Kilimanjaro Trek: Good Living on the Top of Africa
by Shawn Olson
AAI Program Coordinator
Hard-core alpinists beware: This is not a thrilling story of alpine bravery, nor is it an account of looking death in the face and walking away. It is simply the story of a pleasant stroll up Kilimanjaro, where I encountered fair weather, great people, and delicious food, mixed in with a little exercise - my idea of good living. If you're looking for a tale of extreme courage and dramatic precipices, you should refer to our trip archives, where there are many. Climbing Kilimanjaro can have its share of challenges, make no mistake; but my own experience was pure joy with precious little hardship.
The author on the way to Barafu Camp, Machame Route, Kilimanjaro.
In the recent New York Times list of the "Top 53 Places to Go in 2008," Kilimanjaro was one of the two outdoorsy places/activities named. Having just completed a climb of Kilimanjaro's Machame Route myself in November, I would have to say that I agree that this incredibly unique mountain deserves such distinction.
In the climbing world, Kilimanjaro is a prize and a destination because of its status as one of the Seven Summits (the tallest mountains of each of the seven continents). In the larger and more general realm of adventurers and travelers, Kilimanjaro holds intrigue due to its exotic location in Tanzania and its spotlight in Hemmingway's timeless short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Still for others, the 19,343-foot peak is attractive simply because its particularly lofty summit is attainable without any technical skill; it is, in essence, a trekker's mountain climb.
Here I am, at the gate to Kilimanjaro National Park.
After doing a bit of research, I chose to climb via the 7-day Machame Route. After ascending through the jungle, this route traverses beneath the glaciated south face of Kibo, Kilimanjaro's main peak. It is incredibly scenic, and many say it's the most beautiful route on the mountain. You can climb this route in 6 days, but I've heard that the extra day can be pretty key in your body's ability to acclimatize properly. This route turned out to be an excellent choice, and it also happened to be my guide's favorite route on the mountain, which is saying a lot, as he has been guiding the various routes for over 10 years! One of the important advantages to the Machame Route is that it allows the climber to "climb high, sleep low" on two separate days. This is a method of acclimating that has been proven successful in the mountaineering world, and I know it helped me.
Day 1: Park Gate (6000') to Machame Camp (9800') - 6 miles
My guide, Godfrey Maregesi, picked me up at 10am at the lovely Protea Aishi Hotel in the village of Machame. He was accompanied by his team of porters and a van full of gear.
Godfrey and the porters packing up at the park gate.
We drove a winding road up to the gate of Kilimanjaro National Park, passing by several small villages and locals walking the road with enormous loads on their heads. At the gate, Godfrey and the porters sorted gear for about 30 minutes, and then we were off! I couldn't believe it, but for me, the solo client, there were one guide and three porters! Each of the porters had a specific assigned duty, and Godfrey introduced them to me as such, "This is your cook, Yusuf and your waiter, Melk." The third porter, Philip, turned out to my tent-setter-upper, though he wasn't introduced this way . . .
Just out of the jungle and into the moorland zone on the way to Machame Camp.
We hiked for several hours through the magnificent jungle, Godfrey by my side and the porters going ahead. It drizzled lightly on and off, but all in all, the trail was quite pleasant, and I enjoyed the exercise after my previous two weeks of almost no exercise (I was on safari). The trail follows a fairly steep incline through the jungle, then pops out of the forest and gains a ridge leading through the "moorland zone" and right into Camp 1, Machame Camp.
I was slightly taken aback when my guide wouldn't let me help set up the tent, but what really got me was when Melk pulled out the table and dining chair for me, put a table cloth on it, and motioned for me to sit. I couldn't believe it - I actually had a waiter while climbing a mountain. This disturbed me for a little while, until I just decided to enjoy it.
Melk, my dedicated waiter.
I thought about it and realized that these porters needed their jobs (in fact the unemployment rate in Tanzania is very high). I knew this from observing the dozens of porters that come to the Kilimanjaro National Park Gate waiting and hoping that a climbing group will hire them. At any rate, yes, my meals on Kilimanjaro were served with a table, chair, and waiter. And the food was surprisingly very good, thanks to Yusuf, my cook.
