Climbing Kilimanjaro at 60
by Phil Knight
Even though I am a lifelong climber and mountaineer, before this year I’d never ventured higher than Mount Rainier, 14,410 feet. I had a desire to experience high altitude, somewhere close to 20,000 feet if possible.
Like many travelers, I also have a bucket list. This is a running list of those places that maybe someday if you have the time and the means and the motivation you might go to.
Well, my bucket list had not grown any shorter recently. But my remaining years had. This past year, I turned 60 and realized it was time to bust out something big. The biggest thing on my bucket list, literally: Mount Kilimanjaro. At 19,341 feet this met my high-altitude criteria. Kili is also the highest peak in Africa, which puts it on the Seven Summits list. I was pretty sure I’d never attempt Everest nor probably even Denali. But Kilimanjaro seemed doable – sort of. It’s one of the highest peaks in the world you can just walk up, no ropes nor ice axes nor crampons required. Plus, Africa was the only continent I had not been to, so this trip hit a lot of high points.
Well, what the hell. In the spring of 2019, I decided to go for it. My patient and supportive wife Alaina gave me her blessing, and I booked a trip with an outfitter from the UK called Kandoo Expeditions, starting in Tanzania on February 23. Now things were getting real! In addition to 8 days on Kilimanjaro’s Lemosho Route, this trip included a 4-day safari to 3 national parks (including the famous Serengeti). This is one of the world’s greatest wildlife watching destinations. I was eager to see as much of the African megafauna as possible.
Little did I realize I was going just in time, as the world started to contract and restrict travel and business as the coronavirus wreaked havoc. It feels strange and decadent now, just a little over a month later, that I flew across the world for fun. So many people are suffering and out of work, including the fine people that helped me to achieve my goal. How quickly our priorities, our perspectives, can shift.
Last spring of course I was oblivious of all this. Kilimanjaro was calling, and I had to get ready. I needed flights to get there, and this was daunting, being one of the longest plane trips in the world – about 28 or 30 hours each way (about 20 hours in the air). I needed a travel visa for Tanzania, as well as travel insurance (I got it through World Nomads). All this I lined up.
I also had to get a variety of immunizations, which meant planning and scheduling with my doctor months in advance – Rabies, Influenza, Measles/Mumps/Rubella, Hepatitis A and B, and Typhoid. I also needed anti-malaria medicine to take while I was in Tanzania. In addition, I chose to bring and take Diamox to prevent altitude sickness. I met with my doctor, and also with a friend who is a travel medicine expert. I also obtained Azithromycin to bring in case of “severe intestinal distress.”
Getting in shape was the hardest part of the preparation. I have hiked and skied and climbed all my life, but I knew from my Mount Rainier experience that I needed to ramp it up so I did not suffer too much nor fail to reach the summit. Plus, I was not as spry as I used to be! So I started hitting the gym a bit harder. My sessions on the Stairmaster increased from 100 to about 140 floors. I started hiking more, doing laps on the M, Drinking Horse, and Kirk Hill. I went to Yoga classes for the first time in many years. I mountain biked as much as possible, and did some backpacking, as well as hiking in Glacier Park and Yellowstone. Come winter, I skied hard at Big Sky, and cross country skied a lot of miles. I snowshoed and hiked for snowboard runs. My basic philosophy was, if there were two options for a workout, I would choose the harder one. Go for that extra run on the snowboard. Grind out another ten floors on the Stairmaster. It will pay off on the mountain!
Finally it was time to go. Early February 21, I was on a plane to Salt Lake, then Amsterdam, and finally direct to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, arriving at night, tired and stiff. Africa!! I made it. A driver for Kandoo Expeditions picked me up along with a few other expedition members and we got to our hotel in Moshi at about midnight, plenty tired after basically no sleep for 36 hours. I had made sure to arrive a day early so I could rest, and that’s what I did, slept in and stayed at the hotel all day, resting and getting used to the warm climate after leaving winter behind.
From the top of the hotel, I got my first look at Mount Kilimanjaro. It looked immense, rising something like 17,000 feet above where I was standing. It’s the biggest free-standing mountain in the world, with almost no other mountains around it. The summit was capped with snow, just like something from a Hemingway novel.
I started meeting my fellow hikers at breakfast at the hotel. By the 4:00 PM orientation, ten of the twelve trekkers were present. Our guides from Kandoo introduced themselves, led by Abraham. They were all from Tanzania, Swahili speakers but mostly fluent in English as well. These are very capable men who took excellent care of us. Most of the trekkers were from the U. S., but we also had some folks from Israel and the U.K. and one man from Austria.
At last the real journey began! We boarded a small bus with our guides and driver Gideon and headed for the high country. We soon left the city of Moshi and made a three-hour drive into the hills, passing fields and villages, many people out walking or on motorcycles. Traffic drives on the left, disorienting at first. Tanzania is overly fond of speed bumps, which were everywhere, but it sure kept the traffic speeds low.
