Chapter 4 – Kilimanjaro 

How do you eat an elephant? Keep reading to find out.

Mount Kilimanjaro (the hardest part), standing at 5895m in elevation, is the tallest mountain in Africa. It is also the largest free standing mountain as it is not part of a mountain range. About 30,000 tourists attempt the climb every year and about 60% of them make it to the top. On average 4 people die trying each year. There are many routes to start the trek to the summit from but they all join together at the second last camp and everyone takes the summit journey the same way. We chose the 7 day Lemosho Route as it was the most scenic but also slightly longer which would give us a bit more time to acclimatise to the altitude.

Climbing Kilimanjaro had been a goal of mine (Lachie) for years. Something about it just captured my imagination, I’d had a picture of Kilimanjaro in my room for nearly 10 years. So being in Africa, it was without question that we’d go for the climb. Before we left Australia, when we told people we were going to climb Mt Kilimanjaro some of the comments we received were “Don’t you have to be fit to do that?”, “why would you want to do that?”, “shouldn’t you be training for that?”, “do you even think you’ll make it?” What all these people had not factored in was that conquering Kili is a mind over matter exercise. Spoiler alert: we conquered Kili. Yes, it wasn’t without its challenges but there was never a moment where we didn’t believe we’d make it or a time that we wanted to give up. Here’s our story of how we got to the roof of Africa.

We arrived in Moshi the night before we were due to start the climb. We met our guide Abraham (Ibby) who inspected our gear and give us a briefing. Needless to say after the inspection we were all over the place. He questioned every bit of clothing we had and insisted we wouldn’t be warm enough, so we had to hire additional gear. We also met our climbing companions Chris and Kevin who could’ve been mistaken for father and son but were mates from St. Louis Missouri who had done a lot of hiking together. They were keen, confident and decked out ready to go. At this point, we felt a little unprepared and out of our depth.

Day 1 started after a restless night sleep due to nerves and the heat. After getting all all of the additional gear we needed, we met up with the rest of our group. They’re not kidding when they say it takes a village to climb Kilimanjaro. This morning we met our village. There were four of us climbing and about 20! People in our group made up of guides, assistant guides, waiters, porters, a toilet man and a cook. These are the guys who were going to make our week as manageable as possible. We were inducted into the group with a traditional song and dance, Jambo Bwana.

Our mountain family

We set off in our minibus packed the rafters. It was about a 5 hour drive to the registration gate. Here they also weighed each bag and assigned them to the porters. After this it was time to drive to the starting point. On the way the bus in front of us got bogged going up a hill. All the porters from that bus plus all of ours got out to help. About 40 guys eventually got it out and cleared the path.

Lemosho gate

So along the Lemosho route we began. It was an easy, pleasant walk to start the week. Pole, pole (slowly, slowly), we walked along a designated path, under the warm sun surrounded by lush greenery. We were at camp Mti Mkuwba (big tree) within 3 hours. By the time we arrived, our village was set up with afternoon tea waiting for us. We came to realise that this would be our routine for the week.

Pole pole

Mornings also had their own routine. Our waiter Robert (our favourite African name) would wake us around 6am with hot tea, and drop off a bowl of hot water for washing outside our tent at 6:30am. Breakfast was at 7am with porridge, pancakes, omelette, toast, sausages and fruit. At 8am we hike, while our porters would pack up the camp site, get moving, catch up to us and pass us so they could have everything set up at our next camp before we got there. Once at camp we would have a little time before we were summoned for hot milo, popcorn and biscuits. Followed not long after by dinner. Dinner always started with soup, sometimes zucchini, sometimes pumpkin, sometimes cucumber and other times just soup. Following soup we would be given a protein stew, vegetables and carbs (pasta or rice). Our intake was always monitored and every time we didn’t eat enough Robert would report back to mama Ibby who would come racing in to find out why we hadn’t eaten more. Our standard response was always that there was too much food and that we were full, which was true. After dinner Ibby and another one of the guides would come in for our briefing for the next days hike, as well as our health check up. Our vitals were checked to ensure we were in good shape. This was also the time for story-telling, where we went around the table and each told a story.  This was a great opportunity to learn about each other’s lives, each other’s cultures and just get to know each other a bit better. After story time it was time to retire to bed.

Banana stew

Day 2 was going to be our longest day. Normally groups hike to Shira I (7km-4hrs) and camp there but we had to get to Shira II which was 8.5hrs or 17km away at 3800m in altitude. The terrain was varied from steep ups and downs to long gradual inclines against an ever changing landcape. The scenery was stunning; words and photos can’t do it justice. We started the day in the jungle, under tall, green canopies, and ended in a rocky, arid desert. We also got our first good view of the top of the mountain, it had been covered in cloud or obstructed by other peaks upto that point. It was a spectacular but daunting site.

