To climb Africa's highest mountain is surely an adventure of the first magnitude. One need not be a seasoned climber to contemplate such an endeavor: the idea is at once enticing, mystical, exotic, and achievable with moderate financial means and physical conditioning.
When approached by my brother last January with a proposal to climb Kilimanjaro over a period to include the July 4 weekend, I immediately began to examine airline fares and schedules through several travel agents with the aim of choosing the best resulting match with Dale's exacting work timetable. As a neurologist with three clinics near his home in Pebble Beach just outside Monterey, every day of lost revenue was a major concern (the amount, though known, is not to be communicated). Hence with July 4 falling on a Thursday this year, his offices would be closed on Friday and so would lose only one work week as the price of an eleven day vacation. It would be THIS year.
Standard tour packages involve a Safari as well as the Kilimanjaro climb and as such could not be accomplished within the given timeframe of July 4 through Sunday July 14. It would have to be a private arrangement. Abercrombie and Kent (A&K), an English based agency, was recommended as the premier player in this field, and, commanding a stiff price, proved up to the task of giving quality service both to and from the mountain. On Kilimanjaro, and unknown to me until the climb itself, the guides and porters were simply contracted out by A&K. As such A&K have no experience in mountain matters (as far as I am concerned), and in truth seem to be better equipped to handle Safaris when East Africa comes to mind.
Dale would bring his girlfriend Dana and we three would hike up the standard Marengu route to the 19,340 foot summit. This is the highest mountain available to non-climbers as it is largely a walk requiring no more (and no less!) than very good physical condition, warm clothing, and the desire to succeed. I insisted that Dale and Dana commence aerobic training. They ran, typically 10 kilometers at a stretch, and, in simulation of the final summit bid, sometimes arose at 1 A.M. for a run in hiking boots! I still cannot believe Dale's claim to a 31 minute 50 second 10 K run - it exceeds any of my efforts and I have run for half my life.
Over Memorial Day weekend I flew north for an all-day hike up the Monterey country high point Junipero Serra (5,800 ft), as a shake- down for the upcoming trip. The vertical gain was 3,900 feet and Dale did well despite an obvious ignorance regarding what clothing to wear under what circumstances of temperature, wind, and humidity. Dana remained behind with three of her four daughters. Remarkably, all of Dana's daughters made it (the youngest being seven) some three fifths of the way by the time Dale, a friend, and I met them on descent.
I reviewed the list of equipment recommended by A&K, and, after some careful changes, advised Dale and Dana to purchase the clothing not yet owned. As indicated in my manifest, A&K seemed intent upon equipping us with clothing appropriate for a walk in the park rather than an ascent of Kilimanjaro. Hence flashlights were replaced with headlamps and umbrellas with GoreTex synthetic raingear.
Health and hygeine are a major concern when traveling to Kenya and Tanzania. Several diseases are endemic to the region, including, but not restricted to: malaria, cholera, typhoid, Dengue fever, Hepatitis A and B. In addition to vaccinations and/or pills taken prophylactically for these, booster shots for childhood diseases were administered (measles, mumps, rubella, poliovirus). We sprayed our sleeping bags and some clothing with permethrin, an effective mosquito repellant, as well as bringing lotion for our skin (the vector for malaria is the Anopheles mosquito).
This vacation was planned without the knowledge of my mother since, upon mentioning the possibility in January, she became quite disturbed by the thought of "loosing" both her children on the same trip. I decided to mail my parents an itinerary only AFTER leaving for Paris, together with an explanatory note. Please excuse the somewhat personal nature of this letter.
I had a marvelous day at work July 3rd thanks largely to Edward Earl who bought me a GPS (global positioning system) receiver for my birthday (so giving your latitude and longitude to within 100 meters accuracy), and in part to Panos L. who kindly gave me a pre-birthday pint of Ben and Jerry's chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. I mixed in a healthy amount of cherry liqueur and managed to accomplish nothing that day. Psychologically my trip had begun!
