When I was in university, the movie “The Bucket List” came out where two older gentlemen make a list of all the things they wanted to do in their life before they “kicked the bucket.” I became obsessed with the idea and spent hours researching things that I would want to include on my own bucket list. “Owning a small business” and “hugging my grandchildren” were two of my more standard ones. “Meeting Joe Biden and Kevin Smith” and “Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland” were two more adventurous items. Something that was absent from this list or any future versions of it was “climb a mountain.” I had no interest.
“Get married” was on this list and I was able to cross that off on August 27, 2016. So that’s why less than a year later, when my beautiful – and much more adventurous – wife, Bethany, told me she planned to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and she’d like me to come, but she was doing it with or without me, I found myself in training.
Mount Kilimanjaro is the largest mountain in Africa at 5895 metres – slightly higher than base camp on Mount Everest. It can be done in five days, though it’s recommended to take 7 due to the body taking time to acclimatize to the high altitudes. The most strenuous thing I’d ever done was a two day hike in Cape Breton with a full pack and I wasn’t too eager to relive even that.
Bethany and I began to train as soon as our families left after visiting us in August. Each day, we’d take an hour to repeatedly climb stairs, run laps, or do a Fitness Blender exercise video. We’d listen to music or sermons to distract us from the monotony, pains, and pools of sweat gathering around us in our hot African living room. I started exercising with two towels – one for my face so I could see the computer screen giving me my next grueling task and one for the ceramic tiles under me so I wasn’t sliding all over the place. Amidst this, we were regularly fighting off two German Shepherd puppies who considered our faces a salty treat.
The weekend before we left we did two hikes from the nearby restaurant Papa’s to the nearby community Lugaye. It took around two hours there and another two back. We clambered up rocky hills and took new paths – to some extent trying to get lost – but always made it to the highway leading to the village. When we got back, we were exhausted with sweaty, blistered feet. We were leaving in a few days and this was us after four hours! How were we going to hike for over 45 hours in a week?
We spent the week leading up to the climb in Moshi, which I described day-by-day on Facebook so won’t get into here. What I didn’t include were the two days leading up to the climb. Here’s why:
On the Monday, we picked up Bethany’s friend Wendy, who would be taking on this challenge with us, at the Kilimanjaro International Airport and we had dinner with our Guide and his family. That night, I woke up not feeling so well.
Something that only people close to me know – I vomit very loudly. At 2 a.m. the day before the climb started, I found myself waking up Bethany and Wendy, who’s cottage-style hotel room was two doors down. While I didn’t vomit again after that, I spent all of Tuesday in bed watching YouTube videos, drinking water with electrolyte tabs, eating crackers, and sleeping off Gravol induced mini-comas.
By a miracle, when I woke up on Wednesday morning, I was back to normal – other than an empty stomach – and when the van came to pick us up, I was on it. We left our hotel by 9 a.m. and had started the hike by 11:30 a.m.
Day #1 included a 7 hour hike up a gradual incline through a dense forest. Honestly, it almost felt like hiking in Canada with tall, old trees on either side of the dirt path. Then we’d see monkeys along the path or trees wider than they are tall and remember where we were. I occupied my time by playing a game where I tried to get as many fallen leaves on my hiking pole as possible.
My poles were borrowed from our guide. I had them each on the maximum height at the beginning of the day, but lengthened them as soon as I could, so the very top of the “P” in “STOP” lined up where I would latch them together. We live in a short person’s world sometimes.
This day was also the start of a daily game called, “What’s going to hurt?” This first day it was my left hip, which cried out with every step, “What are you doing to us!?” before eventually dulling into a quiet whimper.
When we eventually got to that first night of camp, we were impressed both with how reasonably well we felt and with the provisions we were receiving. Porters had carried most of our gear including tents, food, and – to our surprise and approval – a port-a-potty in its own little tent. All we were carrying was our 3 L of water (which never seemed to go below 1 L despite how much I drank throughout the day), snacks, and a rain jacket for the chance the skies may open up and pour down on us (this, luckily, never happened). What particularly impressed us though was the bowl of hot water we received for washing and the hot meals we received every night including spaghetti with beef sauce, various soups, and –our favorite – fried chicken and chips. We woke up each morning around 7 a.m. to a hot breakfast of eggs, sausages, toast, and porridge
Day #2 was short and steep and the hiking poles earned their keep allowing us to push ourselves up the rock path. Because of this, the pain in my hip quieted and the pain in my knee started. It was worth it though as we got higher into the mountain and the views from the rocky enclaves became increasingly beautiful with forested valleys to our left and the awe-inspiring Uhuru peak to our right. We arrived at our next campsite around lunch time and camped on the Shira plateau around 12,500 feet above sea level.
On Day #3, we walked out of the forested-part of the journey leaving our butts exposed for all future bathroom breaks. It was another long and gradual hike up through a dead and rocky terrain to the Lava Tower (15,200 feet), where we stopped to have a hot lunch (again, we were blown away by the porters that had arrived earlier to set up our dining tent and toilet, and prepare food).
This day was when my upper back started to ache whenever I was walking with my pack. This pain edged in throughout the rest of the days and was relieved by weaving one of my poles through the upper handle of the pack and lifting it above my head at regular intervals.
During these first few days, we spent much of the walk listening to the music blaring from my cellphone strapped to my back pack. At this point in the trip, I was running low on upbeat music and we ended up listening to the entire soundtrack to Hamilton on the three hour hike across the Bastain stream and down to Barranco Camp, which was set in a canyon that overlooked Moshi.
That night was beautiful with the stars as bright and clear as I’ve ever seen them and the twinkling lights of Moshi in the distance. It made the freezing cold temperatures bearable as we stood in the dark and took in the view.
