Mount Kilimanjaro Trip Report

February - March, 2006
By Scott Appleton

If you're reading this, you're probably at least vaguely aware that I spent a few days in Africa climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with a group of friends, old and new.

If you didn't know that, you have good reason to believe that you have been spammed, and you probably want to sic your internet service provider on me. Better yet, go after Bill Gates; I'm sure his dirty hand can be found somewhere in this pie.

Other members of the group will be writing their own accounts. Whenever and wherever such accounts differ from my own, you may rest assured that what you read here is the accurate one.

Given the likelihood that such other reports will be based on journal entries - that is, chronological - I have decided instead to write my own account in a thematic style. This may lead to some confusion over exactly which events occurred at which times in relation to each other. This is to be expected, and indeed, hoped for, so that I may be able to duck the inevitable questions about consistency that typically plague most anything I say or write.

I send the usual caution about overlong, self-indulgent tripe, so don't say you weren't warned. I fantasize that people actually read this stuff, and unfortunately this delusion is occasionally reinforced by the odd reader claiming not to have fallen asleep in the middle. You people should really stop encouraging me, lest one of my tomes slip from your grasp and cause serious injury to a favorite body part.

Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong

You may be asking: Why would someone climb Mt. Kilimanjaro? How high is it? Where is Tanzania? Where is Africa? Where's my next beer coming from?

These and other important questions shall remain unanswered. Instead, I'll tell you a little bit about how this shindig came about.

Marcy Beard.

OK, enough said about that. If you know Marcy, you know that this whole expedition was planned down to the most minute detail, nothing left to the last minute, no gotchas waiting to derail everything. As Kip is so fond of saying, that meant that Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong.

How did I get so lucky? Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro has been a dream since childhood, as I've always been fascinated by the Dark Continent (apparently because the sun never shines there). And Kilimanjaro, as the tallest mountain in Africa and the only major mountain in the world not part of a range, holds a particular fascination for me. I'm not much of a traveler, though, so it's not the kind of thing I would ever consider doing on my own. When Kip incidentally mentioned in early September that Marcy and John were planning on going, and that he was also considering it (or had just decided to do it), I told him that I was envious because of the dream thing, blah blah blah. Next thing I know, Kip has spoken to Marcy and John and said that if there was space on the tour they were booking, I was welcome to join them.

One does not often get the opportunity to fulfill one's dream, much less to do it with friends, much less have Marcy Beard in charge of arranging all the details (the probability approaches zero at this point). I had no job at the time, and money was obviously very tight - but I know better than to let such a window of opportunity close on me, so I worked to find a way to make it happen.

Marcy had chosen a booking company that dealt with a climbing company in Tanzania called the African Walking Company. This proved to be an excellent choice, as just about everything associated with the tour proved to be of relatively high quality, and the effort given by the guides and porters was beyond reproach.

One other reason I was really excited about going is that I've long had a fascination with astronomy, and Kilimanjaro lies right at the equator, meaning that the entire night sky - both northern and southern - would be visible. I'd get my chance to see some of those cool southern objects like the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds.

"Thanks, man, you ruined my life"

I'd never been on a plane ride that lasted more than 4 hours, so I knew I was in for a treat with no fewer than four legs of 8+ hours each. I had managed to set my itinerary so that all of the plane legs matched Kip's, and in fact had made some calls to arrange to sit next to Kip on every leg (I leave the wisdom of that to your better judgment). I soon encountered an annoying habit of the airlines to change flight numbers or departure times (sometimes by mere minutes) on a whim, whose most discernible effect was to reset my seat assignment and necessitate yet another call to get my seat back. After this happened for the third time in less than a week, I told the Northwest Airline dude that this was ridiculous. Only then did he bother to tell me that calling in was unnecessary, and that the seat changes were an artifact of Expedia, not Northwest - so in fact my seats could be locked in by going through their site instead of Expedia, and flight changes wouldn't affect it. I'll never understand why it isn't until you've done the same thing over and over again with different service reps that finally someone will tell you there's a much easier way to do it. Argh.

I stuffed my carry-ons with as much of my "critical" equipment as I could, as they warn you that "luggage gets lost". Hmph, I did not know that. The result was that I felt I could make it up the mountain even if my checked luggage ended up in Timbuktu - assuming my back held out from toting the equivalent of a small moose through miles and miles of airport real estate.

