One of the challenges and highlights of East Africa lay 5 1/2 thousand metres above Arusha. At 5895m, Mt Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain in the world, being the highest in Africa, and higher that Mt Blanc and Everest Base Camp. It had always been one of the main things I had wanted to do in East Africa, so despite the price, I was keen to get up there. As I was backpacking for months, including having to cart with me books and equipment for work, I didn’t have much of the gear required to get up into the mountains. Despite its height, it is not technical climbing in a mountaineering sense, more just a very high hill to climb. We had found a smaller operator that only charged $900 USD for a 6 day ascent, which was a lot less than the average price of $1200-1500. After a day catching our breath in Moshi, Phil & Claire (the New Zealanders I had met) and I headed to Marangu to start the journey. There are several route to ascend the mountain with most of them being camping routes aside from the Marangu route which has simple huts. Given we were at the end of the rainy season, and our experience with variable tent quality, we had opted for the Marangu route as we didn’t fancy adding being wet and cold to the fatigue and altitude issues that climbing to such height provides. In the end, we were graced with some amazing weather, and only some brief misty rain on one of the days. Phil and Claire had friends that had used our company before, and we had requested the same guide, Max, which was a wise move.
Max was there at the gate, ready to assess our gear hire choices – no, those gloves are worn out, those wet weather pants won’t be warm enough – get another pair of warm ones as well, you’ll need a extra woolen hat. I ended up with pretty much a whole new, albeit retro wardrobe which proved to all be decent gear much to my surprise.
The climb starts at 1970m, and ascends roughly 1000m a day. Each day, the landscape changes with the first day up to Mandara taking us through forested hillside, complete with waterfalls and monkeys. At Mandara camp, we got our first taste of the force feeding from the guides. Max and the assistant guide Wenga spoke good english, but the English of the ‘waiter’ – the cooks assistant come porter – called ‘Charlie Charlie’ had a more limited repertoire (although much better than my swahili). Therefore, serving up meals of soup, rice, beans and stew were accompanied by “eat, more, now” and “eat, food is good” in a jovial but bordering on aggressive tone, somehow reminiscent of Bam Bam from ‘The Flintstones’, as our plates were laden with increasing piles of food. Their theory was that a lot of people lose their appetite due to the altitude, and energy was important, so encouraging people to eat and not feel embarrassed about having large meals was important whilst the appetite was there.
After getting some sound advice from Morgan, a classmate from London who is specialising in High altitude medicine, we had opted to take acetazolamide (Diamox) to help us acclimatise. It has effects on the rate you breath, and the amount of CSF (fluid around the brain) you produce allowing faster acclimatisation to the altitude and reducing the risk of Acute Mountain Sickness. However, it also works as a diuretic, resulting in a frequent request to stop for as is termed in Tanzania, a ‘short-break’ (as different to a long-break). This meant about 4L of water had to be consumed a day. With not much to do in the evenings, and decent days walking, bed time was often early, but sleep was normally interrupted at least once by the conundrum of ‘I wonder if I could hold out with this distended bladder until the morning, or do I need to get up and brace the cold. What time is it. Ah crap, its only midnight…way too long to wait! The cold outside to take a leak it is’.
The walk on day two took us out of the forest into scrub land, peppered with tussock, succulents, and smaller shrubs. It was at this stage that we crossed the cloud-line, and with it, got a bit damp. All of the big packs were carted by local porters – young guys well acclimatised to the altitude who bounded up the hills often carrying the packs, pots or gas canisters on their heads. Much the same as in the Simian Mountains in Ethiopia, I was a bit embarrassed to be having someone else carry my stuff as was used to carting things on my own back when tramping. But as the altitude kicked in over the following days, it was soon apparent why all of the tours have porters, and why it’s a challenge to find somewhere that actually lets you take more than a day-pack.
