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Published: February 11th 2012
First view of Kili...
We had spent a full week in northern Tanzania, including two nights just outside Kilimanjaro National Park, before our first view of Africa's highest mountain. That first view - a magic moment - came at 5.30 am on our climb to Mount Meru, when we reached the Meru Crater and were rewarded with the most spectacular sunrise over Kilimanjaro
Kili's highest peaks of Mawenzi and Kibo rose above the clouds, and even from our vantage point, 60 km away, it looked a daunting prospect. We knew that in one week's time we'd be attempting that same summit, but for now we were happy to just take it all in from a distance!
After months of reading about Kilimanjaro and planning our trip it was great to finally see it for real and what an amazing sight it was. There are mountains and then there are mountains.... A couple of days later...
After finishing our 4 days acclimatization hike on Mt. Meru, we returned to our hotel to rest before the big one. Our group of 7 climbing Meru had increased to 13 for Kilimanjaro as we were joined by Jack, Oliver, Michael,
On top of Africa
On the summit of Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest point
Jo, David and Jean, all from the UK.
We departed the following morning at 11 am. It took us about an hour and a half to reach the Marangu Gate to pick up permits, and then another couple of hours travel along a bad road to reach the start of the Rongai route, on the north side of the mountain, close to the Kenya border. The drive took us through small villages, many of which looked primitive and very poor, with dilapidated huts the main form of housing. There is plenty of money being made from safari tours and Kilimanjaro tours in northern Tanzania but not much of it appears to be trickling down to the local people.
If we thought we had a big support group last week on Meru, it was nothing compared to this week. There were 13 trekkers in out party, with a small army of 35 support staff - porters, cooks, guides, assistant guides, assistant to the assistant guide...and so on.
So finally at 4pm we set off, and with only 2 hours of daylight left we had to hike at a fairly steady pace to reach Simba, our first camp, before
dark. It was a fairly easy hike - our biggest difficulty was following the advice we'd been given by our guide to go pole pole (slowly slowly). From parts of the walk there were good views across into Kenya. While we had had the luxury of beds in Meru, on Kili it would be all camping. Luckily Ruth and I got one of the bigger tents, which was really a big 3 man tent and had enough space to store all our bags and us comfortably! Our group felt very posh indeed as we had our own special toilet tents... and there were even two porters whose job it was to look after these toilet tents.
The Rongai route is supposed to be one of the quieter of the 7 routes on Kili but there must have been at least 50 or 60 tents there before we arrived so clearly it's becoming more popular. Day Two: Simba to Kikelewa
We were awoken at 6am by our cooks bringing us tea and coffee - I remember thinking I could certainly get used to this type of service. The sun was just coming up, the skies were clear and
the twin peaks of Mawenzi and Kibo, Kili's highest points, were in view and didn't look too far away.
So far we'd only walked 7 km but had eaten enough food for a whole expedition. As on our Meru hike, the first thing you need to adjust to on a trek is the amount of food on offer. You do burn a lot of calories hiking, especially at altitude but you also lose appetite the higher you go, so at times you have to almost force the food down.
The next morning's walk was a straightforward 3-4 hour hike up to Simba Cave, at about 2800m altitude, where an outdoor lunch awaited us. From Simba Cave, we diverted off the main Rongai Route and headed in the direction of Mawenzi. About 5km along this path we reached our camp for the night, Kikilelwa Camp, at 3675 metres. This is usually about the height when you start to notice the altitude so those of us who had been on Meru were glad of the warm up. We even had a quick game of frisbee before being told off by Jill, our expedition leader. Day 3: Kikilewa to Mawenzi
Camping in some ways is a very simple life with your main concern being shelter, food and transport to next camp. By now the whole group was into the routine of eat, walk, eat, walk, sleep. It's amazing how liberating it is to be removed from the distractions of everyday life back home such as TV, Internet, and general noise. Unfortunately there is some phone reception on Kili so you couldn't quite escape the mobile phones.
Most evenings we were in bed by 8 or 9 PM, while we awoke at first light at 6am. It's worth getting up at this early hour as this seems to be the best time for views on the mountain, as the skies are clearer and the views excellent. By 10 or 11am clouds often roll in, where they stay till the late afternoon when once again a magic broom almost seems to sweep them away. At nighttime on Kilimanjaro the stars come out to play, allowing you to see beautiful illuminated skies and endless constellations.
