Sunday, Oct 22 (Kilimanjaro—Barafu to summit to Mweka)

Guess who just climbed the freakin mountain!!! It turns out that all of us did (at least all except for Kevin). But I get ahead of myself. It is hard to remember all of the things I experienced and thought during a nine and three-quarters hour hike, but I’ll try to get out what I can remember.

Originally, I dressed with long underwear, fleece pants, and my rain/wind pants on my bottom half. On top, I had long underwear, light fleece, heavy fleece, and my Gor-Tex shell. I also had a neck gator, hat, and gloves.

Just before we started, I asked our guide Jorge if he thought it was too much clothing. Based on his suggestion, I removed one layer of fleece. I didn’t want to be cold, so I removed my inner, light fleece. (The temperature ended up being between 32 and 25.)

When we started hiking, I found that on the relative flats, I was almost OK temperature-wise, but on the uphills, I was definitely too warm (and there was a heck of a lot more uphill than flats coming up!)

The hiking style was very different from what we did on Mt. Rainier. On Rainier, we would hike for about an hour, and then we would have a 5-10 minute break. We would throw on a parka during the breaks to avoid getting chilled. Here, we hiked “polé” (“slow” or “turtle” in Swahili) fairly continuously. Every hour or so, we would get a short break, only about a minute long. The goal was to continue hiking before people got chilled.

I had to prioritize and plan out these rest stops, since they were so short and far between. On the first one, I dropped my pack and replaced my heavy fleece with my lighter one. That took up the entire break. Then I noticed that my boots were not laced tightly enough, and I was worried about blisters. So on the second break, I pulled my gators and tightened my laces. It was only after that when I could think about minor stuff like eating. I could drink a little on the flatter sections of trail while hiking, but it was much easier doing it during the breaks.

I could have stepped out of line to take care of some of these issues, but that would have put me behind the main group, where I didn’t want to be.

It was strange hiking with the head-lamps under a new moon. It was apparently overcast as there were no stars. We watched the ground in front of us, with occasional glances around, but I really had little to no idea of the big picture. Partway up, it started snowing on us. It was a rather light snow, just enough to dust the ground. From where I was in the line, the snow made it very easy to see the trail, as the trail was dark against a white background (due to the hikers in front of me). The first person was one of the African guides, Frank, who not only had to set the pace, but who also had to locate the trail, in the dark, in a snowstorm.

Before I came out here, I had the impression that an American guide was “obviously” superior to an African guide. But while they are probably better for talking to and perhaps with the details of camp life, the African guides are much better at actually hiking. This makes sense as the American guides may hike the mountain (in our case) two or three times a year, and may have only been on a single-digit number of trips total. The African guides may do it once or twice a month, and the head African guides may have done it dozens or scores of times. (On the way home, we met an African guide that claimed to have hike Kili about 600 times!)

In addition to our American guide (who was actually from Costa Rica), there were two head African guides (Frank and Frank) and four assistant guides. This is in case we needed to split up into multiple groups, or if we have to send individuals down. Everyone needs to be with a guide, and groups need two guides (one at the front, and one at the end).

On the hike down, I finally got to see what the trail was like. Barafu camp is on a fairly rocky ridge. After a while of climbing through the rocks, the trail changes to sandy scree, with occasional rocks sticking through or on the surface. The trail switchbacks a lot, sometimes to avoid rocky outcroppings, and sometimes to make the grade easier. The ridge morphs into a sort of valley with a wall to either side. At one point, the trail runs on a wide ledge that climbs the left wall and eventually brings us to the top of the wall, which is quite broad, and which runs us up to the crater rim.

At the first or second break, one of our party, Andrew, caused rather a commotion by almost falling asleep. This is definitely not what you are supposed to be doing when climbing at altitude in the cold. Some of the guides looked after Andrew, while the rest of us continued on. I thought it likely that he might return to camp, but he eventually made the summit, although he was being helped by two guides. There was another climber, Laurie, who wasn’t accounted for when we reached the rim. It turns out that she wasn’t feeling good and dropped behind (also partially out of concern for Andrew). She was thinking of turning back, but the guides convinced her to continue. She arrived at the rim with her guide about an hour after the rest of us did.

