Liz: Watched by curious monkeys, we commenced our hike in the thick, lush, rainforest. Being from southern California, the depth of green in places like this never ceases to amaze me.
We climbed 4,800 ft over 9 miles, in 5 hrs. It was a gradual, slow, easy to manage climb. The guide set a very slow pace, which I appreciated greatly but because Peter and I are used to racing each other up mountains, how slow we were walking was a difficult adjustment. Moving from one climate zone to the next was a sight to behold. Right before our eyes the rainforest thinned and was replaced with thicker trees covered in coal colored bark draped in mossy tissue-like scarves. The trees twisted and turned creating a Dr. Seuss like fantasy. The contrast of the dark branches with the draping green moss was breathtaking. Peter and I are still trying to adjust to the luxuries of guided backpacking. Our tent is set up before we arrive to camp, we have an eating tent, a table, chairs, hot tea, bowls for washing our face, snacks, and even little huts for visits to the bathroom. And to think, this is “roughing it.”
Peter: When we had our Kili briefing before leaving for Rwanda, Bushmen Expeditions asked us if we had brought warm enough sleeping bags. I told them confidently that we had a 0 and 15 degree bag. We assured them that the bags were warm enough, but they responded with doubtful and puzzled faces. We figured it was just a cultural communication problem and let it go. The same thing happened this morning when we were doing the gear check prior to starting our climb. Our guide, Robert, asked us if we had warm enough bags. I told him that we were good, our bags were 0 degree and 15 degree. He looked concerned and he told us we should take different bags and they were available to rent. I told him again that “no, our bags are warm enough.”He shrugged his shoulders and moved on. It wasn’t until we were hiking, that we realized the confusion. I was talking in Fahrenheit and they were talking in Celsius. They were concerned because when I said we had a 15 degree bag they thought I was talking about a 15 degree Celsius bag which would be a 59 degree Fahrenheit bag. As you can imagine with the temperatures dropping below freezing at night, they were worried about us being cold. We had a good laugh about this. After dinner, we had our briefing for tomorrow and we learned that Robert would be assessing our health twice daily. He would record our heart rate, urine color, water intake, oxygen, and our general remarks. So far we both feel great and had an amazing day.
June 17th – Day 2
We started our morning around 5:40am, after a very restful night of sleep. We took our oxygen and heart rate readings, both Liz and I had almost identical readings at ~90% Oxygen and a resting heart rate around 65bpm which our guide said was excellent. Last night, I went to the ranger hut after dinner and counted 60 guests that had signed in for the day… doing some simple math using a typical porter ratio of 3:1, you quickly realize that there were at least 300 people in the camp that first night. The camp was very spread out, so it didn’t feel like so many people were present. We were the first guests out of the camp this morning starting our hike around 7:40am. The morning hike was chilly but after about 30 minutes of hiking uphill, the layers peeled off quickly. The vegetation shrank before our eyes and became only shrubbery in a little over an hour. In our 5 miles today we hiked from what they call the moorland region into the alpine desert. We arrived at Shira Camp by noon after gaining approx 3,800 ft in a little over 4 hrs. Shira camp is very exposed and the wind has been blowing between 5-15mph, making it slightly less pleasant than our last camp which was peaceful and calm. Tonight we realized why a 3 season tent doesn’t quite cut it on this mountain. The dust has been swirling around our tent for hours and produced a fine layer of sand on our sleeping bags. Fortunately we spent some time creating a rock blockade around our rain fly and it has helped keep the dust under control.
June 18th – Day 3
Day 3 was a 3 layer day. The weather is getting chillier as we make our way up the mountain. Most of today was spent on a winding path around a dark rocky moon-like surface called the alpine desert. We reached 15,000 feet today at lunch under a beautiful lava tower. The descent to Barranco camp was lovely as life slowly crept back into the scene with more trees, shrubbery, birds, and even a little waterfall. What wasn’t lovely was Peter’s upset stomach causing him to race off behind some rocks to fertilize the soil. We came in second place to our camp today behind Patrick our American friend who works private security in Nairobi. Arriving shortly after us were our new friends Steve and Nick from D.C. and Boston. We spent the afternoon chatting with them which made the time pass surprisingly fast. So far, Peter and I have been mostly free from any altitude related discomforts. The only real discomfort on this trip is the mental focus needed to use the campsite bathrooms. They are still those cute little huts, but inside the hut, is only a hole in the floor with two wood panels to place your feet. Travel in Thailand last year prepared us for this, but unlike Thailand, here more people miss the hole. And with all the loose stool issues above 10,000 feet, you can imagine it gets pretty messy. Fortunately there are more choices for bathrooms and finding one without shit on the floor isn’t too difficult. It’s funny though how fast you (I, Liz) adjust to these challenges. The first time poop was smeared over the bathroom floor I almost threw up. Now I just peek my head in and say, “ok, on to the next bathroom!” No big deal. After all, it is just poop. Today at lunch I actually impressed myself and used the squatter while looking a big pile of poop right in the face. I had no other option. I think my Mom would be proud. I am getting tougher by the day.
