Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Step by Step Up Mount Kilimanjaro: Summiting with the Help of Many

Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro
This past January my husband and I had the life-changing experience of getting to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  This has been a personal goal of mine for several years, and only with the help of great people was I able to accomplish it.  Thank you everyone who got me up and down the mountain safely.  Only with the help of caring and talented people would I have been able to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.  It is an awe inspiring sight, and getting up and down the mountain takes a lot of people to let anyone do it. 

Getting to Moshi, Tanzania.  I have to thank my husband for getting us to Mt. Kilimanjaro at the beginning of the dry season.  He is a great travel agent;  lining up our flights, arranging the tour with Zara Tours and getting us ready for the trek.  His efforts got us to Moshi, Tanzania at the beginning of January.  Now that we were at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, my welfare was also in the hands of the team at Zara Tours.  

And Away We Go.  On our first morning in Moshi we got our bags packed up and we headed out to the Machame Gate. When you are waiting to head out, you are lingering at the Machame Gate along with many other tourists.  Lots of cell phone pictures are taken, backpacks are rearranged and lunches are eaten.  While we tourists are getting ready, our team of guides and porters are getting our gear weighed, the food and gear for the trek arranged and the team parses out packs and supplies evenly among the porters.  (To make sure you don't overpack, check out my recommended packing list here)  As we stepped foot on the Machame Route my heart was in my throat.  What had I gotten us into?

Slowly, Slowly.  Hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro is a fairly easy (some may say it is a challenging, yet non-technical), 6 day hike.  We chose to do the Machame Trail, also known as the Whisky Route.  It isn't the easiest trail, but anyone who can at times hike a moderately difficult trail in the mountains would be able to do it.  But the challenge with Kilimanjaro is the altitude.  Kilimanjaro is the world's highest freestanding mountain and the highest point in Africa.  With a total elevation gain from the Machame Gate to Uhuru Peak of 13,978 ft (4,261 meters for my fellow metric fans), acclimating to the increase in elevation is very important.  From the first steps you take with your guides at the gate they encourage you to go "pole, pole", which in Swahili means "slow, slow"

Day one with Victor, our skilled guide.
Wonder in the Tropical Rainforest.  Our first day of hiking, slowly, had us hiking through tropical rainforest.  The botanist in me was thrilled to see plants and flowers only found on the mountain, including Kilimanjaro impatiens and gladiolus, as well as heliocrysanthemums and other everlastings.  Starting any adventure always has you viewing things through the lens of the inexperienced.  Every step is new and exciting, and you have to get your bearings about how things work up on the trail.

Coming up fast behind you.  Hiking along so slowly, you quickly learn that you need to pick a side of the trail and stick to it, preferably the same side your travel mates choose.  Why?  Because throughout the trek you are being passed by the porters who are lugging up packs, tents, food and water to the next camp site.  I wondered why they passed us so fast and then we would find them soon enough resting along the trail.  Why didn't they just slowly ascend like we were instructed to do.  Well, of course they are acclimated to the elevation and the continuous elevation gain they are experiencing.  They are also in top notch shape, doing this trek on a regular basis during the high seasons.  But I finally figured it out.  If I had to lug 50 pounds of stuff up the hill I would want to get that load off my back as often as possible.

Commaradarie on the trail:  My husband and I had a great couple to travel with.  They were newlyweds from Norway and had great enthusiasm for the adventure, easy-going attitudes and both had a great sense of humor.

Our team packing up for the Day 2
Campsite 1:  After the first day of hiking we made it to the Machame Hut at 9,940 ft (3,000 meters).  This is the first time we witnessed the extent of the work our porters and guides had done.  Our sleeping tents were all set up, our dining tent was nearby, and we were given warm water to clean up with.  Then we were quickly escorted to the dining tent for hot coffee, tea and dinner.  I wasn't sure what to expect for meals, and was pleasantly surprised.  We had warm drinks, soup, a complete dinner and fruit for dessert.  Our guide, Victor, gave us an update about what to expect and plans for the next day.  The four of us trekkers followed orders and got to bed quickly and were ready to go early the next morning--at least most of us were.

