I don’t know what it about me and long walks… but I seem to gravitate towards them (see here, here and here). So, since I happened to find myself in the area, I couldn’t really pass up the chance to climb the highest mountain in Africa. Now, when one finds oneself in East Africa, I think most people would do something a bit more “African”… like go on a safari. And going on a safari is appealing to me, but for time (I was approaching the date where I had to be in India for my friends’ wedding) and budgetary (safaris, and climbing Kilimanjaro, are both expensive propositions) reasons, I felt I had to choose one over the other. And climbing a mountain wins out over seeing animals (plus, I also felt I could come back and go on a safari some other day… I doubt many of the animals are going anywhere anytime soon given their popularity and the conservation measures in place). Plus, given my impeccable timing abilities, the timing of the climb worked out perfectly… my friend Shayne came out to visit for two weeks, which brought me down to coastal Kenya and Tanzania… and my other friend Lauren, who, in a fit of what must have been temporary insanity, agreed to come out for the climb (as an aside, she flies to Eastern Europe a lot for work and had always wanted to go to Africa, and she had some meetings to go to in Europe, so had a window of time to fly a bit further south… so when she asked what I was up to around the end of November I told her climbing Kilimanjaro and asked if she wanted to come… and she agreed). Lauren, given my lack of planning abilities, the fact that I was going to be hopping around with Shayne for two weeks prior to the climb, the sporadic nature of internet access in some parts around here, and her, more exacting, schedule, was kind enough to make the arrangements from the US. So it ended up being such that I started my climb on the day Shayne flew back to the US… so I was able to go from Zanzibar (Tanzania) where I was hanging out with Shayne, to the Kilimanjaro airport (which is near Moshi, Tanzania for the non-geographers out there) via a short two-hour flight… how’s that for things lining up timing wise in East Africa.
So, before I go on, some facts about Kilimanjaro. It’s the highest mountain in Africa (at 5.895 meters, which is 19,341 feet). Despite it being so high, it can be climbed by anyone, as there are no technical climbing skills required. Approximately, 45,000 people climb the mountain every year… and given it’s popularity, there’s no shortage of trekking companies offering to take folks up the mountain (just google it and you’ll see… and those are just the companies online, there’s tons of local companies in Moshi that don’t have a web presence). There are about 8 different routes available, and it takes between five and nine days to make the climb and descend depending on the route, your budget and schedule. I, well…. actually Lauren mostly… decided to do the Machame route. The Machame route is one of the two most difficult routes (because it goes up and down a lot, with longer days than many of the other routes), but the difficulty has an advantage… in that it gives on a chance to effectively acclimatize to the altitude… and because of this, the Machame route has one of the highest summitting success rates (it’s also reported to be more scenic than most of the other routes). The standard Machame route trek is six days, but we decided to pay for an extra day and do it in seven (so one seven hour day at high altitude was split into two, three and a half-hour days). Now, climbing Kilimanjaro is a logistical nightmare… the mountain is devoid of all facilities… minus pit toilets of course… so everything that one needs (tents, food, cooking fuel, extra clothes, etc.) for seven days needs to be brought with you… and unlike Ethiopia, where they had mule teams carry the equipment, no pack animals are allowed in the park… so everything has to be carried by people power. Enter the necessary entourage (I got the feeling that climbing Kilimanjaro is a relatively highly regulated activity for the trekking companies, which is a good thing given what I’m about to describe)… every climbing party has to have a guide, a cook, one assistant guide per three people and porters to carry everything up the mountain. And where some of the regulations come in is that porters are allowed to carry no more than 20 kilograms of weight (44 pounds) plus the weight of their own gear (they bring their own clothes and sleeping stuff… mattress pads and sleeping bags). So in practice, that works out to be about 3 porters for every person hiking (in my case we had 10 people for the two of us… one guide, one assistant guide, one cook, one porter/cooking helper/waiter and six porters… quite the entourage for two people).
