Kilimanjaro

Posted by Michael Coen

Day 0: Village

 Innocent gave me a ride into Moshi in the afternoon. What a beautiful name, I thought. 

“I know what the word means but not why my parents give me this,” he said in rough English.

I wanted to do something instead of sit around all day at the Stella Maris, prolonging my jet lag. So I went on a mission to buy some gum for the big trek. I like chewing gum as a distraction when I cover long distances and since I had shit else to do, it would give me a reason to see what Moshi was like. Innocent dropped me off as we made a plan to rendezvous later on. My first impression of Moshi was nothing special. It’s not a large town but it seemed busy and fast-paced. It was nice to walk around but I wasn’t overstimulated. I bought some gum from a tiny store and as I was about to chalk it up as an uneventful day, a local kid approached me. 

“Ziggy” he said his name was. He looked about 15 even though he said he was 20. We talked about art and how he liked to paint. He kept mentioning a space where he does his work with friends. “Like a creative studio,” I said trying to aid his attempt in broken english to describe this place. The more we talked the more interested I became, so I finally just asked him to take me there. 

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We walked a few blocks away to meet Simoni. He looked about my age (28) and had an older brother vibe. He was very hospitable and immediately arranged for some of his buddies to take the lot of us to the ‘studio’ via motorcycles. After a truly terrifying ride to the outskirts of town, I was in a small village of dirt roads and mud houses. The living conditions weren’t ideal but it didn’t keep them from making their own paint from scratch and creating some captivating pieces of Tanzanian art.

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It was here that I met who seemed to be their leader; this master artist introduced himself as “Ziggy.” 

“Wait, I thought he was Ziggy,” I said perplexed as I pointed to little Ziggy. “Ah, yes we all go by Ziggy because we make art together and sell under one name.” Interesting. Older Ziggy seemed to be not just a brilliant artist but also somewhat of an entrepreneur, whether he knew it or not. We all had a laugh as they passed around a joint and some fermented alcohol drink they made from fruit. I bought a small painting and let the lead Ziggy paint my white vans.

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Simoni then showed me around the village. He explained that they all grew up on the streets of Moshi. Now they use their art to teach kids through a makeshift after-school program. They show them how to make their own paint, and turn plastic into earrings and other jewelry. He wasn’t asking for money, just genuinely wanted to share what they were up to. I wanted to stay longer but told them that I would be going up the mountain the next day and needed to get back to the hotel.

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As I made my way back to the meeting spot, I thought about how lame it was that I was headed back to a hotel with hot water, refrigeration, and functioning wifi, completely insulated from the real world happenings around Moshi. 

I was late getting back to Innocent. He said he was worried about me. I apologized, and all was well.

Day 1: Jungle

It was good to see the guys. Kyle, who has been my friend since we were toddlers, had just gotten in from Zanzibar with Justin. Justin, who I became friends with through Kyle, put the whole trip together. Those two have travelled a lot as a duo and I was excited to join them on this expedition. The fourth person in our group was Todd. He was about 10 years older than me and had worked with Justin in a past lifetime. I thought it was cool they had stayed in touch. Todd didn’t make it to breakfast though. He flew into Tanzania the latest out of all of us and his luggage had been lost along the way. He was not in good spirits and that worried Kyle because we hadn’t seen him eat much.

The hour between breakfast and when the van picked us up felt like three hours. We had to weigh our duffel bags to make sure they weren’t too heavy. I remember worrying that I had forgotten something because I had the lightest pack in the group. Instead of looking at what I might be missing, I just made conversation and pretended that I wasn’t nervous.

After arriving at the Marangu entrance and waiting for Aaron, a Tanzanian local and our lead guide, to complete the rigmarole of getting us through the gate, we were finally moving up the mountain. Starting at 6,102’ (1,860m) elevation, we hiked through a dense jungle full of colobus monkeys and other critters.

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I couldn’t believe how slow we moved. We were warned about ‘pole-pole,’ or ‘slowly-slowly,’ as the mantra for ascending but I didn’t think we would be inching along this slowly on day one. I began questioning whether Mt. Kilimanjaro was all it was cracked up to be. Could this guided tour be another tourist trap? Or was what lied ahead so difficult that you actually had to crawl at a snail’s pace to avoid the dreaded altitude sickness?

