2010 Kilimanjaro Summit Climb Trip Report
by Kathy Maclaurin (71 years old)
"Unless you undertake something in which the outcome is uncertain, you'll never know how far you can really go."
Early in 2010, our son Kit (others may know him as Ken) had invited me to climb Kilimanjaro with him in a group led by Phil Ershler, a famous guide and co-author of "Together On Top Of The World." Phil leads groups up the Seven Summits, and Kit had already climbed four peaks with him.
I knew I wasn't Kit's first choice his cousins and brothers weren't available. I was touched to be invited but simultaneously frozen with dread at the prospect. I wondered how I'd react to lack of oxygen. Rob and I had trekked in Nepal in 1968, but I'd had no experience of high altitude. A brother-in-law who had scaled a number of the Seven Summits reassured me. "If I had a chance to do one of those expeditions again, Kilimanjaro is the one I'd most enjoy." Luckily I didn't hear his son's descriptions of that climb until after our expedition. "Rich was suffering from jet-lag, and I'd eaten something that disagreed with me," Charlie said. "So I kept throwing up, and Rich was passing out, and finally when we got to the crater, Dad said, 'I think we can consider this the summit and go back.' At that point we rallied and made it to the top."
Once I'd accepted, I tried to put panic out of my mind. Kit and I shopped for expedition gear and hiked up Mount Monadnock in the midst of a tornado. Alone on the weekends, I trained on the low mountains right near our house, hiking 5 hours with a heavy pack. Sometimes I mowed the steepest parts of our field with a rotary mower; that really works the arms, back, and shoulders. And I added 100 pushups to my yoga routine.
In late August, we got an e-mail from Phil, who had just returned from the Inca Trail. He urged us to "arrive rested, in great condition and ready to kick butt."
Kit and I left on Sept. 10, a couple of days early, to break up the trip and recover from jet lag. On the plane, Kit brought out a borrowed ring to fortify me. It had a huge Indian ruby. "This has been charged by a Balinese shaman," he told me. I wore it for the whole trip.
We spent a night in Amsterdam, where we visited the van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum before embarking on the 10-hour flight to JRO in Tanzania. Arriving late at night, we found an employee from our hotel waiting to drive us through the mysterious African night to the small town of Moshi.
We had a free day in Moshi. We slept late, then wandered along rocky country roads past earthen yards and cinder-block houses. People looked wary until we greeted them with a cheery "Jambo!" Then they would respond with a smile and sometimes a hand-clasp.
Phil and the rest of the group arrived in the evening. Phil was dark-haired and dark-eyed, muscular and compact. Including Phil, we were 12 in all, 6 of each gender. I was the oldest at 71, and Ellie Lord, who had come with her father, Dave, was the youngest at 27. Ellie designs kitchens and has lived in Sydney and London. She turned out to be very lively bantered with all the porters. But she looked very downcast that first evening, as if she were out of her league. Glancing at the muscular legs of the other women, I had the same doubts.
After a leisurely breakfast the next morning, we were taken downtown by bus, to visit the headquarters of the Porters' Association, where we bought T-shirts and maps. Then we explored the market, past pyramids of fruits and vegetables, bags of rice, and cuts of raw meat. The smells reminded me of the market in Bangkok, when I was pregnant with Kit. The vendors were man-eating sharks, pursuing us with bracelets, necklaces, and safari hats. I refused to make eye contact so they honed in on Kit.
On the morning of the 15th we set off on the climb, signing in at the Marangu Park Headquarters. "You have to put in your passport number," Phil said, "but if you don't remember it, put in anything. Just remember, a passport number has 9 digits." There were warning signs at the headquarters: "Do not push yourself beyond your limits. You should never go higher than 3000 meters if you have a cold, cough, sore throat or a temperature. Do not attempt this climb if you have a heart or lung condition."
Kit and I did exercises on a sunny platform under a roof, and some of us used the last civilized toilets we'd see for a while. At 9:15, we set off on the trail, after some guiding instructions from Phil. "If you're moving too fast to chat, you're probably going too fast."
