Tanzania, I presume – Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro

“Hakuna Matata!”
I grin, though I am still not sure whether the local Tanzanians would actually employ these words quite so often if Disney’s The Lion King had not made the Swahili phrase so famous. I’ve already heard it half a dozen times since landing in Kilimanjaro International Airport two days before, though there seem to be fewer references to it now that we’re on the mountain.

“The mountain”, of course, refers to the highest free-standing mountain in the world, the “Roof of Africa”: Mount Kilimanjaro.

Kili sunset.

Rising up to nearly 6 kilometres above sea level (5,895m), the trek to the summit is gruelling in the sheer elevation and too-rapid acclimatisation, though at least it results in a walk through an incredible variation of vegetation zones. Most companies sport success rates of 80-90%, but the Kilimanjaro National Park* report that these numbers are for reaching the crater rim, either Gilman’s (5,681m) or Stella Point (5,739m), and that only 40% reach Uhuru Peak.

This is particularly true of the Marangu Route that we took. In spite of being the closest to Hans Meyer’s first ascent in 1889, it is somewhat deprecatingly known as the “Coca-Cola Route”, since it is by far the most popular (and, literally, because soft drinks have always been carried/sold en route!). This oldest and most traditional route is misleadingly known as the ‘easiest’, because it begins at 1,800m, it only covers 34km each way, and walkers sleep in huts each night. Actually, the route has the highest failure rate (even the tour companies only optimistically predict 80%), because the ascent is over a mere three days (summiting at sunrise of the fourth day).

Still, we had little money, little time, and most people do not have my inclination towards sleeping in tents in the dirt, so we set off from Marangu village (1,800m) up through the montane forest vegetation zone.

Our party had been brought together by my decade-long friend from north-east Victoria, Madd; a medical student who had just completed a month long placement at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre. We’d travelled around Ireland together two years previously, but for Africa she also invited her uncle Jon and cousin Ryan. This turned out to be a particularly excellent group, as Jon and I could photograph and admire the scenery to our hearts’ content, and Madd and Ryan knew each other well from Melbourne.

Optimists, Kilimanjaro.

We were also extraordinarily lucky with our guide, Benjamin, from Kessy Brothers. His fluency in the English language and Latin taxonomy knew no bounds, and he was also consistently friendly and laid back. He could move smoothly from a conversation about his family or the history of Tanzania to laughing about the lyre-bird scene with David Attenborough (and, goodness forbid, he’d actually heard of Canberra!).

As we set out it was raining lightly, and the dark green forest was thick with mosses and the bright colours of an assortment of flowers. Unseen birds chirruped and sang, and the low altitude meant we too flew up the muddy gradient (mostly to get to lunch I suspect).

Of course, I still made time for photos, but the wet environment encouraged me to just appreciate the forest around me in the moment.

Kilimanjaro forest track.

Impatiens kilimanjari

We slept at Mandara (2,700m), particularly grateful for the dry four person huts and the bowls of warm water for washing ourselves. The soup was hot and salty, and the dinner excellent, and we retired early to sleep.

Day two saw us ascending through the tree mosses of the moorland and into the area burnt a month prior by a bushfire. The flora was reminiscent of Australia – harking back to our connection in Gondwanaland – and we recognised everlasting daisies and proteas.

We also spotted the adorable four-striped grass mouse!

At Horongo (3,700m) we took a break, dropped our packs, and then took an afternoon walk up to the Zebra Rocks (4,000m). The Marangu Route of Kilimanjaro is not well suited to the ideal acclimatisation process, of walking high and sleeping low, and we thought that the short extra walk might assist us (as well as gaining a view of Mawenzi, the second highest cone of Kilimanjaro after Kibo).

We were led by our guide Benjamin and one of the porters, Dayo. For the whole trek, our group of four used 12 porters, a cook, a waiter, two assistant guides and Benjamin, though we only really met the porters on the last day, and then briefly. Employing porters provides local jobs and makes it much easier for climbers to gain the summit, though it still feels unsettlingly colonial.

These days there are regulations for how much weight the porters can carry, but unfortunately, the Park’s authority does not extend any further, and porters can be underpaid, underfed and underdressed. On Marangu the minimum porter to climber ratio is 2-1, and we had 3-1, and we also confirmed with Benjamin that our porters were being fed. Yet even our poor student tips at the end managed to double their earnings, and it is impossible to be certain of their conditions, especially since they did not speak English. A common number thrown around is that around ten people die on the mountain each year, and most of these are porters, from hypothermia.

