The Real Heroes of Kilimanjaro

Trekkers at Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak

Kilimanjaro, while not a technical hike, is still a very challenging climb.  Anyone who has climbed it should be quite proud of the accomplishment.  I am privileged to have had the chance to attempt it and lucky to have succeeded!  And so for the other 15 trekkers in our group who also climbed it.

Trekkers at Kilimanjaro's Uhuru Peak

The 16 trekkers and our lead guide, Luis

The average age of our group of 16 was 42 (with the median at 46, in case that tells you something!).  And we all made it thanks to many factors:  our training, our willpower, our support of each other, the collegiality of the group, etc.  But just as important were the leadership and support our guides provided.  Minding our safety first, they also bonded well with us at different times and in different ways.

With Said, who helped me during summit night and then sped me down the scree field!

With Said, who helped me during summit night and then sped me down the scree field!

With Buga, one of the liveliest of our guides - always smiling, singing and taking care of us

With Buga, one of the liveliest of our guides – always smiling, singing and taking care of us

The trekkers and the guides can certainly call their efforts heroic or near-heroic.  We had a trekker climb with a broken hand for 3 days unknown to anyone but herself.  Another had bronchitis.  And another had severe nausea during the ascent.  They ALL made it.  They -Liz, Laura, and Olivia- are definitely heroes to me.  The guides worked SO hard on behalf of us. Not only minding our safety but also helping us during summit night ANY way they could.  And, for a couple of us, also on the descent through the scree.  They certainly are heroes to those of us whom they helped achieve this fantastic feat!!

Local hike guides Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

The local guides

However, all that said, the real heroes of Kilimanjaro are the folks who make everything happen seamlessly in the background so that trekkers like myself can have a wonderful trek, a comfortable camp experience, and good food and water to sustain us.  The real heroes of Kilimanjaro are the porters.

Many of those porters, we never got to meet.  They worked behind the scenes.  They didn’t hike along us.  They carried our main luggage, tents, and everything else needed at camp.  They brought water to camp.  They cooked our meals.  They set up and took down tents.  They set up and cleaned the portable toilets.  They hauled trash away so we would leave the mountain as unscathed as we found it.

As we walked up the mountain, porters from our group or other groups passed us along the paths carrying their loads.  They moved fast and many did not have the right gear.  These men work hard and do hard work to earn a living.  Many of them are just picked up at the start of the route by the local lead guide to be hired for the trek right before we get going.  Some become part regulars.  And some eventually become guides.

As porters passed us along the path, we always cleared the way so they could pass us and not be bogged down by us.  Partly this was, admittedly, self-serving as the earlier they got to camp, the more ready the camp would be when we arrived.  But when we started doing this, that was not what we were thinking about.  We were strictly thinking about making things easier for them in appreciation for all they do.

Porter carrying load up Kilimanjaro

Porter carrying a load up Kili

The evening after we came off the mountain, after we all cleaned up, we all met at our hotel to celebrate and thank our guides and porters for their great work.  The video clip below is of very amateurish quality but I think the joy these guys live with is self-evident.  We loved their singing during the hike and we enjoyed celebrating!

The porters of Kili are the real heroes for me.  To this anonymous group (we knew some of them but not most), I say ASANTE SANA!  Our Kili experience would not have been possible without you.  If you climb Kili, be sure to clear the way as they try to pass you!!

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Other posts about climbing Kilimanjaro:

–  Day 1 (getting started)

–  Day 2 (the moorlands and my favorite camp)

–  Day 3 (reaching the Lava Tower at 15,000 ft)

–  Day 4 (Barranco Wall and a big challenge)

–  Day 5 (getting to summit camp)

–  Day 6 (summit night)

–  Day 7 (the long descent)

–  The Machame Route

Kilimanjaro: The Descent from Uhuru Peak

View of Barafu Camp on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Going down the mountain from Uhuru Peak began around 20-30 minutes after we had arrived in Uhuru.  Such is the story of ascending Mt. Kilimanjaro for many.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could picnic up there or, at least, at Stella Point and soak in the achievement?  Yes, it would be except the thin air would begin doing a number on many people so it is not recommended.  Being well-led, after all the picture-taking at Uhuru, we began the process of coming down.  A process that would take about 8 hrs that day (YES, that SAME day we had just walked up 8 hrs without a full night’s sleep) and about 3-4 hrs the next day.  Think about it, 5 days and 8 hours to go up but about 12 hrs to come back down.  In reality, altitude issue aside, Kili can be climbed within a day or two.  But altitude acclimatization requires prudence and time…

