Saturday, September 3, 2011

On Top of Mt. Kilimanjaro...

From August 28th to September 2nd, 2011, five of my friends in their fifties, including myself, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa (5,895 meter high), through the Magangu Route or affectionately called "The Coca Cola Route."

Five friends were Min-young Jung, Jae-sup Choi, Jay Yoon, Bohye Kim and myself.

Before the Climb...

In September 2009, when I was flying from Zanzibar to Nairobi, Kenya, the pilot drew our attention to Mt. Kilimanjaro on our left. Through the window, I saw Mt. Kilimanjaro for the first time which was sticking out through the sea of clouds for the first time. It looked even mysterious.

"Ahh... Kilimanjaro... may I climb this mountain while I am still in Africa..." I murmured. It became a dream and it was two years ago.

In August 2010, I sent out an invitation to my friends to form a group to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Initially ten people signed up. After two months, two dropped out. Early 2011, another dropped out and two more dropped out in June 2011. Thus, we have become "the Five of the Fifties" since we all were in our fifties.

Two came from New York, one from Korea and two from Rwanda. I knew them all but they did not know each other mostly until we all met in Moshi Town, Tanzania on August 26th. Before they arrived in Moshi Town, all had to exercise and prepare for this climb at their own pace and their own way. Two from New York were most serious. One climbed to the base camp of Mt. Everest and the other trekked to the base camp of Mt. Ana Purna. I did my share of preparation by climbing the tallest mountain in Rwanda, Karisimbi (4,508 meter high); hiked in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado for five days; and hiked various hills and mountains in Rwanda. Others had also prepared for the climb similarly until we all arrived in Moshi Town, Tanzania on 26th.

This hike had been a dream for two years and in the works for the past one year.

The Climb...

Day 1 (August 28th, 2011)

Early in the morning, we gathered in a small dining hall after breakfast for a worship. Brother Min-young Jung shared the message. He is a career missionary who is currently a member of global leadership team for Wycliffe Bible Translators International.

After our own worship service, we were transported from Buffalo Hotel where we stayed to Akaro Tours office first and to Marangu Gate (1,895 m).

After registration, we started hiking a trail that led us to Mandara Hut (2,700 m). We passed through Montana Forest, a rain forest, and a little bit of moorland or heather. It was a blessing that we did not have any rain while passing through the rain forest. It was a short 4-hour walk and we all felt great. Walking through a rain forest without rain is a great experience.

The Mandara Hut comprised A-framed cabins where in total 60 people can sleep. The cabins had solar panels, but due to gloomy days they must have not gathered enough sun lights for the lighting. To our surprise, we received warm water for washing and great meal for dinner.

Day 2 (August 29th, 2011)

Before we took off from Mandara Hut, we posed for a photo. We were still smiling, not knowing what was waiting for us up there. From Mandara Hut, we were still passing through the heathers. On the way, we saw many plants that were unique to Mt. Kilimanjaro. They were beautiful. We were unable to see the peak because of clouds that were covering up the summit.

Our guide, Jimmy, was a veteran climber. He has reached the summit more than 100 times. This 38-year old guide has reminded us a familiar expression in Swahili: "Pole Pole" meaning "slowly slowly." We have heard it numerous times but we were not sure how slow the pace should be. It was Jimmy who set the pace and we had to follow him. At first, the pace was far too slower than we anticipated. But we soon realized that it had to be that way.

After a six-hour hike, we arrived at Horombo Hut (3,700 m) where up to 120 people can sleep. Horombo Hut also includes A-framed cabins but these cabins were larger than those at Mandara Hut. At this height, the clouds were below the camp site. In other words, we were above the sea of clouds. It was enough to amaze us. After a delicious meal, we went to bed pretty early.

Day 3 (August 30th, 2011)

This was the acclimatization day. From Horombo Hut, we set out to climb to Zebra Rocks and Mawenzi Hut (4,200 m) and came back down to Horombo Hut. It is said that people start experiencing altitude sickness from the height of 3,700 m. Thus, we added one additional day to the hike schedule, like many others.

