Mount Kilimanjaro: The Journal

From 19 June – 28 June, I traveled to Tanzania with my husband and a group of amazing people from his company, Acacia Mining, for the first Acacia Kili Climb. This is a transcript of my journal from the trip. (To read a shorter recap, click here.)

19 June

We departed so early. Wakeup call was at 3:30 am. We had an uneventful journey with transfers in Zurich and Nairobi. Graham very kindly gave me his seat in business class so I dined on beautiful arctic char and watched two movies: Still Alice (bawled my eyes out! The flight attendant actually stopped to ask if I was OK!) and then followed that up with something inane to dull the pain (Wedding Ringer – which actually was kind of funny).

We arrived in Dar Es Salaam at 9pm. Our bags made it! Yay! I won’t have to hike a mountain in jeans. Always had full faith in Swiss Air. We travelled with Olivia, Graham’s boss Andrew’s daughter. She is lovely.

Hamisi, our driver, was waiting for us when we arrived. Instead of being driven to the hotel, we were taken to the home of one of the Acacia Kili climb sponsors for food and drinks. They live in this absolutely palatial home with a pool and tons of space. I caved and had two glasses of wine and ate two plates of food. For some reason, my hunger has been insatiable (despite my luxurious feast on the flight!) We met some people from Toronto (small world) and some others doing the climb.

So far, we are off to a good start!

20 June

A relaxed day before we start our climb. Our hotel, Sea Cliff, is absolutely beautiful and everyone is lovely. I could happily stay here and skip the mountain.

We met up with Jason and Mark today, fellow climbers and Acacia employees, who took us out on their boat in the Indian Ocean. We went snorkelling in beautiful blue water and saw some fish. We also had a BBQ on the boat which included a dried/grilled fruit skewer and an eland steak.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon lounging by the pool. I sincerely wish I brought some poolside attire. I only have a tank and jeans, which Graham has affectionately dubbed my “swimming jeans.”

It was a very luxurious afternoon.

Later, we had dinner with the team at the hotel restaurant and met Acacia CEO Brad’s daughters Teale and Caris. They lost Teale’s bag with all her hiking stuff! She is in good spirits and surprisingly calm despite the issue. We enjoyed a lovely dinner and great band. We got back to the hotel room and watched about 3 minutes of Austin Powers on TV before falling asleep.

21 June

Early rise to eat breakfast and say goodbye to Sea Cliff. We got on a short, uneventful flight to Kilimanjaro. Overall, this was a day with a lot of waiting and transport – all in preparation for our adventure tomorrow.

We picked up the remainder of our gear which was a bit chaotic but ultimately got what we needed –walking sticks and sleeping bags. We killed a bit of time in the afternoon by heading into Moshi, the nearby town and looking around a Tanzanian grocery store.

We had a team briefing and introductions with everyone doing the climb. Looks like a great group and I’m excited to get to know everyone.

Hugh, a paramedic who is joining us for the trip, did a medical briefing which was generally terrifying. I sincerely hope no one gets seriously sick on this trip. It is nice to have a medic with us the whole time though.

I just “enjoyed” my last shower for a week. The shower is literally a trickle of lukewarm water. I packed, repacked, and repacked my bag again.

Tomorrow, the adventure begins!

22 June – Day 1

The journey began early, before sunrise.

We met for breakfast and then brought our stuff to the bus. After about an hour drive, we arrived at Machame Gate where dozens of porters were buzzing around busily preparing for our climb.

Before we set off, there was a small Tanzanian press conference where Brad, Acacia CEO, said a few words. The trip has raised more than $200,000 for CanEducate, an African charity that helps children gain access to education, so Nectar, fellow climber and Acacia PR pro got the local media involved. For a fellow PR professional, I am enjoying watching this process take place in another country.

We signed jackets for sponsors and posed as the media snapped hundreds of photos. Some serious fanfare before we set off!

We saw our first wild monkey that tried to steal food. Thankfully he did not disrupt the press conference. One Tanzanian guy explained that the monkey sees white skin and immediately assumes we’re easy targets. Hah.

I watched a monkey in a tree for a second and one of the reporters took my picture. He asked for my name and nationality so maybe I will end up in a Tanzanian newspaper somewhere.

