Kilimanjaro occupies a mythic status among the world’s great mountains. It towers nearly 20,000ft about the surrounding Maasai Steppe, the highest freestanding mountain in the world, and an iconic backdrop to some of the most beautiful and ecologically important wilderness and wildlife areas in the world. It is an International Heritage Site, and in itself an important series of biomes among the half a dozen or so tropical highland regions that punctuate the Great Rift Valley complex. It is also a relatively easy mountain to climb – although I confess I was reminded several times on this trip to be more specific in future about what precisely the word ‘easy’ implies.
There are very few technical aspects to climbing Kilimanjaro, which tends to make it a manageable prospect for over-50s and older climbers in general, but there is no escaping the fact that to face down a 20,000ft mountain is a prospect not to be taken lightly, so even though the process of summiting Kilimanjaro is simply one foot in front of the other, through some of the loveliest scenery in Africa, it also includes a final day, 4,000ft summit push that will probably be the most challenging thing you have ever done.
I arrived in Tanzania on the newly inaugurated Turkish Air flight via Istanbul to Kilimanjaro International Airport, arriving in country in the early hours of the morning. After a quick brief with my climb outfitter, and with no accommodation to jetlag, the group was gathered and we met at the Park View Hotel in Moshi and went through the introductions and the kit list check.
The first was Dina Terry, an elegant and ebullient 72-year old retiree from New York with her kit arrayed on her hotel bed with meticulous precision. Then came Susan Lively, in name as in nature, a 54-year old corporate attorney from San Francisco whose less meticulous and somewhat haphazard arrangement of kit laid out for inspection suggested a more relaxed attitude to the pending expedition, and of course Beate Egerton, a 54-year old real estate broker from Texas who was the vivacious spark of the group, and as well prepared as she was perfectly put together. Mike Nicholson, who I did not meet until a little later, an angular and sparse, 61-year old retired financial professional from the southeast of England, had about him an air of a seasoned rambler who knew precisely what to expect and would be equal to anything.
Soon afterwards we were introduced to our local guide and expedition leader Ezekiel, a quiet and unassuming thirty-something native of the Kilimanjaro foothills, a member of the local Chagga ethnic grouping, and his tall, almost Nilotic looking assistant Stanley, a quiet and good looking young man in his early twenties, both quite retiring at first, but in equal measure experienced, confident and friendly.Thus was assembled the dramatis personae of the inaugural Eco Travel Africa over-50s summit of Kilimanjaro.
Before I plunge into the events of the trip, allow me first to introduce Bob Holdsworth, my partner and friend and he who was responsible for the arrangements of the trip. For myself, I am Peter Baxter, an author, mountain guide and the director of field operations. Together we make up Eco Travel Africa, a partnership designed to provide venture travel for the discerning over fifties travelers to all parts of Africa.
Lemosho Route Overview
We chose Lemosho Route for this climb because it is the longest and arguably the most visually appealing of all the main routes up Kilimanjaro. Here is a visual route map. Essential to a successful summit of Kilimanjaro is as complete as possible an adjustment to altitude, and over the six days provided by the Lemosho Route to reach the staging camp for the summit push, Barafu Camp (15,000ft), the altitude gain is both gradual and stepped, with at least three days at a more or less consistent altitude of between 12,000ft and 14,000ft, allowing for adequate adjustment before the final, 4,000ft push to the summit.
Lemosho Route also graduates over all of the basic biomes of Kilimanjaro, offering the best visual insights into the grandeur and beauty of this great natural feature. It is a route perfectly suited to the more cerebral summit aspirant as well as those with the time and determination to succeed at this once in a lifetime endeavor.
Thus began the climb. After the long drive out of Moshi around the western heel of the mountain, we arrived at the Lemosho Gate just before noon, and after signing in stepped back to enjoy the raucous business of an army of porters jostling over the division of loads, which are later carefully weighed by national parks staff to ensure than none is loaded beyond the 25lb statutory limit imposed by both the Kilimanjaro Porters Association and TANAPA. From there a minor motorcade plied up towards the edge of the Kilimanjaro forest before disgorging a mountain of kit and human flotsm.
