Kili at 50 – Hiking Kilimanjaro on the Machame Route in Six Days


NOW AVAILABLE ON PODCAST

iTunes

Spotify 

AnchorFM

 

View of Kibo from atop the Barranco Wall

“Did you train much?” my guide Evans Erick asked, the man with two first names, the grandson of a Maasai tribal chief. It was on the descent when he inquired in his soft-spoken English, head turned in my direction.  He was asking my husband Mark and me about our level of preparation. It was nice of him to wait until after we had made it to the summit. Mark was behind us with the head guide Bernard.

“Not enough,” I replied.  My husband Mark and I were not mountaineers and a bit soft at middle age. Some years and a few pounds ago, Mark and I ran in the Clydesdale division in races, designated for runners at 200+ pounds for men and 160+ for women. We’d put on a few pounds since, but what we lacked in fitness we had in hubris. 

Mark planned the trip so late, we would not be able to join other hikers. Going it with a group might have improved morale, spread the cost and the pain, or so I imagined. “About three months,” I added to my response about our training, “hiking 20 to 30 miles a week.” There was no way to train for altitude. We ski and felt ok about the first 10,000 feet.  Who knew what would happen at 12,000 or 15,000 feet? The summit was over 19,000: Uhuru Peak was called the Roof of Africa. We were taking Diamox to help treat for altitude sickness and increase oxygen in the blood.   

Outfitters must accompany climbers. There’s no going it alone on Kili. A permit is required, with guides and porters. The Tanzanian porter is like the Nepalese Sherpa, doing the heavy lifting, camp set-up and break-down for climbers. The ratio for a private group was high and pricing improved the larger the party. The prescribed number of porters for Mark and me was 22, but since we traveled fairly light, with old government issue green army duffle bags, Bernard decided on 21.  That did not include both guides, our cook and waiter, or 25 total people, organized to support our successful journey.Yep, that’s right, an Army sized platoon to get us up the mountain.Mark carried a 55-liter pack and I carried a 30-liter, with gear we felt we needed for the hike, trail snacks, and the day’s water. We also carried a robust medical kit and toilet paper, all of it in water proof sacks. The weight was maybe 15 to 30 pounds. 

Three of my friends hiked Kilimanjaro this year. Mike was a classmate and former Army ranger. We talked about his training one day when he was at the gym. Look the ascent is hard. You’ve been going and going several days by then. He told me folks didn’t make it. Other friends, a father and son, hiked Kili too. The son John was a runner and a Cross-fit guru. He stood outside my car one day, muscles and skin glistening from his workout, his eyes elsewhere, as words poured forth. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You start before midnight for the summit and …  I fell down when we finally got to the top, kissed the ground.” 


FLIP FLOP MOUNTAIN & DAYS 1 TO  3

There is the idea of doing a thing and the actual thing itself. The hike hadn’t been on my mind for long. Why climb Kilimanjaro or any mountain for that matter? In my case, I turned 50 and Mark gave me the trip as a gift. He figured we weren’t getting any younger. In some ways, the short lead time was good. Thinking about something can create stress, burdening it with more worry than it might actually cause. Plus, he and I love adventure and a goal is a lot like a deadline, sometimes the only motivation strong enough to get me going. 

In the Adirondacks when my children were young, we left a lake and decided to go on a hike. We had bathing suits under our clothes and flip flops. The trail sign noted the distance at 0.5 miles, a short family walk. Along the path, people hiked in boots with trekking poles. On a rock scramble about a mile or more in, a group of boys heading down remarked, “No way! They’re in shower shoes and skirts.”  Turned out the hike to the summit was 2.5 miles one way. I had mixed feelings about climbing Kili this year with my graduation thesis due just days before the climb. The flip-flop mountain experience reminds me that worry doesn’t help. We had hiked to the peak and back, fairly stress-free, certainly with little forethought or planning. The worst of it had been a bit of thirst and a blister or two, but I hadn’t given much thought to the hiking, which had seemed to be the case with all of us. And, that gives me context, even a bit of peace about Kili.

