Climbing Kilimanjaro

August 21, OBMS, Loitokitok

Kilimanjaro waited while classes and physical conditioning resumed. Each person prepared for the final expedition with excitement, some with a touch of fear. I’d only hiked a few lesser peaks in central Oregon on trips that took a whole day up and back. Mount Kilimanjaro rose to 19,000 feet, its legends were many. Really, Kilimanjaro isn’t much more than a big volcanic hill that pokes out of the plains of East Africa, but if you’ve never done any climbing, the unknown looms large.

Mount Kilimanjaro (GB)

Finally, John announced it was time. Once again we checked our equipment, adding, for the higher altitude, warm sweaters, jackets and pants, balaclavas and most important, the school’s dark goggles. The air is so thin at high altitudes that the special snow goggles were crucial to protect our eyes from the equatorial sun. Each patrol was issued a few tubes of zinc oxide to totally block the sun’s rays from delicate noses and lips. Even the dark skin of the African girls could burn.

Eight porters were hired to give us a little help with our loads. Each of us was allowed to weigh and label one pound of our allotted group food for the men to carry to the school’s hut near the peak. Once again, we shifted group equipment to divide weight among our packs. Mine weighed about thirty-five pounds.

On the big day, the students skipped the run but ate a hearty breakfast and tidied up. In excited clusters, they assembled at the trailhead. Ill and injured girls who were staying behind gathered to wish their comrades good luck. Hugs all around were followed by the commotion of hoisting packs. Everyone had an assistant to help with the final adjustments. With a vigorous wave from the support team, the students turned their backs on the camp and began the climb.

The patrols had coalesced well. We knew the students would look out for each other on the trail, so the instructors and John had the privilege of riding a little way up the mountain to the edge of the forest, which put us about 45 minutes closer to our destination. Neila and I set out at the end of the line of students at about 10:30 a.m. We had passed all but two patrols by about 4:30 p.m., when we arrived at the second caves. Faru Patrol was settling into our familiar cave. Most of us relaxed in the sun while student cooks prepared a splendid hot meal. After eating, we climbed into our bags for a good night’s rest.

On the second day a few more girls dropped out. Some were too tired to continue and some suffered from altitude sickness that brings on headaches and difficult breathing. That small group stayed at the caves to wait our return. Neila and I started behind the students again at 8:45 a.m. About an hour above the caves, we filled our water containers for the last time from the stream we had been following. It was cool and drinkable and I felt anxious about leaving the water source as the path turned upslope.

Senicio (ip)

We tramped over rises and into valleys, always up and up. In one canyon, we were surprised to find giant senecios, or groundsels, unique to the slopes of Kilimanjaro. Their fat, shaggy trunks grew as tall as fir trees. The only visible growing part was at the top, floppy green rosettes of arrow-shaped leathery leaves that looked tiny on the thick trunks. The trees’ shaggy layers of drooping dead leaves protected them from the sun and cold.

We just walked up and up and up on the trail that wound through a new array of desert plants, dry grasses and gray-green ground covers with crisp papery flowers. When the vegetation all but ended, we crunched between large lava rocks perched on the grit.

The bright glare of sun warmed where it hit me, but my shaded side was cool. Walking evened out our body warmth, and we were able to shed a few layers. The rest stops were short so we wouldn’t get chilled. We caught our breath the best we could in the rarified air and moved on.

Our target for that day was the Outward Bound School hut at 15,000 feet. Over a small rise, I finally made out some straight lines on the horizon that I recognized, with relief, to be a hut. Approaching us were the porters of our precious food, on their return trip. The eight of them passed with a slight nod. About one o’clock I arrived, the first woman to reach the hut, though the others were not far behind. John, George and another male instructor stood near the door. Next to them were the packs of food, along with extra fuel and water for cooking.

High on the Mountain (ip)

The rugged, well-weathered wooden structure looked too small for the number of people arriving shortly. We were down to sixty-one students and seven staff including John, George, another man from the regular staff and four of women instructors. The men told us to have the girls drop their packs outside in piles by patrol and stay there. While the latecomers straggled in, the early arrivals found relatively rock-free spots of grit and stretched out for a little snooze after the long day.

