Steven Pivnik

It takes a village to get a man to the top of a mountain

It takes a village to get a man to the top of a mountain

Oct 3, 2015

In my limited research about summiting  Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania I found it described more as an advanced trek vs a true mountaineering experience. Now that I have completed it I would categorize it as a intermediate mountaineering experience. I’m far from an expert and only have 1 real alpine summit (14k Rainier in Washington State) under my belt and a 21 day Denali expedition in Alaska as a reference.
My categorization shouldn’t take anything away from this very special place and challenge.  Getting to the top was VERY VERY HARD.  My group described it as the hardest and coolest thing they’ve ever done.  The group consisted of members of a business organization I’m part of.  Here is a pic of us with our guides at the top.
This adventure was Jim’s idea and after an initial 8 folks that expressed interest in April the 5 of us pulled the trigger and signed up with Thompson Safaris for this 2 week adventure.  No previous climbing or mountaineering experience was required. They did provide a preparation guide. Physical fitness is a must but you don’t need to be a gym rat or endurance nut to summit, but those attributes will make it easier and greatly increase your chances of summit success.  
What also made it easier was the over the top service that Thompson provides.  In my previous 7 summit attempt we (8 climbers 3 guides) carried EVERYTHING needed from bottom to top. Tents, food, personal gear, etc….  We had 75 lb packs and 50 lb sleds each.  It takes a village to get a man to a summit.  In Alaska we were our own village. On Kili, Thompson provided us with 38 sherpas. 5 climbers, 38 sherpas!  Simply insane ratio. 
Our head guide was Gabriel Rassy; assistant guides Charles Kihyd and Francis Sambo;  cook Dismis Mtui; head waiter Adam Juma; assistant waiter Eliaki Waziri; campsite manager Ali Isa and 31 porters.
On Denali (Mt McKinley before Obama renamed it back to its original name, which I fully agree with) we would climb to a point and set up our own camp. That consisted of finding a suitable spot, setting up sleep tents, the cook/mess tent, melting snow for water, latrine area, etc…  Then taking it all down in the morning and repeating at our next destination.  On Kili the porters did ALL of the above daily before our arrival and after our departure from each camp.
At the end of the daily trek we would arrive to a fully set up camp site.  Sleeping tents were neatly arranged side by side with the latrine tent and mess tent assembled just meters away. This was in addition to the the two porter tents and cooking tent that they set up.  Before this starts sounding too much like glamping let me describe the route and then get back to the daily routine.
Our first day started with getting from Kili’s entrance gate at 8,000 ft above see level to Forrest Camp at 9,281 feet.  This involved a very easy hike through a beautiful rainforest where we saw colobus monkeys and blue monkeys.  
Upon arrival at Forrest camp we were greeted with a very jolly and warm welcome reception from our porters.  I’m glad I caught it on video.
Day two involved a more intense trek to Shira 1. This provided awesome views of the plains below and we got our first glimpse of the summit above, Uhuru Peek. After a long day we ended up at 11,500 feet above see level.  Elevation gains need to be achieved slowly for personal altitude acclimatization. Go up too fast and you’re surely guaranteed to get altitude sickness  which will result in a premature end to your adventure and a descent via a Kilimanjaro taxi (stretcher).  Sadly we did see it in use (not our team).
Day 3 got us to Shira 2.   At 12,795 feet we got to experience misty, cloud covered terrain with bizarre flora and the first signs of volcanic rock. Very cool.
The theme of each day was Pole, Pole (pronounced Polee, Polee) which means slowly, slowly in Swahili.  It is impossible to ascend in altitude at the same pace at which you normally walk at sea level. This is hard to imagine unless you actually experience it. The decreasing amount of oxygen in the air necessitates the need to go slower or you will simply get winded and over excerpted unnecessarily.  Our pace got slower on a daily basis. Expertly set by the guides.
Day 4 brought us through expansive ridges along a steady climb to an extraordinary rock formation called Lava Tower at 15,213 feet above see level. This is where we really started to feel the effects of altitude in earnest. Sleep was challenging with your body failing to get the O2 it is used to with every breath. Below freezing air temperature didn’t help.
With our first real acclimatization day behind us, a very long day 5 brought us to Karanga Camp back down at 13,231 feet.  In the middle of this day’s trek which was mainly downhill we needed to climb an 800 foot  section called the Barranco Wall. This was an intense section of rock which had us on all fours at times.  A memorable part was Kissing Rock.  This was a ridge with an approximately 1 ft stepping area that requires you to hug the wall as the only way to get across. Of course there was quite the fall that would result from a misstep. Our guides kept saying that hugging the Rock is compulsory but kissing is optional.  This is a video of Bob getting past this point.
A 2,000 ft decrease in altitude at this camp resulted in my best night sleep of the trip.
What continuously amazed us was that our support crew covered the exact same terrain that we did but with 50+ lbs loads balanced on their heads at twice to three times our pace.  The terrain was challenging at all times. It was hard to enjoy the scenery while on the go as every step and pole plant needed attention. The risk of serious ankle sprain,  knee twerk or spill was ever present. 