Mark booked the Kili trip in February for the beginning of June, the end of the wet season, or at least we hoped if we were lucky. And we were. The first four days were ideal, dry and sunny. You don’t need mountaineering skills, crampons, or an axe because this is a long hike, a walk-up mountain. The average Jane can do it, though it helps to train. I didn’t sleep well the first two nights, especially on Shira which was a wide-open stretch of rock and heather. Wilderness seekers know about the sky. I don’t see such a sky at home with the ambient light of New York City and my neighbors’ house lights. To see it from the mountain at such elevations was primeval, a calling to something deep inside, the night so brilliant as to resemble an infinite canvas in a dotted luminous glow. 

The first day, Mark and I hiked 11 kilometers through the rain forest to Machame Camp, just above tree-line at 9927 feet (a 4200 feet altitude gain) where I did not sleep much. We would progress through a total of five climate zones on our way to the summit, seeing plant and animal life, many species uniquely adapted and only found on this stand-alone mountain in equatorial Africa. From jungle to heath, moorland, alpine desert and arctic summit, the guides introduced us to a land of extremes.  On the second day, Mark and I hiked to Shira Camp (12,600 ft), near one of the mountain’s three volcanic cones.  

Shira Camp at end of Day 2

The winds whipped through the camp and jostled our two-man Mountain Hardware tent through the night. It felt personal, like God was wrestling me, there on the mountainside. Mark slept fine and around midnight the flapping stopped. I could hear Bernard snoring in the guides’ tent next to us and I managed to doze off. I felt the lack of sleep the next day. Hiking into the moorland was cool and provided expansive views. I was beginning to feel the altitude, and the guides’ mantra “Pole Pole” for slowly, slowlytook on real meaning. It let my lungs adjust and my leg muscles adapt. Mark had this pace down and the four of us stretched out along the trail with Evans at point then me, then Mark and Bernard at the rear. The cook and porters passed us after breaking camp, to set up lunch at the Lava Tower at 15,181 feet, a massive heap of rocks near the end of the hike and a good place to acclimate to the elevation. I felt the ascent and realized I hadn’t been drinking enough, chewing gum when I should have been sipping water from my drinking tube.  I felt the combination of dehydration and lack of sleep. Bernard said it was his first time back since the rainy season ended and he felt it the next day after not sleeping himself that evening.  Good to know that guides were human too. 

The hike with head guide Bernard to Lava Tower

I left the Lava Tower, feeling better after hydrating and eating lunch, as well as taking in more oxygen on the short descent to Barranco Camp. Mark and I did not have cell service, which was a good thing and novel for Mark, more than me. I often go un-plugged and seek out solitude. There were no tweets, no calls, no Email or crises or family or work. Just me, my feet, the ground, the air. Hiking off the grid made life fairly straightforward. It felt good to let go of the woes of home, to think of nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other, to watch Evans’ large boot strike the ground and to put my own foot in its place. I could feel the pack against my back, my weight in each step, the mountain path solid beneath me. 


THE GUIDES 

Each night, Bernard prepped us for the next day and checked our appetites, attitude, and health. He was meticulous in his planning, a man who had been doing this for 17 years, climbing the mountain over 150 times. He made notes each night, recording our oxygen level. The device took the reading after being clipped on a finger and it was erratic, or our fingers were anyway. He had us warm our hands and tried it on different fingers. Mark’s readings fluctuated, his oxygen level dipping into the 70s. Bernard recorded the highest level. He said he didn’t like climbers to hike below 80%, which made sense to me, but I had no reference point. Aside from getting easily winded with hurried movements, my body seemed ok. Mark gave Bernard cause for concern, with low readings. 

I had to take ‘monkey breaks’ often, the phrase Bernard used for heeding nature’s call, as in I’m stopping to see the monkeys. I was drinking roughly four or more liters daily. I also had some gastro trouble in the second and third days, so Pepto and Immodium helped. The main concerns I had about the hike were stomach and altitude challenges. I felt OK about my fitness level and my attitude, key factors for success in most adventures. I was worried about Mark’s joints, especially his knees and ankles, bodily stress from football, rugby and the Army.  