Starting the descent of Kilimanjaro

We passed Stella Point without much fanfare – or picture-taking – this time.  We were now on a mission to lose altitude quickly.  And quickly it was to be!!  I had not been prepared for what came next.  We supposedly had crossed a field of scree (small pebbles) on the ascent (which I mentioned not remembering that part).  Well, it was time to come DOWN the field of scree.  And I was very unprepared on what technique was required here.  All I knew is that it was like skiing except you had to watch out to not pop out a knee (a terrifying thought, really).

So I began to walk down the scree, putting one foot down, using my hiking pole to stop its slide (as you step on the scree it shifts down, taking your footing with it), then moving the other foot and repeating.  Well, this was taking a little bit of time and other trekkers were passing me fast.  After maybe 5 minutes or 10 of this, the same guide who had carried my daypack on the ascent, locked arms with me and proceeded to take me down the scree.  It was an exhilarating and scary ride!!  We were going very fast and we were mainly sliding downhill.  At any given moment, either of us would lose his balance but Said, the guide, would ensure neither one of us fell.  That continued to be true pretty much for the next 3 hours with the exception of certain patches were there were rocks and the sliding paused for a stretch.  The only people moving faster down that field was a trio consisting of a guide and 2 trekkers, one of which had begun to have severe nausea and the other two were on either side of the trekker taking her down the mountain STAT.  They flew past us and continued the high-speed scree-field crossing at that very fast pace.  I have never experienced this mix of thrill and almost-panic at the same time.  Looking back, it was rather fun.

View of Barafu Camp on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Our approach to Barafu Camp

A break at Barafu Camp – just a break, not a stay

Soon enough we sighted Barafu Camp from which we had departed not quite 12 hrs before.  A break was coming!  This was where we were going to have lunch, change out of the warm clothes we had worn for the ascent, and replenish water bottles, etc.  There was a little delay in the lunch being prepared so the stop was about an hour longer than expected.

On my way down the scree, I failed to pay attention to my feet and two-thirds of the way down, I realized I had a blister and was at risk of getting two more.  I stopped, got some duct tape, and took care of things, as I learned from the Trekking for Kids lead when I hiked in Romania last summer.  Once at camp, a fellow trekker had some magical thing she had gotten at REI and she SO kindly took care of fixing the blister.  Whatever it is she had gotten at REI worked like magic (I have never had to use moleskin before but she said this was better).  The remainder of the hike after lunch, I did not even feel my blister!!

Taking care of a blister earned while climbing Kilimanjaro

Thanks, Melanie!!

Though we were tired, we had to keep going to our camp for the evening, the Mweka Camp, named for being the first camp on that route for those who enter the mountain through the Mweka Gate.  Some were asking why couldn’t we stay in Barafu to overnight.  I was quite happy not staying for several reasons:

  1. We had arrived before noon.  Staying would represent a loss of an entire afternoon of moving and getting closer to exit the mountain.
  2. Getting to a lower camp meant Day 7, the last day on the mountain would be a short one:  a downhill hike of 3-4hrs and – bam! – off to the hotel, a great lunch, and most important:  the first shower in a week!
  3. I hated the inhospitable environment of Barafu Camp with it being so rocky and so dusty.  I was done with the dust and didn’t want to have a fall like I almost had suffered the day before when I tripped on a tent cable while minding the rocks I was stepping on.

So I was quite happy with moving on.  If I had only known what was coming our way…

Rocky road to Mweka Camp

Pretty quickly the second part of our descent on Day 6 became a nightmare of sorts.  Though the views were great most of the time, the terrain was rocks that you had to navigate carefully (at least those not super experienced).  Some of us started feeling that our knees were being hit hard and had to slow down some.  My legs were extremely tired at this point and the knees, though not hurting yet, were wearing out with every step.