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When we arrived to Mandara Hut at 8,907’ (2,715m), I had to pee really badly so I sprinted over to the bathroom. That was a dumb thing to do. Not only did I look stupid running across camp but I would spend the next half hour breathing earnestly to bring my heart rate back down. This led to some questioning, “If I’m struggling down here, how the hell am I going to make it to the top?” After calming down, it became apparent that I needed to be careful with how much energy I exerted at once. My heart rate went back to normal and my nerves went away. Relax. Bring on a new day.

Day 2: Cloud Forest

Our morning began with some Indian guy speaking at full volume 3 hours before we had to be on the trail. On everyone’s behalf, Kyle yelled at him from our bunk, which entertained me. Sleep was a precious commodity and one to be guarded vigilantly. 

 Justin looking for bars.

Justin looking for bars.

Acetazolomide, commonly referred to as Diamox, is a drug that is recommended to prevent altitude sickness - and an intense drug it is. Justin was losing feeling in his fingertips and our guide told him to take half as much. Then the symptoms hit me. Numb fingers, toes, and heels, and generally feeling off. I decided to lessen my dose from 500mg to 125mg and I quickly felt like myself again. Another side effect is an increased amount of urine. Note to self: drink water throughout the day instead of chugging it all at camp. Holy shit, getting out of your sleeping bag to pee multiple times throughout the night is no fun. Bring a pee container next time! It's amazing how bodily functions that are ordinary in the normal world are a pain in the ass on the mountain.

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As the day advanced, everyone was in love with the scenery. We were finally getting up into some real elevation and with that came a different climate with giant groundsels endemic to Kilimanjaro. The cool, misty cloud forest was a welcomed change from the hot jungle. 

 Giant Groundsels.

Giant Groundsels.

I was beginning to find my groove on this new planet, chewing my minty gum and covering long distances with ease. Everyone except for Todd was feeling pretty good and even he was doing fine despite not eating much.

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Now at Horombo Hut at 12,155’ (3,705m), we discussed an idea that I knew had a growing possibility. The idea was to skip our acclimatization day on day 3 and push to Kibo Hut instead of hiking up a few thousand feet and then back down again. Justin, Kyle and myself all felt good so we definitely liked the idea since the weather and momentum seemed to be on our side. Todd also capitulated because reducing our hiking expenditure by a whole day outweighed the potential benefits of the extra acclimation. So, the decision was unanimous. Tomorrow we would push for Kibo Hut, the last camp before summit day.

 From left to right; Me, Kyle, Todd & Justin near Zebra Rock.

From left to right; Me, Kyle, Todd & Justin near Zebra Rock.

Day 3: Desert

I woke up feeling great after getting more sleep than expected above 12,000’. Kyle didn’t sleep much and said that at one point all three of us were snoring. Justin seemed like he was feeling well but it was hard to tell because he doesn’t really complain. Todd felt horrible and once again didn’t eat much throughout the day. He was getting harassed by our guide and I felt bad for him. Nevertheless we were all up and moving.

The clouds had cleared and I got my first glimpse of the Uhuru Peak. Now it was real. Now I could see it and because of that, my fight mode kicked in. In my mind the chance of making it to the top was 100%. 

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Slowly, we moved through a bone-dry, high desert. It was like walking across the moon only instead of floating along with each stride, we slogged with one foot in front of the other. We crossed the saddle, passed the majestic Mawenzi Peak, and finally up to Kibo Hut at 15,518’ (4,730m). 

The camp vibe at Kibo Hut was different. I felt a stark contrast between this place and the latter camp. Horombo was a friendly place to be. The energy was a mix of excitement and celebration. But at Kibo, people were cranky. Everyone had a sort of don’t fuck with me kind of attitude, like they were hungover. Nobody was welcoming and it was obvious that low oxygen levels made even the most routine tasks an annoying chore. 

I happened to go to the squatty potties at the same time as Kyle.

“Did you see that one?” He asked. 

“No, is it gross?” I replied, not fully in the mood to look at a poopy bathroom.

He pointed down at the hole. There were fresh blood spatters in and around the hole. Someone had a bad day.

It was time to rest before dinner as the image kept popping into my head of the poor soul who was dealing with something like blood out their ass at 15,000+ feet. I couldn't shake the sense that something was looming as I finally drifted off into a restless sleep. 

