I promised to send a write up of my recent (January 2004) adventure to Antarctica, but since I already have a description of my September 2002 Mt. Kilimanjaro climbing adventure in Africa, I thought I'd send that first. If it's too long, feel free to edit. Here is the story.
It was an adventure of a lifetime...much to tell...
There was an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel about my efforts to collect warm, waterproof clothing for the porters (see santacruz.html).
I also published an appeal as a letter to the editor in the Sierra Club local chapter newsletter (see sierraclub.html).
One of my climbing partners wrote a great article published in the Mountaineers Newsletter in Seattle (see Mtr12-02.pdf).
There were three of us on this expedition in September 2002. We organized it ourselves, My climbing partners live in the Seattle area -- my Whitman College roommate and a friend of hers whom I had not met before this trip. We made arrangements for the climb (& safari afterwards) through a well-respected local Tanzanian outfitter. September is the cool, dry season in Tanzania.
The normal climb takes five days on the route we chose to climb. We scheduled an extra day to acclimatize at 12,000 feet elevation (reached after two days of hiking). The mountain was enshrouded in clouds, so we could not see the top from below when we started out. We started at the Marangu Gate (elev. 6,400 ft.), hiked about 4-5 hours and spent the first night at elevation 8,800 feet. The hike took longer the second day to reach 12,200 feet. The first two days were overcast and relatively cool, good for hiking through the tropical rain forest. Above the first hut, we came out of the rain forest into heather and grasslands. At the second hut (elev. 12,200 ft.), we were above the cloud layer that obscured our view of the Tanzanian countryside below.
During our second night, it began to rain, and by morning of the third day -- it was a full-scale storm... high winds, drenching rains, very cold. We were lucky - this was our scheduled day to acclimatize. Other climbers had to hike through the rain and wind to the next hut at 15,500 feet. Our acclimatization plan had been to hike up to the Saddle (elev. 14,000 ft.) between the two volcanic peaks of Kibo (Uhuru Peak) and Mawenzi on the Kilimanjaro massif and then return to sleep at 12,200 feet, but we stayed sheltered and dry instead. Hikers coming up from the first camp were drenched and shivering uncontrollably when they reached our hut. (Each camp is called a "hut", but there is actually a collection of huts at each camp.) At this second camp, we shared a hut with three others who were scheduled to continue their climb to the third camp during the day of the storm and go on to the summit starting that night. Two of them were too sick, running fevers and didn't go. The third, a girl from Canada, left early in the morning with the rest of her group. We saw her the next day on her way down. Her boots got soaked in the rain, and froze during the night. She made the climb up to the crater rim that night, but could go no further because her feet were numb. We learned later that her friend with the fever was suffering from malaria.
Our fourth day dawned clear and sunny -- a beautiful sunrise at 12,200 feet above the layer of clouds below. As we began our hike to the high camp, our guide told us of the emergencies during the night. He'd been monitoring the radio and helped in the rescue effort on our route. Several hikers had to be hospitalized with hypothermia. We learned that three porters had perished during the night from exposure and hypothermia. One death occurred on our route, the other two deaths occurred on other routes on the mountain. It was shocking and very sad. We had come to know and like our five porters (all cheerful young men, in their teens, who lived in the village at the foot of the mountain). They'd been teaching us Swahili. We had two guides, a lead guide named Thomas, and an Assistant Guide named Filbert. Thomas told us the training to become a guide starts with working for about six years as a porter, then as an assistant guide for another six years, and finally becoming lead guide. He himself has climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro over 100 times. It's hard work, but pays better than any other employment available. Somehow, Thomas had also received training as a mountain guide in Colorado, but not all guides are so fortunate.
This began our interest in the plight of the porters. Many outfitters, including some of the most respected U.S. adventure travel companies making good money guiding well-heeled Western adventurers to the top of Kilimanjaro, provide no shelter for their porters on the mountain. Porters carry the clients' gear, but none for themselves other than what's on their backs and must fend for themselves during the night without sleeping bags or warm clothing. I think the only food they have is what is left over after the clients eat. On other routes, there are no huts. Porters carry and set up the tents for the clients, then must find shelter in caves or out in the open. The porters are hired by the guides, some of whom (not ours) are unscrupulous -- they collect tips meant for the porters telling their clients they will distribute the money to the porters but instead keep the money for themselves.