Descent to Mweka Camp in Kilimanjaro

The rocky way down that never seemed to end

After a couple of hours or more, we saw in the distance a colorful array of tents.  Yes!  We weren’t terribly far!  To which our guide quickly replied:  “That’s not our camp, that is base camp for the Mweka Route ascent and we are not allowed to stay there since we are no longer on the ascent; you see that piece of metal over there (he pointed to a structure far, far away)?  That’s where we are going.”  Our collective jaws dropped (and almost hit rocks, I am sure).  NO WAY, José!  (OK, his name was Luis, not José.)

We continued our descent and, at times, it felt that that piece of metal was actually getting further away (I swear that it did look that way!).  A couple of times our path became a smooth dirt trail which would thrill us tremendously only to turn a corner and resume the very rocky terrain.  It was an exhausting, frustrating, and demanding-on-the-knees 4.5 hrs hike – I almost wished I was back in Barafu, resting and breathing dusty thin air at 15,000 ft+ altitude…  But not quite.  It helped me push forward knowing that what we were doing was the best approach.

Trekker in Kilimanjaro after 6 days of no shaving

Though exhausted, I trekked on. Or was I just considering jumping off the nearest cliff??  (This is what 6 days in the mountain look like!)

The most difficult part of my climb – the descent

Most of these 4.5 hrs were the most mentally and physically difficult part for me of the entire 7 days.  Yes, the accelerated heart rate on Day 4 slowed me down and made me worry.  Yes, on ascent night I wondered if I would make it when I had to surrender my backpack.   Yes, we were getting more and more oxygen on the descent as we went – to the point where, somewhere along these 4.5 hrs, we must have reached an altitude to which our body had acclimatized (I am sure were not adjusted to 15,000 ft though we had spent part of the day on Day 5 there).  But, I just didn’t see an end to the rocky path on Day 6 and the Mweka Camp kept looking very far away any time we spotted itIt was a true test of will power for me to finish that path.

Finally, camp!

But, all good things come to an end (!), and we reached the Mweka Camp.  The customary “signing of the guestbook to prove we had been there” done, we approached our tents for a final night of camping.  Hot water was brought to us and I happily washed off my face and did what I could to clean myself before having dinner.

Dining tent in Kilimanjaro

Our mess tent was a palace that night!

That meal may not have been spectacular by some standards but we were exhausted and we loved sitting around that mess tent, eating and reflecting on what we had just done.  I didn’t linger – I was tired and wanted to get everything ready and go to bed.

Dining tent in Kilimanjaro camp

Happiness in a tent

Getting off the mountain

On Day 7, we woke up all ready to go:  This was our freedom day!  Don’t get me wrong, I was eager to climb Kilimanjaro and enjoy the mountain.  But once we had reached the summit, we were ALL about getting to the hotel and a nice shower.

We trekked down for maybe about 3 hrs from 10,000 ft or so to the Mweka Gate at 6,000 ft (3,800 m).  The climate zone went to full forest again, as we had experienced on Day 1.

Uproote tree in the Mweka Route on Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

The clothing was lighter and so was our mood.  Someone even rode the emergency stretcher that was laying about during one of our breaks…

I found my happy place:  the Mweka Gate hut!

Finally, the sight we wanted to see:  the Mweka Gate hut where we would sign in one last time, proving we made it to that gate AND the place where we would sit around for an hour+ to wait for the certificates that would prove we HAD climbed Kilimanjaro (though there was no book to sign at Uhuru Peak…).  We were not getting those certificates just yet… Zara Tours would also be issuing one and we would receive them both that evening at the celebration with our guides and porters.

Exiting the Mweka Route trail to hiti Mweka Gate in Kilimanjaro

About to leave the trail!!! I found a happy place!

While waiting, folks would come by selling us stuff but we knew we could get all that cheaper elsewhere.

At Mweka Gate waiting for our certificates for our climb of Kilimanjaro

Waiting leaning against the wall and sitting in the shade. With a beer in hand. Heavenly. (I am sitting to the right with the red t-shirt)

Kilimanjaro trekkers from Utah

Trekkers from Utah wishing that the park was using a computerized system…

However, one of my fellow trekkers eyed a beer seller and he looked at me and, of course, I wouldn’t leave a buddy drinking on his own.  Especially after a week of no alcohol and a hike of 3 hrs… That’s when the first beer was bought.  Others in the group looked at us like “really?”  20 minutes later, most everyone had a beer in their hand!  And off we went to the bus, to get to the Springlands Hotel and back to being clean!!!

