written by Mister Stuart R The Mountain
Kilimanjaro is a massive, hulking mountain dominating the plains of Northern Tanzania. At 5,895m (19,339ft), it is the highest free standing mountain in the world and the highest point in Africa.
The mountain is an old volcano with two distinct craters - Kibo and Mawenzi. Mawenzi is the more dramatic, with towering rugged crags and incredible tightrope ridges.
Kibo is higher than Mawenzi, but appears more docile, displaying a classic steep sided crater structure. As well as being the home to the highest summit on Kilimanjaro, Uhuru, this is also where you find the famous icecaps of Kilimanjaro, that are gradually disappearing as the world heats up. Sadly, they will be gone in less than ten years.
As you ascend, you pass through several vegetation zones; lush rainforest, wild moorland, alpine desert and finally icecap.
In the morning, both peaks are generally clear and through the day they cloud over. Altitude and AMS
Climbing to Uhuru is not particularly technical with no ropes or special mountaineering equipment required (except for very warm clothing). The challenging aspect of this mountain is the altitude. Climbing above 2400m, you
Convoy of local kids heading home from school
are exposed to the impact that altitude has on your body. This can result in Altitude Sickness also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
The most common form of AMS (impacting about 80% of climbers), comes as a result of your body not getting enough oxygen. The body begins to rebel to let you know it’s not happy. You can experience dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. It can feel like an extremely bad hangover. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, climbers may have to abandon the attempt.
Far more serious forms of AMS come about if the body stops expelling liquid correctly. This results in about 2% of climbers suffering either Pulmonary Edema (fluid build up in the lungs) or Cerebral Edema (fluid build up in the brain). These can be fatal, but luckily symptoms are generally easy to spot. An early sign of Pulmonary Edema is when breathing fails to normalize after exercise, so you continue struggling for breath even when resting. Cerebral Edema can be spotted early when the victim begins to act as though drunk or insane! (Could actually be difficult to spot in some climbers, naming no names - Wendy)…
random in picking victims. Age, sex and fitness do not determine whether you are more or less likely to be impacted by AMS.
Climbers can minimize the risk however, by ascending slowly and by drinking massive amounts of fluids.
Descending quickly from altitude results in an almost miraculous recovery from AMS. The Hotel
We stayed at the Marangu hotel who also organized the climb for us. This is a gorgeous, small, family run hotel at the foot of the mountain. It was originally a coffee farm and the main building dates from that time. The cottages sit in expansive gardens with incredible views of the mountain. We loved it there and stayed an extra couple of days after the climb to relax. It is highly recommended. Preparation
To prepare us for the climb, Seamus (one of the owners of the hotel) took us through a brilliant one hour orientation session. He covered everything from the route to altitude sickness to how to tip the crew. This was delivered with finesse, humour and an obvious passion for the mountain. Seamus is 50, climbs to the summit at least once a year, and is a recognized expert on
anything to do with Kilimanjaro.
His 4 main points to take with us were 1) Watch the sun 2) Drink lots of fluids 3) Pole Pole (walk slowly) and 4) Enjoy! Although the phrase I remembered most was “Urine should be copious and clear….” - an indication of good hydration. The Climb
There are several routes up the mountain and you can do it in various numbers of days. We chose the Rongai route (approaching from the Northeast) over 6 days. This route is less traveled than most, particularly the ‘coca-cola route’ Marangu, and proved to be absolutely beautiful. On the Rongai route, you camp in tents, although there are mountain huts available on other routes.
We were taken up the mountain by our guide George, assistant guide Bryson and 6 porters to carry our combined gear, food and tents.
The first 3 days were spent climbing slowly from 1000m to 4300m. The focus was on walking slowly (in Swahili - Pole Pole, pronounced Polly Polly) to allow our bodies to acclimatize gradually and to conserve precious energy. We were both a little disturbed by the idea of slow walking (not our usual style), but soon
came to enjoy it. We were able to talk, enjoy the walk and stop frequently for photos or to absorb the stunning vistas around us. Indeed, we spent most of the first 3 days laughing so much we were afraid that George would suspect Cerebral Edema and send us down.
As we ascended, we wandered through glorious rainforests, past banana and coffee plantations enjoying the silence and occasional birdsong. We were joined for a short time by a group of kids walking home from school and were surrounded at all times by flocks of white butterflies. These butterflies would spend all day floating from flower to flower while the sun shone. As soon as the sun went behind a cloud they would lose all their energy and dive-bomb to the ground to sit, as if dead, awaiting the return of the sun.
It quickly became clear that we were on a less traveled route as we enjoyed the solitude. At night we would camp in the vicinity of 2 other groups, but through the day we were alone.
We fell into a nice routine during these days. Morning tea delivered to our tent at 7am, breakfast at
7.30, walk at 8. Usually a packed lunch, then upon arrival at camp we scoffed popcorn, biscuits buns and gallons of tea. Dinner was always great quality and very tasty.
As we got higher we became aware of the altitude, gradually our breathing became more laboured, we began to feel headachy and walking faster than Pole Pole uphill became a struggle. The temperature also became more extreme. When the sun shone, we felt the blistering heat, but in the shade or the dark it was freezing. (Near the summit, temperatures of -25C are not unusual). By day 3 we were walking and sleeping in our rather fetching thermal underwear. We both suffered bad sunburn on our hands and necks despite frequent application of factor 40 sunblock….
Nighttime was a time to rest and recover energy. Night falls incredibly quickly and as soon as it was dark we would retire to our tent. We would use this time to relax and play Hendrix (our Spanish guitar that made it to the highest camp)… Due to the volume of liquid consumed through the day we would be up once or twice through the night for very cold toilet runs. Each
time we would be entranced by the amount and clarity of the stars.
