Mount Kilimanjaro Trip Log

While I typically keep a log for the whole trip, occasionally I choose to simply relate the most important sections of a trip. My Kili trip was a monumental task for me. As you will see, I both triumphed and failed miserably, all in the same day. All in all, a great experience. A trip I would do again in a heartbeat.

Trip Log

There are some experiences in life that when they are taking place, you think you are looking at it happen from someplace outside of your body. I don’t think I’m the first to experience this since somewhere along the way I heard the term “Out of Body Experience!” You think, there’s no way this is really happening. You must be dreaming. And then you step back after it’s all over and think to yourself….”unreal.”

I woke up on Summit Day in the way that’s become typical for me: late. It’s 11:45pm and we are supposed to have been meeting in the mess tent at 11pm for tea and biscuits. Somehow, for the first time in 5 days, I fell so deep into sleep that I never heard Johnson, the thin serious faced porter in charge of calling us to eat, banging his frying pan. I hadn’t slept well since the trip started. Between the slanted tent spots on the first day, Diamox that makes you piss like a racehorse everyday and a rest night at high altitude with wind blowing like you were in a hurricane, I don’t see how I could have. Unbelievable! I didn’t hear a guy banging a pot! But, to my credit, neither did Gage, my tent-mate.

Gage and I go back to my first ever climbing trip out in Red Rock Nevada. So when I found out he was going to Africa, of course, I had to go as well. Climb Kili, 19,344’ and a 4 day safari. That’s on my list alright. My list of course is the 67 things I decided I have to do before I die. A list I compiled after reading an article about John Goddard, who at 15 put together his life’s list and had accomplished almost everything by the time he was 70. And we’re not talking about items like learn to grow tomatoes! We’re talking climb mountains, fly jets, live with aborigines. He has a serious list. And Gage is a kindred spirit, even much more so than me. As of this writing, he is in Europe somewhere following an attempt to be the first person to moonwalk across England. Yeah. You heard me. Moonwalk! Well, maybe we’re not so kindred after all!

So now we’re scrambling to get our gear on and get up to the cook tent. Oh, and by the way. The cook tent at Barafu High Camp is just far enough up the hill (the side of a steep rocky mountain!) to make you have to stop twice to catch your breath because of how thin the air is up there.

Kilimanjaro is my second mountain. My first was Iliniza Norte, in Ecuador and on Summit Day, I woke up around midnight and had the worst rumbling in my stomach. So as everyone is starting the climb, I’m behind a rock squatting one out in the freezing cold. I never recovered. On a climb, at least a non technical climb like liniza, nobody will wait for you, so I made the mistake of trying to run and catch up. That was a no-no. I summited, but it was the worst feeling in the world.

So of course on my second mountain, I get the bowel jinx again. Right after dinner, I got some stomach rumblings. So right away, I threw down 3 Rolaids and an Immodium AD. Then proceeded to find a rock behind which to ‘let loose the juice’. Twice in the night. And another time, instead of diarrhea, my body just decided vomiting was the healthiest thing to do before a climb. I think to myself for the first time, that this just might not be worth it. Then I laugh to myself because I know I’m lying!

I grab a couple of granola bars, borrow some beef jerky from ‘Doc’ Bellis, and fly (very painfully slowly) up the rocky switchbacks, past the worst smelling latrine I have ever experienced, to the mess tents where Charles, our guide is getting us started. It’s the same place he gave us a final run-through the night before to make sure there were no questions.

There shouldn’t have been a single one. Almost all of us had bought and brought the Kili map that the hotel Marangu provides. It gives you routes, altitudes, climates, approximate trekking times and anything else you could ask for. In addition to the fact that Seamus Bryce Bennet, one of the owners of the Hotel Marangu, gave us a 60 minute detailed preview of what we should expect on Kili, complete with medical descriptions of what possible AMS or HAPE is like and the history of Diamox and how it works to prevent it. As it turned out, we were taking the Machame route, 6 days to fully acclimatize and were hoping to get all 23 of us to the summit. The oldest of us, Warren Storkman who has run this particular trip several time before, was 77.

To start off with, I went against my better judgment and put a fleece layer on between my EMS climbing pants and my Duofold base layer. When all of us were ready to go at 12 midnight (following all the “there you guys are” and “didn’t you hear the alarm” talk), and everyone was walking up the mountain, I am stripping and repacking my summit pack with a pair of fleece pants I promised myself I wouldn’t bring. To top it off we missed tea and biscuits and my heart rate was already sky high from the rushing and the adrenaline. Here we go again!