The flight left Lindbergh Field for Los Angeles at 7:10 P.M. and I met Dale and Dana for the 10:30 P.M. Paris departure.
Dale and Dana enjoyed the $94 bottle of French cognac I had purchased for the event, in between some delectable meals (at least for airlines). They took some pills to doze off while I elected to induce sleep more naturally.
We arrived in Paris with five hours until the Nairobi flight. It was now that Dale's idiosyncrasy appeared - an intense concern for making airline connections. We HAD to return to De Gaulle airport a full two hours before the flight, leaving enough time to visit the Eiffel Tower and rush back on the subway. No meals. Except for an ice cream cone. On return Sunday morning July 14 (Bastille Day) Dale did not leave the terminal even though we had five hours! We spent the time enjoying gourmet food in the duty-free shops (white chocolate and Foie Gras for me, Beluga caviar for Dale ($$), and scrumptious berry-filled croissants for all).
By the time we departed Paris for Nairobi I was overwhelmed by fatigue and assented to one of Dale's knockout pills for the next leg. The flight was uneventful except for a bout of diarrhea likely brought on by drinking water from the bathroom faucet on the last flight (Dale claims a sign warns against this yet I failed to note it).
After clearing customs in Nairobi we took a private car for the five hour drive south across the Tanzanian border. I slept stretched out in back and so must believe Dana's descriptions of Massai herdsmen with cattle.
We spent the night at the Arusha game reserve in a pair of private rooms. Dawn brought a delightful orchestra of singing, purring, and mooing creatures loud enough to wake all. Pelicans and ostrich abounded, and it is unfortunate to have made no recording of their efforts.
A two hour drive brought us to the base of Kilimanjaro at the National Park entrance (6,000 ft), where we met our guide Winluck, the porters and assistant guide. Hikers are required to hire a guide with porters as a rule, so providing jobs to the local economy. Furthermore only Tanzanian citizens can become guides on Kilimanjaro, and even then after a long apprenticeship as porter carrying gear up and down the trail. The guide must past an English test and must have experience on all six routes up the mountain. He has, however, no experience in roped glacier travel.
Kilimanjaro is a microcosm of the world's biomes. Within its three mile vertical extent an astounding variety of climates are encountered. At the base is arable farmland, originally savannah, from which the local people, the Chagga tribe, make their livelihood. Around 6,000 feet the rain forest begins. A dense, lush zone replete with thousands of plant and animal species. The air is forever moist and mud constantly impedes your movement.
The rain forest is replaced by heather - beautiful soft ferns and smaller trees that flourish at nine to ten thousand feet or so. As the air gets colder and thins out one finds moorland up to perhaps 13,000 feet. Giant groundsels, the Senecio, are present, as are Lobelia plants. These are huge versions of related species found worldwide at lower heights. Their adaptations include furry leaves for insulation and a supply of water, which, owing to their form, is prevented from freezing at night. They are indigenous to the high mountains of East Africa including Mount Kenya and the Ruwenzori range of Rwanda and Uganda.
Above lies a zone of alpine flowers and rock, the hardiest species persisting up to some 16,000 feet. This barren zone is subject to extreme daily temperature variations, and any plant must adapt to both very bright sun by day (which causes evaporation), and below freezing temperatures by night.
Snow and glacial ice caps the summit of Kilimanjaro. The conditions here do not permit an ecosystem to develop. Instead a "moonscape" makes for an other-wordly, almost surrealistic impression. Thus most biomes from equator to polar regions, are represented on Kilimanjaro. Few places on earth, if any, can boast such a variety of life zones. Indeed, there are precious few mountains on which a vertical ascent of some three miles may be contemplated. This in part provides some of the allure which drew us from California. Indeed, at some ten thousand miles, there is no mountain higher than Kilimanjaro which is farther still from home.
