Kilimanjaro 2016 Summit Report
This is a report of Alex and my attempt to climb Kilimanjaro—the highest mountain in Africa, which took place in early September 2016.
I began seriously climbing mountains with Anders, Alex’ older brother and my 30 YO son in 2009, when we climbed Mount Rainier and Mount Shasta. Prior to that point, Anders and I had been primarily focused on triathlons, especially long-course races including competing in several Ironman and a lot of half-Ironman races together. Since 2009, we have pursued both mountaineering and triathlons concurrently.
Alex, my 23 YO son, is a new comer to the climbing world. While we’ve done quite a few treks/hikes and have been as high as 9,000-10,000 feet during these hikes, Kilimanjaro was to be his first major mountain and his introduction to high altitude mountaineering.
For this expedition we signed on with Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) and chose to climb the 7-day Machame Route—a popular route on Kilimanjaro, sometimes called the Whiskey Route. This was to be my fifth of the so called “Seven Summits” as I had previously summited continental high points in Australia (Kosciuszko), South America (Aconcagua), Antarctica (Vinson), and Europe (Elbrus). The later of these four I had just climbed with Anders at the end of July.
Both Alex and I were quite fit as this climb came at the end of the summer and in addition to the general conditioning training we always pursue during the summer, we had done quite a bit of hiking around home and in Utah and Shenandoah National Park. My recent climb on Elbrus was of benefit as well. Before I left, my ortho drained 49 cc out of my left knee and gave me a cortisone injection—treatments that would pay dividends in the days ahead.
Eight other clients including our Delaware friends, Dan, Paula and Caroline, joined us on this climb. Our head guide was a very experienced guide (he was born one month before me) named Mark Tucker who in addition to summiting Everest and other major mountains around the world was leading his 39th expedition on Kilimanjaro. We also had 8 very experienced Tanzanian Guides who were assisting Mark. Additionally there was an astounding 36 other Tanzanians who were assisting in a variety of ways of this climb. We were certainly in very good hands!
Our climbing team consisted of: Alex (23), myself (59), Dan (54), Paula (55), Caroline (27), Russ (26), Mike (35), Eric (72), Brooke (29) and Thomas (31). Dan and Paula were climbing with their daughter Caroline. Mike and Eric were a father/son team like Alex and I and Brooke and Thomas were a gf/bf duo. Our team was relatively inexperienced as I was the only client to have climbed above 15,000 feet. However,I knew that Alex and the Barrs were in great shape and the team seemed like a great group so I had high expectations for our team's success on this climb.
Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. This it is and we are climbing it is not a coincidence. Indeed it is one of the reasons we were climbing it. But it’s more complicated than that. Alex, after observing Anders and my various endurance fitness/climbing races/expeditions had decided it wasn’t his obsession (smart man!). However, after graduating from college, he was intrigued enough that he wanted to seek “his Everest” and decided Kilimanjaro was it. Anders summit of the mountain 5 years ago was a big reason for this—he spoke highly of his climb here. Anders is very much focused on climbing the Seven Summits but I have decided I would not try to climb all seven of the Seven Summits (being afraid of climbing Everest and Denali). So in effect we were climbing Kilimanjaro because it was one of the seven, but then again, not really…. Confusing I know.
Anyways, Kilimanjaro is a large stratovolcano and is composed of three distinct volcanic cones: Shira, the oldest at 13,140 feet, Mawenzi at 16,693 feet and Kibo and more specifically Uhuru Peak—the true peak of Africa at 19,340 or 19,341 feet (btw Uhuru Peak means Freedom Peak in Swahili and was a rejection of the prior German name given to the peak). In fact, Kili is shrinking and was last measured at 19,318 feet in 2014 (damn you erosion!) Shira and Mawenzi are considered extinct while Kibo is considered dormant. In practice this means there has been no volcanic activity for the last 150,000 years so this was not an element of concern for us on this climb. About 100,000 years ago part of Kibo’s crater collapsed creating the Western Breach and the Great Barranco—a future climbing test that was very much on our minds as we flew to Africa.
Kili is the highest volcano outside of South America and rises a very impressive 16,000 feet or so from its southern base near Moshi (near where we would climb from) to its summit. In fact, it is the fourth most prominent mountain in the world trailing only Everest, Aconcagua, and Denali. As a reminder, prominence characterizes the height of a mountain by the vertical distance between it and the lowest contour line encircling it but containing no higher summit within it. As such, it is a measure of the independence of a summit. Prominence is interesting to mountaineers because it is an objective measurement that is strongly correlated with the subjective significance of a summit. Peaks with low prominences are either subsidiary tops of some higher summit or relatively insignificant independent summits. Peaks with high prominences tend to be the highest points around and are likely to have extraordinary views. For example, K2 is considered the second highest mountain in the world at 8,611 meters, even though it is smaller than the Everest’s South Summit (8,749 meters). The later is considered a sub-summit of Everest’s main peak. K2 is much more of a climbing objective than Everest’s South Summit due to its prominence. Bottom line, a prominent mountain like Kili is easy to notice because it really stands out from its neighbors and as such is more attractive from a mountaineering perspective.
The first recorded summit of this peak was in 1889 by two dudes named Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller. There are a lot of theories as to why its called Kilimanjaro but I’ll spare you the details here. There have been numerous studies of the success rate and incidence of AMS (acute mountain sickness) on Kili and in-part due to the aggressive expedition time-tables and given the large number of relatively inexperienced climbers who attempt this mountain (25,000+/year), the accepted success rate is around 60% with 70-75% experiencing AMS. My guess is that the major guiding companies like RMI probably have closer to an 80-85% summit success rate. From my perspective, pretty good summit odds but with a fairly high probability of pain given the short acclimatization window.
