Since I first saw Mount Kilimanjaro, at the Kenyan border near Amboseli, I could not stop thinking:
“How the hell am I going to climb up there?”
Back home, when I was preparing my trip to Tanzania, I would not have even dared to dream about ascending Africa’s highest peak, almost twenty thousand feet above sea level. But as I was reading posts and stories by people who had attempted to climb the mountain, with great surprise, I found out that some of them, humble mortals like me, even succeeded!
“Am I capable of doing the same?” immediately emerged as the most audacious question I had ever asked myself.
At that time, I think the answer I came up with was: “I could at least try” – at least that. I love mountains, and I wanted to get as close as possible to the legendary Kilimanjaro. Besides, I had read that the first part of the route was not very difficult, so I thought that I could perhaps climb for a few days, and then simply make my way back as soon as I saw fit.
“I could just try, nothing more,” I said to myself. ”I don’t have to go all the way. I will simply do what I can.”
This was the mantra that gave me courage in all my travels. This was how I was starting, each and every time. Then, I’d just bite the bullet, close my eyes, and jump into the unknown.
So I found myself planning, and even paying in advance for an expedition on Kilimanjaro. The voice of reason was arguing that the chances of success were slim, but I tried to temper my pessimism with a consolation:
“I should be able to trek for three or four days, at least. It won’t be a total waste of money. “
I needed a solid sleeping bag and warm clothes because even though I didn’t hope to get to the top, I had to be prepared for all conditions. After all, Kilimanjaro was known to host every possible type of climate, from tropical to arctic. Despite being an expert in minimalist luggage, this time, not even the most skilled magician would have made everything fit inside the thirty-liter backpack I usually carried on my travels. This meant that I could no longer take all my stuff with me as cabin baggage, like I used to do, thus incurring a risk that I knew too well from previous experience.
And there was no exception this time. My luggage, with all the trekking equipment inside, got lost. I was desperately calling the airline company, but no one was answering. Without the backpack, my trip was compromised. The insurance money would have been of little help; in practice, it would have been too long and too complicated to replace everything in time. I could not risk going on the mountain without proper equipment, and proper equipment was very difficult to find, if not impossible in some cases, as I was about to find out. In the little town of Moshi, where my trip was supposed to start, I only saw poor quality and second-hand articles on sale. In such circumstances, I would have most likely had to cancel the expedition.
After countless calls, an employee of the airline company finally bothered to pick up the phone. I was serenely informed that, by mistake, my backpack had been sent a long distance away, to another airport. It was supposed to be retrieved in a few days. The tentative delivery date was right before my expedition was supposed to start.
I waited like a cat on hot bricks, until the evening before I was supposed to set off. Without any exaggeration, but the very second I decided I couldn’t wait any longer, because it was becoming too late, my backpack arrived.
There were several routes going up Kilimanjaro, of different lengths and degrees of difficulty. After intense research, I had chosen one that was said to be the longest, but also the slowest, allowing the best acclimatization. It also had the advantage of being more varied, because the ascent was on one side of the mountain, and the descent on the other, while the rest of the routes were round trips.
I could have joined a group, but after much hesitation, I decided not to. I was afraid that I would not be able to keep up with the others, or we would not get along on the way. If I had opted for my own expedition, I would not have paid a much higher price and would have had the entire crew at my disposal. It wasn’t until the day I left that I realized what that meant.
I met the guide the day before. He was a tall, mature, well-built man named Ibra. He had come to check my equipment and make sure I had brought everything I needed. Apart from him, I had at my disposal a cook, who also acted as an assistant guide, and no less than five young locals, whose sole task was to carry luggage. It was only when they gathered together tents, food, and equipment in a huge pile of bags that I understood why they were all needed.
There was no place on the mountain where we could find something to eat, so we had to take everything with us. Water could be found, drinkable after disinfection with special pills. But let’s not dream about canned food or energizing compact food. This would have been a costly extravagance in Tanzania, and I don’t think I saw a place in Moshi where such things could be found – no way. Food meant bags of potatoes and rice, raw vegetables, whole chickens, and boxes of eggs. These would be prepared over a fire, every day, by Mustafa, our chef, for me and for the rest of the team. Most of the bags that we took with us actually contained food.
It was embarrassing to think that I was the sole beneficiary of that impressive deployment of forces, but I quickly understood what an important source of income was Mount Kilimanjaro in that area, and how the locals crowded to take part in the expeditions so that they could earn some money. The rule was that they should not carry more than fifteen kilograms each, and the number of porters was determined by the total weight of the luggage.
