Amy Herrmann's and Ariana Verdu's Trip to Mount Kilimanjaro
This is not simply a story about climbing a mountain. My story, or our story I should say, is one of two friends who took on what is arguably the most physically challenging undertaking either of us has ever attempted in our lives to date. It is not only that. It is a story of a friendship itself and its evolution through an experience.
I can count the number of people I trust on one hand. It’s not something I’m proud of. Some people consider their lack of faith in others and misanthropic cynicism to be a redeeming quality, one to be celebrated. I used to be one of them, and part of me that still considers emotional detachment an achievement still holds on to that semblance of former self.
Yet, at the same time, I consider my inability to trust others among my worst faults. It is in all its poetry, sad, and something I’ve tried for a long time to change about myself. But people don’t always make it easy which is why when you find someone who does, it is especially important to write a lengthy blog entry, submit it to the CIEE program webpage, and make their ears turn red. This is not simply a story about climbing a mountain, but most of it is.
Sunday- March 27th, 2011
“Polé, polé,” Shabaz said. “No need for that now. Save your energy for the summit.” I smiled to myself as we hiked through the misty rainforest, and flashbacked to weeks earlier when Ariana and I walked into Quinton’s office and hesitantly asked if there was anywhere we couldn’t go for Spring Break. When we shed light on our projected plan to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, he laughed a big booming laugh, smiled at us and said, “Lovely! Remember, ‘Polé, pole.’”
The phrase means, “Slowly, slowly” as we soon discovered, which has some troubling implications given the fact that I’m a native New Yorker and not prone to walking at low speeds. Ariana too charges forward with a purpose, even on the most leisurely of strolls. Our guide Shabaz noticed this early on and constantly attempted to remind us, “Polé, pole.”
2 Months Earlier…
Mercedes smiled kindly at me and looked at Ariana with the authority of a mother attempting to lay down the law to a somewhat belligerent child. “We don’t need to know where you are every minute of the day, but I’ll make you a deal. If you tell us when and where you’re travelling, and you don’t do anything stupid, you can go to Spain for Spring Break senior year.” Ariana and I looked at each other in disbelief as my mom nodded her approval. We were sitting across from our mothers in Rockefeller Center at The Sea Grill— my favorite restaurant in New York City— two days before we were due to leave for Cape Town. It was about time our mothers met. Three years of college, the prospect of a semester together in South Africa, and a housing lease with both our names on it for senior year in Los Angeles gave way to the realization that we were sort of close friends. Fast-forward two and a half months to my email inbox and you can see countless messages that begin with, “I had a lovely lunch with Ariana’s mom today!” But, I digress. The guilt of leaving my mother behind is somewhat appeased by the happiness I get from seeing she’s making new friends, and both Ariana and I are pleased to see that our mothers get along well (we definitely take credit).
Back to dinner, where that offer was the last thing we expected to hear. We grinned at each other, both thinking the same thing: It was time we made sure they realized we weren’t joking, (a common error). Unsure as to whether or not the promise of Spain would apply to our planned trip to Mount Kilimanjaro, we braced ourselves and began with, “Well actually, we do already sort of have this one plan that you kind of do already sort of know about…”
My mother has learned to expect these things from me. After the better part of the past year spent travelling the Middle East and North Africa alone, sneaking into the West Bank, jumping into a cab from Jordan into Syria, and things of that nature, she’s come to learn that when I have a plan, she’ll be hard-pressed to dissuade me. That doesn’t stop her from gasping and interjecting her favorite use of my middle name when she thinks I’m doing something insane: “[sharp inhale] Amy Lynn!”
And so it goes. Ariana and I had each had it in our minds to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for months, and a collaborative conversation through blackberry messenger last summer settled it.
A1: “So, what are your thoughts on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for Spring Break?”
A2: “Very positive.”
