The Airbus A320 from Doha touched down at the Kilimanjaro airport as the sun was beginning to move from overhead to the western part of the sky. I was expecting to be bowled over by some imagined African heat, but I emerged from the plane to mild temperatures, with a hint of a chill. I scanned the horizon, hoping to see Kilimanjaro. While lesser mountains surrounded the airport, none were majestic enough to be the king.
Other than the occupants of our plane and a few workers, the small airport felt mostly deserted. Just outside the exit, a man stood clutching a flimsy paper placard with my name scrawled in sharpie, offering a smile and an outstretched hand.
Endless fields of sunflowers floated by on the way to Kilimanjaro Wonders hotel. “Sunflower oil is one of our bigger exports,” my otherwise quiet driver offered when I asked.
At the hotel, the receptionist greeted me with “You’re welcome,” which made me think: Wait, did I say ‘thank you?’ until I realized that she was simply communicating “Welcome.” Over my stay in Africa I can’t count how many times this happened, my instinctive confusion compounded by the effect that I’m a New Yorker who instinctively barks out “You’re welcome” to someone for whom I’ve held a door and offers no acknowledgement.
After a shower and change, I met my guide in the lobby. My first impression of Aiden, as he’d introduced himself to me, was: oh, this is what an African hipster looks like. He was shorter than me but not short, thin but not skinny, his clothes a patchwork of layers with purples, yellows, greens—the colors of Tanzania. From a piece of leather tied around his neck hung a wooden ram’s head. His eyes, irises lined with gold, disclosed a sense of mischief and humor, though he seemed reluctant to express it, at least for now. By all appearances he was in his early 30s. Unlike the other Tanzanians I had engaged with, Aiden seemed less motivated to coddle my needs, and though he would often refer to me as “commander,” I suspected he considered himself in charge.
Aiden described the trek, day by day, what I was to expect, ending each small coda with “Are we together?” I nodded as he talked, trying to listen intently and stay focused despite my jet-lag and hangover. He asked if I had any questions.
“How many times have you gone to the top, Aiden?”
“Almost a hundred and fifty.”
My jaw dropped. I swore under my breath.
“Is it hard?”
There was a pause that one takes before answering diplomatically.
“It is not hard. Uh, it is not hard. No.”
It was enough for me. He told me to be ready at 7 AM the next morning for pickup, we shook hands, and he was gone.
My driver from the airport had returned, with a fellow American in tow. At first glance, Andrew was the picture of middle America, late-40s with pragmatic prescription glasses, a hairline that was on the verge of surrender, and a slight bulge hanging over his waistline. The driver introduced us, and he was immediately friendly and engaging, fueled by a boyish exuberance. It was perhaps a little too much for my hangover; I responded to his overtures a bit coldly.
I found myself judging the way he didn’t try to speak (even nominal) Swahili to the Tanzanians, or slow down his English a little. He struck me as a typical ethnocentric, provincial American who was supporting the kind of global stereotype that I’ve always tried to chip away at. He said that he was taking the Machame route as opposed to my Lemosho, and I found myself relieved at the notion of not being stuck traveling with him. I wished him a good trek, but was already edging in the direction of my room.
I was picked up in a mini-van, offered quick introductions to its ebony-skinned occupants, which I promptly forgot. My seat was in the center of the van, no one to my right or left. We began the long drive from Moshi, circling Kilimanjaro so that we could approach it from the West. Moshi is the town which comprises the base of most of the mountain’s tourism. The drive to Lemosho gate, at the western edge of Kilimanjaro park, consisted of 4 hours of animated discussions in Swahili, many of which collapsed into laughter. However, it came from the front of the van, where Aiden, my guide sat, as well as the cook, and driver. Porters, the grunts of the operation, sat behind me, mostly without talking. They were younger, and projected a less-comfortable aura in contrast to the lively coterie of Tanzanians up front. I found myself wishing someone would try to speak a little English to me, just so I could feel included. With a few small exceptions however, they continued in their baritone Swahili.
While we passed a number of well-maintained farms, growing corn, coffee, and wheat, the commercial aspect of the area was decidedly third-world. Most commerce I saw, at least as we were outside of the inner circle of Moshi, was undertaken in primitive strip malls, their stores simple concrete enclaves. Some had hand-painted signs, few had doors or windows, just rusty garage sliders that would be pulled down at the end of the day. One store sold soft drinks, toiletries, and a selection of dyed kaftans. The next store offered bike tires, motor oil, and a small selection of hand tools. There were no Home Depots, no Pet Smarts, no Barnes and Nobles. In fact, the only places that had even proper doors and overhead lighting were pharmacies, gas stations, and banks.
Where in America there would’ve been pristine Dover white curbs hugging manicured flowerbeds in the median, here there was only dirt. Here a person didn’t just have a car. He or she had a cheap motorbike, and if their industry called for it, a tiny pickup truck or a minivan. The few times I spotted an Audi or other sedan, I immediately presumed it must belong to a government official or owner of one of the farms.
In the environs of Moshi, the prominent religion was Christianity. “Jesus is King,” “Christ has risen,” and the like, were gaudily displayed across windshields, or in giant lettering on the sides of vans.
Asphalt became dirt as we neared the Lemosho gate, and the open rural countryside was swallowed by something between forest and jungle. We pulled into the Lemosho glades gate to find a swarm of other trucks and vans. Hordes of porters, cooks and guides milled about. They were all black and entirely male. Small groups of white people were sprinkled among them, checking each other’s packs, taking pictures, talking excitedly.
I signed into the trail log, which asked for my name, nationality and occupation. Previous entries revealed that the recent arrivals were almost all Americans. Surprising, considering how far we were from home. Where were the Germans, the English, the French, the smattering of South Americans? I felt a twinge of embarrassment when I saw that the other trekkers were overwhelmingly white, with the exception of a single black American couple who sat on a bench, looking around warily. By my approximation, trekkers’ ages ranged from late teens to mid-60s. The majority seemed to have some hiking experience, a few kitted with gear that was dusty and well-worn. Voices speaking American English tugged at my attention, coming from all directions.
I was presented a boxed lunch by Aiden and told to eat. It contained an apple, a roasted thigh of chicken wrapped in tin foil, tropical juice box, cookies with the word “Glucose” on the packaging. I nibbled at it hesitantly at first, but finished most before giving the leftovers to a young man hocking Kilimanjaro-themed sun hats at the gate. I assumed I was doing him a favor, but then I thought, wait, is that racist? To hand him my leftovers, like he’s some poor person? He seemed to appreciate it, though, so I waved the thought away. I turned down one of his hats and wandered back into the fold.
Our driver’s name was Emmanuel. He emitted warmth, and, unlike the others, an eagerness to engage with me. (Aiden had simply stated on the ride prior, “Emmanuel is a Christian.” I feigned significance.) Emmanuel spoke decent English. He approached me, and asked me how i was doing. I admitted that my stomach had been bothering me since the hotel. He seemed genuinely concerned, contemplating, then began scanning the surrounding forest, as if a pink bottle of Pepto would be dangling from a branch.
