Climbing Kilimanjaro is something I have wanted to do for a long while.
In January this year (2014) after months of research and weeks of planning, my friend and colleague Tom Kaye and I boarded a plane to do exactly that.
The peak of Kilimanjaro is at 19,710ft above sea level (5,896m) and is the highest free standing mountain in the world.
It is also the highest mountain on the African continent.
The mountain is located on the border of Tanzania and Kenya, the nearest big city is Nairobi the capital of Kenya.
Closer to the mountain are the Tanzanian towns of Arusha and Moshi which are the traditional starting points for a lot of Tanzanian safaris.
Carrying On Kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro is not a remote unclimbed peak, far from it; thousands of people attempt the climb every year. This is partly due to the fact that it is an extinct volcano; ancient lava flows mean that Kilimanjaro has some steep but hike-able routes to the summit.
What made my summit bid different from the majority of climbers was the way we were supported. Most summit attempts are arranged through tour companies providing a supported climbing package – carrying your bags, tents, mess tents, food and even toilets up the mountain using an army of porters.
As an example, a group of three Americans who were climbing at the same time as us had a team of 44 porters, guides and cooks. This was not the way I wanted to experience the mountain.
On our climb, Tom and I wanted to be more self-reliant, to carry all of our own equipment; to only be accompanied by the minimum amount of support and to take one of the longest routes on the mountain, culminating in a summit attempt up the Great Western Breach – a near 2 mile vertical climb to Uhuru peak.
This was only possible with the help of African Environments – an adventure travel company who work closely with Frontier Bushcraft on our Tanzanian Bushcraft Safari. African Environments have been delivering the highest quality travel adventures for over 30 years and were the first organisation to offer Kilimanjaro climbers the remote Great West Breach route to the summit.
African Environments arranged a customised climbing package for Tom and I with a skeleton support team (which was just what we were looking for).
There are about 5 main routes to the summit of which the Marangu and Machame are the most popular. The route that we took was the Lemosho; this route is the longest and generally takes 7-8 days. This additional time on the mountain increases the chances of a successful summit attempt by giving the climbers a longer time to acclimatise; it also allows you more time to enjoy this incredible experience.
At around 3° latitude Kilimanjaro is very nearly on the equator. This means that on the mountain as the attitude increases there are over 6 separate and distinct climate zones. These zones include glades (around 2,000m) jungle (between 2,300 – 3,000m) heathland (3,000 – 3,800m) moorland (3,800 – 4,200m), desert (4,200m – 4,700m) and arctic tundra (4,700 – 5,896m). Due to the mountains proximity to the equator and its height, these climatic zones are home to unique species of flora and fauna.
Day 1: Lemosho 7,806ft (2385m) To Big Tree Camp (Forest Camp) 11,513ft (3502m)
We started our climb in the jungle zone with wildlife buzzing around us, black and white Colobus monkeys swung effortlessly through the trees and fresh elephant tracks crossed our plan on several occasions.
Stunning flora covers the jungle floor, like this African Blood Lily (Scadoxus multiflorus). These unusual flowers immerge from the grown without leaves and the young plants will only produce leaves in late spring early summer.
The first day’s trek was not a long one, bringing us in to camp after only 3 hours hiking. We started at 1,900m and ended the day at 2,480m. Short morning hikes between camps with afternoon acclimatisation treks are the recipe for success. According to our guide, one out of every four climbers attempting to reach the summit fails. This is due mainly to the high altitude and rarefied air.
Rarefied air means that there is less oxygen for you to breath, which gives you the feeling of being slightly out of breath all the time. Just standing up can make you a little dizzy. The greater the altitude the more exacerbated the symptoms and the more vulnerable you are to altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness is a killer. High altitude pulmonary and cerebral oedemas can quickly lead to death if not correctly treated. High altitude pulmonary oedema generally occur above 2,500m. They are a build-up of fluid on the lungs and can cause respiritory failure. A high altitude cerebral oedema is a build-up of fluid on the brain.
(For more information on HAPO – http://thorax.bmj.com/content/50/1/22.full.pdf)
Day 2: Big Tree Camp (Forest Camp) 9,118ft (2,780m) To Shira Plateau camp 11,513ft (3,502m)
Following an early breakfast we started to climb, beginning at 2,780m we ascended rapidly through the cloud forest which teemed with plant and animal life. Lichen festooned the trees and climbing vines like Clematis hung all around us. This area of the mountain is called the Hagenia forest zone which is packed with wildlife. At 03:00 the night before I was woken up by Servals (medium sized wild cat) fighting outside the tent.
After 2 hours hiking, the environment began to change. We were entering the Heathland. Steep paths meandered through 12-foot tall heath. It was very hot in this zone, 28-30° with only a slight breeze. Carrying down sleeping bags and jackets, water proofs and gaiterss seems ridiculous in this temperature but we knew we would need them higher up the mountain.
Over ridges and through valleys we eventually reached the Shira Plateau and got our first glimpse of Uhuru (the local name for the mountains peak) half covered by the midday clouds. It still looked a long way off. After one more hour of walking we arrive in the Shira Plateau camp. Shira Plateau is a world heritage site and was a volcano in its own right before Kilimanjaro erupted and blew it away.
Once at Shira camp we had reached 3,302m above sea level and are now beginning to feel the effects of the altitude. Mild headaches and an elevated need to urinate are the order of the day.
After lunch we went for an acclimation trek with our guide who shows us a cave formed in the molten lava of the mountain. The entrance of the cave had been blocked up with rocks and branches to stop Leopards having their cubs inside.
That night we watch the summit coming in to view, stars appear in their thousands and the moon gave everything a striking monotone appearance. Before bed our heart rate and O2 saturation levels are tested, this continued until after our decent to check for signs of altitude sickness.