Will We Make it Through Day 2?  Starting out on our second day my husband got very sick.  He was convinced he had altitude sickness and would have to turn back.  Our guide Victor wasn't convinced of this, and encouraged him to keep going.  Again, just getting accustom to the trail we were also getting accustom to Victor.  Who was this guy?  Did he have any experience on Mt. Kilimanjaro?  Did he even know the signs of mountain sickness?  Oh, we hoped so.  And I have to say, that's why it is so important to have a good guide and a reliable tour company.  Victor knew to let my husband rest, encouraged him to drink and eat small amounts of food, and tested him regularly for the level of oxygen in his blood.  His oxygen level was good.  Nausea and GI distress were bad, but getting better.  Probably a bad reaction to malaria medicine.  After walking for 6 hours, uphill, with increasing elevation for 3.5 miles, my husband made it to Shira Camp.  Victory!  Almost, he quickly threw up while entering the dining tent.  Our trekking mates took it in stride, and Victor made sure my husband had soup and luckily, an anti-nausea tablet that evening.

How Did This Get Here?  When you get to Shira Camp, you are at a large campsite.  Many other tour companies have their tents set up and it is quite a busy campsite.  One thing I noticed were two large buildings constructed at Shira Camp.  First, there was the park office, a good sized permanent park office building.  And then there was a brand new large bathroom complex.  What struck me was that each piece of lumber, each floor tile and everything in between had been packed on the back of a porter to get it there, for the use of us tourists climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.  While I understand the need to have these buildings, it filled me with awe that porters had had to pack building materials up there--over every rock, wet creekbed and fallen tree on the rigorous Whiskey Route trail.  It really takes a lot of people to make things happen, even the construction of those buildings at 12,630 ft (3,850 m).  Quite humbling.  

Porters, Guides and Hikers.
Note the egg crate on the porter to the right of this photo
Day 3.  Heading out from Shira Camp the porters get going as quickly as possible.  They put our tents away, packed up all the food and hauled it up to the next campsite.  When you hike for days the porters have to carry all the food for several days.  I was always impressed when I saw the food porter who had the crate of eggs on his back.  We had eggs for breakfast every morning, and only because those porters got those delicate eggs up to our campsite, safe and sound.  Here's a picture of hikers and porters going up the mountain.  Note the egg crate on the porter to the right.  (That's for eggs, not the soft foam egg crate for sleeping on that some backpackers may know of).  I also have to point out the sheer size of the loads some porters have to carry.  You can see some carrying tents and heavy loads on their heads and backs.  Thank you porters for all your hard work.  

The Barranco Wall:  After Shira Camp it was off to Lava Tower and the Barranco Huts.  Having learned how the flow of the day goes, I got to understand what each porter, guide and team member was in charge of.  At the Barranco Huts, I asked Victor if I could interview the team.  First the crew welcomed us with a song
And then I got to meet the rest of the crew.  Each man here contributed to the success and welfare of each other and of us hikers.  
Our Porters: 
Chief Porter:  Fredy Kings
Elias:  Luggage Porter
 Msafiri, Luggage Porter
(I am very sorry I didn't pack lighter!)
Joe:  Food and Fruit Porter

Thomas, Food and Cooking Porter
Damian, Baker

Issa, Food Basket Porter--20 years experience
Athean, Beef and Egg Porter
Rashidi, Food Porter for the Crew 
Clemens, Our Cook
Kalvin, our friendly waiter and porter
Japhet, our waiter and junior guide