“Come here,” he said, and led me into the brush. I followed, into a small clearing, and he seemed to locate what he was looking for, and began digging into the dirt with his hands.
Locating the roots of the small tree, he ripped at them until he held a handful of thin roots in his hands. He brushed (some) of the dirt off, and popped one into his mouth, looked at me while chewing, and said “good for the stomach.” He held out a handful of the dirty roots.
I laughed nervously, but said “okay” and took one, putting it gingerly between my teeth. As I chewed, an astringent juice was expelled and my face became a mask that read: Gross. Emmanuel laughed. I managed to get a piece of root down, with enough water, then tried another but my throat threatened to gag, so I just swallowed the acrid juice and spit the rest out. I croaked “cool” and he laughed again.
To my surprise and wonderment, about 15 minutes later my stomach was completely better. Meanwhile a single man was weighing all of the porters’ bags, so a large queue had formed behind him. He gave most the go-ahead while others had to take items out to lessen their load. Porters are limited to no more than 15kg, which translates to 33lbs, but oftentimes the person weighing allows a few kgs over. A man with a Kalashnikoff on his lap sat nearby, looking bored.
We finally plunged into the forest, taking up the trail. The incline was immediate, jarring my system. I had been sedentary for the past 2 days and was suddenly ambling up steep, loping steps which had been cut into the earth, outlined with branches for support and traction. I was immediately taken by the thought, Wait, this hard…already?
Despite my preference for a more gradual start, I was swept up in the flow of porters, who passed us effortlessly, their loads easily 4 times mine. Pride stepped in, and I maintained my pace, although my panting sounded louder in my ears than any other sound in the forest.
After an hour of this, I began to rationalize my lagging confidence. I was jet-lagged, still slightly hungover, and clearly these guys had done this countless times before. Plus, most of them were younger than me. I nevertheless found myself daunted, wondering how the older trekkers were faring.
The immediate toll on my confidence lent itself to the overall sensation that I was out of my element. Breathing heavily, I found that even stopping to urinate if others were around was a supreme task of willpower. It took me sometimes a minute just to start, an eternity to finish, my spray eking out as if from a corroded watering can. I watched enviously as from behind Aiden’s turned back, dick barely out of his trousers, his stream shot strong and true.
The Tanzanian jungle was damp, threaded with a chill that was not at all what I had expected. As the heat from my body increased from the exertion, I could not tell whether I wanted to keep or remove layers of clothing. I found myself constantly wanting to ask Aiden how close we were to camp, but pride kept my efforts focused on taking the next step, taking the next breath.
Relief flooded me when Aiden announced that we had arrived. Big Tree Camp stood at 2650 meters above sea level, a vertical ascension of 400 meters from the gate. A squared wooden structure held the gate’s warden, where we signed in. A sprawl of different colored tents dotted the giant clearing. The camp rested under a canopy of the jungle, only a few beams of sunlight were able to penetrate it. Aiden led me to where the porters and crew had already assembled my tent, an orange 2-person number whose only contents was a sleeping mat. Eventually my pack and sleeping bag were delivered, and Aiden announced that dinner would be in a couple hours.
What I would learn over the next days was that the climate was ever-shifting, and therefore layering was essential. Sometimes I had just removed my hoodie due to the heat and moments later I was cold again. So clothes came on, and came off, and came back on again. It was disorienting at first.
Too early for dinner, and not sleepy enough to take a nap, I explored the campsite. It consisted of clusters of tents, separated by each trekking company. One that stood out was Zara Tours, whose tents all had logos emblazoned on them, and seemed to stand more proudly than those of my crew. While there were only seven of my crew, including myself, there must’ve been 20 of the Zara crew to handle what was obviously a larger—and better-funded—group. I would come to envy the fact that their group contained a tent holding an actual dinner table and benches.
A concrete building containing toilets stood to one side of camp, illuminated by solar-powered electricity. Because I had begun taking the altitude medication Diomox, whose side effect was that it was a diuretic, I would become very familiar with it over the course of the night.
Night fell, and with it, the chill intensified. I returned to my tent, attempting to make some semblance of sanctuary while I waited for dinner. I hung a battery-powered light from the ceiling of my tent, unfurled my sleeping bag. I removed from the crush of my pack the next day’s outfit, piece by piece.
Frank, my “waiter,” poked his head in the tent, offering a hello (the extent of his english, which made his title that much more ironic) and spread a little red-and-black checkered tablecloth down in the corner of the tent. Next came hot water and tea. Then, a squat round thermos-like container containing cucumber soup, which was pretty tasty. When I finished, he brought the largest plate of spaghetti I may have ever seen. Or, to be fair, it was a giant plate of noodles, light on sauce, with a few slivers of vegetables hiding among the pasta. I normally recoil from huge amounts of carbs, but I tried to eat what I could. Three-quarters of it went back—I assumed the porters would eat it. Frank then brought slices of mango, to which I begged “no more, please” and rubbed my bloated belly. Eventually all was taken away.
Aiden tapped at my door and entered, squatting on the spot where the tablecloth had been. I said, “Jesus, Aiden, that was too much food.” He chuckled and said, “but you must eat, it is very important to eat on the mountain.” I disagreed that getting me this bloated every night was beneficial, but decided to let it go. He pulled out a Pulse Oximeter and slid it onto my index finger, writing down my blood-oxygen level and pulse on a chart he had unfolded from his shirt pocket. Next came the altitude sickness questions: Was I nauseous? Vomiting? Did I have diarrhea? Headache? How was my appetite? Everything answered in the clear, he then went through our plan for the next day. We would wake up at 6 AM, have breakfast at 6:30 and hit the trail at 7 AM sharp. He stressed that the next day would be a long one, and that I really should get some sleep. With concern, I told him I would try, but that I didn’t feel very sleepy. He looked at me, and repeated that I should really try to sleep. This made me anxious, which, incidentally, is not good for sleep.
The night crawled by as I marinated in my thoughts, staving off a panic at the thought of the daunting day that approached, in some ways too slowly and in some too quickly. I imagined, in the camp of 60 some people, I was the only one still awake. To make matters worse, the Diomox was making me pee every hour. Getting up to pee required an amassing of willpower to move me from my sleeping bag. It was cold, so I would put on an extra layer, in addition to my headlamp and hiking boots. Then I would crawl from under the awkwardly-low shell of my tent out into the dark of the campsite. Every time I exited my tent over the course of the 7-day trek, I cursed the fact that I had to contort my body to exit. Finally standing upright, I loped almost guiltily to the toilets, an empty-handed thief in the night.
Giving up on twisting and turning, I turned the overhead light on and read my book, then played a game on my IPad for awhile. I checked my phone; the time was 3:45 AM. Though I yearned for the night to be over, I was also terrified of a sleepless dawn. I turned the overhead light back off, bringing to mind my meditation practice. I focused on my breathing; slowly, steadily, repeat. Eternities passed, but I maintained the effort. My anxieties began to subside, and finally, probably just after 4 AM, I drifted off to sleep. A couple hours later, the first rays of daybreak woke me, bringing sweet relief that the night had not consumed me. The deep-throated chittering of Colobus monkeys from the jungle beyond stirred the camp into action.
