ANDY’S KILIMANJARO EXPERIENCE
We did it! We climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro! I say ‘we’ because I could not have done it without your prayers and God’s Holy Spirit helping me every step of the way.
I am now writing this while lying on a king-sized bed in Tanzania after a hot shower. I am using today to rest and reflect on my experience. As I lay here, I find myself already forgetting – the pain of it, the countless times I doubted myself. It was so much more difficult than I imagined. Why, why did I do it? What was I thinking? How? To be honest, I’m still not sure. I conquered nothing. Mt. Kilimanjaro revealed my inexperience and unpreparedness for what lay ahead. I left it humbled and grateful for having survived it.
I hope I don’t sound grandiose, there were lots of people there doing it. Many have done it or climbed bigger mountains. There are much bigger achievements, struggles, sacrifices occurring everywhere, every day that make my feat seem inconsequential. I think of our fighting men and women and the hardships and dangers they face. During my hike I thought often of people like Connor Luke and Praise, whose years-long daily struggles made my 7-day hike seem like a walk in the park. I’m crying again. To be clear, our three-person team had 2 guides as well as 12 porters carrying our food and supplies. To see them carrying heavy backpacks with huge tote bags on their heads, scaling up and down unending rocks was amazing, almost unbelievable to witness.
But it was brutal for me. So much more so than I expected. Anyone that has made a climb such as this can tell you. The actual hike – the physicality of it – is just part of the experience. There is also the below freezing cold, damp with fog and winds coming from all directions. I believe tent camping without a campfire should be banned globally. Oxygen deprivation is also real. Great athletes as well as our guides having made countless summits, can all be affected by it. It was lonely. There were 2 others in our group, a father and his daughter from N. Carolina. We would eat together but most of our time we stayed inside our tents, inside our sleeping bags, resting and trying to stay warm. I spent a lot of this time questioning myself. What am I doing? CAN I DO THIS? I am thinking of loved ones back home and missing them. I spent a lot of time praying but facing my fears was a factor I had to face from the time I left Chuka.
My trip unofficially began 2 days earlier on August 30th in Chuka, Meru. The night before I had packed all my warm clothes (which were woefully inadequate), gear and toiletries. I spent hours trying to assess which funds I would require. Between American dollars, Kenya shillings and my Mpesa account to pay for the various matatus (van shuttles), buses, taxis, hotels, visas, covid tests, outfitter summit costs as well as tips needed in 2 countries was staggering. For security reasons, I didn’t want to take more than necessary. How I miss the convenience of a bank card in the US!
In the morning, my friend, Alex Mwenda dropped me off at a matatu shuttle area. Matatus are a primary mode of transport in Kenya. Usually, they are cramped and overcrowded with stops at numerous intervals. However, I had a direct-to-Nairobi shuttle, and my ride was uneventful. But I was nervous. When do I get off? Would my friend Onesmus be there? CAN I DO THIS?
Nairobi is pulsating with energy. There are people, cars, trucks and motorcycles everywhere, going in all directions. To say I am a minority is a bit of an understatement. I am more like a walking billboard. Fortunately, Onesmus, was there waiting. We walked to a nearby hotel where I would spend the night. I got a covid test and was shown where to meet the shuttle I would take to Arusha, Tanzania the next morning.
Everything was going according to plan and on 31st I was on my way to Tanzania. It was a 6+ hour journey and border crossings are always stressful. Many of the same questions still lingered. When do I get off? Will my outfitter be there as promised? CAN I DO THIS? Basically, in many ways I am helpless in Tanzania. I don’t speak Swahili, I don’t know exchange rates and I stand out like a grain of salt in a pepper shaker. Much to my relief, Peniel, my outfitter with ‘Lights of Africa’ was there waiting. He escorted me to my hotel where I am now again, writing this.
