Climbing Kilimanjaro

Community Highlights Africa & The Middle East Climbing Kilimanjaro


So many likes, so many comments. Our photo from the roof of Africa was a hit, at least in our limited social media circles.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro?
Or, so our beaming smiles underneath the famous sign suggested.
Rewind ten days.

Having spied the snow-covered peak from the luxury of a safari jeep many years previously, we were back to scale the mountain that had so captivated us.
Our walk started at 2100 metres in a dense rainforest shrouded in mist. Colobus monkeys appeared in the branches above the narrow, wet path indifferently observing our slow progress upward.
Emerging from our damp tents the following morning our climbing group of nine tourists was introduced to our support team of thirty-eight: cooks, porters, guides and the invaluable man who was tasked with bringing the portable loo all the way to Base Camp – as well as cleaning it each day. This brilliant team of ever-smiling men and women encouraged us, believed in us and drove us up the mountain – their songs uplifting our spirits when necessary, erecting tents, and feeding us in the evenings with an impressively varied menu of tasty food.
During the days, we carried packs mostly consisting of waterproof clothing, water and snacks. Our spare clothes, sleeping bags and mats were hauled up the mountain for us by our team. These porters would scamper past us with huge sacks strapped to their powerful backs containing tents, chairs, kitchen equipment, food, our spare things as well as their own essential items required for scaling a mountain and staying alive at nearly 6000 metres.
On the second day of walking, we left the rainforest behind and surrounded by scrub we glimpsed our first view of Kilimanjaro. All the early morning runs, late evening gym visits, and hours on the bike in preparation suddenly seemed to count for very little as the mighty summit loomed impossibly high. The brutal reality of the task undertaken and the crushing impact on our collective morale was reflected in the silence that followed.
The nights were cold. Dragging oneself from the relative warmth of a sleeping bag in the middle of the night on multiple occasions for altitude induced toilet visits was as much perilous as it was unbearable. By day, enthusiastic renditions of local songs by our guides, which included familiar chorus lyrics such as Hakuna Matata fueled our ascent. ‘Pole pole,’ called out the guides whenever the route steepened, urging us to walk slowly in their native language, Swahili. We needed no encouragement; the altitude was inducing headaches, nosebleeds and even vomiting. Yet, we were still 1300 metres short of the summit of 5895 metres when we slowly and wearily trudged into base camp at the end of the 6th day of walking.
The summit attempt began at midnight. Headlamps illuminated the ankles of the person in front as we slowly trudged in a line one foot after another slowly upward, like a caravan of camels desperately seeking water.
Sunrise came and went. Our singing guides encouraged us again and again. And, eventually, the famous sign congratulating successful walkers became visible.
After profusely thanking our support team, without whom we would absolutely never have made it and who, by now, was also carrying many of our daypacks, we collapsed beneath it.
‘Smile,’ they said. And the photo was snapped.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

7 - 9th June
It was Friday afternoon on June 7th. Similar scenes from schools played out around the world – excitable teachers preparing for their 8-week summer holiday. The usual destinations were shared before final goodbyes were made: Bali, OZ, UK, Europe, USA etc... But, we were heading to Tanzania. The plan was to climb the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak standing at 5895m above sea level.
On our 3rd flight, and last leg of the journey into Kilimanjaro Airport, we spied the isolated summit towering above the blanket of cloud below. Even from the air, it looked ridiculously high. Our anxiety levels ratcheted up a notch.
On the ground the mountain was shrouded in cloud. Our taxi driver indifferently pointed in its vague direction as he drove us through rural Tanzania to our hotel – the Moivaro Coffee Plantation Lodge. The two-lane highway ploughed a path through dusty towns. Colourfully clothed men and women hung out in ramshackle shop fronts observing our progress.
The lodge was home for 36 hours. At a little over 1km in the sky, it was colder than expected and the small swimming pool in the garden remained unused throughout our stay. A local wedding party passed through for an hour, snapping photos on the lawn.
On the Sunday, Marsha and I met up with the other 7 tourists attempting the climb. We gathered for the briefing delivered by JT – our enigmatic guide. Jen and Andrea we knew from Manila. The other 5 were from the UK.
