Gineth Soto
Gineth Soto
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My third of the Seven Summits. On January 12 of this year, my husband, Mike, and I traveled to Tanzania, Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, a longtime dream. At 19,340’ high, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain on the African continent, and is the world’s highest freestanding mountain. It is one of the most famous mountains in the world and annually more than 20,000 people attempt its summit. A lot of them never reach the top for although it is regarded as an easy trek, Kilimanjaro is a strenuous, high-altitude hike. Like any other mountain of this extreme height, Kilimanjaro possesses all the dangers of mountaineering; high altitude pulmonary and cerebral edema, rockfall, and unpredictable weather. Approximately 10 climbers die every year, mostly due to altitude sickness. Early this January, 3 American climbers, and 1 Tanzanian porter were killed and many others badly injured, while attempting to climb the Western Breach route, due to a massive rockslide. This is the same route that we planned to climb, however, due to the accident the route was closed.

Our journey began January 12 from Sacramento. 30 hours later, we arrived at our final destination of Kilimanjaro International Airport. Our Mountain Link representative, Francis, picked us up at the airport and transported us to where we would spend our first couple of nights, our Lead guide Simon Mtuy’s Chagga village. We were exhausted. It was a full moon and during the trip from the airport to the village, I could see the silhouette of Kilimanjaro for the first time. It looked enormous, not only the height, but also its width.
Our first full day in Africa, January 14, after a good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast, we toured the Chagga village. Accompanied by our new friends Goodluck and Acila, we went to see the local school, their new and only bridge, and witnessed a little of the daily life of the community. We saw women doing laundry by the river, and the young children diving off the cliffs for our attention. The river drains from a glacier on Kilimanjaro. Very hardworking people, we later saw a woman carrying a large tree – on top of her head! The people there were very friendly, and the village has a very happy atmosphere to it, in spite of its inhabitants living in such extreme poverty. The village is located on the outskirts of Kilimanjaro National Park at an altitude of about 6,000’. I saw many tropical plants here and it reminded me of many places in Costa Rica. The closest town is Marangu, where 80% of the porters who work on the mountain come from.

At this time, we weren’t even sure of the state of the route, if it was open or closed. There wasn’t a lot of real news from the mountain, only rumors. Being so tired from our trip, we spent the remainder of the day resting. Simon, our guide, was still on the mountain, and told Acila by phone of our new plan. We were going to do the safari first, in hopes that in these days maybe the Western Breach route would re-open.

January 15 was another very pretty day, and after the breakfast we had time to repack all our equipment and meals for the mountain, and separate our safari gear from our climbing gear. Finally, our safari driver, Willie, arrived, and we were off to the wild.

The safari went from the 15th to the 18th. It was a once in a lifetime experience. We saw so many animals and also the beautiful national parks of Tanzania, Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara, and the Ngorongoro Crater. The land outside the Kilimanjaro area was very different from the area around the Chagga village. It was a much more desert-like climate, not many trees, mud houses, incredible poverty, even tiny young children herding goats by the highway, in a constant search for water. Many must walk miles underneath a hot sun in search of water puddles just to get some dirty water the color of coffee. Many of the children would run up to our truck and ask, not for money, but for a pen. The schools here don’t provide pens and paper. The children who get a pen will write on their hands, arms, anything, since they don’t have paper either. I felt so touched for them, I asked Willie, our Safari driver, to stop at a small store. I bought a box of 100 pens and began handing them out. Before I knew it, I had huge line of clients! Never before could I think that something that was so insignificant to me could bring so much joy to someone else. It was as if I were giving out new toys, only these were toys for their minds. They were so happy to have them, the children here are 100% humble and innocent. We had some extra candies with us, but many of them didn’t even know what candies were. I had to show them that candies were for eating. The poverty in Africa is unimaginable, and maybe the rest of the world does not realize this. People here have usually only two sets of clothing – one for every day and one for Sundays when they go to Mass. In the USA sometimes people will throw out clothes because they are no longer in style or they have a spot.