Then Peniel introduced me to Fred Ngogo, my guide for the next 7 days. Fred is a calm, quiet, easygoing and generous person but in our first meeting I could see in his eyes what he saw in me. I understood his concerns. He asked me some questions probing to understand my skill level. Do I really understand what I am attempting to do? What have I done to prepare? I didn’t even bring a warm hat and gloves! Although he knew I was renting equipment, this was still unusual. To his credit, he didn’t call me an old clueless fart, but I could tell he was thinking it. He was concerned, justifiably, for my safety. I was his responsibility for the next 7 days. I had difficulty pleading my case because I didn’t have a lot of history to prove it.
I had climbed Mt. Kenya with my daughter Abby 8 years prior. Mt. Kenya is Africa’s 2nd tallest mountain. From my thinking, I did okay (Abby would probably disagree but dads do not get much credit). Eventually, Fred relented as it wasn’t his decision, but I could tell that he had doubts about me. So did I.
I met my two fellow climbers later that evening. The father was only nine years my junior (I am 64) but he was a triathlete, muscular, without an ounce of fat. His daughter was 16 (she turned 17 on the final day of our summit) and was a long-distance swimmer and a cross country runner at her high school. Questions about my inadequacy were compounding by the minute. What if I am unable to finish? How will it affect their experience? CAN I DO THIS? To me, these weren’t just nagging questions but a genuine fear of failure I felt.
On the first day of August our trip officially began. We travelled by chartered bus from Arusha to Moshi, the site of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I was surprised to see the number of porters in our group- we had 12. There are maximum weights of packs and bags they are allowed to carry. Apparently, after weigh-ins all of them were necessary for our group.
Finally, after a box lunch at Lemosho Gate our hike began. The Lemosho route is neither the hardest route nor the easiest but is generally considered the most popular due to its geographical interests. Throughout our trip, both Fred and Daudi (pronounced Da-oo-di), our assistant guide, their mantra was ‘pole pole’ (pronounced po-lee po-lee) which means slowly in Swahili. I was fine with that. We started pole pole, gradually increasing speed as we warmed up. The first day was literally a walk in the forest, surrounded by lush vegetation. I know this sounds crazy. I knew it was premature. The incline was gentle. The distance was only 4 kilometers. There was little altitude gain, solid footing and perfect weather. But for the 1st time I thought, maybe I can do this.
When we were arrived at Mti Kubwa (Big Tree) camp, our tents were already set up. Tea and popcorn were served, and dinner soon followed. Thankfully, this was the case every night of our hike. Spirits were high. Then Fred told us the 2nd day would be perhaps one of the most difficult. Most of the hikers who drop out do so after the 2nd day.
We started hiking at 7 a.m. Although Fred and Daudi were leading us ‘pole pole’ we often passed most of the groups which had started ahead of us. I was secretly always proud of this. The vegetation was still lush, the altitude gain was modest, and we covered a lot of ground before lunch, about 5 miles. We saw Colobus monkeys (please Google, it’s worth it) swinging around us. We skipped a camp. After lunch we walked 7 more miles. The hike wasn’t that steep but to me, 11 miles uphill is 11 miles uphill. I had made it through day two! I think for the first time, Fred believed I could do this, too. I could tell he was relieved. I became affectionately called Babu (grandfather) by the guides and porters. Maybe, just maybe…
The third day was hard. The entire morning, we hiked a peak called ‘Elephant’s Back’. It should have been called ‘Giraffe’s Neck’. We climbed innumerous rocks, steeply inclined for 4 miles. The rocks on Kilimanjaro aren’t rounded. They are pointed and jagged and many are loose and unsupportive. It’s freakin’ dangerous. One slip, one misstep and the climb can come to a bitter halt in a fraction of a second.
By lunch we had climbed over 7,400 ft. and were 15,000 ft. above the sea level! We reached a beautiful rock formation called Lava Towers and Kilimanjaro’s iconic peak was looming overhead. The oxygen level was noticeably thin. Many hikers became sick here. I was tired and it was cold, but the views were amazing.
Daudi, our assistant guide was funny and easy going. So many times, during our trek we would ask him, how much further? Without fail he would reply, “We are almost there.” Hours later, still hiking, we would get the same response. Unless we needed a laugh we quit asking.
