The week spent on Kilimanjaro can largely be summed up by pole pole (slowly) and maji (water). We probably heard those words every 15 -30 minutes when hiking.
Between having issues with the tablet and going on a safari with limited internet connections and basic electricity (more on that in a later post), I’m finally getting around to posting this story. Better late than never I guess. Luckily those much brighter than I am were able to piece together that my tablet was having issues with the charging voltage and were able to tell me how to revive it.
I’m not really sure where to begin this post. It is fairly easy for me to come up with the words to describe the technical aspects of the climb, and the pictures will give you a sense of the diversity and beauty we saw along our hike (although the photos, or at least mine, don’t do justice to what we actually saw). But more than a week later, I’m still at a loss for words to describe the emotional and mental experience wrapped up in such an undertaking.
First, I’ll say I lucked out with the group I joined. I was pretty nervous going in with being grouped with a bunch of random Americans. When I initially booked with the tour operator, there was a Canadian and two Brits booked and I was the first American. What we ended up with is a Canadian, four Americans, and one Brit by birth, but she has lived in the States longer than she ever lived in England. The great thing is we hit it off almost from the start, and I can’t now imagine the experience without all of them.
Secondly, I can’t say enough about the climb operator, Kandoo Adventures. If you’re considering any international treks in the near future, I highly encourage you to take a look at their website. Our guides, cook, and porters were outstanding. For every hiker, three porters come along. We had 24 support people for our group.
Allow me a short rant. If you are considering hiking Kili or any similar mountain don’t look for the cheapest outfit. That cheapness often comes at the expense of the porters, those least able to afford it. Pay the extra to ensure you are going with an operator that pays decent wages, is part of the local protection associations, and respects everyone. If you can’t spare this extra money than you shouldn’t be tackling this climb. Okay enough on that subject. Back to the more interesting stuff.
One of the things I was blown away by was the quality and quantity of food. Going in I had pretty low expectations, but boy was I surprised. Every morning started with porridge and fruit followed by an egg omelet, toast, and sausage. But by the third morning I was done with the porridge. Fruit and eggs were just fine for me. Lunch included a soup and then a main course of fish, chicken or beef with rice, noodles, french fries, fried bananas or vegetables. The soups were outstanding, especially the cucumber soup which the chef prepared three times since we liked it so much. Dinners also consisted of soup and a main course followed by dessert or fruit. One our group members celebrated her 40th birthday on the day we summited. When we returned to base camp, the chef had made her a cake. I have no idea how he was able to make a cake and icing using a propane burner, but it was outstanding.
So, here’s my day-by-day climb up Kilimanjaro.
We left the hotel at about 8:30am. The irony of the bus having seat belts and the US still failing to get seat belts on school buses didn’t escape any of us. It is a marvel to watch the porters pack everything on top and inside the bus. We started hiking after a box lunch at the kick off gate for the Lemoshe trail headed for Mkubwa camp (elevation 2650M almost 8,700ft). For the first day you’re entirely in the forest. There is a nice path, a bit steep at times, but the scenery occupies your mind and takes it off of the steep portions. As we were hiking we saw Colobus monkeys, everlasting flowers (there are seven varieties) and the Kilimanjaro flower, which can only be found on the mountain.
Of course by the time we arrive at camp the porters already had everything set up and were waiting for us. Note they left the starting gate after us and were carrying 15 kilos but still managed to pass us and get to camp in plenty of time to set up before we ever arrived. This is a continuing theme throughout the week. You are constantly being passed by porters that are carrying much heavier packs than you are and don’t have all the high tech clothing that as westerners we feel we need. Plus they always have a warm greeting of jambo (hello) or mambo (what’s up) as they fly pass you.
With the Lemoshe route you luck out early on with camp site. There were less than 20 westerns in camp with us that evening. We were also joined by some blue monkeys and ravens. The Northern Circuit route is similar in that there are far fewer people hiking these routes partly because of the length of time required and the difficulty. We essentially started on one side of the mountain and walked all the way around as we moved up.
I became pretty popular with the porters when they realized I had a solar charger. They would strap it to their packs and charge their phones while we hiked and then once we got to camp the rest of us would use it to charge our devices. I also brought along a deck of cards which ended up staying with the porters at the end of the trip.
I also packed two books, and a journal thinking I would have time in the late afternoon/evenings but after hiking 6 or 7 hours a day and feeling the impact of the altitude you have no energy or desire to do anything other than sit around or sleep. On most nights, we were going to bed by 8pm. It was pitch black other than the stars and moon plus wake up calls began at 6:30am. The stars at night (southern hemisphere sky) were incredible. There is no light pollution to distract from their beauty.
