I took it to the mountain top!
Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free standing mountain in the world, measuring in at over 19,300 feet. A dormant volcano mountain, with three volcanic cones, one that will erupt again one day. I always thought of climbing Kilimanjaro as something dramatic and very far away, that people did to find themselves or at least hope to. I didn’t realize I was so close to taking my own trip to the Mountain Top!
When the opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro was first presented at a holiday dinner in late December, I acknowledged it as something I definitely wanted to do, but didn’t think it would be right away. I knew I wanted to take a trip, one that would push me outside of my comfort zone, but I was fixated on going to Peru on a solo adventure in February. Well, it turns out February is Peru’s rainy season and luckily Kilimanjaro won out as the State Department just issued a warning in January about Americans getting kidnapped in the exact region of Peru I was hoping to visit.
So I decided to join a childhood friend, Alix, and two of her friends, Renee and Heather who had the trip planned, just two weeks before we would start climbing Kilimanjaro. The people at REI scolded me for not having enough time to properly break in hiking boots and train – which made me slightly nervous, but sometimes you just have to throw preparation to the wind and go! I quickly got shots for everything under the sun and enlisted the help of my mountaineering goddess friend, Kimberly, to help me make sure I packed all the essentials. Getting the proper gear and packing for this trip was a job in itself.
There are 6 official routes by which you can hike Kilimanjaro. We chose The Machame Route – seven days, six nights – as it is known to be the most scenic, encompassing 4 climate zones (rain forest, moorland, arctic desert, summit zone) over the course of 55+ miles. Here is a quick breakdown of the days:
DAY #1: Machame Gate 5,900ft to Machame Camp 9,800 ft (6 hours)
When we arrived at Machame Gate, our starting point for the climb, I was surprised by the commotion. There were a lot of tourists, porters waiting to be selected, guides bustling about to get all the necessary provisions in order, and an aggressive monkey wanting in on the picnic action in the mix. We quickly met our lead guide, Charles Teete, and assistant guide Atilio, and after completing the necessary formalities and eating a quick picnic lunch, we happily set out past picturesque banana and coffee plantations and then through lush and beautiful rain forest taking in the endemic violets, orchids and famous and vibrant impatiens. As we neared the camp, the vegetation shifted, almost on a visible line, into heather and we got our first look at the glaciated dome of Kibo (the highest of the 3 volcanic cones – it’s highest peak Uhuru which we would eventually be summiting). We learned a couple things the hard way our first night in camp: bring your head lamp to dinner; set your sleeping bag up as soon as you get to camp; it was much colder than any of us expected; ask for water bottles filled with hot water to put in your sleeping bag; I would be too tired and too cold to journal and read; and peeing in the middle of the night would be not only cold, but also tortuous! We were also grateful and became infinitely more so with each day that we had an amazing team of people there to help us – our tents were set up, our extra gear had been carried, hot dinners awaited us, and that the people leading and accompanying us on this trek were consistently warm, supportive, and joyful.
DAY # 2: Machame Camp 9,800 ft to Shira Hut 12,6000 ft (4 – 5 hrs)
At 6:30 AM our fearless leaders greeted us with the daily morning ritual of “breakfast tea” – tea or coffee handed to us to ease waking up in a sleeping bag in the cold. All four of us felt good that second morning and we set out up a step ridge and after a couple hours reached picnic rock where we had a picnic lunch and then continued on to Shira Plateau. Since this second day was shorter and we reached the camp around 3pm, Atilio took us on a bonus acclimatization hike that afternoon to get us accustomed to higher altitude and to keep us warm.
DAY #3: Shira Hut 12,600 ft to Lava Tower 14,900ft to Barranco Valley 12,800 ft (8-10.5hrs)
Day three was definitely one of our hardest days. We started the morning energized and seizing the day – naive to just how long it would be. After 4 hours we still weren’t at Lava Tower, our lunch destination. We kept ourselves preoccupied with word games and crazy stories but when hour 5 rolled around and we had all put on and taken off several layers, we were all silently suffering from different altitude symptoms. My symptoms: I was nauseous, mildly head-achy and out of it. We finally reached our lunch destination and met a fellow climber from Wales who confirmed how grim we looked by telling us we would feel better soon. He had already thrown up and taken several Tylenol. We managed to get a little food down and were encouraged that we only had about an hour and a half descent to our camp. It took us close to three hours.
