Poa kichizi kama ndizi.
— Swahili for “Crazy cool like a banana,” the most appropriate response to “How are you?” while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.
So we climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and shared some of the life lessons we learned along the way. But what did the climb look like? How did it feel?
The Marangu Route
This five-day trail catches hell for not being very interesting in terms of landscape and for forcing a rapid ascent. Our experience? We thought it was great. Aside from an especially challenging final ascent, the progression is fine. Regarding views, we were pleasantly surprised by the variety and beauty of the landscape. Hopefully our photos underscore this.
To give you a sense of the pace of our climb, we’ve included the distance we covered and the elevation we gained each day. Quite frankly, every time we look at these numbers and consider how rapidly we moved, we whip the calculator out just to verify.
Take a deep breath. Let’s get moving.
Day 1: Marangu Gate to Mandara Hut – “Easy Peas-y”
Begin: Marangu gate 1,840m/6,036 ft; End: Mandara Hut 2,720m/8,923ft
Elevation gain: 880m/2,887ft; Distance: 8km/5mi
The climb begins much like a walk in the park. Gauzy moss hangs from trees, waterfalls whisper in the distance. Red clay and forest: this is one of nature’s finest complimentary color combinations. Our pace is absurdly slow, like shuffled footsteps. We feel like dancing to get our hearts beating once again.
As we make our way up, porters and trekkers fresh from their summit experience bound down at a quick pace, eager to wind things up and experience a shower. (We can smell this.)
“I want to be them.” (Aside from collective body odor, that is).
We pass members of the Drake University football team on their way down the mountain. Many of them – huge, fit guys – look exhausted, wracked.
“Oh man. What are we in for?”
We settle down for the night at Mandara Huts. We’re told that the ascent will whittle away our appetites, so we force down as much food as possible for dinner while finishing well beyond our three liters of water for the day.
(Speaking of drinking, I wake up at 9:30PM and exited the hut to pee. I have seen many a star-stitched sky in my life, but the one overhead at that moment may have been the best I’ve ever seen. Getting up to pee in the middle of the night does have its benefits.)
Day 2: Mandara Hut to Horombo Hut – “This Really Isn’t So Bad”
Begin: Mandara Hut 2,720m/8,923ft; End: Horombo Hut 3,720m/12,204ft
Elevation gain: 1,000m/3,280ft; Distance: 12 km/7.5mi
The landscape changes from willowed rainforest to shrub-strewn heath and moorland. The land becomes textured, perfect for mid-mountain light.
Peaks begin to appear. First Mawenzi Peak and then the snow-capped Uhuru Peak in the distance. Our final goal is in sight. Doesn’t look too far, right?
When we flew past Kilimanjaro on our way from Nairobi just days before, we saw a cloud line wrapping around one side of the mountain. At Horombo Huts, our stop for the night, we realize that we are now above those clouds. We feel a lift, thinking how far we’ve come, but we also take deeper breaths to capture more of the oxygen our bodies need.
The rapid ascent to high altitude begins to register. Broken sleep, too. Besides getting up to pee four times a night, bouts of anxiety and hallucination-like dreams take hold.
I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart racing. I know this feeling from other ascents. My head tells my heart this is normal. A few deep breaths and I fall back asleep.
Repeat until the guide knocks on the door at 6:30 AM.
Day 3: Horombo Hut to Kibo Hut – “OK, I’m Getting the Hang of This”
Begin: Horombo Hut 3,720m/12,204ft; End: Kibo Hut 4,703m/15,430ft
Elevation gain: 983m/3,225ft; Distance: 12 km/7.5mi
Just outside Horombo Huts, we come across a stretch of grassland covered with dendorsenecio kilimanjari, the unmistakably-shaped signature trees of Kilimanjaro. The clouds stay away, and our views of the peak and its glaciers remind us not only of how fortunate we are to be here, but also how we must continue to earn our way.
After lunch the walk becomes mind-numbingly monotonous. A road is carved to the horizon. Each time we reach what seems like an end, a new beginning awaits us.
