I was planning to climb Kilimanjaro solo to raise money for Us Empowered but my friend, Ricardo Kawamura, decided to join me on this journey. It was not easy to get to. We flew 7 hours to London then 10 hours to Nairobi, Kenya. In Kenya, we spent 36 hours on a safari in the Maasa Mara, a bucket list experience. Here are some teaser photos but that experience is a different adventure.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, we left Kenya on a 6 hour bus ride to Moshi, Tanzania on mostly dirt roads that became muddy after an early rain pour. We spent 30 minutes checking out of Kenya and checking into Tanzania at the border. It cost $25 to get a Visa at the border whereas I paid $150 in advance to get one from Tanzanian embassy in Washington DC.
We got off to a late start but left at 2 pm and hiked 4 hours to the Baracco Huts. We probably could have hiked faster but we walked slowly due to our concern of altitude sickness; prior to the trip, we received a prescription of diamox from our doctors. That doctor’s visit included 6 shots in my arms ($600) including thyphoid, influenza, hepatitis, etc. Both my arms and my wallet were in pain.
Machame, otherwise known as the “whiskey route”, is the most scenic albeit steeper route, of six routes, which is typically done in six to ten days. While the climb is technically easy, the altitude, cold temperatures, and shifting weather patterns make this a difficult and dangerous trek. Acclimatization is essential, and even then most experienced climbers suffer some degree of altitude sickness since Kilimanjaro’s summit is well above the altitude at which high altitude pulmonary edema or cerebral edema can occur. At 12,000 feet (3,600 m), the typical person has roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath and at 18,000 feet a person has roughly 60% fewer oxygen. The climb up lasts for several days for our bodies to get used to performing with less oxygen.
All climbers suffer some level of discomfort, typically shortage of breath, hypothermia and headaches, and though most young, fit people can make the Uhuru summit, a substantial number of trekkers will abandon the attempt at a lower altitude. 18-time Grand Slam Champion, Martina Navratilova was hospitalized during her attempt one week after ours.
We saw a few monkeys at the starting elevation of 1800 meters. That day we hiked about 11 km to 3,000 meters. It started to rain during this four hour hike; the tall trees and leaves protected us a little bit. When we arrived, our tent was already set-up by our porters. It was not a large tent, just enough room for two sleeping bags, our backpacks and daypacks. I wondered if this tight sleeping area would test my friendship with Ricardo.
Throughout the first day, I marveled at how the porters and waiters carried their backpacks on their backs and camping gear, cooking stuff, and our backpacks on their heads. Despite having little to work with, our cook made relatively tasty meals. Meals typically included something hot (soup or porridge, carbohydrates, hot drinks and fruit. There are no places to buy food/drink on the way so the porters had to bring enough food for 9 of us over 6 days. We re-filled our water bottles by purifying water from running steams.
After our first dinner, we hung up our damp clothes. We chatted about the next few days and watched a little Entourage on an iPad. We joked that our sleeping arrangements were as good as the Four Seasons. We had 4-Star service from our crew and after a hot and rainy first day, we expected to experience the full cycle of summer, fall, winter and spring weather.
We started hiking at 8:30 am and the trail was rocky that the dirt trail of the first day. We hiked 6 km with 800 meters of elevation. It was clear that we were two of the stronger hikers since we started last and finished near the front. No feelings of altitude sickness yet. This was the only day in which our porters didn’t catch us so we had to wait an hour at the campsite, Shira Caves, when we arrived at 12:30. One of our porters felt sick and I gave him a couple Ibuprofen; he felt better the next day. Even locals that climb for a living can be affected by the changing altitude.
After a warm lunch, we rested most of the afternoon. I really started enjoying a book, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. The first hundred pages of this thick book were boring but I started really enjoying the story that afternoon and had trouble putting it down the rest of the trip. His story is inspiring: nearly 3 decades in prison, yet Nelson’s commitment and resolve for freedom and equality are unparalleled.
