Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part II)

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The sun rising over Mount Kilimanjaro

Distance: 12 km
(from the summit to Mweka Camp)
Date: Feb. 2, 2018

I read the yellow words carved out of its wooden planks: “CONGRATULATIONS, you are now at Uhuru Peak… Africa’s highest point …” I am speechless and, surprisingly, emotionless. Time slows down and everything but the sign becomes a blur as I stare at it in disbelief. The sounds from my group begin to muffle, as if being underwater, as I become lost in my thoughts. Wow … we did it … we actually did it. This all seems so surreal. I slowly turn to Sieu, who I can easily spot by his bright orange Arc’teryx parka. He is hugging Paul, one of the guides who had kept a close eye on him during the hike. I look around in the dim light of the early morning to see the silhouettes of my group celebrating this tremendous accomplishment. Time suddenly warps back to a normal speed as these thoughts are interrupted by Albert telling our group to move quickly so that we can get a picture in front of the sign. We cannot spend much time lingering at the summit, as the available oxygen is approximately half of what it is at sea level and there are already a few people suffering the affects of the extreme altitude.

Sieu and I sit together on the boulders that are used to secure the Kilimanjaro sign. As the remainder of the group squeezes in, someone hands us a G-Adventures flag to hold. Our guides surround us like the paparazzi while juggling all the cameras that we have given them. As I take a quick look around, I am astonished that all eleven members of our group are here and standing around this sign. Even those two members who were severely nauseated were able to persevere forward to the top. Although still looking rather ill, they did it! We all did it! Six days ago, the eleven of us started this journey as strangers from different corners of the world but today, we stand united with a newfound sense of comradery.

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Our G-Adventures group standing, breathlessly, at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

As we are rushed to begin our descent, the horizon suddenly lights up in a blaze of fire as the sun begins to peer over it. This gives shape to the jagged mountain peaks that we have recently ventured across. Leading my eyes to the sunrise is a thin dirt path that is worn through the snow by the hundreds of footsteps before us. We file along this path, one by one. To the right of us is a giant glacier, as if placed to challenge the mountain for the title of the highest point on the continent. It stands alone, off into the distance, like a single bookend with nothing to support. Beyond that, lays a blanket of clouds, which hug the mountain and stretch far into the distance; the bright morning sun causes these clouds to glow with various hues of yellow and orange. As I stare at the horizon, I am amazed that I can actually see the curvature of the earth – proving that we are actually standing on top of the world!

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Beginning our descent from the summit

As we pass Stella Point once again, we take a different route to descend. As opposed to the meandering trail that led us to the summit, this trail seems to have no apparent route – just down. I stand there calculating my approach to this. I study the ground. It’s approximately a 45 degree slope covered in scree. I take a step to test the terrain. My foot slides under the loose stones, searching for some traction. I am alarmed at how physically demanding it is to descend; ascending to the summit was not a physical challenge, but merely a battle of your lungs against the altitude. William shows us the proper technique to descend without causing injury to our ankles or knees but this method causes my quadriceps muscles to ache and burn. I develop my own technique that I use when William is not looking. I skip sideways down the hill – step, step … step, step … step, step … Every hop I make, I can feel loose rocks sliding underneath my feet, causing them to sink deeper into the scree like quicksand. As I descend, alternating between sideways hops and forward steps (when William is looking), I can feel the oxygen becoming richer. Although the air is dusty, it’s very quenching.

Our group has gradually broken off into smaller clumps and there are currently four of us following Paul and William. They pull us off to the side to find a place to sit and give our legs a quick break. As I sit on the loose scree, I stretch out my legs and watch as the pebbles race down the steep slope. It feels so good to sit! I lean back and embrace the warm sun burning through the thin atmosphere. The thought of putting on some sunscreen occurs to me, but it is quickly dismissed as I am too tired to really care. Turning my attention to Paul and William, I notice that they have no snacks or water; then it dawns on me – none of the guides carry personal gear so that they are able to carry our gear if needed. I share my water, which is flavoured with Lime Gatorade, and hand them some Clif bars – I always bring way too much food in fear of starvation.

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After approximately two hours of descending, we reach basecamp and take a quick nap. When it is time to continue our journey, our guides wake us up to pack our gear and move onward to Mweka Camp, where we will be spending our final night. I am not sure if it’s having more circulating oxygen going to my brain, or just the exhilaration of conquering this mountain, but I feel incredible! I have an extra bounce in my step, despite my shaky legs from the brutal descent. I spend most of our walk chatting with Lukie. We share stories about our personal life, our family, our ambitions, and so on. He speaks with such warmth and enthusiasm as he tells me about his first time seeing snow.

Upon arriving to Mweka Camp, our porters are waiting to celebrate our success with us. We sing, dance, laugh, and cry as we say our final goodbyes to these amazing individuals who have devoted themselves entirely to us for the past week. I am amazed at the bond that can be formed in such little time with complete strangers who cannot even speak the same language. Willie, my porter, has shown me such genuine kindness and care. Although this is his job, his actions were never fake or forced and he never asked for anything in return. He just came into my life for one week with the purpose of helping me achieve my goal of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.

After supper, we sit around the table in our mess tent for one last time. I reflect upon how this trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro was so much more than I could have ever expected. Like childbirth, you need to really live through it in order to truly appreciate the experience. I had read some books and blogs about Kilimanjaro but nothing is able to fully capture the beauty and essences of this experiences. As I look around the table and see our group laughing and sharing stories with our guides, I am reminded of a saying that I had once heard: It’s the friends that we meet along the way that help us appreciate the journey. It is astounding to think that such an adventure can create and strengthen such bonds between strangers. I have formed such a strong attachment and will truly miss these people who were merely strangers that I was sitting on a bus with seven days ago. Albert, Brunno, Lukie, Paul, and William, our guides, will always have a place in my heart. While we were in our most vulnerable states, they protected and cared for us. They shared their personal stories and culture with us as they took us on an adventure of a lifetime. Each of them will play such a critical role in the stories that I tell my children about the time that I climbed to the rooftop of Africa. 

The next day, we pull into the parking lot of the Stella Maris Lodge. As I step off of the bus, I see a group that is nervously waiting. They are frantically adjusting and weighing their bags, ensuring that they are within their 15 kg allotment before they depart for their journey. This makes me reflect upon when this was us. I remember sitting there with seven new strangers and nervously making ideal chitchat. We all watched in desperation as a G-Adventures bus pulled into the parking lot and offloaded its dirty passengers who had just finished their trek. They were all surprisingly smiling – which I assumed was because their dreadful hike was finally over with and that they were back to civilization. One by one, they disembarked the van laughing and sharing stories among each other. One taller man was limping but other than that, they all seemed okay. As I watched them, I remembered feeling so jealous that they were done. All of their pain and suffering was over, while ours was just about to begin. I wanted so badly to be them and for all of this apprehensive nausea to be gone.

