June 25 – June 26, 2018 – In My Mind I’m Going Back To Climb Kilimanjaro (A Photo Blog Recap)

I’m flying back to the USA today (and into tomorrow… and then laying over in Dulles for close to 10 hours… and then flying home from there).  Instead of once again documenting the rectangular mystery cuisine entrees of the inflight meals or waxing poetic about the logline synopses of the various international and domestic movies available on demand on my flaky and not-very-responsive seatback touchscreen, I thought I’d try and get the photos from my not-too-successful Kilimanjaro Climb prepped for uploading.  That’s a long-winded sentence to be sure, and perhaps best indicative of the hyperventilating, never-ending attempts at catching my breath during the multiday hikes on the Marangu Trail.

I’ve tried culling the pics down to some more manageable number but it all still feels like an interminable slideshow carousel “chick-chick” projected slog.  That too has a ring of truth capturing the experience in a virtual sense.  I know I sound a bit down on the whole thing so let me preface by saying there were great folks in that group and like any hardship or challenge, we bonded over the failures and setbacks and triumphs and celebrations of surviving it all.  My best advice for those not there and clicking through the photos is not to linger and just keep going, letting the images wash over and by you in a kaleidoscopic impressionistic manner.  That is perhaps the best way to get the dramatic interpretation of the climb.

It might behoove us all to remember the spreadsheet fellow climber Dave Cook put together:

I’ve telescoped events, smoothed over some of the roughest edges, truncated or simplified narratives or actions, and omitted much that needed not be laid bare for all the world to read.  But there is still quite a bit of gossip and innuendo and dirt here.  I once again want to reiterate that I met a lot of great folks and pure usual try not to say too much about them as they’re entitled to their privacy and own thoughts and opinions.  What appears below are my thoughts and memories and as such should be taken with, in this case, a grain of tanzanite, and may not reflect or accurately depict anyone else’s views or experiences.  I for one had experiences that are at times best forgotten and at times best remembered.  That is perhaps life in a nutshell.

With all that said and displayed, I’ve tried to break the images into daily “flip books,” so here we go, flipping out:

DAY 1 – Marangu Gate to Mandara Hut

In the beginning, there was rain.  We were delayed setting off on our adventure because there was some mysterious new government tax on tourists and the park claimed we owed $2800 (or $200 per person, despite the fact there was 13 of us).  Paul was willing to put it all on his credit card; most of us had left our wallets and the majority of our cash back in the safe at the hotel while we climbed the mountain.  He took a risk on being reimbursed and having it all worked out; all the more so as when we returned five days later Marie Frances and the Tour Operators apologized but left us all still on the hook for paying back Paul $100 each.  All in the group were unhappy and felt the tour organizer should’ve paid that since the price for the climb was all-inclusive save for tips, but didn’t want to leave Paul high and dry; he had after all saved the day here and got us started on the climb (albeit two hours late due to “negotiations” which resulted in us arriving at the first camp just as night fell).  In the end some folks balked at repaying anything thinking they could force the issue and make Marie and Raymond, the Mayor/Tour Organizer/Tanzanite Salesman repay it.  I assumed that would in fact only screw Paul and that seemed doubly wrong to me.  So I paypal’d him the amount via the crappy hotel WiFi.

That’s all political intrigue and backstory that helps set the mood as you scroll these photos.  This first day was all about trekking through the rain forest.  The climb up was always done “poli-poli” which in Swahili means “slowly, slowly.”  The theory was the slow, shuffling pace provided the gradual acclimatization to the ever-increasing altitude and thus minimize altitude sickness.  By day 3 the slow pace was killing my knees and ankles as my stride just couldn’t take it and my fear of being out in the cold significantly longer than the projected times got the better of me.  But more on that in a moment.

