There are seven routes to the 19,341-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the world’s highest freestanding mountain. Ours was the “Whiskey Route” which takes seven days to complete. While the tourist guides and blogs are pretty honest when they say that most people in ‘reasonably’ good shape can make it to the summit, it might be more accurate to say they have a decent chance. A walk in the park it isn’t; only about 50% of the people who start the attempt make it to the top.
Kili, as it’s affectionately called, doesn’t require the technical skills of the climbers of the Himalayas, nor the supplemental oxygen usually reserved for peaks over 20,000 feet. It does however, require at least several days of severely strenuous hiking in an ever-thinning atmosphere that can and does take a toll. At 15,000 feet a twenty-step walk for a bit of personal privacy behind a rock can leave you panting and dizzy.
This all the more reason that hikers tackle Kilimanjaro with guides whose job is your safety, porters to lug gear, and cooks to keep you fed when you’re burning upwards of 10,000 calories a day.
The guiding companies varied greatly in price and comfort. Our trek was with a rather high-end outfit called Abercrombie and Kent, which for our hiking group of 12 had a support team of 70. The porters and guides were a remarkable lot who climb the mountain several times a season. Our head guide Dismus has been up it nearly 300 times in his life. Our guides were filled with kindness, smiles and songs of encouragement as they skipped up slopes that left our fellow travelers dizzy and exhausted.
A word about our team is warranted. My wife Pippa and I were the only real civilians amongst the twelve, as pretty much everyone else was there for work filming an episode of Richard Wiese’s “Born to Explore” including Richard himself. Pippa and I were more like payload though, as the oldest folks on the climb, filmed daily to record our fears and hopes which changed as much as the weather as we crossed through six distinct ecological zones from subtropical rain forest to alpine desert.
Changing moods go with the gain in altitude and constant need to change gear as the weather shifts. Everyone climbing the mountain goes through this, but I suspect the quality of the experience is directly proportional to the quality of the company you keep. This not only means the people climbing with you, but the care given by the staff.
In our case each couple had a very large tent, with a cot and mattress, and a series of porters to carry pretty much all your gear and then some. The large tent may seem like overkill but when changing in the generally frigid mornings being able to stand and put on your thermals, hiking pants, rain pants, gaiters and boots was nice especially compared to other folks in tiny pup tents swearing as they squirmed in their very confined quarters.
Our group also had a massive dining tent that doubled as the social center, portable toilets and shower stalls that to the best of my knowledge were never used; the water there usually froze.
The food might not win awards at lower altitudes but it was hot, plentiful, and edible if not actually gourmet. A side benefit is that we all lost quite a bit of weight over the course of the seven-day adventure.
We all had to deal with a variety of high altitude afflictions ranging from mild headaches and dizzy spells to nausea and intestinal problems. It’s common to take a drug called Diamox which is said to help with the altitude but is a severe diuretic which wasn’t too much of a problem during the day but kept liter bottles filled each night (carrying the label, “DON’T DRINK”).
The climax, of course, was the trek to the summit that started around midnight in the midst of a driving snow and hail storm (40-50 mph winds!) and concluded at 7AM at the peak. This part was the most difficult by far but whether due to sleep or oxygen deprivation the only thought on everyone’s mind was making it to the top. Perhaps at the very peak of exhaustion the guides broke into a Swahili chant that seemed to give us just enough encouragement to take the final steps. Every one of us made it.
In the months after all this I’m still rather at the top of the mountain; the pride, and, yes, surprise at the achievement has not slipped away. There may be other mountains to climb, or maybe not, but possible future adventures that at some level cause trepidation, may provide just the motivation I need, as Kili has proved.
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