Summit of Kilimanjaro

The Roof of Africa. Uhuru, the ultimate summit, is on the far right. Glacier to the left. Mount Meru, on the horizon, is overlaid by the shadow of Kili itself.

Introduction: What follows is a description of my own experience of a walk. It is not authoritative advice and if considering following in my footsteps you should do more extensive research. To some extent this is, of course, true of every page on this blog, but seeing as Kilimanjaro is a notably more difficult and more potentially dangerous walk than others, it is worth stressing this up front.

Dates completed: 28th July – 3rd August 2015.  I reached the summit at about 6.45am on Sunday 2nd August.

View from Barafu camp

View from Barafu camp, on the evening of day 5. White-necked ravens, seen everywhere on the mountain, soar above the clouds below.

Weather conditions: Most mornings on the mountain started sunny and bright, but invariably, clouds then welled up not long after (around 9 – 9.30am) as warming air pushed moisture up the slopes. We therefore walked much of the time in the mist, and the only two days we did not, this was because we were high enough to be above the clouds. Most evenings, however, the cloud dissipated an hour or two before sunset.

The temperature range was extensive, from sub-zero conditions on the summit (nights and some early mornings were also below freezing), to 25ºC or more when the sun shone directly above. One afternoon (day 2) and the morning of day 7 saw us walk in fairly persistent rain. In short, then, there is a need to be prepared to walk in just about any weather.

Summit: Kilimanjaro is the name of the massif (and calling it “Mount” Kilimanjaro is tautological, as “Kilima” in Swahili means “hill” or “mountain”). Broadly, there are three sections to it: Shira in the west, which is the oldest and most eroded of the volcanoes, Mawenzi to the east, which cannot be ascended without technical gear, and in the centre, Kibo, the youngest and highest of the peaks. The summit of Kibo is called Uhuru (meaning “Freedom”), and is usually quoted as being 5,895m, or 19,341 feet, above sea level (although it is probably a little lower than this).

Porter and Kibo.

Looking up at Kibo from the upper parts of the Shira Plateau on day 3. Porter in foreground.

Uhuru is the highest point in Africa, and Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world: that is, a mountain that is not part of a range.

Distance: There are various approved routes of ascent up Kili. We used the Machame Route, which starts at the national park gate north of the village of Machame, about an hour away from the large town of Moshi, in the north of Tanzania. A board at the gate states that it is 40km via this route to Uhuru,  and add to this about another 20km to come back down, making approximately 60km in all, or around 37 miles.

Total ascent: Machame gate stands at 1,800m above sea level. The route contains one considerable descent on day 3, dropping 700m down from Lava Tower to Barranco camp, and day 4 is an undulating one with a couple more descents that probably amount to about 500m. All of this has to be made up again. So I reckon we climbed, in total, about 5,300m, or about 17,400 feet.

Kitchen crew

The kitchen crew packing up at Karanga camp.

Logistics: It is not permitted to climb Kili independently. All walkers need to be accompanied by approved guides. Porters are also needed to carry luggage, camping gear and food. This all needs paying for, as do the fees required to actually enter the Kilimanjaro national park (currently about US$60 per person per day). You also, of course, need flights to Tanzania, transfers in the country, visas and the like, so all in all one is best off arranging any walk through some kind of agency. Ours was Zara Tours, based in Moshi, with the UK end of things handled by the British Expeditionary Company. Both are recommended. Certainly I had no complaints about either. (The BEC also organised a preparatory weekend in May, in the Forest of Dean, which was well-handled and helped some of us get to know each other beforehand and generally bond as a team.)

Guides are with you not to show you the way as such — the path is always clear and many other people are doing the walk anyway, so it is very difficult to go astray — but to monitor your progress, check you are not going too fast, keep an eye on your condition and any possible symptoms of altitude sickness (see below). Ours were excellent, particularly on day 6 when without them, I doubt half of us would have made the summit, and I hope all are as good. You don’t need to walk every step in the company of the guides — once they knew I was experienced and sensible enough, I frequently went on ahead as I found the pace a bit slow — but you should recognise their expertise and the essential nature of their role.

Approaching Lava Tower

Approaching Lava Tower near lunchtime on day 3. Compare this with the photo below, of the tower from the end.