So how dangerous is Kili? A fairly comprehensive study was conducted from 1996 to 2003 and during that time just 25 people died while climbing on Kilimanjaro. Recall, in 2004 alone 48 people died on Elbrus—my last big mountain climb. Further so many more people climb Kili each year that Kili’s mortality rate is very low—around 0.014 percent or about one in every 7,000 or so climbers. The principle objective dangers are those found on all high alpine climbs: HAPE and HACE and exposure to wind and cold. The Machame Route is not technical with just a couple rock scrambles with modest exposure. All in all, a challenging mountain to climb in seven days, but with very modest dangers.
Climbing up to the summit, climbers pass through five separate major climatic zones. Typically during the day winds blow upslope and reverse at night. It can get fairly windy on Kili—especially on summit morning. We were climbing in early September, which is during the “dry” season and we had expectations for mostly fair weather. The typical temperature is around 65/70 degrees at the start of the climb and around 18/19 degrees at the summit—although it can be as cold as 15-20 below zero during extreme conditions.
The fabled glaciers near the summit are shrinking pretty quickly (85% reduction from 1912 to 2011) and are expected to be gone entirely at some point in the next 20 years or so. This shrinkage does not appear to be related to global warming per se as temperatures at the summit are always below freezing. Rather, it seems to be driven by the episodic fluctuation of humidity—these cycles seeming to take a few hundred years. We’ll have to come back in 2,300 to climb it when the glaciers are in full bloom again!
Day 1: September 3rd, 2016
Alex and I said our goodbyes to Judy and were driven to the Philly airport. We saw the Barrs there and said farewell as they were flying through Atlanta to Amsterdam and we were heading up to JFK. We had a short flight to JFK and killed some time there before our redeye to Amsterdam. Despite some Ambien neither of us were able to grab any sleep on the eight-hour redeye flight. No worries, we were pumped to finally be on our trip after all of the planning and training.
Day 2: September 4th, 2016
We grabbed a nice breakfast with some strong Euro coffee (always a crowd favorite!). We charged up our electronics and soon boarded our third flight with the plan to fly for 8+ hours and land at Kilimanjaro International (KIA). We saw the Barrs board the flight and soon we were heading south. Both Alex and I passed out right away and I was able to sleep for about 90 minutes. Alex slept for about 4-5 hours so both of us felt a bit better. We played backgammon on my iPad and watched movies and soon enough we were in Tanzania. We arrived about 7:40 p.m. local time.
We spent an unnecessary 90 minutes cycling through 2-3 lines getting approved to enter Tanzania. RMI had advised us to just pay our $100 Visa fee when we arrived at KIA and this unfortunately turned out to be bad advice—get your Visa before you fly. The Barrs progressed through the lines quite a bit quicker than us (having exited the plane earlier) and I could tell by the back and fro that one of our collective 10 bags was missing. I also had a strong sense that it was mine…rot roh…. I have seen this movie before down in Mendoza when I was climbing Aconcagua.
Eventually Alex and I were allowed to leave Visa prison (btw—Russia is way easier to get into than Tanzania) and we did indeed discover that only 9 of our collective 10 bags made the trip. My bag, containing essentially all of my mountaineering equipment and clothing, being the sole exception. I thank my elder son Anders in times like this, who helped me learn to remain positive and to only focus on controlling the things that I can control (like my attitude). Still, this is a tough blow. It’s ironic as well, as I have been the one that has done the bulk of the equipment planning for both Alex and I and the Barrs. Sigh.
So what unfolds is I end up holding everyone up at the Airport as I first search for my bag to no avail. Then I file a form with some fellow—nice enough guy—in customer service who among other things asks me how long I will be in Tanzania (which is 13 days) and where I am to be every day. Questions that don’t fill me with confidence.
Eventually we go outside and meet Mark Tucker (aka Big Mountain Tuck) and have a welcome champagne toast. He looks at my tennis shoes and jokes that no worries, we can get you some extra socks and you’ll be fine climbing Kili. I smile, but I know that without my mountaineering equipment bag, I won’t be climbing much higher than where I am now. I try (fairly successfully) to put this out of my head and focus on the practicalities…
First off, if I don’t get my bag in time I won’t be climbing with this team. This is just way too big of a challenge to do so without my boots, my clothes, my nutrition, etc. I know I can rent substitutes but given all of the physical challenges/limitations I have, I know this would be folly. I also know if it comes to this I’ll encourage Alex to carry on without me. It’s more important in my view for him to climb this mountain than I. I try not to linger on what I would do for 7 days while everyone else is climbing and instead decide to focus on finding my bag.
Here is where I have an Ace up my sleeve! I have Judy at home who is the best in the world—in my view—at resolving issues just like this. So when we arrive at the Dik Dik hotel and check in, I call her and enlist her to help find my bag. Which after a few hours she does—its decided to have a sleepover in Amsterdam and further, given her instructions to the KLM people, it should arrive late tomorrow night—which would be good since we are leaving early the day after. I take all of this as good news and finally around 1 a.m. I lay down assuming that my stuff will come late this day and I’ll be able to go with everyone else…
Day 3: September 5th, 2016
We each sleep 3-4 hours, which is a direct result of the 7 time zone difference between Eastern Africa and Delaware. We have a great breakfast of fried eggs and such—this is probably the best hotel of this type of any of my prior climbs—hats off to RMI! The Dik Dik btw lies between KIA and the very large town of Arusha. We are very near the impressive volcanic cone of Mount Meru. We have a team meeting and go through all of the usual logistics. We get to know each other as teammates—from my perspective we have a real nice, albeit, very inexperienced team. In fact this is the first time I’ve been the most experienced mountaineer on a major climb. A little weird, as one thing I don’t feel about my mountaineering is that I’m experienced.
