First things first, I have to say this was the most physically and emotionally challenging journey of my life …It is also a difficult experience to describe as you had to be there to witness the people, the process, the conditions and the chaos of the climb to fully understand. The trip was filled with so many highs and lows – all the way up to the last minute of reaching Denver after about 40 hours of unbelievable, issue free travel (ha).
Our trekking group was 11 total, but our core traveling group was my hubby Greg, 16 year old daughter Emy, Lexi and Todd. Coincidentally, this was Lexi and Todd’s honeymoon – as you read on, you will find this to be an interesting way to spend a romantic post-nuptial trip with your new spouse! We took the Marangu route up the mountain which is supposed to be the easiest route, I think because you sleep in huts along the way – I am not convinced there is an easy route – but if I had to do it again, I would sleep in a tent and dig my own toilet.
Days 1 and 2 – We spent the first 2 days in an old coffee plantation on the edge of Arusha called the Moivaro Coffee Lodge. The place was gorgeous and lush – our cottages were situated back in the “jungle” of the property. We were able to relax and soak in some of the African vibe. It really didn’t mentally prepare us for things to come, but gave us a chance to get over our jet lag from roughly 30 hours of travel. A few of us got massages – if you have no issue lying butt-naked on a massage table without the security of a cozy, warm blanket to cover up unsightly body parts, this is the perfect experience for you.
Key tip: When you do a trip like this, bring your hiking boots and some clothing with you on the plane (in case your luggage gets misplaced) – else you may end up having to wear some raspberry pink hiking pants loaned to you by a porter.
We took a tour of Arusha one afternoon – the amount of poverty and poor living conditions in the area was pretty unbelievable. One thing that was AMAZING to me was that although most people lived in houses with what appeared to be dirt floors, all of their clothing was impeccably clean. They also appeared to be content and living in the moment – and guess what? They didn’t have an iphone or an ipad in their hands! (I personally could not live without mine – I shudder to think about it). We went to the central market, which I thought was incredible – you could buy anything from used underwear – holes, stretched elastic and all – to exotic spices, fruits, vegetables and live chickens.
The women were beautiful – I would kill to have their perfect, smooth skin. Women in Africa are expected to work and raise the children but are, of course, considered lower on the totem pole of society and less educated than men. The amount of weight they carry on their heads is unbelievable. I get a neck cramp just thinking about it.
After a few days of R&R, we began our journey to the trailhead to Mt. Kilimanjaro (‘Kili’) which is at roughly 6,000 feet. The waiting time to start seemed to last for eternity – our guide Peter was busy checking us all in and weighing our bags. The weighing exercise was to determine how many porters we needed for the 11 of us. In the end, we had 44 people physically carrying our gear, food and water for 6 days. What these men did for us was incredible – they bent over backwards to make sure we were as comfortable as possible – our bags were at camp ahead of us, they cooked amazing meals for us, offered support when we needed it and delivered hot chocolate, tea and coffee to us in bed every morning! The daily post hike popcorn was the best EVER.
Before we began our trek – all 44 porters lined up and sang traditional African songs to us to ensure we felt comfortable and welcome on the mountain. It was one of the sweetest gestures I have ever seen. If I remember correctly, we all had to do some humiliating solo dance in front of everyone – not one of my finer moments in life. After the ceremony, we began our trek through a pretty dense rainforest. We climbed about 3,000 feet to our first hut. When we got there, there were hundreds of people milling around to and fro in what appeared to be organized chaos.
All 11 of us went to our living quarters for the night – essentially an army bunker/dorm room with solar powered lighting….yes, 8 of us piled into one room – tit to elbow – with 4 sets of bunk beds – the other 3 slept in the room next door with a Japanese couple (bunking with 11 loud Americans was probably a nightmare for them).