Bernard told us he was Chakka, one of the regional tribes, and one Evans said had lived near the mountains and in the caves. Getting to know the mountain was inseparable from getting to know the guides and porters. The Machame route was filled with the sounds and silence of nature, as much as it was with the porters’ banter in Swahili, their large rolls balanced on the head or shoulders, the silent nod of the guides as we hiked. Bernard was copper skinned, round in the face with dark eyes, quick to laugh and quick to act if anything was amiss, with concern in his brow over a sick cook or a hiker’s oxygen level. 

Evans was quiet and observant, a guide Bernard had worked with and trusted. He was tall and strong, in a tank top and knee length shorts the first day, his hair bundled beneath a burgundy Rasta style cap, and a patch of hair beneath his lip. He was forty-three and a bachelor because he wanted to establish himself first. He wore copper bracelets, a gold cross on a heavy chain which matched two gold caps on his teeth. His espresso colored skin had a gun metal glint in the sun and he watched me put sun protection on my hands, nodding when I asked, that he didn’t need it, the anatomical advantage of the African in Africa. He didn’t want the hike to end because he loved what he did. There were forty some guides and he didn’t know when his next job would be. He worked for other outfitters and would check when we returned. He loved photography and birds and I can see him in our dining hut at night, explaining the lesser flamingo’s eating habits, the inversion of its head, the movement articulated with his hands and the precise number of times the bird would filter the water for its food. He had a particular passion for English and Bernard deferred to him to translate Mark’s comments to the porters at the end of the trip

Evans pointing out flora in the Mountain Forest

JAMBO, DREADLOCKS & DAY 4

Mark and I left Barranco early, just after 6:00 AM, to hit the Breakfast Wall, since hikers tackled it first thing after breaking camp. We crossed the glacial streams which I could hear in the night, a calming peaceful contrast to the gales on Shira and a camp where I had my first full night’s sleep. The Barranco Wall was a highlight of the Machame Route and we were one of the first climbers, which was good for two reasons: seeing hikers extended vertically up the wall might have been disparaging and it provided an ideal experience at the top.  The 843 feet of elevation would take us the better part of an hour. The climb was not hard. The difficulty was more because of the view below and above, the idea that you could fall and the fear of heights palpable for most. Scuttling around one outcrop, Evans stretched his arms in a big bear hug and kissed the wall. Mark did the same. The scramble up felt great, the rock a physical connection of hands to mountain and a substantial movement upward, leading us to a spectacular view. As we dropped our packs on the rocky top, the sun broke and we could see our camp below, Shira in the distance, blue sky and a stretch of clouds to the southwest. Sunny and cool. 

Evans took off his hair cover and he leapt in the air, exuberant with joy, his dreadlocks flying. I could see the child and the man in him, and it made me laugh. He bounced up and down on the top of the wall while Bernard took photos. Evans wanted a photo of himself suspended in air. Mark and I visited an artist community after the climb and saw paintings of the Maasai jumping dance, the body lean and muscular, high above the ground. It made me think of Evans, air-bound above Barranco. 

“What do you hear when you listen to Swahili?” Evans asked. I hadn’t thought about it much. I liked the sound of the porters singing in their tents, the trail banter and the quick exchanges of conversation. 

“Jambo!” for hello and “Karibo” for please, the term similar to saying after you on the path, when stopping to let the porters pass.  I’m not sure I thought much on the trail, a goal of hiking to get out of my head, to just be. Long swaths of time passed and I imagined I felt part of the landscape, integrated with the mountain. The feeling eludes me at home, in a sedentary existence with its entrapment in routines and schedules and activities. Talking with Evans got me thinking about his life, Tanzania, a world apart from my own. I said I wasn’t sure about Swahili, that maybe there was a sing-song to it, with Arab and coastal influences over the ages. Evans explained the strong Spanish and Portuguese legacy, such as Barranco which was Spanish and Portuguese for ravine. 

I hadn’t familiarized myself with Kiswahili, the term native speakers used for the language, and I regretted it. I was a visual learner and seeing the words would have helped with pronunciation. I was focused on the hike and hadn’t considered the importance of the people, not only in making it possible but in my understanding of Tanzania and the mountain, the lens through which I experienced Kili. 

