Updated: Apr 8, 2020
Before all the craziness of Coronavirus swept the world, I had the opportunity to travel a bit. It started with a week of ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies for an American Mountain Guides Association course. Although it was short, I learned new techniques and met some other like-minded folks while climbing classic routes. Thanks to Adidas, I was able save some money and put a sizable scholarship towards the tuition for it. I already have plans for the next one...
After the course had ended and my stay in Canmore was over, I drove the 8 hours back to Bozeman for 2 days of layover before a flight out to Tanzania. I already had my visa lined up for a trip to climb Kilimanjaro with Montana Alpine Guides. I would be co-guiding with my friend and boss, Sam. We were planning on climbing with two others, one of whom I climbed Gannet with last season (in only 3 days!).
Having been used to packing all sorts of technical gear in the past, preparing for this trip was a little weird. We only had one checked bag each, and even that was well under weight. Fortunately, I didn't forget or miss much, although I wish I had stuffed in some more street clothes and a longer camera lens.
I didn't know what to expect, so I prepared for a reasonable amount of tent time (two books and some downloaded movies) and a heavy amount of precipitation (full on dry bag for my gear, garbage bags, rain fly for pack, umbrella, Gore-tex, etc.). We were scheduled for a 7 day ascent that includes 5 days of hiking and acclimatization from ~6,000' to 15,000' at high camp and another two days for the summit and rapid descent. All in all, we only had 8 days in Tanzania as we were on a tight schedule. This meant only one day in town by our original plan, which we used on the front end to get to know local scene in Arusha a little better and, of course, work off the 10 hour time difference.
Our day in town was well spent and we felt welcomed by our local guides. We toured the markets, which were expansive and exciting to say the least. We bought some souvenirs and a few of us linked up our phones with local networks to be more connected on the mountain. By the end of the day, we were all rested and looking forward to the upcoming climb.
Views from the market tour.
Day 1 on the mountain started surprisingly late, but we would soon get used to the "pole pole" (meaning slowly, slowly) nature of life on Kilimanjaro. We left town around 9 am and drove two hours to the Machame Gate near the town of Moshi. Here, we greeted our 25+ man support team including local guides, porters, cooks, tent setters, and more. The group size was unimaginable considering only four of us wanted to climb, but we welcomed their help and good company. After signing some paperwork and having a nice lunch, we took off on the jungle trail with our lightweight day packs. This part of the hike was characterized by a dense canopy of trees well overhead with six foot ferns on either side of the trail. Exotic (to me) birds chirped and sang throughout the day. At some point, it started raining and we utilized our trusty trail-umbrellas. After ~3,900' of gain, we reached Machame camp and were delighted to find our camp set up. We settled in, devouring the multi-course meal prepared that night. Eventually, the clouds parted slightly revealing the upper mountain for our first glimpse.
Day 2 began much earlier and we were on the trail by 8:30. We slowed down our pace a little more, as there was no rush on most of these acclimatization days. The trail out of Machame camp was steep, rocky, and quickly lost the overhead vegetation as we approached the Moorland environment near the plateau. The views across the plains towards Mt. Meru, a nearby Volcano, were spectacular. Sometime around lunch, we rolled into Shira Cave camp and laid down for a few hours of rest. In the evening, we rallied for a quick hike to check-in and see the next day's route. Upon our return, we were surprised by our whole support crew singing to welcome us back. We joined in on the dancing and laughter after a brief introduction, making for a great sunset celebration. Now, we felt "Poa kichizi kama ndizi" or "cool as a banana".
Above: Hard working porters tearing down camp and passing us on the trail.
Above: Views from the trail through day two.
Below: Views from Shira Cave camp.
Day 3 had us up early again and we hiked out of Shira camp onto the gradually rising desert plateau beneath the upper mountain. This was one of our longer scheduled days, taking us a few hours up to Lava Tower at 15,000' before dropping into the lush Barranco Valley at 13,000'. It was a beautiful morning approaching the mountain directly with Meru at our backs again. By the time we rolled into our luxurious lunch tents and warm meal at Lava Tower, we were engulfed in clouds and had dawned the Gore-tex. After a full meal, we began circumnavigating the upper mountain and quickly dropped out of the desert environment into a beautiful glacial valley right under Kili. This camp was by far my favorite.
