That time I climbed Kilimanjaro (and got carried down in a stretcher)

So this is just a short recounting of the time I decided to go to Africa and climb Kilimanjaro. I may decide to flesh it out once upon a future, and I may not.

I’m also not sure what the moral of the story really is. It’s either ‘don’t be an idiot’, or, ‘even if you’re an idiot all things usually turn out alright, so just go with the flow and wait for the stretcher’.

How and why I went to Africa and what I did in the few weeks preceding my Kili climb is another story in itself. For now, suffice it to say that one day I suddenly found myself on a bus driving along the long road from Dar Es Salaam to Moshi. The story begins with my tragic choice of bus.

The night before my hosts in Dar Es Salaam had thrown a huge party (aka Bingo at the Indian Restaurant Down The Street) celebrating their departure on the morrow for Sri Lanka. As a consequence, I stumbled to bed sometime around 2am. A traumatically short four hours later, I stumbled out of bed at 6am to catch my bus to Moshi.

I had heard horror stories about the abysmal state of bus driving in Tanzania before. The mortality rate seemed uncomfortably high on the lower tier buses, and so after much deliberation I decided to shell out the three or so extra dollars to upgrade to the very best luxury bus available.

As I mentioned, this was a tragic mistake. Thoroughly deceived by the mildly warm ambient temperatures of about 200 Fahrenheit, I assumed a mere t-shirt and shorts would be sufficient climate protection on board the bus. Not so. Being a luxury bus, the contraption I entered had implemented a technological marvel that somehow managed to actively oppose the oppressive Tanzanian climate and maintain a steady temperature of about 50 degrees in the face of all odds.

While this probably seemed like paradise to every other passenger on board, to me it quickly became hell. With a solidly compromised immune system from last night’s sleep deprivation, the drastic shift in temperature proved too much for my fragile, delicate body to bear. Within a few hours I was freely shivering in the corner and feeling quickly nauseous. It was all I could do to concentrate on not throwing up, or crapping my pants, or fainting, or otherwise exemplifying poor Tanzanian luxury bus etiquette.

Six of the eight hours of the ride to Moshi were engaged in this way. By the time I arrived in Moshi, I had a healthy fever and a phlegmy cough. To date, this remains the fastest I have ever experienced a full transition from being healthy to thoroughly sick.

Thankfully, I had arranged accommodation before I made it to Moshi. After arriving sometime in the afternoon, I was picked up at the bus stop and spent the next few hours being driven up a mountain adjacent to Kilimanjaro before arriving at the aptly named Kilimanjaro View Lodge (it had a view of Kilimanjaro) where I was to stay the night.

What happened next is a bit of a blur. After being warmly welcomed by Philip, the co-owner of the lodge, he brought up the guide who was to lead me up Kilimanjaro to advise me on my journey.

The guide proceeded to thoroughly ascertain if I had everything I needed for the trip. I was exceedingly confident that I did. He was a little more skeptical. Glancing at the only bag I had brought on the trip, a meager 28L Deuter Futura backpack, he asked me if I had hiking boots. I replied that I had KSO Trek Vibrams, which would be more than adequate. He asked me if I had proper insulation. I had a two or three ounce down jacket and a similarly weighted windbreaker, which I again assured him would be fully sufficient.

Trekking poles? No, but who needs those?

Pants? Just the convertible pair I was wearing, though I did have a pair of waterproof pants I could throw over that.

How about a hat? A little wool beanie. It’ll be just fine.

Sleeping bag? …of course not. But I have a cot, which is like, even better.

The guide was really skeptical on this point. It took a lot of coaxing to convince him that my cot was Kili-worthy (spoiler: it was not).

At this point, I have to mention that I do feel guilty for all the trouble I put my guides through. And while I tipped them very generously, I feel bad about that too (more on that later). This is a cautionary tale. I was an idiot, and I did literally everything wrong.

Entirely unsatisfied, the guide eventually gave up and left me. Philip told me that he would return tomorrow morning to gather me before we went and got final supplies and began our hike. In the meantime, I could finally sleep.

Semi-delirious by now, I didn’t have to hear that twice, and immediately went to my cabin and fell asleep.

True to Philip’s word, my guide arrived early the next morning with my porters and the cook in a janky little red car. I got in, we bumped down the mountain, stopped for some sunscreen, Diamox, and junk food, and made our way to the entrance gate for the route I was to climb.

It was around noon when we finally arrived. The guide and I registered at the gate, paid our dues, and then, just as we were about to begin our climb, my guide seemed to deliberate with the porters and cook, and told me that we’d have to wait about thirty minutes before climbing. For some reason, this made perfect sense to my nonfunctional brain, and I didn’t ask any questions.

