That time we climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.
When? July 2011
With whom? Sean, a friend from university.
The first time I traveled by myself was in the summer of 2009, when I did some charity work in Tanzania. It was such an amazing experience and was a huge challenge but undertaking the project gave little time to explore the country, which is a must do because it’s got so much to offer a traveler, so I was obviously going to come back.
When I got back to the UK for my third year of university, I decided to save up so that I could return to Tanzania and climb Kili. My housemate, Sean, got roped in by my enthusiasm, and together we saved money to fund our own trip whilst raising money to donate to charity.
The closest town is called Moshi, which is a small town but it looks so awesome with the backdrop of the mountain! There are other mountains surrounding Kili, but it’s so grand in stature that they are barely noticeable. Leading up to the mountains are completely flat planes with the type of trees that the Rafiki dude from The Lion King lived in protruding from the dry ground and interrupting the haze. It was amazing.
Our guide, Safi, met us the next day and we drive up to 1800metre asl to entrance of the National Park. At first, we thought this was cheating, but we quickly forgot about it as we set off on our first day’s hike. It was incredible to watch the terrain changing from the dense rainforest which had many places to wee, to the crumbling rock faces with medium amount of places to wee, to the completely barren mountainside with no places to wee at all. NB: Altitude sickness pills make you wee.
The rainforest was filled with macaques – a kind of funky monkey – and we were warned to hold tight to our cameras (This was before the days of a decent camera on a phone!), as they are known for pickpocketing! For both of us it was the first time we’d been in a jungle and we were completely in awe of it. The vines running from tree to tree were like something out of Tarzan and the density of the trees almost completely blocked out any light.
By day 3 we were climbing over rocks and hugging cliff faces on a path barely thicker than our shoes over the escarpment that seemed to go on forever. We wrapped up in more layers as we ascended in altitude towards base camp as it was starting to get very chilly. This did not deter us from the occasional stop to take in the view. At times we were moving faster than the porters and were told to take a break to allow them to gain some ground on us, and that would have helped us with altitude as well so we were happy to do what we were told. We managed to entertain ourselves during these stops by singing the lyrics of youtube videos we had both found amusing, quoting Family Guy or building a man out of the rocks lying around.
Our path took us up to 4,000 metres, then back down to camp at 3,700 metres before base camp and 4,600 metres. It allowed us to see this amazing ancient lava structure that looked like a fortress but was completely natural from the last time the volcano erupted. Obviously, we climbed all over it, pretending that we were under attack from the other tourists hiking up the same way. They found it a lot less funny than we did.
We arrived at base camp late afternoon and went straight to bed. We knew we were getting up at midnight to summit so we wanted to get as much rest as possible. Neither of us could sleep as it got even colder. Every so often one of us would feel around in the dark to put on more layers until it was midnight. We pulled on our salopettes (ski trousers) to hike in sub zero temperatures to conquer the beast that is Kili.
This part was tough. We had over 100 metres to gain in height in the dark where we could see nothing but the small area in front of us lit by our rubbish head torches and other head torches bobbing in the distance above us and below. Snacks like haribo kept our energy up and the occasional stop for tea kept us feeling warm enough. As we started the steepest section, Safi, our guide told us that this is the most difficult way up to the Uhuru peak you can take that doesn’t involve signing a death warrant. Thanks, Saf.
We passed a group looking after a twenty-something man who had altitude sickness so badly that he could barely move. We exchanged encouraging words before we crossed another group with a member fallen victim to sickness, and then another. Our morale started to waiver so Safi began to sing to us. “You’ve found that special thing, you’re flying without wings.” I do love Westlife. During the steepest part we would be gaining a metre in height every couple of seconds, and our bodies struggled. Sean said he felt hungover, and I felt that no matter how much I tried to breath in, there was no air going into my lungs; we both had to concentrate on breathing from our diaphragm so that we could maximise the volume of air inhaled, which left us sounding like Darth Vader having an asthma attack.
Our faces became redder and our breathing became louder, to the extent that Safi asked whether we should go back down. Immediately both of our responses were “No”, we were going make it. ‘Make it or die’, were my thoughts, and by the sounds of what Safi was saying to us, the latter wasn’t wholly unrealistic.
The path began to plateau as the Uhuru peak came into sight. The sun was creeping up over the horizon, illuminating the summit enough for us to walk slowly towards it, fixated on victory. We occasionally looked to each other for support and gave telepathic encouragement, as we were both too exhausted to talk. Trudging along, people who had come up the easy side of the mountain (the coca cola route) told us to keep going, told us that we were nearly there. Thanks mate, I have eyes, I can see that.
We made it. We were almost horizontal at the peak as we looked at the 360 view given by being at the highest point in Africa. Wow. We could see the flat planes stretching on forever so far beneath where we were standing. The glacier on the mountain sparkled as it reflected the morning sun’s rays, and the sunrise was spectacular.
By the time we began our descent the harsh African sun was out in all its blazing glory, and we were still dressed in ski gear. It was so uncomfortably hot, but the only way was down. Sean and Safi ran straight down with little control and much skidding. Whilst their trajectory was much shorter than mine, I found the beginner skier technique much more effective in terms of speed and accuracy.
Back at base camp, the accomplishment started to settle in. We were thrilled with ourselves.
Info: We flew Ethiopian Airways, which is really good value and decent food! It does mean that you have to stop in Addis, but I don’t think there are any direct flights to Kilimanjaro. You can’t go up the mountain without a guide as it’s a national park, so they won’t let you in. We scoured the internet to find the cheapest non-dodgy company that would provide us with a guide and we found: http://www.climbingkilimanjaro.com/kilimanjaro-standard-package . Nowadays there is a gadventure tour too. I would sincerely recommend the Machame route. It’s not the easiest route but nor is it too difficult, moreover, it allows a couple of days to acclimatise to the altitude. So many people I saw on the summit had to be taken down before the top because the altitude was simply too much for them. We did the 6 day package and were so happy with our service; our guides were amazing, the porters were hilarious and the food was fantastic.
Tip of the week: When trekking to high altitude keep your phone/camera on an inside pocket. The cold drains the battery and then you will have no evidence that you made it to the top of that mountain!
Product of the week: As it got colder my ears started to freeze. At one point, I stopped our hike so that I could get out my thermal hat from my day bag. I loved Buffwear’s grey thermal hat, and I was so grateful for having it with me when temperatures dropped, especially at night!