Category Archives: Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro

Back at Mbahe Farm — Last stop in Africa

Jill was dying to head back to Mbahe Farm (base of Kilimanjaro) for a night or two before heading to Asia. Fortunately they had some room.

She enjoyed an afternoon of cooking lessons with Leonard, Mbahe’s beloved chef from Zanzibar (and who everyone affectionately calls “Sugar Ray”). With bananas grown on the farm, Jill and Sugar Ray made some out-of-this-world banana bread. I chopped half an onion for a soup, got distracted, and called it quits. But Jill was in heaven, which is all that matters.

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There were two other women staying there, who serendipitously happened to be volunteering at a local school. We told them about our time at Majengo over the prior week, and they invited us along. We had absolutely no plans that day so we were happy to join them.

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It was great fun. We helped seventh graders work on their map of Africa, first graders do an art project, Jill perfected her “Heads-shoulders-knees-and toes” skills with the preschoolers, and I gave a soccer clinic to about 20 of the seventh graders on their break.

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Simon (founder of SENE and whose family owns Mbahe) and his wife Tara were there, with their two kids, Aiden and Kari. So it was great to spend time with them as well.

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A wonderful way to wrap up our time in Africa.

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Kilimanjaro: The Summit

Sorry for the false post a few days ago — this is the real one.

Summiting Kilimanjaro is not for the faint of heart. Turns out, I’m extremely faint-hearted. Good thing my wife is less so, otherwise I’m not sure we would have made it.

The first five days were a cakewalk. Our vital signs were great, we felt great, and 4-6 hours of moderate hiking was pleasant. Then came the summit, which was like going from kindergarten teeball to the Major Leagues over night.

Here’s how it went down:

At dinner on the 5th day they tell you what to expect: Don’t look up. We’ll go extremely slowly so that we need very few breaks due to the cold. “Should I wear this third layer?” Yes. “How about this fourth layer?” Yes. “And I have this fifth layer…” Yes. “Also, should we bring toilet paper?” Yes.

They wake you up at 11pm after a post dinner nap, if you can sleep — we hardly could because of the anticipation, as well as the altitude (16,000 feet at Barafu Camp) and the cold. You have a brief snack around 11:30pm, make final preparations, then head out at midnight.

It’s pitch black, except for an endless trail of headlights straight ahead — rather, straight up. Everyone tells you not to look up, which makes you want to do nothing but look up. It’s truly daunting. And when you hike up for what seems like hours to the first “ridge,” you realize it’s not a ridge at all and the headlight ants continue for miles still.

Pretty soon into our midnight hike, Jill started to feel awful. Very nauseous. She seemed wobbly on the trail, which is steep and narrow, and I got nervous for her. She sat down on a boulder and tried to close her eyes for a second, which is when I first thought something might be seriously wrong — it took a reminder from Ayumwi that she couldn’t doze off there (in the middle of the trail in freezing temperatures). She was in bad enough shape that we contemplated turning back. But she got up, went “to go see a man about a horse” a little further off the trail, had some electrolyte-infused water, a bite of a Cliff Bar, and then soon started to feel much better.

Just about as soon as Jill started to feel better, I started to tank. I felt lightheaded, nauseous and just exhausted. The altitude was crushing me. We were only two hours into the summit hike and I was completely miserable. Ayumwi and John kept telling me to throw up if I could — and boy did I try — but I just couldn’t get it out. We must have seen six other people throwing up on the side of the trail, so I clearly wasn’t alone in my state.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get better. As we kept climbing, I kept feeling weaker and weaker, and more and more nauseous. Jill and I had both tested great on our vital signs up to 16,000 feet but I guess those last 4,000 are another story. Every step was brutal. We couldn’t feel our fingers or toes, our remaining water was completely frozen, we were physically exhausted, and the altitude was eating me alive (and while I wasn’t exactly thrilled that Jill took this photo of me at time, it makes for good blog material).

