December 21 – 27, 2015 – Mt. Kilimanjaro Trek
This is the fourth in a series of occasional training blogs recording my major training progress toward my goal of completing the Zion 100 on April 8-9, 2016, in support of the College of Law’s 100-100 initiative. The first blog recorded a Mt. Timpanogos Run on October 4. The second recorded the 9th annual “Trans-Wasatch” Run on October 25th, an informal group run starting somewhere on the Salt Lake side of the Wasatch Range and ending at an appropriate place for refreshments in Summit County. The third described my completion of the Antelope Island Fall 50K on November 14. Other remaining interim goals are:
- The Red Hot 55K in Moab on February 13; and
- The Buffalo Run 50-mile race on March 19.
Most ultra-runners would not think of a 6-day, slowly paced and well-supported hike as a serious “training run.” (The Tanzanian government requires hired guides and porters to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, in part for safety and in part to support eco-tourism in a very poor country.) But at 19,341 feet above sea level, the highest peak in Africa, and the mountain with the fourth largest base to summit gain in the world, reaching the summit can be a test of fitness and endurance for even the best-trained individuals, some of whom simply are prone to altitude sickness. (We met a very fit triathlete from New Zealand who had to be escorted down due to an apparent case of high altitude cerebral edema. Another individual we saw along the summit route seemed like he should have been, but dangerously refused to quit.) And although it was basically just a hard, steep, steady hike with some occasionally tricky footing from the northeast approach, I would be lying if I suggested that summit day was a walk in the park, especially in the very thin air.
The main reason for the trip was not really part of my training regime, but because this has been a “bucket list” goal for me, and my wonderful wife Michele arranged the trip (and Tanzanian safari to follow) for my 60th birthday. Our two children, Woody and Sierra, also joined us, and reached the summit with me early in the morning after my 60th birthday. (Sierra also celebrated a birthday on the trip – turning 21 on the flight to Africa.)
Following our best “road less traveled” inclinations, we chose the Rongai route, which approaches the summit from the north, rather than the more popular (read, crowded) southerly approaches. This turned out to be a great decision for several reasons. First, it really was much less crowded. We had heard stories of literal “tent camps” with hundreds of other trekkers lining the trail. Our route had just a few other trekkers, our camps were not at all over-crowded, and the scenery was spectacular and interesting, traversing all of the major ecosystems on the mountain. What we had not realized, but a huge side benefit, was that the north side of the mountain is drier, which led to virtually perfect weather. We had just an hour of rain during our entire 4-day approach hike, after we had got into camp and were in our tents. For the most part, it was sunny and beautiful. (The only actually hiking in the rain was about an hour during our descent, down the south side.) We began in a mixed temperate forest/agricultural zone, move our way up through some rain forest and “moor” (high mountain wet meadow) zones, and then into the much more open alpine zones. We saw little wildlife (one monkey, some lizards, several bird species, including some very persistent white-necked ravens trying to steal food), but a very wide range of plants.
We also took a somewhat circuitous route to allow time to acclimate to the altitude. We seemed to be heading straight for the main peak the first day and part of the second, and then veered east to the base of Mawenzi Peak, another mountain along the Kilimanjaro ridge, which is lower (about 17,000 feet) but much craggier and a technical climb rather than a hike. Sierra called it the most beautiful campsite she had ever seen (and she’s done a lot of camping in her life). The last “approach” day was across a very open moonscape that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie on a distant planet, to Kibo Hut campsite at 15,466 feet. We ate and went right to bed for a planned 11 p.m. starting time. For those who have climbed Kilimanjaro, you know that this was a particularly early start time. We did so because it was a brilliantly bright and huge full moon, which allowed us to climb with no headlamps, and also to be first to the summit, which we had all to ourselves rather than the typical mob scene. The tradeoff was that we did not see the sunrise from Uhuru Peak (it was way too cold and windy to wait around!), but with this route there is a much longer hike to and from the summit along the crater rim from Gillman’s Point (18,763 feet), and we had spectacular views of the glaciers and crater along the way, and saw sunrise from Gillman’s Point before we headed down. (Don’t tell on our guides, but our descent was relatively quick because we boot skied a lot of the vertical descent down the steep glacial till rather than taking the trail, which was great fun.) We hiked down the other (south) side along the Marangu Route, which allowed us to see the “other side” of the ecosystem (definitely wetter and muddier).
Progress toward the Zion 100 goal: The Zion 100 mile run is now less than three months away – close enough for me to start getting nervous about my preparation! The Kilimanjaro trek was useful training because it was a lot of time on my feet, and strenuous because of the altitude and elevation gain. In another sense, however, between six days of hiking but no running, another five days of safari where large feline predators made running unwise (!), several days in between in Moshi (also not conducive to recreational running), and very long travel days on both ends, it was actually a bit of rest from serious running training. Now, with so little time before the race (a couple of weeks of which I need to “taper” to have fresh legs), I need to be very focused and diligent for the next couple of months. That means lots of early morning runs before work, so if I am a bit bleary-eyed at meetings and such, please bear with me!
 I abandoned my plan to run the Bigfoot Snowshoe 50K at the end of January, because I have not had enough opportunity to train on snowshoes this year. I will do two other long (25-35-mile) training runs in mid-late January instead.