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.