Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (19,300 ft.)

July 22 - 27, 2002

Dave Svilar, Fred Sheffield


Our summit day route through the Western Breach, which we had all to ourselves.

Ernest Hemingway’s romantic tales, elephants grazing in savannah, equatorial snow – give me a break.  Before going to Africa I thought Kilimanjaro was just a big, easy, mountain for white folks to bag on their trip to Africa in order to return home and brag of their exploits to friends and family forced to listen.  No way was I going to drop $700 to be pampered to the top of a mountain that looked more like the moon.  I thought true African adventure was getting off the beaten path and figuring out how to eat, sleep, and move my bowels.

Towards the middle of the trip I started to doubt myself.  Would I be able to live with myself as a climber and lover of mountains knowing I had gone all the way to Africa and not climbed the highest peak?  I picked up a guidebook and saw a route that looked like it would be more interesting than the standard trudge (Marangu Route) – a pleasant class 3 scramble through a weakness in the Breach Wall.  The next thing I knew Fred and I were being picked up at our hotel in Arusha by a small army of Africans.

Day 1

They showed up at our hotel two hours late, but I had become so accustomed to a lack of punctuality and overall incompetence that I hardly noticed.  On the drive to the trailhead Kilimanjaro inspired “Ooooooo’s” out of Fred and I as the hulk of the mountain grew.  Mt. Rainier is the largest mountain I have ever seen (bigger than Everest), but this mountain was definitely a beast.

Multiple groups get ready to lay siege to the mountain at the Machame trailhead.  We were the only group on our trail - the Umbwe trail.

We bounced up muddy roads through dirty villages which obviously weren’t benefiting from the money being extracted from my wallet to climb the mountain.  We arrived at the gate now and were instructed to give everything but our water bottles and cameras to the porters.  As our guide, Paul, and the porters organized their gear it was obvious to me that this wasn’t going to be like any other climb I’ve done (or ever will do).  They filled a basket with with every kind of fresh fruit and vegetable imaginable – whole heads of lettuce, carrots, mangos, eggs, etc.  To top off the basket a chicken was strapped on.  I couldn’t even lift the basket, but a porter managed to hoist it on top of his head and then throw my pack as well as his satchel on his back.

Basket full of produce to be carried on a porter's head.  For comparison, the pink container behind is a 5-gallon bucket.

Fred and I hiked at a leisurely pace through the rainforest while our porters struggled under the weight of our belongings.  We arrived camp at Forest Caves 2850m (10, 000ft) a full 45 minutes ahead of anyone else and shivered until our clothes arrived with the porters.  I tried to lend a hand setting up the tent, but was promptly scolded by one of the porters.  My job was to simply eat, sleep and put one foot in front of the other.  I began to wonder if they would wipe for me too.

Fred struggles to lift a bag of rice easily carried by a porter.

King David and King Fred were hungry after hiking for a few hours, so dinner was brought quickly.  Water was warmed and soap provided to sanitize our hands.  Fred sat in the vestibule of our tent while one of the porters laid out a tablecloth on the ground with silverware on top of a neatly folded napkins.  Presentation is important out in the woods.  Our meal consisted of three parts – appetizers and tea, main dish, and dessert.  At this point I can’t remember what we ate, but I do know it covered all the food groups and was the best thing I’d tasted since my Mom last fed me.

Day 2

We were awakened by our porter who was holding a mug of steaming tea.  After a splendid breakfast my day quickly started to go down hill even though we were hiking uphill.  My stomach had been acting strange for the past week and decided to unleash as hiked out of the rainforest and into more sparse vegetation.  Diarrhea forced me to make several desperate breaks off to the side of the trail.  I had all the symptoms of giardia.  Luckily Fred had thoroughly raided the Peace Corps medical supplies and was basically a walking pharmacy.  He handed me a package of four pills that he claimed would kill my giardia.  Do to my rancid stench, I wasn’t sure whether I should trust him or not, because the way I smelled he would have been willing to try any pill.  Fred was tested positive for giardia a few months before, but refused to take medication because he claimed the parasite was helping his system – it made him regular.

A porter struggles under the load of Fred and Dave.  We weren't traveling light.

Despite my desperate squats beside the trail the views as we ascended to camp in the Barranco Valley 3950 m (13,000 ft) were superb.  We hiked along a ridge that dropped steeply on both sides and provided views out towards Mt Meru (15,000 ft) and up towards the southern glaciers near the summit of Kilimanjaro.  Camp in the valley was crowded with other parties because the Umbwe and Machame trails both used the area as a camp.

