Kilimanjaro Expedition I

This story was printed in one issue of a newsletter put out by the Country Directors of Peace Corps/Tanzania and sent out to all of the volunteers in Tanzania.

Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, is located in northern Tanzania, close to the Kenyan border. A massive volcano, classified as dormant but not yet extinct, it is one of the largest freestanding mountains in the world. Rising from an undulating plain with an average elevation of about 3000 ft (900 m) Kilimanjaro's ultimate summit, Uhuru Peak ("uhuru" being the Swahili word for freedom) reaches an elevation of 19,340 ft (5895 m) above sea level. Stretching nearly 40 miles (65 km) from the northwest to the southeast, Kilimanjaro resembles a broad, high blister on the surface of the earth, capped by three main volcanic cones. From west to east, these are called Shira, which long ago collapsed into a high plateau at 12,000 ft; Kibo, the central and highest cone with its white cap of snow and giant (but shrinking) glacier fields; and Mawenzi, black, jagged and forbidding at 16,896 ft (5150 m).

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was assigned to teach for two years at Moshi Technical Secondary School, in the town of Moshi, Tanzania, which serves as the gateway to Mt. Kilimanjaro. When the clouds part to reveal Kibo and Mawenzi floating high above the town, it is easy to see why thousands of people from all over the world travel thousands of miles each year for the express purpose of hiking this mountain. Its loftiness is both inspiring and imposing, its great bulk offering a vast territory of varied terrain and environments to explore. Since the mountain is so broad, its slopes are gentle enough to offer a variety of routes to the summit on Kibo which require no technical expertise. Kilimanjaro is certainly the highest mountain in the world that can be climbed by anybody in reasonably good physical condition who is determined (and perhaps also crazy) enough to attempt the five- or six-day trek.

Since the mountain is reasonably accessible, it is quite common for school groups to climb in the off-season, when the tourist traffic is low. The Tanzania National Parks Association (TANAPA) has a policy of waiving park entrance and lodging fees for student groups and their teachers, without which the mountain would be out of the financial reach of all but the most wealthy Tanzanians. As it stands, the cost of guides, porters, and food for a large group does usually necessitate some outside subsidy. In addition, the task of organizing such a trip and training the students physically and mentally for the ordeal can be daunting and time-consuming. For these reasons, the majority of student climbs are led by one or more foreign teachers like myself. When I, along with my neighbors Rebecca Dawson (then age 21) and Adam Gillespie (then age 19), both volunteer teachers then on an exchange program to Moshi Tech from England, decided in January 2001 to organize a climb for our students, we had ample precedent. I had numerous friends who were Peace Corps Volunteers in Tanzania and had already climbed with their students. Their advice was indispensable to us.

I paid a visit to the Kilimanjaro National Parks Association (KINAPA) to book a six-day climb for 16 students and 5 teachers over the Easter holiday, from April 12 to 17, 2001. As a school group, we were required to climb the Marangu Route, which is the easiest ascent and descent and offers good accommodation at three different sets of huts along the way. We then set about recruiting students. We decided to restrict the trip to students who were past their first two years of secondary school, so that we would be dealing with older kids who were a bit more mature and serious. We also informed the students that in order to help ease the financial burden of the trip, we would be charging each student 10,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $12) to climb. From here, we began training with about 30 students three times a week, with the hope that the two-month program of aerobics, hiking, and jogging would weed out those students who were not truly serious about the effort and firm up those who were. In addition to Adam, Rebecca, and I, two Tanzanian teachers volunteered for the trip. Mr. Japhet Mpande, a veteran of Kilimanjaro who had already reached Uhuru Peak twice, and Mr. Hussein Raisi, are both men in their forties who are well-respected and long-standing faculty members at Moshi Tech. In the weeks leading up to the trip, we five teachers devoted increasingly more time and effort to arranging guides, equipment, and food, exercising with the students, collecting money, answering their questions and concerns, and so on. By the week before the climb, our students had self-selected themselves down into the core group of 12 boys and 4 girls who would finish the training and attempt Kilimanjaro. The oldest among them was a boy of 21, the youngest a girl of only 15 years.

After a week of mad scrambling to accomplish last-minute preparations, Thursday, April 12 finally arrived. Our headmaster arranged us transportation to the gate in Marangu, which at 6000 ft was already higher than Mt. Katahdin, the highest mountain in my home state of Maine. There we met Adronis, our head guide, and his three assistant guides and 10 porters. With one porter for every two climbers, we were all required to carry our own gear at first, until some of the food supplies had been consumed. Later on many of our group, including all of the girls and our two Tanzanian teachers, would surrender at least a sleeping bag and in some cases their entire pack to the assistance of our porters. We were late in arriving at the gate, but in time to make the three-and-a-half hour ascent to Mandara, the first hut at 9000 ft (2700 m). At dinner that evening I made the first entry in my log of the climb, from which the following passages are excerpted:


Day 1: Thursday, 12 April, 2001

The biggest problem today was rain. The first part of this climb took us through a lovely tropical rainforest---lush, beautiful trees, vines, ferns, lichens, all growing around and on top of one another---life piled upon life. Already we've passed through two distinct forests, and the one here is much thinner than the one we passed before. There is a lovely view from here...

