CBMG is in preparing to leave for Africa in just a few short weeks to climb the continent’s highest peak and the world’s tallest free standing mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro (19,433 ft /5893m). Learn more about our upcoming 12-day expedition and safari here. Little did we know, until recently, that one of our very own guides, Zach Guy, once held the record as the youngest person to climb Kilimanjaro at age 11! While the record has since been broken, we still think it’s quite an accomplishment! Zach was gracious enough to share his Kilimanjaro adventure and some photos with us. Read on …
Flashback to 1997. I was an 11-year-old kid who wore whitey tighties, listened to the Lion King soundtrack all the time, and was terrified of girls. The culmination of our summer-long family trip to Africa was an attempt up Mt. Kilimanjaro. In the past two months, I had been chased by baboons, slept with hippos grazing outside our tent, and walked through lion hunting grounds after getting our vehicle stuck in the mud. I had used my fair share of “long drops” (i.e. foul outhouses), returned to an unzipped tent full of huge, scary spiders and centipedes, and had woken up one morning to find our guide had been thrown in jail the night before. It was an amazing trip, but Kilimanjaro stands out as the most memorable, challenging, and rewarding.
Kilimanjaro towers over the Serengeti plains at 19,341 ft – the highest point in Africa. The iconic glacial capped volcano seems unreal when you are down in the plains among herds of zebra and gazelle. Our guide was clearly skeptical when our family showed up. I was told “No one your age has ever climbed Kilimanjaro.” The effects of high altitude are worse the younger you are, but we justified an attempt because my brother and I were active kids from a high Colorado town and had climbed Longs Peak, our backyard 14er, a few years earlier without any issues.
We set off on the Marangu route, which begins at 6,000 feet in a cloud-shrouded forest. My memory of the first two days is hiking through constant rain, but being rewarded with hot tea and soup when we arrived at each hut. At the end of the second day, as we approached the Horombo Hut, we climbed above the clouds and the peak of Kilimanjaro first came into view. It was both an exciting and intimidating moment. Still a lot of climbing to go. Our family spent the third day acclimating at the Horombo Hut, which is at an elevation of 12,200 ft. We played cards and watched as weary climbers, some successful, some not, returned from their summit attempts.
On Day 4, we pushed on towards Kibo Hut. At 15,400 ft, it is the staging area for the final summit day. The trail rises from a sub-alpine “moorland” zone with weird Dr. Seuss-like trees to stark and bare alpine zone with nothing more than volcanic rock. I was feeling good and wanted to speed along to the hut, but our guide kept saying “polepole…polepole…” — Swahili for slowly, slowly. We watched the sun set on Kilimanjaro and its little sister, Mawenzi, before attempting to get sleep. Other climbers in the hut were hacking and coughing all night, and everyone was restless with the excitement or nerves of the next day’s summit attempt.
We got moving around midnight and started slowly switch-backing up the steep and loose trail into the darkness. At some point, my hands and feet started getting really cold, borderline frostbite. My mom let me use her mittens which seemed to help a little. Around 17,000 feet, I really started to struggle with the altitude. I remember lying on my back in the middle of the trail and telling my family to keep going while I slept there. My dad said something like, “If he does that again, he’s going back down with Mom.” I guess that inspired me to keep moving, and before I knew it, we reached the rim of the crater. The sun was rising, and its warm and cheerful rays brought new motivation to the day. We were all feeling very winded, but still had to traverse a ways around the rim to reach the official summit. It was painfully slow moving. I threw up twice along the way. I have a vivid memory of the the sun hitting the glaciers in the crater as we climbed the last stretch to the top of Uhuru Peak. Nothing comes close to the height of Uhuru Peak, and you really feel like you are standing on top of Africa. It was certainly a struggle that last day, but I’m proud of the accomplishment, for me, my brother, and my parents.
My favorite part of the whole trip was going down off the rim of Kilimanjaro. The loose and steep trail that had been such a nightmare a few hours earlier turned into a fun slope that you could glissade and run down. Every time we passed a group on our two-day retreat back to the bottom, our guide would approach them with a huge smile, puffed out chest, and exclaim “I got him to the top!”
-Words by Zach Guy. Photos provided courtesy of Zach’s mom, Judy.