Today, I step off that very same G-Adventures bus, as a dirty passenger just finishing my trek. I look over to that group, who is staring at us with envious eyes. I smile at them, as I collect my orange North Face duffel bag that I have been living out of for the past week. I smile at them because what they don’t realize now is how badly that I wish I was them. As I am about to part ways with my new friends, they are about to begin their journey with theirs. A pang of sorrow overcomes me as I realize that it is all over. I want so badly to trade places with them as they are about to embark upon the greatest adventure of their life.

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part I)

Distance: 4 km (to the summit)
Altitude: 5,895 m
Date: Feb. 1-2, 2018

As the cold wind beats against the side of our tent, it is 11:00pm and almost time to begin our ascent. I slip into my base layers and am astounded that we are about to attempt something that nearly 50,000 people attempt annually – summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. We are told that the average summit success rate is around 65 percent; however, it greatly depends on which route you climb and its duration. We chose the Machame trail, nicknamed the Whiskey Route – despite it’s difficulty, it is one of the better routes for acclimatization.

I squeeze four layers of clothing on my bottom and five layers on my top; our guides recommend wearing six layers each due to the extreme cold but this is the best that I can do comfortably. I often find wearing multiple layers very daunting but tonight I am distracted by the anticipation of what’s to come. I zip up my parka, turn on my headlamp, and head to the mess tent for our final briefing. Our group sits around the table, listening to the violent whipping of the wind on our dimly-lit tent. The only light available is offered from the two flashlights that are hanging from the top of the tent frame. Unsure of how long the batteries in our headlamp will last in the cold, we try to conserve them as much as possible.

Brunno speaks loudly over the deafening wind, while another guide hands us snacks for the long journey ahead. Our group seems to be nervous, but generally ready to tackle this challenge. There are a few members who have some lingering altitude sickness, masked as extreme fatigue; I hope this will not prevent them from reaching the summit.

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As you can tell, I am eager to get going!

As it nears 11:30pm, it’s time to go. I take a deep breath, plug in a single earbud into my right ear, and press play on my Ipod Shuffle. I have been saving its battery the entire hike for this very moment. I had anticipated that it would be a long and grueling night so I prepared a playlist specially designed to keep my moral high. “For the Girls” by The Fratellis, a Scottish indie rock band, came on first. The fun and upbeat tune was literally music to my ears. I forgot how much I missed music in the background of my day-to-day life.

We line up in single file, as we normally do. I file in behind Sieu and slide my giant mittens into the handles of my walking poles, ready to go. It seems like it was just yesterday that we were passing through those metallic gates to take our first steps on to the Machame trail and now, here we are, departing basecamp for the summit. I am finally able to let go of the apprehension that I have been carrying around this entire hike and only feel the excitement now. I feel ready to do this!

As we begin our ascent, we are followed closely by nine guides – nearly one for each of us. I look back toward basecamp and see the glow of multiple headlamps from the other groups who are about to embark upon their final adventure as well. We continue forward, one step at a time, into the quiet darkness of the late night. It will take approximately six hours to reach Stella point and from there, an additional hour to Uhuru Peak – the summit of Kilimanjaro.

After an assumed hour of hiking, we take our first break. We collapse on the nearby rocks to catch our breath but the guides quickly pick us up. “Don’t lie down. Sit. Rest. Get some food and water into you quickly and we will leave in a few minutes”. The breaks are short to avoid succumbing to the frigid temperatures of the mountain. As I sip on some water, I notice that a buckle on my gaiter has come undone. As I begin to fumble with it, Paul comes to my aid. “Rest! Let me help you. You will need your energy to get to the top” he says. As he is finishing up, Brunno tells us that it is time to get going again.

The abyss of time eludes me; the only means of measurement is by counting the amount of breaks that we have taken – I think that we have taken four so far. Into the black night, I cannot see much beyond the light of my headlamp but I can clearly see the fatigue of our group. Everyone is taking long, slow steps up the sandy trail that zigs and zags into the infinite darkness. We take one breath per step, to avoid suffocating from the thin air of the high altitude. My nose is cold but I feel too smothered if I wear anything around my face. This breathlessness makes me wonder if this is what it’s like to have an asthmatic attack. We continue to persevere forward, one step and one breath at a time.

The closer we get to Stella Point, the closer the guides seem to follow next to us. We have already lost two members of our group, who were vomiting from the affects of the altitude. If we show any signs of staggering or struggle, the guides take our backpack to allow you to put the remains of our effort into summiting. Looking forward, I can see that there are only two of us left with backpacks: myself and Fabie. Fabie is the second youngest in our group and a solid mountain climber. She has literally handled the altitude like it was a walk in the park … which I guess, it technically is: Kilimanjaro National Park.

We come to a sudden stop and I look around to see what is going on. From the back of our group, I can see a few members in the front crying and hugging each other. I look past them to a large sign with the words “Mount Kilimanjaro” carved out on its wooden planks. Are we at the summit already?! My concept of time is completely warped. Wait a minute … this is only Stella Point! I lean over to Sieu, “Uh … this is only Stella Point … do people realize that this is not the summit yet?!” I ask. He replies, “The guides say that if you reach Stella Point, then you’ll make it to the summit” I notice that he suddenly gets quiet. “Are you okay?” I ask, concerned that he is not feeling well from the altitude. “I’m leaking”, he says. Uh… what? I shine the light from my headlamp up to his face to see what he’s talking about and see that his nose is running.  “Oh, yeah! My nose keeps running from the cold too … I just wipe it on my mitts”, I reply as I wipe my nose with my oversized mitt. “No, no. I’m … I’m leaking, Amanda.” I shine my headlamp higher so that I can see his face more clearly. Under his eyes are moist. I have never seen my husband cry … ever. I’m not sure which seems more implausible: climbing to the highest peak in Africa … or seeing my husband “leak” tears of joy. Sieu had planned for over a year now that IF he could make it to the summit, he would put on his ‘dear friend’, Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah”. Emotionally, he explained that as he was crossing over the crest of the mountain and the sign came into view, his song just happened to come on by chance, creating a euphoric surge of emotions. My husband had never thought that he could make it to the summit so at this very moment, he felt like he was achieving the impossible. Albert then yells out, “1 hour to the summit! We need to move on if we want to make it for the sunrise”

One by one, we continue along the thin, worn path carved through the snowy crest of the mountain top. The trail is more horizontal, providing a relaxing coast to the finish line. Paul, who is carrying Sieu’s backpack, instructs us to remove our headlamps. “Look up!”, he says. As we remove our headlamps and look up, we can clearly see the millions of star that are sprinkled throughout the galaxy above, which shine bright through the thin atmosphere of the high altitude. It’s a sight like no other that would be impossible to capture by film, so instead, I pause for a second to fully immerse myself in the moment. Absolutely stunning.

