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What were we thinking?

That’s what I kept asking myself on the flight to Tanzania to start our honeymoon. Most people choose to park their asses at a Sandals resort for a week - sipping Pina Coladas on a beach. But my new wife, she decided to follow up our wedding with one of the most physically and mentally demanding challenges of our lives. This was either going to be one of those things that somehow brought us even closer together than ever before (which would be saying something given the wedding high we were still riding), or forebode a tumultuous lifelong commitment.

We opted for the longer, 7-day (5.5 days up, 1.5 days down) Rongai route. Team Kilimanjaro, the outfit we climbed with, has their own variation on the Rongai route that employs a combination of the traditional Rongai route and the Northern Circuit and offers a better 88% success rate due to better altitude acclimation than the approximately 50% success rate of the most popular (and therefore most crowded) Marangu route. The added advantages ended up being that we saw a lot more of the mountain, enjoyed far more picturesque hikes during the day (we took the Marangu route on the way down and could directly compare), and encountered far fewer other hikers.

Our crew consisted of 2 guides, 2 cooks, and 6 porters. They were impeccable. The team seemed younger, happier, and more fun than the other teams we ran into. In addition, it seemed like all of the other climbing teams knew them. That had to be a good sign.

##Day 1 We were met at our hotel, Onsea House in the nearby town of Arusha, by our head guide, Thomas Jonas, at 0730 to do the pre-climb gear check and run-through. My gear list consisted of the following:

We took a nearly 3 hour bus ride to Moshi, the town closest to Kilimanjaro, so the team could stock up on food supplies. We took the opportunity to buy some J&J baby powder (which we ended up not using at all) and some bug repellent (which we ended up needing for safari, but not on the mountain). We got ripped off at the store on the exchange rate on the deal - an expensive lesson that I seem to need reminding of on every trip. We then needed to stop at Marangu gate so our guides could get the proper permits. Things still hadn’t sunk in.

At Marangu Gate - look how fresh we are!

We hopped back in the van with the team and proceeded to Rongai Gate. Another couple (they were speaking french, so I dubbed them “French Couple” in my head) and their team was making final preparations to set off on the first part of their journey. Our team made and served us lunch before we followed.

Lunch at Rongai Gate

Since we started after mid-day, we only had time for a short 3-hour hike to Simba Camp (2,650 m/8,690 ft). On the way, we passed through plantations, a man-made forest used to supply local craftsmen with lumber for furniture and construction, and a mountain rain-forest where we saw Colobus monkeys in the trees. By the time we reach Simba Camp, the sun has set and camp has already been prepared by the porters.

Setting off from Rongai Gate

TK Update: We are at Rongai Gate, starting point of our trek and both climbers feel great and excited. Day 1 of our trek and we are heading to Sekimba camp today for overnight sleep.

##Day 2 I always wake up early while camping - Day 2 was no exception. I figure I’ll try to do some more reading, but find that my Kindle is dead. WTF. It’s completely unresponsive. This is going to be a boring week.

Early view on Day 2 hike

Our Day 2 hike promises to be the longest of the climb in terms of total distance covered on our upward journey. We pass out of the forest and into moorland. About an hour into the hike, Mrs complains of nausea. Her hypochondria kicks in and she starts getting nervous.

At this point, it’s important that I mention our mindset. We’re keenly aware of the perils of climbing to great altitude. Symptoms include headache, acting drunk, slurring words, the inability to walk a straight line, difficulty breathing or catching one’s breath at rest and, of course, nausea. The most important way to battle altitude sicknesses of all types is to stay hydrated. That’s why we’re each carrying 3-liters of water in our Camelbaks.

So Mrs is nervous. She’s worried she’s got altitude sickness. So she starts drinking a lot of water hoping that it makes the nausea go away. I’m used to drinking a lot of water to stay hydrated. Mrs is not. Her daily intake of water has not prepared her to handle drinking nearly 2-liters of water in 1.5 hours. A quick boot-n-rally is in order, and she soldiers on to lunch at Second Cave Camp (3,450 m/11,320 ft) where she sneaks in a quick nap. I’ve got to hand it to her, she’s a tough one.