Evans and I talked on the trail, conversations broken with silence and story. I learned about his life, his family, going to school in Kenya and Tanzania’s refusal to allow him to join the Army because of his education outside the country. His mother was an Olympic level runner but was not allowed to compete as a woman. I told him about my mother who qualified as runner from Vietnam for the Olympics in 1964 but funds were diverted for the rainy season. He had half-brothers and family he didn’t know because his grandfather had different wives, a common practice of the Maasai. He told me about the last time he saw his grandmother who said to him, “My husband my husband! Where are my children?” She called him husbandas per custom, because he was a direct descendent of her husband, a Maasai tribal chief. It touched him because of the intimacy and pained him because he had no children for her. 

Tanzania has 120 some different African tribes and locals we met often told us their tribal history. The Maasai are one of the fiercest tribes in the African Great Lakes region, a Nilotic group of herders, whose lands have been diminished through development and national park designations, not unlike the Native Americans. The Maasai still live a semi-nomadic life style and can be seen with their cattle herds along the roads and in the game parks. The government has encouraged the Maasai to abandon their traditional lifestyle but the people have persisted with their customs and culture. 

Seeing young male herders nearby in the checkered shuka or shawl, the airport driver had remarked to us, “Yes, you see the Maasai with a stick (for herding) in one hand and a phone in the other.” Whether they chose to modernize or not, influences from the outside world were inevitable. In this patriarchal tribe, the women wear their hair short and only the Moran, or warriors who have come of age, are permitted the distinction of wearing their hair long. Evans’ grandfather was a tribal chief and I wondered about his son’s decision to leave the pastoral life. Evans held on to Maasai values, which he shared in stories and comments, and embraced modern ones, from his education to his diet which reflected a culinary curiosity, as he described his love of fish. Maasai eating habits have undergone modern influences but custom involved eating only beef, blood and milk. Cattle were divine, the tribe’s source of livelihood and wealth. Many Maasai would never consider eating anything else. 

Maasai herders with cattle on side of road

Evans loved photography and birds, animals, studying English. He bought a second-hand camera and computer. I had all sorts of ideas and suggestions, thinking what an amazing social following he could have as a Maasai chief’s grandson, with his photos of animals up close, his regional expertise, his mastery of English. I asked and suggested things accessible in our society and herculean for his. What did I know of Tanzanian life? He masked his umbrage but not well enough. He asked rhetorical questions for which he wanted no answer and stepped out on the trail, stretching the gap between us. Bernard called ahead, telling me not to try to keep up. So it was, to be friends for now on this trail, to be worlds apart at home. 


POLE!  POLE![1]  

The Machame Route was six days and five nights, suitable for physically fit people. Many hiked Machame on a 7 day route, which provided more time to adjust to elevation, and had a higher success rate. Had we known this, we would have opted for 7 or more days. Experience was a hard school. If you’re 50 and not in great shape, book more days. Odds improve and the body could use the rest. We met three Swedes along Machame who also decided to hike the mountain when they turned 50. One had altitude sickness with vomiting and headaches. We saw them on the descent and only one made it to the summit. We logged in at the ranger station at each of the camps, scanning the registry by age and country. Hikers were in their 20s, 30s, a few in the 40s. Mark and I were often the oldest, which inspired us because we figured we were keeping pace. The old hikers inspired me more, one at 62 years I think, another 65.

The first three days to Barranco were temperate when the sun was out, but grew cold after dusk. The next day, sensing the damp and the dark ahead as the hike was ending, I could feel the climate change at higher elevation. The Dendrosenecio rose up near the waterways, the Giants of Kili which stood like sentries on the way to camp, a kind of candelabra shaped palm with leafy tops.  They seemed spooky, out of place in the alpine zone and a part of the same family as the dandelion, a kind of monstrous weed. They stood up to five meters tall and were unique to the mountain, living only around 14,000 feet. I had trudged through the moorland and alpine desert, a zone nearly bereft of life, mostly scree and rocky outcrops, the colors gray and dusty brown, a kind of steep lunar landscape. The giant mutant weeds seemed an alien life form. 

