Climbing Kilimanjaro

I’m not sure what I expected from a 7-day backpacking trip with relative strangers to climb the tallest peak in Africa, but this is what I got –

Day 0 – preparation

All foreigners interested in entering Kilimanjaro National Park and climbing the volcano must plan their expeditions through a registered tour company. We (myself and 2 other grad students) booked online about a month before arriving in Arusha.

We used the least expensive company we could find that still had decent TripAdvisor reviews – Abakombe Tours – at $1450/person for a 7-day Lemosho route climb. Another student from our program booked a solo trek for $2800 for 5 days on the Rongai route. For comparison, the National Geographic package for Kilimanjaro costs over $5000. At the time, I didn’t really understand the difference between these tours, so we followed our cheapest grad student instincts.

There are several routes up the mountain that offer different scenery, technical difficulty, and opportunities for altitude acclimatization. The majority of the routes open to the public are essentially long, long walks to the top of the mountain with little or no actual climbing. The real challenge of Kilimanjaro is avoiding altitude sickness when you get above 4,000m. We went with 7 days on Lemosho because many people say it is the best for acclimatization. For myself and one of my climbing buddies, the goal was just to get to the top. (The other guy was a much more experienced mountaineer and he wanted to do the hardest route – Umbwe – in the shortest amount of time allowed by law – 5 days. Needless to say, he was voted down.)

The week before flying out, I stocked up on gear for the hike at REI and CVS, which covered all of my needs. Our tour company (and all of the others we looked at) provide rentals for pretty much every piece of equipment you could possibly need. So if you are doing Kilimanjaro as a one-off, bucket list item, there’s no need to sink a lot of money into gear you’ll never use. There’s an abundance of info available online on packing for Kilimanjaro and I felt like I had everything I needed.

Two nights before our trek, while we were in Arusha for our summer program, our climbing guide from the tour company came to check out our gear, make sure what we had was sufficient for the conditions on the mountain (which range from pouring rain to blazing hot sun to icy cold), and figure out what we needed to rent. I rented a few things (trekking poles, gaiters, and a sleeping bag) that I didn’t own or bring with me.

Day 1 – starting out

First thing in the morning, we packed into a minibus with our crew: the guide, an assistant guide, a cook, and 9 porters to carry all our gear up and down the mountain.

We drove 2.5 hours to the western gate of Kilimanjaro, Londrossi, to check in. On the way, we stopped at a well stocked gas station supermarket to buy snacks. We were instructed to stock up on foods we could eat no matter how nauseous we felt, in case we experienced altitude sickness. While the guides and porters prepped, we sat down to a pack lunch of fried chicken and donuts.

 

donut

Is this how you make gainz? 

When all the park fees were paid and forms signed, we drove to our starting point – Lemosho Gate.

lemosho gate 2

From there, we hiked for about 3 hours uphill through the forest to our first camp, Mti Mkubwa, carrying only our light daypacks with water, snacks, and a few essentials. This camp was just a small clearing in the woods where we found our porters setting up the tents. The guys shared one tent, and I had a second smaller (but still way too large for one person) tent to myself. We also had a small mess tent with a dining table where we had all of our hot meals during the trek.

mess tent

Mood lighting/fire hazard included.

The mess tent situation was the first odd part of the trek for me. We ate all of our meals in isolation from our Tanzanian guides and porters. We had a waiter bring out dishes of food while diligently clearing away used plates and cutlery. The meals were complex with multiple courses – always a soup, a main course with a side dish of starch (pasta, rice, or fried potatoes), and a dessert (usually fruit). It quickly became clear that this trek was going to be a very gentle introduction to backpacking for me.

Day 2 – The First Look

On Day 2, we started hiking early in the morning over rolling hills, through dense forest. We transitioned from Kili’s first climate zone (mountain forest) into the second (heather and moorland). On the way, we got our first clear look at the mountain rising before us.

first look

People doing the 8 day Lemosho trek stop at Shira I camp for the night. We just stopped for 45 minutes for our packed lunch. The lunch wasn’t so great, but the view was incredible.

 

lunch with a view

If you think this is nice, you should see the view from the latrine.

After lunch, we stretched and continued hiking for another 10km across the Shira Plateau. Along the way, we found our first mountain stream that we could drink from. At first, I was hesitant, but I’m glad I tried it – I don’t think I’ve ever tasted water that clean and fresh.

first stream

Though the long walk across the plateau was dull at points, I loved seeing all the wildflowers that grow in the moorland.

mean looking flower

If flowers could talk, this one would be stare at you silently, then shank you.

In the late afternoon, we arrived at Shira II camp at 3850m of elevation, a sea of clouds trailing behind us. As usual, the porters had arrived before us and set up our tents so we could clean up (a futile attempt to remove the dust embedded in our skin, hair, and clothes with a few Wet Wipes) and stretch a bit before watching the sunset over the mountains.

