On the final morning of a nine-day trek up and down Mount Kilimanjaro, the rocky dome of the mountain, called Kibo, emerges from the clouds that often shroud it from view. Courtesy photos by Gregory Foley.
An essay by Gregory Foley, editor of the Idaho Mountain Express.
For people who love mountains, the mere mention of the names of some high peaks seems to always evoke a sigh of inspiration. There's the classic, massive pyramid of Mount Everest on the border of Nepal and Tibet, and the smaller—but no less beautiful—Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. And then there's one that most people have heard of and seen in photographs but don't know that much about: Mount Kilimanjaro, a dormant, glacier-capped volcano that towers over the plains of Tanzania and Kenya.
The allures of Kilimanjaro are many. Its bounty of contrast, of icy rock standing as a sentinel over a tropical Eden, has aroused the interest of writers, artists and photographers worldwide. It is considered the highest free-standing mountain in the world, rising more than 15,000 feet from the sun-drenched flatlands below. The summit of its main dome—19,340 feet above sea level—is some 10,000 feet lower than the summit of Everest, but still tall enough to easily make it the highest in Africa. As such, it is one of the revered "Seven Summits," a group of the highest peaks on each of the seven major continents.
All of the attractions—and increasingly easier access to Tanzania, where most of the climbing routes start—have made Kilimanjaro the most-climbed mountain on the globe. More than 20,000 people a year attempt to make the multi-day trek to the top. Depending on a variety of factors, anywhere from one-third to half of the trekkers don't reach their goal. For those who do, the reactions to standing on the summit—called Uhuru Peak—are far-ranging; some cry tears of elation, while others fall faint from exhaustion and altitude sickness.
As a lover of mountains, and an on-again-off-again mountaineer, the allure finally got to me. I joined a fellow trekker in Tanzania last month to tackle the great peak, hoping for all of the standard wishes that come with international travel: dry weather, few delays, a chance to let go of worries about work, and, if you're lucky, opportunities to immerse yourself in a different culture. I went following the great mystique, but found something more: a new, lucid sense of what seeing the world is all about.
I climbed on Kilimanjaro with an outfitter called Kiliwarriors, a company that is co-owned by a native Tanzanian, Wilbert Mollel, who came up through the ranks on the mountain, working first as a porter, then guide, then trip leader. I chose Kiliwarriors in part because the company has earned a reputation for treating its workers—and the environment—well. (Indeed, some porters with other companies we encountered on the mountain told us they sometimes didn't get paid for daily work, and had to hope for good tips from clients.) With most trips ranging from 6-9 days long, the cumulative effect of low pay and poor camp practices can take its toll on the mountain and those who rely on it to make a living.
Our trip was up the Western Breach, a long, nine-day trek up the western flank of the mountain, with a final surge toward the summit through a less-traveled route that winds through steep fields of boulders and snow. The slow approach through the lower elevations, Wilbert told us, would greatly enhance our chances of acclimating well to the altitude, one of the keys to reaching the summit. The most popular route up the mountain, the Machame route, takes a more direct—but still safe—angle to the top.
Head chef Lusekelo Daniel, or “Luis,” chats with friends at the top of the Western Breach, 18,000 feet above sea level.
Upon arrival at the trailhead, deep in the forested flanks of the mountain, the scale of the trip suddenly became evident—a group of more than 20 men greeted me and my fellow trekker, a man named Carlo who'd traveled to Tanzania from Luxembourg. They welcomed us in song and fed us lunch before we started hiking through the jungle. Towering rosewood trees reached through a sea of giant ferns. Occasionally, a Colubus monkey dashed through the canopy. The porters, carrying everything from vegetables to propane tanks to a portable toilet, rushed ahead to set up camp at 9,000 feet.
As we climbed, Wilbert and his assistant guide, Hosea, watched over us and started repeating a phrase that sounded like "Polay. Polay." I soon found out that "Pole. Pole," Swahili for "Go slowly," is a mantra passed on to nearly all Kilimanjaro climbers. It's billed as the key to success. So, slowly we went, asking and fielding common questions about work, family and our homelands.
