A Sister’s Perspective – Kilimanjaro

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This is a note that my sister sent out to her family and friends regarding the climb! She has a great perspective on the whole thing – so I thought I would add this to the blog so that you could all get the perspective from someone who actually made it to the top of the summit! So – This post is by Cyndi Sommerfeldt…enjoy!!!
cyndi and i.jpg
Cyndi and I on the Trail

GPS map of our route!!

Okay first of all I am assuming that you all know or, if you are anything like me, slightly recall that I was going to Africa in September to meet up with my traveling sister, Sherry, and make an attempt at climbing to the top of Africa’s tallest point 19,300+ ft (that’s up there…..read on!) better known as Kilimanjaro. Well everything went as planned meaning Sherry resigned from her job in NYC in early September and sublet her apartment and was off to Kenya . I met up with her in Nairobi on the 21st of September. I had also convinced my adventurous friend Heather from Columbia to join us so in fact we all met up in Nairobi on that night. The following morning we were on an African bus bound for Moshi , Tanzania in 6 hours. Do not think air conditioned tour bus here but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. For example there were no animals on board and we experienced no break downs so it was a successful trip into Tanzania and the base of the mountain. Kilimanjaro is only about 3 degrees south of the equator so the town of Moshi is quite tropical feeling…no problem for Singaporeans.

After checking in with the tour company and proceeding to pack all of our mountain gear, we were off the following morning to the Machame gate the start point of our trek. Soon we were united with our extremely capable team of 12 African mountaineers (head guide, assistant guide, cook, waiter, and 8 porters who carry everything up the mountain and are in charge of setting up and taking down camp). Yes, all of that for just the 3 of us trekkers, and get this we were below average on the number of support people as the average is 3 porters for each trekker. Our guide and now friend Douglas told us on our last day that we had packed surprisingly well as most people bring too much and end up having to use additional porters because of it. Of course this means that you have to be ready and willing to wear the same pair of hiking pants for about 4 days in a row but we got over this like many things in a few days.

I have attached a graphic of our trek and the altitudes we were at for each overnight camp. The scenery was beautiful and interesting as we walked from jungle rain forest into the fields of heather (we have tons of pictures of Heather in the heather, surprisingly she doesn’t blend in) into the spooky looking moorland and then alpine desert and finally just an arctic summit zone. This was over a 6 day period and often we would “hike high, sleep low” referring to the altitude. This is an aclimization step and as you can see from our data we held around 13,000ft for a number of days trying to adjust to the altitude before sleeping higher. Finally our highest camp site (Barafu) was at over 15,000ft and we referred to it as camping on Mars. There were large boulders and many smaller ones directly under our tent. And the long drop toilets (I’m not even going into that here) were literally perched on the edge of cliffs. Not a good camp to be suffering and stumbling around due to altitude sickness. We had to reinitiate our first night agreement of ‘one goes to the bathroom…all go to the bathroom’ here just to make sure we would come back from the edge of the cliff. As luck would have it we didn’t spend much quality time at this camp as this is where you make your summit bid from therefore getting up at 11pm for your 6 hours climb to the top, to be at the summit for sunrise.


Okay so how did we all do??? Not surprisingly everyone had there “moments” or probably more like days. Sherry and Heather suffered from altitude the most especially starting the 2nd day. For those of you who think I am as tough and perhaps interesting as a brick wall I’m beginning to agree with you. On two occasions I had a slight headache but after a piece of chocolate I would be great for the next 12 hours. Sherry and Heather suffered more but seemed to improve. We had all brought a prescription of Diamox (actually a diuretic used in the treatment of Glaucoma, but also well known in altitude climbing) and Sherry and Heather were given the go ahead to take theirs by the 2nd day. I on the other hand got a daily speech about how you could get to the top without Diamox if you drank enough fluids (we are talking 3-4 liters a day) and went slow. To keep this short I ended up totally drug free as I was never suffering enough to take the Diamox. Sherry on the other hand took a turn for the worse on the 5th day. She had been struggling with headaches and nausea. I will send you to her blog to get the full story on as she says the joy of throwing up in front of 25 onlookers…..she made it to the highest camp but couldn’t seem to get better with diamox and rest which is about the only choice that you have with altitude. In a very emotional afternoon, Douglas (and Sherry) made the decision to send her down to a lower camp immediately while Heather and I stayed at camp and got ready for a summit attempt in a few hours. It felt much like a surprise vote on Survivor as Heather and I hugged Sherry and she was quickly wisked off to walk down to the low camp (a 4 hour walk which in her state took over 5) with our cook and a porter. Heather and I were told to get some rest (yeah right!) and we would be woken up at 11pm for a final walk up.

