In the summer of 2005, I flew to Africa with some friends to climb of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain. The full text of my journal from the trip is below. If you prefer to view it day by day, please click on the individual entries under the ‘Africa’ tab above.
Baltimore, BWI Airport
7/5/05, 8:15 pm
I have uncomfortably nestled into my home for the next eight hours, seat 35A. Thank God I secured a window seat so I can stare out into blackness as I try to wile away the hours reading the insanely long manual for my digital camera. Actually, I hope to get some sleep, but the two large Sam Adams haven’t really helped. Oh well.I was a little worried, since no one was speaking with a British accent when I checked in, but all is well since I now struggle to understand what the crew is saying, what with their funny accents and unusual verb conjugations. We want the trip to seem authentic, don’t we?Alright, I’m babbling and trying to sound too funny since I know others will be reading this. Okay, I just looked out the window and saw a Hooters Airline plane. No kidding. I’d like to make a comment here, but my mother will be reading this later.
Above the Nile River Valley
7/6/05, 1:05 pm
We’ve been traveling over the Sahara for several hours, and it’s absolutely amazing. It’s like looking over a vast ocean of brown. Every once in a while there are these tiny oases to which roads are drawn indiscriminately across the sand, some linking different oases and some disappearing into the dunes.I’m thinking that more than the attempted ascent I am looking forward to seeing a new continent. This is not like my trips to Europe or even Israel. Africa is the origin of our species, a country filled with such history and unfortunately, such turmoil. I am glad that I’ve had African students who have taught me a bit about their countries before my journey, and I am eager to see this place for myself.
7/7/05, 9:30 pm
Last night we arrived in Nairobi and spent the night at the Fairview Hotel, a very nice hotel (well, not the Four Seasons, but nice enough) that was locked off with several gates and roadblocks. One definitely gets the sense of a third-world country: general poverty surrounding pockets of luxury where poor people are only allowed if they work there. That could be considered sad, but considering the alternative I suppose it’s better to have the infusion of foreign capital into the local economy. This, more than any aid the G8 Summit conjures up, will be more beneficial in the long run, as it encourages self-sufficiency rather than dependence.
Today we drove from Nairobi to Moshi. Driving in Africa is crazier than anywhere else I’ve been. In Nairobi people sprinted right in front of vehicles, with said vehicles accommodating them by speeding up. This country (continent?) has also yet to discover the catalytic converter, it seems, leaving smoggy Los Angeles-esque skies. Once out of the city, conditions were better, although you still had to watch out for the occasional donkey and cattle. The highway was narrow, yet vehicles would zoom past each other at arm’s length. People (often Masai with full regalia and sometimes even spears) would walk along the road or cross it, and children would even play in the road.
The drive itself was a study in transitions, from city to savannah to more trees and then desert mountains. Occasionally we would come across a town intersected by the highway, with ramshackle buildings of commerce. As we approached Moshi the vegetation was decidedly lusher, with green corn stalks contrasting the earlier ones scorched by the equatorial sun.
It is hard to view this region as just another place on earth, and yet it is hard not to. Africa has always held a certain mysticism for me, an almost romantic image of people living in direct contact with the earth much as they did thousands of years ago. Seeing Masai herdsmen surveying their charge while leaning on a staff, a Masai crossing the road with multiple spears in hand and the thatch-roofed mud huts certainly feeds into that. Yet that notion is easily dispelled by Masai women forcibly peddling their wares at the border. Like it or not, commerce drives the world, and everyone from the captain-like shuttle driver to the amorphous number of porters of indeterminate officiality is trying to provide for himself and his family.
The similarities between these African countries and any of the developing Latin American countries are astounding. The clash of the poor and rich, primitive and modern, the pungent smoke from fires, corrupt police roadblocks and yes, catering to white tourists are all the same. I would love to know what this place was like fifty years ago, and what it will be like fifty years hence.
Well, we start our climb tomorrow, so I should get some sleep. I’m looking forward to the ascent.
Today we drove up this crazy, muddy road to the Machame Gate, where we registered for permits and avoided men pimping camping equipment through the gate. Our group started up a well-maintained trail wide enough for vehicles, eventually giving way to a well-maintained hiking trail. At the Machame Gate there was controlled chaos, with hordes of guides, porters and climbers all preparing for their treks whilst avoiding getting hit by shuttle buses. This is not the pristine wilderness experience, but it is beautiful. We hiked up through a rainforest shrouded in mist as a constant, light rain fell. We arrived wet, but in good shape.
