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Meet Elibariki Kitomari, Kilimanjaro Mountain Guide
As you may know from earlier dispatches, I traveled to Tanzania this summer to climb Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa and one of the famed Seven Summits. The inspiration for the climb was to support PROJECT POSSIBLE, a foundation that supports centers dedicated to treating and empowering children with disabilities worldwide. My buddy Bonner Rinn launched the foundation after his ascent of Kilimanjaro. He was the first person with cerebral palsy ever to reach the summit.
Fifteen years later, he decided to go up again to raise funds for his charity, and I was one of fifteen other climbers who joined him in the effort. We were a motley bunch, ranging in age from eighteen to sixty years old. We were in various states of fitness, from an Army veteran turned ultramarathoner, to desk jockeys of one sort or another, to a high school athlete, to paunchy former college athletes, to a Texan pharma sales rep whose training comprised of ascending the interior stairwells of whatever hotel in he was occupying on the road, to a middle-aged writer (me) whose longest treks on a daily basis amount to a circuit of coffee shops in my small neighborhood in Center City, Philadelphia.
In late July, our band of sixteen set off by bus from Arusha, Tanzania, to the mountain. Aboard with us was Elibariki Simon Kitomari, the cofounder of Hilbas Tours, and a handful of his guides, who would lead us up the trail. We stopped at a roadside station after a few hours along the highway. A half dozen additional Hilbas staff filed into the narrow aisle between the two rows of seats and took up position on the floor. At another stop, even more folks climbed on board. By the time we arrived at the national park, we resembled a clown car, with people and bags piled on top of each other to an almost impossible level. It must have taken twenty minutes for the lot of us to unfold, twist, and turn our way out of the side door. Behind us, another bus packed with Hilbas staff disembarked as well.
For our sixteen climbers aiming to summit, Elibariki had assembled a small army to accompany us. They included two head guides, five assistant guides, four cooks, three waiters, and 39 porters. I felt self-conscious about such numbers in support of our climb. It was far removed from the idea of brave mountaineers adventuring into the void, but on reflection (and a short history lesson), my foolishness fell away.
After all, Hans Meyer, the German geographer who first summitted Kilimanjaro in October 1889, had even more support on a proportional basis. After two failed previous attempts, Meyer orchestrated his third bid by setting up camps along the route. Along with him, he brought a fellow European climber, two local tribal leaders, nine porters, a cook, three assistant guides, and a lead Tanzanian guide named Yohani Kinyala Lauwo. Of course, they also had to contend with snow, ice, and all kinds of unknowns.
History lesson aside, it became very clear in the first hours of the first day how important Elibariki and his team were. First, they led us on the right trail from the base. They set the glacial pace (“pole, pole”—slowly) and scheduled breaks that saved our breath and energy for the harder days to come. The porters hauled all our essential equipment and supplies, including tents, food, water, cooking equipment, and sleeping bags, leaving us needing only to carry 10-15lbs in our backpacks. By the time we reached our first camp, our tents were up, our large duffels with clothing and other gear were placed inside, a mess tent was erected, and a warm dinner was already in the making. Elibariki and his guides checked in on all of us that first night—and thereafter—monitoring our blood oxygen, pulse rate, and general state of affairs. All this with words of encouragement and an impromptu welcome dance and chant.
With each day, it became clearer and clearer that we would have hardly made it past day two, let alone to the summit, without the Hilbas crew.
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Here’s my interview with Elibariki, conducted thirty hours before our summit attempt commenced. As the sun set on the serrated edge of Mawenzi Volcano, Kilimanjaro’s second-highest peak, we leaned against a pair of rocks and had tea, a fun conversation, and a hearty laugh or two. His smile and attitude were infectious.
Tell me a little about your background and family.
My name is Elibariki. Most people call me Bariki. In Swahili, Eli means God. Bariki means to bless. So, it’s God Bless, that’s my name in English. I was born in 1974 outside Arusha, in a village on the slope of Mount Meru. My parents were peasant farmers, and I was one of nine children. I didn’t start school until I was ten years old. Before then, I helped on the farm, caring for the sheep and goats.
How much education did you have?
At ten, I went to live with my grandma and started grade school. I studied for seven years in a small school. After that, my father told me that school wasn’t for me. That I had had enough. I told him I wanted to continue, and he said, “Look, we are a big family. I raised all of you. I’m not educated, and we’re doing well. I think this enough.” It was hard for me to question him then, but I tried. He said, “Do you know how to read?” I said yes. “Do you know how to write?” I said yes. “Do you know how to count?” Yes, again. ‘What else are you going to do in school?”
At that time, did you know what you wanted to do in terms of a career? How would you get there?
