The summer of 2014 has officially begun for me. I just got home from my last class of the spring semester, I’m not taking any summer classes, and we’ve started packing for our first road trippin’ adventure.
This milestone gave me the opportunity to reflect on my last couple of summers. It was a nice trip down memory lane. I’ve had some pretty incredible summers. Monumental. They’ve included travel to exotic locals, outdoor pursuits, laughter, joy, pain, tragedy, love, family, friends and so much more. I’m so excited for this summer, and we’ve got some crazy cool plans for the coming months.
Taking a look back, 2012 gave me the opportunity to climb the highest peak in the continent of Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro, in an effort to raise money for the Cancer Climber organization (founded by my buddy Sean Swarner.) I met the most amazing people and was humbled by the beauty and challenge of Africa.
At the summit: 19,304′ above sea level.
Approaching high camp, a.k.a. garbage camp.
Truly a life changing experience. That summer was liberating, challenging and mind-blowing. I also went skydiving, gallivanting with old friends and explored several 14ers in my backyard.
The summer of ’13 was similarly impressive. I rafted the Grand Canyon. Yes, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I spent 16 beautiful days with 16 beautiful people in one of the most amazing places on earth. We hit the tongue and rode it straight (mostly! Oops, Lava!) for over two weeks of laughter. Thanks to LBK (Josh Kruger) for giving me the opportunity to take the trip. It was another one for the books.
Head first into the spray! Face shots for dayz.
Exploring the countless side canyons was a true highlight.
We live here right now?!? COOL!!!
So what does this summer hold for Joan and I? Sooooo many things!! Five trips back to Colorado, including a bachelor party (sorry Joan, I’ll be going solo for that!), the Dolores River Festival and 100 Miles of Nowhere, and a Rockies Reunion. We get to enjoy our family in Colorado a couple of times and play with our nephews, siblings, parents, cuzes, etc. We’re performing several times and teaching a three-week circus camp (Funtown Circus!) and exploring our new home in Flagstaff. We’re leaving for a week long camping trip in the vast deserts of Utah tomorrow. Life is good and summer is just beginning. Here we go!
If an apprehensive vibe was felt on the first day of the hike, on the start of this day the nervousness was palpable. We knew we were waking up to the most physically demanding effort of the trip: First, we’d be faced with a climb up the Barranco Wall, a pitch that rises straight out of camp and gains 1,000 feet before you’ve even started to digest your breakfast. After that, the day becomes a long approach to high camp, dipping into the Karanga Valley for a spell and then soaring to 15,000′. Once arrive at camp, we’d be treated to a quick meal and a three hour nap before setting of on our midnight summit bid.
Climbing the Barranco Wall is very similar to Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak: some exposure, a few hands and feet moves, but mostly fun stair-step type climbing. I’d consider it the most difficult climbing of the trek, if altitude was eliminated. Nothing more than easy class three makes it clear why so many people attempt this mountain each year.
Kyle, looking back from where we came. This was a really enjoyable section of climbing.
The porters impressed us further on this section, carrying tons of weight on old shoes and taking the most difficult path in order to get around us slow gringos. They’re amazing people.
Arriving at the top of the wall, we were blown away by the view of the peak. It was right there, in front of us, in all it’s majesty. Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,341′ above sea level. And we were climbing it.
Boom. Thar she blows.
For the rest of the day, Kili loomed large above our heads. We dipped into the Karanga Valley shortly. Sean and I lamented the lack of a ladder bridge spanning the valley, which would have cut two hours and several hundred vertical feet off the day. Those Westerners sure can dream
..and regaining lost footage.
Topping out above Karanga Valley put us at Karanga Camp aka “Dirty Camp”. Because it’s gross. Lot’s of people get sick here, Sean said, and for this reason we made a quick lunch stop and kept moving. Onward and upward.
A quick break in the clouds to refuel.
We were working towards a ridge that seemed to get further and further away as time went on. I started to believe it was a mirage, but we finally crested it.
