This is a day by day synopsis of a very memorable climb of Kilimanjaro. There are a few pictures highlighting parts of this trip. The entire photo gallery can be found here: http://www.kurtwedbergphotography.com/International-Expeditions/Africa/Kilimanjaro-February-17-24/16126190_ucYW8
This climb was the inspiration of Juliet Mayhew who founded Climb 4 Freedom (www.climb4freedom.org) to raise money and awareness for child trafficking worldwide. The group was made up of 15 ladies, 14 of whom are mothers. Their slogan is Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things.
These ladies are anything but ordinary. This group of highly motivated, loving, caring and very pretty ladies touched the hearts of everybody fortunate enough to come into contact with them during our trip. This is the first post in a day by day story of our climb.
SMI has been guiding climbs on Kilimanjaro since 1996. We have never missed reaching the summit of this beautiful peak and our safety record is impeccable. The age of our clients who have reached the summit ranges between 10 and 73. The breadth of experience of our guides for this climb included 80+ high altitude expeditions on six continents. Fresh off of two back to back expeditions to Aconcagua SMI guides April Mayhew, Chris Werner, and Kurt Wedberg arrived in Africa motivated and ready to lead this team on a trip of a lifetime. Our goals as always were to keep safety as the highest priority, reach the summit, and have a lot of fun along the way.
The group gathered in Moshi, Tanzania located at the base of Kilimanjaro on February 16, 2011. 13 members of the team live in the UK and two are from Colorado. SMI guides April, Chris, and Kurt live in California. Chris’s girlfriend Heidi Hauenstein also joined us not wanting to miss out on such a memorable climb. This would make our group total 19 people. After breakfast we spent the morning taking a leisurely walk near our hotel on the outskirts of Moshi. We passed by rice fields and explored the forest where we viewed a variety of colorful African wildflowers, bird species, and the black and white colobus monkey’s living in the trees.
For lunch we visited the home of the head of our local Chagga staff God Listen. “Goddy’s” wife prepared for us a traditional Chagga lunch of banana soup cooked over an open fire. Kilimanjaro National Park requires visiting climbers to hire local porters when making ascents of this mountain. When Hans Meyer made the first ascent of Kilimanjaro in 1889 he hired 90 porters. They all came from the Chagga tribe who settled at the base of Kilimanjaro centuries ago and live there to this day. SMI maintains this rich tradition with our entire staff being of Chagga descent. We have built a great relationship with them and they have become an integral part of the success of our programs. Smiling, hardworking, and friendly we keep a full staff of porters, cooks, and assistant guides to help facilitate a smooth and well organized climb.
After lunch we left time for an afternoon coffee along with shopping in Moshi before returning to our hotel to pack our gear in preparation for the start of our climb the following morning.
Reports had swirled around Moshi about the stormy conditions on Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro is the only place in the world where it is possible to pass through 5 temperate zones in five days starting in a jungle and ending in an alpine environment. The jungle zones had been inundated with rain for many days creating slippery muddy conditions on the trails. Above 4600m, 15,100’ the mountain was decorated with a fresh blanket of snow that left us wondering what conditions would be by the time we arrived at that height in a few days. Snow equipment such as ice axes and crampons are not normally needed on Kilimanjaro and are not included on the SMI equipment list. Just the same we packed two ice axes just in case they would be helpful to in chopping steps in the snow above.
Each climber carries a rucksack with lunch, water, and clothing needed for each day’s hike. We also prepare individual duffle bags containing the rest of the equipment each person needs for the climb including sleeping bags, pads, and extra clothing along with other essentials. A porter will carry these duffle bags.
After breakfast the team loaded into a bus hired to bring us to the trailhead. BUT, before we could arrive at the trailhead we needed to make a very important stop for a morning cappuccino. With the group having savored their last fresh coffee in a week we then were fully prepared to continue to the trailhead and begin our climb.
It wouldn’t be long before the sound of rain began hitting the jungle canopy above. Anticipating this we had previously lined our rucksacks and duffle bags with plastic bags to keep our gear dry. The attire of choice would be rain jackets with shorts in the warm wet jungle environment. The ladies did extremely well adapting to the conditions and kept smiles on their faces throughout. The torrential rain lasted about two hours before relenting. The leaves high on the jungle canopy dripped with the cleansing freshly fallen rain for the rest of the five hour hike to Camp 1 at 2829m, 9281’.
Our staff prepared hot water and a fabulous meal for the team. As we crawled into our tents that evening the clouds had completely disappeared revealing a blanket of stars above the jungle canopy and our first glimpse of the high flanks of Kilimanjaro. We were lulled to sleep by the sound of birds in the trees above.