On day 6 we were upward bound to what can only be described as a lunar landscape at 15,331 feet called Barafu Camp.  There are many routes to the summit and this served as base camp for many that converged here.  There must have been at least 500 people camping here.
Our spirits were high but there was a bit of nervous energy amongst us knowing that the effort so far was intense but would pale in comparison to what we needed to make it 4,000 more feet to the top.  So far the weather was incredibly cooperative. We experienced zero precipitation and very mild 30* to 45* partly cloudy days and 30* to 20* nights.
Day 7 was finally upon us. We’re were awoken at 5 AM and started our summit bid as soon as it was light enough at around 6:30. It’s hard enough to breath at 15,000 feet. It got harder every hour. Our pace slowed to one step for every 2 breaths. This is hard to imagine. Try taking one step, inhale slowly, exhale, inhale again, exhale, take your next step. Try and go any faster and you will get winded.  Pole, Pole!
I haven’t described the daily catering service yet but this should give you an idea…. At around 11 AM we came to a spot where our porters were waiting with lunch which consisted of hot pumpkin soup, sausages, baked potatoes, sweet breads and fresh fruits. Oh and coffee, cocoa or tea too. Yeah, more on this later.  Needless to say our batteries were now recharged and up we went. 
Shortly after 1:30 PM and just over 14,000 ft above see level our destination became visible. We could see  the two famous Uhuru Peek / Roof of Africa signs in the distance.  The remainder of the assent was very emotional for me.  This occurring in the midst of the high holidays, my father just passing and physically being this close to heaven I could not help but cry a few times in the final 15 minutes of the approach to the summit.
Magically we all breathed easier while basking in the jubilation of accomplishing what we set out for a week earlier and had been anticipating for 6 months.  19,341 feet / 5,895 meters above  sea level, the highest point in Africa, the top of one of the worlds highest volcanoes and the top of the world’s only free standing mountain.  
The only thing missing was a bottle of champagne.  High fives, hugging each other and the guides and picture taking took up the next 10 minutes. 
Writing this at 34,000 feet on the flight home is making the adventure finally set in and I am forever thankful  to my wife, family and co-workers for affording me this opportunity to disappear off the grid for two weeks. I love them all!! Also, I could not have participated in this with a better group of people!
2 weeks on a remote mountain might as well be 2 weeks in close quarters on a deserted island.  There was no drama, a ton of camaraderie, helpfulness and Kili’isms that aren’t being repeated because only we will find them funny.  Jim, Pam, Bob, Neil – you guys rock. 
Thank you for making this such a fun and memorable experience.   “Certified Mountain Gangsters” T-Shirts will be made soon. LMAO.
So the one thing that was missing on this mountain adventure so far was frigid weather and snow. While we did see the ever present extraordinary glaciers at the summit, snow was not an element in the experience with the mild weather during this time … Africa’s spring.
This changed completely during our entire decent back to base camp.  Not 5 minutes after we left Uhuru Peek the skies opened up and it snowed / hailed for the full two hours that it took us to get down. It was  icing on the cake (literally) for the experience.  We spent that night at base camp and awoke to a near frozen tundra.  It was beyond cool.
Thank you very much for reading this far and letting me share this experience with you.  If you care to read about the over the top service Thompson provided there is much more…..
Africa is not close(duh)…. 8 hour flight to Amsterdam, followed by another 8 to Tanzania. Hats off to Delta and KLM and that is coming from a United Airlines snob.  Top notch service!  During most landings you see the lights and glitter of the destination.  You would not know that you’re done flying until the thump of the landing here. Zero lights to be seen anywhere.  Outdoor exit in pitch black darkness to a tiny terminal. Uneventful customs and visa review (you need a visa for Tanzania.  Very easy 1 week / $100 / Fedex  process). All our checked gear showed up. Yay.
Trip started at 4 PM Sunday (NJ Time) and it was now 9 PM Monday local time.  A Thompson driver met us and took us to a place a few minutes away called the KIA Lodge.  
Picture what a lodge in the middle of Africa looks like and you will be spot on. We each got our own hut (cement structure will full amenities, AC – not working,  running water – slow but hot, bed – with mosquito nets) for the night.  There were a few winged roommates but it was not bad at all. I was on malaria meds so there was little concern. 
After awaking (in Africa heat) we went to a beautiful breakfast area and met our head guide Gabe for our initial briefing.  
Following the briefing we were taken by a traditional LandRover Safari vehicle for a 2 hour ride through various towns to Kambi ya Tembo.  
For the ride picture unpaved, VERY bumpy dirt roads through African villages seeing farming tribes in real life herding cattle and goats and carrying supplies.
We then arrived in the most picturesque Safari camp with huts bordering Kenya, the Serengeti and Mt. Kilimanjaro in the back ground.  Pictures do not do this place justice. I would return just to spend a week here. 
We were greeted by members of the Maasai warrior Tribe. Select individuals work in Tanzania’s tourism industry.  We were approached by one each who carried our bags and showed us to our hut. These huts where reinforced heavy duty tents with zippered doors.  
Each had a balcony with chairs, a sleeping / living area and a bathroom with separate sink, shower and toilet room each with running cold and hot (solar heated) water. This would be our last night in a real bed.