Peter:  Tent Crew
Geofrey, Table, Plates and Chair Porter

Rafiki Apollo
The Bare Necessities:  Adventures like this quickly make you realize how important the little things are.  My trekking mates and I had opted to include a little luxury on our trek, a personal bathroom.  Back at home while I was preparing for this trip I had trained all I could.  Hiking, snowshoeing, going up to higher elevations, running and biking whenever I had a chance.  But one thing was quite daunting to me--the facilities at the camps are very rustic, with bathrooms being small wood huts with a hole in the floor.  While I had thought I could just handle it, the option of having a portable bathroom was very attractive, and I was so relieved when the other 3 in my hiking group also wanted this convenience.  Yes, readers, I was thrilled to have a private bathroom during the hike.  But remember, everything needed on the trek are packed on the backs of porters and the needs of the tourists are handled by the porters and the guides.  So I say, with much heartfelt thanks, that my porter, Apollo, let me keep my dignity.  Thank you Apollo!

Kissing the Wall and Up to Barafu Camp.  After getting to know our crew better and having a wonderful dinner, we were encouraged to get to sleep because we wanted to head up the Barranco Wall as early as possible--to beat the traffic.  Some people get to Barranco camp, see the imposing wall and turn around.  It was quite impressive, but going up is always much easier than going down.  We turned in early and the next morning started up the trail at around 7:30.  The Barranco Wall is challenging, and of course you are getting passed by porters regularly.  But luckily we were early enough to have few trekkers pass by.  At one part the Wall is so difficult and steep that you have to literally get your face up to the wall in order to pass it, as if you are kissing it.  Our guides got us successfully up the Barranco Wall, and then up and down the next steep valley, on to Karanga Camp.  We had lunch here, at 13,235 ft (4,034 m).  What a lunch it was too.  Fried chicken, french fries and salad.  Well, after all that hiking it was simply delicious.  Yet again, amazing the effort and work the crew did.  After lunch it was a long, slow, hot hike up to the Barafu Huts, our campsite for the rest of the day until heading out to the summit at 11:00 pm.  

Our tent under the peak at Barafu
Waking Up to the Sound of Popcorn:  Often if you are eating popcorn at 11pm you are also enjoying a movie and a late night.  Not so on Kili.  When we were woken up a bit before midnight to start our final ascent to Uhuru Peak, we were welcomed by the pop pop pop of freshly popping corn.  Often on our trek we had popcorn, both as a snack in our lunchbox and at the start of a meal.  I loved the popcorn, and it made it quite fun to be up in the middle of the night to start a hike in the dark.  

Final Long, Slow Slog: After our light meal we donned our headlamps, our daypacks filled with all the extra layers we could find, our trekking poles, and our hiking boots to slowly finish this hike to the roof of Africa.  It was quite surreal to be heading out in the thin night air, headlamp on, to join a string of lights going up the mountain.  We had beautiful weather.  The temperature was around 28 degrees F (-2 C).  The air was clear and crisp.  Heading up in the dark, with no visual points of reference, the lights of fellow hikers streamed up the mountain into the heavens.  Was that a hiker's headlamp or was it finally a star?  I'll never know.  This was a hard hike with a series of rocky switchbacks and occasional rest stops for warm tea and a snack.  

Guide and Group Leader Victor
15 years of Kilimanjaro trekking experience
Knowledge is Power:  What a Good Guide Knows:  During the entire trek and especially on this final push up the mountain we were hiking alongside others who had various approaches to getting to the top.  Some tour guides used a slow but steady approach.  This was Victor's approach.  Some guides did more of a jackrabbit approach.  They would have their clients hike faster and then within moments the clients would be stopping to catch their breath and grab water and a snack.  These differences in strategy were magnified on this final push up the hill.  We would be slowly walking up to get passed by a jackrabbit.  By the next switchback that rabbit was sitting on a rock, eating a candy bar and begging for this to be over.  As the jackrabbit caught her breath we were slowly inching by her, ultimately reaching the summit within a few minutes of her.  

