Kilimanjaro Journal — To The Roof of Africa!
Written by Martha Voight- January Mountain Madness Kilimanjaro climb
It all began on a beautiful day in April 2008, riding up the ski lift in Vail with a longtime friend. Out of the blue, she asked if I would be interested in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Although I have never considered doing that before and I am not a camper, I said, “Sure, sounds like an opportunity of a lifetime.” Her quick response surprised me, “Good, the planning is done. There will be five of us, so book your ticket, we are climbing in January”!
I spent the summer training for my fifth half-marathon and doing extra weight training. My friends and family were supportive and inspired by my goal, but also concerned. While I took the climb seriously, I thought the extremes were unlikely. That was until November, when Anne Currie and an NBC crew attempted to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. They were plagued by rain, high-altitude sickness, blisters and a “stomach bug” that kept Anne Currie off the air for a week upon her return. This was not good.
After the NBC episodes aired, the messages of concern and doubt were at an all time high — even among the five of us who planned to climb together. We met to discuss whether or not to proceed. Ultimately, we became more determined than before and felt good about our gear and our conditioning — we were ready to go.
I left for Arusha, Tanzania on Friday, January 9. Twenty-one hours later I arrived in Nairobi, for a two-night layover. On January 12, my fellow climbers and I took a short flight to Arusha where we first met Ben from our outfitter, Mountain Madness/African Environments. He would serve as our lead guide and had summited Kilimanjaro more than 100 times. This was good!
We piled our gear into Range Rovers and were off to base camp in Arusha National Park, at the base of Mount Meru. By the next morning, six other climbers had arrived. We spent the day hiking around Mount Meru and conducting a thorough gear check with Ben. Our climb would begin in the morning and would take 8 days to climb and descend.
Day 1 — We awoke, full of excitement and anticipation. It was a beautiful, desolate, dusty, three-hour ride to the trailhead. That is where we met our crew, a total of 52 porters to escort 9 climbers. While it sounds extreme, it takes that many porters to cover all aspects of the climb support such as: guiding, purifying water, cooking, transporting communications equipment and all the gear. Our first day’s climb took us 4 hours into the forest, beginning at 7,000ft and ending at Big Tree Camp at 9,000ft. The flowers and vegetation were lush and beautiful.
Day 2 — Our climb up the steep, rocky trail leading through the Giant Heather/Shira Plateau region to Shira Camp took 7 hours to go from 9,000ft. to 11,300ft. This was the first day since arriving in Tanzania that we had a full, clear view of the summit of Kilimanjaro. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would look like from the top. It looked impossible to reach, but we felt energized and were cherishing the warm day.
Day 3 — For 6 hours, we climbed to the Moorland region, ascending from 11,300ft. to 13,700ft. which took us above the first cloud line. While the days were warm, the nights were turning cold. The vegetation changed to resemble South Texas… still beautiful, but rugged with cactus, low-covering brush and lots of dust! Three days without being able to wash my hair, it was nearing a science experiment!
Day 4 — Our climb to the Alpine Desert region only took 4 hours, but when we arrived at Lava Tower Camp at 14,880ft., it was drizzling and cold. While the drizzle did not offer the warmth we’d hoped for it was helping to keep the dust down. Very little vegetation exists at that location except for clumps of yellow grass.
Day 5 — The climb from 14,880ft. to Arrow Glacier camp at 16,000ft. took 3 hours. There is no vegetation at that altitude. The fog was so thick that there was no visibility to the plains below. It was an eerie feeling. I would have sworn that we were on the moon! Tomorrow we would climb the Western Breach, the most difficult approach on the mountain to Crater Camp and the summit. This is the route my friends chose? I should have done more research!
Day 6 — The Western Breach. We awoke at 4:30am to prepare for departure. The climb from 16,000ft. to 18,500ft., took 7 ½ hours – easily the most difficult climb yet and in the top 5 of my most difficult physical activities ever. While the grade was steep, it was the scree (loose stones and sand) and hand-over-foot climbing that made this approach exhausting. Half-way up the Breach, one of our climbers slightly touched a large boulder. It broke loose and was down the Breach in seconds. Thankfully no one was injured or worse.
Climbing over the Western Breach into the crater of the glaciers is an experience that I almost cannot put into words. I have never been so exhausted but having two glaciers within a five minute walk was both serene and surreal. We walked along the glaciers to Crater Camp. Due to the high elevation (18,500), we weren’t “allowed” to lay down for a rest. Leveling your body at this altitude after so much exertion can trigger high-altitude sickness. So, we sat upright outside of our tents, soaking up the sun and our accomplishments of the day. I wondered what the summit would bring tomorrow.
Day 7 — Summit Day, Uhuru Peak, 19,340ft. We began our approach to the summit at 5:10am. The altitude was not kind to our group. I woke up shaking and nauseated from low blood sugar and the altitude. Others were suffering from headaches and severe nausea, but we were all determined to summit. We left as a group, but within minutes were separated into three sub-groups. I was in the first group moving very slowly…100 steps, stop to catch your breath, take another 100 steps, stop to catch your breath. The 840ft. climb to the summit took me 1 hour and 15 minutes. I arrived as the sun was rising over the mountain. It was beautiful, awe-inspiring, silencing and emotional. Over the next hour, the rest of our group arrived. We had all made it so the celebration and pictures commenced! After spending about an hour at summit, we began our descent. We descended 9,340ft. through the Glacier, Alpine Desert, Moorland, and Giant Heather regions to arrive at Mweka Camp at 3:30 in the afternoon. I was amazed that my legs weren’t sore and that I wasn’t as tired as the day before. But, I was ready…ready to talk to my family, ready for a shower, ready to wash my hair, ready to bag all of my dusty gear!
Day 8 — Our last day down the mountain began with heart-felt songs from our porters and lots of goodbyes. It took about 4 hours to arrive at Mweka Gate and a three-hour ride to the Monrovia Plantation, where we could regroup. After the best shower of my life, I packed to catch my flights home. It took 24 hours to return but I didn’t care because I had just climbed a mountain!
People often ask me what I learned on the mountain. The experience reinforced the following thoughts:
- You need very little in life to make you happy or to survive
- Determination and a positive attitude goes a long way
- It feels better to help someone than to help yourself
- Material possessions don’t even come close to the value of friends and family
- Working as a team feels much better than going out on your own