Editor's Note: The following is Part One of the author's "Kilimanjaro Blog," which details Shelley Shepard's climb of Afdrica's tallest peak earlier this summer. The Times is pleased to present it, in a couple parts. Enjoy!
“When you see the Southern Cross for the first time… you understand now why you came this way…” Crosby, Stills, & Nash.
Our second night on Mt. Kilimanjaro was spent at Shira Camp, a staggering 12,355 feet above sea level and the first evening the skies cleared to show off a stunning star-filled night sky - my first time seeing the Southern Cross constellation and a mental snapshot from this adventure that will never leave me. It was a frosty 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) but I was so excited to be in that moment, with the clouds below us and the snow-covered summit of Kili filling the eastern sky, 7,000 feet above us. It was awe-inspiring to see our goal and know the next three days of hiking would have us standing on the top.
We had hiked a full 4000-foot elevation gain on our first day, through a mist-filled rainforest, with monkeys playing in the treetops, a surreal experience stunningly more beautiful than we had expected! We’d read the books, read the blogs, could recite Zara Tours’ FAQs, packing guidelines and tips by heart, but none of that had prepared us for how interesting the lower mountain was in its ever-changing zones. Our chief guide, Freddy, his brother Dustan training as an assistant and our in-crew-comic, Lucas, had educated us about the importance of “pole-pole,” Swahili for slowly-slowly. When acclimating to the increasing altitude and preparing our bodies for the extreme attitude at a 19,341-foot summit, it was crucial that we walk slowly and not increase our heart rate. As you climb in altitude, the pressure on your body decreases, decreasing the amount of oxygen being pushed through your bloodstream and into your organs (brain and lungs being key!). The human body is pretty amazing and immediately begins producing extra red blood cells to help carry more oxygen to the key organs, but you have to give it a few days to meet the demand. You don’t want to be stressing it out with silly things like running up a mountain and wasting oxygen on greedy leg muscles. Slow is pro! Our guide Dustan figured out in 10 minutes he didn’t need to say pole-pole, he’d just point to the side of the trail and exclaim, “Look! Shelley! It’s a Flower!” and I’d be right there with my camera and questions. I have at least 100 photos of flowers, mosses, ferns, trees, waterfalls and rocks. Lots and lots of rocks.
We were just a group of two, my younger brother John – whose bucket list idea had started this adventure a few years ago – and myself, the only person he could coerce into what had been described as a walk in the park. For the two of us, we had an 11-person support team; three guides, one cook, and seven porters who carried our camp and gear on their backs and heads. With beaming smiles and usually singing. Upon my return someone asked me if I’d been humbled by the mountain and I have to confess, the mountain did not humble me - heck, I’d reached the top! Happily, healthy and no signs of altitude sickness! I’m strong, I can do anything! Roar! – but the sweet people who cheerfully worked 10-plus hour days in extreme altitude and weather conditions, out of necessity (tourism is the number one job source in the area), They humbled me. My brother and I were very aware that we have been blessed in comparison; lucky by nothing we’d done other than the circumstances of our birth. We appreciated every effort they made in carrying heavy loads, setting up/break down camp, running fresh food from the lower camps, preparing yummy, warm, fortifying meals, and diligently working toward the end goal of getting their two hikers – they nicknamed us Johnny and Sister - safely to the summit. These guys earned my accolades, appreciation and utmost respect, they are the heroes of the mountain and I am absolutely humbled by their kindnesses and efforts.
The fourth day’s hike to base camp starts right off the bat with a clambering trail hidden along the infamous Barranco Wall, which towers above the camp. There were two sections of this ‘trail’ (I use the term very loosely as it was really just rock face) that had me praying for superglue grips or climbing ropes. A shot of adrenaline warmed me up and carried me the top where I shed my ski gloves and two polar fleeces while soaking in views of neighboring Mt. Meru and far off towns below in the plains, soberly punctuated by a helipad on the opposite ridge. We’d befriended several other hikers from other groups and all shared a moment of success and fist bumps, “They ‘said’ this wasn’t technical, Hah!”
STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR PART TWO