Barren and brown, this path seems infinite.
I sample mantras to deal with my fatigue and boredom. I like the four-step mantra, “one…foot…in front of the…other.” Timing my footfalls to match my breath feels like yoga. If there’s a prevailing cycle in the universe, I experience fleeting moments of becoming one with it. Then I fall out, reflecting on the monotony and appreciating the beauty in turns.
Then Kibo Hut appears, a spartan gift to bring this day to an end.
There’s no mistaking that this is base camp territory. We’ve seen it in the Himalaya. It’s basic, it’s barren. Short-drop toilets are not for lingering. There’s no running water. For so many reasons, time here must be limited. No need to force it, for our climbing schedule is about to take an inhumane leap.
A short acclimatization walk, then rest, then early dinner. In an attempt to reassure us, Suliman, our guide, shows us two giant aerosol cans of compressed oxygen, which in the worst of all cases will save us. (The moment you take oxygen is the moment your climb is over. It’s a sign that you’ve succumbed for good and you go no further.)
We are cold. We are tired. We all wonder what summit day will feel like. We wonder whether we’ll make it.
For the next couple of hours, we “sleep.” But this is no sleep, it is just short of full-blown insomnia.
Day 3 Night/Day 4: Summit and Back Down – “Let’s Do This”
Ascent: Kibo Hut 4,703m/15,430ft to Uhuru Peak 5,895m/19,341ft (via Gilman Point and Stella Point)
Elevation gain to Summit (Uhuru Peak): 1,192m/3,911ft; Distance: 10km/6.2mi
Descent: Uhuru Peak to Horombo Hut: 2,175m/7,135ft; Distance: 22km/13.7mi
(Yup, you did the math correctly – that’s 32 km/20mi of walking in one day.)
Wake up is 11 PM. While the rest of Africa is just going to bed, we are getting up. Our “day” begins with porridge. I’m not the least bit interested in eating, but I force it down all the same. Maija captures the worst of what we are feeling, “My bones ache. Even my teeth ache. It’s like I have growing pains.”
Though my bones do not ache, it’s clear that my body is not especially pleased with what I’ve done to it.
We pile on every layer of clothing we have — Audrey counts 10 on top — and we’re out the door to climb. It’s midnight.
“Let’s do this thing,” I say. Audrey and I clasp hands. I choke up.
We are here. It’s time.
We begin to walk, plodding. “Pole, pole,” our guides remind us. (Slowly, slowly.)
Up scree switchbacks. God, I hate volcanic ash. Though it’s not as bad as one step forward, two steps back, it’s something close.
“If I climb like this another 12 times, maybe I’ll make it to the top,” I say to myself, playing mathematical rationalization games.
I see Audrey looking up, checking out the lights of the climbers ahead of us. “Don’t do it,” I say.
“It’s demoralizing. Keep your head down.”
I’m irritable, almost forgetting all the great wisdom that comes too easily while tapping on a laptop in the comfort of an oxygen-rich warm apartment.
I look up, ignoring my own advice. The lights from head lamps that punctuate the darkness snake up the mountain to the edge of the sky. I wonder if I’ll be able to sustain this.
The first of our potential casualties, one of our fellow climbers has a break down. The guides act quickly, ushering the rest of us onwards so she can be attended to properly. (Spoiler: She continues and makes it all the way to the top.)
I feel like I want to throw up. I quickly debate the merits of doing so and decide against exchanging relief for an uncomfortable burning in my mouth and nose. I begin to exhale heavily and inhale in musical patterns to stave off the nausea. It works, fleetingly.
My exhaustion is so thorough that I catch myself falling asleep as I walk. This is the downside of sleep-starved yoga breathing. Sleepwalking while mountain climbing — I cannot believe this. (Maija later confirmed that she was both sleepwalking and dreaming on the way up the mountain.)
Every time we stop on a rock or turn to catch our breaths, I catch a wink of sleep, inadvertently. I could fall asleep here forever. I know this is dangerous. Our guides do too. They nudge us to keep moving.