Take advice from authoritative sources about what equipment to bring. As well enough proper walking gear, layered so you can be comfortable in both very cold and very warm conditions, you need, at least: a medical kit; water containers that carry a total of at least 3 litres; lots of high-energy snacks (sweets, energy bars, biscuits etc), particularly for the final climb; high-factor sunscreen; insect repellent; a 4-season sleeping bag (or 3-season with a liner); a ground mat; toilet paper; and a torch. You will also need advice from medical professionals regarding inoculations and medication prior to the trip.

Route: We completed the Machame route in seven days, described below. Kill can be climbed more quickly than this (the world record is under seven hours… up and down!!), but the reason to take time is to acclimatise to the altitude. This is important; altitude sickness can be fatal if the warning signs are not heeded. Oxygen levels at Kili’s summit are half what they are at sea level and while the body can adapt, given time, some climbers will suffer from a range of symptoms including headaches, nausea, mental confusion, coughing and poor circulation (blue lips), all of which I observed at some point on one or more of my walking colleagues. Two of the 21 members of my party had to turn back before the top as a result.

Bird in Karanga valley

Sparrow-like bird that was also seen frequently on the mountain, here in Karanga valley on day 4.

On the other hand, you do hear a lot about this stuff in the literature and among camp gossip, leading to the feeling that illness is some kind of inevitability. So while you must watch out for it, and listen to the guides when they tell you what to do about it, I should add that I did not suffer from any of these symptoms, and from what I gathered from my colleagues, more than half of them also made the summit without any discomfort beyond what arises simply from it being a bloody hard walk, particularly on day 6, which you will shortly hear all about.

Anyway, the route:
Day 1: Machame gate to Machame camp.  We arrived at the gate (via minibus from Moshi) at about 11am, but it was a good 90 minutes before we started walking thanks to all the formalities at the gate: signing in and getting one’s luggage weighed (because there are limits to what the porters are allowed to carry, in theory). What followed was then an afternoon spent entirely ascending through rainforest, climbing a total of about 1,200m (3,940 feet). The forest is attractive enough, but there aren’t any views.

Machame gate

The Machame gate — our starting point.

Day 2: Machame camp to Shira camp. A shorter day, starting with more climbing. The trees have gone, to be replaced by stands of giant heather and then the weird-looking giant senecio, which looks like some bizarre vegetable Cornetto; see the picture.  The steepest section takes you up over the rim of the Shira Plateau, and then there is a mile and a half of welcome easy walking as you drop gently down to Shira camp. There probably are excellent views to be had here but this was one of the passages we did in rain and mist.

Giant senecio

Giant Senecio, aka giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio johnstonii)

Day 3: Shira camp to Lava Tower, then on to Barranco camp. Taking scenery, terrain, difficulty and weather into account this was the finest of the days. It helped greatly that this was the first day (and one of only two in total) where we were walking above the clouds, thus getting views throughout. However, this also meant it was the most exposed and hot day, and plenty of water was required — there was little shade from the equatorial sun burning directly above.

The day begins with fine views from the camp, first of the Shira peaks to the west, then the cone of Kibo to the east, which is gradually approached through the day: looking at first fairly innocuous it becomes more and more overwhelming as you near it, with crags looming overhead that look unassailable. Through the morning, as you ascend the gradual slope of the plateau, the vegetation disappears until the landscape has a Mars-like quality, the ground littered with huge boulders that must have been spat out by an eruption at some point in the past (Kili is officially a dormant, rather than extinct volcano).

Western Breach crags

The crags of the Western Breach. Created by Kili’s most recent major eruption many thousands of years ago.

Lunch was taken at Lava Tower, which as you can see from the picture below, is aptly named. It is shaped like an iron, long if seen from the side (that’s also it in one of the pictures above), but viewing it from the end shows how thin it is. It is possible to climb it, and several of our party did before moving on, but I (and about 8 of my colleagues) gave it a miss. Those who did said it was worth it but that it is not a climb for those afraid of heights. Lava Tower lunch camp was at 4,600m (over 15,000 feet), and is the highest point reached until Barafu camp two days hence.

Lava Tower

Lava Tower from the end. Lunch camp below.

