The Ancient Historian

Ancient history, mountaineering, cycling and other outside adventures

Archive for the category “Kilimanjaro”

Reflections of Kilimanjaro, Part 2

It has been said that travel literature is dead, made obsolete by the likes of Google Earth and the internet more generally and the plethora of travel books that do seemingly cover every square inch of the globe. But the great travel writer Paul Theroux, in a recent piece in the Financial Times (“The places in between” May 28/29 2011) reminds us that there are still plenty of places, and plenty of experiences, that are well worth description. It helps to have had a miserable experience, a close call with death, or some other disaster or mishap, or so he argues. Perhaps so. Just to prove the point, go to the National Geographic’s “Extreme Classics: the 100 greatest adventure books of all time.” Number one on the list? The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922). But I am no Richard Burton traveling in disguise to Mecca, or Apsley Cherry-Garrard describing Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic.

And I am afraid that my experiences in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater traced a well worn path, and were far too pleasant.  So I will not remotely come close to the standards that Theroux suggested should characterize good, literary travel narrative. On the other hand, I have more modest aims. What I hope, following Theroux’s broader view, is that my descriptions of Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, evoke a sense of place. That’s what really counts.

Mountain climbing, and travel generally, changes you. The two are in some ways opposed, climbing, or trekking, focuses the mind, in my case, fairly fully, on the task at hand. Bad weather on Kili meant that the week was literally spent thinking about putting one foot in front of the other most of the time, whether your socks really stank as bad as you thought they did (in my case….they did), would you have to get out of the tent at 3 AM for a nature call (and where the hell was your headlamp!), and so on. The week’s safari, on the other hand, offered the possibility of a more expansive frame of mind, set on seeing vistas far and near, and simply experiencing a new, and vast, landscape. I have come back from Tanzania much the richer for the experiences and for the memories. I learned a lot about myself, and about Tanzania.

The safari drive for three days surprised me at just about every turn.  From the Serengeti, we headed eastward, and spent an hour visiting Olduvai Gorge and the small museum there along the way.

Next we drove up to and into the Ngorongoro Crater. Here was an even more surprising day than the Serengeti was and it turned out to be a real joy. I thought that it might simply be an interesting place geologically. We had a long drive up to the crater rim and then we drove down into the crater.  From  a hawk’s perspective,  we reached the crater’s floor from the animal’s perspective.

The Crater floor was teeming. The crater itself is something like 120 square miles. A big place.

Perhaps my favorite creature of the whole trip was the Topi Antelope. Handsome:

We spent an entire day cross-crossing the crater, encountering another wide assortment of animals, from the ubiquitous zebra and wildebeest to the rare black rhino.

At the end of the day we drove up out of the crater and arrived at a spectacular hotel on the crater rim at about 8,ooo feet. We hit the veranda just in time for a sunset.

I cannot think of a better way to end the two weeks of travel in northern Tanzania than our sitting quietly, almost in wonder, looking out over the crater. Watching the sunset below the crater rim, having a nice chat with Alan about Kili and future climbs, put a lot of things in perspective for me. It was nice to encounter, on the long drive back to Arusha, a cycling team climbing up the steep mountain road that we were descending to get back to the plateau. I have no idea what they were doing there but it was a perfect mix for me of mountains and cycling. I did not make it to Lake Victoria on this trip (and had no plans to do so). That was a bit of a shame since the sources of the Nile River were so close. So I am hoping to get back to Tanzania. More mountains are certainly on the horizon for me, first in New Hampshire, then Colorado and Mt Rainier next Summer. I do hope, I confess, to encounter not too much trouble, so I am afraid Paul Theorux will not be reading me. What I am hoping for instead is more challenges in the mountains, as always more cycling, and many more memories of wonderful places.