From Mawenzi Hut, we were able to see two peaks: one is Mawenzi Peak at 5,165 m and the other is Kilimanjaro Peak to where we were heading. In distance, we were able to see our target and we all were excited to see the tallest mountain in Africa close by although the way to reach the top looked somewhat overwhelming.

To this point, however, our excitements outweighed the pains and agony that we had to endure.

Day 4 (August 31st, 2011)

Early morning, we set out from Horombo Hut where we stayed for two nights towards Kibo Hut (4,700 m) from where we were trying to hike the summit. On the way, we passed through "No water point." From this point and up, there is no running water. We hiked the alpine area, also called "The Saddle" towards the Kibo Hut. It was called "The Saddle" because we were passing through what looked like a saddle between the Kilimanjaro Peak and another mountain nearby. It was windy and dry. Jimmy's walking pace became even slower than before. We all had to learn to be patient.

Jimmy explained that there are at least three reasons for slow walking. First, it helps with acclimatization. Second, it helps conserve the energy. We realized we did not have to sweat during our hike. Third, it helps get accustomed to the pace of hike when we will attempt to hike the summit. It did not take too long until we witnessed what he meant.

After approximately six-hour hike, we arrived at Kibo Hut that was mainly a stone-built house with several rooms. We were assigned to a room with several bunk beds and two other ladies joined us in our room. Christina was a Belgian young lady traveling alone and Maria was a Dutch lady who came with her friend but the friend chose to stay at Horombo Hut because she felt scared by the steep slope to the top.

We ate the dinner at 5Pm and from 7PM we were encouraged to take a nap until 11PM when we will have to wake up and get ready to climb to the summit. We arranged with five additional porters who will help us individually by carrying the backpack and providing assistance as necessary. My assistant was called Bakal.

Day 5 (September 1st, 2011)

After preparation, we lined up and headed out in one line with the headlamp turned on. We were a party of 12, including the guide and his assistant guide Johnson in addition to five of us and our assistants. It looked like a little fun until we soon realized it was not a joking matter to climb the hills that are covered with screes. It was tough to walk in altitude to begin with and it became worse as we walked along the path covered with screes. It was slippery and required more attention and energy than before. Moreover, we were hiking in the middle of night. We were tired and sleepy.

To keep us from falling into sleep, Johnson led the assistants to sing several songs constantly. Nonetheless, we found ourselves losing our consciousness momentarily several times on the way up. After five hours of hike, slow but gruelingly exhausting, we started seeing the sky behind us changing its color to orange. The sun was getting ready to rise. We were still seeing lines of lights quite significantly above us, indicating that the Gilman's Point was still far away. Some of us started falling behind and losing strength and breath.

Before we reached the Gilman's Point, the sun was rising. Jung and I decided to sit down and see the sunrise. It was beautiful, but more importantly it was a moment of rest that we treasured highly. Catching up with my breath, I was praying that the lights of the gospel may shine Africa like the rising sun.

After the sunrise, we felt it was getting warm pretty fast. But we could not speed up our hike because altitude sickness was kicking in fast. Slowly but at a steady pace we endured the last pitch of the hike to reach the Gilman's Point (5,681 m). Gilman's Point was rather small, disappointingly. Somehow I was expecting a plaza, but it was a small open space with a wooden sign.

This alone was a great feat for us, but we could not settle there and stop there. We took a few photos and wanted to take longer rest than before. But Jimmy was urging us to keep walking. We were told not to rest longer than 5 minutes.

We had to press on towards Uhuru Peak (5,895 m). Jimmy pointed at the Uhuru Peak. It was at the other side of the crater rim. It did not look too far from Gilman's Point. But we soon realized that it was a lot further than it looked and a lot tougher than we hoped. Nonetheless we continued our slow hiking to gain additional 200 or so meters but the distance was far enough to cost us more than two hours.

Two hours of grueling hike hit us with various symptoms of altitude sickness. It included headache, nausea, dizziness, lack of breath, chest pain and vomiting. Moreover, we were physically tired and extremely sleepy. We were walking like dead people, exhaling as much carbon dioxide as possible and inhaling as much oxygen as possible. Several times, our steps were misplaced and our assistants had to hold us up not to fall. We felt like giving up.

