Apart from its staggering height, Kilimanjaro is quite approachable. No mountaineering skills are required to reach the top — in fact, climbing up is nothing more than a series of long hikes. It is the rapid drop in oxygen and the extreme climate changes that make the climb a challenge. One only takes in half the oxygen with every breath at the top compared to at sea level. And while warm, tropical weather greets one at the park gate, temperatures at the peak are well below freezing, which is why the trek has been likened to walking from the equator to the Antarctic in just a few days.
The JourneyWith today's well-established, quick, reliable, and mostly painless airplane transportation, the boring means by which one reaches one's destination are often left out of the traveler's account. In this particular case, I would like to stress just how big of an ordeal my air travel was.
The problems started with TSA at SFO. My duffel triggered a bag check due to the presence of “something sharp.” After digging around a bit, they found a compartment in my tripod case I didn't know existed, housing some tools I had no use for. A swab triggered some alarm, and I was honored with a full body pat-down, and all my luggage that I had meticulously packed was ransacked inside out, forcing me to repack it on the spot. In Tanzania, I would painfully discover that one of my gloves, essential for the climb, had disappeared in the process.
Being a loyal Star Alliance frequent flyer, I traded a one-stop KLM flight from SFO to Kilimanjaro for a three-stop — SFO - Washington Dulles - Zurich - Nairobi - Kilimanjaro — Star Alliance route worth a whopping 20,000 miles of credits.
The short Nairobi to Kilimanjaro segment was on Kenya Airways, which I had mistakenly booked with a 12-hour layover instead of an earlier, more convenient flight. I figured I could easily switch to the earlier flight once I arrived, avoiding an overnight in Nairobi.
This proved to be a lot more complicated than one might expect. After twenty minutes of searching for the Kenya Airways desk, I was happy to learn that there was plenty of room on the earlier flight, and I could get on it for a fee.
“Fine,” I said. “How much?”
“Let me find out,” the representative replied and spent fifteen minutes on phone hold with a colleague only to come back with:
“Sorry, sah. They are busy right now.”
Eventually, he got through and gave me a price: $90, to which I happily agreed.
“Give me the cash, and I will take it to the cashier,” he said.
Now, I'm reasonably trusting, but this being Kenya, I would be a fool not to insist on a cash-on-delivery transaction. So, the representative launched plan B: he was to escort me to a check-in counter in the unsecured section of the airport, where I could get my new boarding pass. So, we awkwardly skirted around several layers of passport control, customs, and security screens to another Kenya Airways station. This station was missing a cashier, so we pushed further, well outside the main terminal building now, crossing a busy roundabout to a curbside Kenya Airways station where my credit card was slipped through one teller window, and a boarding pass came out another. I found it astonishing that I had essentially entered Kenya at its busiest airport without a visa.
At this point, more than an hour had elapsed, and I had serious doubts I would actually make the flight. Fortunately, the airport staff did not suffer from short-term memory loss and waved us back around all the layers of security, customs, and immigration, and I made it to my gate just as the boarding process was commencing. Later, I learned that my credit card had been fraudulently used to make a purchase in Brooklyn, NY a few days later, making this an even bigger ordeal.
The turboprop that was to take me to Kilimanjaro reminded me of a line from the movie Hector and the Search for Happiness, I saw on the previous SWISS Airways flight, where a fellow passenger comforts Hector by saying: “if you'll notice, this plane is quite old. That means, it has never crashed before. That's quite reassuring.”
Once settled in, the pilot announced our cruising altitude would be 19,000 feet, just below the elevation I was to reach over the next few days. This really put things in perspective. I was just finishing Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and was grateful that my mountainous undertaking was going to be nothing nearly as extreme as Everest. But, it definitely felt like no small undertaking.
As I got into the taxi that was to take me to Moshi, I felt at peace, even though the car was missing one headlight, had no working speedometer or tachometer, only but a few drops of petrol in its fuel tank, and its check-engine light was pathetically illuminated for good measure. I rolled down my window and felt the familiar warm, earthy, sweet scent of Africa welcoming me back.
Day 1: Marangu Gate to Mandara Huts
My Kilimanjaro tour was through G Adventures, with whom I had had a great experience in Patagonia. They exceeded my expectations in Africa as well. Our group of eight adventurers was fantastic — everyone was worldly, vivacious, kind, and we all supported each other throughout the trip.
6,100 ft to 8,860 ft
After a meager breakfast at the Stella Maris Lodge and a stop in town for last minute supplies, we arrived at the park just before noon. We were given spring water for the day (the rest would come from natural springs on the mountains, which we would have to purify ourselves), and we met our porters who would be hauling all but our day packs, in addition to food, cooking supplies, and more.
