Taking on Mount Kilimanjaro – A worthy Foe

So I’ve returned from my battle with Africa’s largest mountain. Kilimanjaro has been described as a fairly moderate climb, with no technical skills required, and any somewhat fit person can get to the top. It has been also described as a long hard walk. So going in, I was pretty confident I would be able to get to the top fairly easy, even without any specific training for the climb. Little did I know what I was really in for!

Mount Kilimanjaro stands at 5895m or 19341 ft. The mountain has a number of different routes you can climb, ranging from easy to difficult. I chose the Machame route, nicknamed the Whiskey Route, in comparison to the easier, Marangu route which is nicknamed the Coca-Cola route. Machame is probably the 2nd hardest route on the mountain, with the Umbewe route being the toughest, but that route doesn’t appear on most outfitters itinerary. All routes get hard on Summit day, as there is no easy route to the top.

I chose Machame as I figured it would be a good test, and I also figured there would be less people, as my guide book had indicated that 70% of people choose the Marangu route. However, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that there were a great deal of people on the climb. In our camp, there were probably 200-300 people, when you included trekkers, guides, cooks, and porters. It was like a mini city each time we got into camp, and the city kept moving up the mountain.

Despite feeling a little overcrowded in an attempt to experience nature, the set up is pretty good. Basically the only things you have to worry about on the climb is walking and sleeping. Everything else is done for you. Porters carry your gear and set up and take down your tent for you. The cook takes care of the meals and cleans everything for you. Basically, I was treated like a king while on the mountain, all I had to do was walk and wait for my next meal. And appears that all outfitters take the same approach, and go out of their way to make it a good experience for each climber, and make sure they are well attended to.
The food was awesome on the trek. There was always more than enough to eat, they made sure you were not hungry and the meals were all very good.

The porters are amazing, some days we would leave camp, then the porters would take the tent down, yet by the time we roll into the next camp, the tents would be all set up for us! I don’t know how they passed us all the time, but they carry a lot of weight and boot it around the mountain pretty quickly.
The porters work extremely hard. They even carry tables and chairs up the mountain, and have it all set up for some groups when they come in to camp. I thought that was over the top, as that is not how I really envision camping, but as I said, they go up and beyond the normal expectations.

I won’t give a complete summary of the trip, don’t want to bore you too much, but here was the itinerary and the distances each day:

Day 1: Machame Gate to Machame Camp – 4hrs – 10.75 km (1811m/5942ft -> 3021m/99llft)
Day 2: Machame Huts to Shira Cave – 4hrs – 5.3 km (3839m/1205ft)
Day 3: Shira Cave – Barranco Huts – 6hrs – 10.75 km (via Lava Tower at 4627m/15,180ft, finish at 3986m/13,071ft)
Day 4: Baranco Huts – Karanga Valley – 3hrs – 5.3 km (4034m/13,235ft)
Day 5: Karanga Valley – Barafu Huts – 3hrs – 3.2 Km (4662m/15295ft)
Midnight: Barafu – Summit – 6hrs – 4.8 km (5895m/19341ft)
Decent at 6am: to Barafu – 3 hrs – 4.8 km
Decent at 2pm: to Mweke Camp – 4 hrs – 18 km
Decent to Mweke Gate – 3 hrs – 10 km

On day 5 we got into Camp about 12:30pm. We had lunch then we did a 1.5 hour acclimatization walk then back down to rest. The agenda for the day then was to rest up and be ready for the summit attempt which started at midnight.
Two things about the trek I should mention, acclimatization is very important and the days are hot and the nights are very cold!
There are a lot of people that end up not making it to the top of Kilimanjaro, and the main reason is due to the altitude. As I said, the walk itself is not overly difficult, demanding at times – yes, but as long as you put one foot in front of the other, it can get done. But altitude sickness you can’t do anything about, and depending on how severe, you have to go back down.
A number of climbers take Diamox, the trade name for acetazolamide, which is supposed to help you deal with high altitudes. I actually had some with me, but my goal was not to use it. I chose the itinerary that had an extra acclimatization day to help ensure I would be ok. As well, Machame being a tough route, you are forced to go slower, and hence have a better chance of acclimatizing as you move up the mountain. However, everyone I talked to in camp where taking Diamox, and had been for a few days, so I got a little foreshadowing of what was to come!

