I was beyond excited to find out that I would be spending the summer of 2017 in Uganda conducting field research on malaria. I was originally inspired to pursue medicine by the example and ideas of Dr. Paul Farmer, who has spent his career working in low-resource settings and advocating for a preferential option for the poor. I have since spent many years developing a passion for infectious diseases and global health. Thus, this summer represents a milestone in my professional journey.
I anticipated that I would have the privilege of some discretionary time to explore Africa. My first impulse was that I wanted to use that time to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Spending my formative years in the Boy Scouts engrained in me a deep appreciation and love for the outdoors. Backpacking trips, camping, and climbing mountains have always helped me achieve a transient state of catharsis; thus, I knew that climbing Kilimanjaro would help me unwind after a taxing first year in medical school.
Mt. Kilimanjaro stands at 5,895m (19,341 ft), making it the tallest mountain in Africa and the world’s highest free-standing mountain. The etymology of the word Kilimanjaro is unclear; it is variously defined as the mountain of greatness, of caravans, or of whiteness. It is located in present-day Tanzania, a country in East Africa that has a rich plethora of natural attractions. Besides Kilimanjaro, Tanzania boasts arguably the best (and certainly the most well-known) safari locations, including the Serengeti and Ngororo Crater. The Tanzanian government, recognizing the economic potential of their land for tourism, has built an impressive infrastructure to support adventure-seeking travelers. This has brought an enormous influx of money into the country, which has bolstered the country’s people, many of whom are subsistence agriculturalists. Indeed, many Tanzanians have elected to specialize in the tourism industry and tap into this attractive revenue stream.
It is required to hire the services of companies to climb Kilimanjaro. After doing some research and reading reviews, I settled on Peak Planet, a US company based in Scottsdale, AZ. A major reason for this was because Peak Planet is part of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), an organization that ensures that local support staff like porters are treated well and paid a wage that is commensurate to the effort they put in to their work. Indeed, their job is arduous and I was impressed away by the strength, dexterity, and cheerfulness of our support staff. Shameless plug: Peak Planet is an amazing company and I would highly recommend them to anyone who wants to climb Kilimanjaro, go on safari, or visit Zanzibar.
I decided to take the lengthier Lemosho route, an eight-day route with two extra days at the beginning and end to rest in a hotel. Longer hikes like the Lemosho route are generally more scenic and allow more time for altitude acclimation, which increases the probability of summiting Kilimanjaro without developing altitude sickness. I flew in a day early to help myself get over jetlag (Tanzania is ten hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time). I was picked up at the airport by Inu, an employee of the Weru Weru Royal Resort, a hotel-cum-lodge run by a lovely woman known as Mama where I stayed for my two rest days.
I soon met my fellow tourists and our mountain guides. I was joined on this escapade by a couple from Boston, Gerry and Sarah (who were traveling the world for a year), and a mother-daughter pair from Sydney, Michelle and Eliane (who were on their winter holiday). Our three guides were named Davis (the head guide) and his two assistant guides, Magnus and Arkad. I was also astounded to find out that, in addition to our three guides, we had a cook, a waiter, a tent master, a summit porter, a latrine custodian, and fourteen normal porters to carry everything. It would take twenty-two support staff to get us five tourists up and down Kilimanjaro.
Day 1 of 8 – Mti Mkubwa Camp (2,650m)
Kilimanjaro actually has 5 climate zones because the sheer size (i.e., height, width) of the mountain creates differential weather and soil conditions. From lowest to highest elevation, they are: cultivated zone, forest zone, moorland zone, alpine desert zone, and arctic/summit zone.
We drove through the cultivated zone (sorry, forgot to take pictures for this one, it’s basically farmland) and began our journey at the Lemosho gate (2100m) in the forest zone. Our destination was the Mti Mkubwa camp (2650m), with an elevation change of 550m. We began with a light day, the hike was only about four hours. It was steep right off the bat and reasonably muddy because it had been raining the night before. The forest was lush and green, with towering trees overshadowing a thick underbrush that was mainly composed of ferns. We lucked out for the weather today, it was breezy and sunny without a cloud in the sky.
Unfortunately, I had a pretty difficult time this first day. Firstly, I had picked up a likely viral syndrome that was causing a sore throat, low-grade fever, and swollen lymph nodes in my neck. I was also sleep deprived because I had not been able to sleep the night before, likely due to my anti-malaria pills, which can cause insomnia (they also have a slew of worse side effects, so I was counting my blessings that those didn’t happen). Drinking water and eating was painful, I could hardly keep my eyes open due to weariness, and I was feeling queasy. I was off to a good start, as good as my first marathon when I had food poisoning and concomitant issues.
I didn’t want to tell my guides that I was under the weather (out of fear that they would take pity on me or, even worse, send me back down), so I just toughed it out and hoped that I would get better. I wasn’t about to give up on the first day just because I wasn’t feeling well. I’d have to be seriously incapacitated to miss out on climbing Kilimanjaro; after all, I spent too much time, money, and effort to get myself to this point.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food made by Francis, our excellent cook. For breakfast, we would usually have oatmeal, eggs, sausages, toast, and pancakes. For lunch/dinner, we would usually have soup, a carb base (rice, pasta, friend potatoes), a meat/vegetable sauce, and fruit for dessert. We would also get tea served to us in the morning and afternoon, along with a snack of popcorn and biscuits. All in all, we were very well fed.