I chased breakfast (porridge, eggs and sausage) with a B-complex, two naproxen, and two cups of coffee, plus my altitude and malaria pills. By the time Aiden and I left camp, I was feeling pretty good in spite of lack of sleep.
We hit the trail before any of the others at Big Tree. Gradually ascending up through more rainforest, the damp chill still confused my senses into not knowing whether I was hot or cold.
About an hour later we emerged into the second climatic region, known as Heather Moorland. The canopy of the forest gave way to direct sunlight, which banished the chill almost immediately. I stripped off a layer and relished the comparatively straightforward air of the moorland. The next hour or so was flat to downhill, and, bolstered by the warmer temps, my spirits rose.
Then we hit what is known as Elephant’s Back. Imagine the slope of an Elephants tail from the ground to it’s towering back, and you’ll have an idea of the unforgiving incline of what the next two hour’s climb was like. Early on I suggested, “I think we could go a little faster,” but that became, “Maybe let’s take a break soon please,” to just finally just blurting out, “Fuck. Me.” “Pole, pole,” was the perennial response. It came from Aiden, Samuel the cook, Frank the waiter, my porters, porters from other companies who passed us on the trail carrying giant packs on their backs. “Pole, pole,” they all said, which is Swahili for “slowly, slowly.”
I recalled a self-help phrase My Ego is not my Amigo as I was fighting my way up Elephant’s back. Because I very easily could’ve slowed down (“pole pole,” after all), but I was propelled—against my body’s wishes—to get to the camp before the other Mzungu (Swahili for “white people”). I had given up on ever beating the porters, rationalizing that they were used to this, had acclimated. But I would beat every one of those white people, if it killed me. As I was cresting the last incline of Elephant’s back, heart hammering in my chest, I thought that death was in fact a possibility.
We reached the top of Elephant’s back, and during a rest, Aiden declared that I was “Imara Kama Simba,” which translates to “Strong like Lion.” I would’ve swelled with pride had I been able to catch my breath. What is praise, if not my favorite opiate? I’m sure he had uttered those words to hundreds of other mzungu, but at that moment, they felt like mine alone. I had earned them.
Cresting Elephant’s Back had expended the resources from the caffeine, B-vitamins, and the little sleep I had gotten, and now I plodded along, scanning the horizon for Shira 1. Surely it was close by now?
Gradually the flora began to be winnowed by an increasingly arid ground. It was as if, at the top of Elephant’s Back, the sun was now too close for anything but the hardiest of plants to survive. What had been a consistent blanket of rich green coming up, now became patches of chartreuse, plants battling for moisture.
“The mountain sun can be bad,” Aiden warned cryptically. I had up until then eschewed the use of my safari hat, thinking it too dorky, but as we trekked across the Shira plateau, sun overhead, I pulled it from my pack and slapped it on my head. His words were as if, while it was in its vicinity, the mountain owned the sun. He had made other ominous statements too, that implied that Kilimanjaro was no ordinary mountain. “You must always tell me what is going on when we’re on the mountain,” he had said in the lobby of the hotel. He referenced Kili as if it were a demigod with powers that could lift you or crush you at whim. “If you don’t tell me what is going on, there could be…problems.” I had read that at least 10 people die on the mountain each year, and I didn’t plan on being one of them. “Trust me,” I assured him. “You’ll be asking me to shut up.”
The flat landscape was marred by giant lichen-covered igneous rocks. Three-quarters of a million years ago, molten lava had blasted forth from the area on which we walked, creating the Shira volcano, the oldest of the volcanoes forming the Kilimanjaro massif, which stopped erupting and became extinct 500,000 years ago. Shira’s cone collapsed and became the Shira ridge, which stretched out in front of us, and held both camps of Shira 1 and 2.
Thirty minutes later we had arrived at Shira 1. Other than a smattering of tents, there was a sense of desertion about the place. Though I needed the rest, there was an unspoken urge to keep moving. I was presented with another boxed lunch, most of which I devoured. I offered the rest to the crew. All was taken. The temperature was warm in the sun—I could feel the strength of its rays whenever it grazed my exposed skin—but as soon as I moved to shade the temperature seemed to drop 15 degrees.
There was a lively conversation happening in Swahili amongst the crew. I tried to follow clues or context but was lost. I felt the need to interject myself, so I informed Aiden that I was ready when he was. We started ambling towards the edge of the camp, when Samuel playfully gestured that I pick up his pack. I did—the bag felt as if it were filled with metal plates. The implications were immediate and lacerating, at least in my mind. Perhaps he was just being playful, or maybe he wanted me to know that he, Samuel—whom I had learned was a year older than me—was making the same trek as I with triple the amount on his back. I squeezed his bicep and shouted, “Imara Kama Simba!” If there had been resentment, their resulting laughter signaled that all was forgiven.
We continued along Shira ridge, vacillating between patches of uphill and flat terrain. We rarely saw a passing porter, so for most of the journey between Shira 1 and 2, there was a quiet sense of solitude around us. An hour outside of Shira 1, my exhaustion turned into resentment. I soldiered on regardless, but could sense some permanent toll being taken from my strength.
I fell into the rhythm of Aiden’s plodding footsteps. My eyes trained on his corseted gaiters, my feet ticked forward and back like a metronome. I tried to lose myself in this slow, steady rhythm. Our combined shadows formed a camel that crossed the arid ridge.
Shira 2 arrived reluctantly, the last few steps feeling barely possible. I was beaten, cored. We had hiked 17 km from Big Tree, and ascended 1200 meters. Unlike the previous Shira, Shira 2 had a more social atmosphere, with far more tents, and shouts of Swahili coming from all directions. I was the first of the Mzungu to arrive. I clambered into my natty orange tent, stripping off my socks and shirt.
Once-reticent sleep was now mine for the taking. But as the sun exited behind the horizon, the wind picked up in its place, bringing with it a greedy chill. As my dinner plates were being collected, its needling fingers penetrated my tent, reaching deep into even my sleeping bag. We were positioned on top of Shira ridge, an easy target for the wind. I shivered despite wearing multiple layers inside a mummy-style sleeping bag, thinking heavily, What a dumb fucking place to put a campsite. Nothing was spared from the icy cold. The previous night seemed warm by comparison. Because of my exhaustion, I slept close to 8 hours, waking just shy of 4 am. I turned on my headlamp and reached for my book. It felt like a winter tombstone.
The morning’s daylight brought hope that the sun would beat back the malicious cold. My hot tea, which was delivered at promptly 6:30 AM, radiated it’s heat into my stiff, chapped hands. Three cups later I was feeling a sense of capability return to my limbs. Over the coming days, I would develop a Pavlovian response of joy at the arrival of my morning tea.
Outside of my tent, white-necked ravens strutted around thuggishly, looking for abandoned morsels. Their resentful caws kept hungry sparrows at a distance. When they took flight, their wings sounded like the chopping of an army helicopter.
