Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is an experience and venture that one needs to prepare for; however, preparing for an altitude climb close to 20,000 feet can be close to impossible (especially when you live at sea level).
This past week I embarked on a journey to climb the highest free standing mountain in the world. To say the experience was a team effort would be an understatement- it was more like a group of highly trained and disciplined professionals, with me tagging along on a mission they’ve executed a hundred times. For the lead guide, Francis, this was his 169th climb.
For myself and my friend, Trevor, it took 12 professionals to get us to the summit: 1 guide, 1 assistant guide, 1 cook, and 9 porters, each being allowed to carry 20 kg (park policy). From the first day of check in and weighing the bags, one comes to the realization that this mission is not a joke. One of our bags was 21 kg and we had to take out 1 kg- there are never any exceptions to the park’s policies.
The first day you’re excited and ready to go and this may very well be your first mistake as your body fights to acclimate to a 4,000 feet elevation increase to reach Machame Camp. With a time estimate of 5-6 hours, as set by the guide, my excitement got the best of me, as I came in at 4.5 hours. My body quickly reminded me that a quick hiking pace would be the very last thing I would be doing on Mt. kilimo- this hike was a combination of self discipline (slow pace, drinking a lot of water, and eating when not hungry due to the loss of appetite due to the high altitude) and determination (even when your legs don’t want to move, you move). Should you forget to do any of the things in the “self disciple” category, your guides are quick to remind you. Their mission is to get you up and down that mountain, and that means making sure your body can make the climb.
Day 2 we headed to Shira Camp with a 2,700 ft. altitude increase (total now 12, 615 ft.). Although the terrain was very steep and rocky, the climb was easy due to the “pole pole” pace; also known as very slow. With a time estimate of 3-4 hours, we made it to the camp before lunch, coming in at around 3 hours and 15 minutes. Which brings me to the porters, there were 9 of them, and they were extraordinary in every possible way. Leaving camp about 30 minutes behind the guides and tourist climbers, the porters run of the mountain with 20 kg of supplies and set up camp before you arrive. Always making sure you have your tent to lay in and hot water to wash your feet upon arriving. Every morning and evening I made sure to smile and say hello to them, wanting them to know that I appreciated their work; without them I would have never made it. We even bonded over singing songs every morning and dancing- something I greatly (and I think they might have too!) looked forward to before I headed out on my morning’s climb.
Day 3 we headed to Lava Tower to acclimate to the elevation we would experience at Base Camp. With a 2,400 ft. incline, sitting at 15,190 ft. we ate lunch at Lava Tower and headed down to Barranco Hut to stay the night at 12, 992 ft. The total hiking time was around 8 hours and it was the first time we truly experienced the mountain cold and elevation. As I bundled up at Lava Tower, I thought I would speed walk over to the outhouse at the site and quickly realized anything faster than a “pole pole” pace would leave my breathless and gasping for air- lesson learned.
Day 5: As the altitude got higher, the trees and shrubs disappeared, leaving a long, icy landscape for miles. For men, the bathroom wasn’t an issue, but for women, we headed several feet off trail when we found a large boulder in the distance (it was best just to hold it the few hours to the next camp if you could). After 4 hours going up and down hill (I only fell once!), we finally made it to base camp! Once at Barafu Camp at 15, 223 ft. things started getting serious as we were summiting at midnight.
Arriving at the camp, exhausted from the altitude and several days of hiking, I quickly passed out after lunch and slept until dinner which was served at 6pm. The jokes and laugher had subsided and you could feel the seriousness of the situation. Francis our guide told us we wouldn’t be breaking often on the summit climb since if you stopped and closed your eyes for only a second, there was a chance you wouldn’t open your eyes again. Temperature was stressed repetitively and it was noted that our water may freeze (we needed to drink plenty of water before midnight) and our electronics might not work at negative 20 degrees. We were told throwing up and head aches were common, however loss of vision and motor skills would force them to medicate us and if that didn’t work, we would head back down the mountain.
As we processed our marching orders it was time for a few hours sleep. As I was walking out our assistance guide, Sully, said something to our guide in Swahili- our guide told him to tell us in English- he was hesitant but said the summit was incredibly hard; you could see the nervousness on his face.
Midnight came and we headed up the summit with our two guides and a summit porter (Osmani), who carried out extra layers of clothing and emergency supplies.