The first leg from Austin to Detroit was largely uneventful (read: the rest of this account is so dense with excruciatingly boring detail that to subject you to even more of it would be criminal). We had a several-hour layover in Detroit, so we amused ourselves by riding the tram several times without holding onto the poles. We are easily amused, as will become quite apparent.

For example, we discovered that while "ulterior" can only be used to modify one word in the English language, "Africanized" works with any word. Try it and see. Fun for the Whole Family!

My lunch consisted of a Quiznos steak sandwich, and Kip's consisted of a nuclear cookie sandwich (preceded by a Quiznos sub, but that's not important). This so-called "dessert" consisted of 2 big chocolate chip cookies enveloping a thick slab of pure cake frosting, and likely contained more calories than the entire contents of the Quiznos kitchen. I took one small bite and instantly got a sugar high. Kip was then saddled with the obligation to finish the rest of that monstrosity, and towards the end was beginning to regret it mightily. Kudos to Kip's iron stomach, though, for he did manage it, and thereby sucked down all the energy he would need for the remainder of the trip. Which is good, considering that he had no appetite for a long time.

On the long plane ride to Amsterdam, we had expected to sleep much of the time. We were pleased to discover that on this plane, everyone had one of those little personal screens on the back of the seat in front of them, with which you can watch movies, listen to music, play games, launch nuclear missiles, or even watch the progress of the flight, so you can know exactly where you'll land if you crash. I was in perpetual tension while we were over the Atlantic, being as my biggest fear in flying is a water landing. Drowning, hypothermia, sharks - oh, my!

After watching The Weatherman in sync (so we'd laugh at the same time, if necessary), we decided to try out some of the games. Kip trounced me in Reversi, so I became petulant and insisted on trying out some game that didn't make me feel like a complete moron (which is asking a lot of a mere game). We selected the group trivia game, which is played against everyone on the plane who also happens to be playing at that time. I signed on as "Mucky", which I will not deign to explain if you don't already know. We joined the first game mid-round, then had a slow start the second round; too damn many entertainment questions. Towards the end of the round the questions became more to my liking, and I moved to within a question of the leader ("Rob") by the time the final question arrived. I answered quickly, and ended up winning by the smallest possible margin.

We were just about to start another round when a very tall young man darkened my aisle. "Which one of you is Mucky?" he demanded. After Kip owned me up, he said "Thanks, man, you just ruined my life!" and stalked off.

That was perhaps the high point of the entire trip.

"The Storm Gods were angry, my friend"

The one and perhaps only serious negative that pervaded this expedition was the weather - but it had numerous effects throughout. I daresay that had the weather been good throughout, the trip would have been darn near perfect.

The first sign that the Weather Witches were not in a favorable mood appeared soon after takeoff on the flight from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro. I have never visited the Old World, and with window seat in hand (so to speak), I was prepared to enjoy a nice view of the Alps, Appenines, and the Mediterranean as we flew over Switzerland and Italy. But it turns out that there was rain scheduled for Europe that day... the entire continent, apparently. From about 20 minutes after takeoff until somewhere beyond Italy, the sky was a solid blanket of clouds. I finally gave up waiting for a break and dozed off, not waking until we were over the Sahara in Sudan. Not much to see in the desert, except when we went over the Nile. Even then my luck ran short, as darkness set in before we reached Kenya and more interesting topography.

The weather wasn't done messing with my plane ride, however, not by a country mile. Keep in mind that the rainy season doesn't normally begin until mid-March, 3 weeks or so out, and they don't book climbing tours past that point. So we were relatively well-assured that dry weather was the order of the day.

Oh, those Weather Gods and their sense of humor. They decided to send a special pre-season thunderstorm to meet us at the Kilimanjaro airport. I could see the thick rain reflected in the plane lights, but I didn't think too much of it as we started our descent. That changed when we abruptly accelerated out of our descent and my stomach turned, for multiple reasons.

We circled back around and tried again - and pulled out again, even earlier than before. I think we were all a little nervous at this point (except Kip, who never worries about anything). The purser came on the intercom - you never hear the captain speak on non-American flights, for some reason - and informed us in 3 languages that the weather was too poor to land at Kilimanjaro, and we were going to head on to Dar es Salaam. We kind of figured out what was going on during the first announcement (in Dutch): "Aaack gluuug aarggh landing strip gguuh ooggah crash and burn erggh ackatack glaaack (cough cough)..." Dutch is not a pretty language, as you may have surmised.

