December 4, 2013
We’ve heard from dozens of Thomson trekkers what a fantastic guide James is, how he helped them make it to the summit, and how they can’t imagine having done it without him. But how did he rise to the position of Head Guide (a coveted job in Tanzania)? We sat down for a chat with James to learn about his life on Kili.
Where are you from originally?
My parents are from the southern part of Tanzania. We’re of the Makonde tribe, who are known as the best craftsmen in the world [James might be biased, but the Makonde have been renowned for their artwork for decades, in particular their intricate and beautiful wood carvings].
When I was young, they migrated to Kenya, which is where I spent most of my school years. Eventually, we returned to Tanzania and settled in Moshi, which is close to Kilimanjaro.
Is that where your family lives today?
It is. My wife has a small business raising chickens and selling their meat and eggs, and we have a four-year-old son named Freddie.
Freddie is very proud of my work on Kilimanjaro, and we often tell stories and sing songs about the mountain together. His favorite part is when I return from a trip; he knows I’ll always bring him a little surprise. It’s always in the top zipper of my backpack, and when I return, he loves to open it up and see what I brought, usually something like chocolate, a small toy, or a football.
How did you start out on Kili?
I started out as a porter, and after about three months on the mountain, started working for Thomson Safaris. I worked as a porter, then worked my way up to being a waiter. After about four years, Thomson Safaris offered me the chance to start training to become an assistant, and eventually a head guide. All in all I’ve been working with Thomson Safaris for eight years now.
What made you want to work on Kili in the first place?
I’ve always loved meeting different people and learning more about their cultures. It’s fascinating to me. In school, I learned about tourism, and I decided that this would be a way for me to pursue my passion for traveling and learning about the world. Working on Kilimanjaro is like traveling every single day; I get to visit these places through the stories people tell me.
What’s the most amazing sight you’ve seen on the mountain?
When I started, I was a summit porter. Most porters don’t go all the way to the summit with clients; they may carry things to the last camp, or not even go that far. I did. On my very first trek, I remember seeing the glaciers, and how huge they were. They’re much smaller now; even over just the last few years, I’ve noticed a big difference.
Is that your favorite memory of the mountain, the glaciers as they once were?
Actually, my favorite memory comes from just a few months ago. I was working as the assistant guide on a trek, when the head guide was forced to descend early due to a family emergency. There were still several days left, and I had to step up and become the lead guide, bringing the group safely to the summit and back again.
Afterwards, the group was very impressed, and many of them praised my guiding skills. I was so proud in that moment.
James guiding trekkers to the summit.
Photo: Amy Czarnecki
Do you ever miss being a porter?
[Laughs] Well, conditions on the mountain now are much better than when I started, so I suppose it wouldn’t be a bad life. But I’m very much looking forward to working as a Head Guide next season. My family, everyone is so excited for me. And so am I!
November 20, 2013
Perhaps the best known fictional representation of Kilimanjaro is in Ernest Hemingway’s famous story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” In the story, the narrator, fearing that his death is near, reflects on his life—his failures, achievements, and loves lost.
Frankly, there’s really not much about Kilimanjaro after the opening:
“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngaje Ngai’, the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcas of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
Questions of accuracy (and spelling) aside, the introduction raises one important question:
A frozen leopard near the summit? Really?
According to legend, Hemingway’s reference was inspired by a 1926 photo taken by missionary Richard Reusch.
Reusch claimed to have cut an ear off the leopard as a souvenir, but apparently he wasn’t the only souvenir hunter; at some point after Hemingway’s story appeared in print (originally, the story ran in Esquire magazine in 1938), the leopard carcass disappeared.
If it ever really existed, that is.
The photo that inspired Hemingway is the only one of a creature that, so high on the mountain, would certainly attract attention from curious trekkers. While treks were far less frequent in the first half of the 20th century than they are today, it’s still surprising that no other photos of this curiosity seem to exist.
Not that we’re conspiracy theorists or anything; we’re just asking the tough questions.
Like this one: what WAS it doing up there?
Leopards have been spotted on Kilimanjaro before, even in recent years, when the volume of trekkers on the mountain has pushed many species further down, or even off, the mountain. But above 13,000 or 14,000 feet, the climate would not only be forbidding, there would be few if any prey animals capable of sustaining a leopard for any length of time.
Was the leopard chasing a long-ago antelope up the slopes, only to realize, too late, that it had been caught in a blizzard? Was it brought up the mountain, already dead, by a climbing prankster? Or was it seeking the summit as a sort of personal achievement, a quest for enlightenment that ended tragically? Which begs the further question, what would constitute enlightenment for a leopard, anyway?