Why do I keep looking at my watch?? I feel like tearing it off and throwing it down the mountain.
Head down, one foot in front of the other. There are those bottles of beer on the wall again. I keep losing count. Not that it matters.
We stop occasionally, but not often enough for my needs.
I look down and see a chain of headlamp lights snaking below. I’m torn: pleased to have made it so far, but wondering how much more I have to go.
In darkness, there’s comfort in not knowing how infinite this mountain might be.
I look up. I think I can see the crest of the hill. “A night mirage,” I think.
5:20 AM – Gilman Point (5,681 m/18,638ft)
The first big milestone of the day. I don’t feel like I’m dying anymore. We rest, but not for long.
“Uhuru Peak is not that far away,” Hatibo, our summit porter, offers a morsel of motivation.
(Note: Pace yourself. Ideally, you’d like to arrive at Gilman Point when it’s still dark, and finish at Uhuru Peak around sunrise so that you can enjoy the view and the early morning sun. However, if you climb too quickly, you’ll get to the top when it’s dark and far too cold to linger.)
6:10 AM Stella Point (5,730m/18,800ft)
On your way up, NEVER EVER listen to anyone coming down who says, “It’s not long now.”
It’s long. Trust me.
Another climber on his way up adds, “I heard it’s mostly downhill from here.” Either he is joking or he is full of crap. Either way, I resent him almost completely.
The reality: we have plenty of uphill remaining.
The sun appears on the horizon above the clouds. Kilimanjaro’s glaciers begin to glow in the early morning light. Under other circumstances, I’d be taking photos by the hundreds, but I focus my energy uphill. (Kudos to Audrey for assuming the reins of the big camera.)
From here, I can see the peak, but not the place where climbers are celebrating. I can beat this, but it’s slow. Very slow.
7:20 AM – Summit, Uhuru Peak (5,895m/19,340ft)
Our final steps are all emotion. Fatigue is forgotten and adrenaline takes over. I’ve imagined this moment countless times.
A posed shot by a little wooden sign has never felt so satisfying.
The summit is known for cold and rapidly changing conditions, but we luck out. The sun blazes and skies are clear. The temperature is almost comfortable and the wind is nothing like what we prepared for. We linger, snapping photos and getting drunk on thin air. The views are even more impressive than we imagined.
We can’t recognize the potential danger. At twenty minutes, we’re pushing our luck; our guides “encourage” us to head back down.
In an aim to return to Kibo Hut as soon as possible, we move very quickly. Too quickly, it seems. I’m overexerting myself. Before I know it, I feel miserable and exhibit the tell-tale signs of altitude sickness: my stomach is in knots, my head is pounding.
As we bounce down the scree below Gilman Point, I’m amazed by what we’d scaled. And I want to throw up again.
When we arrive at Kibo Hut, I collapse into my bed. No time for sleeping bags. I wake up to breakfast 45 minutes later, my rain pants only half off.
After a full breakfast and a short rest, it’s time to hit the road to Horombo Hut to retire for the night. And to breathe.
Day 5: Horombo Hut to Marangu Gate – “Savor the Victory”
Begin: Horombo Hut 3720m/12,204ft; End: Marangu Gate 1840m
Elevation loss: 1,880m/6170ft; Distance: 20 km/12.5mi
It’s a long way down, so we get an early start. But as early starts go, this is a good one. We all feel relatively well. We didn’t wake up to pee as much. We slept. Our appetites return.
We even do morning exercises. We laugh.
We enjoy the early morning light and clouds as we walk. This is the second time we’ve seen this stretch of terrain, but this time it looks different. It’s in the shadow of the summit, a place we’ve been.
Now we’re the ones coming down –- a bit more stinky, a little more confident — and we’re encouraging those heading up.
How much can change in just a few days.
Mount Kilimanjaro Photos
If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you’d like to read the captions, you can view the Mount Kilimanjaro photo set.
Coming up next: All the practical details you need to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, from packing the right gear to dealing with altitude sickness.
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