We were walking upward through the rain forest. Phil had expected it would be mist-laden but the weather was sunny. We climbed about 4,000 feet, starting at an altitude of 6,000 feet. It was a well beaten trail, with occasional "stairways" carved out with wooden rails and treads. The wood was slippery: we stepped over it. Trees towered above us, bearded with moss, ferns, and vines and concealing monkeys and birds which we heard but didn't see.
A group of children gathering dried ferns and sticks. They greeted us shyly when we said, "Jambo," and we gave each of them a piece of gum. Two of them accompanied us on the trail, holding our hands, till we found their friends and doled out gum to them too.
The vegetation changed quite dramatically as we approached the top of the trail. The trees had bigger leaves, and the branches of some tall, skinny trees were hung with the long ghostly streamers of the gray-green bearded lichen. At Machame Camp, we found the porters setting up individual tents and then the large tent where we would all gather. As Phil had warned, it was like a Chinese fire drill, with everybody shouting directions in Swahili and tripping over each other. But finally it was assembled and we were served tea. Phil urged everyone to use hand sanitizer before dipping into the popcorn and cookies. Dinner consisted of hot leek soup, bread, spaghetti and two kinds of sauce (vegetarian and meat), with short fat bananas for dessert.
We gathered all our gear into the vestibules of our tents: duffels, backpacks, trekking poles and boots. After a trip to the privy (whose door doesn't latch) and an appreciative glance at the waxing moon and bright stars, we retired to our tents.
On the second day, we left camp at 8:30 and arrived at the Shira Plateau at 1:15. This was designed as the easiest day. Phil had announced that Thomas would lead us, slow and steady, along a trail with some complicated zigs and zags. I followed in his footsteps almost exactly. We were now in the heath and moorland climate, passing a lot of the gray-green bearded lichen. In one place, it overhung a dead tree shaped like the prow of a ruined ship, half sunken in green vegetation, the beards dangling above like the tatters of torn sails. The extraordinary shapes of the giant shrub senecios began to appear, with a rosette of leaves emerging from a shaggy trunk, like a potted plant on display.
We finally reached a ridgeline and it was a bit like hiking along Lafayette in northern New Hampshire, with mountains all around us. As we reached the plateau, we began to see cairns, as the landscape and path were less clearly delineated flatter. We saw Mt. Meru at sunset time. The three slanting, pointed mountains in the foreground turned from a dark gray to an ethereal blue. They were particularly arresting when a bank of threatening black clouds hovered above, but later the clouds softened and Meruwas lapped by a heavenly mist.
On the 17th we left camp at 8:35 for a hike expected to last 6-7 hours. We climbed up to the rock formation called the Lava Tower, at 14,900 feet, for the sake of acclimatization, then dropped back down to 13,000 ft. at Camp Barranco. The weather was changeable, with occasional sleet. The vegetation was eerie and beautiful, with more of the giant senecios. The tall stems serve as reservoirs for the water needed for the cabbage-like leaves on top. The leaf buds insulate the delicate central shoot, protecting it from freezing. When the leaves die, the bracts remain in place, forming a dry insulating skirt around the trunk. Phil pointed out the dried remains of Giant Lobelia. I was disappointed that they were withered and brown, as the guidebook said the flowers were quite spectacular. "When do they bloom?" I asked, and Phil, stumped, gave me a reproving look. "They bloom in the blooming time."
During the hike, Thomas dropped out of the lead position to make sure everyone was coping well with a difficult stretch. I continued at his slow, steady pace. When he caught up again, he said, "You very strong lady."
After tea, I left to organize my things in the tent. As I was leaving the big tent, I collected all the used tea bags and napkins on the table. "Why are you doing that?" Phil asked sharply. "Why don't you let me do that?" I looked at him. "I'm a housewife," I said. "This is what they do."
Next morning, as Dave and I were waiting for a turn at the latrine, he said, "Last night as we were lying in the tent in the African darkness, with the porters speaking Swahili outside, Ellie said, 'Dad, I'm a bit out of my comfort zone.' But of course it makes you grow." I agreed, quoting a line I'd recently read: "Unless you undertake something in which the outcome is uncertain, you'll never know how far you can really go."