At the beginning of a climb the porter compliment, on average five per climber, represent a fairly anonymous gaggle of noisy men, but as the trip progresses individuals tend to begin separating from the mass, in particular those responsible for tasks such as camp master, ablution master, cook and service staff. Soon a strange kind of cross cultural dependency starts to form as we as the outsiders begin to realize the extent to which we depend on these men, both for our daily comforts as well as the overall success of the expedition, and quickly, as faces acquire names, and as smiles and banter are linked to personalities, a very strong human bond ultimately begins to form.
The is typically how it happens, but for the moment they and us, all strangers to one another, embark up the steep forest trail and into the Kilimanjaro National Park, still spry, still breathing dense air and all enjoying the liberty of a slight weight on our backs and the open trail ahead.
Miti Mkubwa camp lies deep in the Kilimanjaro forest at an altitude of 8,600ft, and is the first stop on the Lemosho Route. There is still a proliferation of life at this altitude, and mornings and evenings are accompanied by the throaty murmur of colobus monkeys, the chatter of Blue, or Sykes monkeys and the cries of the Ross’s Turacao. Everyone one arrived at camp after what really was little more than a few hours of an opening leg-stretcher.
The next day things toughened up a little bit. The trail continues to wind up through the forest, steadily gaining altitude, and continuing a relentless upward trajectory – the Devil’s Staircase as Susan aptly called it – until finally it breaks out of the forest and into what is commonly referred to as the Heather Zone (primarily composed of Erica excelsa) where the landscape abruptly begins to assume a less tropical than alpine flavor. Chirruping among the occasional protea bush were the iridescent, bottle green Malachite Sunbirds, Jan Groenjie in the popular South African onomatopoeic habit of bird naming, meaning literally Little John Green.
There was a noticeable hush in conversation as the afternoon wore on, and as the steady and grinding rhythm of pole-pole, or slowly slowly, began to reveal to all that this was a job in hand and no longer a pleasure stroll through the fringes of a magic forest.
We reached Shira 1 Camp in the lee of the Shira Crater ridge at about four thirty that afternoon. Dina had been waning somewhat, and word had reached the support crew already at camp that she was beginning to take strain, and anxiety broke into song and dance as our group of weary climbers shuffled into camp and were greeted by our jubilant crew. All was well it seemed as Dina found the energy to join in with the dancing. Thereafter, as we made our way to the mess tent, with the vast bulk of Kilimanjaro looming now above us, there was a tangible sense of sobriety as what lay ahead had suddenly become starkly clear to all.
Day three is usually a much easier day, amounting to a four to five hour walk along the floor of the collapsed Shira Crater, the oldest and most degraded of the three craters (Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo), maintaining a steady altitude and arriving at Shira 2 Camp at an altitude of 12,600ft. To the left the brooding massive of Kibo Crater, and the summit of Kilimanjaro, maintains an intimidating presence. The landscape is dusty and dry, tending now and again to be monotonous, and with enough accumulated altitude for some discomfort to be creeping in. All packs with the exception of Beate had begun taking diamox, an unfortunate side effect of which is to cause many nocturnal bathroom calls, and Dina seemed to be suffering from this the most. After a night of very insubstantial sleep, and the first visible signs of exhaustion, I had begun to find myself watching her very closely, and wondering for the first time if she really had the stamina to sustain the sort of output necessary to make the summit. The others gave me no such feeling of concern. Ezekiel was maintaining a disciplined pace. Pole-pole. One foot in front of the other. A four hour walk ultimately took almost seven hours, and although there was some grumbling, and although we rolled into camp late, he knew precisely what he was doing. I, for my own part, was enjoying a growing sense of appreciation and respect for a man who truly understood his business.
By Day Four we are in the thick of it. Senses of humor have become frayed, dinner conversations less animated and an appreciation of the snail’s pace more general. Today we climb up to Lava Tower, situated at just above 14,000ft. The trail is monotonous, plying steadily upwards through thinning beds of everlasting daisy (Helichrysum) and heather, each footfall stirring up an accumulating cloud of fine lava dust, and the altitude at last reaching a point of general discomfort.
