The Roof of Africa
Amanda Trice, a 2001 graduate, left for a six-month volunteer commitment in Tanzania on July 4, 2004. She glimpsed Kilimanjaro, or “Kili” as it is affectionately called by locals, on a trip to Moshi, the small town at the base of the mountain. Kilimanjaro is Africa’s tallest mountain (at three miles above sea level) and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. Three ancient volcanoes collectively form Kilimanjaro, of which Kibo is the highest. Today, more than 20,000 tourists per year attempt to climb Kilimanjaro. Statistics vary, but most agree that less than 50 percent of climbers actually reach the summit.
Now, I have never been a trekker, climber, or even much of a camper, so as you can imagine I was ill-prepared for an adventure like this. I had run two marathons in the past year though, so I thought that physically and mentally I’d be ready.
There are a half dozen different routes up Kili, and at least 100 different tour companies based in Arusha and Moshi. My roommate, Sarah, and I finally signed on to do the Machame (mah-cha-may) route with Victoria Expeditions about two weeks before we climbed. We decided on late October, before the short rainy season begins. The Machame route was six days and five nights total; four and half days up the mountain, and one and a half days down. We would sleep in tents each night, and have porters to carry our heavy packs.
The night before the climb, with butterflies in our stomachs, we stuffed our big packs with boots, socks, journals, cameras and lots of film, headlamps, snacks, water, and pretty much every layer of clothing we owned. Layering is key.
Day 1: 1800m to 3000m
We said some prayers and then said goodbyes to our beloved housemates, wondering if we would indeed return. And, if so, if we would still have all of our fingers and toes. We set off to the Victoria Expeditions office in town, with our big packs, daypacks and huge bottles of water in tow.
At the office we met our guide, Arusha. He was a short, stout middle-aged Tanzanian. He looked pretty intense and gritty-a veteran. We loaded up the Range Rover we would be taking to the base camp with our gear. Our cook and four porters jumped in then: Lucas, Emanuel, Ravo, Ilia and James (affectionately called “Babu,” which means “grandfather,” because he was the oldest by far-near 40). Except for Babu, they were all young Tanzanians in their 20s. All very thin and wearing a rag-tag assortment of clothes, socks and shoes. Sarah and I each had a huge pack and daypack full of clothes and gear. Each of them came with the clothes on their back and a small bag with an extra hat, coat, and gloves.
They had two tents (one for Sarah and me, and one for the porters, cook and guide), our two large packs, some packs of their own, and enough food and water for the eight of us for six days. They used huge woven baskets the diameter of a small table to carry food and supplies. They would pack them to the brim, tie them up with rope, then hoist them onto their heads. They could carry loads on their heads that Sarah and I, together, could barely lift off the ground.
Once everything was packed and ready, Sarah and I started off with one of our porters, Ilia. Arusha stayed behind with the other porters so they could get all of their packs weighed. There are regulations that mandate that porters are not allowed to carry packs more than 20 kilos in weight-roughly 44 pounds. This regulation was a hard-fought battle. Prior to this, porters would carry packs weighing up to 40 kilos, and had more frequent injuries.
Sarah, Ilia, and I hiked up, up and up. I felt like we were in a South American jungle. The trails were thick with trees, vines and hanging mosses. And it was humid and steamy. Sarah and I were in t-shirts and pants, and were sweating like crazy. It was a peaceful and calm hike, with Ilia silently leading the way. Walking behind him, it was impossible not to notice that his legs were incredibly thin, the thickness of my arms. We were in awe watching this slight frame carry such a huge basket on his head, from time to time letting it slide back to rest on his neck.
Towards the end of the four-hour hike, it began to rain-a light rain at first, which actually felt refreshing on our sweaty foreheads. Then it began to rain harder, and it truly felt like we were in the rainforest. Sarah and I pulled out our ponchos and rain jackets, while other better-equipped trekkers simply popped open their umbrellas. By the time we made it to the first campsite, Machame Camp, the vegetation had thinned out quite a bit and changed to a more arid, mountainous landscape.
When we arrived at Machame Camp it was still raining, raining, raining. While our porters set up camp, I waited in the rescue hut where park employees are stationed and live for weeks at a time. There was a huge group of Polish tourists who had arrived at about the same time. While we waited, it struck me as so funny how most of the other tourists who were climbing Kili were so geared up with professional trekking equipment, expensive cameras and proper clothing. And then there was us-the two crazy American volunteer girls.