Anyway, as we climbed during that fourth day to the top camp at 15,500 feet, the last stop before our summit attempt, each of us began thinking to ourselves what we could do to help the porters. The weather had greatly improved and we were lucky. There were winds across the saddle area between the two peaks. It was cold, but our gear kept us warm. Mawenzi is a craggy volcanic peak about 16,800 feet tall - only technical climbs are permitted. We were headed toward the main peak, Kibo, the summit of Kilimanjaro also known as Uhuru Peak, the tallest mountain on the African continent at 19,340 feet. From the villages below, Kibo is the only peak that can be seen. The views above 12,200 feet were spectacular. I have a magnificent photograph that I framed of the snow-covered summit of Kilimanjaro taken on the approach across the heather-clad alpine desert at 14,000 feet.
We reached the high camp by mid-afternoon. We began preparing for our summit attempt that would begin around midnight later that day. First, we had to argue with the Hut Manager for a place to sleep. The route was over-booked (Kilimanjaro National Park collects fees for climbing permits... it's easy money, but there are limited facilities...oh, well..) Even though we had reservations, it's "first come, first served", except when you're a large party of Japanese climbers who can send a runner ahead to bribe the manager of the hut. Anyway, the (very nice) barracks for climbers had been commandeered by this large party (who hadn't arrived yet) and we were told we'd have to go back down the trail to the over-flow huts (I still can't remember if that was an extra 20-minute hike, or a 2-hour hike away... altitude does funny things to your brain.) Eventually, they put us in quarters with bunks normally used by the porters. The porters were displaced to the bare cement room next to the room where about 16 of us climbers slept. Providing additional education in our learning about the condition of porters... these porters slept sitting with their backs against the cold cement walls... it made us feel terrible.
My only symptom of altitude sickness was a minor headache at this top camp. I took some Tylenol, and that cured it. It was a struggle to organize for the climb. There was no space except on my floor-level mattress in the dark of the lower bunk. We had an early dinner, on the floor at the foot of our bunks, then went to sleep by 7:30 - 8:00 p.m.
For the past several days, we heard reports of winds and temperatures of -12 degrees F at the summit. We had heard everyone's water bottles were freezing up. For the climb, my friends, Susie and Penny, strapped their water bladders with drinking hoses inside their clothes tied with a belt to their stomachs. My water bladder was bulky with its insulation cover, and I didn't have a good way to strap it on, so it went in the pack carried by Thomas. Our two guides each carried a pack, we had no packs. (Porters do not go to the summit.) Thomas woke us around 11:30 p.m. and we set off for the summit about midnight. We climbed by the light of a nearly full moon up the switchbacks of the frozen scree all night, didn't need our head lamps until the moon set behind the mountain. The goal was to reach the crater rim by sunrise. There were many people on the trail. Some stepped out of line to rest or if they were having trouble. Some got sick. The slope to the summit is very steep, a wide track of scree straight up to the crater rim, crisscrossed with hundreds of switchbacks, rising over 3,500 feet. It was a steady trudge, constantly up, step-by-step. Toward the end, I began to realize how tired I was and wondered, for the first time, if I'd make it, or be able to get back down ... I staggered a couple of times, sort of losing my balance (apparently another symptom of altitude sickness). At that point we were only about 40 vertical feet from the top of the steep climb to the crater rim. We scrambled over large boulders to reach the ledge on the crater rim, called Gilman's Point (elev. 18,600 feet). We'd made it!! Six and a half hours of grueling work! For many climbers, this is their final destination.
We watched a spectacular sunrise, took pictures and were very proud of ourselves. We stopped for a break at the beginning of the crater ridge trail to the summit for warm tea and a snack. Penny was having trouble with the altitude and the cold, and told Susie and I to go ahead without her. But Thomas stayed with her and brought her along slowly. We reached the actual summit about 8:30 a.m. and Penny got there about 20 minutes or so later. It was a magnificent achievement! (for us old gals ... Penny and Susie were 57 and I was 56.)
