Dispatches

With Kilimanjaro conquered and the safari complete, a very memorable Tanzanian expedition draws to a close and our team bids farewell to Africa as they head home. Lead guide, Rob Smith, provides the final words on the trip:

Many people have heard of ‘the big five‘ when it comes to African wildlife. The term originated from hunters, for the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot. These are lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino. It is heartening that the term associated with hunting these animals is now synonymous with wildlife tourism and conservation.

 

We did not see the full set of five, but that matters little as we did see so much. It is the diversity and abundance of wildlife that made our safari so memorable.

 

Of course the safari was after our main event, the Kilimanjaro climb. The hardships of that are beginning to fade, and the good times are becoming more memorable. Standing on the roof of Africa is not so easy, and John, Jaclyn and Kristin all managed to get there. It has been a safe, successful and enjoyable trip which has packed a lot into a relatively short time. Definitely not your average two week vacation. Thanks for following our journey!

 

Today’s Swahili: Kwaheri – goodbye; Karibu – you are welcome

Sunrise at our Serengeti camp

Sunrise at our Serengeti camp

A final Safari

A final Safari

The team arriving in Arusha

The team arriving in Arusha

Lead guide, Rob Smith, tells the story of the Kilimanjaro team’s final full day on safari in the mightly Serengeti:

Today exceeded all our expectations, as Jaclyn said on returning to camp.

 

Shortly after leaving this morning we saw several vehicles parked at the trailside. This usually means there is something of interest nearby. We pulled up and sure enough, a cheetah was sitting on top of a termite mound near the track. The fastest land animal in the world sat in front of us, just like that. It was sleek with beautiful markings. Black ‘teardrops’ noticeable on its alert and watchful face. The cheetah moved to a closer mound, rested and then crossed the track between the vehicles. It sat on another mound before dropping off, looking right but moving in a leftward arc. We could not see what the cheetah had seen until soon a Thomson’s gazelle bounded through the grass towards the cheetah. A pounce, a flurry of dust, a kicking of legs and it was all over. We were amazed to have witnessed the spectacle. Whatever your views on animals killing each other, this is the circle of life in the Serengeti.

 

We continued on to a rest stop, where maybe 50 tourists were gathered. 500′ away a tree stood with a rock by its base. The rock turned out to be the head of a male lion, its large mane bulking its head size. At one point, the lion stood up before lying down, now completely unseen. It made us wonder how many animals lay in the long grass out of sight nearby. The day continued, we saw a leopard perched on top of a Kopje, rock outcrop, much larger and muscular than the cheetah. We wondered what was coming next.

 

Two large lions chasing gazelles across the plain before stopping at a carcass surrounded by vultures. Hippos, crocodiles, elephants, giraffes, a jackal, hyenas, so many birds. A mother and young cheetah sitting in the shade eyeing up ostrich and warthogs in front of them. Two lionesses squabbled and the winner dragged a Thomson’s gazelle into cover and sat virtually unseen as it feasted on the catch. This is some of what we have seen today. It is no wonder it far exceeded our expectations.

 

We have another night in the Serengeti Osupuko Camp with the birds calling and wind rustling the tree branches. Tomorrow we leave the Serengeti to drive back to Arusha. Fortunately for us, we get to view more wildlife on the first part of the drive until we leave the National Park.

 

Today’s Swahili:  Kiboko – Hippo; Chui – Leopard; Duma – Cheetah; Serengeti – Endless plain

A hungry giraffe

A hungry giraffe

A "bloat" of hippos

A “bloat” of hippos

Ready for safari

Ready for safari

The Kilimanjaro team is now deep into their multiday safari and having a great time.  Lead guide, Rob Smith, provides the details of their day in two of the most amazing game parks in the world:

This morning we visited the Ngorongoro Crater, an area more than 180 square miles bounded on all sides by steep crater walls of a former volcano. The fertile base of the crater provides a haven for wildlife, and today it did not disappoint. Despite a misty start limiting views at the top of the crater, conditions were much clearer when we reached the base after a rough, steep descent. Buffalos and ostrich were seen on the drive down. A pool was filled with hippos, most of their bulk underwater with their backs and snouts visible. They shared the pool with pelicans while egrets, sacred ibis, and Egyptian geese sat on the banks. Two elephants stood in foliage nearby.