Beate, who had opted not to take diamox, began then to get a sense of what truly lay ahead, and from my vantage at the rear of the group I heard for the first time a grumble disturb her normally buoyant temper. ‘I don’t think that I can do this!‘ I heard her mutter. I did not respond, but I took note nonetheless. I was not unduly disturbed, however, because it is precisely at this point in time, and at this altitude, that a moral trough is most likely to occur. And she was not alone. Dina trudged on in silence, but her internal anguish was tangible. She had slept little for three nights, was coping with altitude and on top of that was suffering the effects of basic exhaustion. Susan likewise exhibited the telltale thousand yard stare, and had her jaw set solid against the endless trail meandering ever upwards towards the elusive lava tower. Mike alone held a steady pace, and a solid, purposeful gait.
From Lava Tower, after a well prepared lunch that was picked at with minimal enthusiasm, we began the descent to Barranco Camp, returning to 12,800ft to complete the climb-high-sleep-low program so beneficial for what we were all feeling. However, as the trail picked over broken rubble, Susan began to suffer the effects of an old hip injury, eventually relying on Ezekiel to manhandle her over every obstacle. By the time we reached camp she was asking herself very pointed questions. She turned to me as I drew alongside her and said. ‘I am done. What are my options?’
Drawing on some tricks of old, I painted a picture for her of an excruciating ride down on the rescue gurney, a one wheeled contraption designed expressly to discourage injury or infirmity, or a walk back down the Umbwe Route, notorious for its rocky trail and switchbacks. Upon that she ruminated as she ate her dinner, and then limped off to bed. I had a fair sense that she would rally in the morning, as indeed she did, as indeed everyone did.
This was just as well, because confronting everyone on the dawn of Day Five was the Barranco Wall, which is a slow, steady 800ft or so scramble up the east face of the Barranco Valley. We agreed to a late start to let the assembling masses start the climb before us (Barranco Camp marks the point that Lemosho and Machame Routes combine, plus multiple associated porters and crews), so at about ten o’clock, somewhat apprehensively, we began the slow ascent.
I was immediately impressed at how well the group had rallied overnight. Everyone attacked the wall with enthusiasm, and even Dina, perhaps especially Dina, squared up to and dealt with some of the trickier obstacles like a pro. In fact the Barranco Wall turned out to be one of the lighter episodes of the trip, and after a ginger three to four hour ascent we all settled into what really was quite an easy amble on to the second 12/13,000ft camp, Karanga Camp. Upon arrival spirits were high, and although Dina was still sleeping very poorly, and clearly approaching a critical point of exhaustion, she retained her humor and her unshakeable sense of purpose. I was still uncertain whether she had the capacity to ultimately succeed, but the monicker ‘Dina the Magnificent’ had started to enter the lexicon of the trip.
Day Six brought us to Barafu Camp, just over 15,000ft and a stinky, overcrowded shithole of a camp with nothing to recommend it other than the fact that it is the last stage jumping off point for the dreaded midnight summit. The camp is poised on a spur that adjoins a ridge, itself melting into a scree that ends, four thousand foot higher, on the edge of the Kibo Crater. This, for all intents and purposes, is the summit. Barafu is the merger of all trails, more or less, and at 15,000ft the lethargy that infects staff and visitors tends to render the camp filthy, unkempt and noisy. Effluent does not degrade well at that altitude, and it has always been a source of amazement to me that the main demographic utilizing this beautiful park are twenty-somethings, those that congregate in dorms and faculties pontificating upon protecting the planet and saving the world, but here they are more than willing to deposit shit, piss, litter, toilet paper, soiled tampons and all manner of other intimate detritus scattered around the mountain like end-of-the-world prayer flags. And yet they do, and Barafu Camp seems to be where the very worst of the human condition bears fruit.
But be that as it may, here we assembled in the early afternoon, a weary and apprehensive crew of fifty plus climbers with varying degrees of commitment to summit, but all with a determination to do the very best we could.
