Kilimanjaro & East Africa: A Climbing and Trekking Guide, 2nd Edition
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We could see the third day's huts on the other side of the saddle. They appeared to be no more than 15 minutes away, but we soon discovered that hours of strenuous hiking lay between them and us. As we climbed higher, the sun scorched my face, making protective ointments and sunglasses a necessity.
The last two hours of trekking to the third night's huts at the base of the summit began to take their toll. We passed the vegetation line, entering an environment with so little oxygen that not even moss or lichen was visible on the rocks. The terrain reminded me of photographs of the surface of the moon. At this altitude I lost my breath so quickly that the last quarter mile to the huts took more than half in hour. I reached it gasping and with a severe headache.
Above, nearly 4, feet higher, was Gillman's Point, the lower of two prominent Kilimanjaro summits. The scree consisted mostly of fine bits of shale and volcanic ash, four to six inches deep. I rested outside the dingy huts and wondered how anyone had ever managed to haul wood up this high to build them. The area was barren except for several huge piles of rusty tin cans—the remains of climbers' meals over the years.
In the thin atmosphere the sun seemed to increase my dizziness and cause a ringing in my head. I took refuge in one of the shacks and swallowed the first three of nine aspirins that I would take during my 12 hours on or near the summit. They helped a little. Michael prepared our last meal before the final ascent. He would bring us warm soup when we attempted the summit later that night. The sun suddenly disappeared behind the peak. The wind howled wildly outside, entering the hut through unseen cracks and penetrating the sleeping bag.
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I shivered from the cold so continuously that I couldn't sleep. I wasn't the only one to lie awake. The one person able to sleep in our hut had passed out from throwing up so many times earlier in the evening. He had then announced that he wasn't going any farther and at daybreak would retreat down the mountain.
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We were told that about a third of the people who start are unable to complete the climb. Sleep was nearly impossible at 15, feet, about as high as the highest point in the Alps. Pain from the high altitude made me introspective. Wasn't it egotistical to want to climb a mountain to its very peak?
2) Routes & Itineraries
On the other hand, I wouldn't like to admit that I didn't have the fortitude to do it. I vomited so much the green bile was coming out of my stomach. Headaches and dizziness didn't help either. I really don't know why I didn't turn back, and only returned from the peak after losing consciousness. At A. Michael brought us some hot soup as promised, but it was cold by the time it reached our lips.
We carried our canteens inside our jackets to keep the water from freezing. Starting the final ascent in the middle of the night had several advantages. First, we would be near the top at sunrise; second, since we couldn't sleep anyway, walking would help us stay warm. And finally, the grade was so steep that had we had full visibility we might have lost the nerve to continue. The raw wind diminished somewhat as we began our final struggle to the top.
At first Mark and I would lose our breath after only 50 yards or so and have to stop for air, gasping like fish out of water. He got sick half way up and I pulled out my canteen to help him clean up. He did, but the water froze on the lip of the canteen, forcing me to chip ice from its mouth to close it. Mark got sick a second time but continued on, determination showing on his face. The last thousand feet were agonizing. The people who really make the trips happen behind the scenes are the porters. We are one of only a handful of companies which employs porters full time, rather than use casual labour hired at the trailheads, which massively improves the camaraderie and reliability of the team.
Kilimanjaro has long been an area where mountain staff have been exposed to severe abuse by employers. You should be aware of this before chosing your mountain operator. Whilst it may be true that Africa is a much tougher environment than most visitors are used to and people are more accustomed to greater levels of deprivation and adversity, that does not make it right for trekkers to support this abuse by trekking with offending companies.
These include paying a good salary immediately after the trip and ensuring that porters have adequate clothes and food whilst on the mountain.
The main issue here is the subject of how much the porters are paid. The porters are forced to beg and hassle for their tips This leads to some pretty distasteful scenes towards the end of some treks. Obviously the possibility of theft is also much higher under these circumstances as the trekkers are carrying more cash and especially since these porter are generally only casual staff picked up at the gate at the start of the trek. We think that despite the poor local conditions for most manual labourers in Tanzania this is not the correct way to treat human beings and not the kind of environment that most people would wish to trek the mountain.
We therefore pay our porters above the minimum amount recommended by the Kilimanjaro Porter Assistance Project and have a structured, sensible guideline for tipping. Most importantly this creates is a much more dignified and less stressful livelihood for the porters. Even with just 2 trekkers there is a huge amount of equipment that needs to be carried by porters. You also need to have a head guide, assistant guide and cook, adding up to around 13 staff in total. If you have 15 trekkers in your group, you will be accompanied by around 45 staff.
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For longer treks we use more staff and also resupply the camps with fresh food where necessary. This should give you a taste of quite what a logistical undertaking it is to put a proper trek out on the mountain Whether or not the porters eat well is another major issue as staff food also represents a considerable weight element. A large trek can have over 40 staff and cutting rations can lead to major cost savings. Something that we clearly would never do. Another key issue here is how much the porters are loaded.
You have to see some of these porters on the mountain, they are loaded like pack mules. Lift 40kg off the floor, then imagine trying to walk all the way up and down the mountain with it on your head. It is no wonder that the working life of some porters is not more than a couple years. This is particularly important on the summit day when the harsh conditions mean that some clients will need personal attention and encouragement.
Most importantly it means that if some trekkers have to turn back then there should be enough guides to allow others to continue to the summit. The proper organisation of trek teams for an expedition such as this presents a genuine logistical challenge. It would provide some very interesting issues of inter-personal dynamics in any working environment, but this is accentuated here in Tanzania where staff are drawn from an amazing array of different tribes, each of which have their own specialities and peculiar characteristics.
Here are some more notes from Rich Whilst it is true that this type of team may typically be more fun on the mountain, we have found that people from the same tribe and village background simply do not have the breadth of different skills to make a good team. Most importantly, it is he who will make the decisions when times get tough. The best guides are the ones who have the balls to tell a trekker that he will not take them to the top because he does not think it is safe. It is his job to oversee the logistical side of the operation, managing up to 40 staff on the team, checking supplies, camps and a myriad other essential background tasks.
The Cook is also incredibly important to the team. Can you imagine what it is like having to cook for up to 15 climbers and 40 staff, three meals a day for 6 to 10 days, all in a tent on the side of a mountain. This is a tough job. From there on down, we have Summit Porters, Helping Porters and Ordinary Porters, all of whom have their own particular set of tasks to undertake. It is tough to get all this right and involves a heck of a lot of training and management.
All of our treks are offered in four different specifications. These levels are designed to ensure our unusually high summit success rates for four different categories of trekker.