Our African travels now bring us to the Main Event—the Kilimanjaro climb. Up 19,370 feet in harsh weather in the middle of the night to raise money for Save One Life, our nonprofit child sponsorship program. Nine other people are now gathered Friday night in the lounge of the Kibo Palace Hotel in Arusha, Tanzania, to listen to two men, our guides, on whom our lives will depend, speak about our climb. With me are: my daughter Mary (17), Eric Hill, president of BioRx and son Alex (14); Julie Winton, RN, BioRx; Jeff Salantai (31), BioRx; Neil Herson, president of ASD Healthcare and his two daughters Kelley (16) and Brittney (20). The only problem is my gear is missing, as is Eric’s and Alex’s. Eventually mine shows up much later that night (after many phone calls), but Eric and Alex are completely without clothes and gear. They will need to rent gear from the outfitters, Team Kilimanjaro.
We were up at 6 am on Saturday at the hotel, and ready by 7 am. It’s a lot of packing to think about, being gone for 6 days in the wilds of Africa! We don’t really know our guides yet; there’s just one guy with a big smile that seems to connect with everyone. On the bus Julie got everyone to sing our theme, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”! She likes the Marvin Gaye version while I like Diana Ross’s. There’s lots of chattiness; everyone is excited.
It takes 90 minutes to get to the Machame Gate. Along the way we saw rural Tanzania, how poor people are compared to US standards. We stopped half way at a convenience store, where most of the team bought little bracelets from a street vendor. Soon we are at the Gate. This is where it all begins! We filed out, and saw pandemonium. There were hundreds of people swarming. Porters lingered everywhere, big bags of gear sitting in the muddy and dusty roadway, other hikers of all nationalities… we wait about an hour to complete paperwork. It’s a bit confusing. We start putting on our hiking gear—gaiters, backpack covers—while waiting. The air is chillier than I expected. Finally we’re done and we start. It seems surreal: all our training, planning, fundraising, and here we go!
Our lead guide is Jonas Gerald, tall and impassive, assisted by Jacob Slaa, the guy with the big smile, and Frank, who perpetually smiles. We hike today from 12:30 pm until 6 pm, with one stop for lunch. I am so surprised when on the trail we pull up to a table, chairs, and wonderful food, in the middle of a forest!
We will go through 4-5 ecological zones on this climb. Today we hike through the forest. It is beautiful: nice and cool, moist, on a defined trail. There is huge green moss growing up and around the trees like some fuzzy, green sloths. Lichens hang down from other trees like trails of lace on a Victorian gown. It seems an easy hike, not too steep, a few rocks, and a set trail.
Julie is amazing: she thinks of everyone else on this trip. Today she has snacks for everyone and keeps everyone hydrated. Even the guides and porters get snacks!
I like this trip because my 17-year-old daughter Mary is with me. She’s an impressive girl who hiked all that time with no poles. If I compliment her, she is quick to say everyone is doing great. Indeed, 14-year-old Alex, the youngest, is a strong hiker, as are Kara Ryan, and Kelly and Brittney Herson. I had wondered about the Herson girls and how they would fit in, as no one really knows them, but they are super sweet, strong, and soon, everybody loves them and their can-do attitude! We are fortunate to have a diverse group of 10 people who all get along well with one another.
We break for our first camp around 6:00 pm at the Machame Hut. We have a mess tent with a table, so we can all have dinner together. Dinner is hot veggies, celery soup, potatoes and fried fish. I learned Sama hani means “I’m sorry” (for stepping aside when porters brush by us) and Twende means “Let’s go!” (used often by our guide, Frank).
It’s fun to go to bed in our tent, with our sleeping bags. It’s been so long since I’ve done something like this, and I love it! And we are tired; we climbed from 6,000 feet at Machame Gate, to 10,170 feet tonight. We wait to see who will first feel the effects of altitude.
Day 2 Sunday, August 7, 2011 “Into the Mist”
I guess I didn’t sleep too well. I fell asleep from 9:30 pm to 11 pm, but the porters kept us awake till 1 am or so with their animated chatter. They work very hard; I’ve never seen anything like it. They are efficient, powerful and zoom by us on the trail laden with all our tents, food for 6 days, sleeping bags, and clothes, all bundled into sacks, which they balance on their heads. These porters are often young guys, slim, and often without great gear themselves. Some wear sneakers with tears of holes; they are gloveless in the cold and wear regular street pants. I was up until 2 am and then slept off and on. I had strange dreams.
