The air up there
“Climbing Kilimanjaro is like eating a piece of cake”.
The afternoon before our climb was scheduled to begin, our lead guide, Goodluck, sat across from AB and I at our hotel, answering my last minute questions about just how hard it really is to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. In the months leading up to the climb, I had scoured the internet and pestered friends for information about altitude sickness, the gradient, and the supposed horrors of summit night. Goodluck’s advice, probably meant to alleviate anxiety, is the single biggest untruth I was told about the climb. Climbing Kilimanjaro is nothing like eating a piece of cake.
At 5,895 metres above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world (Everest is part of a chain of mountains). Mountain climbers traditionally divide mountain altitudes into three zones: high altitude (2400 m to 4200 m), very high altitude (4200 m to 5400 m), and extreme altitude (above 5400 m). Mount Kilimanjaro falls into the extreme altitude category.
The altitude worried me and in October I tried to talk AB out of the climb by suggesting that we spend the week lying on a beach instead. When she refused to be dissuaded, I bookmarked the New England Journal of Medicine’s recent article on altitude sickness, and memorized all the signs of high altitude pulmonary oedema and high altitude cerebral oedema. Although statistics are unreliable, it is estimated that approximately ten people die attempting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro each year. The primary reason for this is climbing too high too quickly and failing to acclimatize properly to the high altitude.
There are six different routes that lead to Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit, and the most popular is the five-day Marangu route. Nicknamed the Coca-Cola route, climbers sleep in huts and can buy soft drinks, chocolate bars, and Konyagi from park rangers all the way up to the summit. This route has the lowest success rate and is viewed as the most risky, presumably because the hike is completed in five days and climbers have less time to acclimatize. The route is popular because it is the quickest and thus the cheapest – the Tanzanian Park Authority charges climbers $110 for each day that they are on the mountain.
AB and I opted for the seven-day Machame route, termed the Whisky route, which is known for its steeper trails, longer distances, undulating path, and better acclimatization schedule.
We set out for Machame Gate in a large jeep on a bright, sunny day in early January. January is supposedly a good time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro because the weather is milder than at other times of the year. Earlier that week, however, I had spoken with an American tourist who had endured three days of non-stop rain and hail on Kilimanjaro only to give up and turn around. Waterproof clothing is key, he said, because once clothes are wet they will not dry in the cold mountain air. AB and I had heeded this advice, but during the hour-long ride from Arusha to Machame Gate we managed to spill our drinking water bottles on ourselves in two separate incidents. Outfit number one was already soaked and we had yet to set foot on the mountain.
We arrived at Machame Gate to organized chaos. Dozens of climbers and hundreds of porters were attending to last minute tasks – paying park fees, organizing and weighing loads, and sorting equipment. We signed into the park registry system at about noon and headed off into the forest that covers the lower slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.
There are four distinct ecosystems on Mount Kilimanjaro: the rain forest zone that is characterized by heavy green vegetation and frequent rainfall, the heather zone with its shrubs and ever-present blanket of fog, the moorland zone with mosses that resemble seaweed growing on giant broken boulders, and the alpine desert which is how I imagine the surface of the moon.
By the end of the first day we had climbed to 3,230 m, which is slightly above the tree line of the forest zone. Our group included four other climbers: C and R, friends from New York, and M and S, a couple from Calgary. In addition to Goodluck, there were two assistant guides, Dastan and Joaquim, as well as a chef and some 25 porters who were charged with the unenviable task of carrying our gear and supplies up the mountain.
We were advised to drink between five and seven litres of fluid per day to help prevent altitude sickness, and for this reason most meals included soup which, unfortunately, was made from Blue Bond Margarine. For the first few days, as we settled into the cold, the soup tasted good. As the days passed, however, I could not get the plastic taste of the margarine out of my mouth and the sight of the soup bowl at lunches and dinners made me want to vomit.
