Tuesday, August 25, 2015

That Beautiful Beast

A big hello from New York City where I have recently arrived and am happily ensconced on my parents' couch, enjoying wi-fi, cable tv, a/c, and food delivery.  The city is glorious at the end of the summer, the heat has died down, and there is a slow, syrupy quality in the air that languishes and settles everywhere you go.  I've yet to actually see friends and family, but am enjoying a little bit of "me" time prior to the onslaught of catch-ups and hang-outs.

This solitude also gives me time to reflect on my last couple months in Tanzania: my visit with my mother and, of course, Vumi.  I feel at peace somehow, and surprisingly strong.  I've been putting off writing my Kili blog entry because it somehow seems like a time of innocence, the "before" to now's "after."  It's hard to look back knowing as I do what is to come, and I almost feel guilty doing so.  But climbing Kili with my mom (and actually succeeding!) was very special to me, and I want to honor that memory with an upbeat, Sarah-style post.

So, here goes!!

(NOTE: Because there is just so much to say about our trek, I've broken down the major elements into sections, rather than telling the story chronologically.  I hope it will be comprehensible....)

I made the unilateral decision at some point last year that my mother and I should climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to celebrate our 70th and 40th birthdays respectively.  She didn't protest that much, so we went with my dear friend, Methley Swai, who runs a small, boutique tour company called Just-Kilimanjaro.

Methley is Tanzanian, originally from Moshi, but has spent a considerable amount of time overseas, particularly in New York where he attended Westchester Community College.  Obviously, his English is incredible but in addition to the language, he gets the nuances of mzungu culture, making him our perfect climbing companion.
In addition, we've known each other since I first arrived in TZ back in 2007 and have become quite close.  He's also spent time with both my parents over the years and took the three of us (partially) up Kili back in 2008, and has shared many a beer with my dad after a game of golf at Moshi's "country club."  Thus, he is well aware of the Rosenbloom philosophy of life and our unique approach to.... everything!

In addition to Mkuu (my pet name for Methley, meaning "chief" or "boss"), his team included eight others, mostly porters and one assistant guide and one chef.  The assistant guide, Peter, quickly became my mother's handler and one of the porters, Hassan, stuck by my side.

So we were a group of five trekking together while the porters basically jogged ahead of us with 25 kilos each of our crap on their heads.  GUARANTEED, they thought we were the slowest, most useless people to ever climb the mountain.

Knowing that we are little, old, non-mountain-climbing Western ladies, Methley made a schedule especially for us, in order to ensure us the best possible chances of summiting.  Kilimanjaro is a big, beautiful beast (5,895 meters or 19,341 feet above sea level), and she CANNOT be underestimated.  One MUST give her the props she's due.  Since we'd had a taste of the trek a few years earlier, we were definitely prepared to bend to her will.

We climbed the Marangu route, nicknamed "Coca-Cola" for it's relative easiness.  Another route, Machame, Methley's favorite, is known as "whiskey," but I've never been much of a fan of hard liquor, so I was prepared to stick with sodapop!  Marangu features a pretty gradual ascent that can be done over 5-7 days, with climbers sleeping in the comparative comfort of huts.  Obvi, Carla and I took the 7 day option.

The first two days we climbed steadily from the gate to Mandara camp and from Mandara to Horombo camp.  Upon reaching Horombo (approximately 3700 meters), we bunked down for a three-night stay, the reason being that Methley wanted us to have an acclimatization day during which we would still trek for distance and height, but we'd return back to camp to sleep.

After the acclimatization day, we had a full day of glorious rest during which we walked up a bit from the campsite to this giant boulder that I named "Sarah's Rock."  I instructed Mkuu to inform all future climbers of this designation and eventually to have it officially named such by the rangers of Kilimanjaro National Park.  It was in a nice, sunny spot covered with cairns, and I built my own tiny cairn before passing out like a lazy cat.  Hands down, best day of the trek!

But, alas, we had not come to Kili to take catnaps on her lower slopes, so it was "up and at 'em" the following day to reach base camp at the foot of Kibo, Kili's famous snowy pinnacle.  Most of this time was spent on the "saddle," the stretch of land between Kibo and Mawenzi, Kili's other, more jagged peak, which I snapped pics of at various times of the day.  (It was a rather long walk....)

After a few uneasy and anticipatory hours of *sleep* at base camp, we woke up in the wee hours of the night/early morning and strapped on our head  torches to begin the arduous trudge up to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the summit, the "Roof of Africa."

The reasons for starting to climb before dawn are manifold: a.) you arrive at Uhuru at a reasonable hour in order to get back down at a reasonable hour, b.) you avoid the intense heat of the direct sunlight so high up and literally on the Equator, and c.) you can't see that beautiful beast of a mountain while you're climbing and are less likely to be intimidated and lose hope!


Of course, Sarah and Carla and Methley and crew did NONE of this, left at four in the morning and climbed all damn day, the sun beating down and the crest of Kibo looming above us like the badass beautiful beast she is.

During one section named for Hans Meyer, the first Westerner to successfully summit back in 1889, Carla nearly lost hope and was propelled forward by Peter from behind and dragged along by Methley in the front.  Where was I, you ask?  Oh, never mind....

On the upper slopes, we got to see the massive glaciers that still glimmer and glisten in the sun.  It's true that the snows are melting due to global warming, but when you're up there, man, you would not know it.  They are all around the crater hole and the higher inclines from which you can also see Mt. Meru in nearby Arusha region.

After a whopping TWELVE hours (it takes the "average" person six, but Sarah and Carla and Methley are anything BUT average; of course, Methley's been up and down the damn thing in under 24 hours, but he humored us slowpokes) of trekking straight upwards, we reached our goal, Uhuru Peak.  It was indeed a sight for sore eyes....  And legs, and backs, and everything else!