Night two was at Horombo Camp which lies at 3720m, which was a good height for acclimatisation, and is the place most groups opt to take an extra day to let the body adjust. A day walk the next day allowed us to get a bit higher to provide more altitude stimulus as well as some cool rocks, coloured black and white by different deposited minerals earning the name ‘Zebra Rocks’. With a second night at Horombo, and with it, more nightly dashes through the cold to the bushes, we were well rested and (over)fed for the walk to Kibo. By this stage, the low atmospheric pressure and with it low oxygen pressure was noticeable, with jogging a few metres up the hill to the bathroom earning you a good pant to catch your breath. This meant the next day was taken at a leisurely pace to conserve energy for the following night. Kibo is nestled at the bottom of the last steep section of the mountain and acts as a staging point for summiting. Well above the bushline, but still well below the snow line, it reminded me a lot of parts of the Tongaririo crossing back home. However, on testing our oxygen saturations at rest were in the mid 80s, and resting heart rate was about 100. This meant that the few hours we had to sleep prior to our summit, in between an early dinner arond 5pm, and wake up at 11pm, was difficult as I became fixated on the racing pulse reverberating through my head.
I did eventually manage a few hours of kip before we were woken, chucked on our multiple layers, packed our snickers bars, pockets full of buttermilk lollies and bottles of water and started the slow trudge up the mountain. Initially it wasn’t too bad, with Phil and I passing the time dissecting the different criteria for deciding such eternal questions as the ‘best 5 movies of all time’. Does one need to come from each genre? Are we talking best viewing enjoyment first time round, or movie you would most want to be stuck on a deserted island with? The conversation was soon cut short as the gradient picked up, and with it, my breathlessness. I am not the worlds fittest person, but had run a couple of marathons, which I always insisted was mental fitness, and physical fitness wasn’t overly necessary, much to the frustration of my former flatmate Tim who loved to hit the pavement and had a very different opinion on the benefits of training. I had a bit of base fitness though, but as the gradient picked up, it became a battle to keep one foot in front of the other.
Max our guide had informed us with strict mental preparation for the final ascent. We weren’t allowed to talk to other climbers that were on the way down, and if we asked, he wasn’t going to tell us how far it was to go. The only way to get there was to put one foot in front of the other, and if we asked him, we were either going to be disappointed with how little progress we had made or underestimate how far we had to go. It was a good tactic, and we soon slipped into our own routines. Phil and Claire preferring music for support, whilst I zoned out into that space where you are thinking about everything but nothing, and focus on regulating your breathing – not breathing too deeply and getting puffed, but just a nice regular in and out and steady pace of the feet. It brought me back to a phrase I was taught on day one of being a doctor by the head of our local Intensive care unit, Charlie Brown. In an effort to make sure our basic skills to keep people alive were up to date, we had a session reviewing resuscitation situations. Charlie’s mantra was simple – “Air goes in and out, blood goes round and round, blue is bad, red is good, and you can’t make chicken salad from chicken shit” (if someone has multiple medical problems already, they cant all disappear overnight). I had often recited that phrase in my head when hitting the wall during marathons or other sport, and it was a good way to simplify things down into what needed to happen – breathe, walk and occasional stops for water and sustenance. After a 4 1/2 hour slog of zigzags cutting the way up a steep face made of boulders and scree, with only the back of Phil illuminated by my headlight, we finally made it to Gillman’s point, on the plateau that makes up Mt Kilimanjaro. Despite our layers, it was the coldest part of the night, and stopping for a bite to eat soon found us shivering. Thankfully, Max and Wenger had carted up a thermos full of piping hot tea, which we all devoured. With the back of the mountain broken, all that lay was another 210m of climbing up a much more manageable gradient. By then, a warm orange glow was replacing the dark blue of the dead of night, and with it, enough light to navigate without headlights. The initial plan was to watch the sunrise from the highest peak, Uhuru, but as we slowly puttered up the last slope, the first rays of light hit our backs, providing an amazing spectrum of colour over the ice caps and glaciers that are ever dwindling. Claire was running on empty, whilst Phil was taking it all in his stride, and I had found a new lease on life. It wasn’t long before the three of us, ably lead by Max and Wenger, we standing on the highest freestanding mountain in the world. There were a few other climbers that had left camp well before us, and so were just starting the descent, so we were in no queues for photos at the top, as can often be the way in high season. I had carried a Kilimanjaro beer in my backpack the whole way up to enjoy on the summit, although with it bordering on freezing, and not wanting any adverse affects of alcohol on top of the altitude, it was shared around and we all could enjoy a Kili on the top of Kili. Their marketing catchphrase of ‘If you cant climb it, drink it’ was not the right one for us! With the warmth of the rising sun, and at times, completely still air, the temperature was quite balmy, even allowing Phil and I to complete the last requirement for climbing a mountain. One of my recent flatmates insists you haven’t climbed a mountain until you have stood naked on top of it, facing into the wind. After making sure with Max we weren’t offending any local cultures or people, it was a quick strip off, before Max insisted we get moving. His anxiety was largely due to the fatigue that being at that altitude induces, even in the absence of activity. After 15 minutes of standing around, my resting oxygen saturations were 74% – very low and well and truly enough to get you admitted to ICU should it be from a medical illness.