‘You’re welcome,’ he began (a phrase he’d use repeatedly over the next 8 days – whether appropriate to do so or not). JT then briefed us on the climb, including the summit night. Cue anxiety levels rising further.

10th June
Early morning. Bags packed, unpacked, repacked, a change of clothes, another change, some more repacking. Then the drizzle started. A hunt for waterproofs… We were all just a little bit nervous. But, eventually, dry and clean clothes were stored away for our return and the gear accompanying us on the climb was stowed in the van and we were off.
3 hours later we registered our names at Kilimanjaro HQ (Londorossi). A short drive afterwards through farmland and plantations deposited us at 2100m and the Lomosho Roadhead.
Chaos. Huge numbers of porters and support staff bustling around heaving massive packs on to their backs. We were escorted through the bedlam to the start of the trail.
That first day was said to be easy. I suppose these things are relative. But, we climbed 550m in the drizzle in just over a couple of hours. A troop of Blue Monkeys and a couple of Colobus Monkeys halted our progress through the dense rainforest at one point. We captured blurred photos of these monkeys swinging from branch to branch. Their effortless travels were in stark contrast to our weary plodding. Moss covered branches hanging in the mist above the narrow path created an eerie atmosphere that rather reminded us of the Blair Witch Project.
Every few minutes porters carrying so much more weight than us scampered past us on the track. ‘Porters coming,’ became a familiar call throughout the trek.
The camp on 1st night was named Big Tree. We were, indeed, surrounded by big trees. We were also surrounded by several other camps of tourists. This was a busier walk than we had imagined.
Already in place were our erected tents – and the mess tent. It was here that we dined on our first of many fantastic meals prepared by the genius chef – James. Dinner on the first night was soup, fish and potatoes and veggies. Discussions throughout the week over dinner often returned to the question of whether we were all actually putting on weight despite the exercise and lack of alcohol – the food was that good!
After dinner, JT briefed us ahead of the following day’s walk. His briefings always seemed to perhaps take a little longer than necessary. Part of the reason was him educating us on our chants: ‘Awesome! – to the max,’ and a rather sexist chant that was immediately reversed and left the men with a somewhat effeminate response. He also felt the need to educate us on the mystery of the Swahili clock, which appeared to be nothing more than a concerted effort to confuse children at school. It wasn’t really 7 o’clock, it was 1 o’clock. ‘Like telling the time upside down,’ he explained. We nodded slowly…
There’s very little to do once the sun has set and dinner is done. We were in our tents and trying to sleep before 8pm (2pm Swahili time). Sleep, though, for most of us came much later.
11th June
Unzipping the tent first thing in the morning, I was confronted by a Blue Monkey observing me indifferently from the trees only a few yards away, playing with himself – as you do. Apparently though, it had been Tree Rabbits whose growling and roaring had kept many of us up for hours overnight.
James provided us with porridge, eggs, bacon, bread, tea, coffee etc.. We all ate a bigger breakfast than many of us had had in decades… Afterwards we were formally introduced to our support team. The 9 of us had 38 people helping us up the mountain.
Let that sink in!
Guides (JT, Hance, Crossman, Happy and Innocent – these are their names, not a misguided attempt to describe their characters), James the chef and several helpers, the invaluable Venson who carried and cleaned the portable toilet amongst other duties and then the huge team of porters. Marsha and I shook hands with Apaphros and Henry who would be carrying our spare bags, tents, sleeping bags and mats with them each day (as well as all their own stuff of course). Not only would all these people encourage us up the mountain, they would also carry most of our personal things, cook for us, clean dishes, set up tents, clean the toilet, set up the mess tent, carry chairs/tables/kitchen equipment/food and generally go out of their way to ensure our progress up the mountain encountered as few problems as possible.
We had booked through Exodus, who employed the African Walking Company to take us up. No one involved could be faulted in any way.
Not content with just the carrying and cooking etc… the 38 of them then treated us to renditions of several local songs including familiar lyrics such as: Hakuna Matata, and Jambo Bwana. Little did we know at the time, but these songs and our guides enthusiastic singing would keep us going in harder, darker moments later in the trip.
