Mt. Kilimanjaro (Tanzania)
We really we not sure we could do this mountain. Not because its hard (the slope would be over 30-degrees), or because its cold (temperature around -20F), but because we were expected to ascend almost 7,000’ in 2 days. For the summit day, we’d begin at midnight, hike for 6-7 hours, and ascend 4,300’ – starting at 15,000’!! I knew we culd adjust to any of these altitudes, if given enough time. We were worried it wasn’t enough. But, we had just done Mt, Kenya, and hoped the acclimatization from that would carry us through.
Well, I’ll ruin the surprise and tell you not only did we make it, but also that we felt truly great at the summit. We got there in, not going to say record time, but I will say we are pretty sure we really impressed our guides.
Read on to hear our account of hiking this fantastic mountain.
Day 1: Machame Gate to Machame Camp, 18km (11miles); 1280m to 3100m
Day 2: Machame Camp to Shira Camp, 9km (~6 miles); 3100m to 3840m
First, I would like to point out that if you thought our having 5 guides/porters for Mt. Kenya was a lot, lets try our personal army of 9 on this mountain (we each got our own guide!). What are we invading? Probably the summit, but we’ll have to see.
Also, I would like to say that they have the most amazing ability to balance really heavy loads on their heads. Pretty cool.
Our first day we hiked through the rainforest, filled with exotic birds and plants, and camped just on the forest/moorland edge.
You can imagine our surprise when we got to camp – and realized that all 4 tents at the site were for our group. A personal sleeping tent and a mess tent for eating. Plus the kitchen tent/porter tent, and a tent for our guides.
We walked around the campsite, and saw the stupidest tent ever (see above right). Only big enough to stand in.
We were even given little wash bowls with hot water!
Also hiking that day was a gaggle of about 20 French people, who, with their porters, made a group of over 100. When we passed them on the trail that morning, they said “pole pole” – meaning slow slow – but we laughed because we were only going to 10,000’. After being in a car for 10 days and sleeping in 5-star lodges, we were ready to move, and move fast! Also, after having Mt. Kenya almost to ourselves, this felt like a circus. And Nov is the low season!
When they arrived at camp a few hours after us, it was chaos. We joked, “I’m an ideas man Michael, I think I proved that with tent-city” (for those who have seen Arrested Development). They arrived several hours after us at every camp until summit day, when they took one more low altitude day to adjust, and we never saw them again.
After getting slightly rained on during a thunderstorm on our approach hike, we were thrilled to have a lovely sunset and awesome views of the summit the next morning. We kept our fingers crossed that the weather would hold.
Day 2 was steep and short, brining us to camp by noon. It was a beautiful site. We had all day to relax (some of which in the mess tent as it rained on and off), play cards, and just hang out. We fell asleep to several thunderstorms on the horizon.
Day 3: Shira Camp to Barranco Camp, 15km (9 miles); 3840m to 4600m to 3900m
On our third day we left the moorland behind for what is called high altitude semi-desert, and ascended to Lava Tower at 15,000’ for acclimatization. After a nice lunch here and the start of a great headache, we headed down to camp. The veg got weird with giant Scenecio plants (like the giant Lobelias on Mt. Kenya – some of those here too).
Hanging out at camp (after a lovely and long nap), and a plug for my new camping product the Hoboroll (pink, on the right), which kept all my things nicely organized in my bag, and even made a great pillow for Griff.
Day 4: Barranco to Barafu Camp, 13km (8 miles); 3900 to 4600m
After having headaches yesterday, there was a bit of concern about returning to 4600m. Especially because we heard we were climbing “the wall”, then descending, ascending, etc about 4 times, before actually starting to gain any elevation. Bring on the pain.
Left: The left circle was our campsite (bathroom is the tiny black dot), right circle is 3 porters.
Above: Red dots and circles are porters (see way up top in the clouds?).
Mt Kilimanjaro – Summit and descent
Every time we go to high altitude, we swear we’ll never do it again. Its cold – we are from New England, and I do not mean New Hampshire in the winter cold, I mean so cold if you get out of your sleeping bag in the night to pee, it takes an hour to really get warm again. Its hard to breathe, the air is very thin. You sit up too fast and feel light headed. Everything is an ordeal. Each day, water has to be filtered for all 4 water bottles. This actually happens twice a day. Also each day are the never-ending tasks of packing up our sleeping bags, crash pads, extra clothes, pillows, you name it. We didn’t even have to pack our own tent, and it was still getting old after 6 days!
But in truth, I am sure by next year we’ll have found another way to torment our bodies, just to push the human limit, see what we are capable of actually doing.
