They say it’s all in the journey, not the destination, but when you talk to people about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, they ask:
How high is it? (5 895 metres or 19 340 feet)
Did you make it to the summit? (Yes)
Did you get altitude sickness? (Moderately)
What was the view like? (Great)
But no one hardly asks about the journey and what it was like during the walking before and after the summit. So let me tell you…
On 26 February, we left the hotel in Moshi and drove about an hour to the Machame Gate, which was at an altitude of 1 800 metres. Our group of eight, consisted of three Canadians, three British and one Australian and myself, one South African. The first day we climbed through the rainforest. We hiked for about six hours up to 3 100 metres and there was not a raindrop in sight. By the time we reached Machame Camp around 4pm, it started raining and I was tired, but feeling positive as it was only the end of day 1. After a change of clothes, I emerged from my tent to see that it had stopped raining and the porters had set up my own private tent, complete with hot coffee, tea, popcorn and cookies and a meal. A few hours later, night approached with a drop in temperature, so sleeping wasn’t easy.
Fun Fact: The Swahili saying pole pole (“slowly, slowly”) is the Kilimanjaro mantra. Each step towards the summit, your guide will encourage and remind you to walk pole pole. It is worth practising the Tanzanian definition of walking slowly to avoid cramping and frustration during the early days of the climb.
The next day we awoke to clear skies and a beautiful view of the top of Kilimanjaro, and I was inspired to keep going rather than head for the airport. I realised that reason they summit in the morning were clear skies as after 9am clouds come in and becomes overcast. Only late afternoon around 4pm becomes clear again before sunset. The next four days followed pretty much the same routine (wake up at 7am, hike for a few 4 – 6 hours, hang around camp trying to entertain yourself, supper at 6pm, sleep at 8pm if you can get any in cold weather.)
We walked through moorlands and boulders to the Shira Plateau. We camped at about 3 800 metres with a spectacular view of Mount Meru to the West and Kilimanjaro peak to the East. I think some of my best pictures came from this camp.
Today was my favourite hike. We hiked for a few hours up to the Lava Tower, which is pretty much what the name sounds like. The base of the tower is at about 4 300 metres and the top is about 4 400 metres. At this point on the trip I realised that you got different elevation information from different guides, so assume everything I say about altitude has a margin of error of about 10%. I didn’t feel any effects of the altitude, even at the top of the tower, other than a little difficulty breathing and getting winded easily. Half of the group were having bad headaches and feeling nauseous. After the tower we hiked back down to a lower elevation to camp for the night (hiking to high altitude and sleeping at lower altitude is supposed to help with acclimatisation). We arrived at Barranco Camp (3 900 metres) around 4pm, so we didn’t have to hang around for too long that afternoon.
The night at Barranco Camp was freezing because we were in the shadow of Kilimanjaro peak. The sun didn’t come up until 8:30am, so we got a late start waiting for it to warm up a little. We started with a pretty difficult climb up the Barranco Wall, which involved alot of climbing up and around rocks and took about two hours. After that we had another easy hour of walking to Karanga Camp (4 400 metres). Lunch stop was for an hour before we continued to hike for about three hours up to Barafu camp, the last camp before the summit. We were going to be starting the ascent to the summit around midnight, so we spent the entire afternoon trying to sleep and rest up. The view was great from Barafu – Kilimanjaro was now to the West and Mwenzi peak (a huge rock formation) was to the East. Luckily, still no altitude sickness for me, therefore no use for Diamox, yet. After freezing at Barranco camp I decided to finally use my sleeping bag liner, slept in all of my clothes, and filled my water
bottles with hot water before bed and put them in my sleeping bag with me. Another handy tip was using a survival bag and sleeping in it over my sleeping bag.
Technically this day started at 11 pm on Day 4, when our guide, Mndeme, woke us to get ready for the ascent. About midnight we started up the mountain. The temperature was 17 degrees and I felt overdressed at first, but realised quickly that I was going to be cold. The next six hours were kind of a blur. All I could see were the feet in front of me going at a snail’s pace. We hiked in the dark up a steep gravel path (actually, it wasn’t much of a path, only rocks). All I could see was whatever fell in the radius of my headlamp was mostly our guide’s feet. Around 2:30am I started feeling terrible. I was dizzy, nauseous, exhausted, wheezing, and had long since stopped trying to keep up with my runny nose. But I pushed on, and at 7am we made it to Stella Point (not quite the top). After that it was an easy 45 minutes to the summit. Mndeme tried to make me go really slowly so we could see the sunrise at 6:30am, but I told him I was cold and didn’t care if we got there in the dark. I just wanted to get up there and then get back down off that mountain!
At the top, a sign proclaimed: “Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5 895m. Africa’s highest peak. World’s highest free standing mountain. One of world’s largest volcanoes. WELCOME.” Yayyyy – we’d done it – woohoo!
There are moments in life, when you need to take a step back and look at what you have achieved with a sense of pride. When you reach the highest point in Africa and realise what you accomplished, could be amazing but due to the sickness all you want to do is get down!!!
The sun was just rising as we started going down, so I got some great pictures of the glaciers on both sides, and the sun coming up over Mwenzi. After that it was a really long two hours back down to camp. We rested at camp for an hour; we were completely exhausted! Around noon we left Barafu and walked three hours down to Mweka camp. Sleeping was easy that night due to sheer exhaustion.
After an easy three-hour walk downhill, we made it to Mweka Gate. Certificates were handed out to prove that we made it to the top and we were loaded into a pickup truck to drive down to the van. The drive in the pickup was possibly more frightening than the climb to the summit! But we eventually made it back to Springlands for a much needed shower and rest.
When I look back I realised it took me five days to walk to the top of Africa which I spent about 30 minutes at the top (three minutes crying) and walked back down – simply astounding BUT was it all worth the pain and cold, YES it was!!!
The moment you realise you are on top of Africa: INCOMPARABLE!!!
Everything you read about preparation focuses on getting to the summit, which is obviously hugely important, as getting to the top is ultimately the goal! But I can’t stress enough that you also have to prepare – physically and mentally – for the fact you’ll also need to get yourself back down the mountain again. No-one ever talks about this! I found that the descent was actually the hardest part for me as all the elation gave way to utter exhaustion and, apart from the fact that walking downhill is turbo-tough on the knees and hips, the prospect of having to walk for several hours after the hike to summit almost broke me. So try to save something in the human tank for the descent – I think it would help even to make a mental note that you’ll get to enjoy the views you’d have missed when you were climbing in darkness through the night .
” Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S Eliot