The Snows of Kilimanjaro

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At Crater Camp Sharon was cold.

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Luke was cold, but seemed to enjoy it.

Sleeping at altitude is never a pleasant experience. Waking up with slight headaches, we forced ourselves to eat and then started our climb to Crater Camp. From camp it was nearly 1100 meters of unrelenting, steep, scree-laden trail to Stella Point.

Along the way we saw the groups with which we shared last night’s camp descending from the summit. For many “walking” was an overstatement. More than a few of the college students were being nearly carried by their guides. Some looked very pale, others just plain sick. A couple of girls sat down to rest and one instantly dozed off. While Kilimanjaro is not a hard mountain to climb, no one can say it is easy and altitude plays a MAJOR role.

The sky was cloudy, sometimes foggy, and even misty. At one point we even faced snow. With increasing elevation the temperature and amount of oxygen decreased. We were relieved to reach Stella Point after fewer than 4 hours. From here it was only a few hundred meters to the summit, but we descended into the crater.

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Tents and trash at Crater Camp.

Crater Camp was filthy. While not many people stayed here, it seemed like everyone that did just left their garbage behind. Oddly enough, even wag bags were discarded. Why would you poop in a plastic bag then just leave it there? If you’re not planning on carrying it down at least just leave the poop without adding plastic to the litter.

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Remains of a glacier.

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The inner Ash Pit.

After some rest, most of our crew, which at this point consisted of Saumu, Shija, John, our camp manager, 2 assistant guides, and us, went for a walk to see the inner crater. John and Shija stayed behind to prepare our dinner. Though it was cold and we were feeling the effects of altitude more and more, the walk was rather pleasant. The scenery was simply breathtaking. We walked right past a glacier; a rather poor excuse for a glacier, though one could imagine that in the near past it likely filled the entire crater. We climbed to the rim of Reusch Crater and from there observed the inner Ash Pit. Though Kibo is no longer an active volcano, we did see and smell some sulfur clouds emanating from the Ash Pit’s banks.

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Our assistant guides peering into the ice cave.

On the way down we waked right up to the glacier, touching, and even climbing on it. Everyone took pictures inside a small glacial cave. Our inner children came out to play. It was very nice to see the rest of the crew having fun instead of just working.

The night was sleepless. Luke had a throbbing headache which no amount of Ibuprofen would quell. Sharon did not feel any better and stayed up at night watching and worrying as Luke’s body vibrated due to his racing heartbeat.

In the morning, Shija greeted us with a plate full of omelets and a pot filled with porridge, the very smell of which increased the nausea. We were not able to stomach any food. As she later told us, Saumu did not eat either.

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The sun greeted us as we climbed up.

The three of us started for the summit around 6 am, just as the rising sun cast perfect light on the surroundings. After about 45 minutes of steep up-hill, we reached the fog covered summit rim. Approaching from the opposite side of the summit than the regular route from Stella Point, we felt like the only ones on the mountain.

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Morning fog gave the summit ridge a mystical mood.

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Finally!

We made a quick stop at the “actual” summit. This is the place where many GPS receivers give a higher reading than at the Uhuru Peak signpost. We were thrilled and relieved to finally reach the climax of this adventure. We spent 9 minutes on the summit. As a group of tourists walked away and we realized we were sharing the peak with no one, all the time spent planning, preparing, and hiking seemed worth it.  During those rare couple of minutes, before the steady stream of tourists continued, we felt like we had reached our destination, Destination Isolation. The fog broke momentarily as we started our descent, affording us breathtaking views of Kili’s larger glaciers.

Digging our heels into the scree we quickly made our way back down to Barafu for some much needed rest. Here, our summit crew was nervously waiting with some bad news. While trying to clear the ice off of our frozen tent, they managed to put a couple large holes in the side. We think they were worried we’d be upset, but hakuna matata. Accidents happen and we were fairly sure that Black Diamond would repair it for free (which they did). The headaches were slowly dwindling and we could eat again.

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Lower elevation will cure your headache, but a ride in one of these is sure to induce one.

After a while, we continued down to Millennium Huts and then Mweka Huts, our stopping point for the night.

