Travelogue: Mount Kilimanjaro

DSCN1947Not very long ago, a good friend and perhaps the wildest man I know asked me what my definition of adventure was.  We were coming home from Birdsboro Climbing Quarry, where I had just led my first sport climbing route (where the rope is attached to the climber, so safety consists of clipping oneself into protection as the climber ascends), easily one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done.

I was tempted to say, “Leading my first sport climbing route at Birdsboro Climbing Quarry” when I checked my sarcasm to look into his eyes.  There was a sincere interest to understand adventure in all of its vague mystery and connotation.  And this coming from a guy who has climbed his way through some of the most dangerous and iconic mountains in the world.  And me, a mild-mannered teacher in Philly capable of only rudimentary cliché self-descriptors.

But the exercise gave me a little pause.  What is adventure?  At the time, I ambled through some lengthy, post-adrenaline-hazed diatribe that probably set his expectations of my eloquence back, but I’ve since had time to think about the weight of the question.  I’m sure of at least a few things: adventure has nothing to do with radical or dangerous experience.  It’s not necessarily about a foray into nuance.  It most certainly doesn’t cede to other people’s notions of what adventure means to them.  In short, the answer is DSCN1959subjective.  Adventure is anything that demands a person appreciate being alive.  Climbing El Cap in Yosemite is adventure.  But so is parenting.  So is learning to appreciate your dirty neighborhood when you walk to the local coffee shop.  So is visiting that one painting in the corner of an art museum that draws you without logic.  So is being told you are loved.

The appreciation of being alive.

We’re here anyway.  Don’t know why.  Nothing we can do about it.  But we can adventure: we can appreciate the basic and inevitable.  The etymological root in question is the word advent, which means to arrive—draw your own conclusions.

Exactly one year ago, I climbed the tallest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, largely because mountains are my appreciation of life, but mostly because, yes, it was there.  The trek proved to be one of the most difficult of my life on account of the drastic altitude and frigid cold but it was simultaneously an advent into the ethereal for me: I plod forth on my own mortal timeline but perpetually find hash marks of wonder that my intellect cannot understand, but my bones feel.

DSCN2089Uhuru Peak (Swahili for “freedom”) is 19,341 feet above sea-level.  Note that altitude sickness and some of its severe side effects begin for most people at around 8,000 feet.  Note that that height is over 3.6 miles straight up.  Note (if you’re a Philadelphian) that this is the equivalent of almost twenty Comcast Centers stacked end to end.  The roof of Africa, and I was going to climb to its peak from its base in six days.

From Moshi, the small Northern Tanzanian town that acts as base camp for many a Kili hiker, I couldn’t even see Uhuru Peak, obscured as it was by clouds.  What I could see was the enormous base of the mountain that stood sentinel, intimidating in the otherwise flatland surrounding.  Kilimanjaro was massive, an unending upturn of rock Earth that was almost too difficult to look at, particularly when knowing you were about to attempt to scale it.  Wandering Moshi, I’d steal glances at its bulk, tempt a challenge from it.  I was an adept hiker and climber; I had prepared my body for this ascent and had trekked at altitude before (see Peru Travelogue).  But there is no doubt that Kili looks down on you, cloud bearded, and near smirks—playing the odds that you’ll give up DSCN1987before achieving its crown.

Sure, I anthropomorphized the mountain a bit.  But this was how I psyched myself up to meet the impending challenge.  I knew that what lay before me would be difficult; as much as it fought me, as much as I fought back, summiting was the ultimate kinship between mountain and man.  I would learn its peak, its highest and most vulnerable exposure, and it would learn my weakness and dedication to be there; something of a symbiosis drives this: we feed one another and cease to co-exist as separate entities and grow together—stone and flesh—into some new communion.  I know how this must sound at sea-level, but everyone who’s ever been on that mountain knows precisely what I mean.

And the world is magic magic magic.  Remember that this was the final leg of my Tanzanian trip.  Already a month in, I had recently shed my beautiful students and colleagues and was now alone in Moshi, with a few days to wax histrionic about rock and be careful what I was eating to not enter the trek with any sort of foodborne illness.  I spoke with Azizi, the owner and operator of my trekking company (Trek2Kili) and he mentioned that a member of my hiking group had also checked into the hotel where I was staying.  After a brief investigation, I knocked on a door, interested in meeting a fellow adventurer on this errand.  It didn’t take long after Lisa and I introduced ourselves to find out that we were from the same place.  Not only was Lisa a doctor working at a hospital in Philadelphia, but we had a mutual friend in common back home.  Literally, in a small Tanzanian village in what felt like the opposite side of the world, I was preparing to climb a mountain with someone who was only one degree of Kevin Bacon away from me back home.