In addition to Wilbert, Hosea, and our team of smiling porters, cooks and camp aides, I had the company of a personal porter, a tall, lean man named Kanini. During out first water break, Kanini unclipped my water bottle from my backpack and handed it to me. I felt pampered, but played along, handing the bottle back to him when I was finished drinking. He accidentally dropped it on the ground and the two guides erupted into laughter.
Puzzled, I looked at Hosea. "What?" I asked.
Hosea smiled. "You better be careful with this guy. Once, he got lost on the mountain and ended up in Kenya."
He smiled again and looked at the gear Kanini was carrying for me. "Is your passport in there? I sure hope not, or you might not get home."
We all laughed. Kanini laughed, too.
"Don't believe them," Kanini said, and we continued up the slope.
In camp the next morning, Wilbert and the head cook, who goes by the nickname Luis, joked about the "Crimson Tide." For some reason—he didn't really know why—Wilbert had taken a liking to the University of Alabama and its famous sports label.
Head guide Wilbert Mollel, holding the clipboard, leads the “tipping ceremony” at the end of the expedition. Assistant guide Hosea Samwel stands next to Wilbert, on the left. Porter Kanini Loy is the tallest of the men standing on the right.
The guys wanted to know where I was from—"New York or Los Angeles?"
"Well, neither," I said. "I'm from Idaho."
They had no idea where Idaho is.
That day, we climbed the steep trail up the Shira Ridge, the angled side of one of Kilimanjaro's three peaks. Shira sits far below Kibo, the massive rocky dome that people recognize as the true Kilimanjaro. Near the end of the day, as we pushed from the forest into a landscape dominated by head-high heather bushes, Kibo—and the face that is the Western Breach—came into view.
Days passed, and we slowly made our way from camp to camp, to the base of the Western Breach at 16,000 feet. On the way, Hosea and I talked about what it was like to live in Tanzania. He told me he liked it. Life wasn't all that easy, he said, but he had a wife and kids, and a steady job on the mountain, which he called "his office." A few years ago, he said, a well-to-do client helped him travel to the United States. He visited Detroit, Chicago and New York City. He didn't like any of those places; there were "too many people." He had a thing for New Hampshire, though, even though he didn't know much about it.
In the late afternoon, the guides and cooks would invite me into the big cook tent, where they spent most of their down time playing cards. We talked about life, music and movies. Luis thought I looked like a professional wrestler he'd seen on television. Wilbert and Hosea said they loved R&B music. When I told Wilbert my seven-year-old daughter loves the pop singer Rihanna, he joked that maybe my daughter should marry his son someday—he loves Rihanna, too.
We pressed on over the Western Breach and into the crater of Kibo, about a thousand feet below Uhuru Peak. We peered deep into the recess of the dormant volcano, set up camp next to a 25-foot-high glacier, and then decided to head for the summit. We reached the peak at 4:10 p.m. on a Sunday. It was like being in church—calm and quiet, with a breeze sifting through some colorful prayer flags tied to the "Congratulations" sign. There were no other people there. We hugged and cheered, and Wilbert told me he'd lost count of the number of times he'd stood on the summit. Kanini—who I found out carries legendary status among porters after 20 years on the mountain—had probably lost count, too.
Porters move through the “heather zone” on the approach to the main peak.
We descended nearly 10,000 feet the next day to our final camp. I hiked all day with Kanini, who showed me how to jog down through the soft, sandy decomposed rock on the Machame side of the mountain. As we got moving, I leaned back too far, slipped and fell. Kanini smiled because he knew I was OK.
Kanini told me about his family—that he loves his wife and children, where they live and what they do for fun. Then, farther down, he sent me in front to lead. Our legs were tiring after some 10 hours of trekking down the mountain. Just before we reached camp, I slipped on the wet forest floor. One of my trekking poles snapped but I was fine.
About an hour later, celebrating our success, I bought Kanini a big Kilimanjaro beer at the ranger station. We laughed and he said he thought it was funny when I slipped.
"Yes, it was," I said. "Just like when you got lost to Kenya."
It was at that moment that I realized how simple the best moments in life really are. I'd made some new friends, and without that, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro wouldn't have been such a victory.