Four good Danish friends came to Kenya for a visit in September. Two of them, Morten and Elsebeth climbed Mt. Longonot, a huge volcanic crater one hour from Nairobi. But the other Morten, Karen and I had planned to try for Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, on the Kenyan border: Africa’s tallest mountain and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Its actual height is 5,895 meters (approx. 17,865 feet).
So we booked a trip and drove down there in my car. The ride was long, 6-7 hours, and the road of changing quality, but I was happy to see that great effort is being made to improve it. In regards to the roads generally, things are really changing in Kenya. The three of us made our way into Tanzania after the anticipated bureaucracy at the border. We had to drive around the mountain to find our hotel for the night which was a long drive, but the scenery changed quite drastically after crossing the border, with very, very dry lands inhabited by pastoralists from the Masai tribe. We saw their many mud huts all over and I think Morten spotted an animal or two. We knew we were so close to the mountain and yet we couldn’t see it as it was covered by a huge cloud the whole day. We made it to Moshi, our destination, where we had a good meal and were briefed about our trip by a guide.
The gear was packed and we rented a few items: thick gloves, hats etc. We met our guide for the trip and drove to the foot of the mountain. They do not allow you to climb Kili without guides. At the entrance to the Kilimanjaro National Park we realized that not only had we booked two guides but 7 porters to carry our equipment and food for the whole trip. Quite the expedition! We started the climb through the rain forest and 4 hours later we had made it to the camp (2,700 meters, almost as tall as the highest mountain in Norway). My friend Karen is a fast walker so our pace was high. After our arrival, we made a 15-minute walk to a nearby crater. Karen had just landed the day before in Nairobi and had not yet acclimatized to the altitude. We drove up the mountain and ascended an additional meter that day. On our way to the crater we saw a lot of monkeys in the trees doing all kinds of things. Unfortunately Karen got a bit sick and had to skip dinner, which was well-prepared by our chef.
We woke up to a beautiful sunrise! Karen was 100% and we continued our climb for about 6 hours. Rain forest became forest and forest became bushes as we made our way up the mountain at the slowest pace possible to avoid altitude sickness. We were somewhat successful but it was difficult for all of us to walk that slowly. We were reminded of the dangers of climbing Kili when a crowd of porters came running down the track wheeling a one-wheeled stretcher carrying a young woman packed in warm clothes. Her husband was walking behind worried: altitude sickness! We walked a bit slower and made it to a much cooler and rockier camp site but still with running water and toilets (3,700 meters). (Remember whenever you ascend 100m the temperature falls by 0.5 degrees Celsius. Only God knows what that is in feet and Fahrenheit!). On our way up we saw some heaps of small but fresh branches. Our guide told us that a porter died on the spot of every heap. Before regulations were established a few years ago, there were no limits as to how much each porter was allowed to carry. Therefore many died climbing the mountain (most likely from the cold weather when taking a rest)!
We saw the sun set and had a stunning view of a huge mountain next to Kili. People apparently die climbing that one so we were happy with our choice of mountain.
The next morning we started the ascent. After 10 minutes I had to run back to the camp to return the key to our little wooden hut, but Morten and Karen waited for me so that was nice of them. At this point we had noticed that our guides were not the greatest communicators when it came to the English language. They were able to express themselves but if we had further questions they gave very strange answers, so we basically stopped asking too many questions. I tried to speak Swahili which they found amusing and they had a great laugh when I told them in Swahili that my wife was preparing a child. I don’t know the word for pregnant in Swahili and normally it is taboo to talk about pregnancy. For the African woman a child is not always a blessing (I think Lisa has already written about this).