After dinner, I pulled out my Swahili dictionary and tried out these unfamiliar words on my new friends. I succeeded in asking them to each write their names for me when I said, "Andika jina lako," and each of them wrote in my notebook. I was delighted to find out that Yusuf speaks better Spanish than he speaks English, so he and I decide to converse in Spanish, even though I'm pretty rusty. I also learned how to say mountain (mlima) and goodnight (lala salama). The moon (mwezi) was very bright that night, and I fell asleep astonished at how comfortable this trip had so far promised to be.
Godfrey, just out of Shira Camp.
Day 2: Machame Camp to Shira Camp (12,597') - 6.8 miles
I will forever remember this day as "the day of rain." The day started off promising enough, but soon a mist turned into a light drizzle, which turned into a cold, steady rain. The surroundings were socked in with heavy clouds, and so I really didn't see much of anything. Just plodded step after step up the rocky trail. We took cover in one of the many shallow caves we passed, and I actually managed to stay fairly dry while I ate the "snack lunch" that Godfrey packed for me. This "snack" was more than I ever eat in one meal, maybe even in two meals: boiled egg, chicken breast, fresh veggies, fresh fruit, one avocado, chocolate, bar, cookie, piece of cake, and jam sandwich. Yow. I could tell I wasn't going to lose any weight on this expedition!
After lunch, we continued to move up the mountain, Godfrey reminding me about every half hour to go "pole, pole" (slowly, slowly). I have heard this is the secret to success on Kilimanjaro. Kili presents a unique challenge because, though it involves no technical mountain skills, the rate of ascent (five-and-a-half days on the ascent, one-and-a-half for the descent) is faster than your body can typically acclimatize. Godfrey told me over and over though, that the one constant he has noticed as far as factors affecting a person's chance of success is whether or not they push themselves too hard. As he said, "If they hike too fast, they get sick." Fair enough.
A porter carries his load through the drizzle.
On we pushed, arriving at camp at about 3pm in the pouring rain. Philip was setting up my tent when Godfrey and I arrived, and any feeling of self-pity was immediately zapped as I watched Philip take off his cotton shirt, which was already soaking, wring it out, and proceed to dry out the inside of my tent. Talk about feeling guilty and spoiled. I asked him if he had a raincoat, and he said he did. I didn't ask why he wasn't wearing it, but gave him a chocolate bar instead.
I ate dinner inside my tent that evening, Melk serving me through the vestibule. Dinner was, astonishingly, fresh fish that the porters had carried up on ice. Yusuf cooked it perfectly, and it was accompanied by rice in a vegetable sauce, salad, and bread. Not bad.
Day 3: Shira Camp to Barranco Camp (13,000') - 8.7 miles
When I woke, I knew it would be a good day. The dawn was clear, and as I poked my head outside my tent, I was treated to a crystal clear view of Mt. Meru. Meru is in Arusha National Park and stands at almost 15,000 feet. Many climbers actually use as a warm-up for Kilimanjaro. Melk brought me a pan of hot water to wash up with, and then he set my breakfast table.
Mt. Meru from Shira Camp.
Breakfast on this day was probably the most pleasant meal I had on Kilimanjaro. I sat at my table with the sun warming my back, the sounds of porters and climbers bustling around me. Everybody was happy and many porters were singing or playing radios. Wet gear was hung on every available bush and rock, and steam rose off everything in the brilliant morning splendor. I ate with the towering block of Kibo (the main peak of Kilimanjaro) shining above me, and truly relished this meal. The breakfast food was the same every day - toast, tea or coffee, an omelet, sausage, cucumbers and tomatoes, and fresh fruit. Yum.
My breakfast table at Shira Camp.
Eventually, we moseyed out of camp and began to tackle our longest day of the trip. The itinerary was to hike 2000 feet up to the Lava Tower (15,100'), which was the highest I had ever been, then to descend back to 13,000 feet to sleep at the beautiful Barranco Camp. The entire day was spectacular, possibly my favorite day of the trip aside from summit day, and Godfrey and I took our sweet time getting up to the Lava Tower.
The Lava Tower itself is, well, literally a tower of old lava. Some climbers choose to climb the short 150 feet to its summit, but there was quite a bit of snow on it so we declined to continue after a brief attempt. We ate lunch (I ended up giving over half the food to Godfrey), fending off the teams of mice that happened to live at this particular spot, and then descended the 2000 feet to Barranco Camp.
