Saturday, January 30, 2010

Kilimanjaro 2010 Final

On January 1 2010 at 6:45 AM I hit the summit of Africa, Kilimanjaro. I was with a small group of clients of Zara Tours. Zara subcontracts with other tour operators, some with offices in the United States and Europe. They are a local company and are affiliated through ownership of other tour and safari companies and hotels, including the Springlands Hotel in Moshi, Tanzania, the base from which our tour was launched.

If you were reading my previous posts, you might have gotten a few positive and negative impressions. First off, I doubt that any of the negative impressions are directly the result of having used Zara.

1) allergy. I'm not so allergic to peanut products that I'm at risk of dying but it can be miserable for myself and everyone around me if I do react. Because of the tip situation (see below) the cook will most likely not speak English, might not even be selected until the trailhead, and there will be no reasonable way to convey allergy or special dietary requirements to them, or even to anyone involved. From what I saw of other groups, I have no reason to believe this would be any different on a group with a US-based operator like Mountain Madness or any of the others. I might be wrong and if they want to post and correct me, I'm fine with that.

2) water treatment. Most of the water sources come from the peak, down a path that doesn't have any real animal or human contact, other than the porter's hands. Most of the groups I saw hauled water in some form of recycled containers and it's not obvious that any of these containers are ever washed. I did not see any other group on the mountain boiling gallons and gallons of water, and I can imagine the fuel needed to do that would be very burdensome to haul. Since the porters would be filling your bottles in secret to hide that fact, and there's a lot of risk of contact with unsanitary surfaces, I highly recommend that you take along a steripen or whatever you feel safe with. Even if you are with a US-based group (remember, the Tanzania Park rules require them to use local porters and cooks and guides in addition to the US staff).

3) tips. Wow. You'll read articles about how you should dole out your tips to each member of the staff to ensure that the guide isn't running off with all the money. In our case, our own porters (those actually touching our individual gear) were hidden from us, our cook was hidden from us, and we were never even sure how many porters we had - though when we got our group picture, 15 porters appeared from the surrounding area to pose with us. I may sound cynical, but the annoyance of having them manhandling my stuff and mixing up my system of packing just to confirm that I'm a helpless dweeb and should give them more money soured me a bit. So too the "celebration dinner" scam. But be that as it may, there are several different tip systems you can look up based on how many days long your trip is. Then you all get together and hand it to the head guide, who may or may not distribute it to the porters.

4) cast-off gear. Yes, plan your trip to take all your cast-offs, no longer fits, no longer needed, busted zipper and torn. This is not a "die from a busted zipper" kind of trip. You can do it in ratty old ski clothes. Then give it all away at the end. You'll feel good about yourself. Close your eyes though to the Pawn-like shops selling cast-off gear. Assume the porters who need cash will sell their stuff to buy "porter diamox" (we were told cigarettes were porter diamox).

5) food. Most of us United States natives will not be totally thrilled at the local diet. Without the corn subsidies, and with the abundance of local sugar cane, you'll get real sugar in stuff, not high fructose corn syrup. Meat will be stringy and tough. Eggs will be thin and white. A local outfitter will most likely lean toward local food. A US outfitter may or may not. I have a DVD from one that shows a huge buffet laid out at one of the camps. It might just be advertising hype, or they might hire a dozen more porters to haul it all (and hence the almost 5x expense of the trip).

So the bottom line?

Some of the minor shortcomings of the trip you just have to live with and get past to make this work. It is what it is, and while you theoretically can arrange a completely self-supported trip, and have the requisite minimum porter/guide/cook count hang out and just follow you up to meet your legal obligations, I don't recommend this unless you absolutely could not possibly deal with the problems I mentioned above.

Otherwise, for most people who have traveled internationally before, and have eaten local food, especially in Asia, and have used local toilets, again, in Asia, I think a local operator would work out fine.

If you have to have American food, and have to communicate with someone in charge who is a native English speaker, and need a slightly higher level of coddling, then maybe you could investigate a US-based outfitter that does not subcontract with Zara or one of the other half-dozen Tanzania companies that will give a Tanzania local experience. Usually the lower the price the more likely it's going to be a "local" experience.