Somebody woke me up to eat dinner and I felt like I had been hit by a train. So this is what altitude sickness feels like, huh? I made it to the dinner table only to feel my world crashing in on me. This feeling was so sudden I couldn’t prepare for what was about to happen. I grabbed a dinner bowl and vomited into it until it overflowed, spilling into my hands and onto the floor. There were two other climbing groups in the room which made for a synchronized gasp among all. I stared down at what had just come out of me. In perfect timing, Kyle remarked, “About time we had a little adversity.” I was handed a bigger bowl to deal with my puke. I then made my way back out to the squatty potties. On the way I stopped every 10 feet to forcibly puke off to the side of the trail until I could only hurl stomach bile. I made it to the squatters to find that I had shat myself. Fuck. Not only did I feel like I had the worst hangover I’ve ever had (which is saying a lot) but now I had to deal with cleaning myself, all while being careful not to expend too much energy and make my heart race at a dangerous pace.

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I got a hold of myself and realized that the most beautiful sunset was happening. I wasn’t enjoying it but the photographer in me couldn’t let those colors go to waste. I grabbed Kyle as my subject and took the last photograph I would take during my entire time in Tanzania. 

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Day 4: Mountain

This day arrived too quickly. I thought I would magically heal during the night. Instead, I was worse. My unstable stomach was now accompanied by the chills, a headache and a fever that was getting more concerning by the hour. It was the first time that I had considered that what was happening to me wasn’t caused by the altitude. Certainly, breathing unsatisfactory oxygen didn’t help but why would I have a fever? I wished my girlfriend, Tabitha was with me. She always knows what to do. I had printed a picture of her and kept it in my wallet so I could look at it if I ever got into trouble. I stared at the sassy expression on her face and like a catholic holding a rosary, that photo was what I needed to carry on.

Getting out of my bunk for our 2:00 am wakeup call was like trying to disconnect a bomb. Nothing makes sense. All my clothes look the same. Where do all these zippers lead? Fuck my chewing gum. I remember sitting up whispering to myself “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.” I wasn’t even talking about the summit. I was just hoping to make it out of the hut. I thought if I could just take it one step at a time, I would be at the top with Kyle, Justin and Todd by sunrise. That image kept replaying in my head and it drove me to desperately swallow a deluge of drugs as a Hail Mary attempt to fix myself. 

  • 500mg of Acetazolamide to prevent further altitude sickness
  • 8mg of Dexamethasone to mitigate the symptoms of altitude sickness
  • 4mg of Ondansetron, a high powered anti-nausea pill used for treating people undergoing chemotherapy
  • 1000mg of Tylenol for my fever
  • Imodium for the diarrhea
  • Pepto Bismol to help relieve my stomach

On we marched through the cold, dark morning. The stomach pains were so intense that I began to hunch over. Kyle handed me a pole and I used it for what had to be the weirdest hiking technique. I was so nauseous that I used it to hold my forehead up as I scooted up the hill like a living tripod. Without any water or food in my system, a fever was starting to take its toll on my mind. I was moving too slow and it was obvious that I was holding our group back.

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Like a good guide, Aaron stayed back with me while the guys continued on. With frozen tears on my face, I couldn’t even look them in the eyes as they passed. Why can’t I feel better?

I told Aaron that I was going to make it no matter what - that if we just went slow I could do it. He said he liked my determination. I made it to about 16,000’ (4,877m) before I finally collapsed and laid on the ground. At this point, the fever had nearly taken over as delirium set in. Aaron looked down over me with his headlamp shining in my eyes. “Mike! Don’t go to sleep, Mike! Don’t go to sleep!” As obvious as it is to not go to sleep on a rocky path in freezing temperatures, I sure fucking wanted to. I hated accepting that I couldn’t go any further with every bone in my body. Combined with how terrible I felt from whatever was making me sick, the despondence was rampant. 

Aaron had managed to get me up and was now holding my arm, helping me get back down the mountain. I knew my body was not supposed to be upright as every inch of movement was excruciating. As we got closer to camp, I pulled over and violently vomited until I was heaving bile out of my stomach again. If I could just get to Kibo, I could sleep this off and try again the next morning. I still couldn’t accept reality. It just happened so damn fast I didn’t have time to admit defeat. Despite believing through all of day 4 that I still had a chance to summit Kilimanjaro, I would not make another attempt.

