Ok, I have been holding out. There are a LOT of people who pilgrimage an attempt to summit Kilimanjaro. Most, who are guided to go pole…pole, succeed. I think I heard over 60,000 come climb Kilimanjaro a year. That makes it the main stage money source in Tanzania. Guiding, trek services, and porting are a thankful business. We were climbing at the beginning of the rainy season and not high tourist season. I could only envision four times this many people on TOP. There were a lot of ‘groups’ at the summit as we all did the hike on frozen ground and watch the most amazing sunset.
We had been deep into our own interiors finding the grip to make it to the top for the 4,000 feet of night grueling steps. So we turned that into solo celebrations in our hearts on a summit full of people. We were quiet, breathless, and releaved. Cold, done, and super happy. All of a sudden we were freed of fatigue. There is a pure and holy relief when there is nothing, but down. We were standing on a high SUMMIT. That is the draw of Kilimanjaro. It is a
hike, open to any body that takes it slow.
And than, the chatter and hugs and victor fists. It was external bonding shared by people that bonded in what they had just asked their bodies to do. As we passed the pastel lit glaciers on our left and the volcanic valley to our right, the summit sign came in view. Mamma Pinkie said it for all of us. Her shoulders heaved and she let out a few and very real sobs. No words. Sobs for what it took and felt to be here were more appropriate.
The WHOA women all summited, every single one of them. And the handsome German gentlemen ,with Australian accents and their Sales Force Team aqua blue beanies were there. It was high fiving, hugs, back slaps, and photos. And the guides were protectively corralling us off the mountain. We had stayed far longer than most allowed and they knew what we did not know. It was a LONG way down.
Was it worth it to part weeks of precious schedule to tackle a mountain smack in middle of the equator? One which makes you have to bring wool, down, and gortez? Absolutely. Kilimanjaro is one of a kind Where else can any Joe Smo experience elevation and a 19,000 summit experience? The sun rising over Africa is exquisite,the 360 view tantalizing, brimming with pride to have accomplished something arduous, but so breathtakingly gorgeous. That is why ‘peaks’ are so engulfing and a life goal. I heard about Kilimanjaro from some medical students that were climbing THE GRAND in Jackson with myself and two Exum Mountain Guides. We stayed in ‘the hut’ together, a tent erected on a plywood platform the park service air dropped every year at the 12,000 saddle. The Grand was climbed at night also. It was done so to get the climbers off the mountain before afternoon thunderheads were most likely to strike the mountain with lightning. Climbing the GRAND meant climbing. You had to use ropes, know how to belay, repel, and suck up any fear of heights. There were 2,000 to 3,000 foot drop offs on the GRAND in the Tetons of Wyoming. I stepped out of the hut into a 90mh wind store. Either gender had pee flying in all directions though discreetly hovering behind rocks. We were tackling the treacherous terrain with EXUM MOUNTAIN GUIDES that know the proper route. As we left, you could not see the hand in front of you. We would climb on belay and with ropes for six hours until sunrise. On the four pitch, we were moving in rapid alpine style, coiling the ropes and throwing the line behind us to belay. I caught the rope on my headlamp and it sent it flinging through the air like a released rubber band. The precious beam of light landed one full pitch below on a tiny ledge. Picture the feeling of being on a ledge over 13,000 feet with NO LIGHT. I belayed my climber up on braille hands feeling the rope and he was luckily able to traverse over and get my headlamp. Those were dark moments! We finally all tumbled onto a ledge and still having half a day’s climb left, watched soft hues open up the precipice we were preciously above. I enjoyed being sandwiched between the guide’s expertise and easy going professionalism. This was my first encounter with guides. I liked being with people that lived and loved their mountains. They made the experience as would the guides in Tanzania.
In the Tetons, we were awakened at midnight and given boiled water to pour into instant meals. Sooooo….. understand why I was so taken by the African porter’s bringing fresh vegetables and the cooks conjuring up crepes and sautéed potatoes. Yes, yum, but I did not need to be told to eat with caution our accent meal. My body had lost its appetite. So I drank hot water, not daring coffee or tea. And I nibbled on a tea cookie and resorted to by clip gels like I would in a triathlon or marathon. We had eaten WELL all the way up the mountain. That would survive this next 38 hours.
