Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tackling Kilimanjaro: Becoming the First American with Hemophilia to Summit (Part 1)

For those that don't know, I summited Kilimanjaro earlier this year, June 3, 2011 at 6:00 A.M. to be exact, and by stepping foot on the summit, became the first American with hemophilia to do so.  I was excited to get back to the states and write about my adventure but for some reason haven't been able to put words to paper/keyboard.  I'm not sure if what I had done really sank in or if I really even knew what it meant.  After having months to reflect and reminisce about Kilimanjaro and Africa I think I am ready to tell my story. So here goes nothing...

Kilimanjaro from the air
My Uncle Dave and I had already spent two weeks in Africa with a group from Indiana University helping inform and improve hemophilia care in Kenya and now we are leaving the safety of the group and traveling to Kilimanjaro together.  Once aboard the plane the dream of climbing Kili became a reality as a spectacular view of the peak began to fill my window.  The mountain I had read so much about and dreamed about was now real and thoughts of standing on the summit in less than a week began filling my head.  Excitement and nerves were almost overwhelming.

We landed at the Kilimanjaro Airport and after making it through the confusing and chaotic customs area we were greeted by our climbing guide Julius.  We drove through the African night towards the town of Arusha and our destination for the night, the Impala Hotel.  We drove past many bustling street corners and shops but my mind was focused on one thing and one thing only, the monstrous peak hiding in the darkness.

The evening before the climb was spent packing and unpacking and packing again.  Making sure everything was perfect and that everything we needed was ready to go.

The morning was quiet.  My uncle and I sat in silence during breakfast, both of us contemplating the journey that lay before us.  Returning to our hotel room, we went through our packs one last time.  The only thing left to do was my infusion and we would be on our way.  I wish I could say that infusion went perfectly and our trip started on a high note, but it didn't.  Maybe it was my nervousness that made that infusion so difficult but I missed twice.  After the second failed attempt my stress level skyrocketed.  I wasn't sure I was going to be able to find a vein myself so I had to rely on my uncle, who had no medical training to infuse me.  Luckily the brief instruction by the medical staff on the first leg of our trip paid off and he nailed the vein his first try.  With that we were off to tackle the mountain and begin our arduous trek to the summit.

We boarded the bus outside our hotel and began the drive to Machame Gate where our climb would begin.  Once aboard and outside town, the epic mountain came into view.  The absolutely massive peak stretched across the horizon and the daunting task ahead became clear.  The approach to the gate was breathtaking, the flat savannah gave way to hills of banana trees and coffee plantations.  The forest lining both sides of the road grew denser and denser.  Then suddenly the Machame Gate came into view and the climb began.

Beginning the journey!
Hiking through the cloud forest
After signing in at the gate and once the porters and guides were organized, we began.  The porters quickly sprinted ahead while Julius and Cyprian reminded us "pole pole" which is Swahili for "slowly".  Since my uncle and I have done some climbing and backpacking before this trip, it was very unusual and nerve racking letting others carry our gear.  I think we both felt a bit silly watching the porters carry huge loads while we carried only our small backpacks.  This was the hardest thing to get comfortable with.

Machame Hut
The climb from Machame Gate to the Machame Hut was quite tame and beautiful.  Julius explained the terrain we were hiking in is known as a cloud forest and it was extremely damp.  Ferns loomed over and gigantic trees lined either side of the path.  I felt like I was walking through a prehistoric jungle.  Julius would stop at interesting plants and explain what they were and why they were so special to Kili.  The impatiens kilimanjari was by far the most memorable.  This small red and yellow flower only grows on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.  After several hours of hiking the vegetation began to thin and shorten.  You could tell we were gaining some serious elevation.  We emerged from the tangle of forest into whats known as the moorlands and found Machame Hut, our first campsite.  By the time we reached the hut, our tent was set up and gear safely stashed inside.  Another odd situation for my uncle and I since we were used to setting this all up ourselves.  The end of the afternoon was spent sitting and reading until a break in the clouds revealed our final goal, the summit of Kilimanjaro.  The breathtaking view of the peak sneaking out from behind the clouds.  The view away from the summit was equally as breathtaking.  At this point we were comforatble above the clouds that hid the Tanzanian plains.  It resembled a view from a plane soaring through the sky but we were comfortable sitting on the side of the highest peak in Africa.  This view would be a mainstay of our trip and I would never grow tired of it.  As evening approached we ate dinner with our guide and then retired to our tent.  The first day of the climb was a resounding success.

Resting on Day 2 with the summit in sight
Hike towards Shira Cave
Epic view of the African plains
Frigid night air was replaced by warming sunlight flooding our tent early on day 2.  Despite Kili's close proximity to the equator, temperatures become quite cold in the evenings, something we would find out first hand on summit day.  Sunny skies lead to spectacular views and a pleasant hike on day 2.  We traversed the mountain from Machame Hut to Shira Camp. Every turn revealed spectacular views.  Julius continued with his slow “pole pole” pace and Dave and I finally succumbed to the fact he wasn’t going to let us go any faster.  After coming to this realization I was able to enjoy my surroundings more and become less concerned with the task at hand.  We arrived at our second camp (Shira Caves) early in the afternoon.  This beautiful area is dotted with caves which Dave and went to explore.  Seeing the swirling patterns in the rocks created by lava reminded us that we were in fact, on a volcano.  The night was calm and little did I know that a poor decision I make in the morning would threaten our success on the mountain.

(Part 2 Coming December 15th)


  1. Amazing! As a hemophiliac I can relate to your training and climbing struggles. I've made three attempts on Mount Rainier. Keep up your adventures and your posts! So inspirational!

    -Vaughn Ripley

  2. Thanks Vaughn! Mount Rainer is also on my wish list in the next few years. How did your climbs go and did you have any issues with your hemophilia while climbing?

    It's always great to hear about people with hemophilia tackling the outdoors!