Climbing Kilimanjaro

Approximately 35,000 visitors attempt to climb Kilimanjaro every year, with around 80% of them being successful.
Kili is a challenge. It is the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, rising clear from the plains of Tanzania. Depending on the route, hikers have to climb between 4,000 and almost 5,000 metres of vertical rise, typically over a span of around 6 days, although many try to make the climb faster than that. There is no real age restriction on achieving the summit, the oldest person having reached the top being 96, but the majority of people appear to be in a mid life age group, and children not being allowed above 3000 metres.

There are lots of ways to plan it, but I was recommended to do the Rongai Route on the way up, the Marangu on the way down. The benefit of this, is it takes TIME to climb the mountain and particularly to acclimatise to the altitude, while the descent is fairly fast. I would have preferred one day longer on the descent, but instead lost the nails from the big toe of each foot, on the descent, which I found the hardest part of the hike.

So, this blog is to try to give people a flavour for the hike, and to help everyone plan trips.

Around eight years ago, a friend of mine mentioned he had a significant birthday coming up, and wanted to do something he would remember, like climbing Kili. We discussed it, and forgot about it until late last year I called him, and asked if he had done it. We agreed we should and settled on this September, wanting to be at the summit close to, but not exactly on the full moon. The full moon brings out more people, and consequently the routes are busier, but we did want to have the light, a good prospect for decent weather, and every advantage, to see if we could achieve our goal.

We both settled into a training regimen. I did some mountain hiking, but especially trained on the stair-master at the club, ending with a fairly regular, almost daily routine of over an hour on the stair-master. I felt strong, ready to achieve, although I had not lost all the weight I  wanted to lose. (I was down from 220 lbs to around 205. That still left me carrying an extra 10lbs, at least, up the mountain!)

We put the word out to a few friends, and ended with a party of three. We were 200 years old, between us, 66,66 and 68, and were the oldest folk on the mountain at the time. We approached Ashish from Big Five, my favourite African adventure specialist, and he put together a package with options. Everything we needed would be carried up the mountain by porters, and we chose to go in a certain style. We could have had showers taken up, (we declined. It was too cold to undress anyway) but did elect for most of the other comforts offered. We ended with a team of 31 support staff for the three of us, and frankly had a great respect for them by the end of the trip. Two great decisions were to have one tent each, (they are a great size for one, but are 3 person tents in practise. Problem is, you get into the tent exhausted, spread your gear out, sleep funny, and each of us farted frequently, I guess due to altitude). The other decision was to have a personal porter for our day-pack. Only two of us chose that, but weighing in at 20lbs or so, (mostly water, spare clothing and food) it would have been tiring carrying it.

Our next decision was the route. We chose the Rongai Route, highly recommended by Ashish, the Marangu return, again highly recommended, and a stay in the Crater Camp at the top. All were great choices.

I spent a lot of time on the Ultimate Kilimanjaro web site, learning as much as I could about the route, (I wanted to know every day what we did, how high we climbed, how far we walked, etc)  as well as what to wear, what to bring, what to expect. I did a fair amount of hiking, including three days at Mount Assiniboine Lodge at between 7,000 and 9,000 foot altitude, getting used to hiking with poles, my new boots, etc. One distinct advantage we have is we live in Calgary, at over 1000 metres altitude, so acclimatisation should be a little easier than for those at sea level.

We got Diamox for oxygen intake, Malaria Pills for prevention of malaria, and generally checked out prior to leaving. Like everyone going on a trip like this, we also got inundated with advice. For example, I was told everyone, EVERYONE gets diarrhea; everyone; EVERYONE gets constipated (tough to combine the two); take Viagra, it increases your oxygen saturation (who knew? I took four pills at $13 a pill, but brought them home. At that price, I can think of better things to do with them!); take 5 Hour energy drinks (I did, but only on the descent, too much caffeine for comfort on the ascent); you’re too old; too fat; too out of shape; too stupid. Amazing. I think they were all given with good intentions, but only a few friends, family and staff were truly supportive. Thanks to them all.

The other thing I spent a lot of time doing was reviewing my equipment. I didn’t think my sleeping bag was good enough, so borrowed one from a friend which was GREAT. As an aside, you can rent things in Tanzania, but the quality is not so great. Both my companions complained of being cold at night, while I was roasting. With Patti, we reviewed my clothing, and spent a King’s ransom at Mountain Equipment Co-op and Campers Village, but having the various, appropriate layers proved most beneficial. So, gradually, the time to leave came closer, and off we went.