My hopes actualized and I was able to remove layers of clothes as the cold receded. We embarked on the day’s journey just shy of 8 AM. I didn’t yet realize how the day before had pushed me past my limits and my body wouldn’t be long for payback.
About an hour and a half in, we crested a ridge and merged with a small group of English-speaking trekkers coming from the Machame route. A British man and Welsh woman, in their late 20s-early 30s, a early 20s couple (Canadian boy, American girl), and an older Australian. We chatted a bit, my curiosity piqued by the attractive Welsh girl’s friendliness, although I intimated that her handsome male English companion was more than a hiking partner. Nonetheless it was genuinely pleasant camaraderie, and the Welsh girl even invited me into two of their pictures.
We made Lava Tower camp by noon, and everyone dropped their packs to take a break. Lava Tower was so named because the earth near we were standing shot up dramatically, forming a vertical column, one which offered plenty of shade to relax in.
Just as I was about to start on my boxed lunch, around the corner came Andrew, the American from the hotel. It had only been three days, but loneliness and a lack of familiarity had reformatted me; I called out to him, greeting him like an old friend. We ate lunch together and suddenly I was almost greedily interested in his story, so desperate was I to converse with another American and fellow solo traveler. I learned that he was from New Hampshire, married with children; a talented (yet very modest) engineer who worked in Munich for weeks at a time. Andrew seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly, and happy to share in his positivity. Any provincialism which had irked me before was forgotten. We spoke about our jobs, books, horror movies.
After eating and our pleasant chat, Andrew got up to leave. Despite his corn-fed huskiness, he seemed ready to run to the horizon. Meanwhile my body was beginning to announce its displeasure, mostly with a dull ache that permeated my legs, as well as a throbbing knot in my left thigh. I remained sitting while I watched Andrew and his guide become smaller and smaller, until they finally disappeared over a hill.
Aiden seemed antsy to continue, so we set off on the trail to Baranco camp. The mountain-desert terrain had turned very rocky, and we were going downhill at various points. The combination presented repeated opportunities for a slide-fall or twisted ankle. But Aiden seemed propelled by some motive to reach the next camp in a record time.
I called out “pole pole” like it was a safety word. He slowed a bit, but our pace was still causing the pain in my legs to get worse, not better. I felt like I was being rushed, and with the growing discomfort, a latent petulance and rebelliousness bubbled up to the surface. I stopped in my tracks.
He turned, slowed, stopped.
“Do you want to just go ahead without me? I can see the trail.”
Immediately he began protesting, possibly recalling the configuration of our relationship. Maybe it had slipped his mind.
“No, no, we can go slow, pole pole, it is okay.”
“Because my muscles hurt. This pace hurts. I’m getting fucking annoyed, because I’m uncomfortable.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay. Pole pole. Do you want to take a break? We can take breaks anytime.”
We ended up finally slowing to a pace that wasn’t so painful. Aiden seemed more conscious of my presence, and now pointed out local foliage as well as the scrambling ascent we would make the following day. He also announced that we had transitioned from the Heather Moorland vegetation zone to Alpine desert. And sure enough, the fauna now consisted of cacti and other hardy plants whose roots could reach deep enough to find some otherwise hidden source of water.
A couple of kilometers later we were greeted by tents on the horizon, which signaled the approach of Baranco Camp, our destination for the day. Two of our porters appeared on the trail, having backtracked to meet us and take our packs. “Asanti sana,” I said over and over again.
When I got to my tent, I collapsed only halfway inside, motionless like a piece of driftwood. Frank did something then that really left an impression. He came over, got on his knees, untied my shoes and took them off for me. Such a simple gesture, but I nearly teared up from gratitude.
The cute Welsh girl vomited by my tent an hour later. I heard the sound of someone throwing up, then her Welsh accent as she apologized to my crew, who—when I emerged—seemed indifferent. They reacted as if she had sneezed instead of spewing her lunch all over the rocks outside our living quarters. I came out and wiped a small bit of it off her cheek, which didn’t seem to bother her. She used the term “boyfriend” to describe her companion, then added, “he’s an ass.” After some banter, she said that she was “first-language Welsh,” to which I replied self-consciously, the words dragging on their way out, “uhh, don’t the Welsh speak English, but just in a Welsh accent?” She taught me that the Welsh’s first language is actually Celtic, not English. I had learned something; here I was thinking that they only spoke English everywhere across the UK (save a little Gaelic in Ireland). (Maybe I’m not as worldly as I’d like to think.)
Aiden entered my tent around 8 PM to join me for dinner. I had asked him to earlier on the trail, tired of eating my meals alone in my tent like some sad hermit. However, I soon regretted it; he seemed displaced, and I could tell he wanted to get back to rapping with his mates in his prima langue. After dinner, we conducted our nightly status update. I had come to enjoy it, if for no reason than the undivided attention for a few minutes. The oximeter revealed my blood oxygen level to be in the 80s (out of 100. Aiden said that >55 was okay), and my pulse to be in the low-90s (good; over 130 was dangerous). He recorded the results onto my daily status chart as usual.
Samuel, my “stomach engineer” (the joking title given by Aiden) poked his head into the tent. I thanked him for dinner, overstating how much I had enjoyed it. (Other than the fried chicken—which made regular appearances—and occasionally the soup, the food was consistently mediocre.) Samuel didn’t seem eager to speak English; he smiled shyly and nodded in response. His face seemed familiar somehow, youthful in its expressions but creased by deep wrinkles. He said something in Swahili, from which Aiden translated: “How old are you?”
“41,” I replied.
They exchanged some words. Aiden exclaimed, “Samuel is 42!”
I grunted in solidarity, but in my mind, looking at Samuel’s prematurely wrinkled face, I was again reminded of the privilege disparity.
Another short exchange between them.
“He says you look young.”
Instead of extolling the virtues of Kiehl’s or a low-gluten diet, I deflected. “Well…Samuel is strong like Simba!” Looking at Samuel, I flexed my arms and made a roaring noise.
Pro Tip: Whenever at a loss for words, pantomime works wonders.
Another cold night, though slightly better than the previous one at Shira 2. I slept almost 8 full hours! Having achieved my first full night’s sleep on the mountain, I felt goddamned celebratory. The ravens began calling at daybreak, and I sat listening to them, and my thoughts, for the hour until my hot water would arrive.
My stream of thoughts had purified somewhat, less belabored by fears and anxiety, the worries of things to come. Now I found myself exploring trains of thoughts for possibilities, opportunities. Suddenly the idea of abandoning an inconsistent freelance run back home to return to full-time didn’t seem so detestable. I imagined myself showing up for work in smart business casual attire. Maybe it was time for a change of scenery: SF? LA? Hell, maybe I would even start waking up earlier. The distance, the mountain air, it was giving me new perspective.
The first cup of tea after each cold night was a simple comfort, yet one that filled me with the sense that things would be okay. I rolled the clear glass mug between my hands, from palm to fingertips, again and again like I was rolling dough for a baguette. It dispelled the cold slowly but surely.