After breakfast Mark comes by our room and checks our gear. Well, to be precise, he checks Alex’ gear as I have none. He tells me he’s glad I’m the one whose bag was late because he has the least concern about my gear. I think this statement on his part is meant as a compliment although I really wish I could have had my gear checked like everyone else.
Lunch was a very tasty beef stew. The good news here is if I have to stay at the hotel I won’t suffer…. Alex and I head out (me in my beach sneakers) and climb a nearby Kilimanjaro observation tower. The cloud cover is low and extensive so we can see neither Kili nor Meru. We head back to our room and wait. And wait. Well, Alex gets his stuff ready…I of-course have no such stuff.
We have a nice chicken dinner and everyone heads off for an early sleep as we have a very big day tomorrow (and the 6 after that) in front of us. Alex helps me kill some time as we play some sloppy pool in the hotel. Eventually, I end up by myself in the main lounge of the Dik Dik talking to Judy and hoping my bag arrives…. Which it does around 10pm! I have to admit this is a big relief (and honestly I was prepared to make the best of it if it didn’t)—I’m climbing Kilimanjaro with Alex tomorrow—life is perfect now!!!!
I get my bag back to our room and Alex is pumped and very supportive. From my perspective, life just got a whole lot easier—all I have to do is climb now. Sweet! 90 minutes later or so I’ve sorted everything out and am reasonably ready to go.
Day 4: September 6th, 2016
I’m up 3 hours later—about 3:30 a.m. as I have a bunch of things on my mind around what I’m bringing and what I’m leaving. I have this very OCD thing and need to make sure I have everything right. I talk to Alex some and we play some more backgammon. I know I’m entering this climb with a deficit of sleep but this is more than compensated for by my surplus of gratitude to have all of my stuff and to actually be able to start this incredible life-experience with Alex—life is very good at 5 a.m. on September 6th in this little town somewhere in Tanzania! It’s finally time to climb!
We all meet for breakfast at 6:30 and subsequently load up a very big truck and are ready to roll at 8. We drive on the “main road” eastward towards the town of Moshi. We pass through several villages including Tuvalia, Sanya Chini, and Boma le Ngome. We turn off the main road well before Moshi and head north and towards Kili and the village of Machame. We pull over for a quick bathroom break, which leads to a lot of interesting interactions with the local Tanzanians.
We continue up an increasingly steep road and finally arrive at the Machame Gate around 10 a.m. or so. It is quite a bustling scene, as it appears there are at least 200 people who have arrived intent on climbing Kili on this route beginning this morning. It could be quite confusing but Mark and his team quietly handles a long list of to-dos that we are blissfully unaware of. We spend our time attending to last minute prep (bathroom, sorting our bags, eating a light lunch, taking pictures etc.).
At 11:17 a.m. the adventure finally begins! This is one of my favorite times when all of the preparation is done and all of the concerns about logistics and what to bring are behind us and now "all" we have to do is climb. We high-five and soon we are on our way. The climb on this first climbing day is very enjoyable. My Garmin puts the starting elevation at 6,019 feet but most sources have it at or around 5,718 feet. We spend the bulk of this day’s effort climbing up through a dense, and quite beautiful montane rainforest. It’s very comfortable climbing—around 60 degrees or so and densely overcast. Several of us hike in t-shirts and shorts.
The trail can be quite muddy but on this day we really have no problems. We stop for breaks four times during the climb:
1. from 42-67 minutes elapsed time (25 minute break)
2. 127-149 (22 minute break)
3. 202-225 (23 minute break)
4. 298-317 (19 minute break)
The pace, from my perspective is quite slow and measured and our breaks are quite long. No complaints here as it made for a very easy first day. My Garmin put the whole climb at 7.02 miles, which in total took us 5:58—including breaks about 51 min/mile. My Garmin had the ending altitude at the Machame Camp at 9,876 feet and a total vertical ascent of 3,842 feet. Most sources put Machame Camp at or near 9,927 feet and have the day’s vertical at 4,201 feet. In any event, the average grade for this day’s climb was a very mild 10-11%.
I felt a little sluggish at first but seemed to get progressively stronger. Alex did awesome this whole day. The Barrs and the rest of the team looked very much on their games. Around 7,800 feet we broke above the clouds and it was gloriously sunny—though we were well protected in the forest. Right before the end of the climb, we climbed above the cloud forest and into the lower, but still thick bush-lands. Here we treated to our first view of the bulk of Kibo—which looked very large and impressive from the Camp.
The whole team seemed to do well and when we arrived in the Camp it was a chaotic and vibrating scene. Our tents were already set-up and we met the porters who were directly paired with each of us (my partner was named Samuel). It is quite a luxury to have a dedicated porter carrying 30 pounds for you and setting up and taking down your tent each day—it makes the climb far, far easier than it would be without these luxuries. This was a very different experience than any of my prior climbs!
Speaking of luxury, dinner was basically ready for us and in any event we had only about 45 minutes before the sun went down, so we jumped right in. We had a delicious chicken dinner served on real plates with real silverware in a tent—wow! After dinner we talked to Judy a couple of times on the sat phone and gave her the good news about our first day.