Joseph:  Assistant Guide.  9 years of Kili Experience
What a Good Guide Does:  Victor and his Assistant Guide Joseph were with us throughout the trip, and for the summit our waiter and guide-in-training, Japhet, was helping us too.  Victor has over 15 years of experience on Mt. Kilimanjaro, from being a porter to a cook to a guide to his current role as Group Leader.  He has seen a lot of serious incidents on the mountain, and has learned a lot.  Victor is very personable, and he was constantly seeing old friends on the trail, walking with them for miles and catching up on how things are going.  Victor also has built a good reputation with his fellow guides and porters.  Zara Tours is a local Tanzanian tour company.  Zara Tours wants to create a consistent experience for their guests, and that starts with having quality staff for every step of the journey.  As the consummate recruiter, I was interested in the staffing philosophy for Victor's team.  Most of the guides, porters and crew have worked together for years.  They are routinely working together up on the mountain for days on end.  They are also working with new clients, learning about them and making sure they are safe while also attending to their needs.  As Victor said, having a team that works well together and provides a quality experience to the guests is what he strives for.  Every member of his team must do their best to ensure that guests have a positive experience.  And in our world of reviews, ratings and bloggers, creating consistent quality experiences is even more important.  So Victor chooses to work with a strong crew that he has worked with for years.  Additionally, Victor is constantly mentoring his staff, helping them to do better and also move people up the ranks if it is prudent.  

On the Mountain Training.  Viewing personnel management while hiking the mountain may only be done by management consultants and executive recruiters, but no matter where you are, good managers are always employing the same techniques.  During our daily hikes, the porters would pack up the camp while Victor oversaw it.  The four of us hikers would start off on the trail with Joseph or Japhet.  Within a few minutes Victor would be right behind us on the trail, and quickly our porters would be passing us as well.  Victor was guiding us throughout the daily hike, and an assistant guide was with us most of the time as well.  Towards the end of the day's hike, the assistant guides would head up to the next camp.  By about the last half mile of our hike to a camp we would be welcomed by one of the junior guides.  Japhet or another guide in training would welcome Victor and take his pack.  They would talk and keep the pace, giving us updates as needed about the trail, the campsite, etc.  This routine, on-the-job training is how all apprentices learn, and also is an invaluable part of quality personnel development.  It was clearly evident that the younger guides enjoyed working with Victor and were developing great guide skills. 

What it Takes to Get to the Top:  With our slow, slow pace the four of us hikers diligently stepped up to the top of the mountain.  We got to Uhuru Peak around 8:30 am that morning.  With the thin air, the steady uphill climb and the awesomeness of it all, it can be quite disorienting.  For even the most athletic mountain climber getting to the summit is challenging.  And for the four of us in Victor's group, we had a lot of help from our guides.   We had encouragement, refreshments and sympathy during that final climb.  Many of the guides on the mountain that morning were singing songs that started at the top of the trail and continued, in tune, right down the mountain.  We had rest breaks with hot tea and biscuits.  And when we really got out of it towards the top, our guides grabbed our packs, helped us on with our gloves and jackets, and even made sure we had sips of water when needed.  That's better than I do sometimes on hikes with the family!  Getting towards the top, both my husband and I had Victor or Joseph carrying our daypacks and the guides were very good at getting our pictures taken when we could barely focus our own eyes.  Victor, Joseph and Japhet got us to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and we wouldn't have been able to do it without them.  
The Highest Point in Africa:  We Made It!
Clockwise from top left: My husband, Amy, Guide Victor, Assistant Guide Japhet, Assistant Guide Joseph, Fellow Climbers Golf and Isabelle.

Getting back to the rainforest and not breaking a leg
And Back Down:  So we made it up, but all things that go up must come back down.  Descending is  one of the best feelings in the world.  Any lingering headaches or altitude issues dissipate.  It is easier to breath.  And you are euphoric for having done it.  But for anyone planning to climb a mountain like this, do remember that it is even harder to go down.  It is tougher on your joints and also more accidents occur going down than going up.  But luckily we had a good team of trekkers, guides and porters.  Two days of descending found us back at the Mweka Gate, and then in our jeep heading back to the Springlands Hotel.  

Thank you Victor, Joseph and Japhet, and our entire team on the trek.  We greatly thank you for all of your hard work.  

