Playing ultimate Frisbee after school once a week and walking home a few times in hiking boots does not sufficiently prepare your legs to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. And living at sea level for the last 6 years had my lungs working overtime to draw a full breath in the steadily thinning air.
This was the state I found myself in the first day of my trek up Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano and the highest peak in Africa. My brother Skylar and I had signed up for a six-day trek that would bring us to the top on New Year’s Day, and although we had done our best to prepare, neither of us knew quite what to expect. Thankfully, we had help. And seeing as our guide, Methley, grew up in the mountain’s shadow and had made it to the top 106 times before taking us, we knew there was at least on person in our group who knew what they were doing.
Day 1: Welcome to the Jungle
After a long wait to register and check the gear for our group, we started up a gravel road with a gentle incline, leading into a dense canopy filled with tall verdant trees. We had not gone more than five steps when a monkey dashes across the trail ahead of us, grabs a bag of raw pasta from an open pack lying on the side of the trail and sprints off on his two back legs before jumping up into the safety of the trees, spilling pasta all the way! This furry rigatoni robber was our introduction to the Machame route.
After an hour or so of hiking, the road began to narrow until it became a fully-fledged trail, winding its way ever upward through the incredible greenery surrounding us. It was not long however before we started to be passed by porters. With an average ratio of three porters for every hiker, these men and women are the lifeblood of the Kilimanjaro climb. Not only do they carry their own packs of clothing and gear, but each porter also carries 20kg of additional equipment such as food, tents and our extra clothing and sleeping bags. As if this is not impressive enough, porters often carry this extra load balanced on their heads and still manage to hike at least twice as fast as us! For the small group of my brother, myself and Methley, we had nine porters!
We reached our camp just before nightfall and were greeted with our tent set up, chairs ready and hot water set aside for tea. Having grown up camping and being used to unpacking myself after arriving to a destination, this was luxury! And after our first six hours of hiking, we were certainly content to sit and relax while our guide prepared dinner for us!
Day 2: No Switchbacks
Skylar taking a breather in the alpine forest.
To deal with this challenge, we settled in to what I came to understand as a “Kilimanjaro Pace”: an almost meditative mindful walk with a slight pause in between steps. This speed seems to have been specifically calibrated to make sure that hikers of all ages and fitness levels could slowly adjust to the altitude while still making it to the next camp before it was dark. It was slow, but it got us to the next camp by lunch time.
During this hike we noticed that each day brought us through a different climate zone. We started in the jungle but by the start of day two had graduated into a more alpine forest filled with scraggly trees covered with scraggly moss like wispy green beards. By the end of day two the larger trees were more scarce and small shrubs and brush predominated. It made it feel like we here hiking a lot farther than just 5 km and passing into a different region instead of just a different altitude zone.
Day 3: Rain and Lava
The goal for the third day was to hike up another 800 meters to give our lungs a workout before ultimately camping lower to let them rest. The landscape was now dominated by large boulders and chunks of obsidian, remnants of a long gone but clearly destructive eruption.
The tower of lava
As we neared our first destination of the lava tower, the weather shifted. Kilimanjaro seems to create its own weather system, with clouds often swirling around the top of the mountain, while the rest of the surrounding valley is clear and bright. We finished the final uphill in our rain gear, focusing just on the section of trail just in front of our feet, walking our Kilimanjaro Pace like soggy zombies until we reached the top. The lava tower thrust out of the rocky ground, extending at least 50 meter vertically into the air, giving a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Or at least, so I am told. Instead of climbing it, I stayed in the warm tent drinking tea and drying out while Methley and Skylar scaled the slick stones to the top!
We then dropped down another 700 meters and at least one climate zone as we went from icy rain to sunshine and huge tree-like cacti sprouting from the ground. I was surreal to see the scenery change so drastically in such a short period of time but we were grateful to shed the extra layers we had accumulated in our hike to the tower. We arrived at time just before my legs gave out from the two hours of constant and steep downhill hiking, this time greeted by fresh fruit and avocados filled with pico de gallo salsa. Hard to complain when that is your welcome to the new campsite!
Day 4: Not a Traditional Breakfast
Like most days, this one begins with Breakfast. To our dismay, this turns out to be the name of the 300+ tall rock face that you must climb first thing in the morning in order to start the rest of your hike! To my brother’s joy, this requires us to put away our hiking polls and use our hands to pull ourselves up and across certain sections. Although some hikers struggled here, Skylar was in his element, even going a bit off trail to climb other sections that everyone else walked around!
