“Ah, American – Chuck Norris!” exclaimed the young Tanzanian man behind the plexiglass registration booth. “Jambo! Jambo!”
It was the second time after seeing my American passport and my freshly grown beard that locals told me I looked like the movie/television star and it would not be the last. Perhaps it was the low hanging bags under my eyes that accompanied the beard that had moved me from what use to be a sort of a Vic Damone, George Clooney kind of doppleganger to, umm well, Chuck.
It had taken the driver an hour and a half to drive us from the city of Arusha to the entrance of the Machame route, one of seven trails that await the adventuring climber to make an attempt to reach the summit of Mt.Kilimanjaro. Although one of the most scenic and best trails to help the climber acclimatize due to its zig-zag patterning, it also held some of the greatest challenges in ascending the worlds tallest free standing mountain.
The air was cool and moist with a persistent drizzle making the pen used to sign our names slippery in my fingers and the pages in the registration ledger warp like lasagne noodles.
Mark and I met our climbing companions, Jon (pronounced Yahn) a 59 year old retired South African lawyer from Johannesburg and Gideon, a 39 year old marketing consultant, also South African but currently working in Dubai.
We were instructed to carry our day packs with only the basic of essentials, mostly water, rain gear and walking poles and the rest of our gear and supplies were taken and squeezed into large canvas duffle bags that porters stood ready to transport.
The moment was finally here. We were greeted by our guide, Harold - youthful, short in stature, and remarkably poised. He had begun doing this kind of work ten years prior, first as a porter, then working his way up to chief guide, and now at 35, had traversed every trail, memorized every step, after having ‘summited’ close to two hundred times.
Let me go ahead and spoil the ending for you by saying that all four in my group made it to the very top on the fifth day of a six day journey up Mt. Kilimanjaro. But there were countless moments, both physical and emotional whereby you, if having the ability to play spectator watching from a far, would have bet against all of us.
We simply started to walk, following Harold, and within minutes had entered into a landscape of low hanging fog. It was a rainforest with lush ferns that at times created a towering canopy over the trail. Indigenous trees covered with lichen and varieties of low hanging moss hit us in the face as we started to ascend the slippery steps of rock, wood and gravel.
Porters carrying everything from overflowing baskets, to duffels filled with gear, to jugs of water and food supplies balanced atop their heads began passing us swiftly – and I mean swiftly.
“How in the world can they do that?” I questioned, each one moving with speed and agility but also feeling every ounce of their cargo by the strained look on their faces.
I began noticing how I was feeling somewhat guilty of the situation. I had a simple daypack, perhaps all of 15 pounds. Each porter’s load was significantly heavier.
It was a feeling I was to wrestle with every day.
It was necessary to watch every step for there was no part of the path that wasn’t covered with every size rock imaginable. The criss-cross patterning had begun and we moved from left to right then left to right like marching soldiers traveling upwards into the dense fog.
Curious, I wanted to pick my head up more and take in the view. After all I was in an African rainforest but it was a luxury I best avoid experiencing how every step had to be a deliberate one.
I felt good. Even with ascending consistently, my breathing stayed normal, the damp air seemed to keep everyone cool and I remember thinking, “You got this David. You got this.”
Several hours later, our beginning rhythm led to our first meal on the trail. Rounding a curve there was a folding table with four chairs. We were served unidentifiable sandwhiches cut in half, orange slices, mango and pineapple juice. The four of us chatted. Jon was climbing to celebrate his 60th birthday the very week of the climb. He was also letting his law practice go and trying his hand at growing pomegranates. Gideon fancied himself a jock and also planned on proposing to his girlfriend at the very top by writing “Will you marry me?” on a small white board he had brought along for the big photo opportunity on Uhuru Peak. Mark and I? Well, after 30 plus years of friendship, we discovered we share the same adventuresome spirit mixed with a side of crazy, an ever increasing desire to challenge ourselves and a hunger to see the world. After walking the Camino de Santiago four years ago, it was one of the next things on our collective bucket list.
Harold beckoned us to finish so we could continue on. We had at least another four hours before reaching our first camp.
Still climbing, still climbing, our pace became slower.
Somewhere in the next couple of hours, my upper thighs started to twinge. The consistency of motion was causing them to cramp. Gideon began feeling nauseous and Mark was not feeling all that great either. The first adjustment in altitude was kicking in. Jon (Yahn) , the oldest, looking at all of us with a curmudgeonly sense of disbelief, had barely broken a sweat.
Stopped, Harold reached in his gear bag and pulled out some BenGay type ointment for me to rub on my thighs. He urged the other guys to drink water.
The temperature was starting to drop but we were all too soaked with sweat to notice.
Another two hours and my thighs quieted down. Gideon got worse and his immediate mindset went to a place of high emotion. “I can’t believe it, he bellowed! The first day and this is happening.”
He started to blame Dubai and its high heat and lack of mountains for the reason why he was suffering. His head was now pounding and he could barely contain his tears.
Harold motioned for his second in command, a tall, quiet African man named John (pronounced the English way), to continue with the three of us and we left Harold with Gideon behind.
Coming out of the rainforest into more rugged terrain, we finally reached our first nights camp named the same as the trail, Machame. The porters had long set up everything including a tent for dining. Standing at the level of the clouds, a jutting cliff provided the base for the camp and made quite a stunning landscape and the late sun seemed to paint everything with a Maxfield Parrish type of hue. Second in command, John, showed us to our sleeping tents which would become our collapsing space each night. Mark and I shared a tent that felt the size of two coffins pushed together with the lids open. It was tight, especially with our porter-carried gear inside with us as well.
There must have been around 70 tents in all, scattered around this first night’s camp at 9,400 feet above sea level.
Gideon and Harold had shown up around an hour later. Harold had talked him off the emotional ledge and coaxed him to reach camp.
We were given plastic wash bins of hot water to clean our hands and then as the sun was setting we gathered for dinner.
Both Gideon and Mark were feeling nauseous. The evening meal of a porridge type soup, bread and some pieces of fried fish went mostly uneaten.
By 8:30 it was dark and the sound of multi-language conversation could be heard throughout the sea of tents. It was our first true taste of cold and both Mark and I had already adjusted and readjusted the contents of the tent in order to get our sleeping bags to lay completely flat. A padded floor mat for cushioning helped but you knew you were just beginning to introduce your back to the indignities of natures unrelenting mattress.
Mark and I talked of the day, mostly whispering, since the mountain air seemed to amplify one’s voice. We could hear Gideon say, “I feel better! I feel better!” apparently receiving some relief from medication from the crew for his apparent early set altitude sickness.
“I wish I could say the same,” whispered Mark.
“You will,” I answered. “Maybe during the night your body will acclimate and the nausea will disappear by morning.”
Within minutes, he sat straight up and reached for the zipper of the tent door.
Barely getting it open, he began to heave his guts out onto the dirt in front of the tent.
“Someone’s sick, someone’s sick!” chanted those inside the tents around us.
Harold came over and respectfully took a stick and began sweeping the pool of vomit away from the tent door as the dirt absorbed it.
Pale and shaken, Mark felt the relief he’d longed for all afternoon.
Sipping water, he looked over at me a bit surprised by the suddenness of what just happened.
“You all right?” I asked.
“I think so,’ he replied between sips.
“Dinner and drinks,” he followed.
“Dinner and drinks,” he repeated. The next time you call me to talk me into something, it better be for dinner and drinks.”
Laughing in the cold, we both searched for the perfect sleeping bag feng shui formation to get some much needed sleep.