Back at ground level, Day 3 took us a short distance from Kililelwa to Mawenzi Tarn, where we planned to spend two nights acclimatizing
to the altitude. Mazwenzi Tarn is a small body of ground water below the jagged, intimidating Mawenzi Peak, the second highest of Kilimanjaro's three peaks. The altitude at the campsite is about 4300m and its location makes it a great place to get used to thin air. The tarn water didn't look too good but we'd be drinking it for the next 4 days so we had to get used to it quickly.
We had a rest after lunch, then went on an acclimatization hike around the base of Mawenzi. The highest point of Mawenzi peak is 5300m, significantly lower than Kibo peak, the highest of Kili's peaks. However, it's a much more difficult climb and requires special permits. This two hour hike was my favourite walk so far on Kili. We hiked above the tarn towards the south face of Mawenzi, then across a flat section to reach a ridge where we did a short bit of scrambling. Having to focus on something like scrambling is great for taking your mind off the high altitude.
By now it was late afternoon, and almost like clockwork the clouds disappeared and Kibo peak appeared in all its glory. For
Tents at Kibo Huts
This was our final camp, at 4700m altitude
the next 30 minutes we were treated to superb views of Kili's highest peak. Once the sun had gone, Mawenzi hut became a less comfortable place as the temperatures dropped very quickly. Ruth and I had slept at this altitude only once before, back in Peru, and we remembered how difficult that had been. Day 4 - Mawenzi tarn
Today, day 4 had been described as our rest day when we first saw the itinerary, but acclimatization day would be a better description. We were given our first lie in of the trip - but only until 7.30 am. The morning was spent on another hike up to Mawenzi, where we reached 4600m, and where we had our first views of the famous Saddle, which we would be crossing tomorrow to reach Kibo Huts. We could even see the zig-zag path up from Kibi Huts to Gilman's point on the crater rim which we'd be taking on summit night. Time was creeping closer and closer to the big moment. After 4 days on the mountain I was feeling good, with no symptoms of altitude and was starting to believe I could make it.
Four days on Kili
without showering or washing had also made us all very dusty and grimy. I managed a quick shower that afternoon, taking some hot water, soap and stripping to swimming togs. It felt great though you don't stay clean for long with all the Kili dust.
The longer I've been on this trip the more I began to appreciate having porters, as they do a fantastic and very difficult job. If we think we're having it tough we should try their job for a day or two. Today was our rest day but not for them. Some of the group had to ferry water and kit across to our next camp, Kibo huts, while the rest of them continued cooking and helping out at Mawenzi. While we get our own tents every night, big groups of them have to share one mess tent together. Day 5 - Crossing the Saddle
Today's walk across the saddle was excellent. It was everything I'd been led to expect with "screen saver" views in all directions. We travelled from 4300 m at the tarn to 4715m at Kibo Huts, a 9km journey that took about 4 hours. One sad sight on the
saddle is the wreckage of a tourist aircraft which crashed here in 2009, killing local guides and some Canadian tourists.
As we approached Kibo Huts, the steep, zigzag-zag path up to the top of the crater came more and more prominent. This would be our path for the summit attempt and it became more and more daunting the closer we got. Kibo Huts is like a little village and is one of the final camps for summit attempts. Hikers from the Marangu route get to use the huts, while others, like us, on the Rongai, camp outside them. I had a quick look at the huts and it looked like you'd get very little sleep in there with 16 + beds in each and people in and out all the time, so I think having the tents was a better option.
At 4700m, the best thing you can do is take it easy! We had a light lunch, then it was back to the tent to grab whatever rest we could before dinner. Over an early dinner we went over our summit plan and discussed topics such as AMS (acute mountain sickness) which most of us would feel
at some point in the next 24 hours (if not already!). The best way to measure your acclimatization is by a blood test measuring how much oxygen is in your blood, but without that equipment, taking your pulse can be one indicator. I felt reasonably good, though my pulse rate was racing. Day 6: Heading for the summit
Today, Sept 9th 2010 was one of the longest and toughest trekking days I've ever encountered. In fact, it was so tough it began yesterday. We were woken at 11pm for breakfast by the porters but I had already been woken by a South African team who had set off for the summit with a rousing call of "Team South Africa. Let's go knock off this bugger". It was freezing outside so I wore almost everything I had, dressed as if I was off to Everest. I managed a bit of toast, tea and even some porridge in the mess tent, and vowed this was the last time I'd ever eat the slimy stuff again. The night sky was clear but it was very cold. To give you an idea of the cold, I started off wearing the following:
Thick hiking socks, plus thin merino wool hiking socks
Two baselayer t-shirts
Thick Merino ice-breaker
Wind proof shell
Two pairs of gloves
We set off at 5 minutes to midnight, joining a huge procession of people in different groups heading up the mountain. It was like an extreme (head) torch light parade. With so many people out progress became slow, so our guide tried to overtake them, but this meant taking a steeper path and walking faster - the last thing you want to do at altitude. We made it to Williams point, the first stop at 5100m, without any hiccups in about 2 hours.
