Stories about the Umbwe Route.
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Climber Stories & Advice

  1. Lou
    October 18, 2010 | Permalink

    Our guide and leader was Ian Wade, the safety director for Outward Bound. He’s made the climb a dozen times and has also summitted Everest. I was asked if I would do it again. I would, if for the FIRST time again, just to have the experience. I don’t think I would do it again though, for the second time. The days hiking and climbing were enjoyable, even invigorating. The body would get tired and sore.

    A good and satisfying sore though, as opposed to a painful sore. The nights were awful. Sleeping in a sleeping bag, in a tent, on uneven, slanted ground, in the cold … not your basic fine living. It definitely made the nights quite uncomfortable and long. I found myself awake quite often hoping the morning would come just so I could get outside and start doing something, anything.

    Day 1 – Day trip to Tarangire game reserve. Giraffe, elephant, warthog, lion, zebra, ostrich all within 10 – 50 yards of our Land Rover. We get our first injury. Jordan (age 18) and Jill (age 16) are riding (at 30 miles/hour) with their heads out of the Rover and Jordan gets hit in the neck with a flying dung beetle. It all seemed to happen in slow motion with his head jerking back from the impact and a welt forming almost immediately. Jill and I are, of course, cracking up as he’s holding his neck staring at this nasty looking kamikaze beetle on the floor of the vehicle. From then on they both kept their mouths tightly closed when on the move.

    Day 2 – Arising after a night of hard rains on the tin roof and animal sounds I’ve never heard before, we were met outside our cabin door by snails bigger than my fist. I’m thinking, we’re not in Kansas anymore. After the hour drive to Kilimanjaro Park we meet our chief Tanzanian guide, Balthazar and the other 16 porters who will carry “the big stuff”. We start and within 15 minutes Jordan, a smoker until 2 days earlier when he threw away his cigarettes in the Memphis airport, is panting like he’s been sprinting. After an hour we take our first break. When we get ready to start going again Jordan reads the sign we stopped near “Umbwe route starts here”. He says, “aw shit, we haven’t even started yet.” When he turns to go he hits his head on a big heavy branch. The next time we break he reaches out to lean his hand against a tree … one with giant thorns all over it.

    His mood though is great the whole day especially considering how much laughter Jill and I are having at his expense.

    Day 3 – Up at 7:00 … did I mention how miserable sleeping in a sleeping bag is? Climbing by 8:00. After an hour we’re getting out of the heavy forest and into the alpine forest with occasional glimpses of the peak … our goal. It’s breathtaking and inspiring. We’re in a fantasy setting with thick soft moss under foot and gnarly trees all around. I wouldn’t be surprised if a hobbit appeared at any moment.

    After another hour we can turn around and see the tops of the forest, the canopy, from which we’ve just emerged, stretching for miles below us. Dramatic confirmation of the altitude we’re gaining. The clouds are beginning their climb up the mountain. This happened every day and by afternoon, surrounded by clouds, it would hail. We make camp and that afternoon, when the clouds break, we can see Kili right in front of us. It’s bold and dramatic with glaciers falling down from the summit and ending in sheer drop-offs to steep old lava flows and fields of ash.

    That evening was crystal clear. The peak was illuminated by an almost full moon and the snows on top are shimmering and reflecting the moonlight with the stars behind creating a twinkling background. Our very own “starry night”.

    Day 4 – 7:35 and we’re off. After crossing the same gurgling stream
    3 times we’re climbing a canyon wall. The heart is racing and a few times we must hug the wall and take a big, trusting step to keep going. Nothing but shear drops to one side. Jordan and Jill both start getting mild altitude sickness symptoms … headache, dizziness, slight nausea.

    At the top of the canyon wall the surroundings change to bleak gravel and rock and grey dirt. We now spend the next few hours hiking around the mountain laterally. We make camp as the clouds begin to surround us. Later, with the kids napping, I take a walk a few hundred yards from camp to look down into a ravine. By the time I get there I’m surrounded by clouds. It’s quite eerie, like movies depicting the moors of Scotland (think of the movie Rob Roy) where one can completely disappear into a rock outcropping or over a ridge when a moment before they were close and in plain view. It’s getting really cold at night now.

    Day 5 – Up at 6:15. Boy, did Jill wake up on the wrong side of the sleeping bag this morning. I can’t understand it. It’s Christmas day, we haven’t showered in 4 days, it’s a 20 to 1 ratio of male to female, the toilets are literally holes in the ground, she has diarrhea, she misses her mom and her dog and her best friend, and her stomach is knotting up with the beginnings of an intestinal illness.

