Traveling to East Africa this past year was a journey 15 years in the making. In 1997 I had planned to set out to travel Africa by overlanding the continent country by country on an epic journey that would take me from the shores of the shark infested waters of South Africa through the Savannahs of the east to the highest mountains and onward to the Pyramids of Egypt and west through deserts of Libya and Algeria. I had studied trade routes and contacted friends and travel companies to setup travel that would allow me to see as much of Africa as possible over my summer break.
Then, life happened. I took new opportunities, returned to grad school and moved forward with working in education but I never let go of one dream. The dream to climb the highest mountains of the world and I was going to start with Kilimanjaro, the highest summit on the continent of Africa, a colossus glacier-capped mountain that sat on the earth’s equatorial line. Kilimanjaro was set to be my test run, in my mind, if I can conquer this feat, then I can do anything I set out to do. If successful, I would join the ranks of an elite group that held the rights of standing on the roof of Africa and I would relish in the splendor of seeing some of the most magnificent views on earth. Not to mention, Kilimanjaro is the only place on Earth it is possible to scale a mountain of this magnitude without crampons and ice picks, albeit, the altitude alone gives any good trekker a new found challenge of gasping for enough air to breath to just move forward.
Now, fifteen years later the opportunity came to go east to attempt to climb Kilimanjaro again. I had opted to change travel plans in 2008 due to acts of terror in the east and local civil unrest in the region and instead I traveled south to avoid the unrest and heeded the warnings of the embassies to avoid all travel in the area of the eastern Africa. This change of plans caused me to miss a climb opportunity for a second time a few years back. But this year, I was determined I would go for summit and I would set out to climb the highest mountain of Africa. Mount Kilimanjaro.
What I never imagined was the depth of challenges I would face not only on the mountain but that of arriving to my destination of Moshi, Tanzania. I departed Atlanta with plans of arriving in Nairobi 19 hours later then overland to Moshi via the old trade route that would take me towards Tsavo East. I had planned in enough time to get oriented to the place I would call home for the next three weeks before beginning to climb the mountain. But, with all good plans, a simple journey of travel would turn into an epic experience that would take 63 hours, three continents, six countries and three different airlines just to arrive to my destination.
My original ticket of Atlanta to Zurich to Nairobi would turn into Atlanta to Newark, New Jersey after a mechanical problem had returned the original flight to Atlanta after the plane had depressurized. The airlines routed me to Newark in an effort to get me to Europe by morning.
When I arrived in Newark, I was issued a new ticket to fly to Zurich, Switzerland, but that flight was soon delayed due to record snowfall. By the time I did arrive in Zurich, I of course had missed the connecting flight to Nairobi so the airline booked me on a flight to Frankfurt, Germany to have more options for flying to East Africa so I could reach my destination.
When I arrived in Frankfurt, the airlines however informed me they had no flights to my destination today so I would have to return to Zurich and wait for 22 hours for the next flight to Kenya. I quickly entrusted the search capabilities of Kayak and informed the staff the partner airlines had flights leaving from Frankfurt. The ticket agent then gave me an option of flying to either Abu Dhabi in the Middle East or to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. I, of course, elected to take the flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia so I would at least be on the correct continent by sunrise. What I had not anticipated would be arriving in Addis Ababa during an airline strike.
After spending some time in the Bole airport in Addis Ababa and attempting to locate some form of a “westernized” help desk I was told that a flight might possibly arrive in a few hours and we would be able to leave Addis Ababa late in the afternoon. The flight originally set to go to Nairobi changed routes to Bujumbura, Burundi. Of course as we landed, I was wondering if we were still on the African continent. Several passengers deplaned and we continued on to Nairobi Kenyatta International Airport where I knew at this point, I had made it to my original destination but at this point there would be no way possible my backpack, the one checked bag I had would be there. I quickly passed through security and visa issue services with my passport, left the arrivals section of the airport, walked across the road to departures and stepped to the back of a que to buy a new plane ticket that would take me to Kilimanjaro Airport.