The descent was expectantly a lot quicker than the ascent, with Phil and Claire, roaring off to try and reach somewhere with more oxygen to breath. I by that stage was starting to battle, and from Gillman’s point down, was having to ease back as I watched them race down the scree slopes. I think it was probably a combination of the walk up with not enough food in my system (I had lost my appetite on the climb) and probably not enough water, that meant that my descent speed was a lot slower, as I didn’t trust each foot to make it out in front of me if I went any quicker than the speed of a decent stroll. Despite being only 9 in the morning, the heat was packing a punch, and my base layers were all still on. By the time I got to the bottom 1 1/2 hours later, I was shattered, in need of some sleep, water and energy as well as a good strip off. I was barely able to eat, and too tired to sleep, so instead drank some juice which tasted like undiluted concentrate, and lay down and closed my eyes for an hour. My appetite still wasn’t there, but thankfully our diet of soup soup and more soup, followed by other food was unwavering, and it allowed sufficient calories to transform me from one minute being a destitute shivering mute into about 15 minutes later, being ready to talk the 4-5 hours down to the next hut. The transformation was remarkable, and I was back in business, with all of us setting a cracking pace down the hill.
Not everyone in our days cohort had as much success as us – one of the South Africans had to turn back as he had a decent cold, and thought if he wasn’t in tip top shape, he wouldn’t get the whole way and just be a burden. The female half of a dedicated dutch couple who interesting perceived taking Diamox as cheating (it doesn’t make the climb any easier, just makes you less likely to get really sick) had to turn back when the altitude sickness left her vomiting half way up the last stretch, and half of an overweight american duo of brothers couldn’t cut the climb although his brother battled his way up there in the end.
Heading down was a cruise in the park after the summit. Every step we took, not only was on a easy downhill gradient, but was also giving us more and more oxygen to fuel our muscles and brains. By the time we were back at Horombo, we were feeling good, despite only about 4 hours sleep and a lot of climbing in the previous 36 hours. As we were on the way down, we could stop taking the Acetazolamide, allowing us to gain a slightly less interrupted sleep, and allow our leaky boat to become a little more watertight.
The next day, it was a 2000 metre descent to the carpark, passing our hut from the first night late morning. Phil and Claire set a blistering pace, which Max was keen to sustain as there was a big local derby on for football that afternoon which all the locals wanted to get back to watch in time.
At the end of the trip, we had a bit of an awkward interchange regarding tips for the trip. Tips are part of the culture on the mountain, which grinds my gears to say the least. I guess coming from New Zealand, where we know what we are going to be charged, and that is all you pay, unless your service far exceeds the standard, I was already a bit irritated about factoring in $150 USD each to pay for the crew. We had done our research about what others were paying, and $150 seemed to divide up the be quite a bit higher per employee than the other groups were paying (including the Americans, the kings of tipping) and was at the higher end of the level recommended by the guide book. We were therefore a bit surprised and affronted when Max told us he was expecting an extra 50% more than we were budgeting for. Not only had I only brought with me enough cash for the 150, it was more than what is considered standard and no longer becomes a tip, but rather a relatively fixed wage supplement, which is not the essence of tipping in the first place. His side of the story was that the company screwed them over in terms of wages, so they relied more heavily on tips, but that was never something that had been conveyed when we booked or planned the trip. There probably is some truth in that argument, given we had gone with a more budget operator, but it did leave a bit of a sour taste after what had otherwise been a great adventure.
Nonetheless, it was a great few days of climbing, and one of the more memorable challenges I’ve had. It has left me with a bit of a taste for more alpine adventures. In the weeks following, I was chatting to a uni friend, who grew up in the Southern Alps. He has assured me we can lock in some basic mountaineering on Ruapehu next winter, and will be up Mt Cook in no time. But given his latest exploits jumping off perfectly good cliffs recently, I think his tame and my intense probably are not even close.