I passed out at Kibo Hut and a few hours later, Aaron woke me up. “Mike, how are you feeling?” “Like shit, Aaron. I can’t move,” I mumbled. “Ok, then we go back down.” 

At that point, I put my disappointment on hold because getting off the mountain was a new goal that would require a great deal of effort in itself. Aaron’s plan was to hike with me back to Horombo Hut and have a van drive me down the backside service road where another driver would pick me up from the Marangu Gate and take me back to the Stella Maris Lodge. With diarrhea plaguing me every hour and extreme nausea making every move difficult, I agreed with whatever meant getting me to a place where I could pass out again. 

Hiking down to Horombo was miserable. I had to stop and puke so often that I felt Aaron getting annoyed. He could not grasp the fact that my conditions weren’t improving. He was so used to dealing with people inflicted by Acute Mountain Sickness that he just assumed that’s what was happening to me too. But it felt more like the flu or maybe food poisoning.

Hike, puke, drink water, repeat. I must have vomited 10 times between Kibo and Horombo. The further down we went, the more bullshit was dealt by the mountain gods. The van was late. When it arrived, it was full of other sick people and workers hitching a ride. My duffel didn’t make it into the vehicle, which added another few hours to the ordeal. Two of the worst van rides of my life later, I was finally at the Stella Maris. It was fully booked so I was annexed to an overflow building with no phone, no wifi, and no mirror so I couldn’t see what I looked like. I didn’t want to. 

Day 5: Sleep

Innocent made sure I had the basics and sent food and water to my room, none of which I could keep down, but it was nice to know that he was there, looking out for me.  I surrendered into a deep sleep and effectively hibernated for about 36 hours. I was on my way back to feeling like a human again. 

After getting everything out of my system, I was on the road to recovery. The last couple of days had been a blur. What the fuck just happened? Did I really not make it up? It could have been a dream if I didn’t have the shit stained hiking pants to legitimize it. I google/self-diagnosed myself with gastroenteritis a.k.a. the god damned stomach flu in concert with severe dehydration. I will never know exactly what caused it whether it was the bathroom conditions or something I ate. Regardless, it was the most poorly timed stomach bug of my entire life and one that not only kept me from achieving something I had worked hard for but one that could have killed me, given where I was. I weighed myself using a scale in the lobby and calculated that I lost 15 lbs during the ordeal. At 6’3” (183cm) I went from an already slender 182 lbs (82.5kg), and was now a skinny 167 lbs (75.7kg).

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Day 6: Resurrection

Fortunately, I was getting my appetite back and mustered up some good spirit in time for the return of the guys. They didn’t look great and I had learned that Todd didn’t make it to Uhuru Peak with Kyle and Justin. After a brief chat in the lobby, looking like he had seen better days, he peeled off and walked up to his room. Justin looked like a shell of himself and almost immediately went to bed. Kyle was annoyed with the end-of-the-hike ceremonial bullshit and what sounded like an awkward tipping fiasco but was otherwise fine. 

As Kyle and I made our way to our respective rooms, he told me how worried he had been and that he had a cry on the way up the mountain without me. He knew I was struggling and he consoled me like we had gone to war together, acknowledging that I put up a fight. 

Back in my room, alone with my thoughts, I was looking to draw any lesson from this experience. I thought about how fast things can change. Just 5 days ago I was exploring Moshi, fascinated by the Ziggys. I was full of hope and wonder about this spectacular place. Not shortly after, I was holding onto life, wishing more than anything to be back in Colorado with Tabs. Instead of holding Tanzania in high regard in my mental book of travels, it’s now tainted to me. I have to explain to my friends and family that I didn’t make it up Mt. Kilimanjaro. I set out to accomplish something and the truth is, I failed. While that’s not easy to accept, my challenge becomes finding beauty in that failure. For now, I know the limit of my body. I know the feeling of having nothing left in the tank. I reached the end of my humanness and deeply knowing this limit is a very powerful tool. All I can do is learn to wield it carefully and confidently, using it to find successes in my life that are far more complex than summiting a mountain. 

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Written by Michael Coen. Edited by Tabitha Yeasley.