Everyone is doing fine so far, except some problems due to overpacking (heavy) or poorly packing (wet). Hopefully tomorrow the students will be able to dry out some. The climb will not be as steep.

DAY 2: Good Friday, 13 April, 2001

We are now at Horombo Huts, elevation 12,340 ft. Today we passed through the moorlands, and the weather could not have been more perfect...

Everyone is doing great so far. I did begin to feel the effects of thinning air in the steeper parts of our ascent, but now I can hardly notice our altitude apart from the temperature. Three of the students complained of headaches, but I discovered that they had not been drinking enough water (we need to drink at least a gallon per day to stay healthy on the mountain).

Apart from that, which is not (yet) a big problem, the students are all energetic, adapting to colder temperatures, and marveling at how they can now look down and see clouds and city lights.


The third day of our schedule was designated for rest and acclimatization. The single greatest danger on a mountain like Kilimanjaro is altitude sickness. The summit is so high that the air pressure there is only half of the pressure at sea level. Even Kibo Hut, which serves as the base camp for ascents to the summit on the Marangu Route, is high enough, at 15,520 ft (4750 m) for a substantial proportion of climbers to begin to experience symptoms. These can range from mild headache and dizziness to vomiting, dementia, difficulty breathing due to fluid build-up in the lungs, and worse. The condition is potentially fatal, but people who descend usually recover rapidly. Needless to say, we were constantly watching each other and our students for signs. There is really no way to predict whom will be affected, but certain measures can be taken to help the body adjust, like taking things easy, keeping hydrated, and climbing higher before descending to sleep at a lower elevation.


DAY 3: Saturday, 14 April, 2001

Today was very pleasant and relaxing. We shed our heavy packs for a day hike up to "The Saddle," that great expanse between Kibo and Mawenzi Peaks. The place where we stopped to rest, eat, take photos, and breathe the thin air at nearly 14,000 ft was a desolate, rocky overlook close to Mawenzi Peak.

...The students and teachers are still doing well, particularly the girls once they learned that we will be giving their packs to the porters tomorrow. Tomorrow we pass the last water point, so what we carry is what we get, after that. Then the real fun begins. I am not sure if I am going to be able to make any entry in this log at Kibo Hut, because we will arrive in the afternoon and then try to eat and sleep a bit before beginning the midnight "Death march" to the summit. I don't know what is going to happen in the next two days, but I am both excited and apprehensive...


Indeed, I did not manage to add any entries until the last day, when I was waiting for a sick student, aided by two of our assistant guides, to catch up to me at Mandara so that I could accompany him on the rest of his descent in a rescue vehicle. But the rest of the journey definitely merited recording, so I backdated the entries for Days 4 and 5.


DAY 4 [Easter Sunday]

In due course we arrived at Kibo Hut, a lonely outpost consisting of three stone buildings, the highest structures in Africa. I was hiking with Adam, and the rest of the teachers and two youngest female students were not too far behind, but most of the students beat us to our destination. They usually did---we liked to hike slowly, gawk at things, take pictures, and drink lots of water...

I checked on all the students, many of whom were curled up in their sleeping bags, tired and feeling chilled. Most of them probably experienced below-freezing temperatures for the first time in their lives once the Sun went down that day. But none were sick, beyond some headaches, which was encouraging. The previous school group to climb Kili, led by my friend (and fellow PCV) Laurel Brown, had to send 4 students down from Kibo at 6:30 PM because of mountain sickness.

Shortly after dinner, we all bedded down in preparation for an 11 PM wake-up call and a 12 AM departure...


The ascent from Kibo Hut to Gilman's Point, elevation 18,650 ft (5685 m), is undoubtedly the most difficult part of the climb, due to both its steepness and the extreme high altitude. The trail, less than 4 miles (6 km) long, ascends over 3000 ft (1000 m), and the climbing schedule allots five to six hours for this leg. I asked Adronis why it was necessary to attempt this portion at night, and he told me that the main reason is that the ice fields begin to melt not long after dawn, making the crossing from Gilman's to Uhuru Peak treacherous. The second reason he gave is that, if people were able to see the massive, rocky slope ahead of them, as they struggled upwards, the majority would lose their nerve and turn back. Thus, the goal of the climb is to reach Gilman's in time to watch the (usually breathtaking) sunrise, and then to continue on for a mile and a half to Uhuru in the first light of day.


DAY 5

Under the direction of our guide, we lined up just before midnight, teachers in front, led by myself, then girls, then boys. It was very dark---the Moon would not rise for another hour and a half.

We didn't lose anybody during the first half of our ascent. The halfway point is Hans Meyer Cave, named after one of the first Europeans to reach the summit of Kili, over a century ago. It was here that Adronis decided to split our group, a decision that I would oppose if I had it to do over again. Adronis sent seven of our boys ahead with two assistant guides, and kept all of the teachers, girls, and remaining boys behind with him...

