Tanzania – Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – Polé, Polé

Mount Kilimanjaro, from a distance, looks like a bunt with a dollop of ice cream on its top. It rises dramatically from the surrounding northern Tanzanian plains above the East African Rift Valley standing alone in pancake flat territory. At 19,340 feet (5,896m) it is the tallest mountain in Africa and 5000 feet higher than the tallest mountain in the contiguous US – Mount Whitney. It is also the tallest mountain in the world that one can walk all the way to the summit without technical climbing gear. That fact alone lures thousands of trekkers from around the world who attempt to climb it from along the many routes to the top. The top of Kilimanjaro has a permanent snow cover which is a startling sight a few hundred miles south of the equator. When British explorer Lord Stanley first saw this he rushed back and reported the existence of snow on the equator to the Royal Geographical Society in England. They laughed at him. Unfortunately, global warming is melting the snow cover. When the big Hummers we drive in Los Angeles has melted the snow cover in Tanzania, future generations wont be laughing.

We are climbing the Marangue route also known as the “Coca-Cola” route partly because it has trekkers huts at all the camps and partly because it is the most popular of all the routes. Serious mountaineers dismiss this route as being full of wide-eyed tourists. The idea of climbing with amateurs like us from all over the world is actually appealing to me. Along the trail I hear English, Swahili, Nyamwezi, Makonde, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Portuguese, Hindi, and a multitude of other languages. My climbing partner is Manpreet Vohra, the Indian Deputy High Commissioner to Kenya. He is a long time friend and a ready partner for most outlandish adventure plans that I can conceive. We have traveled together and explored lands as far apart as China, Mongolia, and Kenya.

tanzania02[1]We travel into Tanzania on the overland route from Nairobi on a gently swaying but aggressively driving Matatu minibus, the quintessential Kenyan people mover with a personality. We cross the land border and arrive in Moshe, the foothill town closest to the mountain. Moshe has always been a global junction. Ancient camel caravan routes passed through here. Now the railway line connecting Dar Es Salaam and Arusha goes through here. That has meant traveling merchants from various cultures have washed up across the centuries in Moshe. In quick succession we drive past the Hindu Temple, the Sikh union club, the South Asian Islamic mosque, and the Lutheran printing press. I come across a large group of Indian Gujarati women distinctive in their bright red, yellow, and pink saris and gagra cholis . The pallavs are draped rebelliously on the right shoulder. This is the season of the Hindu Navarathri festival and they must be going to dance at a Dandiya Ras celebration. I have to thwack myself on the head and remember that this is an astonishing sight simply because I am not in Baroda, India but in Moshe, Tanzania.

The Springlands hotel where we are staying, is an oasis set behind high walls that gives us respite from the dusty road that runs parallel to Moshe’s life-giving Railway line. It has a swimming pool, a garden full of blooming bougainvilleas, a high speed Internet connection, and Kilimanjaro beer at a dollar a bottle. It is teeming with climbers from around the world. Our waiter has the impossibly cool name of “Heaven Light”

Prior to arriving in Moshe I had traveled in Kenya and Zambia. Somewhere along the way I picked up a bug and I am now feeling terribly sick. I am in no position to go for a walk let alone climb Africa’s tallest mountain. The hotel staff bundle me off to Kilimanjaro hospital.

