By Trevor C. Hale
My son, Spence, and I are awoken at 4 a.m. in a tent strewn with long johns, medicine, and sour-smelling socks.
It’s freezing and the air is so thin I can barely catch my breath.
I’m exhausted to the point of delirium, wrapped in my sub-zero-spec sleeping bag, and all I can think about is making it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. We’re at its base camp called Barafu, more than 15,000 feet above sea level, in Tanzania in Eastern Africa.
For some reason, we’re trying to summit the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. At 19,241 feet, it’s the highest point in Africa. More than 1,000 feet above Everest base camp. We’ve been hiking for five days through as many micro-climates to get to the campsite from which we’ll make the final push. A third of the 20,000 people who try every year don’t make it, mostly because of acclimatization sickness.
We’re probably over-prepared. We’ve talked about making the trip for more than a year and it’s been on my bucket list since I’ve had one. The guide book suggested taking Diamox for altitude sickness. It alleviates the excruciating headaches that accompany high-altitude experiences.
Why are we doing this? My mid-life crisis? It would have been easier to buy a Porsche (“Hold on, we could have had a Porsche?!” I know my wife, Michelle, is asking).
Climbing Kili is so bucket list it’s almost a cliché.
Our Kili posse includes Michelle, her twin sister, Anna, Spence, and our bestie, Jerry. We’d been talking about doing it for a long time and had investigated the tour options, of which there are many. We trained by walking on the treadmill at max incline and taking the stairs whenever possible. It wasn’t nearly enough.
After arriving in Tanzania, we began organizing what we’d take on the trek. Fortunately, our trek included porters who would help lug our clothes, food, and tents. Michelle and Anna sourced all our meds in Dubai and had everything divvied up in ziplock bags. We began taking the Diamox and anti-malaria tablets the day before we traveled.
Our lead guide, Edward, met us at the lodge and briefed us on the basics. We set off the next morning on the Shira route, one of about a half-dozen routes to the top. It’s more difficult than the popular Marangu route from the south, also known as the “coca cola route.”
Passing coffee farms and small villages, the locals would flash the peace sign when they saw us. We later learned this was a “power to the people” gesture in support of an insurgent political party.
We arrived at the main gate and saw black and white Colobus monkeys with long, bushy tails frolicking in the canopy. We began the trek under a clear, crisp sky and spirits were high. The mountain loomed in front of us and seemed so far away.
The topography was very Lord of the Rings throughout the trek, from low shrubbery and dusty trails to the volcanic rock of Mount Doom. After we arrived to our camp in the heather zone, Goodluck the cook made a wonderful meal of chicken stir fry and we were encouraged to drink more water.
The next day we trekked through a savannah of heather and grasses into the moorlands. We passed wacky Dr. Seuss-looking flowers including giant Groundsels and Lobelia, which look like upside-down pineapples.
Edward and the other guides implored us to go “pole’ pole’” which is slowly, slowly in Swahili. With each day, the hikes were longer and more arduous, but we were rewarded with incredible vistas above the clouds.
Mid-way through the trek, we decided to change the route somewhat. Michelle has Type 1 diabetes and needs to check her blood sugar often. We weren’t sure how the high altitude would affect her blood sugar, but we knew that if we left base camp at midnight (the original plan) to begin the summit, it would be more difficult to check her sugar and monitor insulin (people summit at midnight to try and see the sunrise from the top). We decided to try at 4 a.m. so we’d have the light to help, but it meant speeding up the trek by a day or so.
Trekking through valleys felt like we were losing ground on the way to the top. On day four, we climbed up the towering Barranco Wall, hand over hand and through switchbacks, sometimes going straight up and hugging the cliff wall. One wrong step would have meant game over, but we were rewarded at the top with an incredible view of neighboring Mount Meru above the clouds.
As we continued over expansive ridgelines in the high alpine desert, we had extraordinary views of volcanic formations through fields of scree. We camped in the lunar landscape and with every step, we had a better view of the glaciers at the peak. Edward said the trek to base camp would be a piece of cake. Ten hours of uphill walking later, it was hard to find the breath or energy to have a chat with him about managing expectations.
We gathered for dinner and our guides wanted to tell stories, as was our daily ritual. It was obvious that Edward, Calvin, and Goodluck knew each other well and had been on many treks together. They teased each other and made fun of each other’s clan habits. Edward, who is Maassai, said that as a Chaga, Calvin was a great business man and was always looking to make a deal. This turned out to be true, as we later learned; Calvin had several other businesses, including selling T-shirts. They both teased Goodluck for being uncharacteristically lazy for a Zulu. On this night, though, we were exhausted and out of breath and only wanted to crash to prepare for the next day’s summit.
Goodluck woke us with his normal, cheery “Good mooorning!” Michelle and Anna respond in twin unison. After a quick breakfast, we adjusted our headlamps and were off. This was it. We’re going for the summit.
We’re hiking up the face of the mountain we’ve seen from the distance and can see the snowy glacier at the top. One foot in front of the other. No matter how deep we breathe, oxygen is scarce and we can’t quite catch our breath.
The switchbacks are steep and the scree rocks crumble and shift beneath our feet.
The guides sense our exhaustion and sing a Zulu song to motivate the troops.It starts “Hay-O-Hay” and then includes all our names. “Hay-O-Michelle. Hay-O-Gary (they called Jerry “Gary”). Hay-O-Anna. Hay-O-Spencer. Hay-O-Papa.”
That’s right. I’m papa. Is “Trevor” so hard to pronounce or is it the fact that I have a 25-year-old son?
The singing helped, but then Anna stopped with tears in her eye, struggling to continue. My wife comforted her twin but also taped the episode with her iPhone. We want to make a video of the trek and of course, capturing the drama is important.
An hour later, it was Michelle’s turn to break down. As the sun rose, it became hotter and my always-chilly wife realized her five layers were too much. We peeled off a layer and checked her sugar, which was high. Not the most comfortable way to hike, but much better than to be low and risk a hypoglycemia. My heart was in my throat seeing her in tears and I almost lost it.
Looking up, we were so close. Maybe 30 more minutes. “Only four more hours,” said Edward. Again with expectation managing, bro.
Step. Breathe. Repeat. Two or three people die every year trying to summit due to high altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema.
The final bit was an aching blur. We finally made it to the rim of Kibo, the tallest of the three volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro. We were at Stella Point at 18,000 feet.
We could now see into the volcano crater. We made it! No. Not so fast.
More tears. The final slog. Step. Breathe. Repeat.
And then we were there.
We’d made it. 19,241 feet. Spencer gathers us at the iconic sign and offers a prayer: “Dear Lord, thank you for every step, for every breath, for helping us get here safely and for being with us as we go home.”
We were all crying like babies. Anna is hunched over with exhaustion as the guide tapes her with her iPhone. With her last ounce of strength she reaches up… and turns the phone sideways for the better horizontal shot. Classic Anna.
We’re all so happy. And so ready to get off this mountain.