The hike was very pleasant on easy terrain through lush rain forest. We stopped for lunch at some well situated picnic benches, but before we could finish, a sudden rain shower forced us to put on our rain gear and press on. Our guide's chants of “rain, rain, go away, come back another day!” were largely unsuccessful, as this part of the park gets frequent and unpredictable showers.
We reached Mandara huts well before sunset and were offered warm water for washing, which would be a regular occurrence in the mornings and evenings for all but the last camp, where there is no running water.
While the jungle was hot and humid, the temperature at the huts dropped quickly as the sun fell. We did not feel any altitude effects yet, but it was undeniable we were high up in the mountains already.
Day 2: Mandara Huts to Horombo Huts
After breakfast, we headed up the trail again, hoping for a clear, sunny day. The transition from lush vegetation to moorland came suddenly. The trail was generally of the same gradient throughout — not too steep but a steady incline. We were struck by how often we would have to step aside, though, to allow porters laden with several times the weight we were carrying to pass us. And despite their heavy loads, all of them had a cheery disposition and greeted is with the friendly Swahili: Jambo.
8,860 ft to 12,140 ft
Alas, a steady rain set in mid-way through our hike and would not let up until we got to camp. While my poncho and boots kept me dry, most of my socks and long shirts in my duffel bag, which my porter, Paul, carried, had gotten wet and never really dried for the remainder of the trip. Paul tried his hardest to help, taking my wet clothes to the kitchen and even laying them out in the sun the next morning while we all had breakfast.
Up here, the air was noticeably thinner, and even the short climb up the stairs to our bunk beds left us out of breath. Every night after dinner, the guides would measure our heart rates and blood oxygen levels, and quite predictably, with each passing day, the former would rise, while the latter fell further. Some in our group were taking Diamox, others nothing at all, and I was trying the herbal Ginkgo Biloba tablets instead. I was hoping the 25 hours I had just spent in airplane cabins pressurized to 8,000 feet would count for something, but in our small group of eight, nothing seemed to help all that much with the altitude symptoms. I went to bed that night with the slightest hint of a headache.
Day 3: Horombo Huts to Kibo Huts
While it was amazing that the G Adventures team could carry enough food supplies to prepare warm meals of soup, stew, eggs, and porridge every day, the lunch packs were bafflingly odd. En route to Kibo Hut, lunch included what looked like a large donut hole, and a carrot sandwich. I don't mean to be picky, but if the intent is to keep things simple, why not stick to the basics? How about a simple peanut butter or ham and cheese sandwich and an apple or two?
12,140 ft to 15,420 ft
The quality of food seemed to be a more widespread problem in Tanzania. The Tanzanians seemed to borrow bits and pieces from other cuisines creating awkward melanges, all the while proudly calling it delicious, when it was decidedly not. On our last day, we were served mac and cheese, with the cheese substituted for hardboiled eggs. Even the hotel breakfasts were miserably continental, unlike the elaborate breakfasts one finds everywhere in South Africa.
En route to Kibo Huts, our last camp before the final push to the top, we passed Mawenzi peak, whose jagged edges stand at 16,000 feet. The guides indicated that it is a much harder climb than Uhuru, despite being lower in height.
A couple of hours from camp, a thick fog set in, and our pace dropped dramatically. It took every ounce of energy we had and a lot of heavy panting to make it to the Kibo welcome sign. I was at a loss as to how we were supposed to climb a further 4,000 feet later that evening. My dull headache had now turned into a painful pounding with every heart beat.
This evening's dinner, refreshingly better than the previous menu, was served at 5pm and included a nice hot soup and African stew. After a few reassuring words from the guide, we got into our sleeping bags and tried to catch a few hours of sleep before heading for the summit.
Day 4: Kibo Huts to Uhuru Peak to Horombo Huts
The G Adventures guides woke us at 11pm for tea and biscuits. My head felt like it was being jackhammered, but three ibuprofen pills morphed the pain into a dull ache, and I surprised myself feeling ready to go. While the others were getting ready, I stepped outside for a moment to admire the clear, bright night sky and the rising southern cross.
15,420 ft to 19,340 ft to 12,140 ft
Wrapped in layers of long underwear, hiking pants, and waterproof pants, my heavy parka, mittens, and a balaclava we took off at midnight. They say that leaving Kibo hut at midnight makes it easier to climb up the volcanic scree since it's frozen, but I think the real reason for climbing in the dark is that if one actually saw how far up the top is, one would be utterly discouraged from the get-go.
We trudged slowly up the countless switchbacks, pausing every 20-30 minutes for a sip of water from our gradually freezing water bottles. Each step was an enormous struggle, made ever more difficult with the elevation gain. Trying hard not to look up at others' headlamps further up the trail, I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, heaving massive breaths of cold, dry air.
