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Day 0 – En route to Arusha, Tanzania from Nairobi, Kenya.
It was 2 AM. We were sitting at a roadside “bar” on the border of Kenya and Tanzania. We’d spent the day in Nairobi, and were already enthralled by our environment. The city had awoken every sense, and it was already beginning to feel like a vivid, lucid dream.
The visa office was just a few steps down the road. We stumbled in and looked around. Old posters on the walls, a few electronics, paper binders to keep track of the transactions. It took us 15 minutes to find someone, but we finally found him sleeping behind the counter on the floor. Yellow Fever vaccines were “required”, but I’m pretty sure we could have handed over a yellow paper and it would have been the same.
The crisp Kilimanjaro beer, which we all savored, kept our minds occupied and bodies relaxed as we waited out the Kenyan bandits. Or were they raiders? Not sure what the right nomenclature is here. We were on our way through to Tanzania when our driver (and part-time bodyguard), Robert, noticed a flashlight beam into our car.
He slowed down until the car stopped, and pulled down his window on the passenger side. The men were actually local police. They spoke a few words back and forth. Robert turned around and said, “There are men hiding in the bush ahead. If we continue forward, they will rob us in the dark. If we wait until 4 AM we will be fine. Do you want to continue?”
How considerate of Robert to give us the option. “Holy shit. This is real!” I said, as I looked at my fellow mountaineering comrades. “I wish I still had my knife now,” I thought. “Yes Robert, let’s wait. And we can wait until sunrise if that’s better.”
“No, 4 AM will be fine.” So we turned around and headed toward the side road to the local hangout. Robert kept a watchful eye on us at all times. If we wanted to use the toilet, he’d escort us himself. We sat and drank our beer with the locals, making sure to maintain a “we’ve done this before” look about us. We surprised Robert by wanting to sit and hang out with the locals. He was likely more amused than surprised.
There was a small TV, no more than 18 inches wide, hanging in the corner playing African music videos. On the street side there was a makeshift charcoal barbecue. A young man was cooking up the remaining scraps of meat from the evening.
The locals were welcoming and we never once felt threatened. Robert seemed to know something we didn’t though, and eyed his surroundings. We sat at a table with plastic chairs and continued to sip our beers, waiting out the bandits. “Did we just avoid a robbery, or was this about to be a kidnapping? I wonder how much my ransom would be…” I thought. Either way, it was a relief to have avoided it all.
It was unanimous. The boys agreed, Kilimanjaro beer was delicious. The irony put a smile on my face. The tallest freestanding mountain in the world was still ahead of us.
There’s traveling, and then there’s Africa. So the adventure begins…
Day 1 – Mount Kilimanjaro
“I just threw up…”
Our fearless leader and birthday boy, Nick, woke up on day one of the hike looking like he needed an exorcism to rid the Kilimanjaro demons tormenting his insides. His face flush and emotionless—food poisoning had taken over.
Nevertheless, after months of anticipation it was time to begin our seven-day hike up the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. That first night we met our guide at the Outpost Lodge, a young Tanzanian man of Maasai descent named Babalou.
Babalou is the quintessential guide. He’s friendly, experienced (having climbed Kilimanjaro over 480 times), and a pure alpha male. He explained all the logistics and prepared us with the first day’s schedule. There would be 16 porters carrying food and supplies up the mountain. Two specialists. One cook. Two assistant guides. And Babalou.
We boarded the bus and were immediately met with big smiles. “Jambo!” said each new face. Babalou introduced some of the main players. They all had nicknames. Like Babu, our assistant guide. Baby is a 58-year-old man with a calm, quiet voice that implores you to lean in and hear every word. “Hakuna matata, my friends”, he’d often say, which is Swahili for “no worries”. We were surprised to hear the famous phrase from Lion King wasn’t just for tourists. Hakuna matata symbolizes life in East Africa, the way “Pura Vida” does in Costa Rica.
There were a handful of things we knew about the hike: prepare for the cold, drink lots of water, walk slowly, and be ready for a difficult summit night. Day 1 was a long 16 km hike through the first layer of the mountain—a beautiful rain-forest. We even spotted some blue monkeys along the way. Playful little fella’s…
We walked and walked. By the end of the first day, exhaustion had set in. I looked around to see the boys were in similar spirits. Nick never once complained, but looked like death. “Our bodies are just in shock” I thought. It’ll get easier.
