Our progress was painfully slow as we inched our way up the loose scree towards Gilman’s point. The gradient seemed impossibly steep, almost vertical in places, and the only way we could keep going was to follow the tight zigzag path picked out by our guide. The face of the slope was covered in thick sand and loose rock and seemed completely unstable. As a result, every step forward felt like a step back as the slope gave way under our heavy boots. We slumped forward over our walking canes trying desperately to stop the constant backwards motion. The altitude was dizzying and the air seemed dangerously thin. Breathing had become a chore and it did not take more than a couple of steps before we were completely out of breath and exhausted. I counted ten steps before stopping for a rest. Resting seemed to be essential but perilous. The lack of oxygen and the sheer magnitude of our fatigue meant that resting for even a couple of seconds could see us dozing off. It was still pitch dark even though we had been on the move for over five hours, having left Kibo hut just before midnight in pursuit of the rooftop of Africa, Uhuru Peak. Our summit attempt was the culmination of four days of trekking on Kilimanjaro and we were finally heading for the top.
Luckily the night was clear and fresh and the moon illuminated the bulk of the mountain looming above us. The only other light to be seen was the line of torches bobbing on the heads of the climbers who were trudging up the slope. It was eerily quiet, the silence punctuated only by the constant crunching of boots on the loose slope and the occasional Swahili songs sung by the guides and porters in an attempt to lift the climber’s spirits. I dug around in my backpack in search of my water bottle. I peeled back the layers of thermal socks I had put around it in an attempt to keep its contents from freezing to discover that my efforts had been in vain; the water in the bottle was frozen and completely useless. Nev disconsolately handed me a glucose sweet instead. I became aware that my toes were freezing. I tried to jiggle them around to get the circulation going but without much success. Nev dug out our thermometer and reported that the temperature was minus five degrees centigrade. On closer inspection, however, we discovered that the contents of our thermometer gauge had frozen at minus five and there was no way of telling the true temperature although the ache in our feet told us it was bitterly cold. We trudged on, praying that the sun would rise soon.
Finally, and after two more bone grinding hours of climbing, the sun rose and we lumbered up the remaining rocks to reach Gilman’s Point, an incredible 5685 metres above sea level. It had taken us over seven excruciating hours to get there but the reward was worth it. The sunrise was certainly the most spectacular I have ever witnessed. From Gilman’s we had the most spectacular panoramic view of the Kilimanjaro massif. To our left the sun glittered on the Eastern Icefield, thousands of metres below us we could see Kenya, the jagged peak of Mawenzi was visible to our right and behind us we could look down into Kibo’s inner cone. Looking back along the path we had come it seemed impossible that we had powered our way up this staggeringly steep route. It seemed like complete lunacy and the worst part was that although we had come this far we had not yet reached our objective and Uhuru peak still lay a tantalizing 311 metres and approximately two hours further up. Our guide fed us sweet tea and we sucked on some more glucose sweets trying to muster our much depleted energy reserves for the push to the summit. Many climbers, having reached Gilman’s Point, elect not to continue to Uhuru. Often this choice is beyond their control as by this stage many are wracked by the all-pervading symptoms of altitude sickness and have no option but to descend. Surprisingly enough though, although Nev and I felt deathly tired and light headed due to the lack of oxygen we did not seem to have any other real symptoms of altitude sickness. Neither of us was suffering from head splitting headaches or nausea that many of the other climbers reported. We decided to continue and to attempt the last push to Uhuru.
The route from Gilman’s Point to Uhuru Peak takes one around the edge of the Kibo crater. The views from the crater rim are mind blowing and we could not believe the sheer magnitude of the glaciers and icefields. Our route took us past Stella Point, via the Rebman and Decken Glaciers and on past the massive Southern Icefields. Although we were surrounded by views of these enormous pieces of ice there was no snow on our route and we gradually picked our way over the rocks and through the volcanic dust to Uhuru Peak. Although the gradient of the climb between Gilman’s and Uhuru is nothing compared to the ascent to Gilman’s we really started to feel the effects of the altitude. Once again our pace slowed to a virtual shuffle. I was forced to revert to my ten-step plan often being propelled forward by Nev behind me or being coaxed gently by the guides. Oxygen seemed to be a rare commodity and I could not seem to get enough of it. Before we had started our Kilimanjaro climb we had been told that the crucial element of a successful summit attempt was mental tenacity. Although it is relatively simple to keep propelling yourself forward physically, if you do not have the willpower to make it to the summit your attempt is likely to be doomed to failure. At the time we had laughed off this piece of sage advice but it became clear to us, as we inched our way forward towards Uhuru, that the only way we would make it to the top was by supreme perseverance and determination. The easiest thing in the world would have been to have turned tail and run in the opposite direction, back to the huts, back to the thick oxygen, away from the thin air and the slope. We trudged on gritting our teeth against our fatigue and flagging spirits, encouraged now and then by the jubilant climbers who had made it to the top and were passing us on their way down.