ASCENT - Mandara Hut (9,000 ft)
The Marengu route is most commonly traveled and sports a series of daily rest stops separated in vertical extent by some three thousand feet.
The Mandara hut is encountered at the end of day one and lies near the upper edge of the rain forest at 9,000 feet. It is really a set of small A-frame structures each housing 8 people in two little rooms with 4 beds apiece. Mandara can accomodate sixty hikers each night. A larger mess hall provides dining, while several sorry looking shacks house the porters and guides. The comfort level exeeds that of your typical backpacking trip yet is well below that of even the cheapest domestic motel. Rudimentary toilets.
Dale, in an example of misplaced bravado, decided to rush up the trail from the Park entrance, presumably to demonstrate what I cannot say. Regardless he arrived at Mandara hut in 2 hours 18 minutes and waited for us mortals to arrive within the third hour.
He had consumed no water. Worse still, I learned that only twelve liters of water had been reserved for the three of us for the entirety of the six day hike! I explained to our guide Winluck this would guarantee failure. I rapidly computed we would need three times that much water. To my relief we could purchase the difference at each of the succeeding huts ad libitum, at 1,500 Tanzanian shillings, some three dollars, per liter of bottled water.
Dale and Dana ate the most tasteless sandwiches of thick bread with a paltry amount of spam and egg salad. I identified the spam only after Dale had eaten, and, being unaware of what he ate, is by custom absolved of having consumed a pork product. In this regard he observes more Judaic precepts than I. He also prayed every morning with phylacteries and did so even after return from the summit.
In contrast dinner was a cut above what I anticipated. Winluck made a series of winning entrees, and seemed to specialize in meat or poulty in a piquant, "Indianesque" sauce. The porters and serving crew learned to gaze at the next spice I lifted from a huge tupperware container to dabble on my food. No wonder my duffle bag was so heavy! Later Winluck stated that I am the only individual in his years of guiding who was so insistent of "having it his way". In time, doubtless noting that a hefty tip would result, Winluck would even concede to melting manchego cheese into the morning eggs just to please me. Breakfast made to order!
ASCENT - Horombo Hut (12,300 ft)
The hike to Horombo hut proceeded through the heather and moorland and consumed some five hours of the morning and early afternoon of the second day. Dale repeatedly stated that he would "go half as fast as yesterday", and, after I noted that would be unreasonably slow, he rejoindered with a proclamation that I had dare not hurry him for the entire climb. His preoccupation with going slowly became so apparent that my chief concern becames his excessive fear of not making the summit. It was quite evident (to me, at least) that he was inordinately afraid of what lay ahead. He was also overly concerned with the functioning of Dana's newly purchased camera. When it failed to capture some early first glimpses of Kilimanjaro as we hiked above the cloud tops at some 10,000 feet, he nearly had a fit. What gets into him?
The original plan which I conceived was to spend an extra day at the highest hut, Kibo (15,400 ft), to acclimate. This would considerably improve the chance of success on summit day. An additional day is quite standard on Marengu, yet is normally spent at the intermediate altitude of Horombo hut. Winluck was shocked to learn of my plan. Surely I would reconsider. Evidently he had information I did not - no white gas or butane is available in Tanzania and so they cook with firewood. Kibo hut lies well above the tree line and so the meals there are smaller than otherwise (I am still at odds with this, cf manifest regarding carbo loading before the very long summit day). Furthermore Kibo hut is arranged differently than Mandara and Horombo - you share one large room with up to ten strangers. Many of them are nauseated and have headaches from the altitude and you cannot get a good rest there.
I agreed to discuss where the extra day should be spent upon arrival at Horombo. Although I had allready decided in favor of staying at Horombo I kept to my stated plan of rationally discussing the matter and reaching a conclusion based upon a synthesis of all factors. In my view to suddenly changes one's plan without considering new information is a sign of weakness and was unacceptable. So after an irrelevant discussion I announced my decision and everyone was pleased.