After leaving our base in Moshi, we walked for about an hour to the Marangu Gate, where the Kilimanjaro National Park Administration was located. There, we paid the entrance fee and got the mountain access permit. Next, we had to drive for another two hours to the entry point to Rongai, the route that I had chosen. Once we got there, the luggage was taken out of the car and distributed to the porters. I was going with the guide, while the porters went ahead with the cook to set up the tents and prepare the food before our arrival.
The supplies and the luggage had not been put in soft bags just to protect them from rain. It was mainly because the porters were used to carrying all the weight on their heads or shoulders, not on their backs. I was stunned to see those young boys, tall and thin, each carrying on the top of their head a pack almost as big as they were. It seemed a miracle that they didn’t lose balance. Even so, they were advancing at an incredible speed. They carried those bags up to the highest base on the mountain, at more than fifteen-thousand feet altitude.
I would only take a small backpack with me, with the minimum necessary for the day. I didn’t always keep that one either, because, from time to time, either the guide or the cook would offer to carry it for me. They made me feel like a spoiled princess, traveling with her faithful court, who would do anything to satisfy her whims.
But the pampering stopped there. The harsh conditions on the mountain were about to destroy any feeling of comfort very quickly. And at higher altitudes, even my small backpack would seem as heavy as a boulder.
Ever since I had Lyme disease, carrying luggage had been a torment, be it only in the airports. The pain and fatigue often made my spine feel like a soft twig. I tried hard not to be constrained too much, but my possibilities remained modest. Without all those kind-hearted people who carried my rucksack, I would never have reached the paths of the Himalayas or Kilimanjaro. My gratitude to them knows no limits.
Besides my fragile back, I can’t even say that I could keep myself on my feet very well, especially on my left one, which was paying the price for several poorly-healed sprains. Without a pair of walking poles to lean on, I would have been lost.
This is how I set out to climb the highest mountain of Africa.
The only thing that gave me courage was the hope I had secretly kept since I had walked the Camino: that the strength of the spirit was more important than the strength of the body. I was going to test the limits of this belief to the maximum …
The first day on the Rongai route was easy and quiet. Given the time it takes to get there and register with the administration, we started the climb quite late. The path took us through a pine forest, then we went out into the open, and, before evening, we reached the glade where we were to pitch our tents. Four Germans and a Spanish couple, whom I had seen before at the gate, were already there. They were the only ones with whom we were to share the trip. The Rongai route was the least traveled of all.
At nightfall, the damp, penetrating cold did not seem to forebode anything good. The place was supposed to be, from a thermal point of view, the least cold, compared to what awaited me further up.
The boys warmed some water for me to wash and then brought me dinner. The food was fresh and simple, but tasty, and so it was going to be all the time: soups, stews, vegetables, rice, omelets, pancakes. Chef Mustafa, a funny young man with Bob Marley-style braided hair, was always smiling and attentive to all my preferences.
I drank a couple of hot cups of tea, which lifted my spirits a little before bed. But that state of grace did not last long.
First, I had to go out to the rustic toilet. Even though it was imperative, sleep and cold made it difficult to leave the tent. And there was another factor. As a precaution, and to minimize possible discomfort, I had decided to take acetazolamide. I had heard that it was a good and relatively safe remedy for altitude sickness, and I remembered that, in Nepal, it was even sold in grocery stores. But it had a disadvantage: namely, the mild diuretic effect. Because of it, my bladder sent me to the toilet several times during the night. Each time, I came back to the tent shivering like a leaf.
I had stubbornly refused to put on the entire heavy “artillery” of thermal gear. It was only my first night in the tent, and I had decided to try, as much as possible, to adapt to the conditions.
If I can only fall asleep dressed in my warmest clothes, it means that I will not be able to cope with the cold at higher altitudes, I calculated.
My sleeping bag was meant to keep me warm without problems at such temperatures, but that didn’t happen. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe it was the effect of the acetazolamide, or maybe I should have dressed better; in any case, I could barely close my eyes that night. In addition to the cold, one question bothered me more and more:
If this is how it’s like here, how bad will it get further up on the mountain …?
True, I wasn’t planning on reaching the top, but to give up after the first day seemed way too pathetic.
In the morning, as the sun rose, my thermal comfort improved markedly, and everything began to look less dramatic. But just as I was trying to muster the courage to move on, I noticed that my sleeping bag was wet on the outside. It hadn’t rained at night – it was the dry season – so where did the water come from? I searched the tent, but … mystery. Nothing had spilled, there was no water anywhere. At a closer look, however, I discovered that the top tent was all wet with dew, and the moisture had penetrated it fully.