In the blazing sun, dressed only in trousers and t-shirt, we started the day’s ascent. At 3000m we left the trees behind. Surrounded by scrub that reminded us of New Zealand and Scotland in equal measures we carried on up. Porters continually brushed past in apparent ease. It was a bit of a route march. We crossed paths with many different groups of tourists over the week. On this day we first met the Omani group – travelling at a slightly erratic pace for which at least one of them would pay the price later on.
Our guides insisted on moving ‘Pole Pole’ up the mountain – in Swahili this means slowly. Later in the week this would become, ‘Pole Pole Pole Pole,’ as the terrain became more challenging and the path steepened. Although this caused some frustration initially, our guides knew exactly what they were doing. Any faster could risk altitude sickness.
At 3600m (nearly 1km higher than at the beginning of the day) we first spied the mountain. It was mostly covered in cloud, but patches of snow occasionally glistened through the grey mist.
Later in camp (Shira 1), the clouds drifted away revealing the mighty peak shining in the sun. It just looked impossibly high. The task ahead at that moment all seemed rather overwhelming…
12th June
The altitude was too much for one of the Omani group who was evacuated in the middle of the night. The nine of us, thus far, were unscathed. We awoke (those that had slept) to another beautiful day. The mountain towered above us in the distance.
Porridge and bacon energized us fueling our slow progress onward and upward. As porters rushed past we trudged forward in very much a ‘Pole Pole’ manner.
The scenery was beautiful. A blanket of cloud below, the mountain above and rocky outcrops rising from the plateau all around. Ravens, Jackal poo and buffalo tracks were the only signs of non-human habitation in this desolate place.
Val, our resident septuagenarian, decided to hold a press conference half way through the day. The Omani group as well as several other tourists interviewed her on video and snapped loads of photos with her at the forefront. She happily answered all their Qs not minding all the attention at all. From then on, we were certain she was royalty of some kind…
Our immediate destination was Cathedral Peak – an ancient crater rim formed thousands of years previously – at 3900m. The top was wonderful once we arrived. The sweeping plains from which we’d walked seemed vast.
From there we were told the camp was 1.5km – but it took several hours and we all decided that it probably wasn’t! Arriving into Shira 2 camp, without yet having lunch, we were exhausted.
Soup revived us, and most of us agreed to the 1-hour acclimatization walk in the afternoon. And, it was here, just short of 4000m (3998m according to my watch) that the group suffered the first signs of altitude sickness – headaches, nausea etc… Diamox and Ibuprofen were swallowed in an attempt to stave it off.
Great dinner again. And, I’m sure James and his porters were appreciating the amount we were eating – less to carry!
13th June
We awoke to the most glorious view. The mountain top glistening and towering above majestically, below a blanket of cloud covering the lowlands of Tanzania and reaching up to the foothills. The sky was perfectly blue – not a cloud and not a breath of wind.
One of the side effects of altitude is the need to pee on a regular basis throughout the night. Dragging oneself from the relative warmth of a sleeping bag for these nighttime toilet visits were terrible trips to take. Often it meant clambering up 50 feet of mountain to find the loo tent in the dark. Just occasionally, though, if you could stand the cold, it was worth switching off the headlamp and gazing into the sky. The Southern Cross and countless other constellations twinkled brightly alongside a moon that was becoming rounder and rounder as the trip continued.
This was a long day of walking. The sun shone throughout the morning as we hiked up to the Lava Tower Camp at 4600m. A pee-stop signified every 100m of ascent, I decided. Ravens circled us, headaches came and went (and sometimes stayed). And, all the time, the mountain gradually drew nearer and bigger and somehow – higher!
Jumping photos, rock formations, songs from our guides and porters galloping past us were features of the morning.
At Lava Tower, our amazing support team had erected a tent with table and chairs and made us lunch, complete with hot tea. They had even stationed the portable loo (and tent) nearby. After lunch we lay in the grass and warmed our faces in the sun. It was a stunning spot. But, we were on a slightly different agenda to some and our plan was to only stay for an acclimatization period before descending 700m to our camp for the night: Barranco Valley.
The descent featured several flora and fauna changes. Giant Sienecic Trees peppered the trip. These unique trees never lose their leaves, they simply fold away and form part of the trunk. We followed a small stream much of the way as the clouds rolled in. Despite the massive descent, headaches and nausea (even inducing vomiting) affected us in different extremes.
