Kilimanjaro 1999Rasa's latest climbing excursion had all the makings of a great adventure. Not only did the trip consist of climbing a mountain that she'd never been on but also traveling to a place where she and most people we know have never been. The climb was Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. Kilimanjaro stands 19,340 feet above sea level. It is the highest point on the African continent, the highest free standing mountain in the world (meaning the mountain itself is not part of any mountain range), and one of the highest volcanoes in the world.
The trip was organized by International Mountain Guides who specialize in climbing and trekking adventures to some of the world's most remote areas. Originally scheduled to be guided by Phil Ershler, an injury forced a guide change shortly before the trip and Phil was replaced by long time mountain guide Craig Van Hoy. The clients on this trip consisted of Rasa and climbing partner Tom Demerly, Stu and Kathy Froehling, and Jeff and Connie Levine.
Rasa and Tom left Detroit on Sunday, September 19th and arrived in London early on the 20th. They had an entire day to roam London before returning to the airport in the evening and meeting up with the rest of their team. From London, the team traveled together to Nairobi where they boarded a mini bus, drove through Arusha, and on to Moshi in Tanzania. On Monday evening, they stayed at the Keys Hotel. They Keys is frequented by trekkers and climbers of Kilimanjaro. They had an overnight stay in hotel rooms that were basically huts complete with mosquito netting over the beds.
Just prior to the trip, Tom had managed to score himself a Motorola Iridium satellite phone. A customer of his (who is also a Motorola employee) was singing the praises of this phone and Tom had told him that, in his experience, these phones generally didn't work. So, to stand behind his product, the guy tossed Tom the phone and said "call me from the top". This turned out to be a stroke of luck on a couple of occasions during the trip. First, Rasa and I had made arrangements for a couple of phone calls she would make to our house just so I knew they were on schedule. The first call was never made due to time constraints. The second call was to be made from the airport in Nairobi upon their arrival. When that call didn't come in, I was getting a little anxious. To top that off, one of our dogs was taking ill so now I had two crises going on. On Tuesday, I had just dropped the dog off at the vet and returned to work when Rasa called on the satellite phone from the Keys Hotel in Tanzania. Turns out that calling the U.S. from Nairobi is just about impossible and that's why the second call never came. They were, however, right on schedule and getting ready to rest up for the start of the climb the next morning. What happened next was completely my fault. We were just about to hang up when Rasa asked how the dogs were. I told her. The conversations on the satellite phone were very choppy and frequently cut off so I couldn't really give her any details. The result being that I left her frantic in the middle of Africa and worried sick about our dog. Later in the afternoon, she called back and I told her that everything was fine. Thank you Motorola and thank you Tom.
On Wednesday, the team woke and headed for the trailhead at about 8:00am. Along with Craig and the six clients, there were also fourteen porters that carried food and equipment up the mountain. On the way to the trail, they stopped at the market place where huge slabs of beef hung outside attracting tons of flies. This would, apparently, be dinner on the mountain. The trip to the trailhead was Rasa's first experience with Tanzanian roads. What they were on was a road in the academic sense, and it turned out that driving next to the road was actually a bit smoother. Bumping and jolting for several hours, they finally reached the trailhead. The route they would take up was the Machame route. This route was quite a bit more challenging than the standard route and a bit less traveled. The first day consisted of a moderate hike through the rainforest and they spent the entire time clad in t-shirts and shorts. The porters were amazing. They carried 50-60 pound loads on their heads and cruised up the mountain ahead of all the clients. The first day's hike went on for a little over six hours until they finally reached camp one at the Machame Hut (elevation 9,842 feet). The porters cooked up a wonderful meal of potato stew with beef, pasta, and bread. Everybody chowed on a well deserved meal, talked around a fire afterward, and went to bed at around 9:30-10:30 PM.
