For the third consecutive morning, my alarm was the crashing of pots and pans and shouting Swahili. For the fourth consecutive morning, I was trapped in mosquito netting. There had to be a trick to this, people can’t constantly wake up trapped in a net their entire lives.
After freeing myself in record time I was up and ready. I had packed everything the previous night, so after a cold shower I headed out to breakfast. I took my time, eating half of the buffet, calories were my friend.
I nipped into the Internet lounge to order flowers for my girlfriend on Valentines Day. The card was to read, “Happy Valentines Day from the roof of Africa!” It was a good idea in theory, except for the fact that I screwed up the schedule and I would actually be back down in Moshi on Valentines Day. But this revelation wouldn’t occur to me for a week. As I rushed to order the flowers, Lauren appeared online, and we had a quick chat. I was thankful for that. I had really been missing her, and I needed her last little bit of encouragement.
With about ten minutes to spare, I grabbed my bags and loaded the duffel onto the van taking us to the mountain. I took my other bag to the storage room, which was locked. This meant I had to get someone from the front desk to open the room. It took them a few minutes to open it up. After that I had to check out, which meant I had to pay my bill, but my money was packed in my bag in storage, which meant I had to run back to get my wallet, and get back in line to check out, only to have my card rejected, but my cash is in my bag in the closet, back to the closet, grab the cash, back in line to check out, I still have my wallet, damnit, no time to run back I stuff it in my carry bag next to my passport, passport? why do I have my passport? back out to the driveway, where is the van? Did they leave?!?! No, they moved to outside the gates, they are waiting on me. If Lauren were there I’d never hear the end of this.
I get on the van, which is packed with luggage, climbers and a few porters. It’s still early enough that clouds have yet to hide the mountain. As we drive into Moshi, every set of eyes track the mountain.
The drive to Machame gate was about an hour, including a stop for any last minute necessities. Turning off the main road between Arusha and Moshi we wind up through coffee and banana plantations and villages. The villages swarmed with people, a skinned goat hung from the balcony of a butcher. The jungle grew thicker around us as we ascended, the plantations melting indiscernibly into the forest.
Close to two hundred men stood on either side of the road outside the Machame Gate, most of them waiting for the chance to be a porter. Others were selling hats, water reservoirs, gloves, poles and pretty much anything else that climbers might have forgotten. A group of German climbers, who all looked like Bono, bought the souvenir Kilimanjaro floppy hats and put them on.
One of the guys outside the gate was waving a little American flag.
“Look at that flag! Can’t you just feel the freedom and liberty?!” I said turning to Claire.
“You’re just pissed because the British flag is so much bigger than the American flag,” on cue the guy unfurled the comparatively massive Union Jack and started waving it around.
A single teardrop trailed down my cheek, falling from my jawline to the soil of Kilimanjaro. ‘Merica.
There were five or six groups checking in at the same time. Each climber has to sign in, providing passport and next of kin info. The guides also have to go through a fairly lengthy check-in process and hire some porters from the group of men standing outside the gates. This translated into a wait time of close to two hours before the trek officially began. The collective impatience was palpable, as nervousness and excitement translated into a lot of pacing and looking at watches. After a few too many cups of African rocket-fuel coffee I was a ball of potential energy. I took some pictures, and then forced myself to sit. I’d be walking for about a week, there was little sense in standing now.
This is Africa…hurry up and wait!
As I sat, I studied the signs advertising the mountain rules and safety regulations.
Dixon came down and led us uphill to a staging area. They handed us sack lunches for later and lined us up single-file. Porters ran around putting bags into bigger bags and those bigger bags into even bigger baskets. They filled water containers. They separated and reorganized the food. It was an impressive show of logistics in action. Once we were on the mountain resupply was tricky, and then impossible. As such it was important that nothing be forgotten. I wished these guys had packed my bags.
I had already left my insulated shell pants in Arizona. God only knows what else I’d discover as forgotten as the trek continued up the mountain.
Suddenly, we were walking. With no fanfare the trek began. All of the groups began walking at the same time, giving the appearance of a mob storming uphill to depose an evil sorcerer atop the mountain. Albeit in suuupeeer—ssssllllooooowwww—mmmmooooottttttiooooooon. We were all racing to see who could go the slowest. As soon as someone from the group found themselves at the head of the pack they would slow their gait until they fell into the middle or rear.
The first bit of the trail was more road than trail. We became a huge disorganized blob.
To make the situation more comical,Everyone in our group was keenly aware that speed is the enemy on the mountain. We had all day to hike, there was no sense in racing up the mountain. I had to subvert my competitive impulses, there were no medals given out to the fastest up the mountain. And statistically speaking, those who rushed tended to be the least likely to summit.