Day #4: Great Barranco 12,8000 ft Valley to Karanga 13,100 ft (4 – 5 hrs + optional acclimatization hike)
A steep climb up the Barranco Wall was difficult enough and we were both humbled and inspired when Stella, a female porter (the only one we saw) sauntered up with a heavy load on her head and back. After cheering for her and sharing whatever snacks we had, we continued on a trail along the Eastern Ridge of of Kibo and enjoyed beautiful views of the valley and Southern Icefields. We got to Karanga camp (the last water point on our approach) in time for a late lunch and opted for a bonus climb that afternoon.
Day #5: Karanga 13,100 ft to Barafu 14,800 ft(4-5 hrs)
Day #5 is the start of a blur of hiking, attempting to rest and a lot more hiking. We started with a short but steep climb out of Karanga and then an easy but long walk across stretches of arctic desert. We reached Barafu Campsite in time for lunch and the remaider of the day was spent resting in preparation for our midnight start to the summit.
Day #6: Midnight Start to Stella Point 18,800 ft and then Uhuru Point 19,345 ft. Return to Camp for Brunch and rest and then to Millienium 12,5000 ft (15 hrs)
I of course had not been able to sleep at all from 7pm to 11pm as I was anxious about what lay ahead. We left our camp at 12:30AM with our headlamps fired up in order to reach the crater rim by sunrise. The air was crisp, clear and energizing and it was beautiful to see a stream of lights (other hikers) snaking up the mountain we couldn’t see in the dark. Charles kept us going at a steady pace which we were grateful for because the shivers set in even when we stopped for very short breaks. Three hours in, I felt mildly nauseous, lightheaded and was slightly panicked about getting frostbite as I hadn’t been able to feel my toes the entire time. I stopped looking at the little flickering lights ahead of me – a reminder of how much longer we had to go – and thought of Stella, the bad ass female porter who would make this look easy. We were all in various states of disbelief and joy when we reached Stella Point as it meant we had less than hour to go until we made it to Uhuru the highest point of Kilimanjaro! We refueled with a quick cup of tea, reveled in the sunrise over Mawenzi (Kilimanjaro’s steepest volcanic cone), and then started the last stretch. I alternated between light-headed exhaustion, and moments of euphoria inspired by almost being at the top and light reflecting of the glaciers. It was spiritual, and meditative and when I finally reached the top a wave of emotions took me by surprise.
The descent back to base camp couldn’t be over fast enough for me! We ran, almost skiing down volcanic sand, until I had to take a moment to dry heave and then keep going. It probably took us about 2.5 hours down and I almost cried again when I saw Evans (the most amazing & joyful porter who helped me with my bag) coming to greet us. We also ran into Stella (our goddess of inspiration) which helped push me the final stretch back to my tent. We arrived back at base camp at 10:30AM.
After a quick nap and lunch we were off again, a four hour walk down to Millenium Camp for our final night of camping!!! The energy in the camp that night was amazing – everyone was happy and lighter – mission accomplished and homeward bound! The four of us appreciated our last dinner in the mess tent and were overcome by how grateful we were to have had such amazing people accompanying us on this adventure. We wrote a note and had Charles help us translate it into Swahili, so we could at least attempt to properly show our gratitude the next morning.
DAY #7: Millienium 12,5000 ft to Mweka Village 5,400 ft (6 hrs)
The morning started on a high note and our amazing team sang several songs to us! Afterwards Alix impressively read our thank you in Swahili and the tipping ceremony begun. We also additionally gifted everything we could to our team – hats, gloves, jackets, gear, etc. We then continued descending, for six hours….Sore knees, sore feet, tired and hungry through several topographies, finally through coffee, then banana farms and to end – Mweka Village!
Climbing Kilimanjaro was both a physically challenging and soul enriching experience that pushed me outside of my comfort zone and ultimately offered a new space of clarity. Honestly it was the best head cleanse anyone could ask for. Being so focused on the physical challenges at hand offered an amazing break from my everyday thoughts. I also have a renewed appreciation for the simple everyday luxuries we take for granted. And most importantly, the people were the ultimate lesson and inspiration. The have an insanely hard job and manage to be consistently joyful and loving. Monday’s blog is dedicated to all the people that made our trip such a special experience…