On day three the clouds swirled around us and it began to rain and hail against the tent where we had stopped for lunch. We finished our soup, dutifully put on our rain gear, and headed out into the hail to hike up to the Lava Tower, a large volcanic plug that is located at an altitude of 4,640 m. We were soon climbing in the clouds and couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us. After reaching the tower, which was largely obscured by the mist, we descended back down to 3,900 m to camp at the foot of the Barranco Wall, which we would climb in the morning.
The Barranco Wall is an 800-foot vertical wall that requires climbers to scramble, kick, dig, and fight. There are several sections where I held onto rock and jumped across crevices, with seemingly nothing but the village of Moshi over 4,000 m beneath me (the coloured dots in the picture below are climbers working their way up the wall). The porters negotiated the wall while carrying enormous packs stuffed with our clothes, food, tents, and portable toilet, an acrobatic feat that seemed to defy physics.
Porters are typically paid 4,500 Tsh (approximately $3 per day) to carry luggage up Mount Kilimanjaro. Although they are officially prohibited from carrying more than 15 kg, many porters are overloaded with packs that weigh in excess of 30 kg. After we left camp each morning, the porters were expected to pack up all of our supplies, race up the mountain ahead of us, and set up camp before our arrival. This type of frantic ascent schedule means that porters are more vulnerable to altitude sickness than climbers. Compounding the above, few of the porters have adequate footwear or warm clothing. I saw many bounding up the mountain wearing nothing but a pair of thin sweatpants, a t-shirt, and ill-fitting shoes (sometimes even worn out leather loafers rather than sneakers or hiking boots). It is cold on the mountain and, to keep warm, I usually needed to wear a short-sleeved wool shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a thin fleece jacket, a thick fleece jacket, a rain jacket, and perfectly-fitted hiking boots that had taken me days to select. The porters have none of this. In 2002, three porters died from hypothermia after an unexpected storm hit the mountain.
Porters enter into such deplorable working conditions because it is often difficult to locate steady employment in Tanzania, and because some money is better than no money. Many also dream of being promoted to assistant guide or lead guide, where the pay is much better and the conditions not so torturous. CH, one of the porters on our climb, who was also responsible for obtaining water and cleaning dishes, nervously balled up his green and blue hat in his hands and told me that if he ever came into money he would travel as far away from the mountain as he could.
About three-quarters of the way up the Barranco Wall, we came across a porter who had collapsed under the weight of his pack and who was lying on the ground, covered with a sleeping bag. A climber was standing next to him, sobbing. She was being comforted by a guide from another company. A nurse who had been near the porter when he collapsed thought he had broken a rib and should be evacuated as soon as possible. It is not safe to climb back down the Barranco Wall, so the porter had to be carried higher in order to get back down. A scene that will live on in my nightmares.
On day five, we started our trek to Barafu Camp, which is at 4,630 m and is the last stop before the summit. We were moving so slowly now that it felt like we were trying to sneak up on the mountain. Stop. Pause. Stop. Pause.
We arrived at Barafu at about noon and were given the afternoon to try to relax and sleep in our tents. With nothing else to do, I began torturing myself with nearly constant readings of my heart rate, which had spiked to 110 beats per minute at rest and 145 beats per minute when I tried to stuff myself into my sleeping bag. Fuelled by hypochondria and paranoia, I had memorized all the symptoms of altitude sickness but had neglected to research the dangers of a high resting heart rate at altitude, and I convinced myself that I would likely have a heart attack at the summit.
We had dinner at 5 pm and then went to bed to try to get some sleep before our midnight climb.
Goodluck woke us shortly after 11 pm and thus began the longest night of my life. We set out for the summit at 1 am with our headlamps lighting the way, and when I looked up I could see a string of bright lights in front of me. AB and I climbed with Dastan, while the other guides split themselves between each pair of climbers.
I took a sip of my water, and gagged when I realized that it had been boiled in the soup pot and tasted like the Blue Bond Margarine. I listened to Brandi Carlile sing about love and dreams and strength until my ipod froze at about 3 am and I was left only with my own darker thoughts. At 4 am I was very cold and very tired and I began to seriously contemplate turning back. There were many people turning back now, some crying and some stone-faced. I turned around to discover that a woman who had been climbing behind us for the past few hours was no longer there. The drinking water in my camel back froze.