So we summited. Words cannot describe the 360 degree feeling of being on the top of a place to its own. It was everything I envisioned it to be, and even more goal branding that I expected. It etched erasable sketches of experience that bake character. We were punchy, our words slurring, but triumphant. We had done it. It was so solely personal that it was as if we each were alone up there. And yet…
Climbing right up the ridgeline of a volcano in the middle of the night above 15,000 feet is not something one does everyday. The lack of sleep. The lack of oxygen. The task was to keep going…uphill. Plod. Plod. Deep, noisy breath. It is windy. Very windy. It sucks precious air away. It is cold. Very cold. Skin has to be covered in warm layers. But we are sweating. It is a dangerous combination that does require the right kinds of layers and materials. Here, the products gleaned from living in Jackson, Wyoming are made for just this. An Icebreaker wool base layer. A Patagonia fleece hoodie. A Northface down jacket. A Marmot Gortez expedition jacket. (I left my beloved STIO down jacket and wool sweater in the states, reserved for the ski slopes, not the trudge up Kilimanjaro) The designed hood of the Gortex expedition jacket became my saving friend. It let me hide from the wind and choose when to face the lung freezing air. The beloved jacket was earned working a running event for Teton Mountaineering in Jackson.
The stars are out. On all sides of us. It is very hard to describe, but we were stepping through the galaxy. The stars were all around. It was so dark you couldn’t see the ground. All you could see was within the beam of the headlamp. There were many climbing the mountain and you could not distinguish which were far off headlamps, or glittering stars. Plod. Plod. Breath slow and steady. Every once in a while the body would just gasp, or sigh, or grimace. The little stuffed monkey dangling from the pack in front of me was the only thing illuminated by my headlamp beam. I tried to bubble out a few sentences of encouragement, but no one could hear. The wind, one; but more so, we had fallen into a chain gang progression of altitude endurance and we had retreated into our own little survival worlds. Awake. Moving. But in a disturbing dream state.
My world wandered to some woes. The condo I tried to buy and didn’t get a bank in Wyoming to venture a loan. They wanted a year’s resident history and a full time job in town. I blindly thought getting a year round full time job in a seasonal resort town would be no problem. Plop. Plop. Suck in air. Breath it out. I started being constructive, tackled great ideas for new events, rolling through my mind like catching a great set of waves.
Our guides were moving among us constantly checking on our well being. I could tell they were concerned with me. I was the amped one that could have a breathing attack. I was the one that my lungs were starting to gurgle. But they also knew I was the one that competitive, athletic determination was going to dogmatically summit and shut out the wisdom to respond to what my body was doing in elevation. That is why the guides have to be given the final judgment calls, but thankfully they know that it will only be called if seriously threatening. It was tough on everyone, no matter and we all just had to push past. That is what is so rewarding about tackling Kilimanjaro. It is doable and we were doing it.
My mom came to mind. And there I memorialized Kilimanjaro to a great hearted woman who always reached out for the underdog as she was one. I twinge as my steps climbed higher. She had lost her life to cancer in her fifties and asked me to explore the world for her…to not wait until retirement years. She looked me in the eye, reached up and pulled a hand full of hair and laid it on her hospital bed. The first round of chemo. She weakly smiled an affirmation of acceptance. A tear of love dripped out of her eye. And than she turned and gazed far off and silent. Without looking back, she said, “explore the rest of this intricate world for me, dear daughter. Retirement years are not guaranteed to ever get. You can only take the lines that you wrote on other people. Nothing else.” So, dear mom, who taught me to see life in angles, and hues, and expressions, and improv moments through the lens of a camera, I dedicate this climb to you. You, who, also, as a child was abandoned in a boarding home most your life ,taught me to feel the needs of others.
Joel our guide is humming. It is as melodical as his accented voice. He is humming a hymn to a beat that is African. A guide down the line on the mountain joins in. Than does our other guides. A guide above us starts to add to the symphony of voices. I hadn’t even noticed the wind had died. Stilled. And the still night was lullabied by
these beautiful men with husky, flowing, beautiful voices. Their song hugs us in a way that you could not feel until you have meet the grace of these Tanzanians.
