I’m back in the land of the Internet! I want to record our trek up Mount Kilimanjaro for future reference and as a memento of our hard work – so here goes!
Arrival in Tanzania – August 19th 2009
We set foot on Tanzanian soil at Kilimanjaro airport (Kili is the only mountain in the world with its own airport!) at around 8pm. My first thoughts were – it’s dark! There didn’t seem to be many lights on the ground as we came into land and it was difficult to see much outside as it was pitch black. I expected to be hit by a heat wave when I stepped off the plane but was surprised to find the temperature similar to the UK, and there was not the humidity that you get in Asia – if anything it was a little bit chilly.
After filling in a couple of forms, being checked out for swine flu by a masked man in a white coat, and clearing customs we were relieved to find everyone’s bags had turned up – if they hadn’t it would of made things tricky and we all had checked in two bags! Our tour was arranged through Bobbys Camping and there was a guy waiting with a sign with my name on it to pick us up. We were then descended on by a load of guys trying to help us with our bags – rather naively we let them help us, which of course they only did because they wanted some tips – how many times have I been caught out by this around the world!
I was pleased because Bobby’s had sent a large Land Rover to ferry us about! Our gear and us all somehow got crammed in and we were off into Africa! The drive to the town of Arusha took about and hour and it was tricky to see much as it was pitch black outside, apart from the odd small settlement with a load of guys stood around a pool table! After a short briefing on our trek and safari at the Bobby’s office we arrived at the Outpost Lodge, which was to be our base for our trip, a pleasant hotel in a leafy suburb of the town. All seemed to be going well – until……
….Tom realised he had picked up someone elses bag at the airport! Disaster! All his Kili trekking gear was in the bag so it was a potential show stopper unless his bag could be located. The bags did look similar in red and black, even though it was a Gelert bag as apposed to Tom’s Hi-gear variant, and the bag had someone else name and lock on it! After a bit of a panic and a few calls it was arranged that Tom would head back to the airport at 5am to see if his bag was still there and return the other bag.
Day 1 – Machame Gate to Machame Huts – August 20th 2009
Our day started early (not as early as Tom’s!) as we were due to be picked up at 8:30am and we had some last minute packing to sort out – this mainly involved asking each other “are you taking such and such?” and “do you think we will need this?” – never in the history of man has a packing list been so hotly debated! Tom returned to the hotel with his bag, it was waiting for him at the airport, feeling a little relieved (spare a thought for the poor chap whose bag Tom took) – of course the rest of us gave him plenty of stick about it for the rest of the trip – “are you sure that’s your bag Tom?”.
Here’s the pre-trek photo taken on the first morning :
After a quick breakfast we meet up with our guide Frederick and again crammed all our gear and ourselves into the Landy and headed off . We got our first glimpse of Africa as we stopped in Arusha to exchange some money into the local currency of Tanzanian Shillings – US Dollars are widely accepted but Shillings can only be bourght or sold within Tanzania. At the time of our trip it was approx 2200 TSH to the pound, hence we ended up with big wedges of cash!
The journey from Arusha to Mt. Kilimajaro took about an hour and a half, and because it was quite cloudy we didn’t get a glimpse of the mountain as we approached. We passed through several small settlements and it was interesting to see how the locals go about their daily life’s, it was starting to sink in we were in Africa. As we approached the mountain we ascended up to 1800m to the Machame gate, which is as far as vehicles can go. The gate is a bustling place where each group must register their details with the authorities who control the mountain, we would each have to ‘check in’ at each campsite to ensure no one went astray. There were lots of porters who seemed to be either trying to get work or be complaining about the weight that they must carry. Each porters load had to be weighed to ensure it was within the 15kg limit set per porter, although further up the mountain it seemed they carried much more than this. Just outside the gate were loads of souvenir sellers who would build up into a frenzy of frantic sales pitches if any unsuspecting tourist got too close – Kimberley decided to but a wide brim Kili hat and was instantly mobbed! Heres a photo of the gate:
Eventually we got the signal to start walking and personally I was relieved to get going as all the planning and packing had been going on for ages. We must of set off quite quick as after 5 mins we realised our guide wasn’t with us, our assistant guide a nice softly spoken chap called Fostine soon caught up. The path was a mud track through the jungle that had been smoothed by the passing of the many feet it carries each day. The first mile or so was wide enough for 4×4 access but it soon narrowed meaning the only way forward was on foot.