The landing at Dar es Salaam was a little bumpy itself, but we were relieved once we arrived safely at the terminal. After offloading all the passengers bound for Dar es Salaam, the rest of us were herded into a secured area in the terminal ("baaaah!"), where we sweated away an hour or more. Finally they loaded us back on the plane, and we were on our way once again to Kilimanjaro. And if we didn't make the landing this time, who knew where we'd end up?

I could see the thunderstorm still going, but it did seem to be a little less intense. Apparently the gods had had their little fun and turned their attention elsewhere, leaving the storm to wither on the vine. Still, I was pretty nervous on the approach, dreading that telltale acceleration. And with good reason; we'd hardly begun our descent when it happened again. I half expected the captain - make that the purser - to come on the intercom with an "Oops!" But it was hardly a laughing matter; we had no clue what Plan Z was, and whether it might jeopardize our expedition.

People were nervous, fidgety. We'd been told several times (and in multiple tongues) to stay seated, but some people didn't seem to get the hint. Finally one of the flight attendants told a wanderer "Sir, I don't know what language you speak, but you need to take your seat!" Clearly she was tense as well, which didn't help anyone's mood.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally got the word: the problem this time was with the flaps. Good news? It hardly seemed so. You can always go somewhere else if the weather remains bad, but you can't land anywhere if the flaps aren't working. At least, that's my understanding as a non-engineer. Now we've gone from not making the climb to riding out our last hours over the Motherland.

Good news after all: they can attempt to fix the flaps remotely. And after some more circling, they were able to do just that. More sighs of relief. We'd live, but would we climb?

We prepared for the next -- and presumably, final -- attempt to land. I could feel the collective tension on the plane (except the void next to me) while we slowly, slowly, slowly approached the runway. Time dilated. I thought I glimpsed a wormhole somewhere above the wing. I wondered if my wife would be 100 years old by the time I returned...

And then we were down. We all remembered to breathe, checked our hearts, felt for our wallets; check, check, check.

Finally, we could begin the dangerous part of our quest - the Eternal Drive to the hotel. And then there would be a climb, or something along those lines.

Ah, but the Weather Witches weren't done with us yet. Oh, no, My Pretty (cue sounds of malevolent cackling).

Welcome to the Hotel Tanzania

It wasn't as though we weren't tired already. It was after 2 in the morning, when we should have arrived hours ago, and I could have slept in my suitcase. The good news was that the hotel was only 80 kilometers from the airport. The bad news was that 80 kilometers at the equator is longer than 80 kilometers where I come from, or at least it seemed that way.

We shared the van with Frants, Peter, and Sine, 3 fine Danish persons with whom we would spend a lot of time in the coming days. I sat by the window, but it was still mostly cloudy, so no stars to see and certainly no views of Kilimanjaro yet. No matter, I would get lots of opportunities to see each in the coming days. Surely. The alternative was inconceivable.

Every time we achieved cruising speed in the van (approximately 30 km/hour), we immediately had to slow down to go over a speed bump. These occurred at regular and frequent intervals, regardless of whether there was any reason to slow down or not. Speed bumps in the middle of nowhere? Were the cows running loose at night or something? I came to find out (on the return trip) that it was people running loose what necessitated these devil-bumps.

An hour and a half later we turned onto a road that could generously be termed "unimproved". The worst turbulence we'd hit on the flight had nothing on this. Fortunately this part of the road was mercifully short, and soon we turned into the "Hotel Kibo".

It appeared locked and deserted. What a surprise, being 4 am and all. Eventually someone showed up to let us into the lobby, but we had to wait for yet another person to wake up and check us in. By candlelight, since the hotel had no electricity at the moment. This turned out not to be much of a loss, since they didn't have air conditioning or fans, either. But they did have mosquito netting, which made up for all the rest.

Kip and I ended up in Room 30, way out back on the end of the row. We didn't think much of it at the time, but it was probably the worst room in the entire hotel. No sooner had Kip said "Good night" than a rooster crowed, starting a conversation with a counterpart across the way. That pretty much set the tone.

7 am, and I still can't sleep. I'm suffering from some sort of post-traumatic shock, probably from the stress of the car ride over. Maybe the plane ride had something to do with it, too. In any case, the moment I doze off, I'm drenched in a cold sweat and I wake up immediately. Dead tired and unable to sleep. How's that for an onion in your ointment?