After Lava Tower the route begins to descend, through more arid Martian landscapes and with more great views up to the crags and lava flows coming off Kibo above. Barranco camp lies back in the giant senecio zone; from it, you can see not only Kibo but also tomorrow’s first challenge, the Barranco Wall, which you’re going to be climbing in the morning.

Day 4: Barranco camp to Karanga camp. This is the most up-and-down day; the two camps are at roughly the same elevation (Karanga is maybe a couple of hundred metres higher) but there are two significant descents on the day, thus three separate bouts of ascent.

Barranco Wall

Climbing the Barranco Wall.

The first is the very apparent Barranco Wall, a monumental old lava flow that you have no choice but to climb up. It looks perilous from the camp itself, but apart from a short section lower down, is neither as steep nor as exposed as it seems. Nevertheless, it is a significant climb, requiring hands, knees and elbows to come into use at times. There will also be plenty of other people doing it with you, including the porters who have your gear and tents to worry about too, so bottlenecks do occur and at times you just need to be patient. All the same, I found this an enjoyable climb, which once I got going (and past the worst bottlenecks at the bottom) I completed non-stop in just over an hour from the camp.

At the top I hung around until a few more of my colleagues made it then we headed off with one of our guides. The mist had descended again and we were walking through bare, gently-sloping fields of stone that someone said looked as if they were the sets of zombie movies. Eventually we dropped steeply down into the Karanga valley, a river bed, only to have to immediately climb again, but with the consolation of the camp at the top.

Mawenzi

Mawenzi. I see a movie with this as its background (but perhaps I am just thinking of “Zulu”)

Day 5: Karanga camp to Barafu camp. This is the shortest of the days: three hours’ walking, tops, and we arrived at Barafu around noon. The point of this is that you are supposed to rest, ideally to sleep, in the afternoon before your imminent night climb. Some of us did claim several hours’ sleep — I did not get any. Distraction is provided by superb views once the mist dissipates. For the first time, the craggy, handsome Mawenzi peak is also visible.

Day 6 part 1: Barafu camp to the summit (and back down). The final bout of climbing has to be done at night. The route to the summit lies up slopes that are covered with old volcanic ash and small bits of loose scree.  At night at this altitude, however, temperatures are sub-zero and this freezes the ground somewhat, allowing better progress (though don’t expect solidity underfoot). During the day, with clouds at this level a rarity (though still possible), the sun would make this a much more difficult proposition.

Steve at Barafu camp

My fellow walker Steve at Barafu camp — we are both supposed to be sleeping at this point.

So your guides are not simply being sadistic by forcing you to get ready for a start time of around 11.30pm, at least, that was when we set off on what is quite definitely the hardest physical effort I have ever put into anything. I’ve run half-marathons but these were a cinch compared to the 1,300m (4,270 feet), 7-hour climb from Barafu camp to Uhuru, the highest point in Africa. Make no mistake, this is tough work — not just because of the terrain and ground, but also the lack of oxygen and the time of day (or rather night) you are doing it, when one’s body rhythms are naturally at their lowest ebb. This is one time when I definitely did not seek to walk ahead on my own: this day was a team effort, on which the guides fully justified their fees many times over, and it was also very important to have fellow walkers around.

Details of the route are irrelevant here. It was in some ways an amazing experience, like, “Blimey, I am out walking on a beautiful starlit night on Kilimanjaro!”… but the novelty of that wore off at about 1.30am and then there were still hours to go, fuelled largely on sweets and me trying to remember all the Wainwrights I had climbed, in the right order. By the end I was committing to doing at least 8 steps at a time before I needed to rest and get my breath back. I did 14 at one point — that made me proud. Never has the phrase “one step at a time” seemed so apt. If there was one consolation, it was that it wasn’t quite as cold as I expected it to be, but that doubtless does not always apply.

Summit glacier

Summit glacier, top tinged by the rising sun.

However, the slope must end, and for me it did at around 5.45am at the signboard congratulating me for arriving at Stella Point, 5,756m or 18,885 feet above sea level. This is the point of attaining Kibo’s crater rim, and means the hardest (though not all the) climbing is over.

At this point it was still dark, but the sun was in the post, and sure enough came up over the eastern horizon (to the left of Mawenzi), gradually illuminating the superb summit panorama. Below you is part of the main caldera, with a crater that I thought at first was the principal one (called Reusch Pit) but with hindsight was far too small so is probably a subsidiary fumarole.