The trail was in the main up hill but not uncomfortably so, taking us from 1800m to 3032m over about 10km, it was a pretty gentle introduction into what lay ahead. The air was fresh and it wasn’t too hot as the forest provided shade from the blazing sun, which occasionally shone through the trees. Higher up it got hotter and I changed to shorts mode, which turned out to be the only time on the trek. I expected to get attacked by mossies in the jungle section but I don’t remember seeing any until we reached the camp. The jungle began to thin out just before we got to the camp, long grasses and giant heathers took over, and on the right we also got our first view of the Kibo peak – it looked a long way to the top!
The porters had setup the camp before we arrived and a brew was quickly produced along with a large plateful of popcorn 🙂 As the sun went down the temperature dropped and we were all reaching for warm jackets, which made me wonder how cold it was going to be further up! Dinner was soup and a beef stew, just the ticket. As there were five of us and there were three two man tents Pip, Rich, and I shared the luxury (you could spread out all your stuff!) of having a tent to ourselves – swapping every night. After a game of cards we were in bed pretty early, which would become the trend for the trek.
Day 2 – Machame Huts to Shira Camp – August 21st 2009
After a breakfast of fruit, toast, omelette (with ketchup), and sausages we set off in good spirits. The path was steeper than the day before and due to there being no tree cover there was little respite from the sun and it was very dusty – by the end of the day we were covered. We were now above the cloud forest and the views were great with the Kibo summit and Mt. Meru in sight.
The vegetation grew smaller as we climbed higher, following a ridge with several false summits up to our lunch stop about the halfway point. The after lunch session was good fun with lots of rocks and boulders to scramble over or round.
The trail rose up to 3899m on the Shira Plateau before flattening out and then dropping down to the Shira Camp at 3847m, one of the nicest campsites on the trek. Looking out from my tent I could see a clear view of the jagged peaks of the Plateau in the distance, superb.
Again as the sun set the temperature dropped and I was pleased I decided to purchase a down jacket. We had covered only about 6km but looking back it was one of the best days on the trek.
Day 3 – Shira Camp to Barranco Camp – August 22nd 2009
If the day before was one of the best day three, for me, was one of the worst! It was a long day, covering about 10km and taking us up to 4642m before dropping us down to 3985m at the Barranco camp, thus we gained just 138m in height but it served as useful acclimatisation – even if I did end up with a nasty headache.
Ominously I woke up with a nasty sore throat, perhaps brought on by the dust the day before, and unexpectedly the tent and ground were covered in a layer of frost. The frost soon disappeared as the sun came up and the day began with a gentle ascent up towards the Western slopes of Kibo, we soon left the grass vegetation behind and encountered a boulder strewn terrain.
Our pace was slower today with Fredrick our guide taking the lead and deliberately setting a slow pace and repeatedly telling us to take it “Pole Pole” (“Slowly Slowly” in Swahili) so as to minimise the risk of altitude sickness, which we were all starting to feel. We took regular breaks, and I think this was the day the challenge of what lay before us started to dawn on us. My appetite had disappeared and I forced down a cereal bar, which took me ages to eat.
The path forked with one route going up to a lava tower at 4600m and the other skirting around the valley as a short cut for the porters. Rich and myself were not feeling great and were tempted to take the easy route but wanted to maximise my acclimatisation and pushed on at a slow pace up to the lava tower. I got a bit ahead of the group and I stopped to let them catch up, Rich was white as a sheet and didn’t seem as chirpy as usual, he explained he had just thrown up – not good. Taking it easy we reached the lava tower and took a break for lunch, the highest point we would reach for the next few days. Tom and Phil climbed the tower but the rest of us just wanted to rest. Here’s a photo of me in front of the lava tower, looking better than I felt!