And then came the realization that we had some serious getting-in-shape to do. Training was rigorous and entailed waking up at 5am most mornings to work out at Boot Camp in the weeks leading up to Spring Break. Long walks uphill every day toned our legs and going for runs prepared our endurance. It wasn’t uncommon to see us wearing hiking boots walking around campus or sitting on our beds lifting weights. Our social life was limited, as we often chose to stay in and sleep early so we could wake up early, but for the first time in a long time we felt healthy and truly considered the trek a viable reality. We’d been researching different companies and routes for months. From what we were told, the most difficult part of the climb was not actually the physical hike itself, though to be certain it is absolutely challenging. Instead it is the altitude sickness that affects nearly every climber in some capacity, and many don’t take the proper time and steps to adjust their bodies to new heights.
Not summiting was not an option. We had been planning this trip for a long time, amazed that as the months seemed to pass, the possibility became probability, and probability morphed into reality. We were excited, and we found ourselves sitting across from a travel agent booking our trip to Moshi, Tanzania. We chose the Marangu Route and gave ourselves 6 days for the climb, adding in an extra day of acclimatization. Both of us have histories of Anemia, meaning there are fewer red blood cells, and therefore less oxygen in our bloodstreams. We were unsure of how the lack of oxygen at higher altitudes would affect us, so we decided to make it a 6-day climb instead of the 5-day, the latter of which many people prefer.
We spent the following weeks putting maximum effort into preparing our snack foods for the hike, and ensuring we had proper equipment. My favorite moment was at a hiking store in Claremont when we were trying on thermal underwear.
A: “Excuse me sir, does this underwear fit the right way?”
Fits of giggles promptly ensued. Seemingly each step we took towards our trip made us giddier and slightly nervous. Did we pack enough? Did we pack too little? Do I have enough socks? Do I have my passport and vaccination card? Are we actually in shape enough? Oh no, we leave tomorrow…..
Friday- March 25th, 2011
“I think all we did today was eat and sleep. And travel from Cape Town to Kenya.”
5:30am dawned early and Ariana and I enjoyed the private joke that waking up before the sun rises is no longer that absurd to us. We’d been doing it for weeks at Boot Camp. A cab ride and 1 delicious chocolate chip muffin later, a stopover in Johannesburg where there were gourmet chocolate truffles to be tasted and Hӓagen Dazs ice cream to be consumed (all with the notion that we’d soon be working it off), and we arrived in Nairobi to a man holding a sign for “Antony Holtman and Ariana,” (no last name). Needless to say he was looking for two men, and henceforth I am known as Antony.
Saturday- March 26th, 2011
Ten minutes out of the city center found us driving precariously on Kenyan roads (on a bus that might have tipped over at any given moment) and happening upon a green landscape sprawled for miles, dotted with clusters of small houses and convenience stores roofed with corrugated iron lining the roads all the way to Tanzania. People yelled across to each other in Kiswahili, a large portion of which I surprisingly can understand because much of the language is derived from Arabic. We drove all the way from Nairobi to Moshi, Tanzania, where we stayed at a quiet but beautiful hotel that operated in conjunction with our tour company. We met others who would be climbing the same route as us—an Australian girl name Zoë whose name quickly became Zoo (in Tanzania I was known as just “Herrmann”), and a couple from the Czech Republic.
We were briefed on the journey, discovered it would be a private climb for me and Ariana, and were informed we would be unable to shower for the next 6 days. After our briefing we rented equipment because surprisingly I really didn’t bring my ski pants to South Africa. It would’ve been cool if we could look exceptionally bad-ass climbing Kilimanjaro but really, these clothes are much more our style (bright purple and blue pants that I’m pretty sure you can see from the bottom of the mountain). We also got gigantic sleeping bags suitable for -25 degrees Celsius weather, neon ski poles, rain jackets, and mismatched gloves. All I wanted to do was organize that storage room. Afterwards we ate dinner at the hotel’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Sidenote: telling a bunch of med students that you’re allergic to a fruit while simultaneously eating it is amusing.
Sunday- March 27th, 2011: 8 km/3 hours/1,840m — 2,720m to Mandara Hut
Apologies in advance to anyone who does not find the account of the next several days amusing. Keep in mind that we were severely exhausted, semi-delirious, and low on oxygen for most of it.
We were picked up from the hotel early by our guide Shabaz and his team of porters and assistant guides, transported to the Marangu Gate of Kilimanjaro National Park in Moshi, and started our hike through the rainforest to Mandara Camp around mid-morning with Godlistens (because when he speaks, God listens). Among those starting out on the same route was a group of really old and tiny Japanese men and women who began each morning with a series of group exercises and stretches. My favorite is the butt-swivel, which entails putting your hands on your knees, bending your legs ever so slightly, and rotating your butt. I can honestly say I adore these people.