The sun descended rapidly, and a finger of fog crept over the ridge above us. The wind cooled the hikers, and by late afternoon they had to keep moving to stay warm, walking slowly or jiggling in place. The last students to straggle in were at an advantage because they had less time to sit and get cold. When all had arrived, each patrol collected the sleeping bags and heaped them on the hut floor.

With no fuel available at that altitude, the men cooked for everybody on Primus stoves, part of the hut’s equipment. We unrolled each patrol’s bags and laid them flat, overlapping so all would all fit in the tiny space.

Dinner was a thick soup, coffee and a few crackers which we served to the students outside. While we cleaned up, they brushed their teeth and reorganized their packs for the next day. It would be an early and a short night. The girls entered by patrols and found their sleeping bags. When they snaked themselves into the bags they discovered they were so close they all had to sleep on the same side. In the night, they all turn together with grace and grumbling. But they were warm as toasty sardines. At least we instructors, with a bit more room, didn’t have to spoon but I did get a little chilly.

At two a.m. the cooks awoke to prepare the breakfast oatmeal. The students weren’t allowed to get up yet in the frigid hut, which seemed to be fine with them. We passed out bowls of hot cereal for them to eat in their bags to retain as much heat as possible.

Then, in a flurry of activity, we all jumped into our warmest clothing to begin the final push to the top. I put on my boots and heavy socks for this final leg. I’d been using my tennies after my first blisters, but boots would be warmer and more stable on the rocks.

A few more students chose to remain at the hut, nursing headaches and sore feet. They were left to clean up the breakfast dishes, and at four a.m., forty-seven students and all the instructors gathered outside in silence, eager to begin, our sleep-warmth seeping out of us in the chilly night.

After Neila and I were assigned our places in the line, we wished each other luck, and began the final climb. Bright starlight illuminated the rocks as John led us up the vast mountain. The crunch of our boots on the gritty lava got louder as we settled into the line behind him. Maybe it was a good thing that we were not all wide awake:  better just to keep the feet moving. I took my place toward the rear to keep an eye on the students. As we plodded on and got our blood moving the bitter cold became inconsequential, but the lack of oxygen was more pronounced. I was up to two breaths per step.

Final pitch, on the snowfield.

After an hour of snaking upwards, a few more students were ready to quit. We planted them on the trail next to a large rock for a little shelter, with stern instructions to wait for our return. They would be chilly for a while, but after the sun rose they would be fine.

At 6 a.m. we left more students next to the trail. My head felt fat, the beginning of a headache but I pushed on with the others. As the sky began to lighten, the sun crept around Mawenzi, the lesser peak on Kilimanjaro to the west. Tourists usually stayed their last night in a hut at the base of Mawenzi and then trudged across a route up the far side to meet our trial. On our more northerly route, we climbed directly to Kibo. We had the advantage over most people, because we had been living for more than two weeks at 6000 feet and had made the first foray up the slopes already. Still we gasped for air.

At 7:30 a.m. we reached the bottom of the snowfield that covered a good part of the last slope on Kibo. Many of the girls had never seen snow. Tired as they were, their laughs of delight filled the air. But the glee was short lived. Gilman’s Point, our destination on the crater’s rim, was in view. We still had a long, steep climb ahead, a thousand vertical feet to climb.

We began the arduous zigzagging across the crusted layers of snow. Had we started later in the day, the snow would have been mushy and much more difficult to negotiate. My head throbbed with every step, but I was not yet nauseous, for which I was grateful. With each lift of a leaden leg I wondered if it was the last time it would answer my command. Halfway up, I had to pause with every step. My breathing now was six or eight gasps per step, and my heart was doing its best. Were my lungs taking in any oxygen at all?  Everyone silently bore the pain of the exertion. There was no chattering, no talking. We each concentrated on the next step, the next breath.

John and the exhausted climbers

When the first in the line reached the top, I silently cheered. If I could just keep going. My body complained everywhere. My lungs, my heart, my head, my legs all were telling me to give it up. Go down. But there was John, standing above us, as if he had flown up there. Maybe he had. Immersed in my own agonies, I envied his apparent ease.