After lunch our journey continued again but now, we were going down steeply. Down, down and more down. Wait a minute! I climbed this far up, to go this far down, only to go that far up again? I was crushed. Steep mountain descents are especially treacherous. Decisions where to step must be made in nanoseconds for extended periods and require grueling focus and coordination as well as some lucky guesses and answered prayers. Finally, we reached Barranco Camp, where we spent the night viewing a huge, impressive vertical cliff across a deep valley.
The next morning on day four I was in for a big surprise. You know that impressive vertical cliff I mentioned? It is called Barranco Wall, and I climbed it! From a distance I could see dots moving upwards in the distance; they were people. Although it didn’t require any technical expertise, a mistake could be dangerous, perhaps fatal. I loved it. The wall was probably the favorite part of my Kilimanjaro experience. Had I slipped or fallen I am sure I would have felt differently.
The rest of the day had its ups and downs – literally. We would ascend tall ridges only to walk down deep valleys and then walk upwards again. Physically, all things considered, I felt fine. Emotionally, I was frustrated. My goal to reach the top seemed no closer in view. We spent the night at Karanga Camp.
There is a fine line in maintaining proper hydration. There is probably nothing worse than leg muscle cramps at night while camping. To relieve them you must walk around. This means unzipping bags and tents in a hurry while in intense pain in freezing cold temperatures. On the other hand, too much water consumption means multiple bladder relief trips outside.
There was a huge consolation to going outside the tent at those times – the night sky. I don’t believe there could be a better place on earth to see them. There were billions and billions, as Carl Sagan would say, faraway galaxies and nebulae were clearly visible, I would have spent more time gazing at the stars, but my bladder was empty, and it was freaking cold.
For the past two days the landscape had been uniquely beautiful. Lobelia, everlasting flowers, a type of yellow daisy and colorful lichen on the rocks dotted our surroundings. This changed on day 5. We began hiking up again – way up. The climb was steep, and the altitude became a significant factor. The landscape changed – now just a gabillion rocks everywhere as far as we could see. We arrived early at Barafu Camp, around noon. It was getting closer to crunch time – our final ascent. Our orders were to get as much rest as possible. Try to sleep. For me, sleeping on the side of a cliff in below-freezing temperatures, with the most difficult test of my life visibly looming overhead, sleep was not possible. But everything considered, I felt good. My body had held up surprisingly well and I had grown stronger daily. My climbing partners weren’t as fortunate. Altitude sickness takes many forms – shivers, nausea, headaches, fever-like symptoms and loss of appetite are common. To their credit, they both did great, and both reached the summit despite their symptoms.
At 1 a.m. on day 6, we began our final ascent with Fred leading the way. We wore headlamps for light and wore everything we could for warmth. From base camp to the top, the entire mountain is covered with small pebble-sized stones called scree. The pathway to the top zig-zagged continuously; it would have been too steep otherwise. For 6 hours, inch by inch, up a steep incline, in freezing conditions, with precious little oxygen to sustain our climbing, we trudged upwards, baby-step by baby-step.
I remember after 3 hours being very angry at myself. The questions were the same, but the pain made the answers more elusive. Why was I doing this? What was I thinking? I’m an idiot seemed to be the only acceptable answer. I prayed a lot, repeating, “I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:13). God has never and will never let me down. He has given me so many blessings and protected me in so many ways, so many times throughout my life. I especially needed His Holy Spirit then, helping me, pushing me, lifting me on every painful step. I have never been a fast runner and I can hardly swim but God has given me the legs and stubbornness of a pack animal. There have been many times in my life I have felt too tired to take another step but seldom, if ever, have I been unable to. I do not take this gift for granted. I know there will be a day I when I can walk no further. I remember thinking, just please God, not today.
I kept my head down, focusing only on the hiker’s feet directly in front of me illuminated by my headlamps. I remember looking up in the far distance and seeing tiny stars moving. Then I realized those tiny specks weren’t stars at all. They were other hikers’ headlamps that had left before our group. They were a constant reminder the end was still nowhere in sight. It was a bit comforting, however, to look downwards and see the tiny specks of light beneath us. We had come far.
