2013 Kilimanjaro Summit Climb Trip Report
by Jacque Brill
Pole Pole: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro
Pretty soon after landing in Tanzania, even before arriving at the base of the mountain, you begin to see t-shirts, mugs, and kitchsy key chains adorned with the words "Pole Pole." It's a Swahili expression that translates to some combination of "slowly, gently, softly," and it will become something of a mantra on the journey to the over 19,000 foot summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Indeed, our adventure began quite slowly, with a couple of 8ish hour flights to Amsterdam, and from there to Kilimanjaro International Airport near Moshi, Tanzania. As I have done before, and hope to do again, I was traveling only with my well-traveled father, and was keeping my fingers crossed the rest of our 10-person American team would be as equally sane, steadfast and entertaining. We'd be with our group for nearly two weeks, with a week on the mountain, and four days on the Serengeti to follow.
We arrived at the New Keys Hotel in Moshi around 9 p.m. after our flights, and enjoyed a late dinner in the restaurant meeting the team, including our American guide Chris, from International Mountain Guides. This would be our third trip with IMG, and we've found the schedule, organization and especially the guides to be outstanding. First impressions indicated this trip wouldn't be any different.
The next day, our first full day in Moshi, was spent map exploring, gear checking, SIM card acquiring, and just generally resting and fueling around the hotel. But we did get an opportunity to meet the four Tanzanian guides who would be joining us for the ascent. Isaac, Victor, Nelson and Davis were warm, welcoming, and very experienced on Kili. Isaac has a daughter who shares my name, so this became a favorite topic of conversation as the days passed. That night we packed everything up, weighed it in (porters carry the primary duffels up the mountain, and there's a strict 15kg weight limit we didn't find this to be a problem considering the Kili gear list) and got one more good night of sleep in a real bed.
Ascent Day 1
Machame Gate to Machame Camp
6,000 feet to 10,000 feet
After a filling breakfast of scrambled eggs, bananas and bread, we hopped in a van and headed for the trailhead of the Machame Route—the Machame Gate. At 6,000 feet and with a misty cloud cover hanging over it, we were immediately pulling on additional layers upon arriving. We signed into the mountain register, sorted out our day packs a bit (approximately 10-15 lbs. of layers, food, water, sunscreen and the like), and then we were off!
The first day on Kili, from nearly every route, is through the cloud forest. It's a gradual uphill, for the first hour on a dirt access road, and then continuing for about five hours on a packed dirt trail. Conditions were great during our trip, though we've heard mud can be issue the closer you get to the rainy seasons. There were a few steeper sections here and there, but in general, the "Pole Pole" pace and shady woods made for a pretty pleasant first day of climbing. It was the kind of scenic sweat session that reminds you over and over that you're in a foreign place from the giant ferns and trees to the accents and languages of your fellow hikers.
We arrived in Machame Camp around 5:30 p.m. that evening, and found it to be relatively flat, with groups of tents scattered throughout a series of clearings, as the trees were already beginning to thin at this point. The upside of that was that we could already get a great view of Kibo, the highest of Kilimanjaro's three volcanic cones, and the summit of the mountain. We refueled with a meal of potato leek soup, spaghetti with meat sauce and for me, a hot drink called "Milo," which was like a hot chocolate but with a lot less sugar.
At 10,000 feet, it gets cold as soon as the sun sets, so we all headed to our sleeping bags pretty quickly after dinner. I felt tired, but in that wonderful mountain way that just leaves you hungry for more.
Ascent Day 2
Machame Camp to Shira Camp
10,000 feet to 12,700 feet
When I woke up at Machame Camp, I was no longer in my twenties. I turned 30 on Day 2, and was able to celebrate with a pretty amazing view of Mt. Kilimanjaro when I finally left the comfy, cozy confines of my sleeping bag. Birthday breakfast was pretty great—eggs and avocado that I put on a couple pieces of toast. Ate a couple of small bananas, as well as a bowl of porridge I spiced up with a couple spoonfuls of Milo. It was my birthday after all.
The trail out of Machame Camp is actually rather steep and narrow, so we battled a few traffic jams occasionally, mostly porters carrying heavy loads on their backs and heads, but also a group of about 40 British students who'd kept us up late the night before singing Elton John songs until about 11 p.m. Major faux pas in mountain etiquette, so there were a few side-eye stare downs here and there. The day started warm and sunny, with lots of wide views of the mountain. It was a bit dusty, and intermittent rocks became steep, rocky walls that required some scrambling later in the day (this was actually the highlight of the day—after hours of uphill walking, it's a fun physical and mental challenge to get your arms involved in the task at hand). The sun disappeared after about an hour, and we were climbing in the clouds from there on out. We had about a half hour of light rain that required our rain jackets, but nothing too soggy.
