As one of the famed “Seven Summits”, Mount Kilimanjaro is not only the highest peak in Africa, but the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Due to my family’s incessant need to climb tall things, it is right up our alley. So naturally, we all decided to take on the challenge this past summer (2017).
Climbing the mountain is a rather daunting task as it is (especially since we have never climbed a mountain that was more than a single-day trip before). But with a J-Pouch, one of my added concerns was that I typically have to go to the bathroom somewhere between 5 and 8 times per day… and when parts of the climb are through highland desert and arctic climate zones with no “cover”, I was understandably worried about the possible need to poop in front of a lot of people I don’t know. And anyone who has IBD, or has ever had diarrhea for any reason could grasp why it wouldn’t be this quick little “sophisticated” discrete stop (ok sorry if that grosses you out, but it’s real life).
So let me tell you what literally MADE my trip: our own private tiny toilet tent. The guide service that we hired was Ultimate Kilimanjaro, and I simply cannot recommend them enough. They were AMAZING. Their entire staff was so friendly and hard-working, their guides were extremely knowledgeable and experienced, the cook was incredible, and most importantly, we always felt completely safe and taken care of. But what I was most excited about was that they offer the option to hire a toilet porter. With this option, we had a private little bathroom tent set up just for our family at every camp, with an actual, sit-down toilet! And paper! What an ENORMOUS difference this made to my quality of life on the mountain… to actually be able to sit down, in your own little personal space… It cut out so much worry, anxiety, self-consciousness, stress, and uncleanliness that I would have otherwise experienced on the trip. That’s not to say that I would not have enjoyed the experience had we not had that option (there were adequate drop toilets at each camp); but I can’t even tell you how much I appreciated it every single day.
We decided to go with the 8-day route because of the higher percentage of people who are able to make it (about 80% as opposed to, for example, the 5-day route, which only has a 27% summit rate). Plus, none of us had specifically “trained” to do any real mountain climbing. We know how to push ourselves to the limits (while still being smart about it, of course), but we didn’t want to risk any permanent brain damage from the altitude; and, it was more important to us that we all make it (which was still not in any way guaranteed) than it was to get up there as fast as we could.
After entering the Londorosi Gate, we were dropped off in what felt like the middle of nowhere, and our Lemosho Route hike began! As our porters dashed ahead to set up camp, our two guides slowly led us through the little shrubs, down and back up mini valleys, and past the brilliantly colored “red-hot poker” flowers growing from the rocky terrain. I was quietly trying to wrap my head around what we were about to embark on – all the worries, all the silent doubts, all the excitement for the journey, and all the anticipation of what it would be like if we were to succeed… and before I knew it, we arrived at camp.
Our first acclimatization hike was up to Cathedral Point. This was honestly one of my most memorable parts of the journey. After the tougher hike (which already spiked my endorphins), I remember standing on a narrow ridge with just my family and two guides, just above the surrounding clouds, feeling completely elated. The most enchanting part for me was encountering the chilly, humid clouds drift up the ridge in front of me, feeling them completely engulf me in prickly white, and then gracefully subside down the other side right behind me. Being consumed by something so colossal, yet so gentle, was a completely intoxicating encounter – strangely electrifying and calming at the same time. It is really something you have to experience for yourself. Plus we got to eat a snack while we were up there!
Our third day consisted of a slightly intimidating but super fun acclimatization hike that ended in a rock and human balancing act. Just one of those goofy random times that makes me really appreciate my family and our silliness. Dinner that night was pleasantly interrupted by getting to watch the sunset – witnessing it not sink below the horizon of the earth, but instead disappear under the clouds below us.
After day four’s chilly hike up Lava tower, we wandered down into the strangely quirky tree things called “giant groundsels”. Following the night spent camping between two layers of clouds, we mentally prepared to scale Baranco Wall to start day five.
The path up Baranco Wall is thin and steep. Most of it requires “scrambling” (using your hands as well as your feet to climb), is not wide enough for more than one person at a time, and a fall would probably not end well. But it was definitely my favorite, adrenaline-inducing hike of the trip. Not only was it challenging and exhilarating, but the view from the top was breathtaking. Although there is a bigger concentration of other people on this portion, it was a pretty cool feeling at the top where everyone rests for a bit, glimpses the looming peak (which is starting to seem like more of a possibility), and overlooks the pure white, never-ending sea of clouds. It was an awesome feeling of community, knowing that each of these people has their own story and motivations, but are all here to accomplish the same thing… maybe for slightly different reasons, but the end-goal is the same. It really hit me how much everyone is encouraging, excited for, and proud of everyone else.
