Surviving Kilimanjaro


This blog entry about the events of Monday, May 03, 2004 was originally posted on May 11, 2004.

DAY 198:  Perhaps it was Ernest Hemingway’s classic novella The Snows of Kilimanjaro that spawned the popularity of trekking the African mountain; each year hundreds of tourists flock to Tanzania with plans to “conquer Kili.”  However, the mountain that Hemingway glorified through prose is not without its dangers.  According to my guide Jimmy, in the first four months of 2004 three people died in attempts of reaching Uhuru Peak, its highest summit.  In 2003, Kili claimed six, three of which were porters.  Kili knows no nationalities and takes its toll on locals as well.

“I’m not feeling well in my stomach,” Jimmy told me when he came to the Kibo Hut a little before midnight.  Even on a guide of four years, Kili made its mark.  “Waka will take you up.”

Kili also affected Kenji’s guide Festo; like me the evening before, he had just thrown up his dinner.  However, as he predicted, his regurgitation only resulted in “new energy,” and he was ready for the final leg up to the peak.

THE PLAN WAS SIMPLE:  leave the Kibo Hut just after midnight for the estimated six-hour trek about another 3,800 ft. straight up so that we could watch the sunrise at Uhuru Peak.  If we failed to make Uhuru by sunrise, we could at least watch it at Gilman’s Point on the same upper ridge as Uhuru just 700 ft. short of the peak, and then continue the estimated two hours to the top.

Although the moon wasn’t completely full, it was still bright enough to illuminate our journey so that flashlights weren’t necessary.  What was necessary was warm clothing; at gusty sub-zero temperatures, I prepared myself with eight layers on my upper body, four on my lower extremities and four on my head. 

Waka took point, followed by me, then Kenji and Festo behind and we started up the last leg around 12:30 a.m.  The fourth and final leg was also the hardest, much steeper than anything we had trekked the past three days.  Some sections were so steep that we had to make gradual zig-zags to make it easy on ourselves with the lack of sufficient oxygen.  However, it was on these sections that were bedded with loose rocks, making us waste energy to keep from slipping.

Body energy was a valuable commodity for that final moonlit leg.  The energy to walk three-inch baby steps was all we could afford; everything else went to breathing.  My inhalation technique continued to be my deep Krazy Straw one, followed by one release of carbon dioxide with a long and whispered “Ho…”  Over and over this process repeated.  Inhale like a Krazy Straw.  Exhale with a “Ho…”  (These were The “Ho’s” of Kilimanjaro.)

THE FOUR OF US STRUGGLED UP to the halfway point, the Hans Meyer Cave, named after the first whiteman (a German) to conquer Kilimanjaro in 1889.  We took a short break in the shelter of the cave, away from the high winds.  Waka put his head down, Festo sat on a rock and Kenji sat on the ground with the look of excruciating pain on his face.  I went to go take a piss.  Trying to find my penis hidden under many layers of nylon, cotton and polyester was quite a challenge, and a real waste of valuable body resources — but as they say, “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”  We didn’t stay at the cave too long, which was a good thing; later I learned from Jimmy that two years prior some trekkers stopped there for a break and never woke up.

We continued the arduous journey towards the heavens, racing the rotation of the earth in hopes of reaching the top before the sun came up around the horizon.  To aid me I had Jimmy’s walking pole and with it I developed a sort of rhythmic strut like a pimp from the 1970s.  With both hands on the pole and my “Ho’s of Kilimanjaro” (get it?), I worked my way up the incline, stopping every ten or so steps to catch my breath.  The higher we went the more frequent the stops were.  I’d call to Waka in front by saying “Wait” and after a couple of measures of breathing, I’d call “Twende.”  If Waka was going too fast I’d call “Pole, pole.”  Kenji didn’t mind the frequent stops; often he sat down during them calling “Rest,” extending the break even longer.  It was needed up there in the stratosphere.

Our efforts weren’t fast enough because we had only made it about two-thirds of the way up when the radiant aura of the sun starting coming above the slightly curved horizon line — at that height, you could even see the curvature of the earth.  We continued upwards, still racing the sun, but soon we realized there was no point.  The inevitable sunrise came on schedule and we just sat where we were to watch it.  Slowly the rays of earth’s closest star revealed the Mawenzi peak (Hi-Res) beneath us to the southeast. 