After settling in to our individual huts we were asked to gather in the “happy place” for a formal lunch. Our host showed us the bar and introduced us to what he called the endless supply of beer, scotch and wine.   He was very proud of his modo which is “when a tree falls in the forrest you plant a new one”. Translated meant that he never wants to see a glass empty. We did not let him down.
We spent a very enjoyable afternoon doing mostly nothing at this lodge and adjusting to the timezone difference (-7 from EST).  Before dinner a Maasai warrior named Moli took us for an hour+ nature walk where he talked about the wildlife and vegetation indigenous to the area. It was very informative. We also learned more about his tribe and their way of life.  Being that he is university educated and has real work experience he will have more of a say about his bride then most in his tribe. 
Dinner was delicious where we held our host to his modo and kept our glasses filled.  
Surprisingly when we finished the bottle of Johnny Walker we could not find another one nor could we find him.  All good, we had plenty.  
The highlight of the evening was a zebra that strayed into the compound for some water. It was a bit surreal.
After breakfast our hosts wished us all good luck with a lovely song and we were back in the LandRover on our way to the Kilimanjaro entrance gate.  
Our arrival was followed by the arrival of other groups and then the buses started to appear with mounds of gear tied to the roofs and porters pouring out. It is there that we learned that we would have a crew of 38 supporting us.  Yikes.
The commencement of our trek was preceded by a formal lunch. Little did we know that every meal from this point forward (3 a day) would be as formal. 
It’s almost embarrassing to detail the daily routine but here goes…..
So I already told you that the support crew would beat us to every camp because of the pace they are able to maintain.  20 minutes prior to a day’s destination our personal valets would magically appear on the trail. My valet was Rom.  They would take our day packs (about 20 lbs) and carry them for us to make our approach to camp easier.
We would arrive to a fully assembled camp. Our valets would already have our duffel in the tent. They would place our day packs in the tent and ask us to retrieve our inflatable sleeping pads so that they can inflate them for us and place under our sleeping bags.  They would never open our duffels or packs on their own.
After inflating our pads they would exit the tent and remove our gaiters from our boots/legs and beat the dust off them.  After you entered your tent and started to unpack for the night you would hear “water for washing”. You unzip the tent vestibule zipper and are handed a pale of heated water and soap. 
At around 4 PM you would hear “Time for Tea” and are expected to come to the mess tent. At the entrance Adam (head waiter) would be waiting with warm water and soap to wash your hands prior to entering.
“Tea Time” consisted of three tea choices, coffee or cocoa, freshly popped popcorn, cookies, peanut butter and 2 types of fresh exotic African jams.  We would spend an hour talking about the day’s hike/trek/climb and giving each other shit.  After about an hour we would break up and go walk around, explore, take pics, read or nap (usually all of the above).
7ish brought “Dinner is ready”. In a tent town you just need to say the word and it’s heard by all.  We would emerge from our tents to the same hand washing ritual followed by a delicious dinner and dessert.
As we finished dinner each night our guides Gabe, Francis and Charles would appear and tell us about what the next day will have in store, how to dress and what to expect. Our vitals were also recorded to make sure we weren’t trending the wrong way.  They were the consummate professionals with a single goal …. Get ALL of us to summit.  They get a bonus for each summit and Thompson prides itself on a 97% summit success rate.
This may sound glamorous but we were all truly exhausted by the end of dinner and never lasted past 8:30.   I was exhausted but yet wired each night. I read Dead Wake (in the cold with gloves on and head lamp).
Very random last minute pick about the sinking of the Lusitania. While a sad story about an ill failed voyage of a British liner sunk by a German U-boat the description of the on board English rituals was very similar to the Safari’ish and high tea routines we were going through so it proved very apropos. 
By far, our favorite ritual occurred each morning. We were awoken by Adam around 7 with his morning drink tray.  He would have coffee, tea and cocoa in it.  Our drink of choice was “Cocoa-Moco”.  One scoop Coffee, one scoop cocoa, one scoop brown sugar, two scoops creamer.  He would stir the above thoroughly  in a cup then add hot water and stir thoroughly again.  There was nothing better after emerging from a cozy sleeping bag into a cold tent than this hot drink.
30 minutes after you were served this glorious beverage you would hear “water for washing” and once again the tent zipper would open and a warm pale of water would appear.
Breakfast was preceded by the usual hand washing ritual and always included some sort of porridge,  brown sugar, butter, toast, eggs, sausage, peanut butter, jam and the usual hot beverages.
OK, I have to wrap this up and get some sleep before landing.  Like I said, Thompson’s  number one goal is to get their customers to summit so they take care of 150% of everything else that an adventure like this requires. If you’re considering this you must show up with the physical and mental fortitude necessary to get through each day.  It is not easy but nor is it impossible. Bring that with you and you will revel in the experience of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro and standing on the Roof of Africa!! 
Until next time,


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