For myself, if it were just me, and I were to do it over, I'd be happy enough with Zara to do it again. YMMV.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Kilimanjaro 2010 Day Six and Seven

[Note: gaps are from pictures that somehow became missing from my Picasa Gallery - will replace when I get a few minutes]

We had rested and eaten, so began our descent into the mist and clouds. At High Camp, along the Mweka Trail, we stopped to rest on the benches there for a short bit. Maybe longer than we planned. It had been raining off and on for some time. High Camp is for those who are running late in coming down from the summit.

At times the trail down into the rain forest seemed like a dry river bed, but when it began to rain pretty good the trail became a wet and sloppy mess. Standing and running water was the norm, and made footing pretty rough going.

We made it to the Mweka Camp, registered in pouring rain, finding shelter in the ranger hut, much nicer than most of the others along the trail. We got to our tents and crashed. We ate then retired in the midst of dripping wetness.

Day Seven Morning - Jan 2 2010.

We rose, had breakfast and hung stuff to dry. We headed down the trail and sometimes ran, sometimes walked down a wide well maintained trail that eventually became a very wet yucky road that we could barely stand up in. At least I know I had a lot of trouble.

We got to see people being carried by porters, or held up between porters, people whining and griping about pain, but also people singing their joy at having gone to the summit.

My favorite though was the monkeys. Got to see the monkey family, including a baby.

At the bottom we registered at the ranger station and got in the van to go. There was a hold-up though and we sat for a bit. Turns out the porter carrying my bag had a crash and broke his knee. They sent someone up for my bag and after a lot of stress on their part, we went down to the hotel in Moshi and the bag would catch up to us later.

At the hotel we hung around for a bit. Zakariah said he was going to go check in the group equipment and manage the porters and would meet up with us later. We checked in and after a bit the assistant guide brought my bag to my room and insisted on staying while I checked it. I did, it was fine, but he didn't seem happy.

We went to hang out then and wait for Zakariah, who would be bringing certificates and collect the tip for the porters. In the meantime, the Zara rep came and asked us if we were abused by the porters or guides in any way. I ignored the whole "overhelpfullness" issue, as well as the "allergy ignorance" issue, figuring there's nothing to be done for either.

Only minutes after the Zara rep left Zakariah returned with his assistant Augustino. We had been warned about the Zara rep, that the porters and guides livelihood depended on good reviews and things.

We had collected a tip, gave it to them, then we had some stuff to give them (miscellaneous old clothing etc.), and they gave us the certificates.

They ran to pay the porters their tips, while we hung out and ate and stuff, arranging to meet them later in the day. One of us had mentioned inviting them to dinner. This became an interesting shake-down attempt, as they stated later that it would be around $40 or more each to take them to dinner (as Simina looked on her Blackberry and showed us it was $10 ea) and they'd much rather use that money to give a great party to the village. So we tossed in $5 each (amounting to $25) and told them to have a great party and buy a few barrels of banana beer for the village.

They weren't happy. Anyway, that was it. The trip was done. I had a couple days to kill and had some fun, but that has nothing to do with Kili so I'll talk about that elsewhere.

Next time I'll give my assessment, especially Tanzania VS. US outfitters/guides, talk some about the shakedown/tip mentality, and offer some last minute tips and ideas.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Kilimanjaro 2010 Day Six

This day began at 11:30 PM on December 31, 2009.

We got up and out of our tents. I was ready, had my platypus filled (2 liter) and a 1 liter nalgene as backup. To keep it from freezing I put a packet of EmergenC Electrolyte mix in, then be sure to blow back on the tube. It worked in Ecuador, so I figured it should work here as well.

The literature said "summit day midnight snack of tea and biscuits" but we forgot the Euro heritage and syntax here. Biscuit = cookie. Many of us had gotten used to the Milo hot drink - it's made by Nestle and it seems to be just chocolate milk powder. Hot it's good enough.

The porters were all going nuts cheering in the new year as we went up the trail. The pace was quite slow enough, and I don't remember being out of breath at all at any point this night. The moon was very bright due to being full, at altitude, and near the equator in a relatively non-industrial nation. I didn't use my headlamp very much except to glance at my Polar FT60 or for a brief time about 4:30 AM when the moon passed behind a ridge.

