Looking down on the Mawenzi campsite, Day 4
This is Emily Kelting’s second series of posts for Women’s Voices for Change about the adventures she promised herself—at 59—she would embark upon after she turned 60.
My dream of summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro almost ended an hour after the push for the top began. Our group of seven trekkers (ranging in age from 24 to 67) and four guides had been on the mountain for five days, mastering a shuffle known as pole, pole—“slowly, slowly” in Swahili. Starting in potato fields and cornfields on the remote Rongai route, we measured our days in hours hiked and elevation gained, not in miles or kilometers traveled. No free-form hiking, this—from the very beginning we had to march in line behind Johnny, a local guide whose footsteps were so precise and methodical, no matter what the terrain, that we soon had adopted his glacial pace. The name of the game was acclimatization—tricking our bodies into producing more red blood cells so that we could withstand what would be a withering push to the oxygen-deprived summit at Uhuru Peak (19,341 feet) on summit day.
Trekkers and guides. That’s Kelting in the red and purple T-shirt; guide Ian, kneeling, at left, and guide Billi, back row, third from left.
Even from our hotel in Moshi—more than two hours away by car—we could see the snow-covered dome of Kilimanjaro in the distance, monumental and intimidating. As we drove to the trailhead, there it was again, a stunning backdrop to the little villages nestled below. On the second day of hiking, it towered beyond the grasslands, now a little closer but still distant enough that it seemed mind-boggling to think I might climb it.
At the Second Cave we veered to the left, away from the round dome of Mt. Kilimanjaro (also known as Kibo) and now faced Mawenzi Peak—whose snow-covered top looked as jagged as the back of a stegosaurus. “No one can climb to the top of Mawenzi,” our guide Billi said. “The mountain is literally crumbling. It is too dangerous.”
Porters carrying unbelievably heavy and bulky loads on their backs and heads passed us. By the time we stumbled into the next camp, the portable toilet tent, the cook tent and the dining tent, and our orange and gray sleeping tents were set up with our duffel bags inside (we carried a day pack with cameras, snacks, rain gear, and lunch boxes).
After washing our hands, we stepped inside the dining tent, as Bahati, the waiter, brought in bowls of hot soup, then platters of delicious chicken, pasta, or fish, accompanied by plantains, potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumbers. We added Nido (powdered milk) to our tea, instant coffee, and hot chocolate. There was porridge, omelets, sausage or bacon, and toast every day for breakfast, and pancakes (crêpes) too. My favorite meal was a thick vegetable stew served on the last night, accompanied by the delicious crêpes.
“You may lose your appetite at high altitudes,” Billi said. While one of our group was so nauseated he couldn’t eat anything but power bars, I never lost my appetite. Even though I ate and ate, I still lost 10 pounds by the end of the trip. Hiking for six days for hours on end consumed more calories than I could possibly eat.
Before leaving for Africa, my greatest fear was altitude sickness—nausea, vomiting, splitting headaches. (In rare cases, climbers develop a more severe form—dangerous swelling of the lungs, brain, or feet.) Fitness levels don’t figure into whether you will or won’t get sick. Some people mysteriously get it, and others don’t. It could happen at 12,000 feet, 14,000 feet, or higher.
No additional oxygen was available. If we got sick, we’d have to go down with one of the guides to a lower elevation. Altitude sickness is the main reason that 40 to 50 percent of climbers don’t make the summit.
Our trip’s organizer, Andy Nachman, advised taking Diamox as a preventive medication. Two other precautions were drinking four to five liters of water a day and doing the pole, pole, pronounced “pole-ay, pole-ay.” Sure, we looked silly shuffling in slow motion the first two days, but it did help us save energy. We also had an extra acclimatization day added onto our itinerary, staying at the Mawenzi campsite for two nights. While some of the group went out on a hike, my friend Sally and I stayed in our tent most of the day, reading and resting. We’d be building red blood cells just by being over 14,000 feet in the air.
On the fifth morning we hiked across a barren plateau known as “The Saddle,” with Kibo Mountain (Kilimanjaro) rising up in the distance, leaving Mawenzi behind. At about 1 p.m., we arrived at our highest camp, near the Kibo Huts (15,466 feet). Still no sign of altitude sickness. Yippee!
At 5 p.m., dinner was served—heaping plates of spaghetti. After dinner, everyone but me caught a few hours of shuteye before the wake-up call at 10 p.m. I was too excited and nervous to sleep. After all the months of planning and training, and five days on the mountain, it was now time to leave for the summit.
It seemed like a perfect night when we left the campsite at 11 p.m.— a full moon to light our way, a star-spangled sky so close you could almost touch it. The air was cold, but not too much below freezing. We were all looking forward to seeing a beautiful sunrise when we reached the summit the next morning.
An hour in, I was feeling the effects of no sleep, not eating for seven hours, overheating with too many layers, and an urgent need to go to the toilet.
Billi stayed with me as I squatted to relieve myself behind a rock. As the group moved ahead, she fed me bites of my Snickers bar and helped me take off my down parka. Born in Germany, Billi had climbed Everest and now lives in Nepal. How did I ever get so lucky as to have a world-class mountaineer by my side? “You are going to make this,” she told me as I drooped, already exhausted, over my trekking poles.
At Hans Meyer Cave (17,245 feet), Billi directed me to sit on a rock at the back of the cave. I felt better after drinking more water and finishing off a protein bar. But soon after we left the cave, all hell broke loose.
The moon and stars disappeared. The sky shook with thunder and lightning. A fierce wind kicked up. Snow fell sideways and froze onto our faces. We turned on our headlamps so that we could see in the dark.
The trail vanished, and the angle of ascent became absurdly steep. I could barely see the foot of the person in front of me. “Breathe in, step, breathe out, step,” Billi advised. Negotiating the 37 switchbacks, up and around huge boulders, gaining almost 4,000 feet in elevation from Kibo Huts to the summit at Uhuru Peak, undid many a climber in the best of conditions. And these were quickly becoming the worst.
Part 2, tomorrow: Moving on up in the teeth of the storm.