The free day started with a larger breakfast (which I did not allow myself on hiking days owing to the immediate post-prandial exercise), and was an even mix of sleep and reading articles from the Journal of Computational Chemistry (heh, the porters carry it, so why not?). Dale and Dana took off with Winluck for an acclimatization hike to 13,000 feet and returned well before a superb lunch. A very restful day.
ASCENT - Kibo Hut (15,400 ft)
After an evening threat by Dale that he would offer a thousand dollars to turn around the guides from the summit should I dare rush him, we headed off for Kibo hut on the fourth day. The five hour hike took us through the saddle between Kilimanjaro and Mawenzi, and was a long and somewhat boring walk amidst rocks and miniature plants, to the stone structure, Kibo hut, at the foot of the steeper slope leading to the crater rim.
Upon arrival I had a slight headache, relieved somewhat upon napping, and, with supper, I took an Advil for the pain and a Lomotil for my resurgent diarrhea (I could not allow such an inconvenience to jeopardize my summit attempt). None of us felt particularly lively.
Dale became the "Kibo doctor", giving advice and medication to other hikers who were stricken with more serious altitude problems. The three of us slept, perhaps uneasily, until midnight.
ASCENT - Gillman's Point (18,700 ft)
It is a unique experience to arise and begin climbing in a subfreezing night. Guided by a headlamp and possibly a trail, one experiences a strange mixture of anticipation, fear, physical exertion, and sheer desire to succeed. Words fail to adequately describe it - you simply must do it to comprehend.
We began at what for my sake was a very slow pace. I was well within my aerobic capacity and donned an additional layer to stay warm. Dale and Dana were doing well except for the mutual complaint of numb toes. Eventually we stopped (by now we were a couple hours on the switchbacks) at around 17,000 feet for them to remove their boots and warm their feet up in the other's armpits. I was amused since I knew that it was far from being cold enough to worry about frostbite. They had tied up their boots so tightly as to restrict bloodflow.
The moon rose around 3 A.M. People turned back from other parties. The switchbacks ended around 18,000 feet (by now it was about five o'clock), and the trail wound around rocks and became notably steeper. Rest every thirty minutes. Then every fifteen. Dana is quickly loosing steam. She is lead by Winluck with one hand and by Dale with another. Suddenly dawn! A photograph captures the moment, eight thousand feet above a solid deck of clouds. With considerable effort we reach the crater rim, Gillman's point, at 7:10 in the morning.
A surprising number of hikers decide to turn back. Do they believe this is the high point? Are they satisfied with having just reached the crater rim? Or are they simply too tired to continue to the true summit?
Dana is exhausted and suffers from a lack of food. I anticipated this in light of my insistence on more food at Kibo hut. To make matters worse, this, summit day, was the only day a lunch had not been provided. So while Dana feasts on several granola bars, Dale whips out a couple of Franklins ($100 bills) and gives them to Winluck. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's going on. Essentially, "get her to summit no matter how long it takes".
ASCENT - Uhuru Peak (19,340 ft)
The top of Africa lay but one mile away and seven hundred feet higher. A walk around the crater perimeter remained. I gave my pack, some twenty pounds, to the assistant guide (who was carrying nothing), and the two of us headed off while Dana recuperated.
About halfway there I lost my coordination - simply stated I was unable to set one foot squarely forward without a roughly one in three chance of it crossing over the other. Under more trying circumstances this would be quite alarming. Yet I was keenly aware of the situation and decided to continue, the guide preventing a fall with a firm tug when near points of exposure.
We reached Uhuru peak near nine in the presence of a few other hikers. An Australian photographed me at the summit (Dana had our camera), I rewarded the guide with $20 promised for carrying my pack, and I slept for perhaps ten or twenty minutes. I enjoyed the peanut butter and dried mango sandwich I had made the day before, having foreseen the absence of a provided lunch. After a considerable perusal of all about, the assistant guide and I headed down. We planned on two guides in the event that some of us would be forced to turn back owing to altitude sickness - so allowing the others to continue.