It was exceptionally dusty in camp and we were all soon covered in gritty black dirt (our headlamps illuminated the fine and very thick dust floating around camp)—it basically got on and in everything. We had a lot to do after dinner to get set for the night and because it was our first time doing so, it took Alex and I a good 45 minutes to do so. However, we were in good spirits and I could tell we would get faster with a little practice—we are good partners for sure.
With the dark came the cold and we hunkered down at 9:30 for our first night sleeping on the mountain. We both fell asleep pretty quickly and were rewarded with nice sleeps—I got about 6 hours and Alex 7 and a half. A successful first day indeed!
Day 5: September 7th, 2016
Alex and I both started moving at 6:30 as we had agreed with the rest of the team the night before. We both felt great and excited for this day’s climb. We pack up all of our stuff in a pretty efficient manner and are ready to go in 30 minutes. We have a low-key breakfast (mostly bread, PB, and coffee) and the team begins to roll at 8:15—just 15 minutes late (not too bad for a rookie crew).
The weather is simply spectacular—60 degrees, brilliantly sunny and still. Really, you could not ask for more perfect conditions. The landscape and views are fantastic. The former is less dense and more austere than our prior day but the later are truly awesome! As we climb we pass into increasingly thin moorlands and grasslands—clearly displaying the alpine nature of our location. One’s eyes were constantly drawn to Meru in the southwest and a creeping cloud floor seeming to follow us upwards as we climbed—but always a few thousand feet below us.
In my view, the whole team does quite well, but Eric seems to have some difficulty and our team waits in several places for him (with Mike) to join us. Nothing to fret about although I wonder if this climb might prove to be too much For Eric…. It’s hard for me to imagine doing something like this when (and if) I’m 72! In total we stop 6 times:
-40 to 53 minutes (13 minute break)
-104-127 (23 minute break)
At one point, we stop and give our trekking poles to our guides, as we have to navigate the “Shira Wall”, which is something I had never heard about prior to this day. This proves to be a modest, and very fun Class 2 or 3 rock scramble—it just added to the fun of the day. Finally we roll into the broad expanse that is the Shira Camp. It is much more expansive than our prior campsite and considerably less dusty/dirty. There are an abundance of white-necked ravens flying around looking for an easy meal.
To our east is Meru. To the northeast are the remnants of the Shira crater and to the northwest is mighty Kibo—pretty spectacular! The Garmin stats for the day are as follows:
- 3.67 linear miles
- 6:08 elapsed time
- Min. elevation of 9,972 and max of 12,696
- Gross vertical ascent: 2,451 feet
- Average grade: 14%
- Average mile: 1:40
Soon, after ditching our stuff in the tent and changing into sneakers, we are treated to a steak lunch—are you kidding me? Very tasty, although I worry a bit that the steak might be undercooked. We went back to our tents and chilled/prepared for the next day. We updated Judy and once again confirmed we were doing pretty well. Alex had a bit of a stomachache but it seemed most folks had headaches or other problems (blisters and eye irritation). He spent some time talking to Judy as the sun was setting and it seemed his stomach was the central topic. For my part, knock on wood (RC taps head), I felt great! We both go to bed around 8 pm and I at least, am feeling very positive about what tomorrow will bring.
Day 6: September 8th, 2016
My first diary entry for the day reads: “Upon further review….” Upon further review indeed! I fell asleep very quickly at 8 and was awakened by a very bright light (headlamp) shining in my eyes from the entrance to our temp. I have trouble processing what is going on and the sound seems very muddled. I realize I need to remove my earplugs and further realize its Alex and he is telling me that he is very sick. Bad diarrhea and he just threw up right outside our tent. For the later he is apologetic but I tell him not to worry (thankfully its outside the tent).
My brain spins up to a reasonable operating speed and I ask him 20 questions as he sits besides me at 11p.m. (its not quite Day 6 yet). Naturally, I’m concerned about some type of AMS. Unfortunately, I don’t have my pulse oximeter as I had lent it to the Barrs before the trip and they had neglected to bring it along….grrrrr. I ask about his head and check if he has a fever. No headache and no fever. Alex seems lucid and coherent so I’m thinking its not HACE.
I ask Alex to cough and listen for gurgling in his lungs and the quality of his breathing and it doesn’t appear to be HAPE. It might be a virus but without a fever or body aches and with the application of Occam’s Razor I conclude that he must of ate something bad and his body is busy getting rid of it. Probably a bad bacterium of some type. I move on to dealing with what I think is the problem.
At 11:30 p.m., I have Alex take two Imodium tabs. Some might disagree with this step, but he’s been to the toilet twice already and I can hear his stomach churning away so I decide its better to try to slow things down a bit. I’m worried about dehydration and have him accelerating his fluid intake. At midnight I conclude that it’s time to go for the Cipro and I give him one and hope it quickly works its magic.
The next five hours are brutal for Alex and not much fun for his father. He has to head for the toilet a couple of more times. When he’s in the tent he is literally moaning out loud as his pain seems very intense. I rub his back and ask him questions from time to time to make sure of my diagnosis.
I also think through our options. I conclude the following:
- First, I’m his wingman and no matter what I’m staying by his side. Up or down, we are going to do this together—I let him know that.
- I know there is a road of sorts that comes up to the Shira Camp that the rangers use and in an emergency we can probably get him off the mountain pretty quickly. This is comforting.
- If we go down, maybe we can hang somewhere down below until he is better and then hire another guide and go for the top. I think through the logistics and realize that to do this I’ll probably need a couple of dedicated porters to help us down. Given how many are with us, this seems like a potentially viable option.
- Maybe we can go up later after resting—either later today or tomorrow. Conceivably, we might be able to catch up with the team by combining the climbs on Day 4 and 5, which some teams due as a matter of course.