Baboons leapt from tree to tree on either side of the trail, mocking us for walking so slowly. The canopy above provided some much needed shade, we had been baking as the equatorial sun rose higher into the sky. It was still hot and sticky, but much better than being in the open.
The wide trail allowed everyone in the group to get better acquainted. There were two couples form Canada.
One came from Winnipeg, Vic was a trainer for a minor league ice hockey club. He had worked for a team in Tennessee, so we spent a fair amount of time talking about our favorite places to eat in the south. His girlfriend was an attorney. Another couple was from British Columbia, and brought the most backcountry experience. We spent some time talking about their favorite hikes on the west coast. The other Americans were retired physicists, they were Romanian immigrants who had defected in the 80’s during the height of communism. They looked frail, I was amazed that they were even attempting this. They possessed a matter-of-fact Eastern European demeanor, which was easily misconstrued as being demanding. The third Swede was traveling on her own, she was pretty shy, but clearly self-sufficient and confident.
As the trail narrowed we fell into single file. Whoever was in the rear assumed the unspoken responsibility of shouting as the porters caught up to us.
“Porter!!” Someone would yell.
“To the right!!” Would cascade along the line until everyone had sidestepped to the right of the trail, letting the porters pass.
The porters scrambled up the mountain at a pace double to ours. Bags and baskets weighing up to 70 pounds balanced on their heads as they bounded from rock to rock, avoiding the muddy footing. Many of them climbed only in second-hand sneakers, most of them thoroughly worn to the point of ripping from the sole. A few opted for no footwear at all. The clothing was a mismatch of hand-me-downs with no attempt made to color coordinate. In most cases the brand names were worn out or ripped off. It became a subtle mockery of everyone on the mountain who had paid exorbitantly for their gear…including me. Some of the porters darted past us at lightning speed, while others powered through each step, dripping in sweat. Most of them were chewing on something, their eyes slightly glazed over.
The day before Claire and Emily had vowed to be the slowest walkers on the mountain, and today they were doing a stellar job of keeping to that vow. Through the first third of the day they weren’t even in sight of the rest of the group. Toward late morning they caught up, I heard two girls with English accents chirping away behind me.
“Hey girls!” I shouted as I turned around, realizing it wasn’t them. “Oh…it’s you, you’re not them.” The “not them” were two English girls climbing the same route with an extra day. We had met earlier in the day.
“Yes, it’s just us. Only us,” they said almost in concert. They would spend the next few minutes making fun of me for being so unexcited about seeing them.
As they sped ahead Claire and Emily wandered up the trail.
“We’re just taking our time, no hurry with us,” Claire said as they caught up with us.
“My face is fuzzy,” Emily said as we talked about the side-effects of Diamox. I had yet to take mine, I was still neurotic about the possible side effects.
We stopped for lunch, a few porters were already stopped in the same place. There were many things that impressed me about the porters, but two stick out in my mind: They usually tended to be smiling or laughing or joking, and in many cases, smoking. I can’t even wrap my head around how these guys, or anybody for that matter, smoke while attempting this climb. After lunch we passed by a sign urging climbers to properly discard of their cigarettes to keep from burning this stratovolcano down.
There is something of an urban legend on the mountain (which I suppose wouldn’t make it ‘urban’) claiming that smokers have a higher summit rate than non-smokers, because their lungs are conditioned to work with less oxygen. I can just see the wheels turning in the minds of big tobacco ad execs, “Smokers are better mountain climbers than non-smokers!”
Although the porters were certainly doing their part to substantiate the myth, I’m not buying stock in it.
I finally took the diamox with lunch, and as we walked the “fuzziness” started to kick in. It felt like a warm, course featherduster was gingerly tickling my arms and legs and face. My cheeks and nose tingle warmly, and for a few minutes I’m convinced that I’m stoned. After ten minutes I get used to the feeling, not really noticing it through the rest of the climb.
“You’ll have to keep taking it after we come down the mountain so you can try a fizzy drink, it’s really cool!” Claire said. She was amazed at how carbonated drinks only taste carbonated once they go into the throat, a common diamox side effect
As we walked into the early afternoon, I trailed back with Dixon. He hadn’t been with us until just before lunch. Dixon had his hands full with a group three times the size of most others. Even with three assistant guides, he was responsible for the coordination of every aspect of the climb. Specifically this meant coordinating the porters as they tear down and build camps.
Just a little side-note of advice: if you want to make your trip a success, regardless of where it is or what kind of a trip it is, treat your guides well. Your guides usually have quality information, and even when they don’t they will know the people who do. They’ll have the hook-ups, and if they like you they’ll pass those connections on to you.
