This has been a week of reflection for me — a look back on an amazing journey six friends undertook a year ago with the ultimate goal of reaching the highest point in Africa, the summit of Kilimanjaro. Today marks a year since we successfully completed that trek and returned to Moshi for a shower, pizza, and beer (not necessarily in that order).
I’ve thought about our journey on many occasions over the past year. That afternoon in Moshi we were mostly overcome with a mix of relief and jubilation, but a few days later, relaxing on a pristine beach in Zanzibar, sipping on daiquiris, we began to ponder the nature of our achievement. Even then it didn’t fully set in, and the more I’ve thought about our journey this past year, the more I found that time was essential to gaining a proper perspective on what we’d done.
But back on Zanzibar, what we’d done seemed both awesome and, well, like not all that much. After all, how hard could Kilimanjaro have been if all six of us made it to the top? It reminded me of that old Groucho Marx joke, the one about not wanting to belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member.
The paradox with Mount Kilimanjaro is that it requires no technical training — no ropes, no axes, no crampons. Someone had described it to me as a “long hike,” which I found mildly insulting at the time, but in a sense they were right. Left foot. Right foot. Repeat. Success was never guaranteed, but I didn’t for a moment doubt I had what it takes to make it to the top. There were only two fears that constantly ate away at me. Would I get injured? (A twisted ankle could quickly end my dream.) And would one of us succumb to altitude sickness? (There was only one way to find out.)
A year later, I’ve come to appreciate that Kilimanjaro was epic in every sense. But to get to that understanding, I had to carefully retrace every step.
Our journey, along the Machame route, took six days. We stepped onto the mountain at 5,700 feet, met our amazing porters, and set out through a lush tropical forest, led by our guides Honest, Thomas, and Frank. That first day we were far, far away from the snows Hemingway had promised. Within 15 minutes, we were shedding layers (I would spend the rest of the day in shorts and a t-shirt) and after a full day of trekking we reached our first camp at 9,900 feet. Other than the heat, it was a breeze.
Our second day took us to Shira camp at 12,355 feet. After two days on Kilimanjaro, the odd thing was that we still hadn’t seen Kilimanjaro — sure, it was all around us, but our ultimate destination, the summit, was continually obscured by cloud cover. In the evening, as we were relaxing in our mess tent and enjoying some hot tea, this all changed in spectacular fashion. I popped out of the tent, glanced up, turned back to my friends, and proclaimed “I can see the summit.” They seemed skeptical so I added, “And there’s a rainbow over it.” They looked at me with expressions that said they were quite certain the thin air had gone to my head. Nevertheless, they stepped out of the tent and focused their eyes in the same direction as mine. Silence. And then a mad scramble to the tents to grab cameras.
Day three was wet. Very wet. The rain started shortly after we left camp and lasted all day. There’s nothing more disheartening then trekking in a downpour, only to arrive at a wet camp, with everything damp, no place to dry your belongings, and nowhere to hide. I just wanted off the mountain. This wasn’t what we signed up for. (Our camp that night was Barranco at just over 13,000 feet.)
What came next, nothing could prepare us for. There’s no fourth or fifth day on Kilimanjaro. It’s just one long day, the longest of your life. By the time it was over, we had trekked for 29 out of 36 hours (and slept just half of the remaining seven hours).
After climbing the Barranco wall (a particularly steep obstacle that hung over our camp) we would spend the entire day climbing to Barafu base camp at 15,239 feet — the highest place any of us had set foot on Earth (a record that would stand for just a few hours!). We ate dinner and went to sleep at 8:30, awoke just two hours later, scarfed down some tea and biscuits, and began our summit attempt around 11pm. Guided by our head torches, we slowly climbed through the thin air, the bitter cold, and the endless night. (I had never worn so many layers in my life, but even three pairs of socks couldn’t stop my toes from going numb.) We eagerly awaited the occasional break to catch our breath, but after just a few minutes the cold would start to penetrate us to the bone, and we’d have no choice but to start moving again. I tried to remember to drink water from my Camelbak every 10 minutes and eventually every five just to keep the valve from freezing, but despite my best efforts my water supply eventually froze. I was now getting increasingly dehydrated and, to add insult to injury, I still had to carry the weight of my now frozen water supply to the summit.