Thankfully the path then descended steeply crossing a couple of streams in a gully, we then of course had to climb up the other side but then it was downhill all the way into the Barranco Valley. The vegetation returned and it was generally a much more pleasant place to be than up at the lava tower! There were giant cactus along the way, which apparently could be hundreds of years old. Eventually the camp came into view – although it still took an hour or so to reach it, I was knackered (we had been walking for eight hours or so) and just crashed straight into the tent with a big headache.
A couple of Ibuprofen and Paracetamol and I soon felt much better! The campsite had great views of Kibo’s southern face and the Barranco Wall, which we were to ascend the next day. I struggled to eat much that night, even the popcorn, this was the first time I wondered if I could reach the summit but I had the tent to myself and slept very soundly.
Day 4 – Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp – August 23rd 2009
When we booked the trek we opted for an additional day for acclimatisation, therefore what would of been a one day trek up to the final camp at 4600m was split into two days. Our mission for today was to scale the steep Barranco wall, which peaked at 4233m, and then head down into the Karanga Valley where we would camp at 4040m – thus continuing the ‘climb high, sleep low’ acclimatisation technique.
From the camp the wall looked pretty imposing, and we could make out a line of trekkers and porters slowly making there way up a winding path. We had to stash our poles away as it was a scramble up the wall required some ‘hands on rock’, which made for a nice change and was a lot of fun. Rich didn’t stash his too well, as they stuck out about a foot from the bottom of his backpack, a couple of times Phil and I nearly got an eyeful of his poles as we climbed up – we made him stash them safer. The pace was again slow and the mood good, my sore throat had abated a little and although I had now picked up a chesty cough, I was feeling much much better than the day before!
There were a few steep drop offs and a slip in a couple of sections could of been hairy but I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Most impressive were the porters who came past us carry large loads on their heads whilst somehow scrambling up the wall – respect to the porters!
There were again plenty of false summits but that just added to the fun and after about an hour and a half we reached the top of the wall and were presented with some amazing views of Kibo, Heim Glazier, and the cloud cover way below us. We stopped for about half and hour to take in the views and have some snacks.
The 5 hat posse (left to right Rich, Phil, Shep, Tom, and Kimberley) over looking the clouds below:
Our guides, Frederick (left) and Fostine (right) with the summit towering above them:
From the view point we descended down into the Karanga valley, which saw a return of the vegetation and whilst it was a bit of a scramble down some narrow and steep paths it made for a pleasant walk. At the bottom of the valley was a stream, which we were told was the last place to get water on this route – porters would have to carry water for us to the last two camps, I felt a bit guilty. As we were in the bottom of the valley we then had to do a steep ascent up the other side to our campsite. It was quite a short day with only 3-4 hours of walking but probably the most fun, and I felt re-energised compared to how I felt the previous day!
The Karanga campsite had amazing views of the Kibo summit:
However 30 mins after I took the above photo the clouds came swirling in reducing visbility to just a few meters, and the temperature dropped and everything became a bit damp – not particularly plesant – note the mountain has disappeared in the photo below!
We had arrived at the camp around 1pm so we had an afternoon of relaxing, although with the weather being nasty we had little to do but sit it out in our tents. We all crammed into one of the tents for a game of cards, very cosy!
Phil had been feeling a bit ill after dinner and went to bed early (I was sharing a tent with him), at about midnight he woke me up to ask me to find some things in his bag as he was feeling sick, and then all of a sudden he went all white and threw up – luckily he had managed to get hold of a plastic bag first! He felt better and after we had a midnight stroll to the toilet – it was freezing outside and it made me wonder how cold it would be the next night on our summit push – he slept through till morning. This was the only time I saw Phil struggle on the trek as he always looked full of energy – it seemed it was a stomach bug rather than the altitude. At that moment my cold didn’t seem too bad!
Day 5 – Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp – August 24th 2009
Next morning Phil seemed a lot better and he managed to force down breakfast, which as we would head off for the summit that night it was very important to cram in as many carbs and fluids as possible. The path was pretty gentle to begin with although the terrain soon became very barren with plenty of boulders and rocks scattered about, making it feel like we were on the moon.
