Note: I originally wrote this for the Sierra Designs website years ago, but have never posted it here. Thought I should, for those who haven’t seen it.
When I began to plan my summer sabbatical, in honor of twenty years of service to Trinity Cathedral, I decided that it was time to stop “talking” about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and just do it! My friend and colleague Dr. David Deffner and I had talked about this in the past, and when I proposed actually doing it to him, he immediately said yes!
We hired Peter Mato, a highly experienced Kilimanjaro guide to take us up the mountain. Peter started climbing the mountain as a porter at the age of 14, and now, at the age of 40 he is one of the most experienced Kili guides around. He is reputed to have climbed the mountain over 300 times! Peter was fantastic… making all of the arrangements, hiring porters, arranging transportation. We had decided to climb the mountain via the Great Western Breach, using the Machame approach, which gave us maximum acclimatization time, on a more remote and less traveled route.
After months of careful planning… purchasing of gear and supplies… and endless training hikes at altitude, we found ourselves at San Francisco International Airport, ready to fly to London for the long journey to Tanzania.
Day one: Game Drive We arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport on the evening of July 13th… unfortunately, our duffel bags did NOT arrive, so we spent the next day on a game drive in Arusha National Park, where we saw Cape Buffalo, Giraffe, Zebra, Warthog, Blue Monkeys, Colobus Monkeys, Waterbuck, and more incredible birds than you can imagine. The afternoon included a walk out in open grasslands, escorted by a park ranger with a hunting rifle for safety.
This baggage delay is evidently a fairly common occurrence on this Amsterdam to Kili flight, but fortunately, our gear did arrive late that evening, so the next morning we were off. We were piled into a fairly vintage Land Rover, crammed with gear, porters, and food, and made our way up the rough dirt road to the trailhead.
Day two: Machame Trailhead to Machame Camp Our trek started at the Machame trailhead (6000′), and our first day was mostly spent in the incredibly beautiful (and muddy) rainforest. Lush greenery, beautiful flowers, hanging mosses dominated this day. About twenty minutes from the end of the day, we emerged from the rainforest into the Heath zone, were we spent our first night at Machame camp, at around 9000′. I ended the first day really tired, but feeling pretty good about myself and about all the training I had done. I would soon learn not to be too smug.
Day three: Machame Camp to New Shira Camp Our second day started immediately with a steep and hard climb out of camp. The plants and vegetation became more interesting and “Dr. Seuss-like,” with Giant Senecio, Lobelia, and everlastings dominating the landscape. As is usual, mist covered the mountain from late morning to mid-afternoon, a typical pattern. The hiking in this section was much more difficult than the first day… another 3000′ in vertical gain, over fewer miles. The route was much rougher, and included some class 2 scrambling in spots. The guides were always calling out to us… “pole, pole” which means “slowly, slowly.” Indeed, one of the major causes of unsuccessful climbs are super-fit hikers who go too fast, and burn themselves out early on.
Our second night’s camp was at New Shira camp (12,000′), overlooking the starkly beautiful Shira Plateau. I arrived at this second camp completely exhausted, and wondered what kind of situation I had gotten myself into. We had a view of the top of the mountain now, and it looked very far away, and it was difficult to see how we would get there.
Day four: New Shira Camp to Lava Tower Camp Our third day on the mountain took us through two more climate zones: the Grassy Moorland and into the Alpine Desert. The landscape grew rockier and more barren, taking on a otherworldly character. The day’s steep hiking took us to our third camp at Lava Tower (about 16,000′), a rocky promontory that dominates the area. From here, we’d make our climb up the Western Breach to the crater and summit!
At this camp, David and I were at the highest altitude we’d ever experienced. And we began to find out what makes this mountain so difficult. The altitude left us both with headaches, complete loss of appetite, and the inability to sleep. We decided to spend our fourth day resting and re-hydrating at Lava Tower, and assess our readiness for the summit climb at dinner.
Day five and six: Summit day up the Great Western Breach As we attempted to choke down some food at dinner, the decision was made to go for the top. At midnight, we hoisted our packs, turned on our headlamps, and began the long climb to the summit. It was a completely clear night, the stars were brilliant. It was an eerie feeling climbing the Breach in the dark. This section was a combination of steep trail hiking, and sketchy class 3 scrambling with no trail at all. As we neared the crater rim at dawn, we could see DOWN the breach… we climbed that?? As the sun began to come up, it got very cold… so cold that our water bottles were pretty much the consistency of a popsicle by the time we got to the crater rim. “David…” guide Peter asked me as we stood at the crater rim… “how do you feel??” I decided to be honest… “I feel like shit!”
Reaching the summit crater was incredible. Even though the ice and snow are retreating at an alarming rate, the glaciers were still mind-blowing. We spent a few very cold minutes exploring the crater area, then surmounted the final scree slope to the top of Africa… a steep hillside of loose volcanic cinders, which made for slow and difficult going. About halfway up, I became very nauseous, but fortunately had no food in my stomach.
A big part of the battle to reach the summit is mental… to convince yourself that all of the suffering is going to be worth it. For ten climbers who start, only four will push through the pain and discomfort and stand on the summit. At 8:00 am we found ourselves standing at the famous summit sign… we were both overwhelmed with emotion. The views across the massive volcano were incredible, and the feeling of accomplishment was something I’ll never forget.
However, our adventure was not over yet… we still had to descend 13,000′ vertical feet in two days. By the time we arrived at Mweka High Camp for our final night on the mountain, our knees and quads were completely thrashed! But we looked forward to the hot showers, cold beers, and clean beds that waited below. After washing up a bit, and a forcing down a few bites of dinner, we both collapsed on our tents, and slept twelve hours straight through.
Day seven: Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate Our last day on the mountain took us back into the rain forest. We were both exhausted, and just wanted to get it all finished. Finally we reached the end of the trail… we signed the park service register, and received our summit certificates. After being regaled with songs and speeches by our guides and porters, we were off to our hotel in Marangu for a couple of days to recover before heading back to California.
Our Kilimanjaro trip was an incredible, life-changing experience, and one that I will never forget. Peter Mato and his guide/porter crew were amazing, and we couldn’t have done it without them. If you are interested in this trip, but all means do so. But don’t discount the effort required to make the top, and don’t discount the effects of high altitude, which doesn’t care if you are young or old, or how in shape you are.
Complete trip photos here!