We start the climb and at first, I feel OK but right off the bat, Gage, who has also been having stomach problems stops and turns around to go to the latrine with diarrhea. I’m not really worried about him because he’s a very strong hiker and I know he’ll catch up quickly. I’m hanging in line with the group behind Charles, who sets a really nice pace but after about an hour on the trail I start to struggle. Mary, our famous friend from the Amazing Race notices and gives me a GU Shot which really does help. I try and scarf down some Jerky but it’s tough to eat on the go with a pretty much empty stomach. I didn’t even realize it because I was so ready for the mountain, but between my diarrhea episodes and missing the tea ceremony, I was on empty. I had nothing left in my body. Plus, I am somewhat of a picky eater in that I don’t eat pasta the last 3 days have been nothing but! I know, go ahead and laugh, I’m used to that. Who doesn’t eat pasta? I’ve heard it my whole life.

For the most part, I struggled up the mountain. Seeing others with similar issues, and at all times being within easy view of the group, I didn’t think I was doing too badly, although at some point on the mountain, some of my cohorts did walk by me and call my name with me being utterly unresponsive for at least a minute or two. Apparently, the side of a trail on a 19,000 foot mountain is a good place to sleep! But just before sunrise, those guys started distancing themselves from me, slowly but surely, getting to Stellar Point by sunrise. I was not far behind, with Jeffrey, the guide looking after me, but I was definitely slowing down. By the time I got to Stellar, the sun was already up and Jeffrey was sitting down waiting for me to stand up from my collapsed state.

I’ll never forget his words. “Uhuru peak is over there. But not for you. You, no more power. You go down now!”

This guy obviously doesn’t know me. Because if he did, he would know any guy whose nickname is “Shrek” is not going to be told to walk down a mountain when he’s 45minutes from the summit and the trail is damn near flat!

“I’m fine. Let’s go.” I yelled out still lying on the ground.

“No helicopter for you” he said, his teeth like diamonds in the high altitude sun.

I had to laugh. “No helicopter. I’m good. Let’s go”

With that, I rose up and made my way to Uhuru peak to bag a 19,000’ summit. Of course, in my rush to get out of the tent, I forgot my glacier glasses. My word do you need those shades up there. Between the people with their bright Yellow suits and the bright white of the glacier and the reflection off of the rocks, I thought I was standing on the sun. I’m squinting right now just thinking about how bright it was.

So we start slowly and I am dying. I’m not smiling and I’m definitely not talking! On the way, we see most of our group who are now coming from the summit to start back down. This Summit Day is a doozy. 6 hours to stellar point. Another 45 minutes to summit. Then down 4000 feet to Barafu high camp where you get a short rest and then descend another 5000 feet to low camp.

Summiting was all that it always is; a real accomplishment. I couldn’t find Gage, who I later found out went back down 3 hours into the climb after throwing up several times. But I figured he wasn’t too far behind. I remember thinking, he’s smart. He’s not going to use up all his energy on the way up! Do as I say, not as I…..

In the movie Gattaca, the brother Vincent tells the other brother (a markedly better swimmer) how he finally was able to beat him in a swim across the lake. “I never left any for the swim back!” That’s exactly how I felt. I had summated but had nothing left in the tank. But I figured, going down is a breeze.

By the time I got back to Stellar Point I knew it was going to be a really rough descent. So we started down. Mary, who when she saw me walking up to the summit, wet back with me to take pictures, left us in the blink of an eye. She literally, sprinted down the mountain. It looked like a cartoon. Jeffrey turned around and said, “She’s a mountaineer!”. “You can say that again” I replied with a chuckle. I was pissed, because at 6’3” and 220 pounds (literally the lightest I’ve been in 6 years by 25 pounds) and with bad knees from basketball, there was no way I was skiing down like her. I remember thinking, “I Hate Her!!” I even meant it for a couple of seconds.

So with my old man knees, we descended at a normal pace. Make that a slow pace, because about every 20 minutes I had to sit down and rest, and by the time we were almost down, the rests seemed to take as long as the descending. I could tell Jeffrey was a little frustrated but there was nothing he could do. He was already holding my jacket and my extra water.