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The sun rising on Uhuru Peak

The Kilimanjaro sign is scarcely visible in the dim light of the early morning. As the darkness of the night begins to fade, I begin to realize that we are truly on top of the world. Below us, there is a blanket of clouds covering everything that we have left behind. It reminds me of when I would take the plane as a child; I would sit next to the window and watch as the plane pierced through the clouds during take off. I would imagine what it would be like to stand amongst those rolling hills of clouds. Today, I stand as a mortal in that heavenly abode of the divine.

As we approach the sign for the summit, I feel slightly torn between watching the beauty of the sun rising on the horizon behind us and taking in the victory of reaching this sign, which symbolizes that we are standing at the highest peak on the continent of Africa. For years, I have seen pictures of this very sign but never in my life did I think that I would have the opportunity to stand in front of it. My thoughts are interrupted by someone grabbing me around the waist! I look down and see Sieu, in a drunken, giddy state. Although, the lack of oxygen from the high altitude is getting to him, he is also exhilarated that we have actually made it to the summit. Together.

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Uhuru Peak – the summit of Kilimanjaro

 

To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part 2)

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 5: Barafu Camp – Base Camp)

Distance: 4 km
Altitude: 4,673 m
Date: Feb. 1, 2018

I woke up early after a restful night of sleep, feeling ready for the day ahead. We were told last night that these next two days will be the most difficult but our guides feel confident that everyone in our group will be able to make it to the summit … I wonder if they say that to all of their groups?

Ahead of us today is a simple 4 km hike to basecamp; however, it will feel more challenging because of the high altitude. Once we arrive at basecamp, the plan is to eat lunch, take a short nap, eat supper, take long nap, and then awake at 11pm to begin our hike to the summit. I can’t believe that it’s almost here! I’ve been thinking about summiting for nearly a year now and tonight is the moment of truth! Tonight I will see if I become one of the few to conquer this great mountain, or one of the many to become conquered by it. I feel quite confident but I don’t want to become overconfident. I’ll just continue to take this journey one step at a time, carefully.

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Sieu enjoying his coffee & the view from Karanga Camp

After preparing my gear for the day, I roll out of our tent and am astonished by the beauty of the mountain. Every morning, I think that the scenery can’t get any more breathtaking … and then it does. Today, I woke up on top of the world! To the left of us, is a magnificent mountain with a snow-covered peak; to the right is a panoramic view of the entire city of Moshi.

We sip our morning coffee and breathe in the cool morning air. It’s a quiet morning. I think this journey has made everyone more zen and has given us the ability to enjoy the tranquility of the moment. After a few days on the mountain, my mind has become more quiet; I am not worried about the past or anticipating the future … I am just enjoying the present. Sometimes by trying to control everything, we actually lose that very moment. I have now surrendered and allow myself, instead, to be controlled by the moment. I am enjoying the opportunity to go on this incredible adventure with my husband and I am also enjoying the company of our new friends. Life has been very kind to me and I am grateful for this.

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Leaving Karanga Camp

As we begin our hike, I start to feel slightly suffocated. I haven’t felt like this before. I don’t feel bad … but I don’t feel quite good either. It’s a very puzzling feeling. We are walking at a very slow pace but I can’t seem to catch my breath and feel very tired. I begin to question if this is the beginning of altitude sickness and if I am becoming the next victim. I don’t have a headache or nausea but I really can’t seem to catch my breath. I can feel my body teetering between feeling well and feeling ill.

It’s a chilly morning so I’m dressed in many layers, which all of a sudden feeling quite bothersome. I quickly remove my buff from around my face and unzip my inner and outer jacket to have less restriction around my neck. I take a couple of deep breaths and drink water. I don’t like water and I’m not thirsty but I do this every time I worry about altitude sickness.

Approximately 30 minutes into the hike, I am able to tip the scale back to feeling happy once again. We continue our journey along a steep path, which is carved out by the thousands of travellers that have wandered this trail before us. There is no vegetation as far as the eye can see – just rocks and blue skies. Sharp, jagged rocks and bright blue skies. Behind us, a wall of fluffy white clouds are rolling up the side of the mountain, blocking our view of anything that we have left behind.

Once we finally reach the crest of this steep incline, where the earth touches the sky, we can see basecamp just off into the distance on the other side of these deserted lands. The air is so dry and dusty, which makes my eyes feel gritty and my lips feel chapped. With only a few kilometers left to go, we persevere forward as the wind pushes us back with incredible force.

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As we arrive at the Barafu Camp sign, I look up at the mountain standing behind it. As I squint in the bright sun, I can see a trail that zigs-zags between boulders up the steep back of the mountain. This is Kilimanjaro and is the trail that we will be trekking tonight. Shortly beyond this is Uhuru peak – the highest peak in all of Africa. I can feel butterflies in my stomach. I take a deep breath. I am filled with excitement, yet still slightly apprehensive.

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Arriving at Kilimanjaro Basecamp (Barafu Camp)

We continue past this sign to our campsite, where our G-Fighters have set up our tents on the slope of a rocky hillside. As I take in the remainder of the scenery, I notice how the air is so incredibly thin, not only depriving us of oxygen but also making the sun appear so much brighter. I then spot Willie, who is waiting for me to arrive; “Karibu!” he says as he greets me with a high-five (this means welcome in Swahili). He leads me to my tent and I thank him, “Asante sana rafiki!” As I crawl into my tent, I am greeted by its warmth. It feels so nice to be in our tiny sauna, sheltered from the brutal winds that push and shove anything that gets in its way.

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Home sweet home at Barafu Camp

After lunch, I begin preparing my gear for tonight. During this time, we are encouraged to nap; however, I’m much too excited to sleep! I lay out my insulted boots that I have been saving this entire trip just for this cold summit night. Next to them, I set aside two pairs of fresh, clean socks. I tuck my ipod (which I have been saving this entire trip) and my freeze-proof camera in one boot and a handful of hand warmers for me to activate tonight in my other boot. I then lay out my thermal pants, fleece pants, hiking pants, and rain pants for me to wear as my bottom layers and then my t-shirt, thermal shirt, fleece shirt, down jacket, and winter jacket for me to wear as my top layers.

As I am settling in to relax, I remember that I have two letters that I’ve been saving this entire trip for today!! I had asked my parents and a friend of ours to write letters of encouragement incase our morale was in absolute despair. It surprisingly wasn’t though. I feel great, am happy, and am very ready to climb to the summit tonight. Regardless, I am excited to read our letters.

IMG_3547I open the first one from my parents. I read it out loud for Sieu to hear but have to speak loudly to compete against the whipping sound of the wind on our tent. The letter is filled with words of encouragement and inspiration. It concludes with the quote, “Pain is temporary but victory lasts forever”. It’s very personal and touching. The other letter from our friends is more similar to a homemade post-card. It has a drawing of Kilimanjaro with a few words of encouragement. It is simple, beautiful and poetic. Although our morale wasn’t suffering, it was still really nice to sit together and read these letters from home. It also makes me reflect on what kind of state that I thought we would be in at this point of our journey. I am so happy that I was wrong!