I should note here that no, my sickness did not, unfortunately, disappear overnight. In fact, I was much more sick than I had been the day before. I woke up with a fever literally coughing blood. But the excitement of climbing Kilimanjaro had gotten my adrenaline going, and against all odds I actually felt quite fine, save for the needing to keep fiercely bundled up in my down jacket despite it being about 90 degrees outside.

Back to the story: after I busied myself for thirty minutes recording the endemic simian and giant scary ass crow population on my camera, the guide still hadn’t gotten back to me. Being juiced up on adrenaline and impatient to get started, I walked over and inquired what the holdup was. Reluctantly, the guide informed me that they had forgotten the cooking gear in the car…which was already well on its way back to Moshi. Hence, he’d have to go back and grab the gear.

But not to worry – why don’t I just start climbing with the cook? He’d meet me at the first camp at night, and everything would be just fine.

This sounded perfectly agreeable to me. My guide left, and the cook and I started to walk over to where they had left their packs. Leaving our packs unattended – bit of a mistake, that. Long before we got anywhere near them, we could see a horde of monkeys eagerly ripping through our possessions in search of precious nutrition.

The cook started shouting and ran at them to chase them away, and reluctantly they left. He inspected the packs, and there didn’t seem to be too much damage done yet. However, he informed me, it’d probably be best if he stayed with the packs until the porters came back so they could protect the packs. But not to worry again! – why don’t I just start climbing, and he’d be sure to catch up with me later?

This, again, sounded like a wonderful idea to me. It was getting late, and I was already behind all the other climbers. I eagerly started up the mountain. “Pole pole!” the cook reminded me. He was reminding me to take it slow and keep a steady pace going up, lest altitude get the best of me.

Fuck that, I thought, as I nodded politely and smiled. I was late, and I felt great. The adrenaline had really gotten to me. I was going to book it up this mountain, and catch up with everyone else. The trail didn’t seem too steep at all, and despite not having exercised in ages, it seemed I could easily conquer it without strain.

For the first few minutes, this proved true and I made it up the mountain at a remarkable pace. I even made it a personal goal to make sure that the cook wouldn’t catch up to me, and that I’d get to camp before he managed to overtake me.

A little while later, and I started passing my first hikers. I greeted them triumphantly in a self-satisfactory way, and kept pushing, priding myself increasingly on the number of hikers I managed to pass. Some guides eyed me suspiciously, and asked where my guides were. Back in town, I replied. They scoffed and told me I’d get lost. I just laughed inwardly and carried on.

And that’s when it hit me. Crap. I didn’t see this one coming, but bowel movements don’t lie. I really needed to take a shit. I looked around. There wasn’t much room off trail – it was pretty steep. I tried to push the crap back in and carry on. It wasn’t having any of it though.

Eventually I couldn’t go any further and just had to step to the side of the trail and let it all out. Not very far, again. Essentially just a few feet off the trail next to a tree or two. I hoped I’d blend into the background and no one would really be able to see me. Porters passed by and waved.

Then I dropped my pants and promptly discovered I had a pretty severe case of violent diarrhea. It was an immensely relieving sort of discovery though, so not all was bad. Finally I finished, as more porters walked by and pretended not to see me. I looked around for the toilet paper, and – ohh, that’s right. My guide had the toilet paper, and he’s in Moshi.

Bereft of a better option, I took some of the least questionable nearby jungle leaves and started wiping myself with them. They were wet, but it was better than nothing.

I got up, pretended once more to be dignified, and continued my trek up the mountain. I was feeling pretty good again, and so resumed passing as many people as I could at breakneck pace.

Until the diarrhea struck again, of course. By now I knew the drill, so I went into the bushes and did my thing. This happened a couple more times as I moved up that day. Rinse and repeat, without the rinsing.

At last I passed what later turned out to be about half of all the trekkers that day, and met up with an Australian father-son duo. I would have passed them, but all of a sudden my borrowed adrenaline energy completely depleted and I hit a wall, barely able to move another inch, much less the final stretch to camp.

Desperately I managed to keep pace with them and somehow made it to camp with even a little small talk sprinkled in, but as soon as I reached camp and signed in, I found the nearest log and sat down and didn’t move for about the next half hour until my cook arrived.

He immediately spotted me, came over, and laughingly called me crazy for going so quickly. Then he gave me my lunch, which I had missed since I had kept ahead of the cook the entire hike, and I numbly attempted to make my way through it. My stomach was precariously on edge however, and it felt like any sudden or wrong move and I would be forced to eject all of my stomach’s contents, likely through my mouth, but also quite possibly through other orifices.

Somehow I managed to make my way through the entire little chicken drumstick and whatever else was in that little box (I think there was a biscuit, maybe? Something bready).

