Surviving Africa's highest peak sans gearby Brian Van Hecke
Surviving Africa's highest peak sans gear
I recently returned from Tanzania where a group of friends and I successfully reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was an amazing trip with lots of great memories, but all did not go exactly as planned when most of my climbing gear was lost by the airline and didn't arrive until the final summit day.
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak.
The scenery during the trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro is absolutely beautiful and extremely diverse as you move through a wide variety of climates, including rain forest, high alpine, and glacial ecosystems. Most people who attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Kili, which tops out at nearly 19,400 feet, are successful. However, just before starting our climb we heard that two people had died the previous week due to adverse reactions to high altitude. This certainly raised some concerns, but we were quickly reassured by our experienced guides that the key to safety is to climb slowly, or Pole Pole as they say in Swahili.
Kilimanjaro National Park requires hiring a guide service and paying some hefty park fees before entering. We hired Mem Tours based locally in Moshi. Their staff is extremely well organized and their seasoned guides helped to ensure that our trip was both safe and memorable.
The various approach routes to Mt. Kilimanjaro. The author took the third-from-left Machame route.
The fights to and from Africa proved to be almost as challenging as the climb, with grueling flights from SLC to JFK, Dakar, Johannesburg, Dar Es Salaam and finally Moshi—altogether about two solid days of flying. But the biggest problem was that one of my two checked bags never arrived. In it was most of the gear that I would need for my climb.
I arrived to Moshi late in the evening and was greeted by my traveling companion and Valerian from Mem Tours. We were scheduled to start the climb the following morning. With all the plans set, it was impossible to delay our departure date even though I was missing much of my gear. Valerian really saved the trip. He drove around town late that night and early the next morning locating all the critical gear (including hiking boots, jackets, thermals, socks, etc.) that I would need so that I could proceed as planned.
The airline assured me that my bag would arrive the following day so I felt it was safe to proceed the following morning as planned. Little did I know that my gear would show up five days later. The guide service ultimately hired a porter who carried my bag all the way up to the final base camp where I met him on the day of our summit attempt.
Gear salvation. The porter arrives just before the summit attempt.
It was like Christmas on the mountain! And just in time with snow now falling and temperatures plummeting. In the bag was all the great gear from Backcountry.com that was going to get me to the top of the mountain that night in time for sunrise the next morning. Hiking boots from La Sportiva, weatherproof pants and jacket from Arc'teryx, Bridgedale and Dahlgren socks, Petzl headlamp, Mountain Hardware gaiters, and warm layering from Salomon and The North Face. One other item from Backcountry.com which really made the trip fun (and I actually got to use the entire trip because I wore it over there) was the Observer Watch from Suunto. Not only is it a watch and altimeter but it also kept track of how many feet we were climbing per minute, which really helped to make sure we were going at a consistent Pole Pole pace.
We picked the seven-day round trip Machame route and had a support team of 15 people for 3 climbers (pretty standard for all climbing groups) including our guide Eugene, a couple of cooks, and lots of porters. Fact is the staff and porters do most of the work for you. They're an amazing group of people who set up camp, cook, serve the food, clean up, and finally tear down and pack up the camp everyday. They'll even beat you to the next campsite carrying all the gear on their heads. About an hour into the day's climb your team of porters will likely be racing by you as they run the entire way from camp to camp in those old worn out shoes. Better to Pole Pole and not try to keep up with them.
Even without my gear for the first five days of the climb, the porters provided me the inspiration that I needed to endure the trek in my less than desirable rented stuff. Seeing them running by with very minimal clothing and less than ideal shoes (anything from golf shoes, dress shoes and for the lucky few, worn out tennis or running shoes) provided all the inspiration that I needed and kept my complaining to a minimum.
The climb up the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro is absolutely amazing and actually not too difficult as long as you are in descent shape—there is no technical climbing required. Each day brings totally new, spectacular scenery with breathtaking sunsets each evening. Summit day is certainly the most challenging as you depart at 11PM (the earlier the better to beat the onslaught of climbers) so that you reach the summit in time for sunrise over Africa. After spending as much time as possible soaking up the warm sun and the moment, you descend back to base camp where you recoup for a couple of hours and then resume the climb down for another 4-5 hours before resting for the final night on the mountain.
Dawn over Africa.
Regardless of the gear you choose to bring (and hope it shows up), reaching the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro to catch a glimpse of the sunrise over the African plains is certainly a worthy trip of a lifetime.
Mem Tours: http://www.memtours.com/