Early Thursday morning, Rasa started to feel the first pangs of altitude waking up at about 2:00AM with a pretty intense headache. After taking a couple of Motrin and sleeping a bit more, she was in better shape and ready to start the next day's climb. This would be their first morning on the mountain and it was here that they discovered one of the many joys of having porters. There was a knock at the tent and they were greeted with fresh tea and coffee. Good way to start the day! Everyone packed up and went out to have breakfast. After a good meal, it was off to the Shira Plateau (elevation 12,700 feet) where they would set up their next camp. Thursday's hike was quite a bit steeper than the hike on Wednesday, required some basic bouldering, and provided some pretty scary drop offs. The weather started off quite nice (like the day before) but the clouds started rolling in as the day went on. By the time they reached their next camp, it was pouring and cold. The tents had rivers running through them and everyone got a little taste of the discomfort that mountaineering can provide. When the weather started to clear up, they could see Mount Meriu clearly and the summit of Kilimanjaro. The rest of the evening, again, consisted of a good meal, some talk around the fire, and then bed.
On Friday, Rasa woke again with an altitude headache and some nausea (classic altitude ailments). She pulled herself together for the new day's climb and had her spirits lightened when she caught her first glimpse of Barney the Dinosaur. Tom had this purple sleeping bag with openings for his arms and feet so he could walk around without getting out of his bag. I think this was a serious attempt at outdoor functionality but seemed to provide much more outdoor humour than anything else, getting lots of laughs from both the climbers and the porters. Friday's hike was to take the team as high as 14,450 feet and then down to the next camp at 12,800 feet. Rasa's altitude problems were not going away as easily as they had the day before and the headache actually seemed to get worse as they day wore on. They hiked for about six and a half hours and reached their next camp at the Barranco Hut.
Saturday didn't start off very well and would turn out to be antoher day where the Iridium phone comes into play. Rasa woke sometime during the night with a small toothache but didn't think too much of it. On Saturday morning, the toothache was quite a bit worse and she began to worry that one of her teeth might be infected. On top of that, the altitude was still playing havoc on her. Saturday's climb would take the team over the 400 foot Barranco Wall, which would turn out to be the most challenging day so far. Most of the day was spent rock scrambling and there was one ledge traverse that, as Rasa put it, dropped off to the United States. The next camp was in the Karanga Valley at 13,800 feet. Once they got to camp, Rasa was still in the throws of headache and nausea brought on by altitude and more convinced that her tooth was infected since her face started to swell up. That evening, Rasa woke Craig up from his nap to see what kind of medication he might have to take care of the tooth and he produced a veritable pharmacy. There were a couple of meds in his bag that looked like they might do the trick but nobody really knew for sure. So Rasa raised me on the satellite phone and gave me the list of medications they had with them. I called up Rasa's dentist and good friend, Geoff Reeves, and read the list to him. Geoff was quick in his response. "Tell her to take two augmentin now and then one a day for the rest of the week". Rasa called back about ten minutes later, I gave her the instructions, and the augmentin apparently did the trick.
On Sunday, Rasa was in much better shape than on previous days mostly due to the various meds she was now sporting. The summit of Kilimanjaro was coming into view much closer than before and the next camp was a record altitude for Rasa at 15,000 feet at the Barafu Hut. The views were outstanding. Bedtime on Sunday was about 6:00 PM so that the team could get a good rest before they got up at 11:00 PM for the summit push. Unfortunately, at that altitude, it is difficult to fall asleep.
