Kilimanjaro Expedition II

During the week of January 14-19, 2002, I undertook a second Kilimanjaro expedition with my young British neighbor, Rob Anstey. We climbed the so-called "Whiskey Route," the Machame Route, which begins on the opposite side of the mountain from the Marangu "Coca-Cola" Route that I climbed with my students last April, as told in Kilimanjaro Expedition I. The Machame Route is definitely different. I would not have wanted to take students on that one!

We were actually climbing much of the time, not just walking. There were lots of ups and downs, as we circumnavigated Kibo, the central cone of the Kilimanjaro massif, cutting across several river valleys. We also experienced every kind of weather the mountain has to offer---rain, snow, even hail! As we were camping, this made things especially interesting. Usually, though, precipitation stopped long enough for us to dry everything out before bedding down for the night, so this didn't cause any serious problems. And whenever the clouds broke, we were treated to an utterly spectacular view. I think my pictures this time will outdo my other ones in terms of scenery.

Once upon a time I was hiking in New Mexico and blew out my knees on a day-long descent from the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot down to Alamogordo. I had trouble walking for the rest of that summer of '99, including an excruciating hike into the Grand Canyon. My mother's response, as I recall, was a very sympathetic "Well, it's not so bad for you to realize that you're human like the rest of us." I was worried that my hiking days were over, and I was only 21! But of course I eventually recovered my knees. As for being human, I came to feel as if I had taken a break from that while climbing Kilimanjaro. I cannot say why, but I have never shown susceptibility to acute mountain sickness (AMS), or "altitude sickness," which knocks down many people on Kilimanjaro. Rob had already vomited by the evening of the third day. The next day, which began with our climbing the 1500-foot Barranco Wall, was definitely tough. Rob and I traded day packs at the base of the wall, because his was somewhat larger and heavier than mine. (We did have four porters in addition to our two guides, and they took care of hauling all of our food, tents, sleeping bags, stove, and spare clothes.) By the end of the day, I was carrying both Rob's pack and my own. The last stretch up to the final bivouac, Barafu (which means "ice" in Swahili) was murderous. Rob was crawling along, even with a light pack. It was after he threw up three liters of (mostly) water that I relieved him of his remaining load. Since I had climbed the mountain before and knew that the worst part lay ahead of us that night, I was thinking, "No way is he going to make it to the summit."

Rob collapsed upon reaching the campsite, falling asleep immediately. We were to wake up at midnight for the starlit "Death March" to the summit. This was not the same path up Kibo as I had taken on the Marangu Route the first time. I remembered how torturous that fifth day had been, and this was even a bit longer and harder. I couldn't sleep for those few hours after sunset, partially because I was slightly dreading the coming ordeal, but mostly because I was worried about Rob. I knew he desperately wanted to reach the summit, but I doubted that he could do it without becoming very sick. It didn't help when, about eight o’ clock, Rob started screaming in his dreams: "What the fuck? WHAT THE FUCK!? AIEEEE!!!" Guides, porters, and I all rushed over to his tent, fearing that he was deathly ill, but he woke up and said blearily that he was fine, and he guessed that he had just been having a bad dream in which we all had started out for the summit and had left him behind! This ruined all further hope for my getting any rest that night, as I returned to my tent consumed with conflicting feelings of guilt and responsibility.

So, we did not leave Rob behind, although he slowed our progress all the way. He put in a truly heroic effort that night, and I admired him for it. I know that if I had been having as much trouble breathing and had been struggling to walk as he had, I would have turned back, be it my first or second attempt. But he did not give up, and we actually reached the top of Kibo at Stella Point right at dawn. We were treated to a breathtaking view of the Sun lighting up the clouds behind Kilimanjaro's secondary peak, Mawenzi. Seeing the Sun rise from 19,000 feet is one of the great rewards for climbers who have made it to the top Africa's highest mountain. Adronis (my guide on our previous Kilimanjaro expedition as well) and I were ahead of Rob and "Rasta" (our dreadlock-sporting assistant guide, who was pushing Rob along at this point). I actually managed to run the last few strides up to where I could see across the top of Kibo to the crater and glaciers, even though it still amazes me that I wasn't dead on my feet.

Adro and I decided to press on the rest of the way to Uhuru, the very top, since we knew that Rob was not in any shape to go that far and I wanted a chance to make up for the fact that my camera had frozen the first time I had summitted this mountain. Unlike that first time, the weather up there on the morning of January 18, 2002 was perfect. I took it all in, while congratulating the other climbers who were arriving at the summit, all of whom seemed to be quite out of it with hypoxia, but they were very happy nonetheless. After getting my long-awaited photos at Uhuru, Adro and I ran back down to rendezvous with Rob and Rasta, and found that, rather than wait for us at Stella Point, they had continued on and were still walking! This was no good. Rob was at the end of his rope. We turned him around, but promised him a certificate stating that he had reached Uhuru anyway. He deserved it more than anyone, given the effort he had shown. He was only 15 vertical meters short of his goal.