tanzania03[1]Dr. Moro, a Russian trained Tanzanian doctor, is looking at me critically over the rim of his reading glasses. “So, you are telling me that you have been taking these antibiotics for five days and are you are still not feeling better”. I fidget, look down at my feet sheepishly, and apologize that my physiological response to this pharmacological intervention is not as good as it is designed to be. Dr Moro suspects I may have picked up a tropical parasite and sends me for a blood test. While waiting for my results I am joined by a young woman, clearly a visitor from overseas, holding an African baby. In a remarkable tale of synchronicity she tells me that she lives a few miles from my house in the San Francisco bay area and is also suspected of harboring a tropical parasite. She is in Tanzania to adopt a baby as a single mom. A sudden bond forms between us, two neighbors from half way around the world, in our first week in a new country, our fate mysteriously intertwined through a search for a malarial parasite. To both our relief, the test results are negative. Dr Moro calls me in to give the good news. But the bad news he tells me is that I should reconsider going up. “Kilimanjaro is no joke, there are no doctors up there” he tells me sternly, “The evacuation methods for emergencies are very primitive and the porters bringing you down are not really concerned about the most comfortable ride for the patient”. I have visions of being dropped into a gorge and the porters continuing on without realizing that I am long gone. I have a discussion with my guide and climbing partner and we decide that we will make a final decision tomorrow.

The next morning I decide that I will do the short walk to the first camp and turn around if I don’t feel better. At breakfast we are seated with a group of American women from Los Angeles. They are all in their 40s and 50s and had successfully reached the summit by taking six days on the Machame route. In a gentle reminder of the serious business we are getting into, they tell us that when they were on the summit one climber from another group died at Stella’s point just before the summit.

tanzania04[1]The Marangue gate where the trek commences is a beehive of activity. Gabrielle, our head guide, is barking orders and getting our support team organized. Guides, cooks, and porters scurry around packing gear, food, fuel, medical supplies, and water. Climbers of all persuasion wait nervously to sign the park ranger’s register before starting. They take pictures of each other and buy coke and chocolates at mountain prices. Two large groups are noticeable due to their size and volume. A 36 person Dutch group most of whom work for the same lighting company and a 20 person Norwegian group. Their support team of guides, cooks, and porters exceed a hundred people. The next few days they will dominate the mountain and every camp site marginalizing two person groups like ours.

We start walking towards the first camp at Mandara Hut. It is a fairly short walk through a dense equatorial rainforest that takes us to 9000 feet. Along the way we criss-cross other two person teams like us and get introduced to them. Unbeknownst to us these climbers will become our buddies for the rest of the trip as we inspire and support each other.

Vanessa and Leonard Boender are Dutch business professionals. They live below sea level in Rotterdam and the biggest mountain near their house is a staggering 990 ft.(300m) high. Chris and Mark are two young English guys who met as soccer team mates for their college team, which without a trace of English irony is called the Jungle Fighters. They are on Kilimanjaro because the Machu Pichu tour they were trying to get on was sold out. Ulrika and Oscar are from the Swedish island of Sturkö. Accompanying them is Ulrika’s sister and her boyfriend. Ulrika, an AIDS researcher, has never ever been on a trek. So why not start with the tallest mountain in Africa? The four of them want to be first people from Sturkö on top of Kilimanjaro. They carry the Sturkö flag that they will take to the summit.

Cathy is a young Canadian girl from Montreal, taking a year off to travel through Africa, She will be spending nine weeks on the infamous overland trucks that take backpackers through several countries starting in South Africa. Once upon a time they traveled as far north as Morocco before war in many countries in between made that impossible. Cathy is starting with this trek so that she can stand on the top and survey the lands she will be traveling to. The legend on the mountain is that on a clear day you can stand on top of Kilimanjaro and see a quarter of Africa. Cathy is a poster child for the digital generation. She is carrying a digital camera. She also has an Apple iPod with 15,000 songs and enough capacity to download all her digital photos into the iPod without using a computer. When she is camping in the bush she is unlikely to have any electric power. So she is carrying a solar powered charger for the iPod. I live ten miles from the Apple headquarters in Silicon Valley and regularly ride my bike down to browse in the Apple flagship store on University Avenue in Palo Alto. I had no idea that such a thing exists. How people like Cathy even find out about these gizmos and know where to order one off a catalog is baffling to me.

tanzania05[1]Halfway up to Mandara Hut, Ulrika’s sister, who has been fighting an infection is beginning to feel exhausted. She and her boyfriend decide to turn back. They ask Ulrika to carry the flag to the summit. On our first night on the mountain, it pours all night and we lie in our sleeping bags anxious about the trekking conditions the next day and the snow accumulating on the summit.