Knowing we weren’t leaving today until 8:40, I splurged 10% of my phone’s battery on Spotify, including some old-school Michael Jackson, Big Pun’s “I’m Not a Player,” a few thunderous death metal tracks, and the artsy brilliance of Perfume Genius.
At 9 AM we departed camp, headed for Baranco Wall to the east, a very steep rock face.
It wasn’t long before we were climbing hand-to-rock, though the holds were generous protrusions, knobby like giant bones.
After an hour of scaling the wall, we were at the top. I had become a ancillary member of the two couples’ group, and we took pictures of each other. A late-20s French couple seemed to want their picture taken but were too shy to ask anyone, so I hailed them in my rudimentary French and offered to do the honors. They were openly appreciative, and thanked me in English while I tried to art direct their photos in French.
I began getting the sense that Aiden didn’t like that I was developing a rapport with the other crew. It certainly wasn’t that he wanted to monopolize conversation with me, because our dialogue was spartan, almost entirely pragmatic in nature. I started to wonder if, in contrast with his freewheeling chumminess with other Tanzanians, he actually had control issues. (It wouldn’t be the last time I would see this in Aiden.)
The two couples would start off before me, eventually stopping for a break. Aiden and I would catch up with them, but instead of stopping to rest with them, Aiden would wait until we were 100 yards in front of them before saying, “let’s take a break.” A few minutes later, the couples would pass us again. We continued to leap-frog each other like this until we all converged in a deep valley with a energetic stream cutting across it. “This river runs from the melting snows of Kilimanjaro and goes all the way into Moshi town,” Aiden pointed out. The camp lay just over the sharp ascent that took us out of the valley. The younger men decided to flaunt their physical prowess, leaving their guides (and ladies) behind. The Brit (Ollie, 31, whom I had learned was ex-military) tore up the mountain without a moments pause, the 20-year old Canadian (also named Ollie, and an obnoxious little shit) not far behind him. I sensibly stuck to “pole pole.” Canadian Ollie had irritated me over the course of the day, with a combination youthful arrogance and countless reminders that he was, indeed, Canadian, and therefore an expert at all things mountain and snow. Ironic, here I was judging Canadian patriotism when, after Trump’s election, I toyed with the idea of moving there. (So Portlandia of me.)
At the top and into Karanga camp, I found Andrew eating a lunch of fried chicken and french fries. He informed me that he had made an impromptu decision that—instead of staying here for the night like the rest of us—he would push forward to the next camp, which was 4 or 5 hours away still. It would shave a day off of his trek. Though it was only 12:45 PM at the time, I marveled at his energy. He responded with compliments on my own pace. How my tune had changed about him; I was now charmed by his effusive niceness, although maybe I was just starved for human contact. Moreover, I was thoroughly impressed—and a little envious—that a man at his age with his body type could have such boundless energy. “Dude…don’t kill yourself,” I offered in the way of advice, but I could tell he had already made up his mind.
I found my tent and crawled in to splurge on naproxen and some more music, this time my “Mostly Mozart“ playlist. I played XCom until my IPad notified me I was at 10% battery power, with a chime designed to sound disappointing. I landed my spaceship in Mexico, saved the game, slapped the cover shut on the IPad. I wasn’t too worried, as my solar-charge Powerpack had been soaking up direct rays since that morning. I had tied it to the my backpack and let it bathe in the sun.
I should plug the advantages of having a good book in a situation like this; I can’t describe the number of hours over the trek that I spent awake, at night, in a cold tent, not wanting to do anything but stay as deep in my sleeping bag as I could burrow. Or simply bored during the day with no one to talk to. Sometimes the boredom, or stillness, and resulting restlessness, threatened to drive me nuts. My solution: affix my headlamp (if night), find a comfortable position on my side, and reach for my book. In this case it happened to be Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, which started off slow but really developed into a vibrant, charming, detailed, and all-around wonderful novel. (You’re welcome, Jennifer.)
Another day. Ravens bullied about at daybreak, the anticipation for my hot tea, a mediocre but filling breakfast.
Yet despite all the similarities, I knew this day would be different. We would make a 4 km trek to Barafu base camp, rest for the day, then set off again tonight at 11 PM for the summit.
We set off, and I learned quickly why the signs had attributed 4 hours to travel the 4 km to Barafu. 4 km walking through the mostly-flat streets of Brooklyn is not the same as 4 km of straight-up incline, some of it very steep.
I shadowed Aiden as I had become accustomed to. We had been the very last (save a few straggling porters) to leave camp, but we passed more and more people—most of them younger, to my pride’s delight—along the way. From the depths of the Aiden’s bags a new piece of equipment had been exhumed: a silver oxygen tank was now strapped to the rear base of Aiden’s pack. It was about the length and thickness of my arm, enough to get one or two trekkers safely off the mountain if they fell ill from the altitude.
“Do you have a mask for that in your bag?”
“A mask? For the oxygen tank. Yes, in my bag.”
We walked for another few minutes before I suggested, in my best California stoner voice:
“So, like, d’ya wanna like hit that when we get to camp?” I erupted in laughter. He pretended to laugh along but didn’t seem to appreciate the humor, and said nothing about taking future pulls from the oxygen tank.
As we trudged along, I kept very close to Aiden, physically. So close that at times the oxygen tank swung below my chin. It strikes me as peculiar in retrospect, as I definitely like my personal space. But then, it was as if the closer I remained to him, the more an invisible tether hummed between us, allowing his inertia to help pull me along.
The rocky landscape began to take on shapes in my eyes. A giant stone crocodile loomed to my right, and up the hill on the left, a 4-foot high onion. On the last steep incline, the head of a vulture provided my next marker. I tried pointing out these totems to Aiden; an invitation to play, like the game where you find shapes in clouds. He was not impressed, nor was he interested in joining me. Maybe he thought I was losing it.
Finally we crested the ridge, approaching Barafu (“ice” in Swahili) base camp on deliciously flat ground. Underneath my boots, natural shale tinkled like wind chimes. The sign from Kalanga camp had said it would take 4 hours; I had made it in 2 and a half. Perhaps at the detriment of my body, my ego had ignored “pole pole” once again.
Aiden pointed out a nice tent situated at the front of the camp, saying quietly, “You see that one?” Inside was a father and two sons, whom I knew were Russian–I had overheard one a couple camps back saying “Nyet, nyet.” He continued, “That company is owned by an American in Arusha. You pick that company if you have very very much money.” I stared at the setup, gears turning in my head as the thought of “An American in Arusha” shimmered in marquee lights while flashing dollar signs fell like rain behind it.
Aiden and I took our first pictures together at the Barafu camp sign. It was a welcome act of camaraderie in what had thus far felt like a strictly professional arrangement. (In the picture, I’m attempting a fist bump while he ignores me.)
Barafu camp was where all routes converged, so unlike the others, there seemed to be a near-constant parade of trekkers and their crews coming and going. Now, unlike my experience at Lemosho gate, I saw the Germans, Irish, British whom I had suspected were on the mountain all along. Just off the western edge of camp, the summit of Kilimanjaro burst dramatically from the horizon, closer than ever, its icy white cap contrasting against the cerulean sky.