As we hit Stella Point, only a few hundred meters from the summit, the sun was a strip of glowing orange and red on the horizon. Along the ridge walk to the summit we were on snow a little, and got to see the edge of the glacier lit up with yellow beautiful sunrise.

As we passed leaning to the right, I could see the summit in the distance, maybe a half mile away. I began to cry a little realizing one of my lifelong dreams, since reading Dick Bass's book.

We made it to the top at 6:45 AM on January 1st 2010. Happy New Year! Climbers said it to each other passing along the ridge. We got in line, helped the climbers ahead to get their pictures, then got in for ours. I had Kitty on a lanyard on my neck, and realizing she wouldn't get her own pic today, I pulled her out to sit on my chest.

We hung out for maybe 20 minutes. I still broke out in quiet sobs thinking about it. How joyous and wonderful all at the same time. The views of the crater and glacier walls awesome to behold. Poetry in my mind. Lovely.

We made it down to camp in a few hours and took a small rest and lunch. We broke camp and prepared for the trip down to Mweka Camp nearly 5,000' below.

TIPS: The platypus worked fine and 2 liters was plenty. The temperature probably got down as low as 5 F around 3-5 AM. My feet were a bit cold in my Scarpa Charmoz, but I wiggled my toes a lot and that helped. Thinking of other cold-toed friends, I think maybe at an extreme electric insoles might do it. Or you could do the entire trek in goretex trail runners and keep a very warm pair for summit day. Pocket snacks were beneficial. I keep a handful of goo packets in a pocket to stay warm and handy.

Kilimanjaro 2010 Day Five

December 31 2010 - last day before the summit.

Beautiful morning. Fruit, toast, cheese (cheese very dry and white with little fat seems to be the norm here), and "porridge" (cream of wheat). Short day again on way to Barafu Camp.

We went up and over a rugged hill into a more dry part of the mountain. From here the porters make trips with yellow vegetable oil containers full of water from the spring at Karanga, so they're going to be even more frugal with water. But maybe not, since they won't want to carry it all downhill or dump it.

At each of the camps except Karanga we had to fill out a form with the rangers to check in. Here at Barafu we entered the hut and filled it out and they tried to sell us souvenirs and beer. Ahead of us was a "rugby player" as it listed on his profession on the form, who was arguing to continue to the top despite this being his second day on the mountain. Don't know anything about this one, but a typical cause of AMS is given as a young athletic person attacking the mountain and going too fast. That could explain the ranger's concern.

We rested in the hot sunlit tents for a bit, then had lunch. A little rest again, then an acclimatization hike up the first 200 meters of the route to get a feel for it before dark.

We returned for a meal of pasta to load up for the night, then early to bed for 11 PM wakeup. Tonight is the full moon and New Years. Awesome.

The route to Stella Point along the crater rim is along the buttress to right of center.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Kilimanjaro 2010 Day Four

Sortof crawled out of the frozen tent at 6 AM after the fun night, and left the bottles out for the porters to fill, minus the platypus, which I filled myself after establishing the opening was too complicated for them to deal with, and by some odd chance, they managed to pick up my half filled pee bottle and topped it off for me. Thanks. I dumped it quietly and stuffed it in my duffel.

We got moving up the trail leading over the Baranco Wall, which was a lot of fun with some interesting rocky moves and the best was watching the porters carry stuff singing and chanting to one another along the trail.

Short day, only going to Karanga Camp, a midway camp before the final camp at Barafu, and the last with easy water. The day switched back and forth between dry and misty a few times, but it allowed us to dry out on our last full night before the summit attempt.

We got into Karanga Camp for a late lunch, and got our stuff spread out to dry.

Matt wasn't too keen on eating, but the rest of us were loving the food here tonight including "chips" or fries as we say here in the States.

We settled in for bed intent on catching up our strength for the next day, also a short one as we go only to Barafu Camp for another late lunch.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kilimanjaro 2010 Day Three

Got up, had breakfast, packed up and headed out for Baranco Camp after our high point over 15,000' at Lava Tower.