We finished Breakfast! Wait…now we have to go up that!?
After getting to the top of Breakfast we are greeted with an incredible view of the peak of Kilimanjaro rising up before us. It was huge, majestic and covered in glaciers on the two sides facing us. Our guide assures us that we will be going around those, but if we wanted to come back and do the Western Breach Route, we would go right up one!
You can just see it on the left side.
As we started hiking again, we were greeted by an amazing sight. The ground, frozen the night before had started to thaw in the morning sun. Under the weight of many boots the thawing ice of the trail turned to water and its reflection in the sun created a ribbon of light that snaked across the hills, drawing us toward our destination. It was breathtaking.
We ended the day hiking through the mists that felt like the scene of a movie where the adventures were approaching a lost mountain temple. The landscape was covered in rocks of all sizes and over time hikers have built hundreds of cairns sitting on top the larger rocks like small shrines to the mountain god. It gave the place a sense of eerie sacredness that almost made you feel like a fleeting trespasser in an ageless land.
Tired and footsore, we finally arrived at the base camp, Barafu. In Swahili barafu means “ice”, which perhaps told us a little of what to expect when we would start to climb to the summit that evening at midnight, New Year’s Eve.
Day 5: The Top of Africa
At 11pm our guide tapped on our tent to wake us up. Unfortunately for me, I was starting to feel a sore throat coming up and instead of sleeping had just spent the last three hours staring at the roof of our tent and silently praying that I would have the strength to make it to the top. Skylar in contrast, had fallen asleep thirty seconds after putting his head down and had happily snored the whole time.
After a cup of tea and a handful of roasted cashews, we turned on our headlamps and started up the trail. We just reached the main camp when the clock struck 12 and campers and guides everywhere started singing, flashing lights and shouting “Happy New Year!” We paused for a minute to celebrate by catching our breath and then started one of the most physically and mentally difficult experiences in our lives.
It felt a little bit like Frodo trying to climb Mount Doom!
Having already hiked six hours that day, we started our hike to the summit at roughly 4,600 meters. By this time the air was thin enough that it was nearly impossible to get a full breath. Even just planting one foot in front of the other was challenging. With each long and slow breath we could only take a partial step, placing one foot just half way past the other foot before stepping again. As we leaned forward slightly, it felt that we were falling in slow motion up the hill, with each step catching us before we toppled forward. As time progressed, my feet also went through progressive levels of pain and discomfort. First it was just s slight ache and tingling. Then my feet went numb. This finally progressed to stage three, where it felt as if there was no padding between my foot and the rocky ground and with each step my shoe’s sole amplified the stress of contact so that it painfully reverberated up my whole leg!
On top of that, it was dark and quiet. Unlike our previous days, there was no gorgeous scenery or interesting conversation to distract us. Instead each person stared at the ground and slowly followed the bobbing light of the person in front of them, weaving up the trail like a line of ants trying to string Christmas lights up a massive tree. Thankfully, I was at least partially prepared for the six hours of painful boredom. I had loaded a four-hour long podcast on WWI and not only did it help distract from the monotony of the climb, it also helped give me perspective. No matter how grueling this hike felt, it was way better than life in the trenches!
Just as I was questioning my sanity for signing up for this trip and wondering if it was too late to turn around, our guide told us we had reached Stella point, only an hour from the summit! We collapsed on a small rock outcropping and had some hot tea and energy bars. The sun was just starting to crest the horizon, and we could see our final destination, Uhuru Peak, the highest peak in all of Africa. With renewed (and somewhat desperate) vigor, we started hiking again, pulling our drained bodies and protesting muscles ever closer to the top. We passed by Kilimanjaro’s glaciers, massive chunks of ice lit by the first rays of light and then finally made it to the top.
With a tired, incredulous exaltation, we watched the sun rise and bathe the top of Africa in its radiant glow. We had done it! It was still sinking in as we wearily took our picture in front of the sign on the very top, but thirty-two hours and 4,000 m of elevation later, we made it! We certainly could have chosen a less strenuous way to ring in the new year, but it was certainly worth it. Now I just hope that the rest of 2018 is easier!