Our goal today was Camp 2 on the Shira Plateau at 3837m, 12,588’. This hike would lead us out of the jungle onto the Moorland. In anticipation of possible stormy weather we got an early start in hopes of getting to camp ahead of impending rain. Moving higher the jungle canopy gave way to shorter vegetation revealing great views of Kilimanjaro. Climbing higher the team worked on honing their pressure breathing and rest stepping techniques that will be crucial to our success in reaching the summit. The weather became cloudy but never threatened rain. With the sun obscured by clouds the cool temperatures made for perfect hiking weather. With views of the mountain in front of us and a nice backdrop of the jungle below we made a leisurely ascent onto the Shira Plateau. We arrived at camp about 6 hours after leaving.
This is high enough elevation that we start looking for the first signs of altitude sickness and it was no surprise when a couple team members started showing the effects of exertion in the thinner air. Common symptoms include headaches, loss of appetite, lethargy, nausea, and difficulty sleeping. The root of these problems stems from lack of oxygen and dehydration. Therefore the first lines of defense are to increase water intake and breath harder. We also would not be sleeping much higher in elevation over the next couple of nights.
The team took a short afternoon hike to the nearby Shira Cave to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery. This is also a great way to fight off feelings of lethargy.
The team woke to a beautiful sunrise. The view from the Shira Plateau includes Kilimanjaro’s satellite peak Mt. Meru that rises out of the African plains to the west. Most of the team member’s altitude symptoms had gone away overnight but Nicole in particular was still feeling it. Chris had checked on her during the night and today Kurt decided to hike with her at a comfortable pace. Even if this pace would be slower than the rest of the team we had plenty of guide staff to help the others and this is why we staff our trips so well. April and Chris made sure to stay with the group and help out any of the others along with members from our Chagga staff.
The goal today is Barranco Camp at 3940m, 12,926’. Our hike today takes us under the Western Breach Wall of Kilimanjaro. As it gains elevation we lose vegetation as the terrain turns into a moonscape decorated by volcanic rocks. Along the way we would be climbing to Lava Tower at 4630m, 15,190’, then drop elevation down to our camp. This is a very important day in our acclimatization schedule. There is no better way to acclimate to high altitude than to climb high then sleep low. This would also be a longer day of walking today. The team was prepared for a 8-9 hour walk today that would represent the longest and most physically demanding day we would have until summit day. This would also be the highest elevation we would attain until our summit attempt.
We paced the team carefully as we moved up in altitude. Slow and steady progress is the most efficient way to tackle long distances at increasingly higher elevation. The team did an excellent job as they continued to hone their rest step and pressure breathing techniques. Everybody ate and drank well at breaks and did an excellent job of taking care of themselves and looking out after each other. The team moved efficiently up to Lava Tower arriving there at 1:30 in time for a good lunch break. Nicole also demonstrated exceptional will and determination that was exemplary of this entire team. With a sensitive stomach that made it difficult to keep food down she sipped water in small quantities and ate what she could (3 almonds over the course of the day!) and managed to keep pace with the rest of the group. All the while she received encouragement from fellow team members.
After lunch the team continued on descending to Barranco Camp arriving at 5pm 8 hours after starting out. As our route neared camp we came upon the Giant Senacio Trees that decorate Kilimanjaro in wetter regions of this elevation. A stop here for a group picture was of course mandatory before a happy group made the last 15 minute stroll into camp. An excellent effort was displayed by everybody today making big steps towards being set up for our summit attempt now 3 days away.
Over the next two days our goal will be to get to high camp. While it is possible to get there in one long day we choose to divide this into two shorter days. This offers more opportunity for acclimatization in addition to giving anybody ailing a chance to recover. Today’s hike then takes us up the infamous Barranco Wall to over 4230m, 14,110’. Barranco Wall is mostly a switchbacking hike with a couple places that require climbers to scramble up or down a couple short 3-6m, 10-20’ sections using hands and feet in spots. These sections never pose a problem for us. We take the time to help folks with their balance and footwork, spot them from below, and offer a hand from above. Predictably the team surmounted the Barranco Wall in fine style.
With views of the Heim, Kersten, and Redmen glaciers above to our left our route traversed the mountain going up and down a couple valleys and hillsides. Rounding a corner we then looked across to the end of today’s hike, Karanga Camp at 3930m, 12893’. Karanga is a Swahili word that means peanut. There are however no peanuts growing in the valley at this elevation. We first descended into Karanga Valley then climbed up the other side to finish off today’s hike. This last hill is steep but by now the group has learned so well the finer points of climbing at high altitude that they all did an excellent job of tackling this hill in fine style.