Nap time

We hike on after lunch, continuing to Kikelewa Camp at the edge of the moorland. When we get to camp, we see the French Couple’s camp already set, and a new team has joined. Dinner includes french fries, which makes Mrs really happy.

TK Update: Day 2 of our trek and we are heading to Kikelewa Camp from Sekimba Camp with a nice weather on our side. Both climbers are doing very well.

##Day 3 Wake up feeling a little sore, but that’s to be expected. We’re the second ones out of camp behind the French Couple and ahead of the new, bigger group who’s still tearing down their camp.

View of our destination from Kikelewa Camp in the morning

Where Day 2 challenged in terms of distance covered, Day 3 threatens us with a steep vertical scamper to the next camp. We arrive to Tarn Hut (4600m) at the base of Mawenzi, the second highest peak on Kilimanjaro by lunch.

Sign (and bones) at Tarn Hut

Mawenzi is visually enthralling. It, like the main peak - Kibo, was formed by a volcano. Unlike Kibo, Mawenzi violently exploded leaving it jagged and intimidating. Tarn Hut is located on at the top of a steep drop off on the side of the peak that was blown out by the explosion, offering great views into the remnants of the crater and peak. There’s a bones, large and small, along the camp site floor and there’s two horns from a cow or buffalo on the sign for the camp. I didn’t think large animals made it up this far. Weird.

On the way to Mawenzi

We’re scheduled for an acclimation hike in the afternoon that gets delayed to to hail. Once we do set off, we head up a ridge around the Mowenzi crater. We reach a peak altitude of 4700m, well beyond the maximum altitude for all but the heartiest vegetation leaving mostly volcanic rocks and dust. At this point, I’m in awe of the most breathtaking views both a billowing fog and cloud wrapped Mawenzi, and a distant, sunny Kibo and realize I’m in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Looking down on Tarn Hut during the acclimation hike

It’s freezing cold at night. I have trouble sleeping. This should be a warning sign. I get up in the middle of the night to poop (Finally! The first time this hike!) and am afforded more breathtaking views of Mowiake lit up by the moon under a clear, majestic night sky that I’ve never seen before. Tanzania is the furthest south I’ve ever visited and offers mostly unfamiliar constellations.

Toilets with a view

TK Update: Both climbers woke up great at Kikelewa Camp and we are now on the way to Mawenzi Tarn hut with a nice weather on our side, good for hiking.

##Day 4 Again, I wake up early. I have to pee from spending the night shivering and drinking water. And again, I am treated to more amazing views - this time of the sun rising over the clouds below the edge of the cliff where I stand. I try to take a picture, but my camera battery is dead. Fuck me. Wait! I realize the camera must be dead because of the cold. I cup it in my hands to try to warm it and…IT WORKS!!! This must have been what happened to my Kindle, too. I’ll try to revive that later when we reach the next camp (it doesn’t end up working).

Whoa! We're high!

We make way for Third Cave Camp, which is actually at a lower altitude - approximately 3800m. The hike is easy. It’s mostly flat or downhill. We cross the “Saddle” between Mawenzi and Kibo staying largely in the moorland region. We reach Third Cave Camp by lunch and just hang out and relax and recover.

Crossing the Saddle

We come to find that the other groups won’t be joining us. They’re following the traditional Rongai route - a 6-day climb which is less likely to succeed due to less acclimation. As such, they’ve left Tarn Hut to head straight to School Hut at base of Kibo where they’ll make their final ascent from. It’s our next stop, tomorrow, too. We never find out if they were successful or not.

Part of a 2008 plane wreck on Kilimanjaro

TK Update: Day 4 of our trek and we are heading now to Third Cave. both climbers are doing very well.

##Day 5 Leading the way

On Day 5, we hike climb approximately 1100m to School Hut (at 4800m - well above almost all the clouds) by lunch. We came up through what feels like an old riverbed or lava- or glacier flow. We also pass a buffalo carcass that has been there for 3-4 years by our assistant guide’s, Ismaili Mohamed, estimation. The dry, thin air and lack of flora and fauna has preserved the carcass remarkably well. It still stinks though. Also, it’s horns are missing - do the horns at Tarn Hut belong to this buffalo?