By some miracle, we reached Gilman point before sunrise and walked along the icy ridge of the volcanic rim to Uhuru peak as the sun was coming up. The last stretch of only a few hundred feet of the most gradual terrain were the absolute hardest. Panting hard, my body was starving for oxygen, and I felt myself drifting into a state of delirium. Elia, the porter, took over my heavy backpack and guided me to the top with words of encouragement. Without him, I would have probably turned around at Stella Point, 800 feet shy of the top.
Mario, Denis, and I were the first in our group to arrive at the summit. We took a few pictures of each other at the congratulatory sign, but I felt so incapacitated that it all seemed a blur. Before the trip, I had planned this moment in detail and made sure I brought my tripod and lens filters to capture the sunrise. But in the moment, I was too lame to use any of my gear and only took a few handheld shots of the glaciers.
Hudson, our guide, urged us to head back before the effects of the low oxygen got too dangerous. As we retreated, we ran into Adrian and Yana, a stone throw's away from the summit. That made the success rate of our group just above 60%.
We continued back down the rim of the crater, Hudson warning me to be careful on the ice. Halfway back to Gilman point, Mario turned around to ask me to snap a picture of him on his phone. Just as he was getting into position, he slipped on the ice and screamed in agony. He had broken his leg at the worst possible time.
We gathered around him trying to assess the damage, while Hudson got on his walkie talkie to arrange for help. A helicopter rescue at this altitude was impossible. Taking Mario down in a stretcher was the only option.
After only a few minutes of staying still at the scene, I started shivering violently and uncontrollably from the extreme cold. Hudson urged me to continue on to Gilman point where it's sunny and wait for Elia, Adrian, and Yana before descending down to Kibo. I felt terrible for leaving Mario behind, but I was not capable of helping at all in the state I was in.
While Denis and Hudson helped move Mario into the sun to await help, Adrian, Yana, and I started sliding down the scree slope with the aid of Elia. Near the bottom, we ran into the rescue crew hurrying up the mountain. We later learned that the porters who rescued Mario went up the mountain in an hour and a half compared to our five hours. Their strength seemed superhuman.
Coming down was much easier and faster. We avoided the switchbacks and just slid down the slope. The gaiters here were of tremendous help, keeping sand and rock out of our boots. We got to Kibo completely drained. We were given an hour to nap until Mario arrived, at which point he would be taken on a truck to the hospital while we descended further to Horombo Huts.
At Horombo, we reunited with Chid and Tricia who had shown more foresight and turned back before Gilman Point. We slept for a good ten or eleven hours that night, but I still had a strong headache, which seemed to have developed resistance to the painkillers. The only cure was to keep losing elevation.
Day 5: Horombo Huts to Marangu Gate
The morning of Day 5 we said goodbye to our spectacular G Adventures crew who had such big hearts and were so supportive, which seemed to be traits common to every Tanzanian I met on the trip. They danced the Kilimanjaro song in our honor:
12,140 feet to 6,100 feet
Jambo! Jambo bwana!and we really did not want to leave.
Habari gani? Mzuri sana!
Kilimanjaro? Hakuna matata!
Tembea pole pole. Hakuna matata!
Utafika salama. Hakuna matata!
Kunywa maji mengi. Hakuna matata!
The 19km back to the entrance of the park were a breeze, and as we descended, my headache started to fade. Our porters passed us on the trail even on the downhill and were waiting for us at Mandara Huts with warm lunch. How they managed to ascend and descend so quickly, we would never know.
Reaching Marangu gate, we noticed one of the signs showed off that an Australian holds the record for compressing our 5-day itinerary to 9 hours. That's 68km and 13,000 feet of elevation gain in 9 hours! This statistic and the fact that our certificates of completion showed there were over 319,000 people who had climbed Uhuru before us hugely diminished our achievement, leaving me feeling slightly deflated. But the prospect of a hot shower and a cold beer lifted our spirits again, and we got on the bus, letting the warm, low-elevation breeze caress our worn out faces through the open windows.
Back at the hotel we sampled several African beers: the Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti, and the Castle Lager. While none of them were great, we enjoyed them immensely.
GPS StatsI brought my trusty Garmin watch on the trip, which gave us accurate status updates on where we were and how long we had to go each day. Even the guides seemed to appreciate it. I had never taken it past 12,000 feet of elevation, and I was curious how it would perform. While it functioned perfectly the entire time, after 12,000 feet, the glue seemed to give out, and the entire screen cover jutted out like it was about to fall off. I imagine the air pressure, which normally provides a sufficient force on the glass, was too weak. Funnily enough, when we got back close to sea level, the glass seemed to fix itself, and now I can't tell that anything had happened. However, its waterproof properties have probably been compromised.
Below is a graph of how the elevation changed with each mile. One can see just how steep that last scramble to Uhuru is.