We left Barranco at 8:40, to climb a high, steep wall of rock. We wound our way up the ramparts, moving aside whenever porters appeared, with their heavy loads balanced on their heads or necks. They carried huge plastic bottles of water, bags of rice, cartons of eggs, and sometimes a transistor radio as well, for company. Their costumes were picturesque. One wore black leggings, a white T-shirt, and boxers gaily patterned with triangles. Another wore hot pink sweat pants and a pale pink jacket. Most had fairly good shoes, probably donated by hikers. And we saw T-shirts with team and brand names from all over the US.
After tea in Camp Karanga, Kit and I started towards the latrine we'd passed on arrival. Robinson, one of the porters, headed us off. "Mama, Mama, that not a good toilet for you!" He pointed to another latrine farther up the slope. "I love how they call you Mama," Kit said.
After the first night, all the porters knew that Kit and I belonged together, and they would choose us a tent and station our two duffels outside it. All the porters would greet us, ask us how our day was, and how we slept. "I don't sleep," I told one with a smile. "I guess I'll be in suspense right up to the end: will I get to the top or not?" He smiled. "You make it. No panic."
At this camp, we heard the tuneful songs of small gray birds. They sounded like a child's wind-up toy, with a piercing sweetness.
At supper I asked Phil if I should take some kind of sleeping medicine. He shook his head. "You're doing great! I wouldn't change a thing. Have you got a good book? Tell you what, if Kit's asleep, and you have to go to the bathroom, wake him up. No use letting him sleep. Get him to talk to you. That'll put you to sleep. You're the oldest person I've ever taken up Kilimanjaro," he said with satisfaction.
We all left supper to see the sunset: vivid streaks of orange and pink, and Mt. Meru in a bed of puffy cumulus clouds. "It makes you want to dive in," Laura said. Later there was a brilliant half moon and glittering stars, including the Big Dipper or Orion's Belt. "A beautiful country," I said to two porters. "You're lucky to live here." They smiled back, white teeth flashing in the darkness. I wished them good night in Swahili: "Lala salama."
That night I slept really well, after taking a blend of Chinese and Western medications. I woke once to visit the loo. The moon was so bright that I didn't need my miner's lamp till I entered the privy, and as I walked back to the tent I marveled at the wide African sky. Kit was sleeping deeply as I crept out, and he was still unconscious when I returned. I congratulated him in the morning for sleeping so soundly. He smiled and said he'd gone out six times in the night. "I knew you were sleeping, because you were snoring."
This morning we had a later breakfast than usual, at 8:00, and we left camp about 9:00. Thomas led the group at his leisurely pace. Phil had urged us to fall into a rhythm: step, breathe, rest, step, and Thomas's pace had the effect of a meditation. The longer we walked, the more energized and peaceful I felt. When I looked ahead at the path, I didn't care whether it went up or down.
At the bottom of the steep slope that led up to Camp Barafu, we stopped at a stream to fill up our water bottles. There was no water available at high camp, and this saved the porters an extra load. The stream was sluggish, and we didn't like to look closely at the water. But we would sterilize it with our water purification tablets when we reached high camp.
Camp Barafu was the least attractive of our camp sites, because, at 15,000 feet it marked the end of vegetation and the beginning of the desolate highland desert. After supper Phil gave us a lecture on pulmonary and cerebral edema, which can affect climbers at high altitudes, when fluid starts leaking into the lungs or brain. Someone with pulmonary edema may sit up instead of lying down, in an attempt to get more air, because fluid is pooling in his lungs. "That's a signal," Phil said. "Ding!" With cerebral edema, even the smallest task becomes an effort. If someone tells you it was exhausting to get to the latrine, that's an indication. "We need to be on the alert for each other," Phil said. "I'm relying on all of you."
He urged us all to check our gear and to make sure we knew how to put on our gaiters. "I don't want anybody saying tomorrow, 'I don't know how these things work.'" He said he was going to sleep in his long johns and socks, to save time dressing.
