Kilimanjaro

Facts and Figures (courtesy of 7Summits.com).

Original Name: Kilima Njaro (Swahili) Oldoinyo Oibor (Masai)

Height: 5895 meters or 19,340 feet; Looming some 16 000 feet (4900 meters) above the plains that spread out from its base, the mountain dominates its surroundings.

Location: 3°04′ South Latitude, 37°21′ East longitude; although it’s close to the Kenyan border, Kili is completely in Tanzania. Composed of three separate volcanoes, massive and complex Kilimanjaro covers an area 60 miles (100 kilometers) long and 40 miles (65 kilometers) wide.

History

Mount Kilimanjaro is on the border between Tanzania and Kenya, just south of the Equator. Towards the west lies the Great African Rift Valley. Although East Africa and nearby Olduvai Gorge is thought to be the cradle of mankind it is unlikely that early man would have been attracted to the steep and cold slopes of Kilimanjaro at a time when it was probably very active and dangerous. A Wachagga legend talks of one of their Gods, Mawenzi, receiving fire for its pipe from his younger brother Kibo. The Wachagga who live on the fertile volcanic soils around the base of the mountain probably only came to the area about 300 years ago thus this legend suggests very recent activity. Another of their legends talks of demons and evil spirits living on the mountain and guarding immense treasures. Stories are told of a king who decided to go to the top, few of his party survived and those who did had damaged arms and legs.

Traders and historians make mention of a giant mountain lying inland from Mombasa or Zanzibar but few early traders ventured into the interior of the continent. In 1848, Johann Rebmann a missionary from Gerlingen in Germany while crossing the plains of Tsavo saw Mount Kilimanjaro

courtesy of Tanzania Tourist Board
His guide talked of baridi – cold, and of tales how a group of porters were sent up the mountain to bring back the silver or other treasures from the summit.They came back only with water. Rebmann’s report stimulated great interest in Germany and in the following years several expeditions were organised; first by Baron von Decken then later by Dr. Hans Meyer who finally stood on the highest point on the 5th of October 1889.

The African dream

After the Cotopaxi trip, I never thought I would bother to climb another mountain. When I heard about the African trip that some of my classmates were organizing, I was immediately excited about realizing my African dream. Inspired by Hemingway’s fantasy, I suggested that we had to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Remember, I had never worked out during my two years of MBA study – stay up late nights, wake up late, rush to class, party on the weekends. I always felt I was healthy, and never realized that compared to my American peers, I was healthy but not fit. 

But I did realize that I needed to train a little bit for this trip. So during the two months exchange study in France, I went to a gym each week to do my slow running on treadmill, and I felt good! There was also a MBA Olympics at INSEAD, and I volunteered to race. I didn’t want the pain of running long distance, so I signed up 100 meter sprint. To my embarrassment, I ran out of steam shortly after half way, could not even sprint all the way for just 100 meter. It still didn’t occur to me that I was in pretty bad shape.

At the end of June 2003, I left France for Africa. Next to me on the plane, a guy was reading a travel guide about Uganda. I never even thought about travelling to Uganda.  From previous exposure to media, I had the impression that African countries are poor and dangerous. And that Uganda was one of the worst. He told me that he visited Uganda almost every year and it was a great country to visit. I read a few pages from his guide book, and I was surprised by the statement that the capital of Uganda, Kampala, is the safest city for women in Africa. I then decided that I will visit Uganda along with Kenya and Tanzania.

My classmates planned the two weeks trip to Kenya and Tanzania through a local agency. I didn’t even bother to check the detail other knowing that Kilimanjaro is part of the trip. The first few days we spent touring Safaris in Kenya then Tanzania, seeing a lot wild animals and tasting wild game. It was fun and relaxing, but a little too luxurious for me to really feel Africa. I didn’t come to Africa to stay in 5 Star Hotels. 

Climbing Kilimanjaro

 

We started the trip to Kilimanjaro in early July. To climb “Kili” you don’t really need a professional guide, instead, you hire porters at the base of the mounain. We hired a big group of porters for our group of five – Ryan Rebello, Eric Trepanier, Phoebe Cheng, Todd McLane, and myself. The porters carried our packs, tents, food and fuel, and even some camping furniture. I was experiencing this as a tourist, and did not even consider myself as a mountaineer. So I felt it was normal to have help and use porters. Eric and Ryan, the big boys, insisted on carrying their own packs, and I did not understand that. Why not use porters and save yourself the hassle? I knew I was not strong enough to do that. I didn’t know that American kids were brought up with as much experience in the outdoors as possible and that it was totally normal for them to carry their own stuff.    
Wet and muddy start to the climb

The first day we started out from a low altitude tropical jungle. Halfway through, it started to rain, and the trail became muddy. It was a fairly easy trail for someone who has experience in hiking. But for me who had barely set foot on mountains before, it was a struggle. With rain falling, I ended the day cold, wet, muddy, and exhausted. My legs were really tired by the time I pulled into the camp site by dark. Others had been waiting for me a long time, and they told me to change into dry clothes quickly. It was an easy day for most of them, but was already a hard day for me. My legs felt tight the next day. I was impressed that my friends were so strong, and that they did not feel anything.

Front of Kili with Todd

Fitness is important!