June 19th – Day 4
Today we merged 2 days into one. Both of us were feeling so well, that we figured it wouldn’t be a problem to push on to base camp and move up our summit bid to Monday, June 20th. We left camp at 7:30am and climbed the Barranco Wall. The Barranco wall is a gorgeous one hour scramble up an 800 foot rock wall. Once we got to the top, the views were stunning. You could see all the way down to rainforest and the blanket of white puffy clouds covering anything below 8,000 feet. It really felt like we were looking off a cliff into the ocean. A big down-comforter-fluffy-white ocean. After Barranco wall, and some pictures, we walked 4 miles to our lunch spot at Karanga camp. Karanga camp is the last stop for water until after summiting, so the porters have to carry all the water needed for 11 people for 24 hours, on their heads, up steep and rocky terrain…an amazing feat to say the least. Steve, one of the new friends we made here, is in the U.S. army. He said that nothing in his training, even for Special Forces, compares to the physical demands of these porters. They are of course, under paid, under dressed but always smiling and ready with a friendly “Jambo!” as they hike past. These guys certainly keep you humble. After lunch we walked another 6 miles to base camp. We arrived at base camp at around 1:30pm beating the porters by almost an hour. It understandably took them a little longer because not only did they walk all of our water 4 miles from Karanga camp but our assistant guide came down with a bad case of altitude sickness so our head guide sent him home. We arrived at base camp (15,200 feet) exhausted and aware that we only had the afternoon and evening to rest up before waking up at 11:45pm for our summit bid. After a nap, some ibuprofen and dinner (a giant bowl of spaghetti) we went right to bed.
June 20th – Day 5 (Summit day)
Day 5 started at 11:43 pm (on day 4), when Masunga, our favorite porter woke us up with tea and biscuits. It was actually pretty warm (34 F) when we woke up and got dressed and met our guide outside. It was exciting seeing only the headlights of all the other climbers making their way up the mountain, some who had started climbing as early as 11pm. It was a trail of lights … winding up and up and up.
Liz: About 15 minutes into the hike I was really starting to sweat. My back was drenched and I was starting to feel dizzy. We stopped so I could take off some clothes. It was hard to tell what exactly was going on because it was so dark, and so cold, yet for some reason I was sweating and unbearably hot. Within about 5 minutes of taking off some clothes, I keeled over a rock and threw up. I knew that throwing up was a symptom of altitude sickness but by this point, with only a headache to complain about, the throwing up caught me by surprise. I have hiked to 17,000 feet in the past and felt pretty good, so it was hard for me to believe that I was really getting altitude sickness. The first thought that crossed my mind was that I was too hot and maybe just nervous. And besides, after throwing up, I felt great so we pushed on. I am going to leave the telling of the rest of the climb to Peter. All I can really remember from this point to the top was an unbelievable sunrise, the guide’s feet in front of me, and that I kept looking up into the dark seeing only headlights thinking… am I really going to make it up there? It seemed so, so, far away.
Peter: We climbed into bed at 7pm. I hoped Liz would sleep well and wake free of any altitude symptoms. She passed out almost instantly while I lay there frozen for fear of waking her. I had a hard time falling asleep wondering if we had made the wrong decision to push our summit a day early. I woke at 10pm, climbed outside to use the bathroom and noticed a handful of tents with lights already on, getting ready to leave on their climb. I was thrilled as we got dressed and started the climb to hear that Liz was feeling great. I vowed to keep tabs on our ascent rate to make sure that we weren’t pushing too fast or too hard. After climbing 200 ft of elevation in the first 15 minutes, I asked our guide to slow down. Another 100 ft later my heart sunk as Liz bent over and threw up. After only 300 ft into a climb of roughly 4,000 ft I was afraid this was not going to turn out good. A couple minutes later, she turned to us, looking chipper and said “I feel great, let’s keep going.”
