Jambo! Our challenge to reach Uhuru Peak pales in comparison to the countless challenges faced by children that Aim for Seva helps educate! Education is the key to success.
Just when you think you have given everything there is to give and you can’t do it any more, you dig a little deeper in your soul. You go through all the emotions that you possibly can within the 8 to 10 hours that it takes to launch the final assault to reach Uhuru Peak.
Almost 11 months ago, when I told my wife, Rose that we are going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, she thought I was crazy. But then when I explained that the climb would help us raise funds to support a charitable organization, it made perfect sense to her. Within weeks she was on board and we began preparing for our climb.
The main purpose of our climb is to raise funds for AIM for SEVA, a Canadian not-for-profit charity registered in Ontario. It focuses on alleviating poverty in India through the most reliable, effective and sustainable route – Education.
We are privileged to live in a rich society and I think it is our moral obligation to give to those who are less fortunate. We realize that education alone cannot eliminate poverty or fix all human-kind problems but it is one of the best ways to achieve success in our lives. It helps us become better people, it helps us rationalize, it helps us articulate our thoughts and processes, it helps us negotiate with our neighbours, and it helps us help others who need help. Every child equipped with education, is essentially equipped with tools to make a success of her life.
To reach Uhuru Peak at 5,895 metres or 19,341 feet AMSL over a period of 5 nights and 6 days.
On December 20th, we left Moshi, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania with our guide, Victor, an assistant guide, Rama, 5 porters, a cook (a team of 8 to support the 2 of us) en-route to the gate of Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park. After duly registering us with the Park authorities at Machame Gate, Victor said good luck to us and with our water bottles and a small day-pack off we went trekking through the most gorgeous rain forest.
Day 1 – Pole-pole
Lesson number one: when climbing a mountain or starting on a new adventure, go pole-pole (Swahili for slowly). Within 3 hours you realize why pole-pole is important. It’s not a race and the goal is to get to the top safely and securely. It’s amazing that the first day of ascent we walked through the rain forest with vegetation we have never seen before. The path is somewhat gentle and considerably wide – maybe 6 people can walk side-by-side. We walked for over 6 hours through the rain forest to reach Machame Camp at 3,100 Metres of 10,170 feet AMSL (above mean sea level). The porters carry our duffel bags, tents, necessary food for 10 people for 5 days and other necessary equipment on their heads or shoulders. These guys are like gazelles and run at about 3-4 times our speed without ever tripping, sliding or breathing heavily. We, on the other hand, are huffing and puffing uphill and exhausted by the time we get to the first camp. The weather changes every hour or so – from hot and humid to rainy to cool by 5 PM.
At 5 PM, we reached our first camp, Machame, and we were provided hot water to wash up. We took obligatory pictures at the camp and after a little rest we were provided hot dinner in a “mess-tent”. It was a clear night and a few hours after the sunset, the moon was bright in the sky. The sky was full of bright stars. We turned our heads slightly north and their loomed the biggest mountain we have ever encountered, shining brightly covered in ice and snow! It appears to be very close but we know that it’s still 4-days away. We camped in a 2-person tent with outside and inside temperature hovering around 0 degrees Celsius.
Day 2 – Breathing
The morning comes early at 6:30 AM when the sunlight starts to creep into the tent and animals and birds start to make noises. With a quick wash-up and warm breakfast with tea, we head up for the day towards Camp Shira. The day progresses slowly; the weather changes every hour from warm to rainy to cold.
Lesson number two: breathe from your diaphragm – take deep breaths instead of shallow breaths. It’s so important to breath properly as the higher we go, the thinner the air gets and harder it gets to breathe. The scenery is very different from yesterday’s rain forest. Now, we walk through gentler moorland – and I say gentler, tongue-in-cheek. It’s rocky but manageable. It was still an uphill climb and breathing is getting more and more difficult.
The evening is cold at Shira camp at 3,840 metres or 12,600 feet AMSL. At night, the temperature drops close to -5 degrees Celsius and it’s the same temperature inside the tent. After dinner, we snuggle in our sleeping bags and try to sleep, but getting used to sleeping in cold is difficult. We manage to get a few hours of sleep at a time. In the middle of the night both Rose and I wake shivering uncontrollably. We quickly realize that we are running a fever, which settled down in about two hours after a couple of Tylenols each.