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Finally, the first sign we were close was the sunrise over neighboring Mewenzi Peak, which at 18,000 feet is the third highest in Africa. We were told it would take anywhere from 6-8 hours to reach the summit, so if we had left at midnight and were now seeing the sunrise we were getting close. And getting out of the dark certainly helped our spirits a bit too.

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Those last thousand feet or so to the lip of the crater were just brutal. I had to go about ten steps at time then take a break. But there was no way I was turning around. I knew it wasn’t about winning… ok it was all about winning and goddammit I was going to make that stupid summit.

We hadn’t been on remotely flat ground or taken more than a 30-second break (due to the cold) for seven hours, so when we finally reached the ridge I just about completely collapsed onto a boulder and stared out into the crater. I couldn’t speak. Jill came over and we were both crying. It was that punishing, and that rewarding.

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The final kick in the shorts was that we still had another hour to hike up around the rim to reach Uruhu Peak, the actual tallest part of the mountain and the single highest point in Africa. That hour was just as brutal as the last. But reaching it was an unrivaled feeling.

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After about 10 minutes at the summit taking photos, we got the hell outta Dodge. It only takes 2-3 hours to get back to camp because you slide down this massive meandering loose dirt trail alongside the one you went up. Descending can be more dangerous than summiting, since trekkers are completely exhausted and therefore super accident-prone. I watched a guy right next to me try to slide down too quickly, slip, and break his ankle. Three guides had to carry him down the remaining 3,000 feet from the summit to get him in a wheelbarrow-like stretcher — and then down a horribly bumpy trail for the last 16,000 feet. Our guides later told us that three people that morning had to be taken down in a stretcher. We also found out later that a nice guy gamed Eric to whom we had given a ride from the Kili airport made it to 19,000 feet before vomiting blood and needing to be raced down the mountain due to acute altitude sickness.

We slept like babies that night then had a relatively easy five-hour hike back down to the gate, where we had a final picnic lunch before heading to Mbahe Farm for our first shower in a week and a farewell dinner party with all of our porters.

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So given all that… Would I recommend summiting Kilimanjaro? Absolutely. It was brutally hard, and perhaps harder for me and Jill than others, but we both consider it the greatest physical achievement of our lives. Simon’s company, SENE, earned a Triple A+. Amazing competence, professionalism and support from top to bottom — from Simon himself, the office, our guides, our porters, Mbahe Farm, the food, everything. Thanks to Catie and Sharon for introducing us to Simon at Catie’s wedding in California!

All in all, an experience we find ourselves reminiscing about constantly, and one we’ll surely never forget.

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Kilimanjaro: Days 4-5

(By Jill)

Kili Day 4: Tipping Point, Baby!

We officially made it to the second half of our journey — woohoo! Day four started with a super steep ascent up a rocky trail, aptly called ‘breakfast wall’ as the climb begins right after breakfast.

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Like most of Kili thus far, as you looked up from the bottom of the breakfast wall the ascent looked impossible, but we went ‘pole pole’ and made it the top just fine. After 4.5 hours of ups and downs, we arrived at Karanga camp. For climbers on the 6-day Machama route, Karanga camp is just a lunch stop before the summit base camp. We were very relieved to be on a 7-day trip, and have extra time to rest. Since we only had a half day of hiking, we snoozed in the afternoon and tried our best to quell the nervous anticipation for day five — summit day.

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Kili Day 5: It’s Summit Time

On day five we slept in until 7am and woke up to a very frosty Karanga camp. Morning stomach problems had become the norm for us, but our guides continuously assured us this was very normal. Our amazing chef, Frances Catunzi (or “CatunziCatunziCatunzi” as everyone called him, pictured in the blue jacket and red pants) was great about making us lots of easy-on-the-stomach foods — toast, wheat flour pancakes, porridge, and fresh ginger tea.

