Climbing Kilimanjaro: A Guide’s Perspective

If only Aunt Beverly could see me now.

I used to play pinball in my great aunt’s basement in Minneapolis. Every year, my family would drive or fly to Minnesota for a month of vacation and summer camp. We’d arrive at Aunt Beverly’s house at some point during the journey and after saying hello, my brother and I would run downstairs to entertain ourselves on the pinball machine. Surrounding the machine were masks and wooden carvings of elephants and other African animals that Aunt Beverly brought back from her travels in Africa.

Now, here I am in Africa in 2012 and there is a giraffe in the hotel lobby that is almost twice as tall as I am. The front desk attendant greets my with, “Jambo!” as I pass. I’ve been in Tanzania for the last month, working as a mountain guide on Kilimanjaro. I’ve finally been able to wander through markets full of masks, fabrics and carvings that remind me of Aunt Beverly and her African-themed basement on a daily basis.

Kilimanjaro was first summited on October 6, 1889, by German geology professor Hans Meyer, celebrated Austrian mountaineer Ludwig Purtscheller and Marangu scout Yoanas Kinyala Lauwo.  It was Meyer’s third attempt on the peak in as many years. Today, 15,000 people a year attempt to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, of which 40 percent make it to the top.

The drive from The Arusha Hotel to the Machame Gate—the start of our climb—is stunning. We drive through coffee plantations, wide-open plains where the Maasai herd their cattle, and up into the rainforest where bananas and other fruit are cultivated by locals. At 5,800 feet, the start of the Machame Route, there are porters lined up outside the gate, waiting to be called on to carry loads up the mountain. As we unload the Jeeps, decked out in our new soft-shell jackets and pants, clean sun shirts and carrying trekking poles, the climbing team gets the first glimpse of our incredible support network: porters, cooks, and African guides, wearing jeans, t-shirts, and old running shoes or boots left behind by previous climbers. The striking thing for me, however, is not their attire, but the smiles and warmth that radiate from this group of people, working so hard to support our Kilimanjaro climb.

Three hours into hiking, the trail flattens out and the blue tent comes into view. Lunch awaits. Clients are flabbergasted this first day at our sit-down lunch around a table with a tablecloth, plates, silverware, and colorful fake flowers in vases. Three days into the trek, groups are more often than not searching for the same blue tent, wondering when we are going to sit down for yet another elaborate meal. This is not camping as I know it in the U.S. This is, however, camping that lends itself to a high success rate on Kilimanjaro.

The Machame Route, aka the Whiskey Route, is one of the longer routes on the mountain, taking us 7 days to climb, traverse, summit and descend the mountain. All told, we hike 39 miles and gain over 16,000 feet of elevation. Three of the nights that we spend in tents are spent between 12,400 feet and 13,000 feet, obeying the classic climbing mantra of  “climb high, sleep low.” This climb also travels through five major eco-zones: rainforest, heather, moorland, alpine desert and glaciers. It’s a remarkable route on the highest peak in Africa.

The smell of sulfur wafts up from the crater every now and then and the constant hum of people shuffling for their photos in front of the summit sign can only mean one thing: We’re standing on the rooftop of Africa. Sunrise gives the snow, rime and glacier ice a golden hue. It’s day six, and after all of the time, energy, and hard work put in by each climber, we’re taking a group photo in front of a sign that says “Congratulations. You are now at Uhuru Peak. 5895 m.”  We left high camp at midnight, following only the bubbles of light shed by our headlamps, and walked through night and early morning. The Milky Way, Southern Cross, Orion, and Cassiopeia were above us as we put one foot in front of the other for almost seven hours of hard work before most people have breakfast.

Thirty hours later, I find myself singing, dancing, and clapping to the rhythm of the songs sung by our African staff. We are greeted at the Mweka Gate with juice, flowers, and songs that make everyone around us turn and gawk. It’s an amazing celebration of our accomplishments on the mountain. Shedrick, the lead singer in our group, has a voice that can carry for miles—I think he has a future in singing if work on the mountain doesn’t pan out. The energy and joy he brings to singing is contagious, and everyone bears a huge smile as we parade through the parking lot. If only Aunt Beverly could see this celebration.

I’ve learned a lot from my seven-day climbs of Kilimanjaro with various groups of strangers. Here are a few of them:

  1. Never underestimate the power of a smile, laughter or a song.
  2. The cooks, porters and guides of Big Expeditions can SING.
  3. It is possible to make fried chicken at 13,000 feet on a propane stove.
  4. Simplicity is a beautiful thing.

     

  5. It is cold at 19,000 feet, even when so close to the equator.
  6. Tanzania is an incredible, diverse country.
  7. Sunrise at 19,341 takes my breath away every time.

Here’s what I brought with me on Kilimanjaro:

 

  • Radiant Hybrid Tights [LINK]
  • Trailbreaker Pants for summit day
  • Aria Hoody [LINK]