Along the way we spotted a few “Kilimanjaro taxis.” Imagine metal bed frames, welded to wheelbarrow handles at both ends, and a single spring loaded, mountain-bike-esque fork with a fat-tire wheel in the center. While quick descent is a treatment for altitude sickness, we could only imagine that the bumpy ride on one of these would be painful.

Here we witnessed Saumu’s true power over her team. She didn’t like the campsite the porters picked out and made them move it. Within minutes, all tents were torn down and re-located without as much as a whine. Being half way down the mountain, we finally got some much needed sleep.

Breakfast the next morning was followed by the tipping ceremony. After distributing envelopes to the crews, tourists were serenaded with the “Kilimanjaro Song:”

Jambo, Jambo buana (hello, hello sir)
Habari gani (how are you?)
Mzuri sana (very well)
Wageni, mwakaribishwa (foreigners, you’re welcome)
Kilimanjaro yetu, (to Kilimanjaro)
Hakuna matata (no worries)

Alternated with verses which we were told referred to Luke as crazy and to Sharon as smiling a lot.

Afterwards we half walked, half slid down the muddy “trail”. The guide book claims this section was improved over the last few years so we can only imagine what it looked like before the renovation.

We were also shocked at the dexterity with which the porters made their way down, some wearing simple sneakers down this mudslide. On the way, we were pleasantly surprised to run into Nick, whom we met on Mount Meru.

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Approach to Mweka Gate.

Mweka Gate, the endpoint of our trek, was bustling with activity. As the departure point for half the mountain’s routes, the parking lot was filled with vans, buses, and Land Cruisers. Vendors tried selling souvenirs and some pushed repeatedly to clean our boots for a few shillings.

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War paint!

Our car finally arrived after a wait and we were saddened to part with John and Shija, expecting we would never see them again.

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Post-trek nourishment.

On the way home, one more treat awaited us. We drove past a building and, as the car barely slowed down, a man passed some boxes to the driver. The next thing we knew, there were meals sitting in our laps. The building, we later found out, was Chrisburger, and the man an Ahsante employee sent ahead to buy us food. Maybe it was because of the vast amount of calories we exerted over the past few days, or because there’s only so much mountain food one can take (though I must say again that John’s cooking was most excellent), but it tasted extraordinary. The burgers were made of grilled veggies and came with a pancake, veggies, fries, and sweet bananas on the side.

Back at Weruweru Lodge we scrubbed the dirt and stench off our bodies and waited for Saumu to come back and pick us up for a celebration dinner and a night out on the town. We went to Indoitaliano. The restaurant was filled with mzungu and Saumu joked about how she and Joseph, our driver, were the only non-whites there. More expensive than any other place in Moshitown, the food at the restaurant was not particularly great, and in fact left our stomach aching over the next few hours. Neglecting to wear DEET, every exposed part of our bodies was munched on by mosquitos.

After dinner, we moved to Kool Bar. At first, the place was fairly quiet. Then, the DJ set up a projector screen and we were treated to some local karaoke. Local in the sense that locals sang the worst possible American songs. Here we also witnessed a person of cultural interest. A Masai man entered the bar accompanied by his mzungu girl and wearing a leather jacket. He played pool with some others at the bar and then broke up what seemingly would have escalated to a fight between two other patrons. So much for shunning modern culture.

As Kool Bar closed, we moved next door with Saumu and her boyfriend, whom we had just met. Pub Alberto (by day this is Chrisburger) was dark and illuminated by a disco ball. The dance floor was packed, but unlike one would expect in the States, the dancers were predominantly male. And boy were they dancing their hearts out, stopping only occasionally to take a drink of water or smoke a cigarette.

There were a few girls on the floor and some of the dancing bordered on lewd acts. This explained why condoms were on the bar menu. Luke refused to show off his mzungu moves, but Sharon spent a minute or so on the dance floor with Saumu.

Having enough of Moshitown by night, still tired from the mountain, and feeling sorry for Joseph, who did not seem to be enjoying himself, we said our goodbyes to Saumu for the last time and took the car back to Weruweru to sleep in a real bed and dream of our coming safari.