 

In the dry season, many animals are attracted to water sources, and it can be a great place to view them. Along the trails secretary birds with their snake stamping legs strutted back and forth. A jackal paced in front of our vehicle for several hundred meters before it cut off the track. Hyenas slinked around in the long grass, looking menacing. We crested a rise, and two lionesses were just off the track, focussed on a group of buffalo. They blended in perfectly with the grass and moved stealthily. With more ground to cover, we left them to it.

 

Leaving the Ngorongoro, we bumped and shook along the road to Serengeti National Park. Wide-open plains had us wondering if we would see any wildlife, as the area is vast. But after 5 minutes of entering the park, we spotted two more lions. Two became three which became four, and when a half-eaten leg was seen sticking up through the grass, it was clear we had come across the site of a recent kill. A pile of feathers nearby told us an ostrich had been the unlucky catch. It is disconcerting when a lion with a bloody face stares at you from not so far away. Content with their meal, they all lay down in the sun and slept, and we moved on.

 

So our adventure continues. Tonight we are staying in a tented camp in the Serengeti amongst this amazing habitat. Tomorrow we have another full day of safari. Let’s see what is in store for us.

 

Today’s Swahili:  Lion – Simba — Buffalo – Nyati

A lioness blending into the landscape

A lioness blending into the landscape

A wildebeest poses for the camera

A wildebeest poses for the camera

Serengeti plains

Serengeti plains

Still celebrating their Kilimanjaro summit success, our team has completed day 1 of their safari of the big major game parks of Tanzania.  Lead guide, Rob Smith, give us the daily update:

We have left Arusha and driven South West to Tarangire National Park. Having descended Kilimanjaro yesterday, today we found ourselves in the midst of the Tanzanian plains, savannah grassland with stands of Acacia trees and lone Boabab trees studding the landscape. Our new ‘ride’ is a Toyota Landcruiser with a pop-up roof that allows great views of landscape and wildlife.

 

We saw too many animals and birds today to list, but the most popular were definitely the elephants and giraffes. No matter how many wildlife programs you have watched, there is no comparison with seeing these animals in the wild. Large numbers of zebra in their sharp coats, mixed with wildebeest making their way towards watering holes, or later in the afternoon, resting in the shade where available. A ‘dazzle’ of zebras mixing with a ‘confusion’ of wildebeest, to give them their correct collective terms.

 

This is the dry season here, and the Tarangire River that runs through the park is bone dry. Elephants stood in the middle of its dusty flats and dug their trunks deep down to reach water. It is hard not to become saturated with the sights and sounds here on Safari. Tonight we are in the fabulous Lake Manyara Safari Lodge overlooking Lake Manyara and the Rift Valley. Tomorrow we move on to the world-famous Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park. What a way to follow a Kilimanjaro climb!

 

Today’s Swahili:  Twiga – giraffe — Temba – elephant

A memory of elephants

A memory of elephants

Zebra and wildebeast at a watering hole

Zebra and wildebeast at a watering hole

Our new transport

Our new transport

Our Kilimanjaro team has returned to Arusha after coming all the way down from a great summit climb and is getting ready for their safari.  Here’s lead guide, Rob Smith, with the details of the day:

After our summit yesterday we returned to Kosovo Camp (4870m/15,978ft) and had a couple of hours to rest, eat and drink, and then pack up. We hiked downhill for 3 hours to reach Millennium Camp (3820m/12,530ft) and were glad to reach it. Another early start this morning at 5 am, though practically a lie-in compared to our summit bid, saw us on our final day of Kilimanjaro. We dropped altitude and made our way from Alpine Desert to Moorland to Rainforest.

 

We were lucky enough to see Black and White Colobus Monkeys leaping from branch to branch high in the tree canopy. When we reached Mweka Gate (1638m/5,375ft), our exit point, we received a welcome that had everyone there looking on. The singing and dancing were well worth the effort that the team made over the last 7 days, and was a fitting end to our Kilimanjaro climb. So now we are back in Arusha before driving West tomorrow to Tarangire National Park, to begin the Safari.