We were soon joined by Chen and Amy, and our quartet was complete: four travelers of the world converging at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, ready or not, but willing to walk.

DSCN1953In the day or so before the trek began, we wandered more around Moshi, trying to politely reject street hawkers who were endlessly magnetized to the obvious foreigners, located the closest convenience store for post-hike booze celebrations, read in coffee shops, watched obscure movies on dubious internet connections, and huddled together to discuss the unknown—the reason we were together: the ascent.

DSCN2037Much like the Inca Trail, summiting Kilimanjaro demands a traveler book a local tour company.  This makes sense on many levels but also has a number of problematic associations to it.  Specifically, like in so many developing places, there are a number of tour companies that abuse their porters: the folks tasked with carrying the heaviest and most burdensome necessities of the trek.  Low wages, poor equipment, and other dubious working conditions make the lives of these people—who are otherwise economically disenfranchised—particularly difficult.  Therefore, in choosing a touring company, I was careful to research and select a group that belonged to the Kilimanjaro Porter Assistance Project (KPAP), an organization that establishes and regulates working conditions for the hundreds of people who help tourists trek Kili each year.

DSCN1994I landed upon Trek 2 Kili because it fit all of my needs as a responsible traveler.  There was no way I’d be able to ascend Kili on my own, so I needed a company that was as adept as it was fair to its workers.  Azizi, the owner, was at one time a porter himself, and so was empathetic to the needs of those in his employ.  The KPAP ensures the working conditions of porters are humane: lodging, clothing, weight restrictions, food, pay, etc.  The KPAP also sends one of its own porters with companies to determine if standards are constantly met.

Like in Peru, it was difficult for me to stomach the fact that I was paying other people to lug my food, water, tent, etc. up the mountain while I strolled in luxury.  It’s how it’s done but it doesn’t blunt the force of the hierarchy involved in such an enterprise.  And indeed, on the mountain, we saw some nefarious circumstances with porters.  Talking with Azizi, we realized just how Trek 2 Kili was different.  We crunched some numbers and realized that each porter was paid double the fair compensation rate set by the KPAP.  Also, to ensure there was no suspicion that Azizi was skimming tip money (a practice I actually saw from the head of another company on the mountain), he packaged all of our money, pre-trek, in envelopes that I carried with me the entire journey to hand out to the porters at the end.  It could be argued that these were clever rouses to fool a trusting tourist, but our porters seemed genuinely content the entire way; we hung, ate, and spoke with them as we climbed together.  And, at the end, a number of porters from other groups were clearly trying to defect to Azizi’s company, as they came over to our porters to ask about jobs.  This makes me feel better about my choice of trekking company, but it also underscores the unfair practices still at play on Kilimanjaro.

Day 1

I decided upon the Macheme route because, though it was more difficult (okay, I chose it because it was more difficult), it was more scenic.  There were no lodges along the way; DSCN1973only tents and camps and the rapidly changing climate zones—from rain forest to glacier.

The first day we hiked six miles through a beautiful and dense rainforest, replete with thick brush, vines, and mud.  This was to be the most relaxing day of the trek.  It was about easing into the hike, adjusting to the altitude, and practicing a Swahili slogan that would become mantra from our admonishing tour guides in the succeeding days:  poli poli (slowly, slowly).  To which, I’d always reply: haraka haraka (faster, faster).

DSCN1990We arrived at Macheme Camp (10,000 ft.) and got our first view of Uhuru.  It literally stalled me.  There was the ice cap that was ever receding would likely be gone in just a few years.  In only a few days, my boots would crunch through that ice.

We were 2,000 ft. above typical altitude sickness range and I had no real symptoms yet.  I knew about myself that I am one of the more fortunate people who doesn’t suffer the worst of altitude sickness.  Perhaps a little shortness of breath, a tiny headache, but otherwise fine.  What I wasn’t necessarily prepared for, was the cold.  Of course, I was prepared for it: all throughout my month of arid Northern Tanzania and tropical Zanzibar, I lugged along heavy jackets, gloves, scarves, and hats just for these few days on the mountain.  But still, when the sun went down, even donning all of my clothing seemed not enough.  Before bed, we asked the porters to boil water so we could fill our nalgenes and sleep with them.  Pro-tip: I kept one at the foot of my sleeping bag and cradled the other like the warm baby it was.