Dropping down the backside, we could see our work laid out in front of us. Camp was up on the next ridge, and we knew there was only one way to get there. Keep climbing.
Cairns on the final pitch.
After a long a tiring day we reached camp. We knew there were just a few short hours remaining before we’d have to get up and put in a solid physical effort once more, so each team member set to the task of making final summit preparations.
I made a few gear alterations and ate as much food as I could muster on an exhausted stomach. Terry told us she would not be accompanying us during the summit attempt as her health issues had gained the upper-hand. It was tough to learn our entire group wasn’t going to make it up to the top, but so it goes in mountain climbing. I deeply respect her decision and applaud her for having the strength to call it quits. More often than not, that’s harder than going on.
Sean took the opportunity to make a few people smile and break up the seriousness of the atmosphere by donning “Big Sexy”: a ridiculous outfit consisting of a red onesy (complete with trap door butt) and Soviet-style mad bomber hat.
I made sure to think about the reason I was up on the mountain. Survivors. I thought about friends. I thought about family members. I thought about those who didn’t survive. Most of all, I thought about my goal for the trip: to give just one current cancer patient something to look forward to. To let one patient know that he could do this some day. I hope I reached that goal.
I went to bed thinking about the climbs I’ve done in my life. Some were more difficult than others. I knew this one would be like nothing else.
The goal for the day was aclimitization. We’d begin from Shira camp at ~12,000′ and climb up to the Lava Tower just below Arrow Glacier at an altitude of 16,000′. After reaching the high point, we’d descend back down to and camp at 12,500′. Woohoo, elevation!
It certainly wasn’t t-shirt weather, but it wasn’t too bad.
The trail was very gradual and pretty smooth. It was interesting to see how the elevation played with my fitness.
Just as we reached the Lava Tower, the wind kicked up and blew the high clouds off of Uhuru Peak (the high point on Kilimanjaro). We got a great view of the Arrow Glacier route and the immense magnitude of the summit we were attempting to gain.
With Lava Tower as the high point, we had a nice long descent to get to camp. Some of our hikers discovered how difficult hiking downhill can be. We moved slowly.
I took in the sights…
…enjoyed the unusual fawna…
…and thought about the task before us.
We camped at the Baranco Huts, knowing the next day we’d have to face the storied Baranco Wall, a thousand vertical foot pitch that rises dramatically out of the valley floor. I couldn’t wait.
We awoke to Gasper, our server, knocking on the nylon of our tent. Groggily, I unzipped the door.
“Coffee or tea?” he asked, holding a tray with an assortment of morning beverages.
What a way to wake up.
Kyle, my tent-mate (and all around cool guy, check out his long-term cause at everestendeavor.com) and I sat in our tent in disbelief about where we were and what we were doing. “Oh, just having a cup of coffee in my tent on Kilimanjaro. What are you doing today?” It was time to pack up and get moving for our second effort of the trip. Our mission today was to reach Shira Camp at around 12,000 ft.
Breakfast was served. Each morning we could count on porridge, fruit and sausage (and every once in a while, eggs.) The sausage was actually hot dogs and the porridge was akin to watered down Malt-o-Meal, but I ate ever last bit I could stomach. Your body works a lot differently at high elevations, and I had discovered how much fuel mine needed each day.
The morning began in a dense, lush rain forest setting but quickly transitioned into more barren moorlands. Like, really quickly. Like, in four steps. The contrast between the previous ecosystem and the point to which we ascended was stark. In a matter of feet it seemed that all had dried out and the thick vegetation was replaced with rocks and alpine grasses. This section rose very quickly and we found ourselves on steep, switchbacking terrain.
Up, up, up we went, through the mist and out of the clouds.
Soon the sun was shining and we took a break for lunch. A hot meal was waiting for us, prepared by Double D and Gasper.