No matter at this point, as we are both soon startled to hear several hotel workers staging a blast site outside our room. Turns out that we're right next to some sort of barbecue area on the end, and the pool is directly behind us. These places seem to be the focus of whatever construction the workers are engaging in. 2 of our windows have no glass, so we might as well be sleeping in the open as far as the noise is concerned.

Thus it was that the best night's sleep I would get on the entire trip wouldn't occur until the final night of the trek. For what it's worth, we did get a much better room the night after we returned. Perhaps they figured we'd been through enough without subjecting us to the horrors of Room 30 again.

We Didn't Eat Scott

We met the rest of our group at an orientation on Saturday night. There were to be 2 groups going up Rongai separately but on the same schedule. Ours was the "Group of 12", while the other was the "Group of 10", half of whom hadn't arrived yet (for which I'm sure we would have been thankful, had we known then what we know now).

The Group of 12 consisted of:

  • The Texas 4 (Marcy, John, Kip, and myself)
  • The Danish 3 (Frants, Peter, and Sine - soon to become Xena - with whom we had shared the Eternal Ride home from the airport)
  • The Seattle 2 (Clint and Samantha, supposedly married, though an observer might have had difficulty drawing that conclusion for awhile)
  • The Fun Twins (Jane from England, Ulli from Austria, friends traveling together)
  • The Outback One (Amanda from Australia, who traveled extensively through her job with the French equivalent of Doctors Without Borders, and had a residence in Malawi which she shared originally with a black mamba and a cat, though apparently this arrangement had not favored the cat)

It soon became apparent that we would get along famously. Everyone had a fantastic sense of humor, which was particularly necessary with Frants at the table.

After dinner we'd often play games to pass the time. Usual participants were the Texas 4, Jane, Amanda, sometimes Clint and/or Sam, and often one or 2 of the guides. The first night I was tired and didn't play, so I'm not sure which of the guides taught the group to play Last Card, but I was introduced to the concept the next night. Turns out that Last Card is actually a meta-game; the rules seem to change every hand, depending on the circumstances and the guide you happen to be playing with. We're not sure who won; guess it depended on what rule set was in effect at the time.

Jane had brought a travel scrabble game, but of course she didn't play scrabble, so the one game we played consisted of myself, John Beard, Kip, and Amanda. Somewhat ironically, my first word in the game was "Vegan", and John's next word was "Veal". Hmmm...

At some point the topic of eating me at the summit started to pervade everyone's consciousness. Hard to say exactly when. Someone told me they thought it started at breakfast one morning when Frants and I were both eyeing the last of the bacon. Frants said "How about I eat the bacon and you can lick the plate?" I responded "How about I eat the bacon and you can lick me?"

I think the concept was already in place by then, though. I vaguely seem to remember Frants saying something early on about being stranded at the summit and having to eat someone. Not sure how I became that someone, as I'm probably the least likely candidate for such a role. Someone talked about making Shish-ka-Scotts. Someone else suggested roasting me on a spit, and letting John Beard choose a vegetable to stick in my mouth. I insisted that if I were going to be eaten, I should at least have a say in how I was cooked. I chose to be fricasseed. Don't know if I figured no one would be able to fricassee me properly on the mountain, or whether I just liked the way it sounded.

In any case, this topic seemed to surface at every meal - not really what I, as the subject, wanted to hear about. For some reason, people were always encouraging me to eat. Eventually I came to suspect that this wasn't entirely for my benefit.

"10 more minutes"

I'm firmly convinced that either the natives' collective command of English falters when it comes to numbers, or else their clocks are running in a parallel universe. This was first evidenced on our drive to the hotel, when Frants asked the driver how many people lived in Moshi. "Six hundred thousand" was the reply.

We all assumed he had misplaced his decimal point, as sixty-thousand was just at the edge of credibility. Six-hundred thousand seemed laughable. However, I subsequently began to believe the original number, as we passed all 600,000 of them walking on the side of the road as we drove to the Rongai gate.

During the trek, we frequently (perhaps overly so) would ask the guide how much longer to (lunch, camp, Gillman's point). No matter the circumstances, the response was either "No problems" (which gave me a mental "division by zero" error), or a number that was significantly smaller than any non-Kenyan runner could have achieved. By the end of the trip I was applying "hosermetrics" to the response (doubled it and added thirty), and found the result to be remarkably accurate. I'm speculating that the Math Department chairman at the local university must be Canadian.