But the Adventure Continues:  After our triumphant trip up and down the mountain, we still had a few days of safari to enjoy.  At the hotel we met our safari guide Fabian.  Fabian took us out to Tarangire National Park.  This was a beautiful natural park where we were sitting in a tower of giraffes and a herd of elephants.  I do love giraffes.  And I came to love warthogs.  The young warthogs are adorable.  We then stayed at the Highview Hotel.  The next day Fabian took us out to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where we saw lions, elephants, cape buffalo, hyenas, jackals, rhinos and so many more animals in their natural habitat.  For lunch we got to see a pod of hippos bellowing in the pond under the baobab tree.  Fabian did a great job of answering all my nature girl questions and always finding exactly the right place to be at the right time.  

Visiting the Elephant Caves:  The next day we stayed close to the hotel.  We took a walking tour to the Elephant Caves within the Ngorogoro Conservation Area.  Our guide Ali and our Maasai escort walked us up to the rim of the crater, checked us in with the park naturalist and ranger and off we set to see the Elephant Caves.  This was a fun hike in the hills, with our local experts, naturalists and AK-47 toting Park Ranger.  When we got close to the caves we were all too happy to have some firearm protection.  Up the hill in the caves was a pair of Cape Buffalos, one of the most dangerous wild animals in Africa.  But they headed out and we got to see the famous caves the elephants and other animals visit to get necessary vitamins and minerals.  
Next Stop:  Lake Manyara.  The next day Fabian drove us to Lake Manyara National Park, where we saw more exotic animals in their natural habitats.  I was glad I had no food in sight when we were in a troop of baboons--which got on our jeep.  

Safari Guide Fabian and Amy at Lake Manyara 

After touring Lake Manyara, Fabian delivered us back to the Springlands Hotel.  Thank you for being a great safari guide Fabian! 

Next Day, Fly Away:  Our visit to Tanzania was remarkable and very memorable.  Yes, we made it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.  And yes, we had a wonderful experience with wildlife on our safari.  But as with every trip, it was the people who made it happen and made it fun.  Everyone we met in Tanzania was exceptionally friendly and helpful.  With kindred spirits who have a wide smile and welcoming personality, I truly loved Tanzania.  And the people who helped us during each of our steps were professional and very kind people.  I sincerely thank everyone who made this trip happen--especially the man who will always be identified simply as My Husband!  

Kill Packing List

Here are the things I brought and really needed on the trip:

Water bottles to carry 3 L of water each day

Rain jacket 
Rain pants 
Long johns
Socks (wool and wool/synthetic blend) 5 pairs
Layers--wool, synthetic, moisture wicking
Waterproof parka
Wide-brimmed sun hat 
Baseball cap
Ear muffler
Fleece jacket
Down jacket and vest
Wool glove liners
Ski gloves
Convertible cargo pants:  I wore mine every day--same pair.
Spf shirt
Tank top

Hiking Boots (waterproof, but really only needed for highest hiking days)
Trail running shoes


Anti-nausea tablets

Lip balm
Nasal spray/Nasacort
Allergy meds
Pepsi Bismol/Imodium
Eye drops
Face soap
Cough drops
Wet wipes
Personal prescription drugs
Hand sanitizer 
Sunblock--and put it on, everyday!  Think about where you might need it--above your socks if you convert your pants, tops of your hands.

Electrolyte tabs
Energy bars

multi-tool/swiss army knife
Binder clips (to dry socks on the outside of your pack, emergency closures for all types of things)
Lots of plastic bags
Solar charger
Power bank

Sleeping bag and liner
Sleeping pad/Therma rest 
Trekking poles
Waterproof duffle
Comfortable Daypack

Cash.  You never seem to have enough--one thing you should always bring more of on a trip
Pillow (down jacket worked well)

If you've read this far and need to know what we ladies need to remember:
Jog Bra (2)
Pibella (FUD--find out what it is, may come in handy)

For before and after the mountain:
Bug wipes with DEET/bug spray

Anti malarial medication