I made the last hundred feet out of sheer stubbornness, and at 10:30 a.m. reached Gilman’s Point at 18,500 feet. Students were collapsed all around in awkward positions, too tired to even straighten their legs. I plopped wearily on a rock and concentrated on breathing. Inhale. Exhale. I willed my heart to slow. My chest heaved, but my lungs seemed unable to suck any oxygen.

John told us to drink water and eat a snack, if we could. I forced a bit of a candy bar past the nausea, too tired to vomit. As Neila approached the summit, the girls called out to her, “Come on, Miss Helmholz, you can do it!” She felt as rotten as I did, but she made it, too.

Having made the climb many times, John did not seem as triumphant as the rest of us. He told us that many climbers walk around the crater rim to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kibo at 19,340 feet, the true summit of Kilimanjaro. The rim trail was well trod but it was too late in the day for us to try for it. No one argued. It was 45 more agonizing minutes to that peak, my throbbing brain was going to break through my skull at any minute and I wanted down. I couldn’t even take photographs; the view was far away, and my eyes hurt, trying to focus. I asked one of the men to take my picture to remind me that I had actually made it.

On top!

I rested for half an hour munching snacks and watching the last stragglers flop into exhausted heaps. Eventually, I realized I could climb the last twenty feet to look down into the crater. Once I’d reached the rim, the turquoise blue glacier inside was a glorious reward for my final effort. From the “real” peak on the far side of the huge white crater, I tracked the snow down into the wind-cleared blue ice. I scanned it just in case Hemingway’s leopard was really there, but it was hard to concentrate. The ice was enough. I tried to memorize everything. I knew I would never be back. Except for the headache, it was one of those times I wished would last forever.

In all, thirty-three girls out of the original eighty, and seven instructors, made it to Gilman’s Point. When everyone had arrived, had a snack and water, it was time to retrace our hard won steps. Even the latecomers were ready to start down.

Since the snow had turned wet and soggy, we decided to slide down on our feet, which would decrease the altitude quicker. There was no risk of hitting the rocks on the bottom since mushy snow meant our sliding would be of moderate speed. Everyone loved the boot-skiing. Our pounding heads were momentarily forgotten as silly grins spread over our faces.

Going down, my headache was not quite as intense because my heart was not straining with exertion. At the bottom of the snow field we northerners showed the students the delight of a well-thrown snowball. Screams of a good natured snowball fight filled the air. They were having a great time.

Fun on the snowfield.

The bright sun and lighter color of the trail, now obvious, led us downward. We each walked at the pace we could manage, a long thin line of exhausted women headed home. The students that we had left on the path were bored, glad to see us, and happy to rejoin their patrols.

As we rested, one I noticed a clump of students talking to one of the Asian girls. Her eyes were closed and tears flowed down her cheeks. “I can’t see,” she whimpered. She had managed to hike up the snowfield and back without anyone realizing she wasn’t wearing her goggles. We had all been were so immersed in our own physical hardships that no one had noticed her tears. At that point, all we could do was bandage her eyes and lead her down. George carried her over the roughest spots so she wouldn’t trip.

Her misery would last a few days, but she would recover.

On our return to the hut, most of us still had headaches, and, I suspected, were dehydrated but there would be no water until we were next to the little stream far below. The students who stayed behind had cleaned up the hut, so we packed what we had left there and stumbled down toward our second caves for the night. The wretched pain in my head was countered by the feeling of relief that I was headed down, so I kept moving. At the stream, I filled my water bottle and drank as much as I could. I arrived at the cave at 5:30 p.m. and still felt rotten but my feet were doing well. I gulped the thick air. My body tingled with the welcome oxygen.


Aided by a good night’s sleep, my headache was almost gone by breakfast. All we had to do that day was return to the school, but just climbing out of my sleeping bag was tiring. I laced my boots tight to prevent my toes from jamming as I descended, and walked in solitude most of the day. I took a delicious rest stop in the mossy forest to soak my aching feet in the cool stream. Bliss.

After a glorious shower and luscious nap I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling. I’d done it. I’d climbed Kilimanjaro. The glow of success began to grow, and soon a joyful exhilaration joined the pleasant exhaustion of a successful climb filled me. By dinner, I felt pretty smug. The students who had made the summit all seemed to have a permanent smile on their faces. Perhaps I had one as well.

To the Top or go to Wrapping Up