I made it! I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro!
I’m sure I cost a few of the resort staff some betting money by doing it. When I told Gilian, the receptionist, she laughed at me. “You’re kidding, right?”
I had approached the hike without any thoughts of success or failure riding on it… just eight days in the African wilderness, with a mountain in the middle.
I guess I had visualized a lot of things about the hike in advance, but I had never visualized quitting (though I had never visualized myself at the top either).
The eight-day Lemosho route has the highest success rate of any of the routes (about 80 percent, compared to 60 percent on the others). This is due to the time spent acclimatizing to the altitude.
I am told there are three things you need to summit “Kili”: the physical capacity, the mental capacity (when that next step feels impossible, will you take it?) and the ability to overcome altitude.
Altitude is the wild card. There really isn’t any way to train for it besides getting up to altitude, and everyone reacts differently. Mt. Kilimanjaro is 5,895 m (for reference, Mt. Logan is 5,959 m), so it’s not something easily done.
Acclimatizing is time spent “working high/sleeping low”—climbing up the side of the mountain in the morning, making forward progress during the day, walking back down for the night, then walking back up again.
The effects of elevation were the biggest surprise to me. They tell you to expect appetite loss, nausea and headache. There can be more serious symptoms, but nobody in our group was suffering more than that and the energy loss that comes from lack of oxygen.
I lost my appetite after Day 2. If you’ve seen me eat, you’ll know how significant that is. I didn’t realize how affected I was until I got home and looked at some of the pictures and video of myself.
There is a photo of me a few hours before starting the final summit stretch, sitting beside the Canadian flag (I summitted on Canada Day, even sang the national anthem with the other Canadians in the camp).
My face is so bloated you can barely see my eyes. On video, you can hear me gasping for breath just sitting and talking.
While the altitude, the elevation gains and the distances make it a tough hike, various amenities make it a lot easier. The most significant is the porters—three per guest.
The only thing I had to carry on the trail was my day pack with water, snacks and rain gear.
Everything else, they carried… tents, sleep mats, the three porta-potties and their privacy tents, the table and chairs for the dining tent, all the food and the 33 pounds of personal effects we each packed into a duffel bag.
The porters carry their personal effects in a backpack, and carry our gear and the other accoutrements in bags and baskets slung across their shoulders or balanced on their heads.
If I was having a bad day, I didn’t even have to carry my own water, or even my own pack.
Our team of 16 people had a support team of 61. Besides our lead guide, Mike, there were assistant guides Hemisi, Julius 1, Julius 2 and Joseph, two cooks, 48 porters and six additional staff as personal guides to some of the team, or hired to carry additional gear (such as Robbie’s guitar).
Our tents and the dining tent would be set up when we arrived in camp, the porters and cooks having arrived well in advance, even though they carried easily four times what we did.
Our bags were already set outside our tents. (Note to anyone considering this trip: find a porter, treat him well and get him to select the best site for you… even ground is hard to come by on a mountainside, and you want to be close to but not beside the outhouse.)
Upon arrival, we would be offered hot water for washing, hot tea and popcorn (popcorn is definitely best at a campsite, never mind a theatre! If you don’t believe me, hike for seven hours and try some).
The food would soon be ready and we’d eat from real plates with real utensils, with an endless supply of hot water for beverages. After dinner we would sit around until the porters kicked us out of the tent so they could clean up.
We would awaken to more hot water for washing, and breakfast would be served… always with eggs, usually fresh fruits and always millet porridge (the only thing I could eat as altitude sickness took away my appetite).
By the time we finished, our bags were gone and the tents were down. We would start our day’s hike, then watch as the porters passed us, loaded down with our gear.
Even with all this trail-side pampering, the hike was a monster!
I quit twice… Obviously I didn’t quit for good: the spoiler for that is in my first line.
The first time I quit was on Day 4, two hours into a nine-hour day. I was spent. Exhaustion had won!
But I didn’t really have any option to quit at that point. The nearest evac was a day below me or a day ahead, so I continued (without my pack/water which Julius 1 took for me).