It was misty to start with, and increased to good rain. For lunch we stopped just below Lava Tower in the shelter of overhanging rocks. I didn't have peanuts today, yippee, after giving mine to Zakariah yesterday, which surprised him a bit.

TIP: If you have a food allergy, you're probably wasting time to talk to them about it. The desk people don't talk to the guide people at all, because of the tip situation, the cook and waiter are somewhat insulated from the clients and hotel/tour staff, and with the language barrier (the cook didn't speak even one word of English) it's overall pointless. If you have a food allergy that could result in death, and you're not able to manage it in the wild, you might want to consider some other hobby.

After leaving lunch we got to the top pretty quick, Lava Tower, 15,190'.

The terrain had changed quite a bit over the day, becoming more desert and arid. As we descended the rougher terrain to Baranco Camp, below the Baranco Wall, we passed the unique Joshua tree looking plants that we had to stop and take pictures under.

We got to camp, and I was pretty tired from the descent with my boots too loose. Managed to avoid blisters, but still sore. We sat down to a hot snack of popcorn and roasted peanuts. Since I had my doubts that any form of separation was maintained I avoided the popcorn tonight. Matt chowed down pretty good and ate at least my share of both ;)

That night, Matt puked a few times, and gagged a few more, and I was peeing pretty heartily (maybe due to the filling of my platypus by the kitchen staff with brownish looking water that eventually turned clear over the course of the day - maybe iodine?). Tonight I managed to get some "fresh" water from them, and it wasn't boiling hot. Hmmmmm. Used my Steripen on all full bottles tonight and the rest of the trip (except for my "stolen" water, which I knew to be good).

So between us I think Matt and I had about 6 hours of sleep in 45 minute chunks.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Kilimanjaro 2010 Day Two

Got up, had breakfast, packed up to head out for Shira Camp.

Congestion on the trail.

One thing to be aware of is that the locals who interact with you will do just about anything to ingratiate themselves with you in the interest of building up "tip karma". If you really are a clueless clod I suppose that grabbing your stuff and shoving it in your pack with no sense of order might inspire you to give them more money. Unfortunately that doesn't describe me by a long shot. TIP: keep your stuff out of sight from them and pack up early so they won't try this game.

It started raining after about an hour on the trail. Our rest for the night at Shira Camp was a mudhole with running water under and around the tents. They dug trenches around us with sharp rocks (handy and ever present) and gave us a tarp for a front porch and reduce mud getting into our tent. Very wet.

Shortly the sun came out for the evening and we could see the top of Kilimanjaro through the clouds.

We ate our soup and other courses, and prepared for bed. Again, they told us that we had to wait for morning for water so that it would cool after boiling, but luckily I was ahead a couple liters from my 4 liter start, so I was okay. I also figured out a way to "steal" water. LOL.

A minor disappointment, since the ZARA website mentioned you would need 4 liters a day to climb and they were only giving us 2 liters in the morning and none in the evening.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Kilimanjaro 2010 Day One Afternoon

So we got settled into the rythm for a couple hours, watching the porters walk a bit faster than us, balancing their loads on their heads, many with backpacks of various sizes and condition. Most of them had the oddest footwear. A lot of soccer-like casual shoes. The shoes and much of their clothing comes from charities in Germany. It's all they can afford, though many of the climbers (later discovered primarily women - hence a lot of pastels) give away their gear at the end of the climb.

I really wasn't sure what to expect, but it's a "trek" not a climb, so typical mountaineering schedules were not adhered to. We stopped once for lunch at noon and opened our box lunches prepared at the Springlands Hotel and weighing in at around 4 pounds.

Fried chicken leg and fried meat pie (their cows and chickens are very scrawny compared to ours) a hard-boiled egg (yolk very white, since their chickens don't get the minerals ours do to make very yellow egg yolks), an orange (green and very fibrous), a juice box of mango juice, and some kind of pound style cake. Note the bag of peanuts. Very heavy food. Took about an hour eating.

Then we went up the trail and it started raining so we got into our rain gear and continued on through the jungle canopy along the muddy trail to Machame Camp.

At the camp, we registered with the rangers and found our tents set up in the mud. We climbed in to get our gear spread out, got a small shared basin of warm water and soap to wash up in, found the mess tent and ate. Some nights they prepared a small bowl of hot peanuts and a large tray of popcorn.