That evening, I had a mild headache from the elevation and hours of sun exposure. Thereafter, I wore a hat, sunglasses, and windbreaker with a hood, no matter how warm it got, to protect my head from the sun (which gets more intense at high elevation.)

For dinner, we had a big surprise – spaghetti with bolognese sauce. After weeks of Tanzanian stews with tough meat, this American comfort food was a great treat.

Day 3 – Mordor

Day 3, the walk from Shira II camp across the plateau to Baranco camp was probably the toughest day mentally. It definitely made me ask myself, “Why would anyone do this?” as we trekked for 4 hours uphill, through the desert, over rocky terrain, to Lava Tower for lunch. It also made me wish, repeatedly, that I was a bird and I could just soar over the desert instead of trudging along like a silly bipedal human. The goal was to reach a high elevation (4600m) to acclimate briefly, and then hike downhill after lunch to sleep low (3900m).

It was a rough day, but absolutely worth it as we descended into the Baranco River Valley, down from alpine desert to moorland again, and found a beautiful oasis with a waterfall. As we got closer to the mountain, it got colder and there was ice on the waterfall at Baranco.

Baranco camp is larger than most camps on the mountain because 3 routes meet up there: Lemosho, Machame, and Umbwe, of which Umbwe is the most difficult.

photographic evidence

Photographic evidence that I did the thing.

Some notable things I saw on Day 3:

  • a female porter, the only one I saw on the whole trip. All of the trekking companies are composed entirely of men, many of whom hang around the gates of the park waiting to be picked up for treks that brought too much stuff. (Park rules state that porters can only carry 20kg and their loads are weighed at each camp.)
  • lots of solar chargers dangling from backpacks so people could charge their phones and cameras en route. I didn’t use my phone at all (except turning it on twice to check the time) and opted to bring two spare batteries for my camera.
  • a Korean couple. Most of the people we saw were American or European, either young students in their 20s or older (retirement age) groups.

Day 4 – Baranco Wall

Day 4 was a short day, just a morning hike, but it was by far my favorite climb of the entire trek. From Baranco camp, we scrambled up the Baranco Wall, a steep cliff face crisscrossed with switchbacks. It was a tougher climb than anything else on the trip, but only took about 1 hour. We celebrated at the top by goofing off and taking jumping pictures. I even did a little arm balancing because I couldn’t resist. For the first time, it felt like we were really getting close to Kilimanjaro.

arm balancing

Arm balancing with a view of the aptly named Arrow Glacier

After the Baranco Wall (4200m at the top) we rapidly descended into the Karanga River Valley and made it to Karanga camp for lunch. People doing a 6-day trek leave from Karanga after lunch for base camp, but we spent the night there, around 3900m. I think I could have done the shorter, more strenuous route, but I’m glad we took it easy. Polai, polai as our guides kept reminding us. Slowly, slowly to avoid altitude sickness and ensure we make it to the summit.

Day 5 – Base camp

Day 5 was a another short one – just a morning hike from Karanga Camp to base camp, Barafu, at 4600m. This is where people really start to feel the altitude and the first thing I saw upon arriving was a young guy being carried down the mountain after passing out around 48000m, well below the summit. After we dropped our packs in our tents, our guide recommended we do a short climb (200m elevation gain) beyond the camp, along the route to the summit to help us acclimate.

This hike was by far the hardest part of the trek for me. I am terribly afraid of steep, slippery downhills and this little stretch alternated between between loose gravel (scree) and bare rockface. As we climbed higher and higher, I started to panic about getting back down – the Type A in me hates the idea of loosing control while descending. After about 20 minutes, one of the guides walked me back down, sniffling the whole way, as the others continued onward.

As soon as I reached camp, I crawled into my sleeping bag, exhausted and humiliated, and fell asleep hour a few hours, waking up still weak and shivery with fear. I felt so embarrassed, alone, and pathetic.

It took a few hours, including a long nap, a beautiful sunset, and some time spent reorganizing my packs, for me to feel like myself again.

 

meru base camp

The summit of Mt. Meru peaking out of the clouds in the distance. (See what I did there? eh? eh? No? I’ll let myself out…)

But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That was certainly true in this case.

Day 6 – Summit!

Day 6 was the longest day of the trek and the most tiring (with exception of self-inflicted fatigue from fear). We woke up at 11pm on Day 5, had some tea and crackers in the freezing cold, layered on the gear (fleece-lined hat, down jacket, two layers of gloves and socks and pants), and started the long, slow, steep crawl to the summit in the dark.

It was a tough climb for everyone. We started at 50% atmospheric oxygen vs. sea level and it only got worse as we went up. The sleep deprivation made everything worse: we were simultaneously yawning and gasping for breath. I had to ask the guide to carry my pack for awhile because all the muscles in my back started to ache.

