Kilimanjaro was a turning point and a big moment of growth for me as a traveler and a mountaineer. In January of 2022 I set my sights on Kilimanjaro. Post PCT in 2021 I wanted to line myself up for a big year in 2022 so I didn’t mentally tank after my months long adventure. In 2022 I had attempted the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire, gone to Iceland to backpack the Laugavegur Trail and now I was heading to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro, the 19,431’ highpoint of Africa, and set foot atop one of the seven summits.
For Kilimanjaro I opted to do it with a group, I felt that this was the way I most enjoyed traveling and would give me the most reward in this endeavor. I also knew that I had a lot of friends out there interested in the climb and bringing more people along was a great way to bring the cost down. Ultimately in July of 2022 we had a crew of 10 locked in and booked. I took charge of group travel logistics and booked everything in-country for the group; hotels, airport transfers, etc. It was awesome to take what I had done with trip planning domestically with UCMC and apply it to a trip like this, it was also a lot of pressure.
The group took off from 5 different airports in the US and arrived in 3 different groups in Tanzania on two separate days, I was the last to arrive. Having everyone finally in-country and ready to go was definitely a big weight off my shoulders as I often felt responsible for everyone at certain points along the way. Our hotel was nice by US standards and luxurious by Tanzanian standards. The first night we met with the guides, went over everyone’s gear individually and got setup to start out the next day. It was a light atmosphere and for the most part everyone was excited to get going. There were a few points during our pack shakedowns when people got a little heated with the guides for various reasons (guides wanting members to have additional layers for cold days, comments on not letting us carry our own backpacks and wanting us to carry lighter daypacks, etc.). What I will say is, the guides have your best interest at heart, they want to get you up the mountain because they want you to tip them well for it. That being said, when I stuck to my guns and said this is what I have, this is what I’ve done in this gear and this is what I’m doing on the mountain they let me run with what I wanted to do.
On day two we left for the three-hour drive to the Rongai gate, we had opted for a route up the rain shadow of the mountain that would take 6 days to complete car-to-car, 5 days to the summit and an additional day to descend via the Marangu Route back to the road. When we arrived, we were met with our porter team and were immediately struck by their number. For our group of 10 the typical team on Kilimanjaro includes: 1 head guide, 3 support guides, 1 cook, 2 servers/camp assistants, and 3 porters per-participant. Needless to say, it was a village, 47 people in total on the first day. The porters carried food for us and themselves, cooking equipment, tents, our bags if requested and way more. This is the climbing style of Kilimanjaro both by local want and government decree (you cannot be in the national park without a guide), the thought is, this promotes climber safety and creates jobs for the local economy.
As we started up from the Rongai gate, day 1 on the mountain, we progressed through light rain forest and up to the start of the moorland, a brushy landscape just below the alpine. We would wander through it the next 3 days as we progressed through the next three camps from 6,500’ to close to 14,200’ at Mawenzi Tarn Camp staring at Kibo Cone alone the way and thinking about the final climb up to Uhuru Peak at 19,431’. In those 3 days we learned a lot, the guides taught us about the mountain, much about its flora and fauna, we traded stories about what life was like in our countries and shared pieces of English and Swahili, it was like a casual backpacking trip for the most part.
Day three was a short day to Mawenzi Tarn Hut. As we climbed up towards 14,000’, the summit of Mawenzi faded in and out of the clouds. It was a beautiful mountain to look at. Mawenzi was the original highpoint of Kilimanjaro prior to Kibo erupting 250,000 years ago and it showed its age with a jagged ridge line and steep drop offs. Mawenzi, while lower than Kibo, is much more technical and rarely climbed. Our head guide, Adam, told us about a climber who got stuck on top of the summit for 3 days in an ice storm and had to eventually be taken down by helicopter. We spent the afternoon of day 3 lounging below the west face of Mawenzi and hiking around its valleys, it was a wonderful place to be. The peak faded in and out of the clouds and camp would occasionally fog in. In the evening it began to sleet, we all figured it would be a quick shower but it turned into heavy hail. As we sat in our tents to wind down for bed, Kat, Emily and Carly stated to yell my name from their tent. I tried to ignore it as long as I could but eventually put on my rain jacket and wandered out into the cold. Their tent was taking on water, the rainfly wasn’t a perfect fit. With how cold it was about to be that night we had to get it fixed fast before their sleeping bags got soaked, one of the guides and a few of the porters tried to help me stake it out but it was too late and water was dripping into their tent heavily. They separated into the other four tents and we all passed out for the night.