The next day we ascend to 12,000 feet, steadily climbing for six hours first through the forest, then through some heather, and finally through open moorland. We are above the tree line now. The first half is agonizingly steep before we get to the next camp of Horombo. On the way Chris has the unfortunate experience of his sole coming off clean from his trekking boots. The single most important piece of equipment on the mountain is your boots and now he is stuck without one. He continues to climb with no sole and a shoe bottom as smooth as butter. Horombo, located in the middle of Alpine vegetation with some thin grass and low bushes, is the place where many climbers spend an extra day to acclimatize. But we have promises to keep and keep walking the next day.

It is day three and we are climbing towards Kibo hut which is another six hours away. We cross the last water point where the porters stop to fill up on water because Kibo has no water source. We walk for hours across the saddle between Kibo and Mawenzi peaks before climbing again through a steeper and rougher path at Jiwe La Ukoyo (pointed rocks). The path looks flat from a distance but is actually a slow steady climb which at that altitude in the thin air makes it agonizing. The rocky and dusty terrain of an Alpine desert is all around us. The wind whips up the fine dust. The walk across the saddle is desolate and reminds me of the red rocks of Utah. Monotony and drudgery is your biggest enemy when you are climbing. I try to be present in the moment and observe the Alpine desert vegetation – cactus, thorn bushes, groundsel, lobelia, oleander.

Twice, we see stretchers coming down with a climber bundled in a sleeping bag lying still. At first I thought they were bringing bodies down. Evacuation stretchers on the mountain are designed for terrain not comfort. They have a single wheel in the middle like a unicycle so that the porters can maneuver the stretcher on the mountain path across streams, down steps, over boulders. The porters run down the path balancing this unicycle like stretcher, yelling to each other in tribal languages, probably saying things like. “Oops, careful Ngongo, Don’t drop him into the crevice. Watch it, Habari”


Descending climbers both those who summitted and those who did not stop to offer us encouragement. Trekking and mountaineering are team sports. You compete against the elements and your own sense of limitations not against each other. The fraternity is very strong. The advice ranges from, “It is extremely hard. Don’t look at the lights above you when you summit, Focus on the shoes in front of you” to “Start asking yourself what you are doing on the mountain” to a very cheeky, “Smile, this should be easy for you.”

Oscar is showing signs of high altitude sickness. He is looking listless and has lost his appetite. While still on the saddle he stops to vomit for the third time. We have a short discussion and conclude that he should descend immediately. His guide takes him back to Horombo. Before leaving he gives the Sturko flag and a big hug to Ulrika . Their group of four is down to the last person and she is the their only hope of accomplishing their mission.

We arrive at the final high altitude camp of Kibo. It is at 15,500 (4,700M) feet in the middle of high desert and presents a forbidding lunar landscape of rock and shale. There is nothing charming about this location. It is located there simply because it sits at the base of the 4000 feet vertical cone that is the crater of the Kilimanjaro summit. Just looking up at the summit makes you giddy. We try not to think of the final climb because it will make us turn away and descend. The cooks make us a warm meal as we will need fuel for the final assault. I am nauseous. I go outside the hut, throw up and drag myself back to try and ingest some food. We all leave the food mostly untouched as we have lost our appetite. Everyone looks nervous at the task ahead of us. A few hours of sleep is all we get before we are roused at 11PM to start the climb at midnight. We have to climb in the cold and darkness as the path to the summit will be frozen making it less dangerous.