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The pre-summit hike was easy and only about three hours long. At our last water break we chatted with the first Americans we had met on the trail — a father/son duo from Indiana. They happened to have a sister/aunt who lives in…Piedmont! They were devoted Letterman birdcall watchers and love the Piedmont Post. Amazing small world.

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After one last climb we reached our campsite, Barafu Camp, which is literally above the clouds at about 16,000 feet. We ate a quick lunch and took a long nap, knowing our pre-summit sleep would be brief at best. After an early 5:30pm dinner, we crawled into our tent for a few hours of rest before our 11pm wake-up call.

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At this point, we were so ready for the summit. Earlier in the day, we were laughing and talking about how the most difficult part of the climb is not the terrain or the cold or the strains on our bodies…but the anticipation! We have been anticipating the summit nonstop for days. Our guides have wisely warned us not to think about it, but they clearly don’t understand how neurotic we are. And not only are we expert worriers, but the distractions we rely on at home are non-existent on the mountain. Once we finish hiking, we can read, talk, or sleep in the tent. We are basically cavemen. There’s no internet to scan, text messages to read, Scandal episodes to watch, or emergency therapy sessions to schedule. Every day it’s just us and the impending summit.

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So here we go….wish us luck!

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Kilimanjaro: Days 1-3

(By Jill)

Kili Day 1: ‘Pole pole’

Nothing on this trip has been more daunting than the expectation of our 7-day Kili trek, so we were eager to finally start climbing. We arrived at the Machame gate to find lots of tourists, a few monkeys, and tons and tons of porters. For our two-person climb we had a crew of 16 porters, one guide, and one assistant guide. Yep, there were 18 people ready to help us summit. Unbelievable, and extremely humbling.

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Our guides, Ayumwi (clocking in at age 66 but looking 20 years younger) and John (or ‘Kaka John’ for brother John) were awesome from the minute we met them. We couldn’t have been happier to be paired with such great Kili guides.

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Everywhere on the trail (and enscripted at the trailhead) you hear one phrase repeated over and over again: ‘pole, pole,’ – or ‘slowly, slowly.’ All day long it’s ‘pole, pole.’ Ayumwi and John did a great job of setting a slow and steady pace, which is the best way for to acclimatize and maintain energy during the ascent.

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We saw other groups power past us, sweating, huffing, and puffing — and in the end we made it to the campsite before them. Slow and steady wins the race on Kili.

After about six hours on the trail, we made it to our first campsite, Machame camp. We were greeted with bowls of ‘hot water for washing’ then popcorn and hot tea. We had our first mountain dinner by candlelight/headlamp and were cozy in our tents by 8pm. Life on the mountain suits us!

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Kili Day 2

Today felt like our first ‘real’ day on the mountain. We were up at 6:30am for vital signs, then coffee and tea in our tent. We took turns drinking tea and sprinting to the bathroom (or ATM machine, as our porters call it…and yes, they carried a bathroom up the mountain for us) as our stomachs were still adjusting to Africa.

Breakfast was a fruit platter with fresh bananas, mango, papaya, avocado, plus hot porridge, eggs, bacon, and toast. The SENE team carries a new supply of fresh food up the mountain every three days. Amazing.

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The day two hike was short but very steep, as we ascended to 13,000 feet in about five hours. Even with the steep trail we felt fine, though Dan was a little dizzy near the end. We later heard stories of major altitude sickness on day two, so thank goodness for Diamox.

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The scenery was beautiful – lush and green with fog rolling in and covering us instantly. We had very little rain which made the steep, rocky terrain much easier to manage.

By 1pm we arrived at Shira camp, changed into long underwear (once you stop moving, it’s very cold!) and had a hot lunch. Then we snoozed and read in the tent until dinner. It’s pitch black by about 6:30pm and the whole camp is silent by 8pm. We read, wrote in the journal, and mentally prepared ourselves for day three — a long one all the way up to 16,000 feet!