Highlight of the day: Having a Tanzanian guide from another company flirt with you, your attempt to run away gracefully, and subsequently falling face-first on the floor.
Czech Man: “What are you doing?”
Me: “Oh. Just bleeding” (as I wash away the substantial amount of blood leaking from my knee).
And then the Czechs painted me green. I’m not joking. They had this “medicine,” which I’m convinced was just green food coloring designed to sting that they claimed would help my knee heal. I don’t really know what it did, except that I kept it covered for the next few days in order to avoid the “Oh YOU’RE the girl who fell at base camp one!”comments (to no avail), and now a week later, my knee is a multicolored disaster.
Shabaz: “You have smiling faces. From this I can tell you are going to make it.” (The attempts at subtle positive reinforcement were endearing).
Guide: “Dinner is in 5 minutes.”
A&A: “I’m sorry….WHAT?”
Let me tell you everything I ate on Day 1: eggs, bread, fruit, pancakes, chocolate, muesli, granola bar, cake, 2 meat patties, 2 samosas, 2 boxes of juice, an apple, peanuts, bananas, popcorn, biscuits, tea, soup, potatoes, fish, spinach, more bananas, and peanut butter.
The goal was not necessarily to lose weight, but to be in shape. Granted, we need the energy but I think we’re headed in the wrong direction here…
Monday- March 28th, 2011: 12 km/5 hours/2,720m — 3,720m to Horombo Hut
2am: It was a new and foreign feeling to wake up in the middle of the night as the result of severe dehydration. It was frightening and something I had never experienced before. Uncontrollable shaking and nausea was unchartered territory, but Ariana awoke when I did and stayed up with me to help, suggesting that I drink water- it would either help, or it wouldn’t hurt. So I did and thankfully it alleviated the physical distress as well as the mental (my first thought being, oh NO I have to go back down now). The rest of the night passed uneventfully, except with the general question being that if it was that cold at such a low altitude, how cold would it be at the summit?
We awoke to the assistant guide bringing us “welcome bed tea, and warm water for wash,” which became an every-morning occurrence. After breakfast and packing we began our hike to Horombo, which was a much longer, steeper hike than the day before. We changed environments from walking in the rainforest to hiking through heath and moorland. This is one of my favorite parts about hiking Kilimanjaro— the biological diversity and variety of flora and fauna at each level. The huts at each camp are all the same- small triangular buildings posted a few feet above the ground on stilts, with 4 mattresses— 3 inside lined against the walls on the floor and one bunked on top of the other at the back. They’re small but perfectly comfortable, if a little cold. The mess hall is relatively large and everyone sets up meals there with their individual guides. Ariana and I are abnormally messy on this mountain. Either we’re too exhausted to function like civilized human beings, or we have devolved back into Neanderthals because there is really no excuse for the amount we spill everywhere. It’s also severely distressing how much we’re being fed, and our guides appear not to notice that we have issues with portion control. If you put food in front of us, we WILL eat it. For dinner we thought we had it easy with soup, rice, beef, and some vegetables. And then they brought out pancakes, chicken, and bananas. With food we began our dosage of Diamox (acetazolamide) which is meant to quell the symptoms of altitude sickness. Many climbers take it to avoid the dizziness, headaches, nausea, and more gross effects of travelling to such high altitudes (which I won’t go into), but some consider it cheating. For our part, we were not going all the way from Cape Town to Kilimanjaro to not make it to the top. We took the medicine.
Tomorrow would be easy, so Ariana and I stayed up a little later and gaped at the stars for a few hours. Where I come from, if I see two stars, it’s an enchanting evening. That being said, there is absolutely nothing that can compare with star-gazing on this mountain above the clouds. It’s a moment where everything else in the world becomes unimportant and you simply feel small, but in a good and comforting way.
Shabaz: “In all my years I have never seen someone walk like you two. You’re like jets. Do you know what jets are?”
A: “You feed me too much.”
