Africa

Mt. Kilimanjaro – An Unforgettable Journey

After summitting Mt. Rainier last summer, I knew that I had to climb again.  I asked my guide what his favorite mountaineering trip was that I could probably handle, and without hesitation, he said Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Once he started describing the mountain and the route we would take (that also included a safari afterward) I knew that I had to attempt to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro and reach the 19,341 ft. summit!

Mt. Kilimanjaro is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world that measures almost 25 miles across and has a base that covers approximately 1,500 square miles.  Mt. Kilimanjaro is a dormant stratovolcano with three primary peaks:  Shira, Mawenzi, and Kibo.

This massive mountain is part of the Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park and has five vegetation zones:

  • Cultivation Zone (2,600 ft. to 6,000 ft.)
  • Rainforest Zone (6,000 ft. to 9,000 ft.)
  • Heather and Moorland Zone (9,000 ft. to 13,000 ft.)
  • Highland Desert Zone (13,000 ft. to 16,000 ft.)
  • Arctic Zone (16,000 ft. to Uhuru Peak at 19,340 ft.)

After doing my research on the various climbing companies out there, I decided to go with the group I worked with to summit Mt. Rainier.  My reasons for choosing them again were pretty straight forward:  I had already successfully summitted Mt. Rainier with them; they were good with their communication; the trip I wanted to go on was going to give me plenty of time on the mountain to acclimatize; they received many good reviews for this particular climb; and the safari they had planned for after Mt. Kilimanjaro sounded like an animal lover/adventurer’s dream.

Although Mt. Kilimanjaro is not considered super-technical (it doesn’t require climbers to wear crampons or rope team, etc.), Uhuru Peak is at 19,340 ft. and that’s definitely an elevation that commands respect and caution.  As with Mt. Rainier, I took my training very seriously and wanted to make sure that I enjoyed my summit day instead of having to simply endure it and hope for the best.  Also, I didn’t want to be dead weight to the rest of my group.

Fortunately, I had my Mt. Rainier training schedule and a pretty decent base level of fitness to fall back upon.  I began training for Mt. Kilimanjaro about two months prior to leaving for the trip.  My training involved weight training in the gym three times a week and running three times a week with a mixture of interval/tempo runs and slower long-distance runs (up to about ten miles.)  I also incorporated yoga twice a week to improve my balance and flexibility and to work out any soreness I was experiencing.  In addition to all this, I had to get used to my backpack once again and to the long hikes carrying weight.  Since I live close to sea level and with only a few rolling hills, I did a majority of my training for this on a stair climber, starting with 25 pounds for an hour and gradually building to five hours with about 52 pounds on my back (yes – it is very boring – but my playlist made it bearable.)  Carrying the heavier weight (I weigh about 105 lbs.) was not really necessary for the actual climb since we were going to have porters helping us on this trip.  At most, my pack would weigh about 25 lbs.  I mostly “overtrained” because I felt like I really had to be in tremendous shape since I wasn’t used to any sort of altitude.

The gear that was required was fairly similar to Mt. Rainier, however, I didn’t need my crampons.  Because our trip involved two parts, the climb, and the safari, I also had to do quite a bit more packing.  Here is the gear list for Mt. Kilimanjaro along with a link to the FAQs page for International Mountain Guides (IMG).  Even if you opt to go with another climbing company, I think that it is helpful to see what different organizations recommend.  One thing that they all say is don’t skimp on the gear.  While it may seem outrageous to pay a couple of hundred dollars for heavy mittens or gloves, consider how much you value your fingers and how awful it would be if you lost any of them because of frostbite.