Our porters do amazing work. They carry bulky bags on either their shoulders or heads, only occasionally taking breaks. Some even lighted up while resting.
It is odd that guide companies do not ask clients to put everything in a decent backpack to make things easier on the porters. There is so much struggle in life here that it is almost as if it is assumed that life will be incredibly difficult, so one must simply bear the pain. According to our guide Filex, who worked his way from porter to assistant guide to guide over nine years, this is a good job if only because most people are without work.
Still, this job could be made much easier at a relatively low cost, but it is not done. I would imagine that porters do not unite for better working conditions because someone else will just take their place. Look at me, being pro-union after I just got screwed over by mine.
Yet it’s more than that. Today after hiking all day in the cold rain, one of the porters was standing around shivering, yet he didn’t bother to zip up his sweatshirt. Lack of situational analysis? Perhaps. Trying to toughen himself up? Maybe. It’s just hard to shake the hypothesis that this man just wasn’t thinking of improving his situation since he was so accustomed to having a difficult life.
If what Filex says is true, that most people work here only because they cannot find work elsewhere, then I understand even more why two of my friends (both Mexican) said to me independently that they did not understand why white people would do something like climb Kilimanjaro. I have done these types of trips my whole life, pushing physical limits because I wanted to be tougher (and yes, for people to think I was tougher), developing tolerance for things like pain and harsh weather.
These men develop their fortitude in their daily lives, and I doubt most would do this if they didn’t have to, even if someone served as their porter. The act of paying thousands of dollars (the average annual income in Tanzania is about $250, I’m told) must seem ludicrous to these gentlemen. I hope they at least enjoy some of the natural beauty of this place, for there is much.
Tomorrow is supposed to be shorter but steeper. Onward and upward. I’m looking forward to it.
Today was rainy and misty for the whole day. We were enshrouded in what I can only assume were clouds, so the rain was not as severe.
I really don’t have much to say about today. The trail was rather steep, so we took our time and took frequent breaks. Hopefully that will prepare us well for the climbs ahead.
This campsite is apparently at the intersection of two trails, and there are a ton of people camped out here. Tomorrow is when we start separating from more groups. As I write this, though, the din of the porters’ voices carries over from their tents. We’ll see if I can sleep.
Today we awoke to a long-lost friend: the sun. After two days of hiking through mist and rain, its light and warmth were a welcome sight. I went outside a couple of times last night to relieve myself and saw that the cloud cover was slowly passing overhead. I even saw three stars on the horizon on my second outing.
This morning found us looking down at a white carpet of clouds. Mount Meru was in the distance to the west, and Kibo Crater and the Western Breach loomed over us to the east. Beads of frost covered our tent flies as well as all the plants, rocks and dirt. As soon as the equatorial sun, blazing white, rose over Kibo Crater, the frost quickly melted. We were even able to dry out our wet clothes and equipment before we packed up.
The climb today was not as steep, but the gradual ascent still took us to about 15,100 feet. As we climbed, the cloud cover chased us up the mountain, engaging in a battle of wills with the sun. Once we were high enough, there was no clear victor, with each side losing, only to recover and beat the other one back.
There are scores of people on our route, and we leapfrogged with them for the majority of the day. Tomorrow many of the other groups will be continuing farther than we, since we will take two days to reach Barafu base camp, whereas they will reach it in one. That extra day for acclimatization will benefit us, as several members of our group are suffering from mild altitude sickness.
We lunched at a trail junction, and afterward those who didn’t feel well went directly to our campsite. The rest of us climbed another 600 feet to see the lava tower before descending into the valley and the mist to meet up with the others. The downhill was tough on some people, but we all made it.