The last few years have seen incredible droughts in Africa like never before. There were a couple of large rainstorms while we were on safari, and everyone was so happy for it. We found out later that these were the first rains in over eight months. Africa was once like Costa Rica, full of trees and forests, and this should be a reminder that we need to take care of our environment so we do not lose it in the future.

January 18 were returned from safari and learned the news that the Western Breach route was closed indefinitely. We were sorry to hear that, but by this time the only thing that mattered to us was that we were ready to start climbing, no matter which route. Simon was to be our guide, but his brother Felix would lead us for the first 2 days while Simon would catch up with us later. (Simon now holds the record for the fastest ascent of Kilimanjaro.) When climbing Kilimanjaro, it is a requirement to take a Tanzania guide, even though you may not think you need one. It is also the tradition that climbers hire local porters to carry loads of all the gear and food. This is just the way this mountain is to be climbed. This custom began with German Hans Meyer, who on October 5, 1889 became the first person to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. Upon reaching the top, he raised the German flag on it and it gave the peak the name Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze, and on some maps still today this name appears, instead of what it is known today as, Uhuru Peak.

January 19 was a rest day for us before the climb. We took some time to see the town of Moshi, send some e-mails from the internet café, and just relax and do some shopping. We also had time to do a gear check with Simon, and had our last shower for a week.

Finally, January 20, our climb began. The route we would be going on is the Machame route, and is one of the most panoramic routes on the mountain. The total length of the route is 45 miles. We arrived at the entrance to the park, and obtained our permits, while the porters prepared their loads. Each porter can not carry more than 20 kilos of weight and the rangers at the gate weigh each load to make sure it is within this limit. This took quite awhile for us, as we had a total of 16 porters in our group. Many local men wait at the entrance here looking for work, which they sometimes find when a group discovers they have more gear than their porters can carry within the weight limits. There is quite a lot of porter abuse by some companies, not paying their porters enough, or maybe not even paying them at all. After several hours of preparation finally we began to walk with Felix. It began to rain a little but as since we were in the forest we didn’t get very wet. The forested hike reminded me very much of hiking up Mt Chirripo in Costa Rica. The trail was in very good condition, and looked very clean. We walked about 4 hours until we arrived at Machame camp, which would be our first night’s stop. Machame camp is at about 9,850’ or so. Before it grew dark, the sky cleared up and I could see the top of Kilimanjaro and its glaciers in the distance. I realized that we still had a long way to go, and could tell what an enormous mountain it is. That night was not very cold and the rain seemed to stop. I had drunk 4 liters of water during the day, and I was feeling very strong.

January 21 we left early. This day our destination was Shira camp, at an altitude of about 12,500’. It was a typical day, clear skies in the morning and cloudy in the afternoon. Also, we left the forest area, and entered an area where the vegetation was very different, unique and beautiful. I saw Senecios, Lobelia, Agaria and many flowers similar to the orchids. The trail is in very good condition, and rewards you with fantastic views. Finally, after 5 hours of hiking, we arrived at Shira camp. It is here that the Machame route unites with the Western Breach route. There were a lot of other campers here, so we chose a campsite a little bit higher, to stay out of the crowds. After a short break and lunch, Felix told us we would climb a little higher for acclimatization, the return to sleep here at our camp. We climbed up to over 4000 meters, and returned late while a fog moved in over camp. It seemed like it was going to rain again, too. During dinner, Simon arrived to guide us. I was feeling very good still, drinking a lot of water and not feeling any altitude sickness.