The finding paralyzed me. I had gone camping in the mountains before, and I knew that the insulating properties of the tent were vital. If you sleep in a tent that lets water inside, you run the risk of getting ill, especially at very low temperatures. In my case, it would have been almost certain. If the morning dew alone was enough to wet my sleeping bag, I didn’t even want to imagine what would happen in case of rain. The weather on Kilimanjaro was capricious, and snow was not to be ruled out.
When I had packed my things before leaving home, I had decided against bringing my own tent, as it would have added too much weight to my luggage. Now, I was bitterly sorry. The one that I rented in Moshi was simply too old. I had my doubts when I saw it set up for the first time, the night before, because the fabric felt unexpectedly soft and thin. Sadly, my suspicions were confirmed.
From where I stood, this was a serious problem. I immediately communicated my concern to the guide. He didn’t look surprised at all, and he did not try to contradict me in any way, which only strengthened my assumptions.
However, Ibra suggested that I should give it another try by picking a different tent, whichever I wanted, among those used by the boys. When I went to inspect them, I was even more shocked.
My tent was a royal palace compared to theirs. At least mine was whole! The one in which Ibra and Mustafa slept was completely devoid of the lower part, which normally had to be made of a very thick and resistant material because it came into direct contact with the ground. In their case, the tent floor had been replaced with a square piece of cloth, completely detached from the rest, which meant that cold air was coming in from all sides. When I looked carefully at the tents where the porters slept, I saw the holes, the loose stitches, the fabric almost rotten, which I had not noticed the evening before.
There was no hope! Those people had given me their best. How it must have been for them to sleep in such conditions, on strong winds or frost, I would not have wanted to think about.
I also glanced at the tents of the other group, and what I saw killed my last hope. Theirs weren’t much better than mine either. It was clear that those were the standards, and they reminded me that Tanzania was one of the least developed countries in the world. The equipment that could be rented on site was modest, old, and worn. Compared to it, the counterfeit goods I had seen in Nepalese bazaars would have been real treasures. And my tent back home, in which I had slept carefree under the rain, and even during storm at the seaside, would have been utter luxury.
What to do? I didn’t want to continue like that, but I didn’t want to go back either. I then remembered that one of the routes, the oldest and most famous, called Marangu, had huts and shelters; therefore, tents were not necessary. Initially, I had not opted for it because the information about the accommodation conditions was not very encouraging, and the route, being a little shorter and steeper, did not offer good acclimatization conditions. But now, all that seemed trivial. At least I could sleep at night without freezing!
I quickly started making calculations. Marangu was the closest route to where I was: I had passed next to it on the way, and as it was shorter, I could earn an extra day, which could make up for the lost day on Rongai. So, I could come down the next day to start on Marangu, without having to extend the duration of the expedition. It was my last chance.
When I told Ibra what I wanted to do, he didn’t comment. His reaction made me think that I wasn’t by far the first to complain about such problems, and he and his colleagues were often put in a position to change course or reorganize the expedition as they went. But I did not feel sorry about my decision, neither then nor later. As I was about to find out, the Spanish couple I had met the night before would also turn back from Rongai because of the cold. But they did it after three days, and unlike me, they had no time left to try an alternative route.
We descended from the mountain as quickly as we could, however, our speed was in vain; once we reached the park administration, the situation got complicated. The clerk in the office wanted to know why we came back and demanded that we pay the entrance fees again, which amounted to seventy dollars per climbing day. He didn’t seem receptive to the argument that we had already paid the taxes corresponding to an entire week, when we left for Rongai. In the end, after he called his boss, he agreed to transfer us to Marangu with the same permit we had obtained for Rongai. Accommodation at the huts had already been paid for by one of the porters, who had arrived there before us. That wasn’t cheap either, relative to the conditions – sixty dollars a day. But, as I said, Kilimanjaro fed the entire economy of the area.
When we finished the formalities, we ran into another trouble. It was late, and the guards at the Marangu gate did not want to let us start the climb because the sun was about to set. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t even want to hear about wasting another day. It would have meant giving up the extra day I had set aside for acclimatization or unforeseen events.
Following negotiations that felt endless, we were allowed to pass, after we solemnly promised we’d move as fast as lightning to reach the huts before dark. The porters went ahead almost running, while Ibra and I followed as quickly as I was able to – which meant that the two of us were most likely to get to our destination much later than promised.