Sunset on the southern glaciers from our camp in the Barranco Valley.  Kilimanjaro is located slightly south of the equator, so unlike mountains in the U.S. the largest abundance of ice is found on the south facing slopes.

Day 3

We didn’t need one, but a rest day was designated, so Fred and I took an acclimation hike up towards the Barranco Wall and the Heim Glacier.  My goal was to go as high as possible before the terrain became dangerous.  After ascending over 2,000 feet we called it quits at the base of the glacier.  Directly above us was a steep ice route that was first climbed by Reinhold Messner, the Michael Jordan of alpine climbing.  Views were superb over the cliff and into the valley where our tents were pitched far below.  The side hike was a good excursion – both of us felt no ill effects from the altitude and my giardia had subsided.

Me near the high point of our "acclimation hike" at 15,000 ft.

Day 4

We broke camp and hit the road again splitting off from the herd towards the site of the old Arrow Glacier Hut 4800m (16,000ft).  There are three main non-technical routes up Kilimanjaro: the Marangu Route which is supposedly the easiest and definitely the most popular, Machame Route which is less popular and far more scenic, and the Western Breach which is seldom used, but the most difficult route not involving climbing gear.  Our guide kept trying to convince us that we should take an easier route, but my heart was set on the Western Breach.  By the time we reached the Arrow Glacier camp we had long since left all vegetation behind due to the thinning air.  We had also left all crowds behind – there was one other group sharing the area. 

At 16,000 ft. we had left the clouds behind.  The views were like those from an airplane except we weren't forced to look out a tiny porthole.

I had never suffered a headache from altitude, but I began to develop one while basking in the afternoon sun.  Half a dose of aspirin relieved the head throb and I was able to enjoy the sunset pain free.  What a sunset it was.  I scrambled up a rock spire and took an entire roll of film as it seemed to get more beautiful as the sun sank in the sky.  Kilimanjaro rises out of the plains to give one who’s looking down from high on its flanks that they are in an airplane.  The clouds collected below as they had done every other evening blocking out much of the valley.  After traveling hard amidst the chaos that is Africa, it was such a relief to be sitting on a quiet mountainside looking down at the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever witnessed.  I wanted to cuddle, but all I had was Fred, so I restrained myself.

Sunset from Arrow Glacier Camp.  The best I've ever witnessed.  Fred and I almost cuddled.

It gets dark every night around 6:00 pm in Tanzania, so we hit the sack shortly after.  Sleep evaded me as my thoughts were consumed with the excitement of the pending climb.  Fred couldn’t sleep because he was nervous about the climb.  He didn’t believe he belonged on a mountain this large, and thought that the hallucinogenic side effects of his malaria pills would cause him to do something crazy high on the route. 

Day 5

Fred and I were ready to get up at 1:30 a.m. because we weren't sleeping anyway.  We made a couple of runs to the pit squatter and enjoyed the breakfast our loyal porters had woke in the middle of the night to prepare.  The stars were brilliant even though it was a full moon.  The southern cross had almost rotated out of view and the lights in the valley reminded us that the chaos of Africa would be there when we went down.

The route started off in frustrating scree that provided one step up, half step back progress.  Our pace set by the guides was ridiculously slow, which didn't bother me because I didn't want to reach the top in the dark anyhow.  Our route was once called the Arrow Glacier route, but that had long since melted away.  The way was continuously steep, but never harder than a class 2-3 scramble.  We stopped often and I kept up my pressure breathing to beat the effects of altitude.  We traveled with our guide Paul and an assistant guide.  The rest of the porters would have a long day as well, because we were going to descend the standard route (Marangu).  Therefore, our route was considered committing, because if we were to turn around our camp wouldn't be there when we got back.  You have to go over the top or else.

Fred crosses exposed, but easy terrain.

After downing my first of three candy bars I was told that the guides didn't pack any food.  I'd have to ration my bars until we reached the Marangu Hut back down at 16,000 feet.  Finally we broke over the top of the Breach onto the summit plateau.  The plateau is expansive - several miles across - and looks like the moon except for a few large ice chunks that seem to have just been plopped there.  I was walking behind Fred when I noticed him walking like a drunk.  I asked Fred if he needed a break and he nodded in agreement.  At this point we realized Fred was hurting in the thin air.  We watched curiously as Fred fumbled trying to find his candy bars and water.  We got cold in the -10C temperatures waiting for Fred, so Paul and I started up the last few hundred feet to the summit. 