While standing in line to buy a new plane ticket for the last leg of my journey to Tanzania, an elder Kenyan man walked up to me, at this point I am so tired that his approach is not alarming, he reaches out and grabs by jacket sleeve and pulls me to walk with him. He then takes me to the front of the line and puts me in front of the airline agent. The elder man nearly gets into a fight for breaking me into the front of the line. I must have had a look on my face that told the entire story of worn out and hungry. The elder man spoke no English, he shook my hand and waved goodbye to me before disappearing in the crowd. I turned to the agent and purchased the ticket for the last seat on the last flight to Moshi, Tanzania that night.
Finally, I landed in Moshi, Tanzania on a small shake and bake runway and deplaned in the cool night air from a simple twin-engine propeller plane that sat 12 people. I arrived in Moshi, Tanzania around midnight and at this point, I had only nine hours to spare before I would start the trek to the roof of Africa and I had arrived to my destination with only the clothes on my back, a day pack, rain gear and camera gear. My well sorted and methodically packed backpack of mountaineering gear and clothes that had been originally checked baggage in Atlanta would be lost somewhere in transit between the European and African continents for the next nine weeks.
As we walked across the dark runway, passengers were routed through the doors past armed guards and security personnel checking immediately for all passengers’ yellow fever vaccination certificates. In this small dimly lit building we would be moved onward from one desk to another desk for immigration checks and then to visas to be issued to enter the country legally. Of course, as a traveler coming to Moshi without any gear or large backpack I was immediately detained for questioning. Certainly a foreigner would have come to Africa with a change of clothes and climbing gear if one were set to climb a mountain and not just arrive with a daypack; but after explaining my multiple country saga to a well armed officer I was permitted entrance to the country.
Outside of the airport I met my guide and then waited for two other travelers to arrive from Australia. Once grouped together, we would travel for the next hour over rough narrow dirt roads to the hotel. Finally I was off of planes and on the ground where I was suppose to be and I could find some food, get some sleep and then plan to sort the remaining chaos upon first light.
Early the next morning the local guides came by to get all climbers up and ready to leave for the gates of Kilimanjaro, I scrambled to rent gear, rely on the help of complete strangers and find some food to pack in my daypack. Our group would consist of six climbers and twelve porters, guides and cooks. The morning bustle of the day was well underway as we drove out of town and through the countryside past banyan trees, open markets and past local villages.
Our group arrived at the gates of Marangu and at the start of the trailhead that would take us toward the summit of Kilimanjaro over the next five days. The Marangu route would take us on the first day through the rainforests. Heavy rains began to fall about two hours into the hike to Mandara Hut where we would spend the night. (This is when I discovered the one daypack I had was not waterproof). The trail to Mandara, aside from slippery and muddy was fairly easy with a moderate incline. Day one would be a tease to all of us as the coming days would be met with long hikes and high altitude gains.
On day two our group began to separate on trekking abilities and endurance levels and on this day we would be paired off with individual guides that would accompany us to each camp. My guide, Solomon, a young porter who spoke only Swahili would walk with me as we moved onward to Horombo through the low forests, heather, and moorland zones and into the alpine desert at Horombo camp.
Horombo camp is a fairly inhospitable place, there is not much life in the alpine desert apart from scrub grasses, no shelter from the elements once you leave camp aside from what you bring with you and intense sun radiation plagues the day while at night temperatures would plummet to below freezing. Horombo, however is one of the great parts of the trek on the Marangu trail, as now, Kibo or Base Camp can be seen in the distance across the lunar landscape of the desert floor. The summit of Kilimanjaro comes into full view from Horombo.