For now, some photos of the heads-down, scanning the trail for tree roots and rocks, and slow methodical march through the Tanzanian rain forest:

DAY 2 – Mandara Hut to Horombo Hut

Day 2 saw us setting out through the rain forest and partially into the alpine forest.  This surprisingly was an easier day than the first day, despite higher altitudes and a longer hike in time and distance.  I don’t know if it was the end of the rain or a renewed sense of purpose, if it was a settling in of the process or a relief that we didn’t seem to have any more monetary shakedowns to stall our progress.  Whatever the case, this might have been my favorite day of the trip because Horombo Hut was above the cloud line and offered spectacular views of the mountain peaks (Gilman’s Point, Stella’s Point, and Uhuru, the ultimate summit).  It was as close to the cloud city of Bespin as I might get.

DAY 3 – Horombo Hut to Kibo Hut

Day 3.  We were told we’d hike for four hours in the morning and then break for lunch.  Kibo Hut, the base camp for the final ascent tomorrow, was another 90 minutes from there.  All in, the hike today was supposed to take 6 hours tops.

This was a dusty, windy and windy “road – windy” as in breezy and twisty and “road” as in, um, “trail-ish.”  The midpoint was called “The Saddle” and here the wind smacked us in the face like a cold-war era Russian boxer… The slow shuffle finally breaks me down.  It is so tedious and slow and boring.  Maybe I just didn’t have the right attitude for the altitude.

By hour 5, with no lunch in sight, I felt a massive headache, either from caffeine withdrawal, frustration at the glacial pace, or altitude sickness.  When I asked the top guide Antipas (aka “The Professor”) to check me out on his pulse oximeter, something he said he would be doing to everyone each and every day but so far hadn’t, he pulled out a banged up device without any batteries to run it.  He and his colleague Jooma scrambled in their packs trying to find batteries but the whipping wind had chilled not only us people to the core, but had made electrical devices a bit … temperamental.  Which only made me kinda lose my temper as I was legitimately worried my headache might be something serious.. and the lackadaisical and bait-and-switch shenanigans at the onset of this adventure had me questioning if this was a safe thing to be doing in general.  Antipas assured me he’d check me out when we reached the camp.

So the four hour hike to lunch took six plus.  This is when I told Antipas I needed a faster pace for the ascent or I’d freeze.  The projected time from the camp to the top tomorrow morning was 6 or 7 hours.  By the pace we were going, it looked like it would be 9-10 hours with a 3+ hour return hike back down.  I’m a southern coastal flatlander – the rumors of sub-freezing temperatures and the required layering of clothing plus my lack of snow boots combined with my searing possible altitude sickness headache made me question my ability to make it in the best of times.  An extended timeline just wasn’t going to be feasible.  I told Antipas I needed either a faster pace or I shouldn’t go at all and I’d wait for folks at camp.  He told me they’d work something out.

DAY 4 – The Final Ascent and the Return to Horombo

We got into Kibo around 4:30-ish and had a high-caloric dinner to prep us for the morning’s ascent.  Morning being the literal strike of midnight because the guides didn’t want us to actually see how steep and intimidating the trail was; better to head out in darkness and just follow along rather than know how precarious all this really is.  Also, they said, this would enable us to enjoy the sunrise at the top.  But really, it was so we wouldn’t get discouraged if we looked up.  As it was, you could see tiny dots of headlamps above or below you, far in the distances, and the reality of the climb was clear, even to my altitude addled brain.

I was okay for a while heading up, but as temperatures plummeted, snowdrifts piled up, and my oxygen needs rose exponentially, things got worse.  There aren’t a lot of photos of the ascent as my hands were cold, my mind was mush, and my balance was such that I essentially fell onto my Dubai-provided walking sticks with each step and tried to stay upright.  As previously noted in the blogs, I really wouldn’t have made it had my guide not had to keep going for Ryan’s sake.  I felt really guilty for slowing their progress, for falling, for hyperventilating, and for just generally making a fool of myself.  So this whole thing had an air of failure and regret to it.  I guess I’m glad I made it to Gillman’s Point but it was far from “falling with style.”