At camp, we began integrating into life on the mountain. Hygiene and cleanliness? Non-existent. Comfort? Not an option. This meant embracing our core masculinity, which is a sexy way of saying we were filthy animals who barely remembered to brush our teeth for the next 7 days.
Like, really filthy. Blowing your nose with your own hands and wiping on a shirt you’d wear for days in a row were commonplace. At the end of day 1, the cook’s assistant—a young, hard-working, quiet Tanzanian named Benja—prepared us “water for wash”. This was a bowl of warm water left by our tent to wash our face, hands, and feet with. Being the amateurs that we were, we all passed on this that first day. This was a mistake we wouldn’t make again.
Dinner. My expectation for food on the mountain was porridge. And maybe something to dip in it. Our cook, Shakur, fed us breakfast, lunch, and dinner until our stomachs burst. The first dinner was exceptional. Always at least three courses, and always something new and creative. Presentation was key, another surprise.
We needed the calories, this was one of Babalou’s orders. Benja would serve the food and continue to fill our plates until it was all gone. Babalou always entered the mess tent as we were finishing dinner to see how we were feeling and chat about the next day’s schedule.
This would often go something like, “okay guys, for tomorrow you will need about 3-4 liters of water. We leave here by 8 AM. It’s an easy hike (this was his reverse psychology game), and we will be at the next camp in 6-8 hours. When you get there you will have some tea’s or coffee’s or Milo or hot chocolate. Then you have water for wash at 4:30 and you rest until dinner time.”
We began to expect Babalou to tell us exactly what we needed to do at every moment. And we began to enjoy this. Our minds were so occupied with the hike that Babalou’s instructions made life easier. Throughout the day he’d check on us and look at our faces. I think he was checking for symptoms from the altitude.
Sleep came easy that night. After dinner it was off to the tents. Myself, Daniel, and Jason in one. Nick and Amit in the other. After a quick change of clothes we got into our bags mummy-style. I threw on my headphones, started a new audiobook—Stephen King’s On Writing (my new favorite book about writing)—and within seconds it was off to dreamland…
Day 2 and 3 – Mount Kilimanjaro
“Oy! Oy!” It was Benja with his signature wake up call, promptly outside the tent at 6:30 AM.
Mornings were simple. Benja would zip the tent open and be holding a tray of cups with tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. We’d usually have this right in the tent while we were still warm and cozy. I went with the tea.
Outside the early morning air was fresh and the sun was crisp. “Water for wash” sat outside the tent. After a quick brush of our teeth (if we remembered), we’d head to the mess tent for breakfast, which again, was spot on thanks to Shakur, our all-star cook. Babalou came in and reviewed the day’s agenda, always with a smile. “How are you feeling guys? Super duper?! Okay guys, today we will be climbing some big rock and it will maybe will be hot so bring your sunny creams and sunny hats.”
With us, Babalou was always friendly and approachable. With his team, the same. He treated them as equals, but also demanded excellence. I admired him for this and enjoyed watching him in his craft. But like I said, he demanded excellence. When something wasn’t the way he wanted it, you’d hear that person’s name being called out with authority to fix the issue ASAP. As he often said, “your smile is our job guys”. He did whatever it took to make that happen.
After breakfast it was back to the tent to change into the day’s gear. In the lower parts of the mountain this usually consisted of a base layer, mid layer thermal, sun hat, and rain jacket in the day bag. Day 2 was my favorite hike. It was a difficult one with lots of big boulders and rocks, but this kept us engaged. The landscape was spectacular. At times we were barely clinging onto sharp rock walls and hopping from one boulder to the next, which felt more like mountaineering than hiking.
At the end of Day 2 we all felt better. While the day’s hike was still difficult, we’d began to get in the flow and our bodies started adjusting. The post-hike decompression of Day 2 was memorable. Our afternoon rest in the tents was accompanied by the soothing sound of rain splashing on the tent. It was the perfect complement to being bundled up in the sleeping bag. After sunset, temperatures dropped drastically and we’d need to wear multiple layers and a jacket to stay warm.