Most of the final assent is slogging up this sandy scree. The lead guide used a rest step, where there is a slight pause between each step, with the weight held on the straight back leg. I tended to use a variant of it with poles, so most of my hike was of the form: step-pause-step-plant-plant.

I liked keeping a steady pace, without starts and stops. I got annoyed at one point with the folks in front of me, who would often pause and then hike faster to catch up. I tried with mixed results to hike far enough behind them that I could maintain a steady rhythm without having to stop when they paused.

Maybe ¾ of the way up, the snow stopped, and then about maybe 500 feet from the rim, the sun started to rise. Our first clue was that we could see a faint outline of the rim in front of us. Then we looked behind us and saw the sky beginning to turn orange. There was a layer of hazy clouds below us, so our sun rise was when the sun came out over the clouds. This happened just about when we reached the rim at Stellar Point. We could see the inside of the crater, the trail to the Western Breach, and the top ends of some of the glaciers. I got some pictures, meaning to get more on the return, but by then some clouds/fog had risen, and the views were not great.

After spending a few minutes at Stellar Point, we started as a group along the west rim to the actual summit. We passed by several glaciers off to the side.

The closest was probably only a hundred yards or so away. For some strange reason, the glaciers had vertical walls at the top end, of about 20-30 feet in height.

At one point, I stopped to take some pictures, and then I raced to catch up with the group. I figured that I could do this because this trail was “almost flat” (not quite). This proved to be a mistake as there was more up than I counted on, and it is never a good idea to move quickly at 19,000 feet. I very quickly winded myself and stood there gasping the thin air.

When we reached the summit, there was a large spate of picture taking. The SLR’s (including John’s and mine) did not seem to have any problem with the cold, although some of the point & shoots had issues. The temperature seemed to be about 25. It was clearly below freezing, as on the hike up I had ice chunks in my water bottle, and when I switched bottles, the new one had a thin ice plug in it (easily removed).

Then we returned to Stellar Point in dribs and drabs. Along the way, we passed by Laurie who was just heading over to the summit. She turned the tables on us, however, by taking with her guide a short-cut down from the rim and getting in front of the group of us that was descending. (Our stopping to take pictures probably helped her catch up.)

We started down following the dark trail, highlighted against the dusting of snow. On the sandy scree, we could sort of do standing glissades (which our guide called “skiing”), although with the irregular surface, it was safer to just take long steps and have your foot land and slide slightly in the fluffy surface. It was easier on my knees, and much faster than going up. It was almost depressing seeing how quickly and easily we lost the height that we had gained so slowly and with such effort hours earlier. Further down, the trail surface became more dense, and we had to hike down normally.

My knees were not the happiest with me, but they seemed to have survived intact. The real test will be the remaining hike to get down. It is strange to think that while we feel like we are down from the summit, we are still higher than the summit of Mt. Rainier and have a lot more down left to go.

The game plan is that for the next hour and a half, folks can snooze (or write in their journal :-). Then there is lunch, and then we are heading down about three hours to tonight’s camp. After that, we have another three hour hike, and then we are out and can actually take showers and get civilized. (To put things in a different perspective, we had just climbed down about 4000 feet. To get to tonight’s camp, we had to drop another 4000 feet, and then the next day another 3000.)

At least now I can stop thinking about and taking altitude meds (I ended up taking a Dex before the summit ascent), although my cough is worse (maybe altitude, cold, or dust?), and John thinks he is coming down with a cold. Certainly, with the ways that our bodies have been stressed, and with the lack of good sleep, we would be more susceptible to diseases.

It is interesting to contrast my feelings going up and coming down. Going up, I am jazzed, think I am going strong, a bit winded, and anxious to see how we do and what the top is like. Going down is anticlimactic, not nearly as strenuous and interesting, we’re more tired, and we just want to get to the end as quickly and safely as we can.