- Maybe Alex can rally and I can help him through Day 3 and he can get stronger from there.
I hope for the last option and explain all of this thinking to Alex. He understands but is principally focused to trying to deal with his pain and problems. My heart aches for Alex—I know how excited he was for this trip and how hard he worked to get in shape for it. I know the odds are long now and I must confess I shed more than a few tears this night.
It’s clear Alex has a lot of gas in his stomach and I lament my decision to not bring Pepto Bismol. I think that the Barrs might have some and I wait and listen for Dan to get up to pee (he hasn’t mastered the pee bottle yet). Around 5 he does so and I “yell” across to Paula and she confirms she has some.
I exit the tent, being careful to avoid the remains of Alex’ last meal and get the PB from Paula. I give a couple of tabs to Alex and this seems to help a bit. I also give him another Imodium around 6 or so. I think he is doing a little better but he clearly he is in bad shape.
Its starting to get light and the Ravens pay a visit to the outside of our tent and remove any evidence of Alex’ bad stomach. I send Alex out to talk to Mark and I stay in the tent and do all of the preparation stuff for the both of us.
Alex returns and reports that Mark doesn’t seem that concerned and that he thinks the Cipro will probably take care of the problem. I ask Alex what he thinks and he says that he’ll probably give it a go. This is a real relief—not because I have summit fever but because I’ve been worried about the scenario where we pull the plug on the climb and Alex feels better in relatively short time and regrets not trying….
Alex tells me that Mark doesn’t want us to give him any more Pepto because he says it interacts with Cipro in some type of negative way. I’ve never heard of this and am appalled that I may have screwed up in trying to help Alex. (Back home I checked and determined that there is no negative interaction between the two).
I get everything ready while Alex walks around Camp to check his legs. He’s weak and a bit unsteady on his feet, but ready to give it a go. I encourage him to drink as much as possible and to try to eat a little bland food. He has a couple of pretzels, which is good because he needs to replace his loss electrolytes.
Several other team members are struggling as well. Two or three have headaches and Eric has an eye irritation that is bad enough that he, Mike and Mark discuss their options. All of this delays thing for an hour or so. Finally at 8:29 we head up the Shira plateau towards massive Kibo and the Arrow Glacier directly in front and well above us.
I’ve elected to carry Alex’ water, which lightens his pack a bit. I walk behind Alex and keep a careful eye on him. I can tell its touch and go for him, as he is decidedly wobbly. I ask him a number of questions but he wants to focus on getting up the hill and pulls inward to do so. I conclude that when we stop I’m going to see if we can get one of the guides to carry his pack—I wished I had thought of that earlier.
Our first stretch seems like forever but in fact it takes just 52 minutes. During this time we cover about a linear mile and climb around 500 vertical. Alex plops down and before I can seek out Mark he comes by with Filbert, one of the guides, and tells Alex how much Filbert has wanted to carry his pack and asks Alex if that would be ok. Yes—mission accomplished—Mark was very much on his game.
After 17 minutes we go again and it seems to me that Alex responds well to the lesser load. I know its still a struggle but my spirit lifts quite a bit as I now begin to think the odds are with us—if Alex can just get through the middle of today’s climb and the high-point altitude-wise, then maybe he can rally and he can press forward. For not the last time I cry again—just a little.
Our second stretch, from 69 to 122 minutes, has us steadily climbing upward in glorious conditions. The sun is blazing and despite the coolness, we all feel very comfortable (we all choose to wear long pants on this day). Our second break is 22 minutes and up we go again. Alex continues to rally and I reflect on how strong I feel and how beautiful this climbing is. My spirit continues to lift. I think quite a bit about how impressive Alex’ effort is—I’m very proud of him.
Our third stretch is just 45 minutes and we reach a bit of a plateau—its clear we are pretty close to the high point of today’s climb. We can see the Lava Tower so we know we are close, even though we will turn off this trail before reaching it. My altimeter reads just under 14,500 feet. Our break stretches to 25 minutes. The pace is very slow and feels quite easy to me but I am very thankful for it because I know Alex, Eric and a couple of others on our team are digging deep today.
We stop just 40 minutes later and Mark gives us a demo on how best to descend the tricky path that is ahead of us down towards the Barranco Camp. It is truly spectacular. To our left and above us is the Lava Tower with the Western Breach of Kibo very evident. We can see the Camp down in the Barranco Valley some 1500 vertical feet below us. Across the Valley, several miles off, we can see the infamous Barranco Wall, which doesn’t look that intimidating form here and in any event we won’t have to deal with until tomorrow.
The climb downward is quite demanding and one has to be careful with footing. Mark, Alex, Russ, and Caroline move more quickly ahead of us. Mike and Eric drop off the back and make a conscious decision to down-climb more slowly with a couple of the guides. Brooke asks me to help lead her and Thomas down, which I’m happy to do. Dan and Paula hang back a bit and Dan and I engage in a spirited debate on whether or not Mountaineering is a team sport. Dan feels strongly that it isn’t (he is wrong).
We are moving very slowly and the 2.5 miles down to Camp takes us every bit of 2 and a half hours. It’s a beautiful trek as we descend into increasing vegetation—very unusual Senecios and the Lobelia Deckenii plants, which only grow around this altitude on Kilimanjaro. Brooke, Thomas and I finally roll into Camp 15 or so minutes behind the first group. Our cumulative stats for the day are:
- 6.52 miles
- 7:47 elapsed time
- Minimum elevation- 12,579 feet
- Maximum elevation- 14,724 feet
- Vertical ascent- 2,224 feet
- Vertical descent- 1,585 feet
- Average grade- 11%
- Average pace- 71 min/mile
Barranco Camp is at 13,066 feet and our third day is a natural acclimatization boost as we follow the old climb high, sleep low adage. Alex takes another Cipro and repairs for a well-earned rest in the tent. I talk to Mark about some team matters and then to Judy who is very worried. Alex’ stomach is one of her biggest concerns but I stress how strong he was today and how proud I am of him—this may have been his finest athletic day. It certainly was his hardest physical challenge of his 23 years.