Dixon started as a porter as soon as he was old enough at seventeen, and gradually worked his way up to guide. He was part of the guiding team that worked on the Kilimanjaro Imax film. As we talked it was clear he had a
breadth of experience beyond what I had expected. It was also clear that today was the easy day for him, the one chance for him to relax a bit through the week. Dixon was tall and skinny, each of his steps worth a step and a half to me. Hiking poles staggered to his steps, setting the slow pace of a Kilimanjaro climb. His pack was triple the size of anyone elses, and strapped onto his skinny frame it seemed he might topple over at any minute. He belonged to the Chagga tribe who, along with the Maasai, inhabited this part of Tanzania.
We talked for almost two hours, until the canopy began to thin out. We had all been waiting for the trees to thin out, it was a marker that our day was about over. Dixon zoomed ahead, he now had to organize the porters ahead who were already busy cooking dinner and setting up camp.
The air cooled, wooly sleeves of moss covered the branches. With each step up the mountain we tread into a new climate zone. Sunlight, previously a limited resource, now beamed amply into the golden hours, showering the scene in perfect illumination. Lessening pressure diluted the concentration of air, causing my lungs to labor for each breath. An acute headache settled behind my eyes, and my feet swelled against the side of my boots. I was hitting a bit of a wall, nothing too substantial, but at least something necessitating my first burst of will power.
I climbed over this wall(later this wall would look like a mere curb). The canopy had almost completely disappeared. It was possible to see the progress made on the day, a huge psychological boost. I slowed down, walking on my own for a significant stretch. I wanted to soak in the vistas, basking in the accomplishment of the day. The view was different than the typical mountain vista. There is no counter mountain creating a valley, from here
Tanzania simply flattens out into a steamy, smoggy rug of jungle and farm and village.
The trail had been remarkably devoid of switchbacks all day, and it would only level out at the end. Optimism seized the group as we sensed the end of a day of walking. The optimism was rewarded as we walked into the beginning of the Machame camps, first passing the Germans wearing their matching Kilimanjaro hats. We wound up the last little hill to the Machame hut. It was certainly more than a hut, but not quite a house. It was a basic structure housing park officials. We walked into a room housing only a desk with a sign-in book. This became an end of day ritual, signing into the registry, forever marking our progress.
After signing we walked down to the campsite. Our tents had already been erected by the porters, who were now busy cooking. We claimed our tents and unloaded our packs. It was significantly cooler, I layered up and took my pills. I had brought half a medicine cabinet with me for every situation I could think of. I swallowed down another dose of diamox, my daily anti-malarial dioxycycline, my second helping of b-vitamins for energy, another hit of vitamin-c and my second fix of amino acids for joint flexibility and muscular regeneration. It was a lot to swallow.
We were called to the dining tent for a quick snack of popcorn, chocolate cookies, hot tea and hot chocolate. With a little bit of time before dinner I walked up the hill a bit to watch the glaciers of Kibo glow orange as the sun drooped to the horizon. The golden light gave a new element of dimension to the peak. It seemed suddenly closer and attainable. For a moment this whole enterprise seemed easy. But only a fleeting moment.
We reconvened in the dining tent for dinner, bringing our empty water bottles to be filled with boiled water. The tent was not made for 13 people, there would always be someone pretty much left out in the cold. It was a basic army-style A-frame tent with two collapsible tables inside surrounded by small fold out camp chairs.
We crushed inside to eat a surprisingly good meal. As we finished, Dixon explained what to expect for the next day using a souvenir map to illustrate the route. The next day was to be the first test of altitude acclimatization, but I already had a headache today. Needless to say, I was concerned. I had been above 10,000 feet countless times, including trips surpassing 14,000 feet with nary an altitude related symptom. And yet, today a dull pain radiated across my forehead. Dixon took pulse and oxygen readings, both of which only compounded my fears. My pulse was consistently over 100 bpm, and my oxygen levels were below 85 percent. Altitude is a tricky beast, it can bring a triathlete to his knees, while an obese man stuffing his face with Big Macs and a liter of cola looks back laughing while puffing on a cigarette. The point being, its effects are ridiculously unpredictable. A bit of uncertainty and doubt seeped into the back of my mind and would linger through the entire night.
Leaving the tent and looking up, a billion specks of light scattered across the black African sky. It was the Southern sky in full bloom. Few places on the planet offer this spectacle showcased as brilliantly. Kibo stands barely visible as the glaciers reflect the ambient night of the stars. I set up my tripod to get a few shots. I knew the nights would be amazing, and I brought my tripod specifically for the chance to capture just a bit of this beauty. This would be the only time I would use it.
A half hour later, I was crawling into my tent, dropping chlorine tablets into my water bottles. Glenn and I had agreed on a head-to-toe configuration when it came to sleeping. I was asleep within seconds of crawling into my cocoon of warmth sleeping bag.