John and I seem reasonably matched physically. Given the amount he jogs and the amount of cycling he does, I wondered before this trip if he would hike me into the ground. Prior to today, my personal opinion was that he was marginally stronger than I. However, on the summit climb, I seemed to be a bit stronger than he was. This might be due to his cold or that he is slightly heavier than I, or perhaps other reasons.

One other interesting thing that John noticed is that he hikes and walks with his feet turned outward slightly. He noticed that I was hiking (I was in front of him at the time) with my feel parallel. In a sense this is good (for me). My tendency is to turn my feet out also, and I’ve been told that this might contribute to my knee issues. So I’ve been trying to straighten my feet. I guess I have been succeeding if I’m doing it without realizing it under difficult conditions.

The weather here changes faster than in New England. Maybe because we’re high and close to the equator, but when the sun comes out, we’ll be roasting in a moment. Then it will go behind the clouds and I’ll be chilly. Maybe because we’re on the mountain, but it can be sunny, then rainy, then sunny, then foggy, then rainy, over a very short interval. Of course, this is the bridge season between the dry and the rainy seasons.

I’ve also noticed that the altitude (and/or stress) has done a job on my higher functions. I can’t remember things that I should know, I make dumb math mistakes, and some easy arithmetic problems (like converting from Fahrenheit to Celsius) I decide are just too much trouble to bother with.

One final note: while John and I both used medication (Diamox and on the summit climb Dex) to cope with the altitude, it was nice to see that we didn’t have any altitude related symptoms other than the most minor of headaches.

Two more thoughts: Ever since Rainer, I wanted an occasion to recite “The Men Who Don’t Fit In”. This would have been a perfect chance, but the occasion never arose. During the ascent, however, I was thinking of the poem:

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight.
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upwards in the night.

It is a different context, but I thought it was somewhat apropos to what we were doing at that moment.


We just hiked down to Mweka camp. This is our low camp, and tomorrow we hike out. Of course, our low camp is still around 10,000 feet, which puts it well above anything in the eastern United States. Still, we had to lose a lot of altitude from high camp (more than 5000 feet). It was a short hike—only about three miles, but it drops about a mile. We started out going down the ridge we were camped on. It was a pretty decent trail—somewhat dusty, going down at a steady clip.

Then at some point that I didn’t really notice, we were suddenly surrounded by non-trivial plants. These increased as we got lower, until the camp itself which was in a rain forest. The first part of the trail is the same stuff we’ve been hiking on all week, but about where the plants begin, the trail turns to slippery mud and large rocks. It was really painful for my knees going down it. This trail was worse and longer than the actual descent from the summit to high camp. So all in all, we’ve descended about 9000 feet today, which is noticeably more than doing Mount Washington all the way down to sea level. The lower half of the trail could have been an unimproved trail in the US, except that the vegetation was different.

As expected, the camp site is all mud, and there appears to be mosquitoes here. This camping/hiking thing, now that we’ve summitted, is growing quite thin. I’m really looking forward to leaving the mountain and returning to civilization. My cough is still bad, and I may be coming down with a cold like John.

One thing that I noticed in this area is that there are lots of scents. This is significant as I have a terrible sense of smell. For this reason, I can’t tell you what kind of scents there were, just that they were there.

We were going down the standard exit route, which is the quickest, steepest, most direct route out, so this camp is much more populated. This trail is only used for leaving, as it is too steep for going up. There is a store where you can buy a coke ($2) or a beer ($3) and probably other things. I ended up buying a coke for dinner, both to celebrate and so that I wouldn’t be drinking hot water yet again.

Strangely enough, most of us have really dirty fingernails. It almost looks like we’ve been digging in the dirt, but of course we haven’t. I’m not sure why this should be. The stuff seems very resistant to coming off, and we have no nail brushes.

It seems that more people on this hike have problems with their knees than those who have “normal” knees. One of the guys from Maine suggested that I look into Synvisc. I guess this is some sort of “joint lubricant”, administered by an orthopedist in three shots. He had it done, and it made a big difference for him. He was guessing that the effects lasted about a year.

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