Day 2

DSCN2004This may have been my favorite day of the hike.  It was a rigorous uphill jaunt that left the treeline behind and ceded to the sharp volcanic rock of Kili’s higher climates.  We scaled a spine of said rock until we broke above the cloud line.  There’s certainly something strange about the celestial being above clouds.  Unlike in an airplane, when you’re there in the open, in the impossible way that clouds buffer away the sounds from below, it seems peacefully apocalyptic.  The sublimity of the cloud bed below and forever DSCN2031out and the silence—it’s easy to trick oneself that there is nothing below the clouds, and never was.  The ocean of undulating white below.

We arrived at Shira Camp, at significantly higher altitude, and watched the sun set below the clouds, Mount Meru peaking through, breeching to meet us.  At dusk (my favorite time of day), the cold swept in, but it wasn’t enough to have me retreat to my tent; I stood on a rock promontory and looked out, incredulous that I could actually be there.  The altitude was getting rough but I was still reasonably okay.  A little shortness of breath but that was understandable: there wasn’t much oxygen in what my lungs took in.

DSCN2058The impending summit enticed, daunting but exhilarating.  In rock climbing, the crux is the most difficult part of any given route.  The best advice is to have the climber work their way through the crux, to concentrate on it, approach it ready, attack it, and revel in its failure to stall them.  Of course, some cruxes win.  But they win only long enough for the climber to get stronger and smarter, to attack again and again until the fortifications of the problem are bested and the crux is behind, below.

Day 3

(Taken more or less verbatim from my journal)

DSCN2011People may wonder why I—or anyone—would put myself through so much just to climb a mountain.  To PAY to climb a mountain.  To agonize physically and psychologically while smelling like high hell for no discernible reason but to do it.  Perhaps I can elaborate.

Climbing a mountain is life.  It is living.  Perhaps in the way that watching TV or going to work is indeed living, but may not feel like being alive, climbing a mountain is an unreasonable, illogical practice of figuring out what living might feel like.  (Don’t worry, I watch plenty of TV and go to work all the time).  We don’t live because we have a quintessential purpose in doing so.  Waking, we may ask, “What for?” but we get no answer.  We climb mountains because they are there, but we do it more because it is a concentration of all the affirmations of being alive.  Nothing about it is easy.  Everything is beautiful.  Like life.  You do it because you breathe and that is a miracle and mountains are miracles and your walking is a miracle and all you’re really doing is combining miracles.

DSCN2075The trek from Shira Camp to Baranco Camp was pretty strenuous, mostly because we achieved 15,000 ft. at our highest point (Lava Tower), which was the highest I’d ever hiked.  Altitude plays funny tricks.  Indeed, the most obvious tribulation is the lack of oxygen to breathe.  You breathe deep and constantly but are never satisfied.  No oxygen in the air, no oxygen in the blood, no oxygen for the muscles, and you end up exhausted and unable to urge your limbs into compliance.  This, however, seems almost bearable if you understand to take deep breaths and go slowly.  What perhaps challenges more is the equilibrium assault, which greatly decreases one’s balance and decision-making (i.e. where to place a foot) and the psychological distortion.  As much as I’d been trekking, hard and strong, the altitude made me think I wouldn’t reach the summit.  While at rest, I felt reassured; but when huffing along, it seemed a long shot.

15,000 feet.

Let that sink in.

DSCN2086You have to respect the mountain.  Kilimanjaro wanted me to climb it.  Static as it’s always been, it welcomes visitors, urges them to its tallest peak, beckons them to rest in its valleys and on its plateaus.  But we have to honor it.  We have to earn its goodwill by suffering through its realities.  We have to know, first of all, that it is large, that it predates us and will succeed us, that it deserves the reverence of our pain.  The suffering, our offering.  Kilimanjaro—the rite of passage.  I went because it was there.  I suffered because that’s what it demanded.  But, if I kept on, hopefully it would welcome me at its peak, where I’d live.  Where I’d always live.  Suffering over, I’d have learned to live my life.

Day 4

From the Baranco Camp to the Barafu Base camp, there was an orchestra of slow steps.  Tiny steps.  Paced out with breath.  I do this thing, have done this thing for a long while: designing a breathing sequence that matches the strenuous activity I’m doing.  It’s like Lamaze for the athlete.  Three quick bursts in the nose, one hiss out of the mouth.  Three quick in, one ujjayi out.  Variations ad nauseam.  Whatever the hike or bike ride or climb demands.  This day’s hike was a lot of that and even more strange surroundings.