For now, no one has the answer. It’s possible, though, that someone has the leopard…
November 13, 2013
There’s a reason workout montages in movies are so inspiring, and it’s not just the perfectly-placed sweat: it’s a well-chosen “pump you up” song.
Everyone has a different tune that helps her push through those moments when it feels like she’s hit a wall. If you’re still searching for some playlist inspiration for your training and/or trek, Thomson staffers relied on the musical stylings of:
Survivor – “Eye of the Tiger” (Paul)
Admit it: just reading that title, you already have the song stuck in your head, right? On the climb up to Stella Point, cold, tired, and just about ready to give up and head back to camp, it snuck into Paul’s head, too. And stayed there. Though he admits it’s “very cheesy” to use the Rocky III theme as a motivator, Paul says he “credits [his] achievement at least in part to the song’s annoying catchiness.”
He was very sick of the song by the time he reached the top, but it did get him back on his feet, “just a man and his will to survive…”
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes – “Up from Below” (Rachel)
Rachel didn’t have just one song that she used to motivate herself when training got tough, she had an entire album (that’s one way to avoid Paul’s problem)!
Rachel says the music was a fantastic boost to her spirits before the trip, “light, fun, and up-beat—a great reminder not to get too bogged down when things got hard.”
For Rachel, this was “happy music to keep me happy when the going gets tough,” something every Kili trekker will need at some point or another!
Eminem – “Till I Collapse” (Michael)
The opening lines of Michael’s favorite trekking song are pretty inspiring: “sometimes you just feel tired/Feel weak, and when you feel weak, you feel like you wanna just give up./But you gotta search within you, you gotta find that inner strength/And just pull that **** out of you and get that motivation to not give up/And not be a quitter, no matter how bad you wanna just fall flat on your face and collapse.”
It may sound like a motivational speech, but it’s actually straight out of Eminem’s rap hit, which had an added bonus: “the powerful beat and rhythm kept me pumped up and motivated on the hardest parts of my Kili trek,” Michael says.
Best of all, it “continues to motivate [him] on long runs!”
Queen – “We Are the Champions” (Amy)
Queen are the kings of the power ballad, and few songs—by Queen or anyone else—are as openly inspirational as “We Are the Champions.” That’s why Amy uses that song, or “really anything by Queen,” to keep her going up the mountain.
The best part? “We Are the Champions” is just begging for a group sing-along!
Lady Gaga – “Poker Face” (Katie)
Katie’s second trek up Kili was with MTV’s “Summit on the Summit” charity climb for the global clean water crisis, so it only makes sense that her inspiration came from a very MTV-ready song. During training, Katie “saved the song for the last five minutes of each workout,” then on Kili, she “replayed it in [her] head over and over again to make myself stop thinking and just walk.”
Katie said her summit bid—which was completed in 3 hours, instead of the usual 8, because of MTV’s involvement—was intense, but having an intense mental soundtrack helped her reach the top!
November 6, 2013
As the highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro itself is pretty outstanding. But as a free-standing mountain whose climate zones become progressively less like the ground-level landscape the further you ascend, Kilimanjaro is especially remarkable as an incubator for isolated, mutated, or rare species found almost nowhere else.
One of the most striking of those species is the giant groundsel varietal Dendrosenecio kilimanjari.
A giant groundsel near Barranco Camp, Mt. Kilimanjaro
Something like a cross between a burned-up cactus and a pineapple, these alien-looking plants can only be found on Kilimanjaro, and only above 14,000ish feet (related, but similarly isolated sub-varieties of giant groundsel can “only be found” on a handful of other East African mountains).
In order to carve out an existence in such a forbidding environment—that high up the mountain, temperatures regularly dip below freezing overnight—the plants have evolved water storage in the pith of the stem, nyctinastic leaf movement (which means the leaves close when the temperature drops too far), a natural “anti-freeze,” and self-insulation through withered and dead foliage (part of the reason the groundsels look so strange).
Evolution is really the name of the game for giant groundsels, both on Kili and on other East African mountains. None of the species are exactly the same, but it’s guessed that they all evolved from a common groundsel around a million years ago, climbing higher and higher up the slopes via the slow process of windborne seed distribution (which would move the plants no more than a few meters at a time).