"Me and monkeys like bananas"

The first bit of Swahili they teach you is "Jambo", supposedly the equivalent of "How's it hangin', dude?" (substitute your region's preferred greeting here). At least, that's what I thought it meant for quite awhile. I discovered otherwise, however, on the first day of our trek. At the starting gate we ate a packed lunch which had been given to us at the hotel, in the company of the porters, guides, and a number of local smallfry. As we departed, we were swarmed by the entire smallfry population of the village, all extremely friendly, as evidenced by their continuous stream of "Jambo" to each and every one of us... many times over. Eventually I came to realize that the real meaning of "Jambo" was "Give me your chocolate, now." This understanding was driven home when one adorable waif repeated "Jambo" about a half dozen times while poking my mesh pocket where he saw my trail mix bar (mistaking it for the candy he so obviously coveted). Having seen Sam almost lose a hand earlier when she dug out some chocolate for the raptorettes, I refrained from accepting the invitation. Even Steve Irwin would have hesitated to feed these chocodiles.

Clint (and to a lesser extent, Sam) seemed quite interested in learning lots of Swahili. One night at games after dinner, she asked one of the guides how to say "I like bananas". This somehow transmorphed into "Me and monkeys like bananas."

Now I confess that I'm terrible at learning languages orally (I need to study something written to even begin to pick it up), but if I could only learn one phrase in Swahili, that was going to be it.

Of course, I can no longer remember how to say even that, so this section is going to be awfully short.

"Pole pole" (sung to the tune of "Woolly Bully")

OK, the one other bit of Swahili I can remember is the one they pound into your head from day one as a mantra: "Pole pole". Roughly translated, this means "I will bite your kneecap if you get one millimeter ahead of me." I felt the sting of this rebuke several times during the trek, whenever I'd get too feisty and find myself breaching the force field the lead guide carried with him. I tried walking backwards; I tried leaping from rock to rock well away from the main path. No matter, I still got "pole pole"-d. (I also got hit by rocks thrown by John Beard, but that's another story.)

Once we asked a guide what the Swahili was for "Fast," and were told "Never!". Hmmm. Perhaps English and Swahili are more closely related than we thought.

Marcy had chosen to have us take the Rongai route (which actually goes by 2 other names, to confuse the undedicated and send them back in befuddlement). This was an excellent choice in most respects. It is by far the least-traveled route up the mountain, and one of the more difficult (no comfy cabins to sleep in), so we wouldn't be constantly bumping into slack-jawed yokels ("Look at my new hiking boots!") all the way up. None of the routes takes Rongai on the descent, so we almost never saw anyone going the other way. We would, however, be constantly bumping into the Group of 10, which muted a bit of that advantage.

The Rongai route goes up the northern side of the mountain, unlike all the others which go up either the southern or western side. For me, this appeared to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the north side is the drier side of the mountain, so rain would be less likely. On the other, the mountain itself would block the southern horizon, which would detract from the stargazing. It turned out not to be a sword at all, however, as the constant clouds and frequent rains rendered the first aspect false and the second moot. Sigh.

The story of the trek is creeping up the mountain like a glacier in reverse, then hurtling down as if the winged demons of Hell are behind you. They also like to take you on an extra-altitude hike after you reach camp, to help you acclimate to the thin air. The only time I actually ran during the climb was on the way down from the altitude trek on Day One, when it looked like we were about to be drenched by a storm. Ah, to have saved that energy for a few days hence...

To be fair, the first couple of days it only really rained during the night, allowing us to trek in peace. In fact, I don't think it rained much that second night, which might be one reason why the Day Two camp proved to be my favorite part of the entire trip up the mountain. The location was beautiful, on a gently sloping plateau down from a cave, from which a stream ran down the mountain. We got a nice view of Kenya, and the tent was placed in an area with no bumps in the ground (sharply contrasting to the first and most other nights). This allowed me to actually sleep reasonably well for the first time since I'd left home, and for the only time I rose before the "tea-time" knock on the tent door. I went out to use the enclosed hole in the ground, and noticed that most of the clouds were gone. I was provided with my first glimpse of the Southern Cross, though Mawenzi was working on trying to obscure even that. It needn't have bothered; less than 10 minutes after I got up, clouds rolled in to hide the entire sky. Obviously I fooled the evil Weather Witches by rising early, though it didn't take them long to notice.