I’m not sure how my tent was setup and by whom, but at some point it was set up and I put up my cot and promptly attempted to sleep as darkness closed in. Still no sign of my guide. Oh well. I’d sleep and worry about it in the morning.

Sleep did not come as easily as I expected. In fact, it didn’t come at all. Why? My fucking vibrams. I had thought my clothing could keep me warm in the absence of a sleeping bag – how cold could it get in the middle Africa? – and for the most part I was right…save for my fucking feet. I had failed to take into account the fact that I had brought nothing but vibrams and a pair of overshoes, and neither of those things provided any warmth for my feet. I was certain my feet were actually going to freeze off that night. It was warm enough during the day, but at night, even at that first camp, it was frigidly code.

Somehow I managed to make it all the way through that first night – with no sleep, however – but when I woke up the next morning, I sheepishly informed my guide who had arrived sometime late last night that he was in fact right about the necessity of a sleeping bag, and that I might very well lose my feet without one.

My guide was really the only reason I made it up that mountain. Incredibly resourceful. He somehow managed to procure a sleeping bag for me (something about one of the porters having one?), and we continued climbing.

That is to say, I went literally about eight meters up some large stone steps before practically collapsing and realizing I had failed to recuperate any energy at all and was in fact entirely exhausted and could go no further.

I desperately asked my guide for a bit of rest, and everyone waited around as I sought to catch my breath. I looked pitiful. I was pitiful. And I felt pitiful. The thought of giving up and turning back flashed in my mind, and at first it seemed like the only real possibility.

But then, I thought about how humiliatingly pathetic that would be. To have come all this way, to have flown to Africa, to have endured this crippling sickness, and to have made it all the way here to this mountain, only to turn back on the second day of a six day trek. It was beyond pathetic. It was beyond the scope of the definition of sad.

Fuck that. I resolved to myself that no matter what, I would somehow find a way up the mountain. And slowly but surely, I began to take start climbing once more.

To this day, I’m still not really sure how I made it through those next few days. I took some anti-diarrheal pills the first night, and by the second night my diarrhea was in control, so thankfully I never had to shit my pants in the presence of my guide and porters. Beyond that, it was just one step at a time, one night at a time, one meal I could barely stomach at a time.

The food did not agree with me once on the entire trip. Every meal was a challenge in of itself. I just couldn’t stomach the food. It was some greasy bread with ketchup and some tea or something of the like. That’s mostly all I remember. But it was the antithesis of what pleased my stomach. I’m amazed I managed to stomach it all. The only thing that went down well was the fruit I believe, but there was a depressingly scarce amount of that.

In any case, the next few days were a blur of exhaustion and precarious health. The trail was extremely demoralizing on certain days. We’d go up, and then we’d go all the way back down again. I couldn’t imagine ever getting to the top of this thing. When would it end?

But end it did, and at last we were at the final camp, the final reprieve before the push for the summit. There were no trees here, and it was quite chilly even during the day. My guide informed me we would be leaving just a bit past midnight in order to make it up in time for sunrise, so I’d best be going to sleep as soon as possible.

I took his advice, but couldn’t sleep well. I tried listening to some Ellie Goulding on my Sansa Clip (I’d been carefully partitioning my mp3 player’s battery life throughout the climb and Ellie Goulding provided much needed inspiration to keep going). I put on all my winter gear – my gloves, my hat, my waterproof pants, my overshoes, my down jacket, my windbreaker.

True to my word, my guide woke me up at around 1am or so and handed me a pair of trekking poles he had managed to buy off another guide. Those trekking poles were the reason I made the final ascent. At some point my legs were no longer capable of stepping forward, and I would throw my trekking poles out in front of me with a strap around the handle looped around my wrists, and lean my weight on the poles and pull my feet up after the poles.

I lagged behind everyone else, and I desperately attempted to keep pace. I had a morbid fear of getting left behind. Only my guide and I were making this final ascent – the porters and the cook and stayed behind. He kept in front of me, as I lagged behind.

Every part of me was freezing. My feet were numb and I couldn’t feel my toes at all. My hands were so cold I couldn’t hold the pole anymore – I had to keep my hands tightly balled up to keep the extremities from freezing off and hence could only rely on the poles being looped around my wrists. Eventually, I lost all feeling in my fingers as well.

But somehow, miraculously, through sheer will and the good will of the mountain gods, I made it up the mountain. All the way. The sign said it all. Uhuru peak, 6900 meters above sea level (or something like that – check this later to make sure). My guide took some incredibly blurry pictures with his freezing hands (he didn’t seem to have brought gloves at all and had been just keeping his hands in his pockets), and we hastily made a retreat back to camp.