The ascent to Stella Point (5800m above sea level, 1200m of elevation gain from base camp) took us 6 hours, but we were rewarded with an incredible sunrise and a cup of warm ginger tea (carried by our wonderful summit porter, Erick.)

sunrise stella

After Stella Point, we hiked for another hour over snow and gravel to Uhuru Peak.

uhuru and back

Uhuru is the highest point in Africa, the grand finale of the trek, but overall it felt pretty anticlimactic. We only spent 5 minutes there, mostly in a line of tourists waiting to take the exact same cheesy photo, before beginning the descent.

DSC_0462

The descent from Stella Point, running and sliding down hundreds of meters of volcanic ash in just a few minutes, was incredibly fun. I think I loved it, while many others found it grueling, unpleasant, and choked with dust, because it was such a huge contrast to the day before. I accepted that I had to get down, and going faster made it easier, so I went full tilt down the slopes. This descent was objectively much harder than the quick hike from Day 5, but it felt much easier. It felt like flying and I was back to base camp in about 90 minutes.

After my panic attack, the most experienced climber in our group asked why I was doing this trek if it made me so upset and scared. This was the answer: being forced to face my fears makes me stronger.

Day 7 – Race to the Finish

On Day 6, we reached the summit then descended 3000m to reach the next camp, Mweka, dropping from the arctic climate zone, through alpine desert (aka Morder-esque volcanic dust and dryness), and back into the beautiful, flower-laden heather and moorland.

flowers moorland

On Day 7, we woke up early, around 6am, and hiked just a few more hours through the forest to the exit gate. As we jogged through the forest, constantly descending, we caught sight of monkeys scurrying above us through the trees and heard mountain streams gurgling beside us. Near the end, as the path turned from a narrow and slippery trail into a wide, smooth dirt track, I took off running.

It felt amazing to run outside, enveloped in the deep green of the rain forest, warm and humid and so comforting to me. Though short (only a few kilometers) and technically ugly (wearing heavy hiking boots and poorly adjusted rucksack), this was one of my all-time favorite trail runs. All the discomfort and soreness and worries from the past week of trekking vanished for those few minutes.

For the second time in 24 hours, I felt like I was flying.

done

My favorite moments

  • Baranco Wall: the most technical part of the climb with lots of fun scrambling, but nothing too scary or difficult. Very refreshing after days of trudging along the desert.
  • The Descent: running down from the summit and (at least temporarily) overcoming my fear of falling
  • The Trail Run: running full tilt through the forest on the way to the exit gate – completely letting go and loving my last few minutes in Kilimanjaro National Park

Last Impressions

  1. Anyone can climb Kilimanjaro with sufficient preparation and support. If you can walk slowly for a few hours per day, you can reach Uhuru Peak. People of all ages and fitness levels climb the mountain every year and the numbers are growing. There is a huge emphasis on accessibility for all and the guides provide ample assistance at all stages of the trek. (Some tour companies will literally carry you to the top and down.)
  2. That said, being in reasonable shape will help immensely. Exertion exacerbates the effects of altitude sickness: dizziness, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, shortness of breath, and nausea. Some people are more susceptible than others and you can’t really control that. But you can control your preparation for the climb. A little fitness goes a long way.
  3. I would not recommend the Lemosho route if you are comfortable at high altitude because you have to hike an extra 15km through the desert without seeing anything new (compared to the other routes.) I felt that the day on the Shira Plateau was unnecessarily long and mentally taxing. But it does help you acclimate to the elevation – no one on our trek experienced altitude sickness or vomiting that is common on summit day. The best path will depend on your goals, fitness level, and timetable.
  4. The cultural aspect of the endeavor is a little odd. If I’m being pessimistic, I’d call it an elaborate exercise in Western privilege wherein citizens of developed countries pay exorbitant sums for Tanzanian men to carry them up a mountain for shits and giggles. The hard work is done by the porters, young men of various levels of education with limited climbing gear who do not enjoy the experience and are largely isolated from the “clients.” By contrast, the tourists paying top dollar receive every comfort money can buy – up to and including personal chemical toilets (carried up the mountain by porters) and cavernous tents that are larger than my living room at home.
  5. Still, tourism is a huge source of income for Tanzania and the Tanzanian economy is doing really well relative to other developing countries. I don’t feel like I did something ethically wrong by participating in this activity, but I do think it’s important to be sensitive to the economic and historical circumstances that gave rise to the Kili climbing culture, instead of just accepting it for what it is.

Overall, climbing Kilimanjaro was an incredible experience for me, unlike anything I’ve ever done. It was challenging, but absolutely doable. Reaching the summit gave me the confidence to seek out new adventures. (Anyone want to take glacier mountaineering lessons on Mt. Rainier?)

I’ll sign off with a few words of wisdom in mountain slang:

Poa kichizi cam ndizi ndani yi frigi – hakuna matata

Be cool like a banana in the fridge – no worries. Take it easy. Don’t stress about how far you have to go. Just take it step-by-step and you’ll reach your goal.

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