Rocky Road

Kilimanjaro or bust: glimpsing the dawn of the new millennium at 19,466 feet–and on a low budget

By Janet Wells

IT’S MIDNIGHT IN Tanzania, and the equatorial sunshine has long since given way to an inky chill at 10,000 feet on the barren slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Our group of 36 trekkers–newly arrived from the States–is huddled together, shivering and exhausted from miles of unanticipated nighttime hiking. Those with enough energy hike back down the hill to look for several dozen porters and guides, who apparently have gone AWOL with most of our clothing, food, and gear. Our head guide has disappeared without a word of explanation.

Several people have a punishing virus and keep disappearing into the damp, scrubby brush. I’m sitting in a ditch, so cold I am beyond shivering. Like everyone else, I’ve eaten nothing more than an energy bar since lunch, and the clothing I put on in the heat of the day offers little protection against the plummeting temperatures. Someone drags me over to a tent and zips me into a down sleeping bag.

Once thawed, I get up to rotate the toasty cocoon to the next icy comrade, and find my husband, Mark, who has just returned empty-handed from the trail below. It’s after 2 a.m., and there are no porters in sight.

Half of us make do for the first night of our millennium Kilimanjaro trek with handouts: people with tents give up sleeping bags, and others open their duffels to dole out clothing. I wear a borrowed jacket and pants, and sleep on the ground with my husband, sharing a down bag covered by a red plastic tarp.

I am torn between anxiety and fatigue, but figure the worst is over. Our porters will arrive with the morning sun, fire up the missing kerosene stove to whip together a deluxe breakfast, and our grand African adventure will blossom. A few fitful hours later dawn breaks, and it begins to rain. By noon, the porters still have not arrived.

Welcome to holiday in Hell.

CLIMBING MT. KILIMANJARO for Y2K seemed like a splendid idea when my friend Matthias Schabel started tempting us with glowing travelogues about it last summer. A Santa Rosa physicist who lived in Tanzania as a teenager, Schabel invited a cadre of friends to join him on a three-week trekking and safari trip.

One of the world’s coveted seven summits, Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa–a kind of everyman’s Everest. An active volcano until about 350,000 years ago, Kilimanjaro hardly is a candidate for beauty awards. The truncated cinder cone looks like a massive bread loaf. But at 19,466 feet the peak has high-altitude cachet without requiring technical feats.

In terms of hiking, Mt. Kilimanjaro is nothing to sneeze at–fewer than 10 percent reach the top, and an average of 10 people die every year on the peak, usually from altitude-related problems. By mountaineering standards, however, Kilimanjaro is an enticing cakewalk, with sweeping vistas and the lure of the odd eland on the high plateaus. Except for the summit push, Mt. St. Helena boasts steeper slopes.

Twenty of Schabel’s friends sign on for the trip, a crew of six from Sonoma County joining him: Windsor physicist Carl Mears and his wife, Dr. Panna Lossy; Agilent Technologies engineer Alan Kashiwagi; Scott Sisemore, who has just quit his job at Mark West Winery; and my husband, engineer Mark Ripperda, and I.

All of us have sizable garage space devoted to outdoor pursuits. But this time we’re paying for the luxury of having someone else provide the equipment, do the cooking, set up the tents, and carry our gear. We don’t even have to feel like spoiled colonials, since Tanzania requires all Kilimanjaro trekkers to hire porters and guides.

Matthias signs on to a seven-day budget trip with Tanzanian trek organizer Jasper Lemnge, and we each pony up $650, plus another $800 each for trekking permits. It seems exorbitant, but millennium fever has added a $400 premium to the permit fee, and we pay it for the privilege of ringing in the New Year on the roof of Africa.

Ninety percent of Kili’s 12,000-odd trekkers each year opt for the easiest trail, the “Coca-Cola” route, which boasts sleeping huts with dining areas, plus emergency radio communication. Our group disdains the tourist approach, climbing instead via the Shira Plateau, a more remote route featuring a challenging scramble up the 3,000-foot Breach Wall on summit day. There are no structures on the route except for leaky metal sheds the porters and guides use as kitchens, and the filthy pit latrines.

AFTER TWO DAYS of traveling via Paris and Nairobi, we have a rest day at Jasper’s guest lodge, then meet up with the rest of our group: 14 college students squired by Matthias’ father, Hans, a forestry professor from the University of Wisconsin.