Recharged and refreshed, we hit the trail again. The terrain had leveled out a bit and we faced an ascending traverse to reach camp. The hiking was a bit of connect-the-dots through boulders, finding the best line and stepping from rock to rock. It was a fun change from the previous steep climbing.
We got to camp and were treated to beautifully wispy clouds, rolling over the lower peaks.
As the sun set, we prepared for the next day.
It’s good to be on a mountain.
There was plenty of nervous energy in the air when we awoke on Day 1. We didn’t really know what to expect, but thought we had our bases covered. Sean had checked our gear out the day before. Some climbers had it totally dialed, others were planning on carrying a pretty hefty load, but Sean helped ensure everyone had what they needed.
We had met our guides the night before and were excited to see them again. Zaratours.com was the agency we went through and I recommend them completely and without hesitation. “A1” the entire way.
The bus was loaded with our gear and then our nervous bodies. The trail head sat an hours drive from Moshi town. As the pavement turned to dirt and the desert shifted to rain forest, casual conversation was struck up with the friendly Canadians hitching a ride. Sean’s story is endlessly impressive, but he would never tell it without a little prying. Luckily, mom was along to spin the yarn. I reflected on how much this guy has done as she sat and chatted up the Canucks. I felt more and more honored to have the opportunity to do this with the Cancer Climber Association.
Tanzania is a pretty cool country, for a number of reasons. One reason that sticks out to me is that they require all Kili climbers to be accompanied by a guide (and usually a number of porters.) We were no exception. Upon arrival at the Machame Gate, our porter bags were unloaded and weighed.
(Yes, dear reader, a porter carried my stuff. A porter will carry your stuff, too, if you ever do this mountain. I hope that doesn’t shatter the majestic image I’ve built up to this point. During the day, we all carried day packs with essential items. Food, water, extra clothes. Pretty basic. I brought a super light CAMP pack and hardly felt the weight most days. I’d be strolling along in my own little contemplative world when a porter would blaze past me, an enormous back pack strapped on his shoulders and an even bigger burlap sack balancing on his head. He’d be dressed in worn out dress shoes and sweat pants. And he’d be singing.)
Once the weigh in was completed, we snapped a few typical trail head shots and began our trek.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is not a fast hike. The motto on the mountain, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is “pole, pole” which translates to “slowly.” Guides will constantly remind you to slow down. While I live in Colorado and did my best to get in a good amount of high altitude training, I trusted their expert opinion and never balked at the slow pace. It paid dividends later.
The section from Machame Gate to Machame camp was pretty smooth and pedestrian. We stopped for a nice boxed lunch, but other than that moved pretty consistantly and arrived at Machame camp at 10,170′ in about five hours.
Our camp site gave us a beautiful and intimidating view of our ultimate goal. Kilimanjaro looms large in the distance, no matter where you might be. It stalks you. Only one thing to do: keep climbing.
Highlights from the 2012 Cancer Climber Kilimajaro Expedition.
Hakuna Matata …
Tembea pole pole
Kunywa maji mengi
Bwana: Respectful address
Habari gani: How are you?
Mzuri sana: Very fine
Wageni, mwakaribishwa: Foreigners, You are welcome
Hakuna matata: There are no worries
Tembea pole pole: Walk slow, slow
Utafika salama: Come safe
Kunywa maji mengi: Drink plenty of water
Our guides would break into songs and echo calls when you’d least expect it. It served as a big morale booster to call back their cries of “Koochie koochie!”, “Jip jip jip!”, “pop pop pop!”, and “daron daron daron!” It also let them know how gassed we were.
“Man, when you lose your laugh, you lose your footing.”
-Ken Kesey, One Flew Over The Cuokoo’s Nest
I thought it would help in the retelling of the trek to provide background on my Kilimanjaro team-mates. After all, they’ll be in plenty of my pictures and stories and are all pretty awesome people.