We finally started our walk and it was a steep ascent for many hours. For Day 1, it was much steeper and more challenging than I was anticipating. That said, it was a great workout, and when we arrived at camp, I felt good.

The weather was lovely. I wore a t-shirt all day. Though “lovely” is relative. Some climbers from warmer climates (South Africa, Australia, Tanzania), are already wearing their down coats!

We stopped multiple times for pee breaks at horrific toilets – or behind them. Some of them did not look structurally sound. I will have to get better at peeing in the wilderness. I sense that there will be a lot of this in the days to come.

We had a good boxed lunch that was filling and yummy. It included a weird hamburger, a samosa, an egg, some fruit and cookies.

We hiked for approximately 6 hours entirely uphill. I have huge, massive appreciation for the porters who carry our tents, food and water. They are incredible human beings.

We got to camp and everything was already set up. We were treated to a beautiful view of the mountain and pretty sunset. We got hot water to wash and tea and popcorn to snack on till dinner.

No mountain sickness yet at 3,000 meters.

23 June – Day 2

Another tough hike today over steep, rocky terrain. My neck hurts from looking down all day. It is very technical footwork and you have to pay attention. Generally, the hikes so far have been far more physically demanding than I anticipated – but good. My legs feel strong and I feel good overall.

We are now at approximately 3,800 meters and no sign of any Acute Mountain Sickness yet from myself or other campers. Everyone seems to be in good spirits. I do have an odd sense of breathlessness with very minimal activity though. Putting my sleeping bag into its case has me breathing like I just ran a 5K. Really weird feeling.

We started the day with some team stretches which were well needed after yesterday’s hike. The weather was decent throughout the day. No rain at all and we were treated to yet another beautiful sunset.

The environment has changed dramatically. We went from tall trees and rainforests with monkeys to short shrubs and rocks. Places to pee are becoming limited! Some areas look like elves should live there, but overall, there aren’t many creatures around at this altitude. The most exotic animal we encountered today was a big ugly crow, one of which swooped in when we were having a rest and stole Newe’s cookies! Newe, also known as Supa Newe, is a fun guy who wrote a rap song about our Kili climb! Graham is filming him throughout the trip for a music video he hopes to create.

It’s cold at night, but the sleeping bags are warm. I was actually too hot last night. I suspect that will change though!

We got to our camp at 2pm and had a hot lunch which was nice. Overall, the food has surpassed my expectations. We have lots of rice and pasta, vegetables with sauce, bread, soup, fresh fruit. I am very pleased. I expected a lot of beans and lentils. Not a bean in sight so far.

After a short rest, we hiked up another 100 meters and had a beautiful panoramic view. The goal of this short little hike was acclimatization so we hiked back down and had dinner.

Bedtime is about 8:30pm. Everyone is tired and it is dark already. I’m enjoying all the rest! Not enjoying the snoring from nearby campers.

Onto Day 3…

24 June – Day 3

Today was hard. It was a long, long uphill followed by a long, long rocky downhill. I am tired and my legs are sore. We reached our highest altitude yet around midday and many people were feeling it. People had headaches. Many were nauseous. We were a pretty sorry sight when we arrived at Lava Tower for lunch.

Lava Tower is this very tall rock structure formed by volcanic eruptions. The porters set up a food tent there and we had a hot lunch which was nice. I felt fine and enjoyed the chicken stew, but it was sad to see many people suffering.

The rest was nice, but unfortunately, it was followed by a 2.5 hour rocky downhill hike. I drank more water today than I ever have in one day: 4.5 liters!

We finally arrived at our camp after 8 hours of hiking. The view here is spectacular. Absolutely stunning. Surreal. Pictures will not do it justice.

Creature sightings today: small mice. That’s it.

I am very tired now and will sleep. It is literally 8:00pm.

25 June – Day 4

Overall, today was the best hiking day yet! We went up Barranco Wall, a steep rocky wall and it was tough but really fun! I think everyone really enjoyed it (Except Jason. He is afraid of heights so this was pretty hellish for him!)

It was like indoor rock climbing, only outside. With no harnesses. So we had to be very careful as we climbed. The guides and porters were very helpful and attentive and made sure everyone was OK. Once we got to the top of the wall, the views were stunning. We stopped and took a lot of pictures.

