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  • Writer's pictureDillon

On Trodden Clouds, Perspectives from Kilimanjaro

We sped through the Tanzanian countryside in a blur of singing and enthusiasm. I sat anxiously, looking out the window at the dilapidated stands flanking either side of the road. There were shoes for sale, liters of water, and fruits. The people we passed, looked on at our oversized passenger van.

What must they think about us, I wondered?

As we drew nearer to the mountain, the vegetation rapidly transitioned from rural farmland to dense rainforest.

And then we were at the gate. The cool mountain air was revitalizing, the sun was shining, and the luxurious blue sky and verdant green foliage intermixed in kaleidoscopic manner - nourishing the spirit.

There's truly something special about Kilimanjaro: it's teeming with life, and it exists at a scale that is somehow overwhelming and intimate.

We begin ascending through the rainforest, passing by waterfalls and pools. Wind bends the top of the lush canopy overhead and monkeys leap from tree to tree.

The Mandara camp is beautiful with little A-frame huts dotting the hillside. At 9,000 feet elevation with significant amounts of humidity, the night is cold - leaving me concerned that I had not packed enough warm clothing for the trip.

Total hike is just under 5 miles, and my step count is 18,075.

I don't have a great place to put this, but it is so important to me that you know that the first African man to summit Kilimanjaro - Yohana Lauwo.

Day 2

The rain forested Mandara camp was cold and foggy - decidedly not the ideal weather for continuing our trek, but our guides and porters surprised us with song and dance, which buoyed our spirits and got us pumped to trek to the Horombo camp.

The trek up to the Horombo camp was beautiful as the rainforest gradually gave way to heath moorland climate zone. The fog in the heath made it feel like we were trekking through middle earth, and I may or may not have sung the misty mountain song.

The Horombo camp was beautiful, and it's perched just above the clouds at 12,200 feet elevation. The vegetation in the area is impressive and otherworldly.

After reaching the camp, we quickly embarked on an acclimatization hike up to the zebra rocks.

The hike was fun, and the rocks were beautiful, but then disaster struck.

It ached to keep my eyes open.
“Is this vertigo?”
“Am I concussed?” I remember thinking as I sat gingerly on a small boulder next to the trail.
I had been descending slowly, and I remember planting one foot on the ground only to find the rocks underfoot give way. I flung my right arm up in the air to regain my balance, but then my other foot alights on unstable ground. I fight again to stay upright, but I feel my torso twisting in response to my legs flinging awkwardly in different directions. I was tumbling. I crashed down on my left side and rolled down the trail.
My lovely friend Jill described the fall as a triple axel – one that I failed to land in a major way. While I rested on the ground, I felt fine – albeit sore. Then I tried to get up on my own power.
Something didn’t feel right.
I had a guide and Daniel help me up, and I couldn’t see straight. I almost feel again before the two stabilized my body and led me to the boulder.
Torrents of fear and anger swelled within, as I began to question whether I would be able to continue the ascent. Everyone was silent, and I rambled on trying to reassure others (myself?) that I was okay – even when it was obvious that I was struggling. Then a new problem arose.
I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.
I don’t want to explain what happened here, but Daniel was a real mensch, as my lovely friend Jill said, on two instances on this trek, and this was definitely one of those times.

I descended gingerly, but I started feeling better and better as we made our way down to camp.

Night came and greeted us with a celestial exuberance. The milky way galaxy glowed like an ethereal vapor above and the stars were radiant and lustrous. It was one of those moments that felt too perfect to leave. But we were all weary from the trekking that day, and we had little choice to turn in for the night - notwithstanding the brilliant celestial display above.

When we all returned to our hut, I thought it would be fun to create a ghost story about a Horombo hut man. The story was typical camp fare, but it felt right. The next day our guide Jonas told us about Horombo Urio, the chief the namesake for our camp. Jonas explained that Horombo was a great chief who united his clan in a conflict. Toward the end of the conflict, Horombo retreated to the mountain and no one ever saw him again. Then at the Kibo camp, someone had written on the wall "Beware the Horombo hut man."

Look, I'm not saying that the spirit of Horombo spoke to me in order to spread the legend, but I'm not saying he didn't...

Day 2 stats - 32, 827 steps

We left early and with purpose. Each step started to feel more and more serious, as the reality that we would begin our final descent that evening. The vegetation around us grew more and more sparse, and we eventually came to a barren road, where we were told to be wary of the winds. I have little to say about this hike, but we did sing "When You Believe" from the Prince of Egypt, so I was in pretty good spirits.

In comparison to Horombo, Kibo was spartan and uninviting. At an elevation exceeding 15,000 feet, hikers aren't meant to spend much time at this campsite.

