Hiking to the top of Africa Mother and son conquer
climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro Juli Frey, daughter of Nila and Louie Fostvedt of Vermillion, and her 14-year-old son, Christopher, fulfilled a goal set 10 years ago by summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro in January. At 19,340 feet, "Kili" is Africa's highest point. Christopher set the African adventure in motion when he was only 4 years old. Climbing his first "fourteener" with his family, a fourteener being one of the 57 Colorado mountains with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet, Christopher performed a little math more befitting a high-schooler than a child. Informing his parents that if they climbed as many mountains each year as he was old, they'd have all 57 completed when he was 11. Once the 57 were completed, he asked, could they climb Kilimanjaro as a reward? Thinking that Kilimanjaro would be an incentive to complete the fourteeners, his mother said yes. Though the fourteeners aren't quite finished (51 done), January was an opportune time for Kili. The 16-day trip, with three other hikers, began with a Denver departure on Jan. 10. The tone was immediately set for an interesting, fun-filled trip when glitches developed before the group ever left the Denver airport. The group of five carried nine bags, each weighing 70 pounds. Six of the bags carried donated hiking items for the local African guides. The first eight bags sailed through check-in, but the last was too heavy, filled with hundreds of pairs of Smart Wool hiking socks. So each of the group started grabbing socks and stuffing them into carryon bags. Christopher soon had socks poking out of every pocket, but the final bag cleared check-in. Security was the next step, or obstacle. Having checked everything that couldn't be carried on, or so they thought, security would be no problem. One of the group, Max, a local Denver adventure guide, had just finished avalanche rescue training the previous day. Having repacked, he thought he was ready for Africa, not realizing he had forgotten to unpack an expensive ice- and snow-cutting saw from his carryon. Security was not happy, but with some fast thinking and faster talking, Max was allowed to mail the $200 saw home and board the plane. Leaving Denver, the group traveled to Minneapolis, then on to Amsterdam. After 18 flying hours, eight more spent in airports and nine time changes, the group finally arrived in Tanzania. There they met their local guides, and the African adventure began. The first two nights were spent in a hotel in Arusha. Rested from the long flights, it was time for sightseeing and a safari. Then checking to see that everything needed for the hike up Kilimanjaro was ready. Electricity in Africa is supplied with a different voltage than that in America, so before leaving Denver, adaptors had to be purchased. The first morning in the hotel found Christopher charging up his IPod, apparently without incident. So Juli decided it was safe to plug in her hair dryer. Coming out of the shower, Christopher asked if the dryer was working OK. "Not a lot of air coming through, but it's working," Juli replied. "Well, Mom," said Christopher, "it says right here that for hair dryers, you have to flip this switch." And he did. Just like that, the hair dryer died. Along with all the electricity to the rest of the hotel. Juli was sure she heard the hotel staff whispering: "Great, the Americans are back." The day was spent on a safari through Maru National Park. So many animals, so close – unbelievable. Like having Wild Kingdom unfold in front of you. With the hike beginning the next morning, it was an early return to the hotel in Arusha, an early dinner and bed. There are three hiking routes up Kilimanjaro, according to the local guides: Water Route – nine days and you stay in huts. Beer Route – seven days and you stay in tents. And the Whiskey Route – five days and parts of the climb are rated technical. The group chose the Beer Route. The hike was to start at the Machame Gate, with the intention of meeting the porters there at 11 a.m. But in Africa nobody seems to move at a very fast pace. The Denver group met at the gate at 11 a.m., then spent hours completing paperwork and waiting for the porters to get the gear ready. With the group now numbering 18, they began the hike at 2 p.m. A five hour hike through the rain forest ensued, followed by setting up camp after a 5,000-foot gain in elevation. Then a quick dinner and bed. Christopher quickly made friends with the porters, who carried the 30-pound bags each hiker brought with them. With the bags on either their heads or shoulders, the porters carried an additional 20 pounds on their backs. Grateful to the porters for carrying his bags, Christopher took a handful of chocolate candy bars from his pack and gave one to each of them. The porters loved it, and grew to count on Christopher's candy bars every night when the hiking was finished. Stepping out of the tents on the second day, the sun just rising and the weather nearly perfect, Juli and Christopher realized their group wasn't the only one on the mountain. What they hadn't seen in the darkness the night before was about 200 other tents, here at the Machame Hut site, at an elevation of 10,000 feet. More surprising was that they hadn't seen any of the other hikers on the trail the previous day. On this day the destination is Shira Hut at 12,500 feet. Hiking out of the forest, the group enters open moorland, and for the very first time, the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro is visible. The hike is hard and hot, straight up a rocky trail. The porters are a Godsend. Before the hike begins, they cook breakfast, then lunch along the way. Before arriving for the night, they have the campsite set up and ready. Dinner is begun, always