After returning from 13 months of constant travel it was great to be back home for summer in the Northeast USA. We spent our days out on Block Island, RI and back and forth between NYC picking up freelance gigs when possible. Stefaan started MadebySDPNT, which was very exciting for both of us. We hadn’t expected to be off traveling again so soon, but when an opportunity to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with our friend Mike, Sarah’s dad, sister, and sister’s husband presented itself, we were not about to turn it down. We had never done anything like this before and although the idea of it was a bit daunting, we knew it would be an epic adventure we wouldn’t regret. A trip to AFRICA! So began the preparation process. We trained as much as we could (which wasn’t much) and organized the gear we would need. Our good friends at Poler Stuff hooked us up with some incredible gear to take with us, including a two-man tent, the Prospector Down Parka, and a bunch of beautiful, cozy under layers too. It was time to mentally prepare for the unknown once again. It seems that no matter how much we travel we still get that same anxious feeling before we go to a new place. What will we need? Will we be warm enough? Will we be too hot? Will we get sick? The same questions circle our minds, but at this point there was no turning back, and our excitement outweighed any hesitations we had.
Our flight to Tanzania was long. With one stop in Amsterdam to make our connecting flight to Kilimanjaro, we finally arrived after a full 24 hours of travel. Exhausted from the trip, but exhilarated to be in a new country we unwound with some cold beers and attempted to get some sleep. Waking up in Arusha was interesting…we set out to explore the city which started out fun, but ended with us being bombarded and followed by people trying to sell us stuff. We were used to this after over a year of travel, but of all the places we had been, this was the most aggressive. Unless you are with a local guide, you can’t take one step without being harassed. Needless to say our adventure didn’t last too long, so after a stressful walk through the market and a quick bite to eat, we headed back to our hotel to meet our friend Mike who was arriving later that day.
The climb was to begin the next day, so after a debriefing from our guide we had the night to rest and enjoy our real beds one last time. We were up early the next morning to meet our crew of 20 porters (a little excessive right??). With our bags packed it was off for the mountain! We were all anxious to get started, so after signing in and eating a quick lunch we began the trek. The first day was a short hike through the rainforest to camp one. We arrived in time for sunset and a warm meal and then we hit the sack early. The porters are super-human. Not only did they carry all our gear for us but they also more or less ran up the mountain and had our tents pitched and meals ready hours before we arrived. It was so awesome getting to know them and learning about what their lives were like in Tanzania.
Day two started out great. It was a steep climb through the fog and by afternoon we were above the clouds. It was surreal. Unfortunately the altitude began to affect Sarah’s dad by late afternoon, around 10,000ft, so we slowed the pace. “Pole pole” as they say in Swahili, which means “slowly”. We enjoyed the warm sun before it set over the blanket of clouds. The temperature was pretty reasonable until the sun set, at which point became very cold. Time to bundle up, have some warm soup and head to bed. Day three we entered the Heather Zone, which was mystical and beautiful. It felt as though we had stepped into a Dr. Seuss book. The trees were wonky and droopy and the lingering fog made for some great photo opportunities. It was an acclimatization day, which meant we hiked up to 15,000ft for lunch, but then descended to 12,000ft to our camp for the night. It was a long day of climbing but everyone was in great spirits. Besides lunch and a few water breaks, we didn’t stop much at all. We were all amped to get to camp three which was by far the most dramatic and beautiful. It was sunny and relatively warm, with an epic view of the summit on one side and a valley of clouds on the other. We did our usual outfit change, and hand wash with our one daily bowl of warm water and enjoyed some tea and popcorn while watching the light change in one of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve seen.
Day four started as the most technical climb thus far, which was refreshing. The morning was a very steep rock, where you had to use your hands for a most of the sections. It was exhausting, but it kept your mind busy which is extremely important at altitude and when it’s easy to dwell on the fact that you’re going to be increasingly dirty, tired, and cold for the next 3 days. We made it through the hardest part first thing in the morning but the rest of the day was long and monotonous. These moments are the ones when you really need your group to pull together and support one another. Everyone has high and low points throughout the climb so it’s crucial that you stay positive and try to be vocal when you have the energy. We were exhausted by the end of day but we had reached base camp at 15,000ft! We were in the most extreme camping conditions we’d ever experienced, but it was stunningly beautiful and the summit was in sight! At this altitude, we were completely exhausted and out of breath just walking from our tent to the meal tent (probably about 30ft). And in the sub-zero temperatures, imagine getting up to pee in the middle of the night! It was frigid. And there was no escape. Not one of our best nights of sleep, but it didn’t matter all that much because we were up before the sun to summit Kilimanjaro!
This was by far the most difficult part of the climb. Within a few hours we went from 15,000ft to 19,600ft. We were all feeling the pain. Headaches, nausea, dizziness, depression, silence. When your mind wanders in this situation it can go to some pretty negative places so they tell you to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. That’s really all we could handle. The grade is so steep at this point that you can’t walk straight towards the summit. Zigzagging up the 4,000ft vertical, we were so close, yet so far. With a short break at Stella Point (19,000ft), we forced down some Kit-Kat bars and Red Bull (which they recommended, but we regretted) and then it was time to make the final push. Each step was a challenge, but we had entered the land of glaciers so as horrible as we felt, it was easy to get distracted by the beautiful scenery. And then it happened; we were just there. Standing at the sign that we had all seen on the internet a million times. We had reached the summit of Kilimanjaro! It was a surreal moment that we couldn’t quite wrap our heads around until weeks after our return. We danced and sang (as best we could with the little oxygen we had) and embraced one another. This was a true accomplishment, and we all did it! Another moment that we will never forget.
After much celebration is was time to descend. And we couldn’t wait to get back to base camp. It was easy to forget that we had to climb back down the 4,600ft that we spent the entire morning climbing up. The impact on the knees was brutal for hours. Descending is when your joints and muscles really feel the stress. We all needed a little help here and there just to stay on our feet. But once we made it to camp, although still freezing cold, all we had to do was warm up with soup and dinner and go to sleep. Knowing that it was our last night, we were in high spirits. By lunch the next afternoon we were off the mountain and it felt amazing! Watching the mountain recede from the bus and thinking that just this morning we were at the top of that geographic phenomenon was humbling, to say the least. Regardless, after 6 days of being sick, dirty, cold (and maybe even scared?), we were ready for a hotel room and a hot shower. Our arrival back in Arusha was just that. With a luxurious stay at Onsea House we indulged in food, wine and the comforts of our robes.
Arusha National Park and Zanzibar
Three of us decided to go on a short safari in Arusha National Park while the others relaxed by the pool. To be honest, we weren’t expecting much because a true safari goes into the Serengeti and lasts for days, but to our surprise we saw tons of animals! Monkeys, flamingos, hippos, zebras and most importantly giraffes! It was such an amazing experience and makes us all the more excited to return for a full on safari to see more. We also got to cruise around in a sweet turbo-diesel land rover all day (which we requested) so that was awesome.The next day we were off to Zanzibar for some real relaxation. It was a real treat to stay at the Essque Zalu Zanzibar. We spent our days eating, drinking, floating in the infinity pool, and jumping off the dock. The perfect way to end our African adventure. One that had it’s ups and downs like many trips do, but one that will be with us forever.