I was also pleasantly surprised to find that our guides checked our vital signs (pulse, O2 saturation, blood pressure, temperature) and our constitution (cough, diarrhea, nausea) twice a day during breakfast and dinner. Our head guide Davis was fastidious and paid close attention to any changes in our health, asking us how we were doing and feeling throughout the day. Davis also gave us a pep talk, telling us that we are all human and that one must rely on one’s mind to conquer Kilimanjaro. This was especially relevant for me, since I anticipated that I would continue feeling under the weather for at least a few days. I resolved to push my body ever onward with sheer force of will.
I was caught off guard by how cold it got at night, even at such a (relatively) low elevation. It got to around 4oC at night, roughly the temperature of a fridge, and I knew it would get even worse as we got higher. I was also taking Diamox as prophylaxis for altitude sickness. Diamox is a diuretic so I found myself having to get up multiple times at night to use the latrine. Braving the freezing temperatures was made (slightly) better by being able to stare at the stunning night sky. Unfortunately no pictures here, iPhones don’t work so well in the dark.
Day 2 of 8 – Shira I Camp (3,610m)
This was a tough day for me. First of all, the hike was about twice as long (~8 hours) and we were hiking upwards on a steep grade. Our destination was Shira I (3,610m), and we had to cover an elevation change of almost 1,000 meters. Also, this turned out to be the peak of my cold symptoms. My body was aching and my throat was extremely unhappy with me. I tried my best to stay positive and to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Davis and the other guides noticed that I was having a hard time and kept asking me if I was alright. I kept insisting that I was fine, fearing they would send me down the mountain.
We quickly made our way out of the forest zone and transitioned into the moorland zone. The vegetation here was mostly composed of smaller trees and large bushes. The soil was also much drier and rockier; thus, we had to be much more careful about our footing to avoid tripping over rocks and other obstacles.
We were rewarded for our hard work by getting our first glimpse of our final destination: the summit of Kilimanjaro.
We were further rewarded by amazing views when we arrived at our second campsite, Shira I, which is located on the Shira plateau. This plateau was created by the eruption of Shira mountain some 500,000 years ago that was then smoothed by erosion.
I was also pleasantly surprised when our porters greeted us as we entered the campsite with a Swahili song. Essentially, it is a song about climbing Kilimanjaro. They sing about the different campsites, and say each of the hikers’ names, telling us that we’ll go slow and steady until we conquer Kilimanjaro and that there’s no need to worry (hakuna matata).
Day 3 of 8 – Shira II Camp (3,850m)
This was another easy day where we only hiked for about 4 hours to Shira II, which was about 200 meters higher up on the Shira plateau. We were again rewarded with some amazing sights.
Also I was starting to get over my cold and was sleeping more (I had realized that I could switch to taking my anti-malaria pills in the morning to minimize my insomnia). All in all, I was feeling a lot better than the previous two days and was enjoying myself immensely!
Day 4 of 8 – Lava Tower (4,600m) and Baranco Camp (3,900m)
This was another tough day where we hiked for about 8 hours. Our first stop was Lava Tower at 4,600m in the alpine desert zone, where we would eat lunch. It was a relatively steep hike up to Lava Tower, but I was pretty much recovered in terms of disease and insomnia, so this day felt much easier to me.
Following the concept of “hike high, sleep low,” we spent an hour eating our lunch at Lava Tower in order to acclimatize to the high altitude, then made our way down to Baranco camp and spent the night there. Thus, we passed from moorland (Shira II, 3850m) to alpine desert (Lava Tower, 4600m) and back down to moorland (Baranco, 3900m). The road down from Lava Tower to Baranco camp was treacherous. Baranco camp is nestled in the Baranco valley, surrounded by mountains on both sides. Thus, the grade was naturally steep and there were innumerable loose, small rocks to trip us up. I was happy to have my trekking poles to help steady me.
I found it interesting that the moorland vegetation on our way down to the Baranco valley was completely different from the flora we encountered around the Shira plateau. For one, we saw these large trees called dendrosenecio kilimanjari that were not present on the Shira plateau. I hypothesize that the weather and soil conditions were distinct between these two places. Baranco camp was in a narrow valley shaded by large mountains on both sides; furthermore, there was a stream created by snow melt flowing into the Baranco valley. Conversely, the Shira camps were in a wide, open plateau that did not have any immediate source of water. This presumably contributes to differing weather and soil conditions that in turn support different flora and fauna.
