Scaling Mount Kilimanjaro

Dylan Reingold chronicles the rugged journey from sea level to the roof of Africa

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Day one is in the books and, for the time being, my Florida clothing is still sufficient
Day one is in the books and, for the time being, my Florida clothing is still sufficient.

Climbing has been a passion of mine for years. Living without mountains requires weekly visits to a local rock-climbing gym to indulge my obsession. 

Climbing excursions have taken me to Washington and Wyoming, where I summited Mount Rainier and Devil’s Tower, respectively, and to the Peruvian Andes for a 10-day trek. Having dreams of even bigger mountains and approaching 50 years old, I realized it was now or never. 

Montane forest, a stratified ecosystem unique to mountainsides
Montane forest, a stratified ecosystem unique to mountainsides.

Serving as the county attorney of Indian River County for a decade, I made a difficult decision. In June 2023, I decided to take a break from the coast and prepare myself for the mountains. My first objective was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, standing 19,341 feet tall. I knew I had to prepare myself physically and mentally, considering that going from sea level to a high altitude would require a lot of effort.

My adventure began in Vero Beach with a new pair of hiking boots. I walked the Jungle Trail and its parks and climbed our local “mountains,” the bridges above the Indian River Lagoon. Wearing a backpack, I broke in my boots while enjoying the beauty of our local habitats. 

The next step of my journey was Santa Fe, New Mexico. I hiked to heights up to 12,600 feet in the forests of northern New Mexico while spending quality time with my parents, who reside there. I will always cherish this trip.

Hiking without issues in the New Mexico altitude, I believed I was ready for Kilimanjaro. After a long day of flying, the plane arrived at a small Tanzanian airport. I walked directly onto the tarmac and gathered my two large duffel bags inside the sparse airport. My travel company, RMI Expeditions, and other team members soon greeted me. 

Local crew members prepare supper for the hungry climbers
Local crew members prepare supper for the hungry climbers.

As we drove to the lodge, I talked with the other team members, who had varying mountaineering experiences. A few had summited some of the world’s highest mountains, while one had never slept in a tent. I wondered how my 50-year-old body would cope with sleeping on the ground, for it had been decades since I last camped. Based on the team’s experience, I realized I was in the middle. My highest trek had been in 2012, reaching an altitude of 15,200 feet in Peru. 

After a day of recovery from our long journey, our guide, Casey Grim, held a team meeting. I was confident in his mountaineering skills, since he had climbed Kilimanjaro more than 20 times and Mount Everest six times.

The end of day one offers a majestic view of the peak
The end of day one offers a majestic view of the peak.

During the meeting, we were briefed about the Machame Route we would take to the summit. The route would take us five and a half days to ascend and one and a half days to descend. A support crew consisting of 49 individuals, including Tanzanian guides, cooks, servers, and porters would accompany us. The crew would arrive before us at each camp to set up our campsite and prepare meals.

As hikers, we would carry daily essentials in our backpacks, such as snacks, water, and the clothes we may need for that day. The porters would carry our remaining belongings in duffel bags. Just like airlines, the porters had a weight limit. For me, a notorious overpacker, this meant leaving many of my supplies behind at the lodge. After the meeting, Casey checked each individual to ensure we had the appropriate gear. I felt confident in the expedition’s safety due to his acute attention to detail. 

Elephant trunk flowers (below) are found nowhere else in the world but the rainforests traversed at the beginning of the trek up Kilimanjaro
Elephant trunk flowers are found nowhere else in the world but the rainforests traversed at the beginning of the trek up Kilimanjaro.

Day 1

The big day had finally arrived, and I was ready and dressed in my best Florida apparel: shorts and a polo shirt. After breakfast at the lodge, we drove to the Machame Gate, 5,900 feet in elevation, where our adventure began.

I cannot accurately describe the sights and sounds I experienced walking 7 miles through the montane forest. At some points, I could see and hear monkeys moving in the trees as I admired the lush foliage. Casey pointed out the Impatiens kilimanjari, known as the elephant’s trunk flower, due to its unique shape and exclusivity to the region.

As we exited the montane forest at 9,800 feet, I couldn’t help but notice the hard work of our crew. My sleeping tent was set up, neatly arranged, and contained my duffel bag. I had the luxury of a three-person tent that I shared with another solo male traveler. Nevertheless, I did not get a good night’s sleep.

Heather shrubs give way to barren terrain as we enter the Arctic Desert zone
Heather shrubs give way to barren terrain as we enter the Arctic Desert zone.