We lie together in our tent and drift off to the sound of the wind shaking the tent. The warmth hugs my body but I am refreshed by a gentle breeze through a small opening in our doors …

It’s supper time. We are debriefed on the game plan for tonight as they measure our saturation (mine is 88% and my pulse is 90). Albert instructs us to try to wear six layers and to use a water bottle so that the straws on our hydration packs do not freeze. There will be nine guides accompanying our group of eleven so we are nearly one-on-one. We are also told that we will be taking five minutes rests every hour and during this time, we are not permitted to lie down because it is dangerous if we fall asleep. The hike to the summit should be approximately seven hours.

We return to our tents. The clock is counting down getting us closer and closer to our departure time. The angry winds shake our tent as if to give us our final warning. As soon as the sun tucks away behind the mountains, the bitter cold returns. We know that we will not win the war against the cold during this climb but we strategize anyways.

Three hours before we leave. Three hours for this night to get colder. My body is feeling rested, yet restless. This hike has mainly been physical leading up to this point but now its my mind’s turn to take the lead and bring me to victory. I write in my Midori to pass the time. I know that I should be sleeping but I can feel the adrenaline surging through my veins. Non-stop. To the top.

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Mount Mawenzi

 

To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part I)

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 4: Karanga Camp)

Distance: 6 km
Altitude: 3,995 m
Date: Jan. 31, 2018

The sounds of the rain dances on the top of our tent while the angry skies yell from above. I look over at Sieu, who is completely defeated by this weather. After trying to line the bottom of our tent with garbage bags, in an effort to keep our sleeping mats dry, he has now given up and is lying in his sleeping bag with a blank stare. I have worked hard, these past few days, to keep his morale up about the rain but today, there is nothing left. A river of water runs under our tent, with no sign of it letting up. The only thing that we can do now is to try our best to keep our gear dry so that we will not be summiting with damp gear tomorrow night. As we lie quietly in our tent, waiting for this day to end, I decide to pass the time by writing today’s adventures in my Midori travel notebook …

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Rain, rain, go away …

The morning begins as usual. We receive our wake-up call at 6:30am, enjoy our morning coffee, and then slowly get our stuff ready for the day. Once everything is neatly organized in my 95 L duffel bag, I crawl out of the tent and am struck with awe. I can’t believe my eyes! Mother Nature has removed her cloak of thick, grey fog to finally reveal her masterpiece. I look around and try to take it all in. We are surrounded by these colossal mountains that had seemed so far away just a few days ago. The bottoms of the mountains are speckled with green tuffs of grass, along with these peculiar trees that we had seen yesterday. My eyes slowly make their way up the charcoal trunks of the mountains to their snow-covered tops. The snow drizzles down from the peaks like melted white chocolate poured on top of a chef’s stunning creation.

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Leaving Baranco Camp

I enjoy the crisp and refreshing morning air as we begin our hike. Since the sun has not  summited the 360 degrees of mountains that we are surrounded by, the temperature is still cool. I embrace this and take a deep breath in, excited about today’s hike. Today is not only a hike, but a climb too, as we will be conquering the Baranco Wall.

As we near the edge of this stone wall, I look up at its magnificent rock face. I can’t help but wonder how the porters are going to carry our gear up and over this vertical obstacle. Assessing the landscape, there appears to be no other way than up. While I stand there trying to figure this out, Albert instructs us to pack away our hiking poles as we will be needing both our hands AND our feet for this scramble. Yes! Let’s do this!!

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Porters carrying 20 kg of gear up the vertical surface of the Baranco Wall

Welcoming the challenge, I begin to look for foot placements and rocks to grasp onto with my hands, in order to pull myself on top of some of the boulders that line the trail. While doing so, San and I begin to plan a climbing vacation for all of us to go on next. He is an avid climber so I knew he would be onboard for this kind of adventure!

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Like ants marching in a line, we continue to ascend the winding, narrow path up the Baranco Wall. Looking ahead and then looking behind me, I notice how the wall is speckled with tourists and porters from various groups. I also notice how our porters, who were packing up our campsite when we left, have now caught up and are veering off of the semi-groomed trail to pass us. Their strength and agility continues to amaze me.

 

 

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“The Kissing Wall” of Baranco Wall

Nearly half way up, we come to a sudden stop. I look ahead and see that we have finally reached the famous “Kissing Rock” of the Machame Trail. I had read about this and am excited to see what all of the hype is about. How narrow could this pathway possibly be? Well, I finally got my answer. It’s pretty darn narrow! Our guide, Paul, stands split-legged and is balancing carefully between us and the unforgiving drop off the ledge. One-by-one, we hug this cold stonewall and shimmy along its narrow edge. Sieu is in front of me. I watch as he hugs the wall, gives it a little kiss for a photo op, and then continues to carefully slide to the other side. Planning my first step, I look down at the worn rock ledge, that has been stepped on by so many climbers before me. I am not scared of heights but I can understand how some may become paralyzed with fear from this restrictive pathway.

7cc66dd0-9415-4ff6-ac33-998bc8222af9As we near the top, the illusion of sun escapes us as the clouds crawl in. This makes for an eerie arrival at the peak of the Baranco wall. While taking a quick break, I notice an older gentleman sitting with two guides near our group. He is Caucasian with bright blue eyes and is the oldest man that I have seen on the trail yet. I am curious about his story so I gradually approach him. “Hi, how ya doing?” I ask. “Good, thanks!” he replies. Ah ha! He speaks English! Throughout the hike, I have noticed the vast amount of diversity along the trail and often overhear so many different languages being spoken daily. He tells me that he is from the United States and that he is climbing Kilimanjaro with his girlfriend, who is much younger than he is. As I am talking with him, my husband comes over to join in on the conversation – he has a way of asking those questions that we are all too shy to ask. “Excuse me, sir, if you don’t mind me asking, how old you are?” “I don’t mind at all”, he replies, “I am 78 years old”. Wow. I am speechless. I shake his hand and wish him the best of luck.

So what goes up, must come down. As we continue our hike, we descend down the other side of the Baranco wall; however, it is much more gradual and forgiving than the ascent. The fog remains thick and the air remains cold. Although it is not raining, the air is damp so we put on our rain gear to keep dry and for added warmth. Once we reach the bottom, a thin worn trail scurries off into the distance with no apparent ending. There is nothing in this new landscape. No birds. No plants. No porters. Not even any other hikers. Just us navigating through this uninhabited, grey landscape through the thick, white fog.

