Climbing Kilimanjaro

This is a day-by-day account of my first climb to the top:

Day 1. - Arusha to Forest Camp (2821m)

I was picked up at my hotel at 7.30am on Sunday morning and introduced to Freddy and Joseph, two men I came to rely a lot on over the next seven days. Freddy Achedo, also known by his nickname, Colorado was our head guide. This was going to be his 201st climb to the summit. Joseph was our cook. From my hotel we drove to another hotel to pick up the rest of the group: Norman, an Englishman from Norwich, then Jane and Kerry, two Scottish lasses from Edinburgh. No one could have asked for better climbing companions!

We drove towards Kilimanjaro and the Londorossi Gate where we had to sign in. We then had about a fifteen-minute drive to the head of the Lomosho Route, one of the several more remote and less frequently used trails to scale the mountain. It takes paths through forests rich in game south of the Shira Route.

The weather was good and we were able to drive up all the way to the trailhead. We unpacked our kit and were then introduced to Alex and Nagombela, Freddy's assistant guides and to Doughnut, our waiter/butler, for whom nothing was too much of a problem-- some of the nicest gentlemen I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

In short order, a table was unpacked, assembled and laid out in front of us, red shukka (blanket) included. We tucked into a very sumptuous lunch, with some of the best vegetable soup I've tasted.

The climb officially started at about 1.30 pm, and it was immediately steep! Very beautiful but steep! The rain forest is stunning, full of birds that can be heard but not seen and massive Camphor and Fig trees all covered in Old Man's Beard. There was quite a lot of elephant dung on the path and it was nice to know that they had been here, although, unfortunately, none were seen.

We arrived at Forest Camp at about 4 pm and were surprised after a walk of 5.4km to find our tents already pitched and waiting for us. We were some of the first climbers that day to reach Forest camp, so had the luxury of having a wash and a cup of tea. Supper was at about 7 pm followed by a good night's rest . 

Day 2. - Forest Camp,(2821m) to Shira 1(3504m). 8.1km

As it turned out, last night's sleep was disturbed a bit by a chilly temperature drop and Black and White Colobus monkeys calling to each other non-stop throughout the night.

After a very hearty breakfast of porridge and omelettes, we set off at about 8.15 am. The first hour was just like the day before, walking through the rainforest, listening to the birds and admiring the massive trees and thick vegetation. There was a lot of up and down in the forest section, and then it was just up!

Very quickly the vegetation changed to more of a short scrub brush, where the tallest bush could only have been about two meters high. The good or bad, depending on your outlook that day, was that for the majority of the route the low shrubs allowed us see where we had to go. Far in front of us the porters, with their white Hessian shoulder bags, were strung out along the trail. The trail was long and very steep and decidedly colder the higher we went, but at least we could acclimate ourselves. We were very fortunate with rain staying away from what, after all, is a rainforest.

Kerry and Jane were very good at reminding us to keep drinking. With so much water entering our system, every 30 minutes, one of us had to go off into the bush to answer Nature's call.

We got to Shira 1 campsite at about 1.30 pm. My feet were a bit sore, but what a pleasure it was to see our tents already pitched and bowls of hot water for washing waiting for us. The rest of the afternoon we just relaxed, played rummy and some other game similar to 30 Seconds. We had a very filling lunch of chicken, chips, fruit and one of Joseph's inspired soups.

It's 6 pm as I write this, and we have just had our first light rain shower. We've been lucky so far and can only hope it stays that way. 

Day 3 - Shira 1(3504m) to Shira Camp(3875m)

Well it's getting colder every night in our sleeping bags, and there is much tossing and turning before getting to sleep. After a good breakfast we set off at about 8.45 am. Today's walk was just across the Shira Plateau, a distance of around 8km. It was a nice easy day with the sun warming us up nicely. We got to Shira camp around 11.30 am, had an early lunch and relaxed for a while. Close to 3 pm, Freddy took us on a walk to see the Shira Cave.

Shira Cave I must admit was a bit of a disappointment. I was expecting a massive cavern that went deep into the mountain. I was hoping to see stalactites and stalagmites, but there were none. The opening was about a meter high off the ground and about six meters wide and the cave only went back some ten to twelve meters into the mountain. I found out from Freddy that the cave was used by porters for cooking and sleeping before the climb of Kilimanjaro became popular, and they could afford tents. The view from Shira Cave Camp was better than the cave itself.

