Kraig Christensen (left) and his climbing party at the summit.
The incredible journey begins.
Kraig Christensen, a resident of Carbon County, recently hiked to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro with his two sons in early March of this year. Mt. Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain on the African continent, topping out at 19,341 feet, and is the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
This mountain is the fourth most prominent mountain in the world, meaning that it rises 19,298 feet from its base. About 25,000 people attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro annually, two-thirds make it to the crest of the volcano (Gilman's Point or Stella Point) but only 30 percent make the final 300 meters of elevation to Uhuru Peak. Most people turn back because of altitude related problems such as pulmonary or cerebral edema.
What makes this story noteworthy is that Christensen had total knee replacements on both his knees. three and one half years earlier. When his two sons, Lindsey and Nathan, approached him with the idea, his first thoughts was that he was too old and was unwilling to do that kind of adventure. The sons persisted and shamed him into it.
An idea that seems far fetched, it then ignited a desire to accompany his sons. "Of all the things you want and actually do in life, hiking to the top of that mountain was not on my bucket list," said Christensen.
"It took three months to prepare. I did a lot of reading on line. I had a lot of immunizations. I then acquired back packs, clothes, supplies, and packed in a seven iron golf club and nine golf balls. I know that a lot of people climb this mountain and I wanted to take something different with me. The club and golf balls had a personal meaning. I am a terrible golfer and this was my claim to fame. The porters and guides did not know what golf was, let alone what a golf club was or even who Tiger Woods is. My goal was now, to enjoy the company, the scenery and make it to the top."
He later found out that you cannot totally prepare for what is in store.
The voyage to Kilimanjaro took him to Los Angeles, to Seattle, Paris, Dubai, and then to Nairobi, Kenya, and then a four-hour drive Tanzania. "We spent our first night at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro," Christensen said, "and that is where we met three other people, including one female, that were friends with my sons. We then met up with the rest of our team which included 17 porters and three guides. The usual is 15 porters," he chuckled. "We paid extra to have porta-potties accompany us to the top. We did not mind the extra cost for the convenience!"
The other supplies carried by the porters, included tents, bedding, food, cooking materials and everything else they needed except water. They boiled water acquired from streams created by the glacial melt.
The 50 mile hike began. "The first day we had a three hour hike from the base to 9,000 feet " It was a slow and casual walk, and kind of annoying at times. We could only go as fast as the slowest person, and that was me! The terrain at the beginning was jungle to 9000 feet. It was hot and humid and the steep trail was laden with obstacles of tree roots. The second day we hiked 10 hours from 9000 feet to 12,000 feet. This was the furthest we climbed during the trip. Upon reaching 12,000 feet we made camp", said Christensen.
On day three they had a nine hour hike to the elevation 0f 15,000 feet. Then they back-tracked down to 13,000 feet to spend the night. This was required so they could get used to the elevation. "At sea level we breathe 20 percent oxygen . At this elevation only 10 percent of oxygen we breathe is available." explained Christensen. It was then that they began to experience altitude sickness with symptoms of headaches, dizziness and nausea and it was hard to breathe.
Nearly every kind of ecological system is found on the mountain; rain forest, moorland, heath (scrub, rocks, barren), alpine desert ( hardly anything), and the arctic summit. As the group was now on day four they hiked for close to five hours from 13,000 feet to 14,000 feet and started to endure elements of terrain and weather. It was much steeper and the weather started to fluctuate. "I began to think that this hike was not going end. Going up, my lungs were on fire, we were constantly adding layers, then removing layers of clothes with the unpredictability of the conditions. The mountain is like a chameleon. The weather conditions take five to ten minutes to change, then it would stay that way for about an hour. We were constantly going from hot to cold and freezing temperatures, Christensen stated. Here they spent the night.
On day five, they hiked to five hours to 15,000 feet and spent the night. Day six, they had an 11 p.m. wake-up, put on their layers of clothes and gear, and began the 15 hours 45 min hike to the summit. "It was here that I realized I would have preferred 14 layers of clothing to the seven I had on. It was so cold that everything was frozen. You know it is beyond cold when you look down on your chest and can actually see droplets from your breath and nose clinging to your coat. When you get to the top it is nothing but rocks and glaciers. It was miserable. It was windy, cold and no oxygen. Any skin that is exposed is ripped by wind and there is no protection from UV rays," said Christensen.
They reached the edge of the crater at sunrise then traveled one hour to the peak. Upon reaching the summit, Christensen pulled out the golf club and golf balls that he had been packing for the entire trip. He and his son Nathan, then hit one each into the crater and then hit the other seven in the opposite direction so they could find them.
"I wanted to bring the other golf balls home as mementos for myself and my friends The ball that I hit to the glacier, I figure that it is the longest golf shot in the world. The glacier is still moving, so as far as I'm concerned, the ball is still in play. It may take 10,000 years or more to get to the ocean.
"The view from 19,000 feet was incredible. It was beautiful, stark, barren, and the sunrise was amazing. From here you can actually see the curvature of the earth," said Christensen. The glaciers on the summit have a basal age of 11,700 years so his ball will also be a part of history.
They then descended to 12,000 feet and spent the last night. Day seven was a nine hour hike down, back through all the elements and down into the jungle and to the gate of the park " We went as fast as we could go so we could breathe again," said Christensen.
"This was not a fun trip. I ripped off four toenails, endured excruciating conditions , slept on an angle and my feet and shoulders were sore from packing my gear. Food was terrible. I lost close to 25 pounds. Our eyes were swollen and any exposed flesh was puffy and peeling. But I did not get any blisters and my knees did not hurt. It wasn't a hard climb in terms of exertion; it was just a long hike. The allotted time for the hike is eight days, and we did it in seven. Despite the trauma, I have sense of accomplishment," Christensen said.
Before returning home, they spent two days in Mombasa, Kenya, recovering on the beach.