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As we quietly continue forward, the vegetation begins to re-emerge from the gravel flooring and the scenery, once again, looks less grim and desolate. Upon reaching the edge of a canyon, with nowhere else to go but down, we stop for a break. Albert tells us that our campsite is on the other side of this deep abyss. He continues to tell us that we will have limited water supply at this campsite since the only water source is in the belly of this canyon, as he points down.

We carefully walk down the winding path of this final steep descent. Once we reach the bottom, we cross a small stream and then begin our final ascent. Tired, we all drag our feet as we continue to zig to the left and then zag to the right all the way to the top. Our guides chat the entire time, without any signs of fatigue or shortness of breath. This is like a Sunday afternoon walk in the park for them.

As we finally reach the top, we are greeted by the warmth of our G-Fighters. Every day when we arrive at our new campsite, Willie greets me with a kind handshake from his rough, worked hands. Every day I look forward to this as he looks so proud to see me summiting this mountain, one campsite at a time. During this time, we are also greeted by a gust of wind that blows the tent for our port-a-potty off the top of this mountain . We laugh as two G-Fighters chase after it and joke about how funny it would have been if someone was using the potty at the time!

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Arriving at Karanga Camp

As we settle into our campsite, we enjoy a late lunch followed by a quiet and relaxing afternoon. During this time, the other G-Adventures group, which we’ve been leap-frogging with over these past 4 days, is continuing past our campsite and straight to the basecamp. Since we opted for the 7-day hike, as oppose to the 6-day, it gives us more time to rest up before our summiting night. Tomorrow is our turn to hike to the basecamp, nap in the afternoon, and then awake at 11pm to summit.

After lunch, the mess tent alarmingly shakes from a thunderous boom and then the rain begins. And when it rains, it really pours! The skies open up and are dumping buckets of water on us, which is pounding violently on the canvas of our mess tent. We all decide to wait in the mess tent for the rain to let up before going back to our tents. In the meantime, San pulls out a deck of cards and one of the G-Fighters teaches us a Tanzanian card game. We speak loudly to be heard over the hammering sounds of the rain. With all of this rain accumulating from the persistent rainfall, a small stream begins to flow straight through out mess tent. Since I am wearing Crocs, I leave them on the ground and fold my legs up on my chair. After a while, Sieu decides to brave the rain and go check on our tent. I bring down my legs to put on my Crocs and join him but one of them is missing! The stream carried one of my shoes away to the other side of the tent!

We bolt for our tent to see what kind of damage has been done. Similar to the mess tent, there is a stream of water passing under our tent as well. The bottom of our sleeping mats are damp as our tent can only sustain so much from this cruel environment. We line the floor of our tent with garbage bags and then secure the remainder of our gear. We sit together in silence, listening to the rhythmic drumming of the rain on our tent.

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Looking out from our tent

The rain finally stops in the evening. Perhaps Mother Nature’s way of telling us to rest up before the journey ahead? Regardless of the reason, we had a quiet afternoon of hiding from the rain. After supper, we have our nightly debriefing. Everyone is feeling well today, with no complaints of the altitude. Even my saturation has drastically improved from last night and is now 94%! It is very reassuring to see everyone happy, motivated, and rested, ready to conquer the summit tomorrow night. People are even beginning to entertain the idea of doing Everest Base Camp next year. We are not sold of this idea just yet but we will see …

As we turn in for the night, I fill my water bottle with hot water and head back to our tent. The humidity from the rain has made the night air comfortable. I admire how clear the night sky is, since all of the clouds are resting below us for the night. The lights from Moshi, a nearby city, sparkle similarly to the stars in the sky. The moon is full tonight and illuminates our surroundings; we planned our trip around this so that we would have good visibility for summiting night. There is no way of fully capturing this moment but I do feel slightly immortal, like a Greek God sitting upon Mount Olympus and looking down on the mortals below.

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Karanga Camp overlooking Moshi, a nearby city

 

To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 5: Barafu Camp – Base Camp)

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 2: Shira Cave Camp)

Altitude: 3,750 m
Distance: 5 km
Date: Jan. 29, 2018

          There are birds chirping, pots clanging together, and people laughing. I awake to the sound of our porters preparing for day two of our trek. As I remain cocooned in my warm sleeping bag, I try to figure out the time. Is it too early to wake up? Should I try to sleep some more? I glance over at Sieu to see if I could sneak a peek at his watch but his arms are tucked deep within his sleeping bag. I pause for a second to look at him in the dim light of the early morning. His earplugs are still in place and he is wearing an eye mask, which he had poorly drawn two googly eyes on. 

          Sieu and I began dating nearly seven years ago. We always joked that he was the brains and that I was the brawn in our relationship since he had spent most of his life avoiding any kind of physical exertion. I thought about one of the first trips that we took as a new couple: we drove four-hours to stay in a hotel within the Chic-Choc Mountains in Quebec. He suggested this trip because he had heard that they served magnificent fois gras; however, I suggested climbing Mount Albert because I had heard that the views from the top are comparable to the Rockies in western Canada. “Go big or go home” is how I sold the idea of this ten-hour hike to him. Being newly in love, he agreed and equipped himself with brand-new leather hiking boots, a day bag, and hiking poles. At the time, this 1,151 meter climb was the biggest hike that either one of us had ever done. Sieu suffered through that entire hike with a smile on his face just for me; however, it was during that trip that he realized that if he wanted to enjoy life, then he had to get into better shape. Looking at him this morning, I am amazed that we are sharing this adventure to 5,895 meters together! He truly is the most incredible person that I have ever met.  

          Too excited to fall back asleep, I decide to sit up in my sleeping bag and retrieve the clothes that I had stuffed in the bottom the night before. As I get dressed, I notice how our tent had gathered condensation throughout the night, leaving anything that touched its walls moist. It was a cruel night. I had expected a warm and friendly welcome from Africa’s highest mountain, but instead its hospitality was rather cold and uncordial. I spent the night clinging to my hot water bottle, for what felt like dear life.

          We receive our official wake up call at 6:30am with a porter tapping on our tent and greeting us with a cup of hot water. “Tea, coffee, or hot cocoa?” he asks. “Just two cups of hot water please!” I reply. As we empty our Nescafe sachets into the cups, he continues to inquire, “Sugar? Whitener?” “No need! It’s all included!” He seems puzzled at what we are mixing so I offer him one to try. “Asante sana!” he says happily, “Karibou!” I reply.

          After enjoying our morning cup of coffee, we pack the remainder of our gear back into our duffel bags. Once finished, I place each bag neatly at the end of our sleeping mats and leave some Jolly Ranchers on the top for our porters. As I roll out of our tent, I am blindsided by Mark’s knees! He appears to be immune to the cool temperatures of the morning by wearing shorts and gaiters, leaving only his pale knees peeking out. “Sexy knees, Mark!” I yell over to his tent, which earns me a wink.