Monday was summit day. The team set out in the dark and moved at a good pace. The temperature outside was falling pretty steady and they were adding layers at the various rest stops they took. After one of the rest stops, Kathy Froehling was having trouble breathing and showed signs of HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema). This came on rather sudden and both Craig and Michael (the chief porter) knew immediately what was going on. Kathy had to be sent back down the mountain immediately and her husband Stu went down with her. At this point, Rasa and Connie were both short of breath and Craig had lightened their backpacks giving some of their stuff to the porters. As the sun was rising, the remaining team members made it to the crater rim which is technically considered to be a successful summit. Tom immediately got on the phone to call his girlfriend Susan and Craig began to head back down to check on Kathy. At this point, Connie turned around to go back down also. Rasa, Tom, and Jeff, along with Michael continued on to the Uhuru peak which is the highest point on the crater rim. At 7:51AM, they reached the peak (elevation 19,340 feet) at which point Rasa called me on the satellite phone. For me, it was still late Sunday evening. I had gone to bed expecting to be woken up by the phone but I couldn't sleep. Somewhere around 1:15AM (eastern time) the phone rang and it was Rasa. She sounded out of breath but she had made it to the top. Today, Rasa says she really doesn't remember making the call. I remember being even less capable of sleeping after the call and stayed up sending emails to friends and updating our web site. After snapping a few pictures, they began to head down. Tom and Jeff set out ahead and Rasa came down with Michael. Back at the Barafu hut, they took a short rest break. Rasa was still feeling nauseous and as Craig, Tom and Jeff stood there watching a porter give Rasa a congratulations handshake, she got a whiff of food cooking and proceeded to hurl in front of everyone. She now felt a little better. They hiked all the way back down to 10,000 feet that day where they set up their next tent. Tom was feeling his energy racing back and ran down the mountain with the porters. He mentioned how good it felt to be able to run again. By about 8:30 that night, everyone was asleep.
Tuesday would be the last morning on the mountain. After a leisurely breakfast, they continued down to the bottom and got back on the "road". After an hour drive (15 miles), they got back to the hotel, tipped the porters and gave them a bunch of T-shirts they had packed, and took the long awaited "shower after". Afterward, Craig called everyone down where the porters sang a farewell song to the climbers in Swahili. That was very cool! Suddenly this fairly rustic hotel seemed like luxury accommodations. Rasa sat by the pool for a bit, drinking a cold beer and then everyone got together in the dining room for dinner where each climber got an IMG T-shirt. After devouring dinner, everyone went to bed.
Wednesday would be the first trip into the Ngorongoro Crater. After breakfast, the group drove to Arusha to exchange money and catch the safari bus. Arusha turned out to be a real first hand look at poverty for most of the participants. There were shelters built from sticks and the main river flowing through town was completely filled with trash. This was also the same river where towns people were washing clothes and getting drinking water. A long way from Novi to say the least. The bus ride to the Ngorongoro Crater took about seven and a half hours. The area around the crater was amazing. Lush forests, mountainous terrain, and sweet sweet smells. As the bus rounded a corner to go up the crater rim, they saw a huge cape buffalo standing by the side of the road. This was a sign of things to come. The hotel they would stay the night at was the Serena Safari Lodge. This place was amazing. It was huge and built into the side of the crater rim. The rooms were enormous with huge bathrooms and a large doorwall that opened out to a balcony overlooking the crater. The rest of the night was basically dinner and bed. Rasa did finally get to sip on a good glass of champagne and watch a Masaai ritual dance, which was a bonus.