Gideon took us up a steep dirt road to the Londorosi Gate of Kilimanjaro National Park, passing huge pine plantations where the primary forest had been cleared and people were planting trees by hand. At the gate, we were greeted with a busy scene of many parked buses, trekkers milling around and at least a hundred porters lining up to receive their loads. Yes, we were spoiled on this trek by only having to carry day packs. The guides – Enoch, Mboi, Dismas, Armani, Raymond and Abraham- would walk with us while porters scurried ahead, carrying our gear and group gear, then set up camp and get the kitchen and dining tents set up and dinner started.
Most of us used trekking poles which came in very handy. Other important gear included comfortable, sturdy hiking boots, gaiters, a buff to protect your face, a down jacket for elevation, a good rain jacket and pants, a sun hat, glacier glasses, an extra sleeping mat and a camelbak for water.
Finally we set out, up a steep muddy trail into virgin rainforest, at about 8,000 feet. Kilimanjaro is only about 300 kilometers south of the Equator so it’s pretty mild overall, though we had plenty of chilly weather in store. For now the weather was perfect. Almost immediately, we started getting passed by groups of porters with heavy loads on their heads and shoulders, with some using backpacks. This would be a theme throughout – the trails were almost always crowded, and solitude was very hard to find. We would greet many of the porters with “Jambo” or “Habari” and they would greet us back.
Our guides encouraged us to always walk “Pole pole” (Slowly slowly). This way we would save energy and adjust to the altitude.
Only ten minutes up the trail we had a once in a lifetime wildlife encounter – 4 adult colobus monkeys appeared in the trees right over our heads! One had a tiny infant. These are spectacular black and white animals with long fur and long white tails and a flattop-style hairdo. We watched them forage for leaves for a good 12 minutes.
Our first camp was called Forest Camp. It was very crowded, as were all camps, but our team of porters had our sleeping tents all set up and a cook tent and mess tent all ready. We also had two bathroom tents with portable toilets, a real luxury as the toilet houses at these camps were filthy. We settled in and had “happy hour” in the mess tent – snacks, tea and hot chocolate. No alcohol was allowed on the mountain. It got suddenly dark about 6.30, and we sat up a while getting to know each other.
The guides would come around each evening and morning and do a health check on each person, including pulse, oxygen saturation and general feeling. They kept a running chart the whole trip. Dinner was a multi-course affair served hot – the food was really good and very plentiful! Bed time was about 8:00 or 8:30 most nights.
That first night, the stars were out but it was extremely dark. I learned the value of a pee bottle for the tent since Diamox makes you urinate a lot more. I also woke to an extremely spooky and strange sound from the forest, probably made by monkeys, as well as what sounded like a dog barking (it was a jackal).
Breakfast was usually 6:30 or 7:00. Porridge, toast, pancakes, fruit. Weak coffee. Day two was a long trek with a lot of climbing up into the Heather, then the Moorland, two of the life zones on the mountain. We would spend the next 4 days on the approach, wrapping around the south side of the mountain, moving to a new campsite each night.
At Shira Camp, our last two trekkers – Heidi and Cathy from Kansas – joined us after a nightmare of flight delays. Here the guides and porters all joined in song and dance to welcome us to Kilimanjaro and Tanzania. I was grinning from ear to ear!
We crossed the Shira Plateau – an extinct caldera – then trekked up to the Moir Camp, where we started to encounter some real elevation. Moir was at 13,665 feet (4165 meters), and we did an afternoon “bonus hike” to about 14,500 feet, a little higher than I had ever gone, or most anyone else either, apart from Karyn who had trekked in Nepal. Each afternoon, the fog would gather below us and roll up the mountain to engulf us, making for chilly evenings. At Moir, we had an intense sunset, looking red and angry like the eye of God.
That night as well as three or four other nights we had hard rain. I was very glad for the heavy duty Mountain Hardware sleeping tents. We heard thunder and saw heat lightning, and had some wind with the rain. We were near the end of the trekking season and the rainy season was beginning. I started getting nervous about the summit climb, which would start at 11:00 PM and go all night. If it was stormy like this…
Day 4 we had a long, hard day, entering the Alpine Desert zone and reaching Lava Tower at 15,210 feet, about 4637 meters. This was as high as most of us had ever been, and some people, like Adam and Tara from the UK, started getting headaches, a classic symptom of altitude sickness. Amazingly, the porters and cooks set up the cook tent and mess tent just to serve us a hot lunch at Lava Tower. Good thing too, since it poured cold rain on us all the way to Baranco Camp which was (thankfully) lower, at 13,040 feet (3976 meters). Everyone got soaked despite rain gear. But we did get to walk through a forest of Giant Senesia trees, which grow nowhere else on Earth!