Author and Evans hiking by the Dendrosenecio, the Giants of Kili

Barafu was the base camp (15,331 feet) for several trails to assault the summit, yes assault. That was the term used for an attempt to reach the top. To give you an idea of the final climb, the hike from base camp to the summit was an elevation gain of over 4000 feet. It was cold and I had a feeling of what mountaineers might experience, not something I planned on doing again in the near future. I unpacked my summit gear: ski jacket, Turtle Fur for my neck, heavy skull cap, gloves.  The first days I had hiked in trail shoes with running gaiters, the Altra Lone Peak 4 for those with tender feet. But I brought my hiking boots because I’m a wimp with the cold and a midnight ascent would mean frigid temperatures by 3:00 AM. I had my heavy wool base and wool long sleeve shirt to keep my core warm. I put on both pairs of leggings beneath soft-shell pants. We had four hours to sleep with a wake up at 11 pm. Mark and I picked up a cough, hacking in the night and Mark didn’t sleep.

Bernard took Mark’s oxygen reading and was alarmed. It was 64%. He tried other fingers and the reading hit 80%. He asked about the coughing because the guides’ tent was next to ours. When Mark was hacking, it was the kind of sound that shook the body, the tent, and at home, could be heard at the opposite side of the house. I was hacking too and began to spit up green phlegm. I decided that we should start our erythromycin three pack of antibiotics which would help with my GI issues, and we agreed not to tell the guides. Bernard was iffy about the ascent for Mark who had no sleep, a deep cough and low oxygen. I could see the tell-tale worry in Bernard’s brow. Mark looked grim, his face pinched during the readings. The red digital numbers were upside down and he misread the numbers, thinking his level was 58 instead of 85 as an example. 

“Look,” I said, “The reading is OK on the ring finger. Let Mark go; we’ll take one step at a time. If he feels bad, we come down.” Mark had fight in him. He also appeared skeptical, maybe as much as Bernard. This was likely more about the descent which wreaked havoc on his knees, as much as his concern about the altitude and whether he would have enough oxygen. I believed in Mark. Plus, he brought a magic potion: real or placebo, he believed in it. He packed it for the hike, a new drink called X2 energy, used by ultra-athletes. Sometimes we need a little something, a concoction, a go-to.  

Barafu – base camp for the summit climb

SUMMIT ASSAULT – DAY 5 & 6

Our waiter John woke us up with coffee and tea, then served hot breakfast in the dining tent. Bernard and John monitored our plates, checking to see if we were eating. Appetites dropped at high altitudes and I ate the eggs but not much else. Mark was about the same, the knowledge of needing energy trumping the lack of appetite. Mark had most of his clothes on, Gortex pants and base layers, Carhartt ski cap and ski gloves, poles. I had mixed feelings on poles, forgoing them the first days because I liked having my hands free to steady myself on rocks or my surroundings. I hadn’t much experience with them but Mark and Bernard insisted. They were helpful on the descent and spared my knees.

When we were geared up, I felt like I was heading out to ski: I had my hood over my 10th Mountain Division ski cap, tied up my boots, pulled on my gloves, extended my poles, and followed Evans to the trail. We had our head lamps on in the night, a few days past the new moon, so nearly black out. The guides’ packs were light and the porters would not ascend with us, because we would return to camp after the summit. Lamkin carried medical gear, as he had been the entire route, oxygen tanks and bariatric chamber. He was a quiet presence in the rear, often going unnoticed. Bernard had a core crew of seven porters and the medical porter was one of them. He had lost the cook to malaria early, something that often doesn’t present itself until the strain of the hike. A replacement cook was sent. Another porter had altitude sickness and had to leave, so two of the 25 in our support group did not make it. 

