As with most events in my life, how I ended up 19,341 vertical feet in the air at the top of Kilimanjaro, was due to a chance encounter. In October 2011, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s Annual Summit in Chiapas, Mexico. There I had the pleasure of meeting Frank Castro, owner of Adventure International. And on my second night in Africa, in Laikipia, Kenya, in the land of the Samburu, guess who ended up sitting at the dinner table with me at Saruni Samburu? Frank. Small world is an understatement.
Frank Castro, Adventure International, on safari at Saruni Samburu.
As it turns out, Frank was in Kenya scoping out trips for his clients. Over a few glasses of wine, he managed to convince me to extend my trip and climb Kilimanjaro. Maybe the wine impaired my ability to make rational decisions that evening, but part of me couldn’t help but think, there is a reason I met Frank and he is sitting in front of me on my second night of my solo journey through Africa. South African Airways made it easy to extend my trip, so I was out of excuses. I was going up Kili! As the woman who sold me some climbing gear said as she excitedly hugged me, “It’s something that you do for you, no one can take this away from you.” Right…
Frank and his on-the-ground team from Summits Africa, were well prepared, friendly, helpful and beyond motivating (trust me, you’ll need a dose of positive reinforcement at least once along the way). I am lucky to have met the crew and had this life changing experience. Clearly the Adventure International team thought I may be a tad high maintenance, because for one other climber and myself– there was a crew of 18!
Me with the Summits Africa team, Day 1, at the base of Kilimanjaro.
These local guides and porters have next to nothing, certainly not our fancy gear and yet they climb that mountain multiple times per year carrying toilets, water, food, tents and gear up and down for climbers from across the globe.
Our lead guide, Ayubu, demonstrating the camping toilet.
It is standard practice for climbers to leave gear for the porters after the climb, like this hat. Funny though, he didn’t know what a leprechaun was. Try describing to a Tanzanian who has never left his country and has no knowledge of Irish culture, what his hat symbolized.
- The Tanzanian leprechaun and me, on Day 6, Barafu Camp.
There are several choices up Kilimanjaro, the Lemosho Route is known by locals as the “Coca-Cola route”. But don’t be fooled, you are still climbing the same distance up though it is considered the safest because you summit via Stella’s Point and not the Western Breach. The route that Frank chose for me was the Macheme Route— which is a more technical climb and includes a night time ascent to the summit. The trip is fully supported with Mountain Hard Wear tents, mattress and pillow as well as a mess tent with lightweight tables and chairs– there is even a toilet. Which means someone is carrying that bad boy the mountain, so tip well.
Inside my Mountain Hard Wear tent, with my electric yellow backpack, courtesy of Bryan Kinkade, AFAR.
A porter climbing Kilimanjaro with gear…all I had was a day pack and poles and this guy breezed right past me.
- The crew hard at work in the “kitchen”. Try lighting a fire in that altitude!
Day 1 ~ Arusha: Transfer to lodge and met by the climbs manager and guide for the debriefing. I stayed at the Rivertrees Country Inn, a former coffee plantation with amazing grounds.
- My room at the Rivertrees Country Inn in Arusha, a former coffee plantation, though they do still produce their own coffee. Convenient place for pre-post Kilimanjaro, but also if you are heading on to Ngoro Ngoro Crater or Serengeti. The grounds are stunning, a fantastic spa, a shaded pool by the river, friendly staff and great food (have the butternut squash pizza with feta). Rivertrees Hotel is opening a few more rooms later this summer. Each room is it’s own seperate structure, surrounding the common gardens. Outdoor/indoor shower, fireplace, AC and beds with mosquito nets. Laundry is not included in the bill.
- Students I encountered walking home from lunch. Yes, those are very large, sharp machetes. They are used to cut grass, tree branches and produce.
Day 2 ~Macheme: After breakfast you depart by vehicle to Kilimanjaro. At the gate your crew finalize packing and up you go. Day 1 of the climb is through verdant forest to Machame Hut.
- Me at the Macheme Gate.
- Day 1 complete.
Day 3 ~ Shira: From Machame Camp you hike to Shira Camp. The first section is relatively steep and altitude is gained rapidly. The zone you pass through today is known as the heath zone where attractive Helichrysum and lobelia plants become apparent. Various geologic features can be seen from lava tubes to glacial valleys. This is the night as I lay freezing in my tent that I thought to myself, “What the hell am I doing?“. I know, funny that I never considered this insane until I was already a couple nights in.
- Lead guide, Ayubu, and I during a break, Day 2. Please notice my sexy outfit– worn two days in a row. Yummy!