Buffalo carcass

After lunch, we prep for our impending summit try. We pull out all the cold weather gear we have to change into after dinner/before bed. We pack everything else into one bag so that all we need to do upon waking is throw a few things in a duffel. We have dinner - at this point it is just carbs and vegetables to carbo-load for summit and because bodies don’t process protein at altitude as well as carbs. We realize they’ve been phasing protein out of our meals as we’ve progressed.

At School Hut with our guides Ismaili and Thomas

We’re sent to bed at approximately 1900. We’re only slated to get, at most, 4.5 hours of sleep. Day 6 really starts today. I wake up multiple times. Once due to the rain that’s coating our tent in a layer of ice. And once due to anxiousness.

View of camp at School Hut

TK Updates: We are now heading to School and both climbers are doing fine with a nice weather on our side. TK Update 2: We arrived at School Hut safe and well. We are on preparation for our summit attempt tonight. Everything is well organized.

##Day 6 We’re called out of our warm sleeping bags and tent at 2300 on Day 5. We eat “breakfast” at 2330. More carbs and vegetables.

About to make our push!

Our summit attempt is a 7.5km hike through the middle of the night. It’s very dark. Our guides don’t use headlamps. I’m not sure if this is because they know the trail that well, or if it’s because Mrs’ headlamp is bright enough for everyone.

We move at a pretty quick pace. I take off my snow pants because

  1. they’re bulky; and
  2. they’re hot

I’ll come to regret it.

After scrambling over really bouldery terrain, we reach the point where our route joins the Marangu route

I realize I should have brought a flask of whiskey and joke about it to the guides. They joke back that champagne would be a better celebratory drink. Jokes keep the morale up.

Mrs keeps stopping/starting. It’s starting to hurt. My legs are getting cold (see, I regret taking off my ski pants) every time we stop. And we seem to stop every time I get in a rhythm. My feet and hands are cold also. I resolve to buy really expensive gloves when we get home. I’d always wondered, Who spends $250 on gloves? when I saw them on the rack at REI, The North Face, or the like. Well, now I will.

We reach Gillman’s Point (5,681m/18,638ft) 1.5 hours ahead of schedule. Holy Shit. We made it! A round of congratuations, high-fives, and hugs. Wait, what do you mean we have another 1.5 hours to Uhuru Peak?! So, we didn’t actually make it? Ugh, soldier on.

View of Mawenzi behind the crater at the center of Kibo

As we walk along the rim, I pause frequently to take in my surroundings. It looks otherworldly. Like we were plucked from Earth and dropped on some far-off planet. Everything is draped in shades of pink, purple, white, grey and black.

Looking across Kibo

As we walk along the rim, I pause frequently because my legs are getting tired and cramped. A couple of narrow paths and squeeze points make me realize that the only thing separating me from the crater floor hundres of feet below is a small misstep.

It’s cold. Very cold. I’m colder than I’ve ever been in my life. So cold that my Camelbak has frozen despite blowing the water back through the straw into the reservoir after every pull. I get a pull from Mrs’ Camelbak and Thomas hands my my Nalgene backup from his bag. He graciously carried any extra weight I could spare. He and Ismaili have been such great guides. We pass another group where a woman is practically buing carried by her guide/porter. She does not look good.

The glaciers that looked like just a dusting of snow on the peak are MASSIVE! They’re stories tall, and could cover multiple football fields. I’m shocked at how deceiving they looked from far below.

Glaciers - with people in the foreground for scale

What’s that? Is that?! WE ACTUALLY MADE IT!!!?!?!?! Hurry, let’s take some pictures and get out of here. It’s freezing. Camera is dead. FUCK MY GODDAMN LIFE!!! Warm it up by breathing on it and snap a couple of quick photos that don’t do what I’m witnessing justice.

At the top

We set off back down. What took 7 hours to climb, should only take 2-2.5 to descend. On the way down, I get to try my hand at “Tanzanian skiing” on the way down to bypass the switchbacks. My legs are killing me as they’re developing serious cramps. I have not been drinking enough water. I slow the group down and we reach lunch point Kibo Hut (4,730 m/15,520 ft) late.