Day 2

Despite my limited sleep, I packed my gear and left my duffel bag outside the dining tent before a hot breakfast. Today’s goal was a 3.1-mile hike to Shira Cave Camp through the Moorland or Heather vegetation zone. Though a short hike, it was a rigorous climb to an elevation of 12,300 feet. After dinner, I was exhausted, and Casey suggested reading a book. I took his advice, which led to a better night’s sleep.  

The Lava Tower serves as an imposing centerpiece at lunch
The Lava Tower serves as an imposing centerpiece at lunch.

Day 3

Today we would reach an elevation of 15,000 feet during our 6.2-mile hike through the Alpine Desert climate zone. I was excited about our lunch stop at the base of the Lava Tower, which loomed over us, extending upward 300 feet; it was formed by volcanic activity over 150,000 years ago. After lunch, we descended the mountain to the Barranco Camp at 12,795 feet. The two-hour hike down from the tower was the most challenging stretch to date. After a long day on the trail, we arrived at our camp, which was cold and blanketed in fog.

Once we reached this altitude, we began the acclimatization process, which involved climbing to a high altitude during the day and then sleeping at a lower altitude at night. This process allows climbers to acclimate to the difference in elevation and helps prevent altitude sickness. 

Day 4

Yesterday’s hike to the Lava Tower was exhilarating. And nothing could quell my excitement for today’s adventure, the Barranco Wall. This part of the hike would require the use of our hands and our full attention, since we were traversing a narrow, steep goat trail along a rock wall up the mountain. I was thrilled when Casey allowed me to climb a short wall section due to my climbing experience. Upon arriving at Karanga Camp at 13,100 feet, I was overwhelmed by the breathtaking mountain view above the clouds.

The Barranco Wall demands careful foot placement as well as use of the hands; it is more like rock climbing than the trekking required up to this point
The Barranco Wall demands careful foot placement as well as use of the hands; it is more like rock climbing than the trekking required up to this point.

Day 5

Today’s hike would be my highest elevation to date—15,300 feet. Reaching the Barafu Camp required a 2.5-mile hike through a rocky landscape resembling Mars. After lunch, Casey held a meeting to prepare us for tomorrow’s summit attempt, starting late in the evening. He warned that we would suffer different ailments at some point during the ascent due to the high altitude. However, we should not give up but push through. 

I was nervous with anticipation for the summit that was within our reach. Rest was essential for the energy required for the trek, so we were in bed by 6:30 p.m. Due to my nervousness, I could only grab a quick catnap. Breakfast was served at 11 p.m., and then we were off to the apex of our journey.

Karanga Camp offers the surreal experience of being above the clouds, and day five takes the sense of transcendence to another level with a Mars-like landscape.
Karanga Camp offers the surreal experience of being above the clouds, and day five takes the sense of transcendence to another level with a Mars-like landscape.

Day 6

I felt strong and healthy as I began the hike at 11:30 p.m., wearing a long-sleeved shirt, fleece, and long pants. As we ascended, the temperature dropped, prompting me to add layers. Pitch black and cold … the only light source was tiny dots from our headlamps.

As I gained elevation, I began to suffer nausea due to the change in altitude. Though this slowed me down, I was determined not to let anything stop me. After several hours, the sun began to rise, and at 18,885 feet, I reached Stella Point, a summit point on the mountain, but not the summit. I was determined to make it to the top. 

The final push for the summit brings excitement and determination ... and altitude sickness
The final push for the summit brings excitement and determination … and altitude sickness.

Although I had made it this far, I was concerned that Casey would not allow me to continue due to my altitude sickness. Once fast and energetic, I was now slow. Knowing I could do it, one of our Tanzanian guides gave me a warm cup of ginger tea instead of turning me around. Amazingly, the tea was all I needed to regain my strength. 

Arrival at the “roof of Africa” is thrilling.
Arrival at the “roof of Africa” is thrilling.

After an hour of trekking past glaciers, we arrived at Uhuru Peak, the summit at 19,341 feet. Our joy knew no bounds. Ecstatic to have reached the top together, we took numerous photos and immersed ourselves in the stunning panoramic views. As a reward for all of our efforts, Casey allowed us to make a call from Africa’s rooftop. 

My next journey is to Mount Everest Base Camp in the spring. This expedition involves hiking between Sherpa villages and staying in teahouses. I am excited about the cultural immersion and scenic beauty of the Himalayas. 

 

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