Trekkers leaving Mweka Gate after climbing Kilimanjaro

On the way to the hotel! (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

The descent, as you can see, was a mixed set of emotions and terrains.  It is amazing how little time it takes to descend.  The feeling of accomplishment once you get to the Mweka Gate is incredible.  And so is the entire experience of spending 7 days on this incredible mountain, home to the roof of Africa:  Kilimanjaro!

One final look up at Kilimanjaro from the final stretch of the Mweka Route

One final look up at Kilimanjaro from the final stretch of the Mweka Route… I was up THERE!!!!

Kilimanjaro Hike: Day 6 – Reaching the Summit: Uhuru

Approach to Stella Point in Mt. Kilimanjaro on the way to Uhuru Peak sunrise roof Africa

Here we go, the BIG day.  Day 6.  The day we reach and pass Stella Point on the rim of Mt. Kilimanjaro and get to Uhuru Peak, the highest point of the mountain – the highest point in Africa!!!  I should say, the day we attempt to reach Stella Point and Uhuru Peak.  I will do my best to convey how this climb feels like on Day 6 but the physical and mental efforts are hard to put in words.

You will notice how the middle of this post is photo-less.  First, do not worry, there are pictures towards the last third of the post!  Secondly, that matches what happened for me in the ascent:  Much of what happened in the middle was not captured by a camera because I was too focused on going up and, for part of it, even my mind didn’t capture any images…

 Uhuru Peak in Kilimanjaro

The goal: Uhuru Peak

Day 6 consisted of four parts – it was to be a LONG day:

  1. From Barafu Camp to Stella Point (expected to be about 7 hours)
  2. From Stella Point to Uhuru Peak (expected to be 45 mins to 1 hour)
  3. Coming down from Uhuru to base camp (Barafu) for a brief rest and lunch (about 3 hours)
  4. Arriving to Mweka Camp where we were over-nighting (about 4.5 hours)

I will cover here only the ascent on Day 6 (#1 and 2 above) and not the descent that happened that day.  I will cover the descent on Day 6 (#3 and 4) with the final descent of Day 7…

Leaving Barafu Camp to hit Stella Point

Barafu Camp at 15,100 ft (4,600 m) was a hard camp to like.  But I could have stayed there a few more hours sleeping that night…  Four of our group left at 11 PM to have an extra hour to reach the summit.  The rest of us saw them leave camp and finished prepping and having a snack prior to heading out.  At midnight, we left the relative comfort of this camp to do what we came here to do:  tame Uhuru!

I was pumped even while wondering what would happen, how it would end 8 hrs later (ah, the fool… the end was NOT reaching the summit, but reaching our camp for the night).

What did I wear on the way to Uhuru Peak?

Though it was very cold at camp given the altitude and the time of day, we were instructed to dress such that we were slightly cold since we would warm up during the climb.  So, I wore my two tight woolen tops, then my Merino wool light jacket, and my hard shell jacket (protects against wind and water though, mercifully, we didn’t have precipitation).  The synthetic down jacket would wait until the breaks (when, since you are at rest, you don’t want to lose the heat your body has generated) or until it finally got too cold even while walking (which it did).  In terms of my legs, I wore my long wool underwear (all the wool layers by the skin helped wick moisture away from the skin) under my convertible hiking pants and then my hard shell pants.

The only place I felt really, really cold was my toes though I was wearing sock liners and the thickest wool socks REI had.  I think we had milder temperatures, if that’s possible up there, than normal as I had been told I would be exceedingly cold.  Whew!

Time is a funny thing

During the climb up to Stella Point, it is amazing how time flowed.  The hourly 5-10 minute breaks (a lot shorter than the breaks on prior days) provided respite from the effort and allowed for drinking some water (in one break they surprised us with hot tea! one of the happiest moments in those 7 hours!), eating a little something, and handling nature calls.  That last one was a little more of a pain than it had been before because it was dark.  But when nature calls, it calls.  And no pee bottle here.  In any case, I worked my way up by focusing on each hour’s walk.  I was not looking at my watch much but when the break came, I knew an hour had passed and that was an hour off the 7 hour count…

And who said it would be a piece of cake?  No one.  They were right.