The routine here is fairly simple. A quick bite to eat – eating is never easy at this altitude – and then into a sleeping bag as early as possible, bundled up against the cold and breathing in gasps the thin, tainted air washing through the camp along an eastward trajectory from the glaciers on high. We agreed to a ten pm wake up call and an eleven pm start. There was very little jocularity, almost no banter. Faces were drawn, exhaustion painted in every line. Dina had not slept for days. This last four thousand foot slog would be most telling on her. I knew it, she knew it and my local crew knew it. It was going to be a long night.
Day Seven – The Summit
When the wake up call came it was too soon. The wind was blowing and the ambient temperature hovering several degrees below freezing. Bodies groaned and stirred, and slowly began armoring against the ordeal ahead. As I crawled out of my tent, multi-layered but still chilly, I could see already the line of headlamps snaking up the summit trail towards that obscure point in the darkness. Hot drinks and food were laid out in the mess tent, but appetites were meager. Soon after eleven pm, in a silent line, we made our way through the littered camp under lamplight, striking out onto the multi-laned trail and up into the enveloping darkness. The pace was glacial. Initially the temperatures bearable, but as we inched higher, falling behind the main body of climbers moving up ahead of us in the darkness, the cold became penetrating and the wind chill frankly dangerous. But we pressed on in silence. Pole-pole. One foot in front of the other.
As the hours slipped by, and as I carefully analyzed the conditions of those ahead of me, I began to sense that hope was diminishing slowly in the hearts of some as the sheer magnitude of what we had embarked upon dawned on each and all. Mike was holding firm, but struggling against the cold. Beate, without Diamox, was beginning to waver from altitude stress and the sheer and penetrating cold, more brutal that evening than I had ever known it. Susan was silent, dogged, but quite obviously asking herself questions in the privacy of her mind. I felt that we were approaching a point of crisis. Dina, on the surfaces the weakest link in the chain, and consistently apologetic for slowing down the group, and pausing with every second step, nonetheless seemed at that moment to be holding firm in spirit, and no less determined than she had been almost a week earlier.
As the dawn colored the east horizon we had been steadily climbing upwards for seven hours. Usually one can anticipate being at the summit as the sun rises, but we were probably only about half way to Stella Point, and at the lowest ebb of the day. It was of some comfort that a beautiful, clear day broke upon us with such celestial splendor that even the weakest in spirit paused to reflect upon it. Within a half hour the rays of the sun were penetrating our cold bodies, and some energy infused us as eyes gazed upwards in the morning sunlight only to realize with shocking clarity just how far we had yet to go.
But spirits rallied, and we continued upwards. As summiting climbers, now on the return journey, met us on the way down with cheerful encouragements, never welcome under such circumstances, the hopes of a dawn summit faded completely. We pressed on. One of the most powerful images I remember of the morning was Dina, fast reaching the end of her practical capacity, and urged on gently by Stanley with two hands against her lower back, whimpering occasionally, but somehow forcing one foot ahead of another, slipping back on the scree, but inching upwards in tiny increments, edging towards that faraway goal.
But she was not alone. There were none of us untouched by this crisis. This is the essence of such an undertaking. Triumph over adversity has no relevance without adversity. As noon approached, and the 13th hour of this summit push, the beacon of Stella Point came into view. Beate announced that she would quit then, and Susan quickly followed. My instinct was then to let them, but both Stanley and Ezekiel chimed in. ‘You can do it!’ they pleaded. ‘It is so close.’ And it was. And again spirits rallied, and the three women each mustered their last remaining dregs of energy and hauled themselves over the lip of the crater to stand proudly at Stella Point.
Stella Point marks the craters edge, but the highest point, Uhuru Peak, just a few meters higher, stands another half a mile or so along the craters rim. Mike had every intention of continuing this short distance, but Dina was undecided. Her capacity it seemed to me was at its absolute limit. It was Ezekiel again, a consummate judge of character it seems, who persuaded her to carry on, and she did. With faltering steps, and in the grip of high emotion, Dina trod those last agonizing meters, the last twenty paces taking almost as many minutes, and sat down on the edge of the Uhuru beacon, at the highest point in Africa, as triumphant a climber as any I have ever seen cross that threshold.
Well done to each an all. A magnificent achievement and one for which we can all be proud!