A Walk Above the Clouds: Kilimanjaro by the Machame Route

By Jerry Fine with comments in italics by Lee Waite

Day 4 -- Wednesday, July 30
I definitely slept better, between the bladder relief trips. Actually it was fun to step outside. Nights were always clear, with more stars than imaginable. The high altitude and lack of air pollution allowed us to see the milk in the milky way.

I got up early to take it all in, while drinking a cup of tea. One of the guides left very early, and we could see him rapidly climbing the wall. After the usual complete breakfast, we started out. I was wearing my polartec suit.

Almost immediately Sarah got into a little trouble. The path to the stream was not clear and she got off of it, and ended up in a bog, in mud up to her knees. I helped her get out, and took her back to camp. Chales and Jeffra were still there, as was Donald, Sarah's porter. She would be able to change clothes. At this point she told me to go ahead and catch up to the others.

For the next 15 minutes or so, I hiked faster than at any other time on the trip, catching Geoffrey, Chip and Lee at the bottom of the wall. We then climbed together, and it was quite steep. There were occasional stretches of hand and foot climbing. The wall was in shade and the opposite side of the Barranco in bright sunlight. We thought we could see the others leaving camp.

The large expedition was out in force and they had beaten us to the wall. This was unfortunate, since their pace was slower than ours. Geoffrey and I managed to pass most of them, which was not easy. Lee caught us about half way up, followed later by Chip. The climbing was actually fun. The altitude was not affecting us, and we were going up quickly.

Sure enough, near the top of the wall, here came Sarah, at full speed ahead following Donald. They had dried her boots on the fire while she had changed clothes. Naturally, this was one of the high points of the trip. Soon after that, we reached the top of the wall, and the whole south face of the mountain opened out before us. Most prominently displayed were the Heim Glacier, and other glaciers which seem to hang off the steep mountainside. We could see the trail stretching away in the distance to vanish over a distant skyline.

Figure 7: Left to right; Geoffrey, Sarah, Jerry and Lee high above the clouds

The scenery for the next couple of hours was spectacular. As we hiked along, traversing the folds of land at the bottom of the south face, maintaining around 13 to 14,000, the intimidating presence of the mountain up to our left was really felt. Geoffrey kept us moving at an even speed and around 11 am we looked down into a fold noticeably deeper than the others. It was the Karanga Valley.

A very steep descent down a trail with some icy patches, got us to the bottom. Members of our group had already arrived, and had started cooking a hot lunch. We sat down on some rocks and ate potato chile casserole, and drank lots of tea. There was a little bird who joined us for lunch, pecking around boldly. We talked to a Swiss climber on another expedition whose luggage was lost by an airline. It was supposed to meet him at the Barafu Hut, our destination for the day. Jeffra came up with Chales just as we were getting ready to move up, so she was only about 45 minutes behind us at that point.

After lunch, we had a very steep climb out of the Karanga valley. There followed more up and down traversing across the southern slopes of Kilimanjaro at around the 13,000 foot level. Finally we came to an intersection with the Mweka path, a route to the summit. It was 2:06 pm. It was now time to really start climbing the mountain.

We were going well. The route led up a long rocky ridge. As we crested it we could see Mawenzi, and parts of the saddle to our right. I tried not to look ahead since the route to the summit looked long and hard. After a while, one could see in the distance a large number of porters at a kind of low point on the ridge. It looked like that might be our destination. Spurred by the anticipation of getting the climb over with, I put on a burst of speed and Lee followed me. We pulled away from Chip and Sarah, but Geoffrey stayed with them. We did not realize that this was rather demoralizing. It was also premature, distances being hard to evaluate. We were still a long way off and had to slow down as we trudged up the ridge. We pulled into Barafu at 3:45 pm. Our elevation was 15,100 feet above sea level.

Going up this last ridge to the Barafu Hut I was very tired but I felt very strong. I found a steady rhythm that felt comfortable and concentrated on keeping this steady pace and matching Jerry step for step. I wondered what Jerry had in mind, but I figured that I could keep up this pace as long as he could. By the time we reached Barafu I was pretty well done in, but it was a wonderful kind of exhaustion.

Figure 8: Sarah at the Barafu campsite; A rocky place to sleep at 15,000 feet above sea level

Barafu is just a wide spot on the ridge, which now dropped steeply away on both sides, in particular to the east. There were two metal huts, which were used by guides and porters for cooking. A number of tents had been set up in flat sandy places where the rocks had been removed. We had very nice tent sites. Chip and Jeffra were a bit further up the ridge, near the large, fancy group. These guys had actually installed a seat in one of the latrines over the customary hole. They had two different colored rolls of toilet paper in there. Neat! But they were letting anyone use the latrine. So I used it, and told Chip about it.

A few months earlier, one of the latrines at Barafu had been the site of a tragic accident. The latrine is rather close to the edge of the ridge. Suffering from exhaustion and lack of oxygen one must take great care in wandering to this particular latrine in the dark. One climber, who it was thought had also taken sleeping pills, wandered to close to the edge and fell to her death. It was a very unusual accident.

Chip also tried to fly his kite, something he always does at high camps. But, guess what, there was not enough wind! I've never been at a 15,000 foot campsite before that was not cold and windy. But this one was relatively warm and sunny. I felt incredibly good. I remember the time in 1989 that Lee and I and some friends hauled into the Chalchoapan hut at about the same altitude on Ixta. It was really cold, and I was hypothermic. Had to warm up in my sleeping bag. (Hadn't been wearing polartec that day.) But this was so different; it was almost too nice.

I also remember that day at Chalchoapan, high on the Mexican volcano. Jerry had a pretty rough time of it that day. Even though we are both eight years older than we were in 1989, we were in much better condition on this trip -- especially Jerry.

We sat around in the sun, and Geoffrey served up a nice snack of tea, cookies and cakes. There was not enough room to put up our mess tent, so he spread a picnic cloth on the ground outside of the tent in which Lee and I would be sleeping. Supper was soup, two bowls apiece followed by spaghetti with a nice chicken sauce. We ate heavily, and then retired to our tents about 5:30 pm to try for some sleep.

In the meantime, Jeffra was struggling up the ridge with Chales. She finally came in after we were in our tents. In the meantime, Chip told me that he wanted to stay with Jeffra during the next day's summit attempt. I didn't try to persuade him, but I felt that he was giving up the summit.

It was not easy to sleep. I could definitely feel the altitude in terms of more rapid breathing and pulse, but I felt good. All that Diamox and hydration were paying off.

Suddenly, while lying in the tent, I was sure I heard, oh no, thunder! I got up and looked out. The night sky was crystal clear with even more stars than ever. The thunder was someone pounding on the sheet metal sides of the hut. Another distraction was the large group. They had their picnic table within 10 feet of our tent, and were gathering for their briefing, by their chief guide, who seemed to be English. They also had Tanzanian guides with them as well. Many of the members of this group were far behind, coming in about when Jeffra did. They seemed pretty wasted, but others were yucking it up. Listening to their brief was not fun. "I sure hope we get out in front of them again," I thought to myself.

Although I was excited about the summit attempt and despite the altitude, the large supper, the rude group of climber just outside our tent (literally just a few feet away), I fell asleep pretty quickly. I didn't hear the end of the brief and I never heard the "thunder."


Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 5

Day 6

If you have comments or suggestions, email me at lee.waite@rose-hulman.edu

Copyright 1997 by Lee Waite and Jerry Fine
Rebroadcast or any other use of this document, without the express written consent of Major League Baseball or the authors, is prohibited