We were barely half way there and I was dead tired. And then it started to snow. I didn’t even bother with putting my gortex jacket back on. I just left the fleece on and kept going. When we finally did see the camp, I was more distraught than relieved. It was sooooo far away. And not only did I have to go all the way back to camp, but I would have to rest for an hour and start down another 5000 feet. I was in serious trouble. By this point I had diarrhea and my stomach was upset. But I was ignoring it so I could get back to camp and just lay down on my sleeping bag. Halle Berry, A million dollars, or my sleeping bag? No contest. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

I got to camp, and Gage told me I looked like a zombie. I couldn’t even get my shoes off. He took them off and gasped at the amount of dirt and rocks that came out. In my rush to get out of the tent, I also forgot my gaiters. Inside the tent, with the sun blaring, I was getting hot immediately, so I took off all my clothes and got in the bag. Heaven.

“Dude, we have about half an hour and then we gotta start down.”

“I’m not going anywhere” Gage just looked at me. Looking back, I can just imagine what was going through his mind. “Get Charlie" I said.

“Dude”

“I need to talk to Charlie, and do me a favor and get me that PulsOx that Neil brought.” Previously at high camp I was registering 96% Oxygen level with a pulse rate of just over 80. When I measured my pulse oxygen levels they weren’t very good. My pulse was at 120 and my oxygen level was at 74%. After I was lying down for 20 minutes!

Charlie came to the foot of the tent. “Hey, how you feeling” he said in his deep, usually jovial voice. Right now he just sounded concerned.

‘Not good at all”. “I don’t think I can do anymore walking today. What are my options? Can I stay here?”

“No. It’s not good to stay here. Too high. You can try and walk down or we can bring the stretcher”

“Uhhh. NO STRETCHER.” It was embarrassing enough having 6 porters and guides standing at my tent door. I could imagine how many others were looking at the commotion going on over here.

After finding out that I had about 30 minutes to rest, I decided that’s what I would do and then see how I felt. 30 minutes later, that seemed like 2 to me, I heard the tent opening.

“how much is the stretcher” I said.

“Dude”

“Gage, just find out for me how much?”

“He wants to know how much?” I heard gage ask.

“We will talk about it.”

That’s a lot, I thought to myself, laughing. “Ok. I’m going to try and walk.” Later on, I found out that it wouldn’t cost me anything because it is covered by the park fee (although I did give each of the guides that brought me down $20 a piece). I shouldn’t have told anyone because I got yelled at by at least 5 of our group for being the sole reason the park fees are so high.

So I put my shoes on and stepped out of the tent. I am the spectacle. Everybody is staring at me. We start walking and for some reason the porters think they have to hold me up. But when I tell them I can walk on my own, they won’t let me, and I’m way too tired to argue. I’m tired, but I don’t need this kind of help. But my stomach is really nauseous. And I still have diarrhea. But we are moving at a nice pace. And then suddenly, as soon as we get about 500 feet outside of high camp, I throw up. A lot. That’s it. All I hear is a bunch of chatter in a language I don’t speak and then one of them says, “Get on this stretcher.” I try to argue, but it’s no use.

We get to a place where it’s steep and we slow down and I hear more chatter. It’s funny, even though you don’t speak the language, you get the situation. They suck their teeth at the same things we do and they talk louder and faster when they are nervous and excited. And when they’re not sure what to do they ask questions of each other, the endings of their sentences with intonations very high. If you look for these clues, you’ll know when to ask, “What’s the problem?”

“Very Steep.”

“I’ll walk.” The porters aren’t too sure about it. “I’ll walk. Let’s go. I’m fine.”

We see some of our group walking down and I make a joke saying, “I guess this is the last time you’ll take me on a trip with you! I’m too much trouble.” I’m half serious.

“Feel better Shrek.” The first trip I went on I was about 250 pounds on a 6’3” frame. I wasn’t really fat, but big. I’ve since slimmed down but the name sticks for other personality traits! One of these is the fact that I have basically 2 personalities, one for before I eat, and on for after. The switch is instantaneous, and I don’t even realize it occurs. Others laugh hysterically at the change and how quickly it occurs.