The team remains strong and everyone is in good spirits, despite some sickness yesterday. Today’s hike really rejuvenated everyone.

Our camp is perched on a rocky hill. This will prove to be treacherous for night-time pees, which are limited to one per night. The drug we’re taking to assist with acclimatization is a diuretic so needing to get up to pee at night is kind of inevitable.

Again, the weather is perfect. Blue, beautiful sky. Comfortable temperature. I am very thankful. It is cold at night and in the mornings, but with multiple layers, it is pleasant for hiking.

After Barranco Wall, we had a long rocky downhill, followed by a long rocky uphill. I was starving when we finally arrived at camp and ate a massive lunch: toasted sandwiches, fries and chicken! What a treat!

After lunch, it was sunny and the tent was warm so we had a nap. I also gave myself a makeshift mountain manicure by soaking my hands in warm water, filing down all my broken nails and moisturizing them. It’s not perfect, but a vast improvement.

In what felt like 5 minutes, it was time to eat dinner. I didn’t eat much because I ate such a gigantic lunch.

No mountain sickness at all for Graham or I. I woke up with a very mild headache but I can’t tell if that’s a result of neck pain due to sleeping with no pillow or looking down all day at very technical footwork!

Creature sightings today: 0. Clearly nothing is supposed to live at this altitude.

Tomorrow night is summit night and it will be intense. Tonight, the goal is lots of sleep because tomorrow, we get basically none!

26 June – Day 5

A short hike this morning up a slow, steep uphill. The morning started out beautiful – sunny and bright but it clouded over shortly before we set off making the landscape look a bit ominous. And rightfully so. Tonight is the night: Summit Night!

We arrived at camp shortly before lunch. We are perched on a rocky cliff and we seem close to the peak. I seriously do not know how they pitch tents on this terrain. I can barely walk around without tripping. Careful footing at all times is necessary.

After lunch, we were instructed to rest, so I have just risen from a two hour nap, which hardly seems necessary after 10 hours of sleep last night.

We will eat dinner at 5:30 and then go right to bed. Unknown whether I will sleep. We rise again at 10:00pm, prepare (ie: put on 47 layers of clothing), and begin our final ascent at 11:00pm.

It’s an 8 hour hike to Uhuru Peak. Mentally and physically, I feel good. I do have a mild headache, but I am hopeful it will subside by dinner.

I can envision myself at the top now. Let’s hope we all get there!

27 June – Day 6

WE DID IT!!!

19 people attempted the ascent to Uhuru Peak and all 19 succeeded! A statistical rarity!

Our day started at 10pm the night before. We had tea and cookies and departed at 11:00pm. We hiked literally all night up very steep, rocky terrain in the pitch blackness with only headlamps and porters to guide us.

It was freezing. Like seriously cold. And despite my 7 layers, super warm mittens, hand and toe warmers, my fingers and toes were absolutely numb.

We walked sooooo slowly with a stop literally every 10 paces. I don’t know if this was because the group was suffering or because Chombo, our guide, was purposely making us walk that slowly. I found it infuriatingly slow, and absolutely not conducive to warming my freezing body.

Finally, finally, finally, the sun came up and I could envision some warmth coming. The only thing that kept me sane was listening to my marathon playlist on my iPod. All 4 hours of it. Twice. I danced on the spot every time we stopped in an effort to keep warm. I likely looked insane but insanity seems to be acceptable, or at least overlooked, when climbing Kili.

We finally arrived at Stella Point and I was so relieved I cried. It was so much harder than I was envisioning.

Graham was suffering badly at this point – his poor hands were frozen into the shape of claws and he couldn’t hold his walking sticks anymore. On the sage advice of a guide, he put them down his pants and had a miraculous recovery.

Aside from being cold, and a non-stop, tortuous runny nose, I was fine.

Another 45 minute walk and we arrived at Uhuru Peak, the highest point of Kilimanjaro. 5,895 meters above sea level.

What an absolutely tremendous accomplishment by everyone. Despite a lot of mountain related issues, we powered on. A lot of people were very sick on the way up, but we pushed forward and we all arrived together.

