Kilimanjaro Part I: Inauspicious Beginnings

Trip Start Sep 02, 2010
Trip End Jun 13, 2011

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going." (Hemingway, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro")

With this one, I don't even know where to begin except to say that what I experienced on Kilimanjaro brought me so much joy. I feel so lucky to have been able to climb that gorgeous beast of a mountain--and to do it with my Dan, my Dad, and three of my great friends.

I suppose I should start at the very beginning. The first time Dan and I first made any mention about climbing Kili, it was on the same night that we'd first tossed around the idea of taking a year off. Most of you know this story, but for those who don't, I'll tell it briefly. It was early April of '09, and Dan and I both came home from work one day feeling incredibly stressed out. This was the most recent of a string of bad days at work. Dan went off to spend the evening volunteering (for Vote for Equality, CA), and I...promptly went to J. Crew. I guess you could say that Dan has the healthier habits when it comes to dealing with stress (not to mention his lovely selfless nature, too...).

As I was doing my stressed-out-shopping thing, I got a pie-in-the-sky text message from Dan. It went something like this: "What if things don't get better by this time next year? Why don't we take a year to travel and see the world?" As I stood in the middle of the store, juggling shirts and pants and other things I didn't need, another message beeped on my phone: "Let's climb to the top of Kilimanjaro!" I dropped the clothes, rushed out of the store to head for home, and started researching round-the-world trips. When Dan got home later that night, our trip was all we could talk about.

Climbing Kili seemed to represent so much of what we wanted from our trip, which is maybe why Dan dreamt it up just moments after first considering the Grande Voyage. Climbing the largest mountain in Africa would require us to take some risks, make a lot of preparations, and commit to doing something at which we might not "succeed." It was also an endeavor that promised to reward us with incredible experiences--and one that might, as a friend put it, "answer some questions that you didn't even know you wanted to ask yourself." And that's why we decided we couldn't resist its "great, high, and unbelievably white" heights.

Fast-forward to March 23, 2011. Summar, Pat, and I drove back to Moshi after our safari trip and had a happy reunion with Dan, with my Dad, and with Ellie, another Chadwick pal. I couldn't have been happier. We spent the evening laughing, catching up, and wondering how we'd all gotten ourselves into this mess of an 8-day trek. We would be sleeping in tents for 7 nights, most of which would drop below the freezing point. We laughed at Pat when he told us he'd brought waterless shampoo--that funky powder stuff from REI--and joked about how gross we'd be after hiking for 8 days sans showering. And, of course, we started to freak each other out about the altitude. Some of us had talked to climbers who'd conquered Kili. Others had meticulously read our outfitter's website and made sure to carry out their recommended training schedule. What did I do? I read Into Thin Air and freaked myself out. Did you know that Kili is higher than Everest Base Camp? That above 16,000 feet you're breathing half the oxygen that's in the atmosphere at sea level? That above 17,000 feet you can no longer fly a rescue helicopter? Or that above 18,000 feet (also affectionately known as the "kill zone") your oxygen level is so low that, as Jon Krakauer put it, "your brain is killing itself." Awesome. So as we planned to head to 19,341 feet, we talked about how we'd all take our Diamox pills, move slowly, and take as much time to acclimatize as we could, but that at a point, we'd just have to leave our chances of summiting up to Fate. We'd all heard that no matter how fit you are, how experienced a climber you are, or how much you've tried to prepare for the beast of high altitude, you can't predict how you'll do on the mountain. Altitude sickness will sometimes even take down the porters or guides. And just a month or so before we began our climb, Martina Navartalova (whom most of us would probably agree is a machine of a woman--so strong) suffered terrible altitude sickness at just about 14,000 feet. She had to be hospitalized and was dangerously close to death.

After we worked ourselves up into a nervous frenzy, we frantically ran around the hotel as we tried to organize our packs. Most people were making sure they had enough Power Bars and goos and Shot Bloks. I was trying to break in my brand spankin' new hiking boots. I did what everyone told us not to do: buy boots online, try them on the night before our Big Hike, and hope for the best. Oops.

There were some other moments, early on, that seemed to mark an inauspicious beginning for our trek. Like...when we were driving to the trailhead. About halfway through the two-hour drive, I jumped out of the Land Rover to use the "facili-trees," as my students call a road-side tree of a toilet, and as I was finding a spot behind the bushes, I spied an enormous caravan of fancy jeeps speeding along on the road. I spotted policemen with huge machine guns standing in the bed of huge trucks. I then learned that I'd had the honor of squatting in the presence of Tanzania's Prime Minister!

Shortly after we all laughed about that first funny episode, the mood shifted. As our jeep turned onto a mountain road, we watched the clouds roll in and the skies open up. This was a torrential downpour. We knew we'd signed up for the trek just at the beginning of the rainy season, but we'd crossed the fingers and hoped we wouldn't be wearing our rainpants ALL the time. This was not a good start to the climb. Nor was the moment when the transmission fell out of one of our Land Rovers. Just fell right out onto the muddy road. So we all crammed into the other jeep and, sitting on each other's laps, continued up the mountain road.

And then the weather got worse. As we wound our way uphill, we passed locals tilling the fields in bare feet in the middle of a downpour. We watched men and women burning off their trash--a huge field was covered with fire. I'm not sure how the fire managed to burn in the pouring rain; it seemed just as determined as the people to get the job done. As our jeep rocked and rolled a bumpy ride up the poorly maintainted dirt road, we suddenly lurched to a stop. Craning our necks, we could see that the truck ahead of us--the one that held all the porters and all our gear--was stuck in the mud. These poor guys had been trying to push it out for an hour or so, and it wasn't going anywhere. Nor were we. We heard whispers that our guide might try to take us on a different route or have us camp out here until we could get help in the morning, but that wouldn't really solve the problem of the stuck truck: so we'd either lose our gear or lose valuable acclimatization time on the mountain.

Finally, after a lot of pushing and lurching, the truck made its way out of the mud. And then as we rolled along ahead, we got stuck as well. We'd had five of the porters climb up onto our truck--we thought the extra weight might be all we needed to get the Land Rover through the tricky spot. But no. Instead, their weight caused us all to start tipping to the right into a ditch....

Inside the truck, we were screaming and climbing up on top of each other as we tried to lean to the left side of the truck to even out the weight. Luckily, the porters jumped off the top just in time to buttress the Land Rover from the right side and prevent it from tipping all the way over.

And that was the first time--and not the last--that our amazing porters saved our butts on the trek up to the summit of Kilimanjaro.
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barb on

OKEY DOKEY! Way to leave us hanging, Kate - Is this supposed to be like a Dickens serial story? So you're all in the jeep climbing up the wall to keep from tipping..... Looking forward to your next installment!!!! xoxo

Meg Vos on

Katy, I love this post (and your blog in general)... so fun to live vicariously! Is Colorado the last stop on your journey? :)

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