I try to make jokes and mask my embarrassment but I’m sure it’s clear. As I try and coerce Chip into taking a picture, all I can think is that if I’m going to go through this, I better at least get to put it on my website. Later on I find out that Chip felt others might think it was inappropriate since they didn’t hear me tell him to do it. Damn it, Chip owes me for that one!! After some more walking we get to the wheeled stretcher and I do not like this thing. Just imagine the platform that Frankenstein was strapped to mounted to a unicycle wheel with a mountain bike shock. I don’t want any part of this thing.

They put my sleeping bag on it and tell me to take off my shoes, which I do not want to do, because if I fall, I know I will hurt my feet. “Please. Take off. Take off.”

The reason they are taking off my shoes is because they are putting me inside my sleeping bag, strapped into this thing. I’m never going to livethis down is all I could think. But I’m so tired and nauseous, I can’t really argue and as soon as I get in, I know I should have kept my shoes on. The only thing keeping you up when the thing is tilted 45degerees is a ½ inch (maybe ¾) bar that goes across the arch of your foot. With all my weight on it, my feet were killing me. They strap me in and we’re off.

I was amazed at how smooth they made the ride. But as the ride got longer, the bumpier it became. They were remarkably fit. They may have taken 10 breaks at the most. Total. And when I say breaks, I mean 90 seconds to 3 minutes tops. No coffee and crumpets. And they took me from high camp at around 14500’ to the gate at around 6000’. It was a very long ride down. It took us until after dark to get down to the 4x4 access road.

Several times, a guy would elbow me right in the thigh. But what are you going to say, “Watch it?” So I just sucked it up. And every drop that was really big your head bangs, so you have to keep it up off the stretcher for pretty much the whole time.

I knew how steep and dangerous the path could be so I just covered my face in the sleeping bag and didn’t pay attention. I had enough to worry about trying to not throw up. Gage, who ran down with me the entire way, told me later that there were some sections where there were only 3 to 4 tire widths to maneuver and then a huge drop off next to it. No room for errors. I’m sure they thought to themselves, “great. It has to be the biggest guy in the group who we have to carry down!”

But surprisingly, the whole time, I just trusted that the guys knew what they were doing and would take care of me. You have to because you don’t have a choice. And for the most part, it was a very comfortable ride. And considering the terrain they had to cart me over, I can’t believe I came out unscathed. Later we found out that the route we took down is said to be used by bandits who jump out with machetes and mug foreigners.

Once we got to the 4x4 access road, they phoned the ranger to have an ambulance pick us up. Once the ambulance arrived, the driver and his partner (carrying an AK47 which caught me a little off guard) took all 12 of us in the ambulance, which was really a 4x4 with a stretcher inside. Once we got to the bottom of the mountain, a bus came for the guides and porters and Gage, Freddy and I rode back to Marangu Hotel in the ambulance.

As impressed as I am with the porters and guides, Gage really impressed me. He did everything he could to make sure I was ok. He ran all the way down the mountain with me and during rests was clearing rocks out of the path. The porters were impressed as well. They kept calling him “Wannaume” or “ Strong Man.” And then at the end they were calling him “Shudare Kilimanjaro” or Kilimanjaro Champion. Gage was particularly proud of that one. I can’t say I blame him. He really went above and beyond and for that kind of loyalty and support I’m truly appreciative. I think the name is well deserved.

I didn’t think I had Acute Mountain Sickness because my head was clear and I didn’t have any headache and I didn’t cough one time up there. I was just dead tired after a few hours and the whole time my stomach was killing me. And for about a week after the climb, I had some stomach problems of one kind or another until I took some Cipro. I don’t know what made me wait, but three doses of that and I was totally cleared up which makes me pretty sure I just caught some kind of bug that was making me sick and I just didn’t eat enough to compensate for what my body was expelling.

But every adventure is a learning experience. I once heard someone say that an adventure starts when something goes really wrong. So I think my Kili trip fits into this category. I know one thing. Life is a grindstone. And whether it grids us down or polishes us up depends on us. So I can’t wait for the next peak.

Thanks to Freddy Mtui, Amon Mtui, Devid Moshi, Exum Moshi, Joseph H Mtui, Johnson Lyomo, Fabiam Mtui, Robert Moshi, Colmon Kilawe, Ndekirna Urio, and my main man Jefrey for portaging me all the way down.

And to the entire group Mike, Linda, Tom, Tracy, Allison, Bill, Chip, Kathy, Lael, Brett, for making the experience of Africa a memorable one.

and a special thanks to Gage for taking a walk with me! ; )



 

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