From the Top of Africa

It all started a few years back with a comment from my dad that went something like “I’d like to climb a mountain someday.” Mike and I somehow figured it would be best to get involved and five years later, we boarded a plane bound for Tanzania. My brother, Mike, my dad, and I would be at the highest point in Africa (19,341 feet above sea level) a week and a half later.

We left our respective cities on 21 Jan and met up in the Minneapolis airport. After a few free beers in the Delta Sky Club (good call dad) we boarded a flight to Amsterdam, rolled off the plane, and found another excellent venue serving free beer (KLM Crown Lounge – thanks again dad!). After another 8 hour flight (bringing our total travel hours to about 30) we touched down at Kilimanjaro Airport near Arusha, Tanzania, and headed to our hotel in nearby Moshi.

We spent the first two days decompressing, checking out “Mosh Town” and hydrating (at least Mike and I) with some of the local brews – Kilimanjaro, Safari, Serengeti, and Tusker lagers. Dad opted to stick to Coca-Cola’s and water until after the hike. Mosh Town was quite the place for someone who has never wandered around in Africa before (like me). The streets were lined with shops and carts where people hawked a wide array of goods. Some of my favorite spots were Shah Industries, the local market, and the underground banana beer shop.

Shah Industries is a company that crafts quite the assortment of leather, bone, and wood goods. Crazy high quality, crazy low Tanzania prices, and about half of the craftsmen have disabilities so it certainly helps a needy segment of the local population. We talked to the manager and he told us they are trying to figure out this whole internet thing ( and hope to have an online store sometime in the near future. The market was a blast; hundreds of stalls, lots of people, and zero refrigerators in the meat department… that’s why they invented cooking meat before eating it right?

After one last beer and a cigar for Phil (Partagas Serie D No 4 from Havana!) it was off to bed; game time would start in the morning (25 January). We left the hotel (2,500ish ft) in the morning around 9:30 and were at the Machame Gate (5,942 ft) around 11. We quickly signed the books then we were on our way. The first day of the hike took us up nearly 4,000 ft during our 6.7 mile day though the rainforest. Temps hovered around 80 as the air was still thick and the mountain is almost on the equator.

After a night at the Machame Huts (9,911 ft), millet porridge (day 1 of 7 days of this not-so-great stuff) and some scrambled eggs, we were off! Day two was about a 3.5 mile hike with another 2,684 ft of altitude gain. The rainforest gave way to the alpine heath and moorland areas; no more trees, much more brush. We broke for lunch (hot soup, tea, coffee, fresh fruit) and then finished up at the Shira Cave campsites (12,595 ft). From now on, we’d start our hikes with clear skies but some patchy clouds would roll in between 10:30am and 1:00pm and hang around until dinner time.

The morning at Shira Caves gave us a good, clear shot at both nearby Mount Meru as well as the tippity-top! Day three (27 January) was the first of a few days worth of acclimatization hikes. We hiked up to the Lava Tower and then back down to the Barranco Huts campsite. The Lava Tower rises to 15,402 ft (if you climb to the top) making it the highest I’ve ever been on my feet (Mt Whitney was only 14,505 ft).

We all felt good at 15.5K so we took a break and then headed down to the Barranco camp (13,077 ft) for a total of 6.7 miles for the day, climbing 2,807 and then descending 2,325 ft. The photo of the Lava Tower is a great example of the porters’ absolute indifference to the mountain. As we huffed and puffed our way up with our $300 Gore-tex boots and 20 lbs day packs, these guys gingerly walked up wearing blown out Nike tennis shoes with more miles on them than my 2011 Subaru. All of the porters carried a 40-50 lbs pack on their back as well as 40-50 lbs of stuff on their head (our main packs, food for the 17 of us, tents, chairs, stoves, etc).

The first order of business on day four was the famous “Barranco Breakfast Wall.” After more (blah) millet porridge, some tasty scrambled eggs (yes, eggs hand carried up the mountain) and sorta toasted bread, we climbed the big wall with a few stops along the way (some to catch our breath and some to let the porters fly past us up the hill). The half mile trail climbs about 1,000 feet before it descends, then climbs, then descends, then climbs back up to the final stop for the day, Karanga Campsite (13,235 ft). Day four covered 3 miles and really only put us a few hundred feet higher than before but it was a good day of getting used to the altitude.

I got a great shot of the peak in the morning at Karanga and then it was time again to lace the boots up and eat some porridge… Day 5 was a quick one taking us from the Karanga Camp to the Barafu Huts camp at 15,295 ft in just over 2 miles. If you take only 6 days to climb the Machame Route, you have a long hike from Barranco to Barafu but the 7 day version of the Machame climb breaks the day into two giving you a short day and a chance to rest prior to the big summit day.

The attempt at the summit started at 11:00pm on 29 January after some dinner and a nap at Barafu. We put on our gear and started trudging up the trail as it weaved back and forth through the bleak alpine desert. The lack of scenery went unnoticed as our view was limited to the 20 meters of light our headlamps threw out. Even if it was bright out (not even a moon) when it’s 10 degrees out and there is 20-30 mph winds, you’re not too interested in the scenery. After 7.5 hours, 3.5 miles, 4,046 ft, a few breaks, and a cup of hot tea courtesy of my trusty REI thermos we reached Uhuru Peak at 6:37am. The shot of the watch is a little off due to normal barometric altimeter error but the GPS confirms 19,341 ft (the highest point in Africa) at 6:37:32 on 30 January 2012.

Once at the top, we took a few photos, watched the sun rise, I drank a Red Bull given to me by Winford, our head guide, the night prior (which was actually great until it froze into a slushy in about 4 minutes), then started our descent back to Barafu. The guide picture shows assistant guide Joseph, head guide Winford, dad, and assistant guide David. Notice the lack of gloves on Josephs hands! I’m not sure how he did it and took turns holding a flashlight (the guides didn’t have headlamps just flashlights) for seven hours without losing a hand… Once back at Barafu, we had a quick bite to eat and then continued our descent down to the Mweka Huts campsite (10,190 ft) arriving around 4:30pm. Day 6 was essentially 16 hours of hiking up 4,000 feet, down 9,200 feet over 11 miles!

After a great night sleep, some good food, and lots of water, we started easy day 7 and headed down to the Mweka Gate (5,358 ft) to exit the National Park. The day brought us back into the rainforest as we hiked 6 miles descending 4,832 ft and allowed for plenty of time to snap photos of plants, the mountain, and even a few monkeys along the way.

Once at the exit gate, we shook some hands, grabbed our certificate, and headed back to the hotel in Moshi where we would spend the next day relaxing, re-hydrating with the local brews (this time dad joined in the fun!), playing cards (can you believe it Elaine?), and enjoying porridge free breakfasts. We headed back to the states via Amsterdam and had a great lunch with Elaine, Meredith, and Sophia before parting ways in Minneapolis.

All in all it was a great, memorable trip; I got to drive a motorcycle, we met some characters, and most importantly, we all made it to the top together! Remember, rumors are rumors, so if I didn’t write about it above, it didn’t happen… because what happens in Tanzania stays in Tanzania!