Hiking Kilimanjaro

The Clevelands recently hiked Mount Kilimanjaro.

“Pole, pole!”

[pronounced pole-ay, pole-ay]

Sweetwater City Attorney John Cleveland and his wife Arlene heard their guide say the phrase repeatedly.

Pole, pole translates to “slowly, slowly” in Swahili, the main language of Tanzania.

“One step at a time,” recalled Arlene Cleveland. “Don’t think about the mountain or how far away the top is. Just focus on the now.”

That now was Mount Kilimanjaro.


In February, the Clevelands were watching the movie “Everest,” when they wondered if they could attempt mountain climbing.

“Mountain climbing looked so challenging and rewarding,” said Arlene. “We knew we would never attempt Everest so we started digging around the high peaks that we thought we might have a chance of actually summiting.”

Thus began extensive Google research.

“We saw that Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, seemed to be a possibility for us—at least it didn’t involve ice, ropes or ladders!” said Arlene.

Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain on Earth, rising in elevation to 19,341 feet above sea level.

Arlene is 66 years old and has had an artificial knee for 10 years. John is 64 years old and has had knee surgery from a skiing accident 20 years ago.

“We are not athletes,” said Arlene. “But, we are just determined to enjoy our planet! The highest we had climbed was Mt. LeConte.”

For the next couple of months, the couple discussed the idea of trying Kilimanjaro while continuing to do a “tremendous amount” of research. Eventually, they discovered a company called Ultimate Kilimanjaro, who was able to answer most of the couple’s questions about the climb.

“We were definitely concerned about the number of people who developed high altitude pulmonary edema, how many people died, what the weather was like, how to pack for the climb, how to train for the climb—those were are main questions,” said Arlene.

The couple decided to “go for it.”


In May, John and Arlene began training for an October summit. Arlene said they walked three to five miles each morning, and went to Sweetwater Fitness Center three days a week to use the Stair Master for 30 minutes, followed by arm, back, shoulder and leg exercises.

“We also loaded our backpacks and walked up and down the hill on Morris Street from Main to College Street six round trips,” she said.

And almost every weekend, the couple scouted out trails in the Cherokee Forest or the Smoky Mountains.

“I fell in love with the trails,” said Arlene. “Some of them were so hard, but we were back out the next weekend ready to tackle the next one.”

To get more prepared for their journey, the Clevelands contacted AltitudeTech in August and rented a plastic tent that fully encased the bed in their home, with zippers to get in and out, and an attached hose that pumped in diluted oxygen.

“Because Kilimanjaro is nearly 20,000 feet in altitude, there is a significant risk of developing altitude sickness and we wanted to acclimatize and hopefully not suffer from the altitude change,” said Arlene. “We set our nighttime oxygen level at 10,500 feet and each evening, we would wear a mask for about an hour with the altitude set at 20,000 feet. I tried to use the rowing machine while wearing the mask and lasted less than two minutes—any exertion at 20,000 feet was not going to happen!”

Two weeks before the couple were set to leave for Africa, Arlene fell down their steps and broke her right ankle.

“I lay at the bottom of my stairs for at least a half hour planning what to do if I had in fact broken my ankle,” said Arlene. “I decided that I was going up that mountain, regardless of whether it was a sprain or fracture.”

After X-rays at Sweetwater Hospital Association, Dr. Chris Bowman called Arlene into his office and told her that her ankle was broken. Sigrid Johnson, Arlene’s family doctor, had told Dr. Bowman about the Clevelands’ travel plans so he knew she wanted “fast healing.”

“He sent me to physical therapy and the therapists at Sweetwater Hospital had me working on different machines and techniques for strength and balance,” said Arlene. “Actually, John and I hiked Rocky Top a week after the break so my ankle was past the painful stage.”

The Challenge

On Oct. 7, the Clevelands got on a plane and headed for Africa. Two days later, the couple met their guides for the climb and on Oct. 10, they met the other 11 climbers who would be taking on the challenge of the Lemosho route with them.

