It takes 3 guides and 20 porters who double as a chef, a waiter and a toilet man to get 5 women up 1 big mountain.
I have heard about the porters who work the world’s famed trekking routes. However, in all honesty, their stories never quite hit home until I met one—or in my case 20.
That is how it is on Mount Kilimanjaro.
For a self-supporting, self-rescuing mama who has introduced newbies and children to the backcountry for 20-something years, climbing Kili was going to require a bit of a perspective shift and a major power give-away.
A transition that, ultimately, took all of 5 minutes when Waiter Hasan delivered a bowl of warm washing water to my tent, and Chef Good Luck baked our group a cake at 12,000 feet. They all had me at “Jambo.”
Yes, I fought through altitude headaches and nausea as I pushed on to the 19,341 feet prize. But the real treat? For 7 whole days, this working mom was not responsible for the emotional needs of another single human being—except for myself. I didn’t have to cook. Shop. Clean a dish. Scrub a toilet. Or execute a single logistic. Heaven.
Waiter Hasan woke me up with coffee in bed—er, coffee in sleeping bag.
Lead Guide Big Emanuel told me what to wear, where I was going, and what to pack.
Chef Good Luck fed me a two-course breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Porter Nicola set up and took down my tent.
Assistant Guide Thadie taught me Swahili to pass the time.
The best part was that each trekking day ceremoniously started with these strong, fearless men gathering around for the foot-stomping, hand-clapping Kilimanjaro Song that wished us a safe journey to the top and praised our god-like beauty. (I’m not making this up.) The porters came alive when they sang, and our group gleefully accepted every Swahili note of praise.
As the food was served—apparently, no one told the outfitter that we were a group of middle-aged women who did not eat like 18-year-old boys—I tallied the bounty that had traveled on backs, necks and heads in 40 pound parcels up 1,000-foot cliff walls and above 15,000 feet. You can pick out the chefs along the way as they are the only ones entrusted with the delicate task of getting the 8 dozen eggs safely to the next camp. As Big Emmanuel explained, “On Kilimanjaro, when you see eggs on top of someone’s pack, he is a chef.”
By my best account, the chef’s packing list looked something like this: Lettuce, tomatoes, avocados, pineapple, watermelon, pumpkin, zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, green beans, mangos, oranges, chicken, beef, fish, beans, cauliflower, corn, potatoes, bananas, butter spread, flour, bread, noodles, sausages, rice, cabbage, millet, oats, chocolate bars, peanuts, popcorn, mushrooms, 5 gallons of cooking oil and mango juice boxes.
These weren’t canned items either. On multiple occasions, freshly baked banana and zucchini bread were served. I won’t even go into the drink mixes and condiments, but chili sauce accompanied every meal.
Now, I confess that occasionally I have packed in a rogue cucumber and twice summited with a few peaches, but never did I think of climbing with a watermelon.
Is this all this big, bulky, fresh food a bit excessive? What I will say is that a quick demographic profile my arrival plane says that guiding Kili treks is a competitive business. Logistically, the 3,000-calorie daily burn combined with the dehydrating, muscle-wasting effects of high altitude also makes you grateful for fibrous, high-water content food that actually fuels your body. Those who do make it to the top, make it because they have the endurance to do so. Despite the bounty, I still left Kili with pants that grew one size too big.
What we the clients did not eat, the porters did. In one of the world’s poorest countries? This might be more precious than Tanzanite.
As I neared the summit dressed to the Patagonia/Gortex nines complete with a smashing pair of ski goggles, I was surpassed by Porter Thinking-About-Training-To-Be-A-Guide Little Emanuel. Little Emanuel—who must be brother to Bruno Mars—was wearing an understated tee-shirt topped with an unzipped hoodie, a pair of running shoes and a kid-in-the-candy-store grin because he too was about to make his first summit.
On the way down, and I mean at 18,885 feet, our group was greeted by Porter Michael and Chef Good Luck who bore a plastic grocery bag slung over his shoulder full of more mango juice boxes.
Back at camp, it was a hero’s welcome. The porters were waiting outside the tents, celebrating with fist bumps and helping to brush off the fine volcanic silicate we had skied down.
The Women’s Group had become a bit of a mountain sensation. Word had spread among the porters and guides that a bunch of married mothers had left their husbands and kids to summit. We saw no such other group as we climbed. Big Emanuel (Sick Emanuel got sent home with an eye infection despite our eye drops) has guided over 100 groups on Kili. He’s guided a 13-year-old kid, an 80’some year-old man, and multi-generational families. We were his first All Women’s Group, and he appeared to delight in his insider view of un-guarded women’s chatter.
Getting clients to the top is a matter of personal pride as well as a path to financial sustainability for those who work the mountain. These men—although I did see one female porter whom we raucously cheered and heard that there are now a handful of female guides— believe in their mountain and see current clients as ambassadors to more clients. Getting the Women’s Group to the top was something a little more, well—special (and maybe brought a few bragging rights). We loved them for loving us.
I had come to Kilimanjaro to surround myself with women and found myself outnumbered by men 4.6 to 1. Sweet, caring, daring men who leave their wives and babies to work the mountain cooking, cleaning, serving and carrying for foreign clients. For 7 days, I was protected, guided and nurtured with every need well-anticipated and carefully planned and executed.
What more could a woman ask for? To top it off, I get to say that I’ve climbed the world’s tallest freestanding mountain and have an official certificate to prove it. How cool is that? That’s pretty “powa.”
Photo Credit by Lisa Boden
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