Report of My Kilimanjaro Climb
By Peter A. Fields, MD, DC
After waiting ten years with this on my bucket list, I finally was going to climb Kilimanjaro.
Getting to Mount Kilimanjaro
The trip to Kilimanjaro began with an 11-hour flight to London where I had a 36-hour layover. Saw “Tina, The Musical” (life and times of Tina Turner). Great show. Then 9 ½ hour flight to Nairobi, where I spent 24 hours so I was able to see the city. Then a one-hour flight to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. My arrival at Kilimanjaro airport was on Sunday night. This was followed by a two-and-a-half-hour ride, with half of it on a very bumpy dirt road, before reaching the destination at the base camp. Since it was almost midnight, I went straight to my tent, which was quite luxurious for camping, and included a sink, a bathroom, and even a shower. I took advantage of a quick shower and went straight to bed.
After a nice breakfast, where I met the other climbers and our trek leaders, we went for a short two-hour hike just to see the local terrain. It was beautiful, with waterfalls and lots of lush plants and greenery. The guide leader went through our entire pack to make sure that we would be taking everything we needed and that everything was in good shape. The rest of the day was just spent relaxing, except for a short sunset hike of 10 minutes, where at the top of the small hill they had wine waiting for us. A pleasant surprise.
Getting to the Trailhead and First Day Hike Towards Kilimanjaro
After a two-hour ride, we arrived at the check-in point. The weather was hot enough to wear shorts and t-shirts since we were only 3 degrees off the equator. There we saw the more than 45 plus Sherpa’s that would accompany us. There were six Sherpa’s( there were six hikers) to carry each person’s clothing (colder weather gear, nighttime clothes, toiletries, etc.). Then six to carry our bedding, and tents ( double roofed for better rain protection), six would carry our food for 7 days ( three full meals a day), eight of them made up the kitchen team, another team of two would carry the oxygen and medicine, four to carry the toilets and tents over them, plus about 10 other Sherpa’s would carry all the tents, tables and chairs. There were also 10 more to carry all of the sherpa’s food and equipment.
We had to register and show our passports, and after that, we took a short 20-minute drive to the trailhead. Arriving at noon, a very nice, well-prepared lunch was ready for us. We started the hike at 7700 feet and climbed to 9300 feet. The area was mostly jungle-like, with a lot of fantastic plants, birds, and other exotic wildlife, including Colobus monkeys and other animals. When we arrived at the camp at 9300 feet, the tents were already set up, and we unpacked our gear in each individual tent, had dinner and went to sleep.
Hiking to 11,400 ft
At 6:30 AM we were woken up with a hot bowl of water to wash up and get ready for the day. A very full breakfast was prepared for us and then we started off to hike again. For hiking, it’s important to eat three square meals a day as well as drink a minimum of three liters of water a day. Without this exhaustion, dehydration, and more can happen. The guides made sure that we would eat a lot and consume lots of water.
We headed off on our hike up to 11,400 feet, crossing from the Montane Forest into the Hagenia Zone, where we saw many different plants and beautiful trees throughout the canyon.
I felt pretty good, as I had taken Diamox, a medicine to help prevent altitude sickness. I had a Camelback-style drinking system so I was drinking copious amounts of water. At night it was cold but with the proper gear (well worth the expense!), I felt warm.
Hiking to 13,400 ft
We had another early wake-up call today and another substantial breakfast (scrambled eggs, toast, pancakes, fruit, toast, jelly, peanut butter, tea/coffee, and more. We hiked across a large plateau and gained about 2,100 feet in altitude. It was very interesting as we passed into the upper heath zone, where there were no more trees here, just a lot of different plants. And lots of volcanic rock (the last active volcano here took place over 10,000 years ago).
The hiking was very slow and consistent, as they say in Swahili, “Poli, Poli.” Again I felt very good when arriving at Moir camp at 13,500 feet. We had beautiful views of the mountain as the clouds moved away. It was really spectacular!
Kilimanjaro Hiking to 15,500 Feet
We woke up again at 6:30 AM, had breakfast at 7, and were hiking by 7:30. Today was a shorter hike of only 3.1 miles, but we did climb 2000 feet. It was slow in some parts and the steep sections were even slower. Finally, we arrived at camp after hiking for only 2 hours and 20 minutes. We were now at 15,500 feet. The air is very thin, so with every step you take, you have to think about it. But when we arrived at camp, everything seemed to settle down. During the afternoon there was a hale storm that turned into snow, so everybody went into their tents. I probably took a 3-hour well-needed nap. After a good dinner, we all went to bed, but not until we viewed the beautiful skies at 15,500 feet in the southern hemisphere.
