April 25, 2017—Dave and I are currently in Nairobi, Kenya. This is where our travels through Africa end, which makes us both happy and sad. Happy because it’s always exciting to start a new chapter of our round-the-world journey. Sad because we would have liked to have ridden all the way through Africa into Europe but time and travel logistics make that impossible.
We will, however, always hold Africa in our hearts all because of one special day. On April 19, two great events happened in mine and Dave’s life.
As per our last post, we mentioned there was something we still wanted to attempt in Africa before we left the continent to continue our travels in Europe.
I’d like to say we trained for fitness and thought this one out carefully before agreeing to climb Kilimanjaro, but the truth is Dave and I basically rolled off the seats of our bikes, paid our money and started walking uphill. We didn’t even need to find a guide, which is mandatory to climb Kili, as it is affectionately known—that was done for us through Peter, who generously spent his time before we even arrived finding us one of the best guides in Moshi. (Karibu Adventure)
Some of you may know the list that comprises the world’s highest peaks across the seven continents:
Dave has summited both Denali and Aconcagua in earlier years, and, although it is not one of the seven, I have climbed Huascaran, which is Peru’s highest peak, at 22,205 ft (6,768 m).
The first time Dave and I met face-to-face was three years ago in April, 2014. Our first date was backcountry skiing at Mt. Baker, a volcano in Washington state. Although we certainly have riding motorcycles in common, our first love and passion is for the mountains.
It seemed fitting, then, that we attempt to climb Kilimanjaro, which, when defined in the region’s tribal language of Chagga, means The Impossible Safari and doesn’t quite inspire confidence in the wanna-be summitter.
On the morning of April 15th, Peter and Rose waved us off with well-wishings and perhaps saddled with some of the doubt Dave and I kept shrugging off our own shoulders. I had a recent problem with my right knee I was making light of around Dave and also a shoulder issue that has bothered me for well over a year.
Dave, unbeknownst to me, had a plan in the works that placed considerable wear on his nerves and involved much pressure on him ensuring we reached the summit together.
As mentioned, it’s mandatory to hire a guide for climbing Kilimanjaro. Dave and I had a previous experience hiring a guide to climb a mountain in Guatemala and it was not a pleasant experience, both because the guy was a buffoon and, admittedly, Dave and I have mixed feelings about being guided up mountains. But if we wanted to do Kili, we had to abide by the rules.
The cost to climb Africa’s highest peak is high; $1,120 CAN ($830 US) per person for park fees, (yes, a little steep!) and $1,013 CAN ($750 US) per person for the guided trip that would take six days. The latter price tag may seem like a lot, but once divided between 11 people, it’s only about $30 CAN ($22 US) per day per person. This is why the porters and guides also rely heavily on tips, which they undoubtedly deserve. We did some research before the climb and found out the customary tipping was approx. $20 US per day for the guide, $15 US for the assistant guide, $10 US for the chef and waiter (yes, we had a chef and waiter!) and $5 US per porter. It really adds up. But when you put it in perspective, climbing Everest comes with a price tag of about $50,000-$75,000 US.
Of the 11 people joining us for the week was our guide, August (Kidu), the assistant guide, Good Luck, (his real name in Swahili is similar sounding so everyone just calls him this. We hoped he was a good omen), Clety, our chef, Riziki, our waiter and then came the porters, Calist, Hamad, Richard, Geofrey, Pendael and Nicolaus, the last of which was our ‘tent man.’ This meant he erected our tent everyday before we arrived in camp. Guided trips? Maybe not so bad.
After meeting the team, Dave and I became increasingly sure climbing Kilimanjaro would be more like a long but leisurely stroll, seeing as we were only responsible for carrying light packs with enough food and water for the day and maybe a camera and rain jacket.
At the entry gate into the park and the start of the Machame route, Kidu told us that if we wanted, either he or Good Luck could carry our day packs if we got too tired. Dave and I assured him we’d be fine carrying our 15 lb packs without a problem.
Around 11:00 a.m., our climb began.
The first three days were inspiringly easy. We’d walk about 6-10 km (3-6 mi) per day taking lots of breaks and walking at a sometimes agonizingly slow pace. But Kidu and Good Luck reminded us frequently in Swahili that pole pole (slowly) was the only way to help the body adjust to the altitude. Dave and I felt we could have hiked faster and still feel well at the end of the day, but we did what we were told.
At the end of the day, camp was always a welcome sight, especially when we’d arrive to our sleeping tent already in position and our eating tent, complete with a table and two chairs (!!), containing hot tea and fresh snacks, like popcorn and watermelon. It was also a nice reprieve from the rain.
We did have some clear patches in the weather, though, and it was great to be able to see far and wide.
