The long awaited post on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. In this post, I’m going to focus on the hiking and the summiting of Mt. Kili. I’ll do another post reviewing our experience with our guides and the general experience of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. So most of our stories will go in that post.
There are several routes up Kilimanjaro, depending upon what you’re looking for. We chose the Machame route (aka Whiskey Route) because it was a harder route. We wanted a challenge. This route can be done over 6 or 7 days, depending upon how long you wanted to take to acclimatize to the altitude. We elected to do it in 6 days because we didn’t need the extra day.
If you were to actually want to go straight up Mt. Kili, you could theoretically do it in a day if you were in great shape. It’s definitely possible to do it in two if you were in good shape, but the tour companies stretch it over a few days in order to help you with acclimatizing.
Day 1 Machame Gate (4890 ft) to Machame Camp (9400 ft)
The tour company picked us up at our hotel in Moshi on Monday, Jan 4th. We left some of our luggage at the hotel. It was a busy morning at the hotel because there were several guests who were leaving for their own climbs up Mt. Kilimanjaro. After we paid, we met our guides and porters, and then we all got into a shuttle to Machame Gate, which is the start of the Machame Route.
Getting started took a while. They needed to pay park fees, make sure all the porters only carry a certain number of pounds (there’s a limit on how much they can carry), and maybe do other things (we have no idea what). For a few hours we and other foreigners who were in other groups were corralled into the “mzungu pen” as Ben and I dubbed the sitting area for the tourists. We were all encouraged to stay inside the holding pen and not go out. The various guides strongly hinted that it was dangerous for us to be outside the pen. They never explained what the danger might be. During this time, Ben and I each got a lunch box, the first of many mzungu lunch boxes that we ended up consuming during our stay in Tanzania.
Finally after watching group after group leave, we finally got to start our climb in the early afternoon. The distance is 11 km of nicely packed trail through a pretty jungle. The trail is uphill, but not overly steep. For us, it’s a very easy hike. The guides force us to hike pole-pole (polay-polay), which means slowly in Swahili, because they feel that it helps with acclimatizing to the altitude and prevents altitude sickness, or mountain sickness as they call it.* As such, it takes us about 6 hours to arrive to camp. It rains briefly and lightly in the late afternoon, but it’s over in under than hour. We arrive at camp in the early evening. We eat dinner and go to bed.
*There’ll be a rant about this pole-pole philosophy in the next post.
Day 2 Machame Camp (9400 ft) to Shira Camp (12,500 ft)
This was a very short hike of only 5 km, but it was quite steep and there were sections of rock scrambling that I adored. Again because of the pole-pole philosophy, it takes us 6 hours to get to Shira camp. We have a late lunch.
Originally we were supposed to have a short afternoon hike to help with acclimatizing, but because of the less than ideal weather, the hike was scrapped. This was fine with us because we were exhausted from the morning’s hike and we napped hard all afternoon. The exhaustion was less from the strenuous nature of the hike, and more from the sheer slowness they forced us to hike. There’s a natural pace that’s the most efficient for people and the guides made us go more slowly than what we would have liked and it made us really tired.
This particular section of trail was one of my favorites because of the rock scrambling and the beautiful view of Mt. Kibu. There’s nothing more fun than clambering over rocks, walking along sheer rock ledges, and hopping over streams.
Day 3 Shira Camp (12,500 ft) to Lava Tower (15,190 ft) to Barranco Camp (13,000 ft)
The purpose of this trail is to help you acclimatize. You hike up to a higher altitude and then hike down to a lower altitude to sleep. Despite our guides’ urging to go pole-pole, we succeeded in getting them to let us hike a little faster. Despite the fact that this was a longer hike (10 km) and it was still steep (although not as steep as the previous day), we finished the day’s hike in six hours including our lunch break and feeling way less fatigued.
As we go up higher, the vegetation becomes sparser and the ground rockier.
Because of the popularity of the Machame trail, unlike in Peru when we were hiking Salkantay, we were never alone. Porters carrying packs slowly passed us. Far off in a distance we could see other people hiking to Mount Kilimanjaro via other routes. Sometimes we passed other hikers on Machame. Occasionally other hikers passed us. While I wouldn’t describe the route as being crowded (95% of the time, no one was with us), we definitely never felt alone because we did encounter other people with enough frequency that had I been alone and hurt, I wouldn’t have worried.
This section of the trail was fun. Lava Tower is a cool rock formation.
Every night I made sure to stare up to the night sky to see the stars. The lack of light pollution and the high altitude were ideal for star gazing. Aside from Armantani in Peru, I had ever seen so many stars in the sky. I even got to see the Milky Way again. You don’t realize just how many stars there are until you actually see them decorating the night. The stars are simply glorious.
