Roof of Africa

I found this old email that my mother passed on to me last July. It’s written by my cousin, who has lived in Europe and traveled all over the world. (Even though she’s from Long Island, you’ll notice the British spelling she uses in the email.)
She lives a very jet-set sort of life, but, honestly, I wouldn’t trade my life for hers. Even after reading this. I know my calling. 😉 But her adventures sure are fun to hear about.

Hi all – I apologise for the mass mail and length (probably longest email I’ve written) – I don’t think an email will even remotely begin to cover my experience as it was by far the most challenging of my life. But, for those interested…here’s an account of my trip to the summit of Kilimanjaro….

For those who want the 30sec summary – I did make it to the top of Kilimanjaro despite wheezing and coughing up a lung from asthma, my bum knees, serious dehydration and some altitude sickness…despite long days of hiking, completely lost my appetite thanks to the altitude and had to force myself to eat. The porters (think sherpa) seem superhuman – with what they carry up the mountain. The views at the top were beautiful and I couldn’t believe I made it…now the detailed account of my journey:

Day 1: The drive to the mountain was beautiful. We passed lots of farms, small villages and fields of sunflowers! The tallest ones I’ve ever seen…We arrived at Machame Gate we a mad amount of other people including a large group of college kids from Georgia (who made their porters carry a huge guitar and hard case up the mountain – but that’s another story). Anyway, we had to register before heading up. We were queuing for ages without going anywhere when the Austrians we were travelling with (several from same small town as Arnold Swa…) decided to take action. They formed a barrier around the registration (there were 10 of them) and started fighting off others. It was quite the scene. We were able to start off by noon and began our long trek up hill through the rain forest (a mere 16k). Beautiful vegitation that reminded me of the jungle in Malaysia. Was hard to believe we were days away from reaching the glacier…We saw our first glimpse of people turning around and heading back down – more and more each day. We arrived up at the first camp – just above the forest line at 3100m and got our first view of the mountain. The peak seemed so far away…we happily did not have to put up our own tents (one up on Alaska ride…) and were neighbours with these crazy Mexican missionaries who became some of our friends along the way. Wouldn’t say I could’ve picked out the Mexican flag before (I know, sad to say) but I know it know! We went to bed just after 7pm (as we did every night) as it got dark and cold outside.

Day 2: We had a 4hr trek pretty much straight up the mountain above the cloud line. We had some scrambling (where w\you scale rocks with your hands/feet) and the vegitation turned into smaller artic type plants. The thin air started kicking in my asthma at the end of the day – when we reached 3850m…was beginning to worry a bit as I would be going 2000m (over a mile) higher…otherwise, I though the first two days of hiking weren’t bad. We had a beautiful sunset in camp and the mountain was lit up all colours. We met some more people along the way – including a really nice couple from Minnesota (thought of Jo ofcourse).

Day 3: This was a big climatisation day. We hiked up to 4600m then back down to 3900m. Considering what a long, hard day it was – it is sad that we gain so little altititude..The day started with a long climb where vegitation disappeared and we start hiking through these huge boulders. I started wheezing and had to stop several times on our ascent to catch my breathe…we had lunch by a place called Lava Tower (not far from the western breach where 3 Americans died with our tour group a couple years earlier – that route is closed). Beautiful view of the mountain from 4600m but altitude sickness was kicking in and I was losing my appetite…on a steep descent from there – I banged my knee on a rock pretty bad and the general descent gave my a taster on how painful the last day would be – when I finally came off the mountain. Arriving into camp we could see the dreadful trail for day 4 ahead of us. It was straght up the side of a mountain but rumour around camp was that it wasn’t as bad as it looked….When we arrived at Baranchi camp (3900m) – after a painful day with asthma, bad knees and altitude sickness – I had a realistic chat with my guide. What if I don’t make it- can my friend go on and how to I get down (I did not want to be one of the many that go down on a stretcher). He said the hike to the gate from the next camp was much eaiser than where we were – so I moved on. I had to force myself to eat that night (and for the remainder of the trip) – something I never thought would happen to a LaCour….

Day 4: We set off around 9am – in the middle of the masses, bad idea. We went up a steep mountain path – very little to no room to pass. The porters, carrying 20kilos were marching past us and we’d hit ‘traffic jams’ where people were scrambling up the mountain and porters were trying to pass. We waited out some of the crowds and sat for about 30minutes – where I had to sit and stare at my feet so as not to look down (over a mile drop no doubt) and to avoid watching these porters scale the mountains carrying so much on their heads, and praying nothing dropped and hit me…Alix had a moment where she lost it – and had a little break down. We caught our nerves and moved on…As we did our ascent my asthma kicked in again, which the last place you want to feel dizzy is along a cliff wall. So, I stoped every 5-10mn or so to catch my breath. Seriously, this was probably the most frightening 2 hours of my life along this wall. We made it to the top after more scrambling (who said the Kili trek was a long walk?) and I nearly lost it. It took a while for me to regulate my breathing and calm myself down. I really couldn’t imagine what it would be like another 1200m higher…the remainder of the day wasn’t as bad – we were behind the crowds at this point, most were hiking further for a 6 day ascent. We had a shoter hike as we were doing 7 days. We had a long downhill, followed by a gradual include – then a hike down and back up a valley. If you’re exhausted reading this – imagine how it felt. We had paired up with two people from Manchester, UK and we took a detour to a waterfall in a cave. What do you want to do when dehydrated, hungry and physically exhausted – scale you \r way into / out of a narrow cave to see some waterfall. It was pretty cool but again, made you think ‘why did I do that’ after…Anyway, as I arrived in Karangu camp 4 at 3950m, I was feeling really sick and took my first dose of diamox (altitude sickness treatment). I really didn’t know how I’d go on…and forced myself to eat some lunch/dinner. We had a great view of the mountain – but the top still seemed so far away. We had talked to our guide – who recommended a day ascent of the mountain as it’s less cold (everyone goes for the summit leaving at midnight). I thought this was a good idea for my asthma and it also meant we started before everyone else and would have no crowds – so Alix and I decided to go for it. It meant we would go for our ascent on Day 5 – the next morning. Starting with a 3hr hike to the ‘base camp’ then onto the summit – another 7hrs, then back down – another 3hrs. Looking forward to some 13hrs of hiking and the summit – hit my nerves that night. Oh yea, did I mention it’s impossible to sleep up there – with exception of the first night, while in my tent for 12hrs, I woke up every hr…ugghh…