In front of the Lava Tower.
It rained and misted lightly on the descent, so I didn't get a chance to see how beautiful this spot really was until the next morning. But I did enjoy a nice meal ("Kilimanjaro Stew" with chicken, homemade "pancakes," and fresh fruit) and then chatted with other climbers after dinner. I met two couples from the United States, a Canadian, a group from Portugal, and a man from Denmark. It was nice to talk in unbroken English for a bit.
Godfrey taught me a new phrase just before I climbed into my tent: "Poa kichizi kama ndizi," which means "cool like a banana." Very fitting - my climb so far had definitely been very poa.
Day 4: Barranco Camp to Karangu Camp (13,000') - 3 hours
Barranco Camp in the morning.
Today was a short day, though it started off fairly strenuously. Right out of camp, we ascended the 1000-foot semi-famous Barranco Wall. Looking at the wall from camp, you wouldn't think you could get up it without a rope and some rock gear, but once you reach the base of it, a path faintly reveals itself winding up through the boulders. Climbing the wall requires a little scrambling - using your hands and feet to climb - a fun little section that adds to the variety.
I was amazed at the porters' ability to balance their 40-pound loads on their heads while scrambling up the wall. Practice makes perfect, I guess. (On a separate note, I found out how these people do so much balancing of stuff on their heads - they actually start at a young age with something small like a tea kettle, then work their way up each year with progressively bigger loads. Soon, teenage girls can carry five-gallon buckets of water on their heads and the men can carry huge porter loads. It's an eye-catching sight, no matter how they learned to do it.
Porters on the Barranco Wall.
On top of the wall, we rested and ate a bit. It was fairly misty, though we caught glimpses every now and then of our path ahead. We descended the ridge we were on into another gully, then ascended up the adjacent ridge and right into Karangu Camp.
Karangu Camp is a mid-way point to the route's high camp, Barafu (15.200'). Climbers who choose to do the Machame Route in six days versus seven have to bypass Karangu and go straight to Barafu, which is another two to three hours away, where they rest until midnight and then go for the summit. Most of the other climbers I had met were on the six-day schedule, and I tried not to talk about the fact that I was glad to stop at Karangu.
We reached Karangu Camp while it was still the early afternoon, but I didn't mind. I happily ate the popcorn and tea that Melk brought as a snack and read, took pictures, and wrote in my journal.
Day 5: Karangu Camp to Barafu Camp (15,000') - 2.5 hours
Another brilliant breakfast on the flank of Kilimanjaro.
Today was another short day, starting with another amazing breakfast. The excitement built through the day as we moved up to the high camp, our jumping-off point for the summit.
The high camp is called Barafu Camp, which means "ice camp". It was a fairly mellow trek, up and over some rolling ridges, then a last push up to the camp itself, though of course the mellowness was made a bit harder by the high elevation. I could definitely tell my body was in an oxygen-deficit, but if I made sure to walk slowly enough, I felt absolutely fine. In fact, I turned out to be one of the lucky climbers that felt fine the entire time on Kilimanjaro. (I did have one instance of a headache back at Barranco Camp, but then I realized that it was a sunburn headache instead of an altitude headache when I was brushing my hair and noticed that my scalp was sore! No more visor . . . time for the full sunhat.)
Again, we reached camp early in the afternoon. I tried not to hop around too much (there are lots of fun boulders to play on), but did do quite a bit of exploring and talking to other parties. I even bought myself and my team Coca-colas from the park hut! Never mind that they were $3 a piece; they were well worth it.
I also tried to rest; that night at midnight, Godfrey and I intended to go for the summit.
Barafu Camp at dusk.
From my tent, I could see our route up to the crater rim and then to the summit. Yusuf made me a nice lunch of fried potatoes, fresh fruit, and chocolate cake. It seemed like only a few hours later that I found myself eating dinner, but I happily obliged them and enjoyed an appetizer of vegetable soup, followed by pasta with chicken and vegetable sauce, bread, and pineapple wedges for dessert. I went to bed early - probably around 7:30, and actually managed to sleep until Godfrey was asking me, "Shawn, are you awake? Shawn ... twende, it's time to go!"