Day 3, we conquered Lava Rock. Again, this involved a lot of boulders and rocks, but it was even more treacherous than before. One small slip and you’d go tumbling down. The porters did it with ease, jumping from boulder to small rocks with 15-20 kg on their shoulders. We decided Babalou was actually part-gazelle. He’d often get bored and opt for a more difficult route just to spice things up.
At this point we were approaching higher elevations and could definitely feel the altitude. It was important to pace our hiking, “pole pole” our guides would say. One quick move and you’d be catching your breathe for the next 20 minutes. No joke—the air was thin.
I’ll never forget the diverse landscapes we discovered each day. Maybe it was the altitude, but I started to imagine we were on a space expedition—each day’s terrain was like a new planet. It was like we were living out our own Interstellar journey. The scenery was that distinct and outrageous.
Did I mention the porters? Not only would they hike with all the gear, but they’d beat us to camp and have everything set up by the time we’d get there.
We’d heard that Day 3 was often the most difficult, other than summit night, and it didn’t disappoint. At this point we were all dealing with a variety of issues, outside of looking and feeling like filthy, I mean masculine, men. Sore legs, headaches, and in particular, Jason had picked up a virus in his throat/chest and was on his way toward an infection.
Babalou ensured we were following his instructions at every moment. Lots of water, “pole pole”, eat a lot, sleep a lot. I wondered if there were any “local remedies” for the altitude, and mentioned this to Babalou. He swiftly obliged and returned later with a little present.
The key, as Babalou would say daily, was “positive mind”. We never once allowed ourselves to think about not reaching the top. Sure, the journey is more important than the destination and all that, but we didn’t go to Africa just to walk around a mountain like tourists for a few days.
The summit was the goal—and it was in sight.
Slowly but surely, we were making our way up the mountain…
Day 4 and 5 – Mt. Kilimanjaro – Above The Clouds.
I woke up at 5:00 AM to meditate. In the mountains, darkness takes on a new meaning. Without liquor stores and street lamps to illuminate the sky, it’s just you and the galaxies above. I threw on a few layers, grabbed my headlamp, and walked until I found a big, cozy looking rock to sit on.
The mountain has magical effects on the mind. It forces you to give up your everyday needs (which you’ll discover are unnecessary luxuries) and find solace in uncomfortable situations is a powerful exercise. My mind was at peace. The aimless chatter in the skull relaxed in this new environment.
As I opened my eyes, I watched the sun rise, but like never before. I sat there on my rock, above the clouds. I’ll save you the hyperbolic adjectives about its beauty, and instead tell you this: it was the type of moment you’d wish for in a heaven. Which ironically enough, is available to us right here on earth.
After chef Shakur’s breakfast, the morning got even better. Our guides and porters put on an impromptu a cappella concert, and began singing the three songs we’ll never forget: Jambo, Yo Mama, and Kilimanjaro.
My personal favorite was “Yo Mama”. As you can imagine, this put wide, unshakable grins on our faces and prepared us for the final days before the summit. Day 4 brought some of the best views and scenery imaginable. We were frequently above the clouds with blue sky’s. Mount Meru, another massive nearby peak, stared at us from miles away.
Day 5 was just as mesmerizing, but the chatter in the skull soon returned. It was the final hike before our big summit, and our attention shifted to the big night ahead. We had a shorter hike that day, only four hours. The plan was to arrive at camp. Eat. Rest. Eat again. Then try to sleep from 6 PM – 10 PM. At 10:30 PM it would be prime time.
I didn’t sleep a minute. Whether it was nerves or the altitude that caused my restlessness, I couldn’t do it. I lay there for hours, with nothing to do but wait.
This would mean I’d have to pull an all-nighter for the summit. 7-8 hours to the top, hang at the summit for 5-10 minutes, 2-3 hours back down to camp, rest one hour, then 3 more hours to the lower camp…
“In the mountains there are only two grades: You can either do it, or you can’t.” – Rusty Baille
Day 5 and 6 – The Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro
You know that classic war movie scene when the bomb siren goes off and the soldiers jolt out of bed like killing machines ready for battle? That was us. The moment we heard Benja say “oy!” at 10:30 PM from outside the tent, we sparked up, ready to climb.