Day 4 Barranco Camp (13,000 ft) to Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp (15,000 ft)
My absolute favorite part of hike up to Mt. Kilimanjaro is Barranco Wall that’s a 840 feet cliff face that we need to scramble. I adore rock scrambling, so I totally dug this portion of the trek. There were several groups that got a head start on us, so we initially met with a large “traffic jam” but since we were a small group (just me, Ben, and our two guides), we easily overtook the larger groups.
We had lunch at Karanga Camp. It was pretty windy at camp and we were cold while waiting for lunch. We were really happy when we could finally go inside the dining tent to eat.
The afternoon hike through the alpine desert was unearthly. The dusty, rocky desertscape reminded us to Tatooine from Star Wars. We hiked a total of about 9 km for about 7 hours, including our lunch break. We arrived at Barafu in the late afternoon. We had an early dinner (it wasn’t really all that much earlier than when we ate the prior days) and went to bed early because the next day we were summitting!
After dinner, our guide came to tell us what to expect and what to where for summitting. Then we napped for a few hours before we began what we came to do.
Day 5 Barafu Camp (15,000 ft) to Summit (19,345 ft) to Mweka Hut (10,000 ft)
Depending upon your speed, the guide will tell you when you begin Day 5. If you’re slower, you may even start hiking as soon as 11 pm of Day 4. Most hikers start at midnight. We started at 1 am. They woke us up at midnight. We had some coffee and cookies/biscuits while sleepily trying to wake up. I wisely packed away a few biscuits in an extra ziplock bag to eat later.
For days Ben and I had been wondering exactly how cold it would be on Mt. Kilimanjaro. The infamous stories of the biting cold and knife sharp winds scared us a bit. Our guide told us that it could be as cold as -20 C (-4 F) plus wind chill. While on the trail on Day 4, we met a guy who was on his way down from summitting. We asked him how bad it was and he said it wasn’t too bad, “only -10 C.” Having lived through three Toronto winters, I knew I could handle -10 C. I repeatedly told Ben, “Negative 10 without much wind isn’t so bad. It’s quite doable.” Our guide in over precaution told us to bundle up. Based on his advice, we wore:
- two pairs of socks
- three lower layers (two thermals and hiking pants)
- three top layers (two thermals and long sleeved winter tech shirt)
- warm puffy winter coat
- thermal gloves
Holy crap, this was waaaaayyyyyy too much clothing for us. Almost immediately as we started hiking, we both began baking alive. Under the disapproving looks from our guides who kept telling us that we would get cold, we took off some of our clothing. Honestly if we could have, we also would have liked to remove a bottom layer. It’s not that cold when you start hiking. It does get colder as you get higher, but you’re also moving and generating heat. Neither one of us felt cold during our entire hike because we were too overdressed. If anything, we were in danger of heatstroke because we got too hot when we came down hours later.
The idea for starting the hike at dark o’clock is so that you summit at sunrise. We were just about the last ones leaving camp. It was pretty cool looking up and seeing a long thin line of headlamps snaking their way up Mt. Kili. Slowly we overtook the lights and their hikers.
I don’t know exactly how to describe the actual summit up, except to say summitting Mount Kilimanjaro was THE SINGLE MOST HARDEST PHYSICAL THING THAT I HAVE EVER DONE IN MY LIFE.
The fact that the hike is in the pitch black dark and cold isn’t what makes the summit difficult. They contribute to the difficulty, but they’re not actually the main cause of the difficulty. It’s a steep, steep, steep three mile ascent to the Uhuru Peak, the highest point. It’s a very steep hike from the start. It’s not quite rock scrambling, but very close. The trail is over large rocks and boulders. It’s not a hike, as much as it’s a climb up and over rocks in the pitch dark. Because of the steepness, the trail has several switchbacks. This is the easy part of the ascent.
At some point and I don’t know when exactly, the trail stops being rocky and turns into soft, sandy, gravel that sucks your foot down. Up until this point, I had been climbing up fairly well. Because I had been overheating, I made our group stop a few times so I could cool down and rest, but honestly we were moving well. We passed several groups of hikers who had started long before we did. I was feeling confident about summitting.
This all went away when the trail changed to sandy gravel. Instead of climbing up with every step taken, I slid back. No matter how hard or how fast I tried to climb up, I slid back down to where I had been. It was a Sisyphean task. I just couldn’t climb up. By this time, we had been climbing up for a few hours and it was colder. I was weary. I willed myself to move my legs forward, but no matter how much energy I expended, I never got anywhere. I got frustrated from not being able to go anywhere.
