Eric Gilbertson and Darren V
Mt Kilimanjaro (19,341 ft), tallest mountain in Africa, Tanzania
Sept 16-23, 2013
Day 0 – Flight to Nairobi
Day 1 – Flight to Arusha, Tanzania
Day 2 – Hike to Machame camp (10,000ft)
Day 3 – Hike to Shira Camp (12,200ft)
Day 4 – Hike to Baranco Camp (12,700ft)
Day 5 – Barafu Camp (14,700ft)
Day 6 – Summit (19,341ft) for sunrise, descend to Mawenga Camp (11,000ft)
Day 7 – Hike out, bus to Nairobi
More pictures on the MITOC Gallery
Darren and I went to eastern Africa in late summer 2013 to climb the tallest two mountains on the continent – Mt Kenya in Kenya (#2) and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (#1). The mountains were very different technically and logistically, but it made a lot of sense to combine them. Mt Kenya was an intense high-altitude technical rock climb up to 17,000ft, and it would be important to be well acclimated so we could focus on the rock instead of headaches from altitude. Kilimanjaro was a simple hike-up mountain to 19,000ft, and would provide us the perfect acclimation needed for Mt Kenya. We planned to hike up Kilimanjaro slowly over a week to acclimate, and then quickly ascend Mt Kenya afterwards.
The only problem with Kilimanjaro, though, is its popularity. So many people around the world want to climb Kili that the entire mountain is heavily regulated, and everyone is legally required to hire local guides (and porters) to ascend. Darren and I never hire guides to climb up mountains – it’s a lot more fun to figure out logistics and planning ourselves, and we’re experienced enough climbers to get up almost any technical route. But in this case we had no choice. And Kilimanjaro is an interesting enough mountain, with the ascent passing all the way from jungle up to glaciers, that we felt it was worth putting up with and paying for guides. Guide fees also support the local economy and provide a lot of jobs, so it is a good cause.
After weeks of looking into guides, we settled on Team Masaii as the cheapest possible option. I’d heard it may be possible to show up to Arusha, Tanzania (the base of Kilimanjaro) and talk to local people to arrange a cheaper option, but with our limited time on the ground we needed to have everything arranged in advance.
Team Masaii charged $1025 per person for a 5-day ascent up the Marangu Route, and $1250 per person for a 6-day ascent up the Machame Route. Apparently the success rate is pretty low on a 5-day ascent since it’s not really enough time to properly acclimate, so we bit the bullet and signed up for a 6-day ascent. It was really important that we properly acclimated not just for Kilimanjaro, but for our more difficult goal of Mt Kenya afterwards. The price sounds ridiculously high – and it is – but most people spend between $5,000 and $10,000 on a hike up Kili. Those trips have tons of porters, huge dinner tents, even portable toilets so the clients don’t have to use the primitive squatty-potties (holes in the ground) at the designated campsites along the route.
Darren and I didn’t need any luxury at all, and Team Masaii was the most bare-bones option.
With everything arranged we bought our tickets to Nairobi and started packing. Literally a week before our flight we heard there was a catastrophic fire affecting the entire Nairobi airport, but our guides assured us over email the airport would be back in action in time for us. Indeed, a booming tourist industry in East Africa depended heavily on that airport, and we knew the Kenyan government would do everything possible to get it running.
We rendezvoused in Nairobi on September 17, and the airport had indeed reached a minimally-functional state. Check-in counters and waiting rooms had been shifted into the parking garages while the main building was repaired, addling a lot of confusion. After a few hours of asking different clueless airport personnel directions we finally made it to our connecting flight to Arusha, Tanzania. At the airport we paid for a visa upon arrival, then met a driver outside from Team Masaii and rode to the Outpost Lodge in Arusha for the night.
We met our guides in the morning and crammed into a small van to drive to the Machame Gate trailhead. Amazingly, they had six porters, two guides, and a cook just to get me and Darren up the mountain! We could certainly have been self sufficient and I felt bad having all these people helping me get up a mountain. But, on the other hand, we were employing nine people for the next week, which was good for the local economy.
At the Machame Gate trailhead (1800m) we waited around for an hour while our guides filled out necessary paperwork. There were about 50 other tourists like us from all over the world waiting around as well. We talked to some people from Norway and others from the Netherlands. Everyone was very excited for their upcoming trip.
