Climbing Kilimanjaro: Q&A With Natl. Geographic’s Digital Nomad

At work on top of Kilimanjaro. Photo by Zachary Kessy

Andrew Evans has a pretty sweet gig. As the National Geographic Digital Nomad, he travels the globe and plugs in regularly to share his experiences through blogs and social media. Andrew has a keen eye for detail, and he’s a regular Joe, so his writing entertains and attracts a wide range of people, from experienced globetrotters to new adventurers. In December 2012, Evans climbed Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) as part of a long journey through Tanzania. (Click here to read his blog) We enjoyed reading his posts about the ascent so much that we wanted to pepper him with more questions about the experience. Fortunately, Andrew was kind enough to take a few moments and answer our queries.

What inspired you to climb Kilimanjaro? Was it something you had considered for a while?
Climbing Kilimanjaro was never a long-desired goal or anything — I simply love to travel and wanted to see the world from up there. I like exotic places and the top of Kilimanjaro is one that you can reach on foot, so I decided to go there.

While you were accompanied by others on the climb, you didn’t exactly have a close friend by your side. How do you think climbing alone compares with climbing the mountain with people you know?
Honestly, I’m glad I climbed the mountain alone. I understand that many people make the climb with friends and family, but for me, it was a much more contemplative journey and I was grateful for the long and silent hours.

You write in your blog, “For me, hiking Kilimanjaro has so little to do with the summit and everything to do with the journey.” Did you feel that way at the beginning, or did that feeling develop over time?
I felt that way from the beginning, because I didn’t want to focus too much on the summit. Obviously, that is the goal, but in order to reach that goal, you have to concentrate on the greater journey. After making the summit, I felt even more grateful for the journey, because the landscapes on the way up are so tremendous.

Did the other travelers you met understand that concept of the journey, or were most people simply focused on the summit?
Unfortunately, I think too many were focused only on the summit. They were set on making that ultimate goal and then when some of them failed, they were crestfallen. I accepted from the beginning that I might not make it, and I feel that this allowed me to enjoy the rest of the trail much more.

My Kilimanjaro Crew: The men who got me to the top (left to right): Zachariah Kessy (guide), William Meela (porter), Felix Mtui (porter), Simon Emtui (cook), Gaston Meela (porter). Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler

How was your interaction with the rest of the crew aside from the main guide? Were they friendly or did they keep their distance?
I was lucky to have such an incredible crew and I found them to be friendly. I really made an effort to engage them in my climb and work — I ate all of my meals with my guide. They were all Chagga, so they are all native to this area of Kilimanjaro. I felt I could learn much more from them than any of the books I read.

Did you eventually get over feeling guilty about others carrying your things?
Yes, I did. In Africa, you must accept that everybody needs a job and for many of the porters, this is the best job they can get. I believe in tipping well for a job well done. Also, I showed the crew some of my videos I made when hiking in the Alps and Scandinavia and they were shocked to see me carrying my own pack. I think we all gained a new respect for one another.

Describe the challenges you faced in keeping connected electronically and reporting while you were dealing with fatigue.

Keeping connected was a huge challenge. For one, there was practically no electricity available, so I often had to charge my equipment with portable solar panels. At times, I was able to get a 3G connection and with great patience, connect to the Internet and upload a blog post. Other times, I had to rely on satellite connections, but even that depended greatly on having clear skies. Fatigue was definitely a limiting factor — it’s much harder to blog by candlelight at 15,000 feet than it is in the office. But for me, telling the story was part of my daily climb — so for every four or five hours of hiking, I factored another four or five hours of writing.

 

Uhuru Peak: After four days hiking, I climbed from Kibo Hut to Uhuru Peak (19,341 ft) in 5.5 hours, arriving right before dawn. Photo by Zachary Kessy

You mentioned seeing stars and lightning at the same time. What were some of the other “strange beauties” that made a big impression?
The plant life on Kilimanjaro is extraordinary — most of it is giant and looks positively prehistoric. Standing next to strange and wonderful flora that was taller than me was impressive. Also, I just loved the vast and barren slopes near the top. I felt like I was on a different planet and that simply by being here I had uncovered some secret corner of Earth.

As you neared the top and it got really difficult, what did you use as a motivator to keep going?
I think there comes a point where you kind of turn into a robot — where you stop thinking consciously and you just keep moving your feet, one step at a time. Your body aches, your head feels strange, but your feet just keep moving on their own. I think it also helped that I had several tens of thousands of readers on Twitter, encouraging me along the way. I never felt lonely because online, I received hundreds of constant messages from around the world, telling me I could make it to the top.

How did your crew view Americans compared to people from other countries?

The crews have worked with so many different climbers from many different countries. They perceived Americans as more successful than say, the Indians or Chinese, because we tend to prepare beforehand. I think a lot of Americans use Kilimanjaro as a fitness goal and a way to get in shape. At the same time, they viewed Americans as overly serious and ambitious. My guide always did this impression of me that made the rest of the crew (and me) laugh very hard, and it always involved him concentrating hard and acting very serious.

Horombo Camp: A day after achieving the summit, Andrew returned to Horombo (at around 11,500 feet) where the mix of ascending and descending climbers makes for interesting conversation. Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler

What are a few pieces of gear that people should be sure to take when they climb Kilimanjaro? Maybe something people wouldn’t normally think to take.
Though I normally avoid them, I’m glad I had a walking stick. Also, I used my headlamp much more than I thought I would, wore my sunglasses constantly and went through two sticks of lip balm in six days.

How did you come up with your strategy for dealing with altitude?

I read a lot of other hikers’ accounts of problems they encountered when climbing Kilimanjaro. My strategy was to go slowly and hydrate constantly. I drank 6 liters of water per day. Also, having suffered from altitude sickness in the Andes and Alps before, I knew what to look for. I monitored any symptoms and made an effort to rest lots in between hikes.

You mentioned you had been the kid picked last in gym class. Did that experience from childhood fuel your desire to climb the mountain?
I think school is a time when you learn what you are good at and what you are not so good at. Sports were never my forte, and there were plenty of peers to remind me of that. As an adult, it’s nice to remind oneself that with hard work and determination, you can accomplish pretty much anything.

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