On a sad note, this morning two of our porters had to descend because they felt so bad. Both had a lot of leg pain, and one was even suffering from a retracted testicle (um, ouch). The treatment of porters—or I should say mistreatment—is making me angrier day by day. Our guide Filex is a good man (feels weird to call someone three years my junior a man), and takes care of our porters. Our guide company does not. Apparently in recent years a rule was established limiting the amount of weight a porter carries, but other than that there is little regulation. Some companies give their porters backpacks to use, while our porters must carry large, bulky bags on their heads or shoulders. Zara (our guide company) doesn’t even give Filex a first aid kit to take care of the porters, so he has to borrow meds from us to treat them. Plus, many of these men have only cotton sweatshirts and tennis shoes. Most of us are contemplating giving the porters tip money exceeding the suggested amount, and we also may donate some spare clothes and equipment.
Tomorrow should be an easy hike of only three hours, as is the day after. The following day will be our attempt at the peak. The summit awaits.
The snows of Kilimanjaro may be melting, but they made a brief resurgence today. This morning we awoke to a half-inch dusting of white. It was absolutely beautiful, as if God had sprinkled powdered sugar all over the mountain.
The hike today was supposed to be shorter, but it still took us about six hours to make it to camp. There was more scrambling than on other days, and we had to use our hands on numerous occasions to go up or down the trail.
The effort was more than worth it. We are now camped just below Kibo Crater. When the clouds lifted, the snow-capped dome of the mountain stood in stark contrast to the blue African sky. Below us lies the town of Moshi, covered by a thick layer of puffy, white clouds through which only Mt. Meru can stick its neck. As the sun set to the left of the summit we were afforded opportunities for beautiful photos as the last rays of the sun stretched themselves across the clouds.
We supped in the dinner tent, and when we emerged we were treated to a bright crescent moon and stars (I don’t know any of the Southern Hemisphere’s constellations!) that made the snow on the mountain glow. There were also the gray streak of the Milky Way and, down below, the twinkling town lights of Moshi.
All of our group feels fairly good or better, and hopefully with one more day of acclimatization we will all be ready to attempt the final ascent. Tomorrow will be crazy because even though the hike is shorter, we will try to go to sleep early so we can wake up at 11:00 pm in order to reach the summit by sunrise.
This entry is being written a little earlier than usual. Today we had a short hike from Karanga Valley to the base camp at Barafu Hut. Tonight we make our attempt at the summit. We will leave around 11:00 or 11:30 tonight and hike in the dark in order to reach Uhuru Peak (5895m) at first light.
Right now we are resting in our tents after a hot lunch. Soon we will have dinner and then we will try to get a few hours’ rest before our attempt. Said attempt will be pretty crazy, with 4,200 feet of ascent followed by 9,300 feet of descent all in one day. The health of some of our members is questionable, but I think at least all of us will give it a go when the time comes.
Our hike began around midnight under a moonless, windless, cloudless African sky. After hot beverages and biscuits (the English variety) we started out with headlamps and every single piece of cold weather clothing we brought.The dark mountain rose in front of us, illuminated only by the stars and the procession of the lights of hikers winding their way up its slopes. There was little conversation, as most people concentrated on the circle of light on the ground in front of them. The slope itself consisted largely of loose rock that crunched and moved underfoot.Our guide Filex led the way at a slow pace, and the assistant guides were scattered throughout our group. I brought up the rear, and in the early going, it became apparent that Aran was not feeling well. He had suffered some gastrointestinal unmentionables yesterday from which he had not fully recovered. As the rest of our group crept farther away, I stayed behind with him and two other assistant guides.Our base camp was at 15,100 feet, and the summit was 19,340 feet. At those heights the lack of oxygen affects a healthy person; for a sick person it is a struggle just to move or breathe. Aran’s progress slowed, and more and more people passed us. Hour after hour he trudged on, taking breaks to rest and catch his breath. We encouraged him and lightened the load in his pack, but still his steps were slow and short.I have never in my life seen someone push himself like Aran did. Each step required great effort, yet little by little he inched his way up the mountain.Unfortunately, time was not on our side. We were supposed to be near the top by sunrise, but the yellow orb had already shown its face when we were still far from the summit. It broke my heart to do it, since Aran was being so valiant, but I started to suggest that he might want to turn around. Ultimately it was his decision, but I wanted to make sure he still had enough energy to make it down the mountain. Not only did we have to make it back to base camp, we had another three hours of hiking after that.