Judy talks to Alex and Paula and I head off to the cook tent and arrange for Alex to get very bland chicken, potatoes and chicken broth—nice and salty. We have some delicious pork chops (I kid you not). The views of Kibo are spectacular—especially when the alpenglow hits it. Alex feels 100% better and we are both in very good spirits as we retreat to our tent at 7. What a day—I am so proud of Alex and I cry yet again before falling deeply asleep.
Day 7: September 9th, 2016
Our fourth climbing day dawns a brilliant blue yet again—our weather, as you have probably gathered, will be just about perfect for the whole trip—we are truly blessed here. We had a great night sleep as I was down for about 8 hours and Alex slept very deeply for 11—I guess he had a tough day yesterday!
There are a lot of smiles in our tent as Alex seems pretty much back to normal. He takes another Cipro to be on the safe side and we have a nice breakfast—Alex’ on the bland side. A number of people continue to have headaches and Thomas seems to be struggling a bit as he loses his breakfast.
Mark let us sleep in this morning, wisely letting the camp empty out before we started and helping us avoid the bottlenecks that routinely occur on the Barranco Wall. Which, by the way, looks a lot more impressive from the bottom of the valley then it did from 3 miles away when we first spied it. Its about 800 feet in height and is a legit Class 3 rock scramble. It has a couple of sections with significant exposure that gets your attention but is not technical and as it turns out, one of the most fun parts of the whole climb.
The rock scramble covers about 1.25 miles and takes, all told, about 2 hours to scale. Everyone on the team does great and feels a sense of accomplishment in getting up it. There were a few looks of concern but everyone was brave and managed it well in my view.
Alex and I both feel fantastic—especially in contrast to the day before. In fact, I’ve never felt stronger on a climb. The trek after the wall has a series of up and downs that eventually led down a steep hill to the Karanga River. Alex and I are both descending very well as the cortisone seems to have given my beleaguered left knee new life. We move well ahead of the rest of the team with Mark and then with one of the other guides. We have a very strong day of climbing and are very pumped as we roll into the Karanga Camp. Stats from this day:
- 3.66 miles
- 4:43 elapsed time
- Minimum elevation- 12,925 feet
- Maximum elevation- 13,798 feet
- Vertical ascent- 1,394 feet
- Vertical descent- 1,152 feet
- Average grade- 13%
- Average pace- 77 min/mile
In camp we have a delicious spaghetti lunch and then spend a very pleasant afternoon chilling and talking to our teammates. We are all very optimistic and it seems to me that most people are better acclimatized today as we have now been at or above 10,000 for three days and nights.
After dinner we are again in bed by 7 and after some iPad Backgammon, Alex sleeps for another 9 hours and I manage to get 7.
Day 8: September 10th, 2016
As we awake, our thoughts turn towards the summit that awaits us. This day will unfold in two parts. First, a relatively short hike up from Karanga to the Barafu Camp and then after some rest, an alpine departure to the summit around midnight.
We have a nice breakfast, which for me is a lot of peanut butter and toast, bacon and coffee. It’s great to be burning a lot of calories each day! The climb is relatively easy and straightforward. The views are once again spectacular and for the last half of the climb we can see the tents that mark the beginning of the Barafu Camp on the ridge above us.
While, the climb is short, it is noticeably steeper and of course towards the end we move up above 15,000 feet for the first time. Some dramatic clouds move in towards the end of our climb and we arrive at camp around 11:40 a.m. Stats for this climb:
- 2.43 miles
- 3:08 elapsed time
- Minimum elevation- 13,137 feet
- Maximum elevation- 15,035 feet
- Vertical ascent- 1,896 feet
- Vertical descent- 33 feet
- Average grade- 15%
- Average pace- 78 min/mile
As an aside, the accepted altitude of Barafu is 15,239 although it is quite spread out so in part it depends on where you camp—we seem to be about in the middle of it all. My Garmin seems to consistently read a few hundred feet short on this climb.
At camp, we spent about an hour organizing things for the coming summit attempt. We had a quick lunch and then lay in our tent from 2 until 6. I manage to doze off for about 90 minutes. Dinner was spaghetti and Alex had his now usual chicken.
Back to the tent and Al slept for about 3 hours after dinner. At 11:15 we quietly geared up for our summit push and shortly after midnight we assembled for our summit attempt!
Day 6: September 11th, 2016
Mike, Eric and one of the guides had left 90 minutes early in the hope we would all converge at the summit. Mark suggested we would dedicate this climb to all of the folks who had fallen 15 years earlier at the World Trade Center. In addition, Alex and I had dedicated this whole climb to our little doggie Roxy who had to be put down while I was off in Russia in July. Roxy had frequently trained with us through the years—she loved to hike in the woods and we had a little ceremony planned for her if we were fortunate enough to get to the top of this thing.
After a hurried preparation, we all gathered together on a beautiful, crisp and clear night. There was a partial moon (waxing gibbous to be more precise—53% full to be even more so) that provided marginal illumination. We all had our lamps on and the scene as a result was a little surreal—as it always is on an alpine start. We could see the lights of several of the nearby towns in the plains over 10,000 feet below us.
