Author Archives: Rob Scaife

Intro

KilimanjaroDreamTeamLogoLargeMy project to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro came about through a happy association with Dreams Take Flight, a charity in Ottawa and Dream Mountains Foundation, an Ottawa organization that connects climbers with 7 charities corresponding to the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on the seven continents.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro had been something of a bucket list notion since I saw an IMAX documentary on Kilimanjaro some years ago. When I was introduced to Shawn Dawson, an Ottawa businessman who established the Dream Mountains Foundation after climbing the Seven Summits, it became a more immediate possibility. After some weeks of considering what was involved and getting medical clearance, I committed in late October 2013 and the endeavour was underway.

Shawn gathered 28 climbers spread out over the seven charities, and due to my prior connection (chairing a Rotary Club fundraiser for them) I chose Dreams Take Flight. Each climber targeted $5,000 in donations for their charity, and was responsible for covering their own costs for the climb. In the end, we raised over $145,000 in total, and my friends and family contributed over $7,500 to my charity.

There were more than a few moments of doubt along the way. I was hardly the person my family and friends expected to climb a mountain. But with their encouragement, especially from my lovely wife Judy, I embarked on 5 months of training and preparation.

By the time I was ready to leave for Africa at the end of April, I was fitter, healthier, considerably lighter and confident that I could succeed. It was a personal transformation I wouldn’t have anticipated six months earlier.

Training and Preparation

Training

MountMarcy_01Training. It seemed endless at times. Fortunately I’d started a modest running program in late summer. With my commitment to the project at the end of October, 2013 came stair training. We had an arrangement with a downtown hotel to use their fitness centre facilities and 32 story stairwell, so twice a week I’d head there and climb stairs. Anywhere from 4 to 10 sets at a session, up and down. In total, I climbed that stairwell 117 times, with about six weeks away from it in January and February due to a shoulder injury. 117 sets, 52,650 steps, 3,744 floors, 11.5 kilometers vertically. You lose weight and build climbing legs doing that.

We travelled as a group to Lake Placid, NY in November to climb Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York State. While we were limited to about 7 hours due to daylight it was a terrific opportunity to get a taste of what we’d encounter on Kili and learn about using layers to stay warm without overheating and generally conserve energy.

Preparation

Aside from training, the preparation consisted of endless shopping and reading. Combining advice from Shawn, our team, Dream Mountains alumni who climbed Kili 3 years before, and endless reading online,

it was a gradual process of whittling down the list to get what I needed. In the end I was well fitted out, much better than if I hadn’t had that prior experience to lean on.

Travel

After all the preparation, we departed April 28, 2014.  We said our goodbyes and left from the Ottawa Train station by KLM highway coach to Montréal, where we caught the KLM flight to Amsterdam (on an MD-11, one of the last in service though in remarkably good condition) and a connection to Kilimanjaro International Airport on a KLM Airbus A330.

While a small airport, Kilimanjaro International serves large aircraft though I doubt it often services more than one flight at a time. We were pleased to have a WiFi connection while waiting for immigration so we could report our safe arrival to family at home.

 

Moshi

On arrival, we were taken to the Springlands Hotel in Moshi. The hotel is owned by Zara Tours, our local operator. We had two nights and a full day to relax and get our gear prepared, which was fortunate as a number of our group were missing luggage that arrived on the next day’s flight.

We also took the opportunity to explore Moshi a little and take a hike in the area around the hotel.   Moshi is only around 3,000 feet, so we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to experience the altitude to any extent.

This tree was in in the middle of some rice fields near the hotel. There was a stream beside it where children were collecting water, which they then carried home on their heads.

Late in the afternoon we met our main guides, including our lead guide by the name of Living, who would take us up the mountain.  I had a sense that a few in our group were just then realizing what they had gotten themselves into.

There was a lot of shuffling of gear to ensure that our duffel bags, which would be carried by a porter, were within limits. As a side note, the use of professional guides and porters is mandatory on Kilimanjaro.  Anything we wouldn’t take was placed in storage, while passports and cash were placed in a safe deposit box at the hotel.

Day 1 – Machame

Day 1 – Machame Gate (5,380ft) to Machame Camp (9,350ft)

Day 1 of the climb started with a weigh in to ensure we were within weight limits for our porter bag and daypacks, then a bus ride to the Machame Gate (pronounced mah-cha-may.)  There are a number of routes to use climbing Kilimanjaro, and we had chosen (or rather had chosen for us) Machame, also known as the Whiskey Route.