There are nine people in our hut including some new faces – a French couple who look very strong and confident and a Japanese foursome. One of them Yashimoto, is a 65 year old man who is so relaxed that he is lying on his bed and doing double leg raises. In the meanwhile the rest of us are gasping for air and even bending down to untie our shoe laces feels like an ordeal.

tanzania07[1]No one sleeps that night. I listen all night to the sounds of anxiety and restlessness – rustling sleeping bags, muffled coughs, labored breaths, moans. I develop a headache that feels like a tight metal band being squeezed around my head. I know that I am experiencing the classic but mild signs of High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Brad Reinke, an expedition doctor, who accompanies all the Wharton leadership programs to high altitudes and had climbed with me in the Himalayas a few years ago had emailed me earlier with some instructions. He said that if I woke up with a headache I should go no higher. In extreme cases I had heard that the brain of HACE sufferers swells up with fluid and bursts out of their head. I lie in bed thinking I should not attempt the summit. When I am roused at an hour before midnight I don’t have the headache and am not sure if I have beaten the high altitude illness or if I am being deceived. I decided to get dressed anyway. I bundle up in five layers – thermals, woolens, waterproof shells, two gloves, heavy wool socks, climbing boots, balaclavas, headlamps. I feel suffocated under the layers of clothing. Everyone looks like a stiff bundle and staggers out of the hut. Mark is protesting against wearing his balaclava as he feels no one will recognize his summit picture.

The summit rises another 4000 feet into the sky. The near vertical side of the volcanic cone is covered with slippery scree. Ghost like figures are snaking up the mountain the switchback paths lit by fluorescent head lamps. It is a heady sight if you are a tourist but a depressing one if you are trying to summit as it is a painful reminder how much more you need to climb. Ulrika, Chris, Mike, Manpreet, and I start the ascent with our respective guides. Cathy and Vanessa are already somewhere on the mountain climbing alone accompanied by their guides. The air is thin and freezing. Our breath is labored. I take one step, pause, take another step, pause. The operating word is Polé, Polé or slowly, slowly. I step where Benny our assistant guide is stepping, his feet giving me a cadence on the climb. Very soon I realize that I am falling behind as the rest of the group breaks away at their own rhythm. The guides call out to each other in the darkness. I hear Benny say Polé, Polé. Something to the effect that I am working my way up slowly, very slowly. Gabriel, the head guide comes back down to talk to me. I tell him that I am definitely beginning to feel the effects of high altitude and this is as fast as I can go. We both know that is a long way up to the summit and things are not going to get easier. He advices me to turn back to Kibo hut as the high altitude sickness is only going to get worse as we go up. I wish the rest of the group good luck and I start descending slowly almost with a sense of relief.

Gabriel brings me back to my hut. I am feeling dizzy. He tells me to lie down on my bed and to come and find him in his tent if I feel worse. Then he leaves and promptly locks me in the hut by mistake. I feel like going out and throwing up. But I am trapped inside the hut. I pound on the wooden walls but nobody hears me. All the climbers and guides are on the mountain. The porters are in their tents out of earshot. I feel quite stupid now. There are many heroic way to die on an expedition. This may be the most silly. My epitaph will read, “He choked on his puke trapped in a climbers hut”. I lie down quietly trying to keep my body as still as possible. I have trouble filling my lungs with air and periodically gasp swallowing big mouthfuls of air. The thought crosses my mind “High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, Fluid in the lungs?” An hour later I hear footsteps. Another climber has returned from a summit attempt. I use my climbing poles to bang on the walls and shout for help. A woman’s voice in a Dutch accent answers. She finds me, unlocks my door, and turns on the light. We look at each others ghostly faces. In the midst of misery we find a reason to laugh. Ten minutes later I hear pounding on the walls again. Incredulous as it may sound the same woman is somehow locked in her hut. It is my turn to reciprocate and set her free. This is getting ridiculous.