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Leaving Machame Camp

          Today, we are hiking through the climatic zone referred to as the moorlands. This trek begins on a rocky trail that is naturally carved through the low-growing vegetation. The trees do not look as lush as they did yesterday in the rainforest; instead they look dry and brittle. The rocks that we are climbing on look antiqued with stains of green and white lichen, a composition of fungi and algae. The sun is shining in the bright blue sky with not a cloud in sight. As we hike higher, I appreciate the warmth of the day after such a cold night. I notice that Nhung is taking advantage of this weather by hanging yesterday’s socks from her daypack to dry. I also observe how the trail seems unaffected by the high volumes of traffic; there is no destruction of any kind and very minimal garbage left behind. 

          Our first break is near some large boulders, which other hikers are climbing on top of in order to get a panoramic view of Mount Meru, the fifth highest mountain in Africa, and Mount Kilimanjaro. I gaze out into the distance at Kilimanjaro, which is tucked behind miles of rolling hills. Although the view is breathtaking, the idea of reaching that mountain in just a few short days flabbergasts me. As I hop to another boulder to get a better view, Hoan cautions me about the ghastly drop that I am roaming near. Hoan’s cautious and calculated personality, similar to Sieu’s, compensates nicely for the carelessness of mine. The more I get to know Hoan, the more I appreciate that, despite being more temperate and reserved in nature, he has a clever sense of humor, which is very subtle and unassuming. 

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Mount Kilimanjaro far into the distance
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Brunno & HIS penguin

          As we continue our journey, I find myself near Brunno, one of our guides. I struggle to figure him out, as his personality seems a bit more complex. He appears calm and composed, yet sports a distinctive style that shows an attention to detail. When I initially met Brunno, the first thing that I noticed was his hair; it’s about shoulder-length and styled similar to cornrows – it’s very cool! I vaguely remember them referring to him as “DJ B”, which is because he DJs in his spare time. Brunno appears confident and seems experienced in guiding, but I am unsure, just yet, if he is friendly. I decide to engage in conversation with him. “Hey, San’s penguin!” I say as I point towards a penguin hanging off the front strap of his backpack. He looks at me seriously and says, “No, this is my penguin.” “What are the odds of that?” I say, “It looks so much like San’s!” As I say this, my head quickly shoots forward to look up at San. I can see that he no longer has a penguin hanging off the back of his bag. I feel mortified at my own gullibility. Argh!! Why do I always do that?! I can’t BELIEVE that I fell for that!!!! I distance myself from that embarrassing conversation in hopes that this first impression does not last forever.

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The Haunted Forest of the Machame Trail

          The vegetation is gradually becoming shorter and less dense as we hike. Looking ahead, it appears that our path leads directly into a cloud. As we approach this gateway to heaven, the sun disappears and the air changes from delightfully warm to damp and bitter. The scenery suddenly becomes cold and eerie. The trees look more bare and skeleton-like with pieces of Spanish moss hanging from them, similar to cobwebs in an abandoned house. As the clouds creep between these spooky trees, it feels as though we are hiking through a haunted forest. 

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“Miguel Plant”

          Curious about the vegetation, I bend over to touch one of the plants. Brunno stops and explains how these plants close during the night; they also have an antifreeze protein that permits them to survive in subzero temperatures. I wish I had that protein! While showing me the antifreeze liquid, Paul takes Miguel’s hat and sunglasses and places it on the plant and says, “Hey look! It’s a Miguel plant!”. Paul, or Mr. Polepole as they call him, is our guide with the most experience. He often hikes quietly by himself and appears to truly enjoy the beauty of the trail, despite doing the same one for the past eighteen years. He has such a genuine warmth and certain charisma, which makes me feel happy to be around. That, and his remarkable resemblance to Morgan Freeman … who doesn’t love Morgan Freeman?!

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Lobelia Dechenii

          As we approach the desolate grounds of the Shira Cave Camp, there are huge ravens hanging around our campsite. As if this scenery didn’t look creepy enough, adding a few hateful looking ravens certainly did the trick! Through the chaos of our group trying to match up with our porters, I spot Willie by his short stature and big smile. As he leads me to my tent, there is not much visible scenery to enjoy – the clouds surround the camp, preventing us from being able to reap any benefit of our four-hour climb. As Willie takes my daypack to put in the tent, I feel a few drops of rain hit my shoulders. We got here JUST in time to avoid the rain!

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Our Team Arriving at Shira Cave Camp

          After getting cleaned up, we all gather in the mess tent for lunch. As the rain trickles down, we drink tea and strengthen our new friendships. We reflect upon what brings us here to the mountain. “This is so huge!” someone exclaims, “That’s what she said!” Mark replies. And with these four short words began an afternoon of laughs and “that’s what she said” jokes. Mark tries to teach Sieu how to use this punch line but he fails to seize the right opportunities. “Anyone want some more tea?” someone asks. “Thats what she said!!!” Sieu eagerly blurts out. Nope. It’s a good job we have all week to work on this. 

Before long, the rain stops and Albert is able to take us for a quick trip to the caves before supper. As we are walking, I notice stacks of rocks piled on top of one another. I walk, with my eyes to the ground, until I spot a large, flat rock. I pick it up and try to balance it on top of one of these piles. “Find your inner peace”, Nhung says slow and calmly as she walks by. After a few tries, my rock finally remains balanced. Inner peace achieved!  

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Shira Caves

          As we reach the cave, we all crawl inside and Paul begins to tell us about how, years ago, people trying to summit would sleep in these caves. I am a bit distracted from his story though, as I can’t stop laughing at the sight of Mark crammed into this tiny cave. It reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite Christmas movies, Elf, when Buddy was working in the toy shop. 

          Upon returning to our campsite, all of our porters are waiting outside and wearing their purple “G-Adventures” vest and toque. They are ready to start our introductory ceremony, which allows us to individually meet all 35 members of our team. During this time, we learn that they are referred to as “G-Fighters” instead of porters. I am surprised to learn that each G-Fighter plays a greater role beyond carrying equipment. These individual tasks allows the team to operate like a well-oiled machine; every member has a specific responsibility, such as water sterilization or tent security, which ensures a smooth and comfortable trek.

         Albert then begins to orchestrate an incredible celebration with songs in Swahili and dance. The bond and devotion of this team is very apparent and being a part of this celebration makes me feel like I am a part of their family. As I find my hands clapping and my feet moving, I am surprised that my comfort and joy overpowers my discontent for dancing. When it is our turn to be introduced, Albert points at me, and says my name followed by something in Swahili. He later explains that this song translates to, “Tell Amanda to tie her shoes tight, and she’ll get to the top! Tell Sieu to drink lots of water, and he’ll get to the top…” 

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Albert & his team of G-Fighters introducing themselves through song in Swahili

          After supper, Brunno teaches us about the different tribes in Tanzania and answers any questions that we have. It is incredible to learn about our guides and their family history. Watching our five guides interact and discuss their cultural backgrounds was like watching five brothers playfully tease each other. In all of my travels, I have never been to a country where the people are so kind and willing to share their beautiful culture with me. Everyone that I encounter is so gentle in teaching me their language and so open to answering my questions. I feel beyond grateful for this opportunity.

