Climbing the tallest mountain in Africa was a pipe dream when I was a child, and an unreachable ideal 15 months before our climb. We toyed around with the possibility of climbing a mountain worth bragging about that also didn’t break the bank – and Kilimanjaro was the only one that fit!
We chose the 7 day Machame route through ClimbKili. They made it so easy for us logistically, requiring us to show up at Kilimanjaro Nat’l airport and they took care of transportation, hotel, and food during the climb. We stayed in Arusha, which meant a 2 hour drive to Moshi and the Machame gate.
Here’s a rundown of different parts of the climb:
– 6:15am – Wakeup call
– 6:30am – Coffee/tea service while you are in your tent!
– 7:00am – Breakfast
– 8:00am – Singing (or begin the hike if it was a longer day)
– 1:00pm or 2:00pm – Lunch
– Finish hiking (if the day called for it)
– 6:00pm or 6:30pm – Supper
– 8:00pm – Debrief with lead guide
By law you are not allowed to climb Kilimanjaro unless you are with a licensed operator. Most operators have porters that will carry all your luggage and camping gear up the mountain. That leaves you with just your day pack – which includes your water for the day, snacks you brought with you, and rain gear.
The hike itself is not very difficult, as you’ll read online you don’t need special equipment. Most uphill is a gradual climb – although going up the Barranco wall was pretty cool because we got to scale rocks. We went single file on the trails, with our lead guide setting the pace. Whenever we needed a break we would ask. Our group had no problem going “pole pole” – we read too much about going slow online. Some days did not feel long while others were pretty tiring. But every time we caught a glimpse of the mountain it boosted our spirits.
Our cook was amazing on this trip. Each meal we sat in the mess tent and had several courses:
* Hot Drinks
* Soup and Bread
* Main course (rice, pizza, spaghetti, curry, eggs, crepes, potatoes)
As we climbed higher and higher our appetites decreased dramatically. Most of our food was carb – heavy, as it gets harder to process protein at higher altitudes. I don’t recommend bringing Sriracha as it was too spicy and hurt my stomach. I also didn’t take too well to a probiotic snack mix that I brought – stick to plain and simple foods.
We actually had 4 guides on the tour, Amani (lead guide), Rodrick, Shosta, and Dismus. Rodrick set the pace for us on 6 of the 7 days, leading in the front. Shosta and Dismus brought up the rear, helping us up if we fell, cracking jokes, and having a great time. Amani was responsible for coordinating the hiking, educating us on the foliage and climate zones on the mountain, and making sure we were doing all right. Amani checked our oxygen levels every night and morning, and we were all doing very good. On summit morning, our oxygen levels dropped from an average of 93 to 83, while his remained steady at 96. He has also been climbing Kilimanjaro for over 25 years, summiting over 350 times. You can joke with him and he will joke right back once he gets used to you. If you can, get Amani!
No one really takes the time to talk about this, but our company made sure we had a decent bathroom setup at camp. We had a bathroom tent with a pump toilet (with toilet paper!). On the hike you go to the bathroom whenever you take a break. This was easier at lower elevations when we had many trees and shrubs, but as we got higher it became harder to find some privacy. We had to coordinate the direction that men took and women took. When we stopped at camp (before reaching our tents) they had holes in the ground in special outhouses that required a squat – but surprisingly it was easier to use the restroom when squatting. No porcelain thrones or TP here.
Everyone in our group was from the United States, and we were all young and similar in age. We bonded over food – especially snacks. Everyone was easy to talk to, we all encouraged each other on the hike and at camp. And (at least for me) I was not sick of anyone after the 7 day trek.
We climbed Kilimanjaro from June 29 to July 5. During our entire climb we did not have any rain or inclement weather. Once we were above the clouds, it was clear skies and warmth (during the day). At the top we did not see any snow on the trail, it was mostly dusty. For hiking in Tanzania’s winter, it was a comfortable trip.
