Everyone should have at least one experience that’s truly for themselves—something utterly indelible from their life story that lays the foundation for everything to happen from that point forward… the stuff of epiphanies. Too often, we take our lives for granted—too many of us have grown accustomed to having things simply handed to us, no longer fit to fight for anything we really want from our lives. We simply expect that water comes from the tap when we turn the faucet, or that the Internet will load blazingly fast when we use it. In the “developed world”, we’ve become soft. Lazy. Woefully complacent, quietly accepting mediocrity as our standard, not fighting for something more.
The greatest trick that Casey Palmer ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist. Or… he just worked a week with 40 hours of overtime and had no time to blog. You decide which story is real.
Okay, as a premise to this post, I’ve been informed by reliable sources that I no longer have the right to complain about how much pain I was in on the Kili climb unless I want to re-enact it by using just my arms. So this post will be the last you hear of it.
Barranco—Karanga Hike: 5.1 km 3900m—4100m 3-4 hours
“Immediately on the outskirts of the camp we across [sic] a small stream before being faced with the sheer wall of Barranco—infamously known as ‘Breakfast’! It takes just over an hour of scrambling up the steep climb but the views are breathtaking and it is a thrilling experience. You will be able to see far below where our camp was and the porters as they pack it up. We then fall into a rhythm of ascending and descending a series of ridges as we cross our last water point and arrive into the green valley of Karanga.”
End: KARANGA VALLEY CAMP
This trip would’ve been a lot easier had I been bitten by a radioactive spider beforehand. Day 4’s prominent feature was a lovely challenge they call Barranco Wall (otherwise known as “Breakfast” for the cruel reason that it’s the first thing of the day you need to conquer). About 150m in height, it’s essentially a vertical climb without ropes. And what would a ropeless vertical climb be without another leap of faith? Yeah, I made the mistake (again!) of looking down, but I considered my options and soldiered on.
However, it was atop Barranco Wall where I realized the toll that a decade of bad behaviour had taken on my body—when we came across a trio of young Brits (aged 19-21) who made this entire climb look easy. (I would not-so-secretly hate them for the rest of the trip.)
After that, Day 4 wasn’t so bad.
Day 4 was a day of tests though, and much like you’d begun, the end of that day’s trail presents you with a wall, and a choice. You get to choose from one of two paths:
Go left and you choose a longer, but less steep path upward as you ascend to camp. Sakshi and I would choose this route, taking it ever-slowly to the top
Go right and you’ve chosen the shorter, steeper (we were told that it was the steepest incline on the mountain!) path. Trevor took this, and I swear that he must’ve found a secret elevator because it took him all of 10 minutes. Next time, I’m training with that guy.
We’d eventually get up this last obstacle and make it to camp (after a bit of additional rest), where games, food and some night-time photography would all go down.
Karanga—Barafu Hike: 3.5 km 4100m—4330m 3-4 hours
“The route today is short and steep, as we enter a barren landscape of boulders and shattered rocks. We come to a point along the route which is a fork up to Barafu and down to Mweka. At this stage we choose up and approx half and [sic] hour we reach camp: sheer cliffs and large rocks. Today is an early dinner and early bed—although you will find it difficult to actually sleep, rest your body in preparation for the midnight assault on the summit. This is probably the hardest physical your body will do in its life.”
End: BARAFU CAMP
Day 5 mostly seemed like a strange adventure, wandering over a landscape of paper-thin shattered rocks, piled as far as the eyes could see.
Over the course of these days, we got the feeling that our head guide, Julius, was none too fond of us. Maybe it was the way that he often distanced himself from us, leaving us to navigate for ourselves on unfamiliar terrain. Maybe it was the way he’d express frustration if we felt too queasy. Or walked too slowly. Or did anything to irritate him. We’re not sure if it was a bad week for him or something—but he definitely wasn’t what we were expecting.
Holson was far better at making sure we stayed okay, and to be honest, we were torn at the end of the trip between being fair and giving Holson a better tip, or just making sure that the trek from the last camp (where we handed the tips out) back down to town wouldn’t be horribly awkward for all of us. We saw all the other guides travel closely to their charges at paces suited to them—so what made us so different? Had he done 17 years of guiding and suddenly decide that he was tired of it?
We’ll probably never know.
At this higher altitude, the final climb up to Barafu Camp probably felt harder than it actually was, but I definitely felt the need for some rest afterward! And rest can only be found in Barafu Camp if you have no fear of rodents.
After numerous high seasons where tourists have recklessly strewn garbage all over the camp, it is overrun by oversized field mice, all trying to find something to nibble on. To save my companions much grief, frustration and terror, our time at Barafu was spent quarantined in one tent or another, playing ridiculous amounts of Race for the Galaxy until it was time to eat.