Our crew, along with 20 porters and a mound of duffel bags, tents, food, and cooking supplies, looks more like a military operation than a vacation tour. The morning of Dec. 27, we climb into three enormous open-air four-wheel-drive trucks and embark on a monotonous seven-hour dust-and-diesel-choked journey.

Along the sun-baked road, Masai villagers with their traditional shoulder-slung red blankets herd cattle and goats among the thorny acacia trees. As we move up in elevation, the hardscrabble fields slowly give way to villages tucked among the lush flora and crops of bananas, beans, maize, and coffee that thrive in Tanzania’s highland tropics.

Our trek starts in the late afternoon at the Londorossi Gate of Kilimanjaro National Park, where Jasper hires another 35 porters and waves us off with the assurance that the trucks and porters will soon overtake us and ferry us to camp an hour or two up the road. Jasper plans to return to his lodge, and leaves us in the hands of our stoic head guide, Felix.

Easy strolling through a lush landscape where colobus monkeys swing through the trees turns into a six-hour slog in a moonless night. Twelve miles later we reach our ill-fated first campsite.

We discover the next morning that the semi-sized four wheeler loaded with gear and most of our porters was mired in mud back at the park headquarters. Rather than abandon the truck, Jasper opted to strand our group, along with a few exhausted, ill-equipped porters, for a cold, wet night. Felix, we discover, spent the night in the ranger’s tent.

Just after noon, porters begin to trickle in, and camp begins to take shape. The dilapidated, musty two-person canvas tents provided by Jasper look army surplus circa 1950. Some of our food and fuel apparently are missing.

Our personal duffels, fortunately, are all intact.

Lunch is served at 4 p.m. While some treks have a mess tent, complete with tables, chairs, and white linen humped up the mountain by porters, I hardly expect such luxury given our modest price tag. Our table is a red vinyl tarp on the ground, set with flowered plastic plates. After more than 24 hours without food, we are served peanuts, popcorn, and hot water for tea or instant coffee.

I scoop up as much as my fists can hold, and we gather into a small group to grumble. Panna and Carl talk about bailing, worried that the obvious lack of organization is going to mean trouble higher up. Dinner, however, brings a brighter outlook: pasta with tomato bolognese sauce, sautéed vegetables, French fries, and bread.

Getting the hang of it: During the ascent, the writer follows her bliss while dangling from a rock overhang at the mouth of a small cave on the Shira Plateau.

THE NEXT MORNING dawns clear, and I join several people on a rocky promontory snapping sunrise photos. It’s a glorious view, with Mt. Meru rising in the distance, the Shira Plateau stretching before us, and Kilimanjaro dominating the eastern horizon.

After breakfast the clouds start to roll in. Having learned from the first night’s fiasco, I stuff my daypack full of clothing. The four-hour hike to the Shira camp is wet, but not unpleasant, since we all sport layers of Gore-Tex and fleece. The porters, however, straggle uphill wearing ragged cotton clothing and a motley collection of footwear, ranging from flip-flops to torn loafers. These guys carry loads of 40 to 50 pounds, and at $6 a day are the world’s most underpaid athletes. Their wiry frames are dwarfed by enormous duffels, sacks of food, and barrels of water. I try the porter method of balancing a load on my head and manage about 50 feet before my neck gives out.

Shira camp is on a treeless, boulder-strewn plateau at about 12,000 feet. In the middle of the night, I brave the icy wind and am rewarded with a sky of diamond stars.

The next morning, we have our first case of attrition. Kristen Hughes, a venture capitalist from Palo Alto, is suffering from a bronchial infection and must forego the climb. The 24-hour flu virus continues to make the rounds, and Panna, the doctor who came prepared for vacation rather than triage, is now saddled with her own makeshift clinic.

On the way to the Lava Tower camp, most of us pass our previous high point–California’s Mt. Whitney, which at 14,494 feet is the tallest mountain in the continental United States. We’re now at 14,800 feet, pitched on a sloping muddy shoulder. The rain lets up briefly, and several of us head for a nearby stream to pump water through filters brought from home. The stream is directly downhill from the camp’s fetid privy, and we decide to throw some iodine tablets in as well. Matthias reminds the cooks to boil water for 20 minutes, but is not optimistic that they will comply, given the high altitude and low fuel supplies.

