Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro had been a goal of mine for the past few years, and one of my main reasons for deciding to base the beginning of my travels in Tanzania. The company I chose to climb with, Impatiens Tours, had been utilized by several other volunteers in the past, all of whom had glowing reviews. I also had 3 companions with me on the climb: Lindsay (California), and Dylan and Murphy, both from Australia. All of us were in our 20’s and relatively in good shape, so I knew it would be a good crew. The route we chose, Machame Route, is one of the more popular routes, and considered to be of medium difficulty, taking 6 days to reach the summit and to return to the base of the mountain.
We were picked up in Arusha around 7am, and were transported to Moshi, the location of Mount Kilimanjaro. Our first stop was to rent some gear that we would need to climb the mountain. There I was able to get a winter jacket, gloves, warm socks, hiking boots, a camel pack, and walking poles. We then drove to the base of the mountain, paid the park fees, and took all of the requisite photos at the entrance.
We handed off our big bags to our porters, as we would be only carrying our daypacks holding what we would need for the day. The crew that would be accompanying us included 11 porters, 2 guides, and 1 cook. At around noon, we began our first day’s hike, starting at 1800 meters. The sun was shining and we were wearing our shorts, t-shirts, and sunglasses. Little did we know that would be the nicest weather of the trip.
The first day’s hike was through the jungle layer. It alternated between a slight incline and rocks that served as steps. We all were very excited to be starting our journey had a good pace.
We took a break about an hour and a half in to have some lunch, when the rain started to fall. We put our rain jackets on and continued the hike. Our guides, Enoch and Hudson, offered us umbrellas to hold while we hiked, but we all declined, thinking they were unnecessary. Well, over the next few hours, the rain began to accumulate until even our shirts under our jackets were wet with rain.
We arrived at our first campsite, Machame Camp, around 4pm. Machame sits at an elevation of 3000 meters, marking an ascent of 1200 meters for the first day, and a distance of 11 km. Machame Camp also marked the end of the “Rainforest” zone, and the beginning of the “Moorland” zone. (Kilimanjaro has 5 zones starting at the base as follows: Gardening, Rainforest, Moorlands, Alpine, Summit). Since the porters had went on ahead, our tents were already set up, as well as the kitchen tent. We changed into some dry clothes and went into the kitchen tent to keep warm. It is illegal on Kilimanjaro to have a bonfire, so we had to resort to sipping hot water/coffee/tea to warm up. After a delicious dinner, we turned in rather early, around 9pm, in order to rest up for the next day’s hike. Unfortunately our tents and sleeping bags were wet from the rain.
We awoke around 6am. Enoch advised us to wear the same clothes as the day before, in order to not get another pair wet. We left Machame camp at 7:30am, and the sun was already out.
Our clothes began to dry as we began today’s hike, so our spirits improved a little. Murphy also played his ipod to give us some music to accompany our hike. Today’s hike would be a bit shorter, but would be steeper, as we would be ascending more rapidly. While the hike was steep, it wasn’t extraordinary difficult, similar to yesterday’s.
When we were about 15 minutes away from our next camp, the rain began to fall. This time, we accepted the umbrellas that Enoch and Hudson offered us, and we arrived at Shira Camp at around noon, for a total of 4.5 hours of hiking. That afternoon we hung out in the kitchen tent and played cards and read, as it continued to rain. Shira Camp was at an elevation of 3800 meters, and we hiked a total of 5 km today.
Today we woke up at 5:30am, in hopes to get a few hours of hiking done before the rain. I felt a bit nauseous when I woke up, but felt a little better after taking my daily dosage of Diamox (for altitude sickness) and eating some breakfast. At this elevation, there were no longer any trees or foilage, as we had reached the upper part of the moorlands zone. Today was about acclimatization, we would be ascending to 4600 meters, before descending to our night’s camp at 3900 meters. Once again, around a few hours in, the rain began to fall, so we once again donned our rain jackets and umbrellas.
When we reached the 4600 meter point, we stopped to have lunch. This is when the rain began to turn to snow. Surprisingly, we could see mice running around the rocks.
After lunch, it was time to continue on, although we would be mainly descending, which is more difficult than one would think, since we had to descend a small waterfall by using rocks in order not to soak our boots anymore.
We arrived at Barranco Camp at 12:30 pm, hiking for a total of 5.5 hours, our longest hike yet. Today we had also covered a sizable distance, 10 km. That afternoon at camp, we were in for a treat, as around 3pm, the rain stopped and the sun came out! It was a comical site to see all the other climbers and staff run out of the tents, carrying their clothes, sleeping bags, and mats, and spreading them on the rocks in hopes that they would be able to dry a bit. This brief respite only lasted about a half hour when the sun hit behind some clouds and the rain continued, but luckily our stuff was able to dry a bit.
Once again, we left camp early, around 6:30 am. Our first challenge of the day was to ascend the Barranco Wall, where we had to climb an almost straight vertical rock wall. While challenging, we all had a bit of fun ascending, and were in for a treat when we reached the top. Looking out from the top of the wall, all that we could see was a layer of clouds, like a floor. We had some fun taking some unusual pictures, looking like were were floating or flying in midair.
