Journey to the Roof of Africa

Apr. 18, 2014

Michelle Regn is a regular at the XTERRA Trail Running World Championship on Oahu, but that’s certainly not where her adventures end.  Here, she tells us of her journey to Mt. Kilimanjaro…

By Michelle Regn

The crazy hiker chick is at it again.  That’s the moniker my friends have given me and I suppose it’s appropriate.  I prefer to take long treks spanning several thousand miles & several months at a time.  However, this time I set my sights on a short trek of about 50 miles up a really tall mountain.  As triathletes and marathoners, we are no strangers to pushing ourselves to physical limits, but the oxygen poor air at the top of Kilimanjaro taught me a new lesson in determination.

Kili is the tallest mountain on the African continent and is comprised of three volcanic peaks, Shira, Kibo and Mwenzi.  Kibo in the center is the highest at 19,340’.  The summit, called Uhuru Peak, has been reached by many people, the youngest aged 7 and the oldest 87.  That does not mean it’s easily achieved by any means.  To stand on Uhuru and gaze out across the rapidly disappearing glaciers to the African Savannah far below, you need some very warm clothing, a sturdy pair of boots, the patience to walk slowly enough to acclimatize and a lot of luck.  There are two dry seasons a year, but Kili’s height makes its own weather systems regardless of the season, as I found out first hand.

My journey actually started in January of this year.  After six days in the Rocky Mountains to acclimatize, I flew to Tanzania along with eight others who had booked with the same outfitter.  A solo trek is not an option because the local government requires that you hire a licensed outfitter with professional guides.  As an extra bonus, porters come with the deal to carry most of your gear.  With over 5,000 miles of backpacking experience schlepping all my own gear, this felt like a guilty pleasure.

Our group spent five days hiking the Machame route to stage for a midnight summit bid from high base camp at 16,000’.  Shortly after our arrival at 4pm, it started to snow heavily.  By 11:30pm when we gathered in the dining tent, the storm was raging with heavy winds and near white out conditions.  Four people attempted to continue to the summit, but returned within 2 hours.  I opted to stay in my tent and try to keep from freezing.  My pack thermometer read 50 degrees below zero and the winds were gusting between 60 and 80 mph.  I propped my trekking poles inside to try and keep the tent poles from breaking as my tent twisted and buckled and tried to turn itself inside out.  Before the night was over, the porter’s tents and the cooking tent blew away, as well as the privies.  We all survived the blizzard, but we had missed our narrow summit window.  We had to retreat down the mountain in order to catch our flights the following evening.

I had a great time in Africa checking out the animals, meeting new people, experiencing a different culture and spending a week on a beautiful mountain.  Yet, I wasn’t satisfied.  I had set out to climb to the summit but Mother Nature hadn’t allowed me to reach my goal.  Shortly after I returned home, I knew I’d be going back.

I headed back to Tanzania for a second attempt eight months later.  August and September comprise the second dry season of the year.  This time there were seven other trekkers and we chose the nine-day Western Approach route.  The last time I had been feeling somewhat gnarly at 16,000’ and thought I might require more time to acclimatize before attempting the summit.

The first day was spent resting at the 10,000 acre Ndarakwai Reserve, a game ranch with really comfortable safari type platform tents and lots of animals roaming the grounds including a few monkeys running around the dining pavilion.  I got to visit a Masai village and see how people live with the absence of all modern amenities.  It was fascinating.

The next day our group of eight trekkers with three guides and thirty-seven porters headed up the west side of the mountain.  The familiarity of the trail and landscape was comforting to me.  We spent three days trekking around the Shira Plateau, one of the highest alpine plateaus in the world averaging over 12,000’.  The weather was clear and cold and afforded a constant view of the summit above that still looked so far away.

On the fourth day we headed up to 15,500’ to camp at the base of Lava Tower, a 450’ high cylindrical cinder cone resembling Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.  We all opted for the optional hike to the top.  Although I’m slightly afraid of hanging from rock faces, it wasn’t as technical as it looked and turned out to be another highlight of the trip.  The view of the summit glaciers from the top of the tower was stunning.

We spent the fifth night sleeping 3000’ lower in order to prepare for the next night back at 16,000’.  By opting for a longer trek, we were afforded the luxury of a daylight summit attempt rather than leaving at midnight and hiking in the coldest part of the day.  I thought this was an important advantage for my tropical thinned blood and the main reason I picked this route.

After a restful night in the chilly single digit alpine zone, our trail family started for the summit just as the sun rose.  There’s something about close quarters and a shared goal that really brings people together.  After a week on the trail we had become a well-oiled hiking machine.  By convention, the slowest hiker leads the pace so no one in the group gets left behind.  I had been one of the lead pace setters most of the week, but the extremely thin air after 17,000’ had my feet dragging and my head spinning with dizziness with each labored gasp.

The guides placed me up front to set the pace, but after another 1,000’, my oxygen starved body succumbed to acute mountain sickness.  AMS isn’t necessarily a dangerous condition unless you are unable to stop vomiting.  Luckily, I had anticipated the possibility and brought along some prescription medication to stop the nausea.

I had reached the point that separates the big dogs from the puppies, so to speak.  Every cell of my body was screaming at me to head down and get oxygen.  I couldn’t listen.  I had 750 vertical feet to go to reach Stella Point, the trail junction leading to the summit to the left and to the right, the trail to the night’s camp alongside the Furtwangler Glacier.  With my head pounding and my stomach churning, I decided I would head for Stella and make another decision from there.  I had already bid the rest of the group farewell and they assumed I had turned around.

That was probably the longest 750’ of my life, somewhat reminiscent of the two miles up Diamond Head at the end of the Honolulu marathon.  After two hours of head-down trudging I finally reached what I thought would be the end of my journey.  Exhausted and dejected, I sat down at Stella and cried like a baby.  I was pretty sure I didn’t have another 750’ left in me.  My oxygen deprived brain was playing tricks on me.  When the head guide informed me the summit was only a little over 300’ higher and that the rest of the group was only about 20 minutes ahead, I got a second wind.

The final hour was painful, but deeply satisfying.  I knew I was going to make it this time.  That made everything I had been through to that point worth the effort.  By the time I reached the sign marking Uhuru Peak, I was blubbering for the second time that day, but this time the reason was elation and relief.  I’ve had several defining moments in my life.  It’s too soon after to have enough perspective, but I suspect this was one of them.

After the victory photos, we took a short decent to our camp for the night at 18,800’ inside the summit crater.  The scenery was breathtaking surrounded by crater wall and glaciers, but most of the group was too nauseated to appreciate it.   By morning the temp had dropped from zero to minus 20.  It was time to head off the mountain.

Within eight hours, the temp had risen 80 degrees and the air was noticeably chewy.  Twenty-four hours later I was boarding a plane back to settled life with the afterglow of success heavy on my mind and dreams of the next adventure. Photos courtesy of Michelle Regn

Michelle Regn

Trail Run