Just today I received a facebook message from an old friend, Mary who was living in Tanzania at the same time I was 13-14 years old -- and she recalled when we climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1967. At 13 years old, I was the youngest by far of the troop, which was composed of students from the Economics department, my father (who was teaching Contemporary African Literature), and Mary and her younger brother. My father made it to the first hut, at about 8,000ft. and decided that he would wait for me. I continued with the group, but when we reached what was to be the final ascent to the summit, everyone in my party -- except me--was too sick from the altitude (one travels from 2,000ft to 16,000ft in three days). Due to my age, the guide did not want to take me alone -- so close, but no go. I returned with everyone else, very disappointed.
Then a year later in 1968, I had a second chance. Everyone was young and eager for this trip -- including my brother older brother Gil who had just arrived from states, the Hill sisters, Pru and Deb (who climbed in waterproofed hightops), Mary and her older brother Andre, and the Martin brothers. This time was more successful and five us made it to the snowy and icey summit at 19,300 ft. So this time -- in honor of that trip -- I dug back to the small collection of photos I have -- most of them taken with a tiny disposible camera!
Leaving from the hotel, we hiked for about 6 hours, through farmland, a three mile band of rainforest that was wet and misty, like being in cold, green clouds, and then rocky hills of running streams and short, scrubby trees -- until at last, we popped out above the clouds here, having arrived at Mandara Hut: the first campsite at 8,990ft.
My father Emile, enjoying the rest and the camp as the clouds rolled in below. He was happy enough with having accomplished this much of the trip. I wonder now, if he was hoping that I would back out as he did have to hang out here for two more days while I wandered up to the last hut on the first trip.
Leaving Mandara Hut, the sky got wider, bluer, and free of clouds as the path opened up into a beautiful alpine stretch. As we continued to climb, the alpine fields gave way to steep rocky terrain, much drier, the path now innudated with big tussocks of long grass, low clinging plants, and huge bluffs in amazing zebra stripes. We also got our first views of Mawenzi Peak -- a tough, craggy peak at the base of Kilimanjaro's volcanic plain, and the snow covered top of Kilimanjaro, high above. We arrived in the late afternoon -- footsore and starving at the second campsite, Horombo Hut at 12,400 ft.
Kilimanjaro Snow Capped Peak.
The third day of climbing took us through a vast high altitude desert -- without water, with much of anything except sparse rocks and a couple graves. Known as the "The Saddle" this flat, barren stretch was deceptive. From afar, we could see our destination Kibo Hut at 15,500 ft, and it seemed close enough. But we walked for hours, over the soft, sandy soil and like a mirage, it never seemed to get closer. By the time it really was in front of us, we were exhausted, and for some, their ears were ringing from the altitude and suffering headaches and nausea as well.
One doesn't sleep long at the last hut. For some it is impossible. I will confess that I loved it. I felt giddy (probably the lack of oxygen) and extremely happy. We are awakened at 12:30AM -- and by moonlight, we made the final ascent -- up through, and then snow and ice for the next five-six hours. It was pretty horrible -- one could see a bit of the ledge above you, which beckoned like the end of the trail, until you got to it, and discovered another ledge above it. My brother was sick as a dog, throwing up the last mile up to the summit -- but he refused to turn back. I am glad because it was really the most memorable thing we ever did together...epic really.
The summit is 19,000 ft and there we signed our names in a book of other intrepid climbers who had made it up. We were there at sun rise, which was pretty breath taking as the moon was also still high in the early dawn. Below us was stretched East Africa on one side where we were sitting, while the other sde gave us a view of the mouth of the volcano, filled with ice, snow, and stone. The journey back to base camp took two days -- from the summit we barreled down the trail to 12,000ft, slept like stones and ate. The next morning, we continued down to the hotel where we began our trip at 2,000ft. There, they presented us with wreaths of everlasting flowers for having successfully reached the summit. I still have mine too.
Mary reminded me that we returned by a city bus over 500 miles of rough corrugated roads, packed with people, chickens, babies, parcels of all sizes and us. It took all night, and where we sat at the back, a window stuck open, the red dust from the road covering us completely. We arrived home in Dar es Salaam a mess: my feet were a wreck of blisters, my face sunburned, and grime on top of grime from not having changed my clothes for five days. But yeah...I was really, really happy. (That's me in the blue parka, and my brother sitting below me. And beneath that photo are Gil and I on the morning of our arrival back in Dar. )