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What Goes Up Must Come Down: Climbing Kilimanjaro

The alarm goes off and I sit straight up in bed. It’s pitch black; morning or night, I don’t know. I don’t even remember where I am. For a second, I panic—waking up in the dark without a clue where you are isn’t the most comfortable experience one can have. “Tanzania,” I ask myself? No, that doesn’t seem right…

Then, a knock on the door sets the world straight. “Are you in there, Tyler? Your ride is ready.” It’s Henney, his South African accent is strong as ever.

“Yes, yes I’m here; be right out.”

It’s 11:00 PM and time for me to leave Johannesburg for a red-eye flight to Nairobi. Not Tanzania… but almost. In my quest for the 1% Club, I’m on a mission to climb the tallest mountain on every continent. This is the story of my time in Tanzania, the unexpected lessons learned, and the interesting people met in pursuit of  the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Welcome, and may you be inspired to the peak of your own mountain.

Learning a New Way of Life

Some things take longer to learn than others, and booking travel that doesn’t wear me out by the time I arrive is a strategy I’m… working on.

Of course, this is usually a fair trade-off because I often fly for free or very cheap. After a last minute cancellation by British Airways—who apparently doesn’t have enough customers to fly its airplanes in Africa—left me stranded, this is NOT one of those times.

Oh well, lesson learned: Travel in Africa can sometimes be challenging.

With minimal bellyaching, I board the plane, dawn my luxury eye mask courtesy of South African Airways, and emerge from a restless sleep in Nairobi. At the airport, I buy a croissant and take a seat next to Adam, an alternative transportation lobbyist in Washington D.C., who just happens to be from my hometown of Portland (sometimes the world really is small) and on his way to climb Kilimanjaro with his father and sister. They planned the trip when Adam was 12, and finally got around to it 15 years later.

“Only five more hours to Moshi, the small town at the base of the mountain,” I promise myself as I board the 20 passenger bus filled with 21 people and 25 pieces of luggage.

One thing I fail to consider on this trip is what East Africans themselves refer to as “Africa Time,” a phrase meaning that a schedule is more a suggestion—and one often not taken—than a rule. Along the swaths of unpaved roads, also known as “The Expressway,” we dodge herds of donkeys, goats, chickens, and people who seem only to cross the road at the most inopportune moments.

The donkeys, as suspected, are the last to budge. I think Tanzania must suffer many donkey casualties.

At the Kenya/Tanzania border, the visa line is delayed when two similar looking German friends find that their visas have been pasted into the wrong passports. The English girl in line with me jokes that we may have the same problem. I laugh, hoping that she doesn’t mean to say I look like her.

Eight hours later, we arrive in Moshi. Welcome to Tanzania, and welcome to Africa Time.

Life in rural Tanzania is quite a lot different from life at home in The States, and even quite a change from life in South Africa. To tell the whole truth, I was quite scared to get off of the bus when we arrived; I’d never seen anything like it.

The infrastructure—roads, rails, buildings—are crumbling as if little has been maintained since gaining independence from the European Kingdoms years ago, yet everyone seems to dress sharply and have a cellphone. There’s dust and trash at every turn of the head, but personal hygiene appears to be paramount.

I feel like I’m in the twilight zone, and remind myself that I’m not just here to climb a mountain, but to gain a new perspective of the world. I get off the bus and begin my new, temporary life in Moshi.

Despite the stark differences between the two worlds, the hotel I’m staying at tries desperately to make me feel as if I’ve never left the USA—a western style lodge with all the food and amenities you’d expect from your own, local hotel. A large wall around the property shields you from real life in Tanzania, and a water tower with a boiler attached allows you to forget that, just outside these walls, a young boy collects water for his family in a jug from a dirty creek.

I appreciate the hospitality, but after one night in this fantasy land, I feel compelled to get out and see the real Moshi for myself. $1 gets me a cab ride into town, where I hop out to discover a collapsing yet vibrant town of people shopping, doing business, and carrying on just as I’d expect anywhere else in the world. For a second, I feel surprised before remembering what I’ve always known but often forget–deep down, we really are all the same.

This is where I meet Dancan, the tour guide, mountain porter, and weekend artist. In Moshi and most of the rest of East Africa, almost everyone is self-employed. Dancan explains that this is because there are no jobs—if you want to make it in Tanzania, you have to learn to support yourself. Family business is the name of the game here, and the city is overrun with general stores selling food, clothing, building supplies, and sim cards for cell phones. Very few shops cater to anything but life’s basic needs. I suspect this is because very few can afford much else.