“After a three-hour bus ride on unpaved roads, we got to the Londorossi Gate at 7700 feet and climbed for four hours,” said Arlene. “Our tent was set up when we reached camp, as it was every day we climbed, and a hot dinner was served in the mess tent.”

Arlene said they got to know the other climbers very well.

“We soon lost any aspect of modesty,” she laughed. “And made friends for life. They were from all over the world, and all were about 25 years younger than we are!”

There were four Tanzanian guides, and 36 porters who carried all the tents, equipment, and duffle bags, Arlene explained.

“Each climber was limited to 33 pounds in a duffle, and a porter would carry two of them, plus another pack on top of his or her head. and literally run up the mountain,” she said. “We carried our own backpack that contained four liters of water, rain gear—although it never rained, a fleece jacket, hat, and energy treats. We used trekking poles, which really helped.”

The Clevelands said the trails were extremely dusty, and if not dusty, full of rocks and boulders that had to be climbed.

“There were places where the trail was so narrow and steep that we had to ‘kiss the rock wall’ while holding on with outstretched arms and sliding our feet sideways to get past the bluffs,” said Arlene.

And, there were no showers.

“We took wet wipes, which were so cold in early morning, and we tried camping shampoo, which is awful,” Arlene laughed. “One of our porters was called the ‘toilet engineer,’ and we did have one portable chemical toilet surrounded by a 3’ x 3’ x 8’ tent. We lost all inhibitions!”

Twice a day, Arlene said their lead guide, Baraka, [“Everyone called him Mr. President,” Arlene commented] took the climbers pulse rates and blood oxygen saturation to make sure they could continue.

“John and my levels were always within a safe range,” she said. “Two people got sick and had to turn back in our group—one from Australia and the other from Argentina. Another young woman from D.C. got sick and vomited eight times, but she persevered. Neither John nor I felt sick or had any odd thoughts or feelings.”

Mount Kilimanjaro has five different ecological zones: bush land, rain forest, Heath, alpine desert and arctic. Therefore, the climate changes along the climb.

“The first two days, the weather was comfortable in the 70s. At night, it got cool,” said Arlene. “The Heath started getting colder, around the 50s during the day and the 40s at night. The alpine desert was cold—30s. We only went to the arctic when we summited and it was bitterly cold.”

Above the clouds

On the day the hikers summited, Oct. 16, it was a full moon. Guides awoke them at 11:30 p.m. and the climb began at midnight. The Clevelands were wearing six layers of wool and down, their headlamps, and foot warmers wrapped around their water bladders (a reservoir to hold your water while hiking or pursuing an outdoor adventure).

The temperature was hovering at 19 degrees Fahrenheit and winds were stiff at 10 miles-per-hour.

“We climbed for seven hours uphill until the sun rose and we were above the clouds!” said Arlene. “I cried. it was a magical moment! We saw 17-foot glaciers that were like monstrous icicles growing up of the mountain. Then, we were at the roof of Africa!”

Arlene said “sliding down” the mountain was scary and difficult.

“Kilimanjaro is a volcano and the route down is very different from the climb up,” she explained. “It is very direct, straight down. The trail is covered 8 inches deep in scree, dark gray dust and small rocks making it extremely slippery. We slipped and slid down the mountain. We made it down in less than three hours.”

The entire climb took a total of eight days with approximately 50 hours of actual hiking.

“Climbing Kilimanjaro is the hardest thing either of us have done. I would think that it couldn’t get any harder, and then it would,” said Arlene. “But, we did it. Maybe our expectations have changed to more of participants, rather than spectators..we’ll see.”

“People tell us they see us out walking, and that they should be out too. My message is ‘Do it!’” Arlene continued. “Most people can actually do whatever they attempt—with the right equipment and mindset. I am a real believer that everything is possible.”

The Clevelands’ next trip will be to the Outer Banks with their children, daughter-in-laws and three grandsons.

“After that, who knows?” smiled Arlene.

{div style=”text-align: left;”}jessica.kent@advocateanddemocrat.com | 337-7101{/div}

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