My Father keeps sending me this picture of a bumper sticker in Portsmouth, NH. It says “This Car Climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.” Around New England, this is pretty funny as anyone who grew up here has seen the endless “This car climbed Mt. Washington” bumper stickers so it’s a nice parody. He also keeps sending it to me because I have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Yup, all 19,341 feet.
As I write this I realize just how much technology has changed the world of travel and I can’t believe how we used to do things before the smartphone. I guess the sub-title to this could be “Life and Travel before Smartphones.”
I actually have been to Africa several times and the genesis of the Kili climb began at the wedding of my good friend Bill Cherry (Chunk) which was in Africa. Chunk and I went to college together, same fraternity and have stayed friends since. Chunk was living in Nairobi at the time (still does) and was marrying a fantastic Kenyan woman
Lindsey who really must have been desperate! Before the wedding, several of the old college gang (Kurt Alletzhauser, Gary Schick, Bill Branch) came over early to go on Safari before heading down to the wedding which took place at a Safari Camp – Tsavo Safari Camp (more on that in another post). We were out on Safari in the Masi Mara having a grand old time, whooping it up, seeing fabulous animals and bending a safari rule or 2. See a safari for us was hopping in Bill’s land rover and throwing in a cooler of beer and driving. No guides, no instructions, just let’s go and find some animals. It is one of the greatest things in the world!!
One night, we were sitting around a camp fire at a game camp reviewing the days adventure and reminiscing about old times, declaring how “we need to get together more often” etc.. when it came up in conversation that Bill’s father (a company guy) had climbed Kili years earlier. That was it! After a few Tuskers and some Kenyan Gold we all agreed that we would meet in a years time and climb Kili. The next morning with clearer heads nobody really thought it was the best idea but boys being boys nobody wanted to be the first to blink. So 18 months later, we all climbed Kili. But how we got there, and some of the things that happened along the way are pretty amazing.
Let the planning begin….. there was no Travelocity, Expedia or AirBNB, no websites to give advice or guide us, we did have email which helped. The plan was to fly into Nairobi, spend a night at the Cherry compound and then drive down to Tanzania for the climb. At the time, Gary, Branch, Kurt and myself lived all over. The logistics were an interesting
challenge, (Gary in Lancaster, PA, Branch in Virginia Beach & Kurt was in South Africa) and the commute once we reached Nairobi was pretty interesting too. I had learned that you could get very affordable flights from London to Nairobi, the catch was the tickets (yes, physical tickets, no email boarding pass or smartphone app) could only be mailed to a UK address or picked up in person. So, the plan for Branch, Gary and I was to buy our tickets from the same Trailfinders travel agent office, take an overnight flight and meet at Heathrow, get a day room, take a train into London, pick up our tickets, grab a pub lunch and head back to Heathrow for another evening flight to Nairobi. Looking back it’s amazing that we did this, and it went down without a hitch. No smartphones and we managed to survive.
Side note, I recall travelling through Europe when I was in college. A bunch of us went to school in Salamanca Spain for a semester (Joyce Rossell Alla I am looking at you). After the term we decided to travel through Europe together. But we had some different things we wanted to see so we decided to split and meet up again. The plan was to meet on a certain day, at a certain time in Venice at the Piazza San Marco in front of the cathedral. And we did! I didn’t speak Italian but learned how to say “Dove il Piazza San Marco”and said it over and over again. No email, cell phones and we managed to meet. Think how crazy that is?? A bunch of kids in Europe pick a day and time to meet and it actually happens. I mean finding someone at Piazza San Marco alone can be a challenge. How naive (innocent) were we?
Once in Nairobi, we were met by Bill at the crazy Nairobi airport. Threw our gear on top of his land rover and headed out to the Cherry household. Bill used to live in Nairobi but had moved to Kitengela which is South of Nairobi and abuts the Nairobi Game Park. In fact,
the Cherry compound bordered the Nairobi Game Park and sat up high on a ridge so that his terrace overlooked the park It was amazing!! And more amazing was that he built this house made of stone himself, with plans drawn up on the back of napkin. He had the stones hand cut and drove them out to the property on top his land rover. WHICH is not as easy as it sounds. The drive was 45 minutes from Nairobi. You had to leave the city and go around the game park and half of it was basically bush driving.
Once there however, spectacular!!
We discovered that the crew was going to be larger than just the 5 fraternity brothers, it included Scott Honeycutt (Bill’s brother in law) and several of his colleagues from various assignments, there was Wiggins (a crazy English man), John Chapman (Canadian and who I am still pissed at) and a friend of Wiggins from Austria. So the gang was 9 in total. The first night we christened the trip with a night at the Carnivore eating our share of meat including game meat (Giraffe, Zebra, Crocodile & Hartebeast) as well as the famous Dawas! It is a drink made table side and in Swahili means medicine. Oh, it’s a pain killer for sure!!