This hike is a short one with the group doing it in a little over 4 hours. This left us with the afternoon free to rest, hydrate, and socialize. One of the favorite activities of this day on our trips is to play cards with our Chagga staff. Many of them don’t speak much English making interaction with them limited. Playing cards is one way we can engage them. The game is called “cardi” or “last card”. Played with a normal deck of cards it is similar to Uno. It is always a very animated and fun time for all.
At dinnertime Kurt spoke with the group about the importance of the next day. We’ll be moving to Barafu Camp at 4603m, 15,100’. This is high camp and puts us in position for our summit bid. This makes it crucial that each person be extra careful about taking care of themselves and perform well because any setbacks now are difficult to recover from. In a very real way tomorrow then becomes part of our summit attempt.
The team woke excited and focused for the task ahead. After breakfast the group packed their rucksacks and began the slow and rhythmical pace that has now become second nature. Watching the group perform it was obvious they had listened carefully and applied all the knowledge we had imparted to them. There were other teams on the mountain climbing on similar schedules to us. Twice now in two days leaders of different groups have come to us looking for medical help and assistance. The latest episode happened before departing camp today. SMI guides April and Kurt along with team member and MD Basha Kubicka visited a climber feeling ill. He had been struggling for a couple days and wasn’t getting any better. He knew he wasn’t doing well and finally decided to seek help. With extensive experience in high altitude medicine plus the knowledge and schooling of an MD we examined the person before making an assessment that his only hope for recovery is to descend.
Meanwhile our group was getting increasingly stronger. With not only the will and determination but discipline to apply all the techniques we had shown them everybody performed better each day. Making the trek to Barafu Camp took the group 3 ½ hours. Upon arrival we rested and waited while groups were still coming down from the summit and hadn’t cleared out of the tent sites we had planned to use.
By mid afternoon we were settled into camp and getting ready to put the final preparations together for reaching the summit. As the group bedded down that night April, Chris, and Kurt knew this very motivated group was poised and ready for an excellent attempt at reaching the “Roof of Africa”.
Reaching the summit of a peak is never guaranteed. While we’ll do everything we can to set people up for success any number of factors can get in the way of reaching the summit. One of the top reasons is weather. A climber can do everything possible to set themselves up for a strong summit climb but if the weather closes in there’s nothing they can do.
Kurt woke the group long before the sun came up with the goal of starting for the summit at 11:30pm. We would climb much of the route wearing a headlamp and watch the sun rise from high up on the mountain. This would also provide plenty of daylight for the descent.
Hot tea and biscuits was followed by final clothing adjustments and at 11:30 the group was gathered ready to start climbing. Before we left camp the group circled together for a morning prayer, remembrance, and reflection as to what had brought us all here in the first place. This was not just about a group of lovely ladies climbing a mountain together. This was about ordinary mothers taking extraordinary steps to bring awareness to child trafficking and slavery which is a crime that lurks below the radar screen of most people in the world and that very fact leaves an environment that allows for this crime to continue largely unnoticed. Every step these ladies take would bring more awareness to this hideous crime. Through web sites and media attention through such outlets as diverse as MTV to major news stations donations have been flooding into the Climb 4 Freedom web site all week. Here on Kilimanjaro the entire collection of climbers from all the different teams had taken notice as well and this team of lovely ladies was outperforming every other group on the mountain with most of them having had little to no previous climbing experience.
Navigating by headlamps the team carefully paced themselves up the route inching towards Kilimanjaro’s crater rim. The weather was clear and as the team gained elevation a cold wind was gaining momentum. Wind usually makes the temperature drop requiring climbers to wear more warm clothes. It also makes it more difficult for climbers to efficiently take care of themselves. As hard as it got at times the ladies reminded themselves that this is nothing compared to the suffering some children are experiencing worldwide and this thought alone helped keep people’s motivation high.
The other factor that added to the difficulty was some of the other teams on the mountain. People would pass our group but then never keep a steady rhythmic pace. This would cause our team to keep an erratic pace wasting precious energy. Managing other climbing groups is an important skill and act in diplomacy that any good mountain guide needs to have. We did our best to keep our group together and separated enough from others to maintain our solid pace as much as possible.