Eventually after a supreme effort and almost three hours of climbing since our departure from Gilman’s we reached Uhuru peak, the highest peak in Africa, weighing in at a massive 5896 metres above sea level. The sense of achievement was enormous. We were, after all, not mountaineers or even particularly fit. We were just ordinary people who had set off in search of the highest point in Africa and we had made it! We were on top of the world! Our feelings of personal gratification at having set our minds to a task and having completed it successfully were only surpassed by the sense of relief that our ordeal was finally over. I looked at my watch, it was 10h30. We had been hiking for almost eleven and a half straight hours. We hauled out our camera and gleefully shot off almost a whole spool of film, posing triumphantly around the sign marking the highest point. Our guides plied us with more sweet tea and a celebratory cupcake that they had carried up the mountain on the off-chance that we were successful. Having taken in as much of the peak as we could and feeling thrilled at our achievement despite our overwhelming exhaustion we set off along the route we had come. The descent was tiring but was much easier than the ascent. We flippantly skied down the scree that had required slow, painful steps upwards a couple of hours earlier. Every step forward seemed to be a step towards more oxygen and we felt invigorated as we drank in the thick air. What a day!
So, you may ask, what inspired us to attempt something so clearly in the realm of lunacy and what draws hundreds of climbers to the Kilimanjaro massif each year? For some it is the thrill of reaching the highest point on the continent that makes climbing Kili the ultimate challenge. For others it is the test of pitting oneself against the elements and the altitude that provides the motivation. Perhaps for some it is the sheer incongruity of the fact that there could possibly be a snow capped peak virtually on the equator that makes the idea so romantic. Others merely climb it because it is there!
The Kilimanjaro massif rises 5895 metres above sea level at its highest point and is Africa’s highest mountain. It is the seventh highest mountain in the world and the highest free standing one. It dominates the African plains and is situated virtually on the border of Tanzania and Kenya only 3 degrees south of the equator. The whole massif covers an area of 80 kilometres from east to west and 48 kilometres from north to south. The massif is made up of three separate volcanoes, Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo and its origins can be traced back to the formation of the Rift Valley about one and a half million years ago. Although both Shira and Mawenzi are extinct, Kibo is classified as a dormant active volcano having last erupted some 100 000 years ago. It is at the summit of Kibo that one finds the highest peak of the massif, Uhuru peak. Kilimanjaro was first sighted in 1848 by German missionaries Johannes Rebmann and Johannes Krapt. Although it was climbed by various explorers after this first sighting, the summit of Mt Kibo was only reached in 1889 by the German geographer Hans Meyer. Meyer named the peak Kaiser Willem Spitze. The peak was however renamed Uhuru peak (which means freedom in Swahili) upon Tanzania’s independence from Britain in 1961. The Kilimanjaro massif now falls within the Kilimanjaro National Park which was formed in 1973.
Kilimanjaro has certainly been the subject of many legends in the past. Early guides, not having seen snow before, believed that the mountain was covered in silver attempted to climb the mountain to bring some of the silver down to their villages and were amazed when the silver (snow) miraculously turned into water. The Chagga people who live in the area surrounding the mountain believed that Kilimanjaro was home to supernatural beings who were guarding vast riches and any attempt to climb into this realm of the gods was tantamount to blasphemy. It was on this basis that the local chiefs were reluctant to allow western explorers to climb the mountain. When Britain and Germany determined the Kenya/Tanganyika border in 1886, the German Kaiser, Willhelm I insisted that Mt Kilimanjaro be German as it was discovered by Germans. Legend has it that Queen Victroria gave Kilimanjaro to her nephew, the future Kaiser Willhelm II, as a birthday present in 1886 after he had complained that the Queen had two snow capped mountains on the equator (Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro both falling within Kenyan borders at the time) and he had none. This is apparently the reason why the border between Kenya and Tanganyika was not straight. Of course, Britain gained control of Kilimanjaro and Tanganyika following the First World War.