The intensity of the climb and the altitude is beginning to take its effect on climbers. At Horombo, where trails merge, we met others who will make the final trekking route with us to Kibo and prepare for the push to summit. Our group now has grown to 44 climbers from around the world and countless porters and guides; I am one of three American on the summit bid. Some trekkers will begin to question why they are on the mountain, while others will sit quietly trying to get warm and contemplate eating the bowl of pourage in front of them even though no one has an appetite. The affect of the altitude and pure exhaustion has impacted everyone and this late evening at camp will turn into a long, frigid, and sleepless night for all.
Morning will come with first light as porters can be heard around camp preparing breakfast, trekkers emerge from small huts and tents to the views of clouds sitting below as the rising sun glistens off of the bright white clouds with a blinding effect and the camp slowly comes alive. The anticipation of knowing that within the next 18 hours we would begin our push for summit begins to stir excitement amongst climbers. But first we would have to trek the nine hours across the desert to arrive at base camp.
The sun is bright at this altitude, the air is thin, and the weather extremely unpredictable. Our group is fortunate to begin the crossing of the desert in beautiful weather. The clouds loomed below us and out of view, as if we were walking in our own world encapsulated by the climatic elements below us and we were being awarded a vast barren land filled with sun and bright blue skies. The weather would hold this pattern for us until mid-afternoon when the changing weather would roll in. Hailstorms would pelt us with quarter size chunks of hail and the only cover we had would be to crouch to the ground and hold our packs over our heads until the storm passed, the clouds would be so thick that we could not see our hands in front of our face or the person next to us. The temperature would drop drastically as brutal winds swept across the alpine desert floor.
Onward we would forge.
Our team members would arrive at Kibo hut throughout the day, the earlier you arrived only meant the more time you had to shiver in your sleeping bag for warmth and attempt to get some sleep before making the midnight push for summit. At this point Kibo, the stone hut, is so cold that it was warmer outside than inside but at least the hut kept the winds and elements off of us. Another hailstorm passes over and soon the hail turns to snow that fills the air as the afternoon fades into night. Climbers huddle together with only a glow of candles and headlamps to light our passage through the stone hallways as we layer up and pack our gear for the final leg of the climb. Then we emerge from the protection of the stone house and into the thin night air. Our group has now trekked to over 15,400 feet.
The push for summit begins for us amid the falling snow as we start our climbing just prior to midnight. I am bundled like the Pillsbury doughboy, and I am actually warmer than I anticipated for now. But granted I am wearing four pairs of pants, four shirts, one fleece, one down jacket, down mittens and two pair of socks and technical shells, I should be warm.
The light snowfall has lasted for several hours as we zigzag uphill scrambling on the frozen scree fields. Our climb tonight to summit will ascend nearly 4,000 feet. As I look up, the other climber’s headlamps dot the mountainside ahead of me as all are slowly making their ascent towards the summit. Everyone is moving slowly uphill and as the early morning hours approach, the skies began to clear and we were all treated to a rare spectacle of the Geminid meteor shower with shooting stars streaking through the night skies. It is a remarkable spectacle to watch as the galaxies above just pulsate in stars trails and light amidst the crisp night air.
The distant echo of porters singing Christmas songs is a subtle reminder that it is the Christmas season, a short distraction from the intense climb is welcomed, but short lived. We have walked for hours already, eventually I pass other climbers who started trekking hours ahead of us, these trekkers are just two of 43 that will fill the intense effects of the altitude as they continue to climb higher. Some will yield to the symptoms and turn back, others will push on until their bodies fail them. Tonight, 44 of us are living our dreams to climb Kilimanjaro, but first light will tell the tale of those who managed to surpass Kilimanjaro’s first real test. The altitude.
As I look ahead towards the summit in the night sky, the mountain outline gives a false sense of distance. You think you are closer to the first peak than you really are. Willard’s point, a small rock cave is a welcoming stop on the climb for a short rest, but at this temperature, stopping for more than five minutes can be detrimental to your ascent. Your body just cannot recover from a stop and go movement; you simply have to keep moving. One foot in front of another, one small step at a time.