“Young” Frank (not the guide), a sweet, 20-year-old boy with a shy smile, starts our day with a cup of hot tea. It’s so nice! Ellie, another nice young man, tags along to add sugar. This is luxury! We sip hot tea in our sleeping bags and begin our day. I put on make up in the morning sunlight, which makes Eric laugh out loud. I will abandon this practice the very next day. Contrary to my belief, it’s not all about how you look on Kili. We are all sharing a small stand-up tent for a bathroom, which has a portable toilet in it. If you think about it, it’s kind of gross, but honestly, when you are there, it seems perfectly normal! We are even grateful for this small luxury!
Breakfast is eggs, toast, jam, and porridge. Neil isn’t eating or saying much, and doesn’t seem himself. This could be early effects of the altitude. We're worried about him.
The camp is crowded with other groups, including a loud Japanese or Chinese delegation. It looks like a refugee camp here!
We start out earlier than most groups, at 8:06 am. The climb today takes us away from the forest and into the heather, or moorland zone. The topography changes dramatically. It’s cool, and mist rolled in above us and around us. I feel surprisingly great. We will climb to 12,461 feet when the hike is done. We move more slowly today, with Alex the guide leading the way, steadying our pace. There are lots of rocks on the trail and narrow turns and ledges. The trees are beautiful! At first I think we are in a scene from the "Wizard of Oz," when they come to a poppy field. Then later on, I think this is like a scene from Peter Jackson’s "King Kong." Very primordial, with lava rocks and giant boulders.
A popular plant we see is the lobelia deckenii, or what our guide calls the “Antifreeze plant.” It closes up tightly each night to protect its leaves and unfolds to catch the morning light.
The air is crisp, cool, and moist; we don’t sweat much today. But the dust! The air is filled with baby-powder fine dust that infiltrates everything. Our nostrils are black, faces were smeared with dirty streaks, and our fingernails are ringed in black. Mary’s teeth even appear black when she speaks to me!
Up, up, and up we go. There is still a clear trail, which I didn’t expect. Sometimes the trail is made of stone steps, winding, twisty, steep. Neil falls further behind us, and I am next to last as I am kind of slow. Jacob stays with him while the rest of us push on. The air is thinner and it is harder to walk at 12,000 ft.
Julie and I hang out together, walking slower than the rest. I am also taking photos, which slows me down. The scenery is spectacular! We need to stop now and then to eat, take water. The porters truck past us on the trail, their loads frighteningly heavy. We are constantly shouting, “Porters right!” to let them by us.
Lunch break! We have peanut butter sandwiches, fruit and avocadoes, which Mary loves, and carrot soup, which is delicious! Then they bring out pasta and sauce! I couldn’t eat any of that. There is no sign of Neil at lunch.
We walk slowly the next hour and a half through the Shira Plateau to the next camp. This is when we get our first real look at Kibo, the dramatic summit of Kilimanjaro, rising up above the rocks, blue in color with clouds challenging its summit. At one point, I am totally alone! Not another human being in the place. It is glorious. I look all around, and hear nothing nor see anything. Just me and Kili. I wish it could have lasted longer. Privacy is one thing you don’t get on the popular Machame route.
I stroll into Shira Cave camp and am greeted by the others. I wash up for dinner and everything is black. My legs and arms were filthy black. Mary did well! She’s awesome. So strong and chipper. I’m so impressed by her.
Neil arrived around 4:50, a full 90 minutes after we arrived in camp. I bring him hot tea while his girls put him in his sleeping bag. I also brought him a Cliff bar for fast energy. When Julie comes on the scene, she takes charge to help; altitude sickness is serious and must be dealt with. We are so blessed to have Julie with us, as a nurse and compassionate friend!
