Climbing to the Roof of Africa

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Last Friday morning, in the middle of one of Dar’s characteristic downpours, I climbed onto a bus with seventeen high school students and five other chaperones with the intent of climbing Africa’s tallest mountain: Mount Kilimanjaro. It was a typical African road trip with multiple stops because the trailer on the back of the bus fell off. First, the hitch completely snapped off of the bus, and then the rope used to reattach it snapped several times before reaching our destination. T.I.A.

During the ride to Moshi, my mind was full of thoughts of my last climbing adventure. Back in 2007, I climbed Pike’s Peak with my brother, Nathan, and others from Summit. At the time, I was ill with a high fever, but wanted to take the opportunity while it was there. Aside from the fact that Nathan literally pushed me up that mountain, one thing I have never forgotten about that experience was the two passages from Scripture that I repeated thousands of times over as I trudged my way up the side of Pike’s Peak:

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. (Psalm 121:1-3 ESV)

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31 ESV)

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We spent Saturday in Moshi arranging rentals and acclimating to the change in elevation. Even the base of Mount Kilimanjaro can take the breath away from those of us who live at (or below) sea-level. Sunday morning, we started our trek up to Uhuru Peak, the “roof of Africa.” Because we chose to take the six-day Marangu route, our first stop was only about a five hour hike from the park gate. Even this first ascent was difficult for some students who were not accustomed to walking for multiple hours in a row. I chose to stay near the rear of the group, walking with the students who needed to go a bit slower or were tired by the end of the day. This was probably one of my favorite parts of the climb, because by walking a bit slower, I had the oxygen necessary to chat with some students that I didn’t know very well prior to our trip. Over the course of the week, I got to hear their stories, dreams, and even had one student tell me what type of guy I will marry someday! So much fun! When we arrived at Mandara Huts, we were welcomed with popcorn, coffee, hot chocolate, and tea.

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The second day was the longest walk, and we spent most of it hiking through the clouds. This was a new experience for a lot of kids, and was fun…for a while. By the end, most of us were tired of walking in the mist and fog, but were once again welcomed with popcorn, tea, coffee, and hot chocolate upon our arrival at Horombo Huts. It was on the second day that I got a chance to share my Pike’s Peak experience and verses with a few students who were getting discouraged with the seemingly endless hours of walking through the wet fog. Ironically, the next morning at breakfast, Ben Cook, our group’s leader, had chosen to read the same two sets of verses.

Horombo Huts are at approximately 12,000 feet above sea level, and so as a part of our six-day trek, we arranged to spend a day resting here before continuing our ascent. During that third “rest day,” we walked up to Zebra rocks, which gave us a beautiful view of Mawenzi Peak. One thing we learned from our guide is that Mount Kilimanjaro is actually comprised of three individual peaks: Shira, Mawenzi, and Uhuru. Shira and Mawenzi peaks are both “extinct” as far as volcanoes go, but Uhuru is still dormant. Mawenzi Peak, which you can see in the background of the above picture, can still be climbed, but only by technical rock climbers, as many of the rocks are loose, making it extremely dangerous. It is also not as tall as Uhuru Peak, and thus is often bypassed when people refer to “Kilimanjaro” meaning more technically Uhuru Peak. I know, probably more information than you really wanted, but I thought it was interesting and cool.

Early on the fourth day, we started the trek to Kibo. Kibo Huts are at 15,400 feet, and represent a significant accomplishment. It is not uncommon for altitude sickness to prevent individuals from reaching Kibo, but by the grace and strength of God, our entire group of 23 made it. However, over the course of the evening and night hours, several students succumbed to altitude sickness before being able to make the hike up to Uhuru Peak. Really though, the fourth day is not really just one day, as it blends into the fifth day. At 11:00 p.m., those of us still feeling well enough to attempt the summit woke up, got dressed in our warmest layers, and ate (or attempted to eat) a bit of breakfast. At exactly 12:00 a.m. (yes, that is midnight!), we stumbled out into the icy darkness to begin the climb. We were split into three smaller groups for this final climb, with one or two chaperones, three or four students, and several guides per group. I was in the second group with one other chaperone and four girls. It was surreal climbing through the fog, snow, and darkness with only the light from my headlamp. I could see just the next step in front of me, and nothing more (later, when descending the mountain, I decided this had been a good thing…as if I had been able to see how much farther there was to climb, I would have given up). The hike up to Gilman’s Point was the hardest part of the entire climb, and consisted primarily of a rhythm of pole, breathe in, one foot, tuck chin into vest, pole, breathe out into vest/shirt, other foot, and repeat.  Very slowly. Very. Very. Slowly. And every few steps, the altitude required stopping, gasping for breath, and then starting the pattern all over again. Eventually, we reached Gilman’s Point, meaning the hardest part of the climb was over, and we had only about two hours of trekking along the side of the crater to reach the peak. But it was cold. So, so cold. (I still can’t feel the tips of any of my fingers!). So we stumbled (literally) along behind our guide, barely putting one foot in front of the other, and leaning heavily on our poles until we reached the summit, where it was too cold to even celebrate. After a few rushed pictures, and a potty break (yes, I peed on top of Uhuru Peak…I had been holding it for the previous six hours not wanting to pull my pants down in the cold…but eventually the pain made it impossible to keep going), we turned around to begin our descent.

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The descent was actually really fun, as you could ski/slide through the dirt for most of the way back to Kibo. It took us over two hours running and sliding straight down the mountain to reach Kibo, at which point we realized exactly how far we had walked during the night. At Kibo, we took off a few layers, gave the porters our duffel bags, and continued on to Horombo Huts for the night. Speaking of porters, one of the really incredible things about the trip was the team that got us up the mountain. Duma (Mountain Cheetah) was the head guide, and with him, there were eight other guides leading us and helping us up the mountain. Guides often carried backpacks for those slowing down from exhaustion, and on the ascent to Uhuru Peak, our guides even hand-fed us cashews, helped us put gloves on and off, and essentially bottle-fed us water. Then, there were the porters. Nearly 40 porters carried our duffel bags (sleeping bags, toiletries, extra clothes, etc.), drinking water, food, cooking supplies, dishes, and more up and down the mountain in giant bags they carried on their heads or backs. We also had two cooks who made sure we were well-fed for the entire trip. It really shows the importance of teamwork, because if it wasn’t for the huge team supporting our little group up the mountain, we would never have made it. Especially with the size of some of the duffel bags these kids packed!

Our final day was the hike from Horombo all the way back to the park gate, where we ate lunch and took a bus back to our hotel for hot showers (yes!!), and one night’s sleep before the 14 hour bus ride back to Dar. And, you guessed it, the re-welded trailer came flying off the back of the bus just a few kilometers out of Moshi. This time, we opted to leave it and pack the bags inside and on the roof of the bus. Again, T.I.A. 🙂

All in all, it was a wonderful experience, though it is odd to answer the question, “How was it?” because so much of it was amazing, but the hike to the peak itself was, well, miserable. But the feeling of accomplishing yet another item on my bucket list is pretty awesome. I just wish my brothers could have been with me…because they’re awesome like that.

 

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