As an avid traveler, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was a bucket list goal to achieve at some point on my constant journey around the world again and again. Many of the trips I take are on a whim, much like the throwing a dart at the map and heading to wherever it lands, I find a place that interests me, and then by air, land or sea I depart and explore. Kilimanjaro is a physical and mental test that takes months of training and preparation and is not that kind of adventure or so I thought. Coronavirus changed international travel for the time being and with the majority of borders shut down and the world at a standstill; I found a giant beacon of hope.
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
By late May it had been months since my wife had seen her family and decided she was going to head to Nevada with our daughter for the July 4th holiday. Of course, I was invited to join her but I decided to see where, if anywhere would let me pass through customs without a litany of ridiculous requirements. Tanzania, the gem of East Africa would have me. They were wide open and accepting tourists with no restrictions. I told my wife what I was thinking. She told me I was insane. She was against me travelling internationally and that attempting to summit one of the tallest mountains in the world with 5 weeks to train for it was asking for more trouble than I could handle. However, she knew her warning fell on deaf ears and that in my mind I was already on top of that mountain not only conquering it but the situation in the world.
First, I began to train my legs and lungs. I walked for a couple hours each day through my local woods with a 50 lb backpack and an altitude mask with bike ride on Sunday. I then needed to do the necessary logistics on flights and accommodation. I found several companies, desperate for business, to arrange literally everything I needed from the time I landed in Tanzania to the time I left. Flights would prove a bit trickier. There was only really one option available, Qatar Airways. I had previously boycotted them back in 2017 when they left me stranded in Marrakech en route to Dubai when they had diplomatic ties with the U.A.E. cut and gave no notice of the cancellation nor did anything to help me find my way onward. However, it was the only option.
I felt nervous for this trip. Not the usual excited nerves but an uneasy, unknown about what the world was like outside of the bubble I had been in for the last 5 months. I wasn’t worried about getting sick or getting stuck somewhere in mandatory quarantine but I was worried about the scared new world we all seemed to live in. From JFK in New York to DOH in Qatar onto DAR in Tanzania and finally JRO at the base of the mountain, the routine of empty airports, social distance, masks, temperature checks and hand sanitizer was the same, so far the only difference I was noticing in this new corona laden world.
Nobody’s Fault but Mine
When we arrived at the hotel, the kitchen was closed and the owner took me to a local restaurant for something to eat. It was a big open air bar and grill. The sound of African hip hop could be heard as we pulled up followed by the aromatics of grilled meat as soon as we stepped out of the car. As we walked in people were staring at me. I am no stranger to catching eyes on me in a foreign country as a tall white man with a big beard I am used to it. In fact I’ve been asked for photos with locals on the streets of India and China but this felt different. I was certain they were afraid and I was about to be run out of the establishment at any second especially when I watched the kitchen crew make their way behind the bar to take a look. I said to my host, “Is this ok? Everyone is really watching me.” He said “You are our great white hope, brother! We have not seen a tourist in 4 months; you are the first and hopefully the first of many.” Once the waitress greeted me and took me up to the grill to choose some meat I felt very welcome! At the table people came up to say hello, ask where I am from, what I am doing and then to give advice on making a successful summit. Almost everyone I spoke to in Tanzania had made at least one trip up the mountain; it was almost as if it was a local rite of passage.
The team showed up early to take me from the hotel to the national park gate then onto the top of the mountain and back down safely in 5 days time. Kilimanjaro has several different routes to the summit ranging from 5-10 days. The route I chose was the original “coca-cola” route, Marangu. It is the fastest route and only route that offers accommodation en route rather than camping, the reasons I chose it. The hike began through a lush rainforest reminiscent of portions of the Inca Trail. We passed waterfalls, encountered three different types of monkeys and were completely alone. Mussa, my guide, remarked that during this time, there would normally be traffic on the trail with large groups attempting to make it to the top. We continued for about 4 hours until we reached our first stop, Mandara, an A-frame hut with 4 beds, 4 chairs, a table, a book shelf, solar power and separate bathroom. I felt really good about how well the hike was going, although short, we were up at about 9000 ft. Porters came laid out on a plaid table cloth and brought a full spread of food, drinks and accouterment to fuel me from my days hike. After dinner Mussa greeted me with his hearty “Jambo my brother!” checked on me and described how our next day would go. He bid me “lala salama” and it was lights out.