We travelled a slightly convoluted route, Calgary to Montreal to Zurich to Nairobi to Kilimanjaro Airport, but that was to get a great price on business class, which was flat beds, so we slept well before getting there. We then spent three nights at the Duluti Lodge, a comfortable, clean, bungalow type resort in a coffee plantation. We met Bernard our head guide, and went through final planning, renting equipment if we didn’t have it; etc.

Day one we were picked up at 9.30, and driven  over three hours to the Rongai Gate on the north side of the mountain. Rongai is at 2000 metres, and after filling in various forms, we started our hike to the Rongai Caves 1 camp at 2830 metres, a gentle hike of around 7 kilometres. We hiked through a forest plantation, past monkeys and people, on a well laid out trail with a decent grade. Camp was excellent, and we enjoyed a great dinner in our dining tent, after being settled in our tent, and given fresh, hot water for washing. Each dinner typically consisted of fresh soup, meat, vegetables, fresh fruit, break and cake, coffee or tea, etc, all well prepared, in copious quantities. Indeed, we had four meals a day, and were continually urged to eat more, as altitude makes you lose your appetite. After dinner, which like all our meals was served in a dinner tent, at a proper table, with electric light and chairs, we had a debriefing from Bernard before turning in.

Day two we had a further 620 metres of altitude to climb over a 9 kilometre trail which walked us into the heather zone to the Rongai 2 caves camp. Mawenzi the second peak, (only accessible to mountaineers) was in sight. We started the walk after being awakened with a hot drink, our choice of coffee, tea, cocoa; followed by a wash, and breakfast, which typically was hot drinks, hot cereal, (porridge of oats, millet  or some other grain;) eggs and sausage or bacon; toast with jam or peanut butter; fruit and pastries of some kind. Each day we hiked to reach our camp goal before lunch, although on three days that was never planned, and they served us lunch in the meal tent set up along the route. The porters, cooks and waiters were unbelievable. We would set off hiking, they would stay behind, break camp, put everything on their backs or heads, and race past us to erect everything prior to our arrival! Tanzania is a third world, low income country, and the porters earn above average wages, but they really earn it.

Day three was a shorter hike, only 4 kilometres rising 150 metres, but, we first dropped a bit, and then the trail was more boulder than the earlier ones. However, it was a pleasant, easy hike, and we got to the Kikelewa Caves Camp prior to lunch. As every day, we had a great set of meals, and I found I needed a nap or rest each afternoon, which I put down to the altitude. I also knew the next day we were climbing again, up to the Mawenzi Tarn Camp, at 4315 Metres, a gain of a further 715 metres. I had read about the Mawenzi Tarn as a youth, and had mental pictures of this romantic spot, and turned in ready for the hike. At this altitude it became colder and colder, and one thing we all did was take a suitable bottle to bed, so we could relieve ourselves without getting out of the sleeping bag. Interestingly, the guides urge you to keep drinking, which you need for hydration, but of course then at night, you need to get rid of it. I am not sure how women would handle this, but for men, it saved getting cold, and was a great convenience.

Day four dawned to the usual hot drink, and I was excited to eat and get going. Bernard felt I wasn’t eating enough, (I don’t think I have ever had that complaint from someone ) and I tried to force things down. It was an effort, and off we went, again over rugged tracks, to the tarn beneath Mawenzi. We knew a resupply of fresh food was joining us, and looked forward to getting more of the lemongrass tea we all enjoyed, and had used up. Small things to look forward to, as well as seeing the tarn I had read so much about as a teenager. Well, the tarn turned out to be a small, algae filled pond, set in a depression, which you would do your best to avoid under almost any circumstances. The water was clearly not fit to drink, (the porters brought in water from higher up Mawenzi) and it was crowded with climbers. After signing in at the park hut, we went to our camp. We had a good afternoon, and turned in ready for a long hike next day across the saddle. I did check with Bernard as to whether he felt I could make the top, and he reassured me I could. I was prepared not to go further if it would hinder my friends. From here, I don’t think any of us undressed completely until we got off the mountain, but just kept adding layers of thin, wicking layers, to allow us to keep warm, and dry while sweating.