This was the official introduction to my favorite – the pit toilet – this became the bane of my existence for the next several days of the trip – not a fan in the least (I have since discovered the ‘Sani-Fem Freshette Feminine Urinary Director’ – I affectionately call mine ‘Mimi’.) The rain started that day so our clothes we had on were nice and wet – a sign of things to come. We did see our first (and actually, only) glimpses of wildlife with the Black and White Colobus monkeys …I have to say, it was pretty cool to see them swinging to and fro in their natural habitat – a million times better than a zoo.
Day 4 and 5 – Every day we were expected to be up and about by 6 or 6:30 so we could make it to the next destination in time for some R&R and preparation for the next day’s activities. We climbed another 3,000 feet to the next hut – Horombo (~ 12k) where we stayed for 2 days for acclimatization. Along the way, the guides threw down a picnic blanket and placed an amazing spread of food down for us – soup, pasta, potatoes, rice, beef, etc. The meals always included some sort of fabulous soup to make sure we met our quota of liquids throughout the climb. They seemed to get saltier and saltier as the days passed – it was good for our kidneys – I am sure of it. Overall, given what we were doing and where we were – the food was excellent. The sunsets from this hut were magical.
The Horombo hut was a bit better than the last. Greg, Emy, Lexi, Todd and I were able to get a hut together. The hut was the size of a small (very small) dorm room with no heat but with solar electricity – it was pretty cool for us to all be together. Unfortunately, our dreams of a warm, sunny Kili trek did not come true – none of our clothes ever seemed to want to dry – this is not a good thing – as Todd says, “Wet pants will give you butt crickets.” Not only that, but full-blown hypothermia is not a very enjoyable experience and can be quite deadly.
The bathrooms were pretty disgusting with the pit toilets and a few hundred of our ‘closest’ friends all sharing together. The floors always seemed to be wet from rain and whatever bodily functions that went astray. I saw the biggest poop pile of my life sitting right on the edge of the toilet – in the women’s bathroom – I think it was the handy work of a man. Greg kept wearing his camp shoes in the bathroom and then crawling back into his sleeping bag – WITH THEM STILL on. I can assure you – there was no cuddling going on.
Our group of 5 took Diamox which is supposed to help prevent Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) – studies have not absolutely concluded this is necessary, but we took it as a precaution as several of our other friends took this on their high altitude climbs with success. This little drug was a blessing and a curse…it makes you urinate like a racehorse – so several times during the night, we had to get up and hit the bathrooms….and you know how I feel about those….The jury is still out whether this was a good idea.
Key Tip: I would do some major research the topic of ‘to Diamox or not’ before taking on a high altitude adventure.
Day 6 and 7 – We got up early and performed our daily routine of repacking our clothes, searching for dry clothing, and eating a big breakfast. The key on this trek is to drink a ton of liquids and EAT as you need every ounce of hydration and energy as possible. At high altitudes, it’s tough to maintain a good appetite so sometimes you have to force it whether you like it or not. Another 3k feet up to the Kibo hut (~15k) – our final destination before we hoofed it to the summit of Kili. The climb at this point, is through the Alpine Desert so you can see for miles – pretty cool. The only bad thing about this part – one of our wonderful hiking colleagues had the African 2 Step BAD – poor guy had to find a boulder when he could – in the desert, there are just not a lot of options.
The Kibo hut is quite the place. Once again, all 11 of us piled into a cold, damp bunker. I was so tired and feeling the effects of the altitude, I nearly stepped right into a pit toilet – Slumdog Millionaire style. I would have flung myself off of the nearest cliff had that actually happened. This was Day 5 without a shower or any kind of clean running water – my hair was slowly turning into a helmet and I was becoming quite cranky. Our fabulous guides did boil water for us every morning so we could wash our face and do some spot cleaning (at least the pits).
After we had dinner later that afternoon, we were told we had to sleep from 6 to 10 pm – be up by 10 pm for ‘breakfast’ and be ready to start the climb by 11:00 pm. We all did what we were asked to do – When was the last time you went to bed at 6:00 pm and actually fell asleep? I am pretty sure most of us had not slept more than a few minutes in the past 24 hours or more. I think out of 11 – 6 people were sick with one thing or another.