The next day, January 22, we continued our routine of packing up everything before breakfast, and getting ready to walk in the morning after eating. It was another clear morning, but this time a little windy. We said goodbye to Felix, and from now we would climb with Simon and his brother-in-law Freddy guiding us. We began our climb to Lava Tower, which sits at over 15,000’. Finally we were getting into the alpine zone, and we could also really see that we were on a volcano. The day was windy and cold, although the trail was in great condition and the grade is very gradual. I saw many volcanic-type rocks and formations. My husband seemed to develop a stomach problem, but I was hoping he would recover. After 5 or 6 hours we arrived at the camp. Opposite our camp, we could see the wall that is the Western Breach, and also the glaciers and their snow and ice hanging off the rocks above us. A small river ran near us, a drainage from these stunning glaciers which are disappearing much too fast. In the evening we made a walk to Lava Tower, a huge volcanic rock that offers beautiful views of the mountain. My husband was still feeling badly, though, and had a stomach ache. He vomited, and after that he actually started to feel better. Either he had picked up a bacterium somewhere, or the malaria pills we were taking were causing him to be sick. Since we were no longer in a malaria risk zone (only during the safari) we decided to stop taking the malaria pills. We took a long rest, and waited to see how he would recover, since tomorrow would be a very long day.

Overnight, I was very worried about Mike. He was still throwing up and having a lot of stomach problems, plus I could not sleep because my back hurt and it was so cold.
I woke up before anyone else on the 23rd, and I was treated to a gorgeous sunrise, seeing so many beautiful colors and also the shadow of Kilimanjaro on the horizon. Our tents had a good layer of ice on them, and the porters had to boil water for us to drink, as the water purifying pump they used had also froze. This camp is infamous for how cold it is, and I was glad we were moving on to a different camp today. We would go today to Karranga camp, which is at about 13,000’. The camp that immediately follows is Barranco, but we would not be stopping there. Instead we would be climbing the Barranco wall on our way to Karranga – a very long day. We left a little later, hoping that the sun would warm everything up a little. Mike ate a good breakfast and was feeling better, plus we would be losing a little altitude, which would help him recuperate his strength. We passed by the Barranco camp and began to climb the Barranco Wall. This was a fun climb, with sections of Class 3 and a little bit exposed in places. I can imagine that this wall would be a very dangerous climb in the rain. We reached the top of the wall, about 14,000’ high, and began to descend again. The trail continued downward for a while, then went up, then down, then up. Finally, after going up and down for seven hours, we arrived at Karranga camp, where our porters saluted our effort with a triumphant Kilimanjaro song and dance. Our crew was a super nice bunch of guys, and we felt very lucky to have such a great group around us. Always happy and upbeat, they treated us to a lot of songs and dances during our trip, and this helped us forget about any adversity we felt we were having. Mike was feeling better, but his stomach still felt delicate and the climb had made us tired. This camp was warmer than the last, and we could see the city lights of Moshi at night. This night I finally slept better, as Simon let me borrow his sleeping pad, and together with the sleeping pad I already had I didn’t feel the hard ground so much. Finally, my first night of good sleep.

The following day, January 24, we climbed to Barafu camp at a little more than 15,000’. Before we left, during our breakfast, we saw a big rock fall happen up on the mountain. It was a very far from where we were, but I could not help thinking about the people who had not so long ago been killed on the mountain. I can’t imagine the terror they must have felt. After packing and then breakfast, we began the long walk, on a very clear and warm day. The trail is very pretty and the going is very good since here also the grade is not too steep. After 4 hours of hiking we arrived at Barafu where we rested just a little bit. Then we continued a little higher and made our camp a little above the main, crowded camp. Since Simon carries a biodegradable toilet on his expeditions, he has permission from the park service to use this camp at 16,000’, which saves 1,000’ off the summit day. We had the whole camp to just our climbing crew, which made our camp very clean and nice. After dinner, just before we went to sleep, the wind picked up. The wind did not stop all night and made it difficult for us to rest. During the night we listened to many people climbing past our camp, most leave Barafu at around midnight towards the summit, since many who go this route descend down to Mweka camp all in one day. For us, this was not necessary, since we planned to camp at the Crater camp at 18,500’. Most folks do not camp this high, electing to summit and return to lower altitudes. Since this is about the altitude of Camp 2 on Aconcagua, I was not concerned about camping that high. This was also the 7th time I had been above 5000 meters, and I knew I would be ok. But for me the experience to spend one night in the crater of Kilimanjaro, next to the beautiful glaciers that in next the 10 years will disappear is a once-in-a-lifetime experience which I could not pass up.