Day 5: We woke up in the cold darkness for our early ascent. Our guide busted his knee and said he couldn’t go on – so he gave us a tearful goodbye, took one of the porters and made his way down. Our Asst guide (who we really hadn’t seen) took over – and we set out at 7am, leaving all our new friends behind at camp while we made our way for our summit attempt. We had a long incline out of the camp (with the mountain staring us down on our right). I had to go very slow – and stop a couple times to catch my breathe (common theme) but we made the hike to the next camp in a reasonable 2.5hrs. We arrived at Barafu hut at 4600m (like base camp) when the folks from the night before were coming down. Some of our new friends (who were on the 6 day hike) made it, some didn’t. We caught up with them, heard the horror stories and set off after a short rest.

You have no idea what it’s like to set off for a 10hr hike that you know will be grueling with minimal food and only 2liters of water. We had packed lots of layers and my pack felt quite heavy. The guide quickly took my pack (thankfully) and we made our way up. We ran into folks coming down along the way – saw the exhaustion and heard the tales. The guy from Georgia summed it up best when he said – he ‘hadn’t receiced the right scouting report’ on the mountain…so much harder than he ever imagined…

A big snow storm moved in on us during the hike up. We asked our guide if it’s ok to keep going and he had no concern. Our ‘waiter’ brought lunch up to us about 2hrs into the hike, as it wasn’t ready before we were setting out. We found a large rock overhang take shelter and tried to eat the french fries, orange, etc. in our pack lunch. It was a good break. We also learned our ‘waiter’ – Alios was now our Asst guide and he was joining us on our trek up the mountain. ‘Pole pole’ is now my most used swahili phrase – which basically means go slow – so you can acclimatise. On our way to the top – which seemed never ending – we were advancing maybe a foot length at a time, it was so hard to pick your foot up and move it at all. But we kept trudging on – ofcourse stopping every now and then for me to catch my breathe. Alix, who was kicking my butt with no ailments all the trip started to feel it on the way up – everyone’s in the same boat up there. Stella Point – on the crater rim (only 45mn from the peak) kept looming over us – hardly ever feeling like we were getting closer. People have stopped 30m from the rim, just because they couln’t go on. I couldn’t understand that until I was there myself. The nausea and headaches are the most intense feelings – and you have no energy to move your body. But – after about 5hrs 15mn, we did reach the rim. Alix broke down and was hysterical crying (a very common response) – when I started to tear up – I realised I couldn’t breathe and crying wouldn’t help the matter. I was focused on my breathing and gasping out at the amazing view of the glacier, snow and the top of the mountain (it had long stopped snowing and was beautiful up there). I was coughing so hard – due to lack of oxygen I’m sure – but I couldn’t believe I had made it. Ofcourse, we still had another 45mn walk through the snow to the peak! We reached the summit just before 5pm – in about 6hrs. Considering estimate is 7hrs, not bad. I took many pictures – and we revelled being up there in our small group of 4. It’s so uncommon to be at the top on your own – so it was a pretty surreal experience…We were up there for about 10mn, me wheezing and Alix slumped on the ground saying she wanted to go to sleep. As soon as Alios heard Alix saying she was going to sleep and close her eyes – he got her up for a picture and then pretty much ran her down the mountain. As I was following after them – I enjoyed a bit of the sunset (pink hues) hitting the mountain. Beautiful – but no time for photos – I was trailing behind with Daniel (our recently promoted guide) – at this point – we were eager to get as far down as possible while we still had daylight.

We took the ‘quick’ way off the mountain which felt like we were skiing through sand – very bizarre experience. Brutal on the knees…It was dark for the last bit down a cliff, we made our way down – each with our own guide and headlamp. We made it down in 2.5hrs to base camp (Barafu) at 7:30pm, emotional and exhausted but keeping quiet as eveyone in camp was starting their ascent at midnight and were sleeping….after a couple quick bites to eat (first real food in 11hrs of hiking) we were past out for the brutally cold night at 4600m.

Day 6: We woke up to an early bfast and found out we were only a 5hr hike from the exit gate. We had planned to do the hike in 7 days but the thought that our hotel was a 5hr (steep / muddy descent down), we decided to go for it. My knees have not been in such much pain in a long time – and the amount of times that Alix and I almost slipped – it was a miserable hike. I was wondering why we didn’t pay for the helicopter option – to pick us up from Barafu (kidding ofcourse, but that would’ve been nice). The exciting part wasour gide – who left us with the bad knee- took a jeep up the mountain as far as a truck trail would go – and picked us up – saving us about 30mn of walking. After 6 days, 30mn sounds insignificant but it was a highlight! So, we then signed out at the gate – picked up our ‘certificate’ and made our way back to the hotel…

So, that’s it – the LONG rambling story. I needed to get my thoughts down – and probably forgot stuff already, but I just wanted to share the experience with those who are interested.

Ah, anyway. Off for my safari in the Serengetti tomorrow and looking forward to the beaches of Zanzibar next week! Hope all’s well with everyone up north. Looking forward to seeing those Stateside soon.



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