The clouds were our most constant companion on the hike up the hill. On day four, we took the long journey across The Saddle, and at first you could see almost all the way across to Kibo. After awhile, we looked back to see The Fog rolling in behind us, and then we looked forward to see it closing in ahead of us as well. Caught in the ol' Pincers Trap. It was quite fascinating to watch the fog eat the hikers behind us, and slightly less fascinating when it moved in on us.

The guides had told us the previous night that the walk across the saddle could become "miserable". I found it to be less than advertised, and demanded to know where was the miserable weather we'd been promised. I'm sure my impudence attracted the attention of the Witches again, and for that I apologize to all of my companions.

And the answer to my question was forthcoming.

"I bless the rains down in Africa..."

The final uphill portion was of course the most intense, and it was here that the Weather Witches saved their worst for us. We arrived at Camp Four in mid-afternoon, ate dinner (celebrating Jane's birthday with a cake the cook had made, much to her surprise and delight), and then turned in for hopefully a few hours of sleep before the tea-moguls made their rounds at 11 pm. I slept OK, but I hadn't eaten very well for pretty much the first time since we'd left the hotel.

Nevertheless, I felt fine, and all seemed OK as I made a last-minute trip to the restroom. The weather initially was cold and cloudy, but not yet wet. I was dressed in capilene undergarments (2 layers of this on top), fleece pants and shirt, heavy gore-tex pants and a very heavy double-layered overcoat (thick cloth inner lining, heavy goretex outer) with a balaclava-like hood. I had hiking boots over very thick wool socks over liners for my feet, 2 layers of gloves for my hands, neck warmer, and balaclava for my head, plus sunglasses. In fact, I was downright hot as the eleven of us began (minus Peter, who was feeling poorly at this point and not in condition for the assault).

That feeling wouldn't last. Shortly after we started, the sleet/snow began falling, initially at only a moderate pace. The ascent began to steepen dramatically; still, I felt fine, neither dizzy nor cold. In fact, the sleet let up for a little while starting right before our first rest break, and the clouds broke temporarily. This actually proved to be a bad thing in retrospect; some of the southern sky was visible as we stopped, and having been sorely disappointed thus far in the observing opportunities I had been afforded, I allowed myself to be distracted. Instead of using the break to replenish my energy and hydrate properly, I found myself reveling in the glorious and unexpected views.

All too soon it was time to go again. Very shortly afterwards, the clouds returned with an even more vicious assault. With howling winds and almost-horizontal snow, this could only be properly termed a blizzard (that coming from a Texas boy who's seen snow maybe 10 times his entire life). I trace my downfall to this point. I soon found myself swaying unsteadily in the wind, briefly losing my balance several times, though I only actually fell once, uphill. By the time we took our second break at Hans Meyer Cave (5150 meters altitude), I was suffering dearly. I spent the entire break huddled in the rear of the cave, again failing to properly feed/hydrate myself. I almost didn't want to come out at the end of it. I vaguely recall the guides asking me questions I don't remember the answers to, but I suppose they decided I was coherent enough to continue. I was more or less in a light daze at this point, and all I could do was try to put my feet where the person in front of me did and move along.

At some point John Beard loaned me one of his trekking poles to help with my balance, and at some other point I remember one of the guides pulling me aside and questioning me again. I fell behind the group after that for awhile, but later I somehow found myself again behind Marcy and Kip when we paused for a very brief break. We huddled for warmth in the continuing blizzard, and I remember thinking that both of them looked somewhat dazed themselves, though maybe it was just me.

I figured that if I could just reach Gillman's Point (top of the crater rim, 5685 meters), I could re-evaluate myself and decide if there was any chance to make the final 1.5-hour trek to Uhuru Peak, well around the crater rim. But every time I looked up, all I could see was a line of lights zigzagging upwards into infinity. This despite the guides' assurances that we were "10 minutes" from Gillman's Point, "no problems." No help, these guys.

Finally we arrived at a point where the guides declared that we would stop for tea. We were actually a few meters below Gillman's Point, but it seemed that another group was hunkered down there at the moment, and not budging. I may have heard a distinct "nyaaah, nyaaah" from on high, but that could have been a hallucination.

