The ten of us sat around the long wooden table. We looked like members of the board, but this was no committee meeting. Robert Mhozya Mtaba, sporting the "please-recover-my-body" orange of Kandoo Adventures, introduced himself as our lead guide. I liked him immediately. He was articulate, experienced, had a way-cool accent, and by every other obvious measure, credible. He had spent his adult life on the mountain working his way up the ranks from porter, to cook, to associate, and finally, to lead guide. I shifted from side to side in my vinyl chair (trying not to think about my restrung hamstring--see post here and here) as Robert took us through the challenges of the climb ahead.
Painted on the wall was a map of the Kilimanjaro massif, a geological oddity that claims the title of the Largest Freestanding Mountain in the World (LFMW). Even as a map, the LFMW stretched the length of our boardroom. Footpaths, campsites, landmarks, and (catch this!) three fire-burned throats were shaded in: Shira, Mawenzi, and Kibo. The last of these, Kibo, represented the youngest, highest, and most defined of the three. It is a sulfuric ash pit, 1,000 foot deep and located just below Uhuru Peak. It is a trapdoor to hell. Kili's bullseye.
The footprint of this triple-volcano is staggering to behold. It is larger than Yosemite National Park and only slightly smaller than the entirety of the State of Rhode Island. It rises 16,000 feet above the East African plain and 19,335 feet above sea level. While ours would not be a technical climb (we hoped), a week of hiking would put us in position for a summit push. This final "sprint" would be a six to eight hour effort akin to scaling a wicked-sick stairmaster . . . zip-tied to the roll-bars of a lurching jeep . . . driving to the top of Pike's Peak . . . in a snowstorm . . . at night . . . while holding your breath. And after that, we would have to come down. (By the way, mountaineers will never admit it but the real reason why summit "sprints" are always initiated in the middle of night is because if one had full control of one's senses one would never emerge from one's sleeping bag!) Naturally, Robert only lightly touched on these details, preferring to focus on other things (such as the value of a good sunscreen). But those of us who knew better, knew better.
Our plan was to creep up the snoring giant via the Lemosho route. This is one of the newer approaches developed to help relieve the pressure of the established routes (creatively nicknamed "Coca Cola" or "Whisky"). I'm certain that the others around the table selected Lemosho for the same reasons that I did: it offered a gradual ascent through a more remote and diverse part of the Kilimanjaro National Park. In addition, we hoped to tag Lemosho with a nickname of its own (maybe "the Root Beer Route"?). Finally, we chose it because we knew that by extending the number of days at elevation prior to the summit push, our frail bodies had a better chance of adjusting to the challenge of breathing thin air (Remember the adage: hike high, camp low?).
I remembered how Tommy joked when we first made the reservation. I dished him the statistics: if we attempt Kili in five days, we have a 50% chance of making the summit. Six days, we have a 60% chance. Seven days, 70% chance. Tommy responded that we should do the ten day plan and remove all doubt! We went with the eight-day package. It maintained the element of surprise.
Robert reviewed the gear list and asked to see any item that did not line up with his descriptions. I showed him my sleeping bag which was only rated down to 0°F. He had recommended a -15°F or -20°F bag. I told him I could sleep in all my clothes if I needed to. He pursed his lips and agreed.
We could carry as much/little as we wanted on our own backs. But in addition to this, we were permitted to bring a gear bag that would be carried by a porter. Each of these duffles would be weighed before departure. None could be heavier than 15 kilos.
Robert grinned, wished us good night, and encouraged us to pack light.
The next morning began at the scale. The activity was our first test. Some of the other clients were still rearranging or returning items to the storage area in the hotel. I felt pretty good about my tote. Still, I looked on anxiously when it was suspended from the hook. The scale said 13 kilos, two under the limit. I was relieved. Eventually everybody made weight and hired hands whisked the duffels away. A strong lad pitched them to the roof of a waiting bus where they were tied together, wrapped in a tarp and roped to rails. We grabbed our own daypacks. The Stella Maris staff bid us farewell and we climbed aboard. After a bit more shuffling, paperwork, and nose counting, we were ready to go. The driver cranked the starter and the motor heaved to life.
The three-hour drive from Moshi to Londorossi Gate was spectacular. The sky was clear and sunny. Along the way we picked up a few more locals--porters--I assumed. The ride also offered us picturesque views to the countryside. Fields of corn reminded me of home. Fields of coffee charged my senses. Between these agricultural efforts, herders took advantage of the grassy gaps.
Eventually, we got our first view to Kilimanjaro from the ground. As always, meeting your mountain is a holy moment. This was no different. As the bus bounced along, the track degenerating from blacktop to gravel to dirt, the LFMW looked at me and I at it. I bounced along with the bus, our bags, and my new friends, face to the glass, feeling quite small.