Day 6: Barafu Camp to the Summit (19,343'), and descent to Mweke Camp (10,000')
Melk brought me biscuits (cookies) and tea, which didn't really want to go down but did help me wake up. I had come out of a deep sleep and felt very rested and ready to climb. It was a clear light, and the moonlight was bright even through my double-wall four-season tent. I had slept in my climbing clothes, so it literally took me about 15 minutes before I was ready to go.
Outside my tent, it was very cold, and I wore all of the clothes I had brought: long underwear, Schoeller pants, ski pants, fleece jacket, down parka, balaclava, two pairs of gloves, and beanie. On my feet I wore one pair of socks and my lightweight La Sportiva Trango Evo S boots, which were perfect for the climb, though I could have used an extra pair of socks. I hoisted my pack, grabbed my trekking poles, and joined Godfrey, who was jumping around to stay warm on the edge of camp.
Mt. Mawenzie, as seen just above Barafu Camp.
There were several parties ahead of us - we could see their headlamps on the route to the summit. Godfrey and I didn't use our headlamps even once as the moon lit our path just fine. We moved so slowly that I never got too hot despite climbing in all my layers. At least I thought we were moving slowly, though we did pass many large parties who were apparently doing a better job of moving slowly than we were. The trail was very easy - steep, but in great condition with no steps that were too high. We followed the ridge out of camp, ascending for the first 1500 feet or so under a star-filled sky. Mt. Mawenzie, the other main summit of the Kilimanjaro massif (and illegal to climb, due I think to the very crumbly rock) stood out brilliantly, accumulating a nice lenticular over the course of the night. We took a break about once an hour - they weren't long breaks, as the cold set in fast when we weren't moving. I drank as much water as I could (the second highest recommendation for success) and sucked long breaths of air into my lungs, visualizing the oxygen reaching each cell in my body. We were moving so slowly that I never felt tired, and though I could absolutely tell that there really wasn't as much oxygen up there, it didn't seem to effect me negatively. I had no doubt that the acclimatization schedule of my 7-day itinerary played a large role in this.
At 4:45 am, we reached the crater rim, which is just under 19,000 feet, and this is the funny part about Kilimanjaro. You climb and climb almost 4000 feet out of camp, then you reach the crater rim, which feels very much like it should be the summit. But then – then you have to walk for another 45 minutes on relatively flat ground, traversing around the crater until you reach the true summit, Uhuru Peak, at 19,343 feet.
It's silly, but who wants to miss a chance to take their picture with the famous signboard? Not me. We took a very break at the crater rim, the shortness dictated by the howling wind that had greeted us once we crested the rim. The coldness on the way up was nothing compared to the seriously nippy atmosphere on the rim - if you had beamed me up here from my home in the US, I would never have guessed that I was in Africa. The wind carried lots of moisture, which clung and froze to our jackets and hair. By this point in the climb, we had ascended into a big cloud, so the stars were no longer visible. The crater was visible, spread out to our left as we traversed the rim. It was a spectacular bowl, with patches of snow and ice that glowed in the diffuse moonlight that made it through the thin cloud cover. Some people choose to sleep one night inside the crater, and I suppose that sounds cool in theory, but I would never do it. It certainly did not look or feel like a hospitable place.
Here I am with Godfrey at the summit of Africa.
We walked in darkness for 45 minutes around the rim. The last push to the true summit was exciting - at this point, there were only two other parties ahead of us, and we could hear them hooting as they reached the summit. Godfrey linked his arm in mine and smiled at me as we took our last few steps to reach the signboard. He said, "Now you are at the summit of Africa. I told you I would get you here." He was right, he got me there - he, Yusuf, Melk, and Philip. We summited at 5:30 am, just five hours after leaving camp.
We didn't spend too long at the summit - there was a line cueing up for photo-taking at the signboard. We snapped a few, reveled in the summit experience just one more time, then turned back for the descent.
Descending from the summit, just below the crater rim.
We walked quickly back down along the rim - it was still as cold and windy as it had been before, and by now we had each accumulated quite a bit of rim ice on our clothes and hats. As we passed teams coming up, we high-fived them and gave them encouragement as they told us, "congratulations." It all felt like a big party. Everybody was happy and high (probably due more to the lack of oxygen than the excitement). Godfrey and I cruised down the rim, not pausing once before turning to take the trail back to Barafu Camp. We were relieved to be off the rim, and immediately it was warmer and we didn't have to shout to communicate.
