Adventure cinematographer Troy Paff joined Tusker Trail in April 2015 to capture the mountain, the climb and the people. The following photographs and commentary originally appear on instagram.com/troypaff.
My subjects, day one. ‘Team K’ is comprised primarily of French Canadians. Sharing friendships and a collective association with François Langlois (rear left), a climber whose résumé includes the Seven Summits, their motivations for ascending Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet) range from bucket list to charitable fundraising to quality time with family.
In 1977 Eddie Frank took a bet that he couldn’t cross Africa by vehicle. Not only did he get his vehicles across but a demand for his guided escort was born, and an enterprise that would become Tusker Trail Adventures. While Eddie says the days of traversing the African continent are now politically impossible, his guide service operates in six continents, with Kilimanjaro a mainstay.
For a client list numbering eleven (twelve counting me, a tag-along filmmaker), Tusker will enlist 48 porters, a kitchen staff, and four guides. Simon, pictured here, shall head the contingent as lead guide.
The summit trek begins at the Londorosi Gate of the Kilimanjaro National Park. Over the next 11 days we will circumnavigate the massive dormant volcano, climbing upward through five climate zones. We begin at elevation 7,380 feet, rainforest level. Of course it is pouring; it will rain a lot on this adventure. Due to the warmth and humidity in this zone, the rain gear of choice is a good ol’ thrift store umbrella.
It’s the porters that do the brunt of the work on the mountain. Eric and Kamil have been assigned to carry the tech I’m lugging all the way to the peak, and for the most part they do it with a smile.
Tent city, dawn, 13,000 feet. A satisfying aspect of documenting a high elevation expedition is the sunrises and sunsets one can witness above the clouds. Most mornings would find me up and about before everyone else, in search of a time lapse opportunity. Watching the light change on the mountain and in the atmosphere at this serene time of day is the closest to magic I’ve ever experienced.
Morning at Third Cave camp, 12,500 feet. We bump into our first strangers on the mountain: An Australian couple on a five-day accelerated route to the summit—which means they climb fast and then take a periodic day off for no other purpose than to acclimate to the extreme elevation gain. Tusker’s data show that trekkers with a schedule of seven or more days to make their way up to the summit have a success rate of 98%. High Altitude Mountain Sickness is serious, and can be fatal if not identified and evacuated quickly.
Even from 12,400 feet the summit remains elusive. According to this sign Uhuru Peak is another 12 hours away, not including a necessary overnight at Kibo Hut campground.
Summit day begins in the cold, pre-dawn hours from Kibo Hut. Two hours into steep switchbacks the sun rises at our backs and I can see that we are nearly as high as Kilimanjaro’s second cinder cone, Mount Mawenzi.
The summit push continues. With weather on our side the going is clear and dry. But elevation is beginning to take its toll on the team, and the pace is slowing.
Amani, Tusker’s resident mechanic, is my mobile power station. I should have traded for those sweet shades.
The team crests the lip of the volcano at Gilman’s Point, 18,652 feet. The lack of oxygen is apparent—lethargy and disorientation can lead to acute mountain sickness if not monitored with care. Guide Simon allows the team to rest, but not for too long. The summit will require another mile or so of work into a gusting, freezing headwind.
Rebmann Glacier flows ever so slowly down the south face of Uhuru peak. There is some local debate over the state of the many glaciers on Kilimanjaro. Some say they are in decline, some say it is always below freezing so melting is impossible. With the solar radiation as intense as it is at this elevation, evaporation versus replenishment is the real issue, the statistics of which are recently and gradually being tracked by weather specialists.
The summit of Kilimanjaro: Uhuru Peak, elevation 19,341 feet, after sub-zero temperatures and 70 MPH winds killed my iPhone’s battery. Photo credit: François Langlois, seven summits climber.
The rainforest of Kilimanjaro and the blanketing silence of its clouds shroud the sounds of the last footsteps down the mountain
À l’arrivée. French Canadian François Langlois is among the first of the team members to reach the Mweka Gate and join the welcoming committee at the finish line. Organizer, cheerleader, and inspiration for this expedition, our ascent of Kilimanjaro was François’ third. One of the few to claim Seven Summits status, his climbing résumé includes the highest peaks of each continent, including Everest.
Though it’s been several weeks since the end of the trek, fond memories and new friendships continue to evolve as a result of this journey.
Of the 11 clients attempting the summit, 10 accomplished their goal. The only one falling shy was a 77-year old gentleman who simply ran out of gas and was wise and gracious in accepting his physical limitations. As such he was able to descend the mountain on his own two feet.
No one was injured or otherwise experienced high altitude mountain sickness, and to this noteworthy fact credit goes to the expertise of Tusker Trail’s guides.
Fatalities are a regular occurrence on the mountain due to climbers rushing the acclimatization process—hence the relevance of a reputable Kilimanjaro guide service who understand the risks and limitations of extreme elevation. Trekkers should seek guides with experience in high altitude medicine, as well as a commitment to regular monitoring of their clients’ vitals and the ability and resources to intervene where needed.
Thanks to Tusker owner and guide Eddie Frank for the invitation to join the expedition. It was an eye-opener.
Next stop with Tusker: Mongolia.