Sitting down turned out to be a mistake. Although my fingers, toes, and nose had been numb for quite some time, I had not really felt cold to the core - until now. Suddenly I was shivering all the way down to my bones. Kip and Marcy shared another group hug with me while one of the guides brought over some hot tea. I took a couple of sips, but my stomach roiled. It was evident that my dehydration had crossed a threshold, and now my stomach didn't want anything, even liquids. Nevertheless we tried to get some Spiz down in me - and I immediately threw it up.

That was all the guides needed to see. They said I shouldn't go any further, and needed to get down to where it was warmer and less exposed to the elements, and they'd be sending one guide with me. They said they were going to credit me with Gillman's Point, reasoning that had we not stopped at that specific spot I would have made the last few meters up, and I think that is very likely true.

I waited with a guide while the rest of the group moved up to Gillman's Point proper, and shortly I was joined by Amanda, Jane, and Frants, all of whom were also going back down (Cine had turned around somewhere along the way, but I hadn't noticed). That left 6 to tackle the summit. They all ended up making it (though both Clint and Kip had some issues on the way back), but they were hounded by the Witches all the way, and there was virtually no view to speak of from the summit when they arrived.

For the four of us (plus Obote, the guide), going back downhill was almost as hard as the ascent had been. The top portion in particular was treacherous ice/snow/rock, and most of us fell at least once, including Obote. Frants had one especially bad-looking fall, though he didn't appear to be injured. At some point the Witches cackled their way back to whatever evil pit they sprang from, and we reached a point where ice gave way to loose dirt. This stuff allowed us to slide down rapidly, and would have been fun had I not already been exhausted and ill. As it was, we had to stop every few minutes for rest. I know my legs were quite tired, as were Jane's, and Frants in particular appeared to be completely out of energy. Amanda, on the other hand, seemed completely fine, and I wondered exactly why she had turned back. I believe she said that while she was pretty OK at Gillman's Point, she didn't think it wise for her to go the extra 3 hours round trip, under those conditions.

Obote told the 3 of us to continue on and he'd stay with Frants at his slower pace. A little later I got sick again, but fortunately that would be the last time. Some 3.5 hours after starting our descent, Amanda, Jane, and I wandered into camp. My legs and feet were about done for at this point. My hiking boots are great for flats and uphills, but are too small for descents, and my toes were all cramped and blistering. Unfortunately for me, there were still a few hours of walking left to do that day.

The sun was shining by now, and inside the tent it felt like 100 degrees. I quickly slipped out of a couple of layers of clothes, and asked one of the staff if I could take my tea in the mess tent, which was slightly more bearable. I sipped on the tea for a little, then found myself dozing off. When I woke up, my cup was on its side (still in my fingers), and a puddle of tea was on the table in front of me. Ooops! But I was told not to worry about it, so I didn't.

The rest of the trek was painful on my toes, at least until I switched shoes the next day. And the Witches had one last laugh for us, as we awoke the next morning to find that Kibo, for just about the first time, was almost completely clear of clouds. Anyone making the ascent a day after us was going to be treated with a fantastic view. I shook my fist at the sky and plotted my revenge...

By the way, anyone have any good ideas on how to avenge yourself against Weather Witches?

"So long, and thanks for all the porridge"

By and large, the food we were served on the mountain was fantastic, all the more so because of the conditions. Until the evening before the summit, I generally ate very well, with a larger appetite than usual. They usually served some kind of soup with every evening meal, and without exception these soups were delicious and always hit the spot. Even on those rare occasions where I was slightly nauseous or simply not hungry, I always managed to down at least a few spoonfuls of the soup.

Breakfast generally consisted of some bit of fruit (usually mango, occasionally papaya or pineapple), eggs, bacon, bread, and porridge. Always porridge. It wasn't bad at first, supplemented with ample amounts (about a cup) of sugar, but by Day 5 or so we were all pretty sick of it. I can still hear Amanda's voice one morning as she came into the mess tent, took one look at the open tureen, and said "Yay, porridge" in a tone that conveyed exactly the opposite.

John was always given a separate bowl of the main dinner item, supposedly a vegetarian version thereof, though often it was near-impossible to tell the difference.

Every morning we were awakened by a guide outside our tent offering us our choice of tea or water. Needing calories, I generally chose the tea. Early on, the beverage items available at meals included tea, coffee, water, cocoa, and Milo (a bit like Ovaltine), but soon the latter two ran out and I was forced to make do with sweetened tea. I don't know if it was this constant diet of tea, or the fact that it was the first thing they tried to give me up at Gillman's Point when I was suffering from cold and dehydration, but by trip's end I was as heartily sick of tea as I was of porridge. I may never consume either again.

