A Walk Above the Clouds

Kilimanjaro by the Machame Route

By Jerry Fine with comments in italics from Lee Waite

Figure 1: Mawenzi as viewed from the saddle

To begin with, we are not real mountain climbers, the folks who climb the vertical ice walls with ropes and picks. We are just hikers who like a physical challenge and travel to exotic places. In November 1995, Lee Waite, whose office is next to mine at Rose-Hulman, was my partner on a four day climb during which we traversed the summit of Mt. Ixtaccihuatl, a 17,400 foot peak in central Mexico. We had a great time, even though the weather was miserable and we had to camp at about 16,500 feet in a snowstorm not far from the summit. When we got down from the climb it was not long until we started trying to think of a way to top that experience.

My daughter, Sarah, a PhD student in clinical psychology at University of Delaware, is also a strong hiker who likes the mountains. Last summer (1996), in six days, Sarah and I climbed six peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet in height, and she had such a good time doing it that it seemed that she, too, would have to be included in the next adventure.

Since I am really an "arm-chair mountaineer" I had read a lot about Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. This is a mountain which can be hiked if you are hardy enough, and many ordinary people climb it each year. Most of them ascend the Marangu Route, a five day four night up and back trek, along a well established trail, equipped with spacious huts. Everyone has to be accompanied by a guide and porters, so the whole thing is really a kind of hiking safari. There are some other approaches to the summit which take longer and require tents for camping, but also miss the crowds on the Marangu Route. The most remote, interesting, and scenic of these alternatives is called the Machame Route.

I never really expected to climb Kilimanjaro. It would be too far, and too expensive. But the world has gotten smaller due to the Boeing 747, and travel agents working with consolidators can get some pretty amazing airfares. Simple research did it. We would fly KLM and stay at the Marangu Hotel at the base of the mountain, and they would outfit our climb of the Machame route.

Arrival in Tanzania
We had reached the Marangu Hotel late on Friday night. Sarah and I were pretty stressed from 7 hours across the Atlantic to Amsterdam, four hours on the ground there, followed by an 8 hour hop to Kilimanjaro International Airport, near Moshi, Tanzania. Lee was somewhat better off since he had been relaxing in Germany prior to joining us at the Amsterdam airport.

I think that Lee was a lot better off. Spending a week in Germany visiting friends was a nice relaxing way to adjust to the jet lag. When I got on the plane in Amsterdam, I was well rested and ready for adventure. Sarah and Jerry arrived in Amsterdam looking like they had just been through an adventure. I think Sarah slept quite a bit on the flight to Tanzania but by the time we touched down at Kilimanjaro International Airport, adrenaline had taken over and we were all wide awake and excited about exploring a new continent.

I awakened early Saturday morning, looked out of the window of my bungalow, and there it was: the Big K. The mountain was over 20 miles away, but it seemed to fill the sky. After all, it's about 50 miles long, and rises over 15,000 feet above the plains at its base. Kibo, the central peak, and highest point is the big rounded dome, commonly seen in the Africa posters. At one end of the massif, and separated from Kibo by a 3 mile wide saddle at 14,500 feet, is Mawenzi, a jagged rock peak rising to around 17,000 feet. Opposing Kibo at the other end of the mountain, touching the 12,000 foot level is Shira, a vast and ancient caldera. There it was all right, just like the books described it, glistening in the morning sun. All that remained was to try to climb it. I felt a tad intimidated. Lee and Sarah were snapping pictures, and seemed to be full of confidence. Later that morning we went on a walk through the "shambas"or farms around Marangu, guided by Aman, a local youth. Early in the afternoon two Tanzanian ladies came around to inspect our gear for the climb. Sleeping bags, parkas, expedition weight long underwear, etc, they checked it all with surprising thoroughness. We began to realize that the Marangu Hotel, the outfitter of our safari, was an unusually well run organization with years of experience getting people up the mountain. This impression was confirmed at our briefing on Saturday evening by Seamus Brice-Bennett, the hotel manager. I had been expecting a tough looking dude in shorts and a bush hat. Instead, we got a mild mannered chap wearing slacks and a sweater who looked like an accountant. But his looks belied his experience. He had climbed the mountain many times. He gave us an unusually comprehensive brief describing each day of the climb, and giving numerous tips to help us succeed. The briefing had a good effect on me. I realized that I had an extremely good chance to climb the mountain provided that nothing went wrong.

Figure 2: Lee at a waterfall near Marangu village

During the afternoon of this first day in Tanzania, Sarah and I went for an afternoon run. Left on my own, I probably would not have bothered to exercise on a day when I was anticipating six ensuing days of serious exercise. However, Sarah was excited about being in Africa, nervous about climbing Kilimanjaro and was craving physical activity. We decided to run uphill through the village of Marangu for 15 or 20 minutes and then return so I agreed to join her. We must have been quite a spectacle. A number of villagers seemed to derive significant entertainment value from our run and one rather elderly woman even tried to sign-on as the third member of a jogging trio, for several hundred yards.

Saturday we had also gotten to know Chip and Jeffra, a couple from Virginia who were going to be our partners on the climb. Chip, an environmental lawyer in his 50's seemed to be an extremely competent outdoors man, who had climbed Rainier, and had also been on a McKinley expedition, though he didn't summit. Jeffra, his wife, was a very attractive lady in her late 40's. She was on her first mountain climb, and the brief had the opposite effect on her that it did on me. Besides, a scary thing happened at supper. A group of climbers who had just come down from the route we were to climb was sitting at the next table. We could easily overhear their talk. They had summited, but the trip had been awful with rain and mud. Several times I wanted to say, "Would you please just shut up."

After supper that Saturday we went to bed early. Early the next morning we would meet our guides and porters. I think I know now why I didn't sleep. It was excitement.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5 - summit day

Day 6

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

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Copyright 1997 by Lee Waite and Jerry Fine
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