I awoke before the sunrise to the howling of the monkeys. Breakfast came and it was time to hit the trail. We finished the last mile or so of jungle before heading into the heath, a drier, sparser forest type environment. It was here I would finally make my first sighting of the white capped monolith I intended to summit. We encountered a massive crater made millions of years ago from asteroid impact as well as chameleons, which Mussa spotted with eagle like vision, and giant white neck ravens. I thought the Queens ravens at the Tower of London were the biggest ravens I would ever see but these white necks are so large they had an audible flap to their wings and when they landed they were quick to sharpen their beaks side to side wherever they perched.
We had been going at a steady incline since we departed and been taking our time to enjoy the scenery, taking water breaks which then turned into bathroom breaks, chatting about our lives, current events and more. It was Mussa’s first hike in nearly 5 months and he remarked how much he missed “his office” which is why he was taking time to appreciate all the different views, plants and wildlife. One such plant he pointed out was a species of mint used by Chagga and Masai people for stomach ailments, while I had no stomach discomfort, I did pick several sprigs as a walked along for the pleasing aroma it gave off, like a minty sweet smelling salt. Before I knew it we were at our next camp, Horombo.
Over the Hills and Far Away
Horombo was situated above the clouds about 12,000 ft. It was a beautiful sight to behold in the morning as the sun rose, looking out watching the dark blue fade to a pinkish orange above a sea of fluffy white clouds creating one of the most picturesque memories of my time on the mountain. Staring out upon that along with the feeling of serene isolation you couldn’t help but feel was truly magical. It reminded me of Salar d’Uyuni in Bolivia where you could literally hear and feel the silence. This feeling in the early morning at Horombo would literally be the calm before the storm. We would begin as normal about 7am going from about 12,000 to 15,500 feet of altitude, which is coincidentally where you really begin to feel the air getting thin, your lungs working overtime as your head and heart start to pound. Base camp or Kibo would be our stop not our final destination because after a rest to regain our strength there, we would begin our summit attempt the very same night.
The hike started to get tough. The scenery dissipated to a harsh rocky desert with Kilimanjaro to the left and its brother peak, Mawenzi, to the right off in the distance. The wind blew cold and I finally had to break out my iPod for some musical inspiration to keep me going. The three days of hiking and thin air finally caught up to me and I could not wait to rest. Mussa was adamant about making sure I ate but my appetite was nil. Dinner was left untouched except for my soup and my entire thermos of water. I had to bundle in my sleeping bag as the sun went down and it became freezing in the old brick hut. I knew 11pm would arrive soon and my nerves started to get the best of me and sleep was no more. It was time for the final showdown.
Misty Mountain Hop
By the light of a full moon we started to the top. We carried an abridged version of our bags with only the absolute necessities to keep weight to a bare minimum. Pole, pole, or slowly, slowly; a mantra which would be ingrained in my mind is how we walked, like zombies shuffling upward in search of human flesh but Uhuru is what we sought. As the terrain turned from rocks to sandy gravel each step up was a step back. The dust began to suffocate my already overworked lungs. The sun began to rise and I could see the top ridge and although it looked so close, Mussa said it was at least another two hours away. That was a massive blow to my determination. Breaks started to be longer than actual moving time. It was taking me about five minutes to get enough energy to move for about two and the cycle repeated itself over and over until at one point I laid in the dusty gravel and I thought to myself, “How are you going to make it to the top, better yet how are you going to get down?!” I felt at my lowest point in a long time and I recalled a note scrawled in Sharpie on my bunk at Kibo; “Kili is a mindf—k, don’t let her get to you.” That’s it. It’s mind over matter. I had no choice. I grabbed my daughters red bow wrapped around my left arm pulled it up above my elbow, took a deep breath and started a powerful, slow jog up and up. Winded and again and again. Mussa called out pole, pole to me but I couldn’t go at this snail’s pace any longer. I had to fight. I had to stomp on Kili’s head and let her know I was here to conquer not be conquered. The power jogs had slowed me to a complete crawl to the top but as I literally pulled myself up over that ridge and glanced at the “congratulations” on the sign in front of me I felt total elation followed by more despair.