Somewhere around 6:30 we were told to get some rest since the next day started early as was promised to be grueling. I didn’t think I’d be able to nod off with all the activity going on around me, but eventually I’d nod off….
11:15 pm. They wake us up and prepare us for what lies ahead. The hot tea and chapatis doesn’t do a ton to steel our nerves, and I know Sakshi hasn’t been feeling the greatest over the last couple of days. Regardless, we’ve come this far. I strap my headlamp on and prepare myself for the hours ahead.
Barafu—Summit—Mweka Hike: 17.4 km 4330m—5895m—3075m 13—15 hours
“This is summit day—what we have all been working towards. We wake around midnight for a quick snack and then we are on our way. We start out on rocky ground but it soon turns to snow as we near the Crater rim. Slowly, slowly we go and this is the time that you start to feel fatigue for the first time, especially as we enter the volcanic scree area that is like sand and you tend to slide backwards a little with every step. We reach the rim at Stella Point around sunrise and continue to the Summit at Uhuru Peak, not long after. Only a short time is spent here and we return down our steep track for brunch and resting back at Barafu Camp. After this, we have a comfortable but dusty walk down to Mweka.”
End: MWEKA CAMP
Summit Day. The final uphill test to determine whether you’re Barafu mouse or mountain man! This is the moment where having a headlamp is key. The specs for the climb are as follows:
Climb duration: Midnight-sunrise to get to Stella Point; an extra hour to get to Uhuru Peak
Climb ascent: 4330m—5895m
Climb incline: 30°—50°
Climb terrain: Volcanic scree—or rather, a ton of gravel that’s hard to get your footing on, sliding back with each step
Nothing on the climb so far compares to this challenge. This morning would prove to me—I wasn’t completely ready for this. The first half of the climb was okay—we’d opted to get a spare assistant guide, Jon, in order to help us up the mountain. Sakshi and I both opted to have one of the guides carry our packs as we scrambled up the mountain. But forward we went.
I’ve mentioned it before—climbing Kilimanjaro is a huge mental game; but it’s bad enough when it’s light out. When you’re in the dark and can only make faint outlines of the ridges ahead of you, you can never really tell how far you’ve climbed, and you refuse you check your watch, because you know it’ll only tell you how little you’ve done so far.
Then at 4 am, it happened—my legs gave way! I’d later discover that one of the side effects of Diamox can be severe muscle cramping, but also, I’d never put as much strain as I had those last five days ever before in my life.
Back on Day 1, I introduced you to Trevor Zen. I laid out a few choice Palmer Parables at this point, including:
“I’m going to die on this mountain. It’s all a plot where my wife’s trying to kill me for the paltry insurance money. This is the perfect cover-up!”
“The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak. So very, very weak.”
The next few hours only got from bad to worse. My water was frozen in my hydration pack from the cold winds whipping around. My six layers on top and four layers on my legs weren’t helping for mobility. My face was getting cold since I couldn’t breathe well through my balaclava, and it was -10° C outside, plus wind chill. Holson and Jon would alternate in giving me their shoulders for supports and practically dragging me uphill as I tried to conquer the last of Kili. (I’d sent Trevor and Sakshi ahead to leave me with my misery.) Every step I took felt like someone was shoving hot knives through my thighs, and I’m not a crier, but this experience got me close. I was having the hardest time ever trying to finish this.
And then I turned around and saw this:
Stretched across the entire length of the curved horizon before us was the most awe-inspiring sunrise I’d ever seen. It was amazing. I regret that I was in far too much pain to even think about getting a shot, but I don’t think it’s something that’ll leave my memory any time soon.
But Stella Point was close. So very close. I could do this.
I kept hobbling up. Bit by bit. Julius would later come to check on me and urge me forward. One way or another, I’d make it up there. Somehow I made it to the final ridge and was 20 steps away from Stella Point.
That’s when I did what was probably the stupidest thing one could do at 5739 m—I sprinted up. I needed to stop the pain. So I sprinted to the top of the mountain and called it a wrap, falling flat on my back in sheer exhaustion as my guides unzipped my layers so I could breathe and not die of oxygen deprivation.
But I made it.
Being atop a mountain isn’t a sensation you can easily put into words—seeing the horizon curve in front of you over a layer of nothing but clouds; knowing everything that you had to do to get to that point—it’s unreal. You don’t even fully realise where you are and what you’ve accomplished—it’s like being in waking shock. It was nuts.