Summit caldera

Part of the summit caldera. Uhuru, the summit, is to the left.

The nearby glaciers reveal themselves, though maps and old photos which show the whole of the summit as still covered in ice are now out-of-date, as my pictures indicate. The remaining glaciers probably only have a few more years in them. But at least for now they provide a surreal quality to the landscape, bearing in mind where in the world you are. Mount Meru, Tanzania’s second-highest peak but here looking tiny, can be seen above the clouds and on the day I visited the shadow of Kili itself  was projected over it and onto the horizon. (See the picture at the top of the page.)

Kili summit sign

The sign (one of two identical ones, in fact) on the summit. Made it!!

The walk from Stella Point to Uhuru took me around 50 minutes. It is a gentle climb, but a climb nonetheless, and requiring one last effort to attain the goal — the shelf of rock and ash that is the highest point in Africa.  Engage in whatever emotional outburst feels appropriate to you at this point. You will have deserved it.

Your day is not over however. The next piece of work is to get back down to Barafu. Reflecting on your climb up, which may already have passed into memory (and due to altitude sickness, one of our party claimed later not to remember the final climb at all), you may have a sinking feeling that you are going to have to go down those steep and slidey slopes that you ascended — and you would be right. Also, the sun has come up, it’s getting much warmer, and you are encumbered with all that bulky cold-weather gear. No choice however; down you go. There is little to add other than to take it carefully, remembering that the majority of fell walking and climbing accidents happen on the descent.

I returned to Barafu around 9am and most of my colleagues made it back by 10.30am at the latest. Time for a rest.

Frosty morning, Shira camp

A frosty morning at Shira camp on day 3, the sun rising beside Kibo in the distance.

Day 6 part 2: Barafu camp to Mweka camp.  After resting through the middle of the day we set off around 3pm for the next stage, a long, fairly easy descent, starting off in bare, sunburnt landscapes but gradually returning to the heather forests (and the mist). Easy it is but it also takes longer than hoped, particularly thanks to the existence of a camp more than halfway up (High camp, aka Millennium camp) which raises false hopes of a premature end to the day. Most of my party arrived at Mweka camp around 6pm in the end. No one had a late night.

Day 7: Mweka camp to Mweka gate. A final half-day’s descent through the rainforest. Doubtless wanting to get home themselves, the guides roused us to the earliest start of the whole walk: we began walking around 7.50am, and arrived at Mweka gate just after 11am. The walk was like a mirror image of the first day, through the rainforest, but we were forcibly reminded of why they are called ‘rain’ forests — this was the wettest morning, with some quite heavy rain at times. (Very glad that we did not get that on our first day.) The path became muddy and slippery as a result. But otherwise there were no difficulties. We signed out at the bottom and were back in Moshi for lunchtime.

Barranco Camp

Barranco Camp, end of day 3.

Commentary: The idea of climbing Kilimanjaro arose in me at some point in May 2014. At several points around the building in which I work at university there were posters for the British Expeditionary Company’s organised trips to Tanzania. These were for the 2014 edition, which it was too late to think about joining (my longer trips out have to be booked months in advance just to fit them logistically in the family diary), but it did say bookings were being taken for 2015. So I thought about it, not for very long (because I’m not like that), and decided to go for it. I paid the first deposit in July that year so all in all this trip was a definite for more than a year. Which gave me plenty of time to reflect on what it was I’d signed up for.  Scafell Pike this was not, nor even the Heaphy Track (actually a longer walk).

Shira Cathedral

Another view from Shira camp on the morning of day 3 — white-necked raven and the ‘Shira Cathedral’ behind.

Now having done it, and looking back, it must rank as one of the most incredible walks anyone can do. This is not just for the scale of it, and the sense of achievement engendered by going so high. It may or may not be the case that Kili is the highest point in the world one can just walk to, as opposed to needing ropes and mountaineering equipment — some say it is, others that it is not. But, indisputably (and by some distance, in fact) it is the highest point on its continent, and for thousands of miles in any direction. Strangely and pointlessly human it may be to seek to attain little statistical goals like this, nevertheless that alone would motivate a lot of people to want to reach it. It certainly motivated me.