I felt frustrated, I thought it was impossible to finish this mountain in my weak condition. I managed to drag through one day after another. It was a fast ascent, and I actually survived the next few days but still felt slow and tired. Ryan twisted his ankle, but continued to hike with a swelling ankle. To me, that was impressive, as I’d have given up immediately. I was even more impressed when Eric and Ryan filtered water from stream to drink on the hike – I have never seen such things before and didn’t know you could do that. Now looking back, I realized I was very naive!

The trip was so luxurious, comparable to a 5 star hotel service. Everyday, when we arrived at camp site, supporters already set up the tent, and had water ready for us to wash our face and hands.

There was tea for wake up calls, there were tables and chairs to sit at while dining, and they washed the dishes. I was very impressed with their service. Despite my being out of shape, I enjoyed being out there.

Todd and Phoebe were doing much better as they were stronger than me. At the beginning of the trip, Todd, concerned that he was out of shape, was saying that he would be the last person hiking. As a joke, we had made a deal to stay together. No one would have imagined that I, who looked healthy, was the weakest one on the trip. Todd left me far behind from the first day.

On the summit with my guide James

The summit!

Day 5 was the summit day. We had a few hours rest before we left around midnight. I had not recovered from the hike up earlier in the day and barely fell asleep during the few hours’ rest. I was so tired! I moved slowly, fell way behind the team. Maybe I was tired, maybe it was because of altitude, I felt very sleepy shortly into the hike. I told my guide, James S. Lynne that I was sleepy, I wanted to take a nap! What a ridiculous request!

James was such a nice guy, he let me lean on him and rest my head on his shoulder, and I literally took a nap standing on the slope! I felt a little better after a quick nap and we started walking again. My hands felt cold at some point, he stopped to rub my hands for me. When I was tired, he let me stop to drink, eat something, then said “ready to go?” He never gave me negative feedback such as “do you want turn back?” He was unbelievably positive, sometimes even hold my arm to offer some support. It seemed there was no such thing as “giving up” in his vocabulary. Only message I got from him was to keep on going!

Now, with more experience, I doubt if a western guide would let me to continue to go up with my weak condition. But James proved to me, that mental strength can overcome physical weakness! Of course, there is a fine line here. Kili was an easy mountain, the climate was stable and pleasant, no major dangers in terms of terrain or weather. The trail to summit was just loose sand for the majority of the trip. It does not require anything special other than a pair of sturdy hiking boots. If this happenned on Aconcagua or Denali, it would have been suicidal to go up in such weak condition. But it was a very positive experience on Kili. Every trip I took (Cotopaxi, Kili) reinforced the positive feedback loop of the importance and value of mental strength. That’s why mountaineering helps people become strong mentally and physically! And of course, with the accumulation of more experience, one needs to learn to be smart to know when to persist, when to retreat.

When I was finally near the summit, the team were ready to go down, they were surprised to see me. Based on my poor shape, no one expected me to be able to make it, not even me! I was only half an hour, no more than an hour behind, which was a surprise, because I was feeling so weak and was moving so slowly.

This was the most grateful summit I have ever had. Kili was an easy mountain for most people. There are families with teenagers climbed it. It was considered the easiest mountain for mountaineers. It does not require any special skills other than being fit, or any special equipment other than proper clothes and hiking boots. It had been a big challenge for me. It was just a sober reminder of how weak I was. I looked healthy, but was not fit at all, not even when compared to the apparently overweight Todd. It was a very humbling experience. It destroyed my pride of my apparently healthy image.

View from the top

Committing to training

I never seriously considered doing a marathon before. I thought with a strong mind, anyone can run a marathon. So I never bothered. Now, when I realized how weak I was, I knew I need to do something to improve my fitness, though I was not thinking about any mountains at that time. So when I moved to Boston, I decided to commit myself to training – especially running. My first goal was the Hyannis Half Marathon in Feb 2004.

Everyday after work, I just spent my evening running on treadmill in gym. I was not an outdoors person at that time, I was too intimidated to go out during the winter. I lived in Back Bay, a few blocks away from the river, but I didn’t even know how to run along the esplanade! I had a car, but I didn’t know where to go outside city for skiing or even hiking!

The Hyannis Half Marathon actually forced me to run outside in New England! I wondered how I even had the courage to run outside for that race in the cold winter? Maybe watching “Touching the Void” earlier that month helped some? I don’t know how I endured running 14 long miles on treadmills facing a TV that play junk. In hindsight, I started out my climbing “career” with such a laughable low starting point. It was really nothing to a real mountaineer, though running half marathon was still a big deal for a couch potato.

African hospitality

I think I was lucky to have a strong mental strength from the very beginning, even before I first tasted climbing. The positive feedback, the experience of perseverance on summits day, really help to reinforce my positive attitude, made me stronger. Each of such experience after that just kept making me stronger and more positive. I’m also forever in debt to James, my guide. He gave me such a positive encouragement at early stage of climbing “career” which became to be the most valuable experience I’ve ever had. Compared to western guides, such local guides are not as “professional”, but I think their sincerity, their simple truthful loyalty and positive attitude, is what I forever grateful for, and such attributes is extremely valuable in any human being.

After returning to Kenya, I went on a spontaneous trip to Uganda. That trip also reinforced my impression of the simple truthful loyalty of African people. African people I interacted with on Kili and in Uganda totally changed my previous impression of Africa that came from the influence of media. I was deeply touched by their true friendliness and honesty. I was ashamed when I had negative perceptions of the locals before visiting Uganda. I can understand why the distrust from western tourists or media are such an insult to them. These are the people who had no interest of exhorting an extra penny out of the tourist beyond their honest hard work.