JANUARY 25TH- Today, our plan was to climb to the crater camp, and maybe, if we were feeling good, go to the top. We woke up very early, had breakfast, and got going before 7am. I say “very early” since normally we had been waking up around 7am during the rest of the climb. Just 3 porters accompanied us today, along with Simon and Freddy, with the rest descending to Barafu to wait for us the next day. The wind was blowing dust in our eyes at first, and made the climbing difficult. The way is steep and full of scree, reminding me of the canaleta on Aconcagua. There was not many others on our route this day, but we could see many people coming up the Marangu or Coca Cola route as it is known. The Marangu route is the most crowded route, climbers sleep in huts not tents, and although it is more popular, the success rate for that route is not very high. The sun hit us and warmed us up a bit, but the wind seemed to be getting stronger. The trail zig zags up all the way. I felt really good, though. It was very different from summit days I’ve had on other mountains, as I was very calm and not pre-occupied with the weather or the difficulty of the climb or anything else. Just below the crater rim, at about 18,000’, we stopped for a break and to have lunch. How odd it was to have a waiter at 18,000’! Robison, our waiter, was a very humble guy, and took pride in his job and performed it very well. Mike’s stomach was feeling better by now. Shortly after lunch, we began to see the pure blue ice of the Rebmann glacier. We were dazzled by its beauty, and we climbed faster, wanting to see more. Finally, I saw the last hill to the rim, and Gilman’s Point. For the first time I could see inside the crater and all the glaciers and ice fields surrounding it. It was an incredible thing, this crater. The crater is huge, measuring almost 2 miles across. Seeing the last ice towers of the Kilimanjaro glaciers was a sight so unforgettable, and the thought that tonight we were going to sleep next to them was like a dream. The route towards the top continues up towards the left for about an hour on average. Our plan was to descend to the crater, spend the night, and tomorrow to summit and then descend to Mweka. But we were so close we couldn’t wait for tomorrow and decided to go for the top today! Slowly, slowly, or as they say in Africa “Pole, Pole” we began towards the summit. The trail was a volcanic moraine. At the top of the farthest hill I saw a wood sign in the distance. Along the way, we could see the glaciers we had only seen from far away before. We could not resist going to see them up close. Simon, Mike and I descended down to them. We saw great blue ice towers and wonderful formations of snow and ice like I have never seen before. It was so emotional to think that in 10 or 15 years, all this beauty will be gone from global warming. Simon told us that this was the first time that anybody had accompanied him to this place, since usually all the people climbing are so tired and their only objective is to arrive at the top. They don’t have time to appreciate the environment around them, not wanting to spend their energy in anything but ascending and descending the mountain. We had the mountain for ourselves as it was 1pm and most of the summiteers from that day were already on their way down. After playing a while in the ice and taking lots of photos, we decided it was time to continue to the top. I climbed a short hill back to the main trail, and knew it would take me about 20 more minutes and I would be standing on the top of the African Continent. Happily, I walked further for just a short time and after 7 hours of walking- at 2pm on January 25, 2006- we stood on the summit. Emotional with my Costa Rican flag flying, we took as many photos as we could. I was on the top of Uhuru Peak at 5895 meters, 19,340’, the highest point of Kilimanjaro, my third of the Seven Summits. Plus, we had the whole summit to ourselves. When I touched and read the sign at the top, I had tears of joy, but also I felt sadness thinking about all the abuse Africans have had to live through, from slavery in the past, and now so much poverty, hunger, droughts, and diseases. Thanks to Simon, I learned much about his country and the reasons why certain things have happened. After all these days sharing time with these wonderful people and their culture I understood that Kilimanjaro is not just a mountain for them, or one of the seven summits. Kilimanjaro is the most important symbol in Tanzania’s history of independence. The love and respect that they have for this mountain are incredible. Songs are sung everywhere about Kilimanjaro. The water originating from the glaciers is bottled and sold here, and is said to be the most pure water in the world. For the rest of the world it is just one more summit, but for them it is the Everest of Tanzania. Tanzania was a colony of the British Kingdom until 1961. Julius Nyerere, who was the greatest leader in its history, had the idea to light a candle and put it on the top of Kilimanjaro. Thus he said one of the most important quotes in the history of Tanzania. Julius said, “would like to light a candle and put it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, to shine beyond our borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where there was only humiliation.” So on the night of Decemer 9, 1961, the very day of Tanzania’s independence, a group of climbers from Tanzania went to the top of Kilimanjaro planted a torch, putting the flag of Tanzania on the top. They re-named their top “Uhuru Peak” which means in Swahili ”Freedom Peak”. They won their independence from Britain peacefully, and Julius Nyerere is known as the father of their country. Knowing all this history it is easy to understand why they love and respect this mountain so much and it was very emotional to reach this summit. It is hard to think about what will happen in 15 years or so when the glaciers disappear, and the streams that come from them, where the ladies gather water and make laundry and the children play, dry up. Kilimanjaro is not just the single highest point of Africa, its much more than a mountain, giving water, food from agriculture, and money from tourists that come to see it and to scale it.