Now instead of pulling out an assault weapon from under our pillow, it was a headlamp. With extra batteries, of course. Our battle boots sat right at the foot of the tent. 2-3 layers of socks on already. Outside it was around 5 °F (-15 °C). The higher we went, the colder and windier it’d get. Babalou—our amiable, gazelle-like guide—had performed a gear check earlier that day. Our objective was to put on layers ‘till we resembled the Michelin man.
We met for a quick final snack and tea/coffee in the mess tent. Babalou came in, more serious than ever before. This concerned me a little. You could tell shit was about to get real. He’d casually mention later that in September he had to evacuate four different hikers during their summit attempt back down the mountain. Altitude is no joke. At almost 20,000 feet high there is a risk of death.
“Guys, it is time. Listen—I want to see you all at the top. But don’t worry, from here on I have 97% success rate (he really said this). You won’t need much water tonight, only one liter. We won’t be taking any break, only short one for 1-2 minutes because it is too cold guys. We will try to stay together as one group, but we will split up if it is necessary.”
And so it began. The 5 of us boys, plus 3 guides and one porter who’d been given a privileged nod to join for the summit. Man, was it cold. The sky was pitch black and beautifully decorated with giant, lit up stars. The only thing you could see were these stars, your own two feet, and the heels of the person ahead of you. As one single file, we began to make our way up.
Is that a snow flake? My face formed a smile. We’d all talked about how perfect it would be if there was snow at the summit, a rare phenomenon during the dry season. “Beautiful. But maybe I’ll zip up this jacket a little higher”, I thought. As we walked, the flake soon morphed into an onslaught of sideways blowing wind and snow. The wind began to howl. It was a full on blizzard.
Not only would this be the longest hike of our seven days, but it was the steepest. We’d also be gaining the most elevation in one hike—from around 15,000 feet up to almost 20,000 in one night. Because of this, we had to take it slow. It was imperative. As the night went on, it felt more like a trudge than a walk. “Pole pole”, step-by-step, up the mountain we go.
The freezing temperatures and fierce winds left everything in sight frozen. Around the halfway mark, Nick noticed something out-of-place. It was a plaque, sitting on a big rock. We dusted off the snow and read the name of a young climber, a young man fallen too soon. He had died right there. I left my good thoughts with the man, while the thought of dying on the mountain left chills up my spine. Just a couple of weeks earlier a fellow blogger, Scott Dinsmore, had died while summiting Kilimanjaro. While it was an unfortunate, freak accident that took his life (a falling boulder), it was even more real and close to home.
I took a sip of water. I had to blow air back into my CamelBak hose to remove the water, otherwise it would freeze. Summit night brought the real mental and physical test. When you could see through the snow, you’d catch a glimpse of each of us struggling to take the next step. It required maximum effort to continuing stepping and stay calm. With each step came a deep inhale and exhale, then another step. Our big goal was to reach Stella Point as a team. From there, it would be only one hour to the summit as we’d walk around the crater.
By the 4th hour, my altitude headache had gone from an annoyance to an excruciating, nauseating migraine. Some of the crew came close to vomiting. Every 30-60 minutes we would pause to pop a “Gu”, a liquid energy supplement, which was the only thing we could stomach. I couldn’t tell if I was famished or full, my body was sending all sorts of signals but I couldn’t distinguish between each one. Babalou checked our faces for signs of life. The key was to let the body know what time it was. It was a time to fight. Not flight.
The first glimmer of light, both literally and metaphorically, began to illuminate our path just as we reached Stella Point. We finally saw the beautiful mountain we had been climbing the past seven hours. It was a spectacular view, and we couldn’t help but celebrate. All of us made it to the final checkpoint as a team. This was a huge accomplishment. However, apparently, a lot of climbers take the victory too far and fail during the last hour to the summit. We were at 18,652 feet (5,685 m). Staying here too long was dangerous. We took it slow, and began taking photos of the view quickly so our hands wouldn’t freeze up.