After the first hour of the climb, my heart rate starting racing and I was out of breath a lot like on Day 4 after we had passed the Barranco Wall.  We had been climbing bigger rocks (requiring big steps) which was exactly what had caused my troubles on Day 4.

That was going to slow me down and, tonight, falling behind could mean being turned around.  The guides had been clear with the first subgroup that if we got to Stella Point at the same time as them, they would have to turn around at Stella Point.  It meant they would take a lot more than an hour reaching Uhuru and, having already been at that altitude an extra hour than us, it would have been too much time up there.  So, I knew that if I fell behind too much in my group, that I could miss getting to UhuruThat realization really hit me hard.

One of guides, Said, told me to give him my daypack.  My heart sank.  As soon as the path became less pronouncedly rocky, I told Said I could take my daypack back because I was back to “normal.”  He shook his head and said he would keep it.  At first, with pride stepping in, I said no, I could take it.  And then I realized that it may be the worst thing I could do.  I needed to save my energy for the big rocks ahead.  I resumed my climb, daypackless.  Boy, am I glad I did…

I believe I was the second or third person to lose their daypack.  I felt this would take away from the feat should I reach the summit.  I had nothing to fear.  Within a few hours, more than half (including the 4 guys in this subgroup) had lost their daypacks too, including our star athlete who had run across deserts and had been carrying a daypack every day of this climb loaded at 30-40 lbs.  I have to digress and mention that this guy, a dentist from northwestern Canada, would carry all  sorts of candy in his daypack and, all throughout the week’s hike, would pull out a DIFFERENT bag of candy (gummy bears, sour patches, etc.) to pass around at breaks.  Needless to say, Stan became everyone’s friend fast!

It is worth pointing out how carefully our guides were watching each one of us even after we surrendered our daypacks.  Clearly, ensuring no one exhibited dangerous signs of altitude sickness (the ones that represent life-threatening danger).  But they REALLY wanted us to make it to Uhuru as long as we were not exhibiting the serious symptoms and did everything they could to assist us.

The lights are not always at the end of the tunnel…

Though we had a full moon, we still needed to illuminate the path ahead by wearing headlamps.  I remember that I would look up ahead on the trail and see what was becoming a downer for me:  a long trail of headlamps zigzagging the slope of the mountain.  And then you didn’t see any.  That point would get closer and closer, and it felt good to know we were reaching a “milestone” of sorts.  But once we reached the milestone, I would look up and see, yet again, another LONG trail of headlamps going all the way up to a point far up the mountain.  After this, I decided not to look up anymore…

Sleep and memory loss – all in a Kili climber’s night!

Maybe halfway up to Stella Point, I was dozing off.  No, not during breaks.  This was as I moved my feet up that mountain and as my arms moved the hiking poles.  The lack of oxygen and being tired had everything to do with that.  And through chats post-facto, I learned others were also dozing off as they walked up.  It was insane.  I decided that I needed to occupy my mind but I was too tired to alphabetize countries or come up with some other mental activity.

Looking at the Southern Cross, which someone pointed out, gave me something think about (or try to look at without tripping).  Some folks had music in their portable devices but I had not brought mine.  I actually wanted to listen to the folks stepping on the mountain, focus on the quietness of the surroundings.  I like not feeling “trapped” within myself when it comes to sounds.

A “happy” place.  Say what?

Towards the end of the third hour, our lead guide, Luis, told us that we needed to be sure we were not spending our every last drop of energy in the remaining part of the climb.  I thought to myself  “huh?”.  He said that coming down would be very hard too so it was important we managed our exertion level.  I was not sure how we would do that but then I started thinking maybe he was trying to subtly tell some people to give up their daypack…

Then, he said, “guys, the next few hours are going to be very hard; find your happy place because you are going to need it”.  I remember thinking, in my tiredness, “my happy place?  my happy place?  what IS that??  a beach?  no.  wine?  no, wine is not a place.”  I had no energy to conjure a happy spot I didn’t have previously.  And then, all of a sudden, the faces of my sister’s, cousins’ and friends’ kids came to mind.  Their smiley, happy faces.  So I started calling roster on all of them seeing those smiley faces.  I had found my happy place.  And it kept me distracted easily for another hour.  I say “easily” because I think it is after an hour of that that my memory goes blank…

Yes, what happened in the last 2-3 hours prior to Stella Point are a big blank.  I have no idea what happened, when we stopped, what was I thinking, nothing, nada, nil.  Comparing notes with others later, I am not the only one to whom that happened.  We had been told the last bit before reaching Stella Point would be scree (small pebbles) so for every step forward, there would be a step back.  I have no recollection of scree, of steps forward, or steps back.