After our summit celebration, we descended to the crater camp. We ate and I continued drinking lots of water. Tonight we had supper very early, and went to bed early to get rested. When the sun goes down at this altitude it gets very cold at night. The backache didn’t let me sleep all through the night however, and also we kept having to get up and out to the bathroom because we were drinking so much water. Thanks to all that water, though, I did not have any altitude sickness or headaches.
The morning of January 26, we woke up very early and packed. We decided not to go back to the summit, since it was looking like it was going to be crowded, and also Mike wasn’t feeling well and needed to recover. After eating a little something, we began going down in the super cold morning. First, it was necessary to climb for a short while, until reaching the edge of the crater and the rest is downhill. Again we saw many climbers on their way to the top and many who were very tired. Later, we found out an English climber had died this day right about where we were at this moment. We descended very fast, and because of this created a lot of dust that got in our eyes. Quickly, we were back down to Barafu camp. Our plan was to go to Mweka camp, and then go down the rest of the way the next day in the morning. But because of my bad back, I was not sleeping well anywhere and really wanted badly to sleep in a real bed. We asked Simon how much farther it would be to walk all the way down the mountain. He said 4 or 5 more hours and we will be done. So we decided we wanted to go all the way out today and not stop at Mweka. So from our camp at 18,500’ we descended 13,000’ in one day to the Mweka gate, the end of our trek. My knees were hurting a lot afterwards, taking a great impact on the way down. So back to Simon’s village we went, to shower and sleep in real beds for the night.

On January 27 we had our celebration dinner and said goodbye to our crew who had helped us so much on the climb. More dancing, singing, and plenty of eating and drinking beer. Africa was a continent of many contradictions, so much beauty and peace, yet so much poverty and hunger. Africa taught me so much, and is an experience I will take with me the rest of my life. More than just a climb, this trip made me feel humble, and I than God very much for how He has blessed my life. This experience will live in my heart for the rest of my life. What began as an adventure to reach the top of the Kilimanjaro, changed me forever and today I will try to be a better person than yesterday. Thank you very much to all you by your support and for giving me the opportunity to share this adventure with you. I will be training very hard in the next few months for my attempt at the next summit - #4- which will be Denali in Alaska in June 2006. I am always looking for aid of sponsors since without their help Everest and Vinson will be impossible for me financially. Thanks to Mountain Link www.mountain-link.com and Summit Expeditions and Nomadic Experiences www.nomadicexperience.com for a successful and safe adventure.

A special thank you to Eddie and Allison Howard for their continued support and belief in my dreams.

Copyright 2006-2009 Gineth Soto, All rights reserved.

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