Crossing the saddle to the Outward Bound Camp was the longest hike on the way up, 9 kilometres, and a total rise of 435 metres, although we dropped probably 250 and had to reclimb those too. It was a long day, one foot in front of the other, past the remains of a Kenya Wildlife Service plane that crashed here a few years ago. The bodies and engine had been removed, the debris left as a stark reminder of how fragile life is. The end of the day involved some serious altitude hiking, ending at the Outward Bound Camp. As a teenager I had done Outward Bound, in the UK, and I was looking forward to seeing this camp. We checked in, and settled down. The numbers here were less than at Mawenzi, as most people had headed to Kibo Camp, for a midnight or so assault on the summit, while we intended to get up at 5.00; and head out after breakfast, planning to reach Uhuru Peak in the late afternoon. The camp has had some money spent on it, with new outhouses for those using the huts, (which are very communal and sparse). I knew the next day was going to be a grim, long slog, and turned in early.

Up in the dark, a quick wash and teeth clean, a good breakfast, (thankfully my appetite had returned) and off we went at the very break of day. We had about seven kilometres to hike and 1245 metres of elevation to gain, before dropping back 265 metres to the camp site. This was the big day, and it was pretty soon that I was feeling done. We could see over to the main switchback scramble to the top, and these ant like beings hiking in a group, some on the way up, others returning to the Kibo campsite where most stayed. Pretty soon I got into the rut of just counting steps, and my first session got me to 4,000 and something before a break. We started again, and I counted to 4,500 or so before lunch which was in our tent which the cooks and waiters and porters had set up by a great rock. As we got there, it started to rain, but our luck held out, as the rain stopped prior to our recommencement, and the whole time we hiked in dry, although cold, conditions. After our great lunch, (lots of protein, fruit and carbs) we joined the main trail, and the solid uphill slog continued. Starting to count steps again, I reached an agonising 7300 or so before reaching Gilmans Point, a great photo stop just 130 or so vertical metres before the top. After the pictures, off we went circling the crater to Uhuru Peak. My friends told me afterwards the drops on either side were terrifying, but honestly I was just watching where my feet went. Uhuru Peak came quickly enough, although funnily enough it didn’t appear to me to be the highest point. Lots of photos, prior to starting down. As an aside the views were spectacular, but I took hardly any photos, it was just too much effort. So after the stop, we descended quickly some 265 metres to the crater camp, almost directly under the Furtwagler Glacier, the coldest place I ever recall spending time in a tent. Another great meal from the crew, followed by an early night and the sleep of the exhausted.

The first descent day for me was well and away the hardest. Seventeen kilometres and dropping almost 2500 metres, with the first half being brutally steep and demanding, down to Kibo. I was stumbling by lunch time, and frankly hardly able to walk, and wish I could have stopped for the night at Kibo, something I would recommend to anyone wanting to go this route. Anyway, after eating lunch, Bernard informed me I was not walking any more that day. I knew I had to do what he said, and when I removed my boots, there was a mass of blood through two thick layers of socks on my right foot. They strapped me into a stretcher with one giant, central, thankfully shock-absorber linked wheel, and ran me for two hours down to the Horombo Camp. Here again we had a great camp, a great dinner, a great rest, and an interesting ceremony where we presented gratuities. There are recommended gratuity amounts, which we exceeded by about 15% giving a total of just about $2,000 to our 31 member team. They sang a couple of songs in Swahili, and were tremendous in their appreciation and enthusiasm. Interestingly, we had also carried two miniatures of malt whisky, and a bottle of red wine, all the way up and part way down the mountain, and just felt too exhausted to celebrate, so our guides enjoyed the liquor, while we all went to sleep.

The last day was the longest hike, almost 20 kilometres, dropping 1310 metres through rainforest. As the day before, this was the Marengu Route, not one I would recommend for ascent, but fine for descent. We had lunch at a camp at the halfway point, and then descended further to the gate, which I reached again in a state of almost exhaustion. At the gate you formally sign out and receive your certificate for reaching the top, but I was so hot, (I was still in two layers of long johns, etc) I was dizzy until taking some clothing off. Then down to the buses for an emotional farewell, and the long drive, 2 hours, back to the Duluti Lodge.

All in all this was a great experience which I would recommend to anyone stupid enough to want to try it. It took two solid days back at Duluti to get energetic enough to walk around, but the trip will stay with me for a long time.