Group 1 forged ahead, but our group 2 began to struggle. We were constantly stopping. All I can say is that this was one of the most surreal nights of my life. Clinging to the side of Africa's highest peak in the spectral light of the half-moon, listening to calls in Swahili echoing up and down across the rocks, wondering what was going to become of everybody.

The first to turn back was Suma John, our spunky little 15-year-old who simply did not have the strength or stamina to battle on any longer. She was sent down with our rear guide. Adronis called ahead to group 1, and one of their guides descended to take up the rear. I began to have a sinking feeling---Suma would not be the only one to go, and if we ran out of guides due to people descending, then the game was over.

When we were maybe 20 minutes from reaching Gilman's Point, the call came up the line that I had been dreading. Another person, maybe more, could not climb any further. I had been relying almost completely upon our guide up to this point, mechanically following in his footsteps, but I knew that now was the time to assert some control over the situation, or lose all hope of any of the rest of us reaching the top. I called down the mountain. "Okay, listen up! This is our last chance to send people down. If you do not feel that you can reach the summit now, descend! Otherwise you will prevent anyone else from succeeding!" And to make doubly sure, I asked Adronis to go down there himself and assess the condition of each climber. Frustrated, I continued up a little way on my own, with Adam behind. We then noticed another shadow following us, so we halted and were mildly surprised to find one of our girls, slender, frail-looking Lilian with the missing front tooth, making her determined way up the mountain. It had become very cold and windy, but I knew then that we had to wait for Adronis and the others who were continuing on. I noticed a convenient nook in the rocks, and ushered Adam and Lilian inside, where we three huddled for warmth. It was now maybe 5 AM.

Five more people had turned back---one girl, two big, strong boys, and our two Tanzanian teachers. Mr. Mpande had already vomited, and Mr. Raisi was losing his vision---both showing frightening signs of altitude sickness. They probably should have turned back earlier. The rest of us all reached Gilman's Point, there to find three of the boys from group 1 descending on their own---the assistant guide had continued on with the 4 other boys to Uhuru.

The boys were in good shape, but I was livid to find them up there, in the dark, with no supervision whatsoever, and I cursed the decision to split our group. There was no rush. All of us there had plenty of time to reach Uhuru. Yet it was obvious that not all of our students were in any shape to make that final, treacherous, trek across the narrow tracks of ice and snow to the final summit at 19,340 ft. But there was no way I was going to turn back now. I felt great. I knew that Adam desperately wanted to reach the top, and Rebecca was showing a surge of strength. I resolved to send my remaining students down with another guide, not affiliated with our group, who was descending with his one client, so that Adronis could take us to the summit. He agreed to this nonstandard tactic of using outside help---perhaps he was ashamed of his man's sending three of our boys down alone. He agreed to take Adam, Rebecca, and me across---but only us three.

There was a hitch. Two of our students still wanted to continue. They were our two remaining girls---dauntless Lilian and brave little Verdiana. Adronis said NO. We regarded the girls. Lilian was in great shape, no doubt she could reach Uhuru as well as any of us. Verdiana, however, was on the edge of exhaustion, shivering in the fierce wind. But she had a look in her eye that said, unmistakably, I want to do this. I thought, I want my girls to make it. Adam and Rebecca agreed. I turned to Adronis and said, "We're all going. We will be fine. I will act as your assistant guide. I will walk at the back." And he acquiesced.

I don't have words remaining to describe that incredible, Arctic odyssey across the snowy summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It lasted forever, but for only an instant. I saw my sunrise. My camera batteries froze shortly thereafter. Conditions on that icy, exposed approach to Uhuru were horrible---a biting wind that pierces your clothes and threatens to push you off your feet. It was taking every bit of my effort to will Verdiana, my 16-year-old charge, across the blowing snow towards our goal. She would stop in her tracks and shiver. I had to instruct her on where to place each foot and her walking stick---for of course she had never walked on snow before. And it was treacherous---many places where a misstep could send a person sliding irretrievably down into the vast basin leading to the central crater. At times, I was literally pushing Verdiana uphill. Where the track was wide enough that we could walk side-by-side, she would automatically grasp my hand, and I would have to extricate it at Adronis' order, for it was too dangerous to walk that way---if I should happen to slip and fall, I would have taken her down with me.

But, we all made it. Five of us, plus Adronis. We were not able to linger at Uhuru Peak for very long, as the weather was not letting up, and Adronis was visibly nervous. After taking in the view, we booked it back to Gilman's, where we began finally to thaw in the morning Sun, breathe sighs of relief, and celebrate our conquest.


It was a successful climb. Nine of 21 in our party reached Uhuru Peak, including the four boys who reached it before sunrise. Six other boys had reached Gilman's Point before turning back, and all of the remaining students and teachers were very, very close, and had showed the most admirable possible effort and determination. It goes without saying that I am very proud of everyone---and particularly the two girls, Lilian Odemary and Verdiana Vedasto, who willed their way all the way to the top. I regard leading my school up Mt. Kilimanjaro as one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and one that none of us will ever forget.

There are still more pictures from this climb available for viewing or downloading.


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