At midnight, the trail was a nearly endless series of switchbacks and the line of hikers looked like a zig zag of lights on the mountain. I scrambled over boulders and small cliffs at the northern end of camp. The dark kept me from seeing the trail ahead, which was probably good because it forced me to focus on my feet. I took a monkey breakand could see wads of TP and human excrement. The guides said the park rangers were weighing gear again at the park exit to ensure trash was not left on the mountain. The porters set up a privy tent for us at each stop and dumped it in the restrooms when they broke camp. That didn’t address the monkey calls in between and the No Trace we read about which no one seemed to practice. Most of the trash was around the camps and behind the large boulders on the trail. The route was predominantly clean and natural, but the park needed to clean up the camps and restrooms. I was grateful we had our own privy, especially after using the camp stalls. 

An African guide sang in Swahili on the ascent and other guides answered. It was resonant and welcome in the dark, distracting me from my labored breathing and steps. It reminded me of military Jody calls for march cadence and I shared a few lines after the singing stopped, thinking Mark might answer back. He did not. It was habit for me to sing cadence when I was tired, often in my head, counting to the rhythm of my feet striking the ground. I let Mark go ahead of me, explaining to Evans it would be good for him to take lead. Mark drank his X2 energy drink and felt renewed, stronger. I felt strong, but breathing was tough. I had to concentrate to breathe deeply. The slow pace upward and the thinning air made the hike feel like a walking meditation, with each breath and step thoughtful and intentional. Pole Pole. 

My fingers were getting numb and I switched into my heavy ski gloves with warmers. Evans had his hands in his pockets. When he helped me, I saw holes in his hand liners. He managed the climate changes well. I was cold most of the time I was in Tanzania, especially along the Machame Route to Kibo, the crater atop Kili, and later on safari in the Ngoro Ngoro Crater fog and Serengeti high plains. Only a few degrees from the equator, I was surprised to feel cool, even cold, for most of my two-week visit.  I never wore shorts. I wondered if Evans’ hands were cold and imagined they must have been, since he shoved them in his pockets. Did he not have a pair of gloves? 

Well past one in the morning, at 15,955 feet elevation by Kosovo Camp, we climbed past the height of the highest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc at 15,781 feet, though I hadn’t known it at the time. Conditions deteriorated from there, the cold seeped into my layers and air pockets, feeling worst at my fingertips and toes. I had put warm water in my pack at the start and the water in the tube began to freeze. The key to keeping the water from freezing was to blow back into the tube until you heard bubbling, keeping air in the line. I began to do this and expelling even that amount of air was tiring. To stop moving was painful, the heat generated through the labored steps kept my core warm. I had to take two monkey breaks in the dark, which was no laughing matter, exposing the back side in such extremes. Mark and the guides rested, while I left the trail. 

Breathing was intentional and every movement essential. I felt my lungs expand and contract, a conscious effort to take in oxygen and push forward in the darkness, two meters of my lamp light the extent of my vision. The goal was to make it to the end of the light, to go the two meters, and so on, all the way up Kili. I caught myself calculating hours until sunrise, or BMNT, before morning nautical twilight, the term used in the military for planning tactical operations during this time. It was three hours away, then two, then one. The body became a vehicle for the mind and the will, human fortitude and drive overriding the physical senses, the strain, the cold, and the thin air. 

And there it was. At long last. The illumination at the edge, first light, that heavenly glow along the expanse of the world. The sun had hit 12 degrees below the horizon and all else was dark, objects mere shadows. I think it was Venus that hovered above the eastern horizon. I never loved the sun so much as I did that day. The sun was Earth’s star, my star, and it would bring light and warmth and life. At six degrees below the horizon, the diffused light scattered into the atmosphere. The long line at first a streak of white, then orange and white with gradations of blue above, and the clouds appeared, stretched out below, encircling the cone, a billowy white cloth between the mundane beneath us and the spiritual. I could see the final stretch to Stella’s Point, the crater rim, all of it scree, slippery and back sliding, one step forward and a half back, wedging the feet like ducks for traction. This last approach was made bearable by the knowledge that I would be getting warmer, that I had risen above the mist, that I was nearing the destination. 

Stella’s Point at daybreak on Day 5

Our porter gave us cookies and hot tea at Stella’s Point. I dropped my pack and took a photo by the sign with Mark. There was no snow along the trail but northern and southern glacial ice fields ringed the cone. From Stella’s, I made the 45 minute final trek along the crater rim of Kibo, no crampons needed, to Uhuru Peak, 19,341 feet above sea level. A couple dozen people, some coming and going, huddled and snapped photos at the summit. The weather was clear with the sun warm on my face, and Mark and I stood above the entire continent at the Roof of Africa. 

