Time Alone in the Wilderness

Last week I paddled with two other men in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in Minnesota and Canada. I traveled with Renewal in the Wilderness—an organization that hopes to bring refreshment to those in helping professions like clergy, social workers and teachers by having them get out into the wilderness. Over the course of seven days we canoed in a dozen different lakes with ten portages from about 100 feet to three quarters of a mile. All told we traveled thirty miles.

Watching the moonrise from our campsite. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

I’ve never been in a place like the BWCA before. After the first two lakes, no motor boats were allowed. Additionally, local aircraft cannot fly over the designated wilderness area. Campsites dot the lakes and are limited to a single group. The week after Labor Day brings fewer people—and fewer mosquitoes—along with the beginnings of a Fall chill. While we saw other paddlers from time to time, we generally were alone breathing in the pine scented air and listening to the slight wish of the paddles.

Descents

Final Days on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Every hiker knows that once you reach the summit you’re only halfway. Unless there’s a gondola waiting for you at the top—anathema to peak baggers—you’ve got to hike back down. And often that hike is harder than the one that got you to the top.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

After reaching the very top of Africa, we took about 35 minutes to soak it all in. The weather was spectacular, so we took pictures and cherished the view. But you don’t hang around too long at 19,000 feet. The lack of oxygen starts getting to you. So down we went.

On Top of Africa

Day 7 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

We made it!

Our group and guides at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Phil LaBelle, 2017

On August 14, 2017 at 11:45am Noah and I and our entire team reach Uhuru Peak at 19, 340 feet. We began with a 2am wake up call, breakfast and preparing to leave. Zippers on the tent had frozen overnight in the cold and previous day’s rain. But the skies were now clear and the temps were chilly. Just before we were set to depart, Noah began overheating. He’d put on a number of layers including my puffy coat to fight the cold, and as we got outside his body just started getting too warm.

Getting to Base Camp

Day 6 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

And now we are five.

Near base camp. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

This morning we had a sad departure as both Craig and Barry had to head down the mountain for medical attention. Both had been experiencing the effects of altitude sickness over the last couple of days and especially last night and this morning. One of the reasons we all chose Tusker was for their focus on safety. Unfortunately it meant saying goodbye to two wonderful men at least for now. (We hope to see them when our group descends in a couple days and get back to our hotel.)

Walls, Perseverance and Barry

Day 5 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Today we conquered the Barranco Wall. It looms large on most Kili hikes as it stands 850 feet above Barranco Camp, and it’s the first thing you do after breakfast and heading out. It’s primarily a scramble, working your way over rocks and boulders via a number of switchbacks. You use hands and feet to pull yourself up at some points and slowly make your way to the top. We go slowly—”Pole! Pole!” in Swahili—and it’s great preparation for the pace to the summit.

Noah, Barry and I at Karanga Camp with the Kili summit in the background. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

While Noah and I had a blast—it reminded us of the Beehive Trail in Acadia—others not so much. Especially Barry.

Gaining Elevation and Giving It Back

Day 4 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

We hiked up to Lava Tower Camp this morning getting us to over 15,200 of elevation. It’s an acclimatization climb to see how we do at the higher elevation—Lava Tower sits at about the same elevation as our base camp prior to summiting. As the name implies, there’s a huge rock formation made out of lava that looks to be another 800+ feet tall from the camp area. We’re closer to Kibo, the summit of Kilimanjaro, and see the results of that volcanic eruption so many years ago.

Looking toward the summit. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

With the tower of lava came more boulders. Big, dark rocks that we had to maneuver around on the trail. Noah and I had seen similar trails in the White Mountains except they’re littered with granite and other light colored rocks. But getting around boulders at 15,000 feet is another thing entirely. We could really feel the lack of oxygen as we hiked.

The Joy of Trekking

Day 3 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

After dinner last night, I spent a long time looking at the stars. The Milky Way spills out over where we are tenting more than I’ve ever seen before—including the Badlands this summer. None of the constellations looked familiar early in the evening, and I tried to find the Southern Cross. I went to bed filled with anticipation for Day 3 which includes a gentler hike across the Shira Plateau.

Group of 7 near Moir Camp. (c) Julianne Walker, 2007.

Noah woke feeling much, much better. He had a huge smile, and we joked around as we prepared for the day. Trekking clothes on, day packs filled, sleeping bags put away, duffles closed up, and then off to breakfast.

The Hardest Part of the Wilderness

Day 2 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

We had a long warm day. Lots of PUDs — pointless up and downs — on the trail as we came out of the shade of the rain forest and into the short vegetation. Sun very intense. We’d gain 400 feet of elevation and give back half of it.

Noah on the trail. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

Noah got quite ill on the trail. Upset stomach and getting quite overheated from the sun. I had to stop and pour water on him a few times along the way. The rest of our group was fantastic, encouraging him and telling him not to worry about the stops.

Beginnings of a Long Trek

Day 1 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Excitement. There’s really no other way to describe the first day of our trek to Mt. Kilimanjaro. We had to be out the door of our hotel and ready by 8am, so we spent the night before separating and packing our things—items we needed on the mountain and those we could leave behind at the hotel—weighing our trekking duffle to make sure it wasn’t too heavy for porters, and dreaming what it would all be like.

Getting ready to leave Bristol Cottages in Moshi for our Kilimanjaro Trek. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

After breakfast, we put water in our Nalgene bottles, loaded up our day packs with rain gear, snacks and the like, and finally hopped on small bus that would take us to the gate. Most of that first day was driving. Three hours along the roads to get us to the gate at Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park to check in officially with passport numbers and all our info. All the gear had to be weighed again for the porters—this is a wonderful thing to make sure those carrying gear aren’t being overloaded—and we had a box lunch.

Before the Trek

God moves in mysterious ways. Some might call it serendipity or perhaps coincidence. Others might go so far as to call it divine intervention. I’ll just leave it at the realm of heavenly mystery.

Noah with teammates from Amani. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

Upon our arrival at Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO, for those who want to know), Noah and I dealt with customs, collected our bags and headed out into the night. Our tour company informed us we’d be met by a driver holding up a sign with their logo and our name. I quickly found him and he came to help us with our bags.