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In October, 2008 I had the opportunity to journey to Tanzania for a safari in the northern national parks of Tarangire, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and the Serengeti and for a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. Having never travelled to Africa before I was very excited to experience what Tanzania had to offer. I was travelling for a wilderness medicine course provided through Wilderness Medicine and Bio Bio Expeditions, both of whom I have travelled with before. After the climb, I was very happy I had attempted Kili with a reputable outfitter that makes safety a priority, as you shall soon see why. Mount Kilimanjaro is 19,334 ft. (5893 m.) above sea level and, while it is not a technical climb, it is a serious undertaking. There is a combination of factors that make the mountain such an attractive peak to climb. Kilimanjaro was immortalized in the story The Snows of Kilimanjaro, written by Ernest Hemingway in 1936, it’s glaciers cast into the public eye. The actually climb is more of a trek, than a climb, requiring little in the nature of technical gear short of clothing and shelter to deal with the weather extremes. The climb is very accessible, the base a short bus ride from the city of Arusha. Finally, Mount Kilimanjaro is equatorial, leading to less extreme weather swings, although it can range for -20o F. to balmy, sunshine to rain or snow. The night I climbed, it was between 0-10o F, with water starting to freeze in a covered Nalgene bottle. We spent 3 days the first half of the climb in the rain and mud. And then, there is the altitude. That is a major component in the risk, dealing with high altitude illnesses.
Mount Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano that has 3 peaks Shira, Mawenzi, and Kibo, which has the highest point at Uhuru Peak, considered the summit. There are several different routes up the mountain ranging from the Marangu, also called the coca cola or tourist route, the shortest at 4 nights to longer routes such as the Machame or Modified Shira routes that are typically 6 nights. The 2 extra nights prior to the summit attempt that the longer routes provide are vital to good acclimatization. The Marangu route is by far the cheapest, most popular route up Kilimanjaro but it also has a failure rate of >50%, while the success rate on the longer routes can be as high as 90%. High altitude illness is a serious and potentially fatal concern on the mountain. Approximately 10 climbers and 10-20 porters die each year on Kilimanjaro. In fact, a 48 year old ex-CIA agent died within 20 yards below the summit from high altitude illness on Sept. 18, 2008, a month before I climbed Kilimanjaro. Even with the extra acclimatization on the modified Shira Route (6 nights/7 days) that we were taking, my son had to turn back to camp at ~17,000 ft. with severe nausea from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). He had normally gotten AMS above about 14,000 ft. so was taking Diamox, a diuretic that can be used to help prevent AMS, and was doing great up to the high camp of Barafu, at ~15,300 ft, despite having had to contend with a bout of gastroenteritis on the mountain. On summit night, our 5th night on the mountain, we left camp at 11:30 pm and began our ascent in the bright light of a near full moon. It was so bright in fact, that we didn’t need headlamps to climb. After a few hours, Ethan started getting nauseated and I gave him a Zofran, an antiemetic, but as we went higher the nausea became more severe. He was clearly suffering from AMS and the guides and I quickly made a decision that he would have to go down, in sharp contrast to things I would later witness higher up on the mountain. Ethan descended with my girlfriend at the time, who was also suffering from AMS and had been taking Diamox too, and an assistant guide while the rest of us continued up and we maintained contact with them through walkie talkies so I knew that they was improving as they descended and were fine by the time they had arrived back at camp (although Ethan said “it is quite ironic that I barfed at Barafu Camp”). There are no helicopter rescues on the mountain, and while it is not a long ways off the mountain to a road, it is all self-evacuation should you get into trouble.
One of the most important considerations when deciding to climb Mount Kilimanjaro is who to use as your outfitter. It is required that you have a guide and porters on the mountain and given the rapid changes in weather, the potential for cold, rain, and snow, dealing with the altitude, etc. you want to go with a company that is prepared and well outfitted. We were one of the very few groups on the mountain that carried a gamow bag (used to temporarily treat cerebral and pulmonary edema) and emergency oxygen. At the lodge outside of Arusha, prior to starting our climb, I talked to a few people who had just attempted it, using a company they had found in Arusha. They hadn’t been advised of the potentials of weather or what to take, they were ill-equipped with cold weather or rain gear, the outfitters were also ill-equipped, they were cold and wet and had a miserable time. We, on the other hand, had brand new tents, a dining tent, a separate tent/porta potty (so we didn’t have to use the dark, nasty outhouses that were in most of the camps), and phenomenal food, including fresh eggs during first 4 days. Every evening’s dinner started with fresh soup to die for, and the meals were varied, filling, and delicious. We used Bio-Bio Expeditions, who in turn liaisons with Peacock Adventures of Tanzania. While there we had a Bio Bio guide/representative, Rachael, acting as the liaison with the lodges, drivers, and guides and just generally making sure everything ran smoothly. On safari, there were 18 people and Peacock provide the Land Cruisers, which were comfortable and roomy, and the drivers, all of whom were friendly, very knowledgeable and spoke excellent English. On the Kili climb There were on 6 of us climbing, with Rachael making 7. For our group of 7 we had Festo (the lead guide), 2 assistant guides, a cook and his assistant, and 28 porters, all provided by Peacock. Festo had started out as a porter on the mountain and had worked his way up to guide and also spoke excellent english. He was knowledgeable about the mountain, it’s weather, and it’s geology and history. He was also an environmental advocate, regularly picking up any trash and being very outspoken to any porters he found littering, regardless of whose group they were with. We were well informed prior to the trip on what to expect, and well prepared to meet the rigors of the mountain. The first 5 days brought a period of consistent rain and mud from the second to the 4th day with all the days being spent in the clouds the majority of the time. Just as I was getting discouraged, at Karanga Camp the 5th morning broke with sunshine and camp set above a layer of clouds below.