At the very least, it was nice to meet one of the porters, even if my handful of Swahili words and hand signals required some assistance from Benjamin to form a conversation. The Zebra Rocks themselves were lovely, Mawenzi dramatically revealed herself from the clouds for a few moments, and the sea of cloud below us swept to the horizon in all directions.

Zebra Rocks.

Comrades and Benjamin with Mawenzi.

Senecio kilimanjari

We also had a good chuckle when Jon, chasing photos of Giant Groundsel (senecio kilimanjari – the plant above) across the tussock grass, managed to plunge his foot into the swampy river below.

Jon's foot.

Back at Horongo that evening, we heard snatches of the conversation around us: a woman with altitude sickness was being tended by two climbers, one a nurse and one a doctor. It was an ominous thought to fall asleep to.

Post another night broken by chilly dashes to the toilet block (since all of us except Madd were taking Diamox to help our acclimatisation, and dealing with the consequences of the diuretic), we set out for our last day of ascent before the summit climb, which was to begin at midnight. We broke away from the moorland and reached the alpine desert, stretching out across the vast saddle between the Mawenzi and Kibo cones. It was a long walk from here, as we were already above 4,000m, though the Diamox insisted on keeping things interesting.

Saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo.

I brought forth the Kendal Mint Cake that had been made especially for me in Australia – a homemade version of the infamous English Lake District energy food used by Sir Edmund Hilary in summiting Everest. Basically, mint flavoured sugar, coated in chocolate.

Kendal Mint Cake,
The lunch stop helped to explain the amount of rubbish beside the track – I can only assume that the couple eating next to us thought highly of decomposition rates in alpine deserts of egg shells, chicken legs and wrappings.

“Pole-pole” – the local word for taking it slowly that had been breathed as a mantra for the mountain – needed no repeating now. Slowly indeed did we progress, especially up from lunch to Kibo Huts: we could see our destination, and yet the slight incline forced us to take an hour to make it.

Once there, we collapsed into our room (amused, I noted that it was “K2”), for at 4,700m even the walk to the toilet left us out of breath. I attempted to write my travel journal, though I ultimately chatted with our roommates, including three Spaniards, a 73 year old Korean man, a French Canadian woman who walked off ahead each day, and her Chinese friend, who arrived two hours later. A poor decision – Madd observed that even ear plugs don’t drown out my voice…

Still, after our 5pm dinner, there was no sound in the room. We all needed to get what sleep we could get – we’d be woken at 11pm to start walking at midnight. This is partly because the volcanic scree face is easier to climb at night (not only is it frozen, but then you can’t see just how steep it is!), but also to avoid acute altitude sickness. Pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and cerebral edema (fluid and swelling in the brain) can be fatal.

And indeed, most people awoke at 11pm with headaches or nausea – common symptoms of altitude sickness. Madd, already sleep deprived by the cold of previous nights and exhaustion, was feeling it the worst, and even I declined to eat the biscuits proffered (and I LOVE biscuits!).

Cloaked in layers, head torches on and gloved hands wrapped around our hiking poles, we set off single file, following Benjamin. The altitude was high, and the scree steep, so most of the climb was to be in a slow, steady, zig-zagging backwards and forwards across the slope.

It was a somewhat surreal experience. The whole world shrunk to the feet of the person in front, the individual sparkles of frost (for there was almost no humidity) on the rocks illuminated by your head torch, and your breathing. Apparently Jon was reciting Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson in his mind, though I am ashamed to admit that I was doing no such thing. The chill was kept barely at bay by my layers – in spite of being a night of excellent conditions, as we discovered later, the water was still freezing in our backpacks, and our necessarily ponderous pace meant that we never really warmed up.

Every so often we would pause for water and a rest, and look around us. Stretching out like a line of Christmas lights both above and below us were the other climbers, shuffling single file between their own guides. Some of the guides sang out in Swahili, perhaps to give heart to their climbers. Most people were silently, heavy-breathed, trudging ever upwards.

Madd’s day pack had been taken from her already, but she was constantly having to pause for breath, and was being forced along at a rate that she could not maintain. At the 5,000m point, Benjamin decided to split the group, and so with a brief goodbye, Jon, Ryan and I followed our assistant guides Nelson and Hasan up the climb.

We made better time, and we began overtaking small groups who had paused to rest, or individuals who had turned back. As we got closer to the crater rim, I paused to don my down jacket – my hands were just not warming up without it. Long before, Ryan and Jon had abandoned their camelbacks for drink bottles because the tubes had frozen, and we were swallowing ice from the bottles. Our headaches continued, our breathing was ragged… but then again, we were climbing a mountain, and our progress upwards was ever continuing too, assisted by Kendal Mint Cake on my part.