The porters finally got everything set up and Sarah and I headed to our two-man tent. Cold, soaked, tired and a bit disheartened, we climbed into our tent, layered up and crawled into our sleeping bags. Emanuel brought us hot tea while we rested, shivered and commiserated. I must admit, we were feeling a little defeated by Kili already…and it was only the first day.
A little while later, one of the porters came and got us for dinner. When we crept out of our tent, we were surprised to find that a tent city had sprung up all around us.
We crowded into the staff’s tent for dinner. I think that typically trekkers would eat separately from the porters, guide and cook, but we had already been living in Tanzania for four months and had become accustomed to the culture and people, and even picked up some functional Swahili. So, we ended up taking all of our evening meals together.
Each night we would start with chai or coffee, a brothy soup and white bread. This would be followed by a main course of a ginger vegetable stew and some type of carbohydrate-rice, french fries or pasta. Our cook, Lucas, also made the best fried cabbage that we found in Tanzania. After dinner we usually had some type of fruit for dessert.
After dinner and some interesting conversation, we headed back to the tent and went to sleep…well, actually we went to laying in the tent and tossing and turning. The effects of the altitude were already starting to hit us. It was impossible to fall asleep. They say that this is because your body is not getting as much oxygen as it is used to, so your brain tells you that it is not safe to fall asleep. It’s very surreal, because as you lay there perfectly still you can feel how much quicker your breathing is than normal.
Day Two: 3000m to 3840m
Each morning we had toasted bread with margarine and honey, chai, coffee, powdered milk, sugar, fried eggs with cucumber, tomato, green pepper garnish and uji (ew-gee), which is a liquid-y porridge made from millet.
The hike was mostly an ascent again, but very scenic, beautiful and completely different from the lush jungle we had hiked through the day before. There were short, strange-looking twisted trees, bushes and earthy colored moss on the ground. And clouds, always clouds, in front of us, below us, and above us. We felt like we were in the Andes Mountains, hiking along narrow, winding pathways on the tops of green and brown ridges. You could see small figures, baskets on heads, creeping up the trails ahead.
Towards the end of the hike, we passed through areas that looked liked dried up coral reefs with little trickling waterfalls, and wispy trees blown all in one direction, as if they were being tossed around by the tide.
We made it to the Shira Plateau Camp early in the day, not long after lunch. Our porters had long since passed us that morning, and made it to the site with enough time to completely set up the tents and relax. We headed straight to our tent for the daily task of unpacking and reorganizing our packs.
By this time, I had a splitting headache from the altitude. I tried to take a nap, but wasn’t able to sleep. Our tent was set up right by a small, bare tree. After our attempted nap we hung up some of our clothes that hadn’t dried earlier that morning.
The Shira Plateau was beautiful. We did a little exploring, but before we left, Arusha had warned us that the fog rolls in really quickly, so we shouldn’t wander too far. He was right. Intermittently, a thick, intense blanket of fog would roll onto the plateau and cover the whole camp in a matter of minutes.
That night, after eating dinner and playing cards with our porters, we saw our first Kili sunset. It was so incredibly gorgeous. Shira is above the cloud level, so you felt like you were in a whole new word, a city of clouds. The setting sun poured majestic hues of red, yellow and orange onto the clouds below. We could also spot the top of Mt. Meru peeking out of the clouds in the distance.
When we turned around to face the looming snow-capped peak of Kili, we saw a nearly full and shining moon rising over it in the bright blue evening sky. A truly spectacular sight.
Day Three: 3840m to 3950m
After another sleepless night, we ate our breakfast and began our seven-hour hike, the longest one yet. We climbed up in altitude to 4600m, and then back to almost the same altitude that day. This is part of the “acclimatization” process. In order to get you used to the altitude gradually, the ascent up Kili is broken up into short hikes that do not increase too dramatically in altitude.
Due to the increased altitude, some parts of the hike were chilly and windy. Arusha had advised us of this change, so we had geared up in pants and long johns on the bottom, and four layers on the top. We also got out our hats and gloves.