Dazed & Confused
The sign was four boards nailed into two tree posts. It did not say “highest point in Africa” as I had seen in the photos but read “Gilman’s Point” My brain was playing catch up to what was actually happening. Mussa was already there waiting and congratulated me on making it. “This isn’t Uhuru” I barked. “No brother, Uhuru is still another hour or so from here” he quietly responded. I sat down under the sign in utter defeat. As I sat there Mussa asked for my phone and began taking photos of me, him, and multiple attempts of the perfect panorama of the scenery. After about 20 minutes I had to make a choice. Walk up to Uhuru or walk down in defeat. The choice was made long before the 14 hour day that left me battered had started, “Which way?” I asked Mussa, barely audible. He pointed left and asked if I was ok, I told him I did not come this far to give up now. “Hakuna Matata, brother, let’s go!” We left our bags to save weight and time. We walked on some snow for the first time, my legs felt like rubber and I could feel a heartbeat in my knee. After about 25 minutes we made Stella Point and he asked if I wanted to stop for a photo I told him on the way back, no stopping until Uhuru. After another 40 minutes, there it was I could see the sign, we made it.
Good Times, Bad Times
There I stood at 19,341 ft the highest I had ever been, the highest point in Africa, the highest free standing mountain in the world. I walked over slowly in total disbelief and relief. I knew this would be hard but no amount of training could have prepared me for what I had just done. Time to capture this moment on film, I pull out my phone; battery icon on the screen. No. NO! “Mussa, do you have your phone?!” “No brother it’s in my bag.” I may have stomped my way to the very top of her peak but the cold altitude beat me. I felt like bursting into tears but didn’t have the energy. Mussa sensed I was on the ropes. He said, “This is my 200th summit. I did not say anything because I did not want to risk it but I have been on top of this mountain 200 times. This is my office. I have waited to take pictures with that sign sometimes for 45 minutes. There is always someone here with a camera to take a photo.” I looked up and I think he knew I was about to blow my top. He continued, “I have never been up here alone. It is you, me and God. No one else. Even though we have no photo, you will never forget this because I will never forget it. Not since Yohani Lauwo and Hans Meyer have there been only two people on this peak. This will never happen again. Treasure it.” I had seen the photos and videos of dozens of people at the peak. We were the only people here and suddenly it felt alright. I guzzled down half of my remaining water, ran my bare hands over the wooden sign knowing I would likely never see it again and we began our harrowing journey down.
What is and What Should Never Be
I decided on a whim to travel 7,500 miles to the heart of Africa during the worst pandemic in modern history. I managed to climb a mountain both literally and metaphorically. Upon return I was faced with some pretty harsh criticism since I had told almost no one that I was going. People including my own family and closest friends took big issue with the fact I did this. I never felt out of place, scared or bad about what I did while I was doing it but once I got back and people realized I had gone, it was not well received. I regret nothing. The only regret would be if I did not go. In my heart I am a Viking, I always trust my heart when I travel because it is my heart that guides me around the world and in life. Travel is the only thing that costs money that actually makes you richer and if I had to quantify I am 70 countries rich and have had a wealth of adventures I could never have dreamed of. Corona might attempt to slow the world down but it will never stop it as long as people follow their hearts and explore the world.