We were woken up by the call of the blue monkeys. We set off around 8am for a 6.5 hour hike to Shira plateau/camp (elevation 3610M or 11,800ft). The first hour or so you are in the forest but then you enter the desert and the dust and dirt is instantaneous. From this point forward, we basically had a layer of dust and dirt on us, our clothes, and all of our belongs. It is at this point, where you just give up on changing clothes and just wear the same clothes every day because it doesn’t matter and why get another outfit covered in dirt. I’d had fair warning about the dirt. Everyone I had talked to said be sure to bring plenty of trash bags and plastic bags but even still it gets into everything. There is no doubt in my mind that I’ll be bring some dirt from Africa home with me.
Once you leave the forest, you no longer see any monkeys but the ravens are still present. In fact the ravens stick around through base camp. When I woke up in the middle of the night to use the rest room, the outside of the tent was covered in ice crystals. This is the first night where my entire body including my head, which already had a winter hat on, was completely zipped up inside of the sleeping bag. I also learned that anything you are going to wear the next day needs to go in the sleeping bag with you at night in order for it to be warm enough to put on the next day. Also having a water bottle filled with hot water to put in your sleeping bag did wonders to help settle into the cold nights. What didn’t do wonders for sleeping was the fact that the entire time we are sleeping on an incline. By the end of the trip I have some pretty serious feet issues and swelling due to the blood pooling in my feet and blisters.
I was fine for the 6 hour hike to Moir Hut (this is a newer camp so it doesn’t have a sign in or camp sign), but the acclimatization climb of basically a wall of rocks at the end of the day pretty much pushed me over the edge. This is the highest point so far, and I was definitely starting to feel the effects of the altitude.
Altitude sickness pretty much feels like a bad hangover. One of the solutions is to drink a lot of water. Between the increased water and the side effects of Diamox, I had the pleasure of getting up five separate times to use the bathroom. Nothing like having to put on a bunch of layers and your headlamp to go to the bathroom. After the third time or so I just crawled back into the sleeping bag with all of the layers.
I also started experiencing a new side effect from the Diamox. Most people feel a tingling sensation in their hands and feet shortly after taking the drug. I didn’t know it at the time but one of the other side effects is seeing 3D or waves. I would wave my hand in front of me and see a trail of where my hand had been. Pretty freaky until I finally fessed up to the guides thinking surely I must be done because I must be suffering altitude sickness. But no. They just said, “oh that’s normal.” Also normal, tingling in your face which started on the third or fourth day and some pretty wild, in a bad way, dreams. It was depressing hearing some of the dreams people dreamt each evening.
Thank goodness I woke feeling much better. I think the overdosing on the inhalers that I started at the beginning of the trip finally kicked in as my asthma was significantly better from this point forward. Between the dampness of the forest and the dust of the desert, my allergies were in overdrive. I was pretty much congested the entire time, which led to a pretty chapped nose. On the positive side, I couldn’t really smell how bad we were all beginning to stink after not showering for four days.
Given the challenges I had the previous day, I decided to put the head phones in and tune out the brain, which had been in overdrive the past three days. We hiked for about 4 hours to Lava Tower (elevation 4600M or 15,000ft). Lava Tower was created from a volcanic eruption and later the land in between was hallowed out by a glacier. We had lunch at the tower which was the highest point so far. The real purpose of the day began after lunch, which was to practice a quick descent. Going down rocks that are wet from melting snow at a pretty quick pace isn’t easy. In fact going down was a lot harder on my joints and knees then the vertical climbs.
We camped at Baranco camp (elevation 3900M or 12,800ft) this evening. This was the first time our route met up with a number of other routes so we went from less than 20 westerns at camp to probably about 75 or so. Prior to this camp, I had commented several times about how little trash I’d seen. You must pack out everything you take in including biodegradable items. Once we arrive at Baranco, we did start to see more trash. Relativity speaking there still wasn’t much, but there was a noticeable difference from previous camps.
This day was all about scrambling. We started the day off having to scramble (hands and feet) up Baranco wall. It’s incredible to think of how we made it up the wall. Once up the wall, we made our way to Karanga (elevation 3995M or 13,100ft). From this point forward we were pretty much up above the clouds. There is nothing like looking out at a sea of clouds or being enveloped by the clouds as they come in.
You start out with a 3 hour hike to Barafu base camp (elevation 4673M or 15,300ft). After lunch you are told to go to bed. Surprisingly with the morning hike and the altitude it is fairly easy to sleep, and besides those that know me well know that I never have trouble taking a nap. The final health check occurs at 5pm. This is our go/no go check. Your resting heartbeat must be under 120 and you have to have an 80% or higher oxygen saturation level. The first time they took my oxygen, I was below 80%. Luckily they allowed me to take a few deep breaths and redo the test. The second time around my levels were above 90% so I was cleared to go. If only I had known that a few deep breaths before the reading would get my levels up, I could have avoid all kinds of worry over the past few days.