However, it is no hyperbole to note also that Kilimanjaro is a very beautiful mountain. Its general shape and outline, the details of crags and pinnacles, lava flows and towers, and the diversity of landscapes, zones and conditions that it offers, combine into something quite exceptional, a landscape that would be worth exploring for a week even if one had no intention of reaching the summit. And in fact, the summit is the crowning glory, as I hope I managed to suggest above.

Kibo

Kibo again….

I could have done without the camping — I admit I’m old enough now to have developed a strong faith in the idea that a good day’s walking ends at a Bed & Breakfast with comfy beds and a pub next door, or preferably even downstairs. Even basic huts like those found in New Zealand would have been nice. But it was a necessary evil that in the end I got used to, and the team that looked after our camps was superb, offering three hot meals a day (including the morning uji or millet porridge, a kind of sludgy soup that, while a warming and not inedible staple on the mountain, is probably not something that is going to find its way into our usual breakfast diets back home), and managing to cater properly for the one vegetarian in the party. Our packs were always waiting for us at an already-set camp when we arrived at the end of the day’s walk and we were provided with chemical toilets which, while still at times an alarming experience, were a lot better than the long-drops we’d have otherwise had (hold your nose, and hope). So no complaints about them at all. Without that team, and the guides and porters, none of us would have had a hope of making the summit.

Thank you then to all my walking colleagues, for the team work and also making the social side of the trip an enjoyable one (because let’s face it, doing all of that with unlikeable people would have made it much harder):

Us on the summit.

The Crew! (this photo by Aimee, or at least, retrieved from her camera…). Well, about half of the crew anyway — not everyone was quite ready to perform this ceremony at the same time… That is me to the far left.

Ben Allott, Solvejg Au, Sam Bagulay, Chloe Bayston, Struan Birch, Steve Cleary, Bex Close, Peter Fisher, Becky Gardner, Aimee Green, Matt Grimbley, Jess Hall, Freddie Lewis, Darius McPhail, Connor O’Rourke, Hannah Perkin, Alex Ramos, Connie Snell, Rob Truscott, Zulfiya Truscott.

And the guides and other support workers: Bruce, Living, Peter, Sebastian, TomTom, Ambrose, and the many porters whose names I did not know or have forgotten. Finally to Jonathan Reilly at the British Expeditionary Company.

Will I do anything like it again? Who knows. It certainly hasn’t put me off. I’ve heard you can walk up the highest peak in Europe for example, Elbrus in Russia (18,510 feet)…. Hmmm. I could start a collection.

8 Responses to “Kilimanjaro, Tanzania”

  1. […] African time, GMT +3) on Sunday 2nd August. The peak on the right is the highest point in Africa, Kilimanjaro. It took just over five days of walking to reach this point, the whole walk being seven days and, […]

  2. Hazel Edwards said

    Well done Drew, what an achievement. I fell in love with Africa when my husband took me to Zimbabwe back in 2001 to see the total eclipse of the sun on June 21st. Magic. I do believe you get bitten by the Africa bug. We returned in 2003 to help his mum move back to England. She had lived in Zimbabwe since the 1950’s so a sad day for her, but a wonderful trip for us.
    We return to our beloved Lakes in just under 4 weeks time, so hoping for some good walking and cycling weather. We have based ourselves in Coniston so several good Wainwrights to tick off the list.
    I will go onto your fundraising page and leave a donation.
    Do keep the blogs going, just keep me in touch wit the Lakes between holidays xx

  3. Drew Whitworth said

    Thank you Hazel…. The blog will keep going I can assure you! Four more walks to do to complete the 330, but the second round is under way and will continue.

  4. Freddie said

    Thanks Drew. I’ll have a full read soon! Best wishes, Freddie

  5. […] haven’t been inactive since returning from Kilimanjaro. I’ve still got sixteen of the 330 Wainwright summits left to bag, these divide into four […]

  6. Evan Grant said

    Drew – many thanks for your blog about Kili, and congratulations on making it to the top! I have just “signed up” through Jonathan Reilly and the British Expedition Company to walk Machame with a family group at the start of August 2106. We’ve got mixed feelings as a group, and no little trepidation, but we are looking forward to a lifetime experience.Thanks again for your blog, Evan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: