Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa is an impressive sight. Arising from the surrounding plains as a single volcanic peak adds a certain level of majesty. Our party of 8 got a glimpse of the peak on arrival into Arusha on our Precision Air flight from Nairobi.
Simba Camp – 2700m
After getting settled for a night in L’Oasis hotel we were packed and on the bus towards the entrance to the Kilimanjaro National Park. Our guides Deo, Idris and Keplo from Team Kilimanjaro led the way. Our arrival at the park entrance at 2,100m began with lunch before taking the first steps towards the summit along the Rongai route. The Rongai route is one of about 4 routes to the top, but we’re told this is the most scenic route as compared with the more popular Marangu or ‘coca-cola’ express route.
‘Pole, pole’ we’re instructed by Idris. ‘Slowly, slowly you reach the top’. he translated.
While the extreme slowness could be seen as over the top, it was an acclimatisation technique to pace ourselves so as not to get affected by altitude sickness. Mount Kilimanjaro stands at 5,895 which is significant. Taking our time to this altitude will be crucial for success.
Arriving into Simba camp after 3 hours walking we are at 2,700m having hiked 600m on our first day. Everyone felt good and we have a perfect view of the Kilimanjaro peak as backdrop to our campsite. We’re told buffalo still roam freely at this altitude so we’re cautioned about night visits to the toilet and being wary of long horned visitors.
Kikelena Camp – 3678m
Awake to a hearty breakfast with the climbing team including porters and kitchen staff doing a great job in keeping us well nourished and hydrated along the way. Our warning of buffalo in the night seemed misguided after we came across fresh elephant droppings not far from camp the next morning!
Ascending just over 1000m over 6 hours on this day to 3,678m meant we were quickly getting into serious altitude. It was noticeably more difficult to breathe and the ‘pole, pole’ advice began to seem logical.
Camp that night was on a steep slope on the Kenyan side of the mountain. Settled into bed early we were awoken at midnight by a thunderous storm. The rain seemed to get heavier and heavier. Then just as it wasn’t possible to get heavier it turned it up a notch, again and again. Thinking we’d all just get blown of the mountain I peeked outside to assess the situation. Our tents looked like they were setup in a raging river. Torrents of water cascading down the mountain around us. Inside our tents there was a trickle but the bulk of the torrent was being held off. Impossible to sleep it was some hours before the storm subsided and thundered on it’s way.
Taking stock in the morning we witnessed other camps wringing out soaking sleeping bags and damaged tents. We counted ourselves lucky we remain dry for the most part, knowing wet gear would not dry too well the further up we travelled.
Mwanzie Camp – 4303m
A shot sharp climb to the base of Mwenzie Peak. The second main peak on Kilimanjaro. We arrive around lunchtime and are afforded an acclimatisation climb in the afternoon. These climbs allow us to push to a higher altitude but return to a lower altitude to spend the night, hence speeding up the acclimitisation, in theory. Already though one of our party is feeling the effects and to be honest we all are quite laboured in our breathing.
Mwenzie camp is set in a saddle between two peaks and it is noticeably colder. At sunset the ground freezes, crunching under our feet as we make our way to out tents. Awaking for a toilet stop in the middle of the night reveals a decent snowfall has taken place, yet looking to the sky it is clear, all except the millions of stars. So distant yet you feel you could reach out and touch them.
Horombo Camp – 3734m
Morning brings a freezing start to the day. Also I must mention the toilets which perched on the edge of a cliff are both the most precarious yet picturesque toilets I’ve had the displeasure of using. After a full camp of hikers had given them a workout.
A short ascent out of Mwenzie is followed by a descent to Horombo Camp which meets up with the more popular Marangu route trail. Known as the coca-cola route for it’s popularity as the express route to the summit, albeit not as scenic.
Horombo is where we will return after our summit attempt in two days time. Horombo has cabins setup for trekkers although we remain in our tents. We have also begun a nightly tradition of playing Uno card games. Making up new rules as we go to keep the game interesting. Again spoilt by the cooking ability of our climbing crew.