I’ve kinda covered the ascent and return to Kibo in other sections of this blog, but I’m not sure I delved into the fallout from the mountain on my other traveling companions.  We started as 13; six would be transported down for medical reasons (4 with cause, 2 as supporters).  Ryan was super dehydrated and sick a few moments after returning to Kibo so while I was incredibly sorry to see and hear this, I was now relieved then that he did turn back with me.  I think had he tried to press on to the ultimate summit of Uhuru he might have been much, much worse.  Small comfort.  His mom Lorie was hallucinating but was much improved when she got back to Kibo.  John was in bad shape even at that level and his friend Gene was a ferocious advocate.  Ocche had pressed on when so many others had turned back so she could reach Gillman’s Point and get a photo of herself holding pictures of her husband and kids, the kind of inspirational story that makes even a Grinch’s heart grow a few sizes.

On the hike out to Kibo, I remembering laughing about the one-wheeled stretchers we’d occasionally see littering the side of the trail.  Little did I realize our company would be needing so many of them.

DAY 5 – Back To Where We Started

As six were evacuated off the mountain the night before, seven remained to hike down.  We were supposedly going to cut the “poli-poli” pace.  Now we were going to hike “haraka-haraka” or “fast-fast.”  We all were battered and bruised, still slipping and sliding on loose rock, mud, tree roots.  I fell on my butt more than a few times; some others did as well.  Chris was struggling with her back and hips so about two hours out from the Marangu Gate, we hit a spot where a 4×4 could drive her down.  And then there were six.   It was a rough descent but we “poli-haraka” or “haraka-poli” made it.  There was less a sense of jubilation and more a sense from our guides that we needed to get going.  I don’t know if we were running late or they were just kinda fed up with us.  They claimed we shortchanged them $140 on tips… whether that was true or another shakedown I’m not sure.  Twin brothers Paul and Dave who had collected from everybody to give the tip the night before figured maybe they miscounted at one point so said they’d just pay it and absorb the cost.  I didn’t think that right, especially when we got back to the hotel and we all had to chip in money for the mysterious gate “tax” Paul had paid.  I paypal’d them a percentage to at least cover part of it.  Seemed like the right thing to do… when everything else is wrong, you just try and do your best to do what’s right.

Arriving back at the hotel, the four who had gone down sick were happily much improved – a good night’s sleep (impossible for the past four nights on the mountain) and the lower altitude had done them all wonders.  The biggest issue now was the $2800 shakedown.  There were claims of official notifications from the government and discussions over a new priest as president who was on a taxing spree that may or may not endanger tourism in the nation (a president imposing tariffs and taxes willy-nilly?  Who could imagine such a thing?!).

The four of us who made it to Gillman’s Point (and Ed who made it to Uhuru) were given supposedly official certificates from the Tanzanian government for our efforts.  Antipas signed it with his mononymous moniker, just like Madonna or Cher or Liberace, though how he was able to sign given that he was high as a kite I’m not entirely sure.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at needing a stress relief post-climb with us. Richard, Ryan and my guide to the top, had pulled out a pack of cigarettes at Gillman’s Point.  I was gasping for air and thinking I might die and here this guy was nonchalantly smoking ‘em if he had ‘em.

But I digress.  Back at the hotel, Marie Frances handed out certificates to everybody for getting to Kibo and beyond (there were some hiccups on this but honestly so much went wonky on this trip that rather than deep dive on this, I’m just going to mention it in passing as a drop in the bucket).


What a long and strange trip, yeah?  What’s it like to hike Kilimanjaro?  Surreal, funny, awful, jaw-dropping, hilarious, miserable, exciting, boring, demoralizing, tedious, inspiring, and ultimately I guess a thing to do.

Why did I climb Mount Kilimanjaro?  Because I was there.  Maybe that’s all that really matters.