An unflinching sun baked the campsite to warm temperatures although the threat of cold never felt far away. Further into camp we found our tents; Samuel, Frank, and the porters were all there. Our outfit seemed meager against the backdrop of many other tents and companies, many larger and equipped with name-brand tents. One crew even wore matching outfits, from head to toe. My bags and sleeping pad were inside when I arrived. I crawled in, took my boots, shirt, and socks off, and yawned. I doubted I’d be able to catch any sleep before tonight’s departure, but after lunch I would give it a shot. I knew I would need it.
It would be a lie to deny that part of me was looking forward more to tomorrow’s descent than to reaching the summit. The thing that I had worked so hard for all along seemed eclipsed by thoughts of a hot shower back at the hotel—the hotel that was, incidentally, at an altitude that could not cause an edema in my brain. I forced myself to push away those tempting thoughts. Even if all went without a hitch, that shower was still 48 hours away. I was certain that getting up this goddamned mountain was going to require all my energy and focus. Despite that, I found myself again anxious about getting sleep with the sun blazing overhead and Aiden shouting loudly to someone in Swahili four feet away from my ears.
After lunch, Aiden informed me that Andrew had just returned from from the summit, so I went looking for him. I couldn’t help laughing when he pulled his tent door open; his face was sunburnt, tufts of hair sticking up, eyes bloodshot; he looked like a man who had been nursing a savage hangover and then struck by lightning. “I should’ve listened to you when you said not to kill yourself,” was the first thing he said. He admitted that, having skipped a camp the day before and with only a bit of rest between that and taking the summit, his day had been grueling. I consoled him by saying that he was one day closer to a hot shower than I. We exchanged words of praise and encouragement again, and I promised to give him a ring when I got back to the hotel.
I tried to take a nap but as I’d expected it was futile. Somehow, at this camp only, a folding chair had materialized outside of my tent. My crew must’ve been carrying it all along and simply forgotten about it, which annoyed me. I could’ve been sitting in a chair this whole goddamn time?! Or is this a reward for making it to base camp? I thought sarcastically. My resentments melted as I took a seat and luxuriated in being able to sit upright and comfortably for the first time in almost a week. I sat, stretching my back while listening to the tinny radio in Frank and Samuel’s nearby tent. They, as well as almost everyone else in camp, were glued to the World Cup. I had never been all that interested in soccer (“football”) before, but I found myself trying to hear who was playing, and who had just scored when excited cheers (or boos) suddenly erupted from all over the camp.
I asked Frank if I could eat outside, in my new throne. He shrugged and began setting up my dinner station on a small crate next to me. I felt a little self-conscious with the optics of so clearly being served, but taking the first bite of food in an actual chair brought such pleasure that those trepidations faded away.
Once I’d stopped moving, it seemed as if my muscles had suddenly atrophied. Our tents, like most of the others, were down a ridge from the camp entrance, though only by about 100 meters or so. Yet getting up to the series of toilets was a feat that took me minutes rather than seconds. I tried not to entertain the thought (but did anyway): If getting 100 meters to the restroom is this much of an ordeal, how the hell am I going to hike 7 hours uphill at freaking midnight?! I shoved the fear away, growling at it. Then I noticed a porter watching me standing in place and growling, and I forced myself to take another step. At one point when I was resting, taking deep breaths, I must’ve been close to Ollie the Canadian’s tent, as I heard him say, “This is pretty fun. I see myself on Everest in, oh, three years?” I debated finding the energy to go punch him in the face.
The sun started to slide west. Aiden came in and sat. A newfound urgency punctuated his preview of the day ahead.
“Where are your mittens. Do you have another pair of gloves? No? Hmm. You have handwarmers? Good. You’ll need those.” “How many t-shirts do you have. You will want to wear three t-shirts, underneath your long-sleeve shirt, then your hoodie, then your ski jacket.” “I think two pairs of socks will be fine, although you could wear three.” “We will give you hot water in your Nalgene tomorrow so it does not freeze.” “Got your gaiters? Good.” “Did you take your Diomox this morning? Okay, great.” He informed me that I would wake up at 11 PM, have breakfast at 11:30, and we would depart at midnight. Frank would be coming with us. He also conveyed that the normal time to get to Stella Point was 6 hours, and one more hour to Uhuru peak, the final destination. Before he left, he warned me, “When we are on the mountain, you must tell me if you are feeling bad. You must.” I assured him I would, we shook hands, and he was gone.
My teeth had been brushed, bathroom used, bag packed for the next day, outfit laid out. It was just after 6 PM when I swallowed a melatonin. I inserted my earplugs, and opened Manhattan Beach, laying on my side, propped up on an elbow. I was on the last chapter, which felt like perfect timing. I was tired, though not particularly sleepy; however, as 7 PM rolled around, I closed my book, pulled my elbow in, and closed my eyes.
Day 7 (almost)
I slipped out of sleep’s delicate hold just shy of 11 pm. Adrenaline began to drip into my system immediately, and I was upright and putting on clothes mere moments after my eyes were open.
Breakfast was served. Aiden called out from his tent to make sure I was awake. I affirmed I was, and asked if he could help me with my gaiters. He called out to Frank in Swahili; Frank soon popped his head in and I looked at him, a little embarrassed and said, “Sorry, Frank.” I handed him my gaiters and stuck my boots outside the tent.
Fed, gaiters on, B-vitamin taken, tea sipped, Camelback filled (room temperature water), Nalgene filled (warm water), bundled in all previously-discussed clothing, hand warmers oxidized and shaken and inserted in my mittens, bladder emptied, headlamp battery changed and headlamp affixed to my forehead. I have never liked using hiking poles, but I strapped them to my pack in case I would need them. I was pretty sure I was ready. I felt warm, maybe too warm, which concerned me. Aiden gave me a quick equipment check.
“Aiden, I’m kinda hot.”
“That’s okay. You won’t be for very long.” He caught sight of my blue Camelback tube. “When you finish sippy-sippy, you must blow water back so the hose is empty. Understand? Because it will freeze.” I sipped my hose, blew it back into the reservoir, gave Aiden a thumbs-up.
Aiden and Frank announced that they were ready, and we turned toward the mountain. Aside from a few of the solar-powered pole lights that dotted the campsite, we were surrounded by pitch black. Yet winding up the mountain in front of us was a connect-the-dots string of headlamps, each one a trekker making his or her way to the summit, stretching away until the lights were miniscule rays oscillating at dizzying heights. At a few minutes past midnight, we embarked, following their lead.
We began hiking across the same dusty, rocky earth that had led us to the camp. Just after we left the glow of the last lights of camp, the land sloped upward. With it, so did my body heat. First I unzipped my ski jacket. Fifteen minutes later I unzipped my hoodie. Then off came my ski hat, then my mittens. I wiped sweat from my brow.
We must’ve been moving quickly, because we kept passing trekkers, each one a feather in my ego’s cap. The French couple whose picture I had taken a few days before, a lanky and silent trio of Scandanavians, a pudgier quartet of middle age Chinese trekkers. I kept climbing the mountain, one step after another on a staircase that stretched off into the inky sky.