The climb from Baranco Camp took us up the Baranco Wall, a huge escarpment requiring easy-level rock climbing. It was a crazy scene with hundreds of people climbing this wall all at once, including porters with huge unsecured loads! But we reached the top and rested on a big flat shelf, then continued to Karanga Camp, a hard trek up and down through 3 different valleys. At this camp and the base camp for the summit (Barafu) all the water is hauled up on people’s backs and heads from a spring. I could not fathom how they did this. Everything was done with minimal fuss, except for a lot of Swahili talk. Most afternoons we were given time to nap, but that was hard due to noisy camps.
We reached Barafu Camp at last, in early afternoon, and settled in to try to rest a bit before heading for the summit. Here we were already higher than anything in the Lower 48 at 15,200 feet (4637). At every camp we had to go to the ranger hut and sign in before we could do anything else. Then one of the camp helpers would show us our tent, where we would find our duffel bags. We could change clothes, set out a mat and sleeping bag and stretch out for a bit.
At Barafu the cooks fed us three meals before we set out for the summit – lunch, dinner and “breakfast” at 10:30 PM! It was a lot of food but it assured we would need to eat little on the climb and descent. After “breakfast,” we made final preparations and queued up to start the climb to the summit, over 4,000 feet above us. It was very dark but I was overjoyed to see the stars were out. The Big Dipper appeared upside down like a hat on the summit of Kilimanjaro. I saw a shooting star. Plus it was Leap Day, February 29, soon to be March 1 – all good signs.
Pole pole. Up we go. One step at a time. Headlamps glowing. We were bundled up for the cold, assured we would not get too warm, but most of us did and had to shed layers later. There were some steep rock slabs at the start but for the most part it was a long slog up a loose, rocky trail in the dark. Always there were long lines of headlamps stretching away above us in the dark. It looked like we would keep climbing right into the stars.
We were going extremely slowly. I was glad when one of the guides, Armani, suggested we split the group and offered a slightly faster pace for one group. I joined in with the faster hikers. Only four of us set out with Armani, along with one of the “summit porters” who came to offer any help we might need. After about 20 minutes, I was starting to feel nauseous and dizzy. We were at about 17,000 feet so the altitude was really kicking in. Will from California was feeling it also (plus he had a head cold), and soon John from Austria was having some trouble. Nonny, however, formerly of the Israeli Special Forces, showed no signs of fatigue. The summit porter offered to take mine and John’s packs and we both accepted the offer.
Daylight started to come as we approached the rim of the summit crater. We were on the Mweka Route, which reaches the rim at Stella Point, well over 18,000 feet! Here the sun finally hit us and we all got a second wind. The summit crater, filled with icy snow, stretched out before us, and the sun was peeking out of the fog over Mwenzi Peak. Remnant glaciers clung gleaming to the sides of the peak and sat like pieces of the Arctic in the crater. We could see the summit, Uhuru Peak, about an hour’s walk away. The weather was perfect. We were going to make it!
That last hour was a pleasure, with the walk easy on hard snow and scree and all of Africa at our feet. By 7:30, we were hugging on the summit next to the “Congratulations” sign. Uhuru Peak! Top of Africa! We were at 19,341 feet, or 5895 meters. About 20 or 25 other trekkers were there, fewer than the crowds I had heard might be on top. About 10 minutes of taking photos and looking around, and it was time to go. We’d done it! Now to get down.
On the way down to Stella Point, we met the rest of the group – 8 trekkers and 3 guides. We later learned that everyone had made the summit! A couple of folks definitely struggled, feeling poorly, but everyone got there.
The 6 of us took a quick break at Stella Point, then plunged off the mountain. No more “pole pole” – now the guides wanted to get us off, to lower elevation, before anyone got sick or the weather turned. It was very hard on the legs and knees. Fortunately, we took a somewhat different route down the “scree field” where loose gravel made for a slightly easier descent. It was now hot and sunny and I felt like I was baking as my knees got hammered.
We scurried back to Barafu Camp, where we were able to rest for a time in our tents as we waited for the others to arrive from the summit. They did not get back ‘til after 1:00 PM, and by the time we had lunch and everything got packed it was 3:00 PM. We’d been slated for another 14 kilometers of hiking, a daunting prospect after we’d already done 12 km and 9,000 feet of climbing and descending. Instead, we stopped for the night at Millennium Camp, at 12,500 feet (3810 meters), after about 9 kilometers. Good thing too, as everyone was exhausted and rain was moving in. As it was we had climbed over 4,000 feet and descended almost 7,000 – no wonder we were exhausted! Dinner that night went down real easy and we all slept like logs.
Our last day took us down into amazing rain forest on steep, muddy trails then past Mweka Camp and down to the gate for the national park and our waiting bus. We were one tired and happy crew! Back at Bristol Cottages hotel in Moshi, we toasted the climb with Kilimanjaro beers and then enjoyed an “award ceremony” where everyone received certificates of achievement for their climb. We also thanked our guides and porters and made sure everyone got well tipped.
We still had a huge adventure ahead – four days of Safari in the Serengeti and elsewhere – but the hard part was over. I, for one, would be glad to sit in a car and look at animals!