The stars in the night sky were more vivid than Jeremy Luke had ever seen before when he awoke for a bathroom break last September on the mountainside of Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro.
“It wasn’t cold enough that I dreaded getting up,” said Luke, 40, and a resident of Erda. “I am glad I did because the stars were the coolest I’ve ever seen in my life because you’re way up above the clouds.”
With a day job as an electrical engineer, Luke’s journey to climb 19,341 foot-high Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania actually began in Green River, Utah, where his father supervised rangers at Goblin Valley State Park. He spent his childhood scrambling over the goblins.
In college, a friend invited him to climb Kings Peak, the highest mountain in Utah. Luke went on to conquer the highest peaks in 10 Utah counties, though he considered East Mountain in his native Emery County mostly a good drive.
Flying to visit his parents’ mission in Kenya in 2008, Luke spotted Kilimanjaro and felt its call. In the movie, “The Lion King,” the image of the flat-topped volcano, Kilimanjaro, fascinated him. Luke loves maps and finding the highest peaks. Kilimanjaro qualified.
But climbing it wouldn’t be like reaching a summit in Utah. Because of its popularity and difficulty, Kilimanjaro requires a licensed guide, Luke said.
Luke’s brother, Jason Luke, was the first of the group to register with Highland, Utah-based trekking company Climb Kili in October 2016. Luke found the finances and a brother-in-law signed up in February 2017.
Climb Kili sent Luke a supply list and workout regimen the next month. The group recommended walking sticks, and Luke converted. He found they distributed weight and minimized impact on the knees.
Of course, Climb Kili’s workout regimen emphasized hiking, so Luke enlisted his family — wife Hillary and their six children. The baby provided strength training for him and rode in a pack.
Ironically, hikers in good condition often fail to summit Kilimanjaro because their physical condition encourages them to hike too quickly, which prevents gradual adjustment to the mountain’s increasing altitude.
Flirting with altitude sickness, Luke’s group of seven wanted a fast, six-day climb, so they could include a safari on the trip. Since the group’s ages ranged between 30 and 40 years old and all were experienced hikers, the company agreed. The most successful hike duration is eight days.
After arrival, they stayed in Arusha, a city of over 1 million people at the foot of Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro feeds the city’s economy.
Luke’s climbing group would ascend 14,341feet in four days through four climate zones: rainforest, moorland, highland desert and arctic zones. They took the 37-mile Machame route — a long hike at high altitudes with no technical climbing. One hundred climbers, in addition to porters, would be in every camp along the mountain’s route as Luke’s group ascended.
Procedures to battle altitude sickness began from the start. One guide led out at a frustratingly slow pace, and climbers could not pass him. An oxygen tank was available.
“They said as soon as you needed oxygen, ‘You’re going down. That’s the end of the road for you,’” Luke said.
If hikers experienced double vision, dizziness or stumbling, they could not proceed.
The first day, Luke ascended to 10,000 feet, which was above cloud level, and he finally spotted the peak.
“Some guides were singing all the way up the mountain in Swahili, but you understood words like Kilimanjaro and ‘hakuna matata,’” Luke said. “Most of us are trying to just breathe and they’re singing. That song was stuck in my head for about a month. Maybe it’s lack of oxygen and the way your brain works.”
At camp, porters set up a cooking tent, a dining tent, the two-man sleeping tents, a green porter tent and the toilet tent.
“We would leave camp. The porters would break it down and somewhere on the line they would pass us on the trail and have camp set up before we got to the next place,” Luke said.
A reason for choosing Climb Kili was how the trekking company treated the porters. Desperate for employment because of Tanzania’s poor economy, men from the Maasai and Chagga tribes sign up as porters without understanding climbing expectations or protecting themselves from exposure. Some companies do not safeguard them.
They haul provisions on their back and their head — which requires neck muscles and an efficient gait, allowing them to easily carry 20 percent of their body weight. Luke was in awe of the porters’ abilities. He called the one who hauled and cleaned the port-a-potty the “sanitation engineer.”
“The last day we had a watermelon,” Luke said. “I don’t know who packed a watermelon the whole way.”
Climb Kili had three porters for every client, which, he said, is the average ratio for climbing groups. The company limited each climber’s bags to 30 pounds to allow space for porter equipment.
“If you take more, the porter has to take more out of their bag, and then they get up on the mountain and porters die every year because of that kind of thing,” Luke said.
The theory, “Climb high, sleep low” helps prevent altitude sickness. They slept at 12,000 feet the next two nights even though they reached 15,000 feet.
“That’s the highest I had been,” Luke said.
The most enjoyable part of the trip, Luke said, was the Barranco Wall, which is halfway up the mountain. The wall requires some boulder scrambling, and it felt like his youth in Goblin Valley. There, porters with head loads passed the loads and jumped from rock to rock.
On a day hike, Luke thought he saw the tracks of a dik-dik, an African deer. Occasionally, hikers spot lions and African wild dogs close to the peak.
At midnight on the third day of the trek, the group began the final ascent. The guide’s pace was slow and the huge number of climbers slowed the pace further, allowing all to adjust to the altitude.
“You could look up the hill and see a line of headlamps. It was quite impressive because of the darkness of the mountain,” Luke said. “It was a full moon that day, so you could see the glaciers at the top as you are climbing.”
Luke turned his headlamp off and watched the stars all the way up.
The climbers watched the sunrise on the summit, where temperatures hovered between -20 to 20 degrees. The reason for a morning summit is that it minimizes the heat, and diminishes sunburn on the descent.
Luke stood in line to take a picture at the sign on the summit and another picture by a glacier. The guides limit climbers to 10 minutes at the top.
Luke was reunited with his brother, Jason, at the summit. Jason had experienced minor altitude sickness that morning. A guide took Jason’s pack, allowing him to push on through the symptoms.
Because of the dark, Luke was unaware of Jason’s plight, despite being just 20 feet ahead of him.
Luke found the descent the most difficult part of the climb. It made his knees sore. After camping one more night, they hiked the rest of the way down Kilimanjaro.
What is next for Luke, after this epic journey? He said he wants to finish climbing all the highest peaks in Utah and he might even consider South America’s and Europe’s highest peaks, he said. But, Mt. Everest is not on his radar.
Many climbers seek mountains for revelation. Ernest Hemingway referred to Kilimanjaro as the “house of God.”
Likewise, Luke claims that two points were emotional, near-spiritual experiences for him as he climbed Kilimanjaro.
“One was on the third day, hiking toward the peak and seeing it and realizing how lucky I was to be there,” he said. “The other time was right before summiting and almost reaching my goal.”
But, Luke will never forget the stars and what he felt hiking through the darkness and seeing the vastness of space above him on Kilimanjaro.