We finished on a short, flatter straightaway that carried us into Shira Camp, which sits out on a plateau and is like a large, spacious tent city. There's a low hum of activity at all times, thanks in part to the loss of most trees by this elevation. We could see Kibo intermittently as clouds passed through. The day had taken us about six hours, so we were ready to visit the dining tent for a meal of cucumber soup and chicken and rice curry. Meals on the mountain are always warm, filling, and carbohydrate-centric, which is essential to high altitude climbing. The higher we got, the higher my average heart rate became, not only when we were climbing, but at rest as well. It becomes pretty important pretty quickly to become a calorie-vacuum, which is my excuse for the snack bag I carried that was filled to the brim with Snickers bars, Reese's Cups, Goldfish crackers and Fruit Roll-Up's. I'm a true health nut.
I was serenaded that evening with "Happy Birthday," and I really can't imagine a more perfect place for me to celebrate a milestone birthday. I'm an introvert who's never been a fan of huge parties, but if the guest of honor is the highest standalone mountain in the world, consider my RSVP a positive one.
Swahili lesson #2
Mambo Poa is both an expression on its own, as well as a greeting and a response. When porters and local guides would walk by us on the trail, we were often greeted with "mambo," which is a hello-like greeting used similarly to "jambo," though this one more often would beckon a response of "poa!" from us. "Poa" means "cool," and the two words could also be combined into an expression that to me felt similar to a slang-like "hey brother" (though more in the vein of how Jax on Sons of Anarchy would say it, rather than Buster in Arrested Development).
By our third day on the mountain, we were acclimatizing to the altitude, the daily hike-eat-sleep-repeat flow of our days, and the lingo.
Ascent Day 3
Shira Camp to Barranco Camp
12,700 feet (to 15,000 feet) to 13,000 feet
After another hearty breakfast of porridge, eggs and toast, we were packed up and headed out of camp by 8:30 a.m. The third day on the Machame Route is the second longest, as we were going to spend about four hours headed uphill gradually to 15,000 feet, then descending for another four hours back down to 13,000 feet. It's a key acclimatization day on the schedule that further prepares the body for working and sleeping in the thinner air. Climb high, sleep low is a bit of a mantra for alpinists.
Our day started out sunny and warm with a gradual uphill jaunt that had us on wider, more expansive terrains. No traffic jams today. As we climbed above 14,000 feet, the foliage continued to thin, the temperature dropped, and the clouds and a brief spell of sleet moved in, forcing our team to pull out just about every layer in our day pack arsenal. Indeed, it was the first time my gloves made an appearance. We reached 15,000 feet at the Lava Tower, a tall column of volcanic rock, right around lunch time, and took a quick snack break to munch on boxed lunches of fried chicken, hard boiled eggs, fruit and boxed pineapple juice (and maybe a Reese's Cup or two). I spent a few minutes admiring the views of the Lava Tower, before mentally preparing myself (and my knees) for the first bout of descending of the trip. This is my least favorite part of climbing, as my joints respond a lot less favorably to hours of constant pounding.
Fortunately, there were ample distractions on this descent, as we crept down the narrow Barranco Valley and found it filled with the exotic plant life I had been reading so much about. These plants are indigenous to the unique climate provided by these parts of the mountain, and can't be found natively growing anywhere else in the world. This includes the spiky Senecio Kilimanjari and the Lava Tower-resembling Lobelia Deckenii.
We put in a full day of work on Lava Tower Day. We rolled into Barranco Camp about eight hours after taking off that morning, and had just enough time to take a few photos of Kibo from our new vantage point before dark. Barranco Camp is wide and gently sloping, sitting between two high ridges on the western shoulder of the mountain. Its general breadth means that the tents and campsites are more spread out, and I thus found it much quieter than our previous two overnights, though it was colder and a bit breezier.
We warmed up with hot tea and vegetable soup that night, and enjoyed another round of pasta with meat sauce for dinner. Perfect mountain fare.
Ascent Day 4
Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp
13,000 feet to 13,300 feet
This was another up and down kind of day, but it began with my favorite part of climb—the Barranco Wall.