Soon after that, the rain resumed, and we began a series of alternating ascending and descending paths, which was a bit frustrating, as we were making very little gains in terms of elevation. Our last challenge of the day was a seemingly endless hill that we had to ascend via switchbacks. This was definitely the hardest part of the hike thus far, and we all had to push ourselves to keep going to reach the base camp, Barafu.
We managed to reach Barafu around 12:30am for a total of 5 hours, for a distance of 9 km. We were tired, but once again, we made good pace, outstripping the suggested times for each of the legs. Barafu Camp was at an elevation of 4600 meters, and there was a light layer of snow on the ground. Enoch and Hudson instructed us to go to bed at 7:30pm, right after we finished dinner, as we would beginning our ascent shortly after midnight. I found it very hard to sleep that night, and wasn’t sure if it was due to being cold, nervous, or the adrenaline I had for the following day, and I tossed and turned, not getting more than an hour’s sleep.
Day 5- Summit Day!
We awoke a little after 11:30pm, to total darkness and snowfall. We had a short meal of biscuits, coffee, and tea, and made sure we had all the required clothing and gear in order to reach the summit. Dylan had an extra pair of dry socks which he lent to me, so I was finally able to change out of my perpetually wet ones.
At about 12:45 am, we started our final journey.
One of the porters, Thomas, would also be accompanying us to the summit, along with Enoch and Hudson. Our pace today was by far the slowest of the trip. We all used our walking poles and went “Pole pole” (pronounced “Po-lay po-lay” and is Swahili for “slowly, slowly”). Enoch and Hudson also urged us to continue to stay hydrated, although it was hard to want to drink water while we were already so cold.
I began to really feel the altitude effects as we continue to ascend. About every 45 minutes, we would stop for a short break to catch our breaths and get a short motivational pep talk from our guides. After the first break, they offered to carry my day pack for me. Even though it only carried water and an extra layer of clothes, I gladly obliged, as it was difficult enough to simply walk. Lindsay and Murphy gladly handed their packs as well, but Dylan was able to carry his all the way to the summit.
We hiked in total darkness, with the only light coming from our headlamps, and ones we could see in the distance. I kept my focus on the ground ahead of me, copying the footsteps of Lindsay, who was in front of me. After about 2 hours, we reached the final ascent. As high up as we could see, there were other headlamps bobbing in the distance. This was going to be the hardest test yet.
Slowly but surely we made progress up the mountain. This is when mental toughness definitely came into play, as it would have been easy just to give up and ask to descend back to base camp. We continued to trudge on, and the sky began to lighten as the sun got ready to rise for the day. Seeing the sunrise above the clouds truly was a surreal moment.
At this point in the climb, I began to feel the effects of the altitude, with a throbbing headache, nausea, and just general fatigue. Hudson then told us that we were about an hour away from the top. We continue to trek on, our pace getting slower and slower, as each step turned into a feat in itself.
I don’t know how we did it, but when we reached Stella Point, at 5700 meters, I was exhausted, only to find out that we were not at the top of the summit, and still had about 100 meters elevation to go, although it was a very gradual incline.
We all pushed ourselves to the final summit, Uhuru Peak at 5895 meters, and then the celebrations began! I was still very much out of it, but knew that the worst was over. We had all successfully reached the summit, clocking in at 7:10am, for a total of 6.5 hours. We had celebratory hugs, pictures, and of course, Kilimanjaro beers that we had carried with us to the summit. It was truly a great feeling, and I forgot for a few minutes how awful my body actually felt.
After about 20 minutes or so, our guides told us we had to make the ascent down back to base camp. Although we were exhausted, the knowledge that the worst was over helped to push us on. Since there was about a foot of snow, we were even able to slide part of the way down on our butts. Descending on foot through the snow was difficult, and resulted in a lot of friction between my socks and boots, as well as a few spills. We reached base camp around 10am, utterly exhausted. A meal was ready for us to eat, although none of us had any appetites, a side effect of altitude sickness. I managed to have a half bowl of soup and some water, but could not eat anything else. We were then told that we would have to begin our hike to our last campsite in no later than 12:30pm, as it was not advised to remain at a high altitude for long periods of time.
The hike to our last camp was set to take 3 hours, with only a 3 hour hike remaining the next day to the base of the mountain. Since we were so wet, cold, and tired, none of us relished the idea of sleeping in a tent for one more night. We decided to tough it out and finish today, so we could get a shower and sleep in a bed that night. This descent was remarkably easier, as it switched between rock-like stairs and a gradual decline. At around 3000 meters, my headache began to subside, and the thoughts of being off of the mountain pushed us on.
At around 6:30pm, we reached the exit gate and again had a mini-celebration. The van was already waiting for us to bring us back to Arusha and I was able to message my housemates to order a pizza for us that was there when we arrived back. It was a great feeling to take a shower and change into dry clothes, although my feet were in bad shape from the last day’s 16 hours of hiking.
In conclusion, it was a great experience, and I’m glad I did it. But if you’d ask me if I would do it again, the answer would probably be “No”.