tanzania08[1]For the rest of the night I watch uncomfortably as some of the climbers who have turned back before reaching the summit are brought down. The pattern is usually the same. I hear shuffling feet. The guides drag in an exhausted body suffering from altitude sickness. They deposit the limp body in one of the bunks. The heavy breathing is the only indication that they are alive. The French couple who had looked very confident the night before are bought back. The man was quite close to the summit when he started going down with HACE and was helped down. He is now sitting with his head in his hands complaining of a headache that goes all around his head and down his spinal column. His girl friend is hysterical. The guides gathered around in our hut look calm and say, “Hakuna Matata. No problem, he will soon be OK.” The woman is crying, “Non, non monsieur, quelqu’un satisfont l’aident”. I watch helplessly. I am no doctor but from what I have read he is displaying clear symptoms of HACE. I have some medication but Gabriel and I are unsure of the dosage. I know that getting him down even a few hundred feet is going to help him. I talk to Gabriel and he gets the Ranger. A rescue crew is put together. The climber is zipped up in a sleeping bag and laid out on the unicycle like mountain stretcher with one wheel. Then the porters start yelling to each other and running down the mountain.

Other battles are being waged up on the mountain. Manpreet has almost made it to the Hans Meyer cave at the halfway point. The Hans Meyer cave is notorious among the guides and they discourage you from stopping there. Climbers often rest here for a while and then decide to turn back. I name it the Hans Meyer syndrome. It has been a hard fight for Manpreet. He looks at his watch. He has been climbing for a few hours. He has another 3000 feet to go. The fluorescent lights snaking up the mountain seem to be up in the sky directly above him and barely moving. His companion is long gone. He feels dispirited. The Hans Meyer syndrome strikes suddenly. He tells the guide, Benny that he has reached his personal summit point and he needs to turn back.

Chris is running a fantasy in his head. This is so excruciatingly challenging that it feels like racing the Hawaiian Iron man. His fantasy consists of going down instead of up, crawling into a warm sleeping bag, and asking the cook to make him a hot cup of tea. Mark tells him that he has to keep going. He then puts his hand on Chris’ back and for the rest of the climb, propels his best friend up the mountain towards Gillman’s point. They look at Ulrika. Her face is wincing with the pain but she seems to be on fire. Later Chris would tell me that one look into her eyes and he knew she was going to make it. There was some kind of wild feminine energy in there. The flag of Sturkö had to fly on top of Kilimanjaro that day. Ulrika would also later tell us that she has a phenomenal drive once she focuses on a goal. She is now on the infamous set of eighteen switchbacks cut into the mountain. As soon as she finishes one the next one gets steeper and longer. She despairs thinking of how many more are left.

tanzania09[1]Finally, the fraternity of pain drags themselves over the top of the Kilimanjaro crater at Gillman’s point. The first thing they want to do is to lie down on their stomach, look in to the crater, and vomit. Ulrika holds up the Sturkö flag and has her picture taken. An astonishing feat for someone who has no trekking experience and who saw all three of her friends turn back.

Yashimoto, the oldest climber we have seen on the mountain has reached Gillman’s point and is in fine spirits. He hums a song, whips out a flask, and serves everyone hot tea. Then he turns smartly and starts climbing towards Uhuru peak. The guidebook had mentioned that older people tend to do better as they deal well with adversity and know how to deal with any alpha male(or female) tendencies that makes younger climbers ascend too quickly and blow up with high altitude sickness.

At 18,800 feet Gillman’s point is also acknowledged as summiting although Uhuru peak is another 540 feet higher. Chris, Mark, Ulrika decide that they have accomplished what they set out to do, they have no more energy and they would like to start climbing down.

Vanessa has been in her own private hell climbing alone all night. She left Leonard at the base camp with a headache as he wisely decided not to ascend anymore. Their guide Jeffrey has been hovering anxiously over him ready to evacuate him if his condition worsens. She wonders how he is doing. The drudgery of following the guide’s shoes, placing one leaden feet in front of another, each step a little higher, slipping back on the scree, and struggling to fill her lungs is deadly. Half way up, the Hans Meyer syndrome strikes her and she wants to give up and turn back. Her guide asks her if she has a headache or if she is feeling nauseous. She answers no. Then keep going he says.