Reflections on Kilimanjaro

We had a celebratory dinner in the garden of the hotel that night. It was a delightful weather, and a really relaxed atmosphere. We had a huge buffet, exchanged our climbing certificates (we each got to award one of our teammates with theirs). It was a nice way to begin to reflect on the last week. And I say “begin” on purpose because it’s been two weeks since I have returned and I am still thinking about all that happened. It was a packed two weeks. Week one, the climb was over. 6 1/2 days- 27  miles. Sounds short and easy. And afterall, according to Peakware, Kilimanjaro is classed as a “walk up.” But that means it is not technical, i.e. no crampons or ice axes or ropes are required to reach the top and get down. However, the difficulty of the peak should not be underestimated. How hard a mountain is, how much out of your comfort zone you are, really depends on your mountain inventory. What you have done before. Kili is a challenge, it requires consistent hiking on uneven, sometimes rough, terrain. And it requires long days out. On the other hand. you have porters carrying up to half of your gear, setting up camp and cooking for you. The other issue is altitude, Kili is 19,340 feet. That is serious by any standard. How you feel comes down to what kind of shape you are in, and what your physiology is. It’s all rather unpredictable. One thing is for sure, taking 6 1/2 days is much better than  going harder and shorter up the Mweka route for example. The Machame route is much more rugged, and poses more challenges. We spent two days traversing the mountain, lots of scrambling and uneven trail, staying at roughly 13,000 the whole time. Slow going, but effective for acclimation. Many of our team felt the altitude. For whatever reason, I felt great almost the whole time, and never got sick. I got lucky. It was a hard week, full of challeneges, but Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, my “home” mountain, in a bad storm in May had me much further out of my comfort zone than did Kili. Mt. Wash., remarkably I think, punches far above it weight, at a mere 6200 feet.

The journey up Kili began with Alan A’s very kind invitation to come along. It was all in support of Alan’s Seven Summits “memories are Everything” campaign. This is a really important initiative, and it felt great to climb with a purpose. It’s  nasty disease, it’s going to effect a lot of people in the future unless it is solved by the many scientists hard at work on it. One of them came along on the Kili climb, which was another nice feature of it. So thanks go out to Alan–a lot of great memories were created in the space of this week for sure. Doing an activity which you love, seeing a landscape one is privileged to see, meeting great people, learning a lot along the way, and supporting a great cause is an unbeatable combination.

It was a diverse group of people who made up our IMG team, from people in their 30’s to late 60’s, from Everest summitters to mountainteering beginners. We pulled together on the climb though, and we all made it to the summit in back. 100% summit rate, which is fairly rare.

We had an early start the next day, we were set to fly out of Arusha for the Serengeti. It would prove to be a great way to relax and unwind, to be spoiled a bit, seeing an almost indescribable beautiful landscape, and to simple sit motionless for a while. I almost did not opt for the safari but that would have been a huge mistake.

The flight from Arusha was about an hour, and a lot of fun. You fly due West over a prehistoric landscape of volcanoes, craters and gorges. You land on a little dirt airstrip, flying over giraffes and zebras. It was surreal. We were greeted by our safari drivers and began our journey in the Serengeti immediately. Wow.

It is not easy for me to summarize our three days in the Serengeti, or our one day in the Ngorongoro Crater. Northern Tanzania is easily the most remarkable place I have ever visited. It is also the furthest away from “civilization” i have ever been. It is serene, and peaceful, and quiet beyond description. We saw every animal that you would want to see, so regularly that they appeared almost on queue. We were there during the Great Migration, millions of Zebras and Wildebeest were moving as single herds across the vast open spaces of the Serengeti. They became old friends after three days.

