On Kilimanjaro, I felt like I ascended into heaven

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It is not often that one meets a very experienced veteran trip leader specializing in safaris to wild parks and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro who says, when he successfully climbed Kilimanjaro to the summit for the first time in 1988, "I was very happy when I reached the roof of Africa. I felt like I have been ascended into heaven, body and soul."

It is unusual to find a trip leader whose father, and grandfather before him, was a herbalist who got connected to the African culture on the mountain. It is even unusual if that trip leader was a lecturer at Mweka College of Wildlife, one of the biggest of its kind on earth. So I made the most of my meeting on February 4, 2010, with Kapanya Kitaba.

The location is the Parastatal Pension Fund Business Center in the outskirts of Arusha town of North Tanzania. Kapanya receives me. His smile is broad and his handshake friendly. He is the type of man who appears larger in his photos than in real life.

Mountaineering background

I asked him if he ever climbed any mountains when he was a child. He did, he says. "To us, a mountain is a sacred place. My father, and prior to him my grandfather, would climb Mount Rungwe in Southwest Tanzania, where I was born and raised, to pray. They told us to stay quiet at home while they are on the mountain until they get back home. After they came back, they allowed us to go on with normal activities. My father was an herbalist. He used to climb Mount Rungwe to get some herbs and roots. He used the herbs and toots as well as leaves to treat people with different problems."

He explained that he came from a mountaineering back ground. "Climbing has a done a great thing in my life. I am connected to people from across the globe. Through climbing I have traveled to Russia. In fact, I led climbing trips in Russia. That was the first time in my life I stayed in the coldest place on earth. Climbing to me is also a sport. Other people have their own reasons for climbing certain mountains. Likewise, climbing is like a laboratory.

"I climb to see how fit I am," Kapanya says. "I remember at one time when I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro and the mountain refused. I thought I was stronger while actually I was sick. I had to be rescued. I had malaria and pulmonary edema. I nearly died because I forced myself to climb. I started to cry. When I arrived home my daughter laughed at me when she saw me in a stretcher. She teased me, 'this time Kapanya is caught.'"

The point, he says, is that one must be healthy in order to attempt the climb. It is not necessary to summit Mount Kilimanjaro.

Rebuffing the charge that it is necessary to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, Kitaba explained: "Trip leaders usually have in their minds that they must summit. They know that a miner dies in the mine. A fisherman can drown. A soldier dies on the frontline of the war. Trip leaders think that it is a weakness and that they are bad leaders if they do not summit. Summiting is not necessary if the situation does not allow. Trip leaders push themselves up. I can understand the reason. Leaders must lead by examples. Even then, it is also true that humans have weaknesses. If you are unfit, please descend."

He has advice. "There is something I would love to say about hopeful climbers. Clients pay a lot of money, by any standard, to attempt Mount Kilimanjaro. Their dreams, too, are understandably to summit. It is a fact that Kilimanjaro climb does not require technical skills. However, it is strenuous and can in fact be a serious physical test."

He looked right, left and then right. Then he said, "It is unpredictable how you will adapt to the altitude. Do not go fast, and drink plenty of water all time. The greatest protection is avoiding rapid climbs, ascents, and descents. Bear in mind that some people might not summit. We have an excellent team to accompany you to descend, if need be. Even then you still have a life experience. Attempting Kilimanjaro is a greatest achievement in a special way. Very few people have heard of this mount let alone set their eyes on it. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. It is the highest free-standing mountain on earth. The fact that you attempted it is surely worthwhile."

Mental preparation

I asked him about his technical advice to hopeful climbers. He said, "The love and will to climb must be respected. It is important every participant understands the climb is challenging. Climbing is a challenging dream that most people would wish to turn into reality. Remember that you will be in high altitude. So number one is that you must be prepared mentally. Your mind is the greatest weapon in your disposal."

Of course that is not the only necessary thing. "Physically preparations then follow," he added for good measure. "Trip members should be in excellent physical condition. Make sure you prepare yourself as much as possible. Running, jogging, biking, swimming, and other physical exercises prepares you better for the climb. Exercise your lungs and muscles. The lungs must be able to absorb enough oxygen for your body. Muscles must be prepared to withstand the climb," a smiling Kapanya explained.

His technical advice kept flowing like a new fountain. "Try also to set up a little camping and sleep there if possible. Get familiar with nature. You must have the best gear. I mean, you must be better dressed from feet to head. Above all, you must take seriously the advice of your trip leader even if you are a professional mountaineer. Principally, you must respect a mountain. If a trip leader tells you to slow down, please listen.

"This applies to everybody attempting the climb; porters, trip leaders, guides, cook and camp crew. Every one must be prepared. If a cook, for instance, is poorly prepared it means the whole attempt is going to crumble; same with the porters. Bear in mind that we attempt the climb as a team."

Best routes

I asked him which are the best and which are the most dangerous routes on Kilimanjaro. He answered immediately. "Let me start with the last part of the question, the dangerous routes. To be honest with you, every route is dangerous on its own way and degree."

He said, "There are six main routes through which you can climb. Mweka route is for descending. Machame route is for ascending. Marangu is for both ascending and descending. Loitokitok is for ascending. Umbwe is for ascending and descending. Shira is for both ascending and descending as well."