About 1/4th of the way up the very very steep mountain edge people started to be guided back down, as guides held the hands of their hikers who looked dazed and confused, both suffering from complete exhaustion and altitude sickness. I kept moving very slowly along, seeing frozen vomit on the side. So far no altitude sickness, which allowed me to fully focus on placing one foot after the other. I asked for a break, the guide said no. My back was starting to ache and I needed my walking sticks. I few more feet and the guide said he would give me my walking sticks, but no break. I would like to note now that I fully credit my guide for the success of my summit climb, he knew exactly what he was doing. As we continued our climb about half way up you started seeing people sitting on the ground with oxygen tanks, one guy was talking to himself on a rock, just repeating “I’m just so tired.” One woman was just dazing at the night sky sitting down with nothing in her eyes, just complete blankness. I told her she was doing great, you could tell she tried to smile but didn’t have the energy. Another hiker was having her hair pulled back as she got sick, apologizing continuously.
The best thing one can do is travel in a small group, no more than 6 people. The large groups of 20+ people didn’t have enough experienced professionals to take care of the hikers- no one to tell them not to sit down. About 2/3rds of the way up I was done. I had used my walking poles as stakes to place before me and pull me up the hill. The steepness wasn’t subsiding and the wind had been blowing for the past hour- the cold ripping through your bones. The guide even stumbled twice as two large gusts of icy wind tore through us, telling us to get off the mountain- we kept moving. We finely got to sit, but only for a minute. The guides put more layers of clothes on me, the porter made me drink water, I told the assistant guide I needed my energy supplement (5 hour energy), he got it out of my bag and poured it down my throat. I was still exhausted but I no longer felt dead inside. One step after the other.
After 5 km (about 3 miles), 4,100 ft. of vertical incline at 19,000 ft of elevation with 30-40 mph winds, we reached Steller Point within 6 hours; the top of the mountain. At Steller point we had hot tea and the three guides and porters put more clothes on me- literally just picking me up and placing another pair of pants on.
Although excited, the guide reminded us quickly we had to keep moving and slowly (it flattens out from Steller Point to Uhuru Point, so you’re tempted to move faster). We also have to move now because of the altitude – your brain swells at high altitude levels.
Once at Uhuru point, Mt. Kilimo’s highest point, the assistant guide grabbed my hand and said it was time to descend and fast – that was an understatement, he literally had me running down the hill. At Steller Point I told him to follow me and we would surf down the smaller rocks on the side of the mountain, ensuring the quickest descent. We quickly finished the 2 hour descent in an hour, with a few young European men joining our rock surfing technique and flying down the mountain (it’s also a lot easier on your knees than trying to walk down steep declines because your like a skipping rock going down the mountain).
Two hours ahead of schedule, I walked into our camp, the porters cheering and hugging me as I entered. I was told a porter’s greatest accomplishment during a mountain climb is having their client reach the summit. A few of the porters smiled since we were half an hour ahead of the second part of our group and they started a “Strong Little Manca (my nickname)” chant.
Re- entering Base camp at 9am, we rested until 11:30am before starting our descent. Although, we were suppose to stop at another camp for night 6/ day 7, we pushed through and hiked the 8 hours to the exit gate. I don’t recommend hiking 17 hours in a 19.5 hour window. The downhill is painful, which is an understatement. The steep decline slams on your knees and hips without any mercy. Having given my knee brace to a porter who twisted his knee, I used my walking sticks as crutches as I placed more weight on my arms than legs.
Once at the bottom our porters ran up to us cheering, singing, and dancing. They even gave me a bottle of champagne to pop! That evening we continued out celebration, although exhausted, making sure we didn’t miss our opportunity to take in our large group accomplishment. With BBQed goat and beers, it was all smiles as the fourteen of us smiled into the night sky knowing we had just defeated Mt. Kilimanjaro or as many call it the “the mountain of cold Devils.”
If you’re thinking about climbing:
1. Diamox (anti-altitude medicine)- take it!
2. Pick an organization that treats their porters well (recommend Pristine Trails). These guys are your family for a week, treat them like your family.
3. “Pole, pole” – it isn’t a race. Move slow, as in very very slowly. Speed is not an option if you want to make it.
4. Unless you’ve climbed the mountain 200+ times, listen to your guide. Don’t question him, he knows the mountain. When he says “drink water” you drink. When he says “eat more,” you eat.
5. Always be honest with your guide. If you have a head ache or anything is off, tell him. You’re a team and his number one goal after your well being is you reaching the summit- he’s going to do everything he can to get you there.