Before retreating to our tents, Albert gives us our debriefing for tomorrow’s adventure and measures our saturation: my SpO2 is 93% and my heart rate is 75. I fill my water bottle with hot water and prepare myself for the crippling cold that awaits me back in our tent. When leaving the mess, I notice in the dark a G-Fighter sitting out in the cold, watching our tents. We really are in good hands. Before crawling into my tent, I take one last look at how the full moon illuminates the snow on the top of Kilimanjaro – it is truly magnificent. Despite the cold temperatures of the evenings starting to have an impact on my morale, I am  thankful to belong to this group and acknowledge that there is no place that I would rather be. 

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Shira Cave Camp

 

To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 3: Lava Tower, part 1)

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 1: Machame Camp)

Elevation: 2,835 m
Distance: 11 km
Date: Jan. 28, 2018

Tonight, I sit in our two-man tent, hands numb from the frigid temperatures of the mountain. I never anticipated it being so cold at night. My sleeping bag works hard to steal the heat from the hot water bottle that I stuffed at the bottom, as the bright light from my headlamp shines on the empty pages of my journal. I stare at them the same way that a painter stares at a blank canvas before making his first brush stroke, imaging how I will paint the picture of my first day with words.

* * *

I awake early, trying to soak in the last comforts of civilization before departing on our weeklong journey. I note how the bed feels warm and the sheets feel particularly soft today. I fell asleep last night thinking about my gear and strategizing how I could eliminate any items in order to stay within the 15 kg allowance. Those same thoughts remain with me now as I stare pensively up at the ceiling. I felt so confident when packing my bag before, but now that it’s the final hours, I feel so unsure and question everything. Do I really need three pairs of pants? Do I have enough t-shirts? Will it be hot? Will it be cold? I roll out of bed and sit on the floor in front of my bag. I stare at it in silence while my husband, Sieu, tries to squeeze in a little more sleep. Normally he would be forced awake by an explosion of my energy, but today I am much too preoccupied to harass him. I previously found pleasure in the challenge of packing my bag; however, this time I am left with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I give myself a quick pep talk: You got this, Amanda! And if you do forget anything, you are capable of going without it. Plus, you already went through your gear a dozen times back home so there’s really not much that you can change at this point anyway. I take a deep breath and begin:  summiting clothes in the blue compression bag. Daily hiking clothes in the black compression bag. Rain gear in my day bag. Headlight tucked into the side pocket. Instant coffee for instant morale boosting. My purple 1L Nalgene water bottle stuffed full of ginger candies, Jolly Ranchers, and Werther’s Original. I reassure myself that everything is going to be okay.

After breakfast, we bring our bags downstairs and meet with our CEO, Albert. He is a tall, slim man, with deep dimples that accent his smile. He greets us but I can’t stop staring at his t-shirt – it’s royal blue with two tiny eyes in the center and a big mouth that is eating the G-Adventure’s logo. “I really like your shirt!” is the first words that I finally say to him. Albert instructs us to bring our bags to the weigh-in station so that they can be verified and then loaded onto our tan-colored expedition van. I hand my orange North Face duffel bag to the porter so that he can hook the strap onto the scale. The arm quickly shoots up over 10 kg as he partially supports the weight of my bag. I hold my breath and watch as the arm continues to climb up the scale: 12 kg … 13 kg … as he fully releases the weight of my bag the arm rests on 14.8 kg. I let out a loud sign of relief: PHEW! I’m JUST within my 15 kg weight limit! We then take a seat near the parking lot and quietly watch the remainder of our group fumble over their gear one last time while the porters begin to line the roof of the van with all of our colorful expedition bags.

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Our transportation
to the Machame gate

          Once all of our gear is secured, it is our turn to board the van; however, before doing so, we line up, shoulder-to-shoulder, for our first group picture. I hand my camera to one of the porters and then squeeze into the line beside my husband. Although I often seem like the brave and adventurous one in our relationship, little does he know that I often seek comfort in having him close by. Two of our guides, Brunno and Albert, stand on either side of our group, like bookends, for the picture. There is an odd silence of uncertainty in the air as we all pose quietly before boarding the bus. I retrieve my camera and say, “Asante sana” (ah-SAWN-tay SAW-na) – which means thank you very much in Swahili.

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Our G-Adventures Team

          I climb into the van and choose a double-seat near the back. I curiously look around at all of the new faces. I couldn’t help but wonder, will we all get along? Will we have anything to talk about during these long hours together? We are a group of 11, accompanied by five guides. On the bus, we are seated in front of a tall couple from Vancouver named Mark and Larenda. They chose to sit on the back bench so that Mark could stretch out his long legs, that accompany his 6’5” body, up the middle aisle. When eyeing their gear earlier, I noticed that it looked worn and broken in. This was obviously not their first hiking trip! They greet us with such comfort and ease, that it feels just like we are childhood friends merely catching up on our lost years. Larenda speaks with passion and intelligence about their skydiving adventures while Mark chimes in every now and again with a witty comment. His mannerisms are very similar to Will Ferrell so you can’t help but be entertained by him. To the left of us is a young girl named Fabie from Switzerland. She is so sweet that she could be a lead character in a Disney movie. She also reminds me a lot of an adventurous cousin of mine, so I quickly feel at ease with her too. In front of us is Sieu’s two nephews – San and Hoan. A very dynamic duo, those two are! I always enjoy my time with them when we go visit Sieu’s family in Ottawa because their conversations are always light, full of life, and fun. I often find myself joining in on their contagious giggling until my cheeks ache. This trip is actually San’s impulsive idea. He lobbed it out there a year ago and we all went along with it, waiting for someone to call his bluff. No one ever did. Sitting in front of them is San’s good friend, Nhung. She lives in Toronto and is basically a female version of him: she is adventurous, inquisitive, and easy to get along with. Upon our first meeting, she skipped the handshake and greeted us with a hug – I like that! She has such warmth in her smile that it radiates to her eyes. She is sitting beside her friend, Nicole, who recently moved back to Germany. Nicole has short blond hair with bright blue eyes and appears to be a perfect balance of free spirit and badass. The last two in our group is an attractive couple from Switzerland named Miguel and Berite. Miguel has a playful boyish smile and Berite has big, brown doe-eyes. They speak limited English, so they seem to keep to themselves a bit more than the remainder of our group.