The Cigar Man cometh

I have mentioned how wonderful our little Group of 12 was, a bit in contrast to our counterparts in the Group of 10. I actually think that several people in that other group would have been fine in ours, but it often takes only one or two bad apples to ruin the cider.

We got our first look at the 5 who had missed the orientation the following morning at weigh-in. Standing in a central location was a rather tall chap puffing on a stinky cigar, who immediately gave me a bad impression from his imperious tone of voice as well as the cigar itself. I've always wondered about anyone undertaking a physical or athletic challenge who smokes during the event. It seems especially incredible for this particular type of thing, where the thin air means that breathing and the lung's ability to transfer oxygen are at a premium.

It didn't seem likely that he would give up the cigars for the trek, however.

I personally didn't interact much with the Group of 10 during most of the climb, though I caught hints and rumors that their group was not as harmonious as ours, and that occasionally unpleasant exchanges were occurring (within their group and even once or twice between groups, though I personally can't verify any of it). I was just grateful that our group was so pleasant from top to bottom and that we didn't have to deal with any of it.

It actually wasn't until after our return to the hotel that I became more intimately acquainted with the Unpleasant Five (well, Four). Kip and I were the last people from our group to leave the hotel, but we'd be sharing the Eternal Ride back to the airport with 4 of the 5, including the Cigar Man. Kip and I found ourselves surrounded on 3 sides by these chaps from England, with the Cigar Man and one other behind us.

Fortunately, he did not smoke in the van. But it soon became clear that he was the Ringleader of the bunch, simply from his tone of voice. And did we get plenty of that. Either he abhors silence, or he's simply in love with his own voice; we got nary a moment of silence the entire 1.5-hour trip back to the airport. When he wasn't talking, he was singing. It seems that the only adjective he knew was of the 7-letter kind (f'ing) - and he loved to use adjectives. He had rendered the word meaningless 5 minutes into the trip, then stomped on it, chewed it up, spit it out, and burned it in effigy.

I was quite relieved to find that he was sitting in a completely different section on the plane trip to Amsterdam. Ay caramba.

Footprints in the Snow

On reflection, I'm about 99% certain that had we made our ascent one day later (or in equivalent weather), I would have had no problem making the summit. The nasty weather we had endured not only contributed to my near-hypothermia, but also made it more difficult to eat and drink, or even to think about eating and drinking. I believe that neither the dehydration nor the cold would have been factors for me in clear weather. Thus it is with a great deal of regret and even a touch of bitterness that I think of all the potential things that the weather stole from me (and probably others as well), and how different things would have turned out had our ascent not occurred on the exact day that it did.

And I never did get to see the Magellanic Clouds, the one set of Clouds I actually wanted to view.

In a sense (and this isn't the greatest analogy), I can understand what the American athletes who qualified for the 1980 Olympics - particularly those who didn't make the 1976 or 1984 Olympics - may have felt like. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes along and then is taken from you by forces largely beyond your control.

It's unlikely I will ever return to Kilimanjaro. Not because I wouldn't love to get a second crack at ol' Kibo, but because when this kind of opportunity comes up again, I'd much rather tackle something new (Australia, perhaps) than try the same thing. It's not my style to follow in my own footprints.

Even so, the trip as a whole was a resounding success for me, and I would definitely do it again (once my godlike powers extend to rewinding time).

  • My first trip to Africa (indeed, to the Old World)
  • Met some wonderful people and made great new friends
  • Greatly enjoyed the company of all my old friends, in a new context
  • Climbed some 5000 feet higher than I've ever been before, in a raging snowstorm, without obvious signs of altitude sickness
  • It must have been fun, because I spent an awful lot of time laughing

Special thanks to:

  • Marcy Beard, for organizing everything and making this thing happen in the first place
  • Kip Fiebig, for carrying various and sundry items up the mountain for me, and providing general comic relief
  • John Beard, for loaning me his trekking pole when I needed it most, and for moral support. Oh, and that comic relief thing
  • Everyone in the Group of 12, for not eating me. Oh, and that comic relief thing
  • My wife, Tam, for not having too much of a cow when I told her what I was doing

* This account is based on real people and events, and every sentence is 100% accurate and truthful, except this one.

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