Stopping for breaks to refuel and adjust clothing is crucial on climbs. We also passed around cups of hot tea we had our staff prepare into thermoses that the guides carried. Several hours into the climb we found ourselves at 5500m, 18,000’+ where there is half the oxygen of sea level. People were now taking 2-3 deep breaths for each step uphill. The effects of high altitude and cold air combine to make the ascent increasingly taxing on the body. Not one of these ladies showed signs of tiring to the point of needing to stop though. They kept taking care of themselves and showed a continued will and determination that had become their trademark on this climb.
At 5:15am with the first rays of the sun beginning to poke their way over the horizon the team reached the crater rim of Kilimanjaro at a landmark known as Stella Point at 5790m, 19,000’. Although the trip around part of the rim to the highest point is about 45 – 60 minutes reaching this point was a truly emotional moment for the team. The air was cold and the sun had just begun to show it’s first rays coming over the horizon off the the east. With the sun’s warming light beginning to tickle the African plains below team members joined in emotional tearful embraces. The significance of this event was not lost on anybody.
We then gathered our strength for the final push to 5895m, 19348′. They call the highest point on Kilimanjaro Uhuru Peak, The Roof of Africa. As the team made their way around the crater rim the clear crisp breezy morning revealed breathtaking views of Kilimanjaro’s massive crater on one side and the endless African plains on the other.
45 minutes after starting the team made the last steps until there was no higher point to attain. The entire team had reached the summit at 6:30am. Team members again embraced in tearful and emotional celebration at the collective effort that got everybody to the summit. Summit photos were taken as people tried to keep warm in the chilly rarified air.
Some team members realized they should start down to stay warm while others made it as long as one hour before starting down. The team gathered together back at Stella Point and made a safe and solid descent back to camp with the final team members arriving here at 10:30am.
A tired but satisifed team took a rest before packing gear, having lunch, then starting again to descend further down the mountain. After climbing 1292m, 4239′ and descending that distance back to camp over a period of 10 hours 45 minutes a little rest was warranted. The team also knew that recovery would be slow at 4603m, 15,100′. The team descended out of the sub alpine zone back to elevations where plants actually grow and thrive stopping at Mweka Camp at 3048m, 10,000′.
Tired but satisfied the team had dinner and went to bed early for a well deserved sleep.
After spending several days almost 13,000′ and spending a night at the thick air of 3048m, 10,000′ makes for a very solid sleep. The body recovers much better at this elevation than it would at the higher elevations we had just been in.
Packing our gear for the last leg of the climb that descends through the jungle allows us to carry light rucksacks. The descent to the roadhead normally takes 3-4 hours and it is always a great time to reflect on our adventures over the past few days. After living several days without many modern conveniences this last leg of the journey is the last opportunity to enjoy that environment while anticipating the comfort of a real bathroom and our first hot shower in a week.
With gear packed and the team ready to walk our Chagga staff enthusiastically jumped in to the time honored tradition of singing to us before we left camp. Fun and animated our entire staff of porters, cooks, and assistant guides come together with loud voices, hands clapping, and a few African dance moves to say thank you for a great trip.
With big hugs all around we return our thanks to them then begin the last leisurely journey through the jungle canopy finishing at the roadhead at 1830m, 6000′. The jungle had not seen rain over the past couple of days so the trail was not overly muddy or slippery. The team could relax and go at their own pace. Many people paired off and chatted away. Some reflected on our summit day while others thoughts drifted home to husbands, kids, family, and friends who have been following our progress on a daily basis with prayers and supportive thoughts.
The team was back at the trailhead in 3 hours. Transportation picked us up and we drove back to our hotel in Moshi. Upon arrival these next couple hours would mark the last time the entire group would be together. With no time for showers an ecstatic team was in a big celebratory mood. Juliet had brought plenty of champaign and the entire team gathered for lunch. Afterward some emotional speeches were made by team members. Kurt then said some closing words and was joined by April in presenting well earned summit certificates to each team member signed by the guides while Chris documented the whole event with his professionally trained eye behind his camera.
One of the last statements Kurt told the group is that the impact of what this team just accomplished will take a couple weeks to set in. It hasn’t even been two weeks since the team parted ways and it is still definitely sinking in for the guides and for those team members we’ve heard from since. The energy and enthusiasm of these lovely ladies was a true joy to be a part of. They all made sure they looked great every day before they got out of their tents. The real beauty though rested in the hearts and minds of each one of these team members. Taking time out of their busy schedules of being mothers and wives, some with kids as young as 6 – 12 months, was a big effort in and of itself. Doing it all for such a worthy cause their true beauty reflected out from the inside of every team member and showed what truly beautiful, lovely, gorgeous, joyous ladies they are.