Kilimanjaro: Standing on the Roof of Africa

One crazy idea…

Ever had that feeling when you’re about to follow through on a plan and two questions pop into your head: 1) just how great was this idea 2) how sane was I when I came up with this hare brained scheme? I was having one of those moments as I walked through the Machame Gate, one early July morning, about to climb Mount Kilimanjaro .

The seed of this idea had been planted several years ago when I watched a movie of two climbers hiking up Kilimanjaro to ski one of the world’s oldest equatorial glaciers before it disappeared.  I was intrigued to discover that Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, at 19,341 feet, which is why glaciers can exist on its summit despite being so close to the equator. 100 years ago they covered 4.6 square miles of the mountain. Today the glaciers have shrunk to 0.8 square miles  and scientists predict they may completely disappear from the summit by 2030.

I had seen breathtaking pictures of elephants against the backdrop of snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro, but I had never considered how remarkable this pairing of grassland elephants and glaciers was. Or, that this image could disappear within a handful of years with severe consequences for the region. For the last 12,000 years these glaciers have acted as a massive reservoir, storing freshwater in the form of ice and providing a critical year round supply of clean glacial melt water to these dry areas.

A sense of hope…

There are days when it’s hard to remain optimistic in the face of such bleak news concerning the environmental impacts of climate change, yet maintaining a sense of hope is crucial, for without it we lose our motivation to act. The best and only way I know to find hope is to get myself outdoors, if only to pay homage to this incredible planet. It’s a small act, I know, but surely an important first step in protecting the environment.

So after much dreaming (and a lifetime of wanting to visit Africa)  my son, daughter and I eventually found ourselves sitting in an African cloud forest, 6,000 feet up the south west side of Kilimanjaro about to hike the Machame Route to the summit. And beginning to question the greatness of this plan.

We were as physically prepared for the hike as we could be having trained for the last 9 months. All three of us had hiked at altitude although this was going to be the highest we had ever climbed. Yet, in the last 24 hours I had been commended  for my bravery by one English lady, who proceeded to share that a friend of a friend had died on the mountain, then told a few hours later, by two rugged young men who had just completed the climb, that it was the hardest thing they had ever done. Their expressions implied a complete lack of  faith in my ability to make the summit.

We knew this was a serious undertaking despite the increasing popularity of the climb. With air pressure at the top of Kilimanjaro roughly 40% of that found at sea level we would have to work much harder to fill our lungs with the oxygen our bodies required. Most people suffer from altitude sickness ranging from mild to moderate symptoms of headache, lack of appetite, nausea. We  had researched what the more severe symptoms of acute mountain sickness looked like, including signs of cerebral and pulmonary edema, which would require an immediate descent.

Day 1

All trekkers have to sign up with a licensed agency in order to climb, in large measure to improve safety on the mountain. A portion of the park fee includes a rescue fee. We had chosen to plan our entire trip through Good Earth Tours and their team of wonderful, highly qualified staff, many of whom had climbed the mountain too many times to count. A fact I found profoundly reassuring as Herment, our guide, walked out of the climber’s registration station at Machame Gate brandishing our permit and a wide smile of encouragement. He obviously didn’t doubt my climbing ability. The only thing left to do was to hike 37 miles, a total elevation gain of 13,500 feet in 6 days. How hard could it be?

The first day we followed the well defined trail winding through the cloud forest, as Colobus monkeys called down from fern festooned trees 30 meters tall.

We got into camp to find the porters had already set up our tents and food was waiting for us. We were immensely grateful for their kindness and as the trip progressed we came to realize that we would never have made the climb without their support.

 

Day 2

Pole, pole, Swahili for slowly, slowly, was the phrase our guides uttered most frequently and something we took seriously the higher we climbed. The cloud forest gave way to heath-land, spindly tree like heather replacing the massive trees.

The second night we camped on the Shira Plateau, around 12,500 feet elevation. Perched on the edge of the plateau we had  breathtaking views of  Mount Meru rising above the cloud covered Tanzanian plains to the south.