 

Today’s Swahili:  Congratulations. Hongera  —  Brother. Kaka — Sister. Dada

Descending into the tree line

Descending into the tree line

Our welcome at Mweka Gate

Our welcome at Mweka Gate

A happy team at the end of the climb

A happy team at the end of the climb

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Our K2 expedition team just arrived back in Islamabad, after the 100 km trek out from base camp to Askoli, 7-hour jeep ride from Askoli to Skardu, and a 34-hour epic drive from Skardu to Islamabad. All members of the team (climbers, Sherpas, Pakistan staff) are safely on their way home now.  (members Valerio, Gina, and Elizabeth had previously departed K2 base camp by helicopter)

It’s been a successful expedition in that we all returned safely, however, we didn’t achieve our secondary goal of reaching the summit. Although we reached Camps 3 / 4, and our Sherpas climbed higher to the Bottleneck area, we didn’t reach the top of the mountain.

This was a result of the snow conditions that were present during our summit attempt, as we learned from our Sherpas and from other teams who were above Camp 4 scouting the route below and above the Bottleneck. The conditions encountered during July 16-18 in this area were deep and unconsolidated snow, up to 2 meters in some places, resulting in 3 known avalanches in this area. Fortunately, no climbers were injured or killed in these avalanches, although some were carried down the mountain before stopping, and sections of the newly installed fixed-line were torn out during one slide. Clearly, this area of the route was very unsafe.

Given these dangerous conditions, we didn’t feel it was prudent to push another summit attempt since it would likely be many weeks or months before conditions would change enough to warrant a safe and reasonable attempt through this area.  A strong wind to blow this amount of snow off the slopes would likely not occur this season, or the alternative, a massive avalanche that would take the snow down the mountain leaving behind only hard pack snow or ice as we have climbed in the past.  Hence, we made the decision to conclude our expedition, along with other teams that arrived at the same conclusion, such as the Furtenbach, Imagine, Adventure Peaks, and smaller expedition teams such as Mike Horn’s team and the Czech team (approximately 80% of the climbers attempting K2 this season).  With these conditions, we felt this was the safest decision, shared by myself, co-guides Victor Saunders & Conan Bliss, and our Sirdar Aang Phurba Sherpa along with the other climbing Sherpas.

We later learned during our trek out that on July 24th several climbers reached the top of K2, led by a strong team of Sherpas and Nimral Purja (Nims). Adrian Ballanger’s private team was close behind them and also made the summit.  We were initially surprised by their success but also wanted to learn what allowed them to make the top.  Was it simply pushing hard through deep and unstable snow conditions (including the risk that posed) or did the conditions change in such a short time period to allow for safe and reasonable climbing?

I was able to have a WhatsApp conversation with Adrian after they got down to base camp, and he reported that essentially conditions had significantly changed since our attempt, allowing for safe and reasonable climbing.  In Adrian’s words “We sure were surprised…we could see it was stripped (the slope). Lots of signs of wind effect…some may have sluffed (avalanche). There was a big wind event on the morning of the 22nd…that may have stripped it. We fully recognize how lucky we got…I wouldn’t have guessed such a significant change was possible either, especially with no major weather change forecasted…know that your decision was absolutely the right one…with the available information.”  Our hearty congratulations to all those who reached the summit of K2 this season!  Well done!!

Hindsight is 20/20; if we were able to foresee the change in conditions from Camp 4 to the summit after the wind event on the 22nd that cleared the slope, and before the weather moved in on the 26th, then a short summit window would present itself. However, at the time we moved to Camp 3 (July 17th) and had to make a decision, we were acting on the best available information from our Sherpas and other climbers regarding the unsafe condition of the Bottleneck area, and our weather forecasting service which didn’t suggest any forthcoming weather activity to clear the slope.  It is likely that high winds the morning of the 22nd, in combination with an avalanche, cleared the slope. Fortunately, no climbers were on or above/below this area when it cleared, as it would not likely have been survivable. Luckily for Nims’ & Adrian’s teams, their timing was such that their scheduled summit attempts just happened to fall within the narrow weather window beginning on the 24th, whereas our team and most others that were slightly ahead of this schedule were attempting just a few days earlier when conditions were impossible.