The days are long, as the walking is very slow. To help with acclimatization the guides keep reminding you “pole, pole” (pronounced ‘polee, polee’, and means ‘slowly, slowly’, gets really annoying when they say it all the time!!).
And the heat takes a lot out of you during the day so by the time you roll into camp you are pretty tired.
The summit attempt starts at midnight. You have to really gear up and wear layers because its pretty cold on the mountain at night, especially at that altitude.

We started at 12:00am…and things were going pretty good. Pole, Pole was the only way to go, as the string of climbers prevented anything faster. Plus, I’m not sure if it was possible to go faster. It was actually a pretty funny site, seeing these headlamps snake up the mountain. Things went pretty good for the first while, felt pretty good and didn’t feel too tired. However, at what I thought was 4hrs in, I was starting to feel the altitude. I asked Simon, my guide, what time it was, and I couldn’t believe it when he said 2:15am. I was so discouraged as it really felt like 4 hrs. I was beginning to wish the top would come in a hurry. I was also beginning to rethink my decision not to take Diamox. However, I didn’t have a headache, and didn’t have the symptoms of altitude sickness, I was just struggling to get enough oxygen, and my legs were starting to get pretty heavy. Its been a long time since I’ve put that many miles in walking over 6 days, and my legs were certainly feeling it.
I bore down and just thought about putting one foot in front of the other, trying not to think about the distance or the time.
At about 4 hours in, there was a bit of commotion up ahead and then I noticed some people coming back down the mountain. Their guide was shouting out something in Swahili, that I couldn’t understand, and seemed like the people ahead of me were getting agitated. I asked Simon what was on the go, and he said that there is a huge flood about 100m up from us, and that the guide said it was impassible. Simon said he never heard of such a thing on the trail…so this was a first. Some people ahead of us started to go back down…and I asked Simon what he thought we should do. We decided to go up and take a look at it, and felt that it was probably a flash flood and that it would go down.
I was starting to think that the time, effort and money into the climb was a waste, but I would be lying if I wasn’t a little happy that the agony might be shorter then I thought it would be!!!
However, by the time we got to the river, it was crossable and we just had to jump across. I did have a close call though as part of my foot slipped and went into the river. At that temperature 4 hrs up the mountain…it was a very close call…as if I had gotten wet…I’m sure I’ld be looking at some frostbite. But luckily the boots were waterproof and no water got in.
After that, its was a slugfest between me and the mountain. I was a bit regenerated from passing the ordeal, but the mountain quickly punched back as we got closer to the top. The last hour getting to Stella point, which is the Crater Rim (Kilimanjaro is an inactive volcano that collapsed on itself) was excruciating. By the time we got there, we were 5 hours in. Now Stella point is not the highest point though, we had another one hour walk across the top of the mountain, on the crater rim, to get to Uhuru peak, which is 19341ft. This was perhaps the longest hour of my life. It seemed excruciatingly slow and I thought we would never get there.
However, my spirits where raised during this part as about half way through, the daylight started to crest the horizon. And shortly before getting to Uhuru peak, the sunrise made its way up. It was a gorgeous site and being at Uhuru peak for the sunrise was spectacular.

As much as I would like to say, I took 100% advantage of the experience, my number one thought was to get the picture and get down off the mountain. Was really feeling the altitude at this point and wasn’t feeling the greatest. Managed to take some time to get the photo at the sign, and take some pictures of the glaciers and the sunrise. I didn’t get to appreciate the crater itself as much as I would like to, but as I alluded to, the number one priority on most peoples mind was to get the heck out of there and back down to camp!


About peterbenoite

I am the men's basketball coach at Memorial University.
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