And then it happened… Steeeeeeeellllllaaaaa!

So I was in some zone when all of a sudden, to my right, I see a glimmer of light on the horizon.  Sunrise is beginning!  It was like an injection of adrenaline straight to my heart – and mind.  Watching the sun rise and trying to take good pictures became the priority as we continued walking up.  I was awake!

Sunrise from Kilimanjaro as we neared Stella Point

Glorious!

The sun finally broke through the horizon and we could see that Stella Point was just like 20 minutes away.  It was one of THE most incredible moments in my life.  You see, at that moment, I had no doubt I would make it (though how could I really tell how the higher altitude and serious lack of oxygen would hit me 20 mins later?).  It didn’t matter, I just knew I was A-OK!

We hit Stella Point and I couldn’t believe how quickly it came upon us (I don’t think I could see it from the final approach).  This was unbelievable.  I was at over 18,000 ft and would only have one more hour up to Uhuru Peak after a short break at Stella Point.  We laughed, hugged, and even teared up some.

Some of the trekkers and guides at Stella Point on Kilimanjaro

Some of the trekkers and guides at Stella Point (I am on the far left)

My eyes couldn’t believe the view outside of the mountain and INTO the mountain.  Remember the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro is a crater from a long-extinct volcano.

Kilimanjaro crater

Looking around the top of Kili

Immediately the picture-taking began in front of the brand-spanking-new green sign with yellow letters (TERRIBLE design… you had to be RIGHT IN FRONT OF IT for the letters to show well in a photo).  In any case, pictures were taken and then we proceeded to get to Uhuru Peak…  Time was of the essence as, at that altitude, you do not want to linger despite the fact that we noticed tents in the crater.  In any case, we had to mosey to the peak and we couldn’t dilly daddle.  We had to move.

Uhuru Peak, here we come!

Mt. Kilimanjaro used to be covered in glaciers.  Today, the glaciers are there but they are not as dominant as they must have been.  They are expected to disappear completely in a few decades.  Still, seeing them from a distance was impressive with the African horizon behind them.

Glaciers atop Kilimanjaro

Glaciers atop Kilimanjaro

The hour walk (or maybe 45 mins?) up to Uhuru was much easier and less steep than the prior few hours though we still went up 660 feet (200 m) or so to reach it.

Trekker and guide walking up to Uhuru Peak in Kilimanjaro

Said and I headed to Uhuru Peak

Everyone was in great spirits and then…  we saw it – the big green sign marking Uhuru Peak!!!  WE WERE THERE!  Laughter, smiles, even some jumping-for-joy all around.  We caught up with the first group and it was so awesome to see all of us together at the peak – the probabilities were that they would be already on their way down when we got to Uhuru or (hopefully not) that they wouldn’t reach it.  So the fact that we all were there together, this group that had been together for about 10 days, was truly priceless.

At Uhuru Peak

One of the many celebratory photos taken: here with Liz and Len Stanmore

Immediately we got close to the sign to wait our turn to stand in front of it and capture the moment in a photo.  Phenomenal moment of joy for all of us.  And just as happy as we were, our guides were beaming that we had all make it – asante sana, guys!

And so reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro comes to an end

The story of the descent is for another post – and the descent was painful.  However, I will share one reflection here about having reached the summit…  Even if I had surrendered my daypack no one moved my legs forward and upward for me, as Luis our lead guide told us once at base camp.  Every step I took on that blessed mountain was my own.  That is the real achievement here for each trekker:  the strength of will and of body to push forward and upward when you think you don’t have it all together, when you feel the next big rock may be the one that tips the climb over for you and sends you back to camp, when you don’t know what is your “happy place”.  I will treasure what I learned that early morning the rest of my life.

At Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro

A very happy trekker at Uhuru Peak!

Back to Day 5

… On to the descent

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Other posts about the Kilimanjaro trek:

–  Preparing for the hike is more than training and gear

–  The Machame Route:  our way up

–  7 things you will not see me without as I climb Kili

–  Day 1 of the hike (starting the climb!)