As I followed Paul he began to weave like Fred had and complaining about how hard his job was.  Finally he laid down on the ground in exhaustion.  I offered him some food or water (he hadn't packed any), but he declined.  I was worried about Fred who was barely moving below us, so I headed to the summit with plans to come back and help Fred.  The last hundred yards to the top was mostly flat, so I jogged.  I was inspired by memories of my little yak of a sister who had run at 17,000 feet on a previous trip to help me.  The sun hadn't risen, but there was already a couple of groups on top from other routes.  When I approached the summit they looked at me like I was a ghost.  Not only was I running, but I didn't have a guide and had come from a completely different direction than they had.  I got a quick picture then turned back to where Fred was still coming up the final steep slope.

My concern turned to worry when I saw him picking icicles off the rocks and trying to shove them in his water bottle.  He was mumbling something about Shackleton (he had finished the book "Endurance" the night before).  I tried to explain to Fred that even though it may have worked for Shackleton ice wouldn't melt when the temperature was below freezing.  I gave him my water and the rest of the candy bars I had been rationing.  I knew Fred was suffering from altitude and dehydration, but mostly from low blood sugar.  We walked pitifully slow as Fred told me exactly how he felt like just laying down and sleeping.  He asked me what I would do if he were to faint - as if I had some magical cure in my pack.  I tried to keep Fred awake and moving waiting for the sugar from the candy bar to kick in.  When we reached the summit the sugar was flowing through his blood and he was able to look half decent for photos.

Me on the "Roof of Africa."

We needed to get down fast because Fred was still hurting and I was out of food and water.  Unfortunately we had to traverse to another route which was a half hour's walk at over 19,000 feet.  The scenery didn't stack up to what we had been through, but it was amusing to see other groups trudging to the summit.  Never have I seen so many miserable people.  Most looked like they were on a forced death march.

Me walking out on a summit ice cap.  Scientists predict that within 20 years there won't be any ice left on Kilimanjaro.

We reached the Marangu trail and descended the trail to the desolate eastern side of the mountain.  Fred and I felt better with the thickening air and better yet when we had lunch at the Marangu Hut.  It was interesting to see the standard route to the top, but was very glad that we had gone a different way.  To me the Marangu route was a crowded, ugly, dust ball. 

Fred looks back towards the crater rim from the Marangu Hut.  What looks like a road is the trail.

We continued to descend to a hut at 12,000 feet.  Now that we were lower I developed a headache.  The porters hadn't arrived, so I found a dry creek bed and slept.

Day 6

To this point our porters had defied my perception of Africa.  They worked hard and provided an unbelievable service of cooking and making our lives comfortable in difficult places.  I dreaded having to pay their tips which they would be expecting on the last day.  It wasn't that I minded tipping them, but I knew that what I had wasn't going to be enough.  We had enough cash to give them 20% of the total which I though would be more than adequate.  Paul came to our tent first thing and told us that we owed them more like 50%.  I was hot that they would have the nerve to come and tell us how much they owed for a tip. 

Anyone who travels to Africa will realize that you, the white person, is viewed as having money (even if you don't).  The most budget oriented traveler still has more money than Africans like our porters will ever have.  Fred and I gave them all the money we had, but it still fell short of their expectations.  It made for a disappointing end to a great trip having to argue over tips.  I wasn't even sure how we were going to make it back to Nairobi with no money.

Fred, myself and the group.  Our guide Paul is to my left wearing the red bandana.  I had never seen the character in the Atlanta Braves hat until I developed my film!

Our parents back at home were in a tizzy over us climbing Kilimanjaro.  I tried to explain that Kilimanjaro would be like a vacation compared to the rest of our travels.  Real danger in Africa is getting in a vehicle, and that theory proved itself on our ride back to Nairobi.  Between the mountain and Kenya we suffered a tire blowout that sent us careening into oncoming traffic followed by hitting a cow while traveling at speeds exceeding 60 mph. 

It's hard to ignore the fact that the trip was set up like a colonial expedition, but the trip exceeded my expectations in terms of the varied scenery and level of service by our porters and guide.

-written September 2002

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