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Total distances to Uhuru peak (summit) via the Machame Trail

          The hour-long drive to the Kilimanjaro National Park feels like only minutes as we all become better  acquainted. As we approach the Machame gate, our conversations soften as we all gaze out the window at the park entrance; it is so grandiose and clean that it feels as though we are driving into the Animal Kingdom at Disney World. We pass under the massive triangular gate and into a hectic parking lot filled with busy porters, wandering tourists, and expedition vans similar to ours. Our guides lead us to the communal waiting area filled with even more tourists waiting for their paperwork to be approved for entrance into the park. There is approximately 80 people of different colors, speaking different languages, with different tour companies, yet sharing the same universal body language of apprehension mixed with excitement. One group at a time slowly departed this waiting area as their final logistics are completed.

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          Alas, it is our turn! Our guides lead us to the entrance of the Machame trail, which is located on the other side of the parking lot. As we file through the green metallic gate, one-by-one, I briefly pause before taking my first step onto the loose gravel of the well-groomed trail. Here we go. We are finally doing this. As I proceed forward, I suddenly feel overcome with relief. The only way to see if I will succeed in this climb is to begin it! And now … it officially begins! We walk at a slow pace on a wide trail that gradually narrows into the mouth of the rainforest. Our guide reminds us, “Polepole.” (POE-lay, POE-lay), which means slowly-slowly. This slow pace will allow our bodies to acclimatize to the increase in altitude each day.  

          As we enter the belly of the rainforest, I gaze up in awe at the tall, slender trees that stretch overhead. The canopy above us appears to have cracks in it as the trees refuse to touch each other. I admire the lush greenery of the rainforest and how the spongy moss smothers the trees, while playful vines swing down from high above. The air feels humid and offers a combined scent of vegetation, moisture, and soil – similar to that of a greenhouse. Porters carrying large bags on their heads speed past us with such agility and grace. This image makes me chuckle: our group sports top of the line hiking gear, carbon fiber walking poles, and are only responsible for carrying our puny day bags, while these tall, slim porters, wearing ripped jeans and work boots, transport 20 kg of cargo to our campsite without even breaking a sweat!

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          Due to the traffic on the trail and our frequent pee-breaks from over-hydrating in an effort to ward off altitude sickness, our group slowly becomes spread out. Sieu is behind me speaking in French with Miguel and Berite. I take advantage of this alone time to thoroughly soak in the beauty of my surroundings. As I look ahead, the sight of San’s penguin pillow swinging from the back of his day bag makes me laugh. I foresee that as this trip becomes mentally exhausting, we will be able to rely on San and his goofy mannerisms for comic relief.

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San & his penguin

          My thoughts are interrupted by trickles of rain breaking through the openings in the canopy of the forest. Rain in the rainforest – how cliché! I stop on the side of the trail to retrieve my poncho, which is hidden deep within my day bag. While I am doing so, a green and white striped umbrella offers me shelter. Attached to the end of that umbrella is a short and broad man with a more serious demeanor. As I settle into my poncho, he introduces himself as William. He appears quite shy and is very soft-spoken. With his broken English, we chat quickly before he falls back to offer shelter to the other members of our team who are adjusting their rain gear.

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Sieu soaking up some rain in the rainforest 

As we continue to walk, the rain continues to pour. The trail becomes muddy as it accumulates water. I decide to put on my gaiters since these are my only pair of hiking shoes so it’s important to keep them dry. I fumble to hook and Velcro them while being engulfed by my baby-poop colored poncho. As I get myself straightened out and continue to walk, I find myself next to this younger man, probably in his 20’s, with a gentle face and a big, bright smile. I notice the kindness and sincerity in his eyes. He introduces himself as Lukie but some people call him Lucky. He is another one of our guides.

          As the density of the forest begins to let up, so does the rain. Sieu and I rejoin and remove our matching ponchos. We arrive at a sign which reads “Machame Camp” – this sight makes me feel very satisfied. Today’s walk wasn’t difficult; we walked for approximately four and a half hours and my legs feel strong and there is no sign of any altitude sickness yet. I hate to admit it, but there is great relief in knowing that we have successfully completed one day and that there is only six more to go.

 

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Arriving at Machame Camp

          Our group rejoins and staggers through the chaos of the tent city until we reach a small community of green tents. This must be ours, since each tour company has their own colored tents. As we get closer, I spot our duffel bags lined up on the ground with a person standing behind each one. I walk over to my bright orange duffle bag and make eye contact with a short man who appears eager to meet me. We shake hands. His name is Willie and he will be carrying my bag for our trek. Despite his limited English, I feel a bond with him, as though we have a shared ownership of each other. I point to myself and say “Rafiki” (rah-FEE-kee), which means “friend”. I try to pick up my bag but he is quicker. He scoops it up and guides me to my tent. I peer inside: there are two matching sleeping pads with plaid covers over them. Unsure of the routine, I stand there staring at him for what seems like a few minutes. Finally, with a smile on his face, he motions me to go into the tent. As I crawl inside, I notice that each side of the tent has its own door and vestibule area. While I am settling in, Willie returns with a bowl of hot water for me to freshen up with; Sieu’s porter does the same for him.     

          As Sieu and I make our way to the mess tent, we notice how the air quickly cools as the sun drops behind the mountaintops. I unzip the door and see two long tables, placed end-to-end, which are lined with a row of chairs on either side. There are a few members of our group who are already sitting in the back so we squeeze past the empty chairs to sit next to them. As the remainder of our group arrives, we talk and laugh over tea and popcorn. 

          I am amazed at how vibrant and charismatic each member of our group is! Although very different, we all share a passion for life and adventure. As I look around at everyone sharing their stories, I can feel a camaraderie already being formed. Our team leader, Albert, enters the tent along with our four other guides. He struggles to steal the attention away from our lively conversations and friendly bantering. Although he looks amused by how close our group has become in such a short while, it is time to start our nightly debriefing. We start by discussing our day, how we feel, and any concerns that we may have. In general, all members of our group are feeling well and enjoyed today’s journey. Concurrently, one of the other guides measure our saturation levels, to verify the level of oxygen in our blood, and our heart rate with a small finger probe. My SpO2 is 91% and my heart rate is 84. At a regular altitude, a saturation of 95% and above is considered normal. 

          Albert then begins to discuss the plan for tomorrow: timings, altitude, distance, clothing, and so on. In my brief interactions with Albert, I can see that he is a very professional leader and takes his job to heart. Once our debriefing is finished, our two cooks enter the tent with supper. We begin with an appetizer of asparagus soup, which really hits the spot as the cold evening air penetrates through the canvas walls of our tent. After our soup, the cooks then present our main course. From the back of the tent, I can’t see what it is but a mouth-watering aroma warms the air. As they pass the plates down, I can see that it is an avocado salad with fish, french fries, and stew. I truly feel Hakuna Matata (hah-KOO-nah mah-TAH-tah) as my worries melt away. After supper, I pour hot water into my water bottle before I head to bed. I am so eager to go to bed so that I can start my next day! 

tent city
 Machame Camp at Night

 

To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 2: Shira Cave Camp)