–  Day 2 of the hike (getting to Shira Camp)

–  Day 3 of the hike (the Lava Tower and hail)

–  Day 4 of the hike (Barranco Wall)

–  Interview with fellow Kili climber and Ultimate Global Explorer

Kilimanjaro Hike: Day 5 – Rocks Everywhere

Great view of Mt. Meru, close to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

Ah, the final day before summit.  Day 5 was taking us to the promised land of summit base camp for the Machame Route.  Not a day too soon.  Sure, one more day of acclimatization would have only helped.  But after four spectacular days, now I was beginning to crave reaching the summit.

Hiking the Machame Route from the Karanga Camp

The day began as all the days with the morning routines that set us up for the day’s hike.  The tedious, the necessary, and the helpful all were taken care of and we took off from the Karanga Camp at 13,800 ft (4,200 m) for a seemingly short 3.7 miles (6 km) hike up to the Barafu Camp at 15,100 ft (4,600 m) (at that altitude, short walks are challenging!).  Did I mention that after all these days of sleeping bags, tents, daypack, large backpack, jackets, zippable hiking pants, rain gear, etc. one gets REALLY tired of zippers?  Velcro all the way, bay-bee!!!  (Thanks, Sarah for your help fixing zippers!)

Rocky terrain on the Machame Route headed to Barafu Camp on Day 5 of the Kilimanjaro climb

Me helpfully pointing the way, like a modern Columbus. Rock on trekkers, so to speak  (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

Day 5 Headed to Barafu Camp on the Machame Route over rocky terrain in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Happy that I showed them the way (lol!), I trail with the stylish plastic bag over my daypack. Not sure why. Not a cloud on the sky.  (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

The route was devoid of vegetation.  Rocks everywhere.  Small rocks though.  Like debris almost.  And some neat views, as usual on this mountain!

Great view of Mt. Meru, close to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

Great view of Mt. Meru as the group treks on.  (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

Mt. Mawenzi, one of the 3 peaks on Kilimanjaro

Mt. Mawenzi, one of the 3 peaks on Kilimanjaro; it peaks at over 16,000 ft.

Our time at the Barafu Camp

The Barafu Camp was a camp of sorts for us:  we were setting up as usual except we were NOT going to spend the night at this camp.  You see, at night, midnight specifically, we would we leaving this camp to summit.  But that, my friends, is Day 6 so out of scope for this post!

Approach to Barafu Camp in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Our final approach to Barafu Camp (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

Signing in at Barafu Camp

At the camp hut to sign in. The stylish looking guy with a plastic bag, an orange jacket, a buff sipping water through a hose… That’s not me…

This camp was VERY rocky.  I had to mind almost every step to not trip or step on a rock that would give way from under me.  To walk around our tent to reach the vestibule on the back (vestibule is a generous term; it was a place to put our bags zipped away and protected from any rain), we had to be extremely careful.

Barafu Camp in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Me trying to make my way around all the darned rocks! (Photo courtesy of K. Shuman)

I woke up in the middle of  one of my naps once it was dark to go to the toilet-tent and, though there was a full moon (it was beautiful especially on summit night), while minding the rocks, I missed noticing the cable holding another tent down and I almost had my face meet a rock that would have likely broken my nose or jaw (and end my attempt to summit).  Luckily as I started falling, I caught my balance and didn’t hit the ground.  BIG whew.  And added respect for the camp…

In any case, this camp was a little bit surreal because of the landscape.  We were also on a steeper slope than we had been at any other camp.  However, always looking for the bright side, some of us concluded that at least we were towards the “exit” of the camp on the way to the summit so we would save, oh, about 4 minutes once we started heading up to the summit…

Barafu Camp in Mt. Kilimanjaro's Machame Route

Barafu Camp – see what I mean about the slope??!!

Though we were not staying overnight, this camp was very important.  We were to have a nice late lunch and then do two very important things:

1.  Pack/Prepare for departing for summit at midnight.

2.  Resting/Sleeping whatever we could to have more energy for the climb that night and to also allow our bodies to get as used as possible to the higher altitude.

Trekkers happy in Mt. Kilimanjaro

Three very happy -if tired- trekkers at Barafu. Myself with the awesome Laura and Kristin!

