The way things worked out this year, I was left with 2 more weeks of vacation than Rebecca. The first week I spent in Canada in July. I was unsure about what to do with the second. I knew I did not want to spend it doing nothing in Abu Dhabi. I thought of doing something that I enjoy, but may not be for Rebecca. Feeling inspiration from some friends, my love for the mountains, and my curiosity of the continent next door, I decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro is the Roof of Africa at 5,895 metres above sea level. It is a dormant volcano thought to have last erupted 150,000 years ago and is considered the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. It is comprised of 3 distinct peaks, Shira, Mawenzi, and Kibo, the tallest. Most of the mountain is contained within the Kilimanjaro National Park. Located in Tanzania on the northern border shared with Kenya, it is nestled into some of the greatest safari country in Africa. When I told my dad of my plans to climb Kilimanjaro, he said, “Why would you want to climb that mountain when there are all those animals to see?” “Don’t worry”, I said, “those plans are in the works as well.”
I flew to Nairobi, Kenya on Friday, September 20th and with the recent fire that destroyed the International Arrivals Hall, it was quite an experience. I then connected to Kilimanjaro International Airport and was greeted by one of Team Kilimanjaro’s representatives. He drove me to the nearby city of Arusha. The 45 minute drive was an overload on the senses. The chaotic driving of lorries, buses, motorcycles, scooters, and the amount of people, animals, markets, etc. was amazing. We arrived at the hotel and after dinner I was soon asleep.
The next morning, I met Frank-Machami, our guide, and the 2 others I would be climbing with, a father and son from Australia, Jim and Russ. We loaded up into an old Land Rover and drove to the Londorossi Park Gate where Frank obtained our park permit, acquired additional porters, and loaded the rest of the gear onto the Land Rover. We also met our assistant guide, Victor-Mahlia, a really classic kind of guy. We then drove to the Lemosho trailhead at 2400m, which is a western gate to the mountain park, unloaded, and had a bite of lunch. From there, we took our first steps of the journey making it to Big Tree Camp at 2800m later that afternoon. There are 6 different routes up Kilimanjaro and what first attracted me to Lemosho was that the first day and a half is spent in rainforest with the possibility to see some wildlife. We were fortunate enough to spot some Blue Monkeys that day.
The next day, we were back on the trail by 7:00 am and soon left the rainforest behind for the moorland of the higher elevations. We gained the Shira Ridge that afternoon and set up camp at Shira I Camp at 3500m. From this camp, most companies embarking on the Lemosho Route typically round the mountain onto the south slope which will later join up with the popular routes of Machame, Marangu, Umbwe, and Shira. We would do a modified Lemosho Route name “TK Lemosho” after the company that created it, Team Kilimanjaro. This approaches from the northern slope of which the final assault is shared only with the Rongai Route and is so much less crowded and quieter which added a lot to the experience for me.
On Day 3, we continued eastwards towards Kibo and had reached an elevation of 4200m by Moir Hut Camp. That afternoon, we did a short hike up to an outcrop on a ridge with a great view and an elevation of 4400m. The theory of climb high and sleep low is said to help with the acclimatization to the lower oxygen levels.
Day 4 was a bit of traverse with a small elevation loss, but it was a long 17 km march to get us onto the northern slope of Kibo. That night, we slept at the Third Caves Camp at 3950m and got a good look at Kibo. Up until this point, we had a fairly routine schedule with wake up at 6:00, breakfast at 6:30, on the trail at 7:00, then hike to the next camp. We could often relax a little before afternoon tea at 4:00, dinner at 6:00, cribbage at 6:30, then off to bed pretty early as we were tired plus it was cold and dark. I should mention that I haven’t seen stars like that in quite some time. By this camp, the overnight temperature was just above 0°C.
On Day 5, we started the real assault on the summit. We hiked up to School Hut Base Camp at 4700m in the morning and did a short acclimatization climb to 4850m. The reduction of vegetation, precipitation, and temperature is why this elevation is referred to as alpine desert. We were told to try to sleep a little before dinner if possible because we would start for the summit at midnight. I wasn’t able to nap and I understand it can be difficult to sleep at high elevation even if you are very tired. I did manage to sleep for about 3 hours after dinner, but was awoken at 11:00 pm. We had a light breakfast, donned our winter gear and head-torches, and started the final trek to the top just after midnight.
We met up with the Rongai Route climbers at Hans Meyer Cave where the two paths become one. At about the same time, it began to snow and it would prove to be the biggest snow event on the mountain that week. The climb from School Hut to Gilman’s Point gains approximately 900m and is almost completely switchbacks. We had a very steady pace and passed a lot of groups along the way. Many of the guides were singing along the way and encouraging everyone to press on. This portion took us about 4.25 hours. With the switchbacks behind us and now on the crater rim, we continued upwards on a gentler slope. The view was rather socked in because of the snow, but I could sense the shear drop off into the crater just to my right. Up here, the wind was quite strong and we were reading about -10°C on the thermometer. Officially the 4th climatic zone of Kili, the arctic zone. It’s also harder for your body to warm itself with the oxygen level at nearly half of what it is at sea level so we had to keep moving to stay warm. We reached the next milestone of Stella Point at about 5:15 am, still 200 metres shy of Uhuru Peak. Stella Point is where our trail met with the trail from the south slope and all the climbers coming up the Machame Route. We were all feeling a bit of a headache coming on from the altitude so we popped an ibuprofen and another diamox (medication to assist breathing at high elevation). We pushed on as the sky started to lighten and by 6:05 am, the sign marking Uhuru Peak at 5895m came into view. There were only about 20 others at the sign that had arrived prior to our group. We were able to get some good pictures in front of the sign. We only stayed at the summit for 15-20 minutes then started our downward trek. Soon after leaving the summit, the thick cloud that provided all the fresh snow suddenly burnt off and the view of the crater opened up below us. It was an amazing sight. We slowly continued down taking many pictures along the way. I felt as though I could have stayed up there much longer.
We soon passed back into the clouds as we descended and our view was gone. We later arrived in the Barafu Base Camp and I was shocked at the number of tents there. I read that there can be up to 300 climbers and 900 support crew in Barafu on any given day in September. Again, I am so glad I did not ascend this way. We finally reached Millennium Camp at 3500m by mid-afternoon and were a little wet from the snow and rain. We had some lunch, refilled our water, and took a short break before continuing down another 2 hours to Mweka Camp at 3100m. Utterly exhausted, we were able to nap for a few hours before dinner, but then it was back to bed to get some more rest.
Day 7, our final day on the mountain, saw us continue our descent to Mweka Gate at 1600m where we returned to civilization just before lunch. Frank signed us out of the Park, the crew loaded the bus, and we all set out for the nearby city of Moshi. The group had a nice hot lunch before heading back to Arusha on the bus. We arrived at the hotel by mid-afternoon, took a group picture, and said our thanks and goodbyes. The hot shower I had shortly after that is one of the best I’ve ever had!
I could not complain about one aspect of the trip, the food, the gear, the weather, and the guides. I have nothing but respect for the hardworking porters who traveled twice as fast as me with 3x the weight in gear (mostly on their heads). Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was probably the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done, but it was very rewarding. It’s quite a feeling to be standing way up above the clouds knowing that you took every step along the way to get there.
Kilimanjaro Pole Pole. Hakuna Matata!