Shira plateau

Day 3 we left Shira II and onto Baranco Camp via Lava Tower, a total of 10kms or 6 hrs. This was the first day we were reaching some serious elevation and we were warned that if we were susceptible to altitude sickness, today was the day we’d be finding out. Neither of us having reached this altitude before, we set off with a few butterflies. It took about 4 hours to get to Lava Tower and again we moved through changing landscapes and across varied terrain. We went from climbing through and up boulders to walking up more long, gradual inclines. Lava Tower is at 4600m and by the time we reached that we must admit we were pretty tired, but it only took about 5 mins to get our breath back, and guess what?! No altitude sickness! This gave us the confidence we needed to know we could conquer Kili. We had lunch there to help acclimatize and then went on our way down to Baranco camp, which at 3900m meant we were going downhill for the most part. It started to rain when we were about half hour from camp, some of our gear stood up to it and some didn’t. But we couldn’t complain as it was the first bit of bad weather we’d had. While most afternoons it rained, we were already at camp by then. We were a bit grumpy and tired by the time we got to camp, but still feeling pretty good overall.

Lava Tower

Day 4 was time to climb the Baranco wall (aka breakfast wall because by the time you reach the top you’ve worked off all your breakfast) on our way to the Karanga camp. Karanga camp is at around 3950m so another day of climbing high and sleeping low to help acclimatise. This was a 4km or 4hr hike. The Baranco wall is a near vertical face rock wall that took nearly an hour to climb. And it was actual climbing. We used our hands and feet to find crevices in the rock, wedged them in, and hoisted ourselves up. This was definitely the most fun and exciting time thus far. The top of the wall is around 4200m high so it was another good day for acclimatisation. We got into camp around lunch time and had the rest of the afternoon off to rest.

Karanga camp

Day 5 took us from Karanga camp to Barafu camp, a 4 hour morning hike. We were done by midday. Nerves were starting to rise as that night, at midnight, we’d be starting the summit climb. We had lunch and then a few hours to nap (which we  couldn’t). We then had dinner along with our briefing for the summit. Normally our briefings were short and sweet, and normally consisted of – it will take us this long, it will be easy, make sure you wear this and don’t think about the the summit. However this briefing was different. It was finally time to think about the summit. The summit was going to be hard, very hard, very long and very cold. Then off to bed for us to sleep (which we didn’t).

View from our tent at Barafu

Day 6 started at midnight. We were rugged up, minimum 6 layers, ready to go in pitch black with only the stars and our headlamps to guide us. Kevin had been struggling a little so he and Ibby set the pace at the front. It was very slow for the first hour. Pole, pole. It was cold but we hadn’t hit the open crest of the mountain yet so the wind was still bearable. After about an hour, Kevin started to struggle with his back and knee and our pace slowed. At around 2am the decision was made that we would go on without him, he would stay back with one of the guides and see whether he improved.

We continued on, pole, pole, stopping for a break every couple of hours. The wind got stronger and colder. It was different to all of the previous hikes, there were no downhill sections, no flats, not even any false flats, the grade just kept increasing.  Nevertheless we kept moving at a constant, steady pace. We were slowly making progress. We had been told that the final section to Stella point (5685m) was going to be the toughest. The time was now. But not before pausing to watch the sunrise. It was 6:30am and we had to stop and turn around. We watched in awe as the beautiful African sun rose and lit up the magnificent landscape surrounding us. We could finally see the top ahead of us. It was within reach. This gave us the invigorating boost of energy we needed.

We kept moving and an hour later reached Stella point. Although this felt like the top, we still had the final stretch to the very top, Uhuru peak, at 5895m. The hardest part was over and this bit was supposed to be easy. And that’s when it hit. The fatigue. What do you do when your body says no, I’m too tired, or no, I can’t function on such little oxygen? How do you keep gong? The same way you eat an elephant. One bite at a time. And that’s just what we did. One foot in front of the other, pole pole, left then right, left, right. Inch by inch, mind over matter, cliche after cliche … That’s how we conquered Kili!

It’s difficult to describe the feeling you get when you reach the peak. The fatigue suddenly disappeared and was replaced by a rush of adrenaline. We were instantly overcome by a rush of emotions – happiness, exhilaration, exhaustion, relief, satisfaction. The enormity of what we had just achieved was starting to set in. It was proof and validation that mind over matter is what is most important in accomplishing anything.

Uhuru Peak

We spent some time taking the obligatory photo to prove we had actually made it and then soaked up the stunning 360 views. The uninterrupted views of the surrounds, glaciers, craters, peaks, horizons, were spectacular, again something that photos and words can’t do justice.

For the hike back down there was no pole pole, it was all haraka, haraka (fast, fast). What took 6 days to get up took 11 hours to get down, needless to say we were looking forward to sitting down for a rest and a cold beer at that stage.

It was a week we’ll never forget. It was one of the toughest, mentally and physically, but incredibly satisfying and rewarding experiences either of us can recall. A huge shout out and thanks to Kilimanjaro Brothers and our mountain family, lead by mama Ibby. Without their guidance and support we woundt have had such an enjoyable and successful trek.

With our sights now set on Everest, until next time

Love G&L xoxo

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4 Replies to “Chapter 4 – Kilimanjaro ”

  1. What a wonderful re-telling. I get all the pleasure without the effort. Appreciate it. Glad it was the experience you envisaged and more. An achievement you’ll always have inside you. Well done.

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  2. Congratulations Gem and Lachie for making it up top of Mount Kilimanjaro!!! 😮 How epic! It was such a good read, reading your journey up the mountain, and it’s really nice to see that you’ve also mentioned the people/crew that supported you during your climb – so much of the time people only write about themselves and how amazing they were on their own without acknowledge the team that were integral to their success, not to take anything away from the hard work you obviously put in yourselves.

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