At 12:13, the nine of us were off, hoping to see Eric and Mike on the summit. This is my most favorite part of big mountain climbing. All the planning and training and obsessing are behind us—all we have left to do is to climb! We wend our way through the upper portions of the Barafu Camp trying to not disturb those still sleeping—which seemed like quite a few folks. Soon enough we were on the ridge above the Camp, which stretched westward and ever upward. We would basically follow a pretty much straight course all the way up to the crater rim at Stella Point.
We all climb pretty well for the first hour or so although I notice Brooke falling off the pace over the last third of this first section. It’s quite cold and a bit windier than I would like (though at 15 mph or so it is nothing to really be troubled with). The climb is steep and covered in lose scree, so it is rather physically demanding for sure—this is clearly the hardest climbing of the trip. When we stop, we don our big puffies and focus on getting down 300-400 calories. Alex and I both feel great but realize we are barely getting started on this final approach.
Soon enough we are off again and Brooke drops away immediately. She is clearly having some issues as we climb higher. I also notice a couple of other folks beginning to waiver a bit. Alex seems quite strong I continue to feel better than I ever have on a summit day.
Our second stop is chillier and I add my Gore-Tex hard shell pants over the two layers I have on my legs (merino long johns and climbing pants). During the climbing sections I’m wearing up top a long-sleeve 200-weight merino, my Sandstone wind jacket, my Accelerator fleece equivalent and my soft shell. I have my warmest Black diamond Guide Gloves on. With all of this, I’m still a bit on the cold side—it’s much colder than I expected. We are around 17,000 feet at this point.
We are almost finished with our second break when Brooke rolls up. I’ve heard some chatter on the radio so I know that Brooke, from this point forward, will be climbing on her own with a dedicated guide while the rest of us climb on. It will be a real challenge for her to make it without the group. I also hear what sounds to me like Eric and Mike turning around somewhere above us and heading down.
Soon we are off on the third section of our summit climb. Dan and I both notice Paula starting to struggle with the thin air and after a bit of discussion, one of the guides steps in and takes her pack. This is a very smart decision and noticeably helps Paula. We cross paths with Eric and Mike as they head down after getting to around 17,600 feet—a remarkable accomplishment for the 72 YO Eric, who is climbing his first mountain. I’m also very impressed with Mike, who clearly is fit enough to summit, but who is Eric’s dedicated wingman and following him down—a decision I would also make in his shoes.
We pull into the third rest stop and its now very cold—it must be more exposed here because the wind is much more apparent. I put my hard shell top on and then my puffy and I still have some trouble getting warm during the break and I decide to keep them both on for the next section. Its getting light enough to see now and soon we won’t need our lamps at all. Russ seems to be struggling and Mark checks his oxygen saturation and the look on his face registers concern. He measures mine as well—78%, which is low given how great I actually feel. We’re around 17,700 at this point.
We begin our fourth segment and looking up I think I can now see where our path upward intersects with the summit crater. We continue to press forward, but at a pace more consistent with the lack of oxygen we are all feeling. I have a couple of moments of dizziness but realize I had forgot to stay on my pressure breathing and a couple of cycles of this quickly gets me back to equilibrium. I keep searching internally for signs of problems but the feedback from my body is pretty positive. I know now that I am having the best climb of my modest climbing career.
Towards the end of the fourth segment Alex noticeably wavers and I ask him about his steadiness. He readily admits that he feels a little unstable on his feet. I suggest we have one of our guides carry his pack for just a little bit and he quickly recognizes that this is a good bet for him. With a five minute rest he probably would have been good to go but we didn’t want to slow the team down and it didn’t seem wise to push his luck—especially after all that he had to endure at and coming out of Shira.
We stop a fourth time and now it is daytime as the sun has risen. This is usually the time a lot of folks are on the summit—for whatever reason--our team has been consistently slow on this climb. The crater ridge is readily apparent—probably only 400 feet or so above us. We are at around 18,200 feet at this point—almost as high as the summit of Elbrus. I drop my puffy and hard shell as the morning light brings with it more comfortable climbing conditions.
Our fifth segment up to Stella Point goes pretty quickly. Alex and Russ have recovered smartly and along with Caroline are at the front of the group. I’m hanging back trying to help pace some of the other team members. Soon, about 6:45, we hit Stella Point at 18,650 feet—just under 700 vertical feet and probably ¾ of a mile or so from the true summit. Mark checks in and surveys the group to see if folks want to stop here or carry on. A couple of our team members waiver a bit and I try to encourage them to push forward. Soon all of our diminished and tired team elect to push forward.
For Alex and I the final hour or so is exciting and filled with great views. Several of our team are dealing with issues but the proximity of the summit pulls us ever upward. Near the summit Mark stops and asks Paula to lead us up the final steps. She hugs him and excitedly runs the final 30-40 feet to the summit (and almost passes out due to her enthusiasm and the lack of oxygen). But she doesn’t and soon we are all on the summit and hugging each other in firm and teary embraces. I hug Alex for well over a minute. For some reason, these climbs make me very emotional.
We organize a series of summit pictures and then Alex and I sneak off and film a short video honoring our little doggie Roxy. I spread some of her ashes on the summit and Alex and I embrace again. Mark says time to go and we head down. On the way down on the summit ridge, I get the satellite phone out and call Judy. She is home with her friend Lori and my daughter Jenny and we talk for a good five minutes as I descend. I reluctantly beg off the call to focus on the task ahead.
Just before Stella Point we cross paths with Brooke—amazingly she has persevered on her own—I for one am very impressed by this display of determination and athleticism—you go girl! She soon summits and will eventually join up with us a bit further down the mountain.