The rest of the day is a blur in which all I really saw was the tips of my hiking poles and the heels of Arlene’s boots. I got to camp and crawled straight into my tent. It took a couple of hours to muster the energy to put out my Thermarest and sleeping bag.
I barely ate that night, but finally slept… a real night’s sleep for the first time in three nights. I woke up feeling strong; at least strong enough to start the next day’s hike.
That was the Baranco Wall. What a great hour that was! I got to the top of the steepest ascent of the journey and felt a sense of accomplishment, having overcome yesterday’s exhaustion and a challenging obstacle.
Our pace was almost comical at the beginning of every day. Pole Pole (the Swahili lesson for the day) was heard frequently. It means “slowly”.
Slow it was, and rightly so. Getting a fast start will only burn out your energy reserves early (ask any runner) and the variable you aren’t used to—altitude—will kick your ass if you don’t take it easy.
The guides would generally take up position directly ahead of us and walk at a pace similar to being trapped behind that 75-year-old dentist with cataracts driving a massive RV on the Alaska Highway. Unbearably slow.
After about an hour, the group would break up into smaller pockets at different paces. For about four days, Julius 1 ended up guiding Arlene and me. I don’t know if his English was bad, or if he was just really quiet.
His guiding style was different from the others; he regularly walked anywhere from 15 to 40 feet ahead of us, instead of directly in front, almost leaving us feeling we were on our own. But he was always right there when the trail was at all challenging, completely aware of our progress and needs.
His quiet, detached style contributed a lot to my success. I never had a sense that he got me through the days on the trail. I got through it… he was just there to make sure I didn’t get myself into trouble, or lost.
I still don’t know if he understood when I tried to tell him how much he meant to my trip.
The other guy who may not know the impact he had on my success is Robbie LeBlanc. He was actually the catalyst for this particular hike (that story is too long for this space).
Robbie had lost 100 lbs to do this hike, and still weighed 280 or so when we started. This guy worked harder on the mountain than any of us, maybe any two of us combined.
Days that took us five or six hours took Robbie eight or ten. He came into camp in the dark almost every night. I don’t think I went to sleep any of the first four nights thinking Robbie would be going on with us next day.
Come morning, though, he was up and confident and ready to rock!
Watching how much harder he worked for this, how mentally strong he was, motivated me to dig deeper. He showed me how much a man can do if he sets his mind to it.
Robbie’s accomplishment on that hill will motivate me any time I feel as if I’m facing an “insurmountable” challenge.
If you follow mountaineering at all, you’ll recognize the name of our group leader, Werner Berger. He’s done it all. He’s the oldest North American to summit Mt. Everest, and the oldest person in the Western Hemisphere to complete the “Seven Summits”.
If all goes to plan, next year he will set the record as the oldest person to summit Mt. Everest, at the age of 76.
If I ever decide to repeat something as ridiculous as a “summit”, I would love to have his experience, patience and wisdom by my side again.
People ask what it was like to stand at the top the mountain, the summit, the goal, the raison d’être for the whole journey.
Well… it was kinda anti-climactic.
I was exhausted and cold, on top of a mountain looking at snow and glaciers.
The sense of accomplishment wasn’t as strong as I had expected. What made the biggest impression wasn’t being at the summit, but things that had happened along the way.
Being at the top with my friend Dan Belhassen, however, did mean a lot.
Dan was in better shape than I was and climbed a little faster, so he went in the standard group, not the slow group (or, as I came to realize, the ones who weren’t expected to make it).
When I eventually made that final push to the peak, Dan was on his way down. It never even occurred to him not to turn around and go back, to stand beside me at the summit.
Very few people would make a decision like that after eight hours of hiking up to almost 6,000 metres.
Mike tried valiantly to convince Dan of the dangers of too much time at elevation. Staying up too long is just plain stupid, and something only the best of friends would have done. Dan is definitely one of those.
At the risk of sounding hokey and overdramatic, I will say that climbing “Kili” was a life-changing experience for me.
A lot of people along the way made a significant impact. Personally, I pushed through physical and psychological barriers I would never have thought possible.
I learned about my limits… where I think they are, and how far beyond that they actually are.
Mark is a Certified Campologist who likes to escape the the Big City and get Out & Away