We had another stop at Hans Meyer Cave at 5200 metres and after that the steep scree slopes began. Onwards and upwards we slowly trudged with each step requiring more of an effort. I was stopping now every few steps to catch my breath and take a rest. At 5.30 am we finally reached the Crater Rim at Gilman's point. I was so tired from the effort that i almost collapsed in a heap and at this stage I couldn't imagine continuing.
Mawenzi is one of the three peaks on Kilimanjaro. It is 800m shorter than Kibo but very rarely climbed
We were at an altitude of about 5670 m, which meant we had already ascended 900 metres that day. However, we were still 200 metres short of the summit so Douglas gave us only 10 minutes rest here and I used every second of those to catch my breath. Just as we were leaving I took a turn for the worse and ended up vomiting all over the stones. Sorry, Gilman's point!
Many people stop at the crater rim and Jill wanted me to stop here but, just like on Meru, I felt immediately better post vomiting so I decided to push on. Most of our group had made it to Gilman's though everyone was starting to feel the altitude to some extent.
The sun was just rising as we walked across the rim but I didn't have the energy to take any photos - all my efforts were going into every step that was taking us a little closer to the top. We passed Stella Point after 45 minutes, after which the hike became a complete torture if I'm honest. My sickness was returning and I was stopping every few steps to lean on my hiking poles
Ruth at Mawenzi
Our acclimatisation day at Mawenzi saw us hiking to 4600m
and gulp in much needed air.
Tom & Jill were eager to push the group on again but I had to sit down again. I could feel sickness come on again and for the second time that morning I decorated the stones of Kilimanjaro with last night's dinner. At this point I was being ordered not to go any further but we were so clear to the summit that I gave it one more try. Vomiting seemed to again do the trick as I felt a little better and that was enough to keep me going. Ruth was a big help, walking very slowly beside me and helping me along. I think she could have run along the crater rim, she is so good at altitude.
Jill and Tom told me I'd had enough, that I was dehydrated, had no energy left and needed to go down. I almost agreed with them, but again being sick seemed to give me a quick reprieve and having come this far I suggested walking to the next corner to see how I felt.
When we rounded the final hill and I saw the famous sign in the distance I knew
Not sure it was to everyone's tasts
I could make it. This was one of the most memorable climbs I'd ever been on. Despite knowing that I'd no doubt soon feel altitude sickness again, I wouldn't have swapped it for anything. Everyone was quite emotional on the summit - and why not, as it's not every day you stand on he highest point of a continent!
We spent 20 minutes taking pictures and enjoying the views. Ruth was in flying form and I had never doubted she would get there but for me it was a close run thing. Eleven of our group of thirteen made the summit, making it a very successful climb.
The return trip along the rim was tough but once we got to Gilman's point we skipped quickly down the scree, dropping a few hundred metres in a matter of minutes. What had taken us 7.5 hours to ascend took only a couple of hours to descend. Back at camp I had a quick celebration drink of tea, then went straight to bed for a well earned rest. Day 7: The descent
Now, having knocked off that bugger, we still had a day of hiking to get back to
the entrance gate. Along with Mawenzi tarn this was a favourite part of the trip for me. With the climbing now over and no more ascent we no longer needed to worry about acclimatizing and the big night and could instead concentrate on enjoying the scenery and views and being on one of the world's iconic mountains.
We stood a little taller in our boots as we passed other groups on their way up with all that pain ahead of them. It was quite a moment reaching the gate at 3pm.
That evening we had our farewell dinner back at the hotel. Tom and Jill were off to climb Kili again with another group, Tim was planning a safari and the rest of us had a day in Moshi before returning home. We had lived out of each others pockets for the last 10 days and I'm pretty amazed how well we got on as a group.
In months and years ahead I am sure we will look back on what we have achieved on Kilimanjaro - but that evening all we wanted do was relax and enjoy a few bottles of Kilimanjaro beer.
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