We were all ready to hit the trail by 11:10 pm – we bundled up in our multiple layers, with head lamps clamped to our foreheads, and headed outside where it was snowing – lovely. Peter re-assured us this was good news in that it would not be so cold and windy. I don’t think any of us bought that story initially, but I think in the end he was right. I had heard horror stories of cold weather freezing camelback tubes thus limiting access to water supply, but that was not an issue for us.
Key Tip: Be prepared for cold weather on the mountain – do your homework and find a good packing list from your tour guide or other reliable source. Backpacker.com or Outside.com will have good information.
We made our way up the mountain which seemed to jut STRAIGHT up into the darkness – the switchbacks seemed endless. The good news is, we couldn’t see how steep it really was in the dark and we had very kind guides who took our packs if necessary. Several people vomited on the way up – this is supposedly a normal event and once you do it – you feel like a rock star until the next wave of nausea comes over you. If you don’t feel so swift after puking, they will rush you down the mountain as soon as humanly possible – this most likely means you may have AMS, which could be deadly and should be taken very seriously.
We reached Gillman’s point (18K) at about 8:00 am. It was an emotional time for most of us as this was the highest any of us had ever climbed. The sunrise views were UNBELIEVABLE! It was truly an amazing experience. 4 people in the group turned around and headed back down the mountain for various reasons. The rest of us carried on for the last 1500 feet (ish) to reach Uhuru Peak (19,340k). The weather seemed to clear up a bit – the snow stopped and the sun came out for a few minutes. We were about 2 football fields away from the summit and we were able to strip down to base layers as the sun was blazing…within minutes, weather started in again and the snow became a little more intense than when we started the night before. Emy, Greg, Todd and I scrambled to the summit as quickly as we could so we could start the descent as soon as possible. Emy made it to the top FIRST!! It was awesome. Our certificate reads 9:45 am which I think is 45 minutes later than what they want for a summit time – oops.
After all of that effort, we only stayed on the top for about 15 to 20 minutes – enough for a picture or 2 – I felt bad because I was standing smack dab in the middle of the sign in the group picture (nice work I know). The time to get back to the dreaded Kibo hut seemed to last forever but really only took us about 3 hours. We reached the hut, changed clothes, took a short nap, ate lunch and headed back down to Horombo for the night – another 7 miles to add to the day. We finally reached the hut at 5:30 pm. We skipped dinner, got into our bags (Greg had his camp shoes OFF) and slept until 6:00 am the next day.
JDay 8 – Rise and shine at 6:00 am – we left the hut at 7:00 am and made our way down to the main gate. It was about a 14 mile day downhill – in a hideous, torrential downpour I might add. NOTHING was dry when we reached the bottom – our daypack covers couldn’t keep out the rain. Once we reached the bottom – there was a feeling of total relief and excitement about our accomplishment. (I was personally dying for a hot shower and a sit-down toilet.) We waited a bit for our entire group of 11 to finish the trek and then assembled for a celebration.
All 44 porters and guides, made it down the mountain with all of our stuff. They met us at the bottom where we shook hands and shared hugs in what was our final farewell to our amazing caretakers and guides. Peter went through the ritual of popping some champagne and issuing our certificates – it was WAY cool. We donated whatever clothing we could to them – in fact, we had a Kili Porter Gear Donation Drive at our home in Colorado and thanks to the Alpine Rescue Team, we were able to donate about 20 boxes of gear to the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project!
It was an amazing experience all the way around, there were plenty of tears, frustration and laughs along the way. All 11 of us came down without injury or hospitalization which was fantastic. It was truly a life changing experience that my words cannot fully describe. Even though it was hard and grueling at times, and I obsessed about the toilet situation, I would not have traded this experience for the world and would highly recommend the trip to anyone with an open mind, heart and good hiking gear …..and some unbelievable hand sanitizer, the one guy who used it like body lotion every 10 seconds was the only one who didn’t get sick.