Day 3 Monday "Walking on the Ocean Floor"
I took melatonin last night and had a great night’s sleep, despite the cold. I am shocked when I unzip my tent to see frost coating everything. I left my boots outside and they are frozen today. Huge white-necked ravens sit in the small trees near us, cawing for some food. (Which of course I toss to them) Sun strikes the far away ridges of the mountains, which are separated from us by clouds and looked beautifully surreal. We are actually looking down on the clouds! Breakfast is on, and I’m hungry. We had porridge, toast, eggs and jam. Mary is not feeling well. She looked so tired, pale and so weak.
After some discussion, it’s decided that Neil will go back down the mountain today. The rest of the trip will only get harder—and higher. It's a loss to our group, as Neil was such a driving force behind our fundraising and so motivational for us all.
Today will be a long day of climbing, about 7 hours. We will go to 15,000 feet, then descend for the evening back to 13,000 feet, to help us acclimate. We hit the trail by 8:06 am and walk for two hours. Within 10 minutes we can feel the 12,000 ft. altitude. Our quads burn and our legs feel heavy. We walk in single file quietly, shouldering our back packs, following a trail that leads us toward Kili, heads down, like a herd of burdened, untethered pack mules. Frank is in the lead, walking pole, pole (slowly, slowly). It’s cold, but when the sun comes out, layers come off quickly.
We stop frequently as we tire easily. We sip water from our Camelbacks, and slow our pace. I want photos so I hang back a bit from the others. The terrain is more sparse now, just scrubby bushes with so many rocks! Some of the monoliths are huge, standing erect like those statues at Easter Island, keeping vigil over this ancient mountain. Small boulders dot the lunar-like landscape, with clumps of red straggly moss hanging off of them. It’s easy to remember now that Kilimanjaro is a volcano, and what I see around me were lava rocks from inside the volcano, deposited here long ago after an eruption.
I feel at times like I’m walking on the bottom of an aquarium, which someone tried to decorate to simulate the ocean floor. It occurs to me that this area may have been submerged in water millions of years ago; like the high mesas in Canyon Lands, Utah, where you can still see salt beds, remnants of a receded salt ocean millions of year ago.
It isn’t a difficult hike, but tiring, due to the thin air. Eventually we stop for lunch near the Lava Tower, and I find myself staring blankly. Jonas by now has removed and is carrying Mary’s pack, and we give her Neil’s poles. She is disappointed but agrees. Lunch is great: hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, fruit, cornbread, avocado, and tea. Mary can only eat fruit. We don’t rest long. Today we climb to 15,000 feet, and then camp at 13,000 feet. So far, no altitude sickness.
After lunch we descend down a very steep, rocky path, into the Barranco Valley, and we trek through the alpine desert. It’s beautiful—for a rock lover like me, this is heaven. The rocks are enormous, pitted and some are shiny black. Mist rolls in and it becomes very chilly. Mary agrees with me that the topography looks like a scene from the movie Lord of the Rings. As we hike, we feel like characters in the movie. The air becomes dramatically colder and we all threw on more layers and rain gear. I think the temperature might be freezing, until I step in some mud and see a little rivulet. The wind chill makes it feel freezing.
The group soon forges ahead, leaving Julie and me with the unsmiling Jonas. I enjoy this walk the most. The alpine desert is hemmed in by ridges of Kilimanjaro, dotted with lava rocks, and decorated with the most unusual looking trees. We laugh that they look like those from a Dr. Seuss story, such as the Lorax. Truffula trees! They also at times remind me of saguaro cactus. These are the giant senecios. Hard to believe that they’re cousins to the daisy. I thought I might hear songs run through my head while gazing at such scenery, but no. My mind is silent, in the moment, observing and taking it all in.
We arrive at Baranco camp, where a few other groups await. Everyone is tired, and sits about doing their own thing: Mary, just resting; Jeff napping on a rock; Kara writing in her journal. I hike ahead of Julie and Jonas and had a bit more time to walk alone in solitude, which made me happy. This camp sits in a little valley, and is beautiful.
What will tomorrow bring? It’s much too cold to change clothes or even wash up. Washing in the hot basin that Frank brings each morning is great, but there is nothing to dry oneself on. Thankfully we brought little towels that seem to dry quickly. We do our best to stay clean!
Tomorrow, Day 4, will bring us to the foot of the summit path! More to come....
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