We woke just after 11pm at Barafu camp. Sleeping at 15,000’ is tough, so the short nap is as good as it gets. Ferdinand and Doto are up and ready; this will be Ferdinand’s 41st summit. Doto doesn’t keep track of his. Routine. Blessedly, it is the first time the mountain is withholding rain, snow, and/or hail during our climb. There are no clouds in the sky and a bright moon. We turn off our headlamps as soon as we are out of camp. “Pole-pole,” Ferdinand says, leading our small caravan of four climbers. “Pole-pole.” The refrain is familiar to us by summit night. Pronounced “pō-lay pō-lay,” it means slowly in Swahili. Climbers repeat it to each other as they pass; guides say it as a matter of habit. At this altitude, pole-pole is a climber’s best defense against deadly high-altitude pulmonary edema, regardless of physical condition.
Our trip to Barafu, base camp for the summit attempt, wasn’t without drama. It started before we even left Moshi. Our plan – flawed from an A-type, planning personality perspective – was to book our Kili climb upon arrival in Tanzania. We’d read that it was the cheapest way to get up the mountain. As the climb was our most expensive single purchase of the trip, more even than the Delhi-Denver-Johannesburg plane flight, we decided to take the risk. At the hotel in Dar es Salaam, we met a nice man who went by Mako. He was just starting out in the tour operation business, he said, and he wanted to make a deal with me in order to get a good review on TripAdvisor. (A single review can make or break a tourism business in places like Tanzania.) The deal he made me was fantastic. I paid him in cash, with some misgivings, silently acknowledging that I may never see that money again. We caught the 8-hour bus from Dar to Moshi the next morning in high spirits; we had no issues checking in to our hotel, and our guide, Ferdinand, came by in the evening to check our gear and discuss the trip. He was slated to arrive at 9am the next day to start the expedition. Everything was according to plan.
Around 7am, we got a call from Mako in Dar: “Paul, there is a problem. I just ask, please, can you pay the guide directly 660,000 shillings [around $300] this morning? He won’t go on the climb without that money. I will have the money waiting for you when you get back.” The obvious question, then, was what happened to the money I gave him in Dar es Salaam? Mako had no answer for me – something about “this is a business, I use money here and there to pay things, I move money around.” I told him there was no way; we paid him to get us on the mountain, and it was his job to do what needed to be done to make it happen.
We were ready at 9am that morning. No Ferdinand. 9:15, 9:30, 9:40. We called Ferdinand and got a frank answer: “there is a problem with the money.” Nevertheless, we convinced him to come to the hotel to discuss the issue with us. At around 5 feet tall, Ferdinand is shorter than Jacque, but has strong character. Unlike many in the tourism industry in developing countries, he has respect for foreigners’ budgets and, simultaneously, cares for his crew. “I don’t like when people are cheated,” he said to me later, on the trail to the summit. “I am poor now, but I know that people who have money did not always have it. They must work for it, too.” He had seen porters go unpaid in past dealings with shady tour operators, and was protecting his crew. Rightfully so: it became painfully clear, after a couple hours of arguing with Mako, that he had no intention of ever paying the crew, before or after the climb. “Strange things happen in Tanzania,” said Ferdinand, “when dealing with money.” Mako’s cousin even showed up; to what purpose, I’m still not entirely clear, as he didn’t alleviate the situation. Sensing that our opportunity to climb the mountain was slipping from my grasp, I finally called it. I trusted Ferdinand, so I paid him the 660,000 shillings to get on the mountain the next day. Mako promised to have the money waiting for us when we stepped off the mountain one week later. Jacque and I both wrote the money off as lost; no reason to let it spoil the climb.
Money drama behind us for the moment, Ferdinand introduced us to our crew: Doto, the assistant guide, a man of few words; Mbusi, the chef, who whipped up wonderful mountain masterpieces; and the porters: Juma, Nassib, Mshak, Ahmed, Salim, and Saidi (aka “Baba,” father in Swahili, due to his age). Altogether, they were nine. Kili climbs are heavily supported. We were allowed to carry only a daypack with water, food, and clothes for the day. Our tent, sleeping bags, various assorted clothes and gear, food, cooking equipment, and so on was carried by the team. Despite the size of our crew, it was a small group compared to most on Kili. Larger, cushier groups will have more porters to carry such luxuries as a bathroom and mess tent. Jacque and I used the squatty potties in the camps and ate with the rest of the crew in the cooking tent. Partially, the size of the team is a jobs program mandated by the Tanzanian government. Porters, cooks, and guides make decent money for the few months of the climbing season. The team size also helps prevent climber deaths due to pulmonary edema and the associated bad press for Tanzanian tourism. Accidents still happen: the day prior to our summit attempt, a Polish climber in his mid-30s – fit guy, we saw him on the trail – passed away before reaching the summit. Nevertheless, reducing the load that climbers carry prevents a lot of unnecessary problems.
The mountain passes slowly. One-half step at a time, we plod up the steep route. The summit from Barafu camp is just over 3 miles with 4,000’ elevation gain. At any elevation below 10,000’, it would be a challenging climb. Above 15,000’, it’s mind-numbingly long and impossibly steep. Jacque and I play mental games, translating meters to feet and back again. Our brains are dumb; we calculate slowly and make mistakes. Pole-pole. One-half step at a time. Break for a few minutes. Pole-pole. One-half step at a time. “Almost there!” Ferdinand says that around 18,000’. We still have 1,300 feet to climb. Pole-pole.