As I stepped away, a young man noticed the logo on my hat of a panda on skis. This patch was a West Point design to honor the 10thMountain Division during an Army Navy football game, so he asked if we were graduates. The three of us were alumni who served in the Army and this man, Jason Hunt, was a new Army lieutenant who was hiking Kili with his father. He had also been in the same cadet battalion as our daughter. We shook hands and took a photo at the summit. The world seemed a smaller place after all.

Kibo rim between Stella’s Point & Uhuru with view of Southern Icefield

I descended along a different trail, opting to do so in the scree, which was like skiing with poles in loose rock and dirt, shifting weight with each foot slipping and sliding down. Falling back was softer and Mark chose the scree too since it was more forgiving on his joints. A few fast-packers “skied” by, making incredible time, and one fell and bounced back up. They resembled slalom or mogul experts, shifting weight from side to side as they darted down. Evans led me down, told me to stay loose and we slid down the grayish dusty sea, in my ski gear. It worked new muscles and I had to stop often. We descended into the mists and rain around the moorland and heather.  Back at base camp at Barafu, we took a short one hour nap, then packed out to the Mweka route in the drizzle, layers removed, ponchos on. Mark was moving slowly as we got to the rocky trail, each step placed carefully, saving his knees by shifting weight to his poles. 

A group of screaming porters ahead were arguing about the best way to move their litter, a large man Mark remembered seeing on the hike. He was zipped in a sleeping bag, strapped onto a one wheeled metal gurney. Maybe there were eight or more porters lifting and struggling with him over boulders and through the thick wooded forest. There was nothing smooth about the trail, broken by rocks, boulders, roots, tree trunks. We were losing light and were well into the afternoon, maybe 15 hours past our start. Bernard called on the radio and had the porters bring headlamps so we could see. They tried to take Mark’s pack but he wouldn’t part with it, arguing the weight wouldn’t affect him. He needed to move slower for his joints and he’d have to be carried out before he let anyone take his pack. We got to camp at 7 PM in the rain. We’d been going 19 hours after our wake up at 11 PM the night before.

That night we divvied up the tips by person, for the porters, cook, waiter and guide. I was still hacking and both of us were wet through and through. Mark and I took our antibiotics. I finally took advantage of the in-tent urinal system[2]I brought and Mark did too, both of us swearing on its merits and wishing we had done so on previous nights. It sure beat throwing on jackets and shoes to go to the privy in the downpour. The Gods had been gracious for four days and let loose on our descent. We couldn’t see for the clouds and mist all the way out of the park, but it was a small price to pay to summit on a clear day. 

 

ASANTE SANA[3]

At breakfast on day six, Mark gave tips to the guides, waiter and cooks, then thanked them personally. He later gave his pair of gloves to Evans. Outside the tent, the porters circled around and Mark spoke to them while Evans translated.

“This hike, especially the last part, was very hard. Without you, we would not have made it…. We have the best porters in Kilimanjaro. Thank you.” Then he explained the amount in tips they would each receive and they sang us a folk song about Kili as they clapped their hands in the morning drizzle. I knew some faces but did not recognize them all. It took 25 people to get us to the summit, an embarrassingly large number for just the two of us. To my friends in Tanzania, Asante sana. (which is Swahili for Thank you very much)

The impatiens I saw in the jungle the first day was a brilliant orange and yellow flower barely larger than a thimble, first described by Evans as the Flower of Kilimanjaro. Leaning in to see and pointing it out, he noted its shape as the elephant’s trunk, the comparison in some ways ideal. Yes, just like the elephant’s trunk. He saw the world through a Tanzanian lens and the animals that were part of its landscape, which were tropical for me and, outside of the zoo and books, part of a distant land. 