Barfu Camp – 4800m
Beginning in the morning we were sad to have to leave behind one of the climbing team who valiantly attempted to continue, yet wisely decided to stop. The acclimatisation just not working out. Very much a luck of the draw affair with fitness or experience at altitude not always a defining factor. He was to wait at Horombo under watchful eye of a dutiful porter before we arrived back the following day, hopefully after summiting.
Arriving into Barfu Camp after a steep traverse across a rocky valley we are looking up to the famous glacier firmly stuck to the side of Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro. Tents pitched on the narrow peak at Barfu Camp with not much room to stretch the legs.
It is an early night as we will wake at midnight to attempt the summit with the intent on arriving to meet sunrise over Africa.
Uhuru Peak – 5895m
Getting out of a sleeping bag and into layers of clothing within a small tent containing two people is a logistical challenge at the best of times. That coupled with the anticipation of ascending Africa’s highest mountain and having not slept well in the past few nights. Not the best preparation for probably the most arduous day of your life to this point.
Setting off, the extreme cold in the air is noticeable, yet immediately I feel like I’m overheating so a open up all my jackets to let off some steam, literally. At 2am we intersect with the bright lights of TV cameras and shouting and cheering of a large crowd. Quite perplexed, we struggle to keep connected to our climbing party among the crowd.
It turns out a British comic-relief charity event featuring Ronan Keating, Cheryl Cole and Gary Barlow had just commenced their summit attempt from a higher camp! Eventually we regathered our team and set off again. Looking skyward the night sky full of stars blended with the snaking trail of head torches ascending upwards. Mostly though my focus was on the back of the boots in front of me. Each step followed by a deep breath and an occasional doubling over on my walking sticks to regather my breath.
Focusing as I was on the boots in front. The light from the head torch illuminating the reflective strips on whomever’s boots they were gave off some hallucinatory images of shadow puppets dancing across the stage. It was about this time I did for the first time question if I was going to actually make the summit. I simply could not catch my breath back no matter how slow I went.
We stopped for a much needed cup of hot tea. Looking at my fellow crew gave me some confidence as most looked like I felt! We were asked if we’d ate anything. I had not so I devoured a frozen Mars bar I’d stashed in my pocket at camp. This hit of sugar made me feel remotely better. Others had trouble drinking simply because their water bottles had frozen. My water was in a bladder in my backpack under my jacket to prevent freezing. So after taking my sips I handed the bladder nozzle to the others to drink from which felt like I was breast feeding them!
Onwards and it was certainly ‘Pole, pole’ to the edge of the Kilimanjaro caldera, the rim of the extinct volcano Kilimanjaro once was. We sat and were handed a Red Bull. Again, it was much needed sugar. I knocked my can over and the spilled contents immediately froze to the ground. The wind had picked up and it was bitterly cold. I risked taking my hands out of my gloves for my camera and a stinging pain immediately shot through my fingers. It was 10 minutes before I got feeling in my hand again.
Another hour along the crater rim to the summit. Quite delirious now, combined with exhaustion it was hard to take steps in a straight line and this feels like a place I shouldn’t be, or shouldn’t be for long. In the distance some bright lights are filming the Comic-relief celebrities. It tuns out this is at the summit. We check to ensure we are all present and assemble for obligatory summit pictures under the iconic Kilimanjaro signpost. It feels surreal to be at the top of Africa. It also feels like I’m quite drunk and I stumble a little aimlessly and clumsily over relatively flat ground.
It is apparent that it is best for all concerned if we, or at least I make my way down. I start walking down figuring it is still a long way to get to an altitude at which I’m likely to feel normal. Luckily, our descent is via a different route, down a scree slope. Scree is loose, light volcanic stone known as pumice. It gives way under my feet allowing a fairly fast paced run downwards with the loose stone absorbing my fall with no risk to breaking an ankle or leg. With every step I felt better until we reach a small abandoned cabin at the base for a break.
From here it was a solid hike back to Horombo Camp. After 12 hours of solid climbing and descending I fell into the tent absolutely exhausted but elated at making the summit I thought I’d never reach.
The next morning was a 20km hike down to the exit of the park. Towards the gate I felt super human with the oxygenated air filling my starved lungs and gave me a definite spring in my step! Getting the official Kilimanjaro certificates was a nice touch but I think my memories of the summit will suffice for a souvenir.