But... we were too close to the summit to give in. It was a mental battle and a will fight.

On the way to the Uhuru Peak at the crater rim, we passed through Stella Point that was the gateway to the top for the Machame Route, the other route open to amateurs, and walls of glaciers. Glaciers were a lot more than I expected. But we were told that they were retreating fast from the peak and thus melting also fast. It is anticipated that glaciers will soon melt away.

The Uhuru Peak was like it was moving backward. We had to pass through several moments of reaching the peak, but each time Uhuru Peak was pushed farther away. Eye sights were getting weak and our will was dwindling.

At last, however, the Uhuru Peak came in sight.
We pushed ourselves with the last remaining energy. And we finally reached the peak.


It was 9:01AM on September 1st.

We were at the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro finally after nine hours of grueling hike. One of us ended up vomiting at the peak. Nonetheless, we all took photos with our best efforts for smiling.

There was no snow or ice at the top. It was rather dry and dusty. But it was cold.

I originally planned to spend time praying for Africa and people of Africa. But we were not allowed this relaxed time. Our body was also not very cooperative. Our prayer time was quick but nonetheless we prayed for God's grace upon the countries and peoples of Africa.

Jimmy was now urging us to walk down, not too fast but as fast as physically possible. Altitude sickness may only be cured when the altitude is brought down. Our body was
heavy and sluggish. We felt like sitting down and even better sleeping, but we were not allowed to do so. After sitting down for a few minutes, we were urged to keep walking.

Coming down through the steep hills from Gilman's Point was another challenge. It was a slope of almost 60 degrees and covered with screes. It was impossible to walk in normal steps. I chose to run and slide down on the screes, as if I was skiing the slope. It was fun to certain extent, but my body was physically weak because of lack of sleep and strength.

We all arrived back at Kibo Hut around noon. We were given two hours of rest. We all fell into sleep immediately, regardless of dust covering our clothes and body.

After a quick meal, we had to continue our hiking down from Kibo Hut to Horombo Hut. It took us another three hours. It was far better than at the top, but it was still a long walk after the grueling hike to the summit.

By the time we arrived at Horombo Hut, we were completely exhausted. But we felt great about being able to reach the summit. I even took a cold shower at Horombo Hut (very chilling) to wash the dust and smell. Overall we hiked more than 15 hours today. After a quick dinner, we felt into a long sleep around 8PM.

Day 6 (September 2nd, 2011)

We woke up around 6AM and prepared for the final day of hike to come back down to the Marangu Gate. It will be another 6 hours of walking. The hike was light and easy after the previous day's exhaustive hike.

Finally we reached the gate and filled out the final registration to receive the certificate for the successful hike to the summit. It was a great feeling for all of us. One of us got injured on the knee because of continued pressure from the long hours of hiking down. Finally she had to be transported via a car through a rescue road when two hours were left before we reached the gate. Previously, she had to receive assistance from Jimmy and Johnson.

On the way to the summit, we saw beautiful plants, rocks, birds, some animals, skies, clouds, sunrises, glaciers etc. Here are some photos.

[We had a total of 18 people who helped us throughout the journey and they were great!]

[We posed for a photo after all having received the certificates of the climb at the Akaro Tours office. It was a great feeling.]

I felt so grateful for the opportunity to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and equally for the opportunity to fellowship with my friends whom I treasure a lot.

May this joy of climbing the tallest mountain in Africa empower us in a great way throughout our lives! Shalom! - Jeffrey


Byungkeun Bryant Lee said...

Wow! what a wonderful adventure in 50s. Congratulations on your achievement. could feel your joys with Mt.Kili certificate picture. I am a freshman of 50s,banker in Canada living near Rocky Mountains,Calgary. Your success encouraged me to clean up one of my bucket list. More than all, Your pray at Mt.Kili for Africans touched me and glad to know about UOB that works for Gods mission.God bless you,Elder Lee.

jlee80111 said...

Thank you for your kind words and I would like encourage you to pursue what God burdens your heart... May God bless you with an abundant life in Christ! Please let me know if you need any assistance in your own pursuit of the adventure. Jeffrey