It’s great to be back at sea level…it’s amazing to think that just over two weeks ago 10 of us (8 students, myself and cinematography professor Jurg Walther) stood on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.
Guest blogger Professor Jeff Swimmer
In 7 days..a grueling 85-mile trek, to a 19,340-foot peak, over 25,000 vertical feet, through jungle/rain forest, desert, savannah, alpine and volcanic cindercone and I think every major climactic zone on earth. The superlatives really pile up about Kilimanjaro and even then they dont do justice to this incredible place. And they dont come close to telling the story of how incredibly challenging the trip was. It was, by the account of most all of us the most physically challenging thing we’ve ever taken on.
We got great material for our 3-D documentary, but man, the cost…It was absolutely punishing in every possible way – thin, thin air…incredibly steep climbs and switchbacks, and a summit push that seemed as unreal before we attempted it as after we stood on top of it… Just to give a quick idea of the itinerary… Start at about 7,000 feet on Day 1 and trek for 5 straight days, between 8-10 hours on most days, over mountain passes, old lava fields, rivers and dried river beds, barren lunar landscapes, 800-foot rock walls with mysterious Swahili names, jungles filled with huge black-and-white colobus monkeys swinging in the trees.. Then, the capper, the final summit push. Trek for 9 grueling hours, have a quick early dinner and to bed at 7 p.m. at Barafu base camp. Sleep (barely, for it’s nearly impossible at that altitude) for about 2-3 hours. Wake up at 11 for tea and some snacks, put on your coldest weather clothes and start the trek at midnight. Pitch dark, headlamps on, under a nearly full moon, staring right up ahead 4,100 feet at the summit…About 10 degrees out, trekking in the pitch dark, all 10 of us in a line with guides front and back, up volcanic scree, rock, and million year old giant glaciers all around.
That was the single most excruciating physical test I’ve ever had, and I think all of us had doubts if we’d make it. It was surreal, and I think I sleptwalked/hallucinated for much of it to mask the pain.. Finally get to the top at about 9, take a few pictures, look around, and utterly collapse in a heap. But it’s way too dangerous to stay up in such thin air for very long, so we scrape ourselves off the summmit and trek for another 7 hours down more than 7,000 feet. The downhill feels great on the lungs, filling us up with energy, but the descent is so steep that it pummels the knees and we’re all in agony.
Finally, arrive at our next and last camp, called Millenium Camp, and collapse…From there it’s just a few hour, 7-000 descent the next day through dense fern forests, mango trees, monkey-filled vines and blazing sunshine, get Certificates of Completion in a ceremony from our porters and guides, crawl into the bus and head back down to the real world we’d hidden from on the mountain for over a week… An insane, amazing experience. Now it’s on to editing the 3-D doc for our screening in late April…!