By the time we got to Uhuru, the sun was fully risen and it was finally not sub-Arctic temperatures. The sky was blue and cloudless and we were the only group there. We had the place all to ourselves, which is rare. We took lots of pictures before heading back down, which is where things started to go very wrong for many, myself included.

People were wrecked. We emptied our tanks to get to Uhuru and most of us had nothing left for the 3+ hour descent.

It was tough. Really tough. Dare I even say, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, made worse by the fact that I had a blinding, migraine-esque headache brought on by no food and dehydration. My water froze early into the climb and only thawed many hours later. For a 12+ hour serious hike, I had less than 500ml of water.

Some very kind people on our descent gave me ibuprofen and water which helped. Taking drugs from strangers is totally acceptable on Kilimanjaro, by the way.

It was exhausting. Totally depleting. I have never felt exhaustion like this. What’s worse, we finally arrived back at camp, totally broken, only to be told we had another 4 hour hike to do.

Because so many people were suffering severely, we negotiated going to a closer camp, only two hours away.

That mountain chewed us up and spit us out today. But despite the challenge, it was truly an amazing, badass, epic day. I’m exhausted but very proud. And so so so so ready for bed. A sleeping bag has never looked so comfortable.

I am excited for a shower tomorrow.

28 June – Day 7

Return to civilization!

We woke up and enjoyed our last meal in the tent. They had my favourite items: mango and avocado.

Everyone felt pretty sore from yesterday’s summit but we pressed on. The thought of a real bed and shower was motivating!

We hiked for 4 hours down rocky terrain that got consistently more muddy and slippery as the climb descended. I fell once, covering my butt in mud. I didn’t care. I planned to donate my pants anyway!

Graham exchanged a porter one proper walking stick for a long, actual stick. He also planned to donate his sticks so it was a nice gesture. We helped a porter suffering from a nosebleed on the way down. We gave him advice on how to stop it and I gave him all my toilet paper to clean up. Newe gave him all his water.

We arrived to many trucks and Jason and Caris (who couldn’t complete the climb due to illness) with clean shirts and hats. We changed and were shuttled about 50 meters away from Mweke Gate. We quickly “learned” the words to a Kilimanjaro song in Swahili and walked together to the park entrance where many media and supporters waited.

Their enthusiasm and support was totally overwhelming. It was finally starting to sink in that we had actually done something pretty special. We sang together as we emerged from the wilderness to cameras and cheering and it was totally emotional. Despite the anguish of yesterday, I was finally able to reflect on the experience and like many people who have done the climb before me, I can agree. It was life changing. Suddenly, challenge is really put in perspective.

The trip started and ended in the same way: with a press conference. After some snacks, various interviews, the standard “giant cheque” presentation, we got on a bus and headed back to Springlands Hotel. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a case of Kilimanjaro beer (Thanks Jason!) which I enjoyed in the sunshine before heading to the shower.

I have never ever spent so much time actually cleansing in the shower – like fully scrubbing my fingers and toes. I washed my hair twice.

We met for one final team dinner and everyone had the opportunity to say a few words about their experience. Consistent themes were teamwork, appreciation for the guides, porters, and Zara, the trekking company and Brad, Acacia CEO, for having this vision and making it a reality.

Some people’s little speeches brought me to tears – after a weeklong adventure like this, you really do start to feel like a bit of a family.

We ranged in age from 19-55 and of the 19 people that attempted the summit, all 19 succeeded. That is an accomplishment we all share and will take with us long after we return to our respective homes across the world.

After speeches, we had a great dinner: a full roasted goat! I learned this is a celebration food, enjoyed most often at weddings.

Overall, this trip was incredible. I learned a lot about myself and my own mental and physical limits. I was humbled – not just by the mountain, but by the people I unfairly underestimated at the onset of this climb. Everyone – all 21 of us – impressed me and I admire every single person. We conquered something amazing together.

Brad said something that really stuck with me: a team that conquers adversity together is a stronger and better team. I couldn’t agree more. It says a lot about a company – both employees and leadership  – that does something like climb Kilimanjaro together. For both existing and prospective employees, that one single statement speaks volumes about the character of the company.

I am proud and happy to have been a part of what I hope will become an annual event. I won’t do this yearly though. I am just happy to have checked this one off the ol’ bucket list!