We descended into a shallow valley before a steep ascent section which involved a bit of easy scrambling as we made our way towards the highest campsite on our route at 4600m. The porters as usual had left after us, packed up camp, carried the gear on their heads and past us on the way – for the small amount of money they earn its tough work!
We reached a plateau and the path then lead steeply up to the left into the Barafu camp. Apparently Barafu means ‘ice’ in Swahili, and camp is probably named after the nearby Rebmann Glacier. It was a barren campsite, with tents pitched between large boulders where there was room. It was also a lot more littered than anywhere else on the trail, which had been very impressingly clean.
We arrived at camp around 2pm, and all thoughts now turned to the summit push which we would be starting at midnight – you can see the start of the path to the summit in the background of the above photo. I think we were all feeling apprehensive, there was plenty of reassuring each other we would be ok. We debated whether to take the drug Diamox (which Rich had be prescribed) that can help to ease altitude sickness – in the end we decided not to bother as there were some potentially nasty side effects and we had got this far without it. With the sun up it wasn’t too cold and we tried to get hydrated and fed up with carbs. As we would be returning to the campsite on our return from the summit I emptied all non essential gear from my back pack so it would be as light as possible. I also used some spare socks and gaffer tape to do some DIY insulation on my camel back as we were concerned about our water freezing.
We went to bed early, about 6pm, and I was wearing a thermal top and leggings and several t-shirts, it was pretty cold! I didn’t sleep too well, I had to blow my nose frequently and found myself dozzing in and out of a light sleep, maybe due to the altitude or because my mind was thinking of what was to come….
Day 6 – Barafu Camp to Stella Point and Uhuru Peak (and back) – August 25th 2009
The summit day starts around midnight with the aim of seeing the sunrise at the summit and also allowing enough daylight for the long descent back down to 3000m. We awoke at 11:30pm but I had just been dozing anyway and I was keen to get up and get started. It was pretty cold but not as cold as I expected and as we drank a cup of tea and had a few biscuits I actually felt a bit hot – I was wearing thermal base layers, two t-shirts, a thin fleece, a thick fleece, trousers, waterproof jacket/trousers (to keep the wind out), ski gloves, woolly hat and fleece balaclava! I took off the thick fleece and felt cold! Here we are having our pre-summit brew!
Again I just wanted to get going but frustratingly it took a while for everyone to get sorted. It was pitch black so we were all wearing head-torches, which offered visibility just in front of your feet. Finally we set off and moved through the campsite towards the path to the summit – following Frederick at a very slow pace. I had read that there is no such thing as walking too slow on summit night, it’s best to take it steady to allow your body to acclimatise. Therefore I was happy plodding up watching the feet of the person in front and not a lot else!
We soon got split up as Tom and Kimberley were walking at a slower pace than Phil, Rich, and I – they also didn’t have camel backs so had to keep stopping for water breaks. So the three of us ascended with Fostine, whilst Frederick hung back with the others. Fostine was the better of the two guides, more knowledgeable and friendly, so we were happy to proceed with him.
Initially the path was a bit rocky but it soon flattered out into a shale path, that had a relentless series of zig zags up towards the summit. It was uphill all the way, there would be no downhill until we reached the top! There really wasn’t much to see apart from the feet of the guy in front of you, occasionally I would look up and see a line of head torches way above us and wonder how much further there was too go! The temperature seemed colder as we git higher (I was happy to have all the layers on now!) and I pulled my balaclava tightly to minimise any skin exposed. We only stopped occasionally to catch our breath (I had to blow nose to help me breathe). It was cold so I only got the camera out once on the way up to the summit…
I felt strong and was enjoying the sense of adventure, Fostine though seemed a little concerned about our pace, which I thought was strange as I could see lots of the head torches of groups way below us on the path, maybe he just wanted to spur us on a bit. About two thirds of the way up Rich entered a drunk like state, he was struggling to stand up straight and was staggering and tripping over boulders. He was adamant he could go on though so we pushed on, several times I had to support him as he tripped on a rock but he never stopped plodding on. By now the water in my camel back had frozen (despite my DIY insulation) and the water in my insulated bottle had gone slushy! Later on as we had a brief rest I think rich was starting to doubt whether he could make it, but Fostine pointed up to the dark shadow of the ridge and said “not far, thirty minutes”, Africa runs on a different timescale so I was doubtful but suddenly it didn’t look too much further. Unfortunatley higher up the shale got deeper and this made things a lot more tiring.
