For this New Londoner, Kilimanjaro offers adventure of a lifetime

New London — Karl Saszik remembers worriedly watching a woman being carted down Mount Kilimanjaro on a stretcher, to be helicoptered off to a hospital.

"I made it," was all she said as he touched her on the shoulder during his own mountain descent a few weeks ago.

Saszik, a ferry captain for Cross Sound Ferry who lives on Starr Street, never found out exactly what happened to that mountain climber, but he knows every year a few people — estimates online say the average is about 10 — die on the dormant volcano in an effort to summit its 19,341-foot peak. Others survive, but must be transported off the mountain after being crippled by severe altitude sickness.

"The ascent is harder on the body, but the descent is more dangerous," partly because of the mountain's loose rocks, he said in an interview July 12 at the Washington Street Coffee House.

Saszik, 47, and his brother, 50-year-old Erik of Chicago, both native New Londoners, planned the trip to Kilimanjaro a year ago as an adventurous reunion. They left June 21 and returned July 2, spending a week on Kilimanjaro while climbing a total of 48 miles round trip.

To get ready, Saszik, a member of the city's Planning and Zoning Commission, ran 15 miles a week at Bluff Point in Groton and Lantern Hill Road in Ledyard while also working on strengthening his legs in the gym. A former amateur motorcycle competitor, he was in great shape, but hiking with a 25-pound pack at that altitude and in the cold is a whole different ballgame from running at sea level.

"You have to be physically and mentally prepared to do it," he said. "Definitely if you slip, you're going to ... either get your head split open or break something (or worse)."

Saszik struggled with altitude sickness much of the time on the mountain — many people have trouble breathing above 12,000 feet — but the spectacular views made it all worthwhile, he said.

"Once you got above the clouds, you could see forever," he said. "The mornings were beautiful, and it stayed clear till the late afternoon, when the clouds came in and stayed till night."

They chose Kilimanjaro, the tallest summit in Africa, because it is a less technical climb than some other famous mountains such as Everest in Nepal, requiring less time and equipment.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

According to a journal Saszik kept, he and his brother landed at the tiny Kilimanjaro Airport on June 22, arriving by way of Amsterdam. A young Tanzanian named John met them and drove to a lodge in the hills.

"After a quick dinner and shower, my sleep deprived mind hits the sack early," Saszik wrote.

Still jet-lagged the next day, they explored a nearby coffee farm and spied a picturesque waterfall.

"We pass by a group of elderlies sharing homemade banana beer, women hauling produce on their heads and smiling children waving. Towards the end of that day we meet our head guide Reggie. A charismatic, warm-hearted man with two decades of ascents notched on his belt. We are briefed about the trek's itinerary, and our gear is checked to be sure it is adequate for our six-day trek."

On the third day, the climb began.

"The two-hour scenic drive through Moshi goes quickly in our rugged Land Cruiser. I double check my daypack, stuffed with essentials as the climb promises four seasons of weather. We arrive at the Mweka gate to Kilimanjaro for the Marangu route to the summit."

Reggie took care of official permits, documents and logistics, then at noon the Sasziks began the first leg of the climb to Mandara hut at 8,860 feet above sea level, where they camped the first night.

"After only ten minutes we have already entered the rain forest part of our hike. Thick canopy clouds out the sun, and the temperature is pleasant. A blue monkey is seen foraging high in the trees, but the growth is so thick a picture wasn't possible. The rainy season (of April and May) is over, but a light sprinkle begins to fall."

Hiking for five or six hours through the rainforest, they finally arrived at Mandara camp.

"The support staff greets us with song and dance (this becomes a welcomed nightly event), smiles fill the air and morale is high. The cook serves up a hearty carb loaded dinner. ... My brother and I are told to eat as much as possible to retain strength. Higher altitudes, I am told, reduce appetite. It was an easy hike today but after a huge dinner and a quick sponge-down, I am fast asleep in our hut."

On the fourth day, they rose early on their way to the Horombo camp at 12,340 feet.

"After a few hours of hiking, we begin to come out of the rain forest and the trees only grow to short heights here, offering beautiful views of the surrounding area. We pit stop for lunch and spot a black necked raven keeping us company. A beautiful, large bird that seems docile enough that we feed it chicken bits from hand."

The barren terrain at higher elevations, Saszik said, reminded him of scenes from the "Lord of the Rings" movies.

"By early evening we arrive at Horombo. The evening mist has moved in, and visibility is no more that 200 meters. After another huge dinner and sponge bath, it's late and the mist has disappeared giving way to the most starry sky I have ever seen. No light pollution here!"

The fifth day on Kilimanjaro involved a bit of a rest to prepare for the final summit. The idea was to hike about 1,200 feet up Zebra Rock and then back down to Horombo to become acclimated to higher elevations, in the hopes of preventing acute mountain sickness.