A longer and tougher route than some of the others, it has the advantage of some spectacular vistas and a better opportunity to acclimatize to the altitude. Though it can be done in 6 days, we added two days in camp at Shira and Barranco camps to better acclimatize to the altitude.  Some of the other routes have huts or cabins for sleeping, but Machame has no such facilities, so it’s tents only.

Once at the gate, we first saw our porters and most of our guides, though we had met our three lead guides in Moshi the day before. We signed in at the parks commission office, then pecked at a boxed lunch while the guides did the paperwork.

Departing from Machame Gate, we were on a smooth, unpaved road, though that would soon change.  Right out of the gate, so to speak, I saw the truth of what we’d been told so often over the months of training. Pole-Pole (Shwahili for Slowly, Slowly) was the order of the day.  A slow, deliberate pace – maddening at times – was necessary to keep us acclimatizing gradually to the altitude, which would reduce the risk and severity of altitude sickness as we climbed higher.

Climbing though the rain forest, 7 hours of hiking on the lower slope of the mountain brought us to Machame camp, where we started to get a sense of what eating and sleeping over the next 10 days would entail. At this altitude the terrain is changing and the tree cover is thinning as we transition from the rain forest to the moorlands above.

Through the rain forest on the lower slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro above Machame Gate

Through the rain forest on the lower slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro above Machame Gate

As we climbed, our porters started to pass us in what would become a familiar routine.  The porters would place one of our duffel bags – a little over 30 lbs – and some camp gear on their heads and pass us on the trail.  We would arrive in camp to find everything set up.  Watching the porters, I was glad that our lead Shawn had so strictly enforced the weight limit on our gear.

In the rain forest on the lower slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro above Machame Gate

In the rain forest on the lower slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro above Machame Gate

We developed a routine of calling out “Car!” on the trail as they approached from the rear to warn the climbers ahead to move to the side and make room for them to pass. A ritual familiar to any Canadian child playing street hockey, it took some explaining to the Tanzanian porters and guides.

This first night we would start to become familiar with the pee bottle routine, which is a reality in these situations.  Rather than dressing and climbing out of the tents in the cold once or twice each night a large Nalgene bottle, dedicated for the purpose, is pressed into service. As long as there’s something unique attached to it so you can tell it apart from your water bottle in the dark, it’s very effective.  Given the volumes of water we were drinking to stay hydrated, 5-7 litres a day, it was a necessity.

 

Day 2 – Machame to Shira

Day 2 – Machame Camp to Shira Camp (9,350 to 12,500 ft.)

Today we climbed about 6 hours through moorlands, leaving the rainforest and climbing into terrain marked more by heather, rocky ridges and small valleys.  In the early afternoon we were greeted by the mess and kitchen tents set up to serve us a hot lunch before we headed on.

A rocky trail into the clouds above Machame Hut, enroute to Shira.

In what would become a familiar routine, the sleeping tents were set up when we arrived in camp early in the evening.  We would carry our duffels to our tent, clean up, then head to the mess tents for tea or hot chocolate and a snack.

Meals in these first days would be eggs and toast with hot dogs at breakfast, rice or pasta with chicken at dinner. Soup at dinner became an amusing ritual. The porters would carry big insulated pots to the entrance of the mess tent and announce it as Cucumber, or Sweet Potato, or Carrot soup.  Whatever the name, it always turned out to be the same; a salty chicken broth with a few grated shreds of its namesake vegetable.  For all that, we were glad to get it and most wanted seconds.  Hot soup would become a real treat on the mountain.

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View of the summit from Shira Camp.

I think with the constant exertion and altitude we enjoyed food that would have dismayed us at home. While the hot dogs at breakfast were treated with suspicion by many, most of us enjoyed whatever else was served. After a few days there would be no more chicken; pasta or rice with mushroom or vegetable sauce would become the norm for dinner.

The view across a valley from Shira Camp.
The lighting, clouds and terrain provided wonderful opportunities for photos here.

In Shira camp I first encountered the deep shuddering shiver that would overcome me in my sleeping bag for the next few nights as I tried to get to sleep, and the high altitude pattern of waking 6-8 times a night which persisted until we descended to Mweka camp at around 10,000 feet on the last night. Both the shaking and the sleep disturbance seemed more related to the altitude than the cold, so I didn’t let it bother me much after the first night.