Two hours into a winding trail uphill, we stopped at a large rock, relieving our bladders behind it. Just ahead on the mountain, I could hear the voices of the two couples. This motivated me to continue. Was I thinking I could reach the top before them? I had accepted the fact that–being much younger than me–they would get there first, but I guess being competitive doesn’t always adhere to logic.
Soon after the winding trail became a series of switchbacks. Now the earth had been overtaken by ice. With each step came a crunch. Every time I moved my head, my headlamp shone into millions of ice prisms, which exploded into a dazzling gem-shower of sparkling light. It was dizzying at first, and there were times that I became wobbly and had to right myself, causing Aiden to glance over his shoulder to make sure I was all right.
The switchbacks continued for hours. As we gained altitude, the temperature steadily dropped. My hat and mittens were back on, and all zippers were now up. Let me tell you something about my boots: because I get hot easily, I love breathable fabrics, so when I saw a pair of Sportiva hiking boots in my size that were both breathable and waterproof, I thought to myself, Perfect, and clicked the “Add to Cart” button. For the first time, I was regretting the breathability of my shoes. Because the cold air was going straight through the fabric and weaving it’s way through my socks, and my toes had lost all feeling. Soon they would begin aching, forcing me to try and curl them repeatedly to generate some friction.
I took the mouthpiece of my Camelback and sucked on it. Nothing moved. I sucked again. Nothing. I reached back and squeezed the hose. It was frozen solid. I took a swig from my Nalgene instead. What had been warm water a few hours before now was cold, swimming with chunks of ice.
I can’t describe the singleness of summiting during the night. I had memorized every detail of what Aiden was wearing. Looking over, say, at the expanse of ice meant a million light-diamonds would explode in my vision. Otherwise everything was black, impenetrable night. Each step had been predetermined by the hikers ahead of us, who had left indentions in the ice. That is where we put our feet, and would be where those behind us would put theirs.
My heart leapt when I spotted a group of headlamps stopped ahead, and in their light was a wooden sign. We approached to find a few of the faster groups–including the two couples, whom I greeted enthusiastically–at the sign for Stella Point. Stella Point is 18,885 feet above sea level, and only an hour from Uhuru Peak, the top of Kilimanjaro. It was 5 AM when we arrived. Aiden took a couple of pictures of me. The two girls were looking pretty worse for wear, but the couples set off before me for the top. Aiden, Frank and I left soon after.
From Stella Point, the incline began to decrease into something (finally!) more gradual. My spirits were bolstered from reaching Stella Point; now I knew that the lion’s share of the work was done. Nonetheless, it was still an hour away, so I allowed myself to slip back into the meditative following of Aiden’s footsteps.
I heard voices ahead and above me, closer than they had been, so I permitted a glance upward. There, off the trail, doubled over and throwing up violently, was Ollie the Canadian. I stifled laughter as I passed him, tempted to chant, “USA! USA!” The other couple and his American girlfriend stood a few feet away, waiting for him. As I was passing them British Ollie called out.
“Matt! How’s it going?”
“Oh man, it’s a battle!”
“Well, you’re winning it, mate.”
Now I don’t care how cheesy that exchange might sound to you, because most anyone who reads this will probably be at or slightly above sea level as they do. We were 19,000 feet above sea level. I shouted thanks as I trudged forward, then continued to quietly snicker at Nature proving to Canadian Ollie that he had overestimated his abilities.
To my right, the black sky was beginning to be diluted with the faintest hint of light creeping over the horizon. As I continued, my surroundings started to come into view. And there, out on the expanse of ice and snow, beckoned the wooden sign for Uhuru Peak.
I picked up my pace, soon jogging, and then my hand was on it. On the day of June 17th, 2018, I was the first person to reach Uhuru peak, the highest point of Kilimanjaro mountain. I was standing at 19,341 feet above sea level. We had arrived at 6 am, almost on the dot.
Canadian Ollie was the next to reach the sign. I high-fived him; in the jubliation of the moment all was forgiven. The rest of the couples arrived just after. Photos were taken. The Welsh girl—I never remembered her name for some reason—began taking video. We all shuffled around, trying to avoid obstructing all the pictures and videos being taken. Sunlight was now streaming over the horizon, and we were illuminated in its glow. Aiden led me away, pointing out Arrow glacier, which, in the distance, looked like the White Wall in Game of Thrones.
The world around us was now completely visible, and I looked around, awestruck. We stood on a rolling floor of dappled blue-white ice that sallied off into the distance. It was otherworldly. But even more unbelievable to my senses was that, in every direction I looked, the clouds were actually beneath us. The ice seemed to roll away and merge into a pillowy expanse that stretched out in every direction as far as the eye could see. I mean, sure, from the windows of planes I had seen clouds below me, but this—this felt like I was standing on the surface of another planet.
None of us stayed very long to soak in the glory of the moment. Less than 15 minutes had passed before we were on our way back down.
I may have been the victor of the ascent but the couples left me handily behind on the way down. Aiden keep shepherding me away from the ice and onto the scree of loose pebbles. I kept slipping and falling, which not only slowed me down, it eventually started pissing me off.
Ollie the Brit passed me easily on the ice, and the others followed in his tracks. A few minutes the couples had disappeared from view. At that moment I felt Aiden was trying to control me like a head of cattle, as if I had never walked on snow or ice before.
“You must walk on the rocks, Matt.”
“Why the fuck do you want me to walk on these goddamn rocks?! I can get traction on the ice, and if I fall there, I won’t bash my head in! Fuck these fucking rocks!”
The serenity of being on top of the world had devolved into a temper tantrum. Aiden muttered something under his breath and started walking away. Frank stayed dutifully behind me, babysitting. (This kinda pissed me off as well.)
The mood was foul for the next couple of hours. Aiden and I had had our first fight. He and Frank spoke in Swahili, and I just grumbled angrily as I tried not to lose my footing on the sliding rocks.
We continued passing trekkers going up, even hours after we had left the peak. One middle-aged woman wearing a Florida Gators cap was moving very slowly, and at the rate she was going, wouldn’t be long for this world. I cheered her on, (“C’mon, Florida!”) telling her that she was getting close (not true).
The temperature rose steadily and rapidly as we descended in the sun. Soon I was tearing off layer after layer, until my torso was only covered by a single t-shirt.
Finally, to my utter relief, the downhill slope began to flatten, and I could see the tents of Barafu camp. We arrived 45 minutes later. Aiden and I hadn’t spoken since I yelled at him, so I sidled up to him to make amends.
“Hey, I just wanna thank you for helping me get up there. Sorry I got mad. I was just mad that I kept falling. I was really frustrated.”
He put on a smile and said, “No problem commander. Hakuna Matata. You did well.” He pointed to the tent. “You should try to take a nap.” He looked at his watch, which read 11 am. “We will depart for Mweka camp at 1 o’ clock, after lunch.” I nodded assent.
