Climbing Kilimanjaro Nearly Killed Me: 1

September 2-7, 2007 – Base of Mt. Kilimanjaro  

Such a beautiful sight! Kili at 20,000 ft.

Such a beautiful sight! Kili at 20,000 ft.


Part 1 of a 4-part series


Not Quite Ready to Roll

You’d think I’d train for a “hike” this big. But, true to form, I failed to prepare properly. In fact, I didn’t even know how tall Kilimanjaro is. That is, until we flew by it on my flight back from Zanzibar to Nairobi (which was 6 weeks after I climbed the damn thing). We were flying at 20,000 feet and looking pretty much even with the summit of the mountain. Wow – that’s one tall mountain. No wonder it kicked my butt. In fact, Uhuru Peak on Mt. Kilimanjaro is actually a few hundred meters higher than Everest Base camp in Nepal’s Himalaya, which most climbers take 2 weeks to reach from Katmandu. So our climb to reach the peak in 6 days was relatively quick.

“Slightly” unprepared, I borrowed a jacket from my friend Kate during my layover in NYC, and then rented ski pants, gloves, and other cold-weather gear at Kili’s base town, before we struck out. We decided to take the Rongai route, which meant a 6-day climb (instead of the 5-day climb). This provided us an extra day to acclimatize and meant we could climb up the SW face, and down the NW face – thereby seeing the mountain from 2 different vantage points.

Map of our Rongai route

Map of our Rongai route

The route down was the Marangu route, aka the Coca-Cola route, because it was favored most by tourists. There were 5 of us in our group: me, my friend Kate and her friend Karen – all in our late 30s; Sue, 53 and an avid hiker from San Diego who had been training all summer long, and Scott, 29, a sailor who joined up at the last minute. And of course, our porters, who carrying everything for us – tents, packs, food, water. Unlike other high altitude guides in Peru and Nepal, our African guides didn’t live on the mountain. Each time they ascended and descended, they needed to acclimatize just like we did. Our Tanzanian guides also didn’t have the proper shoes or proper nutrition to be carrying the huge loads they did. We were afforded 2-3 porters per person for all the supplies for the 6-day climb. Our head guide was Juma, which means “days and days and days and days” in Swahili. Juma is actually a really popular name for Kili guides.  Our Juma was a gem and very shy. That is, until he drank.  But more on that later…

Starting from the base town of Nale Moru, we were warned beforehand not to bring our passports on the trek, but instead to leave them behind in the lock boxes at the Springland Hotel. We were also advised not to carry any cash. These precautions were because of bandits. Apparently, roving gangs of bandits had been mugging hikers during the first day of the climb (on the trail nearest the town).  Which isn’t surprising really. The poverty that I saw at the town of Nale Moru was some of the worst I saw in all of my time in Africa. We stopped for lunch halfway to the town, and ended up giving away much of our lunch to the kids asking for food. It was a sobering start to the trip. To protect us from the bandits we supposedly had an armed-guard walking parallel to us in the woods just beyond our sight. I’m not sure if this was true of not. And quite honestly I’m not sure if it would have made me feel better or worse.

Still fresh at start of the Kili climb

Still fresh at start of the Kili climb

And we did encounter a rather desperate looking man on the trail that first day. Karen, who I was just getting to know at this point, and I were walking apart from the rest of the group. (We all walked at our own pace. Ok, ok…we were waking slower then the rest). Literally out of nowhere a man stepped out of the bush and walked toward us on the trail. We all 3 stopped for a moment and looked at one another. Then he glared at us and walked off. Because the trail was on National Park land, he was probably there looking for lone climbers. I’m not sure why he left us alone since we seemed like pretty easy targets (but Karen, who came to be known as Big DaDa, is close to 6 feet tall, so maybe she protected us).  Come to think of it, I guess we didn’t have armed guards after all, ‘cause that would have been the opportune moment for them to show themselves.

And have no fear–I did end up getting mugged a few weeks later in Tanzania, read: Another Monday Morning Mugging

Read the next installments:

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009 and is filed under Africa.

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