Walking in the dark.

We reached, at last, Gilman’s Point on the crater rim (5,681m). We collapsed onto the rocks, aware of the blasting, icy wind, but needing the moment. Ryan and Jon were both nearly in tears, and emphatically declared that the climb was the hardest thing that they’d ever done. I would not agree – my hands were cold, my breathing in gasps, and my head throbbing, but then again, that made sense. I had just ascended nearly a vertical kilometre over a mere four horizontal kilometres or so.

Of course, we were not there yet.

It was actually those last two or three kilometres that were the hardest. The wind roared through the crater and up to us, our breathing was a constant, jerky succession of intakes in attempts to retrieve more oxygen, and those last two hundred metres of elevation were agonising. As the sky lightened, I paused to retrieve my camera from my pack, and our assistant guide Hasan insisted that I let them carry my pack. Jon’s and Ryan’s had been relented some time before, and I followed suit in order to concentrate on the marvel around me.

Panorama of the ascent.

My horizons were crooked, my fingers were frozen, but it was indeed a glorious sunrise. Not much colour of course, since we were well above the clouds, and very fast, since we weren’t that far from the equator… but certainly the most well-earned sunrise of my life! Jon was pausing to rest his injured back every few metres, and Ryan and I were ragged with exhaustion, but we nevertheless made it to Uhuru Peak – 5,895m. We managed to grab a group photo, and then immediately began descending.

Uhuru Peak.

The clouds were already rolling in by the time we’d reached Stella Point.

We were disappointed not to see Madd at Gilman’s Point, but just around the corner we found her asleep on the rocks! She’d spent seven gruelling hours throwing up and taking each step upwards in exhaustion, and yet had still made it to the crater rim to see the glaciers. Absolutely undoubtedly, she had pushed herself the most, and achieved the most.

Benjamin had slowly and consolingly supported her to this point, a mixture of professionally holding her hair back whilst she vomited and encouragingly assuring her that she could reach the crater. And indeed she had. She admitted later that pushing herself onwards to Uhuru had been tempting, because she’d have had to have been lifted down the mountain instead of walking it… but she was more than doctor enough to know better.

Thus, we descended to Kibo together. I was amazed at just how steep the scree slope was!

We slept for an hour, and then ate. Getting from the hut to the toilet and back was still an exercise in cardio-vascular exertion, so we were glad to continue downwards. Even faster than us was the Kilimanjaro ambulance – a stretcher on one wheel, manned by four porters, because the air on the summit is too thin for the use of helicopters.

We staggered into Horongo (3,700m), forced ourselves to wash, eat, and then we slept. Oh, how we slept!

The 18km descent to Marangu village was completed the next day in less than 5 hours, including a lunch stop.

Madd had blisters the size of her thumbnail.

Yet that night, after we’d gained our certificates and shirts (and showers), we drank our Kilimanjaros (the brand of beer for the others, the brand of water for me) victoriously.

And then it was early to bed – for at 7am the next day we were off on safari.

* I cannot seem to find Kilimanjaro National Park themselves claiming any statistics on success rates, but this figure is thrown around and attributed to them by several other websites (http://www.teamkilimanjaro.com/best-kilimanjaro-route.html ; http://www.travelweekly.com.au/news/kilimanjaro-summit-success-on-the-up; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kilimanjaro_climbing_routes).

See my Flickr album for more photos.

This post has now been published! (Albeit somewhat edited and shortened, of course.)
You can check out the changes at Canberra’s local online magazine, Surya.

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12 thoughts on “Tanzania, I presume – Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro

  1. I’m so inspired by this blog, well done as it sounds gruelling. It also terrified me slightly as I am climbing Kili in October. Eek !

    • Cheers! I wouldn’t worry too much – you sound like you’re pretty experienced and fit, and Kili is far from a technical climb. Which route are you taking? I’m sure that you’ll love it – she’s a gorgeous mountain!

      • Thanks I’m off on the Rongai route, but wisely/ foolishly (I can’t decide) also booked to do Meru first. So I’m sure i’ll be totally shattered by the end!

      • That sounds like an excellent plan. Meru will be a wonderful additional adventure (maybe even a bit of training!), and Rongai is a much wiser route to have chosen in terms of acclimatisation. Best of luck!

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  5. It’s so excellent idea, for any more information on any thing about Kilimanjaro don’t hesitate to ask.

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