It starts to sleet as we eat dinner. Several of the porters are huddled in thin blankets under an enormous dripping boulder. The tents are apparently too heavy to bring more than what is needed for the clients. With some rearranging, we free up a tent, and five grateful porters pile in.

An evening storm leaves the camp coated in crusty ice.

A clear dawn reveals our magnificent panoramic perch: the 200-foot-high Lava Tower looming over camp is merely a chip compared to the massive crater wall and hanging glaciers above us. Far below, Kilimanjaro’s jungled base ridges stretch like fingers for miles into the plains.

Mt. Meru floats on a bed of clouds in the distance.

Unfortunately, not everyone is enjoying the view. Carl has acute nausea and Alan can feel his lungs rattling when he breathes–both warning signs of high-altitude sickness. The only treatment is to get to lower altitude, and they decide to head down to meet Kristen.

I look around and try to guess who will make it to the summit and who won’t, but give up. Carl sports bearlike strength and spent a summer backpacking 1,500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail; Alan’s a natural athlete who has been above 17,000 feet in the Himalaya.

Several of the students, however, look ragged and ill, but keep going up.

I feel fine, and credit luck and my twice-daily doses of Diamox, an altitude sickness drug that enables users to breathe faster and take in more oxygen. In the rarefied air atop Kilimanjaro, there is only half the oxygen found at sea level, and by the time we leave Lava Tower, everyone in the group is popping the pills as a preventive measure. The only drawback is the diuretic effect, which sentences users to multiple middle-of-the night pee forays.

THE HIKE to Arrow Glacier–base camp for the summit–is short but steep. We gain 1,200 feet in a little over an hour, as a heavy mist swirls around us. The 16,000-foot-high trash-strewn rocky plateau is a sea of bright colors and activity.

It’s Dec. 31, and a dozen groups are here, poised for the summit attempt tonight.

We obviously represent the low-rent crowd: A group of Brits, who have deluxe dining tents and are given bowls of warm washing water each morning, complain about their food, but it’s hard to be sympathetic after hearing about their afternoon tea and scones, and noting that their enormous garbage pile contains avocado and papaya rinds. Our culinary offerings today have included the by-now ubiquitous hard-boiled eggs, white bread, and instant soup.

The original plan for today was to go all the way to the summit crater at 19,000 feet to camp, then hike up Uhuru Peak to the true summit at midnight. Without a word of discussion, however, we all understand what a ridiculous idea it is. It takes enough energy just to climb 100 feet to take a photo. In the distance is the somber sight of a porter making his way down the rocky Breach Wall trail with a seriously sick trekker on his back.

Mark is lying in the tent, pale and tired. A cold has progressed to a lung rattle, and he’s coughing up bubbly stuff–both signs of pulmonary edema. I am quite alarmed. I know that high-altitude sickness can creep up on a person and, without warning, be fatal. We were told the guides would keep an eye on us and send any sick trekkers to lower elevation. But if our guides have any first-aid training, they’re keeping it secret.

Mark says he feels fine when he stays quiet, and decides to spend the night, then head to a lower camp in the morning. Four other people in our party will do the same.

At least 150 trekkers and several dozen guides will leave Arrow Glacier at midnight. After a measly dinner, I join Mark in the tent and doze. At 11:15 p.m. Matthias rouses everyone for tea and cookies.

I am trussed up in yuppie mountaineering style, and still the cold is palpable. My gear–long underwear, fleece pants, fleece jacket, Gore-Tex bib pants, down jacket, Gore-Tex shell, liner gloves, Gore-Tex outer mitts, fleece neck gaiter, fleece hat, heavy boots, day pack, headlamp, camera–is worth more than the average Tanzanian makes in a year. But all the technical trappings do nothing when nature calls and I have to drop my drawers to pee in the icy wind.

I kiss Mark goodbye, disappointed that I won’t be aiming for the summit with him, and he cautions me to be careful. At the stroke of midnight, everyone yells a hearty “Happy New Year,” a few words of French, German, and Swahili mixing with the British and American accents. A long line of headlamps snakes toward the notch at the top of the Breach Wall. Finding the trail is like a “Where’s Waldo?” amid thousands of vertical feet of loose shale and rock.