The morning of day 4 was beautiful, snow blanketed Mawenzi, the air was crisp and cold. We had a short day today on our way to Kibo Hut and we could see our high camp sitting at 15,200 just below the 3,000’ climb up to Gillman’s Point. The day was fun, we relaxed and chatted on the relatively flat walk across the saddle. The landscape was barren, nothing but rocks and the occasional bush on the walk across the alpine zone. As we reached Kibo Hut the sun faded in and out of approaching clouds, the temperature rose and fell rapidly, it was hard to keep warm or cool. When we reached camp, Andrew suddenly started to feel dizzy and tingly. He had slurred speech but was still coherent, he told us a similar thing had happened before when he got dehydrated. We got him in one of the tents, fed him some water and electrolytes and the guides gave him a little bit of oxygen just in case it had anything to do with altitude.
We all tried to eat lunch but the altitude was affecting our appetites. After short naps and a relaxing afternoon, we were sitting in the dining tent eating an early dinner before preparing for the summit push. Although Andrew had mostly recovered from his incident by dinner, we think a hypertensive crisis brought on by altitude and dehydration but couldn’t confirm due to lack of a blood pressure cuff, he wouldn’t be making the summit push. Andrew made the call I don’t know if I could, opting to stay behind at Kibo Hut and play it safe. In mountaineering we call it “Summit Fever”, an obsession with reaching the top, a determination that can both aid you in your climb and kill you. Many people who get Summit Fever have pushed past their limits and found new limits, many people have died from their obsession and determination to reach a summit. It’s a constant thought on some summits where altitude, avalanches or other factors can put your safety at risk. Kilimanjaro is one of the least risky summits I have ever done but you never know how your body might react to elevation.
The nine of us attempting the summit would go to sleep for 4-5 hours before waking up at 11:30pm to start our summit attempt at 12am. The logic for the early start was that the group could move very slowly at elevation, about one mile an hour, this pace would get us up to the summit just before sunrise and down a few hours after in order to avoid any afternoon inclimate weather and the potential for getting stuck in the beating sun at a high elevation on the way down (Tanzania is just below the equator AND the sun is stronger at a higher elevation so it doesn’t take long to get burnt to a crisp here).
Starting the hike was interesting to say the least, half of the group was still asleep, half the group was full of energy and ready to run up to the summit. As we lined up to leave base camp, a light snow began to fall. There was a full moon that faded in and out of the clouds. The snow would follow us up the slope to Gilman’s Point for the next three hours. We moved slowly, up a steep, switchback, scree slope. It wasn’t cold, but because of the moisture, it was hard to stay warm at times whiles moving so slow. Along the way, we would shelter in caves along the trail for water and layer breaks, at one point we got to a cave and I had a solid 2” of snow collected on my back and bag. To say the least, I was enjoying the morning, exhaustion from minimal sleep was sneaking in but I was in my happy place.
Around 17,500’, 2,000’ above base camp, one of our team member’s, Brian, started wheezing. He had had a cough from cold and dry air and we encouraged him to put a buff over his face to warm the air before it chilled his lungs but he didn’t listen, insisting he would get too warm. Brian started wheezing from thin air and strained air pathways; he took a huge gulp of cold air deep into his chest and blacked out. As I looked back down the trail at him, you could see his eyes get wide as he gasped for air. Brian never collapsed but his journey to the summit was done. Two of the guides rushed down to him and started to rub his chest to warm him up, as soon as he was coherent, he turned around and headed back to base camp with an escort.
The remaining eight of us continued on our way up towards the summit, slowly but surely. The clouds faded away and the snow eased, you could see the crater slope below us and the broad saddle over towards Mawenzi to our east. The snow had changed everything, the landscape glowing under the fading moonlight was incredible. We neared 18,500’, just below the start of the summit ridge at Gilman’s Point. I hadn’t hiked by Tom much on the way up, but when we took a break just below the point, he said he was spent. He couldn’t control his heart rate, the climb up was getting more difficult for him and he said his breathing felt heavy. The rest of the group continued on for a break and a cup of ginger tea at Gilman’s Point just below 19,000’. Tom wasn’t far from Gilman’s and his escort would push him up there for a cup of tea just after we left to continue on to Uhuru Peak. While he didn’t reach the highest point on the mountain, Tom is able to say he summited Kilimanjaro via one of its many volcanic sub-peaks.