There was not much vegetation, just low-lying bushes and enormous boulders covered with hanging moss. We also saw our first patches of snow and ice that day, in the shadows, between rocks. As we ascended the wind continued to pick up, and it got quite nippy.
About halfway through the hike, word got passed along that two trekkers had turned back. One of them was very sick from the altitude. We passed their porters who were headed back down the mountain to join them. Defeat, quite literally, staring us in the face.
We had lunch that day in a small valley by a clean, snowmelt stream. Our lunch each day was pretty much the same. We would get a brown paper sack lunch each morning. My lunch that day consisted of a margarine, cucumber, green pepper sandwich on white bread (it sounds gross, but after hours of hiking it hits the spot), a small piece of fried chicken, a hard boiled egg, a carrot, an orange, a muffin and a baby banana.
After lunch we ascended a bit more and then hiked down, down, down to the Barranco Camp, passing strange desert-like trees on our way. The campsite was very picturesque, set in a small, rocky mountain valley.
Once again, our tent was already set up when we arrived, so we retreated and relaxed for a few hours-reading, writing, and trying to sleep. After dinner, I was bound and determined to get some sleep. I took three Tylenol PM pills. I read for a while and then decided to try to sleep, which meant readjusting myself and zipping my sleeping bag-not fun tasks, especially when it’s so cold in your tent that you can see your breath, and the 18 layers of clothes you’re wearing make you all but immobilized, and your hat keeps getting pushed into your eyes, and you haven’t slept in three days.
After two failed attempts at getting situated, and being on the verge of screaming or crying, I finally fell asleep. Three or four blissful hours-my first real sleep on Kili.
Day Four: 3950m to 4600m
We had our breakfast and then crossed a creek and began a steep hike up the Barranco Wall. We had to do some serious climbing, up steep steps, looking for grips for our feet and hands.
The landscape during this six-hour hike was very desolate and barren. The ground was mostly loose rock and dust, and towards the end of the hike there were mountains of shale and slate rocks that crumbled under our feet. You could see the path winding far ahead, a faint line on a dull landscape. It was almost beautiful in its starkness. I felt like we were on the mountainous slopes of Mordor from The Lord of the Rings films.
I felt physically good for most of the hike. None of the hikes thus far had been very strenuous. But during the last hour of the hike, the combined affects of the altitude, the sun and several days without sleep really started to hit us. We trudged up to the Barafu Camp, very slowly. The final half-mile or so was a steep climb and we were fading.
So, we had reached the pivotal night in the climb. We would start our final ascent that evening at around midnight. That night at dinner we tried to eat as much as we could, but at that point we were pretty nervous and also getting tired of camp food. After dinner Arusha had our final climb “briefing” with us. He went over what to wear: two to three pairs of socks, hiking boots, four pairs of pants, as many layers on top as you have, hats, gloves, scarf and coat. I felt like we were preparing for a lovely little jaunt in Antarctica.
They would wake us up at 11:30 p.m. that night to begin hiking. We did our usual layering up for bed and then packed our daypacks for the big day. We settled in and tried to sleep. In only a few hours the real adventure would begin.
Day Five: 4600m to Peak
They woke us up at 11:30 p.m. with hot chocolate and biscuits. And we started putting on all of our clothes. Arusha, Sarah and I set off around midnight (the porters stayed behind at the campsite). We were very lucky to have a beautiful, shining full moon for the hike. We didn’t even need to use our headlamps. We climbed the whole night by moonlight…very romantic. The climb started at around 4700m, near Barafu Camp and ended at Uhuru Peak at over 5900m. So we were to climb almost a mile up in around six hours. I felt really tired from the beginning. I was excited about the hike, but just so tired from sleep deprivation. The altitude was also affecting me-headache, shortness of breath, nausea. We started off s-l-o-w, but Sarah and I were still both panting.
After about an hour or so of climbing I started feeling really nauseated, so we stopped and I pretty much willed myself to throw up. Goodbye biscuits. I felt better after that. Sarah was in a much better state and better spirits than I was, the trooper that she is. She was looking after me: un-zipping or zipping my coat when I got hot or cold, adjusting my scarf and providing moral support.
There were also other groups of trekkers climbing at the same time. We would pass them, and then they would pass us as we all periodically stopped for breaks. These bundled up figures passing by us in the dark, sharing our experience and our pain, exchanging hushed words of encouragement and commiseration.