Matthias is hot to be on the summit at sunrise and, prodding Felix to go faster, sets a killer pace for 11 of us who are in the lead. After 30 minutes, I start to fall back with several others. I’m breathing too hard and figure that, at this rate, I’ll either pass out or arrive at the summit two frigid hours before the sun rises.

It’s cold, windy, and moonless, and my water-bag hose quickly freezes. Panna has a water bottle, but the process of transferring liquid from my bag is arduous, requiring intense concentration. At 17,000 feet my headlamp batteries succumb to the cold and begin to dim. I will have to change batteries three times to maintain the small circle of light at my feet. I try to eat an energy bar around 3 a.m., but the chalky chocolate sticks in my throat.

We reach the crater just before 5 a.m., Panna and I slapping high-fives as we go through the notch and step onto the 19,000-foot-high caldera. The wind is whipping to subzero temperatures, and I wonder if my nose will get frostbitten.

A sheer 100-foot-high glacier wall bisects the flat, ash-covered terrain. Horizontal ribbons of silvery ice loom above us, reflecting the starry twinkle of the clear night. More than 20 tents occupy the crater, and I wonder who is hardy–or idiotic–enough to brave a night on Africa’s arctic plain.

The summit is only 400 vertical feet away, on top of Uhuru Peak, a snow-covered protuberance that rises out of the crater. The peak looks short and sweet, but it’s a taxing slog. About halfway up I am hit with waves of nausea and can manage only four or five steps before I have to rest, leaning on my trekking poles for support. Bands of yellow and orange light stretch below me across the horizon, and the snow sparkles in the dawning light. I turn off my headlamp. More than an hour later, I am the last of 12 of Matthias’ group to arrive at the summit plateau.

“Problem? Pack too heavy?” asks Christian, a 19-year-old guide who has summited Kilimanjaro 15 times this year. I shake my head, and he smiles, pointing to a crowd of people up a small rise. “Five minutes,” he says, and it takes just about that long to shuffle the final few steps to the summit, where I am engulfed by group hugs.

THE RISING SUN CASTS a soft pink glow on glaciers that straddle the summit, shimmering icy and ethereal. Clouds and haze obscure the lush valleys far below, creating the impression that we’re floating.

The summit scene is like some kind of mountaineer’s rave. While the guides smoke cigarettes and nap, a hundred trekkers dressed in brightly hued parkas mill about taking photos and hugging. One trekker offers hits off an oxygen bottle. Panna and Scott toss a Frisbee. Tammy McMinn, a San Francisco computer consultant, pops open a bottle of $40 French champagne she lugged to the top. I take a swig, and it all goes up my nose.

I feel tipsy and hungover at the same time. It’s a thrill to be at the summit, but my head aches, and the nausea is getting worse. The temperature hovers just above zero, and by 7 a.m. I’m ready to head down.

On the way down Uhuru Peak, I see a trekker swathed in layers of colorful shirts, his dungarees fashionably baggy. A kaleidoscope-colored knit hat perches atop his waist-length dreadlocks. He’s black, but obviously not African. In my high-altitude daze, I stare. He dazzles me with a warm smile and good wishes for the new year.

Turns out the guy is from Sebastopol and apparently is on some kind of personal quest. People climb Kilimanjaro for many reasons, for spiritual fulfillment, to scatter the ashes of a loved one, for challenge and adventure.

I am envious of the obvious bliss shining from his face.

I think of Mark wheezing in the tent far below and wonder what I am seeking in the thin air.

Once we start down the Breach Wall, the descent turns into a 3000-foot booby trap. Five painstaking hours later, Panna, Tammy, and I are among the last to arrive back at base camp. I look at the tents just across Arrow Glacier, and I breathe a sigh of relief that everyone made it back safely.

I soon learn otherwise.

One of the porters hands me a cup of orange Tang, and a few minutes later Matthias’ father tells me that one of our group was hit by rock fall. I follow Panna behind the tents. Louis Rivara, a Central Valley vineyard owner, is lying on a sleeping pad. Blood is spurting from near his right temple into a bowl held by Matthias. Panna uses water boiled for our tea to wash the wound. I search for gauze pads. Tammy is holding his hand. Louis is moaning and writhing in pain, but clearly is conscious–a good sign.

