So, I trekked Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa. I booked an eight-day trek to give me the best chance at acclimatization, as well as the opportunity to enjoy quieter trails and a greater variety of scenery. My goal was to enjoy each day of the trek and to attempt the summit.
I did appreciate each of the eight days, and I did try to summit. I gave it everything I had left. When I turned around at 5,200 meters (it’s 5,895 m at the actual peak), it was my decision, and I walked down under my own power. Can’t do better than that.
There were a lot of things that could have gone wrong and didn’t. I never had any digestive or other irregularities that might have put me off my stride. I didn’t twist an ankle or knee or get a bad blister. I can’t say the altitude didn’t affect me—every physical activity was harder work up there—but I never had dizziness, or nausea, or shortness of breath per se. The only headaches I got responded to ibuprofen, which I’ve read is a simpler alternative to acetazolamide. (Many people take this medicine against acute mountain sickness, but it’s not actually licensed for that—it’s for kidney disease. I’m not judging others but I didn’t want to take a performance-enhancing drug.)
And the weather was good. Dry, and not too windy. I slept remarkably well in a tent night after night. I went into summit night physically exhausted but in a good mental place. We had a few hours to sleep, and I actually did. I had good mountain songs playing and when we started up for the final ascent, they were in my head continually.
If any of these other factors had forced me to abandon my trek, I would have felt like I didn’t have a chance; but I had every chance. For three consecutive days we climbed to a higher altitude, then descended lower to sleep—which is good for acclimatization. My blood had time to thicken and my body to adjust to the lower air pressure and hence, difficulty in getting oxygen. Having said all that, just getting out of the tent at high camps was enough to make my heart pound and for me to feel out of breath, so altitude can’t have helped.
I can’t say I met my goal of enjoying every day. I enjoyed the first four days, each of which was through a different climatic zone, with different fauna and especially flora. Day 5 started feeling like really hard work. We had to walk, in parts “scramble,” up the Barranco Wall, and it took about two hours. Some people really got a kick out of this rock climbing part, but for me it was just exhausting. Even arriving at the top of the wall was only a temporary victory, as we then had a rocky descent, followed by another rocky ascent, before we reached camp.
At the top of the Barranco Wall. It was not about to get easier.
I know it seems obvious, since Kilimanjaro is a mountain, but the hours and hours of uphill climbing were just relentless. I said to my teammates during the trek that after reading so many warnings about the altitude—how fitness doesn’t make a difference, only the altitude—I had possibly underestimated just what hard work the whole thing would be. That many hours of hiking, day after day after day, would have worn me out at a much lower elevation. And almost none of it was just one foot in front of the other, pole pole as they say. It was rough and uneven; it was up and down. Unless I paused to take a picture, I had to constantly keep my eyes on my feet, otherwise I would surely have fallen or injured myself. It feels like a miracle that I never did. (Well, I fell once, but then so did everybody else.)
Day 6 was “only” three hours—our trek split the day before summit night into two days, which was supposed to help. I found Day 6 exhausting too. Relentless uphill climbing, and my legs felt like Jell-O by the end. I remember thinking, before crawling into my sleeping bag for the odd hour of sleep, that I didn’t think I had enough left in the tank for the summit. But of course, I had to try.
Kibo, the youngest and highest peak of Kilimanjaro, from camp 5
So what actually happened on summit night? We started at Barafu Camp, which at 4,662 m is higher than Mt. Elbert, the highest of the Rocky Mountains. The very beginning of what was estimated to be a seven-hour ascent (followed by as many hours of descent) was more %$#! rock climbing. This was why I doubted I had enough left, but I knew if I could just make it over the rocks it would get more gradual. And, unlike on Day 5 when I’d felt like cussing out the assistant guide, Estomi (“Tommy”), I was determined not to be pushed to keep up with the group. If the head guide needed to split the group into slow and slower, then so be it.
Which he soon did. Two of us were slower. Soon I got slower still. Soon it was just me and Tommy, my favorite, plus one of the porters who was accompanying the summit party (to carry bags and, if necessary, a person down the mountain). The porter was lovely. He kept patting me on the back and calling me “Mama Simba,” though I didn’t feel very lioness-like at the time. When I finally turned around, he said "See you later" and seemed genuinely sorry.
It got to the point that I would shuffle along for two or three steps, then just lean on my trekking poles trying to catch my breath. Tommy asked if I was sick but I said I was only tired. Eventually, I said that I could probably keep up this ridiculous pace for hours (and still not get to the top and just have to descend from even higher, though I didn’t say that to him). What I was worried about, though, was that I would get cold. I was layered up really well and toasty—in fact there was a security layer I never took out of my backpack—but all that was predicated on my moving up the mountain, pole pole. No matter how warmly you’re dressed, if you spend much time gasping on a windy ridge, you’re going to get cold.
Tommy tried everything. He took my backpack from me, gave me my water, encouraged me to eat something. It was funny because the day before, when in his abrupt way he’d said “Go, Jacqui,” I was ready to tell him to eff off. I really think he was just pointing out a gap in the traffic, not rushing me, but I was starting to lose my enjoyment at that point, and focused my irritation on this taciturn guide. Now, I was destined to spend the whole night with him.
He was reluctant to make a decision, so got the head guide on the radio. I explained that I didn’t think I could make it and in the meantime, was afraid of getting cold. I was told that Tommy would carry me down. Like hell he would! He accompanied me all the way back down the rocky descent, and occasionally took my arm to ensure I didn’t wipe out, but for the most part he just walked ahead of me, and I stayed on my poor feet by myself. (Which reminds me of yet another thing that went perfectly: My boots were gold. My feet, and everything else, were tired, but my boots never let me down.)
At the time I had no concept of the hour or how high I’d climbed. Later I realized that I’d ascended 600 vertical meters, or almost halfway. That makes it sound possible, but another 600 vertical meters was not possible—not at that pace, not on the same day, and not with a 13-km descent to go after almost no further rest. The wonder, to me, is that so many people actually do complete this.
Tommy rolled me into my tent at 5:00 in the morning. I had been high on the mountain for five hours. Later I found out that the other “slower” hiker had been forced to descend a couple hours after I did, with hypothermia. She was fine, but my instincts had been right.
Tommy and me, down at the final camp. Is that a smile on his dour face?!
Would I have had any more left if I hadn’t been hiking with such a strong group? Possibly. But if my overall pace had been slower, that would have meant more hours on my feet each day. It also would have meant getting into camp too late in the afternoon for a hot cooked lunch, and having to eat a cold packed lunch on the trail instead. I tend to think that would’ve canceled out any advantage.
I’ll have more to write about the overall experience later, and more pictures to share. Right now I’m still processing, because to be honest, I usually finish what I set out to do. But maybe in the past I’ve avoided trying things that I wasn’t sure I could accomplish.
What I want to leave you with is this video of our crew. It took 31 porters, 4 guides, and 1 chef to get us up the mountain, and without them we’d never have made it to the first night’s camp, let alone the top.
These men (ours were all men) do this for a living. They carry more than we do, they wear less, and they do it routinely. They couldn’t have done more to make our “job” easier—welcomed us into camp every afternoon, dusted off our boots, served us tea. And somehow they still had energy left to sing and dance. “Kilimanjaro, slowly slowly—no problem.”
It was nice of them, but I think I prefer the kind of camping where we put up our own tent—then have a campfire. And maybe some bourbon. And I can’t tell you the pleasure I had getting rid of that damn duffel bag.