We tested out all of the gear we purchased from our tour company during the winter months here in Michigan. Layers are important – definitely get layers. Since it didn’t rain, we realized that we didn’t need any rain gear (pants, coat, etc). The dust didn’t bother us so having gaiters also didn’t benefit us. Having a sleeping bag liner made a huge difference at night when it got cold, we brought our own 20 degree liner and ClimbKili gave us an extra sleeping bag liner as well. During the day we only wore one layer of clothing, it was only summit day that we used the majority of the clothes we brought. When we reached the summit it was 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and we had tested our cold weather gear in -20 in Michigan during the winter. As long as you keep moving, you’ll be fine. Baselayers, midlayers, and shells were very important either at night or on summit day. Chapstick is a necessity as our lips were horrendously chapped. You can rent some gear from ClimbKili – we chose to rent sleeping bags rated 0 degrees Fahrenheit. If we could go back and do our gear again I’d say we should have rented an extra sleeping pad on top of what ClimbKili provided us, it would have made for better night’s sleep.
Take Diamox! Seriously, at the least bring it with you as a backup. We had a member of our group who did not have Diamox and struggled – but fortunately the rest of us in the group had extra. We also started taking malaria pills after we summitted, and our vaccine list included Yellow Fever and Typhoid. At the very least the side effects you would experience from Diamox do not compare to what you would experience without it!
The day before summiting we hiked all the way up to Kosovo camp, about 16,000’ in elevation. We could see the summit from our tents. We got to camp around 2:30, had lunch, slept till 5:30, then ate supper before turning in for an early night. They woke us up at 11:00 for an 11:30pm start – although when all was said and done it was 12:30 before we left. We hiked in the dark (this is where headlamps were useful) for 6 hours before we reached Stella Point, where we arrived just in time to see the sunrise. We wore all of our layers for the final push, taking care to follow Amani’s pace so we wouldn’t go too fast and work up a sweat. Taking a break was hard, as we started shivering when we weren’t moving. Walking was at a glacial pace, taking 2 or more seconds for each step. At night, it is so dark, you can only see the feet of the person in front of you. Groups ahead and behind you look like stars in the far off distance, and you start to fight mentally to keep going. It is hard to listen to music at this part, since it’s cold and you are panting heavily. It is hard to talk to people, as talking expends valuable energy. You feel alone in the vast darkness of scaling a 3000’ climb. When we made it to Stella Point, we were unaware we were there until Amani set down his bag and told us to take a rest, the worst was over! Our guides gave us hot tea, and we sat for about 30 minutes watching the sun rise above the Shira volcanic peak. Dismus informed me that we would have no problem making it to the summit, it was only a 45 minute walk with 500’ elevation gain. I leaped for joy as I realized at this point that I was going to make it!
In the last 5 minutes of the trek, Amani allowed us to go ahead of him, the sign for the summit ahead of us. I cried like a baby as that sign became bigger and bigger. When we got there I went in to picture mode, taking pictures and video of the view around us. Even though it was a cloudy day, the fact that 5.5 day trek uphill had reached its apex was exhilarating and exhausting. The summit was not crowded, we had the summit to ourselves for about 25 minutes until the next group came. At the top you can see glimpses of the glaciers, long past their prime due to climate change. As mentioned there was no snow on the trail, so it was easy to hike. We got our pictures, enjoyed the view, reflected on the reality that stood before, and cried in accomplishment. There is something to be said about climbing a mountain and reaching the top – it’s not the location itself, but the journey to get there and the baggage of your personal burdens that you left behind.
While it took 5 ½ days to reach the summit, it only took 1 ½ days to make it back to the Mweka gate (different gate from the beginning). By far, hiking downhill was tougher on our bodies than going uphill. We went from the summit down to 10,000’ before stopping for the night, then dropped another 4,000’ to the gate. Most of the people in our group were excited to be off the mountain, I was afraid of losing any toenails or getting injured so I took my time coming down the mountain.
While Kilimanjaro was the toughest climb for this Michigan boy, the experience was worth every minute of pain and agony. To challenge myself to achieve more and bask in this achievement will stay near to me through the coming challenges that lay ahead. Sam Nadarajan