The vegetation changed as we climbed until at the end of day 3 we had reached High Alpine Desert, a harsh landscape of blasted volcanic earth and huge boulders. Occasional spiky flowers and grasses brought splashes of colour and beauty to this tundra.
Animals and birds became less apparent also. In the first couple of camps we saw monkeys, rats, mice and a few varieties of small birds. By camp 3, the only obvious wildlife were huge birds of prey circling high and a gang of oversized and angry crows skulking around.
The third camp was stunning, nestled beside a glacial lake in the lap of Mawenzi. To be sitting at the foot of the huge jagged turrets as the sun set brought home to us the seriousness of this mountain.
Day 4 dawned bright with a very deep frost. This would be our first full day at high altitude. We walked 7 km over the saddle from Mawenzi to the foot of Kibo, to a camp called Kibo. The walk down to the saddle was easy, then we climbed back up to
Kibo from 4300m to 4700m. The impact of altitude became more obvious as we found ourselves struggling for breath on the slightest incline and feeling our heartrate increase dramatically.
Throughout the morning as we continued through the blistering sun and freezing wind, we were taunted by the sight of Kibo Hut in the distance, never seeming to get any closer. Indeed, at one point it became almost like a mirage, with Wendy convinced the hut was now a hotel with an ice-cream van outside.
Kibo sits at the foot of the face of Uhuru. It is a functional place where a few routes meet up for the final ascent. As such, it has a strange atmosphere, tense, uncomfortable, busy and loud. Everyone is either on their way down from the summit (tired, sick, looking beat) or going up (nervous)….
At this point, Wendy began to feel really unwell with nausea and a pounding headache. She felt extremely uncomfortable and got no rest ahead of the impending summit attempt.
At all times at Kibo, we were aware of the mountain towering over us. 1100m above the camp at the top of the longest scree slope imaginable, the
first summit (Gillman’s Point) seemed to be daring us to make the attempt.
At 11pm, we were roused from our tent with tea and biscuits. Although still feeling terrible, Wendy got up and we prepared for the summit. (I hope I never have to rely on the inner steel she displayed at this point. With a “Let’s try”, Wendy got up and started the climb.)
We left at midnight and started up the scree. This was now the 17th February and Wendy’s 30th birthday….. a brilliant way to celebrate entering her early 30s…. George leading, Wendy, me and Bryson following. By the light of our head torches, we picked our way slowly up the hill. We were the second group out of Kibo and within an hour there was a long snake of lights meandering up the slope. At one point, I counted 11 groups below us.
Having never climbed at night I found it very disconcerting, with no landmarks and no way to estimate progress. It quickly became a mental challenge - how to keep putting one foot in front of the other when it was clear that we were going nowhere fast.
were moving. After two hours we passed a disheartening sign proclaiming “Williams Point 5,000m” We were surely higher than this!
Half an hour later we reached a cave marking halfway. We had been on the slope for two and a half hours, walking in darkness and we were only halfway! At this point, we rested and took stock. Wendy was by now very very sick. She was dizzy and nauseous with a pounding headache. So we made the joint decision that she should go down. She descended with Bryson and was back in the tent within an hour.
I continued climbing with George and at 5am we clambered over the ridge to Gillman’s point, the first summit that you reach. We were the first to the top that day and the feeling of reaching the end of the steep climb was exhilarating. As we both felt OK (except for extreme tiredness!) we didn’t stop and continued to the highest point Uhuru. This took an hour and a half of very slow walking to climb only 200m on ice and snow. It became extremely difficult as I too began to feel the impact of the altitude. It became a
Wendy the Mountaineer
.... who didn't make it to the top
struggle to walk at all, and by the time we reached the summit we were taking 5 steps then stopping for a minute to rest.
But it was worth it. At 6.30am finally I was at the top and viewing what looked like the whole world below me as the sun rose. Stunning and unfortunately indescribable! We didn’t hang around long though, we had a long descent and it was freezing. We looked at the incredible 150m thick icecaps and enjoyed the solitude at the top for a little while then set off back down.
The descent was relatively easy. As soon as we began to lose altitude I was infused by energy and we skipped / skied / tumbled down the scree back to camp by 9am. Wendy was by this time almost fully recovered and we set off from Kibo as soon as possible.
The next 2 days were a joy as we descended back to our hotel, tired, dirty but thankfully fit and well.
Turtles on Tour Valentines Day
Day 2 of our climb was Valentines Day. It’s amazing how far you have to go to get away from Hallmark cards….. Hendrix at altitude
So we convinced George that we needed our guitar, Hendrix, to come with us up the mountain. This was a brilliant move as we were able to relax each night and we’re sure it helped us both to sleep better. Not sure the rest of our crew found it quite so relaxing though. Dining Hall for Midgets
Our first dinner on the mountain was served to us in a tent - a 3 man hiking tent that had 2 chairs and a camp table in it. Very civilized but we found it a bit cramped and very claustrophobic. So from then on we avoided the dining hall for midgets and ate in the outdoors. Scariest drop toilets
The toilets on the mountain are of the drop toilet variety - basically a deep hole in the ground with a hut built over the top. Not pretty, but very functional. The toilets at Kibo were the scariest we’ve ever seen. They must have been 20m deep with a very wide hole at the top….. Very nerve wracking when you are tired and dizzy! A final thought on Altitude
As well as all the horrible impacts of
Stuart and Hendrix
... on route to Kibo
altitude described earlier, we hear that it can also make your farts smell like sausages. Apparently. People tell us this.
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