As we left Gilman’s Point, I felt tired, my body was physically okay and my breathing was good but I was falling asleep. I felt so tired…. The 12am start was catching up with me, I was falling asleep as we walked towards Stella Point, about a half mile below Uhuru Peak. I was screaming in my head for the sun to come up, I needed that serotonin and adrenalin badly to push off my sleepy mind. Just after 6am, the sun rose behind Mawenzi, the Kilimanjaro Massif was blanket in light. I could feel my eyes widening and dilating, my senses were coming back, excitement grew in me as I realized we were nearing the summit.
We picked up the pace as we made our final approach, all of us were excited and more awake than we had been in hours. The atmosphere was jubilant, although, we were all spread out going through our own thoughts and emotions. This was the culmination of a week’s worth of travel, of a bit of walking and of a lot of anticipation. The sign for Uhuru Peak appeared over the final hill, as we walked across the summit plateau, I breathed a sigh of relief and let out a holler of celebration. I hadn’t fallen apart, I had crossed off a goal of elevation, I had made it to the top, 19,431’.
As always, we took summit photos, celebrated, and tried to get some snacks and water in us before the walk back down. Myself, Carly and Trace were the first to take off on the descent accompanied by Chongigi. We moved quickly down to Gilman’s Point and then the scree slope towards Kibo Hut. At Gilman’s we all developed a light headache that would gain power as we continued down the mountain. The scree slope turned the descent into almost skiing down the ridge, descending almost 1000’ in 10 minutes, it was an insane pace down…. By 8:30am we were back at camp with raging headaches and severe exhaustion, all three of us glugged some water and passed out for a long nap while the rest of the crew descended down the mountain behind us. It was over, we had reached the roof of Africa, but we still had two more days of walking back to a road…
Around noon the guides woke us from our slumber to pack up our tents and scarf down some lunch before our 5-mile hike to Horombo Hut at 12,000’. The further we descended, the stronger I felt, my exhaustion had faded and I was just happy and humble to be where I was in the world, traversing a beautiful mountain landscape with some amazing people. Again, we chatted with the guides and quickly moved down the mountain. Now that we were heading down, they mostly let us go at our own pace and hike as we wanted. By 2pm we were sitting in camp looking out over northern Tanzania, Moshi, and the large lakes of eastern Tanzania in the sweeping plains below us. We joked and played cards as we relaxed after our long day and thought about what we would do with the rest of our time in Tanzania. As the sun set, we sat and watched it fall behind the mountain. The journey to the summit was over but there was still much more for us to do in Tanzania.
On our last day on Kilimanjaro, we hiked through the rainforest, monkeys hung above in the canopy and a moist mountain breeze swept through the trees. It was a beautiful hike down the mountain as we headed for the Marangu Gate. Around noon we found ourselves back at the bottom of the mountain sitting around with a feast to celebrate the climb. After we tipped our porters and guide team we were back on our way to Moshi, hot showers and cushy hotel beds. We had chatted with one of our guides on the way back to town and he had told us he could setup a safari to Tarangire National Park to the west of Moshi for the following day so we happily said yes.
For the safari we road in Toyota Land Cruisers and once you entered the driving area of the park, you couldn’t leave the car, they didn’t want you getting dragged off by wild animals. We saw more impalas, zebra and elephants than I ever thought could exist together. We watched monkeys steal food from people’s lunches. There were giraffes hiding under trees and wildebeests roaming around the plains. We got to see ostriches strut around the cars and meercats scurry across the road. Of course, the highlight of any safari, we saw a pride of lions lounging around in a tree avoiding the mid-day sun. It was the full experience and I was happy to check it off by bucket list.
On the final day in country, I wandered around one of the markets picking up souvenirs for people back home. After 10 days in Tanzania, we were on our way home, with our various flights taking us back to our parts of the world. Kilimanjaro had opened a whole new set of goals in my mind, harder summits at elevation, new destinations at home and abroad.
On the near term list of goals is Rainier, Pico de Orizaba, hikes in the Himalaya and the Andes and more dreams than I have space in my head for. Knowing how my body will react to elevation opens the door to many more challenges and adventures. I’m excited for what’s next, I’m excited to see more of this world and stand atop its highest points, I’m excited to push the boundaries of what I know.
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The Hopeless Wanderer