When we first decided to move out to Africa, we were very excited about the possibility of climbing Kilimanjaro. Neither of us really hike much at all but Kilimanjaro is technically the easiest of the seven summits to climb (no need for any special mountaineering gear or experience), we would be that much closer to it, and why not? However, I never would have guessed that I would have the chance to do it within the first year in Africa, but that is the way it worked out.
After only a few months in Mozambique a couple friends from Georgia Tech (Brett and Mike) started to plan their trip to visit us here in Mozambique… and they wanted to climb Kilimanjaro (among other things normal people want to do when they visit Africa). Once they determined when they both would be able to make the trip, the real planning started. Unfortunately, the time they were able to make it coincided with a very busy time for CDC in Maputo so Steph would not be able to join us.
For those of you who don’t know, Mount Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcanic mountain in Tanzania. It is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world at 19,341 feet above sea level. National Geographic described Kilimanjaro as “one of the world’s greatest natural wonders: a snow covered mountain on the equator, an ocean of green forest surrounded by dry savanna. Climbing Kilimanjaro is like walking from the equator to the North Pole in a week, providing dramatic changes in vegetation and animal life day to day.”
There are seven official routes used to climb Kilimanjaro (shown below) that vary widely in difficulty, length, scenery, and traffic. We decided on the Machame route, which is also known as the whisky route. It is steeper than the majority of routes but it is considered the most scenic and most importantly very good for acclimatization to maximize our chances of reaching the summit.
Most routes, including Machame, require you to hire a guide company to handle your food, camping gear (tents, sleeping bags, etc), and navigation during the trek. There are many to choose from and you can do private treks whenever you would like or join pre-scheduled group treks depending on your budget. Some will even offer to lug up a private toilet for you if needed. We lucked out, in that a local guide company (Asante, which means thank you in Swahili), recommended to us by friends in Maputo, had a seven day Machame route group trek scheduled conveniently for us to join. We signed up and all that was left to do was make sure our bodies and gear were in order and show up the day before the hike.
No special training is needed to climb Kilimanjaro you just need to be able to walk and have decent enough balance and coordination to make it up and down a few scrambles. Even if you don’t, the guides will help you. All of us being relatively young and active adults, the only thing we were particularly worried about was the effect altitude would have on us. We would all be coming from basically sea level so having a base level of acclimatization was not an option you just don’t know how your body will react. Annually, roughly 15,000 people attempt to summit Kilimanjaro, but only 40% make it. The leading cause of people not making it to the summit is altitude sickness. The only thing we could do to prepare for it was bring along Diamox (Acetazolamide) which can prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness.
There is also no special gear needed and most of what you will need on the mountain is provided by the guide company. The most important things we needed to make sure we had were good broken in hiking boots, many layers of warm clothing, and a good waterproof layer. Before leaving for our winter vacation to Thailand I collected all my gear and did a little stair stepping to help prepare my legs…
After returning from Thailand for New Years eve in Maputo, I boarded a plane back to Johannesburg where I would meet Brett and Mike. From Johannesburg we would fly to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya and then on to Kilimanjaro Airport, Tanzania. Below is a picture of Mount Kilimanjaro from the airplane window, it doesn’t look that big!
Once on the ground in Tanzania we were picked up by our tour company and transported to the Weruweru River Lodge in Moshi. Along the way we had our first real glimpse of where we would spend the next 7 days… it looked a little more daunting from this perspective!
At the lodge in Moshi we had our initial briefing with our guides, met the rest of our climbing group, had our gear checked, and even had a little time to relax before starting our journey the next morning.
The morning of day one we woke up fairly early after a decent nights rest, had breakfast, loaded our gear onto a van, and made our way to the base of the mountain. The Machame route starts at the Machame gate, which is located at 5,718 feet (1,743 m) above sea level. The gate was very busy with other tour groups dropping off groups of climbers, guides, and porters. We had to wait here for quite some time while they processed our permit to climb, but once we had that we were on our way.
This first leg of the trek was through a dense rainforest. We walked at a fairly slow pace that would become pretty familiar over the next few days. The porters took all of our gear (tents, bags, clothing, etc) ahead to setup camp for our arrival.
Our camp for the first night was just outside the rainforest in a thick bushland area. Below is a picture of Brett, Mike, and I at Machame Camp at (9,927 feet [3,026 m]). At night you could hear some people vomiting, already being effected by the altitude. Thankfully, we were all feeling very good at this point.
The second day continued through increasingly sparse vegetation as we made our way to the next camp.
Shira Camp is at 12,355 feet (3,766 m) and when we arrived the porters and guides had a little welcoming song and dance for us.
After arriving at camp a few of us took a short walk with the guides to look at the Shira Caves, a set of small caves once used for camping in the early days of trekking Kilimanjaro. After making it back to camp we had lunch and relaxed for the rest of the day.