Getting To Camp At 16,500 Feet
We had the usual wake-up call at 6:30 AM and were on the trail by 7:30. It snowed during the night, but only half an inch or so, making everything white and beautiful. The good news is this meant it was right around 32 degrees. The sun came out, so it was warm when we hiked but a little bit cooler when clouds were overhead. Plus with the altitude (lots of breathing) and hiking effort, one was rarely cold. Today’s hike was only 1,000 feet of climbing and a short hike to the base camp. The big hike tomorrow will only be about an hour and 20 minutes, but it will be over a lot of rocks and boulders and will be steep in some places. We arrived at the base camp around 10:30 – 11 in the morning. We were supposed to go for a short hike from there without our packs but it started snowing for over an hour, so that was canceled. Tomorrow morning, we will have a 4 AM wake-up call in anticipation of a 2,300-foot elevation climb up to 18,650 feet.
Kilimanjaro Final Camp At 18,500 Feet
Wake-up call at 4 AM and breakfast at 4:30. The slow group left at 5. We (my hiking partner, myself, and our guide) left about 5:30. At this altitude of over 16,000 feet, everyone moves very slowly. The first little part was steep and slightly snow-covered, but then it got extremely steep and no longer covered in snow.
We climbed 2,400 feet over 2.6 miles. The first hour was in the dark, but we all had headlamps. It was very rocky and we had to use our hands sometimes to climb. We ran into a few other tours on the trail and all of us had to cut across a mountainside since the snow had obliterated the trail the night before.
We were now over 17, 000 feet. One of the guides from another tour (all the guides know each other) had a pickaxe and so he chopped thru the snow to make it easier on our footing. Even so, it was very slippery. There were times we had to use all four extremities to climb, even kneeling on the next step up because the step was too high to reach with our foot. Breathing was becoming more and more labored and it was difficult to catch our breath in the thinning air.
When we stopped at 18,000 feet for a snack and water, we thought the worst was over, but that wasn’t the case. The next 500 feet were very rocky and slippery, and that along with the very thin air meant we had to take three or four steps before needing to stop for a break. Like having a bag over your head and pulling for each breath.
Finally, we reached the craters ridge and were very happy. These are remnants of glaciers that once covered this entire valley. The whole valley was snow-covered and looked like we were walking in a desert. When we arrived, we were not allowed to lie down in our tents for about a good hour because we needed to let our bodies acclimate to the thin air at 18,600 feet.
After that, we enjoyed a well-deserved nap before an early dinner because we would be getting up again at 4 AM to climb to the top of Kilimanjaro!
Climbing To The Top Of Kilimanjaro 19,341 Ft/5895 Meters Beginning The Descent
The night was extremely cold, with ground temperatures probably down to zero degrees Fahrenheit. We did everything to keep ourselves warm! I laid my down jacket on top of my sleeping bag (which was rated to zero degrees), plus I had a liner inside the sleeping bag which gave me an additional 25 degrees of warmth. I am definitely not a cold weather person but with the right gear, it was not too bad.
We were woken up at 4 AM. After eating and packing our stuff (only our personal things; the Sherpa took care of the sleeping bag and tent each morning and night), we were off for a 75-minute climb, basically straight up and extremely cold. Fortunately, I had bought the best mittens ever and my hands were not cold. Nonetheless, my legs and face took the brunt of it, and we moved very, very slowly. 10 feet could take several minutes. After a very hard, straight-up climbing, we had to cross a flat plane to the actual top of the mountain. The wind was blowing like crazy. The air temp was around minus 10 Fahrenheit with the wind chill probably down to negative 45 or 50 Fahrenheit. But all 6 of us had made it. It was a special feeling…an unbelievable feeling!
I always carry some ashes of my parents no matter where I travel in this world. And since this was a very special place, I quietly said a prayer, took off my mittens (brrr), and sprinkled some of their ashes at the top. They had made it the whole way with me!
We took our pictures and then had to get going due to the intense winds and brutal cold. Fortunately, we summited very early and there were only one or two other groups at the top. Later on, there would be at least 50-100 people. We saw a gorgeous sunrise since it was shortly before 7 in the morning. We were almost on the equator, and sunrise and sunsets are always at around 6:30 to 7 am without much variation from season to season.