But the hard part was just beginning. Rob got really sick on the descent, which was my fear, but neither I nor the guides had had the heart to force him to turn back earlier. We were descending a different route than we had ascended, down a steep, snowy valley that might almost have qualified as a black diamond ski slope. The only way to go was a soft trail of deep-brown scree cleared through the center of the blindingly white snowfields. The incline was almost 45 degrees in places, requiring us to "scree-ski," a process in which you run/slide straight down by high-stepping and digging in your heels on each step, all the while keeping your toes up to avoid catching yourself on any solid, fixed rocks and performing a face-plant. This is definitely an acquired skill, requiring an amount of coordination and energy reserves which Rob was patently lacking at this point. He was only able to walk with the support of both guides. The scariest part, however, was that he did not realize that he was having problems. On one of his early rest stops, he complained to me that the way the guides were holding on to him was throwing him off balance, and he asked me to tell them to let him try to walk on his own. I replied that I did not think that was a very good idea. At the next rest stop, Rob suddenly made to sit on a rock that was separated from the trail by a patch of ice about a yard wide. The guides quickly grabbed him and steadied him before he had a chance to begin sliding down the mountain.

I think it is the consensus among mountaineers that the descent is often the more dangerous part of the expedition, and responsible for the greater proportion of deaths. In the year between my two Kilimanjaro climbs, I had read both Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston Dewalt, two accounts of the May 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest. The tragic events described in these two firsthand accounts chillingly illustrate the consequences for climbers who, their judgement impaired by the effects of hypoxia, focus all of their strength and concentration on the summit, arriving at their goal too late and leaving themselves with no reserves with which to get back down again. While climbing Kilimanjaro cannot even be placed in the same league with an Everest expedition, the same considerations for thin air do apply on a much smaller scale, and people die on Africa's highest peak nearly every year.

After perhaps an hour or two, we reached the lower slopes of Kibo, and the gradient of the trail eased. Here we encountered a group of American climbers gave us some Diamox to help ease Rob's condition. Diamox is a drug that combats AMS by increasing the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. We concluded that Rob was most likely suffering from the initial stages of High-Altitude Cerebral Edema, where fluid buildup in the brain causes swelling, dizziness, nausea, disorientation, and far nastier things if left untreated. The Diamox would help, but the only real cure would be to get Rob to a lower elevation, and quickly.

With the help of the Diamox and Rasta, Rob managed to get back to our camp at Barafu under his own power. But here he collapsed immediately and heavily, with his still-booted feet protruding from his tent. I roused him, and he said that he just wanted to stay there and rest for awhile. That was out of the question. We desperately needed to get him much lower than 15,000 feet. We called over to Horombo Hut on the Marangu Route to see if we could get a rescue. They said they could meet us halfway with a stretcher, but this still required us to cut off of the main trail and bushwhack halfway across the mountain through the high alpine desert, dragging Rob all the way. Our porters and guides took turns supporting Rob under either arm or carrying him piggyback. We were in a hurry, and kept up the fastest pace the porters could manage with their burden, so I found myself nearly jogging to keep up in between the frequent stops that Rob required. I could not stop a voice in my head that kept chattering on in a loop about how I had not slept in over 36 hours, had not eaten a decent meal in 20, had just summitted Africa’s highest peak for the second time in my life, and should not be able to keep this up for much longer before needing to be carried myself. Then it began to hail. There is no surer feeling that Nature is pissed off at you than that of pea-sized hailstones pelting your head, with no visible form of shelter between you and the horizon.

Of course, the promised rescue team failed to appear, and after four hours of this ordeal we finally hit the main trail of the Marangu route. Fortunately, by the time we had descended to 12,000 feet, Rob was already feeling better. I ran ahead to see why in hell the stretcher had never come. By that time, though, it was a moot point, so I didn't press it, but I asked them to give us a room in the huts so we could recover from our ordeal. They did this gladly, and we spent an unexpected and extremely restful night in a cabin at Horombo, where I'd slept three times on my last climb. This did Rob a world of good. The next day he was able to walk all the way down to the Marangu gate, over 15 miles away.

So, quite contrary to our plans, we found ourselves coming off the mountain in Marangu, where I had started and ended my school climb the year before. Marangu is a good three hours from Machame by road, but we had taken six days to walk it. Of course, we did pass the highest point in Africa along the way. A circuitous route, but a scenic one!

If you're still interested, you can view more pictures from this climb. You can also read the story as told by Robert Anstey. I visited Rob in his hometown of Brighouse, West Yorkshire, England on my way home to the States from Tanzania and spent the New Year 2003 with his friends and family. His father and his best friend both greeted me with warm thanks for "taking care of our Rob on Mt. Kilimanjaro." Rob, of course, took this in good humor, as he does everything else.

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Write to Matt Povich.