Day 5 of 8 – Karanga Camp (3995m)
This was an exciting day where we had to scale the Baranco wall, which was one of the mountainsides of the Baranco valley. It actually wasn’t that bad, there were plenty of hand and footholds, and we were never actually over sheer drops. We just had to clamber up and over rocks a few times. After scaling the wall (which was about at 4,300m), we walked back down to Karanga camp on the other side of the wall, which was in the alpine desert zone. Thus, we would pass from the moorland zone to the arctic desert zone and stay there for the night.
Day 6 of 8 – Barafu Camp (4,673m)
This was a really short day, we hiked for about 3 hours from Karanga to Barafu camp, which would serve as our base camp for the final ascent to Uhuru peak. Like Karanga, Barafu is in the alpine desert zone. We wanted to rest up for summit day on the morrow, so we took a nap in the afternoon, had an early dinner, and went to sleep around 6pm. The plan was for us to wake up at 10:30pm to begin our final push for the summit.
Day 7 of 8 – Uhuru Peak (Summit Day! – 5,895m)
This was by far the roughest day of the entire trek. We woke up at 10:30pm, layered on literally every piece of clothing we owned, and prepared to make for Uhuru peak. There were a few delays but we finally set out into the pitch blackness at midnight, armed with our headlamps. While it wasn’t too windy, it was still bitterly cold. My fingers and toes quickly became numb and cold, but I had enough layers on my trunk and legs so I felt reasonably warm there. It was so cold that the water in my Camelbak’s tube froze so I had to rely on the water in my Nalgene, which still developed a thin layer of ice on the sides. I kept my mind focused on two tasks: slowly putting one foot in the front of the other and focusing on maintaining the rhythm of my breath.
We went a lot slower than all the other groups (in fact, a bunch of groups ended up lapping us, and I was pretty sure we were the last group to summit). In retrospect, I was glad that Davis, Magnus, and Arkad set such a slow pace. They were very supportive during the climb, helping us clamber over tough bits, singing in the dark to keep our spirits up, and providing verbal encouragement. When we got to Stella point (a checkpoint before the actual summit at Uhuru peak), Davis and co. allowed us to take a long break and did a spot check of our health.
I noticed several other tourists suffering from altitude sickness at Stella point (e.g., some people were disoriented, others were slumped over semi-conscious). Conversely, everyone in our group was drained but otherwise healthy. This helped me realize and appreciate the importance of the Swahili mantra “pole pole,” which translates to “slowly.” Davis and co. set a snail pace which put us behind most of the groups but ensured that we would be able to acclimatize properly and reach Uhuru peak without suffering the unpleasant symptoms of altitude sickness. We ended up summiting around 9:30am, after 9.5 hours of hiking through the pitch blackness and sunrise.
After a short break, we began our descent from Uhuru peak back down to Barafu base camp. This descent was also challenging, but for different reasons. Though we took an alternate route that was shorter, it was also steeper, dustier, and full of scree. Many of us kept nearly wiping out and biting the dust because the ground was shifting underneath us. Sometimes we were literally dirt-skiing down the mountain on our boots and using our trekking poles to balance ourselves. Yours truly actually did wipe out once and bent one of my trekking poles (sad). We ended up getting back to Barafu around 12:30pm. We had an abbreviated lunch, then made a 2 hour hike down to Millennium High Camp (3,950m), where we spent the night in the moorland zone. All in all, we had hiked for around 14.5 hours, passing through three zones of the mountain (arctic desert, arctic summit, and moorland), with a total elevation change of over 3,000 meters. Needless to say, we all slept well that night.
Day 8 of 8 – Mweka Gate and Back to the Hotel
All anybody could think of was getting down the mountain and back to our hotel during the last day of our hike. We hiked about 5.5hrs straight down the mountain, passing from the moorland zone into the forest zone. We were bound for the Mweka Gate, where we would check out with the Kilimanjaro national park staff and rendezvous with our bus, which would drive us back to our hotel, Weru Weru Royal Resort.
I am grateful to have been blessed with the opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro and check off an item from my bucket list. I met so many amazing people during the trek and enjoyed the experience immensely. It was challenging at times, but I was able to get through it with the aid/encouragement of my guides, the porters, and my fellow tourists. A lesson that continues to crop up in my life is the power of positive thinking (or, as Davis said, “you are doing good, you are doing great”). Like so many other challenges in life, conquering a mountain like Kilimanjaro is reliant on an external support network and internal mental fortitude that are both rooted in positivity. I must confess that I am an inveterate pessimist, but to live with cognitive dissonance is to be human.
Kilimanjaro offered exceptional opportunities to tantalize my senses. Trekking in silence, immersing myself in the natural beauty, breathing the clear air, focusing on simple tasks like my breath and the placement of my poles and feet, laying in my tent at night in the pitch black, wordlessly staring at the vault of stars in the heavens: all of these experiences helped me slow the pace of my mind, untangle my thoughts, and reassess the intricacies of my life. I would highly recommend anyone who has the time, money, and health/fitness to attempt Kilimanjaro, and to do it with Peak Planet. Would I do it again? Probably not, but mostly because it’s cost and time-prohibitive.
On to Ethiopia! I’ll be exploring the history and culture of Ethiopia for a week before starting my malaria research gig in Uganda.