Immediately, once we started to go down, we could feel the release of pressure in our lungs and chest. The descent and decreasing pressure made it a lot easier on our lungs, plus it was now all downhill. After an hour or two, our quads really felt it, and we would be walking downhill for the next 5 to 6 hours!
We did stop for a small break for some lunch, but our appetite was low due to the altitude. Several of the hikers experienced altitude sickness on the way up, with nausea, diarrhea, headaches loss of appetite, and weakness. I felt worse while descending, but fortunately, I had only lost my appetite with slight nausea and it lasted only for a short period of time. Anyway, we finally made it to camp at 10,500 feet. The weather was really nice and a bit warmer, between about 45 to 50 degrees or more. What a difference from the night before! We all had a good meal and rested, as we had been hiking downhill for over 8 hours, and all of our legs were extremely tired.
The descent and saying goodbye
We woke up at 6:30 AM, which was a big difference from 4 AM. Today would be our last night, and we would be saying goodbye to all the Sherpas as they would leave the trail. Only the guides would continue with us. I volunteered to be the spokesperson of the group, which meant I would be collecting the tip money and giving a short speech.
After breakfast, the 40 or so sherpas gathered around singing and dancing. I actually joined them in the dancing, which I have a video of. I was very tired, but it was still worth it. I gave a 3-minute speech thanking every one of them for all of their hard work and dedication, and telling them that their help, whether by carrying a table, carrying sleeping bags, setting up tents, preparing food and everything else they did for us, was all very special and helped us so much.
We then set off for our last 6 to 7-hour hike downhill. Although it was not very steep, it was a dried-up river bed that was full of rocks and stones, making footing uneasy, and causing our quads to be even more on fire. I and several others had foldable walking sticks and this helped a lot. But we knew the end was coming, so we just kept going. We stopped for lunch and continued on. After about 7 hours, we saw the base camp. Nothing could be sweeter! I signed out at the Ranger station and basically collapsed into the waiting truck. There were a lot of campers and hikers ending in this same area, so they drove us about 20 minutes away.
We had some lunch and then drove the rest of the way back to the lodge, which was a beautiful hotel about half an hour outside of Arusha on an old coffee plantation. Everybody had their own cabin. For the first time in 9 days, I took a shower. It was wonderful! Then we all gathered with the two guides and I said a few more words to represent the group. We had a nice dinner, and then two people left for the airport by 7 PM. That night, was my first night of sleep in a bed, after 9 days. It was fantastic! The mission was accomplished!
Kilimanjaro Was Amazing! Final Goodbyes and certificate
Even though the trip was not exactly as described in the pamphlet, it was something I had had on my bucket list for over 10 years. It was extremely difficult at times. Some of our hikers had difficulty even moving and needed assistance. But we all persevered. I’ve done 10 Ironman races so far (now 11!), which require monumental training. But the long hike up to the crater from 16,800 feet to 18,400, with the subsequent day of summiting, followed by the 9,000-foot descent, were some of the hardest things that I’ve ever done. And that includes all my Ironman competitions.
You just can’t imagine what it’s like trying to move at that altitude. As I said before, it is similar to having a paper bag over your head and trying to grasp for air. There were times I took two or three steps and then had to pause for 15 or 20 seconds just to get my heart rate and breathing back down, repeating that again and again and again. Never looking ahead, only down, because sometimes ten feet took 45-60 seconds to hike. All this while enduring the sub-freezing temperature, the blowing snow, and the wind chill factors. Nothing but grit and determination to keep you going. But the views were spectacular and the feeling of being literally on top of the world made it all worth it.
I’ll continue to enjoy my Ironman triathlons and continue to do them as long as I can. But as far as hiking up a mountain to 19,341 feet, this will be my one and only time! It’s a tremendous accomplishment, but something I would not want to repeat.
Thank You to Everyone Who Made Kilimanjaro A Possibility!
Thank you to everyone that sent me well wishes before, during, and after my climb. It meant so much!
I also thank my parents who gave me the will and determination to achieve all the goals in my life, no matter how hard they are.
They always ingrained this determination in me and encouraged me to just put my head down and keep going to achieve my goals.
As I said above, they were with me the whole way and always will be.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope this will inspire you that if a goal is desired, to just put your head down and keep going no matter how difficult it may seem.
Peter A. Fields, MD, DC
The Athletic Doc®
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