By the time we made it to Barafu Base Camp, we hadn’t showered in almost a week, we were getting colder, and we were starting to notice the effects of the altitude. Our twice daily pulse and blood oxygen tests were showing that all four of us were at least slightly affected, but still doing well enough to continue. The atmosphere at base camp is an interesting indication of how different people handle the impending challenge of summit night. Stressed, fatigued, nervous, excited, anxious, restless, pensive, peaceful… It’s a great synopsis of the spectrum of human emotions. Otherwise, base camp was three things. Preparation, food, sleep.
For me, dinner before summit night was very important. There is basically no cover the entire way up, not to mention the freezing temperatures are more than enough incentive to not want to have to take your layered pants down to go to the bathroom. I was very nervous because I usually have to go to the bathroom most frequently between 11PM and 9AM… the exact time that I would be without our tent and in front of tons of people. If you have IBD and want to attempt this climb, I highly suggest knowing yourself, your limits, and what are the contributing factors to making you go more or less. For example, I know that eating plain white rice helps me to not have to go to the bathroom for a while. So our wonderful cook was kind enough to make me some for dinner.
Summit Night: The plan was to take a nap after dinner and set out for the final ascent at midnight. Ideally, our family of four, along with our three summit guides, would reach the peak at sunrise. We steadily marched past slower fellow climbers in the light of the full moon, and the occasional personal headlamp (my headlamp only lasted about 20 minutes). The hours go quickly once you zone out. I only have a few (but very vivid) memories from that hike. One of the most distinct was seeing and hearing a man draped over the shoulders of two other men, who were rushing him down the mountain as he was incoherently mumbling and looking totally dazed. That was an intense experience for me. We had only completed a tiny fraction of our hike, and already someone wasn’t going to make it because of pretty severe altitude sickness. Was that going to happen to me? Would I know if it did? Would I make it? Would my family make it? What would it be like if not all four of us made it? I was suddenly very aware of my surroundings. I remember the feel of my feet slipping slightly on the scree with each step. I remember the sound it made. I remember seeing well enough in front of me to make out the bigger rocks but not the details. I remember scanning my surrounding and seeing almost no rocks that would be big enough to squat behind if I had to go to the bathroom. I remember the smell of the cold and the feel of the wind stripping the heat from my face. There was the sound of fellow climbers just off the path going to the bathroom, throwing up, crying, or voicing their exhaustion to their groups. I remember what my feet looked like one after the other after the other. In my mouth I could feel the crunch of my camelback tube as the water started to turn into a slushy and then into solid ice. I remember the heavy breathing, trying to find a rhythm; and I remember the nausea. I remember wondering if it was because I had altitude sickness, because I was over-exerting myself, or because I was hungry. And I remember the joy of doing it all and the melodies of our guides singing songs to encourage us.
Words cannot describe the elation we felt arriving at STELLA POINT at 18,885 feet (5756 meters). Stella Point is just after the most challenging part of the climb and less than an hour’s trek up a gentle slope to the top! I was completely choked up when I saw that sign. I had had my head down for so long, fighting that internal battle to keep going—that inner dialogue anyone who has ever run a long distance has had. I had been focusing on taking each step and on not throwing up. And then I looked up. In a second, the hardest part was over! “I’m going to make it!!! I’m going to make it to the peak! After everything I’ve been through, I’m going to make it to the top of one of the Seven Summits!”
After taking a couple pictures, I literally started running because I was so excited, completely forgetting about the nausea and fatigue. I could see the iconic summit sign off in the distance around the volcano rim. “I’m so close and I KNOW I can make it now!”… I felt this renewed energy which carried me all the way to Uhuru Peak. 19,341 feet. 5895 meters. We did it.
Checking off this bucket list adventure was certainly no cake walk; but nevertheless, my family of four summited the Tanzanian icon right on time! ….. And guess what! There was actually cake! After a memorable but all-too-brief stint at the summit, we descended rapidly, skiing through scree back to base camp, where we were eagerly greeted by the staff with high-fives, hugs, and celebratory pineapple soda pop with lunch. We hoofed it down to Mweka Camp for our final night on the mountain. At dinner we were surprised by a homemade congratulatory cake, complete with decorative frosting, prepared on the camp stove by our amazing chef, and accompanied by a delightful Swahili song.
On the morning of our final descent to Mweka Gate through Kilimanjaro’s Tropical Rainforest Zone, our incredible porters and guides sent us off by performing Tanzania’s musical medley “Jambo Hakuna Matata”. Exiting the park was bittersweet to say the least. We were so proud of ourselves for making it and it was sad to see the journey end. But we were really ready to shower and put on clean clothes. Until next time!