To the north we got the first glimpse of our destination, Kilimanjaro’s summit.

Day 3

I was taking pole, pole to a new level of record breaking snail speed, as we climbed up the dry, boulder strewn Shira plateau. We reached the highest point of the trip at just over 15,000 feet, only to drop down  2,000 feet to camp in the beautiful Barranco Valley.

This climb high, sleep low approach helped to acclimatize to the altitude, flooding us with the euphoria of swimming in oxygen as we watched the sunset light up the mountain.

 

 

Day 4

The longest and most challenging day of the trek. It started with what looked like a vertical climb up the Barranco Wall, proving easier than  expected since the trail, although steep, was well defined. I marveled at how easily the porters made it look as they climbed ahead of us with all the gear. My day pack was tiny in comparison and once again I felt immensely grateful for their help.

I noticed they’d stopped reminding me to go pole, pole, perhaps out of concern that if I went any slower I’d be walking backwards. Slow but steady was my mantra. If I picked up my pace and forgot to breathe deeply, I was instantly hit with a pounding headache and a wave of nausea.

 

We finally made it to camp at Barafu Huts, 15,300 feet, where we tried to sleep for several hours before beginning the final 4,000 foot climb to the summit.

 

 

Day 5

Midnight and we started our final climb, headlamps on and water bottles tucked inside our jackets to prevent from freezing. Clearly, there was  no time to lose if we were going reach the summit by sunrise. The combination of sleep deprivation, fatigue and high altitude brain fog made for a surreal experience. I vividly remember the bitter cold and wearing every layer of clothing I possessed. Stopping every few steps to suck in air, and gaze up at the star studded dome of night sky. Then there was the scramble up the steep scree slope to reach the lip of the crater as the rising sun turned the sky crimson.

I recall the crushing disappointment of discovering we still had 45 minutes of staggering pole, pole over wind-sculpted, ice-encrusted snow to reach the highest point, Uhuru Peak. And being moved to tears when we made it, only to feel as if I was about to suffocate. I discovered you can’t cry and gasp for a lungful of air at the same time.

There were hugs all round & quick pictures on the summit before the camera shutter froze.

 

 

And then the incredibly long descent in one day, following the Mweka Route straight down the mountain to our last camp at 10,000 feet, with air so rich in oxygen we could almost taste it.

 

 

 

Day 6

We continued our final descent on the last 6 miles of  trail through beautiful cloud forest to the Mweka Gate where we said a sad farewell to our amazing guides and the trek of a lifetime. Was it the hardest thing I’ve ever done? Absolutely! Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

Resources:

Google climb Mount Kilimanjaro and you will find a bewildering amount of information and an overwhelming number of tour groups vying for business. The 2 sources we ultimately depended on for information:

  • Kilimanjaro: the trekking guide to Africa’s highest mountain by Henry Stedman. Also the author’s web-site climbmountkilimanjaro  which presents up to the minute, unbiased information on every aspect of trekking Kilimanjaro including getting there, tour groups and routes.
  • Good Earth Tours We chose Good Earth Tours because they were a locally based company with a commitment to sustainability and eco- tourism.  It was a pleasure working with everyone, the staff were wonderful and made sure that every detail was carefully planned.  Their guides were outstanding – knowledgeable, friendly, helpful and highly qualified.

The only detail of the trip I would change and would recommend for anyone thinking of hiking the Machame Route, is to consider adding an extra day, stopping between Barranco Wall and Barafu Huts to spend a night at Karanga Camp, 13,255 feet. Not only would this help to acclimatize to altitude, it would also shorten the last day of hiking, giving an opportunity to rest and hydrate before the final climb to the summit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Sheila

I started Play Without Ceilings to share my passion for getting outdoors to enjoy a nature inspired, healthier, happier, play full lifestyle. I grew up in England and now live in the Pacific Northwest. I love all things outdoors from lying in the grass listening to birdsong to hiking mountains and every outside moment in between. Thanks for stopping by and may you find inspiration for your next adventure.

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