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Kili Day 3: Climb High, Sleep Low

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On day three we conquered a 4.5 hour ascent to Lava Tower at 16,000 feet. The top of Lava Tower was desolate and freezing. Some (crazy) people camp there, but we just stopped for a quick (and snowy) lunch to let our bodies acclimate to the elevation, then descended to 13,000 feet to recover and sleep. Climb high, sleep low — as long as we didn’t have to stay at Lava Tower, we were happy!

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After lunch we made our way down to Baranco hut and had our first rainy hike. Gabe and Becca – we have NO idea how you did this during a monsoon!

We were tired from our longest day of hiking and in bed by 7:30pm — a new JDadventure record 🙂

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Kilimanjaro: Pre-Climb Prep and Mbahe Farm

(By Jill)

When we landed in Tanzania, not only were we a little unprepared for the visa situation, but we were also a little off on our itinerary dates and packing lists. Instead of starting the Kili climb on Feb. 6th, we were scheduled to start Feb. 7th — which was a welcome surprise as we had been on-the-go and were in need of an extra day of rest, not to mention some extra time to pack.

Our first morning in Moshi started with a leisurely bike ride around town with Simon as our guide.

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Then we headed to the SENE office to take a look at our gear and see if we were missing any important items for the climb. Conclusion: we were missing every single important item found on any basic Kili packing list. There are people who show up to climb Kili with every accessory imaginable — Osprey daypacks, Camelbacks, a 10-day supply of electrolyte tablets, and warm clothes sufficient for the Canadian arctic. Then there was us…

Simon took one look at my low-top Merrel hiking boots and was beside himself. My boots were beyond insufficient, we had zero warm clothes for the summit (which is 0-10 degrees F.), no suitable daypacks, and my headlamp was somewhere in southern Chile. The list goes on, but let’s just say we felt like we had shown up with a bag full of swimsuits and flip flops for a 7-day climb of Africa’s tallest peak.

Thankfully, Simon rescued us again. He gathered extra gear from the SENE office (mostly men’s sizes for Dan) and raided his wife’s closet for me (thank you, Tara!!) the only thing missing was boots for me, which Simon insisted I rent at the trailhead.

After lunch at Moshi’s best pizza place, Joseph (of visa-rescue fame) drove us up to Mbahe. Mbahe is Simon’s family farm in the foothills of Kili, where all SENE guests stay before and after the climb. The farm is like a pre-Kili retreat center — fresh air, beautiful rolling hills and waterfalls, gardens filled with fruits and vegetables, and an amazing staff to make you feel at home. And at 6,000 feet, Mbahe also gives guests a chance to acclimatize a bit before the trek.

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Our Mbahe host was Wilson who at age 67 had guided over 1,000 successful trips to the summit before Simon recruited him to work with guests at the farm. Wilson was a fountain of climbing words of wisdom (“Nothing easy is worthwhile doing” and “You are number one! Not number two!!” were repeated in my head many times during the tough moments) and made us feel at ease about our climb.

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After settling in, we took hot showers, ate a delicious farm fresh dinner, and slept for ten hours straight — only to be woken by Wilson’s knock at 8am the next morning.

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We spent the next day walking around the farm and surrounding village, including a stop at the nearby Marengo trailhead where I succeeded in renting some awesome hiking boots. Woohoo!! Once I had the boots on, both Dan and I started feeling much better about the climb.

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Wilson and our guide, Ayumwi, walked us through the map of the Machame route, pointing out each campsite location and elevation. We also practiced taking our vital signs (which we would do every morning and evening on the mountain) — oxygen saturation, heart rate, respiration patterns, and water intake. We quickly realized we were in very good hands with SENE.

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Then it was goodnight Mbahe, goodbye peaceful farm and cozy bed (+ running water, electricity, episodes of ‘The Good Wife,’ etc…) and onto our big adventure….

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