Gear list:  http://www.mountainguides.com/kilimanjaro-gear.shtml

FAQs:  http://www.mountainguides.com/kilimanjaro-faq.shtml

When traveling to Tanzania, there are some considerations you need to keep in mind when managing your health.  First, you want to make sure that your physician clears you for this type of climb.  Also, you want to talk with him/her and consult the Center for Disease Control website https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/tanzania to find out what type of immunizations you will need when traveling to this part of the world.  I would look at the FAQs listed above and consider bringing some of the medications that they recommend.  In addition, you will definitely want to bring Immodium for diarrhea and also some type of antibiotic.  Everyone in our group also brought along various dosages of Diamox to help with altitude sickness.  I think most people did fine without it, except for the last couple of days when the higher elevation was very noticeable.  Regardless of what you choose to take, it is important that you talk with your physician well before you leave.

In fact, we had a medical emergency on summit day.  One of our group members developed an upper respiratory infection during the last couple of days of our climb.  He did not let the guide know that he was not feeling well and on our way down, he had such difficulty breathing that the porters had to run supplemental oxygen to him.  We had three doctors in our group (one of them was the person who couldn’t breathe!) and when it became apparent that he was not improving, the porters, our lead guide, and one of the doctors literally shoved him into a sleeping bag, strapped him in a stretcher, and ran him to a hospital!  By this time it was getting dark and they only had the use of their headlamps and sure-footedness to get them down the mountain!  We had our African guide to take us down to base camp, but by the time we arrived, it was pitch black and pouring rain.  Our summit day from start to finish was 20 hours long!  Fortunately, the doctor who fell ill recovered after spending the night in the hospital and was able to join us for our safari.

Your guides will check in with you throughout the climb to see how you are doing.  It’s important you tell her/him how you’re feeling and also let them know what kinds of medication you are taking.  You will have to disclose that at the beginning of the climb, but if you add in Diamox or an antibiotic, they’ll definitely need to know that.  Fortunately, things worked out for the climber who fell ill and after an overnight stay in the hospital, he was able to join us for our safari.  His quick recovery was in large part due to IMG and how professionally they managed the situation.

The beauty of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is that it takes you through many vegetation zones with spectacular scenery.  On our particular climb, we took the Machame Route.

Day 1

Our IMG guide and group drove to the Machame Gate from our hotel in Moshi.  We met our African guides and were introduced to our porters who helped us carry our gear, set up camp, and cooked delicious meals for us during our trip.  Our ascent began in the rainforest, where everything was lush, green, and enclosed.  The path was relatively easy, though a bit slippery from the recent rains.

Machame Gate

 

Beginning of our climb in the rain forest.

 

Day 2 

This is a shorter day, but the trail was much steeper.  From the rainforest, we hiked through the heather and moorland zone.  In addition to the amazing views of Kibo, Shira Cathedral, and Mt. Meru, we saw giant senecios and lobelias along the way.  We spent the night near the Shira Plateau.

 

Day 3

This part of the climb was a little more strenuous as we gained approximately 4,500 m initially making our way toward the Lava Tower.  One of my favorite parts of the day was climbing the Lava Tower with our lead guide and another climber during our break for lunch.  It was spectacular!

The landscape changed as vegetation disappeared and was replaced by rocky volcanic ridges.  After we reached the Lava Tower, we descended into the Barranco Valley.  Surprisingly, it was greener here and the views were even more spectacular than the day before!  We were able to see more of Kibo, the plains below, and the Barranco Wall which we were going to climb the following day.

Lava Tower

Day 4

After breakfast, we had a short hike to Barranco Wall.  I had heard that the wall was strenuous and that it would be challenging.  I honestly didn’t find it that hard.  We had lots of help from our guides.  It was steep and involved some scrambling, but it was not technically difficult.  The air was noticeably thinner at this altitude and so perhaps that was what made it a little challenging.  After about one and a half hours of climbing, you are met with an incredible view of Kibo.  After another two and a half hours of descending down into a valley, we reached Karanga Valley Camp.