We ate dinner quietly, the gravity of the next 12 hours looming heavily. We had our blood oxygen percentage checked, as well as our pulse. It's dorky, but we really enjoyed our daily check-ins with Jonas. Unlike the previous 2 nights, our tests reflected the altitude as blood oxygen percentages were lower and heart rates were dramatically higher. We went to bed at 7:30 with the knowledge that we would all be waking up again in three hours.

Day 3 stats - 33,696 steps

I passed into a dreamless sleep, and awoke to Moodi, our helping porter - who would always bring us water to wash and our meals - urging us to wake up. I tried to eat some of the food, but my appetite wasn't there.

Then we all ventured into the quiet night with the pale blue moonlight and our headlamps to light our paths. The stars glowed serenely above, but they were less vibrant than the night before, betraying the ardor of our final ascent. In the distance, we saw one solitary group, which we would later pass. The small group consisted of two guides and one hiker, a middle-aged woman who appeared to be struggling. The woman was clearly struggling, and I asked Jonas if he thought she would make it to the top: he remarked that as long as one goes slowly, there's always a chance to make it to the summit.

We climbed slowly and took frequent breaks, which made it difficult for me to fight off the cold. Every break, I would begin to shiver and my hands would get numb with cold. It was painful, cold, and it seemed that the sweet solace of sunrise would never come. The unending switchbacks and ground which seemed to always slide under our feet made the trek to Gilman's point seem unreachable.

Eventually, we made our way over the ridge, and I saw the sign marking Gilman's point. I rushed forward and began to cry-laugh from sleep deprivation and exhaustion. As we sat at Gilman's point, I saw the first crimson rays creep out over the distant horizon: morning was coming and with it an end to the chilling night. The sunrise was spectacular, even if I could only see it while looking back during our hiking.

After reaching Gilman's point, things were dramatically different. I was almost falling asleep while standing, and my head began to pound due to the altitude. I felt so foggy, and I just wanted to lay down on the ground and close my eyes. But we were so close to Uhuru. It took significant amounts of willpower to continue forward, as we trekked around the rim of volcano, but at last we reached the final glaciers up at the top.

Then I saw it - the sign marking Uhuru. I rushed forward, and then I cried again. We all hugged one another and celebrated. We all suffered to reach this point, but we all succeeded.

The way down was quick, and we were able to sand ski down the ridge from Gilman's point to Kibo below. Our porter's greeted us a few hundred meters from the camp and took our bags. We took a quick nap upon reaching Kibo, and then continued down to Horombo. On our way down, we came across two European women. We learned that one had made it, while the other didn't. Daniel guessed that the one who looked more sad was the one, and he was right. The journey to Tanzania is long, even for those coming from Europe, and it isn't what I would call a cheap trip, so failing to summit would sting. That said, between 35% to 45% of all climbers don't make it to the summit. Abdul, the organizer of our voyage remarked that 80% of his clients make it, and everyone has summitted in 2021. Our guides frequently spoke the Swahili words pole pole to us, to remind us to take things slowly. I got annoyed by it, but the wisdom is obvious. Realistically, you can get just about anywhere, so long as you are willing to move at a manageable pace.

The trip from Kibo to Horombo felt so long on my weary legs, and traversing through another dry riverbed filled me with anxiety, but we all made it without any accident.

My porter met me just a few hundred meters outside of the Horombo camp, and he and I sang Wavin' Flag by K'NAAN. After the stress and the weariness, singing that song with my porter was a moment of liberation.

Day 4 stats - 28,000 steps

First, I would like to clarify that I have no idea why I’m wearing both a beanie and a hat. Altitude… makes you do crazy things haha.

Descending from Horombo felt like a victory lap, after the feeling of reaching the summit the day before. I wanted to take each moment and attempt to capture the beauty of that mountain, which made descending really bittersweet. I ran through the gate and jumped from the steps, a poor choice for my knees, but it was an epic moment.

Our porters and guides sang for us one last time. This was one of those rare moments where our success was as special for them as it was for us.

Saying goodbye to the porters and the guides was sad, even if we were all relieved to have the chance to take a shower and sleep in a bed. After we returned to the hotel in Moshi, we all convened at the top of the hotel to celebrate our success. It was difficult again to say goodbye to our fellow trekkers Jill and Jason. They had contributed so much to making this trip an incredible experience.

At one point on our way down Jill made a comment about what the mountain took from us, which made me reflect. In general I tend to be a little bit of a hoard when it comes to life and experiences. I live in beautiful moments tinged by the thought that the next might not be as lovely or enjoyable. This tendency has only increased over the last year, in which so much has changed for me, and I feel like I have lost and given up so much - I feel like I have grasped even more tightly to what remains; this tends to leave little room to grow and experience new things.

In addition by subtraction, Kilimanjaro imparted a gift to me. I don't know what things I need to let go of, or at least hold less tightly to, but I do want to make room for all of the beautiful things that life has to offer. Day 5 stats - 26,112 steps

Massive thanks to Sam and Jason for letting me use their beautiful pictures ❤️

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