Impatiens Kilimanjari

My iPhone X camera could not capture daybreak on Kibo. When life flashes back in an instant, like the way you read about in books or watch in movies, and those touchpoints are linked together in a strand of pearls, each one whole and radiant, sunrise atop Kili has its place. Such moments may come from joy or tragedy, surprise or disappointment. However, few arrive in such manner. The warmth I felt as the sun’s fingers reached out to me in the arctic zone and the light it shined onto the clouds below were celestial, even beatific. God was there. Or whatever God may be for you: Creator, Nature, the Universe. God was everywhere. 

Kilimanjaro was my introduction to Africa. The image of its snowy volcanic cone has long held sway in my mind from Ernest Hemingway’s short story to Beryl Markham’s memoir as a young bush pilot. I have been to the mountain and met the people, if only for a short journey, and I have walked away, enchanted by Tanzania. It felt like it was on the verge of ‘becoming’. I have the vision of a Maasai man, waking in the morning as his ancestors did for hundreds of years, the herding stick in one hand, and today, with his cell phone in the other. 


[1]Pronounced Polay Polay. Swahili for slowly, slowly! The phrase guides used to remind hikers to take each step, slow and steady. 

[2]Pitch and Trek device for women and Travel-John disposables for both of us. Easy and no smell, but try at home first. 

[3]Swahili for Thank you very much.

Planning & Notes

 

Machame Route from southwest then along south & summit assault from Barafu
Camped at Machame, Shira, Barranco, Barafu and Mweka

Recommended Reading

  • Kilimanjaro – The Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain by Henry Stedman
  • The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior by Tepilit Ole Saitoti
  • Snows of Kilimanjaro by Hemingway
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham
  • Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh
  • The Tree Where Man Was Born by  Peter Matthiessen

Flights – Kenya Airlines, JFK to Nairobi; Nairobi to Kilimanjaro

Time of Year – June 3 Start

Machame Route, 6 Day/5 Night 

  • Recommend 7 or more days. 
  • Dubbed the Whiskey Route because it is strenuous
  • Machame often considered the most beautiful because its progression through the 5 climate zones

Cost  – Outfitters: Africa Adventure, $5343 per person for Superior 6 Day/5 Night Machame route plus TIPS

 

Gear & Equipment – Had a good experience with these. 

  • Rented sleeping bags from Outfitters because mine was only 3 seasons. Brought ultralight sleeping bag to use inside of rented bag. Stayed warm.  
  • Tent, floor pad, and inflatable pad provided by outfitters
  • Army green duffle bags with combination locks – for Kili hiking gear and carried backpacks on plane – outfitter put duffles inside waterproof bag 
  • Author footwear and pack (women)
    • Altra Lone Peak 4 with running gaiters first 3 days
    • Vasque hiking boots for ascent
    • Osprey Tempest 30 liter, author
  • Mark footwear and pack
    • Altra Lone Peak 4 with running gaiters first day
    • Merrill Hiking Boots 
    • REI Flash 55 liter, Mark
  • Black Diamond trekking poles
  • Terra Hiker Rain Ponchos for packs & rain jackets
  • Complete Ski Wear for ascent– base and outer-layers, gloves and ski caps, neck fur; prepare for arctic conditions with layers.  
  • Large Aeros Sea to Summit Premium Pillows – the BEST investment, great for sleep! 
  • Waterproof sacks – 4-5 for each of us, different sizes; Sea to Summit, REI Co-op
  • TravelJohn disposable Urinals & Pitch and Trek female urination device
  • Socks – Wool – Smartwool, Darntough, Fit & silk liners.  Used liners every day. 
  • Platypus Big Zip 3 liter Reservoir (water bladder)
  • Liter Nalgene bottle for ascent (bladder lines freeze)
  • First Aid kit – Diomox for altitude & Z pack (prescriptions), Pepto pills, Immodium, Advil, cough drop or Lozenges, DayQuil and NyQuil pills, footcare and blister kit
  • Vaccines – Typhoid, Yellow Fever, Malaria recommended (we did not take Malaria pills) 

About mylinhshattan

I’m a writer who has worked in the private sector, taught at college, and served in the U.S. Army. I hold a B.S. in Mathematics from West Point, an M.B.A. from Florida Southern College, and an M.F.A. in Writing from Queens University.