My ataxia (loss of balance) had disappeared. Dale, Dana and Winluck passed us on their way to the true summit and I hesitated to consider going back up with them. The Monterery Herald publishes photographs of subscribers who submit a picture of their newspaper at some recognized landmark, e.g. the Washington monument. Surely Uhuru Peak will be a most unusual setting upon publication.
I returned to Kibo hut by 11:25 A.M., after a rapid and fun albeit slightly harrowing descent from Gillman's point by plunge stepping into the scree. An hour nap brought me to a state of pleasant relaxation as I waited their return.
In short order the three appeared, and, after a mid-afternoon snack which included salmon caviar (saved for the occasion), we reluctantly headed downhill to spend the night at Horombo hut. Kibo hut houses sixty people, and the next group of would-be summiters required accomodation. Horombo, with room for 120, is the main staging point.
Dale was emotionally relieved. I was terribly pleased with their performance and declared the vacation a complete success. We all slept extremely well that night.
The sixth day saw the return to Park Headquarters. I traveled with the food server, Ambros, who doubled as one of the porters. Dale and Dana stayed back and were trailed by Winluck since he is required to linger behind the last person. In five hours Ambros and I were down and he was treated to a pair of cold beers as we leafed through two books on Kilimanjaro newly purchased at the gift store.
When Dale and Dana arrived certificates of a successful ascent were presented, and Dale gave generous tips to Winluck, explaining how the money was to be split among the porters and guides. Ambros, upon learning his share, could not control his joy. Do recall that a hundred dollars to a Tanzanian is a fortune.
We returned to the Arusha game lodge and enjoyed excellent showers.
It was not coincidence that the vacation was planned so that July 12 would be the first day back in "civilization". And so, one week earlier, I had approached the concierge and requested the unusual breakfast of a huge bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate cake and a bottle of French Cherry Marnier reserved from the bar. True enough, that morning was an hour long bash, after which I staggered into the van for our drive back to Nairobi. Dale and Dana had normal meals.
We stayed at the most luxurious hotel in Kenya that day, the Windsor Golf and Country Club Resort. We had a private cottage and, owing to some slight rain, spent the whole afternoon and evening right there. We ordered room service, and, in the evening, Dale and Dana enjoyed dinner at their premier restaurant. I was unaware of their superb offerings and elected to just order room service all evening as I read my new books. Chocolate cake at bedtime soaked in leftover cognac. My birthday.
FREE DAY - SAFARI
On our final day in Africa Dale and Dana took a one half day Safari at a National Park just outside Nairobi. Hundreds of zebra, elephant, giraffe, and much more. I took a shuttle downtown and purchased gifts, including an ebony lion for Dale, a book on African art for Dana, a pair of native necklaces for mom, and a malachite elephant for myself. As most know, I love anything green.
The flight to Paris left at eleven that evening and was uneventful. As noted earlier we remained in the terminal until the flight departed for Los Angeles. One highlight came when Dana and I spotted the edge of the permanent ice pack over the Davis Strait just east of Baffin Island in arctic Canada.
Dale asked if I would like to be an uncle - I replied yes!! The latest word is that Dana is pregnant and thus had climbed Kilimanjaro during her second month. By Jewish custom they are now bound to marriage.
I must apologize to the reader for what will appear to be an over- emphasis on food and meals. I have simply documented the aspects of the trip important to me. I also must apologize to Dale for noting his preoccupation with going slowly. The fact is that Dale had never previously tackled any hike of this magnitude, and, in truth, I applaud both he and Dana for their courage.
This sojourn had enough fun and excitement for any traveler. For me it offered climbing, foreign travel, and some nice meals. It is difficult to envision a better vacation.