Monday, June 25, 2012

The Mt Kilimanjaro Expedition

In light of today being the 5 year anniversary of Brad, Justin and myself summitting Mt Kilimanjaro (tallest mountain in Africa) I wanted to post a couple articles and thoughts from that trip so long ago.
Here is an article that I wrote for Backpacker Magazine for the Winter 2007 issue (the version that appeared in the magazine was much shorter). Enjoy!

The Mount Kilimanjaro Expedition

By Kyle Coon

It was a dream come true. Terry was on my left, and Justin, (Tex) was on my right. We were the three instigators behind this entire thing. It kind of started like this. Tex and I were lounging in our tent at our high camp on the Ankascocha Trail in Peru. Tex turned to me and said, “K Coon, you know we’re showing the world something man. I mean, Big E (Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to summit the seven summits) showed them that a blind guy can do anything. But the thing is, we’re showing them again. I have been thinking for a while, I’d like to do something a little bigger.”

I replied, “Yeah, I’ve been wanting to do something a little bigger too.”

He hesitated for a second, and then plunged ahead. “K Coon, how would you like to do Denali?”

It was silent for a minute, “That’s too big for us to do next year.”

Then a few days later the subject was brought up again, this time on the train heading back from Machu Picchu to Cuzco. Tex and Terry were talking about it behind me and suddenly I got a brain wave. Turning around I abruptly said, “Tex, let’s do Kilimanjaro.”

So about a year later, we found ourselves hugging and crying on top of Africa.

Our team leader was Eric Alexander, two time summitter of Kili, various other remarkable summits and guide and teammate to Erik Weihenmayer on Mount Everest. We had managed to piece together a team of ten students. We had come together before on our trip to Peru in the summer of 2006. We were joined once again by Global Explorers, a non-profit organization who brings students to understand their culture and other cultures as well as stress the importance of service along the way.

We departed from the states on June 15, 2007. We flew out of Detroit to Amsterdam, then onto Kilimanjaro International Airport just outside of Arusha Tanzania.

Our trip was not meant to only be a trek up Kilimanjaro, but to experience the culture of Africa and learn about blindness there as well, the reason being that three of the ten on this team were blind, I being one and one visually impaired.

That first day in Arusha, we drove to a school where we met up with twenty Tanzanian students, ten of the students were blind. The students were as interested in us as we were in them. They immediately started teaching us their language, Swahili. We learned a lot, but were all very forgetful. Despite forgetting a lot of the major components of the language, it was great fun learning from them, and carried with us some ways to jokingly insult each other later on the trip.

We went to the local taxidermy office with the students to learn about conservation. We drove to Moshi the following day to a farmer’s plantation and learned about the specifics of soil composition and trends of farming in the area. We also visited a hospital to learn about eye care in Africa. The Mweka Wildlife College was another stop for us. We visited with some more students, this time from the community of Msinga for some traditional dancing and food. We sadly said good-bye to our friends that we had made during the three days in the city. That night, we packed for our morning departure to begin our trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.

We were doing the Marangu Route, which is the more heavily traveled route up Kili. Our first day, we trekked about four hours through the rainforest to our first camp, which was a series of huts set up for sleeping and eating. Now if you aren’t familiar with the way a blind person treks allow me to explain. A sighted guide walks in front of us and jingles a bell which hangs from the loop of a trekking pole. The guide will tap the pole on rocks and roots to be avoided, or if they are comfortable they will give the blind person verbal directions. “Big step up. Rock left.” Sometimes we get bored and form our own hiking lingo. “Step up onto a half a cow. Chicken heads scattered across the trail. Ankle breakers, step carefully.” That first hut we stayed at was called Mandara Hut.

After a breakfast of eggs, toast and choke meal (oatmeal) we set off trekking through the Heather and Morelands. We hiked for about five to seven hours before reaching Horombo Hut. All the while stopping to take pictures and enjoy the scenery. Each sighted person took turns guiding the blind, and all the while we were getting higher.

Horombo was about 12300 feet up. We were getting to higher altitudes. Some people were getting head aches and starting to cough but nothing major. We took the next day and made it an acclimatization day. We hiked to a sight called Zebra Rocks and admired it for some time before heading back to Horombo.

The next day we all clarified as a boring hike. It was a gradual slope upwards through the desert. We passed the last water point on the mountain and continued climbing up to Kibo Hut, around 15500 feet. Everyone was exhausted, even though the hike hadn’t been that rough, the altitude was taking a toll on everyone. Dust was coating our faces and throats. We were coughing, people were developing headaches and it was fairly chilly. Everyone wanted to crawl into their sleeping bag in the hut and get some rest, only waking to have a quick bite of dinner only to go back to bed.