I took off every layer of clothing but one and slid on a pair of espadrilles. I needed to brush my teeth and use the toilet, but the outhouse seemed miles away. Each small step was an undertaking, and I was panting, leaning over to try and fill my lungs. The altitude was finally getting to me, in the sense that I couldn’t get enough oxygen. I finally made it to the outhouse, did my business, rested for a moment, then headed back—slowly, slowly—to the tent.
The afternoon sun transformed my tent into a heat lantern. So despite the nine hours of hiking, I just lay there, resting my body without any actual sleep.
We ate lunch and left camp just after 1 PM. We left Barafu the same way we came, descending into the desert valley, until another trail split off in a more easterly direction. About an hour from camp we encountered a bizarre sight. It appeared to be a graveyard of what looked like long mesh metal carts, with a single wheel in the center of them. There were probably 20 or 30 of them, laying on their sides. Looking more closely though, I could see that they weren’t rusted at all; in fact, they appeared to be relatively new.
“What are these, Aiden?”
“Stretchers. If someone gets sick. It takes 8 porters to carry someone out.”
My jaw fell. “You mean they have to go all the way to the gate with one of these?” (We were still about 12 km, or 8 hours, to the gate.)
“Yeah. It’s either that or a $5,000 helicopter ride.” He paused and said, “You know, back at Baranco, after you were asleep, someone had to be helicoptered away from camp.”
My mouth hung open still. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
He smiled wryly. “I didn’t want you to be intimidated.”
We reached High Camp—also called Millenium Camp—a couple hours later. It was one of the more ancillary camps, like Shira 1. Only people who were struggling, or those older or less-fit trekkers who had signed up for a 9-day trek would stay overnight here. Ironically the facilities seemed to be more recently renovated than the other camps, and the campsite was more scenic.
“Andrew stayed here last night, I heard,” Aiden mentioned as we rested for a moment in the shade of a tree. “Instead of going to Mweka.” I recalled the ragged sight of him after he had returned from the summit and expelled a belly laugh.
“I told him to take it easy! Well, I hope he’s okay.”
“He should be arriving at the hotel today,” Aiden noted. This thought cut my laughter short, turning Schadenfreude to envy.
We stood, stretched, and continued. I watched as the Alpine desert acquiesced to the greenery of the Moorland. Plants began popping up more and more often, until the landscape—which had been nothing but umber-hued dirt a couple hours before—was blanketed with green. I was running on fumes, and began asking Aiden if we had reached the camp, with the regularity of a child in the back seat on a long road trip. We hiked over hill after hill, until we could see rainforest ahead.
Entering the forest was reuniting with the dampness. Soon mists began rolling in from the East, reducing visibility to only a few meters. 45 minutes later we entered Mweka camp, a 17.5 km hike from Barafu base camp.
Aiden saw me urinating by a nearby stream, and approached. “Hey commander! Andrew is waiting for you at the hotel.” I was flattered. “He is?” “Yes, he is waiting for you at the hotel. His guide wanted me to tell you.” Had I become popular on the mountain?
After we all settled in, Aiden came to my tent with the explicit objective of discussing tipping. It was awkward. I told him how much I planned on giving each of them, following what was stated in the KPAP, or Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, a pro-porters website I had found online. Aiden made an exasperated expression, and said, “That is the old book.” While the last thing I wanted was to undertip the guys, my bullshit meter started to tick upwards. He continued, “Did you look on our website? They tell you what you should tip for each,” and listed out higher figures, which translated to about $150 more, total.
“But Aiden, don’t you see why that is…questionable? Why wouldn’t I look at an independent source to tell me tipping standards? Of course the trekking company website is going to give me higher figures. That’s like a waiter coming up to a table after the meal and saying, ‘I know the standard is 20%, but at this restaurant we encourage 30% gratuity.'”
He took a different tack. “That is the old book, but listen, tipping is optional, you give whatever you feel we deserve. It is what you will leave us with,” yet his words dripped with disappointment, judgment.
I told him I would think about it and give them what I thought was right. Seconds later I heard him talking to Samuel and Frank in Swahili in the next tent, his tone raised. I may not have known what he was saying but I could hear the frustration in his voice.
I fell asleep at 7 PM, after spending at least a half-hour calculating and recalculating tips, trying to find the perfect balance of generosity and frugality.
I woke at 5:30 AM. I had slept over 10 hours, probably the most I’ve ever slept in a tent in my life. We set off at 7 AM for the gate, and reached it by 11 AM. The last of the park signs read, “Bon Voyage!” which was strange because everything else had been in English. I had to wait as Aiden signed some paperwork, letting the park know I had made it back alive. While he did so a young Tanzanian led me to a garden hose, where he cleaned all the mud from my boots. I gave him two shillings for his trouble.
Emmanuel, the driver, appeared, greeting me warmly, congratulating me on making it to the top. I raved to him about how well the roots he had dug up had worked on my indigestion. We piled into the van and began the ride to Moshi.
We had descended the mountain in the direction of town, so we only needed to drive 45 minutes, to my relief. As we left the gate, we passed by rural poverty: the homes were almost entirely concrete, without glass windows or doors, corrugated metal sheets slapped crudely on top to keep the rain out. People stared motionless from their porches, watching us go by with eyes that searched for something that would probably never arrive.
The poor houses turned into coffee farms. “It is harvest season,” Aiden informed me. Groups of Tanzanians were out in the fields, picking the pink coffee berries; other groups shelling them on large sheets in clearings. The farms became shops, the frequency of which increased until we were clearly in the chaos of Moshi proper. We drove first to an ATM (at my request), where I took out a little over $500 for the crew. It was more than I expected to spend on tips, but when I saw how excited they were when they received it, I felt confident that I had made the right choice. My final, deciding rationale was that $500 for me was a completely different sum of money than it was for them. Were they the best crew on the mountain? Probably not, but they had worked hard, and deserved it.
We stopped by the office and thankfully they did not interrogate me or ask me to write them a review; I just returned my sleeping bag, issued thanks and hugs, and Emmanuel and I departed for my hotel.
My new bestie Andrew was waiting for me in the lobby when I arrived. We shook hands and hugged. I excused myself for a hot shower and change of clothes. I returned to the lobby, renewed. We sat outside by the pool and drank beers together, comparing our experiences. He told me of how exhausted he had been approaching the summit, how he’d been reduced to repeating 30-second breaks for each of the 50 paces he’d taken, over and over, until he had reached the summit. We cackled about Canadian Ollie’s vomitous set-back, and compared our crews and guides. Even in the silences between our stories, there was something shared. Finally, we exchanged numbers and email addresses, urging the other to stay in touch. My flight to Zanzibar would be leaving soon, and I went to collect my bags.
I had plenty of time to ponder on why I wanted to climb Kili. What I landed on was this: yes, it seemed like it would be a life-changing experience. But more than that; something inside continuously urges me to push my limits. I am someone who loves to question everything, including myself, and that can translate into a trepidation for taking risks, for making leaps. So was it life-changing? Hell yes. And what did it do for my limits? Well, the next time I face down one of my many fears, and that overbearing voice in my mind is trying to convince me that I don’t have what it takes, I can think of Kilimanjaro, and that, if I take things pole pole, I am capable of so much more than I could’ve ever imagined.