Most of us would like to go faster but a couple of team members are quite slow on the descent. Oh well, we have nothing else to do today. I try to compensate by going slowly and then speeding down the slopes for short stretches. Both Alex and I feel like we could have done the descent in 40-50% of the time.
Stats for the up to the summit and back to Barafu:
- 7.10 miles
- 11:23 elapsed time
- Minimum elevation- 15,149 feet
- Maximum elevation- 19,113 feet
- Vertical ascent- 3,921 feet
- Vertical descent- 3,921 feet
- Average grade- 21%
- Average pace- 96 min/mile
Obviously my Garmin continued to underestimate the altitude. In all likelihood we were at 15,240 when we left Barafu and the summit of course is at 19,340. Our net up and down was at a minimum of 4,100 feet and probably the gross numbers were several percent greater than that. It was a big test no matter what the numbers say!
Around 11:30 we arrive back at the Barafu Camp. We change and re-sort our equipment and eat a quick lunch. We are supposed to be ready at 12:30 to head down (which most, but not all, are). We end up waiting until 1:15 until we are all good to go.
The descent out of Barafu down to Mweka is a real challenge. The weather is nice and we have the boost of a summit in our rear view mirrors but we are tired and the footing is treacherous--especially towards the last half of this stretch. Not in a serious way, but it’s very easy to stumble and fall on this descent. None-the-less, we all do very well and soon find ourselves, finally at Mweka:
- 4.67 miles
- 3:30 elapsed time
- Minimum elevation- 10,385 feet
- Maximum elevation- 15,153 feet
- Vertical ascent- 16 feet
- Vertical descent- 4,718 feet
- Average grade- 19%
- Average pace- 45 min/mile
This data seems pretty good as most sources have the descent from Barafu Camp to Mweka Camp around 4780 feet. We are very tired but get our tent set up and eat a short and low-energy dinner (the diners had the low energy). We call Judy (and have trouble staying awake and talk) and call it a day at 8:30. In total we were on the go for just under 15 hours today and came pretty close to 13,000 vertical feet up and down. In these terms, this is the biggest day of climbing in my life.
Day 10: 9/12/16
I slept really well despite being a bit sore from all of the climbing. I awoke at 4 but was able to get back to sleep again quickly. Alex slept great throughout and we were up for good at 7 a.m. After breakfast we have a ceremony of sorts where tips are handed out to the whole Tanzanian support team and we take turns shaking their hands. They sing us a song about the climb and then we all pose for pictures.
We head out at 8:11 and descend down through the cloud forest to the Mweka Gate. The descent is relatively easy—certainly easier than that leading into Mweka Camp. We spread out quite a bit and the effort is relaxed. The task, in this our last climbing day, is modest and our approach is relaxed but still we make good time. We only stop for breaks twice on this morning. It seems a bit anti-climatic. We do see some black and white colobus monkeys in the trees and the cloud forest is very beautiful.
My Garmin records the following stats for the climb:
My Garmin records the following stats for the climb:
- 5.60 miles
- 3:09 elapsed time
- Minimum elevation- 5,698 feet
- Maximum elevation- 10,173 feet
- Vertical ascent- 3 feet
- Vertical descent- 4,377 feet
- Average grade- 15%
- Average pace- 33 min/mile
When we arrive at the Mweka Gate we take some group pictures and have a quick lunch with some Coke and beer—our first of each in a week. We sign the official register that documents our summit. We did it!
We return to the Dik Dik hotel and once again rearrange our bags so that we have one filled with mountaineering stuff (that we leave at the hotel) and one with our other clothes for our safari to follow. The ladies at the Dik Dik also wash some of our clothes. We also take lengthy and greatly appreciated showers.
That night we have a final team dinner and toast Mark, each other and our success. We hit the sack around 11 p.m.
Day 11: 9/13/16
We are up at 7 and have breakfast at 8. We say our good byes to everyone but Dan and Paula who choose to sleep in. Alex and I depart; separate from the rest of the team, as we are going on a different safari trip than the standard RMI trip. We drive to KIA and after three flights, find ourselves in the northern Serengeti, where we proceed to enjoy find days of spectacular wildlife viewing on safari. But that’s a whole nother story….
As I finish writing this report, it is now a month to that day since we left KIA and headed out to our safari. We had a wonderful time and were excited to return home to our family and friends and share with them our stories and pictures. We really enjoyed our partnership and I’ll be forever impressed with and proud of Alex’ fortitude, especially on our 3rd climbing day. It surely will be one of his finest moments!
Both Alex and I feel great about the trip and our accomplishments. We are continuing to focus on staying in shape and are gearing up for some climbing down in Shenandoah later this month. My knee has reverted to its mean (which means its stiff and painful from time to time). I’ve also developed a bad case of tennis elbow, which I’m going into the Ortho’s office to get fixed before I turn my attention to triathlon training and the 2017 season, which I hope will include perhaps one last Ironman before I finally deal with my knee. But that’s a challenge that will wait.
The above is just my recollection of our climb. I'm sure others will have other and perhaps different memories. I've tried to record the trip as authentically as i can but I realize this is goal that ultimately can't be reached. Even the pictures I've included or not included shade the telling of this story. I've tried to to do my best and hope I have a bunch of it right....
The above is just my recollection of our climb. I'm sure others will have other and perhaps different memories. I've tried to record the trip as authentically as i can but I realize this is goal that ultimately can't be reached. Even the pictures I've included or not included shade the telling of this story. I've tried to to do my best and hope I have a bunch of it right....
Thanks for the sharing our climb with us!