By lunch time we had hiked to the high camp of Barafu, at more than 15,000 ft. above sea level. Our camp was on a large shelf, with a thick layer of clouds below. The air was thin and even walking short distances could make you feel somewhat out of breath. We were leaving at 11:30 pm that night and would take about 7-9 hours to go the short 4 miles to the summit. The afternoon and the evening was used for rest and unsuccessful attempts to sleep. 10:30pm came all too soon and we dressed in the cold and had a snack and hot tea in the dining tent. At 11:30pm we started, initially using our headlamps, but rapidly turned them off in the bright moonlight. While the climb was tiring the skies were clear and we kept a slow steady pace, set by Festo, so as to not over-exert ourselves. We ultimately split into 2 groups, myself and a pediatrician from California climbing the strongest and moving ahead with an assistant guide. We reached Stella Ridge, about 30 minutes below the summit, just before sunrise and sat at 19,000 ft. watching the sun come up over the layer of clouds below. I am not a religious person and it was as close to spiritual as I can imagine. Words alone are unable to do justice to the emotions I experienced at that moment. It was then a short gradual climb along the ridge line to the highest point, at Uhuru Peak, 19,334 ft., “The Roof of Africa.” After a brief respite on the summit for photos, we began to descend, passing the rest of our group lower down on Stella Ridge, still pushing towards the summit. The events that I repeatedly witnessed on Stella Ridge when I was descending reinforced why it is imperative to use a qualified reputable outfitter. There were multiple times I would see a climber, arm draped across the shoulders of a guide, virtually be carried up the mountain and clearly needing to descend as soon as possible. The peoples’ lives were being risked for the sake of a summit and whether the decision was being made by the client or the guide, the guide was ultimately responsible for allowing and participating in it. I reached the summit at 7:15 am, was back in camp at 9:30 am, and was resting for the roughly 5 hour trek that afternoon to the low camp and last night on the mountain at Mweka, at 10,200 ft. I was amazed at the number of climbers stumbling into camp at lunch time still, again draped and being half carried by a guide, utterly spent. I remembered back to the amazing feeling I had sitting on Stella Ridge, feeling winded but well, watching the sky begin to glow pastel shades of pink and red as the sun slowly climbed above the clouds, the glaciers bathed in the ethereal light, and I wondered what these returning climbers experienced. While I remember back fondly to my climb and time on the roof of Africa, they most likely remember little at all and what they do is filled with suffering. I asked Festo about it and he implicated both the climbers and the guides. Sometimes a climber is determined to make it, regardless the cost or risk, and the guide allows and participates or, frequently, it’s the guides pushing the climbers, half carrying them, worried their tip will be smaller if the client doesn’t make the summit. I vividly remember our pre-climb discussion in which Rachael and Festo made it clear that they were the ultimate authority on the mountain and if they decided someone was going down, they were going down, no discussion or vote. I saw this first hand with Ethan, and the rapid decision that he could no longer climb and needed to turn back. I never felt, at any time, that our safety was being compromised or put at undue risk. That alone is why you need to go with a reputable, well established outfitter.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a worthy, exhilarating, and attainable endeavor as long as one takes into account the inherent risk and their own fitness level. While you do not need to be a world-class athlete, you do need to be reasonably fit and able to hike several hours at a day, for several days. While it is possible to climb Kili on a budget of $1000, this will be a shorter, cut-rate trip with a high failure rate and a low level of comfort. It is well worth the extra dollars take do one of the longer routes with a well-established outfitter. I have already mentioned Bio Bio Expeditions. I have travelled with them on several occasions, always finding the guides knowledgeable and experienced, the lodgings and camping first class, and the itineraries well thought out. The owners, Marc and Laurence, are great people and always helpful, willing to answer any questions and address all concerns. Their website is http://www.bbxrafting.com. If you are in medicine, look at http://www.wilderness-medicine.com for wilderness medicine CME trips, done through Bio Bio. There are also resources online concerning other tour companies. I personally like the Lonely Planet guides for recommendations. The bottom line is Kilimanjaro is an exhilarating experience, one you should consider fairly soon, before the shrinking glaciers are gone for good. Just make sure you are well equipped for the weather, in reasonable condition, use an established outfitter, and never, ever sign up for a climb with a hawker in the streets of Arusha.
(I am currently working on a travelogue slideshow with a detailed account of the climb, so keep checking back)