On Thursday, wakeup time was about 6:30 AM and there was a sea of fog outside. Things started to clear up a bit, however, as the group ate breakfast. After breakfast, it was onto the bus and into the crater. The first beast they came across just happened to be right at the top of Rasa's hit list. A lone lioness lounging in a meadow. The lioness was a fair distance from the bus but they got a couple of good photos with Tom's amazing telephoto lens. In the morning alone, they saw cape buffalo, wildebeest, zebras, elephants, gazelles, hippos, spotted hyena, jackal, rhino, flamingos, ostriches, baboons, warthogs, and hartebeest. It's hard to imagine a place where you can see all that in one morning in the wild, but here they were. The group stopped for lunch and were warned not to eat any food out in the open because of the kite hawks. These things would dive right out of the sky and take anything. At one point, Craig started to get out of his jeep and almost took a shot in the head from one of these things. After lunch, the group discussed the itinerary for the next day. The original plan was to make a seven hour drive to Tarangire Park. The team, having decided that they had had enough of cars, mutinied. So, much discussion arose about possibly changing the itinerary. Everybody seemed pretty happy with the area they were at and were perfectly content to stay put. Unfortunately, they hadn't booked rooms for that night and that turned out to be a non-option. After much discussion, they got word that they could all stay at Lake Manyara and the drive was only two and a half hours. Everybody was for it so off they went. The Serena Lake Manyara Hotel sat on a cliff overlooking the lake and the rooms were in hut shaped buildings. The rooms and the view were amazing. While Rasa was waiting for Tom to get out of the shower, she stepped out onto the balcony and, sitting on the balcony railing of the hut next to theirs, was a huge baboon. Rasa rousted Tom to come see this thing and managed to snap a couple of photos before it wandered off. The rest of the night was pretty leisurely. Rasa soaked in the cliffside pool for a while and then everyone met up for dinner. After that, it was time for bed.
Friday saw the group up at about 6:00AM and on the road to the Manyara National Park at 7:00AM. Right off the bat, they saw baboons, monkeys, giraffes, gazelles, warthogs, and some beautiful birds. The park was lush, green, and absolutely wonderful. The morning was somewhat short and by 9:30AM, they were on the road to Nairobi. The drive was, again, very long and they didn't arrive in Nairobi until about 6:30PM. This time, the accommodations were not stellar at all but it was only one night.
Saturday would be a day in the city. Everyone set out for some good old fashioned shopping. Rasa and Tom grew tired of that scene pretty quickly a grabbed a cab over to the giraffe center. The giraffe center was really cool. These giraffes were incredibly tame and would eat out of your hand. They even got a little pushy when the tourists were slow with the protocol. Tom found that out when he didn't get his next handful of food out fast enough and got knocked in the head by a giraffe head. They retreated back to the hotel at about 5:00PM and started packing up. At 6:00PM, everyone met up for dinner at Carnivore restaurant. The meats served were lamb, ribs, chicken, beef sausage, zebra, hartebeest, ostrich, and beef. After dinner, everyone set out for the airport. Stu and Kathy were planning on staying in Nairobi for two more days so they said their goodbyes there. The rest of the group boarded the plane and settled in for an eight hour flight to London.
The long plane ride gave Rasa time to reflect on the whole trip. The people that she met and spent two weeks with added some new friendships in her life. Craig turned out to be an amazing guide, mesmerizing her with stories of his Himilayan climbs. He had the uncanny ability to adapt to any situation and solve any problem with patience and a sense of humor. Connie and Jeff could always put a smile on anyones face with a joke or their great story telling abilities. Stu and Kathy were so kind to everyone and very down to Earth. They always had something nice to say which Rasa will always remember. Tom was a true friend and wonderful traveling companion. He always knew just the right thing to say to make everything better. They constantly giggled like 10 year olds and he truly made the trip for Rasa a better experience. He is someone that will always be at the top of her list for a climbing partner and friend. Thanks again Tom!
On Sunday, Rasa and Tom had a few hours to kill in London but, unfortunately, most businesses were closed. They did manage to get over to Harrods and see a few other sites before returning to the airport. Back on the plane, it would just be a few more hours until they were back at Metro. I was pretty much dying to get Rasa back home so I made sure I left myself plenty of time to get stuck in construction zones and still be at the airport on time. This basically meant that there was no traffic and I sat at the airport for an hour before their plane even crossed Lake Huron. Quite all right though. The plane landed on time and we had our greetings just outside of customs. We drove Tom back to his house and then made the long trek home (long for me, after the bumpy road rides in Tanzania, Rasa most likely felt like she was on the bullet train). Once home, we cracked open the champagne, grabbed a comfy seat out back in our sunroom, and I got the story from start to end. I guess that's a tradition that started after Rasa's climb up Mount Rainier and it's a damned good one.