Mt. Kilimanjaro - To the Roof of Africa
written by Dean

Do you want to go to the Roof of Africa? Do you realize how insane that is, how ludicrous it is to even conceive of climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro? This Tanzanian peak is almost 6000 meters high, higher than Mount Whitney in California, Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and Mont Blanc of Europe. The atmosphere's density is 45% of that at sea level, a dangerous dearth of breathable air. A fair number of people have actually died climbing this (nearly?) extinct volcano range, and many more don't make it to the top. Are you sure you want to climb it? Even the locals believe it's a crazy thing to do.

Or maybe not. Maybe you just want to see it, or read about it, from afar, from some place much more comfortable. We can all understand that. It clearly isn't for everyone. But among the many things that makes Kilimanjaro (or "Kili", for short) so special is that it is actually possible to get to the top without special climbing gear, unlike Mount Everest. Kili is the highest mountain on Earth with that quality, making it a tempting target for semi-experienced to experienced hikers worldwide.

Well, our little group was in that last category. As a group perhaps it might seem we were a bit ambitious, or overzealous. I mean, the idea of climbing Kili, even after we actually have done it, still seems a little nuts to me. But when I think through our preparations, how we chose our equipment, and how we trained in advance of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, perhaps we weren't too crazy. But, if there's only one thing I'd like every reader to take away from this, it is: Be Prepared. We used just about every piece of equipment we had, and brought to bear every experience we had about hiking, physical exertion, and survival. While it wasn't easy, we climbed it, and I think we climbed that mountain well.

Who are we?

Our little group consisted of five members. In no particular order: Catherine, born in Northern California, currently working in the Los Angeles area for an aerospace company; Darrell, from Canada, an experienced skiier and climber, now working for a high-tech company in Southern California; Siina, from Finland, currently studying at Stanford in graduate engineering; Freddy, from Sweden, working for a government research lab in Northern California; and Dean (that's me), born in Southern California, presently running a high-tech small business in Orange County. Our little group is quite internationally diverse: a Swede, a Fin, a Canadian, plus two from California. How we met is another story.

It took us a while to decide to go to Kilimanjaro. When we finally decided it was a go, we went with Klub Afriko, a tour company based in Arusha, Tanzania. Freddy was quite thorough, scouring the 'net for such companies, and asking for references and the recommendations of many others. We asked for the climb to use the Shira plateau route, one that takes longer than the more commonly used routes like Mweka or Machame, but we knew we should take because it brings us to a higher elevation quickly then keeps us at altitude for a few days. Staying at high altitude gives our bodies the best chance to acclimate, in preparation for the eventual hike to the peak. In retrospect, we found we made the right choice, for many reasons. In fact, our guides Urassa and Mohammed told us that it was their favorite approach to the mountain, and confirmed it was a good choice.

Klub Afriko introduced and recommended Urassa and Mohammed as our guides for the Kilimanjaro climb. It is the guides' responsibility to organize the porters, the food, the general camping gear (tents, etc.), the specific route, and the campsites, and to manage the overall climb. They are also meant to watch us for signs of trouble during the hike. We feel these two did their jobs superbly. In fact, Urassa showed up at the airport to help receive us, without telling us he was to guide us the next day. Perhaps he was estimating our abilities, or evaluating our personalities. In any case, we found these two knew the terrain well, with experience on all the major trails. Urassa told us that he's been to the top of Kilimanjaro over a hundred times; Mohammed even more. After seeing how they performed on the climb, we have every reason to believe them.

Prior to our flight for Africa, we trained with a series of hikes in California. While Siina and Freddy primarily used the Northern Californian mountains, Catherine and I trained in Southern California. With the help of our friends Michelle and Kevin, we hiked in the San Angeles forest and San Bernandino mountains in the months prior to leaving in August for Africa. We practiced using our equipment, including video and photography, which helped revise what we did and how we expected to use it. More importantly, we learned a number of good lessons about what to do and what not to do when hiking as a group, keeping together and pacing ourselves. Some of that was learned the hard way, and as a result Catherine and I learned that we can sleep outdoors at high altitude.

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