A 210-240 degree panorama of Kibo Crater, the top of Kilimanjaro, from Stella Point.
Roof of Africa
Saturday, July 11, 2015 - Monday, July 20, 2015
by Dennis Foster
Part VI - A Tale of Two Stories
The editor of the local paper has always been quite gracious to me about
running articles I write on the trips I take like this. A few
years ago, during the worst of the recession, he imposed serious word
limits on my stories, but lately I haven't gotten any direct feedback on
this score. In fact, it seems that they are running longer and
longer stories. When I pitched this one to him he told me that
space wasn't an issue now that they had moved all their outdoors stories
to the Thursday edition of the paper.
To the Roof of Africa
By Dennis Foster
“Po-le, po-le,” calls out Penda, our head guide. It means, “slowly, slowly.” And that is the key to success for those wanting to summit Africa’s tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro, which rises 19,341 feet.¶ Unlike other very tall mountains this one is not technical – one can walk a series of well-worn paths right to Uhuru Peak, the apex of the mountain. But, that doesn’t make this an easy hike. The altitude can be a stopper for those that are not acclimatized and can result in death. The normal oxygen content of air is about 21%. As you go to higher altitudes, the lower air pressure reduces the effective oxygen content. At the top of Kilimanjaro, it is less than 10%. Success is all about coping with this change. Living in Flagstaff helps and I signed up for the longest trip I could get – 9 days.
I had been drawn to Kilimanjaro for some time, intrigued by the prospect of climbing so high without technical equipment. This past winter I made the commitment and signed up for this July trek. The price of such a hike ranges from about $3,000 to $6,000, not including air fare and special purchases. ¶ I chose Thomson Safaris, as they have an excellent reputation, both in terms of the trip amenities as well as how they treat their porters. Porter welfare is an ongoing issue on the mountain and I felt comfortable with Thomson even if they are on the upper end of the price spectrum.
There were seven of us on this trek, all from the U.S and except for me all from sea level cities. They all took Diamox as a preventative for altitude sickness. Still many suffered from the usual headaches associated with high altitudes. My training here served me well as I neither took medication nor did I suffer from these effects. ¶ Our head guide, Penda, has been to the summit more than 150 times and has a long family association with the mountain. His grandfather was a porter on the first successful climb of Kilimanjaro made by Hans Meyer in 1889. We also had two assistant guides – Adam and Ahi – a cook (Michael), a head waiter (Moses) and 36 porters. All in all, it really is an expedition.
We assembled together at the Lemosho Gate, a western entrance to the park. We met our porters, ate lunch and started on our way through the forest. The profusion of plant life makes me think of this more like a jungle, even if we are at 8,000 feet and it is cold. Our first camp is in the forest at about 10,000 feet and we start to settle into a routine that will continue for more than a week. Shortly after our arrival, Moses brings each of us a bowl of warm water so we can clean up a bit. Then we meet at the dining tent for dinner. Before entering, Moses has a kettle of warm water and a portable basin where we wash our hands. Penda joins us in the dining tent for meals. There is plenty for us to eat and quite a variety at every meal. We all especially liked the soups that Chef Michael made. Following the meal, Penda would give us a debrief on the next day’s itinerary, along with when we need to get up and what we need to wear. We all carry day packs with water and clothing essentials, while most of our gear gets stuffed into a large duffel and carried by a porter to our next camp.
On day two, we leave the forest behind and enter into the heath, which is made up of tall grasses and large bushes. Our second camp is called Shira I and is at 11,500 feet. Kilimanjaro is made up of three extinct volcanoes – Shira, Kibo and Mawenzi. All that’s left of Shira is a plateau at about 12,000 feet. When people see pictures of Kilimanjaro they are looking at the remnants of the Kibo crater.
Day three found us walking across the moorlands, a rocky terrain with low bushes and grasses. Our view is dominated by Kilimanjaro’s west and south flanks as we steadily approach the mountain. We camped at Shira II, on the eastern edge of the plateau, at an elevation of 12,800. In the afternoon we took an acclimatization hike up to 14,000 and then back to camp. This practice can make it easier to sleep at night. ¶ One of the camp followers we see often is the Tanzanian raven. It is about twice as big as our raven and all black save for a distinctive white patch on the back of its neck. We saw them all the way to the top of Kilimanjaro.