Climbing Kilimanjaro-Part 4. The Descent

Descending, so the rule goes, is almost always harder than ascending. There are lots of reasons for this, some of them psychological (the big goal always seems to be reaching the summit) and some of them physical (you are pooped). This proved to be true for me. I knew that the descent was going to be a long one, and I was anticipating feeling completely blown by mid-afternoon. We started the descent in small groups soon after eating a small “lunch” at Stella point. We could easily observe people returning from and still going up to Uhuru.A lot of tired looking people.  By 9:30 AM I was ready to start heading down. I was a bit tired, but the main challenge was simply walking upright and keeping good balance on very slippery scree at a steep pitch. It takes some practice, and I was  wobbly at first. I soon got the hang of plunging the heel into the scree and got into a decent rhythm. I reached camp, along with three of my mates, just after noon. We had some trouble finding our camp-Barafu is enormous, and we had to walk a lot of rock to get on the right path to our camp. We finally found it, had to descend on rock, and found a porter waiting with an orange drink (i donno, a victory drink of sorts I guess), and the porters shouting congratulations at us. It was a nice feeling. I was ready for a bite, and a nap. But oh no, we had to eat and pack up in pretty short order. We could see the Mweka trail in front of our camp, as far as the eye could see descending into the rain forest. We knew we had a loooong hike down after lunch. So we ate, rested a little bit, packed up our duffels, and started down about 1. The trail begins at a fairly gentle slope down, and is quite exposed being on a ridge well above tree line. You could look back all the way to Kili’s summit. It seems miles away, in fact just under one vertical mile up. As some of us were walking and chatting, we noticed Alan pull over in front of us and sit down. This happened just after we passed a weird looking unicycle stretcher that looked abandoned. We laughed. But then we got up to Alan and we realized that he was hurt, a bad high ankle sprain it looked like. Commotion ensured. All of the porters began reaching us and circling around. Our guide Eben moved into high gear-we were all mobilized to help, or at least to watch! We tried taping his ankle up to keep the swelling down, but there as no way he could have walked down to camp-the trail was going to be much too rough. We were all bummed. It was a perfect climbing day so far. Alan was rushed down in an impressive way by six porters, with our main guide Eben literally running down behind them. All the way to Mweka gate! Incredible! You can read about it on Alan’s site. After we got down to the gate the next morning, I began to realize what an incredible feat it was to run down that wet, muddy, slippery trail. Anyway, after an hour, we all continued down, and reached once again the rain forest.

The trail got steeper now, it was rocky, and wet. A lot of down stepping, sometimes requiring the use of feet and hands. We had to watch every step. And I was getting tired. At about 4PM, I really wanted to be in my tent. We had two more hours to go! We were all pretty much blown. But then we stopped as one of our guides pointed out to an amazing view through the forest of Kili. Really for the first time one began to realize, and to appreciate, what we had done the last six days. The summit cone is all of its glory

We made it back to Mweka camp, where we were warmly welcomed by some of our porters as we came into another very large campground. Clearly a lot more people were pounding up the Mweka trail, the so called coca cola route, than had gone up via the Machame gate. 18 hours had passed since we started up from high camp. For the first time on the climb, the camp had a real party atmosphere. No doubt many people were celebrating their climb. I was ready for sleep! As usual though, dinner was at 7, and a lot of people still had to come in. It was starting to get dark around 6. Only half the team, as it turned out, came to dinner. We wondered how Alan was doing; we were missing our guide Eben, and the dinosaur (sorry, inside joke). We were really zonked. We still had 5000 feet to descend the next morning. Sleep came quickly. I woke up early the next morning, 12 hours of sleep will do that, and I was feeling great. After breakfast, the descent went quickly, roughly 4 hours or so. Perhaps a little less. This forest appeared different than  the one we walked through from the Machame gate on the other side of the mountain. I was deep in conversation about cycling with someone when two shining faces greeted us on the trail. A clean and bright Eben and one of our Tanzanian guides had walked up from the gate to meet us. What a great thing to do! We were really happy to see them. They looked so fresh. So clean! We reached the main gate around 12 or 12:30. We had to register, so we could get those coveted climbing certificates, and then the best part of the climb began. A thank you and tipping ceremony for all of our porters. Dancing and singing followed the tipping, it was a really nice touch, and a great way to end 6 1/2 days of climbing Kilimanjaro. The local porters and guides were simply fantastic people, and it was nice to see each one face to face and shake their hands. No way to get through the week without them.

We walked to our vehicles and drove through gorgeous countryside. Here were the banana and coffee plantations, and they were extensive. About an hour later, we reached our by now very familiar hotel in Moshi. The best shower of my life was followed by a lunch of an enormous cheeseburger and fries. I had lost 10-15 pounds, so I was not worried about the calories. It was great to be mostly) clean. My clothes were another story. A very good idea to bring industrial strength garbage bags for dirty clothes on such a trip. I had a badly bruised big toe from the down climb, and the 17 hours of walking. But I was otherwise feeling really good, and feeling rather proud of the last week’s adventure. The team had really come together on the climb.

