violently and couldn’t seem to get warm. I had two pairs of pants on, long sleeve shirts, sweatshirt, the most ridiculously warm down jacket, my rain jacket, and wool socks over my hands, and was still uncontrollably shaking.
We were told to eat and drink. That is the last thing we felt like doing. We had no appetite and water tasted gross.
Ice Cube impatiently interrupted my shivering session, “Let’s go.” He knew we would be getting sick shortly.
We started up the path from Kibo. Expected hiking time was five hours to reach the summit, if nobody got sick and we were able to ascend at a consistently slow pace, and then we would take an hour and a half to cross the summit to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kilimanjaro.
This five hour hike was absolute hell. With every step I became more and more nervous that AMS would hit, be paralyzing and we’d be forced to stop and turn back. An hour in, my head felt like it was going to explode. I was still shaking and felt weak and exhausted. A few more painfully slow steps forward and immediately I felt as if I had just slammed one to many cocktails. I felt loopy and drunk. I looked back at James, who seemed to be doing just fine, still playing with his GoPro. A bit embarrassed that I was loosing my footing, I suggested James, who wasn’t struggling to keep pace with Ice Cube, go ahead of me. He’s no dummy and noticed I had morphed suddenly into “stumbelina.”
I’m glad someone was amused.
It became difficult to think. I became confused, ‘Hm, which foot did I just step forward with. Wait how the heck do you balance on two feet? Going forward, nope apparently I’m going backwards.’ All the sudden the rocks became intimidating. I couldn’t pick up my legs anymore and began crawling (like a toddler) over small rocks.
I began stopping involuntarily. I became frustrated. The summit was so close I felt like I could reach out and grab it. Ice Cube encouragingly said “C’mon, don’t give up now. You’ve got 45 minutes.”
Dude, you’re kidding me. This is impossible. My body was done. I was pissed. James knew it and wasn’t willing to stop now. We took a few minutes to sort through it, down some Diamox, and at an even slower pace carried onward and upward.
What seemed like the most miserably drunk 45 minutes of life somehow passed and we arrived at the peak.
Ice Cube could tell I was long gone and handed me some juice. “Drink it,” he demanded.
A couple minutes later I stopped shaking and was ready to tackle the next portion of this bitch of a hill. It would take an hour and a half to walk around the crater to Uhuru Peak. The sun was setting quickly. We would inevitably be walking along the crater cliff in the dark and we could sense the panicked urgency coming from Ice Cube as he quickly led us across the snow towards the tiny signpost in the distance.
At this point I was feeling slightly better, excited no organs had exploded yet. We wouldn’t be increasing altitude over the next two hours and I knew if we could hold out at this altitude for now, we could quickly descend and regain consciousness in a short time. That was motivation enough for me to follow closely in Ice Cubs footsteps. I looked back at James. His eyes were glossy and confused. He was now moving considerably slower than us. Ice Cube repeatedly told us to move quickly. Neither of us seemed to respond. He walked far ahead of us.
The sun was setting behind the clouds beneath us. The view was absolutely incredible. If it were warm I imagine this is what heaven would be like. We were the only three on the mountain. The snow looked like glitter, the clouds loosely clung to the sides of the mountain. The crater was overwhelming and the cliffs edge was a few clumsy wrong steps away from us.
We approached the signpost. We were standing at the sign congratulating us on reaching the highest point in Africa at 5895 m. It was all surreal. How the hell did this just happen? We stood there, silly drunk, overwhelmed and in disbelief. We did it, somehow we summited in 31 hours.
Ice Cube, still forced to talk us like disobedient preschoolers, rounded us up and led us back along the crater. We were now walking along the crater in the dark. We took 45 minutes to briskly walk back to Gilman’s Point (5681 m).
“Ok. You guys ready for this?”
Our bodies were screaming to descend. We felt like absolute crap and were overdue to sober up. Ice Cube turned and after quickly climbing down steep rocks, we abandoned the zig-zag ascending trail and instead plummeted straight down the mountain.
We went skiing straight down on our heels. Ice Cube zoomed down effortlessly as if he were on the magic carpet ride, whereas James and I, still loopy, spent the majority of the time on our butts. After countless rolled ankles, we finally arrived at Kibo huts. We had just descended in 45 minutes, a trip that was supposed to take up to three hours to return.
We emptied our shoes and socks and had tea and water briefly before Ice Cube reminded us we had a heavy three hour hike back to Horombo.
It was dark but luckily the full moon lit the trail. We were now joined by multiple porters as we walked back to Horombo in the dark. Our feet were bleeding, our knees were screaming from the aggressive descent. Slowly the air became heavier and warmer.
What seemed like days passed. It started raining. The vegetation changed. The mountain again seemed far in the distance behind us and we arrived back to Horombo.
Ice Cube, all business, announced, “You guys need to eat.”
Totally wiped out, a bit confused, and without the energy to celebrate, we obediently went to the dining hall just before midnight and ate what we could manage.
We were then treated to the most amazing nights sleep.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 27, 2013
We opened our eyes by 7 a.m.
Realizing what had just happened, we excitedly crawled out of our sleeping bags. We stood up, only to immediately be thrown back down.
Our legs were dysfunctional. We could barely move. We tried going down the three small stairs in front of our hut and failed miserably. Sideways and with horribly painful expressions, we made our way to the dining hall for breakfast.
At this point we were told to keep it a secret that we had summited. Ice Cube would loose his license, we would be fined a minimum of $880, and the tour company would face big problems.
We ate breakfast alongside a father/son pair that we had met at the Marangu Base camp before. They had no idea we had summited the previous evening and didn’t return until this morning. We suppressed our excitement and managed to not reveal to anyone there we had already seen the summit and refrained from sharing how awesome it really is up there. We wrapped up breakfast and then Ice Cube called James over to talk business.
The caretaker knew that we had successfully summited, as Kibo had communicated that we had checked in there the previous evening. He again threatened to call down to the gates and keep us from leaving without paying the $880. Ice Cube reminded us “This is Africa. Lets pay him off.”
So thats what we did.
We made the five hour, 20 km (1840 m descent) hike back down the mountain.
Our legs were in bad shape. My feet were still bleeding, my four month post-surgical ankle was disgustingly swollen, and James knees were pissed. Our quads cried with every step down.
Ice Cube bounced around alongside us.
We made it to Marangu entrance gates and it finally hit what had just happened.
We signed out of the park, declaring that we had only made it to Horombo. We all smiled at one another as we slapped down the pen and walked away from the log book.
Holy crap, that was unreal.
Back at the hotel we struggled to walk. One family laughed at me as I tried to climb down a single two inch curb. James and I laughed “Man, that halfway climb to Kili will kill ya.”
THURSDAY, MARCH 28, 2013
We spent the day hobbling around, amusing staff and visitors with our inability to walk.
We left around noon for the airport. We would be leaving the beautiful continent of Africa for Rome.
Thank you Africa, for those unbelievable 68 days.