Now, in the most technical of technicalities, I didn’t make it to the very top of Kili—in our group, that award goes to Sakshi and Trevor, who walked the extra hour away and 200m further up the mountain to reach Uhuru Peak, known as the “Top of Africa”. Probably would’ve been cool to make it for bragging rights—but who knows? I could eventually return to the mountain so that Sarah can one day see what we saw! Here’s an idea of how close I made it, though:
You only stay up there for about 15 minutes, though, before you make the dawning realisation that you need to make the 2 hour trek back down to camp for brunch. My legs were jelly. My nose was sunburnt. But I raced behind Holson (where possible), making the gruelling trek back to Barafu. I didn’t get much fanfare when I got back to camp—some handshakes and congratulatory remarks—but when Trevor and Sakshi showed up some hours later, they were greeted by…
And with that, we ate and started the slow march down to Mweka Camp to spend one final night on this crazy mountain trip of ours.
Mweka—Arusha Hike: 8.8 km 3075m—1645m 3-4 hours
“On a clear morning, you can wake up to the peak of Kibo in the background of the camp—a great photographic opportunity. It is a fun morning of singing and enjoying the last moments with your ‘Kili’ team before we all head down through the steep forest to the National Park gate. We complete signing out formalities before saying good-bye and boarding our transfer vehicle to Arusha. After a short rest and wash—we meet for a trek debriefing.”
End: AHADI LODGE
I won’t even spend a serious amount of time covering the descent, save a couple of things:
you might think that going down is easier than going up, but think about that for a sec. You’re covering the 30 hours of climbing you just did going up the mountain in a mere 10 hours going down. You will destroy the balls of your feet from the constant impact. You will curse the fact that your body’s so beaten up. But step by step, you’ll find a way to return to civilisation—because the dream of sleeping in a real bed and a well-deserved shower are powerful enough to keep you going!
just because you got to the top of the mountain doesn’t mean that Kili’s done with you; on the way down, we got hit by a torrential storm—but since it was still high up, it was torrential hail. This was seriously impressive—hail almost a centimetre wide, coming down so hard that all the terrain around us went from brown to white in a matter of minutes. It’s a strange feeling, being pelted by solid matter from the sky so relentlessly! (We were eventually rewarded with a big ol’ rainbow, though!)
On the last morning, though, after we gave out tips, after we said our farewells, the last thing that we’d do… is celebrate!!!
So, in my eyes, that’s pretty much what climbing Kilimanjaro is like! Eventually getting back to Ahadi Lodge was amazing, and no one is ever lying when they say that the shower you take after Kili is the best one that you’ll likely ever take in your life.
So for anyone out there looking to tackle Kili, I hope I’ve been able to give you an idea of what the experience was like—and why I don’t plan to conquer another mountain again any time soon.
Though Sarah’s uncle has invited us to go with him to Everest base camp…
Tell your wife, tell your kids, tell your husbands:
We settled our bill at Imani, which included a free ride to the Zanzibar airport (which was amazing after all the taxi-related debacles). After getting through customs (where the customs officer gave me quite the strange look when she saw my tripod—I think she thought it was something else), we’d take a 20-minute flight, where we’d reunite with Trevor and Sakshi!!!
It’s funny how you can be so happy to see someone one day and so bewildered with them another—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Another couple of hours in our 12-seater bush plane and we were picked up by our driver (and new best friend), Muba from Maasai Wanderings, who would take us to Ahadi Lodge in Arusha to rest and prepare for what could very well have been the most challenging week of our lives.
My mission, should I choose to accept it (and my friends didn’t give me much choice in the matter, here), was the following:
Arusha-Machame Hike: 8.2 km 1840m-3022m 5-6 hours
“We depart after breakfast for the transfer to the National Park Gate at Machame where we fulfil [sic] the registration formalities before entering the Park. We make our way through the heavily rooted forest area parallel to a flowing stream. We eat lunch along the way and by mid-afternoon we are able to recognise our first camp.”
End: MACHAME CAMP
Sounds simple enough, but from the first day of climbing, we realised that reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro would be far more of a challenge that we’d thought. Between Sarah and I, anyway, she’d idealised what kind of adventure it’d be, realised how much of a life-changing experience it’d be, but not factoring in how hard it would be to do it. Me on the other hand—I chose not to think about it very much beforehand—bad move since the Kili climb is as much mental as it is physical, if not more so.
But I digress—let me tell you about the madness that was 7 Days of Kili!!!
So like I said, the first day would already set the tone for a week that none of us would ever forget.
After the belated arrival of our guide on the first day (both ironic and an omen, since he gave us flack for being “late” the night before—when in fact, our flight time had been given to him incorrectly), we packed our gear into Muba’s Toyota Land Cruiser and started the 2-hour drive to the mountain!