Day 3 – Layering
Similar to yesterday, the day starts early and after a quick breakfast we are off towards Barranco Camp. But before we get to Barranco, we must go up to almost 4,600 metres or 15,100 feet AMSL to Lava Tower and Lava Rock. The day started out great, but after walking and climbing through huge boulders, through rain, mist, clouds when we reached the Lava Tower, I was not feeling too great. I felt nauseous and dizzy. By the time we reached the Lava Tower it had started to rain. We decided not to climb to the top of Lava Rock (an optional but steep climb of approximately 100 metres). We started to descend toward the Barranco camp through very steep rocks at 3,950 metres or 12,960 feet AMSL.
After about 8 hours of trekking, we make Barranco camp at 3,950 metres or 12,960 feet AMSL at 5 PM and we are exhausted. Barranco Camp is situated under the Great Barranco Wall, an imposing, steep wall which looks impossible and scary to climb. This evening, we realized that our Sony digital and video camera has stopped functioning. Now we have to rely upon our small backup Cannon digital camera. By the time we arrive at the camp and our heart-rate has settled down, we start to feel cold and it appears that with the huge wall on one side, the temperature at night will be extremely cold. We were correct – at the night the temperature must have been -10 degrees Celsius.
After a quick wash and dinner we crash inside the tent in our sleeping bags. Once again, in the middle of the night, both Rose and I wake up trembling with cold and realize that we a have a fever. After popping some Tylenols we settle down and the fever breaks after about a couple of hours. I was afraid that the fever and the hard day would be our undoing. But thankfully, when the morning came, we were in decent shape.
Day 4 – Staying positive
Another cold and clear morning but the sun was blocked by the imposing Barranco Wall – we get up, wash up and get our normal breakfast with tea/coffee. We start climbing at about 8:00 AM towards Karanga Valley, where we stop for lunch. Karanga, in Swahili means peanut, hence it is considered a no-problem climb through this valley. I assume that they say that for the local Tanzanians, instead of novice climbers like us. It was somewhat of an easier climb but still quite a trek.
We are headed to our last camp at 4,600 metres or 15,100 feet AMSL at Barfu Camp. Baraf, in Swahili means ice/snow and yes it is icy cold every hour now. Another 9 hour climb through Karanga Valley, through desert like landscape and through some serious boulders, we reach Barafu Camp by 5 PM. This is the last camp before summit.
After a quick rest and dinner, we get our final instructions from our guide, Victor. He asked us to sleep until 10:30 PM and at that time after some snacks; we will start our ascent to the summit. Sleep – you mean layer-up, close your eyes and shiver with cold until the wake-up call. Easier said than done – we lay down with our 5-layers of clothing in our sleeping bags in our tent from 5:30 until the wake-up call at 10:45 PM. We quickly washed up and had some tea and snacks.
Day 4 & 5 – Dig deep
Starting at 11:30 PM, in middle of night, in pitch dark, we start our ascent. We have 5 layers – tops and bottoms, we have two pairs of socks and two sets of mittens, a balaclava and jacket hood, hand and toe warmers, water bottles, gel-packs (energy packs) and forehead mounted flashlights. All we can see is about 5 feet in front of our feet including our guide’s footsteps. We have Victor in front and Rama at back. It was the slowest climb ever – no more than 2 feet steps but it felt like snail-climb. The climb is steep through rocks, desert, mountainous terrain and its freezing cold. We stop almost every 20-30 minutes for water or to catch our breaths. We continued our trek for another 7 hours, breaking frequently. At about 6:30 when the sun starts to come up, we were scheduled to be at Stella Point. However, we realize that we are at least 1 ½ hours away and up a very steep climb. Thank God that it’s not a race but an endurance marathon. In the last 7 hours, Rose and I had at least four conversations of quitting our ascent. Fortunately, when one of us was ready to give up, the other one was energetic and enthusiastic. Later on, we realized that if we both had been at a low point at the same time, we may have given up on the final climb. As conversations are minimal during the climb to Stella Point, we both have a lot of time to think and be with our thoughts. Each one of us had numerous conversations with our God, we thought about why are we are doing this, we thought about our parents, we thought about the under-privileged children we were doing this for, we thought about the accomplishment that we were aiming for, we thought about Anna and her struggle with her cancer. The conversations in your head are numerous – you plead with the higher power to help you accomplish the impossible, you argue, you cajole, you fight, and you get mad but something inside keeps you driving towards the goal.