On Day #4, we began the day by climbing out of the canyon. It was relatively easy, but did make me feel like Tom Cruise at the start of one of the Mission Impossible movies. We passed the narrow ledge they called “Hugging Rock” and clambered up rock paths until we over “the Wall.” We hiked down into a valley and then back up with some relatively flat paths in between until coming to a large rock that Bethany utilized as a toilet. A few steps further and we realized we were already in sight of our next camp.
“Well, I could have waited until then,” Bethany said pointing at the relatively close camp. The guides smiled and pointed. “How far do you think that is?” they asked. It looked like ten minutes, but we soon found out that the guides’ knowing smiles were covering up the deep valley that lay between us and the camp. An hour later we were finally climbing up over the final lip of the valley and ready for lunch at our destination.
We rested and played cards during the afternoon. Bethany and I started listening to a James Herriot book and giggled over the old veterinarian’s stories. We had also downloaded TV shows on Netflix and watched Crazy Ex-girlfriend and the new Star Trek, while camping on the mountain.
On Day #5, we hiked to the basecamp, Barafu. This hike up hill was marked mainly by the fact that we were now above the cloud level and thus as we walked there was a growing ocean of clouds behind us. I could imagine the Greeks visiting a mountain top and how they could easily conclude with the white sea before them that this must be the home of gods. It really was something to behold. After what would happen on Day #6, I concluded that I would climb Mount Kilimanjaro again, just for this view, but I wouldn’t repeat the climb to the summit!
The basecamp site was all along the incline between rocks and had a certain dreary feel as the fog settled in. Around 6 p.m., immediately after supper, Bethany and I headed to sleep.
At 11 p.m., we were up again and piled on our three layers of pants and five layers of tops. By midnight, we were on the trail. With headlamps to guide us, we took slow steps up the zig-zagging path. It was a gruelling trek as the cold bit through our gloves and the altitude made us feel light headed and nauseous. One foot in front of the other we trekked as I drowned out the voice in my head begging, “You could be back in your tent sleeping in an hour if you go back now” with nine different podcast episodes. The guides kept repeating “Pole pole” or “slowly slowly” as we inched our way up. Each time we stopped and had the opportunity to pee or sit, it was hard to pull ourselves back up. “Just one more minute” my dreary eyes would plead as I was pulled back to my feet and handed my poles.
There is a will power in people that pushes them to achieve their goals and overcome the physical challenges before them. Marathon runners and mountain climbers have it. Even amateur athletes have it… that desire to win that carries them forward and that feeling of success when they’ve conquered the opposition. I don’t have that. When I’m playing sports, I’m more interested in the story of the game – if we’re winning, I’d prefer it to be a close game and would take a dramatic loss over an easy win. When climbing the mountain, I didn’t keep going so I could say I had reached the summit or for the personal sense of accomplishment. No. I just didn’t want Bethany to be disappointed in me for turning back.
We were nearing the peak as the sun rose over the mountain. I started to see lights flashing as the pressure pushed on my optic nerves. It wasn’t a bad feeling per say. It felt like the paparazzi were taking my picture over and over as I climbed and I appreciated the encouragement. I let the guides know and they questioned me why I wasn’t drinking more water (my camel pack tube had frozen and when we stopped it was only long enough to get in a good sit – not enough time to pull the Nalgene’s from my pack to have a swig). After drinking more water the flashes from my adoring fans faded away and we clambered on.
As we reached the volcanic mountain top and looked over the crater – with the glaciers glistening in the distance and the expanse of the clouds all around us – I laughed to myself. Certainly it was a sight to behold, but the first thing I thought was, “The glaciers are beautiful, but I could have seen them in Newfoundland and I’d only have had to ride a boat.” At the top, I felt incredible relief – we would now be heading down and the temptation of turning back was gone.
At 7:35 a.m., we posed in front of the final sign, letting us know we’d reached the highest point of Mount Kilimanjaro, Uhuru Peak. Two months of preparation and we’d done it! Is it too late to add to my bucket list?
Having reached the highest point in Africa, we were now faced with a new challenge: getting down.
Bethany and Wendy found a place to pee and once they were finished I took the chance to offer my morning homage in relative privacy. I found the hole behind a couple of rocks that most hikers of the past had relieved themselves in and assumed the position. I looked at the rock in front of me and commenced the procedure only to hear a sound to my left. I looked to see a clear view of a second path as two guides and then two hikers passed by. There is no shame on the mountain!
This shot to my pride was quickly followed by a second shot. Going down was a lot faster than coming up and it only took an hour to make our way back to basecamp. The reason was that we were going fast and sort of jump skied down through the dirt. You would leap, hit loose dirt, slide, and then finally get a foot holding. Then you’d repeat. I was tired and worn out and as I did this – much more slowly than the rest – I kept falling over. Whether it was to speed me up or to prevent my repeated falls, one of the guides, who barely spoke English, took my hand and pulled me down the mountain. For an hour, I held that man’s hand as he guided and drug me along the non-existent path back to camp as if I were an old man unable to make it down the stairs. I was grateful, but what pride I had was taking a back seat to efficiency.
By 10 a.m. we were back at base camp. We ate an early lunch and then packed our bags and continued for another three hours down stone paths to our final campsite. Those three hours lasted forever as each turn we thought would reveal the end. “Just 100 more years of this and we’ll be out of purgatory,” I joked to which Bethany replied, “This isn’t purgatory. This is hell.”
Our feet were blistered and aching by the time we made it to the campsite for dinner. The next day it was just three more hours of walking down hill through the forest before we were back to the car and signing out. Mission accomplished!
We had celebratory Kilimanjaros on the drive back into town. After checking into our Air BnB, we all showered off the layers of dirt and dust, ready for all that Arusha had to offer!