I’d been looking forward to the sun coming up and it started to rise at around 6:30am, it energised me and also showed us that we now were well within sight of the Stella Point (the end of the steep rise up to the crater rim). I was feeling pretty knackered though and the last section was on deep scree that was very tiring as you came back a footstep for every three you went forward. Nothing was going to stop us now though and we plouged on – Fostine had shot off ahead but we all went at our own pace. I set myself little targets like the next big boulder and where I would rest for a few minutes and lean over my walking poles to breathe, which was definately more difficult. I guess this lasted for about 30 mins, although it seemed like an age and it wasn’t that far, and eventually we pulled ourselves up onto Stella Point at 5752m . Not sure if it was the altitude (apparently it can induce emotion!) or the joy knowing the hard bit was over but we all got a bit emotional, I’ve not cried since I was a kid but my eyes got a bit watery for some reason! It was a feeling of great elation to have got this far.
Rich was adament that he could go no further, he could give no more and given he had been told by doctors there was little chance of him getting this high he pulled of an amazing achievement. Fostine pointed out the summit, which was a tiny dot on the horizon just over 100m above Stella Point, but there was no way I was not going to get there and I knew Phil felt the same. So we left Rich to relax at Stella Point and headed off with Fostine. The path to the summit follows the crater rim in a clock-wise direction with a gradual ascent – nothing like the painful scree we had just negotiated.
It took us around 30-45 mins to get there, at low altitude it would of been a walk in the park, but I still had to stop frequently to suck in oxygen. On our left was the stunning Rebmann Glazier so it was good to stop and admire the view anyway! The summit sign came into view and it was just a case of slowly plodding towards it – people coming down were saying “nearly there!”.
Phil and Fostine were a bit ahead of me (they are the dot on the path above) but it was nice to be alone with my thoughts coming to the final point – and even better there was no more uphill!! I got there around 07:40 and my first thought were that it wasn’t how I expected – Its not a classic mountain summit, i.e. a defined peak, it is the highest point of the crater rim. The signpost informs you that you are now at the highest point in Africa, on the highest freestanding mountain in the world at 5895m. The view with the glazier, the clouds far below, and the crater was great. There were quite a few people at the summit and everyone took turns having their photo taken with the signpost.
We spent about 20-30mins at the summit but it was rather nippy and I was concerned about Rich being on his own so we headed back down to Stella Point. Going down was rather easier than coming up and on getting back to Rich we found Tom and Kimberley with him too. They were feeling pretty rough too and looked pretty fatigued having just climbed the scree, both we adament that they could go no further. We got a group photo at Stella Point, not quite the signpost but close enough:
I forced down an energy bar but it was too cold to sit around for too long and after one last look around the crater Rich, Phil, and I followed Fostine down the scree – Tom and Kimberley wanted to rest a while longer. Going down was a lot lot easier than coming up as you could ski the scree down – it was however tiring on the knees and given that we had now been on the go for 8 or 9 hours we were pretty shattered! A couple of times I took long breaks sat on a rock, it was hard to get moving again but I was looking forward to a lie down back at the campsite. I also found my the skin around my nose and lips to be cracked and sore – we all suffered this, probably bought on by breathing very cold air and not helped by the cold I suffered for the past 5 days. As the campsite came into view I found a bit of energy and went off a little ahead of the others. Around three hours after we left Stella Point we arrived back into camp, immediately I went straight in the tent and whilst the mattress and sleeping bags were put away I just lay on the hard floor and passed out! I think I was out for about 30-45mins at which point the others were sat having a brew. Unfortunately there was still more decent to do as we had to go from 4600m to 3000m that afternoon, so there was little time for a rest – I was dreading it! However, after some food (soup was great) I felt a lot better and was now eager to just get on with it.