Mawenzi on the way down

We ask porters to set our tent so we can take a quick nap. Once I lay down, I don’t think I’m going to get back up. We manage to get up to eat lunch - more fried potatoes - then scamper back to tent to sleep some more. Ismaili immediately comes to get us and says we’ve got to hike another 6km/3 hours to the next camp to end the day.

Crossing the Saddle (again)

It’s mostly downhill as we cross the Saddle again, heading down the other side of Kilimanjaro. On the way down we pass the medical evacuation point and a number of stretcher carts on the way. I contemplate climbing into one and waiting for someone to push me down the rest of the way to Horombo Hut (3,760 m/12,340 ft) for our last night on the mountain.

TK Update 1: Both climbers are ready to attack the summit. They are both happy and excited. TK Update 2: We arrived at the summit safe and well, both climbers feel great and happy for reaching the highest point of Africa.

##Day 7 Wake up early, again, feeling refreshed. We’ve got 19km to cover - all of which is downhill. The day starts with the team singing us some songs in Swahili and wishing us well. We formally thank them for all their hard work.

Honestly, we couldn’t have made it without them. Everyone of the Team Kilimanjaro team: from our guides, Thomas Jonas, Ismaili Mohamed, the cook, Shukuru “Baraka Obama” Lumas, the senior porters, Damas Masawe, Antelimu Oiso, the toilet porter (and yes, Mrs was thrilled to have her own, private bathroom on the mountain), Artas Richad, and the rest of the crew: Lorgard Shayo, Yona Wilamu, Abubakari Bega, Jeams Denis, and Hismaeli Rafeal. The do this over, and over, and over like some sort of super humans climbing the mountain nearly twice as fast as us and doing everything in their power to make sure we reached the top and made our goal. They were awesome. And our planning agent Ally, who we bombarded with questions and managed to arrange everything perfectly from the time we landed at Kilimanjaro airport until we were safely at the third leg of our trip, Pemba Island. Thanks to all of them.

The crew

On the way down, we encounter climbers moving in the other direction. They look fresh and enthusiastic. I chuckle thinking that they have no idea what’s about to hit them. Then I realize that I must look ragged. Maybe I’m their reminder. We exchange “Jumbo,” the now-familiar Swahili word for “Hi,” and enthusiastically wish them luck and encourage them on as we pass. Reaching the peak was so cool - I hope they make it.

We descend fast. We’re out of the bushland and into the forest in no time. On the way down, we get up and close with a troop of Blue monkeys and glimpse another troop of Colobus monkeys in the tree tops.

As we move further down, we pass some day hikers heading to the Maundi Crater (2,780 m/9,120 ft). As we pass, I can understand enough of their broken English to hear them react to their guide’s comment that we’re on our way down from the peak - like my sense of accomplishment could be any more inflated right now. We reach Marangu Gate by lunch and couldn’t be happier to see a car.

Back at Marangu Gate

As we drive away, heading back to Onsea House in Arusha to rest, I can’t stop looking at the mountain. It was
overcast on the drive to Kilimanjaro. Heading away, the sky is clear and the mountain absolutely envelopes my entire view, periphery to periphery. It’s awe inspiring reflecting back, thinking that we stood at the top of that.
There’s nothing Mrs and I can’t do.

Received our certificates back at Onsea House

With the mountain behind us, as well as any doubt that Mrs and I are the perfect team in all things, we shower for the first time in 7 days and, O.M.G., is it glorious. We optimally repack for our early morning tomorrow - we’re off to safari in the Serengeti.

TK Update 1: Final day of our team at the mountain and both climbers are doing fine. We are moving to the exit gate of the mountain today.

TK Update 2: We are at Mandara Hut and both climbers are still in good shape. We are still on the way to the exit gate of the mountain.

TK Update 3: Our trek ended today and both climbers feel great and happy for their achievements. We are now signing out and on the way to Arusha.

TK Update 4: We are back at the hotel and summit certificate from Team Kilimanjaro was given for both of them. They are very and happy proud for the success of their climb at Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest free standing mountain in the world.

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