But never mind all that because around 6 in the morning, just as day was starting to break over Africa, we emerged above the cloud cover to watch the sun rise over Kilimanjaro’s crater. It was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. (I’ll post pictures in my next post.) Known as Stella Point, at 18,864 it’s just shy of the official summit. Many people turn around here, though I never quite understood that, so onward we went. I was running on pure adrenaline for that final push. Though it isn’t as steep, the last 45 minutes were nonetheless grueling. We were tired. Dehydrated. Hungry. And every breath at that altitude was a chore.
Kilimanjaro’s summit is at 19,341 feet. By the time we made it, our beautiful sunrise had been replaced by thick cloud cover that reduced visibility to next to nothing. It was extremely cold. Even our guides couldn’t wait for us to take our photos so they could begin the descent.
Our guides knew something we were about to find out the hard way: that the descent is long and brutal. No one ever warns you about it, but it’s really the perfect storm of pain. (And speaking of storms, one promptly rolled in, forcing us to spend the rest of the day descending through a steady rain.) Why is it so tough? Well, you’ve been trekking for nearly 24 hours straight. Your water supply is gone. Your energy bars, though helpful, haven’t been nearly enough to replenish the calories you’re burning. You’re cold. Descending is also tougher on the body. The steps are longer and come faster. With every stride, your toes jam into the front of your boots. Your knees, your hips, everything aches from the impact of landing on rock after rock, hour after hour. There’s the mental anguish, too. Whatever adrenaline you had was used up reaching the summit. There’s no reward for descending. No one ever pats you on the back and says “Hey, I heard you made it to the BOTTOM of Mount Kilimanjaro.” You’ve accomplished what you set out to do — summit! Now you just want to be done with this. You want a shower. You want a bed. You want a warm meal and a cold beer. None of those are anywhere close. So you keep on descending.
It took us three and a half hours to get back to base camp where we were rewarded with a 90-minute nap. After lunch, we continued down the mountain, covering as much territory in one rainy afternoon as it had taken us days two, three, and four to climb. After one final night of camping, we descended for four more hours and, sometime around noon, crossed the final gate, where I wasted no time buying a couple of cold Kilimanjaro lagers from an entrepreneurial Tanzanian.
A year later, I look back at our time in Africa with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I understand now — in a way I couldn’t when we were all still “in the moment” — the totality of our journey.
I would encourage any of my friends who have thought about climbing Kilimanjaro to follow that dream. As for me, I’m ready for the next big thing. Got any ideas??
Back in college, my roommate Stan, an electrical engineering major, had to fulfill a social sciences requirement that led him to write an essay on Peru. All these years later, the title of that essay — Peru: A Land of Extremes — remains a steady source of amusement for our friends. Stan wasn’t wrong though, a point that hit home when we left Lima, a city nestled on the coast, rose to Cusco at all of its 11,200 feet, and then dropped back down into an endless sea of jungle.
That diversity attracts millions of visitors to Peru each year. We left enriched by the experience. Yet something gnawed at me as we raced through the outskirts of Lima on the way to the airport. It was the sense that Peru had become a playground for gringos. More so than any other nation I’ve visited, I got the distinct impression that Peruvians were living their lives distinct and far apart from our daily adventures — activities that were completely foreign to Peruvians themselves. Come to Peru, we were told. Hike the Inca Trail. See Machu Picchu. Stay in the Amazon. Sail on Lake Titikaka. Fly over the Nasca Lines. And while you do that, we’ll be over there, quietly going about our business.
Immersing oneself in a local culture, getting off the tourist track, and meeting the locals is always a challenge when traveling. In Peru, that gap seemed wider, a feeling I just couldn’t shake as I headed home.