October 1, 2012 (Denver, Colorado)
August 2012 brought about the next major expedition for our team as we headed to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. At 19,340′, “Kili” is the tallest mountain in Africa, one of the “seven summits”, and the largest freestanding mountain in the world. From the savannah at the base, Kili supports five major ecological zones: rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and glaciers. While thousands of people climb the traditional routes on the front of the mountain, we were going to take on the lesser traveled and more challenging Machame route ending with a summit night push up the Western Breach, a class 3 scramble up rock faces where the crater wall collapsed. While certainly not a tremendous risk, this approach has seen its share of accidents including the deaths of several climbers in 2008 that resulted in the Breach being closed for a few years.
Our journey started with the long flight from Denver to DC and then to Addis Ababa Ethiopia. When we arrived in Ethiopia we got to see the Ethiopian Olympic team arrive home from the London 2012 games. It was actually a pretty neat thing to see. Then, we were off to Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania where Jeff and I were met by MountainVision personnel who gave us a lift to the Impala Hotel in Arusha.
Our crew, guides, and some of the porters began to arrive or stop by the hotel and the ice breaking began rather quickly over Kilimanjaro beers. In addition to Jeff and I, there was Kevin, Weston, Mike, Karen, Jeff, Angela, Chrissy, Mary, Jeff, Sam, George, Robin, Randi, Annette (all the way from Scotland!), and our friend Dan (a A Call to Adventure pilot expedition member). This was a very eclectic group from all walks of life. Our local team included Nickson Moshi and some of his family including Godlove and Godlisten.
After a couple of days in Arusha, we debriefed and set off for the mountain. The drive from Arusha to the Machame Gate was about 90 minutes. At an elevation of 5400′ we knew we had some upward mobility ahead of us. After completing the trekking formalities, the team was ready – wet – but ready.
As we trekked through the jungle, the cool, damp weather obscured any views of the mountain, but it did give us a lot of time to get to know one another and enjoy what was right in front of us. The porters raced ahead and set up a dining tent alongside the trail for the first meal of the trip. Lunch consisted of tomato, cheese, and avocado sandwiches. Soup, fresh fruit, and plenty of it accompanied. If this was an indication of how the rest of the trip was going to be – we were certainly not going to go hungry.
After lunch, the trail followed along up a ridge to the first camp (Machame Hut) at an elevation of about 10,100′. Our sweet Mountain Hardware tents were already set up and waiting for us to move right in. Nice… After a great dinner, the team started to feel the “call of nature” but to a man/woman seemed a little apprehensive about “performing” in front of the whole camp despite the toilet tents. It was at this point that Kevin launched into a beautiful rendition of “We are Family” with an ad lib about everyone pooping and peeing. Seemed to do the trick…
The next morning dawned nice and crisply and we started to get some good views of what was around us. We head a nice breakfast and hit the trail to continue our climb.
This day’s activities included a climb to the Shira Plateau which would be our home for a rest day and a pretty unique surprise. George and Robin had decided to be married on Kili with our own Jeff Evans presiding. Robin’s sister Randi was with us and clearly pleased by this set of events!
The next morning we woke up to a break in the weather – though clouds would continue to roll in. We got our first good glimpses of the summit, had a chance to acclimatize, took part in a wedding, enjoyed some serious African song and dance, ate wedding cake, and called home. Not bad for a “rest day”.
The next morning we left Shira Camp for the hike up to Lava Tower Camp named after a significant outcropping of lava. I know – shocking right? The elevation at Lava would be 14,630′ which would be the highest elevation most of our team had ever reached to that point. Rest from this point forward was going to be at a premium but as the weather cleared the opportunity to hike, get some great views in, and just enjoy the place seemed to take over.
Now at this point, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dan Hatch and his amazing photographs. Dan was never without his camera – always getting up early, staying up late, and moving around to get great shots. Check out some of these amazing ones…
After a great nights sleep, we moved up about 1000′ to Arrow Camp at 15,500′ for our rest stop before the summit attempt. The team was making a good pace, getting in rest step and pressure breathing practice, and generally making good time.
From here until the crater, there aren’t many pictures. And as you learn the story, you’ll understand why…
At Arrow Camp we met the only other team at this location – a German team. All others teams took the path around the mountain to ascend the more traditional routes. The German team agreed to start at midnight so we could start at 1am and not risk running into their rockfall. We awoke around midnight to relatively nice weather and waited for the Germans to leave – which they finally did at 12:30am. As we watched them leave, we wondered why the all wore helmets…
We sent our first team out at 1am with the rest of us following at 1:40. We could see the headlamps of the Germans as the worked their way up and felt confident that they were moving fast enough. As we proceeded up the breach, the first 30 minutes or so was steep but mostly switchbacks. After that, we came upon the first rock scramble which would be rated about a Class 3 or similar to Longs Peak in Colorado. Nothing too difficult although we immediately began dealing with small ridges and not a lot of space. In a group of our size, this posed a few problems and inconveniences but nothing serious.
After this, we came up a steep scree section and a lot of loose rock. Being at the back of the line, we were in the target zone for falling rock and it did fall. After this section we came upon a glacier/snow field. This is when things got interesting as we later realized the route taken by the Germans was a more technical variation and that they were crossing these sections with crampons, rope teams, etc. Well, we had none of the technical gear and going down wasn’t an option at this point. The team really stepped up at this point. As more experienced climbers, a few of us had been assigned to help the guides with the team. Everyone paired up and assisted with instructions on how to cross safely and the helped make it happen. Jeff was up and down the slope watching over, calling out instructions, and correcting techniques. The moves weren’t too hard, but the consequences of a slip would literally have been a fall of several hundred feet and probably death. Everyone made it across safely.
This would be the first of six such sections were the team would have to make a traverse or similar technical move to complete the route. At all times we were scrambling probably at a Class 3+ level with very, very steep drop offs. The total vertical gain in the breach is 3600′ over just 1.8 miles! As we reached the top around the 7 hour mark, we all realized that we had accomplished something quite unique. More important, the character of the team really stood out. Some people were nervous, some downright scared, and many had not been too confident about their ability to do this. While all were tired, to a person, everyone stepped up and showed what the human spirit is capable of in difficult circumstances. I later commented that if we were all standing in a line at Starbucks on a busy day, we would have not been so patient and helpful, but there on the mountain in a truly life or death situation, 100% of us took it to the next level and answered the call to adventure.
After reaching the crater, we were able to take a short rest before making the final push for the true summit at 19,340′ – the top of Africa!
And as we say, with another mountain summited, it’s not the conclusion of the journey – it’s just another step in answering our call. The adventure continues…