The guides and Ben wanted to know what was wrong, but I wasn’t able to express myself. I was tired and foggy-headed from the fatigue and cold. The guides thought that I was tired from carrying my waterpack and wanted to carry it for me. I didn’t want them to because I wasn’t tired from the pack. I wanted to carry my own water because I wanted to drink whenever I wanted/needed to drink. Eventually Ben figured out that my feet were slipping. He grabbed my hand and pulled me up with him.
Ben did this for the entire duration of the hike to Uhuru Peak. I don’t know how long the sandy part of the trail was. It was at least a half mile, but could have been as much as a mile. All I know is that I would not have made it up without Ben. Ben was tired himself, and at one point told me that he couldn’t pull me up anymore. He let go of my hand, but as soon as he saw that I wasn’t able to climb the sandy trail, he regrabbed my hand and never let go. Together, we climbed up and summitted Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We made it to Stella Point at around 5:30 am. I desperately ate some biscuits. Out on the trail, I completely bonked. I trained for Wineglass and on the long training runs, I had bonked. But I never bonked so hard as I did up on Kilimanjaro. God, I was so out of it on the mountain.
We had another 170 yard to Uhuru Point. I was ready to say that Stella Point was good enough, but Ben grabbed my hand once more and we trudged up to Uhuru, where we got to see the sun rise over the clouds. Finally we did. We summitted!
The landscape on top of Kilimanjaro is unearthly. There are huge glaciers, large rock formations, and an incredible view of the world below. Even with my difficulty, we were actually among the first group of people at the summit, so we got to enjoy the peak in relative solitude. Then slowly people began trickling in.
The descent down was brutal in its own way. We went down via another even sandier trail. The idea is that you “ski” down. I’m super clumsy, so I fell instead. Luckily with all the layers of clothing and the sand, it was a soft landing each time. As we went down, we got hotter and hotter with all the clothing we were wearing, the increasing temperature as the day got warmer, plus air being warmer as you go down in altitude. Ben suffered from heat stroke on the way down.
It took about three hours for us to go down back to camp. We had a light lunch and another nap before we had to hike to Mweka Hut where we were camping for the night. The hike to Mweka was painful because of all the descending that we had to do, but it was especially painful for Ben. His quads actually spazzed and trembled whenever he stood still. We had to take several breaks. We were never so happy to see camp as we were that night.
Day 6 Mweka Hut (10,000 ft) to Mweka Park Gate (5830 ft)
It was our last day. We were looking forward to sleeping in a bed and having a hot shower. It was a pleasant half day hike through a jungle. Ben recovered nicely. He was slightly sore, but nothing major. As we were hiking, we ran into a woman who we had seen along the trail the past few days (including our first day). We chatted and hiked with her. She was also from New York City. We had a wonderful time with her and talking to her made the miles and time fly by. Next thing we knew, we were already done.
Once again, all of the tourists are placed in a sitting area (“mzungu pens”) while the guides sort out different things (having us sign out, getting our completion certificates, finding our driver and shuttle). I don’t remember how long we waited, may be an hour? There were several locals who hung around selling beer, soft drinks, and snacks to tourists.
We rode in a shuttle with our guides and porters back to Moshi.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro truly is a once in a lifetime experience. In comparison to hiking Machu Picchu, except for the summit, none of the days were as hard. The distance was shorter, the length of time hiking was shorter, and hikes were not as grueling as the Inca Trail. The average day on the Inca Trail is harder than the average day on Machame. At the same time, the hardest day (summit day) is far harder than anything we did at Machu Picchu. For me, it was the hardest day of my life, physically speaking.
A couple days later I told Ben that I didn’t know if I would have been able to summit without him. Ben waved me off and said that of course I could have. I would have gone slower, taken longer, but I would have made it without him. That may be true, but what summitting Mount Kilimanjaro showed me was that I will not ever need to find out if this is true because Ben will always be with me.
I sat at the table with Ben while I incoherently sobbed my feelings of gratitude and love. In my prior relationships, I never felt like I was a part of a team with my former partners. Throughout all of the difficulties and troubles, I always felt like I was the one who put in all the work and effort while they didn’t do anything at all. At the slightest hint of trouble or work, I thought they would leave. I didn’t want them to leave, so I redoubled my efforts to relieve them of any burdens. As such I often felt alone with the burdens and that no one who helped or cared about my troubles.
The entire time while we were trudging up Mt. Kili, I never once felt alone or scared that Ben would abandon me. Never did it once cross my mind that Ben would leave me behind. I knew no matter what, Ben would be there with me. We were a team. We were together. No matter how hard it was, no matter how tired he was, no matter how effortful, Ben would stay and make sure that I summitted. This experience was a reification of why I married Ben. We are a TEAM.