But not before stopping at the Shop-Rite supermarket! Did you know that they don’t sell dental floss in Tanzania?! Seriously, it’s the little things you miss the most. But moving on…
Some of the sights we’d see on the way there included:
The Clock Tower—in the Central Business district of Arusha, they call this “the centre of Africa” as it’s allegedly halfway between Cape Town, South Africa and Egypt
The Arushan International Conference Centre—where they were holding tribunals for criminal involved in 1994’s Rwandan Genocide
Tanzanite Mines—where we learned about Tanzanite, the stone said to be a thousand times rarer than diamonds (back in 1967, you could find Tanzanite 6 or 7 feet into the ground, but now they’re searching 400-600m deep and coming up with squat) and accordingly ridiculously expensive
The sightseeing tour would be brief, though—through the clouds and on the horizon loomed the beast that we (read: I) were sure was out to destroy us—Mt. Kilimanjaro!
Theoretically, we should have been more than prepared to deal with this:
for our group of 4, we were given a team of 17 to get us up, including guides, a chef, waiters, a tent-master, and an army of porters to carry everything (our bags, our tents, the food, everyone else’s crap, and so on)
our guide, Julius, was made out to be a legendary figure:
one tale had him carrying a woman (who’d given up) on his back up the last leg of the climb to make sure that she saw the summit
in 17 years, he’d climbed the mountain over 500 times
we’d brought all the right gear, got in shape and were young and positive enough to get this done!
This video should help to give you an idea of our initial attitude toward the mountain:
Kili had plans for us, though—plans indeed.
We would enter Machame Gate at 1800m, and while we waited for Julius to get our registration complete, men descended upon us to rent us gear (of which Trevor and Sakshi wisely partook for that which they lacked); we were provided with nicely gift-wrapped lunch boxes for the day (more on that later); we would watch as Muba drove off into the distance, marking that as the point of no return; and 45 minutes later, we were on our way!
Here’s what we looked like right then:
And on we would go. The first temperate zone of Kili is farmland (800m-1800m). Not much of a climb, so they skip you forward right to the second zone: rainforest (1800m-2800m)! With majestic trees and rugged paths, it made for quite the hike!
But as long as we took it pole pole (remember, Swahili for “slowly, slowly”), we could do it!
Rainforests also bring something else—TORRENTIAL TROPICAL RAIN! We should’ve known we were in for trouble when our guides started suiting up in rain jackets, waterproof pants and gaiters for their boots and we only had our raincoats with us, but it was a lesson that wouldn’t soon be forgotten after TWO HOURS OF RAIN and pants that were SOAKED THROUGH. (I, for one, also learned that Canadian passports AREN’T WATERPROOF.)
So LESSON #1: Carry ALL of your rain gear with you! Not just your rain coat—your bottom half will thank you.
After this, we were obviously miserable, and still had far to go. Trevor—who I was none too impressed with at this point, as I unfairly blamed the entire idea of the trip on his adventurous self—decided to look at the situation optimistically with a dose of “Trevor Zen”:
Trevor: I look at it with Trevor Zen.
Casey: Whaddya mean?
T: Well, each step we take is one that we’ll never need to take again!
C: …Trevor Zen sucks.
But he was right—if we kept moving forward, we’d eventually get thee. This is something we’d need to constantly remind ourselves over and over with each passing day!
Plus, part of my misery was my own damn fault—I hadn’t thought to unpack the unnecessary junk out of my day pack before climbing, so I walked 6 hours like I was carrying my bag to work in Toronto, including:
the Joby Gorillapod Ballhead X tripod I’d brought
our entire supply of snacks
two camera lenses
on top of the stuff I was going to need:
my digital SLR camera (yes, with a third lens)
3 litres of water
So, LESSON #2: Only carry what you need! This applies from the morning before you drive out to the afternoon when you get back—make sure your bag is light and filled with things you’ll actually use while constantly on the move. (And trust me, you won’t need snacks!)
Climb time: 12:35 pm—6:15 pm (5h 40m)
We’d eventually make it to Machame camp, where we would strip the wet stuff off, rest our weary bodies, and dine on a voluminous dinner! (Note: between the amounts of food for every meal plus the lunch boxes they have you carry per day, there is no way humanly possible to finish all of the food they give you, ergo snacks are useless. Don’t pack too many!) We felt terrible that first night as we didn’t want to be wasteful, but our stomachs weren’t big enough to handle it all! This feeling, too, would eventually wane….
With one day down and six to go, we’d already learned a few lessons, and surely we could make the next day better than the first—right?