Mt. Kilimanjaro; July 2-10, 2010

(Almost all photos in this travelog are Jennifer's. Tim is having some photo uploading & processing issues, expected to be resolved easily once we're home.)

We've had Kilimanjaro in our sights for years, so it was exciting, fun, and gratifying to finally make the climb. It's hard to weave a narrative, so instead I'll cover a few aspects of the expedition and experience. Apologies that it got a bit long -- there's a lot to say!

The Hiking. We took the longest possible route up the mountain: a nine-day version of the Lemosho route. It involved a couple of days approaching the main peak along the Shira Plateau (photo 1), then a few days circling and slowly ascending, and finally straight up the final pitch to the 19,350' summit and our night in the crater. Coming down is a simple proposition: everyone takes the shortest path, descending more than 14,000' in 1½ days. Except for summit day and the descent, the hiking days were modest -- they were more about acclimatizing than covering distance. We traversed several vegetation zones from tropical rainforest (photo 2) to arctic, passing through some lovely and unusual valleys (photo 3), and with nearly constant views of the peak. There was a bit of scrambling here and there, but mostly we followed well-trodden trail. Once we reached about 10,000' on the second day, we were living continuously above the clouds (photo 4), a rather unique experience. Unlike our hike up Mt. Meru, there was little wildlife, except pesky ravens in every camp who were experts at snitching food.

The Weather. We timed our climb for the beginning of the dry season. Whether it was planning or luck, we were delighted to have nearly constant clear skies. That's not to say we didn't deal with high winds and significant cold, particularly at the summit and crater camp, but even there we're told we landed on the luckier end of the spectrum.

Summit and Crater Camp. The summit and overnight in the crater were certainly the highlight of the climb. Fewer than 5% of hikers actually camp in the crater. The reasons are many: There's a hefty surcharge to bring one's entire crew up there rather than leaving them in base camp on summit day; at 18,800' it's very, very high; it can be super cold; and due to acclimatization it's only feasible if one takes a long route up the mountain. But wow, was it an amazing place to stay! It's flat and sandy punctuated by the legendary glaciers (photo 5) and, at its center, there's the Kilimanjaro ash pit (photo 6). By staying in the crater we avoided the infamous overnight ascent to the summit, and because the weather was unusually good when we got to the crater rim, we were able to visit the summit that afternoon and have it all to ourselves. (The norm is to reach the summit in the early morning and share it with 100+ other people.) Photo 7 shows one of the glaciers gracing the trail on the final approach to the summit.

General Scene. Private-time on the summit aside, climbing Kilimanjaro is not a solitary experience by any means. Each day sees several organized groups of 10-15 hikers starting the trek, along with a number of smaller private groups like ourselves. (We became quite friendly with a few of the "independents" who were on a similar schedule to us.) But even the smaller groups aren't small: the average crew-hiker ratio is 5-1; that's five crew for every hiker! As the different routes converge higher on the mountain, counting both hikers and crew, camps can have literally hundreds of people buzzing around (photos 8 and 9). On the "good" side, as one approaches the summit the numbers do drop -- the fact is that many hikers simply don't make it. Overall, we were somewhat surprised by the level of inexperience among the hikers -- it seems for many people, climbing Kilimanjaro is a once in a lifetime challenge, rather than one in a series of treks or climbs.

Emily the Youngest Again. There were a few other teens on the mountain, but none as young as Emily (13). Our guide, who's been leading Kilimanjaro treks for almost a decade, hasn't had anyone younger than 14 before. Coincidentally, his 14-year-old was another Emily from California, who also persevered to the summit.

Altitude Sickness. It's pretty much impossible to avoid altitude symptoms altogether going to the lofty heights that we did, but thanks to our extremely conservative plan including the Mt. Meru climb and the slowest possible route up Kilimanjaro, except for some mild headaches and nausea we felt pretty darn good! Check out our smiles at the summit (photo 10).

Our Entourage. By regulation everyone's Kilimanjaro climb is guided, and by tradition it's typically full-service, with a cook, porters, dining tent with table & chairs, warm washing-water, tents taken up and down, etc., although the amount of luxury varies. We might have been a bit below average, although we did pay extra for one luxury item: a portable pseudo-flushing toilet (like this one) in its own little tent. It was wonderful! Overall, our trekking company -- Eco Tours, booked through Adventures Within Reach -- did a very good job. The sleeping tents were expedition quality; the food was abundant and truly excellent. The cook even hand-carried a personalized cake for two full days so we could celebrate Tim's 15th birthday in style. (The porter's chorus was an extra-special touch.) Equally important, none of us got sick, a testament to the cook's fastidiousness. Our guide was also fastidious: extremely conscious of our hydration, eating, hiking pace -- too fast up the mountain is strictly prohibited! -- and rest. We also had an assistant guide, who hiked with us during times when the guide was busy managing the crew and the camp. (The assistant guide also is useful if the party splits up, although we never did. Both guides are pictured in photo 11.) In case of altitude emergency at the crater camp, we carried an oxygen cannister and a Gamow bag. Our guide also brought along an oximeter, causing the family to become a bit competitive about oxygen levels and pulse -- Emily plans to produce color-coded graphs when we get home.

Porters. There's a slew of information in guidebooks and on the web about mistreatment of Kilimanjaro porters. The industry is now regulated, although it's surely subject to cheating. We can say that our porters seemed happy -- they hiked quickly, joked and laughed a lot, had good clothes and shoes, and they slept in tents, although apparently five of them slept in each of the same 3-man tents we used for two people. We didn't get to know all of them, although we did become friendly with the dedicated tents porter, toilet porter, and oxygen porter, as well as the porter who served our meals. It was hard not to think to oneself now and again "All this just to get our family up the mountain?", but the crew are happy to have their jobs, and we were happy to have them help us reach the summit.

Next: Five-day jeep safari to Lake Manyara, the Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti Plain

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