Climbing Kilimanjaro-Part 3

We woke up to a cloudy cool morning. After the usual hardy breakfast (I was really getting used to the daily porridge which was doing the trick for me each morning) we were off to tackle “the wall.” The famous Barranco, or “Breach” wall. It stood in the way of our summit. Even though it started to rain, we were all pretty pumped up to get up this 300 m climb. As the photo shows, this is way more than a hike uphill.

In fact much of the rest of the day was spent on Class 3 rock, I had really only been on class 2 before this. That meant scrambling, often using hands and feet, and occasional exposure. At times I thought I’d rather be on a rope than just scrambling on this stuff. You don’t want to fall since  getting seriously hurt was a real possibility. I’m glad I got this experience under my belt. Our guides were fantastic and even though we had to make huge efforts at times to find good holds, and there were often switchbacks that proved a bit tricky, we all made it up the wall no problem.

We rested for a few minutes on the top of the wall. Here Alan A. and I are wearing matching Patagonia R1, no accounting for the color!

Little did I realize that the rest of the day was also spent on wet, slippery rock. All of this meant that you had to be careful of each step up or down. Tedious work. But also really satisfying. It was a slow day of hiking, and longer then we thought, made longer by fog and rain much of the day. We did not have great views of much other than our muddy boots. Still, we reached Karanga Valley at 13,000, and it was glorious. A bit smelly perhaps, but you really felt now that you were on a big mountain. The summit was in clear view. One more long day tomorrow to high camp.

The next day dawned sunny and cool. We could see the peak of Mt Meru in Arusha clearly. Kili was now right infront of us, actually behind me in this photo. We packed up after breakfast-it was becoming a nice routine. We were off to High camp at the eastern ridge line of Kili at Barafu Camp. We now joined the summit route. This was my my personal favorite day, the hike was as expected, and you could see the trail all the way up the climb, and up to high camp. We were crossing through a bit of snow now, and back at an altitude that you could feel.

We were huffing and puffing on the final ridge up to the camp, which was an enormous place. IMG porters had secured a really nice location on the edge of the plateau, looking straight at Mwenzi. It is an other worldy peak, one of the three ancient volcanoes that make up Kili.

This is in fact the third highest peak in Africa (behind Kibo-the main peak of Kili, and Mt Kenya), and a much more serious climb. It looks near vertical and no doubt it’s a pretty challenging rock climb. Pretty impressive to look at, and we would be looking at it for the entire next day as we ascended the summit ridge. We were happy to be in camp after six hours of so of hiking. We knew the next 24 hours would strange, wonderful and challenging. After an early dinner, we got our summit gear ready, arm clothing, headlamps, food, very warm gloves etc. We were supposed to sleep till 10:30 PM, eat breakfast and be on the trail by midnight. A bit like a bike race, with odd sleep pattern, forced eating and toilet break when you don’t feel like and so on. But I was really excited to be on the final push. This felt like mountaineering to me. Needless to say there was not a lot of sleeping that happened. I had some good music on the ipod and I relaxed in the tent. AT 10:30, I got up and got dressed. It was chilly outside, but a still and beautiful evening. We were divided into two climbing groups. One group was to leave at 11, and the second at around midnight. By 11 or so, you could see a string of headlamps heading out of camp. An amazing site. I was part of the second group, and we left about 12:15. I felt good, and excited. I was not hungry at breakfast but I forced down toast and jam, and porridge. The climb began almost right away. You have to scramble over big rocks leaving Barafu and that took about an hour. We were gaining altitude quickly, the lights of Moshi were in clear view, as they would be all evening. We reached the main trail up, and from there is was a straight shot, well……lots of switch backs, and steep scree. The group was moving slowly, and it was hard to stop since we were standing on steep ground. If you looked up you could see now a huge trail of headlamps, like an unfurled pearl necklace illuminating the dark all the way along the ridge. It was a reminder that we had to climb over 4000 feet up from high camp. Always in the back of my mind was the fact that today, summit day on Kili, is one of the longest days in mountaineering. We planned on an 18 hour day! We had to go from high camp to the summit, and back down to Mweka camp at 10000 feet. That is more than 13000 feet up and down. One step at a time. We took several breaks during the ascent. At 17500 a bit of Vertigo kicked in, but it lasted five minutes, and I was back to feeling great. The sun was now rising over Mwenzi, we were well above it, as we took our last food/water break. I got my camera battery from my warm pocket and put it in the camera so I could take a few snaps.