Shabaz: “Thank you.”
Man checking us into the huts: “Oh, you’re a student. We sell beer here!”
A:”That’s okay, thanks though.”
Man: “Students that don’t like beer? Oh, that’s no good. No good.”
Tuesday, March 29th, 2011: Day for Acclimatization- 8 km/2 hours/3,720m — 4,100m
Ariana’s sleeping bag broke last night. When we get back down to our hotel I’m going to pick a fight with someone. It sounds bratty and in actuality I’ll be nice about it, but renting faulty equipment, especially when it’s this cold is absurd to me. The dried fruit in my muesli is frozen.
The Japanese group surrounded us today and wanted to take pictures with us, and Ariana invented peanut butter & jelly porridge pancake rolls. It’s been an eventful morning. Seeing what other people are served for meals is always interesting. I wasn’t sure how I felt about seeing a sizeable group being served watermelon for breakfast. My first thought was, oh NO! Some poor porter had to carry an entire watermelon up Mount Kilimanjaro. I suppose they’re used to it—it’s truly amazing how they can carry your big bag up the mountain to the camp running, while simultaneously balancing cooking equipment, food, and their own supplies on their heads. And they still get there hours before you.
After breakfast we hiked about an hour up to 4100 meters just to acclimatize. We ended up at a spot called the Zebra Rocks which, true to their name, are black and white striped rocks. The hike was only an hour but we definitely felt a change in the altitude and had to take it a little slower than normal.
A: “Now that’s what I call a Thanksgiving breakfast!”
A: “You look like a penguin. In the best way!”
Wednesday- March 30th, 2011: 12 km/6 hours/3,720m — 4,703m to Kibo Hut
I sneezed today. If you know me at all you know that only bad things can happen from sneezing on a mountain. We haven’t even reached the most difficult part of this trek and already I am a bruised and bloody mess. The next 24 hours are about to be rough.
We woke up really early to start from Horombo through an alpine desert to Kibo Hut, the last accommodation before beginning the summit journey. It started becoming very difficult to breathe and we had to go slow, which was hard because it got really cold as the day wore on. We also began to see people coming down from the summit. It was nerve-wracking to hear how many people didn’t make it, and seeing people we knew coming down having not made it to the summit was disheartening. At this point, it was more about mental preparation than anything else. We arrived to Kibo around 1pm, were immediately fed lunch, and told to go to sleep.
Me: “Ariana are you awake?”
Me: “It’s snowing.”
Me: “It’s snowing.”
This is a sick joke. We slept four hours and were awoken again at 6 for dinner (also, a sick joke). We ate reluctantly in our sleeping bags, knowing we would need the energy. Did I mention how cold it was? Shabaz came in to go over our equipment with us. My summit outfit included 2 pairs of liners, 2 pairs of thick socks, boots, 2 pairs of thermal bottoms, 1 pair of normal pants, ski pants, an undershirt, 2 pairs of thermals, a t-shirt, two sweatshirts, a winter ski-jacket, a hat, 2 pairs of gloves, and a scarf. I set all my clothes out (while in my sleeping bag, I might add), then attempted to sleep until 11pm.
Thursday- March 31st, 2011: 32 km/9 hours/4,703m — 5,895m to Uhuru Peak & Return to Horombo Hut
Now, the funny thing is that our guides told us they woke us up at 11pm. Everybody is supposed to leave Kibo and depart for the summit at midnight. Somehow Ariana and I didn’t leave until 1:40am, and we still can’t figure out why, but we made it to the top just as everyone else was leaving, meaning had we left when they did, we would have arrived at the top incredibly early.
The summit night was long and exhausting. Shabaz was sick so he didn’t come with us and instead replaced himself with his 2 assistant guides, neither of whom spoke English, and one of whom got severely sick along the way. Ariana and I spent the better part of the night in role reversal, taking care of our guides and each other as we trekked upwards in the cold darkness.