Day 3: Shira Plateau Camp 11,513ft (3,502m) To Mori Camp 13,694ft (4,175m)
06:00 we awoke to a beautiful clear morning, crisp cool air was welcome during our hike through the Shira Plateau. Today we are heading for the Mori camp and will be entering the moorland. The day heats up very quickly with the combination of the thin atmosphere and equatorial sun making the going tough.
Once at Mori camp we again have lunch and rest. The majority of the journey so far has not been extremely difficult or taxing. Climbing Kilimanjaro is 70% to do with how you deal with the altitude which affects different people in different ways. Age has little or no bearing on altitude, health has more of an influence, but as my guide Noel explained:
“fitness is important, but sometime I see people who smoke dealing with altitude much better than non-smokers, their bodies are more used to being oxygen deprived.”
After lunch and a short rest we take a stroll up to the North Summit Circuit to help us acclimatise, a rule of thumb for high altitude climbing is to sleep lower than the highest point you reach that day, this gives the body a chance to adjust while you sleep. Once back at camp we take some oral rehydration salts which has become part of our daily routine, now at over 4,000m the tablets have stopped fizzing.
Day 4: Mori Camp 13,694ft (4,175m) To Lava Tower Camp 15,219ft (4,640m)
A common effect of high altitude is reduced sleep, after a restless night Tom and I had a quick breakfast, packed and were on our way by 07:00. The mornings on Kilimanjaro are quite spectacular, the air is so clear you can see miles across the savannah.
As we climb I start to get pins and needles in my hands, feet and face which come and go in waves. I still feel fine having been to over 17000f in the Himalayas before, my body is adjusting fast to the altitude, this being Tom’s first high altitude climb he is finding it more tricky to adjust.
The temperature is dropping rapidly, storms roll over us in quick succession sending waves of thunder echoing across the slopes.
After five hours we reach the Lava Tower camp in time for lunch. Tom’s headache has got worse so he heads for the tent to get some rest. I spend the afternoon exploring the area, there is very little plant life at this altitude which is a stark contrast to the lush forest we walked through just a few days ago.
I climbed up above the camp to 4,923m to take some photos of the lava tower. On the way back down the weather closes in and I am concerned about how cold it is getting, Kilimanjaro is living up to its reputation as a fickle creature. We are now in the clouds and it is often raining.
Day 5: Lava Tower Camp 15,219ft (4,640m) To Arrow Glacier Camp 15,842ft (4,830m)
During the night there was a rock avalanche above our camp at about 21:00, luckily it was not a big one and did not reach us. I got up to go to the toilet during the night and watched in wonder as blots of blue and orange lightning crisscross the sky below me; another night of very little sleep.
I got up early to climb the lava tower beside camp but the clouds closed in making it too dangerous to attempt. After breakfast Tom and I begin the short but steep climb to the Arrow glacier camp which is only a few hundred meters above Lava tower, but at this altitude even a small increase in height can be difficult.
The above photo gives scale to this massive mountain, our tiny tents and our guideís tents are dwarfed by the enormous slopes. Centre right of the photograph is the route we will be taking to the summit.
Day 6: Arrow Glacier 15,842f (4,830m) – Great Western Breach – Summit 19,710ft (5,896m)- Machambe Camp 9,873f (3,010m)
We started walking at 03:00, I spent yesterday evening studying the face of the Great West Breach, it looks like the walls of a fortress with ramparts disappearing in to the clouds. Ice flows form vertical slides and scree slopes that only stay in place because they are frozen in the shadow of the mountain.
As we pack up our kit to leave my hands shake and I can’t finish my breakfast. We start to climb the 2 near vertical miles to the summit. With me is Tom (who has put a brave face on despite a crippling altitude headache) Noel (our guide) Jewma (assistant guide) and two porters Bruno and Singu (who are carrying the hypobaric chamber and oxygen cylinder for emergencies).
Breathing is increasingly difficult, 4-6 breaths per step. It feels like going for a hill run with a plastic bag on your head. I look behind me while pausing for breath to see the most stunning view of mount Meru; at the same time I looked down and regretted it, I’m not scared of heights but a 1,500 foot near vertical drop is enough to make anyone feel a little queasy.
The higher we got the more ice covered the rocks, black slicks of frozen melt water wind their way between rocks precariously frozen in place. At first touch rocks felt solid but as soon as I put my weight on them, they would shift enough for me not to trust any hand holds. Jewmar had an ice axe which he used to carve out steps across some of the snow drifts. My head was pounding and Tom was in a bad way.
The wind was picking up, and even though I was blowing back in to my Camelbak after every breathless gulp, the tube and mouth piece where now frozen, splitting the mouth piece with the force of the expanding ice. I was out of water. Soon we came panting to what looked like the end of the climb, but it was a false summit. Dismayed Tom took the lead and we plugged on. After another 40 minutes sunlight streamed over us, we had reached the rim of the crater.
An Arctic terrain greeted us with glaciers extended to our left, to our right was Uhuru, the true summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Breathing heavily we headed towards it, pausing at the Spear Glacier to make a wish; mine was simply to make the summit. One hour later we reached the famous sign.
After less than an hour on the summit we started our descent, long, hard on the knees but uneventful. The only noteworthy point was how ugly and crowded the Machame route is. Rubbish everywhere, discarded food wrappers and used hand-warmers littered the path. The smell and overcrowding of the camps was in stark contrast to the serenity of the Lemosho route.
We reached the Millennium camp for lunch at 13:30 then set out again for the lower Machame camp. Three knee aching hours later we arrived just in time to shelter from a heavy rain storm.
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