With the paperwork finished we finally started up the trail. At this elevation we were walking through lush jungle, with monkeys and birds calling above us in the trees. Our two guides accompanied us, while the porters and the cook had started off earlier to make sure camp was set up when we arrived. I felt like some sort of royalty with all this special treatment.
As we ascended the jungle vegetation gradually got thinner and drier, and by mid afternoon near the edge of treeline we arrived at Machame Camp. All camping on Kilimanjaro is done at designated campsites, and this helps concentrate the impact of so many tourists passing through every day.
I started to set up my tent at camp and inflate my pad, but the guides came over and pointed to a big green tent with an enormous bed-mattress-sized pad inside.
“This is your tent, which we brought up for you,” the guide said.
Oops. I hadn’t realized they were already carrying that for me. In fact, one porter’s sole responsibility was carrying that huge mattress! My little inflatable mattress and tent would now be unused weight for the entire trip, but oh well.
The cook had already started dinner, cooking on a huge propane tank that probably required another porter to haul up. Dinners were always excellent, though, with some combination of meat, rice and vegetables that was much better than my usual one-pot meals of pasta, ramen, or cous cous.
Darren and I caught our first glimpse of the snowy slopes of Kilimanjaro through the trees at camp in the evening as we finished off dinner.
The next morning we were served breakfast in the tent, and soon packed up our sleeping bags and continued up the trail. Some porters had started earlier to get the next camp set up, and a few stayed behind to take down the tent. I still couldn’t get used to other people doing all these chores for me, but had accepted that was how it was going to work.
The trail got a little rockier as we scrambled above treeline. The porters were amazing – they would carry a big backpack on their backs while balancing a heavy basket on their heads and using their hands to scramble up the rocks!
Now the summit cone was clearly visible, with glaciers falling down the sides. We saw a few incredible ice routes forming below some hanging glaciers. Someday we’d have to come back and take a technical climbing ascent route up Kilimanjaro.
At treeline we traversed to Shira Camp, our stop for the night. As the porters set up camp we did a small acclimation hike a few hundred feet higher to Shira Caves before returning for another excellent dinner.
In the morning we joined a huge line of other hikers ascending from Shira camp. We walked up the rock and scree trail for a few hours to reach an big 100-ft-tall rock outcrop called Lava Tower. At the base another group had set up an enormous Mountain Hardwear basecamp tent. Inside was a table for 20 people and outside they’d set up a popup porta-potty. This must have been one of the $10,000/person luxury guided trips. I’m sure the people on those trips carry little more than a bottle of water and a snack in their backpacks.
Our group took a break for lunch and Darren and I asked if we could go scramble up the Lava Tower. Tourists on Kilimanjaro have to be accompanied 100% of the time with their guides, and we persuaded one of the guides to join us. A 3rd-class route wound up the back side of the tower, and at the top we could peer down a 100ft cliff to our group below.
From the lava tower we descended back to our group, where the port
ers had set up our tent and cooked us a hot lunch. We soon got back in line with the rest of the hikers and descended 1000ft to our next camp, Barranco. On the way we encountered some huge Senecio trees that were several hundred years old. These trees apparently only grow above a certain altitude in eastern Africa, so basically exist only on Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya. They look a lot like Joshua trees from the US, but are quite unique to eastern Africa and are the only vegetation at that elevation.
Barranco camp was set beneath a huge cliff below some hanging glaciers tumbling down Kili. We spied some more amazing ice climbs going up the cliff, and again wished we’d come prepared for a more technical climb.
Our last day before the summit involved a little bit more scrambling to get out of the Barranco Camp valley, and then we traversed around the cliffs to reach more gradual slopes. We had been traversing at around 12,000ft for the past few days to acclimate, and now ascended to 14,700ft at Barafu camp. The terrain above 14,000ft was completely free of vegetation, and had been recently blanketed by a half-inch of snow. It’s quite a novelty seeing snow in Africa, especially after having hiked through jungle just a few days earlier.
I had just brought running shoes for the hike, and luckily this small amount of snow posed no problem.
At Barafu camp there were probably 100 other tents, all perched on small leveled-out rock platforms. The porters had already set up our tent and begun cooking our dinner.
We discussed our summit plan that evening with our guides. They said most groups start hiking at 10:30pm in order to get to the summit at sunrise the next morning. However, they said we were fit enough that we could sleep in a little bit, and maybe start at 1am. We were both starting to feel some effects of altitude by now and were definitely excited to get in a few more hours of sleep.