I have been walking for hours and at Willard’s Point, my guide tells me it is still four more hours just to Gilman’s Peak. The first of three peaks we must climb. After little sleep and days of intense hiking, I am physically exhausted and for the first time I met my moment of questioning my ability to really fulfill this dream. All I could think of was at one step at a time, and each step, the altitude would get higher and the air would get thinner. If I turned around now, I could be back in a sleeping bag in four hours or I could be standing at Gilman’s Point which puts me past the most difficult part of the Kilimanjaro climb. But four hours in this harsh environment, is a long time. I can barely feel my fingers or toes they are so cold, even with heat packs, the cold is intense. But, it’s a simple decision. I have come too far and waited to long to be where I am standing, so, STEP FORWARD. SHUFFLE FEET. REST. CLIMB HIGHER…
At 5:58 AM Greenwich Mean Time on December 13, 2012 I reached Gilman’s Point as the first light of day appears. A light dusting of snow is on the ground and from here I can see Uhuru’s Peak as the sun begins to rise above the horizon. My first views of the crater and the reality of standing at Gilman’s was extraordinary and far beyond my expectations. All I could think of was I am living my dream every step of the way and now the summit is in sight, and right now, I am less than two hours away from standing on the Roof of Africa. It really is within my grasp.
I look down and for first time I realize my gloves are covered in blood, it’s so cold that any exposed skin harshly reacts to the temperatures and your body rejects the altitude with extreme reactions. My face is so numb that when I put my gloves on my face I can’t feel them even though I know I am touching my face. Onward we push, one small step and stumble at a time. We cross the narrow ledge between the crater wall and the drop to the crater floor. The once frozen scree in the night is beginning to thaw causing us to carefully place each foot before stepping forward then carefully placing trekking poles on the ground ahead to test the next spot to step too. Almost at Stella Point, almost at the second highest point on Kilimanjaro.
I reached Stella point after we had maneuvered the narrow ledge of the crater wall and now Uhuru has vanished from sight. The air is thin at this altitude and oxygen is less than half of what we are accustomed to. Climbing Kili is a test of will more so than athleticism, it simply is determination to reach the summit. I step forward, right then left. I slowly move my feet from one spot to only inches ahead of the last and every four or five steps I have to lean forward on the trekking poles to catch my breath. Look up and begin the same process over again.
At 7:54 AM, on December 13, 2012 I reached the Summit of Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak at 19,340 feet. The highest point in Africa and the 4th highest of the Seven Summits of the World. Today, I am among a select few who stood on the roof of Africa. It is a beautiful day and we can see for miles amidst bright blue, clear skies and we celebrate our success and that the morning temperature has reached 23.4 degrees F at summit. The glaciers are pristine and enormous in size and the crater floor is equally as impressive. Standing at the summit looking out across Africa is beyond words and even greater than I had imagined. It’s extraordinary!
Forty-four climbers left for summit on Dec. 12, 2012, by morning of the 13th only 19 had successfully stood on the roof of Africa. The arctic conditions and lack of oxygen forced more than half of the teams to turn around before even reaching the first of three peaks. At over 18,000 feet the air is less than half of that at sea level and altitude mountain sickness strikes harshly upon those who attempt to ascend too quickly not allowing their bodies time to acclimate to the thin air.
Climbing Kilimanjaro was an incredible experience. East Africa was simply mesmerizing to me. I would wear the same clothes for nine days. I had one shower and can tell you baby wipes rock. I simply understand the commodity of toilet paper and have more stories than I have time to write. I summited Kilimanjaro on a beautiful day as the sun rose over Africa. I suffered no altitude sickness; I am one of the very few lucky ones. I had an incredible journey, a life changing experience. I conquered and achieved a dream and in the same breath I stood in the uncertainty of my safety. But I can tell you, the people you meet along the way become friends for life, the adventure will take you to your limits, you will experience sensory overload, and when you come home, you will see the world differently and it is those experiences that shape how we live our lives. Each experience etched into cultivating who we are.
More tales from the trails and photography at www.christyprosser.com