I was relieved for the next 5 minutes, until she said she was feeling nauseous again. Within 10 minutes she was bent over and heaving again. The night, and the climb, for me, was an emotional roller coaster. The sequence of events that followed became predictable. She’d feel OK, nausea would quickly over take her, her pace would slow, she’d stumble and look like she was drunk, she’d throw up or try to, sit for a few minutes, and then stand-up and say “let’s keep moving.” Each time my heart would sink, dreading that she’d want to throw in the towel, and each time she’d get up and keep marching on. Her toughness and resolve was amazing, and each time she’d keep moving I was choked up with tears, impressed by her fortitude.
Having an altimeter was both a blessing and a curse. As we climbed I was able to steadily chart our progress. By 3 am we were at 16,800 ft, having climbed about 1,600 ft from camp. The next 3 hrs were much colder and our pace slowed. We put toe warmers in her shoes, she put on my big down jacket, and on several occasions when she sat to rest she wanted nothing more than to fall asleep. At one of our last stops before the sunrise, our new assistant guide, George (younger brother of our head guide), actually fell asleep sitting on a rock. As we climbed on he sat there motionless, and didn’t follow. A couple hours later we met him on our descent (a few hundred feet below the summit) and learned he had taken a nice nap.
By 6 am and after ten more throw-ups, we broke through 18,000 ft, and the sky slowly started to change colors. When we took the headlamps off, we were a few hundred feet below Stella Point, and could easily see the end of the long, steep, arduous climb we had endured. Early in our climb, several groups had passed us, including an Irish group about 15 strong. It was discouraging to see other groups overtaking us, but by Stella Point we had caught team Ireland and passed a couple other groups as well.
At Stella Point we sat for about 10 minutes, our guide took one look at Liz and said we could still get a certificate for making it to Stella Point and didn’t have to finish the remaining 500 feet to the true summit, Uhuru Peak. Liz didn’t take the bait, gave the guide a high five, and got up to continue an almost hour long slog up a slow, gradual ascent. By this point however, her spirits had changed completely, she gained new energy and hiked confidently up to the peak. We summitted just before 8 am, took a few photos, put on some sun lotion, and exchange congratulations with our new friends Steve, Nick and of course Team Ireland. If you ever need to pick a group of people to follow up a mountain the Irish are the ones to choose. They sang every American hit written between 1970 and 1990 which as you can imagine, kept smiles on our faces. We became very popular on the summit as people found out that this was indeed our honeymoon. With some cheers we gave each other a big kiss and soaked in our new accomplishment.
Our descent was an entirely different story, we enjoyed a running/sliding descent of a long scree field, and within what felt like the blink of an eye, we and were back at camp by 10am. We were exhausted and collapsed in our tent for a nap. After lunch, we packed up and continued our hike through the alpine desert to High Camp. We reached High Camp in an hour and 15 minutes, and after a quick rest we walked on and arrived at Mweka Camp in just two hours and 30 minutes. Most people take 4-5 hrs to complete the descent to Mweka from Barafu, but we were glad to knock it out fast. We were thrilled to be at camp, and passed out until dinner. After dinner we climbed in bed around 7pm as team Ireland quietly rolled into camp, clearly too exhausted for singing.
June 21st – Day 6
Today we woke, for the last time, to Masunga calling our names. It was a little after 6 am, and after a solid 10 hrs of sleep we were somehow both still groggy. We had our usual quick breakfast of eggs, toast, tea, and sausage and started hiking by 8 am. It was a beautiful winding trail through rain forest with a dreary mist draping the forest. There were lots of other groups making their way out, and about halfway through the hike we caught our friends Steve and Nick and exchanged summit stories for the rest of the hike out. At Mweka gate we signed the logbook for our last time, including our summit peak and time. We bought a souvenir map and loaded up for the drive back to the Bushmen gear center. Liz and I spent the next 15 minutes sorting through piles of cash, counting out tips for each of our 6 porters, our cook, and guide. They sang us a beautiful song, that we’ll we adding to our vimeo collection. Thanks to the GPS app on Peter’s cell phone we logged roughly 21,500 feet of climbing over 61 miles in 36 total hours of hiking. Eventually we’ll be uploading the route to Google Maps.
The time at the gear center and saying goodbye to our mountain family was emotional. It’s hard to believe how fast a dream can be accomplished. And like that, you feel a little empty and quiet. I guess it’s time for a new dream. For now though, we will enjoy sitting on our rear ends, having a beer, and spending the next 6 days marveling at the Tanzanian wildlife. At this point we don’t even care if we see a dung beetle, we just want to relax.