Just for reference, this is a common groundsel:
Common groundsels look (and act) a lot like dandelions, and are considered weeds by most gardeners
Common groundsels like the one pictured above range from 4-16” tall. Giant groundsels, on the other hand, regularly grow over 10 feet tall, sometimes even 20 feet or more!
It seems fitting: the tallest free-standing mountain in the world has the tallest mutant weeds!
Thomson Safaris trekkers in the Barranco Valley
Photo: Kevin Callis
October 30, 2013
In Maa, the Maasai language, Kilimanjaro is known as Ol Doinyo Oibor, or “The White Mountain.”
But there’s a much more imposing-sounding mountain located just a little further along the Great Rift Valley: Ol Doinyo Lengai, or “The Mountain of God.”
That name might have something to do with Ol Doinyo Lengai’s frequent eruptions. An active stratovolcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai is unique not only in the region, but in the world.
While most volcanos spew forth familiar glowing-red magma, Ol Doinyo Lengai is a carbonatite volcano, one whose lava has a completely different chemical structure. Thinner and more liquid than lavas with higher silicate content, lava from Ol Doinyo Lengai and volcanos like it actually appears black in the sunlight. Unstable in the surface atmosphere of the earth, the flows weather rapidly, quickly turning from black to grey.
The lava’s makeup also means that it erupts at temperatures as low as 950° F. That may sound hot to you, but for most volcanos, it’s not even a simmer; some volcanic magma reaches temperatures as high as about 2200° F before erupting. The low ‘boiling’ point also means Ol Doinyo Lengai erupts frequently; in the last hundred years, Ol Doinyo Lengai has erupted well over a dozen times!
Ol Doinyo Lengai is the only active volcano with this unique, strange type of lava, and is in fact the only volcano of this type to have erupted in recorded history.
Whether or not that makes the mountain godlike is debatable, but it certainly makes it worth a trip!
October 23, 2013
We’ve all heard that there’s nothing more important than a good night’s sleep (unless you count breakfast, or family). But on Kilimanjaro—where each day means physical challenges and adjustment to a new altitude, and your nights are spent in a sleeping bag instead of on a feather bed—getting all the sleep you need in order to reach the summit can be difficult.
Luckily, the Thomson team has learned a few tricks on their treks that will help ensure you have more restful nights:
Tip 1: Use an inflatable pad
You may not be able to haul your mattress up Kili with you, but you can make nights on the ground more comfortable. An inflatable pad not only acts as a cushion; as Michael notes, “it keeps the damp away.”
Tip 2: Pack a soft, comfy hat
One of the biggest barriers to a good night’s sleep on Kili is the colder temperatures further up the mountain. Rachel combats this with “the warmest, softest, most comfortable hat” she can find. Not only does it prevent you from losing heat, it can act as another “pillow” layer!
Tip 3: Just get up and go pee
It’s the middle of the night, the air outside is freezing, and you think, if you just hold it, you’ll be able to fall back asleep.
Think again. As Amy notes, “a full bladder isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s a heat suck.” You’ll feel warmer (and sleep more soundly) if you just get up as soon as you realize you have to go.
Tip 4: Shake up your sleeping bag
Your sleeping bag says it’s good down to -30°…so why are your toes so cold?
Maybe you forgot to shake it out when you unpacked it. Since your bag will be tightly compressed while you trek, the insulation might not be evenly distributed when you pull it out for the night. But Michael found that simply shaking it a little helped even things out, keeping him warm from head to toe!
Tip 5: Change your clothes in the afternoon
After a full day of trekking, cleaning up and putting on fresh clothes will help refresh you.
But there’s an added bonus to changing up your look right when you get to camp; if you sleep in those clothes, like Katie recommends, you won’t have to start your morning with a serious case of the shivers as you try to change for the day.
Not exactly a sleeping tip, but it might buy you a few minutes of sleep—and more than a few degrees of body temperature—in the morning!
Tip 6: Upgrade your tent
Paul had a very simple response to how to get the best night’s sleep on Kili: “upgrade to the fancy tent with a cot and pillow in it!”
He was kidding, but only a little; on the Grand Traverse, hikers spend more nights in the lower elevations where it’s a bit warmer, and they also have the option to upgrade to our solar-lit, walk-in luxury sleeping tents.
So while most people will conk out easily and sleep soundly if they follow the first five tips on this list, if you know yourself to be an especially light sleeper, highly susceptible to cold, or just not a “roughing it” type, consider whether your trek—and most importantly, your chances of summit success—might be greatly improved with with the Grand Traverse and a “fancy” tent!