DSCN2098We pressed through what seemed the moon—bald and barren, all dust and grey.  Altitude pressing.  When we arrived at camp we didn’t have a lot of luxury.  Because the idea was to summit prior to the sun’s rising, we were going to wake up before midnight to start our summit trek, and Barafu was so cold that entertaining the idea of being anywhere other than deep into a sleeping bag when the sun went down made going to bed at seven an easy choice.

Day 5


When we began the trek from camp to peak it was so dark that it felt like walking through a void.  True, we all had headlamps on lighting the way, but they only illuminated so far, and the terminus of my light’s beam seemed devoured by the encroaching dark.  The chemical heating packs I’d jammed into my boots, gloves, and pockets did little to ward off the cold, and so this was what desolation felt like: ravenous dark and puncturing cold.

When we got the base of the steep ascent, 400 feet of elevation gain in less than 5 kilometers, all I could see was the snaking rope of head-lighted climbers switch-backing up the vertical face, their lamps in single file, a human constellation of challenge and endurance.

I’d never been so overcome when hiking.  A crushing squeeze on the lungs.  My blood was so oxygen-deprived that I became dizzy and confused.  The entire ascent was the same grey-dirt trail lit by my dim lamp, the swooshing of canvas legs before and behind me, people retching, loud breathing.  It wasn’t agony so much as a state of semi-consciousness.  Not fatalistically, I thought I might die that day.  I certainly wondered if I’d finish.  The entire abyss of heavenly bodies glowed brighter than I’d ever seen them above and inside of me I could not string together two clear thoughts.  I was sentient enough to wonder about insanity and its relationship to what I was feeling; I was clear-headed enough, under two shooting stars, to know that I’d get there be damned.

We’d break every ten paces or so.  We’d sit.  Rising felt impossible.  We rose.  We stepped on.  My steps only as long as one foot’s length: right heel to left toe, left heel to right toe.  I thought we’d take years.  But in just a few hours, we arrived at Stella Point, atop Uhuru.

I could never have prepared for it.  Not the trek, the being there.  Filthy, sunburnt, muscles hurt, lungs a mess, delusional—absolutely no regrets.  My feet chomped ice and I looked out over the rim of the roof of Africa as the sun rose into new day.  All around DSCN2107me, the glacier ice spiked up like waves of fingers, a science I didn’t know, and I wasn’t on Earth anymore.  I couldn’t have been.  Nowhere on Earth was like this.  The horizon was a ruler’s edge where space met cloud and rather than make me feel vulnerable, I felt powerful; I felt myself a part of this cosmic thing that I’d never understand but was in me as much as it was in everything around me.  Stone and flesh.  Adventure.  I’d arrived: my body on the mountaintop.

For the next half hour, we hiked a sickle bend around the extra elevation to Uhuru Peak, where an obligatory sign announced that we’d officially summited Mount Kilimanjaro.  There, we took photos.  Some people puked.  Some people did pushups.  Some had Champagne.  None of us could breathe very well.

It was enough to make a man weep, and I’m not afraid to say it.

DSCN2100And this was at sunrise, the beginning of our day.  We then trekked all the way down, rested for an hour or so, and preceded to hike to Mwenka Camp, which was about 10,000 feet below.  I had no idea how fresh air could seem.  I was so tired and beat up and overjoyed that I don’t think I said very much.  I didn’t eat a whole lot.  I just marveled a bit.  I’m still marveling now.DSCN2120

The next day we trekked quickly off the mountain, the lure of showers and bourbon too much to keep us on Kili any longer.  Back in Moshi, we sat at the same tables.  But they were not the same tables.

And just like that, after a month away, after the study abroad and craters and coral reefs and mountains, I was about to board an airplane home (well, the first of a few).  Of course, I was ready for home; but another part of me, the part that bonded with Tanzania in the long comforts I’d found there—in the people, the land, the culture, the food—that part wondered what sort of longing I’d have when the plane took off and I left Tanzania for the first time.

I was the beneficiary of a study abroad experience that crafted me as much as I hope to have helped the growth of the students in my charge (about this, how could I ever know?).  Ngorongoro’s walls still capture me.  Zanzibar’s waters still ripple below me.  And Kili: I’ve never left and it’s here now.

The ends of things—all illusions.  All perfunctory temporalities we utilize for lack of better conclusions.  So now, all I can say to Tanzania and its incredible, transcendent, incalculable wonder:






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