These days there are many routes to the top of Africa. Uhuru peak is one of the few summits in the world that can be easily reached by trekkers without ropes or any kind of technical experience. Although there are a myriad of established trekking routes on the massif, the most popular amongst trekkers are the Marangu and Machame routes. The major difference between the two routes is that the accommodation along the Marangu route is in wooden huts whereas accommodation along the Machame route is in tents. Although neither route is easy, the Marangu route would seem to be more straight forward with shorter days. The trail does not present any particular difficulties except for the summit night which is one hour longer than the summit on the Machame route. A standard trek on the Marangu route usually takes five days although it is possible to arrange a six day trek which allows for an additional acclimatization day. The extra day is highly recommended and will dramatically improve your chances of reaching the summit. Sadly, because of the high cost of Kili treks, most people try to reach the summit as quickly as possible and this often means that they jeopardise their summit attempt by not having acclimatised sufficiently. The Marangu route has been dubbed the “coca cola” route as it is possible to buy soft drinks, mineral water and even beer at the huts. The Machame route or “whiskey” route can only be done in a minimum of six days. It is favoured by many trekkers because it is much less crowded than the Marangu and is more scenic. On the down side (for some), it is more physically challenging and the walks are steeper and longer although the summit night is one hour shorter than on the Marangu route. Accommodation is in tents which can be problematic if it is raining heavily and there is no bottled water, soft drinks or beer available. In the end, the choice of route is a personal one. We opted for the Marangu route with an additional acclimatisation day as we felt that this combination would give us the best chance of reaching the summit.
Our trek started at the Marangu Gate where we met our guides and porters. We were amazed at just how much organisation is involved in a Kili climb and were quite daunted by the Everest-like expedition that would be accompanying us up the mountain. Apart from our guide and assistant guide (who was also going to be our cook) we were accompanied by three porters. The porters are the most remarkable lot. On average they carry between 15 and 20 kilogram loads each, the loads having been carefully weighed before departure to ensure that no porter carries more than his share. Despite these heavy loads they seem to sail up the mountain with little regard for the incline or the altitude, many of them without proper climbing shoes and often chain smoking cigarettes the entire way.
After we had signed in at the Park Office and had met our crew we started out trek feeling rather nervous and with the overwhelming suspicion that we had bitten off more than we could chew. Our first objective was the Mandara Huts about 2700 metres above sea level and about 12 kilometres from the gate. The walk took about three hours and the path wended its way through the most gorgeous, lush rain forest. We arrived at Mandara mid afternoon and, after finding our hut and stowing our duffle bags, were treated to tea, biscuits and pop corn by our porters. Our bellies warmed by the tea we headed out again for a short walk to the Maundi Crater before sunset.
Although it is possible to complete the stretch to Mandara in a relatively short space of time we were advised by our guide to walk very slowly so that we could start getting aclimatised to the ever increasing altitude. We were constantly warned to go “pole pole” which in Swahili means slowly, slowly. There is no great mystery about altitude and acclimatisation. It would seem that the only way to ensure that you are adequately acclimatised before attempting the summit is to make sure that you move upwards very, very slowly. By moving slowly and steadily you give your body the best chance to adapt to the increasing altitude. Initially this was a great source of irritation to us as we seemed to be walking unnaturally slowly but I am sure that it saved us from altitude sickness in the end. Aside from moving slowly the only other tips to avoid altitude sickness would seem to be to drink lots of water, to keep eating, to avoid alcohol and sedatives and to avoid carrying unnecessary weight. Some climbers swear by drugs like acetazolamide (Dimox) and dexamethasone which are recommended by some doctors for the prevention of altitude sickness. We did not use Dimox ourselves but other climbers who did reported mixed success, some felt that it had really assisted them in their ascent whereas others reported extreme dehydration.