- Michaela Guzy at Shira Camp/night 2 (3,600 meters up), I just think the altitude or maybe the diamox made me super enthusiastic. Maybe the lack of showering?
Day 4 ~ Barranco: This is the day where I learned what climb high, sleep low meant. Meaning you do an acclimatization walk from camp to Lava Tower (the same height as the base camp pre-summit, 4,600 meters) and come back down. While it seems insane to lose some footage, the team takes the altitude seriously– it worked. I made it up, but I’d suggest taking diamox. Other than tingly fingers and toes, it helps you adjust. This is a looooong day.
- Looking super chic, Day 4.
- Clouds moving in fast at Barranco Camp.
Day 5 ~ Karanga: From Barranco camp, famous for its’ giant groundsels (Senecio species), you ascend the Barranco wall (this thing is no joke) and hike glacial valleys to Karanga camp. A short day of hiking, but a walk can be taken in the afternoon for great views of the Southern walls of Kibo and deep glacial valleys.
- It may be cold, but that sun is strong. SPF is a must! I had a real sweet neck burn. of course only on one side.
- Stopping for a photo opp of Mt. Meru through the clouds behind me. Yes, I have worn this outfit several times at this point.
Day 6 ~ Barafu: Today is another half day ascending to Barafu camp, and possibly the weirdest day ever. When you reach Barafu you eat lunch, then you are told to sleep…in the middle of the day. If you are an insomniac like me, this is near impossible. Especially considering I WAS SOOOOOOO EXCITED for summit night! Which we departed for at midnight that evening. Desolate alpine desert and at times strong winds rip over this camp and yet in the evening splendid views of Mawenzi peak are the norm.
- Barafu Camp, looking over the cloud layer.
- Walking to the mess tent for lunch, Barafu Camp. Still seems like a long way to go right? Well we do it tonight!
Day 7 ~ Summit / Mweka: Most people depart just before midnight for the final summit bid. So in the dark of night, bundled in ski gear, you start climbing straight up. You do pass people getting sick and or having to turn around. Maybe the altitude influenced my rational thought and I am positive I annoyed the crap out of other climbers, but I was Suzy cheerleader. Reminiscent of my childhood when my sisters and I would sing the last word our mother said during roadtrips, I did the same for several hours on summit day. Most climbers got a kick out of it and some would sing along. And come on, when the climb is supposed to be 6-8 hours, you have to have some entertainment. I would say that patience, persistence and enthusiasm are the name of game to reach the summit and by dawn as the first rays of light start to appear, most arrive near the rim.
- We did it. Me at sunrise reaching Stella point in only 5 hours! My hat kinda matches the sky.
- Assistant guide, Elirehema and I at Stella Point, 5,756 meters.
- Our assistant guide Elirehema surprised us with a hot cup of coffee…the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. And so needed considering I clearly didn’t sleep yesterday afternoon from anticipation!
- Snow meets sky below.
- While some turn around at Stella, how on earth could I? I’ve not been climbing and substituting showering for 6 days to turn back an hour from the tipity top.
- Stella Point behind me.
- That hour or so between Stella and Uhuru Peak is a killer.
The top. Uhuru Peak at 7:15am. THE BEST FEELING EVER! Yeah. There were lots of Canadian flags at the top…I left mine at home. Sorry America.
Ascending via Stella Point affords a relatively short final section to Uhuru Peak, the Roof of Africa! But let me tell you, that last hour or so feels like 14 hours. And then, you realize, what goes up must come down. They want you out of the altitude as fast as possible. The goal today is to reach Mweka Camp. But no one tells you that coming down is the hard part. Oh how I wish I had trained, my knees…and you are beyond delirious at this point. Then the sun came up… I was sweating my @ss off, the skree is melting and I’m falling left and right. During one slide, I just lay in the dirt, claiming I would just sleep there, I would have, but my faithful guide, Ayubu, gave me his hand and pulled me up. He stayed by my side the entire way to camp.
Day 8 ~ Arusha: After breakfast you descend once again through montane forest and around mid day after saying farewell to your crew, you are picked up and transferred back to your lodge for a well deserved shower! Seriously, the best shower you’ve ever ever taken. And oh how good beer tasted (alcohol isn’t allowed on the mountain for climbers protection). Overnight Rivertrees Country Inn.
Day 9 ~ Depart: My last adventure in Arusha, Tanzania, was driving to the airport for my flight to Zanzibar. This is supposed to be a two lane road. I lost count at 6 lanes merging together in dead stop traffic. At one point, we were even behind a man pulling a cart on foot. Driving in Africa requires a seat belt, a skilled driver and a dose of patience.
- On the way to the airport, Arusha, Tanzania.