Around 5 pm, we took a one hour hike (a bonus one to stretch the legs) to Shira huts and back. The sun was still out and we had great views of the peak of Kilimanjaro. That night, I woke up a couple times and when I went outside the tent to relieve myself I was amazed at the millions of stars throughout the sky. I didn’t stand out there long because it was cold, a bone chilling wet cold. I might have woken up due to the cold or perhaps a bit of jetlag but I was able to fall back to sleep. I normally only sleep seven hours a night; I think the altitude required my body to rest more due to the lack of oxygen.
We started at 8 am at 3800 meters and climbed to 4,600 meters and then back down to 3900 meters to sleep. This was a day of acclimatization so we walked up slowly, about 3 hours. At one point early on, I felt numb in my fingertips and toes. I was nervous since there were 3 more days to go. After shaking my hands for ten minutes, the blood began to circulate to my finger tips. My running shoes were slightly damp from an evening rain. However, I wore the damp shoes because I wanted to save my hiking boots for the snow. Plus, I wanted to support my friend, Natalie Spilger’s charity, by wearing green laces on my running shoes.
As we climbed up, the vegetation went from small brushes to stones. The ground was wet from the rain and it was misting near the top so our outer layers were damp. We ate a brown paper bag lunch at the top and then headed down; downhill was wet and rocky. I was nervous about my ankles since I’ve torn ligaments 3 times in my high school team sports days. Ricardo was a competitive skier a couple years ago so he went down as fast as our guide; I felt bad because they had to wait for me many times. I am a strong climber but horrible at descending. Anyone that has hiked with me knows this.
We arrived, at 1:15 pm, to base camp and found mice all over. Later that afternoon, when Ricardo was in our tent, he noticed a mouse and squealed like a 5 year old girl. He scrambled out and our assistant guide, Stephen, crawled in to remove the mouse. I laughed so hard it hurt; I was hunched over and my stomach was cramping. Later that evening while we were both getting ready to sleep, Ricardo pretended to see a mouse and I must admit that I squealed as well.
When the clouds cleared, we got a closer glimpse of the steep glacier on the south side of Kilimanjaro, the sunlight glistened as it reflected off the ice. After only three days, I noticeably missed the little comforts in life: hot showers, a warm furnace, and a dry place to sleep (and my bed). I missed the convenience of cell phones and internet access; it is nice to not be connected as I was making progress through my book and I had time to think about life. However, it is also nice to be able to talk to friends and family. After three days, I can safely say that I was thrilled to have Ricardo with me on this journey. I enjoyed the companionship, the conversations, and simply experiencing this climb together.
I woke up to discover frost all over the ground and tent; it felt like -10 C at night but after the earlier cold nights I wore many layers under my sleeping bag. We left at 8 am this fourth day anticipating a six hour hike but we arrived early again at 12:45. Both of us felt strong throughout this climb. The first two hours were very steep in which we had to use our hands to climb some of the rocks.
It was dry during the early part of the climb; clouds were both below and above us. We experience rain and sleet the second half. When we arrived to Base Camp, Barrafu, at 4,600 M altitude, stretched for thirty minutes, and took a two hour early afternoon nap. The sun was bright but our bodies knew to rest to consume less oxygen. Day Five begins at midnight so it was prudent for us to get some shut eye. Besides slight difficulty breathing, I felt a cold developing, due to the wet shoes or cold nights from earlier days, so I started taking Emergen-C packs. I was happy to not feel dizzy at this elevation. In less than a day, we would attempt to summit to the peak. I was excited so it was hard to keep sleeping after a two hour nap. I ended up reading my Mandela book while Ricardo crashed. At 6 pm as the sun was going down, I finally got some more shut eye. Both of us woke up at 11:30 pm and ate some hot soup, bread and crackers. Then, we started dressing in our winter gear.