One thing I noticed on the actual climb was that the trekking companies seem to operate on a full employment system… meaning that even if there were small groups of people (i.e. one, two or three persons) doing the same route in the same number of days with the same company, each group would have the full entourage complement instead of combining the small groups. I would assume that combining small groups like that would be more profitable for the trekking company (maybe I’m wrong here)… but it seems like they may be a little more concerned with keeping the folks doing the work happy (and by happy I mean as fully employed as possible). Also, again, while climbing, it was interesting to watch the separation between the different companies at the varying campsites (all the different companies have to camp at the same campsites on a given route)… there was a noticeable effort to keep the different clients away from each other. If you’d go wandering around the campsite, people would constantly ask you what you’re doing and where you’re going. Also, on the trail, there are a couple of places for resting that people naturally tend to congregate… I remember one point, I came to a peak where a group of four other American guys were eating lunch. I went over to mingle and both our guide and their guide suggested I go a bit further to eat lunch (of course they were ignored them)… I guess they don’t want us comparing notes (or experiences). Anyhow, just some, I thought, interesting observations of company behavior… perhaps an MBA out there can analyze this phenomenon and come up with the why?
So back to the climb… part of the package is one night at a hotel the night before the trek and one night at the hotel the night upon return. The night before the trek we were to meet our guide… or at least I was going to meet our guide as Lauren would not arrive until later that night. The trekking company assigned the us Joseph (to the right).
Joseph has been a guide on Kilimanjaro for about 9 years (and before that he was an assistant guide and before that he was a porter). He’s summitted Kilimanjaro a staggering 166 times (we were going to be lucky number 167) and knew all the routes backwards and forwards. We talked briefly about the route, necessary gear and all the ins and outs and what have yous… I asked him about the quality of the tents in case of rain (something to know from previous experience). He assured me that the tents were high quality and would not leak or get wet during any rains. We figured out what I equipment I needed to rent (one beautiful thing about climbing Kilimanjaro is that it’s so popular, each company offers rental equipment so you don’t have to go out and buy any special gear… something very good for me since I’m traveling out of one bag, and don’t really want to buy any one of trekking items that I’ll have no use for after the climb)… necessary items being a sleeping bag, a waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, trekking poles and the necessary duffel bag to hold all my gear for the porters to carry. At the time I met Joseph the rental office was closed, so had to get up early to get my stuff before the bus took off for the climb at 8:30 AM. Done and done. Joseph took off, Lauren arrived, we caught up, I relayed all of Joseph’s info to Lauren, I did some last-minute internet browsing and went to bed early in order to get up early and get everything sorted out in time to leave.
So the next day (this is a Monday morning by the way), I was up at six, and I managed to get all my stuff sorted before we get on the bus at 8:30 (renting my gear, buying some last-minute items from the shop, packing for the climb, packing my other stuff away to store at the hotel, eating breakfast and settling my bill prior to leaving)… I was the last one on the bus of course (well… Lauren and I were the last one’s on the bus), which was packed with a bunch of Tanzanians and a couple of mizungos (mizungo is the swahili word for white person, but it generally applies to all foreigners)… the Tanzanians (it turned out) were the climbing entourages for the various mizungus on board… something we really didn’t find out until we arrived at the Machame Gate / Park Entrance. Upon arrival, some rather frantic activity started taking place… lots of unloading of gear from the top of the bus, which was then being subdivided into the appropriate 20 kilogram loads for the porters, the assistant guides were busy registering the group and completing all the necessary paperwork (there was a lot of signing and filling out of forms on the climb… signing in, and out for the guides, every day at each camp), while the head guides oversaw everything (even hiring an extra porter or two from the crews of men lined up just outside the gates hoping for work). All in all, the arrival was pretty chaotic, but a company representative basically just sat us all of to the side and passed out boxed lunches to eat while everything got done. After about an hour and a half, the paperwork complete, the gear divided and the porters already having taken off, our guide came over to find Lauren and I, and just like, we were off…
To be continued.