Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Four Days to Uhuru Peak
In March of 1994 the Footloose Forester joined with nine other adventurers to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It was one of those bucket list adventures that got a high priority not long after Footloose Forester landed his assignment at the Regional Economic Development and Services Office of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Nairobi, Kenya. A few young people at the US Embassy promoted the trip as a do-it-yourself tour into Tanzania and up Kilimanjaro, and they were willing to take on a few more would-be climbers to fill up the van they rented for the trip.
Eventually, our group numbered ten people and consisted of eight people affiliated with the US Embassy, the Footloose Forester from USAID, and a local Kenyan coffee grower who had an embassy contact. All of the Embassy climbers (six men and two women) were under 35 years of age. The British coffee grower who was a Kenyan citizen was the oldest at 57 but very fit and an outdoorsman; and the Footloose Forester was a restless 53.
Getting to the base of Kilimanjaro from Nairobi could have been a one-day trip by auto but arranging to climb meant having a complement of essentials: the proper warm clothing, sturdy boots, items of personal hygiene, and arrangements for porters and the required mountain guides. Local guides knew that sacred mountain and shared their knowledge. They normally supplied and cooked the meals and hauled the heavier gear as part of their services. For those many purposes, there are a few small mountain guide agencies in the vicinity. We climbers knew that it wasn’t going to be cheap, including the $300 per person fee to enter Kilimanjaro National Park as registered climbers. But it was a once in a lifetime venture and everyone in the group had accepted the terms and even the prospects of not reaching our destination—Uhuru Peak, at 19,343 feet above sea level and the highest point in Africa.
In fact, the embassy organizer of the tour had tried but failed to make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro in the two previous years, and he said that this was his last attempt. Heavy snow had made climbing dangerous and difficult in the previous attempts. The chances of success are very much dependent upon weather conditions. Late February to early April are the best options, due to a reduced chance of snowfalls that could forestall climbing. We were scheduled to go in mid-March and the timing was fortuitous. When we crossed the border from Kenya into Tanzania it was heartening to see only a spotty snowpack on the summit of Kilimanjaro. The mountain is so prominent that it is visible even across the border in Kenya.
Day one of the five-day venture commenced as the van left Nairobi in the morning and ended at a cheap hotel in Arusha, Tanzania where more than one person discovered that the bathrooms did not provide toilet paper. Hence, the travel pack of a wise traveler always contains your own items of personal hygiene. Those travel packs also contained several bottles of water, upon the strong recommendations of climbers with previous experience.
The morning of the next day was spent finalizing the contract with the mountain guides. In addition to the final check regarding meals for their 10 clients, the guide agency supplied us with ski poles, just in case we had to climb in snow banks. By early afternoon we passed through the Marangu entrance gate of Kilimanjaro National Park where we paid our fees and each trekker registered by name and age, just in case there was an emergency at any time, going or coming along the 40 miles of trail. Once on the well maintained lower trail of the popular Marangu climbing route, the next objective was to reach the first base camp at about 9,000 feet elevation where we would stay overnight to rest and get acclimated to the higher altitude.
Day two of the 40-mile trek was at least 12 miles uphill and a transition through rain forest lower slopes, through a genuine fog forest and gradually to a zone of low shrubs and alpine vegetation that was above timberline. The well-used trail was narrow but clearly marked through the dense shrubbery. The second base camp was a makeshift tent community called Horombo, but it also contained a dozen or so small sheltered boxes that were just big enough for a single person and their personal backpack. The rest of the gear remained outside in the fog and wind. An overnight stay at the 12,340-foot Horombo base camp was just long enough for a few hours of sleep and a couple of photos before we turned our feet in the direction of the waiting mountain.
10 trekkers on their way up from Horombo
As we continued upward, most of the dense shrubbery gave way to a decidedly dry and featureless landscape on a long plateau that is probably in the lee of most snowfalls. Although we continued to gain elevation, walking was much easier because the long stretch resembled an extended sloping shoulder. Our destination on day-3 was a stone field house at an elevation of 15,520 feet where we would eat a hot meal cooked over charcoal in a crowded smoky hut. We arrived in late afternoon. Following the meal in Kibo Hut at about 10 PM, we were advised to get some sleep and be prepared for a final assault on the summit very early in the morning of the following day. Early for our group meant about 1:30 AM, and we would be making the climb up the steepest sector in the moonlight to ensure that we reach the summit at sunrise.
One should not think that reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro requires expert climbing skills, because no ropes, ice axes, or pitons are required. Think of the venture as strenuous hiking uphill. There are hardships along the way, but most athletic people can handle it. Nevertheless, the trek from Kibo Hut at 15,520 feet to the rim of the crater formed by the now dormant volcano at 18, 638 feet may take up to five hours, even with no snow cover. Stopping to catch your breath might occur every 10 steps, thus the progress of various climbing parties is hardly predictable. That last steep climb of a mile or more was a bit too much for the youngest member of our group who complained of altitude sickness and returned with one of the guides to the Kibo Hut basecamp.
The mountain guides also know that the much steeper slopes from the Kibo Hut to the top are the most physically taxing. It is customary, therefore, to rest at a sheltered spot just below the rim, known as Gilman’s Point and assess who among the group wants to endure the much colder atmosphere of the last 2½ miles to the summit at Uhuru Peak. At that altitude, the wind blows harder and the temperatures are below freezing, so asking climbers individually about their commitment to continue is the prudent thing to do. At that point, one more climber chose to return to base camp.
Our luck held out with respect to the amount of snow we encountered and the pending arrival of sunrise. There was very little snow to be seen and the trail was practically snow free. Regardless of whether or not one believes in global warming, in recent years there has been significantly less snow adorning the summit of Kilimanjaro on a year-round basis. The Google Earth photo below resembles almost exactly the conditions we faced in March of 1994.
Uhuru Peak on the left was the end of the trail
Many of the details that went into this chronicle have been researched and verified through popular Internet sites. Whereas the personal thoughts of other trekkers who made the trip in 1994 also likely ignored many of the specifics in favor of capturing the magnificence of the overall experience, the grand memory is like a mental painting framed in gold. As a personal account of that trip to an acknowledged sacred place, it was an opportunity for Footloose Forester to repeat a favorite expression he often used when he was in the midst of the splendor of God, “Domine delexi decorem tuae, et locum habitationis gloria tuae” which is Latin for “Oh, Lord I love the beauty of your house and the place where your glory dwells.
The baby in the bathwater of this tale is the mountain itself. A picture is worth a thousand words and the picture above is a treasure that the Footloose Forester hopes to keep forever. Details about what colored socks we wore surely evaporated with time, but the geospatial realities of Kilimanjaro and its environs will remain the same in the future as precisely as they were in the past.