Life is hard here, but it’s also very simple. In a strange way, I find it refreshing. As I get to know Dancan and a few other locals, my fear turns to curiosity. Slowly, my curiosity turns to understanding.

I start to wish I had more time to get to know the city and its people, but looming always over this valley is the shadow of Kilimanjaro. Tomorrow, when my friend Matt arrives from Luxembourg, we’ll meet our guide, Frankie, and begin the ascent.

The excitement is high, and sleep becomes difficult.

The Long Way to the Top

After a pre-climb briefing from Frankie, Matt and I meet the rest of our expedition team— an assistant guide, a cook, and five (yes, five) porters who will carry equipment.

We shake hands and say hello to everyone, but I’m confused—what on Earth could we possibly need this many people for? I’m baffled, but I don’t argue because the expedition is already paid for, and I know that working on the mountain is vital employment for many men in the area. So vital, in fact, that the government of Tanzania doesn’t allow anyone to climb Kilimanjaro without hiring a guide.

The ten of us pile into a van and make the two hour drive to the Rongai Gate, one of the least popular but most enjoyable routes up the mountain.

On our hike up to Camp #1, everyone is in good spirits and I’m pleasantly surprised to find a family of monkeys hanging out in the trees along the way. Did I mention I’ve never seen so many banana trees in my my life?

I also find myself surprised that, despite coming down with a nasty cold the night before departing for the mountain, I’m feeling quite well today (ominous foreshadowing).

At Camp #1, we learn exactly why we have such a big team when the porters unpack the dinner tent, table, and chairs before finally serving up a meal that would make a Thanksgiving feast seem inadequate. This is big news to me because I expected to be surviving much like I do when mountaineering at home—huddled in a small tent, eating freeze dried food packets and mapping out the course for the next day.

Just as I had been surprised by Tanzania before, I’m surprised yet again. This is nothing like home, but I’m grateful for the hospitality. At the same time, I feel a bit ashamed about how well I’m eating when I know that so many people, just a few miles down the mountain, are struggling just to survive.

This is a guilt that remains with me for the duration of the trip.

At Camp #1, we also learn just how unpopular the route we’ve chosen is. Of the more than 1,000 people on the mountain right now, we share our camp with only six other climbers and their teams of porters. There’s a carpenter and his two college-aged sons from Colorado, a Spanish diplomat living in The Congo, and a couple from California who emphasize (and re-emphasize) that they’re NOT together. Suspicious? With them is a team of 14 porters. As I eat dinner, I try to guess which one is carrying the big screen TV.

By the time we arrive at Camp #3, it seems the illness that has been ailing me is all but gone. “It’s about time,” I think to myself; the last few days of climbing have been unusually difficult—hikes that would have been a walk in the park any other day are now at the very extent of my ability, and all I can find the strength to do is sleep, eat, and hike. I take the window of opportunity to spend some time sitting atop “Cell Phone Rock”—the only spot on the Rongai Route where cell reception is available.

Thanks to the $20 sim card I bought in Moshi and a few tricks I learned from YouTube, I’m surfing the web and sending emails from 4,000 meters as I look out below over a sea of clouds surrounding the base of the mountain. I’ve never felt like much of a “digital nomad” before, but this moment comes close.

I send an email off to the guide I’ve hired for Mt. Elbrus which is scheduled to begin in just a week, asking what to do about the fact that the police have closed the mountain (more on this in a future update), and head back to camp for another 12 hour sleep session.

The air is starting to get thin up here. Breathing is a minor chore, and good sleep is becoming elusive. In less than 24 hours, we’ll push for the summit.

Climbing Up is Optional. Climbing Down is Mandatory

I wake up the next morning sick as ever and with a raging headache. Apparently, I’m not as immune to altitude sickness as I once thought. Matt and I joke that his ancestors were born at altitude.

Frankie, our trusty guide, has been threatening to turn me around if I’m not feeling better by today. To put things simply, I’m not feeling better by today. When he asks how I’m doing, I fake a great big smile and respond with, “Splendid!” My lie is blatant and not fooling anyone, but Frankie makes no mention of stopping my progress up the mountain. I’ve snuck by for now.

I force pain killers down my throat as we make our way to the final base camp at 4,700 meters. The altitude sickness has robbed me of an appetite and pills are the only things my stomach can handle. At least my headache is at bay…

I sleep the afternoon away and, before I know it, midnight has come—time for the final 1,200 meter push to the summit.