The decent was actually not that bad and as we started I felt re-energised, possibly due to there being more oxygen about the more we descended! I went off slightly ahead of the others with Fostine and the porters who were walking pretty quick, so I soon found myself way ahead. I found a rock and sat down with Fostine having a chat about the night before and eating chocolate. Eventually the others caught up and the mood was definitely a lot happier than the night before!
Phil and I went at quite a quick pace, I was striding out the downhill as I was keen to reach the Mweka campsite where we could finally get a bit of rest! Soon we found the vegetation returning, at first just small signs of life such as lichen on the rocks, but soon the giant heather returned and the path became more dusty. Unfortunately there were a lot of steps on the trail, which just hurt our knees and obviously weren’t popular as alternative paths had been made just to the side of the main trail. The vegetation got bigger and bigger and soon it shaded the path completely. We kept thinking the campsite “must be around the corner” but the path just kept going! Eventually the jungle reappeared and our campsite with it! It had taken us 2-3 hours to descend what had take us 4 days to ascend! Phil and I arrived about an hour ahead of the others and went straight in our tents for a lie down! We had walked for around 16 hours of the past 24 hours!
The Mweka campsite was busy and noisy with lots of groups and porters having done the hard bit now letting off some steam, there were also some cleaner toilets – luxury! It was still cold, but I was enjoying the richer air (everything felt fresh and suddenly I wasn’t coughing and so bugged up) and the not so desolate campsite! We sat down for our final dinner on the trek, which as always was soup but then strangely rice and baked beans – not the nice carb rich meal we were wanting, we had obviously used up all the other ingredients! I slept very soundly that night!
Day 7 – Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate – August 26th 2009
Next morning after breakfast it was customary to tip the 2 guides ($70), cook ($50), and 10 porters ($30 each),and it was nice to thank them all individually. We weren’t sure if the amounts were enough but the guide book had said they would act as if it wasn’t – there were no complaints so maybe we gave them too much! Given that a porter must pay his own transport to and from the mountain, and for his food, and then carry all our gear on their heads they more than earned our small token. Several of us gave a little personal tip to Fostine as he had been great – the better of the two guides, even though he was the assistant!
From Mweka camp it was downhill all the way (lots of painful steps) through the jungle to the Mweka gate and our waiting transport to the land of showers, beer, and a decent meal! Having not had these luxuries for the past 7 days this was now very appealing! We had 1400m to decend and we again went at a good pace, although porters came past us even faster! I was with Rich, Phil, and Fostine (who looked as keen to get down as us!) and we were in high spririts, it rained most of the way down but this was quite refreshing as apposed to the dusty air higher up.
It took us about two and a half hours to reach the gate which was bustling with porters packing gear onto 4x4s and showering in the facilities provided. There was a toilet with running water, a real luxury and I was able to wash my hands properly for the first time in a week – my nails were disgusting! There were also a lot of people touting for business and we quickly bought a coke and paid about 2000TSH for some lads to clean our boots, gaitors, and poles – lazy I know but thats about a £1 and they were very dirty!
We signed out with the authorities, picked up our ‘we climbed Kili’ certificates, bought souvenirs suchs as ‘Just Done It – Kilimanjaro’ T-shirts and then headed for the waiting Landrover. An hours drive and we were back at the Outpost Lodge, the hard work was over! Showers soon followed and we sorted our gear, I just dumped all the dirty clothes in a bin bag and then headed to the bar for a well earned burger and chips washed down with ‘Kilimanjaro’ beer!
On the plane home I flew past Kili and was amazed at the size and scale of the mountain, which was piercing the clouds and wasn’t too far from the planes cruising altitude. It was strange to think we had climbed to the top of it from such a perspective.
It was an amazing experience and looking back now whilst it was one of the hardest things I’ve done it was also one of the most enjoyable. The challenge to get to the summit was forefilling and to have completed it very satisfying. Following the recent BBC ‘Red Nose Climb’ there is a perception that it is not too hard, this is a myth – altitude can not be under estimated. That said anyone with a reasonable fitness level and more importantly the will and determination to get to the top can do it – just take it “Pole Pole”!
I would throughly recommend it to anyone!
I’ve uploaded all my Kili photos here.