Of course, what goes up must come down, so it's another two days back to Earth with a night spent at our previous resting spot, Horombo.

All told, up and down, Methley estimates we trekked 73 kilometers over the 7 days.  Doesn't seem like a lot when you look at it that way, but once again, dear readers, YOU CANNOT UNDERESTIMATE THE BEAUTIFUL BEAST!  A lot of those seventy-something kilometers were at a 45 degree or more tilt!! Add cold climate and uncomfortable sleeping conditions (though we were blessed with fairly mild weather and thank God for the huts), and IT IS ON!!  Nevertheless, veni vidi vici.... 

Now, anyone who knows me knows I am kind of a persnickety eater.  Not so much in *what* I'm eating, but rather how it is presented to me, e.g. I eat meat, but not on the bone, I don't like a cracker or cookie to be broken or chipped, beer can only come from a bottle not a can, etc etc.  Yes, I am a true fussbudget and have actually only gotten worse as I've gotten older.... and, weirdly, since I moved to Africa!

Mkuu knows all this, plus, you better believe I emailed him a strict list of menu options prior to our trekHe accommodated most of my requests, and I adapted kidogo (a little) since, for God's sake, we were on a freaking mountain.  So, the food was pretty good though copious and ever-present.  As a habitual lunch-skipper, I wasn't used to eating so much and, without getting into bodily functions too much, I would have to say, it took a hot minute to adjust!  No doubt, we were discussing said topic on this quick break; Mkuu is nothing if not a supportive and sympathetic guy.

As for beer, there was none, not in a bottle, not in a can.  But thoughts of a cold, crisp Kilimanjaro lager provided a pretty good incentive to get up and down in a hurry!

Now, one might think that climbing a huge mountain would be incredibly time-consuming and that every second of every day was filled with hiking and hydrating and sweating and slogging.

Not true.

With Kili, you wake up very early, climb hard for a few hours and reach camp in the late afternoon.  That leaves the whole evening spread out in front of you like a blank canvas.

Last time, neither my mother, my father, nor myself (three bookworms when at sea level) brought anything other than mountain gear which turned out to be a horrible mistake.  Staring at my dad for hours on end watching icicles form on his mustache is not exactly my idea of a good time.

This time, Mom and I brought books, cards, games, and most importantly, the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine.  In another "anyone who knows me" instance, most readers won't be too surprised that I enjoy a spot of pop culture every now and then.  When you live and work in a developing country, it can be nice to zone out in your off-hours and think about things that are un-African.  Right now, that happens to be Caitlyn Jenner.

I have been fascinated by this story from afar, mostly by the dichotomy of Olympics-winning, Wheaties-repping, and Kardashians-starring Bruce and the emergence of Caitlyn, by all accounts a glamorous and stylish modern woman.  I had commanded my mother to bring the magazine from the States with the express purpose of reading the article in the down-time on our Kili trek.

Well, turns out I was not the only interested party!  Mkuu shortly became enthralled and my mother as well.  I read the article aloud from Bruce's early years through his three marriages, the fame of the games and then reality tv, and finally becoming Caitlyn.

We dissected the article into minutiae - ideas of identity, gender, how we view and how we are viewed - and it was very interesting to have all the different opinions on the table.  Even more so when Peter, who speaks no English whatsoever and has no clue who Bruce Jenner is, joined us, and nodded at the cover, "Mzuri," or "Beautiful."  He was quite shocked to find out the beautiful woman had at one time been a man!

Caitlyn became a sort of trope for our journey, resulting in such phrases as "What would Caitlyn do?" when we came to any crossroads, literal or physical.  We are still of differing outlooks when it comes to sexuality and expression (it's tough for non-Westerners to understand our appreciation for nonconformity), but I think we can all agree that Caitlyn's story is pretty extraordinary (in a Toa twist, Bruce suffered from and overcame dyslexia growing up!), and Methley wants her to come to Tanzania and climb Kilimanjaro with him.  You hear that, Caitlyn?!  The beautiful beast awaits you!!

Aside from Vanity Fair, the other main form of entertainment was my iPod on which I have a bajillion and one songs.  But our soundtrack was limited pretty much to Bob Marley as he was the one artist we could all agree on.  So, for six nights and seven days, it was all Bob all the time.  Which is pretty much how it is all the time down in Moshi town anyway....  (Coincidentally, I started this video just as the lyrics "My feet is my only carriage/ So I've got to push on through" came up.)

There's so much more I could tell you, friends, but it's all from a time before now.  And now it's time to close this chapter down.  We had a great trip, my mama and me, with a good friend and the most incredible natural beauty one could imagine.  We set ourselves a goal - a REALLY FREAKING TOUGH goal - of taming that beautiful beast and for one brief week in July 2015, we did.

I had wanted us all to rep Toa Nafasi by wearing our tee-shirts at the summit, but none of us was much in the mood then, so we donned them down at the gate....  Just before getting that well-deserved beer!

I hadn't thought I would love the climb as much as I did, but it's happened.  I'm officially a Kili convert.  Provided we sleep in huts, and there's no meat on the bone for dinner, that is!  Any interested climbers for June/July 2016, give me a shout-out!!


  1. Awesome sauce Mowg & Carla! I had a mega time getting you up! Can't wait to get papa bear up. #78 in the hizzy...

    1. Totes in the hizzy!! Me too, can't wait for next year, I keep tweeting the kardashian/jenners for CAIT, but no response :( Too bad as she was a major part of our epic journey!! NYC is amazeballs, but I'm missing Moshi, see ya in December! xx