The walk probably was about 2km in total. We walked through Shira Cave Camp (this is one of the Machame routes campsites) and onto the edge of the Shira Plateau for an absolutely amazing view. Here is one place on the trail where cell phone signals are clear, so we all tried to get in touch with loved ones.

Once back at our camp I stood on a high point looking down on our tents. It is amazing how efficiently our guides erect the tents in amongst all the boulders. It's 8.50 pm as I write this and the rain has been coming down hard for the last hour and a half. 

Day 4 - Shira Camp(3875m) via Lava Tower(4642m) to Barranco(3984m) 10.3km.

The rain came down the whole night. I didn't sleep well again this time as I had an upset stomach and had to make a dash once into the freezing rain. Fortunately the rain abated about half an hour before we woke up.
Today was most definitely the hardest day so far! It was uphill the whole way to Lava Tower, and the pace was very slow as we climbed from 3850m to 4642m. I could definitely feel the air getting thinner and breathing was starting to get a little bit harder. Shortly before the Lava Tower, the Lemosho Route joined up with the Machame Route and the trail got quite a bit more congested with other parties crossing our paths/heading in the same direction. Once at the Lava Tower we forced down a packed lunch. Eating was now getting harder and harder.

The Lava Tower is a unique formation of erosion resistant basalt, created at some point in Kili's past by cooling lava. It rises 300 feet out of Kili's shoulder. In the past, a time when Kilimanjaro was a more active volcano, the Lava Tower effectively was a great stone plug--a geologic cork keeping the mountain from spewing its content. Fumaroles still emit gas in the crater on the main summit of Kibo, but the mountain is considered an inactive volcano. As we approached it from far off, Lava Tower did not look like much, but as we got closer it towered over us. It was amazing! Definitely my favorite part on the mountain.

After lunch Freddy took us to the top of this huge structure at 4688m. What a view!! It was quite a technical climb but a good challenge and quite an accomplishment for Kerry who has a fear of heights and made it to the top. After descending the Lava Tower, we started our descent to Barranco (4642m to 3984m).

We had been warned how difficult this would be, and they weren't wrong. It was hard and steep! To add to the fun it started to rain and sleet, so the trail became very muddy and slippery. Huge amounts of concentration were used making sure our feet were properly planted and wouldn't slip. We moved downhill at a snails pace.

We finally got into camp at about 3 pm with very sore legs, feet and knees. We had a quick wash then tea was served. On the descent from Lava Tower Jane suddenly took ill and it got worse when we got into camp. She has been battling to eat and has little energy left to do anything. Let's hope she is feeling better tomorrow.

Day 5 - Barranco (3984m) to Barafu (4681m) 9,4km

Each day gets harder! More and more concentration goes into drinking and breathing. The day started off with blue skies and sunshine, but finished off with a snow and sleet storm. The ground around us is white. The snows of Kilimanjaro! It's so beautiful, something Africans don't see everyday.

The day started with a small technical climb up the 257m Barranco Breach Wall. It was quite nerve-wracking in places as we were hugging a cliff face with a solid drop behind us. The scenery is amazing and it changes in the blink of an eye. We go from what I can best describe as a type of Fynbos (an Afrikaans term for a fine bush with needle-like leaves that is found in the Western Cape region of South Africa), to an arid wasteland that one imagines must feels like walking on the moon. There were three rises and falls before reaching Karanga Camp where we had another packed lunch. The Karanga valley is the last place on the trail that we can get water before summiting, so everyone stocks up.

Jane is feeling a little better and did well to push through today. It is now 2.30pm, and with the snow and sleet piling up on top of my tent I am going to try and get some sleep. I will be awakened at 11pm to begin my ascent to the summit. The next time I write in this, I hope to have summited the highest mountain in Africa.

Day 6. - Barafu (4681m) via Stella Point (5752m) to Uhuru Peak (5895m)

This was by far the toughest day in my 33 years on this earth! I was awakened at 11 pm – not difficult, as I never managed to get to sleep. Had a quick cup of tea and biscuits and then set off at about 12.15 am. I was feeling strong, and the first hour was fine as we made our way up a gentle incline of rocks and boulders. Then the work began on what proved to be one of the toughest climbs ahead of us.