"Summit Day" began at 11:00 p.m. the night before, when we were roused after 4 hours rest. I didn't sleep, but when I turned on my miner's light, I was struck by Kit's angelic sleeping face, framed by the fur-tipped hood of his parka. We had one hour to dress, pack, eat breakfast, and be ready to leave. I couldn't find one of my outer socks and it took me awhile to put on long johns, fleece hiking pants, water repellent outer pants, boots, and gaiters, pack up my sleeping bag, mat, clothes, and pills, lock my duffel, and go to the latrine. By the time I reached the dining tent, it was 11:59. Not wanting to keep the group waiting, I had a couple of biscuits and a slice of cheese along with a cup of hot water. I'm never hungry in the middle of the night anyway.
Luckily someone else was still packing. I gave Kit a thumbs-up: "I'm not the last one!"
We followed Thomas up a dusty, rocky trail, with no discernible markings. The trail was littered with bits of pumice, which made it tricky to walk on. We were wearing our miners' lights, stumping onward and upward, using our trekking poles. Thomas set a measured pace, and several groups, younger and brisker, passed us in the darkness. Disheartening.
We didn't stop for a break for about two hours. The going was fairly easy along the side of a crater, and Phil wanted to get up a good way before stopping. When we finally stopped, it was still pitch-black and cold. It was hard to take off my mittens, get a snack from my pack, eat and drink, and then put on my mittens again. We had reached an altitude of 17,000 feet, and I was affected by the thin air. I wasn't dizzy, and my head didn't ache, but I felt revolted by food. And I just lost heart. Phil noticed immediately. Right away he gave my pack to Kit. "Carry this."
And then he walked beside me, giving me breathing lessons, with special emphasis on inhalation. I tried to listen and imitate him, but I was limp. And breathing in was harder than breathing out. I had caught Kit's cold, and my nose was constantly dripping. Sometimes it was too much of an effort to remove my mittens and wipe it with a tissue; sometimes I just brushed it with my leather mittens.
Phil had said everything would change when the sun came up, which it finally did around 6:30, a big red ball bleeding crimson into the bank of clouds. Kit took a picture of it while I watched passively, all my reactions dulled by the lack of oxygen. I have very few memories from dawn on, except for watching a young man being led down by two porters. He probably had edema; he was disoriented and stumbling, unable to support himself or focus his eyes. That picture is burned into my memory: There but for the grace of God go I.
I do remember wistfully addressing the Holy Spirit: "If it please You, give me strength." And I guess something did, because I kept plodding on and on, breathing laboriously. Finally we reached the snow and pillars of ice (quite old and dirty ice, much to my disappointment), and the guides and porters began to get excited. "We almost there! Not much farther!" At this point I was exhausted. I kept experiencing an irresistible desire to lie down. Which I finally did, exasperated by the guides' assurance that we were almost there. I would look up at what I hoped was the summit, and it would turn out to be just a fold or a layer, or the rim of a crater, with the trail rising upward and onward to the left.
"I'm not going any farther," I told Kit.
"Think about your ring," Kit urged. "Think how far it's already brought you!"
"I have thought about it," I said, with my eyes closed, "and I think it's helped." But I didn't move.
Then Phil turned up. He usually hiked at the end of the group, to see if anyone was in trouble. "The doctor was there too," Kit told me afterwards. I was astounded. "He was?"
"He was right in step with Phil," Kit said.
Phil gave me a pep talk. At that point, he and Kit had a much bigger investment in my getting to the top than I did. "Kathy, at your age, I'm guessing you're not going to be coming this way again. And from what I've seen of your hiking, I think you can make it. It's only another 300 meters. Shall we try it?"
"O.K.," I said, and got up to start trudging again, in a robotic and trance-like state.
"I have no recollection of chronological time at all," I told Kit later. "And when people ask me what the view was like at the top, I can't remember. While I was climbing, I had tunnel vision."
"At high altitude you have only 50 per cent of your intellectual function," Kit told me.
"What time did I reach the summit?" I asked.
"Oh, about 9:30," Kit said.
"So it took me 9 hours," I mused. "I suppose you'd gotten there way before?"
"No," Kit said. "I stayed to take pictures of the rim of the crater. That's where you lay down."
Finally I reached the summit with the "Uhuru Peak" sign and the height: 5,896 meters (19,340 ft). Everybody took pictures, and there was general rejoicing. "Good job!" Kit said as we were being photographed. That made it all worthwhile. Together on top of the world.