At midnight our guides woke us up and brought us some porridge for breakfast. Darren was getting pretty tired of porridge by now, but still mustered enough appetite to finish it off. The porters and cook would be staying at camp while we summited with just the guides.
The guides offered to take our backpacks to give us a better chance of summitting, but I was personally more worried about them having trouble than myself or Darren having trouble. In the end we each took our own packs.
Groups were already heading up the mountain in the dark, probably having started around 10:30pm. Our guides said one time they started at 10:30pm and didn’t return until 20 hours later! The summit was only 6 miles away, though, so those clients must have been in really bad shape.
We moved quickly and soon passed a few groups ahead of us that were struggling. On the way up I learned the guides were trying to learn Spanish so they could communicate with clients from South America and Spain, and I started speaking with them in Spanish to give them practice. I definitely didn’t expect to be speaking Spanish in Tanzania!
By around 17,000ft I was starting to feel the effects of altitude. This wasn’t too surprising since we’d only really acclimated to something between 12,000ft and 14,000ft. I forced myself to breathe harder and more frequently, though, and this helped a lot. It gets more oxygen in my system, which helps with acclimation, and the only drawback is it causes more dehydration with all the extra exhalations. But I just drank more water and was fine.
We reached the summit ridge by 5am and it was apparent we would hit the summit well before sunrise. I guess we’d gone faster than the guides expected. The head guide was feeling pretty tired going at our pace, and told the second guide to accompany us the rest of the way to the summit.
The head guide then broke out two red bulls and started drinking.
“These are the emergency red bulls I always bring in case my clients get too tired to continue,” the head guide said. “These give them the extra energy to get to the summit! But you guys obviously don’t need them so I’ll finish them off myself.”
We reached the summit at 5:30am, still in the dark. It was pretty cold and windy, and the other guide with us pulled out a few red blankets for us to wear. I think they were traditional Masaai blankets, though probably not designed to be worn on a cold windy mountain.
A huge sign on the summit said “Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak” (that’s the name of the highest point on the crater rim of Kilimanjaro.) We had passed all the other groups on the way up and were the first ones on the summit.
Unfortunately there was no view in the dark, and it was very cold and windy, so we started descending after only five minutes up there. As we walked back down the summit ridge alpenglow started forming on the hori
zon and we got our first view of the surroundings. A huge wall of ice loomed to the south, as if a glacier were slowly sliding off the summit. I had never seen this phenomenon before on a mountain, with a huge wall of ice on the summit and just rock and scree below it. This may be the result of the famous melting of the glaciers of Kilimanjaro.
We could also now peer in to the crater and see more snow. The other guided groups were now slowly marching up along the rim. They had timed the climb much better than we had, and would be treated to a sunny view on the top. But we had at least had the summit all to ourselves.
We descended off the rim as the sun finally rose. The air warmed up quite rapidly, enough for us to take off our jackets as we descended. Here we met up with the head guide, who was feeling a little better after his rest. We all walked leisurely back to Barafu Camp, arriving by 10am. Darren and I immediately crawled into the tent and took a nap for the next four hours.
By early afternoon the guides roused us and we packed up for the descent. Our group descended down to Mawenga Camp at 11,000ft, just below treeline. We each were feeling much better now with the extra oxygen in the air. This would be our last night on the mountain, and that evening was to be the delicate task of tipping our group. With tourism such a well-established business on Kilimanjaro, it was no surprise that tipping would not be as easy as slipping the guide some extra money at the end.
The guides brought us out a piece of paper with each guide/porter/cook name and typical tipping amounts. He told us to write out the amount we desired to tip next to each name. I really didn’t like this system – if we put less than the “recommended” amount the guides would hate us, so we were basically forced to “tip” them whatever they asked. We wrote down the recommended amounts and gave the paper back, not wanting to make anyone angry.
The next morning we finished the short hike back down through the jungle to the Marangu Gate. Here an official checkpoint person had us sign some paperwork and gave us a little certificate saying we’d climbed Kilimanjaro. We then piled into a van with all the porters and guides and drove back to the hotel in Arusha.
After taking a quick shower at the hotel we walked to the bus station in town and started heading north to Kenya. We were now well acclimated for the harder objective of our trip – Mt Kenya, the tallest mountain in Kenya.