One of the guides told me that large animals would sometimes come up to these altitudes, perhaps to find salt licks.  I’ve seen a photo of a mummified cape buffalo high on the mountain.

Day 3 – Shira Camp

Day 3 – Shira Camp (First Acclimatization Day)

Settling in at Shira camp today, I became more conscious of one benefit of climbing in the off season.  With almost no other groups on the mountains, we had no sense of crowds on the mountain, encountering only a couple of smaller groups the whole time on the mountain.  We also had our choice of sites  within the camps and had Shira camp almost to ourselves.

With a dramatic view of the summit above, and the valley, lowlands and Mt. Meru below us, we rested or hiked during the day.  It became clear that with a line of sight to the cities of Moshi or Arusha below, a cell tower signal was usually available and some began to send texts to family over the next few days.

A view from the mess tent at Shira Camp.

A view from the mess tent at Shira Camp.

The social aspect of the climb was more apparent, as we gathered in the tents, some playing cards, some reading, most drinking tea or Milo chocolate malt beverage. Shira camp was distinguished by spectacular views, with the clouds setting off the surrounding ridges and Mt. Meru in the distance. We all took a lot of photos here.

Like most of the major camps, there was a ranger’s hut and a helicopter pad (used for rescues) nearby.  I thought of making the short hike over, but never did.  At all the other camps we were required to individually sign a log book at the Ranger’s hut.

The effects of altitude were very apparent here.  Like all Kilimanjaro camps, Shira camp is on a pronounced slope.  While the altitude wasn’t a problem moving across or down the site, on a couple of occasions I forgot the altitude and moved quickly up the slope and would spend some time struggling for breath.

Day 4 – Shira to Barranco

Day 4 – Shira (12,500ft)  Lava Tower (15,190ft)  Barranco Camp (13,044ft)

From Shira camp we would turn east, skirting the mountain to push for the summit from the east.  We climbed through the rocky, barren terrain to Lava Tower, a volcanic formation at the high point for the day, before making a difficult descent into and back out of a steep valley.

Dawn at Shira Camp

Dawn at Shira Camp

This was a day to observe the ‘Climb High, Sleep Low’ doctrine of acclimatization, with a sharp rise in elevation followed by a descent to lower altitude to sleep.

This was a long day, and we were relieved to crawl into camp at dusk to doff our packs, clean up, and enjoy some hot tea.  It was today that I encountered a couple of small blisters on my feet that proved easily manageable thanks to the blister bandages provided by my tent mate Jason.  People were great about sharing, and as we all seemed to have brought different things, whatever was needed was usually to be found.

 

Making our way through the rock

Approaching Lava Tower at just over 15,000 feet

Descending from Lava Tower

Continue reading

Day 5 – Barranco to Karanga

Day 5 – Barranco Camp (13,044ft) to Karanga Valley Camp (13,106ft)

I had spent much of the evening eyeing the Barranco Wall across a small valley from the camp.  From that vantage there didn’t seem to be a way up it and I assumed we’d go around. I would be disabused of that notion this morning.

Climbing the Barranco Wall

Climbing the Barranco Wall

After a climb down into and up out of the valley, we looked up from the foot of the wall and saw the tenuous path that led up through the steep rock outcroppings. The guides moved ahead to assist us through the most difficult areas and we started climbing. It was a challenging morning, and as soon as we patted ourselves on the back for a tricky manoeuver, a porter would appear carrying an impossibly heavy load on his head and pass us, reminding us of our limitations.

After stopping for a rest and photos atop the wall, we climbed on.  Despite all the climbing and descending we would finish the day at about the same altitude, more of the climb high, sleep low strategy that helps with acclimatization to the altitude.

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It was today that I decided that going off the grid was more for my benefit than my family, and turned on my mobile phone to send a text message to my wife letting her know everything was going well. I’d send one or two messages a day for the rest of the climb when a signal was available, but never went online aside from that. In retrospect, I might have unlocked my phone and bought a local SIM card for access.  I haven’t seen my mobile phone bill yet as I write this!

We met another smaller group of climbers that arrived in camp later today.  Some of them turned out to be from a village in Wales where Judy and I stayed one night during our driving tour of the UK several years ago.

Day 6 – Karanga Valley Camp

Day 6 – Karanga Valley Camp (Acclimatization Day)

Today was an acclimatization day, and an opportunity to let my feet rest.  During the afternoon I hiked up above the camp about 45 minutes, then back, but for the most part this was just a day of relaxation, reading, drinking tea and chatting with team members.