I asked him about his favorite route. He said, "I love Shira route. It is the best scenic route. It is a less traveled route. It is the cleanest of all. It also takes more days to reach the summit. This means it gives enough time to acclimatize and therefore more chances to summit. Machame is my second favorite. It is challenging and it is also scenic. It is comparatively less crowed. It is clean. Through this route you approach Kibo Peak with a very good view. You go through different types of vegetation zones.

"I also love Loitokitok route because it is short. It is therefore good for all ages including children and the elderly alike. It is a gentlest of all except when you reach Kibo hut. Otherwise it is the best for all ages attempting Kilimanjaro.

"About 25,000 people attempt climbing Kilimanjaro annually," Kitaba revealed. "Of this, 55 percent climb through Marangu route," he said. "The rest go through Shira, Machame, Umbwe, and Loitoktok and the rest. I am told the government is soon going to open Maua route to stop the congestion on Marangu route. So climbers will soon be ascending through Marangu route and descend through Maua route."

Western Breach

When I asked Kapanya what he thought about the Western Breach, his answer was a classic: "The Western Breach is a section of three routes meeting together. The section starts at Arrow Glaciers to the crater. The Western Breach Wall is steep. It is as challenging as it is dangerous in the sense that rocks fall. This is due to the fact that the glaciers that used to hold rocks down have melted. A small rock, say 20 grams, can start rolling down from several feet above. As it rolls, its speed increases. On its way, it can provoke other rocks to fall as well. They roll down, bouncing very dangerously."

The falling rocks can be fatal. "To be sure, these falling rocks can be as dangerous as a bullet if they hit you. Remember that the route is too thin, rocky and steep. In some places you have to climb with all fours. So you literally have no hiding place once the rocks starts coming aiming straight at you."

"But why do some companies use this route?" I asked him. "Their clients like challenges," he says. "They do not like to do easy things. It also means that few companies travel through that section. In that way they companies which sell it are selling a unique product."

At this point, Kapanya went global. "In 1996, a storm struck the summit of Mount Everest. That was the deadliest storm in recorded history of the mount. Eight people died. Among the fatalities were group leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. Journalist Jon Krakauer, a survivor from that trek, went on to write the bestseller, Into Thin Air."

Deaths on mountains can be turning points. "The book and the mainstream media took the disaster far and wide and raised questions about the commercialization of Everest. People thought hopeful climbers will stop attempting the mountain. Everest attracted many hopeful climbers instead. People love challenges. The same can be said about Mount Kilimanjaro. In 2005, two clients died at the Western Breach. Several porters were seriously wounded. We thought the route would be closed down all together. The number of hopefuls attempting Mount Kilimanjaro though the route shot up instead."

Mountain sickness

I had taken a lot of his time already, but we could not finish our conversion without discussing acute mountain sickness. "This is a combination of undesirable conditions. These include headache, loss of appetite, nausea, failing to sleeplessness, vomiting, dry cough, swelling of eye ankles and eyelids, pulmonary edema as well as cerebral edema," he explained.

He said that there are different ways to approach the crises. "You must be prepared. You must know mountain hazards. People do fall down. Others get injured. A trip leader must act instantly to save live. If someone dies you must be courageous. The body must be taken down and out of the mountain. So you call a rescue team."

Kitaba added, "There are no cars high on the mountain. Helicopters cannot just land everywhere. In times of crises you rely on the team. Well-fed porters who are also strong are very helpful. They can carry some extra luggage and continue with the rest of the group while others evacuate the sick person or carry out the body in that case. Evacuation is possible anywhere on the mountain."

Equipment

"You need equipment," he said, adding, "Number one is personal clothes. You need layers of warm clothes to protect yourself against cold. You need rain gear to protect yourself against the rain. You also need a mattress and sleeping bag that keep you warm and comfortable at night. You must be protected from head to toe. Sun glasses and walking sticks are necessary. In short, everybody must be well dressed when attempting climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Preferably clients come with their own gear. In fact, more than 90 percent do so."

He said that most companies arrange accommodation in tents. They also have first aid gear such as Gamow bags, oxygen tanks and some medicine. They have cooking utensils, the crew, water, and so on.

Balanced diet

Kapanya said, "Everybody must eat a balanced diet on Mount Kilimanjaro. You must eat quality food that is easy to digest. Food should not be oily. Oily food subjects the body to double work; to digest the food and convert fat into carbohydrate. You will lose a lot of calories required for the climb. You need to eat protein so that to replace the worn-out cells. You need a lot of water, too.

"I want to stress on water. As you hike you lose a lot of water through breathing, hyperventilation, urine, and so forth. You must replace water, otherwise you are prone to acute high altitude sickness like cerebral edema. If you are dehydrated, you can easily construct cold related body complications. In the meantime water helps the body expels unwanted water in the body.

Winding up

What message did he have for prospective Kilimanjaro climbers? I thought it was an easy question, but it turned out to be otherwise. "Most people use Marangu route for six days. It is popularly known as Coca-Cola route. It is also called soft route. It allows a six-day climb. Shira route through Western Breach cannot be attempted in six days."

He said, "I highly recommend eight days climbing, however. It gives you wider chances to summit since you have a fair time to acclimatize. This also means a higher possibility to summit with slim chances of constructing acute altitude sickness."

Kapanya is currently the Executive Director of his own company called East African Outdoor Adventures Ltd which specializes on Kilimanjaro climbing and safari.