From Colorado as well, Don is an avid hiker and outdoors enthusiast. He wasn’t always, however. Don only began hiking four or five years ago, but fell in love with it and made fast friends with other hikers in the Denver area. He participates in a number of charitable causes and that’s how he got on this trip. Don is a keen observer and throughout the trip had a way of pointing things out that I hadn’t seen or heard. I look forward to doing some 14ers with him when we get back to the states.
Having just left the slopes of an unsuccessful attempt on Mt. Rainer, Kyle was very prepared for this trip. From Seattle, climbing and hiking is Kyle’s passion and it shows. We were tent-mates, so Kyle and I got to know each other pretty well during the trek. Our philosophies on life are very similar: if you have the opportunity to do something, do it. Not everyone gets the chance, so use yours wisely. He has aspirations of climbing Everest in a few years and has his sights on Denali for the same season as I do.
“Congratulations on graduating, your grad gift is a trip up Kilimanjaro!” Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how it went, but Becca has just graduated and is headed to Purdue this fall. We dubbed Becca “The Punisher” because of her endurance and ability to grind out tough days. She never descended into a bad mood or low spirits and loved trail riddles. Her youthful exuberance always pulled us out of the hiking doldrums. She was great to have on the team.
The mother of Becca and a powerful team member, Melissa kept a light energy in the crew. She’s a very friendly and soft-spoken individual, but had this terrific way of putting people at ease. Melissa’s nurturing and gentle nature made her a great asset in such harsh and brutal climates. I think this mother-daughter team received more satellite phone texts than any other team member. The love was obvious and a welcome addition during our expedition.
Carol is an incredibly strong woman. She lives in Seattle and is a cancer survivor as well. Her grit and determination impressed me day in and day out. Often times I would over hear her saying things like, “Well, Garrison is wearing his shell, so I’m going to put mine on, too.” I tried not to take advantage of this, but considered throwing my down jacket on in the hot and humid rainforest to see if she’d follow suit. I have immense respect and admiration for Carol, because she really jumped into this thing head first and had the determination to see it all the way through.
You can see where Sean gets it. Terry’s tenacity and determination is obvious and from the moment you meet her, you can see a fire behind her eyes. Unfortunately, I think the mountain sickness hit her the hardest, but it didn’t stop her from fighting hard each day. The motto on the mountain is “pole, pole” (p-oh-lay) which means slowly, slowly, and Terry helped us keep our eager team members (me, maybe?) to a reasonable speed. You can’t summit this mountain fast.
The man who brought us all together. He’s a two-time cancer survivor, has one lung, was the first cancer survivor to summit Mt. Everest, has completed the Seven Summits, runs marathons and competes in Iron Mans. …what am I missing…Oh, and established an amazing organization called Cancer Climber, which you should definitely check out and give to generously. He made this trip a reality for me and gives inspiration to countless survivors. Seriously, this guy is the Bill Gates of inspiration (he has lots of it.)
We all meshed immediately. The team was strong day in and day out. I’m glad to call each and every one of these people my friends. Keep climbing!
We made it!
We reached the summit of Tanzania’s 19,341′ Mt. Kilimanjaro at 7:21am, East Africa Time. I’m posting from the hospitable and comfortable computer room of our Springlands hotel in Moshi town, Tanzania. We returned a few hours ago after trekking out of the national park.
I plan to write a recap of each day to give you an idea of the trek itself, the conditions, highs, lows, etc. You can rest easy, all of our team is safe and happy.
Thank you all for following along the journey and helping to inspire me through your love and support. Stay tuned, because I’ve got a story to tell…
If all has gone according to plan, today is our summit day. We’ll leave high camp at 11:00pm and trek through the night to, hopefully, witness a Kilimanjaro sunrise. Once the summit is reached, we descend to our second camp making the total time for the day a hefty 18 hours. I’m hoping all has gone according to plan and that the plan is well underway, because you’re probably reading this in the morning and I should be on the way to get some celebratory banana beer.
I’m sorry. Really, I am. It was too easy.
For your Tuesday…