At half past midnight on Thursday December 2, with four layers under our ski jackets, we took a few photos in the pitch dark and began our last climb. We could see snowflakes coming down from the light from our headlamps. Within the first hour, my head was pounding and stomach felt nauseous. I felt like I was slowing down our group, Ricardo and two guides as the rest stayed at base camp. My head was playing tricks as I wondered about my safety since I could not see peripherally as my headlamp was aiming directly in front of me so I could follow in the footsteps of our guide. I was feeling both physical pain and mental nerves. When you climb for hours in pitch black at this time of night, many thoughts race through your mind; Ricardo gave me a good tip by suggesting that I count to a hundred so my mind would wander less. At times I felt tired from lack of sleep, the start of a cold, nauseas and diarrhea.
Each step forward was approximately 8 inches and for parts of the climb our feet would slide backwards in the soft dirt so it almost felt like going backwards. I remember counting to a thousand three times to pass the time and occupy my mind. It was -15 C outside so too cold to take long breaks but short breaks were necessary to get enough oxygen. We stopped to rest a minute or two every 15 minutes. Around 5 am, we made it to Stella’s Point, which was once believed to be the highest point in Africa. At 5:48 am, I made it to Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa; it was still dark outside and the sunrise was starting to creep above the clouds, which were below us.
I made it to Uhuru a few minutes ahead of Ricardo, and felt a huge rush of emotion. I hugged Baricki, our guide; he offered to take a photo, while it was still pitch black. A couple of climbers that arrived before us already decided to start their descent down because it was simply too cold at the top, around -20 C. A few minutes later, Ricardo made it, we hugged, and started screaming, “We made it!” We stayed at the peak for nearly 30 minutes and saw the sunrise at 6:12 am. It was tranquil up top and the 360 degrees views were breathtaking. Except for the cold, the view felt like what heaven might look like. For a few moments, I totally forgot about the pains that I experienced a few hours earlier. We were above the clouds, the sun rising on the east, a sparkling glacier on the south, the Uhuru Peak sign on the west and the peaceful volcano, Kibu, on our north. I lasted just over 30 minutes on top and my hands and face were almost numb so I started the descent before Ricardo.
Ricardo and Baricki passed me as they were walking downhill at a faster pace. Stephen stayed with me me at my slower pace. Going down was easier as the soft dirt made each step 6 inches longer as slid down. We arrived at base camp just after 8 am. My adrenaline was no longer flowing and I was tired. Breakfast was ready but I didn’t eat much because my stomach was still feeling nausea. We started hiking down at 10 am and were at the next campground by 1 pm.
I was cursing most of the way down because my ankles were sore from all the rocky trails, I had blisters on the bottom of my right foot and a black toe nail forming on my left foot Ricardo wanted to try and hike all the way down to finish a day early; he was so accommodating the first four days and this experience together made me agree to push myself through my pain. The last few hours were mostly on trails, of which some were muddy after an hour rain fall. We arrived at the bottom at 4:30 pm so our 5th day lasted 16 hours. By the end, the pain that was in my head and stomach transferred to my feet as every step was painful (blisters, toes, and leg muscles). We started the morning in 4 layers and ski outfit and finished the afternoon soaked in shorts and a T-shirt. Despite the pain, the adrenaline rush at the top of Kilimanjaro ran through my blood at the bottom of the mountain.
There is a saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In the photos below, I used a simple digital camera that I purchased four years ago. It was so pristine at the top that the photos turned out National Geographic in quality.
Over the past five days, I had a wonderful escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life. Africa is a beautiful continent and this was an epic adventure. It was also nice to have a lot of time to think: I thought about family and what mine means to me. Recently, my aunt passed away from cancer and I thought about her and the Hsia family as we decided to skip the Hsia X-mas reunion tradition. I felt lucky to have my friend Ricardo share this journey and I also thought about many friends and the wonderful experiences we shared over the years. I thought about work and how lucky I am to enjoy the people I work with and how rewarding my career has been and can be. I thought about the success and impact that Us Empowered is making and the social movement in education reform that we are seeing. Our fellows have a lifetime mountain that they have to climb and joining Us Empowered is the first step up that mountain.
It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting points and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up.”