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The extra time to acclimatize here was valuable, as some of the team were still suffering from the altitude.  I was also glad to let the blisters on my feet subside a bit more.

The summit seemed closer here, and was a little more intimidating than it had been before.

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Day 7 – Karanga Valley to Barafu

Day 7 – Karanga Valley Camp (13,106ft) to Barafu Camp (15,331ft)

Today we were back to climbing, but it was a short day, climbing 2,200 feet in about three hours to Barafu Hut, the high camp from which we would depart for the push to the summit.

We arrived at Barafu just before noon.  From here we could see the approach to the summit.  I was amused by the fixed latrines here, marked “Tourist Toilets”.  By now, none of us were feeling like tourists.  The camp is atop a ridge, with a cliff along one side that nobody seemed overly concerned about.  We were far past any sign of vegetation at this point, and the only wildlife were the four-striped grass mice darting from rock to rock, and the bold and ubiquitous White Necked Ravens.

After lunch we checked and prepared our gear and rested for the afternoon.  We would be split into 4 groups for the final climb to the summit, 4,000 vertical feet above us.

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As we gathered for dinner, it was snowing and the wind was rising.  Part way through dinner we were  holding on to the mess tent as it shook in the wind.

Following dinner, we all headed back to the tents to get what sleep we could.  I was surprised that I got about 3.5 hours of relatively undisturbed sleep.

 

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Day 8 – Summit and Descent

 

Day 8 – Summit Day – Barafu Camp (15,331 ft) to Uhuru Point (19,341 ft) to Mweka Camp (10,065 ft)

The Climb

The push for the summit (one map calls this the ‘assault trail’) is made overnight.  Reasons offered are that the footing is more stable when everything is colder at night, the sunrise at Stella Point is spectacular, and that the scheduling works better to make it down to a relatively low altitude later that same day.

The team was split into 4 groups for the climb to the summit leaving at half hour intervals, with the idea that we would all catch up near the summit.  I was assigned to the last group which was my preference as we’d be a little warmer going faster.

After getting several hours of sleep, more than I expected, I awoke around midnight and realized that the snow that had started around dinner had intensified and we were now in a storm.  We dressed and headed for the mess tent to meet with our group.  On the way, I encountered the group ahead of us on the way out, shuffling slowly into the storm and darkness with their headlamps lighting the way.  After some tea and cookies, and an equipment check, we set out a little before 1:30am.

A brief stop on on the climb to the summit.

The climb started out over rocks up a steep ridge before turning into hours of zig-zagging in the snow covered scree.  I think we all zoned out a bit here.  We stopped occasionally for a short rest break or when one of our group was having trouble, but for the most part it was just head down climbing through the night.  Looking above us, we could see the lines of headlamps on the three other groups in our team progressing up the mountain.

I had some food with me, but didn’t eat much of it.  I probably should have eaten more. Fortunately, I was able to keep my water tube from freezing by forcing air back into the tube each time I drank.  It was difficult though at that altitude, just breathing and moving forward was difficult enough.

At one point we stopped and our lead guide called another guide forward to stand at the side before we proceeded.  As I passed, I realized that he was standing near the edge of the cliff beside the ridge to ensure none of us went over.

As it started to get light I was mesmerized by the surroundings.  The steep slope, covered in snow, was eerie, and turning around we started to see the summit of Mawenzi peak, one of the three  poking through the clouds below us.

Daybreak, approaching Stella Point at around 18,500 feet.

At one point a couple of climbers with a guide passed us coming down.  They had stopped short of the peak, deeming it unsafe to continue.  I thought I recognized them as the climbers I had talked to at Karanga camp, and this was confirmed later.  I was sorry to see them turn, but talking to them later at Mweka Camp it was clearly the right call for them.

Finally, shortly after daybreak, we reached Stella Point, on the rim of the crater.  At this point some climbers were having difficulty, displaying the incoherence that is a sign of severe altitude sickness.  It was clear to me later that they didn’t realize how badly affected they were.  Several were warned that it wasn’t safe to continue to Uhuru Point farther up. Fortunately Stella Point is considered to be a point on the summit by the Parks Commission, so everyone who made Stella Point was acknowledged for reaching the summit.