"We are in good spirits, and the weather has gotten much cooler up here. The walking terrain here is pure rock, and although not steep there a plenty of places to tweak an ankle or take a bad fall. We descend back to Horombo in early evening and take in the surreal vistas. At dinner tonight, the push to eat as much as possible by Reggie is strong. I feel like I can barely move after dinner and fall asleep with a post-Thanksgiving bloat."

Next morning, on the sixth day of the summit, his belly was too full from the night before to eat much breakfast. The push on this day was a seven-hour hike to the third camp, Kibo, at 15,520 feet, but the pace was expected to be measured because higher elevation slows everyone down as breathing gets difficult.

“'Pole pole,' Tanzanian for slow, is frequently heard from guides to keep you at a pace to not wear you down. The terrain here has moved to a more desert appearance. Nothing but stone and sand with the occasional dust devil spinning sand into your face."

They arrived at Kibo by late afternoon with the temperature near freezing. A quick nap was planned before a midnight ascent to the peak, but neither Saszik nor his brother could sleep.

"It’s freezing cold in the hut, and excitement has kept us awake. We layer up as the temperature is now in the teens. Headlamps are on, and Robby, one of our assistant guides, begins to lead our climb tonight to Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro's summit. It is quiet and cold as we slowly ascend."

To boost spirits, members of the group's support staff broke into song. Saszik tried to sing the Swahili tune but found he was quickly out of breath. Still, the zesty song lifted the spirit as the hikers trudged upward.

"By now, despite taking Diamox, an anti-altitude sickness medication, I am feeling the onset of AMS. A pounding headache forms at the base of my skull. I have been awake for over 24 hours coupled with the thin air, and the effect is tough. By 2 a.m., my toes are ice cold, and I kick my boots into the ground every few steps to try and gain circulation."

Hikers were encouraged to take breaks, but only for a couple of minutes; any longer would be physically difficult as the cold becomes painful.

"Despite how crappy I am feeling, I don’t want the breaks. By 3 a.m., I am freezing and am praying to whoever is up above that dawn brings warm sunshine, but we have a few hours to go. My head is pounding harder, and our pace is slow to combat the altitude. I have taken two Tylenol already, and I need more."

By 5 a.m. on the seventh day of the sojourn, he was shaking from the cold as the steep and rocky climb continued.

"Looking down with my headlamp, I see how easy one could take a nasty fall here. More Tylenol. Slight nausea is also starting to creep onto me. I am carrying a lot of water for today's trek but the last thing I want to do is start vomiting and become dehydrated."

They reached Gilman's Point, at 18,640 feet, as the black sky cracked to a clear dawn, hinting at a sunny morning.

"My head is still pounding and body shivering but the sun starts to peak out, promising some warmth. Hot tea! A member of the summit staff has brought a thermos and hot tea for cold bones is passed around."

With Uhuru peak now in their sights, spirits remained high as they pushed on to the summit. Sunshine tempered the cold and the views were astounding but AMS still was taking a toll.

"By 8:30 a.m., we have reached the summit! The happiness of making it briefly blocks out the sickness I am feeling. AMS is starting to feel like an awful hangover. We quickly take some summit pics, and after about 20 minutes the need to get to lower altitude is overwhelming."

The descent

The descent was much warmer than the ascent, but Saszik still felt like hell and his balance was off. The group planned a quick break at Kibo before heading all the way down to Horombo, where they had started two days earlier.

"I feel worse and worse even though we are descending. I see the steep rocks that we ascended in the nighttime, and it is a very different perspective now. My pace is slowing downhill. I eat some Cliff blocks in hope of regaining some normalcy to my body."

At Kibo, he took a half hour lie-down, feeling like he had been hit by a truck. "My body seems to shake every minute for about five seconds. More water into the system and we again take off through the desert-like terrain from Kibo to Horombo."

At that point, the descent started to get easier; the lower down the mountain he went, the better he felt.

"By the time we got to Horombo I only had a slight headache. Appetite was back and an early dinner was just what we all needed. The starry sky was out in full force again and I toasted it with a shot of vodka I had stashed, a reward only for a successful summit! Sleep."

The eighth and final day on Kilimanjaro started with a beautiful morning in Horombo, all the effects of AMS gone. 

"We fill our water bottles, eat a monster breakfast and begin our descent to the base, just passing through Mandara camp. It is a 13-mile hike, but the downhill and great vibes have us moving quickly. We arrive at the base and group up with guides, support staff and other trekkers. Food is eaten, beer is drunk, tips are given and trekkers and staff sing and dance to success."

Despite the hardships of the journey, Saszik found his summit experience the thrill of a lifetime — something he wouldn't hesitate to do again, despite the altitude sickness.

"The harder it is, the more satisfactory it is," he said, smiling.

l.howard@theday.com

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