After the crew weighed their loads at Machame gate – 20 kilos is the official limit, though that’s before water weight – we set off on the climb in high spirits. The weather was nice. In theory, our timing for the climb was good. The climbing season on Kili is based around the weather; we were there during the dry season. It failed to live up to its name. The first night, we set up our tent in the rain. The second, our tent was at least up and dry before the massive hailstorm started, flooding camp. That was the day we discovered that our 3-season backpacking tent was going to be touch-and-go for the mountain, as hail splashed dirty, muddy drops of water underneath the rain fly into our tent. The third day, as we passed the 4600m Lava Tower, the driving snow froze and soaked us simultaneously. Thankfully camp that night was fairly dry. The fourth night was a low-key rainstorm that passed quickly. The only time it truly was “dry season” was summit night; even our last night at low altitude after the summit attempt was a massive rainstorm.
The precipitation didn’t stop us from enjoying the mountain. It’s nothing like Colorado’s peaks; it stands alone, as volcanoes tend to do. A Kili expedition goes through five different climate zones. The early slopes of the mountain are the cultivation zone, where people live and grow crops. We only drove through that part; our climb started in the forest and proceeded to the moorland, a type of high-altitude wetland. The trees are odd, crooked, palm-tree-like apparitions. Further on, it became more familiar: Dr. Seuss-esque wetland plants were replaced with the familiar (to Coloradans) high alpine environment. Rocks and small grasses dominated with very little water. On top, the final climate zone, arctic, persists on the mountain. Scientists differ on how long the glaciers will remain, but whether due to deforestation in the mountain’s cultivation zone or climate change, it seems they’re doomed.
Finally, we reach Stella Point at 18,884’, the point where the 60-degree trail meets the rim of the crater. We are walking on snow deposited a few days earlier, happy for the blinding sun. Just a few hundred meters more of slogging. Pole-pole. Breathe. The trail is less steep, but simply refuses to end. Descending climbers cheerfully tell us “you’re there!” I try to shoot lasers at them with my eyes without effect. Pole-pole. No way to sprint at this altitude anyway. Breathe. The signpost at the top finally appears, close yet far, and suddenly we are touching it. Finally! It is a perfect, sunny day, 8 hours after we left camp. We snap pictures of the glaciers, Jacque’s first. I shout in triumph and pay for it with a headache, cursing: get us off this bloody mountain! At 19,341’, just existing is rough.
Once we got off the mountain and back to Moshi, I asked Ferdinand to gather the team for lunch. Everyone showed up. We treated them to anything they’d like – most went for fish, eating it with their hands in the Tanzanian style – and a few ordered a beer or soda. It was our treat for taking such good care of us throughout the week, from the delicious meals that Mbusi made to the attention Juma paid toward keeping our tent as dry as possible. Everyone kept our heads above water, allowing us to simply walk, eat, and sleep.
The meal was our treat to the team; the beach was my treat to Jacque. Before the climb, I promised her a week on the beach for agreeing to climb Kili. After the weather and rough days on the mountain, not to mention the money drama with our shady tour operator, we both needed it. As soon as we were back in Dar es Salaam, we caught the ferry to Zanzibar and hung out in crystal clear waters for a week. It was a nice contrast to the muddy camps on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
As for Mako, the shady tour operator in Dar es Salaam? He remained shady to the end. He gave us 200,000 of the 660,000 promised shillings upon descending the mountain. Then, he sent 100,000 to Ferdinand a couple days later. While we were in Zanzibar, he sent another 100,000, this time sent to our cell phone. Clearly, he was hoping we would accept a loss and leave the country. The day before our departure, we called the hotel where we met him. The manager answered. Jacque told him the story. “Hmm,” he grunted. “We’ve had a few problems with him. I’ll get your money back, and I think we’ll have to let him go.” The 260,000 we were owed showed up on our cell phone less than a half-hour later, accompanied by an angry phone call from Mako. He really thought he was going to get away with it. The fact that an immoral tour operator – who planned to steal money from powerless, hard-working mountain porters – got his comeuppance from a principled guide and two stubborn foreigners was the icing on our trip. In the end, our flawed plan worked out as best as we could hope, with a super crew, a beautiful summit day, and a side of righteous justice, all for a fair price.
The climb: 7 days, Machame Route, $2500 for two people plus $375 for tips
Day 1 Start: Machame gate, 5,900’ | end: Machame camp, 9,842’ | 6.84mi, 5 hours
Day 2 Start: 9,842’ | end: Shira camp, 12,467’ | 3.1mi, 5 hours
Day 3 Start: 12,467’ | high point: Lava Tower, 15,092’ | end: Barranco camp, 12,926’ | 6.21mi, 7.5 hours
Day 4 Start: 12,926’ | high point: 13,780’ | end: Karanga camp, 12,664’ | 3.1mi, 3.5 hours
Day 5 Start: 12,664’ | end: Barafu (snow) camp, 15,260’ | 2.49mi, 3 hours
Day 6 Start: 15,260’ | high point: Uhuru, 19,341’ | end: Mweka camp, 10,171’ | 12.43mi, 15 hours
Day 7 Start: 10,171’ | end: Mweka gate, 6,004’ | 6.21mi, 3 hours