When we stopped for breaks and turned around we could see the lights of Moshi shining below. They looked so incredibly far away. At one point we saw lightning crackling below in the distance over Arusha-90 minutes away. It was very eerie and unearthly to be above clouds and lightning, looking down on the sleeping world below.
After a couple hours, each step was exhausting. We would take one step every second. Imagine trudging along to the beat of “One Mississippi, two Mississippi…” very slowly and methodically, using your walking stick to keep the rhythm. Suffice to say there was not much chitchat going on anymore. We were all in our old little worlds of pain.
On and on we climbed, our only point of reference the huge glacier gleaming above us in the moonlight. We hiked straight towards it for hours, and then veered off to the right…a detour. It was so difficult to keep track of time. It seemed like we were climbing for ages, the minutes melting away with each methodical step.
It was hard to breathe, we were huffing and puffing, light-headed, each step a trial. My mindset was just to keep moving no matter what. It was getting colder as we progressed up the mountain, my hands and feet felt numb and frozen. My mumbled mantra, borrowed from a marathon friend, was “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” This also morphed into: “COLD is temporary…” and “FATIGUE is temporary…”
Eventually, against our better judgment, Sarah and I asked Arusha how much longer we would be climbing. He said we were an hour from the main trail junction at the top of the mountain, but from there it would be another 45 minutes to Uhuru Peak, the highest possible point. To say we were depressed is an understatement. It was not long after that that I started crying. Sarah was up ahead of Arusha and I at this point. Arusha took one look at me and yelled up to her, “Sarah, she is cry! She is cry!” Sarah started yelling back encouragements, while I blubbered on for a few more minutes feeling sorry for myself. It was quite a pathetic mental and physical state. I wanted to lie down right there and fall asleep and never get up. But the worst part was that I know that we were so incredibly close now to the “roof of Africa” and there was no way I was going to stop. I had to keep going.
The last hour and a half to the top was pretty miserable. I was moving extremely slowly at this point. Arusha finally took me by the arm and started walking with me in tow, half guiding, half dragging me along.
When we reached the main trail junction the sun was rising. It was a little before 6:00 a.m. Even in my sad, sad state it was stunning. I have never seen a sunrise that even compares. It spread across the whole sky to the east-a rich red and orange-and reflected off the magnificent glaciers lining the path to our left. This is the white that you can see when you view Kili from a distance. I wanted to climb around on them. They were so white and pure.
Even with all this inspirational beauty all around me, I was still feeling deflated. We were walking and walking and walking. And I was getting the feeling that Arusha wanted to just throw me off the mountain and be done with it. He was pretty tough and didn’t put up with a lot of complaining.
We finally made it to Uhuru Peak at 6:35 a.m. or so. There is a large weathered wooden sign there, denoting it as the highest point in Africa. There was a huge crowd of wazungu (Swahili for Westerners) waiting to get their photo taken. While we waited I sat on a low wooden bench with my head down and thanked God that we had made it alive and that it would all be over soon.
There are glaciers all around the top and a huge volcanic crater that some people (only the craziest of the crazy) camp in. It was extremely cold there, with an icy wind whipping all around us. We had to get down.
The descent back to Barafu Camp took about three hours. As we descended, our spirits soared. As we climbed down farther, the sun came out and it got warmer, and it really began to sink in that We had made it to the top.
Day Six: 3100m to 1700m
When we got to the base camp, we went to the National Parks Station and signed the guest book. We received certificates stating that we had made it to the top, and noting the date and time. I was climber number 12,862 to reach the summit in 2004. We felt like kissing the ground and if we had been physically able, we probably would have done a few cartwheels.
In the End…
In the end, all the pain, sleepless nights, and filth were absolutely worth it. I had the opportunity to see and touch some of the most beautiful and interesting landscapes in the world. I faced a challenge that at many times seemed completely impossible, and I won. I beat that mountain. I reached the top.
When I reached the bottom of the mountain that last day and drove away, I turned back and looked up at Mt. Kilimanjaro and I smiled. And I thanked that mountain for all it had given me. Climbing to the “roof of Africa” is an accomplishment that will live on in my mind and heart forever, and change the way that I view all future challenges in my life.
An accomplishment such as this begs the question: If you can climb all the way to the top of the world, what can’t you do?