Vanessa is soon reduced to tears. Her legs, shoulders, and lungs are all screaming in pain. To numb herself she reduces her world to one single thing, the back of her guides shoes and stepping where he is stepping. Finally she hauls herself over the crater’s rim at Gillman’s point. She feels that surely now she can turn back. Her guide asks again if she has a headache or if she is feeling nauseous. She mumbles no. Between her native Dutch and his native Swahili it is not a comfortable conversation in English. He wants her to keep going towards Uhuru peak. She wants to come down.

He leads her by the hand and starts walking up to the summit point. She is too tired to argue or even care. She just allows herself to be led barely able to suppress her pain. It is only another 500 feet to the summit point but a good three miles away and ascending even 50 feet can be extremely hard at this altitude. A hundred times she tells herself that she is never doing this again. The crater rim is a narrow ledge covered in snow. The wind is fierce blowing by at thirty miles an hour threatening to blow her away. A careless slip and she could either plummet into the crater or tumble spectacularly down the mountain side into the heart of Africa. Finally with a burst of energy she takes a few last steps and she is standing on Uhuru peak. 19,340 feet. 5,896m, the tallest point in Africa. She takes a deep breath to hold down her excitement. But there is not much air to breathe. She whips out her mobile phone and struggles to sends an SMS message to her parents. Her fingers are frozen stiff. Sitting in their living room in Rotterdam her parents have little appreciation of what it must be like to be at that that height. They have lived all their life below sea level. The tallest mountain near where they live is about as tall as a modest high rise building in Amsterdam. But they have this sense that their daughter has accomplished something very profound. They break down and cry.

From among the dozen of us from seven countries who met on the mountain and bonded as friends Vanessa had become the only person to reach the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro. We all want to pose with her holding the certificate she receives from the Kilimanjaro park ranger.

tanzania10[1]As we descend down back to the Marangue gate we are all silent reflecting on our personal experiences. Those who reached Gillman’s point or Uhuru peak have an incredible sense of accomplishment. And also a resolve that they are never going to do this again. It is simply too physically demanding. Those who turned back at various points before summiting are haunted by ghosts. Did they give up too quickly? Should they have tried to ascend over five days instead of three? Should they have taken diamox to stave off altitude sickness? Cathy is particularly unforgiving of herself. She tells climbers on their way up who stop to listen that she was almost near the summit and regrets turning back. I ask Gabriel at least three times if I turned back too soon. He reassures me that I made a wise decision. He says it would have been easy to evacuate me from Kibo hut if my condition worsened. If I was close to the summit when things went wrong I could have died. Dr. Reinke emailed me later saying he would have turned back under similar conditions. When I climbed the lower slopes of Kangchenchunga (3rd highest after Everest and K2) three years ago with Brad I remember the words of Mike Useem, a leadership professor at Wharton and the leader of the expedition, “Going up is voluntary, coming down is mandatory. Make sure you have enough reserves to climb down yourself and not endanger the lives of your team mates. When you make these critical decisions it is a true leadership moment.”

The quant jock and analyst in me could not resist looking up some statistics collected by a tour company.

Climbers who do a 5 day trek who reach Uhuru peak 27% Climbers who do a 7 day trek who reach Gillman’s point 92%

Therein lay a tale of acclimatization and listening to the advice of mountain people everywhere. “Polé, Polé” in Swahili, “Tashi Dalak” in Tibetan or “go slowly” in English. As I reached Marangu gate my thoughts go to what Kim Moriyama, an outward bound instructor who guided us up Mount Galena in Colorado several years ago told us on the summit. “Mountains do not know how high they are. They just sit there. You have to respect them and climb them slow and steady. And if you don’t make it you can always come back. Mountains have been sitting there for 5 million years. They will be there another year waiting for you.”

Photo credits: author, web