This was the biggest camp so far – the amalgamation of several different routes up the mountain.
14th June
A later start than usual – 7am. As we were every morning, we were awoken with a cup of tea and then a washing up bowl of warm water to cleanse ourselves as best we could. Then, breakfast. We really were being incredibly well looked after.
The morning involved the 300m high, near vertical Barranco Wall. Deaths were not totally uncommon. Indeed, we learned that on average about 10 people die trying to scale the mountain each year, albeit most from acute altitude sickness – which can be avoided by immediate descent, if you are with decent guides.
The wall climb was fantastic. As Marsha noted, humanity was in abundance with people supporting and helping each other up the wall. The porters with their ridiculously heavy loads had to have sure footing. One mis-step could send one person tumbling into many others perched on the cliff face. Although we carried far less on our backs, this was our first time up the wall and our uncertain footholds undoubtedly caused apprehension in the porter ranks.
Beautiful at times, terrifying at others, but, we all made it. And, later almost unanimously, we described it as our favourite part of the whole trek. It certainly got the adrenalin running. ‘Kiss the rock,’ instructed JT at one point as we were made to hug a rock balancing on a ledge high in the sky with very little room for error. It was genuine climbing – hands, feet, knees, bottoms, fingertips all used to get us up.
After the adrenalin rush of the wall, the remainder of the walk for the day was relatively tame. Up and down, up again, up a bit more, then down etc… Stunning scenery again, though, spoiled only by a group blasting out musical ballads from loudspeaker as they walked.
We arrived into Karanga Camp for a late lunch. The terrain had changed again as we viewed the southern snowfields on the mountain. Volcanic scree with pockets of vegetation formed our surrounds. Cold wet clouds occasionally blew in making it colder than we’d experienced previously.
Dinner was very good again – although the endless soup (and porridge in the morning) was perhaps affecting our appetites almost as much as the altitude.
‘Tomorrow night, we summit,’ began JT in his evening briefing. As always, he checked on our health. A series of headaches and mild nausea was apparently no need for concern. ‘Eat well, sleep well,’ he instructed. We knew that the following night we’d get no sleep at all…
15th June
I had started Diamox a day before – the altitude sickness prevention pill. Many others had too. It had worked previously for me – and, so far so good. The trouble was, it acted as a diuretic. Three times in the night, I reluctantly climbed out of the sleeping bag and ventured out of the tent onto the steep-sloped mountain. Clambering upward on the scree towards the loo tent at high altitude. A headlamp haphazardly leading the way. The sure knowledge that I’d remained in the sleeping bag just a little longer than I should have. Panic on realizing someone else was in there. Hopping from foot to foot in the freezing cold and drizzle. Yes, these were not my favourite moments of the trip…
The morning started much as any other: tea, wash, getting dressed in the confines of the tent, packing and emerging from the tent wondering how in the hell all the porters were doing exactly as I was with probably half the food, a fraction of the comfort and carrying a load I’d struggle to lift.
A relatively short day. However, we still climbed from 4000m to 4600m. We arrived at Barafu camp (Base Camp) for lunch. We climbed another 100m up for acclimatization first.
JT briefed us after lunch on the summit walk. We would start at midnight. Sleep before then, he said. Follow the steps of the person in front. Don’t look up the mountain at the lights zig-zagging up the hill. And, most importantly, he told us all that he believed we would make it. He almost had us believing it too…

16th June. Midnight.
Some people had slept. I couldn’t. A mixture of apprehension, nerves and excitement prevented sleep. In any case, we were roused, given porridge (that none of us wanted, but all of us forced down) and formed an orderly line shortly after midnight. Already, headlamps were bouncing up the mountain far above us. I tore my eyes away and focused on the ankles of the person in front. And, we began to walk.
Every step was up. None down, no flat bits. It was all up. We had to gain 1300m in altitude if we were to summit. This was difficult at the best of times, but in thinning air and combatting altitude sickness – the task seemed hopeless.
Our wonderful guides kept the spirits up by singing their local songs. We tried to join in with the chorus’, but it was so exhausting. Conversation was limited to brief enquiries as to each other’s health as we stopped for breaks.