This was the first time I felt somewhat disheartened. Both knees were sore and once in camp, we had clear enough weather for a sightline to the peak, which seemed impossibly high for our summit quest the following night. I couldn’t help but think a few hours earlier, we were much higher than now. This night the weather also came in. From our lofty perch, we watched a spectacular lightening show at eye level across the valley and lasted well into the night. In fact, when I got up around 5:30 a.m., it was still in full swing.
Kidu informed us we’d have some ups and downs in elevation today but we didn’t really care, we were enjoying the day very much. After some photos from this vantage point, we carried on. The trail did descend considerably as we could see some porters, who passed us everyday, even though they left camp well after us and carried tons of weight, off in the distance with their giant blue-bagged heads the only spot of colour in the alpine desert, now devoid completely of any greenery.
Dave and I hiked along between our guides, who regularly chimed out pole pole and hakuna matata (no worries). One decent was done and we started climbing up again to gain a long ridge that looked excitingly close to the elevation we wanted to be at that night. But Kidu stopped, pointing to a sign that read: “This trail is now prohibited.” Large rocks and boulder scattered about the trail indicated a fairly hefty rockfall that had happened in the past. The trail, which was an excellent short cut to base camp just below the summit, was unsafe to climb and hence the new trail took off in a heartbreakingly huge detour to our right, only to gain the ridge and break our hearts again when Kidu informed us we were plunging down into the valley below and up the other side. Then we could have lunch, he smiled.
By the end of Day 4, the fun and games were over. We arrived at base camp (Barafu Camp), 15,331 ft (4,673 m) at around 4:00 p.m. after a much more difficult day. We’d only travelled about 10 km (6 mi) but after so much up and down, our bodies were starting to feel it. And this being Day 4 meant that at midnight, we were starting our climb to the summit. Dave and I immediately fell into our tent for a nap but were soon roused from a deep sleep by Riziki, our soft-spoken waiter, who came to our tent each morning and evening at various times to announce he had hot water for us to wash with, or tea in the mess tent or that it was dinner time. His relaxing voice was usually a welcome sound, even at 6:00 a.m. but right now, we only wanted to rest. We had just seven hours to convince our bodies to work for the summit.
Although we had four hours after dinner to sleep before our summit wake-up call at 11:00 p.m., Dave and I found it almost impossible to rest and only got about 30 mins. At 11:00 p.m. Riziki’s soothing voice came muffled through the tent asking us how we were and to come have some tea. With huge effort, Dave and I dragged ourselves out of the tent, noticing nothing had changed in the weather except we could see not a single star or any light from the full moon.
We drank our tea, trying to warm ourselves to the very tips of our cold toes, and barely said a word to each other, sure that Kidu would come into the mess tent and tell us we couldn’t go up because of the weather. It was hard not to focus on what this summit had cost us financially and how much we wanted to succeed emotionally. But surprisingly our guides arrived and with well-rested smiles on their faces, asked if we were ready to go.
Twice a day, Dave and I were tested for heart rate, oxygen levels and overall mental and physical wellness by Kidu and Good Luck. They would bring the first aid kit into the mess tent during breakfast and dinner and take down the info on a piece of paper. Dave and I had never been monitored like this while climbing and enjoyed tracking the numbers, almost making it into a competition.
“What was your oxygen reading?”
“Haha! Mine was 96!”
Despite how we felt now on Potential Summit Day, seeing the snow and having had a half hour of sleep before attempting to climb Africa’s highest peak, the numbers proved we were in good shape to head up, so on Day 5, April 19 at 12:00 a.m. we threw on our day packs and, with headlamps turned on bright, started walking. Who would have ever thought we’d be hiking through fresh snow in Africa?
I don’t think I can put into words how surprisingly difficult the next 6 hours were, but I’ll try. Somewhere around 16,400 ft (5,000 m), everything started to shut down. Energy levels were sapped. Our stomachs felt off. I wanted to cry just for the relief. Dave started to feel like he was gong to be sick. Our feet, in light hikers, were frozen. Our down jackets, usually reserved only for break time when we’d cool down, were zipped to our chins, the hoods tugged tight around our faces. It was very hard to believe we were in Africa, hiking through snow and in temps hovering around -10 °C (14° F). When you’ve spent the last 11 weeks sweating various body parts off in Africa, – 10° C feels like -30° C. It was dark and the sky showed no light, which meant we were still at the mercy of bad weather. If our lack of training seemed hilarious down in oxygen-rich Moshi, it was anything but that now.
