Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Running Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro
For some time I’ve been intrigued with the idea of running Mount Kilimanjaro. When a work trip last week had me in Nairobi, I knew it was my chance to jump across the border to Tanzania for a high altitude adventure.

I had no idea how complicated the idea would be to execute until I started looking into logistics. The first challenge was to get a permit for what is considered an unusual and exceptional request – running from the bottom to the top and back down in one day. Park rules clearly stipulate what routes can be used, process for acclimation, the number of guides and porters required, and that most importantly, individuals like me are not allowed to be on the mountain alone without a guide.

Ema of Origin Trails
Initially I reached out to several guiding services and the park asking if I could run to the top and was told, “that is not allowed.” I shared that I was aware that other people in the past including Kilian Jornet had been granted permission. I could get no explanation as to how that was done. I then reached out to my work colleague who is the WFP Country Director for Tanzania and he offered to approach the Minister of Tourism who oversees the Parks on my behalf. The guidance from the Minister was that I would need to work with a registered guide and the Park Warden of the Kilinajaro National Park who had the delegated authority to grant me permission. My work colleague was able through his network to connect me with Emmanuel (Ema) Motta of Origin Trails who agreed to seek a permit on my behalf. After several weeks of back and forth with the Park, me writing letters and providing bona fides that I had the experience to safely climb the mountain in a day, a permit was granted.

In consultations with Ema we decided that I would ascend on the Rongi Route and descend via the Mweka Route. While the Park Service had originally stipulated that I would need to have guides with me the entire way, Ema was able to agree to having porters at key camps who could assist if needed and a guide at the top with oxygen. I would also be required to check-in with the ranger at each of the camps I would pass. Otherwise, I would be on my own!

Justin Salakana - "Founder" of the Rongi Route
The afternoon before the start we drove to the Rongi Gate, stopping along the way to pick-up my permit (which required several hours of 11th hour negotiations between Ema and the Park warden) and some food for breakfast (including wonderful bananas and avocados bought along the side of the road). We spent the evening at the Snow Cap Lodge, some simple cabins built by the pioneer of the Rongi Route, Justin Salakana, who shared stories of how he created the route and finally had it approved by the Tanzanian authorities.

At 6:00 the next morning I signed-out with the Ranger at Rongi Gate, who was not happy about getting up at 6:00 am, and I was off at 6:15 in the first light. The Rongi route starts at 6,398 feet and slowly climbs through a pine plantation. While the first miles were gradual, I was moving slowly given the kit required to be self supported and prepared for inclement weather on top, and night out if something went wrong. My pack weighed in slightly north of 13 pounds – much of that being the 3.2 liters of water I was carrying.

Beginning of the Trail Through a Pine Plantation

Through the Moorlands

First Site of the Destination
Moonscape of the Alpine Desert
Looking East to Mt. Mawenzi

As one climbs on the Rongi Route, one moves into the moorlands. Then without realizing it, all vegetation was gone and I was running through an alpine desert that resembled a moonscape. I was able to run most of the way up to Kibu Hut, with the exception of intermittent pitches where running took too much energy. I reached Kibu Hut (15,430 feet) at about 10:00 where I was required to have my blood oxygen checked. I came it at 79%, well above the minimum of 70% required to proceed to the top. From Kibu Hut to Gilman’s Ridge it was a trudge. While I could feel the altitude, the real challenge was the steepness of the trail. Even at a lower elevation the grade and scree would have been a calf-burning chug.

Moses Up Ahead on the Way to the Summit

At 18,652 feet I hit Gillman’s Ridge and was able to run the flat sections along the rim of the crater as I worked my way up to Uruhu Peak (19,341). While the altitude made even a slight grade very hard to run, I was surprised that running the flat sections was not particularly difficult. I felt lucky that I had no nausea, headache, or mental slowness. As I looked down on the clouds thousands of feet below and the wall of the Decken Glacier and Southern Ice field beside me, I felt alive and lucky to be having this experience.

As I approached the peak, I met Moses who was waiting in the lee of a large rock below the summit to make sure I was safe and provide any assistance if needed. We snapped a few quick pictures. It was too cold on top without a jacket to linger so I said to Moses, “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.” Moses jogged with me along the crater rim and for a few hundred meters after I dropped down the Mweke Route.

Looking Down at the Southern Ice Field and the Clouds Below

As I started to descend I suddenly realized getting down would be harder than getting up. I was running sloppy (maybe I was in denial about the effects of the altitude) on the descent and had a hard time keeping my feet under me in the loose rock and scree. I took several “safe into home” slides when my feet went out from under me. Then after a face plant where I was saved by my gloves and front pack from serious lacerations, I knew I had to get it together. I decided to stop and sit on a rock to clean out my shoes, have a gel, and compose myself. I started repeating, “pole, pole” (slow, slow in Swahili) to myself as I picked my way down the steep descent to Barafo Camp.
Self-Supported FKT (the actual time was 9:19)

In my mind I thought I would be able to reach the Maweka Gate in less than two and half hours from the top. It took me three hours. I had grossly under anticipated what 14K feet of non-stop technical descent would do to me. It tore the bottoms off my Hokas, it left my quads shaking, and I was a site for concern as blood from both my scrapped knees and thighs had me looking like I had been in a traffic accident (though – one could say I was a train wreck). When I reached the rain forest for the final 6 miles, as named, it was raining and both the rock and hardpack were super slick. When I should have been running and daydreaming, I was having to concentrate on keeping one foot after the other underneath me. I fell repeatedly.

Ema Greeting me at Mweka Gate

I reached the Mweka Gate where Ema was waiting for me. Elapsed Time 9:21. Two minutes longer than the self-supported FKT held by Tanzanian mountain guide Simon Mtuy. Could I have gone faster? A few seconds less at the top, a shorter break to compose myself, more abandon on the descent, pushing harder on the ascent to Gilman’s Ridge where every step was effort - would have done it. Yet, I had the experience of a lifetime being on the mountain alone (and on the peak alone) and 
Checking the Stats
answering the question could I run at 19,000+ feet (YES), and being able to say I ran up Mount Kilimanjaro. It was the experience, not the time that mattered.

A big thanks to Ema for making this all happen and not believing I was a nut job when I first contacted him saying I wanted to run up Kilimanjaro self-supported in less than 12 hours. Without him, this adventure would have never happened. Thank you Ema.