It was breathtaking, and I felt like we were about to really accomplish something. It was steep, but the summit ridge was in sight. We kept moving up, and reached Stella point at 7:15. If you reach this point you are considered to have summitted. But I wanted to see Uhuru. “Where was that,”? I asked myself. Then I saw Alan dashing across the crater rim. AH, he was heading to Uhuru. Off I went in chase. It was another 30 minutes or so, and 500 vertical feet higher along the rim. Then it came into view. Uhuru. The highest point in Africa. 19340 feet.

It was a bright sunny morning. Virtually no wind and mid 30’s. Amazing feeling to be on top of Kilimanjaro, an historic mountain in the heart of one of the most important places in human history. There were about 30 others there, not as crowded as I thought. The famous glaciers of Kili, soon to be just a memory, were in view, and quite a beautiful site. The landscape of east africa was beneath the cloud deck, so we could not see much beyond the beauty of Kili herself. We remained at Uhuru, chatting and taking photos for about 30 minutes, high-fiving and feeling very satisfied,  before heading down to Stella Point and a brief lunch. I knew the day was only half over…..actually only one-third over! Adventure was still to come.

Climbing Kilimanjaro-Part 2

We all reached the first camp together. It was around 5 PM, and nice to see our camp already set up, and the cooks working away! Luxury.

We selected our tents and unpacked. We were just about at tree line, above the clouds, and we could catch our first real glimpse of the Kili summit as the sky was clear above us.

It seemed so close, and yet it was about 5 days away! By the time we had gotten our pads and bags set up and stuff we needed like headlamps out and ready, it was dinner time. Very surprised, as I would be all trip, how good the food was in camp. Always a warm soup, and comfort food, like fries, chicken, pasta. Yumm. Our guide determined that it was best for us to pool our iodine tabs to make one large container of drinkable water each evening so we could be set up for the night and the next day. It proved to be a good idea. In bed by 9 (actually I had crashed when we hit camp and slept through dinner, preferring to catch up on zzzz’s) to get ready for the next day, which we knew already would start out super steep. The next morning came quickly (ahhhh, Ambien) and it was chilly. Eben decided that pushups were in order before breakfast. Only one person took him up on it. It was not I. We tucked into a hardy breakfast, packed up, and hit the trail by 9 ish or so. It was began steep, a little scramble over rocks and then just steep walking for a while. First stop, camp 2 on the Shira plateau at about 12,000.

We had gained only about 2000 feet in elevation. Here began the “zone of weird plants.” And there are really some odd looking things. We would get used to seeing them by the next day. The landscape quickly turned “lunar” as we reached the plateau. Kili summit was in full view. It was a large camp, and our tents were set up right in the center. It was another long day, as we pulled into camp again by 5 or so, we were ready for a rest, and dinner. The next morning, we began our southern traverse of Kili.

We were expecting 6 hours or so, it turned out to be more like 9. The day began sunny, and I was eager to get going. We hit rain and fog much of the day. Not too many views, and a lot of up and down. We climbed up to about 15,000 and then down to 13. Some people began to experience AMS. Fortunately for me for some reason, I had only the slightest of headaches, and good slow breathing did away with that. So I felt great, but it was a very long day, wet and slippery, and we all were glad to see Barranco camp, at 13,000, come into view. Our group was now all over the mountain, and the last folks came in an hour or so behind the front group. We all stared at the breach wall. It’s quite something to see. Straight on, it looks like pure rock climbing, from the approach angle you can see that it is a steep trail. Still, it was on my mind all night. Some work ahead of us tomorrow.