Adding to what was beggining to feel like our inevitable defeat was the unchanging environment; the middle of the night did nothing to disguise the massiveness of what was still ahead. The face we were climbing was not technical in the least but it was vast and just kept rising to meet the dark sky. It never seemed to end, there was just snow-covered rock. No view, no change, just staring at the boot heels in front of you hour after hour.
At around 5:30 a.m. we were only about 2 km (1.2 mi) from the summit but there was still 1,300ft (400 m) of elevation to gain. Dave started to feel really awful. We’d both climbed to altitudes higher than this but A) we were much younger and B) we’d spent more time acclimatizing. Four days was minimal and in hindsight, maybe not enough for us, coming off the couch, so to speak.
It was a tough moment. I didn’t want to push Dave in any way if his health was at risk but I also knew he would have a hard time getting over not making it to the summit, should he decide to go down from here. He was struggling with his decision; was it a health risk or was it just mental fatigue? Neither Kidu nor Good Luck seemed to feel it was anything but lack of energy and they gently urged us on. It may have been the first time we’d felt this exhausted but they saw it all the time. They also saw how happy people were once pushing past the barrier and succeeding.
Despite not being favourable to guided climbs, there were plenty of positives to having these guys with us; morale, professional opinions, not having to do anything but walk… it was pretty cush in all manners of speaking.
Dave kept walking. At this point I thought he was tougher than all of us. We may have been fairing better but he was the one who had to push through feeling like hell.
I started counting my steps to pass the time. One thing that adds to feeling fatigued is boredom. I played games with myself like estimating how many foot steps it would take to get to the next landmark.
And so it was that on April 19, 2017 at around 6:45 a.m., two great things happened: Dave and I stood on the Roof of Africa in an incredible sunrise, and, through chattering teeth and shaking hands (which I’ll chalk up to the cold and not nerves), Dave asked me to marry him.
Our starry-eyed news was shared with Kidu, Good Luck and one of the porters, who “came along for the ride.” None had been part of a proposal on the summit of Kilimanjaro before and they quickly got us in place for a congratulatory photo.
Dave told me later his plan was to literally sweep me off my feet by lifting me up on the summit but given the fact both of us were lurching around like drunks from exhaustion, I’m glad he didn’t perform this act of chivalry as we would likely have been carried off the peak on two stretchers.
Although come to think of it, that might have been a more preferable way to descend. Despite, the sudden and signifiant elevation in my status, my body still seemed to be crushed under gravity and it wasn’t much easier descending, even on this high. Because of more weather rolling in, we lasted only 10 mins or so on the summit before we had to begin the long trek down. This is one of the saddest things about climbing high-altitude mountains; after all that work, it’s not likely you’ll be pulling out a picnic at the top.
The descent back to camp took just over two hours. In the light of day, I was entertained by my surroundings and giddy from my first marriage proposal (the dozen or so I got from local men while travelling solo in Africa 10 years ago don’t really count.). Regardless, it was a gruelling couple of hours for us both. Our knees were killing us and soon my focus was only on getting back to base camp where I could lay down on my sleeping bag. We’d eaten only a few bites of cookies during the climb and probably not enough water. I was staring to get a pounding headache, which was really crushing my good mood.
Finally, blessedly, we could lay in our tent. But the pleasure would be short-lived; we weren’t allowed to camp here overnight, due to park rules. Base camp was only for resting and making a summit push. We had to go down to the next camp, which was a knee-jarring 4,920 ft (1,500 m) lower. This was almost 650 ft (200 m) more than what we’d just done coming off the summit.
Dave’s left knee was giving him a lot of trouble. He could barely bend it and walked with a considerable limp. My stomach still didn’t want any food and my head was crashing, despite taking Ibuprofen and two mystery pills that Kidu pulled from the first aid kit.
At some point in the late afternoon, Dave and I followed our guides down to a lower camp, but we’d requested one between base camp and the lowest camp as we just didn’t feel we could push it that far.
A few hours after leaving base camp and struggling down about 2,300 ft (700 m), we were snuggled into our tent listening to an intense thunderstorm dropping buckets on our tent. We were back in the rain forest and we were glad not to be up top.
Day 6 was our final day of the climb. It started early seeing as we’d chosen a higher camp to stop at the night before, our day hiking out was very long, even though it was only 13.5 km (8.3 mi). We were excited to get back to Peter and Rose’s place for a real bed, shower and to tell them of our news.
Using the Machame Route for the ascent and descending via the Mweka route, our total distance over the 6 days it took to climb and descend Kilimanjaro, was 69.76 km (43.34 mi). We had 16,660 ft (5,078 m) of elevation. Accounting for the days of ups and downs, our total elevation was 17,946 ft (5,470 m). Over the two days it took to descend, we dropped 14,500 ft (4,422 m) from the summit to the exit gate.
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