We began the hike from Kibo to Gilman’s Point, which is the most difficult part of the entire journey. It was dark and icy, and the sky was backdropped by lightning beneath us as it snowed from above. It was too cold to stop walking, so we hiked long distances until we found caves to sit in and drink black tea. Neither Ariana nor I felt any effects of the altitude change except for difficulty breathing, and we reached Gilman’s Point (5,685m) in 4.5 hours. We rested briefly while it snowed lightly and realized we had lucked out with the weather. Because it had snowed and rained the afternoon before, the night was warm(er than it should’ve been) and not windy. The snow was cold, but kind of pleasant.
After Gilman’s we began the 2-hour hike to Uhuru Peak, the tallest point in Africa, situated on Kili. We walked through the snow in the mountains, overlooking the crater at the bottom and the glaciers off to the sides. It was beautiful and surreal. That part of the hike was nowhere near as difficult as Kibo to Gilman’s because it was much more level. We watched a breath-taking sunrise from Stella Point at 5,756 meters and then walked slowly the rest of the way to Uhuru Peak—5,895 meters. We took our pictures, hung around for about 10 minutes because it was too cold to stand still any longer than that, and began our descent back to Kibo, using ski poles for balance. Strangely enough, both Ariana and I got awful headaches on the way down (in addition to the severe physical pain, exhaustion, and mild delirium). At one point Ariana actually fell asleep sitting on a rock.
Me: “You can’t sleep here. We have to get off the mountain.”
The hike to Kibo was long and essentially involved skiing through mounds of dirt the whole way down because the freeze had melted from the night before. It was awesome. No one ever lets me play in dirt anymore. My hiking boots will never be the same though.
We returned to Kibo amidst many handshakes and congratulations, and promptly fell asleep. We were woken up for lunch 2 hours later, spent it eating in our sleeping bags, packed, and left for Horombo in the snow. Apparently we had earned ourselves a reputation on Mount Kilimanjaro. Our guide told us everyone was asking him about his 2 American clients who walked like jets, laughed hysterically during meals, and hopped around in their sleeping bags to pack, instead of acting like normal human beings. I blame it on the altitude.
Friday- April 1st, 2011: 20 km/7 hours to Marangu Gate
“Poa kichizi kama ndizi!”— “Crazy cool like a banana!”
The way down was short in comparison with the time it took to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, but it was hard on the knees and feet. We were picked up at the gate and transported back to the hotel where we returned our equipment, showered for a very long time, and slept, and slept, and slept some more. The next days were uneventful and involved lots of resting and a long bus ride back to Nairobi where we caught a plane and returned to the land of essays, homework, and technological communication.
Bringing it Home:
I got lost in my thoughts, walking down Kilimanjaro. I wondered how it would be to return to civilized society, where people use utensils to eat and shower daily. There’s something fun and natural in eating with your hands. And there’s something fun in being caked in mud for days on end.
But mostly I wondered how the past week had affected my relationship with Ariana. I reread my journal entries from the trip and realized that everything I had written included her in some capacity. My thoughts were from a personal perspective, but they involved her absolutely. I know myself and the way I form relationships with people. In the past when I’ve started to feel too close to someone, I pull away because I’m more comfortable keeping others at a distance. But I didn’t do that with her, for a couple of reasons I suppose. First, you can’t exactly run away from someone on Kilimanjaro, and second, even if you could, I don’t think I’d want to. There are very few people I would have attempted this trip with. It’s an intense physically and biologically challenging experience where you don’t know what to expect from your body. Spending a week straight with someone in confined quarters necessitates being close with them, being tolerant of one another, and potentially seeing someone at their weakest state of being, which can counter everything you know about a person.
Having a friend who will stay up in the middle of the night with you when you’re sick in below-freezing weather is invaluable. Walking arm-in-arm because only one of you has a headlamp, or helping each other go a few more feet when you can’t breathe in thin air, or sharing medicine and clothes and snacks to ensure that you both make it to the top are memories that stick with a person because they remind you of someone else, and the sacrifices they made for a friend.
There was not a moment over this break that Ariana and I spent apart, and that was a true test of our friendship. In addition to constantly amusing one another (because in reality, Kilimanjaro was no laughing matter), we both made sacrifices for the other and we both worked to ensure that we made it to the top. Not summiting was not an option.
And in closing, I’d just like to say, “We packed abnormally well for having no idea what the hell we were doing!”
Amy Herrmann and Ariana Verdu are students from the University of Southern California.