We descended to about 18,000 feet very quickly, where we stopped to pull off layers and admire the rising sun. It was a beautiful scene, all the work was behind us, and I felt very relaxed and happy.
The Rebmann Glacier in the sunrise, as seen from about 18,000 feet.
The sunrise over Africa is a sight I won't easily forget, and the Rebmann Glacier, which had only been a ghost on the way up, was bright and shiny in the new light. Godfrey's beaming face was a close second - I think he was more proud that I summited Kili than I was! I made a few calls home on the satellite phone that AAI had let me take on the trip, telling my family, "Hey, I just went to the top of Africa!"
A climbing party on the descent.
Godfrey and I had fun on the rest of the descent, running and jumping down the loose scree. We arrived back in camp at about 8am, where the porters smiled at us and congratulated us. Melk handed me a boxed juice, which doesn't seem like any big thing, but it was such a sweet gesture (and it tasted amazing) - it was so nice that they hauled that boxed juice all the way up just for this one moment.
I rested in my tent for a few hours, drank some tea and ate peanut butter toast, and then we packed up camp and descended a very long way to 10,000 feet at Mweke Camp.
On the descent, from just above Barafu Camp.
It was a lot of descending, coming from 19,343 feet at the summit to 15,200 feet at Barafu Camp to 10,000 feet at Mweke Camp. Over 9000 feet of descending in one day. It was easy traveling, but the only problem was that my right toenail wasn't cut short enough and it got very sore (days later it turned blue).
Mweke Camp was comfortable. I spent the afternoon resting and chatting with other climbers and porters. I enjoyed another great meal (more fried potatoes, mmmm), and was blown away by the dessert - fresh watermelon! They had carried fresh watermelon, the heaviest fruit, for six days. No wonder there were three porters.
Day 7: Mweke Camp to the exit gate for Kilimanjaro National Park (6000')
The hike out from Mweke Camp to the park gate was easy and fun. We saw playful Colobus monkeys and blue monkeys in the jungle, and Godfrey and I chatted away about Tanzanian customs compared to American customs.
With Godfrey as he was dropping me off at the hotel.
When we reached the park gate and ranger station, Godfrey took me to wait in the "Tourists Shelter" (which cracked me up) while he went to get my summit certificate signed by the park authorities. He returned and gave it to me to sign, then signed it himself and presented it to me with a big smile and a handshake. "Now you are official!" he said.
Soon after, the van came to pick the five of us up. We drove to Moshi, where we had a celebratory beer together, and then Godfrey and the driver took me back to my hotel. I gave Godfrey a special AAI t-shirt and told him, "Now you are official!" He laughed at me and shook his head.
In all, Kilimanjaro was a fabulous experience that I'd recommend to anybody looking for a bit of culture and fun on a big mountain.
Here are my top five reasons that I recommend a Kilimanjaro climb, aside from the more obvious reasons that everyone thinks of (and mentioned at the beginning of this article):
- Cultural immersion: You get the chance to spend 7 days getting to know the local guides and porters that accompany you. For me, this meant learning some Swahili, developing a close friendship with my local guide, and asking a million questions about Tanzanian culture and history!
- Summit sunrise: Seeing the sunrise from the top of Africa is a sight you'll never forget. I promise.
- Ecological uniqueness: Ascending through the different ecological zones, from savanna to jungle to the arid alpine desert at the crater rim, would pique the interest of anyone even remotely interested in wilderness and the land.
- Royal treatment: I was treated like a queen, literally. This was bizarre to me, as I'm used to schlepping my own heavy pack up mountains and eating ramen for dinner. On Kilimanjaro, as I've explained, all you have to do is walk. Your gear is carried for you, your food is cooked for you, and your tent is set up for you. Once I got past the initial shock of this, I tried to enjoy it ... and succeeded.
- A big mountain experience without the big mountain danger: I know many thrill-seekers and serious climbers for whom this might be a disadvantage, but for me it afforded an unusually relaxing climb in which I could simply focus on, well, relaxing, as well as checking out the scenery and getting to know my guides.
Click on the links to learn about the details of AAI's Kilimanjaro Climb and Tanzania Safari.