 

Day 5

This was a short day and we arrived at Barafu Camp in time for lunch.  After we ate, it was time to prepare for the final push to the top.  We packed a daypack and made sure we had all the extra clothing we were going to need for summit day.  After dinner, it was early to bed.  Our wake-up call was going to be at 11:00 PM.  I don’t know that anyone got much sleep that night.  The thin air made it hard to rest and it was incredibly cold.  Even with all my clothes on that night and hot water bottles in my sleeping bag, I still couldn’t quite get warm.

Day 6

11:00 PM came quickly and after a light breakfast and coffee, we started the slow climb to the summit in the dark.  For several hours, there wasn’t much to see except for the path that my headlamp illuminated before me.  I felt every bit of the altitude though, and the cold was definitely starting to affect my hands. Thankfully, I had a generous supply of hand warmers and after slipping one in each glove, I could finally feel my fingers again.

The trail was noticeably steeper on this part of the mountain, but no one lost their footing due to the very slow pace we all had to maintain.  We were told to keep things slow and steady, but even if we wanted to move faster, we couldn’t.  With the thin air, slow and steady was about all we could do.

After about five and a half hours, we reached Stella Point at 18,885 feet.  Although we were pretty tired, the sunrise that greeted us as we made our way to Stella Point was all the encouragement we needed.  After a brief rest, we pushed for another 40-45 minutes hiking along the crater rim, past the glaciers, until we reached Uhuru Peak, officially summitting at 19,341 feet!!

Despite the bitter cold and exhaustion, there was a surge of energy in our group as we hugged and high-fived one another.  I brought a satellite phone with me on this trip and even called my family while on top of Mt. Kili!  It was an unforgettable moment.  After taking pictures and enjoying a few more moments on top of the world, it was time to head down.

After a quick lunch at Barafu camp, we continued down to our base camp for the evening.  Due to one of our group member’s medical emergency, we didn’t arrive at camp until well after dark in the pouring rain. We were numb and exhausted.  Our summit day had lasted 20 hours!  This is not how long it normally takes the summit and to reach base camp, but the medical emergency added several hours to our trip.

The following day the skies had cleared, but the trail was really slick and muddy.  It was refreshing to return the lush beauty of the rain forest and to hear life surrounding us again.

Once we arrived at the gate, we said good-bye to our porters and headed back to our hotel in Moshi.  After hot showers and a little rest, we all gathered for a well-deserved celebration dinner and were presented with certificates for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

I have no words to describe how I felt when I saw the sign for Uhuru Peak.  It was a beautiful journey, and I am so thankful for the privilege to say I made it to the top and shared that moment with the mountain and the incredible people in my group.

Products:

Product
Visual
Where to Buy

Nuun Hydration

Pamela’s Whenever Bars

Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews

Water purification tablets

Outdoor Research Women’s Alti Mitts

Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters

Outdoor Research Hiking Pants

 

1. Nuun Hydration

Believe it or not, you do sweat a bit while you’re on that mountain and these Nuun tablets are great for helping with electrolyte replacement and also adds a little fiz and some flavor to water.

2. Pamela’s Whenever Bars

These are hands down the best gluten free bars I have ever had!  Packing snacks is important on the climb.  Make sure you have a wide variety.

3. Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews

These energy chews taste like gummy bears!  Another easy to access snack while on the climb.  Just remember to keep your snacks zipped close inside your jacket, or your once soft energy chew or bar could break your teeth when frozen!

4. Water purification tablets

Although the porters boil and purify the water, it’s always a good idea to carry your own water purification tablets.  There were a couple of times when we had to dip into our stash of Potable Aqua to sterilize some water while at camp.

5. Outdoor Research Women’s Alti Mitts

These gloves were perfect for the higher altitudes and kept my hands warm.  Definitely worth the investment.

6. Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiters

These were very helpful while in the rainforest and kept me dry from the wet and mud.

7. Outdoor Research Hiking Pants

These pants are good basic hiking pants for your trip, but you will need thermals to go underneath as well as shell pants to go over them when it gets really cold.

 

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