Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa)


By: Linda Roman


I would like to express deepest condolences to family and friends of the late Jennifer Lambelet Mencken, who, died January 1, 2000 on the summit. But you know, if one had to die, that really was a pretty cool place and time to do so. The five of us, Sue Holloway, John McCully, Ray, Jennifer and I arrived in Nairobi late on Dec 23rd and early the 24th, and were picked up from the airport by our outfitter. This was the first time I met Ray and Jennifer. My feelings of paranoia about losing my luggage were confirmed when MY duffel bag never emerged from the baggage compartment, oh well. After spending a few hours in a hotel in Nairobi, we took an early morning shuttle bus to Arusha, hoping my bag would catch up with me later since it contained my boots, sleeping bag, clothing and pretty much all my gear. The ride to Arusha on this bus was an adventure in itself, better than any "E" ticket ride. The green countryside of rural Africa was just like stepping into National Geographic, women dressed in colorful batiks with large ear and nose ornaments, people carrying bundles of things on their heads, all waving at us as we careened down the road (on the wrong side). The Flamboyan trees were in bloom amidst other tropical plant life. The bus broke down about 20 kin. outside of town, so we basked in the African sunshine (which was about the last sunshine we saw for six days) and laid in the grass until another bus came.

In Arusha John and I walked around and ate a delicious stake dinner while the others caught up on their sleep, and we began to experience the friendliness and good natured personalities of the locals who seem to be happy all the time in spite of their profound poverty. My luggage never surfaced, but luckily for me our guide from Arumeru was able to scramble around and get enough gear and clothing, including fleece and goretex, for me to wear to do the climb. The guide even lent me his own boots!

On Christmas night we camped at the Landrossi Gate, ready to begin our journey in the morning. I had gotten used to the idea of having a guide, and okay, even a porter. But here I found out we would have a guide, an assistant guide, a cook, assistant cook, twenty porters, and for the first two days of the climb a park ranger dressed in military garb carrying an AK47 to protect us from buffalo and "intruders". All in all, a group of 30. The porters, carrying everything on their heads brought watermelons, pineapples, eggplant and everything else you could imagine. Meals were a fine affair.

With a large group of climbers expected (over 1000 were predicted to attempt the summit for the Millennium) we were fortunate that Ray and Jennifer had planned our route from the less traveled Western Breach or Shira Plateau route. So we encountered fewer climbers than the mob over on the "Coca Cola" route on the other side. This approach meant more mileage for us as well as better acclimatization, with a layover day at Lava Tower, elev 14,740 ft. From the beginning, Ray and Jennifer were painfully slow, and with the porters way ahead with all the gear, the rest of us spread out as well, all arriving in camp at different times.

The rain was practically incessant for the first six days, overnight temperatures around 20 degrees F. so with leaky tents, it was a major effort trying to keep things dry. Typically we would have some clearing in the late afternoon and early morning, during which spectacular views of Mt. Meru and the surrounding mountains would appear, including the snowy Uhuru summit. The hiking was really pretty easy, class one and occasionally two with no need for ice axe or crampons. There was some hiking in snow on the upper reaches of the mountain, but a trekking pole and snow gaiters were all that was needed. All five of us, including Jennifer, continued eating meals together and conversing as usual. Her only complaints were of a mild headache and fatigue. She refused to let a porter carry her daypack, and seemed to be "hanging in there" okay.

On Dec. 31st we camped in the crater at 18,800 ft. with just a 500 ft. gain to the summit. Here our group of five all arrived at different times. I was the only one who felt well enough to hike up to the ash pit at 19,000 ft. and look down into the crater, awesome! We began to be very worried when it got dark and Jennifer was still back somewhere with the guide and assistant guide. I assumed she had probably been taken down the mountain. The porters sent a group back to search, and then finally Jennifer showed up close to II pm. She was crying, cold and exhausted and went immediately into the tent with her husband Ray. In retrospect, I wish that at this point I had done a more thorough assessment of her condition and insisted that she be taken immediately down.

The next morning, we got a leisurely start around 9 am, Jennifer telling us she felt better. There was no discussion of what her plans were. I hoped she would opt of the easiest way down the mountain, but she apparently decided to go for the summit with her husband and assistant guides. I never saw her again. The summit was gorgeous, colorful glaciers and Mt. Kenya visible off in the distance. Sue, John and I, with our guide booked on down steep scree to Mweka Camp, our descent route being the common route. There we encountered literally over a thousand hikers celebrating the New Millennium.

With news in the morning of Jennifer being stretchered down the mountain and Ray at the park rangers' hut, we continued our descent down a steep trail in deep mud. The weather had finally cleared. This part of the hike gave new meaning to the word "mud", and was a bit like cross country skiing. From the trailhead I caught a shuttle back immediately to catch my flight home the night of the 2nd, which was uneventful, still no luggage. Suddenly back at home, the tragic news of Jennifer's death becomes reality. Lost luggage doesn't really matter, although I am happy the airline found it and are Fed Exing it to me tomorrow! Ordinary things take on new significance, such as the comfort of a warm, dry bed at sea level, a hot bath, one's own good health, family and friends.

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