Updated: Aug 7, 2020
Experience of a lifetime, this dormant volcano stands tall at 19,341 ft
One of the seven summits, the tallest free standing mountain in Africa, and a dormant volcano with stunning views that make you feel like you've landed on another planet. Oh, you may ask what I'm referring to. I am talking about Uhuru Peak or otherwise known as Mt. Kilimanjaro. This hike is a dream, bucket list item for many and requires skill and practice. Depending on the route you choose, it will take 5-9 days, is almost 40 miles round trip. Each day is a surprise from nature, unfolding one page at a time. It consists of all the climate zone from Rain Forest, Moorland, Alpine Desert to the Artic Zone. This is one experience not to be forgotten but always be cherished, remembered and shared. Tribe members Mountain Echo and Roots (self) were fortunate to experience this wonder through the 6 night 7 day Machame route. I had read the book 'No Summit out of sight' by Jordan Romero, an incredible boy who had taken on all seven summits and conquered each one of them, which was inspiring. I was 10 years old at the time and I decided to sign up, I didn't realize that the world was going to take an incredible turn with this journey, the challenge, culture, terrain, and personality of the mountain was going to make a absolutely unforgettable impression on my life.
Over the course of 4-5 months prior to the hike, I maintained a rigorous training schedule to prepare for the big hike, this included everyday swimming, weekend local hikes and high-altitude hikes in Colorado, in addition to ensuring focus on a balanced diet and strength training. It is crucial to be in good physical condition to take on this journey, hence regular training to work the muscle groups was something that was key to preparations. Apart from all the training another aspect that I learned was how to prepare for the gear, layering for mountain weather, hydration, salt balance, acclimatization, effects of high altitude and so much more. These were new concepts for me. Having all the gear in place, medicines/first aid required and making a checklist so nothing gets missed, was such an important task, I realized.
Packed and loaded we left for San Francisco airport, while I was a bit nervous, I was at the time, more interested in the international flight and the airport lounge access that I could enjoy. From SFO to London to Addis Ababa to Kilimanjaro, honestly I had never seen an airport as small as the one in Kilimanjaro, we got out of the plane and about five minutes of walking we were at the baggage claim. We also met some of our other group at the Addis Ababa airport, I soon realized I was going to be the youngest in the group! As we drove to Moshi town, the mountain was visible standing tall in all its grandeur at a distance, just like the Instagram pictures. While I was mesmerized by the beauty, my heart was pounding on the thought of the task that lay ahead. Will I be able to do this? The next two days were going to be spent at the hotel. I had never slept in a mosquito net before this, apparently it was very common in this part of the world to tuck yourself in bed with a net hanging around you. Jetlegg started to hit us given we were halfway across the world, so we slept day and night those two days.
Everyone on this trek was experienced hikers, climbers - was I going to be able to do this!
The group gathered and I got to meet them. Talking to them I realized they had all done some incredible hikes in the past, and I was a novice. Samir our expedition leader, who I had previously spoken to, started to patiently explain the process of the next seven days, this helped me calm my nerves. The days at Moshi were also spent bonding with the 20 other people in the group which was fun for Mountain Echo and me. I learned a new breathing trick 'Wim Hof Method', something that I used on the mountain and use it now before my swim races.
Journey Above the Clouds
Finally the day we were waiting for, arrived. We were at the Machame gate, apart from the guides there was a large support group of cooks, porters and helpers who were going to accompany us for the next few days, providing for us, that was their means of livelihood and most of them would have done this hike a few times every season. Once the initial formalities
at the gate for registration and of checking the weight of backpacks was done, we were ready to start the day through the most amazing rain forest - the flora and fauna was unique, some very native plant specifies.
The smell of fresh trees was wonderful, birds, monkeys and slugs kept us company. When we took a short break for lunch, it started to pour, the rain gave us less than 2 minutes to get our rain gear out, some of us were soaking and some had their lunch washed away with the rain. Ha! that I thought was surely an interesting start to the next couple days. By the time we got to the campsite, the porters were already there, had set up the tents and prepared snacks for the group, so thankful for what they were doing for us. The next morning, we got formally introduced to the support group and they made it into a festive moment by singing in Swahali and dancing. Day 2 was going to take us to Shira Plateau, it was a very steep way up to the plateau, we slowly started to realize that the only way to the summit was going to be steady uphill, remember this is a free standing mountain. Taking breaks, hydrating and snacking we kept moving along. Our guide John, he was very knowledgeable about the flora in the area and the history. Mt Kilimanjaro was visible right above us at Shira Plateau.
Never seen anything like this before, Rain forest to Moorland to Aline Desert to Arctic Zone in a span of 7 days
The next stop was Barranco camp at 13,000 ft, I must say this was one of the toughest days. Many of us in the tribe were feeling sick from altitude, headache, vomiting and loss of appetite. Besides when we started off it was nice and warm and then it quickly turned to rain, hail and snow. A stop at the Lava Tower for some warm sips of water that the support group so graciously brought to us was a life saver, cold was getting to my head along with the altitude. The landscape around seemed like the walk was on another planet, or moon perhaps, or times when the dinosaurs walked the earth. The path down to the camp was lined with these amazing plants 'Dendrosenecio Kilimanjari', very interesting plants found and adapted to the harsh climate of this region. Soaking in the surroundings 'Pole-Pole'we finally reached out camp, that night we did not eat much. The adventure was about to get more challenging, expedition leader told us that our next camp was across this huge 900 ft rock wall that stood in front of us. Everyone's jaw dropped, this was a vertical rock wall and nothing in the world that any of us had tackled before. Retiring into the tents, I know Mountain Echo did not sleep much, she was immensely concerned about me and what was ahead next day.