All I remember is everyone passing me on the way back down the mountain. I distinctly remember the last person to pass me, a woman with trekking poles who was easily making it down the mountain as if it were her morning daily run.

No such luck for me. I felt incredibly weak and tired, and every step took several seconds. I was lagging severely behind my guide, and at some point I was thoroughly worried I’d lose him and he’d leave me behind. I was by far the last one up the mountain, and I just couldn’t make it back down. My feet didn’t quite work anymore.

Later my guide would think that I had altitude sickness, but I’m not so sure. I think perhaps I just made had the wrong goal in mind: my goal had been to make it up the mountain, where it should have been to make it up the mountain and back down again. In any case, after what may have been anywhere from three to six hours but felt like an eternity, I told my guide that I really didn’t think I could make it down the mountain. I felt like I was out of options here.

He looked around, and very fortunately there just happened to be another guide or scout or something skipping down the rocky slope. He conversed with him for a minute, and then the two of them grabbed me by each arm and helped me down the rest of the path to the camp.

At camp, he put me in a random cabin to rest and gave me some watermelon to eat. Delicious watermelon. I felt much better here, but still not well enough to physically exert myself. Eventually, my guide, my porters, my cook and I began the trek down the mountain and all I remember is that it seemed like the longest walk of my life. According to my guide, all we had to do was make it to the next camp where they had a stretcher, and they would be able to carry me down from there. It was only a little further.

A little further was forever. I was parched. My throat was felt incredibly dry. My feet were leaden. The path we came down was different from the path we went up, and so I had no idea where we were, and how much further we had to go. All I knew was that I wouldn’t be able to go much further.

An excruciatingly long time later, and we finally made it to a grassy patch with a cabin where my guide managed to procure a stretcher, which literally consisted of a metal slab with some rope around it for securing me in place.

They put me on the stretcher and hoisted me up and began carrying me down the mountain. It was a tremendously bumpy ride, and I recall my head banging against the stretcher with every step. If I hadn’t been so shit-faced exhausted, it would likely have been the most uncomfortable stretcher ride of all time. It also seemed remarkably dangerous to me – the path down was magnitudes steeper than the path up, and we were supposed to make it down the mountain in a single day, as opposed to the five days it took to make it up.

As a consequence, on some particularly steep steps it seemed as if they were essentially tossing me from the higher step to the lower step, and the people on the lower step were just hoping to catch me every time. In any case, this did not concern me overly much at the time, though in retrospect it certainly should have, as a tumble down those steep rocky steps would have almost certainly meant my death, given how steep the off-trail slope was.

I somehow managed to fall asleep somewhere along this stretcher ride, and when I awoke we were almost at the bottom of the mountain. A short while later and we had made it to the exit. I remember blurrily something with a couple of white SUVs, having to pay someone to leave, and getting into an SUV and driving away, as well as some part where the car got stuck in some mud or something and for a solid twenty minutes or so of reversing and not reversing it seemed as if the car would never manage to get out. But somehow it did, and somehow we made it back. I also remember having to hike down the very end of the path, after we had to relinquish the stretcher. The cook, I believe, was listening to American music on his huge radio, and it was a foresty little trail we had to make it down. The guide, I believe, had gone ahead to fetch the car or something of that sort. We waited quite a good while after making it to the road for him to finally come back. It was a muddy road.

And that, in more or less detail, is the full account of my travails on Kilimanjaro. For a month afterwards, I could not feel my fingers and toes. I saw a doctor about it, and he informed me that the quick changes in temperature often did this to people, and that it was nothing to worry about. While I was severely skeptical of his opinion at the time, I suppose he turned out to be right in the end, as my feeling slowly returned to me, though it was a month later and not the few days he had promised.

There’s much more to my travels in Tanzania to recount, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Not the best story I’ve told, but I’m riding on a plane back from Santiago right now and my thought has been constantly interrupted and bombarded by announcements and chatter, so I’m using that to excuse my less-than-stellar writing this time around. A story’s a story. Falser words have never been uttered.

PS: Oh, and about this being short. Yeah, about that.

PSS: Ah right, and about me regretting even tipping my guides so much. So I tipped them enormously after the trip (withdrew 2x the amount to tip them too, the first time I withdrew my shillings I think I withdrew 400,000 shillings at the ATM and somehow the money disappeared. I still have no idea what happened to it. I probably just lost it…d'oh. Anyway withdrew like over a million shillings or something to pay them or something like that), and then the day after that I saw my guide randomly crossing the street and he was bandaged up from head to toe and pretty much unrecognizable. According to Philip, that’s what happens when you tip too much. The guides celebrate, get wildly drunk, and then crash their motorcycles in the bushes. Oh well.


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