It was six days (four days up and two down), 5895m, (19,500ft), about 50 hours of climbing, a few mental breakdowns, a massive sunburn, a gazillion blisters, one nosebleed and pain everywhere…but I made it. Of all the adventures I’ve been fortunate to have, I don’t think I’ve pushed myself as hard as I did when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
There are three main routes for Kili, “Marangu” (nicknamed the Coca-Cola route because it’s the easiest) “Machame” (nicknamed the whisky route because it’s harder…but with more amazing scenery and landscapes) and “Umbwe” (this one has no nickname cause it’s the savage one for insane mountaineers). I randomly chose Machame basically because I like whisky a lot more than Coca Cola; being called more difficult made no difference to me because I knew it would be damn hard no matter what.
We had 19 people on our team for three climbers, just me and a couple from Spain who were very sweet but barely spoke any English which made it difficult for us to communicate other than daily pleasantries. Consequently, I had an amazing guide all to myself because they had a separate guide who could speak Spanish. We all “shared” the assistant guide who was basically there to take any of us down if we got sick. We also had a cook, a waiter-type guy, a tent crew guy and 10 porters who carried about 20 kgs of our supplies on their backs.
We started at 1800m and climbed an average of eight hours a day, mostly up but sometimes down to acclimatize ourselves. The first day we hiked through the rainforest to 3000m where we camped. It was such a beautiful hike but I can’t lie, there were a few times where I thought ‘what the hell did I get myself into?’ At the time I thought it was really tough (not realizing what the next three days would be like) but the excitement thankfully outweighed the exhaustion, and I kept going.
Right from the start, I became pretty tight with my guide and assistant guide which would prove to be a blessing as the trip went on. My guide made it his mission to teach me everything about Kili while the assistant guide was so impressed with the Swahili I knew that it became his mission to teach me as much language as he could. He would give me various words and phrases and then quiz me on all of it to pass the time as we walked (when I was able to breathe and talk, of course).
Day two was incredible. We hiked about eight hours through very steep terrain, but it was breathtaking. Deep valleys, rock canyons, tress that looked liked giant pineapples and sky for days. After going up for so long though, having to go back down a bit to acclimatize ourselves sure felt like a kick in the teeth. Thankfully, there were a lot of other hikers from all over the world, and at this point we were passing and meeting up with some groups regularly. It was nice to chat with them here and there even though some spots felt a bit like a traffic jam and at others I was too exhausted to even open my mouth.
The porters of Kili are nuts, let me tell ya. These guys literally have min-houses on their backs (tents, stoves, food, all of the gear etc) but would whiz past us in sandals half the time, often singing, laughing, even texting or smoking, while most of us novice climbers and tourists were panting like dogs with our little five-pound day packs hanging off us like boulders. I was shocked to learn most of them receive no pay from the companies that hire them, counting solely on tips. I made it my mission to befriend every single one after finding that out, and I did a pretty good job of it, mostly by sharing my lunches and using my piss-poor Swahili slang to garner a few laughs on the breaks.
On the third day, the trip was starting to take an emotional toll on me because even though I had the companionship of the guides during the day, I was feeling really isolated at night.
It’s ironic that the solace I usually gained from silence and solitude was slowly becoming a hindrance. It was the first time I was alone abroad and wanted nothing more than not to be, which actually scared me.
I remember feeling absolutely depleted as I lied in my tent, and I couldn’t stop crying about how nice it would be to decompress at the end of the day and talk about how exhausting the climb was or how many blisters I had. Like anyone wants to hear about blisters?! Strange thoughts go through your head at 4000m, which made for a rough go that night.
My personal hygiene was slowing sinking to new depths too. It was too cold to try and clean myself up and I was too tired to even try. So, I basically stopped. We were brought a little bowl of hot water each morning by one of the crew members, presumably to wash, but I instead chose to just rest my hands in it to de-thaw them until the water went cold.
It’s hard to even put into words how challenging day four was. It was summit day and we started out with the most technical leg of the trip. I say technical in a non-technical way of course….we didn’t need any harnesses or crampons, but there was definitely a bit of hoisting and helping hands to get climbers up and around some of the little rock facades. Everyone was exhausted and after eight hours up and down and around, we got to camp. There was little downtime though because after a five or six-hour break, we had to wake up at 11:30pm and hike seven hours through the night to get to the summit for sunrise.
I remember trying to get a bit of sleep before the night climb, but I was absolutely freezing. I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold in my life, to the point where my body was shaking violently. Nothing I could do would get me warm. I had every pair of socks on and most of my clothes – to the point where I looked like the state puft marshmallow man.
It was then that I had a classic meltdown. To my horror, my guide came to my tent at the exact height of my boo-hoo party and saw me in top form.
I ended up bawling to him about how alone I felt, how cold I was and how I had nobody to talk to. He left briefly and came back with four large water bottles filled with boiling water that he then put inside my sleeping bag with me to keep me warm. Just when I thought I couldn’t love him more, he nonchalantly asked me how many blisters I had, which at the time, was the single nicest thing I had ever heard in my whole life. I’d have given him a kidney if he asked at that minute. And from that point on the poor guy stuck to me like glue, which I was very glad about in the end.
The final seven hours to the top is hard to even explain because much of it is a blur. It was the toughest thing I have ever physically done in my life and I contemplated quitting probably every 10 feet. The conditions were uncharacteristically blizzard-like and about -20 C to my chagrin. We were all zombies and climbing hunched over at a snail’s pace; however, you couldn’t stop for long because it was too damn cold. And since it was dark and the snow was blowing, you could see nothing but a sea of headlamps wind their way up to the top with periodic stops for someone to hunch over and catch his or her breath.
It was pretty ominous to see some of the larger groups we had seen over the previous three days thinned out, many people too sick to continue. You could also see climbers who were stumbling, throwing up, crying, being helped by their guides, you name it. Needless to say, the high morale from the beginning of the trip was all but gone.
About an hour from the top though, when I had settled on quitting for the umpteenth time, out of nowhere all of the guides started singing. I didn’t know what the words were or why they did it; it really didn’t matter then. What I do know is that it was the most beautiful and motivating thing I have ever heard to date. I think I might have cried but I’m not sure. I don’t remember any tears coming out or maybe they just froze on impact, but I was quite moved nonetheless.
Once we reached the top of the mountain we still had an hour to walk across the top to get to Uhuru, the highest point. This is where things get really blurry for me as I guess I went a bit wonky, falling all over like a drunk, as altitude sickness was likely setting in. I had to be taken by the hand and helped by my guide the rest of the way, but I did it! I climbed Kilimanjaro! It was bad weather and I was pretty out of it, so we didn’t hang around the top long, just enough for a few pictures, hugs, dances and cries with our crew and every other climber who had made it.
Kili will set you back about at least $1500.00 – $2000.00, perhaps a bit more if you adequately tip the men that bring you up for practically peanuts. You will test yourself both physically and mentally and whether you make it up or not, you’ll push yourself beyond measure. Looking back on it now, every grunt, every tear, every pain in places I didn’t know could feel pain was worth it for the chance to stand at the top of Africa. …even the blisters.