The next day, we set off for Tanzania, our destination was Arusha which is the kick off point for climbing Kili. We were in 2 vehicles, Bill’s Land Rover (which was left side drive to make things confusing) and a pickup truck that Chunk had modified with plywood sides as sides would be required to enter a game park. The truck got the nickname “The
Blender” which I will explain in a later post. The first argument of the trip commenced that morning, we were all so hungover from Dawas we fought over who would drive the truck as the distraction of driving would keep us from wanting to vomit.
We got to Arusha in the early evening, and went for a glorious pre climb meal of Chinese food. It was dark when we got all checked into our hotel and settled down for a good nights rest. It was dawn when we were startled out of our sleep to what sounded like a fire alarm, scrambling to get conscious we soon realized that it wasn’t a fire but our hotel was directly next door to a mosque and that was just morning prayers being broadcast. Cultural lesson learned, never stay in a hotel directly next to a mosque.
There are multiple routes you can take to climb Kili, we took the easiest which was 6 days long, 4 1/2 up and 1 1/2 down. Our professional travel agent Chunk made all the arrangements. Besides being “In Country” where it was easier to make arrangements, he was able to get “local” prices. I can’t tell you how much money I have saved over the years having Bill book things with local rates, trust me, there is a big double standard, as
probably there should be. The route we took is the “tourist route”, sure it’s not a technical climb but we do go from basically sea level to over 19,000 feet so it’s a pretty darn good hike. High altitude sickness is a real concern. Nobody can tell you how to prevent it except for a few basic principals, hydrate like crazy, go slowly, and climb high and sleep low. Ironically, the most susceptible to it tends to be young men…. because they tend to go too fast. Well, I can tell you this was a rare experience, here are 9 knuckleheads, for the most part fit individuals that spent the better part of the next few days saying the Kili motto “pole, pole” (pronounced pole aye) which means slowly in Swahili and making sure we were hydrated by checking in with each other after a bathroom break at the nearest tree/rock/bush “well, was it clear and copious?”
The Kili climb is really spectacular as you go through multiple climatic zones, Bush, Rain Forest, Heath, Alpine Desert and Arctic (well, while it lasts). As part of the climb, you hire
a Sherpa to carry your big bag while you carry a day pack. Trust me, there are a lot of reasons to do this with the most important being the economy depends on it, not hiring a Sherpa will only bring “bad luck” if you know what I mean…
They also provided a very humbling moment, as we set off the first day and every day after the Sherpas are lying around, chatting, smoking cigarettes as we leave. As we are halfway there or so, we hear this thump, thump, thump behind us, and here come the Sherpas, racing by us with our backpacks, not on their backs but on top of their heads. When we pulled into camp, there they were again lying around chatting and smoking cigarettes. Yup, they basically race up and down Kili every day and there we are going as slowly as possible.
In theory we had reserved spots at the cabins for each night but the first night was a complete jail break. we ended up sleeping under a dining table. The next nights worked out well as we had no problem with our very rustic cabins. You can make the climb in 5 days quite easily but we were advised to take an
extra day to help acclimate to the higher altitude, so on day 4 we got to Kibo hut and then spent the day hiking around to higher spots (remember climb high, sleep low) all in an attempt to help the group summit.
That night we got a very short sleep at 15.5K feet. the way you summit Kili is by leaving in the middle of the night and shuffling in the dark. You do this because the ascent is through scree, which basically is loose rocks which during the day you would slide down but at night is frozen and you can easily climb. Then comes the big ANTICLIMACTIC moment! You reach Gilmans’ point. It’s on top of the crater but not the
highest point. Ug… I just climbed for hours in the dark and I am not done? Humph!! So then you proceed to walk around the crater, with each new turn brings another slight rise which at 18K+ feet is like a form of waterboarding. AND THEN YOU MAKE IT!!! Well, I am not sure things have changed but for our climb, you finally get to Uhuru Peak at 19,341 feet and you are on a wide open space and to mark the highest point there is a grand sign, laying on the ground! Yup, long since fallen over, so if you notice,in a lot of Kili photos if you look closely, you will notice they are holding the sign.
We all had grand plans, getting to the highest point in Africa, the largest free standing mountain in the world. We all were expecting to kick back, enjoy the moment maybe experience an epiphany….. In fact, Bill Branch lugged a flask of single malt scotch with the idea of toasting at the top. The reality? We just hiked all night, with not a lot of high altitude sleep, we had been on the mountain 4 days, it was windy and cold, we were tired. We enjoyed the view, took some snaps… and then it was time to go. Remarkably, all 9 of us made it to the summit.
In the end, it’s about the journey not the destination
Side Story – I did plan ahead a little, I took a bunch of print outs in my backpack, “Merry
Christmas”, “Happy Birthday”.. I figured if I am going to climb this beast well then I am going to get my money’s worth. So I took a bunch of pictures with the different print outs, and one of them was “Happy Birthday Dad!”. I gave my father that picture for his birthday and he said, “well couldn’t you get the print straight?” He thought I had photo shopped the words in not actually taken the print outs with me. He was ahead of his time!!
Next up in Part 2…
- Moonwalking down Kili
- Scaring Lions
- FTP T-shirts
- A wedding in Paradise
- Playing Rugby with Crocodiles