“Woah. Did you see how blue his lips were?” We were passing climbers walking the opposite direction that had already made it to the summit, along with others who were still trudging there like us. They looked like death. Bloodshot eyes, pale, veiny skin, blue lips, and emotionless faces. How or why some of them continued was beyond us…
We were finally approaching the summit. “Wow, we’re actually all going to make it!”, I thought. We were lucky to have no big groups behind us. We did it. We made it to the “roof of Africa”—19,341 ft (5,895 meters)—the peak of the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. We spent an entire 10 minutes at the top taking photos. We even mustered the energy for an “olé, olé olé olé!” chant as one. I grabbed my pipe (a new hobby) from bag and took my summit photo. “Piece of cake”, I said to Babalou with a laugh.
I was mostly speechless. I imagined I’d have a lot of thoughts, but the last eight hours had taken its toll. My head was pounding, but I smiled. I couldn’t get rid of that smile. As we made our way down, I began to think about why people do crazy things and test their limits.
I was reminded of “The Iceman”, Wim Hof, who says it’s in the moments where we have no control and comfort that we can exercise our ability to just be okay. No matter what the external circumstances are, we can be okay. It’s a way to know you do have control. There is a power in this knowledge, and it isn’t only for the thrill-seekers. At least, that’s how it seemed as I walked down the mountain.
As I mulled over these scattered thoughts, I found the next few hours of descent even harder than the climb up, as odd as that sounds. My left knee began to collapse and could hold no weight. An old MCL issue was creeping up, and there was nothing I could do, so I grabbed a hiking pole and turned the limp into a pimp walk and kept going. As we went lower, the headache exchanged with the knee pain, but I was thankful to be done with the altitude sickness.
We made it down to camp and passed through the blizzard into a more stable climate. We were soaked. We were given just one hour to rest, and then we’d continue moving down to a lower camp. All our gear and clothes, including base layers for some of us, was drenched. We fell on our mats like wet logs and passed out for 30 minutes. After what felt like seconds, we put our damp clothes back on and made our way down for another few hours.
By the end of Day 6, we had hiked 18.5 hours in two days. For me, this was done on zero sleep. Tomorrow would be the final day on Mount Kilimanjaro. We did it, all of us.
That night, I slept like a dormant volcano…
Day 7 – Final day on Mt. Kilimanjaro
It was time to celebrate.
We woke up in the morning and had only a few hours left to reach the gate and board the bus back to the outpost lodge. We were almost done, but first, that mornings celebrations.
The ritual is to present the porters and guides their tip on this final day. We piled our cash together and handed Babalou a slip with the amounts for each person. Babalou lined up the whole team and began reading out loud how much each person had earned. Later, Babu AKA baby face, our older assistant guide, pulled us aside. “I feel like I’m flying. Wow. I can’t believe it. Everyone will be celebrating with their families tonight!”
Next, we put much of our gear together and donated it to the porters. I felt really great about this because many of the porters had basic supplies and gear. In some ways it could be more valuable than the cash, which would likely go to their families.
It was finally time to party. The whole team began to sing and dance to out three theme songs. One porter in particular was my favorite, his enthusiasm for life would shine through in these moments as he’d bust out his moves for the songs. He couldn’t hold back his wide smile.
Babalou, being the orchestrator he is, got the whole team to sing happy birthday to Nick —another special moment. Once we made it down, we climbed into the bus to head back home. We stopped at a local store and grabbed some beers for everyone.
As Babalou presented us with our official certificates, we sipped on Kilimanjaro beer and sang along like we’d known Swahili our whole lives…
“Jambo! Wooo! Jambo wana!…
I think we peeled back this layer of invisible bullshit our normal reality has imprinted on us. It was like leaving the machine for a bit and being realizing you can be OK without conventional luxuries. We thought we were free and self-directed, but in some ways we’re still taking a traditional path.
We still have empty goals that we think will make us happy “some day”. We still have this complicated formula for how we think we’ll eventually be free, be happy. But don’t we already have all that? Do we actually need those things to take that big victorious sigh of relief and just feel good?
On the mountain, all that’s gone. You find a way to just be content. And it makes you realize…what if we don’t need to escape to feel that every day? What if we can live with a simple gratitude regardless of external events and circumstances? I like that idea, and that’s what I’ve brought back with me.
If you’re interested in learning more about Mount Kilimanjaro, check out this awesome infographic below…