07 October 2016

Mlima Kilimanjaro

Fewer than 80 kilometers from our home in Arusha resides the highest point in Africa, Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak. Before I tell you about climbing to it, here are some fast facts.

- Uhuru peak is 5,895 m (19,431 ft) tall.
- Uhuru is the Swahili word for "independence."
- Kilimanjaro is the world's tallest free-standing mountain, since it rises about 4,900 m from base to peak.

The Tanzanian government doesn't allow you to climb Kilimanjaro without a certified guide and crew, so you can't just walk up the mountain. It's actually quite an investment. Park fees are pretty high for foreigners, and some companies charge much more than necessary--tourism is quite the industry in Tanzania. Our group worked with a friend who organized our crew and took great care of us at a very fair price. We had three guides, a cook, and a set of eight porters. Our guides were Salim (our organizing friend), Rafa, and John. I referred to our cook as "mungu wa chakula" or "god of food" because he prepared scrumptious and nutritious meals over the week in order to keep us strong throughout our journey. The porters also did great work. I was so impressed by the ability to balance many kilograms of ungainly weight on one's head while jogging down a rocky, uneven trail.

There are a handful of routes to the summit, and we chose to trek the Lemosho route. The round trip was planned for six to eight days, depending on how we were doing with all the walking and the altitude. We ended up taking six days, five to hike to the summit and just one to get down. I liked the Lemosho route because it wasn't too crowded and we hiked through many different vegetation zones, getting a thorough sense of Kilimanjaro's landscapes. There was lush tropical forest, alpine desert, and moorland, among others. We stayed in tents each night at a series of camps along the route to the summit.

For many parts of this journey, I feel that pictures speak better than words.

There was a lot of cool wildlife even at higher altitudes of the mountain to my surprise. We saw many a small rodent that looked like a cross between a mouse and a chipmunk. We also saw doves, tiny cute brown birds, and spiders. This probably encompasses a lot of the wildlife at high altitudes. One I can't forget is the white-necked raven. They are giant (maybe rising to half my shin height) and somehow everywhere along the route (except near the summit). This bird was my favorite.

One major challenge in hiking to 5,895 meters is the sheer altitude of the feat. It's common for climbers to bring anti-altitude sickness medicine, since there's a big risk climbing Kilimanjaro. Without the medicine, I was fortunate to not have too many problems for most of the journey. I started having breathing difficulties on our day hiking to the summit, and I even passed out at one point. I was with my guide John at the time, and he was quite knowledgeable and knew what to do. He cracked my back, gave me tea, and continually checked in on me during the summit journey. I ended up taking the medicine around 5,000 m and once it set in, breathing was much easier and I was able to hike more comfortably.

On summit day, we woke up at 11pm and embarked at midnight. We hiked by headlamp light for seven hours, very slowly and up a seemingly endless series of steep switchbacks, on our final stretch to Uhuru. My friend commented that it "must be what purgatory is like." It's a pretty tough walk until you get to Stella Peak, but from there it's a relative breeze--a more steady and flatter journey to the summit. Upon finally arriving, we witnessed the congratulatory sign and stood among many other summitters. There was even one group paragliding off the mountain (and you can see one in a picture below). My favorite part of the top of Kilimanjaro is seeing Mt. Meru in the distance. Meru is important to me because I admire it every day rising above Arusha, and I appreciated this new perspective from Kilimanjaro above the clouds. Some summit views are below.

Due to the dangerously high altitude, you can't stay at the summit longer than around a half hour at most, which conveniently relieves the queue of many people looking to be photographed with the summit post. After taking pictures and spending our time on the "Roof of Africa," we began the journey back down to the base and eventually to our routine daily lives.

If you Google "Kilimanjaro name" and read the top few results, they'll tell you completely different theories of why the mountain is called Kilimanjaro. I was told by my friends and guides that "Kilimanjaro" is derived from the Chaga tribe language and means something along the lines of "a mountain difficult to climb." It's true that the journey can be difficult, but I'm so thankful to have had this rewarding experience.

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