Day two of our climb took us the 15 kilometres between Mandara Hut and Horombo Hut and took us about six hours. Shortly after leaving Mandara we were out of the forest and into the giant heather and moorland that stretches to Horombo. Once again, the walk was not physically challenging but we made sure that we moved slowly. Horombo Huts are situated at 3720 metres above sea level and when we reached the huts we were finally able to catch our first glimpse of the Kibo dome as well as the jagged peaks of Mawenzi. It was at Horombo that we started feel the effects of the increased altitude for the first time. Our awareness came from the most mundane things like walking to the ablution block, something that is normally completely routine. At Horombo however, we found that a simple walk to the toilet had us gasping for breath. We were only too happy that we had opted for an additional acclimatisation day at Horombo before heading upwards to Kibo. Our guides and porters were determined to keep us in ship shape condition and to make sure we were properly fed. Each meal was a three course affair whether we were at a hut or taking a lunch break en route. At lunch time our proud chef would lay out a checkered table cloth over a rock and feed us a three course lunch often including things like soup, fresh fruit or french fries (freshly made) despite the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere. Eating they claimed, is the key to a successful summit attempt.
Our acclimatisation day was spent doing a few short walks in and around the Horombo area, resting, reading and mentally preparing ourselves for the push to Kibo and then for the summit attempt. Horombo is also the overnight stop for climbers returning from the summit and for us climbers on our way up, the descending climbers were a mine of information about what to expect on the summit night. Unfortunately, there were also lots of horror stories of illness, injury and failed attempts being bandied about which did not help our morale and only made us more apprehensive about the days that lay ahead. We went to bed feeling nervous and praying for good weather and continued good health.
Day four saw us up bright and early and ready for the long slog to the Kibo Huts. The 15 kilometre hike took longer than the previous days as we were still getting used to the altitude. The terrain changed dramatically soon after we left Horombo and the moorland was replaced by arid, dry alpine desert. Kibo Huts are situated at 4403 metres above sea level and are much more basic than any of the other huts. The huts are drab and cold and the surrounding area is desolate and depressing. There is no reliable water source so all water has to be carried up by the porters. Often the huts are cramped and over full with climbers trying to catch a couple of hours of sleep before attempting the summit. To make matters worst lots of climbers are starting to show signs of altitude sickness and are suffering from headaches and nausea. After having prepared our summit gear we lay down feeling exceptionally nervous and tried to get some sleep. Needless to say, the next day’s early start came as a relief.
Our guide woke us up at about ten thirty that evening with tea and biscuits. We hurriedly dressed, got together our summit packs, bravely donned our head torches and started the long trudge upwards. Almost twelve hours later we reached Uhuru Peak – it had been an exceptionally long slog and we were exhausted but jubilant. Our four day acclimatisation campaign had been successful, neither of us had suffered from acute mountain sickness and, best of all, we had achieved our goal! All that remained was for us to return to the point where we had started. We certainly would not have managed the climb without the help of our very professional guides and porters. Their support, guidance and exceptional patience was amazing. Never once did they show the slightest irritation at our ineptitude, frustration or complaints. They patiently pandered to our muzungu needs, supplying us with hot water to wash our faces, milo with our breakfast, honey for our toast. They showed constant concern about our well being and were prouder than anyone that we had made it.
When we had started our climb reaching the highest point in Africa had seemed like a romantic ideal. We had no idea that the actual climb and, in particular, the summit push would be the most difficult thing that either of us has ever had to do. Kili pushed us to our limits and tested every ounce of our mental and physical strength. At times it looked like the mountain would win but through sheer pig-headed determination and brutal perseverance we triumphed. The rewards were enormous. We came back from our climb feeling enriched, confident and exuberant and, I daresay, probably a bit arrogant! Take the Kili challenge if you ever have the chance, the mountain is magical and the journey is phenomenal – it’s the trip of a lifetime.
Kili Fact File…..
Choosing the best time
Kili can be climbed throughout the year and it is possible to reach the summit successfully even during the rainy season, however, it is advisable to steer clear of the rainy months. The optimum months to attempt the climb are January, February and September which are the driest months of the year in this area. Also good are July and August although these months are much colder. Heavy rainfall can be expected from March to May and rain can also be expected in November and December.
The costs involved
Climbing Kili is expensive. Independent trekking is not allowed on Kilimanjaro so all treks must be organised through a tour company. There are various tour operators in South Africa who specialise in Kili treks but it is also possible to arrange your climb on arrival in Tanzania through tour companies in Moshi or Arusha. Standard five day (four night) treks on the Marangu route start at around US$500-00 per person whereas standard six day Machame treks start from about US$850-00. These prices usually include park fees, hut and camping fees, porter and guide salaries, rescue fees, food, utensils and camping gear but exclude the cost of flights to and from Moshi, tips for the guides and porters, visas for Tanzania, yellow fever inoculations, drinks, snacks, curios and mineral water. Prices will also increase should you want to spend additional days on the mountain. Prices will also vary from tour company to tour company. It must be borne in mind that park fees make up a sizeable portion of the price of your climb. The park fees alone for a standard five day Marangu trek come to around US$355-00 pp with an additional US$70-00 pp for each additional day.