We posed for summit photos and lingered, admiring the views, mesmerized by the sheer wonder of it all. The oxygen density is less than 50% as at sea level. Along the crater rim, I could not go at more than a slow, measured pace of one step, one breath, next step, next breath, and so on. We could not see the plains of East Africa below the cloud layer which remained below 12,000 feet. The sunshine sparkling off the glaciers and the 360 degree view was amazing. The glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and after more than four thousand years of drought (maybe it's 10,000 years?), it is expected that Kilimanjaro will lose its permanent ice cap within the next twenty years! On the second day of our hike, we could see Kibo (Mt. Kilimanjaro) bare except for the permanent ice pack and glaciers. When we started our hike on the fourth day, after the storm, the entire mountain was covered with snow. I snapped as many pictures as I could. We left the summit and started back down around 9:30 a.m. On the way back along the crater rim, Filbert was trying to hurry us down. They needed to get us out of danger of altitude sickness as fast as they could. But I kept stopping every few minutes to take another picture, and he was patient with me. Foggy as my brain was, I knew I would never have this opportunity again! When we got back to Gilman's Point, we started down the scree path. Now in daylight, we could look straight down to Kibo Hut where we had slept those couple of hours in the porters' quarters before starting the summit climb. In the sunlight, the scree was no longer frozen and we ran straight down, digging our heels in like in a sand dune, ignoring the switchbacks. As long as your quadriceps can hold out, it's a quicker method... We finally reached the high hut around 1:00 p.m. We were very tired. Thomas let us take a one-hour nap, then we had lunch. After that, we continued on down to the middle camp at 12,200 feet, arriving around 4:30 p.m. It had been a very long day (about 16-17 hours). Here we spent our last night on the mountain.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny. It was sad to know our mountain adventure was coming to an end, but we were looking forward to our safari. My daughter, Heather, and a college girl friend of Susie's and mine, Elizabeth, flew in from Amsterdam the night we began our climb to the summit. Susie and Penny's husbands were arriving in the evening on this last day of our hike. We hiked all the way out to the gate from elevation 12,200 feet to 6,400 feet (about 15 miles). At the Gate, we signed out and our guide certified that each of us had made it to the summit!
Big surprise awaited us at the Gate! Heather and Elizabeth were there to greet us!! They had booked a day's tour of the Moshi area to pass the time while we were hiking out, and part of their tour included the Marangu Gate. Their driver probably knew the approximate time we'd be expected to emerge from the forest. They got there about 15 minutes before we walked out. It was an emotional greeting! Much celebrating and picture taking!
The next day, we started our week-long safari, going to the best Northern Tanzania wildlife preserves and National Parks, including safari lodges in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. It was another magnificent adventure! My husband didn't come to Africa this time, because the semester had started at San Jose State University where he is a professor (he had been in Zimbabwe the year before for our amazing safari and total solar eclipse trip in June 2001).
After we got back home, my climbing partners in Seattle, and I in Santa Cruz, began publicizing the plight of the porters and collecting warm, waterproof clothing and boots for them. Through calls to various adventure travel companies, I found a non-profit operation called Himalayan Explorers Connection (www.hec.org) dedicated to helping porters around the world (Himalayas, Peru and Kilimanjaro). About 8 months after we returned from Africa, we sent over 40 boxes of good quality clothing, gear and boots on a new Boeing airplane being delivered to Nairobi for Kenya Air. HEC was starting a project to help the Kilimanjaro porters at that time and our efforts helped them stock their clothing supplies. Our HEC representative, living in Moshi Tanzania, rented a truck and retrieved all the gear in Nairobi and is now operating a "clothing bank" lending mountain clothing to the porters. They borrow the clothing by "checking it out" and "checking it back in" after their porter job is completed. Porters who partake in the program collect their wages only after checking the clothing back in after their climb. This prevents the usual practice of selling the gear and clothing (given to the porters as gifts by generous climbers) in the local market for cash.
In another installment, I can send some of my best safari photos of the amazing African animals we saw and our hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti. I still can't believe how lucky I was to have this "adventure of a lifetime".... I hope all of you are well!
Susan, Nov 2004
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