a hot meal with meat and bread, vegetables and fruit. Every day brought new and different terrain, and each day, when you thought you were through for the day, you had to think again. The guides had a surprise waiting: Rest, then leave your pack and hike higher, to acclimate yourself for the next day, before returning to camp for dinner and sleep. The third day of the hike brought the group to Lava Tower Camp at 15,200 feet. Lava Tower, a tower in the middle of nowhere, is sighted after a day spent above the clouds. The number of tents in camp has dwindled from 200 to 15 or 20; the other hikers are taking the longer route. Lava Tower Camp is higher than Juli and Christopher have ever hiked, but they're OK. The nights are cold, and in the morning, frost covers the tents and the down-filled sleeping bags. The cold air was great for sleeping, but left the trail frozen, the rocks slippery. Though Christopher slipped a few times, his boots stayed dry. Part of the day's hike was up and around a sheer rock face. The porters managed to do it with 50 pounds on their backs, but for the rest of the group, both hands and feet were needed in order to maneuver the steep climb. A Class-3 climb, inching towards a Class-4, the climb took more than two hours. At the top awaited a reward of a hot meal. Continuing on their way, the next destination was Karanga Valley Camp. The final hundred yards of the hike is straight up, with the last water station at the base. The porters had to make the trip several times to get enough water for the night, so Christopher decided to give them extra chocolate that evening. Karanga's elevation is 13,900 feet. Hiking has become harder but sleep comes easier. But on this night, Rich, another of the Denver group, is up all night passing a kidney stone. Noise travels easily through the walls of tents, and no one got much sleep that night. However, Rich was fine the next morning, and ready to continue to the top. The final day before summiting is spent on a short hike to Barafu Hut at 15,350 feet. The campsite is on the side of the mountain, with the tents hidden among rocks, and for those who aren't careful, a long fall down the mountain. Not only did the group sleep on the side of the mountain, but they also had to contend with outhouses perched on the edge. Reaching Barafu early, the group ate lunch as they enjoyed the spectacular scenery. After lunch, more acclimating with a climb to 16,000 feet. Everyone seemed fine, and the guides reassured them that they'd be ready to summit in the morning. Before turning in early (8 p.m.), Juli and Christopher prepared layers of clothing for a 3 a.m. wake up, the hike to start an hour later, without porters. On summit day they get to stay in camp and rest up, waiting for your return. The hike to the summit takes you from Barafu to the top of the mountain, the top of Africa – 19,340 feet. In thin air that's hard to breathe, the hike starts in the dark and you watch as the clouds rise below you. At 16,500 feet, the sun rose. It was a fascinating sight to see the sun rise through a blanket of clouds beneath your feet. At 16,200 feet, with everything seeming to be going smoothly, Juli experienced what the guides thought was an asthma attack. After a rest to catch her breath, one of the guides offered to carry her day pack, and she continued towards the summit. Two more attacks followed, but the will to make it to the peak won out seven and one-half hours later. With rare luck, the peak was empty of hikers, the weather perfect. After resting up, enjoying the craters and the glacier and taking pictures, it was time for the descent. All downhill from here. What took seven and one-half hours to hike up took only two hours to walk back down, the breathing seeming to grow easier with every step. Stopping at Barafu for a couple of hours to eat and pack up, the group continued down to 12,400 feet to Millenium Hut Camp. Hard to imagine that in a single day, you've journeyed from 15,350 feet to 19,340, then back down to 12,400. "It was a little hard on my body, and I have never wanted my tent as badly as on that long day of summiting Kilimanjaro, then coming back off the top," Juli said. Arriving in camp, she called it a day and went right to bed. Christopher stayed up playing cards with the porters and telling jokes, the boy in English and the porters in Swahili. The last day of the hike was a descent from 12,400 feet to Mweka Gate at 5,000, downhill all the way. The rocks are left behind, then the desert. Soon, the rain forest reappears, and finally the Land Cruiser. But that was not the end of the trip. Deserving of rest and fun after such a grueling hike, the group stayed for another four days touring Tanzania. Then a flight for safaris in the Serengeti. On the Serengeti plains, they marveled at the beauty of the migrating wild animals. Watching lions hunt a zebra; hippos fighting; alligators and innumerable monkeys enjoying the day, just to name a few. Later, time was spent traveling through the Masai lands. A fascinating people, the Masai are one of the original African tribes of herdsmen. Living in mud huts with neither electricity nor running water, their status is determined by the number of cattle they possess. "We loved the safaris and the beauty of the land," Juli said. "It was a great way to finish up after the hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro." Then, for Juli and Christopher, it was back to Denver, back to work and school. To sharing their experience of a hike many can only dream about. Back to setting goals, getting ready to summit more mountains. Maybe one of the seven Colorado fourteeners they still have left. "The experience of being in Africa, summiting Kilimanjaro and spending time with my son, is more than one could hope for in a lifetime. My son and I will both treasure the memory," Juli said.