It’s been explained to me that we climb at night so that you can’t see how far you have to go or how steep the trail gets ahead of you. Normally, I don’t need a psychological trick like that, but today I’m not complaining; anything to keep me from turning around under the pain of this damn migraine.

Marching forward, it isn’t long before we greet the first few of the day to turn back. It’s an older couple and the mountain has beaten them. Then, a few more turn around. And a few more. And then…more.

By the time we reach Gilman’s Point at the rim of the crater, we’ve seen at least 20 people turn back. Uhuru Peak, the true summit, is still more than 300 meters higher and more than a mile away.

Because it’s not a technical climb, Kilimanjaro is the most underestimated of the Seven Summits. The truth is that more people have died on Kilimanjaro than Everest because Everest is given the respect it deserves. But biting cold, low oxygen, steep fall lines, and rapidly changing weather can be a recipe for disaster when Kilimanjaro is disrespected.

After  Gilman’s Point, the migraine makes my brain feel like it’s going to throb out of my head, but I still remember my name, how to count to 10, and I’m not tripping over myself— which means I’m still reasonably safe—so I give the thumbs up when Freddie asks how I’m doing.

Between Matt and I, neither of us suspected that I’d be the one encountering so many problems. Sometimes life is funny like that.

We set out again, and seven hours after beginning, we’re standing at Uhuru Peak. At 19,340 feet, I’m looking down from the Roof of Africa. Amazing.

Frankie’s plan is to stay at the summit for only 15 minutes. My plan is to get there and beg for more time until he gives in but, with the altitude sickness, I’m more than happy to follow orders. It feels incredible to stand here, but after just a few photos, I’m ready to head down, and I say so. No one argues. Five days of work for fifteen minutes of glory. You can’t make the math work no matter how you look at it, but somehow, it’s still worth it.

We make our way back to Gilman’s Point, and head down the steep path of boulders that we’d climbed in the dark just a few hours ago. It’s considerably more daunting in the daylight.

As we down-climb, I notice my legs start to weaken. At first, I don’t think much of it—it’d been a long morning. And besides, I run marathons; I should be fine.

But I’m not fine. As my legs grow weaker and wobblier, I start to remember just how little I’ve eaten over the last few days. One very problematic symptom of altitude sickness is a loss of appetite. This had been mostly concealed from the climbing team as I had silently funneled my leftovers to Matt, who now happens to have plenty of energy.

Whoops.

If this problem had reared it’s ugly head at the summit, it may have been a much more serious occasion. Luckily, we’re past the most difficult slopes by the time I can no longer hold myself up, and all that’s necessary is an embarrassing hand-holding the rest of the way back to camp, where I promptly fall asleep in a chair for several hours until it’s time to descend further.

I toss the last of my pain killers down the hatch, and head off down the mountain with Matt.


We’d done it. We took on the tallest mountain in Africa, and we made it. The sense of accomplishment ran high that night. Some people choose to describe their success as “conquering,” but I know better. I know that climbing a mountain is a partnership—one between you and the landscape. The mountain must compromise for you just as much as you must compromise for it to reach the summit. Given time, a mountain will conquer any man.

For Matt, it’s a fun adventure. The same is true for me, but it also means something much bigger. It’s the start of a very big quest involving six more very difficult mountains. This trip certainly wasn’t without a comedy of errors, but it’s a solid beginning. It’s starting out on the right foot. Momentum builds upon itself, and the moment I stood on the summit of Kilimanjaro, I knew I had to get to Russia to climb Elbrus on this trip, despite the hardships. So that’s what I’ll do.

Back at the lodge in Moshi, Matt and I invite our team over for beers. The ten of us have three rounds a piece in celebration, and the bill comes to an astonishing $33. Drinks are cheap in Tanzania, even at inflated tourist prices.

We shake hands and say goodnight. Tomorrow, Matt leaves to relax on the beach in Zanzibar for a few days before heading back to work. I’ll catch the bus back to Nairobi and hop a flight to Poland via South Africa, where I’ll contemplate another marathon before heading onto Russia, the final leg of this journey.

On the bus, I spend some time thinking about life as a guide or a porter on Kilimanjaro. For me, climbing to the peak is a great accomplishment, but for them, it’s just another day at work. I’ll probably never come back, but in a few days, they’ll be back on the trail, helping another team of adventure seekers to the top.

“Funny how that works,” I think to myself. It’s a good reminder not to take experiences like this for granted. One summit down. Six more to go.

Just then, my train of thought is interrupted by the bus driver who pulls over to inform us that we must wait and help the bus behind us. They hit a donkey.

I knew that would happen.

~~~~~

See all the photos from the trip here: