Mt Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and is thus considered one of the 7 summits. Mt. Kilimanjaro once an active volcano, is one of the world’s highest free-standing mountains.
This year when my friend Dianette asked me to join in on a trip to Kilimanjaro, I could not refuse. Climbing the highest mountain on my favorite continent, was there even a question? This adventure was guided by Alpine Ascents, a Seattle based company, and the same company that I successfully summited Mt. Rainier with earlier this year.
All group members had arrived over the previous day and a half at Hotel Arusha in Arusha, Tanzania. On day 1 of our climb we drove a little over and hour from Arusha to the Machame trailhead (5,800 ft.) which sits on the south-western side of Kilimanjaro. Rain was coming down as we gathered under a shelter for a briefing led by our guide Eric. There were 10 of us in our group (4 of whom had already been on Kilimajaro at least once), and since we were all from California, we appropriately named our team “Calimanjaro”. We snacked, met our additional local guides, got a glimpse of some of our porters, changed our layers at least 3 times and were off!
Calimanjaro was looking mighty clean as we headed out into the rain forest, here pictured at the Machame Gate.
The terrain in the rain forest was varying shades of green, absolutely lush and beautiful. We saw a few monkeys as we started out, but they would be the last wildlife we saw as we got higher and higher in altitude. We stopped to snack every hour or so as we hiked up.
Not long after our second snack we reached the dining tent, which our porters had set up prior to our arrival for lunch. Eating again? I found this soon to be a pattern on this trip, eating, eating and yes, more eating. I wasn’t really hungry but shoved down some food and had the daily lunch soup which was incredible. We hiked on after lunch and the rain forest opened up to some shrubbery and our first view of the mountain. It looked soooo far away!
Late afternoon we arrived at camp one, Machame (9,900 ft.), and were greeted by the porters who sang and danced for our arrival. It was a fantastic welcoming.
We claimed our tents and Nicole and I decided to be tent mates for the week, which turned out to be a massive giggle fest all week. The higher in altitude we got, the funnier everything became.
The group gathered again for dinner in the dining tent, ate, and had a briefing for the next day before heading to bed in anticipation of day two.
We were woken up with a cup of hot tea deliver to our tent, which was a great way to wake up. I really need to figure out someway to arrange this at home! After a quick breakfast we were off. We hiked up, and up for a total of 2,600 ft. of climb for the day. We learned about going “pole pole” or “slowly, slowly” in Swahili in order to acclimate.
I am told the terrain in the morning was heath forest and afternoon it changed to moor lands. Don’t ask me what those mean.
We had another nice lunch in the big blue dining tent, and then headed up again. The afternoon terrain had quite a bit of volcanic rock, scattered with some unusual vegetation…Senecios and Lobelia (a few species often pictured in Kilimanjaro shots).
I loved the terrain in the moor lands. It was unlike anywhere I have even been before with the volcanic rock and unique vegetation. We got into camp, Shira (12,300 ft.), late afternoon and had another scenic view of the mountain. Temperatures really started to drop and out came the puffy layers.
At the end of this day, my stomach was telling me bad things were about to happen. I couldn’t eat anything at dinner and I felt like something was going to explode one way or another, but that never happened. I went to bed feeling like I got punched in the stomach and just hoping that the feeling would pass the next day. I also discovered on this day that I cannot sleep at altitude…at all.
Day 3 was a great day. The first half was rather uneventful as we trekked up through very rocky, volcanic terrain. I found myself still unable to eat, but that was ok, as it was not the first time I have been running on empty.
After pretending to eat lunch, we decided as a group to add the Lava Tower into the day’s itinerary. Lava Tower pictured below on the right was just that, a tower of lava that we scrambled up without our gear. It was fun to get in a little bouldering to vary up the hiking.
From Lava Tower the trail descended through a valley filled with prehistoric looking trees called Senecios. The valley was filling with a low layer of clouds which gave the whole descent a very mystical feeling and I would not have been surprised if a dinosaur crossed the trail. I decided to run most of this descent, which felt fantastic, although it was a tad awkward running in hiking boots. A few of us arrived early in camp and climbed down to a glacial waterfall and attempted to rinse off a few days worth of dirt and grime.
Our campsite, Barranco (12,800 ft.) sat in the shadow of the mountain and so far this was my favorite campsite. Just gorgeous.
Evening activites went as usual: food, card games and playing with the pulse oximeter. The handy pulse oximeter measured our oxygen saturation and pulse rates to make sure we were still alive. So far so good!
Today was our shortest day. We had to cover a little ground to shorten the length of summit day, so there was a lot of downtime.
I attempted to learn the Kilimanjaro song that the local guides had been singing for the whole trip that starts with “Jambo, Jambo Bwana, Habari Gani…”. That’s about as far as I got, because I quickly discovered that my memory shuts down at altitude, fail!
Once again we were greeted with song and dance. What better way to end the day with a little butt shaking? We camped at Karanga Valley (13,300 ft.).
We layed around most of the afternoon. It was always a good laugh when the porters brought us a bowl of water to clean up with as we had so many layers of dirt, that scrubbing our hands did next to nothing. We enjoyed the horizontal time, giggling away before dinner and a briefing.
Today was the beginning of what would seem like a never ending day that melded into 2 days. Our first mission was to get to our high camp at Kosovo (15,600 ft.).
We slowly hiked up through a high desert plateau covered with volcanic boulders, and had a lunch stop in the dining tent before making it to high camp.
We arrived at high camp early afternoon, and after a summit briefing and early dinner we laid down around 5pm in an attempt to sleep until 11pm when we had to get ready for the summit. Below is a view of Mowenzi Peak seen from our campsite to the south.
Day 6 – Summit Day!
We woke up at 11pm, or I should say we got up as I don’t think many of us really slept. We packed our bags, had a light breakfast and were off with headlands donned at midnight. Dianette and I took off with a local guide, Daniel, as we wanted to go a little faster that the “pole pole” pace and we also wanted to do an additional hike down into the crater. The predicted time to reach the summit (3,726 ft. of gain) was somewhere between 6 and 9 hours.
I trodded along behind Daniel, following his footsteps in the dark and taking frequent deep breaths to keep ahead of the altitude. We took a few short breaks to refuel, but we didn’t stop long as the temperatures were getting colder and colder. It was a challenge to keep my face covered by my buff and breath at the same time, a technique I definitely need to work on.
Suddenly around 3am we reached the first summit, Stella Point (5756m). Hmmmm, that was faster than expected, yet it was exciting as I knew the main summit wasn’t much farther and we had this in the bag. We continued on to the main summit, Uhuru Peak (19, 340 ft.), and soon enough the big green summit sign was reflecting in the light from our headlamps. It was 4:20 in the morning when we arrived, we will thrilled! The stars were incredible and I enjoyed the experience of having the summit to ourselves at 4 in the morning, but then we realized, “what do we do now?”. We attempted to stay on the summit, putting on every layer of clothes we had, but I was watching my water freeze over by the second, and I couldn’t feel my nose or chin. Dianette was curled up in a ball and I was pacing around, when finally after 20 minutes I said “we have to go.”
Daniel lead us off the summit and down into the crater. We hiked on and a little over an hour later the sun began to rise just as we were reaching the crater. The views were spectacular!
We could see the crater below us and the summit that we had just climbed down from behind us. It was quite the treat, and once again we had it all to ourselves. We could see some camera flashes of others in our group hiking up the rim to the summit which was exciting as we then knew that everyone was going to make it.
We did a loop back to Stella Point, got some photos in the daylight and then ran back down to high camp.
It didn’t take long to get back to camp and by 8am we were laying around in our tents. The rest of the group arrived over the next few hours, and after lunch we packed up and headed down even lower on the mountain to Millenium Camp (13,000 ft.).
I had felt great during the summit climb but on the descent I could feel a small headache creeping up so I was happy to get to lower altitude. On the descent we took the Mweka route on the southern side of the mountain. There are certain routes designated for ascent and certain routes designated for descent which makes the flow of porters and hikers go quite smoothly.
We were bushed at Millenium Camp as it felt like we had been going for 2 days straight. After dinner we headed to bed for an early wake up to hike out the next morning.
We had a 5am wake-up call this morning, but I don’t think any of us really minded as we were ready to get off the mountain. I was dreaming of a shower and a bed. We hiked a couple hours through the shrubs before the vegetation turned to rain forest.
The rain forest was a welcome change visually, but the mud was not. It was super muddy and I was doing everything not to slip and fall. The concentration required to get through this section was a lot more than I anticipated, and my brain had just about had enough. I was way too annoyed to take a picture. But the end was near and soon enough we were there! Done, done and done! I downed a Serengeti Beer at 11am which was the best tasting beer I have had in a while. We had a great lunch buffet awaiting, and when everyone arrived the porters did a final dance.
After lunch, everyone loaded up in cars and drove the 2 hours back to Arusha, where we were finally able to clean up a weeks worth of grime. We had a celebration dinner at a swanky Dutch place in town which was a true celebration of a great week with everyone on team Calimanjaro successfully reaching the summit.
Overall a fantastic trip, and fun to see how my body did at 19,340 ft., which it did quite well. Although we had a very strong group, doing the climb over 5 days (which was a day longer than some other group’s itineraries), enabled everyone to acclimate appropriately and reach the summit. As we learned on the mountain other groups going up at a faster pace had a 50% summit rate, and we definitely witnessed some people that looked absolutely destroyed by the altitude.
So the “pole pole” lesson is learned, and what a fantastic mountain to get some altitude experience. The varying daily terrain is unique to Kilimanjaro, beautiful and unlike anything I have every seen. Would I do it again? Absolutely! Having 4 people in our group that had already been on the mountain at least once does tell you something.