At about 8:15 AM, both of us made it to Stella Point, which is 5,745 metres or 18,840 feet AMSL, the highest point before the summit. Now, the sun is shining but it’s very cold (between -15 and -20) and windy and your toes and finger-tips are frozen. Rose’s spirits are way down and she decided that she cannot proceed to the top, which is only about 1 ½ hours and 150 metres or 500 feet higher up the crater rim. I was dead tired and exhausted with no energy left to continue on. Somehow, I find the energy and wherewithal to find the right words to convince Rose to continue to the top. With the help of our guides, we inch towards the peak. About an hour or so later, I realize that somehow Rose is already almost at the top and waiting for me to get to the top together.
At 9:30 AM, on Christmas Eve 2010, Rose and I reach the highest point of Mt. Kilimanjaro – Uhuru Peak (Freedom, in Swahili). It was one of the most emotional, gut-wrenching experiences ever. After over 40 hours and over 70 KMs of climbing, we had accomplished what we set out to do. We were both too exhausted to celebrate in any major way. We had another guide take a number of pictures of us with the guides and with our banner at the peak. Within 20 minutes we were heading towards Stella Point. In the descent from Uhuru Peak to Stella Point, we took a few more pictures of the glaciers and the crater.
Day 5 – Christmas Eve
At around 10:30 AM or so, we started our descent from Stella Point – nobody had given us an idea of how difficult this descent would be and nothing had prepared us for this descent through a very steep rocky-sandy decline. When we were climbing up in the middle of the night, the rocks and sand was frozen so we didn’t slide down but now with the sun shining and the temperature warming up a few degrees, it is unfrozen and very slippery. You are basically skiing downhill in your boots by bracing yourself in your heels or your toes. You take two or three steps and you slide about 5 – 10 feet down. Within the first hour we had fallen a few times. Now, Victor and Rama decided that we were too tired to come back down to Barafu camp by ourselves within a reasonable time-frame. They assisted Rose and me down the slippery slope by holding our arms/hands and somehow, we made it to the camp in 3 ½ hours from Stella Point. I think, after a few glasses of juice and a 10-second washroom break, we were lying down in our tent too exhausted to move. From 12:30 PM to until about 2:30 PM when we were lying down in the tent, we had freezing rain, sleet, hail and snow at Barafu camp.
Since we were a little late in coming back down from Uhuru Peak, we got only 2 hours of rest before we had to break camp and head to High / Millennia camp at about 3,797 metres or 12,450 feet. We left Barafu at 2:30 PM to reach High camp at about 6:00 PM in the evening. The descent is very steep; with each step forcing your toes to hit the edge of the boots and we won’t realize the damage to our toes until we take our socks off a day later. The change in temperature within one hour below Barafu was noticeable. Within 2 hours we had shed one layer of clothing and by the time we reach High camp, we were down 2 layers. We camped at High camp for the night after dinner and our instructions that we will leave camp at about 6:30 AM.
Day 6 – Merry Christmas
We wished Merry Christmas to all our porters and staff and at 7:00 AM we left our last camp after tea and begun our walk towards Mweka camp. It is a steep descent from High camp through slippery river-beds and rocky mountainous terrain. We reached Mweka at about 9:00 AM and had our last, hot camp breakfast of crepes, jam with tea and juice. Mweka camp is about 3,100 metres or 10,170 feet AMSL.
As we descend from Mweka camp, the trail gets wider and wider and soon it’s wide enough to accommodate 4-6 people side-by-side. Suddenly, we realize that we are trekking/descending through the rain forest and the forest is getting thick and there are birds and black and white colobus monkeys in the trees. After about 3 hours at about 12:00 Noon we are at the Mweka village gate of the Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park. Victor registered us for the last time and got a “Gold Certificate” for each of us to authenticate our successful climb to Uhuru Peak.
After a short 40-minute drive to the hotel and a well-deserved, cold Kilimanjaro beer, we received our Gold Certificate – forever giving us the privilege of saying that we successfully climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro on December 24, 2010.
We accomplished what we thought took forever at the expense of un-describable mental and physical toll. We believe that we have fulfilled our commitment to Aim for Seva and Climb2educate. We hope that you will keep yours.
*Jambo = Hello/good day