On day four we trekked up to 15,300 feet and camped below a 300 foot outcropping called Lava Tower. Very impressive. We have noticed that we are literally hiking above the clouds. ¶ People in the cities and towns below probably think that the mountain is socked in, but the cloud layer seems to be at about 10,000 feet. Where we are it is mostly sunny and clear.
Day five was a long day but it also took us back down a bit, to 13,200 feet and the Karanga Camp. We were hiking through the alpine desert, which is mostly rocky and barren, but with occasional tufts of grasses and sometimes giant Senecio plants. We lunched at Barranco Camp, at the base of the Barranco Wall, which involves dispensing with our hiking poles as we find foot and hand holds to get us through a couple of hundred feet of this lava cliff. How the porters do this is beyond me, especially since they mostly carry the big duffels on their heads.
So far we haven’t had to share the camps with more than two other groups. That was about to change. Most of the 20,000 people that try to ascend the mountain (only about two-thirds make it) come from the south or the east on much shorter routes. So, the congestion level is about to rise dramatically as we head for the jumping off point for the summit. ¶ Day six takes us to the 15,200 foot Barafu Camp. There groups are spread out all over this craggy ridge. Most groups get here by noon, rest until midnight, and then ascend in the dark to reach the summit at dawn. But our group has the option of camping in the crater near the top, at 18,800 feet. Penda lets us decide whether we want to camp there or return for another night at Barafu and most of us opt for the latter. That frees up many porters for the day, so Penda has our support porters carry our day packs for our ascent, lessening the burden on us and giving some of the porters a chance to actually summit.
We are up at 5 a.m. on day seven and out of the camp an hour later. It is slow going, but we are well-practiced at the “po-le, po-le.” We reached the crater rim at Stella Point (18,800 ft.) at noon and stop to have lunch. From here it isn’t too far along the rim to reach the highest point on the mountain, Uhuru Peak, at 19,341 feet. Following independence in the early 1960s, Tanganyika and Zanzibar formed a union and called the new country Tanzania. The high point on Kilimanjaro was renamed Uhuru Peak, meaning freedom in Swahili.
We reached the high point at about 12:30 p.m. and have the place virtually to ourselves. So, we can take all the pictures we want without having to jostle with other groups. We are now up among Kilimanjaro’s remaining glaciers. When Meyer climbed here in 1889, the entire cap of the mountain was covered in ice. When he returned nine years later he found that the ice had dramatically retreated. This process has been going on for over a hundred years. There is some indication that the ice has stabilized over the last few years. Whether this will continue, or if it is just a pause before further recession, only time will tell.
After about an hour we began our descent. The slope is spongy, made up of dirt and gravel, and we head straight down, traveling about twice as fast down as we did coming up. Still, it was over eleven hours for me from camp to summit to camp. And, that pretty much uses up a full day. At three degrees south of the equator, the days here are very uniform – sunrise and sunset is at 6:30 each day.
Now it is all about the descent. On day eight we got down to 12,500 feet and stayed at the Mweka High Millennium Camp. It didn’t take us long to get there and we had the luxury of time on our hands. Late in the afternoon we had a tipping ceremony for the porters and guides. We were regaled with songs from the porters and then we each expressed our thanks to them. We pooled our tips for the 36 porters, which totaled about $1800, while individually we tipped our waiter, chef, two assistant guides and head guide.
On our ninth day, it took only a couple of hours to reach the forest. And, a few hours after that we reached the Mweka Gate. Here we had lunch and another little ceremony – the handing out of our summit certificates. Four of our group are doing a multi-day safari and they pile into one of the Land Rovers and head off. The other three of us are in the another Rover heading back to the airport. I am the only one of my group heading out on the night flight to Amsterdam and after a couple of hours at a nearby lodge, where I got a chance to shower and repack my bags, I am ready for my 36 hour journey back to Arizona which is mostly spent in reflection of this fantastic trip.
Dennis Foster of Flagstaff does most of his trekking in the Grand Canyon, where since 1977 he has done more than 330 hikes spanning 700 days and 400 nights.