Louis tells us that he was hit by a melon-sized rock just before he and his trekking buddy were nearing the top of the Breach Wall at sunrise. The force knocked him unconscious, and he came to as he slid several feet down the slope. Louis’ wool-knit cap is soaked with blood, streaks of red running down his face and onto his jacket. He has been waiting several hours for Panna to return from the summit.

Panna peels the hat off, and the jagged two-inch gash does not make her happy. Our trek organizer has provided no medical kit, and we have only basic first-aid supplies.

“This needs stitches,” she says, applying thin strips to close the wound. “You’re going to have a nasty scar.”

Panna wraps gauze around the wound and an Ace bandage to hold everything in place, then lays out the possibility–though remote–that the rock could have hit hard enough to cause swelling under the skull.

If left untreated, such a condition can be fatal.

We discuss ways of evacuating Louis. Other than a rudimentary stretcher two days back at the Shira camp, there is no rescue equipment or radio communication available on our route. Louis says he feels up to walking to the next camp, and there isn’t much other choice.

Lunch is ready, and I figure that after 12 hours of hiking to the summit and back, the watery fish broth is merely an appetizer. Wrong.

The few pieces of bread are snatched up before I get to the tarp, and when I ask for more, the porters tell me there is no more fuel or food.

WE PACK UP and start heading to Barranco camp 2,000 feet down the mountain, where I will reunite with Mark and the others in our group. The three-hour hike goes by in a blur of aching knees. Mark gives me a congratulatory hug. He says he’s feeling better, although his lungs are still rattling. I nap for an hour, then get up, hoping for an early dinner.

Everyone is gathered into small groups, obsessed by food fantasies. Matthias is going on about spinach and mushroom pizza. Someone else is waxing poetic about burritos, chips, and salsa. When dinner comes several hours later, the disappointment is palpable.

The soup is eerily reminiscent of dishwater, and the meager pieces of chicken are inedible.

OUR FINAL DAY of trekking is an eight-hour, 7,000-foot descent through the mud-slicked jungle. Louis is quite peppy–even though he was roused by his tent mate every 30 minutes during the night to check his level of consciousness. A rakish red kerchief covers his fresh bandage. We have all been revived by French toast for breakfast–miraculously there is enough for seconds.

News has traveled via the porter grapevine that two people died from altitude-related problems the day before. An American woman collapsed near the summit, and a German man died in his sleep at 14,000 feet. Another 33 reportedly were evacuated from the Coca-Cola route.

We arrive at the Umbwe route trailhead in the late afternoon and sip warm sodas as the porters mill around waiting for their hard-earned tips. I take off my boots and indulge in bare feet for the first time in a week.

That night, back at the Ashanti Lodge, Mark and Panna confront Jasper.

“Trucks got stuck, nothing I could do,” he responds to criticism about stranding us the first night.

We don’t want to punish the porters by stinting on tips, but Matthias makes sure that Jasper gets none of the cash we dole out.

The next day we leave Kilimanjaro behind, embarking on the safari leg of our vacation. Just as we settle into a life of Land Rovers, roaring lions, and long-lashed giraffes, the trek comes back to haunt us.

“Rocket-nozzle” diarrhea, as one person calls it, disables most of our group. Mark has the giardia parasite, Carl has some kind of tenacious bacteria, Alan’s got the trots, and Panna’s got it coming out both ends.

Scott and Matthias–who got food poisoning from drinking homemade banana beer before the trek–have escaped the consequences of Kilimanjaro’s Russian-roulette water, as have I.

But my luck doesn’t last: On the American Airlines flight from Paris, I wolf down a chicken lunch and spend the next three hours hunkered at the back of the plane by the bathroom, yorking furiously.

I have lots of time to indulge in a grumpy reverie about Kilimanjaro. The bad food. The surly head guide. Mark denied the summit. No rescue services. The incompetent organizer. The lousy weather. The snotty Brits.

I’m surprised when a silver lining starts to emerge: Christian, the patient, smiling guide. The perfect spiraled symmetry of a red-tipped lobelia plant. Bonding with 20 people, and the endless lifelong jokes this trip will provide. Lava Tower’s scarlet rock gleaming against the crisp blue dawn. Wispy tendrils of mist floating across Kilimanjaro’s massive flanks.

This is what the Sebastopol rasta-man was smiling about, I decide. Life doesn’t just happen at the summit, after all. Bliss is there, hidden all along the trail.

From the February 3-9, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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