C, the climber from New York, would later compare the procession up the summit to a never-ending death march. I just wanted the sun to rise. My thoughts alternated between desperate wishes for the sun and my sleeping bag back at Barafu Camp.
Sometime before sunrise AB tried to abandon the daypack containing her camera, money and passport on the mountain trail. In my altitude fog, I also thought this was a good idea and tried to talk Dastan into letting me leave my water bottles on the mountain. I told him that they were useless because I no longer had the strength to drink from them.
From a viewpoint nearly 5,800 m above the earth, the sunrise is spectacular. I did not have the energy to take a picture, but I will always remember brilliant streaks of deep purple and pink spreading across a frozen sky.
The final ascent up to Stella’s Point, which is located on the rim of the crater at 5,745 m, is very steep and covered with a scree that slides backwards underfoot. By now every step was exhausting and I had to force myself to count out ten consecutive steps between each break.
When we finally made it to Stella’s Point, it was clear that AB was suffering from altitude sickness. She had a pounding headache and felt nauseous. Dastan faintly suggested that maybe we should stop at Stella’s Point, that maybe this was enough. But the summit was only one hour away and within sight so we ignored him.
The path from Stella’s Point to Uhuru Peak winds around the crater rim, next to a glacier of brilliant white. I looked down and saw the clouds far below us. We were greeted by many climbers making their way back from the peak, all exhilarated from the summit. “Congratulations”…”you’re almost there”…”only fifteen more minutes”….”keep going, its worth it”.
And finally the bright green sign at the peak: “Congratulations! / You are now at Uhuru Peak / 5,895 M A.M.S.L. / Tanzania / Africa’s Highest Point / World’s Highest Freestanding Mountain / World Heritage Site.” A box was open on the ground in front of the sign, lugged up the mountain by climbers more energetic than us, stuffed with the remnants of a celebratory feast of champagne and Pringles. How do you open a champagne bottle at altitude, I wondered.
The victory of the summit was short lived. Unfortunately, what goes up must also come back down.
AB began to feel much worse, and we raced back down to Stella’s Point. She was dry-heaving and her legs had stopped working so Dastan held her up by the shoulders and skied quickly back down the mountain with her. Within minutes they were specks on the horizon, and I was left to navigate the descent on my own.
Alone and stumbling in the daylight, everything looked different, a barren landscape of dust and scree and rocks. I was tired and clumsy and I tripped over a large rock. Exhausted, I sat on the side of the mountain for ten minutes, twenty minutes, an hour. Eventually, M and S, who were with Goodluck, came up behind me and offered me some chocolate. I stood up and we continued down, down, down.
We arrived back at Barafu Camp at about noon, and we were given an hour to rest and pack up before continuing our descent down to Mweka Camp. By this time, AB had recovered and we sat across from C, R, M, and S in the dining tent. “What the hell did we just do?”…”that was the hardest thing I have ever done”…”never again”…”Six more hours down, why can’t we just stay here?”…”the only thing that is amazing about this mountain is that we actually made it to the top”.
I ran into some climbers who had just arrived at Barafu and planned to begin the trek to the summit that night. They congratulated me and said, hopefully, “well at least the descent is easy, right?”. I shook my head.
By the time we reached Mweka Camp at 6 pm that night we had been climbing and descending for nearly 18 hours. Sleepwalking, really. When I left the dining tent to go to bed several hours later, there were still climbers arriving at the camp, headlamps switched on to navigate the darkness of a second night, eyes staring blankly ahead, limbs frozen and wooden.
Almost two weeks have passed since the climb, and I can now say that I’m glad I did it. The horror of the summit night has faded, and I remember fields of lobelia trees, a lunar landscape, a glacier that glitters like a diamond, a moonlit walk with AB, and the most magnificent sunrise I will ever see.
In addition to the shiny black obsidian stone I have tucked into my pocket, I take two things away from Mount Kilimanjaro. First, the knowledge that because I did that I can probably do anything. Second, a deep and unwavering hatred for soup.