Warning signs at Machame Gate

Susanne, Jonas and I ready to hit the trail

Machame camp site


Climbing Kilimanjaro

Day One

We started our climb on June 25, 2000, at the Machame Gate, at an elevation of about 6,100 feet. Research had revealed that a slow ascent of the mountain via the Machame Trail would give us the greatest chance for success. The Machame Trail is known as the "whiskey route" up Kilimanjaro, because of its varied terrain and breathtaking vistas. It is also supposedly less traveled than the more popular, shorter Marangu Route ("the Coca-Cola route") up the mountain. Our trek would take us seven days—five and a half days up to the peak, and one and a half days down. I had read that the Machame Route, although a harder climb, has about a 90% success rate for climbers, as opposed to the 15 to 40% success rate experienced on the Marangu Route. The significant difference in the success rates between the routes lies in additional days taken to acclimate when ascending via the Machame Route.

We were driven to the Machame Gate in Land Rovers, and once there we met our guide, Joaquim and our assistant guide, Jonas. The gate was a flurry of activity as Joaquim worked on assembling the group of ten porters who would carry our gear up the mountain—luggage, tents, food, water, and other necessities. Although Susanne and I were the only people trekking under Joaquim’s guidance, many other would-be mountaineers were there as well, preparing to trek with other guides and outfitters. After signing in at the park gate office, reading the warning signs regarding climbing Kilimanjaro, and snapping a few last minute photos, we left the gate at 9:45 a.m. and started heading up the mountain. We were the first hikers to hit the trail that morning.

The first 45 minutes of the climb was a breeze—a pleasant, sloping walk on a road through verdant woods. This would not last. The road gradually deteriorated to an over-used path through a rain forest (still verdant) which was often muddy, steep, and slippery. The surrounding foliage was beautiful, but we found ourselves forced to constantly watch our feet and carefully place each step, rather than awe at the splendor of the scenery—a necessity we faced throughout the trek, which left our necks stiff and sore as the days passed.

Within an hour or two of beginning our climb the porters started catching up with us and passing us. We had been warned that this would happen, and were advised not to try to keep up with them—no chance of that! Laden with heavy gear and luggage carried on their heads and in their hands, the men sprinted past us on their way to set up camp for the night; we would come to experience this daily. We carried a few liters of water in camelbacks, and our daypacks loaded with camera equipment and any additional clothing or snacks we thought we would need during the day.

I also had a waist pack strapped around me throughout the climb containing my most important possessions, both monetary and sentimental: my passport and cash, a small camera with which to snap pictures quickly as we progressed up the mountain; photos of my husband Bill and 8-year-old son Tyler; encouraging e-mails from close friends, which I read many times during the journey when I doubted my ability to complete my mission; and a drawing Tyler made for me of his smiling mom standing triumphantly at the top of a mountain. Bill and Tyler were not happy about my leaving them to embark on this adventure, but they understood that it was something I needed to do.

Although Susanne and I kept a steady pace, we were hiking at a slower pace than others, and were also bypassed the first and every day by other younger, more robust, and experienced hikers, whom we referred to by nicknames like "The Flying Dutchmen" and "The Speedo Boys." We felt ourselves not immune from nicknames, and our self-proclaimed title was the "Skanky Pole-Pole Girls." Skanky because that’s what you are after a week of climbing Kilimanjaro with no bathing, and pole-pole because that is Swahili for "slowly, slowly." "Pole, pole" is the chant of every guide leading hikers up Kili, and one of the keys to making it to the top of the mountain without experiencing altitude sickness.

We stopped for lunch about half-way up to our first camp. Joaquim and Jonas had carried the lunch in their backpacks: chicken; hard-boiled eggs; sandwiches; raw carrots and cucumbers; and roasted potatoes. On this and other days Joaquim chided us for not eating enough: "You eat like babies." Hikers are advised to eat as much as possible when climbing the mountain. Appetites diminish at higher altitudes, and given the amount of energy being exerted while climbing, a greater-than-usual consumption of food is needed to sustain hikers. Hiking at altitude can burn twice as many calories as hiking at lower levels.

Joaquim and Jonas also carried thermos bottles of hot, very sweet tea, and encouraged us to drink as much as possible. Extra fluid consumption is another key to avoiding altitude sickness. At higher altitudes your body starts shutting down, and kidney function is one of the first to go. By forcing yourself to consume more liquids, you force the kidneys to keep working and expel nitrates, which helps avert altitude sickness. Both Susanne and I had gotten prescriptions for Diamox, a drug used by mountaineers to speed up acclimatization. Because Diamox increases urination and has other side effects, we decided not to use it unless absolutely necessary. Drinking lots of water, we were told, would have the same effect as Diamox without additional complications. As it turned out, we both handled the altitude well and did not need to use the Diamox.

After lunch we continued up the steep, muddy path, climbing steadily until we finally left the forest and reached a ridge and an open area. We had arrived at the Machame Camp, at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. It was 5:00 p.m.

Machame Camp was crowded with people and was a flurry of activity. Porters were setting up tents everywhere, and we ended up with a father and son climbing pair, Dan and his son, 15-year-old Tyler, about ten feet from our tent. Susanne and I shared a small, nylon, dome-type tent that had just enough room for us to sleep in. Each side of our tent had an entrance, which was nice, and a "porch" area for us to store our gear. We were advised to keep all of our gear zipped up in our tents, because it was not uncommon for thefts to occur, especially at the lower camps, closer to the park gates.

We observed that there were not many women climbing—we counted a total of about 8 women to the 100 plus men (hikers, porters, and guides) milling about. The latrine situation was not good—one toilet/outhouse of the squat variety (reported by two women as the worst they’d ever seen) for everyone to use. The better option, for us, was to use the weeds near the tent after the sun went down and before it came up the next morning. Luckily, the moon was waning and did not provide sufficient illumination to eliminate this option.

We were given a snack—popcorn, cookies, and tea—at 5:30 and then dinner at 7:00. We had the luxury of a large dining tent, used at night by the porters to sleep in, and a small table and stools. Dinner was surprisingly good and abundant that evening and throughout the trip. Cream of chicken soup, bread, potatoes, cabbage and carrots, spaghetti and meat sauce, beef and peppers, and fruit for dessert.

The night sky was black and besides the stars and flashlights, we could just see the twinkling lights from Machame village, which we had left that morning. The porters were noisy that evening but sometime after 9:00 they settled down and we got to sleep—eventually and intermittently—tired and excited about our climb finally being underway, but also nervous about the days ahead.


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