Our group of nine partitioned after a couple of hours. Marsha and I were left in a group of 4. We climbed further, ever upwards, concentrating only on the feet of the person in front. One foot, then the next, then the next. Upwards. Another hour passed. A break. Exhaustion. Much needed water. A glance up the mountain and already people were coming down having got as far as they could. Onward, upward. ‘This bit is difficult,’ said Crossman, the guide with us. It was all difficult, we replied before our voices deteriorated into hacking coughs. Even speaking was hard. Another hour, another break. 4am. ‘Are we half way?’ ‘Nearly,’ was the terrifying reply. Focus on the ankles, ever higher, always up. Less oxygen, shorter breaths. More people descending. Songs from the guides. Somebody in our group had turned back, we heard. Another had blacked out. Doubt. Then, voicing that doubt. Crossman was wonderful – he encouraged and kept the 4 of us going. Another break. Lights bobbing in the distance far up the mountain. Another hour of climbing. More songs.
And, then, something happened.
The horizon turned orange. The surrounding terrain became visible. Ice and snow clung to rocks. The sun appeared and energized us for the final ascent – or so we thought. False peaks provided the illusion of triumph. But, eventually, Stellar Point was visible. Collapsing into the shelter of the rock at Stellar Point – only 150m from the summit, we barely noticed the crater view. Two of the group were on the way to the summit, three chose not to get there, the four of us decided we’d keep going. JT, Crossman and other support porters kept us company.
The last 150m of altitude gain was flatter. The sun was out. It should have been easier, but the altitude was really taking its toll. We passed a woman connected to an oxygen tank, a man being carried down on a stretcher and several others requiring the support of their guides. This walk really was taking people to their limits.
We passed Andrea and Chris on their return from the summit – full of smiles and encouragement. Eventually, just before 9am the famous old sign congratulating weary walkers for reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro appeared less than 5 minutes away. It still took several more breaks, but we made it. John pulled on his Alzheimer’s shirt for a photo – he was walking for charity. Marsha and I posed for photos. Jen joined us and we beamed smiles below the sign that belied our true feelings of exhaustion.
We barely had time to stand around and appreciate the enormity of the accomplishment. I didn’t snap a single photo of the surrounding scenery from the top. JT informed us that we needed to descend – altitude sickness was disorientating 1 or 2 – and he was worried.
It took 9 hours to get up and about 2 to return. The fine scree slopes made it a little like walking/running down a sand dune. Tiring on the legs, but our progress was quick. With every stride the oxygen increased. Our lovely porters met us at 4900m having climbed up 300m just to relieve us of our day packs for the final bit. Stubbornly, I clung on to mine – not really sure why, but still… A little after 11am, we stumbled back into camp, and slumped into our tent – completely spent, but triumphant. We had climbed Kilimanjaro. Now all we had to do was get back.
The walking wasn’t done for the day. Another two hours in the afternoon brought us to Millenium Camp. At a little under 4000 we worked out that we’d ascended and descended 2000m in a bit over 24 hours at high altitude.
Sarah and Mark produced cake and port they’d been carrying for the week at dinner to celebrate his birthday – but also the successful walk, I’m sure.
That night – collectively, we had the best night’s sleep so far…
17th June
In the morning we said goodbye to all the cooks and porters. They sang again – the mountain stretching up behind them. Marsha and Sarah sand songs of their own.
None of us could have got anywhere near the summit without the efforts and support of each of the 38 men and women helping us. Our thanks were genuine. Val was reduced to tears. I know they do this week in, week out, but their strength, their genuine desire to see us succeed and their confidence in our ability was stunning.
All that remained was to drop down over 2000m to the park entrance, where we’d be picked up and whisked back to the hotel.
This was 5 hours of walking that no one really wanted. The group separated into two. The first group basically ran down the hill, and the second hobbled across the line with missing toenails and blisters galore.
We all joined up in a bar for some well-deserved aptly named, Kilimanjaro beers.
Job done. Time to go home and brag about what we’d done ☺.

This featured blog entry was written by Patrick H. from the blog Patrick Hillman's Travels.
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By Patrick H.

Posted Tue, Jul 02, 2019 | Tanzania | Comments