Anyway we made it to the first stop, and it was cold! The bushes that had been getting smaller and smaller had now completely disappeared; we reached the so called “alpine desert”. Karen became a bit quiet and did not eat at our first stop. On our way to the lunch point she got sick – actually quite sick and she needed to rest a bit. The guides were not a great help but after a short break they told us to move on: “slowly slowly” which is English for the common Swahili term “pole pole”! Karen, who was obviously sick from the altitude, continued. She got sick again but continued: VERY IMPRESSIVE! We reached the lunch point. Morten and I (me especially!) had our eyes on lunch but Karen had no appetite and just wanted to rest/sleep at this point; she was reluctant towards our many suggestions that she eat and drink. I admire her for not killing us right on the spot because there is nothing more annoying than encouragement when you are more than half way up a mountain and feeling very, very sick. The guides were still telling her to “continue slowly, slowly” after a little rest. I felt bad for Karen, whose lips were now completely blue, and was now feeling sick and very, very tired. I had altitude sickness when I climbed Mt. Blanc in France many years ago, but nothing like the way Karen was feeling. It is worth noting here that Morten and I had spent a lot of time in Nairobi (obviously I live there and Morten had been around for 2 weeks) and were used to that altitude, whereas Karen came directly from an island in Denmark 2m above sea level. Normally you take a day off and do not ascend further on the third day just to acclimatize – but we didn’t do that. Having been in Africa for a while it all made sense to me. The guides have no interest in turning around and they actually receive extra money if you have to be transported down the mountain so there is no incentive for them not to push you. The guides were unable to make a decision so Morten and I made the difficult decision to have Karen walk back down the mountain with one of our guides. Karen was unable to really make the decision on her own, as she was half asleep and really wanted to move on but at the same time realized that she was very sick and continuing could be dangerous and possibly threaten her life.
So Karen left with our one guide. She had to walk at least 8 km back feeling so sick!
Morten and I continued and soon realized that the track became steeper and the walk to the next camp site was further than anticipated (4,700 meters, almost the same height as the tallest mountain in Europe). We knew we had made the right decision, Karen wouldn’t have made it, and either way she would never had been ready for the final midnight ascent.
We were woken up at 11pm after a few hours sleep in a primitive camp sleeping with ten other people. We put on our best equipment and met our guide armed with headlamps and camel bags of water. The walk was very, very, very, very long and very, very, very, very, very steep. We zig-zagged for more than 4 hours, trying to get our breath in the very thin air. The night was beautiful and an almost full moon made the headlamps unnecessary and the walk beautifully lit up. Never in my life have I walked so slowly, but the limited oxygen and the steepness of the hill called for it. The top, Gillman’s Point (5,681 meters), was visible to us. Kili is a “table mountain” and Gillman’s point is at one end of the table with the official top on the other side a 1.5 hours walk, the difference in altitude only about 200 meters. When we were about 1 hour from Gillman’s point we thought it was 15 minutes away: it looked so close! It was getting colder and colder, an indicator of which was my glove. Some water had been dripping from my nose and I had wiped it off with my glove. Ten minutes later I did the same thing, only to find that the water had turned into ice! I was moving my toes and fingers vigorously to keep them from going numb from frost. Fifteen minutes from the top we stopped to put on all the clothes we had brought. It helped to some degree, but it might have been too late because we were already very, very cold. We saw a woman sitting down shaking from the cold and her guide telling her to continue as we passed them. Morten and I reached the top of Gillman’s point. It was pitch black but we took a few pictures. I was eager to continue to the top (the other end of the “table” that was 200 meters higher) but Morten was very cold, had a headache and felt dizzy. With only one guide left for the two of us we had to make a common decision and decided to stop at Gillman’s Point and not take an unnecessary risk. As we descended, the sun rose to award us with one of the most beautiful sunrises my eyes have ever seen.
Many hours later we met up with Karen, who was doing well, and we walked even further down with her that day leaving Morten and I completely exhausted at the end of the day.
We descended the remaining two hours and drove home to reach Nairobi at sunset.
We were all a bit disappointed not to have made it to the tip-top of the mountain, but the trip had been wonderful and reminded me what a great way hiking is to spend time with fiends and family: it is a really great way to spend the time we are given on our small planet.
About a week later, we learned that the news in America reported that an American man in his 40s had died climbing Kilimanjaro during the same week as us. So we didn’t reach the top of the top, but my two good friends are still alive…and I think I’ll try again next year :)