Even with the added “warmth” of the sun, the temperature was still in the cryogenic range.  When we crossed the snow line at about 16,000 ft. (5000 m.) we began seeing the snows of Kilimanjaro that Hemingway named his story after.  The snow was trapped in the nooks and divets of the big rocks and boulders surrounding us, the same rocks and boulders we had to use extra energy to climb over.  Breathing became harder (my nostrils started frosting), as did hydration; my water bottle purification filter froze shut.  Luckily Kenji had some water to spare.

The top of the ridge we were climbing towards seemed like it was always getting farther the more we progressed.  The guides were men enough to take our backpacks for us and with Festo’s added motivation, we trekked on under the morning sun.  We eventually made it to the top of the ridge at Gilman’s Point at 18,633 ft. (5681 m.) ASL around eight o’clock.  We were greeted by a congratulatory sign posted by the national parks department.

“Congratulations!” Festo said.  “You made it!”

Despite the slight lightheadedness I was having, I was level-headed enough to realize what he was trying to do:  make us feel accomplished for reaching Gilman’s Point — “You still get a certificate” — because being a guide, he knew we probably weren’t fit enough to hike the ridge to Uhuru Peak.  Kenji, with an even more intense look of pain in his face like he was about to give birth, still wanted to go for the summit.

“You’ve come up too slow,” Festo told us.  True, we had arrived about two hours later than a person fit enough to make it all the way.  “Even if we make it there, there’s no support team to take you down.  It’s the low season.  I can see you won’t make it.  Trust me.  That’s why I am a guide.”  Later I discovered that the mountain guides get fined by the parks department if they advise wrongly to their clients.

I was content with what we had accomplished.  One can’t say I didn’t reach the top of Kilimanjaro because looking down the other side of Gilman’s Point, it went downhill again.  For the sake of bragging rights I suppose I at least made it to the highest point on the eastern side of Kilimanjaro’s highest ridge and that I made it to the very end of the Marangu Route — some didn’t even make it that far.  I heeded Festo’s advice; attempting Uhuru Peak wasn’t worth the risk.  Although it was only about a 700-foot difference in altitude, it was still about a mile or so laterally.  Besides, we had come for the sunrise, and we had seen it.  The sights at Uhuru Peak would be similar to the ones at Gilman’s Point (picture above) anyway.

FESTO WAS STILL TRYING TO TALK KENJI OUT of attempting Uhuru.  It was no surprise to me that Kenji still wanted to go — part of me still wanted to go for it too, but at the same time I still wanted to live to tell the tale.  Jimmy had told me that from his experience, “The Japanese are complicated;” they always have to finish their goals even if it risks their lives.  In fact, two of the three fatalities of early 2004 were Japanese.

While high altitudes can kill you, it can also just make you delirious; Jimmy told me one Japanese girl started hitting him with a stick.  Kenji was another Japanese person gone delirious.  His face started turning a shade of blue and he lost all mind-body coordination.  Finally taking Festo’s advice, he started his way back down the trail, only he couldn’t walk on his own.  In fact, he couldn’t even stand.  Every attempt to do so resulted in him falling over like a marionette without a puppetmaster.  Festo, his guide-turned-puppetmaster carried him by the shoulder like a soldier injured in battle.  Not to make light of a serious situation, but it was like watching Weekend At Bernie’s

Festo brought Kenji down to a level where he could stand on his own with a walking stick — until he just started falling over again.  I gave him my walking stick to use.  He used them like a pair of crutches, but he still couldn’t make it on his own.  Festo helped lead him down gradually over a period of about three hours, stopping about every ten feet for another break.

As for me, I only had a slight headache as I marched down the slope, gravity finally on my team.  My head pains got heavier as I descended though with the morning winds scattering precious oxygen molecules all over.  Waka was behind me, but he kept on stopping to rest for long periods of time.

What is my responsibility here?  I mean, I’m the client and he’s the guide.  Wait a minute, he’s not even my real guide!  That guy’s already got altitude sickness!

“Is he okay?” I asked Festo.