With pitch black around me, all I could see was a stream of headlamps rising up into the heavens, and my heart sank! It was like standing a few meters away from a fifty-story building and looking up to the distant top. The path zigged and zagged, left and right every five to ten meters as we climbed, and all I was doing was watching the heels of the person in front of me. I was having to constantly talk to myself, "Left...right...left...right...," or singing some monotonous song in my head. Every step gets harder and harder, the air is really getting thin now and breathing is double the effort. On top of all this I constantly have to remind myself to keep drinking. This in itself is taxing and I actually have to stop walking to accomplish this. I constantly have to keep shaking my backpack and blowing through the tube into the water container after drinking in order to stop the water from freezing. The higher we got the more concentration was needed as the ground was frozen and covered in snow.

Four hours in and I no longer was certain who I was or what I was doing. I was so tired! All I knew was that I had to put one foot in front of the other. With each step the snow got thicker and more slippery. We finally reached Stella Point (5756m) as the sun was rising. I wanted to fall down into the snow and fall asleep. What stopped me were the guides and the most magnificent sunrise I have ever seen. The sun was rising up over Mwenzi Peak, the clouds were below and the snow began to glisten as the sun's rays hit the icy crystals.

This revived what little energy I had left for the final push to the summit. I had 175 vertical meters to go. The gradient wasn't steep but that 1,2 km were as hard as any I have ever had to walk!

Reaching the Summit / the Roof of Africa

I reached the summit at 7:24 am. We collapsed in the snow and our emotions took over. The joy we all felt was palpable. In my years as a guide, seldom have I ever been so happy at reaching a destination. We spent about fifteen to twenty minutes at the summit where we congratulated each other and took many photographs. Nagombela and Alex poured us a cup of hot tea and Freddy gave us each a Red Bull and a chocolate bar.

One often forgets, what goes up must come down! So after admiring the view and scenery, which are by far the most spectacular I have ever seen, we started our descent back down to Stella Point. This time we could give words of encouragement to the climbers still heading up. Once at Stella Point, Freddy led us down the loose scree slope, back to Barafu.

As most serious hikers know, descending is always more difficult than ascending, and my knees were definitely agreeing with this. We arrived back at Barafu at about 11 am, which meant that we had been walking for about eleven hours. Not to mention that we have had no meaningful sleep or rest from the previous morning when we woke up.

We were given two hours to rest or sleep, but as my body was exhausted, the adrenalin was still flowing strongly, and sleep was impossible.

After two hours of struggling with exhaustion, I had a pounding headache. It was time for lunch, and I had completely lost my appetite. It felt that whatever I put into my stomach would not stay there for long, but I managed to force down one or two mouthfuls of food and a cup of tea. I came to the conclusion that this was the result of utter exhaustion and dehydration as I certainly did not drink enough on the ascent or descent. We then packed up camp at Barafu as we still had to descend to Mweka Hut Camp (3090m), a hike of 6.3km. I felt as though I had little left in me to make the descent.

It was pouring rain most of the way down, and it only stopped when we were about thirty minutes from Mweka Hut. The descent was very wet and slippery, and I had to be very careful with every step that I took. We arrived at Mweka camp around 6.30pm and signed in, as was required at all the camps.

Day 7. - Mweka Hut (3090m) to Mweka Gate (1641m)

Our tents were once again pitched for us, and shortly after our arrival, Doughnut (our waiter/butler) brought us that ever welcoming bowl of hot water for washing. Half an hour later dinner was served. I managed a bowl of soup and a mouthful of vegetable curry. Calculating that I had not had any decent sleep in the last thirty-eight hours, I excused myself and went to bed. No trouble sleeping this time.

I was feeling a whole lot better and could stomach breakfast. We had about a three-hour walk ahead, and once packed, we were serenaded by the guides and porters, singing songs like "Jambo Bwana" and "Kilimanjaro". Doughnut then did his own brilliant version of an MC Hammer rap.

We set off at about 8 am. It was a beautiful hike as we were walking through the rain forest, but it was a killer on the legs. We reached Mweka gate around 11 am and signed the summit register. We then had a further ten-minute walk down to Mweka village where our transport was waiting. We climbed aboard and drove into Moshi town for some lunch. A cheesburger and chips has never tasted so good!

After lunch we drove back to Arusha where Norman, Jane and Kerry were dropped off at their hotel. I was then taken to mine, where I had a very welcoming shower.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is an unforgettable experience, both emotionally and physically, and I would recommend it to most people. I have always loved Tanzania and keep trying to find excuses to go back. The people are so friendly and ever accommodating, nothing is too much to ask of them. As for security in East Africa these days, I have never felt safer.