It’s tough for us to come away without a summit, especially after putting in so much effort.  The training, time away from home, and the weeks spent on the expedition acclimatizing are all part of a monumental effort.  However, K2 is an extremely demanding mountain in good conditions by any measure, and with our primary dedication to safety, we are happy to have our entire team return in good health!

Conan, Victor, Rick, Brian and me are looking forward to a good rest here tonight in the Serena hotel after an “adventurous” drive from Skardu to Islamabad, but we’ll save that story for another time!

From Kilimanjaro, lead guide Rob Smith shares the happy news:

The sunrise was beautiful and gave respite from the previous hours of climbing in the darkness. Each of us in a pool of light from our headlamps, steadily climbing up the loose rock and scree. The faintest of light on the horizon, grew larger and brighter, transforming through a range of orange, red and pink hues. We reached Stella Point on the edge of the crater rim at 18,800′, and stopped for a hot drink and some shelter from the wind. From there the slope was less steep and dawn made the route finding easier. As the sun rose higher it cast a huge shadow of Kilimanjaro onto the clouds below. It put our presence on the side of the mountain, nearing its summit, into perspective. We reached the top at 6.45am, after a harder than expected climb for some. Kilimanjaro might often be referred to as a to trek, but its 19,341′ should not be underestimated.

 

Kilimanjaro, Uhuru Peak, is a beautiful mountain that allowed us to step on her summit a few hours ago, giving us memories to last a lifetime.

The shadow of Kilimanjaro at dawn

The shadow of Kilimanjaro at dawn

Kilimanjaro Summit!

Kilimanjaro Summit!

Karanga Camp to Kosovo Camp, the last segment before summit day. The Kili team has now climbed to high camp and will be heading to the summit tonight!  Here’s lead guide Rob Smith with the details:

We reached Kosovo Camp (4870m/15,978 ft), our high camp at 12.15pm. For the first time in our trip, we have met successful climbers who have summitted Kilimanjaro. They did so earlier this morning and were pleased to be on their way down, as we continued up past Barafu Camp, where the majority of climbers stay. The extra effort today will give us a shorter summit day tomorrow. So now we rest, and we will have an early dinner before trying to catch a few hours sleep. Tomorrow begins at midnight, quite literally, as we will get up and prepare to leave at 1am. So wish us luck and tune in tomorrow for an update.

 

Today’s Swahili: Tabasamu – smile

On the way to Kosovo Camp

On the way to Kosovo Camp

Resting up for the big climb

Resting up for the big climb

Kilimanjaro lead guide, Rob Smith, details the team’s day moving from Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp, including the ascent of the “Breakfast Wall”:

We were awake at 5am in preparation to climb the Barranco Wall. It was a chilly morning. If we were lacking motivation, it came in heaps, from an impromptu song and dance send-off from our team. Dressed in thick coats and wooly hats, the pace ramped up until Willie threw a cartwheel followed by a backflip. Suitably impressed by his acrobatics, we left camp and were soon at the base of the Barranco Wall. 750′ of rock with a sinuous path worked into it by the passage of climbers. Part scramble, part walk, we made our way to the top. And we were rewarded with emerging into the sun and seeing a sea of cloud beneath us as far as we could see. With the crux of the day behind us, we descended towards Karanga Camp (4029m/13,220ft) with a final steep uphill to pull into camp after 4 hours.

 

Tomorrow we begin the final phase of the trip, as we continue to Kosovo Camp (4870m/15,978ft), our high camp. From there we will begin our summit climb in the early hours of the following morning.

 

Today’s Swahili: Hakuna Matata – No Problem / No Worries.

Kristin climbing the Borranco Wall

Kristin climbing the Borranco Wall

Our high point of the day

Our high point of the day

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The K2 trekking is complete.  The team had a marathon day by finishing the trek and then 4-wheeling for seven hours (!) to Skardu.  Here’s expedition leader Garrett Madison’s update:

Hello, this is Garrett calling in for the K2 expedition team.  Today is July 26th and we finished our trek out from K2 base camp to Askole and then we rode by jeep for seven hours from Askole to Skardu.  We are very happy to be in Skardu and to have a nice lodge with a hot shower.  And everyone’s doing great.  We’re gonna take a rest day tomorrow and then fingers crossed for good weather, hopefully fly to Islamabad the following day.

(photo:  Madison Mountaineering K2 archives)

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