As soon as the sun crept up that morning, we began to see climbers and porters ascending up the high ridge directly east of camp. You could barely see the path from the ground, as it just seemed to wind in and out of rock formations. The Wall is considered a "scramble" in climbing terms, and for a little over an hour and half, we once again got to secure our trekking poles in our packs, and get our hands dirty (or at least, dirtier). It's one of those sections that really makes you feel like a kid again, as you navigate up, around and across a series of boulders, very narrow paths and rock walls.
We were rewarded for our efforts with one of the most spectacular views of the trip. The Barranco Wall finishes directly below the southern glaciers of Kibo, providing excellent (though a bit foreshortened, it was tough to believe we still had two days to the summit from there) views of not only the summit, but Mount Meru in the distance. We had blue skies, with just a few light clouds posed ideally for photographs. Not surprisingly, our usual 15 minute break doubled here.
Eventually, we began a series of short ascents and descents as we traversed east across the mountain. The sun remained, keeping us all a little sweaty, and the trademark dust of the dry season became increasingly noxious. We came across a few small streams and rivulets and made one final uphill push into Karanga Camp, about five hours after getting started that day.
Karanga Camp, sitting on top of one of Kili's many ridges, is windy, open, dusty and a lot less busy than the other camps. There are a couple of other route options that break off after Barranco Camp, thinning the crowds a bit. We were shocked to realize that the nearest water source to Karanga (and our next camp) was about 300 feet downhill, forcing porters to make additional hikes to ensure everyone remains hydrated. Between that and the hot lunch we received of French fries, fried chicken and salad, we were extra appreciative of the full breadth of our team that day. We had a really amazing team of cooks, porters and guides keeping us healthy and comfortable on this journey.
Spent a little time that afternoon lounging and playing cards in the dining tent, enjoying an afternoon off. I also spent some time with Lynne Cox's Swimming to Antarctica, knowing her attitudes about finding pleasure in the physical (and mental) grind would be valuable as the days got tougher, the temps got colder, and the air got thinner. I really recommend this book.
Dinner was pumpkin soup, rice and beans, and the first appearance of my puffy coat once the sun went down. Many thanks to Lynne Cox (who is known for swimming in 40 degree seas) for helping me keep things in perspective.
Our Swahili (for dummies) lessons continue. "Lala salama" or "good night" is an expression we learned on our first night in the country. It more literally translates to "sleep well." Alas, despite hearing the phrase several times from our guides and fellow climbers, we had reached a point in the climb where altitude and summit anticipation made quality sleep more difficult to come by.
Karanga Camp to Barrafu Camp
13,300 feet to 15,200 feet
I was able to get one final solid night of sleep in Karanga Camp, blissfully free from the altitude headaches and shortness of breath common at this height. Breakfast here sort of kicks off the summit push, which would begin at 11 p.m. that night, so everyone was eager to get their fill of porridge, peanut butter and bananas, and get moving.
We left camp around 8:30 a.m. for a short, three hour push to our high camp. We had blue skies and lots of sun to make up for the rocks and dust we couldn't help but continue to kick up on the way, and worked our way through a couple of steeper climbs with an easy-going traverse in the middle. As we edged closer toward the next camp, we could start to make out parts of the summit route, which brought on the usual mix of excitement, anxiety and "what am I going to wear?!" brand of panic attacks. We hit Barrafu, or "ice camp," right before lunch, and immediately began the carbo loading process with big trays of French fries, grilled cheese sandwiches and potato leek soup.
Barrafu Camp sits directly below the Machame summit route on a narrow ridge. Tents are sort of terraced up and down the ridge in the "flat" sections, though we did find ourselves considerably downhill from the toilet tent here. This wouldn't have been noteworthy in the other camps, but at 15,000 feet, running from our tents up a steep hill to the toilet had me out of breath every. single. time. (Did I mention I have a pathetically inadequate bladder?)
We spent a peaceful afternoon around camp reading, eating, napping and card playing until dinner time rolled around at 5 p.m. We took down several trays of spaghetti and mushroom sauce before hitting the sack before the sun had even gone down. Wake up calls were to arrive at 11 p.m., with go time slated for midnight. We had a long, eight hour push to the summit, and another eight hours back downhill, ahead of us, and I basically just spent my sleep time pondering this. "Nap time" before summit day is not unlike the night before a triathlon or race a million different logistical details and worries running through your head at one of the worst times.
