Machame Route – 7 Days
Start – Karanga Camp – 15,331 ft
End – Uhru Peak – 19,341 ft – Total Elevation gain from start – 13,820 ft
*Stella Peak – 18,885
*Chicago is at 573 ft above sea level. Sleeping at a point higher than any in the lower 48 states.
Distance –10 total miles (3 up, 3 down & 4 to Mweka) – total distance traveled so far about 23.3 miles
Time – 7 hours and 15 minutes to Stella Peak – 2 hours and 30 minutes back to base camp – 2 hours to Mwerka Camp – total walking time so far 28 hours 40 minutes
Terrain – Snow, Ice, Rock and back to Moorland
Gremlins – MANY!
The “day” began at 11pm of day 5 with our wakeup. I slept in my two layers of long underwear, two pairs of socks, upper base layer and fleece. I grabbed my insulated pants and put those on as well as my warm jacket and gortex layer. I would be very warm for sure!
I had my pack ready to go with an extra water bottle and my ski goggles to help with the elements. The only thing I had to worry about was my headlamp but I had plenty of batteries. I ate a fair amount of porridge and some toast with peanut butter to fuel up for the climb. Promptly at midnight, we started out from base camp to a dark night lit by the moon and our headlamps. I could see rough vague shapes at a distance and the 5 feet around me. This would be good because at times I think we were right on the edge of some gnarly stuff as we were going up, but what you can’t see can’t scare the crap out of you.
The trail immediately went up! I could recall where we were heading from what I’d seen during the day but the uphill seemed far more dramatic. I know it was more my mind and tired, out of breath body dealing with the altitude and terrain.
We finished our first rise of the mountain and it “flattened” out for a short distance before we were again going up - climbing up rock or walking over steep inclines. It was about an hour in that the wind decided to join the party. The gusts were 20-30 mph and constant for what seemed eons but it was easily a few hours.
Between the terrain and altitude, the wind sucked the will from you. I was beginning to tire and my breathing was laboring. Everyone in the group was suffering from it all. Our breaks were centered around sips of water and eating snacks while resting and trying to stay out of the wind for a few minutes.
At some point, our guide Said took my backpack and started carrying it for me. I wish I could of argued with him more but I was a mess. Struggling to breathe and feeling exhausted. I would look up and for a while I thought I saw a group that seemed impossibly far away making me think the trail wasn’t going to end, ever. After awhile, I realized it was a star! So much joy…but I still had no clue where the top was! I knew the hike would be long but with no watch or light to tell time I felt like I was in limbo.
Throughout our ascent we would pass, or be passed and sometimes play leapfrog with other climbing groups. You would try and pull motivation from one another but the only ones who seemed to be doing ok were our guides. On the ascent of Kilimanjaro, everyone gets a piece of humble pie.
I can tell you I had thoughts of turning around on that hike. It seemed the daylight would never come and with each step my breathing got worse. I was suffering more than I had physically in my life but I’m stubborn, a little dumb and didn’t want to quit. I kept thinking, “you’ve taken a year to get here just another ten steps.” I still had no sense of where the top was. My water bladder mouth piece had frozen and snapped off at some point along the way – glad I had a back up!
After what seemed like the longest hours of my life, I could sense a change in the light. The SUN was starting to come out. I didn’t know where we were but I was happy to see daylight. We took a break when the light got brighter to enjoy the sunrise for a few minutes. This was the best 5 minutes of my 7 days. I don’t think I’ll forget that sunrise anytime soon. As I looked out from our perch, the world felt very big and majestic all at once. I could of stayed there a long time enjoying the moment but we still had some work to do!
Our group was hiking on snow now – my first glacier. There was another point of Kilimanjaro in the distance that was fascinating because at a distance you never saw it and no one climbs it. Our guides let us know we were close and at this point I was behind our main guide so he could keep an eye on me. I felt like I was doubled over, wheezing with every breath. I was flemy and felt gross spitting it up regularly.
As we got near Stella Peak, I could FINALLY see the top. During our last break, JT our guide asked if I would be willing to go on oxygen to help my breathing. I was so stubborn I had to be convinced this was a good idea. He went down to another group descending off the peak to get their oxygen tank. When he came back to hook me up, the tank was empty – comical! But, I wasn’t about to stop as I was so close.
Another 10-15 minutes of hiking, we finally got to the top of Stella Peak – seven hours and fifteen minutes after starting! I will admit I was crying for many reasons. I had survived the night, pushed my self higher than I ever had before and I also knew I wouldn’t be going on. My ascent was done. My lungs had fluid in them and I think I had some blood in my spit. I couldn’t go on hiking another hour to Uhru Peak. My year long journey would end 500 feet short of the true summit!
I looked at JT and told him I was done and I think he was relieved I wouldn’t force him to tell me what we both knew. I hugged my group and told them good luck. I was glad to have my ski goggles on so no one could see the tears streaming down my face.
With that, Said and I turned to the edge and started to walk down the mountain! Going up is hard but going down is no cakewalk. You look for snow and then earth to slide/walk down. Your now using different leg muscles and your feet are slamming in to the front of your boots. Every 10 -15 minutes we’d take a break to sit and so I could catch my breath.
The air slowly got easier to breath but I was still suffering and easily out of breath. We would see others coming down the mountain and one guy was ragdoll limp being supported by two guides, one under each arm. I don’t know how aware he was but he didn’t look good. The sun was also making the day very warm. I was quickly down to my fleece and even that felt warm.
When we saw base camp, I smiled and knew were weren’t that close but the first part of our day was almost done. I was wheezing, spitting and emotionally torn about the day. As we got back to base camp, two and a half hours after we began our descent, I stripped down to much cooler clothes and started drinking fluids to regain my strength. I was horribly dehydrated, exhausted and still wheezing like a old man with every breath I took.
The rest of the group started filtering in another two hours later. They’d all made it. Our day wasn’t over by a long shot! We had lunch and discussed the climb and my friends all told me I had succeeded on getting to the top. It was nice of them to say and even now I don’t know how I feel about that. Our guide, JT, came in to check in and congratulate us on a good day. He also informed us that one of the climbers in a large group we’d been leap frogging had died on the mountain. It was a stunning thing to hear after what we’d all been through.
The group had splintered in to smaller groups and an older man in his 60s was lagging behind alone with one of their guides. The guide had been telling him they had to turn back but he was arguing that he wouldn’t. The guide was speaking in English and the climber was responding in Polish. This isn’t a good sign and sadly he had no one from his group to insist he go back. At some point, he passed away on the mountain. I was glad not to have to see him carried down.
A few hours more of rest after lunch, we began our descent to Mweka Camp, 10,000ft. The trail was at a consistent angle but after nine hours of hiking my legs were tired and my feet were sore. We had two more hours to hike but the air grew richer in oxygen making it easier to breath. I was less out of breath and at some point the wheezing stopped. I was still suffering with fluid in my lungs but it wasn’t so bad.
We rolled in to Mweka camp for our last night on the mountain. We got to thank our porters personally and it became a little bitter sweet to realize in one day this adventure would be all over! Mind you I was EXSTATIC to be done with the tent life.
I’m still not sure what to make of my ascent day on Kilimanjaro. At times, it feels like someone else did it and the memories seem like this story happened weeks, if not months ago. As of today, it was only 18 days ago. I struggle when people ask if I made it to the top. I tell them yes and no. My certificate is different from the others in my group, mine says Stella Peak not Uhru. Emotionally, I’m still upset, angry I couldn’t get to Uhru Peak, but I also know that I had no choice but to turn back.
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Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter or instagram @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at email@example.com
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