by Paul Koubek
As one of the western guides fortunate to work with the Alpine Ascents Kilimanjaro Program, when I was asked to write a blog post about any topic I wanted, the first thing that came to mind for me about my experience on Kilimanjaro was: the people!
Every Alpine Ascents climb of Kilimanjaro runs at a ratio of approximately five Tanzanian support staff per Alpine Ascents climber– which means that on some of our larger climbs there may be as many as 75 or more support staff, including: Tanzanian guides, porters, kitchen crew, tent crew, bathroom crew, even waitstaff! This is often really fun – there is song, there is dance, there are games, there are new friends to be made for all members of the climb, and for me there are old friends to see again.
There is also a remarkable level of team coordination – the Tanzanian crew collects and purifies water, makes meals, sets up and takes down tents, runs ahead to the next camp and arranges for campsites, resupplies the climb with fresh fruit and vegetable, is prepared to respond to medical problems, helps pack bags and porters loads – and manages to do all of this with smiles on their faces in what are fundamentally challenging circumstances, working hard at high altitudes in changing temperatures and in dusty conditions. The operation is often nothing short of amazing and a real joy to be a part of – and more impressive to me is the amount of time that our Tanzanian crew spends with smiles on their faces, laughing and playing as they accomplish these hard tasks. Some of the Tanzanian staff have worked with Alpine Ascents for well over a decade – which means that they are well prepared to meet our high expectations for client care. Others are newer and highly motivated, busting their buns and hoping to be selected for full-time work with one of the best teams on the mountain.
Part of my role as Western guide is to act as an interpreter – not so much of language, many in our Tanzanian crew speak good English and all are used to climbing with English speaking climbers – but rather, I am a translator of place and experience, similar to how our National Parks in the United States have interpreters. The best interpretive advice that I can give to our climbers is: don’t be shy! Our Tanzanian team is well vetted and knows how to ease the potential awkwardness of cross-cultural interaction. When song and dance erupt – JOIN IN! Clap your hands, sing along with the chorus, shake your booty – relax and enjoy! The Tanzanian crew enjoys the climbers who celebrate with them, and you aren’t being judged on your dancing skills. Learn the chorus to the songs (your Western guide can help with that) and sing along. Don’t hold back!
I’ve been fortunate to make friends over the years that I have worked for this program – friends that I am in contact regularly as I travel the world guiding for Alpine Ascents, thanks to the power of Facebook Messenger and What’s App. These connections run deep – I’ve been fortunate to visit some of our Tanzanian guides in their homes, meeting children, wives and grandparents and sharing meals with all.
I’m not alone in developing connections there of course. During the Covid-19 crises of 2020, Eric Murphy (the Alpine Ascents Kilimanjaro Program Manager) organized a COVID-19 Hunger Relief Fund for our Tanzanian team, most of whom were without work. This fund raised more than $36,000! This commitment to our team providing non-governmental support even when they are not working will lead to increased enthusiasm I am sure.
While I’ve outlined above some of the pleasures of the Tanzanian crew that I am fortunate to work with, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Alpine Ascents climbers that I am fortunate to climb with as well. For some, Kilimanjaro is the biggest adventure of their entire life – awesome! – the sunrises and sunsets and significant challenge creating memories that will last forever. I feel fortunate to facilitate this. For others, Kilimanjaro is a small tick in a long bucket list of climbing goals – every mountaineer wants to see the sun rise while standing on the “Roof of Africa” – and with these people I spend some of our free time preparing them with first hand descriptions of what it is like to climb on Aconcagua, Denali, and Carstensz Pyramid as they prepare to climb the “Seven Summits” with Alpine Ascents.
I hope to see you in 2021 on Kilimanjaro – and to share the myriad human connections that Kilimanjaro makes possible in what is a fun and unique challenge.