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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