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California to Kilimanjaro: Part 3 — Life Doesn’t Get Any Better

April 21, 2020

what my hair felt like sans comb

I didn’t have a comb so I couldn’t comb my hair.

There are worse things than a comb to be missing when you’re at 12.2k’.

On your way up Marangu Route, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

Some people would say I’d clearly lost my mind long before this, and certainly proven by being up here in the first place.

It’s not like I’d left my comb at base camp– that when I was reunited with my suitcase in Arusha after our climb I’d have a comb.


I’d left my comb in the car in California– I’d also let my prescription sunglasses. The last time I’d combed my hair had been over a week ago.  Sure, I’d taken a shower before we left the lodge near the Marangu Route trailhead for Kilimanjaro, and dragged my fingers through my hair getting the worst of the tangles out. I’d asked our guide to stop for a comb but it just wasn’t high on the list of priorities, and I’d been discouraged from venturing out into Arusha on my own.

It wasn’t the first time I didn’t have a comb on a big trek: when I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the 80s on our second night I realized I didn’t have a comb… and decided it would be worth the short detour to hike into town on our third morning to buy one… and get an ice cream!

But there wasn’t exactly a store nearby I could hike to; no stores at all on this trail even though they used to call it the Coca Cola route because it was so easy you get buy one along the way (no more). So there I was, stuffing my hair through my hat, getting it up out of my way, keeping my rat’s mess and my face covered up.

As I discussed in my first post in my series “California to Kilimanjaro,” while I’d been planning on climbing Kilimanjaro since 2017, I’d intended to do it in 2020. But in 2018 when my friend Tony Fletcher invited me to join him on a 2019 trek, I was tempted.

But should I do it? I wanted to bring my 15 year old teen with me for an extended trip that might include a safari or a stop in Spain or a trip to Egypt along the way but he had a commitment with a school program where he was being trained that same week of the climb to mentor first year students. I debated going by myself, and I had a few other questions, including getting a clean bill of health from my doctor, but finally I knew I was GOING. In less than a week, I would be on a plane to Kilimanjaro Airport by way of Amsterdam.

The first day of trekking was easy enough, in large part because I was only carrying a day pack; employees of The Roof of Africa Adventures was carrying everything else. While we are only required to hire a guide, others carried our gear which it made it much more enjoyable to walk under cover in the rain forest, walking mostly beside a creek, gently climbing up up up with rest stops as we needed them and lots of greetings of “jambo” and “hakuna matata” as well as reminders of “pole pole” — slow slow.

I’m not a big fan of slow slow unless it’s part of a Texas two step (slow slow quick quick slow). I prefer fast fast and go go. On that first day we were allowed to spread out a fair amount yet always under the watchful gaze of a guide.

As we climbed higher on that first day, the sun broke through the clouds and the light danced with the trail.

Day two couldn’t have been more different than day one: we were up bright and early for a healthy breakfast in the hut, and it was sunny all day at our altitude. We broke out of the rainforest almost immediately, by passing a tempting side trail to a crater. Feeling fresh and energetic, we wanted to go check it out but were deterred — “maybe on the way back” we were told.

It’s a good thing we didn’t take the side trail because just getting to 12,200 from 9,000 took us ALLL DAAAAAAY. While much of the trail traversed the broad mountainside, there were plenty of ups and downs and downs with lots of up and more up. The landscape lacks large shade trees and is made up instead by otherworldly looking plants that likely inspired Dr Seuss.

While we didn’t have any day hikers with us on the trail at this point, it was packed with porters rushing up and porters rushing down. For every client on the mountain (about 50,000 people a year!), there’s an average of five on the support crew from guides to cooks to porters. Everyone on the crew carried their own gear PLUS our stuff– our sleeping bags, our warm jackets for the midnight climb, toothbrushes, clean socks, spare shoes for camp.

And most likely combs. Just not mine.

They are limited to how much they can carry, and the packs are weighed every day to make sure it is fair and that they have adequate foot gear (which I would debate but I’m not in charge of the guy who said cowboy boots are acceptable) and certainly I’d require socks, too, which also seemed in short supply on the young men and occasional woman who passed us carrying their heavy loads.


My boots were great. I had been to the Ugg outlet on Christmas eve and seen them– a beautiful periwinkle, my size, the one and only pair. They fit beautifully, they looked beautiful, and I knew they’d be perfect for doing Kilimanjaro, but did I really need another pair of boots? And was I going to go?

On Christmas Eve, I dreamed of the boots. On Christmas Day, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. On the day after Christmas, I went back to the outlet. They weren’t where Ieft them. They weren’t anywhere reasonable. They were no where to be found.

But what was the chance that they’d been sold? Not likely. It wasn’t the kind of thing people were buying for Christmas presents and certainly not the kind of thing that the EBayers wanted. So I kept looking. And looking. And I asked and asked the employees. I was ready to give up when I found them buried in a bin.

I loved them so much that I didn’t want to wear them. In part, yes I was “saving” them in case I did go to Kilimanjaro. But also, they were so pretty and so comfortable. While I bought them for a song, they would not be replaceable. They were ideal for the trip.

So maybe I didn’t have a comb. I had what really counted — the best boots.

The boots — and the porters carrying my gear– got me to Hirombo Huts at 12,200. We were all doing well except Tim who was feeling the altitude and not looking too great at the dinner table.

The real and present danger of altitude sickneess is why we had in our schedule an acclimatization day the next day where we’d day hike to Zebra Rock, then go up to a 15k saddle and back.

But when we got to Zebra Rock, only Tony and I wanted to keep going and we were so disappointed (and admittedly sulky) that we were supposed to turn around that we convinced Protus to let us go up with Lucas and Bernardus.

Lucas– the best guide in Tanzania

We had a blast. In fact, it was my favorite day of the trip. It was just us and the rugged trail and wide open spaces and bizarre plants and the massive mountain ahead of us. We laughed, told stories, soaked in the sun.

Tony, Bernardus, Lucas goofing it up at 15,000.’

Life doesn’t get any better.

There’s more to say about this day… but I’ll save that for next week.


Listen to Tony Fletcher’s podcast for part 3 of his journey from Kingston to Kilimanjaro — it’s part of his new podcast “One Step Beyond.”

Stay tuned and subscribe for next week’s installment and check out Tony Fletcher’s From Kingston to Kilimanjaro: A Four-Part Series on a Journey to the Roof of Africa, part 2

Here’s the program description: In August 2019 Tony Fletcher set off with four friends (including ME) from around the globe, and a Catskills-based, Tanzanian-born guide, to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

Tony is a writer and broadcaster by trade, so he brought his recording devices along with him for the journey up the mountain. Over the course of this four part series it’s Tony’s hope that you’ll  be able to experience a little bit of what it’s like to go on an adventure like this, and that by the time we are all done, you’ll be ready to embark on one of your own.

Link to Part 1:

Tony Fletcher is the British-born author of nine books, including biographies of Keith Moon, Wilson Pickett, R.E.M. and The Smiths. In 2019 he  hosted and wrote “It’s A PIxies Podcast”. In 2016, he backpacked around the world with his wife and then 11-year old younger son. A keen trail runner and a Show Director at the Rock Academy in Woodstock, he lives in Kingston.

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