Before midnight we were off and walking. With Sherry gone there was just the 4 of us, Douglas our head guide, Heather, myself and Edward our assistant guide, and in that order. I found it pretty nice to have my own personal guide behind me as I had a tendency to kind of slowly fall over to one side or the other….tired, lack of oxygen, I don’t know….but each time I was going into my slow motion tip, Edward would grab me by the waist and set me upright again. It was cold. We were told to put 5 layers on top and bottom and by that point we did whatever Douglas told us. Douglas also told us not to look up and of course after trying it a few times I decided he was right as you couldn’t tell where the stars started and the headlamps on other hikers going up up up ended. It felt like we were just walking into the sky. About 2 hours into the 6 hour walk I was sure I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t have any physical ailments just was extremely tired. I figured I would go a little further before I told Douglas I wanted to go back down. So I just zoned in on Heathers light blue gators in front of me and walked. The next thing I knew I kind of woke up and realized where I was and took a physical inventory of how I felt and I seemed pretty good. It was like I came out of a trance. When I told Douglas I was ready for a break he said we could take one in about 40 minutes when we met up with the other trail at the top. I accused him of lying to me as I was sure we had at least 3 hours left but he said no we were almost at Stella point, near the top. Once at Stella Point my mind became crystal clear and Heather who had been hanging in there the entire climb had a few moments of not knowing where we were. Lucky we picked alternate times to be incoherent. I was so happy to be basically at the top that the additional 40 minute walk (that was supposed to take an hour) over to Uhuru peak the absolute summit felt like a walk in the park. We walked past huge glaciers and if you looked over the inside ridge you could see the crater of the volcano and the ash pit. Again I am crystal clear here but the 4 hours before that are not in my memory at all. We took our pictures at the top and got hugs from the guides. We watched the sunrise below us and pop up through the clouds…amazing. I thought about yelling out “how many of you people are not on diamox up here” but figured just the African guides would raise their hands so thought better of that. We were probably at the top for an hour and then quickly started back down the same way we came up but now in the daylight.

Now I was really on a mission. We had too many clothes on but it was too hard to take them off so just kept going faster down. Also what I thought was a steep ridge we were walking up in the middle of the night was really a superhighway but steep and all small gravel so basically we pointed our hiking boots downhill and skied down. All I wanted to do was get back to camp so that we could pack up and get moving down toward Sherry. Luckily Sherry had our cook Gudluck (we thought this was a great name for a mountain cook…Good Luck) call Douglas as she wanted to know if we made it to the top…so we knew she was doing okay down at 10,000ft. So we got back to camp each took two ibuprofen just for good measure, slept for one hour (more like passed out) and then got up packed and had one last 100% carb lunch and headed down the mountain. We were good at going down. Again the 4 hour walk took us more like 31/2 and that was after a forced break. We found Sherry down at the low camp with our tent right next to the metal camp hut where you signed in and at this elevation could actually buy a bottle of beer or coke. Nice! We were too tired to even consider beer believe it or not but the Coke Sherry bought us tasted real good. We figured we could even make it camping one more night since we were so close to civilization again from here. And we all seemed to be doing our best at sleeping until we were woke up by a rain storm at 2am. We put anything that wasn’t already in a plastic bag in one and viewed the mud river flowing right outside our sleeping compartment and figured there was nothing else we could do until the morning when hopefully our porters would dig us out. So we huddled closer together to negate my now wet in places sleeping bag and went back to sleep. In the morning after extra time cleaning up mud we started down the mountain and were some of the first people out that day as again we went at a fast pace with no stops. The rain at least calmed the dust and it made for some good pictures of the mountain all in snow.

We collected our summit certificates and don’t worry we will work on making a unique one for Sherry’s 15,000ft….It will have all the good stuff on it like a long drop toilet, a huge plate of carbs that you are expected to eat all of, and her very impressive ripped hiking pants. We made it back to our hotel in Moshi and took showers while trying to pack up all of our dirty and wet stuff. We took our guide Douglas out for dinner that night and each had 2 Kilimanjaro beers…very good. Sherry and I left the next day via a one hour flight for Zanzibar and Heather took the bus ride back to Nairobi and started a full day of flights to get back to Columbia . We were tired but all feeling pretty good considering we had been on the mountain for 6 days. So we tried to come up with a one word response to all of you who asked us how it was…..the only one we could really agree on was challenging. We also termed our whole time on the mountain as a hard reset of life. It didn’t take us much time to decide we all had it pretty good in our normal lives and for awhile it felt like we had just been restarted without any warning, no shutting down of the programs we were obviously in the middle of etc, just bang here’s your new life for 7 days.

Sherry and I had a nice and relaxing time in Zanzibar , the spice island. We ate and slept good and then after a couple of days made our way back to the mainland via a rough ferry ride….I told her to just take the Dramamine as a preventative measure but no…. she finally looked at me kind of green like and asked if I still had it handy about 2/3 of the way into our trip. It worked however others didn’t fare so well. We spent a night in Dar es Salaam , Tanzania and then the next morning flew from there to Johannesburg and on to Cape Town . The following morning we got Sherry dropped off at her backpackers hostel and I was off to the airport. All went well on the way home and I actually arrived on my birthday at 5:30 am in Singapore . So I was able to purchase my allotment of booze from the duty free shop before 6am so I figure that was a pretty good start to a birthday.

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