After a break and consultation, the rest of us set out for Uhuru Point on the highest point of the crater rim. It was a far more gentle slope, but in the cold and thin air still a challenge.  It struck me later in the day that I have very little sense of how long it took to get to Uhuru Point and its iconic sign.

Once at Uhuru we could stop, celebrate our accomplishment and look around.  I distinctly remember wanting to get my hand on the sign, that was my personal confirmation that I’d succeeded.

We stayed on the peak for about 20-30 minutes, it’s hard to say now.  I realized later that I was a little out of it up there, but I was still able to savour the accomplishment and take in the stunning views of the crater, glaciers and the cloud cover far below.

On the summit.

 

The Descent

Once we were finished at the summit we donned our packs and headed back down.

The perspective changes heading downhill, and you enjoy the view much more.  There’s no more looking at the mountain in front of your face.  From Uhuru Point back to Stella Point was an easy walk during which we could see the enormous Rebmann glacier off to the right hand side and admire the cloud layer far below.  It is without a doubt the most spectacular scenery I’m ever likely to see.

The Rebman Glacier from the Summit.

Once we hit Stella Point and headed down the steeper side of the summit, the going became harder. Sliding down the scree was not as much fun as advertised.  With a covering of snow it was slippery and treacherous, and I found myself having to stop often to catch my breath.  Once past the scree, we were climbing down through steep rock fields.

Descending along the crater rim from the summit.

Descending along the crater rim from the summit toward Stella Point.

It was a long, challenging climb back to Barafu camp, where we had a meal before continuing down.  Some distance below the Barafu camp the Mweka route splits off from the Machame route. Used only for descent, the Mweka trail was initially quite easy but soon became a difficult challenge, a rocky gully which appeared to be a streambed but was apparently fashioned as a trail by a contractor.  After hours of difficult climbing, we reached Mweka camp late in the afternoon.

Day 9 – Descent

Day – 9 Descent

This was the calmest day of all.  Waking in the tents for the last time, we stuffed out gear in our duffels (no need to be organized) and headed to the mess tent for our last mountain breakfast before setting out on the trail.

A look back at the summit on the last day of the descent.

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We were by now out of the hard trail and onto a relatively smooth path, gently stepped in places.  A three hour hike down through the forest and along a ridge brought us to a well maintained dirt road and eventually to the Mweka Gate where we signed out of the park at the ranger station and enjoyed a beer and a celebratory dance by our guides and porters.

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After a bus ride, we were back at the Springlands hotel to close this chapter in our adventure. Most of us had spent the day talking about our first shower in 10 days.  Fortunately the rooms had individual water heaters, as it was there was a stampede to get to the rooms.  Our first cold drink after getting cleaned up was immensely satisfying.

In Closing

This amazing adventure has been more than I ever imagined.  I’m healthier and fitter than I have been in years, and I have the immense satisfaction of an achievement like no other.

I won’t say that I’ve conquered the mountain, because that’s not what it was about.  I did, however, redefine my own limitations.

I’ve made a terrific group of good friends and gained a family in the Kilimanjaro Dream Team who are without exception like brothers and sisters to me after all we’ve been through together.

And I’m eternally grateful to Judy for supporting me throughout this mission, to Shawn, Kristi and the Kilimanjaro Dream Team, and to the many friends and family who supported my charity:

 

Mark D. • Donna D. • Brian C. • Ted & Marilyn F. • Scott E. • Dan B.

Stephen C. • Dan D. • Chris & Ian W. • Gillian S. • Sylvie S. • Jan S.

Tim R. • Fiona M • Fi M. • Marissa Z. • Tom & Liz J. • Sue F. • Ken R.

Marilyn M. • Mark L. • Graham C. • Peter van R. • Michael L. • Kathy J.

Angelica B. • Jeff & Diana K • Karin D. • Liz G. • Laura D. • Fred & Ariane C.

Caren S. • Cathy S. • Greg & Cindy L. • Barbara S. • Ruth C. • Kathy J. 

Cristian L. • Rose M. • Doreen M. • John van N. • Katharine T. • Nik C. 

Pat C. • Hugh P. • Mark L. • Kathy J. • Rachael P. • Andy & Juli B.

Rod G. • Michael B. • John & Anne S./L. • Susan J. • Stephanie M.

Craig H. • Bob F. • Jill S. • Susan D.

Rotary Club of South Nepean Rotary Club of Nepean-Kanata

and 5 anonymous donors

 

 

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