After 5 hours, the oxygen levels were so thin I became nauseous as well. We had purposefully not eaten before embarking on this hike for that very reason. Then I heard people screaming at the top, rejoicing because they had reached the summit. But the screams still sounded so far away…will it ever end? CAN I DO THIS?
It did end, about an hour later. We reached Stella Point which is the lower part of the volcano rim. The climb from there became much more gradual. Finally, we arrived at Uhuru Peak, the tallest peak in Africa, 19,340 ft. above sea level. Woo-hoo, right? I had expected at this moment waves of euphoria would sweep through me. This was culmination of 6 days of extreme hardship. The sun was coming up on the horizon above the clouds below. I had walked through glacier paths with the ice reaching up to my waist. The views were incredible, so much more beautiful than I could have imagined.
Yet my victory felt hollow. My adrenalin reserves had been long been spent. I was weary and terribly nauseous. I was just barely able to take and pose for a few photos. One of our guides produced a muffin with a candle for the daughter’s 17th birthday celebration. There was not enough oxygen to light it, but we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ anyway. Fred, who had serious doubts about me about a week ago, congratulated me and told me he was proud of me. He said I reminded him of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I replied, “I’ll be back,” and he convulsed with laughter. But in my back of my mind, I remember asking myself a new question. It was no longer, “Can I do this?” The question was, “Was it worth it?”
I still had to get back down. The darkness on the way up had concealed how far we had climbed. The distance was staggering. The boots I had purchased recently in Nairobi were punishing my toes with every step. My nausea from the altitude sickness was still constant. Finally, 2 ½ hours later, I was back at Barafu Camp for a short rest. The hardest day of my life was by no means over. It was only 10:00 a.m.! By noon tomorrow, we had to be off the mountain.
Fred played the role of a cheerleader, telling us we could do this. Every muscle in my body was sore and my stomach was still queasy. No one could eat. He reassured us that once we descended lower our energy levels would return. We had to at least return to upper camp. Although I doubted him at the time, we had no choice but to try. Thankfully, I had brought my old tennis shoes and wore them instead. They made a huge difference. Fred was right about our energy levels; they returned. The oxygen supply became more normal again. By the time we reached upper camp, we all agreed to continue to lower camp that afternoon. It was an incredibly difficult two-kilometer descent further, yet somehow, I was re-energized, my feet bouncing off the rocks as if I was rock hopping as a youth. The last night of the camp was such a sharp contrast from the night before. The night was pleasant, the mood had changed, the fears of failure were gone; my body had held up.
On day seven, we had a relatively easy hike to Mweka gate, our point of departure. “We are almost there Babu,” Daudi joked. For the first time on our journey, he was right. The bus shuttle arrived, and we headed back to our hotel in Arusha. We were given our completion certificates and then all the guides and porters sang the ‘Hakuna Matata’ song for us. Again, I cannot sing their praises enough. Covid has hammered the tourism industry everywhere but in Africa it is especially acute. The outfitter’s company name is called ‘Lights of Africa’ and I recommend them highly. I hugged Fred, told him thanks and goodbye and I said, “I’ll be back.” I was lying but we had a nice laugh.
So here I am, safely in my hotel, with many of my questions answered and fears faced. Yes, I did it. Would I do it again? It is highly doubtful. One of the reasons I am writing this now is to help me remember. We tend to forget the severity of our pains and hardships over time. Ask any mother. But of course, now that is over and a dream has been realized, I am glad I did it. Physically, I am as fit as I have been in years. I have gained muscle, lost fat, my reflexes are sharp, and I feel as limber as a yoga instructor. I need to begin shopping for a superhero cape.
A couple of years ago, I would not have considered doing this. I was living a sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle. With God’s help I have been completely sober, healthier and happier. I feel like I am a better person in general. I believe God wants us to have dreams. I believe that with God in our lives we can live more richly than we can imagine.
Beginning tomorrow, I still must take more taxis, matatus, a bus shuttle and have another border crossing to go to return to Chuka, Kenya, where my apartment awaits. But much of my anxiety has been lifted. The continuing reassurance that God has been with me on every step of my journey has been a great comfort. As Daudi would say, “We are almost there.”