That deep Tanzanian accent has a music to it. “Time to hike to the top of Kili” It is pitch black in the tent as I fumble for the headlamp. Mamma Pinkie’s light pings on and a groggy, but armored voice reports, “we are ready”. The groggy is hard to decipher. It is more from altitude that lack of sleep. It is 11:00pm. The accent is made in the middle of the night for two reasons. To climb on top of the scree while it is frozen. And to be rewarded with the sun rising over all of AFRICA at the moment of summiting. Both are awesome. It is so dark outside you cannot even see the outline of the mountain you are climbing. That may be a third good reason to ascend at night. It is steep. It is one foot slowly planted and pushed up upon another. It is a long, grueling way. Over six solid hours of gruel ahead. 4,000 vertical feet. That is far grander than a marathon. And like a marathon, the unknown is how your body will react. I already shared my mishaps in being hyped and running around too much at 15,500 feet. So after my ‘episode’ of panicking after running to get my buff in my tent
we began our “pole, pole”. 15,500 to 19,320. Here we go, Mamma Pinkie. We are all quietly questioning, “how ready are we really?”. There is no way to know. What is that sticker on my girlfriend’s refrigerator? “26.2 mile- What could possibly go wrong?!” So…4,000 feet, what could possibly go wrong? Hmmmmm.
The food was fabulous. There were seasoned potatoes, French fries, chicken (someone from a village brought fresh ones up to the cooks), sautéed vegetables, popcorn, and handmade bread. One thing that happens at altitude is the loss of appetite. We knew enough to try to keep something in our stomachs, but I would have to say that a 15, 500 meal was chewed slowly and carefully. Altitude has the reputation for making a lot of people throw up.
Can we thank the porter’s enough for hauling the fuel, tents, and utensils for all this? A porter from another camp even went by with a backload of plastic red chairs. It got rainy. It got cold. The porters are only taken to 15,500 feet because they do not have the layers, clothing, and are not equipped for the lower temperatures we would encounter in the last 4,000 feet.
The cook tent was toasty, but could not be used for a sleep tent until the cooking duties were over, so many porters just stood in the rain. There were 12 porters to a tent, but they giggled like at a slumber party and said, twelve meant body heat and kept them warm. Its a given that camping out has something about it that draws you close to the people you get to hang with. You talk, you spend hours in the dark, and you figure out ways to make this little protected place your home. I have to thank Mama Pinkie for being a great tent mate as I reach over and turn off her head lamp still attached an on. She is sound asleep and does not move for the few hours we get to sleep before summiting. Yeah, lady. You literally ROCKED today. climbed right up that mountain scramble.
There is wisdom in the choices to settle on camps. There are two days hovering at 12,000 to 13,500 before the base camp of 15,500. Things change here. The temperatures, the severity of storm patterns, and how your body handles the thin air. I discovered two scary things at this base camp. One, I had been thinking I was putting purifying tablets in my drinking water and they ended up being pills that make the water ‘taste’ good. They were in the same size and shade bottle as purifying tablets. Everyone got a good laugh and said if I was going to get sick I would have by than. Luckily, all other drinking water I had put in my bottles had come from the boiled hot water they were serving. I had done that to be doubly safe. Good thing. But days after the return to the states, my ingestion was to rebel at some amoebas I ingested. I would have to take the travel pills and antibiotics to combat my untreated water sips. I lost some more precious pounds in the battle of getting through that huge mistake. Be forewarned to read the fine print on the tablet bottles! There are ones that purify, and ones that make the water taste good.
And “pole, pole”. This is something my hyped energy level does not naturally do. So I would forget. Like a ferret, I would see a group come into camp and I would have to bounce up and meet them. Try doing that at 15, 500 feet. Bound, bound, fast step and, ugggghhh. I can’t greet you. In fact, I can’t even talk to you. Gasp. Gasp. Gurgle. Bend over and near collapse, like I had just run an Olympic 400 meter all out race. Embarrassing. Humbling. I took off to my tent once and had a near full blown panic attack because I couldn’t catch my breath. Joel, the guide walked by and gently squeezed my arm. “Pole, pole, dear.”
So summit round up just prior to midnight required headlamps and packs and very layered clothing. I forgot the neck buff and went ‘running’ back to my tent to get it and ‘running’ back up to the group to get going on our 4,000 foot ascent. And than, I realized I was being drowned without any water. I could not breath. I could not get air just as if I was under water. I started to panic, which induced my very rare athlete’s asthma. Seriously?! Was I really having an asthma attack or just a panic attack. Both, I decided. Because I couldn’t catch my breath from running I was starting to panic. I threw my pack off and put my head on my knees and commanded my body to calm down. It took a few minutes. And those few minutes I thought, what if this does not let up and I am not able to climb this beast of a mountain after all…the travel, the expense, the time, the tales. I am sure it has happened to the fit and best of them. I am sharing this, just so you know not to ‘run’ around a mountain above 15,000 feet. And if you do, try not to panic when you do fall short of breath. It makes it worse.