Kilimanjaro-Part 1

We arrived at the New Keys Hotel around 10 and checked in; a large group of British students was celebrating their own climb in the hotel pool. Alan and I went over to investigate- and almost got ourselves wet…..very wet. But it was dinner time.. and we quickly, and wisely, departed the pool scene. The New Keys staff was great and treated us well. The team got to know each other, but most of us departed for our rooms early. The next day we visited the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, a group run by an American woman who look after the safety and welfare of the Kili porters.

This is a group that IMG supports well, and it was well worth the trip to show support. The rest of the day was spent walking around Moshi, getting an amazingly good coffee shake at a local coffee shop (good tip Eben), and relaxing at the hotel.Beautiful weaver birds were chirping by our window.

We did our final gear check with our guide to make sure we had the right equipment for the climb and the anticipated cold weather up high, another good meal was followed by early bedtime. After a quick breakfast, we packed up, got our duffle and packs down to the courtyard ready to pack up. Our van arrived, and we drove out to the Machame gate, about an hour’s drive from the hotel.

As we neared the gate, we began to gain altitude fairly fast, and I was glad we did not have to hike up that road to the gate. We drove through the gate-we appeared to be the first ones there that day. There our climb began. It was rainy, foggy, and a little chilly as we started our climb up to the highest point in Africa.

The trail was well groomed and sloped gently upward. We were walking through a thick tropical rainforest the entire day. Quite soon after we began, we started to see our porters for the first time, carrying our duffles and the entire camp up the trail…..incredibly fast. It was impressive to see.

The road to Kilimanjaro

“You should consider coming along,” ended my phone conversation with Alan Arnette a little over a year ago. We had been speaking about his campaign “memories are everything” to raise research funds and awareness for Alzheimer’s disease, a campaign that I had been supporting, and his climb of Kilimanjaro. Alan knew of my interest in tackling bigger mountains. I did not give it much thought at first, Kili was not a mountain that I had been thinking about, but I began to realize that this was a real great opportunity to climb a big mountain, to hang out with Alan and all the while show support for his campaign. I could not resist, and I ended up calling IMG in Ashford Washington and actually speaking with Phil Ershler about the Kili trip. I was pretty much hooked. The safari afterward? I thought at first, Nah, I want to go climb a mountain. That turned out to be silly. All of this was on my mind when the KLM flight landed, on time, at Kilimanjaro (JRO). It was the beginning of a great adventure. I had met Alan in the Amsterdam airport. After landing, I stepped off of the stairs onto the tarmack, and walked, quickly, into passport control to try to get a good spot in line. It’s a bit of a scrum to get the visa, but they were, in fact, pretty efficient. Passport, cash, fingerprints, off you go to get your duffles. By 9:30, I was walking off with Alan to meet our IMG guide Eben Reckford and the rest of the team. It was a beautiful evening, and we were all excited to be driving into the hotel in Moshi. The view of the mountain on a clear day from the town of Moshi is spectacular:


Back from Kili

I’m back home now, safe and sound, after an amazing two weeks in Tanzania. A full report to follow shortly. Suffice it to say for now it was just a great trip, we all summitted, our IMG guide was superb, we ate well, saw a lot and experienced a great mountain. It was a privilege to climb with Alan Arnette, especially, but the whole of our group was great company all along the way. The safari in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater was really neat, and to think I was not going to do it at first. It turned out to be perfect after a long hard week on the mountain.


An enhanced NASA image of Kili

This is a nice profile of the mountain, actually a stratovolcano (great word) with two of its three still “dormant”, and the tallest free-standing mountain on earth. We’re  going to the highest point in the image; it’s really getting time to go. I am now reading US Army studies of high altitude acclimatization!

Fun facts about Kilimanjaro

Kili is an interesting mountain, a series of three volcanoes in fact. As usual Summitpost provides a nice overview. It is one of the most prominent mountains in the world, that is, the rise from base to summit is pretty big, and no rest house on top. According to a list of prominent peaks in the world, it ranks 4th, behind Everest, Aconcagua and Denali (three of the other seven summits), at 5882 meters, dominating the entirety of East Africa. In other words, there is a whole lot of up in this climb. The Barancco wall looks like it will be a bit of fun:

 the great Barranco Wall...

Post Navigation