Remember that you should budget around ten percent of the price of your trek as tips for your guides and porters. Once again, your tour operator will be able to give you current advice on tipping practices.
Who to contact
You may wish to book your trek through a South African tour company that can arrange the necessary flights, gear, accommodation and transport as part of a package. There are some really jacked up South African companies arranging this type of trek package. If you are interested in this sort of thing contact Destination Africa Tours (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; website http://www.destination.co.za) or Tribe Safari Adventure Travel (e-mail email@example.com; website http://www.tribesafari.com)
Otherwise it is possible to book your trek through a company in Moshi, Arusha or Marangu Village upon arrival in Tanzania. Try Alpine Tours Tanzania Ltd (Marangu Village) (255 55 59022 Ext 163); Zara Tanzania Adventures (Moshi) (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org); Shah Tours & Travel (Moshi).(027 2752370 or e-mail email@example.com)
There are lots of tour operators out there, particularly in Moshi and Arusha, that offer bargain basement prices on their treks. We have however heard countless stories about people who have booked tours through these dodgy operators and found that their huts have been double booked, food has been appalling and often that the guides and porters have not been paid. It is well worth checking out the tour company properly before booking one of these cheap packages. It certainly worth spending a little extra money to ensure that you will have a quality trek that will be smoothly and professionally guided.
Clothing, Gear and Equipment
Before departing on your trek you will need to consult your tour company as to what gear you should take along. Most tour companies are able to arrange for you to rent gear from them should you not want to undertake the expense of buying it all new. The staff at stores like Hiker’s Paradise and Outdoor Warehouse are also extremely knowledgeable and will be able to assist you.
Importantly you must have a pair of decent hiking boots that have been properly walked in before you attempt the climb. The temperatures and weather conditions are extremely variant on Kili and you can find yourself going through patches of sun, rain or snow all in one day. Make sure you have a sun hat and plenty of sunscreen. Rain gear is also an essential particularly for the first day in the rain forest so make sure you have a set of waterproof pants, waterproof jacket, gaiters and poncho. As its likely that temperatures will drop well below freezing on your summit night so you will need to make sure you have adequate warm clothes like a set of thermal pants, thermal top and socks, woolen socks, woolen beanie, warm fleece jacket, fleece pants, gloves and balaclava.
Aside from the right clothes you will also need a reliable head torch for your summit attempt (with plenty of batteries), a thermal flask to prevent your water from freezing, an adjustable walking stick, a sleeping bag, water bottle, camera, sunglasses, rucksack and summit pack. The porters prefer to carry duffle bags on their heads rather than rucksacks on their backs so don’t be offended if your expensive rucksack gets put into a duffle or plastic bag and popped onto your porter’s head.
Documents, Visas, Health and Money
To travel to Tanzania you will need a valid passport. South Africans need visas which can be obtained in advance from the Tanzanian embassy in South Africa or on arrival at your point of entry. The cost of the visa is US$30-00. You will also need to be inoculated against yellow fever and be in possession of a yellow fever certificate for presentation to the authorities on arrival. Tanzania is also a high-risk malaria area so you will need to take the necessary anti-malarial precautions. You may also wish to investigate having other immunizations such as Hepatitis A & B, Typhoid, Cholera and Tetanus although these are not necessary for entry into Tanzania. The Tanzanian currency is the Tanzanian shilling although you will need to pay your park fees in US dollars.
How to get there
Kilimanjaro International Airport lies mid-way between Arusha and Moshi and both Air Tanzania and South African Airways fly there at various times during the week. For those nutcases like us out there, you could always drive - especially if you have a 4x4 itching to be tested.
Training and Fitness
Physical fitness is important to the success of your summit attempt although mental perserverence and determination are essential. Some experts advise that you should be able to run for half an hour without feeling a breath variation before attempting the mountain. I can certainly say that Nev and I were not that fit!! Others recommend walking between five and ten kilometres five times a week in the two weeks before your departure. As we are continuously on the road this type of training schedule proved difficult for us to follow. Our training regimen involved doing as many hikes as we could when we had the opportunity as well as as much walking as we could fit in. I am sure that your tour operator would be a good source of information in relation to the amount of training required.