    I just don’t get it! Hellooooo, Dad! We make high camp after a few hours. These cute little chipmunks (the only living things around) are there to greet us. We feed them little crumbs and talk about how delightful they are. Later we find them in our bags and tent. Nothing can be left open for even a moment. Scratching, biting, pooping. The nasty rats are everywhere! The next day we will rest and acclimatize. We’re at 15,500 feet.

    Day 6 – Bored, cold most of the time, hot in the tent when the sun occasionally comes out. We can really feel the altitude. The 10 yard walk from the mess tent to our own leaves us breathing hard. At 5:00 p.m. we try to eat something but nobody has much of an appetite. Jill hasn’t eaten much for 2 days now and feels awful. We try to get a few hours of sleep and than get up at 11:00 p.m.

    Day 7 – Jordan and I are tired but anxious to get going on our 7 hour climb. Jill’s not doing well at all. Somehow, by midnight she’s ready. Immediately, Jill’s having trouble, doubling over with stomach pains every few minutes. She certainly isn’t noticing what a beautiful night it is. It’s about 30 degrees Fahrenheit with no wind. A full moon lights our path and silhouettes Kili in front of us. Jordan sees 2 shooting stars. At just under 16,000 feet Jill stops. She’s ready to go down and asks Jordy if he’s going to continue. He says he is. She says she’ll go on. At 16,000 feet she decides to go down. As we’ve planned, Ian goes with her. First, because she’s female and I want someone I’m sure I can trust with her. Second, because she’s having health/medical issues. I trust Ian completely and know she’s in competent hands, but still, it’s a tough decision for a father.

    Jordan and I continue with Balthazar and the ass’t guide, Steven. At 16,500 Jordan is thinking about going down. He can’t catch his breath even when resting and is very dizzy. He remembers a previous conversation about when one makes the top he still needs to have the strength to make it back down. He decides to go down. Steven goes with him. Balthazar and I continue. It’s 2:00 a.m. We’re moving at what seems like a snail’s pace, however, we pass 2 small groups of climbers.

    I want to turn around but keep thinking about what I’d tell people back home. More importantly, what would I say to my kids? “Sorry, but I got really tired and cold.” That would sound so pathetic. Each one of them pushed their bodies not only to, but past, its limit. I had been very fortunate up to this point having had no altitude sickness symptoms. That would soon change. At 17,500 feet I’m feeling nauseous and very sleepy. At 18,000 feet I stop and take some diamox (medicine for altitude sickness). When I reach for my backpack to get started again, Balthazar, who has no pack, picks up mine and says he’ll take it. I offer no protest. Although there’s not much left in it, as I’m wearing most of what was, it makes a difference.

    I quickly find myself in a mode of slow, thoughtless half steps staring at the ground between my feet barely ever looking up. I’m following the sound of Balthazar’s footsteps rather than making the effort to move my head the inch or two to look up and see his feet. I can now not only feel my heartbeat in my neck but also hear it thumping away. Balthazar asks me what time it is. 4:00 a.m. I am surprised that my 1st thought is that I’m more than half way and am somewhat hopeful, rather than thinking, I have 3 more hours and being disheartened.

    On we go. We pass a group of 3 people huddled around a woman throwing up. I think about asking if she’s ok, but don’t. As I climb, numbness seems to be the overriding feeling. The diamox seems to be working. My nausea and sleepiness don’t seem any worse. I eventually look to my left and notice we’ve reached the level of the glacier bottoms. I have no reaction, just pure observation. Soon I’m near the top of the glaciers. Again, the same non-reaction. Suddenly, I step on to fairly level ground. I look up to see Balthazar looking at me with a big grin. He say’s, “This is Stella Point”. I smile, we hug and I say “We’re going to make it”. Out of the blue I’m hit with this great sadness. It’s bittersweet to be here without my kids and I can’t hold back the tears. After a few minutes we’re off for the final leg. It’s 5:00 a.m. It’s only about a 45 minute climb, and not steep at all, to the summit. Along the way we hear an occasional loud crack as the glacier ice shifts. We’re seeing the back side of the glaciers we’ve been looking at the last few days. They are spectacular 300 – 400 foot sheer cliffs of ice. When we get to the top the sky is turning red in the east and the moon is still up in the west. It’s almost 6:00 a.m. As the sun begins to show itself it really does appear as if we’re standing on top of the world. We can see forever … in all directions.

    Would I do it again … a second time? Well, maybe, now that I think about it.

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