Can't remember our evening meal, but most of our tent meals were three courses. They bring us hot water (which I normally first prepared as hot emergenC - learned to like that on Rainier a couple years ago). Then to hydrate after the meal had Milo, with a lot of hyperbole on the label, but it's just chocolate milk mix. We had various thin soups, toast with cheese, or chapatis, or fruit or sausages or chicken or beef strips. Lots of different things. Interesting combination, and the sauces on the side.

I'm allergic to peanut products, which I did mention about a dozen times to "Lydiah" at Zara, who reassured me each time that she had explained it to the cook, and that he understood, and had dealt with cases like mine before, and I was hoping that the lunch thing was just some form of screwup, since the box lunches were put together for all of us in huge piles the guides grabbed on the way out the door at Springlands.

Being near the equator, the days and nights are about even, so with the sun setting around 7 PM we settled into our tents after dinner to sleep.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Kilimanjaro 2010 Day One Morning

Woke up at 6:00 AM and took shower. There's a switch on the wall to turn on the water heater, but I discovered it only takes a few minutes to make enough for a shower.

I filled two Nalgene's (1 liter water bottles) from the bathroom sink and then used my Steri-Pen to treat them. I love it, since I can go to most places and get "free" water.

I ate breakfast at the really good breakfast bar (included with room) with goodies like made to order eggs, potatoes, sausages, fruit, toast, etc. I loaded up on carbs since I've learned to treasure this "last civilized meal".

Checked out, stored my extra bag, and waited around, got nervous, so another 1.5 liter water and filled my platypus with it, and then got involved in the hectic rush of buses pulling in and out of the gate.

Since Zara does groups for a dozen or so agencies, it was amazingly well ordered in spite of the apparent madness. Finally got my group, but we were sharing a bus with a split group. We headed up the road to Machame Gate.

It was Sunday morning, and people all along the road, even in very remote places, were walking to church in the finery. Very interesting.

We finally got to the gate and unloaded, and had to wait in line to check in at the ranger station, including name, age, sex, occupation and passport number. It would be so neat to see this data interpreted.

Very quietly and subtly, our porters loaded up, weighed, balanced their loads, all while we formed our small group of five with one guide Zakriah. It was so lowkey that it was later talking to Zakriah that I got it figured out ;)

The trail started off very wide, like a road, slowly growing narrow and damp. In the rain forest, and increasing humidity, we "pole pole" (pohlee pohlee - meaning slowly) made our way up.

Kilimanjaro 2010 Day Zero

Arrived via KLM to JRO (Arusha Kilimanjaro Airport), made the mistake (as warned on net) of getting in the wrong line (if you do not have a visa you need to look around for a not-so-obvious window). Baggage pickup easy. Easy to find the driver for Zara.

Driving trip long and eventful. Had to stop for an accident (car in deep ditch along road) and pick up a piece of luggage and take it to hotel. Co-passenger was a Russian from Seattle doing the private Machame starting in two days (was a fallback option if Amsterdam flight delays put me behind).

Got to the Springlands Hotel in Moshi about 11 PM. They gave me a 1.5l water bottle (cold) and a sandwich. I was nervous about the malaria warnings Dr. Hale of University of Utah Travel Clinic, so I put down the net, dumped my stuff on the other bed, and settled down for a fitful 5 hours of sleep.

Travel Tips:
This was before the amazing Mythbusters Exploding Undie Trick in Detroit, so getting through AMS (Amsterdam) was very easy and quick. For a while at least, this should not be the case. Most concession stores at AMS use $US quick and simple. Sports drinks are available, but have nearly 1/10 the concentration for most ingredients. If you want to get chocolate for your trek, this is THE PLACE! As of this posting date, at many of the concessions you can get drinks to take on board if you follow the rules exactly. There are showers and nap rooms available. Drinking fountains are available, but not obvious. Rest rooms might be "open door" and have female attendants.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Summit Kilimanjaro, undisputed roof of African Continent, Jan 1 2010 at 6:45 AM.

Photo Gallery

More details and story to follow as time allows.