Mamma Pinkie gritted her teeth and grabbed ahold of the mountain and climbed it. She kept saying she didn’t like the rock climbing, but she was so sweet and attune to the experience at hand that she made every rock obstacle fun. And so did the entire Kathy Loper trekkers. The guides have one rock they call the kissing rock because you have to hug it to get by it. Now, picture doing that with a 40 pound duffle bag balanced on your head!
Guiding Kilimanjaro is a prestigious job that requires leadership, wilderness schooling and training, and people patience. Our guides were natural, beloved, and had everything to do with our successful summiting.
“Pole, Pole” for sure helped. We were blessed to get “Joel”, a strikingly handsome man with depth of character that matched his looks. I heard the gal who lives in Tanzania say that she had never seen someone from Joel’s tribe that wasn’t handsome. You can tell Joel is a solid athlete; very agile and sturdy, a natural leader you trust to follow.
Guide number two was Dawson, a no nonsense, explain the facts, make sure everyone is taken care of person. He too, had lines of wisdom etched in his eyes.
And than there was Epa. You had no choice, but to love Epa. The world loved Epa. Every second was an opportunity to greet with a smile, a clever joke, a handshake, a hug, a slap on the back. Even the stern officials and rangers loved Epa. He was just one of those great people you are so glad to get to spend time with. Why? Because he enjoyed himself. He sincerely enjoyed his job. And he sincerely loved people. These men had something more to them. A faith they hummed along the way. A resolution with the Creator they revered that made this mountain they considered a privilege and opportunity. Ov
er 60,000 people attempt to summit this mountain each year. Most succeed because of the guides. The 60,000 come for a pilgrimage of all sorts …for varying causes and reasons. It is the only free standing mountain of its height that a non mountaineered could experience altitude.
Joel, Epa, and Dawson guide for the Key’s Hotel. Expeditions can be booked through the hotel, which is nice because you than have a place to come and return to with a shower and the rarest of things…a pool. Kathy Loper from kathyloperevents.com can give you more details.
Camping out at 12,500 feet. My boots started out grey. We are having a ‘remind me to take my Malaria pill” party. Malaria pills have to be taken days prior to arriving and for a week after coming home from Malaria infested areas. My son has a high school friend that did not take the entire Malaria regiment and got deathly ill weeks after returning from Africa. We had been in mosquito areas on the Safari so it became the daily chat. “Did you take your Malaria pill today?” And now, we were adding pills to prevent altitude sickness. Those that had already started taken them were telling us their hands tingled.
These sturdy ravens have actually been found as high as the summit at 19,320.
I have never seen thistles like these.
We crossed a stream, climbed up and over a lot of terrain, and finally got to 12,500. We were told that stream is the last water source. The porter’s draw straws as to who gets to go back a day’s hike to fetch water.
When I got into base camp the cook tent smelled so good. Makanja was making ‘pancakes’, a delicious crepe that he poured expertly into a hot pan and rolled until the sides started to bake. He said he added onions and turmeric or some sort of spice I have never heard of. Yum. Than he popped pop corn and heated peanuts. Who doesn’t get a feels good from popcorn?! Especially at 15, 500 feet. The tent was toasty from the cook stove, but even warmer was the rapport. The guides and porters were enjoying each other and the conversation that so easily flows when you have trek time on your hands.
“We brought nothing in this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. ” I Timothy 6:6-8.
Timothy 6:17-18. “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share.”…….
(Being back in the states is almost a culture shock. I have had to do business in Orange County with its 6 lane streets, manicured palm trees, Starbucks on every corner, clean stately buildings, blue sky, fresh ocean air. I went to Mariner’s Church on Sunday. I got picked up by a shuttle crew and dropped off at the pond and coffee area leading into the active church. I had worked the four summers while in college for a great camp in Bass Lake, California that the kids came to from this church. Today, everyone was wearing shirts that said, “FEARLESS”. Fearless is a theme they put in action to show the church that they could impact needs in the community instantly. They asked the church members to each give no less than $40 for a one time gift they could just hand out to legitimate needs. Slickly, they had hand held phones with credit card swipes…not as a scam or ploy, but as an instant tool to mobilize. They raised $840,000 in two services. Than, the following week they are going to ask the members to give TIME. They said, watch…it will be easier for you to give money than TIME. “Give, and share…” that is what God’s word is asking those that are rich in this day to do.