“Yeah, he’s just resting.”  Festo called to Waka and he eventually came down.  Perhaps he was just admiring the Mawenzi peak jutted out of a sea of clouds.  He eventually caught up to me and together we arrived at base camp. 

“Congratulations,” Jimmy wished me. 

AFTER SOME TEA AND A MUCH NEEDED NAP, I was awake a new man just in time for the light lunch before the journey downwards the way we came.  Kenji was slowly regaining his regular consciousness but still had a headache.  His coordination wasn’t entirely back because he had to be escorted by arm for most of the way back down to the mid-way Horombo Huts base camp.

“Did you make it?” the Horombo caretaker asked me.

“No.  Only to Gilman’s.”

“Good enough.  Congratulations.”

I supposed congratulations were in order.  Although I may have not “conquered Kili,” at least I survived it.

Next entry: The Path Of The Other Coin

Previous entry: Into Thin Air

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Comments for “Surviving Kilimanjaro”

  • woohoo…HiRes = new desktop…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  04:17 PM

  • great job & awesome pics man! You deserve some scooby snacks!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  04:29 PM

  • You made it to the top in my books!  What an awesome accomplishment!

    Posted by Liz  on  05/11  at  06:25 PM

  • Reading that made me light-headed.  It looks like the view out an airplane and makes the Inca Trail look like a walk in the park!  wow - congratulations for surviving that.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  08:19 PM

  • Congrats!  Pics are amazing!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  09:11 PM

  • Congratulations! Those pictures are awesome. You totally rock - I know I never would have made it even THAT far.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:15 AM

  • Nervous suspense… CLIMAX!!!

    You Rock! That was awesome! Sounds to me like you conqured Kili… I’ve been telling everyone around here for the last two weeks that “Fuz-E’s climbing Kilamangaro. So, what are you doing this weekend?” They all think you’re the luckiest and gutsy-est guy we ever worked with. Good job buddy!

    PS, most of them also think you’re nuts. Hehe!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:32 AM

  • My wife and I saw the IMAX movie: Kilimanjaro, so I knew what you were talking about when you mentioned the different climate zones..  anyone else see it?  If you can find it - you have to see it.  With a screen that big, you can’t help but feel you’re part of it, and THAT is the best to share E’s perspective without actually being there..
    Incredible man.. after we saw the movie we thought about it, now we’re thinking about it again…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  02:01 AM

  • DARCY:  All those nature documentaries always make places like Kili seem so inaccessible, but actually Kili is quite a tourist draw, and over a thousand people climb it a year…  go for it!  (Just pay for the extra day of acclimization even if they say you don’t need it.)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:09 PM

  • CHRISTY:  Who else at PH (or is it just PE now) is following along?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:10 PM

  • Congrats Erik!
    I’m with desktop!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  04:34 PM

  • woohoo! awesome pics! but after reading thru…i think you could’ve made that last leg to the apex. i mean…you threw up already!

    j/k.  great job!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  05:01 PM

  • WOOHOO!!! congrats. the pictures are amazing.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  05:27 PM

  • LOVEPENNY:  If I only had your rubber nipple to suck on like at Paulinskill!  (BTW, that’s the nipple of a HYDRATION PACK!)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/13  at  08:58 AM

  • lol. you can suck on my nipple anytime.  (^_^)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/13  at  05:35 PM

  • I am another PE person following you blog and also Marc Oliver, the guy you do not remember.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/14  at  07:41 AM

  • Eric is a great houseguest. Have him stay over any time.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/15  at  04:01 PM

  • TED:  Thanks!  And thanks for having me over!  When I get a new home, you and Tony are welcome to stay anytime… perhaps we’ll even make the gumbo (with love) that we never got to make…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/15  at  10:23 PM

  • Erik -

    It was a blast having you in Moshi.  Glad you made it safely to Zanzibar.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.  Say Hi to Willie and the gang for me at Grace Tours.  Travel safe, man.


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/16  at  05:50 PM

  • TONY:  Thanks!  And thanks for letting me play houseguest…  My hospitality to you is open anytime, if and when I get back to the States and get a place!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/16  at  06:13 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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The Path Of The Other Coin

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Into Thin Air


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