Matt Conquers Mt. Kilimanjaro

Trip Start Mar 17, 2005
Trip End Mar 13, 2006

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Monday, September 5, 2005

At 19,341 feet, Mt. Kilimanjaro is the epic African mountain. It stands alone east of the Serengeti in the plains of Tanzania and can be seen even in Kenya. As it wasn't supposed to be a technical mountain to climb, I (Matt) had been toying with the idea of climbing it for entire trip and had psyched myself up for it and out of doing it so many times I couldn't take it anymore. I had to do it. I remembered how difficult but rewarding my climb of 17,500 foot Throng La was, the highest registered pass in Nepal, and knew this would likely be a larger ordeal but with even greater rewards. So, Amy bought a ticket to hot Zanzibar where she could enjoy herself on the beach, and I rented as much cold weather clothing as I could to prepare for my 6 day journey to the top of Africa.

The journey up Kili is split up into a minimum of 5 days, but most people opt for at least 6 or 7 days for acclimatizaton purposes and to have more rest prior to the freezing midnight attempt at the summit. I had seen an IMAX film on climbing Kilimajaro before I left and it was pretty amazing to see the sights I remembered from that as I climbed higher and higher. In short, here's what I experienced on my 6 day climb up the Machame Route:

DAY 1: Starting elevation was 1,800 meters and we climbed 6 hours through the beautiful cloud forest (with real life tarzan vines) up into the heath zone where our first camp was at about 3000 meters (around 10,000 feet). Not a tough day, but one of the most beautiful.

DAY 2: Shortest day by far at only 4 hours. We climbed up through the heath and moorland levels to about 3800 meters where I had the best view I could have asked for from my tent window overlooking the mountain spires down the slopes of Kili. Still no real altitude effects and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset overlooking the savannah toward the serengeti.

DAY 3: If Day 2 was the easiest, Day 3 was definitely the hardest so far, and a bit demoralizing considering the altitude gain and loss. We hiked our way up into the alpine desert up to a place called Lava Tower (Kilimanjaro has lava fields from its past eruptions) at 4500 meters for acclimatization and then hiked back down almost as far as we hiked up back to 3900 meters. Along the way we saw huge Senicia trees which look like huge pineapples on top of palm trees, kind of out of this world looking. By the time I reached camp I had a CRASHING headache that only went away after much liquid and rest. It was here that I first felt the effects of the altitude of the mountain.

DAY 4: We firmly secured ourselves in the Alpine desert after climbing the Barranco wall and ascending up into camp at 4600 meters. Again had a huge crashing headache, which subsided with rest again and advil. At about 15,000 feet, this was camping above Mt. Ranier and definitely we could tell the air was thinner. At night it would get into the teens inside my tent. This was also the big day before the midnight summit attempt, which was to be it's own ordeal. Went to sleep at 9pm and woke up at 11pm to tackle the summit...

DAY 5 (Summit Day): This day was single-handedly the hardest physical challenge I've had as a human being since that 9th grade basketball practice when Mr. Roper made us run so much I actually cried. Starting at midnight we began a 7 hour ascent to the summit of Uhuru Peak. It began with a monotonous switchback trail up and up and up. The trail would never end. About 17,000 feet I began to lose my sense of balance and started drifting back and forth all over the trail like a tree in the wind. It must have been funny when my guide (who's name was Godbless - no joke!) watched me try to sit down on a rock at 3am and completely miss the rock and roll backwards! If the first 5 hours up with extremely hard, the last 45 minutes to the top of the crater was the most excruciating by far. It was straight up, no switchbacks, in rock scree. It's 1 step forward, and 1/2 step sliding backward with HORRIBLE balance. I think I was the only one on the mountain without hiking poles and I was kicking myself. I finally made it to the top of the crater, and only 100 meters more to go on a gentle ascent. 45 minutes later I was 50 yards from the very top (on basically no slant) and had to stop and rest for a while. If you would have saw me at any other altitude it would have looked like I was in the worst shape ever. FINALLY, after almost 7 hours I was standing on the top of Africa, no one was higher than me at that moment. It was a powerful moment, and I didn't even have a headache. I could only attribute that as well as the strength I was given to finish to God (for I certainly felt like quitting about 100 times). Coming down the mountain was basically a run/glissade (although on rock) back down to camp, but for me it was the reflection on the strength I was given and the beauty of God's creation that consumed my thoughts. I knew on this descent that anything tough I would ever face in life would not, physically speaking, most likely even compare to this, and as a result this experience would be a source I can always look back to as a point of God's strength to press onward when times are hard or seemingly impossible.

DAY 6: We hiked back down to the bottom of the mountain and I got a gold certificate claiming that I had hiked to the top of Kilimanjaro and the top of Africa at 5,895 meters. It was a good feeling, but I was very happy to be off the mountain and back to a warm shower!

Overall, this was one of the best experiences I could have asked for. God definitely gave me the encouragement daily through his Word to keep pushing forward. Specifically, He gave me the following verse one night as I lay in my tent half delirious from altitude:

"Blessed is he whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage" (Psalm 84:5)
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