By this point in the trek our guides and porters had given us all nicknames. They called me simba, Swahili for lion because of my beard I suppose. They called Mike something similar that I can’t quite recall but the best was Brett, who they called Mkate or Bofulo, Swahili for bread, close enough to Brett I guess. We also started to pick up some Swahili phrases that all the guides used. The most common phrase was Pole Pole, or slow slow which they constantly said to try and keep our pace slow and conserve energy for the summit day. If they asked us how we were doing (“mambo vipi”) they expected us to reply with "Poa Kichizi Kama Ndizi Ndani Ya Friji" or Cool Like a Banana in Your Fridge, we’re still not sure why.
The facilities at these campsites were what you might expect from a mountain in Africa with no road access. Below is a picture of what was waiting for you if nature called at Shira Camp
The third day would be the most telling of how our bodies would deal with the altitude as we climbed up through an alpine desert to Lava Tower at 15,000 ft (4,600m) where we ate lunch and spent a little time to help acclimatize. At this point we all still felt pretty good but we could definitely feel the lack of oxygen in the air.
After spending a little time at Lava Tower we descended down to Barranco Camp at 13,066 feet (3,983 m) where we had dinner and rested for the next day.
This night was the first I remember being very cold and feeling a significantly elevated heart rate. It made it difficult to sleep and seemingly any movement would leave me short of breath. Luckily, I was still not feeling any symptoms of altitude sickness.
The fourth day started with the accent of Barranco Wall which is seen below from Barranco Camp. It is hard to tell but there are hikers, porters, and guides making their way up in the photo.
This was the most enjoyable day of the trek for me as the scramble up the wall was challenging and fun. It was also quite impressive to watch as the porters passed us on this treacherous trail all while carrying up to 45 lbs of gear on their heads and backs.
After getting up the wall we continued with many up and down sections, finally crossing the Karanga River and making our way up to Karanga Campsite where we would end the day.
Karanga Camp is at 13,100 feet (3,993 m) so it is not much higher than Barranco camp but it is an important step for acclimatization and rest in preparation for the summit attempt.
The morning of day five we continued on to the high camp, Barafu at 15,239 feet (4,645 m) where we would have an early dinner and get to sleep as the next morning would start very early.
At roughly 1AM on the morning of the sixth day we left high camp after a couple hours of sleep. It was freezing cold and we all were wearing just about every layer of clothing we brought with us. The next hours would be the most mentally and physically challenging of the entire trek.
As we started our hike we could see the headlamps of all the groups that had left before us snaking up the mountain towards the summit. For some reason our guide decided it was now time to race everyone else to the top so we proceeded to pass other groups as we caught up to them on the trail. The pace was slow but each step was challenging and that was exacerbated by cutting off trail to pass other groups. Breaks were limited to only a few minutes as we could not risk letting out bodies get cold or our water supplies freezing up.
After about five hours of hiking as the sun started to come up we reached Stella Point (18,600 feet) where the trail levels off. This is normally where you can catch a nice sunrise and have a short break before making the final push to the peak. Unfortunately for us Stella Point and the summit were covered in clouds, it had started snowing, and the wind was quite strong so we just continued on.
It was pretty miserable just fighting to keep putting one foot in front of the other to follow our guide but we knew it would pay off soon - there would be no where else to go but down! When we finally reached Uhuru Peak we were all very tired. I could tell my mind was slow and my body was tired but it was exhilarating to have finally made it. Mike seemed fine but Brett was a little out of it and received some special attention from our guide.
After making sure Brett was good, we all jumped in front of the sign and snapped a picture to prove that we made it. So here it is, Uhuru Peak, 19,341 feet (5895 m), on top of highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
After maybe 15 minutes at Uhuru Peak we started our decent. As we descended the clouds started to clear and we got a chance to see all the things we missed on the way up, like the glacier. It’s a little strange standing on snow next to a glacier knowing you are essentially on the equator in Africa.
The decent from Stella Point back to Barafu Camp was almost as bad as the way up. The sun was now out in full force and the ground was covered in scree. I lost count of the number of times I lost my footing and fell/slid down the mountain. After we arrived back at Barafu we were able to take a short nap, eat lunch, and continue down the mountain to Millennium Camp for our last night on the mountain.
That night we had to set aside money for tipping all of the guides and porters, which was a little awkward with the head guide sitting there helping us, but the porters definitely deserved as much of a tip as we could afford.
The next morning we had a little ceremony where the porters and guides sang and danced again and we presented them all with their tips.
Below is a picture of the entire group. It is crazy to think that it took this many people to help us hike up to the top of a mountain but I don’t see how we would have done it without them.
On the way down we ran into a few local kids who were very excited to see Brett and his bag of candy. Here is a picture Brett snapped after throwing a few pieces to them.
Our Trek ended at Mweka Gate at 5,423 feet (1,653 m) where we got picked up and transported back to the lodge. Our mountain chef caught a ride home on the back of our van.
That night we had a celebration dinner where our guides presented us with our certificates. The food probably was not that great but it certainly was much better than what we had been eating on the mountain for the past 7 days so it was well enjoyed.
After dinner we went back to the lodge for the night and then got ready for an early morning drive to the Serengeti for a safari.
Overall, the experience was great and well worth the expense in time and money. We had great weather up until summit day, never having to hike in the rain and always having great views. Our tour company was excellent and we all made up and back down without a hitch.
It’s still on Steph’s list of things to do before we leave Africa so I might even consider doing it again…