Day 4 began with the most technical part of our trek: the Barranco Wall. It is a series of 3rd class steps that zig-zagged through ~500' of vertical out of camp. Although not too difficult, the rocks were wet and it slowed us down significantly due to bottle-necking with hundreds of porters trying to pass and large, slow groups inching up it. Eventually we made it to the top of the wall and into the sunlight where we traversed to Karanga Camp. Here, we stopped in the rain and ate a large lunch while we pondered our options. We had planned to camp here, but it was early and we were feeling fit so we decided to bump our schedule up a day and carry on to Barafu, our summit basecamp at 15,000'. Two hours after our lunch break, we arrived at a rocky and crowded Barafu and settled in early for the night.
Above: Barafu Camp on the night of our ascent.
Left: One of our most enthusiastic porters, Simba
Day 5. Given that we were going faster than average, summit day began a little later than normal. Alarms went off at 12:30 am and we were walking by 1:40. Taking it as slow as possible, we wore all of our insulation out of camp to stay warm. Eventually, we began passing parties who had started in the hours before us. After a short tea break around 18,000', we motored on to Stella Point, the crater rim. Here we caught first light and took another even shorter break, before continuing on the snowy ridge. By this time, some other parties were already descending. Shortly after sunrise, we reached Uhuru Peak at 19,341'. After a quick few photos, we started to feel the effects of the altitude and began descending as quickly as possible.
On our way down, we passed many parties on the final leg of their ascent. Eventually, we stemmed off of the ascent path onto a descent one and took a break. Here, it set in that we hadn't been stopping frequently enough and the symptoms of mild AMS were beginning to show themselves. We pounded what was left of our food and water and quickly dropped into camp to find our team cheering us in. It was only 9:45 am and we had the whole day ahead of us, so we took a little nap.
By 11, we were nibbling on a hot lunch and devising a plan to drop the remaining 9,000+ feet of elevation to the gate, cutting yet another day off our schedule. Shortly after noon we were on the trail full of energy, breathing more air with each step. We reached our original objective for the day, Camp Mweka, at 3 pm and decided that a hot shower followed by a cold Kilimanjaro beer was too tempting, so we continued on. Our team of porters had already set up camp, but as we passed they began cheering us on, knowing that they would be home with their families that night. The last two and a half hours on the trail brought us back into the jungle and, consequently, a torrential down pour. The trail turned into a river as we ran down, giving us a true appreciation for the diversity of life and conditions on the mountain. After nearly 14,000' of elevation loss in less than 12 hours, we arrived at the gate. Once our team arrived and transportation had been lined out, we were surprised by yet another celebration from the whole group. Everyone broke out in song and dance while tips were dispersed. Gratitude was shared and before we knew it, we were on our way back to the hotel.
Coming down two days early cut out some of the acclimatization and made our descent day much longer, but it afforded us nearly two full days of unplanned free time afterwards. The main motivator for this was to give us the option to go on a Safari. By the locals' recommendation, we scheduled a two day trip through nearby parks. The morning after our epic summit and descent, we drove two hours to Tarangire. Immediately upon arrival, we saw tons of wildlife. I could write an entire report just on this, but my biggest takeaways were how special it is to have the chance to see these landscapes and how helpful having the local guide was.
That evening, we drove towards Ngorongoro and stayed at an incredible resort-like hotel. After some panic in the morning over the sudden travel ban, we got onto the road into Ngorongoro, a massive crater filled with open fields and wetlands on the edge of the Serengeti. This felt like dropping into a Jurassic Park movie as we drove our Land Cruiser past villages, through a high canopy and eventually into a crater full of wildlife. By the end of the day, we were exhausted and had all fallen asleep in the vehicle on the way back to the airport.
When we got to the airport, the reality of the world started to settle in. The security lines were long and the flights were fully booked- all the tourists were getting home as soon as possible. By now, we had received news that the travel ban didn't apply to citizens and that it would begin on 12 am Saturday, not 12 am Friday. This was good news, as we were the last Delta flight out of Amsterdam before the ban and the last European flight received by Salt Lake City for some time.
It was a whirlwind of a trip that deposited us in the new Coronavirus world, so I had little time to reflect. Looking back, what I'll remember most are the smiling faces of Sauli and Bonifas, our local guides, and the song and dance of our crew. For next time, I've promised myself that I need to extend the trip more to actually appreciate the Safari without being exhausted. Of course, I will also make sure that my telephoto lens is packed. Between the experience of our team on Kilimanjaro and the draw of nearby rock climbing on Mt Kenya, I hope I'll be returning soon.