Probably, my dream was to become an engineer. That was my dream. So, I went to my grandma and told her I wanted to continue school. She said okay and helped me. I went to secondary school and began learning baby-level English. I was also working to pay for it all, growing coffee for my neighbors in our village. After finishing my A-levels, I got a job for the Coca-Cola Company in Moshi. I was a machine operator.
No. I had to work. I was 28 by then, with Coca-Cola. After a couple of years, I also got married and started a family.
At that point, 30 years old, you’d never guided on the mountain?
No, but around then, some friends suggested I try working on Kilimanjaro. I still only had a temporary job with Coca Cola, so I said, why not? I tried out as a porter to see how it works. At the end of my first trip, I realized this was good. It’s something I can do. From beginning to end, I was very strong. I decided this could be my job, and I knew that with my education—and English—I could communicate with clients, so it was easier for me to do that job because it is a matter of communication and understanding each other. Starting in 2003, I was a porter.
It looks like very hard work.
It doesn’t look hard. It is hard. And it’s improved a lot since then. When I started, you didn’t have proper shoes, gear, sleeping bag, rain jacket, or even a tent sometimes. Back then, we cooked with firewood instead of gas, and that was hard. Now, they limit the weight a porter can carry. 44 pounds. Back then, no limit.
What’d you like about the work?
I love the mountains and nature. Now I find I can’t be away from nature very long. I come into town; I feel like I miss something. Nature can be tough, hard, but it makes me very proud and happy to be there.
How did you make the transition from porter to guide?
In 2006, the national parks made a call for new guides. I sent my CV. With my education and the first aid I had learned as a porter, I was among those selected. I attended what they now call ‘Mountain College’ and became an assistant guide.
What’s your strategy for getting the likes of me up to the top of Kilimanjaro?
We have two jobs in this hike. Number one is health. That is the priority. Number two is goal: the summit. This mountain can be climbed without technical abilities, but you need to stay healthy. For that, we must do three things. First, “Pole. Pole.” That means slow in Swahili. Go slow. Second, make sure you eat as much as you can at low elevations and keep drinking water all the way to the top. Third is sleep. If you do those three things perfectly, we have the highest shot of realizing your goal, the summit.
How dangerous is Kilimanjaro?
The two main things are high-altitude sickness and cerebral edema. These are the most dangerous, but as guides, we’re trained to spot them. We know everyone from the beginning, and every day, we do a briefing and a physical checkup. If any symptoms come out, we know to take the hiker down. Remember, number one is health. Sometimes, people will want to continue anyway to the summit. This is challenging and hard. But we tell them they must go down. Health is the priority. Number two, the goal. After all, it’s just a rock, I tell them. It’s nothing. So let’s go.
Why do people come here to climb Kilimanjaro? What is it about the goal: the summit?
Kilimanjaro is one of the Seven Summits. When they reach the top, they have become heroes and made history in their lives. People want to make a record. They want to be on the rooftop of Africa. This is why Kilimanjaro is more popular than Tanzania, the country itself. People want to do something special, accomplish something big.
When you summitted Kilimanjaro the first time, what did you feel?
Oh my goodness, it was amazing. I felt like it was another world. You feel like you can touch the sky. Nothing surrounds you, so you’re above the clouds when you're there. Everything is down. People say summitting Kili is like washing the brain, or…. it’s like formatting the computer. Rebooting. Rebooting the brain. At a certain point, you can’t remember anything of what came before. It’s wonderful. It’s hard, yes. It’s painful, but many who summit want to come again. Like me. It’s special every time. Every time, it’s a reboot.
Tell me about when you started Hilbas, your own mountain guiding company.
It’s my dream come true. With a fellow guide, we started in 2018. I’m so happy because I got the good guys, good cooperation, good team. They really want to work together. This game is different than safari. On the mountain, I say if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with people. That’s why we have the chant, “One team. One dream.” All of us here—senior guide, assistant guide, porters, chef, kitchen staff, the kid who fetches water—we are a community. No way to succeed without cooperation and communication.
At 49 years old, how much longer will you personally be guiding?
I’m very happy with this life. This is not the kind of job you write a letter to retire. No one will ask you to go. Only you can determine how long, and that’s about how you feel on the mountain. As long as I’m feeling good, I will do it.
Have your children climbed to the summit yet?
No. I have three kids. Two girls and a boy. 19 years old. 16. And 11. They’re very interested in doing it, but I want them to summit together. All of them. I’ll wait a couple years…when my youngest is 12, then we will do it together. I think they will summit, no problem. My biggest investment in them now is education. I think they will go to college. They’re interested in guiding, but I tell them, continue studying. That’s most important.
Hope you enjoyed. If you want to summit Kili, I highly recommend Elibariki and his team. You can find info on his tour company here: Hilbas Tours!