In the end, he just didn’t have enough energy to continue. He told me to go ahead and try for the summit with one of our guides (Jeremiah), and he would go down with the other guide. We bid adieu and I started up the mountain. After a short while, I got warm from the quickened pace. I stopped to take off several layers and dump out the water in Aran’s water bottles that I had unburdened him from earlier.
When Aran and I had parted, Jeremiah offered to carry my backpack, especially because he didn’t have one. Of course I had refused initially, but now I decided to take him up on his offer. I had also not wanted to take any medications, but ever since we left Aran my pulse quickened along with our pace, so much so that I could feel it in my brain, even along the back of my head. I learned later that was a bad sign (duh), but surmised then that it might be a precursor to cerebral edema. Taking 400mg of ibuprofen definitely helped, as did lightening my load.
Not too much farther up I ran into the rest of our climbing party. Everyone had made it! I was really psyched to learn that, especially because there were guys who, like Aran, had been ill on this trip. What a bummer for Aran that his body simply chose the wrong day to be sick. The guys told me how they fared and what I had to expect from the rest of the route. A little while later I ran into Filex, who told me I could attempt the summit as long as I hurried down.
The emotions of this final day were not what I had expected. At first, hiking slowly with the energy-deprived Aran, I was really bored. Since he was quite ill and I was not, the pace was easy for me. Now that I had reached the hardest part of the journey, up at 19,000 feet and the steepest trail yet, my only thought was “Get me the heck off this mountain.” Well, I used another word besides “heck,” but again, my mom in going to read this.
The hike up to Stella Point, about 200 vertical meters shy of the summit, was by far the hardest part of the trip. It was up a steep slope of scree (loose gravel that was, in this case, volcanic and therefore sharp) that seemed without end. Once on top of that, the trek to the summit was much easier. Still, it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Doing anything at that altitude gets you out of breath if you’re not used to it like our guides. After a couple of false peaks, stopping only for a few seconds here or there to catch my breath, Jeremiah and I made it to the top.
It was a good feeling, to be sure, but not as good as one would think. At that point you are so tired of not being able to breathe that all you want to do is go back down. For me, the thought of spending that night at 10,000 feet was wonderful. I took a couple pictures, drank some water and stomached half a PowerBar before starting our journey downward.
I don’t care what people say; going down is much, much easier than going up, especially if one is experienced at picking the way among the rocks while going fast. Thanks to all the trail running I did up in San Francisco with my buddy Jim, I’m very comfortable going very fast on trails. Add to that the fact that Kilimanjaro is just one big pile of gravel, and going down is that much easier, not too different from going down a sand dune.
Jeremiah and I literally ran down the mountain, glissading through the scree. It took us about nine hours to make it up the mountain, but only one hour to make it down. We would have gone even faster, but we ran into one of our party on the way down and walked with him a while.
When we got back to base camp I immediately went to check on Aran. He was crashed out in our tent. Poor guy. When he woke up, we talked about what happened after we parted ways. He said his guide encouraged him to rest a bit before trying to make it up to Stella Point. Aran said he rested fifteen minutes, took two steps up the mountain and knew there was no way he was going up. He came back down the mountain safely and rested.
He had a wonderful attitude about the whole thing, which made me feel relieved. He was still happy with his accomplishment (one that I feel was much greater than the accomplishments of the guys who made it to the top), and took it all in perspective. To me, that is the essence of mountaineering: pushing oneself to new limits in the world’s most beautiful places. The summit is never physical, and sometimes the greatest feats are when one turns back before reaching the top of the mountain.
Pacific Beach, CA
I must confess that the latter part of the last entry was written piecemeal at various points of my journey home. After getting to base camp, resting and eating, and then making the rather easy descent to Mweka at 10,000 feet, I was beat. Besides, after reaching the summit, there is not much to say. Tension in a story brings you to the climax, but once you have reached the resolution the story is over.
Suffice it to say that we all made it safely down and safely home. Some of us went on a two-day safari, while others who had done that before the trip went home. I could tell you what I saw or give you more thoughts on Africa, but I’d rather just leave you with this: if you haven’t been to Africa, GO. It is the one pilgrimage all humans should make, and certainly an experience that has changed me forever.
If you’ve actually made it this far, thanks for reading. I hope I didn’t bore you, and I hope I’ve at the very least entertained you, if not inspired you to make an African journey of your own.
Copyright Axel Schwarz 2005