Thinking back on the the experience, I can say that this turned out to be the most fun day over the Barranco wall, something that I wasn't expecting - thrill, challenge, adventure and so much more.
The day consists of climbing the 90 degree face of the Barranco wall and then doing some hiking to Karanga Camp. As the tribe started the day we got news that our head cook had slipped on black ice, that was a warning sign, also realization that moving forward was the only way out. Taking each step with caution, slowly and steadily we moved along the wall, there were many section where the only way to be safe was to hug and kiss the wall. If a mishap happens here, there is really no other evacuation possible but you have to be carried across the wall. The drops along the route were fatal. Once each member of our tribe crossed this successfully, it was time to celebrate and enjoy the expansive views from above. This was not the end of the day though, we still had ways to go to get to Karanga Camp.
I was probably the only 10 year old on the mountain at the time, the words of encouragement along the way and sometimes that of surprise made for some great conversation with fellow hikers, who had come from various parts of the world. With our very own tribe it was fun to play games like UNO, do star gazing or just chit chatting, each one of them were such a support whenever I needed help, they would always check on me and keep me pepped up through the day. Samir would share stories of his Mt Everest expeditions and ask me random questions to keep my mind off the long days. Another realization that came to me was that surviving without internet, without video games or without my favorite 'In & Out' burger can actually be so much fun.
Next stop was at 15,331 ft at Barafu Camp, yes this was it, we had reached our final camp before the summit push. That day we did another acclimatization hike, got back into our tents and slept through the afternoon as we were going to do the summit push early next morning. That afternoon hail came down really hard and there was lot of uncertainty around whether the push was possible, nevertheless we slept through this storm only to be woken up at 1:00 AM to be ready to leave after breakfast or was it a midnight snack! It was cold and I cannot remember how many layers I was wearing but had many. In the rush we forgot to push in the hand warmers into our shoes and gloves. While we started off with headlamps on, we actually didn't need them, it was a supermoon night. The guides had laid out a plan on how they were going to cover the group and they would pounce up and down the slopes checking on each one of us. I was lovingly called 'Simba Moto' and 'Chelingu' which in Swahili mean "Lion Baby" & 'Little Kid and Mountain Echo had a new name 'Simba Mama'. 'Small steps deep breaths' as Samir says we continued to move forward, the bottles were filled with hot water because it was so cold that water was freezing in the camelbak pipes. This thing was steep, grueling, tough! Breaks were short, it was so cold that if we stayed for a longer one our hands would freeze. I had a packets of jolly ranchers in my backpack and those came in handy to keep sucking on. The first rays of sun started to show, and we realized that we had been at it for almost 5-6 hours and there was ways to go. The brilliance of what we were doing also got illuminated with the sunlight, however tired and cold body still made me question 'why am I doing this' but after a deep breath Samir's words 'small steps, deep breaths' continued to ring in my head. And there we were at Stella Point! The summit was still some ways from here, so after rejoicing at Stella Point for a short bit, we moved ahead. There were two people in our group who had to turn around as their body could not take it anymore.
Beyond Stellar Point we could see this huge crater of this dormant volcano, couldn't help but think how much lava would have oozed out when this was active. Yes, yes, yes finally I could see the signage of Mt Kilimanjaro, we had reached The Roof of Africa-Uhuru Peak. Our tribe was right there to welcome us and celebrate with us. Sense of immense pleasure and sense of achievement like nothing I had felt before. Reaching the top was like finishing a race that I once thought would never ever end. We were only halfway through, walk down to the camp was still ahead of us. After 18 grueling hours full of emotions of fear joy and pride, we reached our camp for that day.
On our way down at, to the last camp, the celebrations continued, the support group sang songs, one that I remember was -
Jambo, Jambo Bwana,
Wageni Wakaribishwa Kilimanjaro,
They picked me up and celebrated dancing with the tribe. All of us gave our thank you to this incredible support group, without whom the success of this trip would not have been possible. As we came back to the hotel and it was the last night together, a big dinner celebration and ceremony to congratulate the success of conquest of one of the 7 summits was organised by Samir.
Some of us decided to take the popular African Safari post the hike, our tribe decided to help support local kids with school supplies, so we went shopping and experienced the local markets and from there went into remote villages to distribute the supplies. It was a humbling experience to know how privileged kids in America are to have what we do and how we should support those who don't.
While I was on that mountain, I missed the pizza and burgers and so wanted to get back to the comfort of my home, my bed and be with my little brother. But when I was back home, I so wanted to get back on another mountain, I guess this is what the mountains do to you. I became an instant local hero in my elementary school on return, and got recognized by our City Mayor.
The experience, memories and learnings have been etched in my heart for a lifetime!
Learnings from the tribe - Never underestimate the power of nature, always be humble and don't be afraid to take on a challenge that seems bigger than you - patience, preparation, perseverance, persistence and power of the mind will make it a success.