Barrafu Camp to Summit, Summit to Mweka Camp
15,000 feet to 19,000 feet to 10,000 feet
Alas, sleep was elusive. I "woke up" by getting out of my sleeping bag at 11 p.m. and immediately layering up. It was dark, and very cold out. I've been known to get warm quickly when climbing, so I choose layers conservatively on the bottom, but moderately on top. For those who are interested:
Bottoms: Lightweight long underwear, soft shell climbing pants, gaiters
Tops: Lightweight long underwear, fleece jacket, soft shell jacket, down puffy coat (for breaks)
(I started with the mid-weight gloves, and transitioned into my heavier climbing gloves with hand warmers halfway up. I was actually only able to use trekking poles in the first hour or two, as I needed to let my hands hang to keep them comfortable.)
We were off and climbing by midnight, on schedule, and found the chilly night air to be clear and still. No wind, no precipitation. Just a whole lot of stars and a bright moon to keep us company. Headlamps were on, hoods were up and poles were engaged. We would spend about an hour with our heads down, following the feet in front of us up steep, shallow switchbacks of rock and scree, then take a 15 minute break in which we'd quickly grab our puffies, our water bottles and a snack, and sit down. Breaks are tough on summit mornings; while your lungs and quads may be screaming for one, as soon as you stop moving you start shivering. Thanks to the altitude, my body felt the arctic temperatures more acutely than it would at sea level. I'd spend the first 10 minutes of every interval moving my arms and warming up again. My energy bars froze into rocks pretty quickly, and I spent most of the morning subsisting on Fruit Roll Up's and Snickers bars I stashed in my coat. I also encountered my first significant symptoms of altitude sickness, when I started to get a bit lightheaded about three hours in. I would be fine in the sections where I could take small, regular rest steps, but here in there larger rocks and boulders would force me to take wider, taller strides and I would become unbalanced. Compression breaths were necessary nearly every other step. It wasn't terribly fun, and it plagued me the rest of the way up.
I eventually crossed my "personal altitude record" at 18,000 feet (our previous trip to Nepal had taken us up to Thorung-La Pass at this altitude) around sunrise, which was a game changer. The sun warmed us up physically and mentally, and we eventually started creeping by those southern glaciers we'd been staring at all week. They were impressive sights. From there it wasn't long before the guides started getting excited, and we reached Stella Point, the rim of the Kilimanjaro crater around 7:30 a.m.
We found the wind here, and as we weren't climbing we got cold again pretty quickly, but it was a beautiful sight. The crater is MASSIVE you could fit a small town inside it—and as with any climb, there's an amazing sense of accomplishment that comes from arriving at a point you've been looking up at for days or weeks at a time. We'd made it to the roof of Africa, and we were proud and happy (and cold).
I won't bore with a recap of the way down. We spent about three hours quickly descending back to Barrafu via an expansive scree field, ate lunch and packed up, and then spent another four hours making our way to Mweka Camp which is comfortably back in the shady trees at 10,000 feet. Suffice it to say this portion of the journey was warm, incredibly dusty, and murder on my knees and now-blistered feet. I had mentally donated my hiking boots to the country of Tanzania by lunchtime. But mountains, much like finish lines, have a way of making memories of the pain far less poignant.
Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate
10,000 feet to 6,000 feet
Compared to the arid, foliage-free landscapes we'd been traversing for the past few days, Mweka Camp felt like an oasis. The greenery finally reached above our heads, the air was thick, and small clearings among the trees lent the campsites a sense of privacy from one another. It felt a lot like an idyllic, childhood summer camp.
After a long, peaceful night's rest in our tents post-summit day, it was back on our tired legs for one final walk down the hill. We had about three hours down through the cloud forest, though this time through a different section that felt a lot more like a jungle than the way up. The clouds hung around us for most of the three-hour journey, and we eagerly breathed in the moisture after days of hiding our faces from the dust. The plants and trees became thicker and thicker, and the path was damp and mostly mellow.
We had our first wildlife encounters here (with many more to come), coming across an intimidating red ant crossing, as well as a couple of species of monkeys resting up in trees.
We reached the Mweka Gate around lunchtime, ate a celebratory buffet feast right there, and signed out of the mountain register before hopping in vans for the short drive back to the hotel. The Machame Route isn't the most direct route up Kilimanjaro, nor is it the easiest. But it is the most scenic, and leaving the park felt like leaving a newly discovered planet. We saw and experienced so much, and it would have been easy to feel sad as we drove off. Fortunately, a flight to the Serengeti was booked for the next day, so we had yet another planet to explore.