By the time we got to Barafu Camp, we realized we were doing better than average. We were arriving at our sites 1-2 hours earlier than our estimated itinerary, and our guides were telling us stories about people who do not know how to use a sleeping bag or pit toilet. Earlier, in Arusha, when we met one of our guides, we went through all of the warm clothes and sleeping gear we would be bringing. Griffin always sweats, he is always hot, and brought what he figured was more than enough warm clothes. Our guide just went, “ohhh, nooo, I don’t trust you guys”. We hoped that by now, they realized we do this kind of camping a lot, and that they were trusting of us. But it would all come down to 1am, when we’d leave for the summit.
Day 5: Barafu to Summit and back, 14km (8.5 miles); 4600m to 5895m;
Barafu to Mweka, 16km (9.5 miles); 4600m to 3100m
Our campsite, perched on the edge of a huge valley, and the view of Mawenzi Peak, to the east of Kili.
The idea of getting up at 6am is bad, 5am is ugly, and 4 or earlier is really just not feasible. You can imagine how I was feeling about a 1am departure. But that wasn’t the hardest thing (as bad as it was).
All “night” the wind just tore through our campsite, feeling like at any moment, it could life our tents off the rock and throw us down the valley. Then it started to snow hard little snow balls. We were thinking oh good, summitting in crazy wind and snow, this will be great. Not a lot of sleep happened. And then it was time to go.
It was cold, really cold, but not unbearable. Yet.
We started our slow trudge to the top. the slope was steep, really, really steep. It just went up and up and up. Never relented. Might have been the hardest thing we both have even done. I had to count by breaths, one full cycle per 4 steps (which were like baby steps), or else I would not get enough oxygen. It was boring. It was monotonous. However, the weather, thankfully, had cleared. We were heading for the summit under a half moon, bright stars, and swirls of clouds below us.
As we hit about 17,500’ it really started getting cold. And hard to breathe. My fingers and toes froze, despite having warmers. Even Griff started getting cold fingers (at this point he put his hat back on – yes, that is what I said – until now I was bundled to the max and he was hiking with no hat). The breathing was just so hard. I thought I was going to break a few ribs on my right side because I was breathing so hard and so frequently. I took my pulse at over 100. What’s best, we had an estimated 6 hours of this.
Around 5:30am, after numerous attempts of mine to fall asleep while walking (all I wanted was to find a cozy nook out of the wind and curl up and sleep), the horizon started getting a bit light. We could then see above us that the slope seemed to just end and not go any higher. About 30 mins later, we were standing on the rim of the crater. We still had several hundred feet to go to get to the true summit, Uhuru Peak, so we kept going, slowly. At this point, it was almost 19,000’. Burrrr. And don’t forget to breathe!!
And then, at 6:13am, only 5 hours after leaving camp, we stood at the summit. We had moved quickly, getting there 2 hours before the predicted time. Instead of feeling light-headed, headached, or anything of that matter, we felt great. We could have hung out there all day. The sun was now up over the clouds, it was getting warmer, and gosh was it beautiful!! s long we you didn’t move suddenly or quickly, the air wasn’t even that thin. It was just fine. Maybe we can thank Mt. Kenya, or maybe we can thank our parents for some great genetics. Either way, we were blessed.
After a grueling and steep descent back to camp, we took a much needed hour nap. Our guides warned us that at high altitude most people lose their appetites and do not want to eat. Not us! We ate Luna bars the whole way up, and even had some at the summit. All I could think about was how hungry I was the entire time. So, after our nap, breakfast was so very much welcomed.
And then, we had another 16kms of downhill to 3100m, a total of about 10,000’ drop for the day. Knees and hips hurting, we arrived at camp in the afternoon, and the air felt so thick and warm. It was the best night sleep we had had on the mountain the entire time. I think we went to bed around 7:30pm.
Day 6: Mweka camp to Mweka Gate, 15m (9 miles); 3100m to 1280m
After a lovely last morning, we descended to the gate and off the mountain.
In all, we have to say, yes, that mountain is HUGE. How does it compare to Mt. Kenya? Hard to compare. Mt. Kenya is smaller with a more definitive peak, and the valleys and ridges surrounding it are spectacular. You can also walk them in half a day. Kilimanjaro is so huge it would take days to do that same time of circle. Kilimanjaro has big glaciers on top, and is so desolate none of it is recognizable as “life”. I also spent a couple months living under Kili while in Kenya, and always wondered what was at the top. Mt. Kenya I saw for the first time a few days before we climbed it. In all, we are so happy that we did both, and would not trade one for the other.
As much as we like doing things ourselves, we could not have done this mountain without our guides, cook, and porters. The trail was very questionable in many places, especially the push for the summit. We loved sharing our experience with you all and thank you for doing such a great job.
As for the two of us, we are off to the Kenyan coast tomorrow via long bus ride. Assuming all goes well we will soon be relaxing in the sand under the palm trees. Much needed.