Some would fall asleep for an hour or so and then wake up. Thankfully the only times I woke up during the night were to go outside to use the bathroom. I couldn’t deny that I was worried now. One in the group had been moving very slowly and had barely eaten anything, one had a cough that wasn’t going away, and another was nauscious and suffering from sever headaches. I wondered how many of us could make the summit.

Finally though, midnight of the next night came and we all departed. A couple had gone ahead an hour earlier. Before the rest of us set off for the summit, I asked Tex whether he felt up to guiding me to the summit as we had long wanted to do. “I’m sorry man, but I can barely see tonight and I don’t feel comfortable guiding,” he said. So I tossed by bells to my teammate Max who had been ready to backseat drive me. We set off, but 20 minutes into the climb two from our group had to turn back due to sickness. The rest of us gritted our teeth and continued. Terry had a splitting headache, Alysha had thrown up just before reaching Gilman’s but we were continuing to move upward.

Eventually, Elias, one of our guides, linked his arm with mine and guided me the last two hundred yards to the sign marking the roof of Africa. There we waited as the rest of the group pulled up behind us. And there we all celebrated. A year of hard work and preparation had brought us all to this point, and we all wanted to soak it in for as long as possible. We took a group photo on top before finally turning around and descending down through the rock fields below Gilman’s point, and then down the endless scree fields below that; down through the desert; the heath and moorlands; the rainforest and finally down to the Marangu Gate. But even though that particular climb was over, it was only the beginning of another chapter in my young mountaineering life.

Climbing Blind

In light of today being the 5 year anniversary of Brad, Justin and I summitting Mt Kilimanjaro (tallest mountain in Africa), I wanted to post a couple things/articles that several of us had written after returning from Kili. Here is an article that teammate Justin Grant wrote for his local DBS (Division of Blind Services) Newsletter soon after we returned from Kilimanjaro. Enjoy!

Climbing Blind

By Justin Grant

Looking up into the black sky littered with twinkling lights in the distance, the only thought on my mind was to keep moving. Even after a long week of intense climbing I was somehow able to force my exhausted body further along the steep incline of scree rock that lead to the icy summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I could hear the pounding of my teammates feet on the loose rock as we climbed higher in the bitter cold. Terry was just ahead of me, following the bells that Brad rang to guide him. Before we left our high camp, I had confided a fear of mine to the team. I wasn’t sure how well I could perform being as I was the only visually impaired climber on the team. I was hesitant to guide one of my blind team mates on the start of our summit attempt. Adrenaline soared through my body as I dwelled on the thought of what we were about to attempt. I had never before set a goal so large before. The higher we went the colder it got. I could see what appeared to be tiny ice crystals forming on Jill’s balaclava from the condensation from her breath. For hours we climbed on, our sights set on making at least Gillman’s Point. When we heard our team leader Eric Alexander, an Everest veteran, was turning back our hearts and hopes sank into the pit of the volcano itself. We all thought, our inspiration, our leader is turning around and now there’s just a bunch of rookie American teenagers, almost half of which are blind, in the middle of Africa. How can we go on? I once heard a climber tell me the only thing on your mind should be Ambition and Fear. The ambition is the overwhelming desire to get to the top, but the fear will keep you alive. It seemed as though we all had the ambition to make the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and a few had the fear. Three of us in the team decided to turn around that night. All three had previously been sick before we started our summit attempt. Their fear was more real than anyone’s. Even for me, the only visually impaired climber, I was more set on making the summit than anything else, but in the back of my mind, my fear was rising. I could feel my legs beginning to tremble under my weight from the intense use. My greatest fear was that I would have to turn around and I would not be able to summit with my team, who had become like family over the past few days.

Watching what looked like the trail ahead of me I heard Brand yell “I see snow!” I knew we were getting close. We could actually make it. The farther up we went the higher my spirits rose. Adrenaline began pumping again and in just a little while later, we had reached the crater rim. In the distance we could see the morning sun trying peer across the massive crater that lay before me. We had made it to Gillman’s Point. As we took a short break we had to remind each other that this wasn’t the top, there was still a little more to go, but the summit was in sight, Before long, we all got up to make the final pitch for the top. As we walked along the craters edge the suns rays had broken through the dense layer of cloud far off in the distance. It was the most inspiring sun rise I had ever seen. I counted myself lucky for still being able to see it, in Africa of all places.

The sign was in sight. I had guided Terry the final steps of the journey. We were all concerned for him. He looked as though he were about to die. I spoke to guide him. “Terry, just a little further, a few more steps, I want you to feel this sign in front of us.” As I spoke we walked strait for the sign that welcomed us to the roof of Africa. Out of the blue I heard a soft thump just below me. I looked to see that when I had stopped speaking, Terry kept moving. He had run himself into the sign I had wanted him to feel. I guess I still got what I was going for. Terry didn’t seem to care he’d just run into a random sign on top of a volcano.

None the less we had made it. Three blind, six sighted, myself, and our guides.