Anyway with all of us receiving a clean bill of health, we sat down to a dinner of carbs. After dinner we prepared our packs, which basically meant taking out everything that wasn’t essential. Every ounce at this altitude matters. We were told to sleep although there was too much excitement in the air to do much sleeping. We dressed in our base layers before laying down so that we could get ready as quickly as possible. At 11:15pm the wake-up call came. We dressed (4 layers on the bottom and 5 on top) and had some hot tea before setting out at midnight.
All you saw as you looked up the mountain (you couldn’t actually see the mountain) was a line of headlamps. Although we were briefed each evening before a hike, there were quite a few details of the summit hike that were left out — clearly for our own good. I don’t know if it would have been better if I’d been more prepared or not.
To say the final push is hard is an understatement. I managed to do pretty well until about 4am. Even kept my pack until about then. The guides don’t wear packs on the summit trek so that they can carry ours when we reach the point where we no longer want to go on. We were lucky in some respects. It was a balmy 5 degrees Fahrenheit. But that 3-5am push is probably the hardest thing I had to overcome. Your feet and hands are frozen. You can’t see anything other than the feet in front of you. You are exhausted but because of the cold you can only stop for about 2 mins at a time. We had to turn our water bottles up-side down because water freezes from the top down. Also had to wrap them and our camelbacks in clothing. I brought along an insulated tube for my camelback, which worked well. Although I had to keep the mouthpiece inside my jacket to keep that portion from freezing.
Thank goodness for bootcamp (shout-out to Gary and Dave) the past few years and the porter Paffa. Paffa held me by the arm and basically dragged me up the last steep portion between 4-5:30 am. The other saving grace was a scene I kept replaying in my head about how nice it’s going to feel sitting in the Caribbean next spring (a vacation that has not yet been planned but definitely will be). Around 6:30, once I saw the sun breaking through, I knew that I would make it. Once you reach Stella Point the last 30 minutes or so is relatively flat as you walk along the ridge up to Uhuru Peak (elevation 5895M or 19,341ft). When I finally reached the summit, I was thoroughly exhausted both physically and mentally, as well as being total elated and relived to have reached the summit. I think I went through every possible emotion you can imagine.
It is too cold and you are too exhausted to do much after a quick round of pictures other than to begin the descent. The descent is definitely easier than the ascent, but to be clear, it’s still pretty hard and steep. You are doing your best to keep your feet under you in loose sand/dirt. It took a little over 7 hours to summit but only about 2 hours to make it back down to base camp.
Once at base camp I barely got the outer shells off before passing out. I was so tired and exhausted that I slept with my boots on. The bad news is you only get about 1 ½ to sleep before they wake you for lunch and to hike another 8km down the mountain in the afternoon to Mweka camp (elevation 3100M or 10,100 ft). Needless to say I was not a very happy camper when they woke me up. By the end of those 8km my knees and lower back were aching.
We got another cake at dinner that evening celebrating our successful summit. The cook and porters carried the cake into the dinning tent singing “cut the cakee, cut the cakee” There were a lot of words that ended in “y, ie, or ee” when it came to food being served. It was always a surprisee or yummie that was being served.
As we entered the forest on the way to meet the bus it started to rain. This was the first time it had rained since we’d been on the mountain. There were two evenings where I’d seen a few snow flakes but nothing that was hitting the ground. Made good timing on the morning hike despite the rain but the bus was about an hour late. Wasn’t that big of a deal initially as every time you arrive at a new camp you have to sign-in. Once the bus finally arrived it was a much shorter trip back to the hotel than initially because we came back down the mountain via a more direct route. You would think that we would all run to the showers but at that point you are so used to being dirty and not showering that a round of beer was in order with our guides while our certificates were passed out.
Although, once I finally made it into the shower that was probably one of the top 3 showers in my life. It didn’t matter that it was a tiny stall, water pressure was nonexistence or that you had to keep fiddling between the hot and cold to keep from burning yourself with the solar generated hot water.
All in all it was an incredible experience. It never fails to amaze me how tough and strong our bodies and minds can be when we want/need them to be. I’m siked to be able to cross this item off the bucket list but can’t really say I would do it again. It would have to be a pretty special reason for me to tackle that beast again.
P.S. While we were on the mountain a new record was set. An Italian (?) who started at sea level, biked to Kili and then hiked up and back in 24 hours. The guide who went with him has the record for making it up and back in 7 hours. Our lead guide (August) did it in 32 hours when he took the test to be a guide. In order to become a guide they must be able to make it up and back on the easiest route in 3 days. There were also a few people that needed to be rescued/quick descent while we were on the mountain.