Being active after getting to camp was not the best thing to do as the body would not get to recover.  So we were advised that whether we napped or not, that we lay down for as long as possible.  Not being one to ignore advice from experts, after lunch I did all I could do to prep for that night’s departure (we were stopping at this camp after coming down from the summit) and proceeded to get comfy and lay down.

I was very pleased that I napped (can’t recall how long a nap but it was long) not once but twice with the final one leading me to wake up around 10:30 PM which was great!  I was able to say bye to the first group of 4 from our group to depart (they were leaving an hour early to be sure they had ample time to make it to the summit by sunrise).  Then I took care of a few things before sitting back down at the same mess tent where I had just said goodbye to our first group an hour before to wait for our own departure.

I couldn’t wait to get going… – but, wait, that’s midnight so that story is part of Day 6!

Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

The summit beckons…

Back to Day 4

…  on to Day 6 – summit night !

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Other posts about the Kilimanjaro trek:

–  Preparing for the hike is more than training and gear

–  The Machame Route:  our way up

–  7 things you will not see me without as I climb Kili

–  Day 1 of the hike

–  Day 2 of the hike

–  Day 3 of the hike

–  Interview with fellow Kili climber and Ultimate Global Explorer

Kilimanjaro Hike: Day 1 – Getting Going

Backpacks ready to go up Mt. Kilimanjaro

Writing about our hike of Mt. Kilimanjaro is no easy task.  What to share?  Clearly the “facts” of the route, camps, durations, weather, gear, the day-to-day routine, etc. are all important elements of the story.  But the more I thought about how to write about this experience, the more I realized I wanted to share how it felt first and foremost, covering some of the elements listed earlier as they fit into the overall story, instead of making those the focus.  As I mentioned in another post, preparing for Kili is more than training and gear.  As you will see over the series of writeups, the emotional element also applies to actually doing the climb.  Let’s get going with Day 1!

The route and the climb

Well, before getting into the hike itself, a quick word about the route and the climb.  We went up the Machame Route, known for its vistas and for not being as crowded as other routes.  Also, Machame is a route with a higher likelihood of success than the so-called “Coca-Cola” Route (the Marangu Route) since it offers better altitude adjustment (climb high, sleep low; 6 days of ascent; etc.).

The climb itself is to Uhuru Peak.  Mt. Kilimanjaro actually refers to the entire mountain, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.  Uhuru Peak is the highest point on the mountain and, therefore, in Africa!  Uhuru Peak is the goal and the entry point to the summit area on this route is called Stella Point.

Getting going on Day 1:  the Machame Gate and the wait

It starts on day 1 when, full of anticipation, the trekkers finish prepping the daypack they will carry on their backs and the other piece of luggage that will be taken from camp to camp by the porters accompanying our group.

Backpacks ready to go up Mt. Kilimanjaro

Daypacks waiting for their trekkers!

We got up at the crack of dawn to head from our hotel (the awesome Honey Badger Lodge) to the hotel from which the mountain trek would leave, the Springlands Hotel, home base of Zara Tours who Trekking for Kids had hired to do our trek.

The ride to the Machame Gate, entry point to the Machame Route, could not start quickly enough.  As with many things, one gets ready and then one waits.  After we finished leaving some of our non-trek stuff in storage at the Springlands, our bus arrived and the process of loading up our trek bags began.  Soon enough we were on our way to the Machame Gate.  It seemed to take forever but it couldn’t have been more than 1 hour or hour-and-a-half.  We were just so ready to get this climb going!

Once we arrived at the Machame Route, we proceeded to, you guessed it, sit and wait for about an hour.  The reason, though, was quite simple:  the permits had to be purchased by the lead guides.  This process takes time as we were not the only ones there (fancy that!).  This would be a reality throughout the trek:  others are there with you.  Not that we expected to be alone, mind you.  Just that one never stops to consider that until one gets to this first gate.  While it could have been chaotic, it really was not.  We proceeded to eat our boxed lunches while we waited and took a few pictures to commemorate the start of our climb!

At the Machame Gate at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro

ilivetotravel doing the obligatory photo at the Machame Gate, looking ready and clean!

Another thing you can do while you wait is read the few signs posted with instructions and warnings for those starting to climb Kili!

Sign on Machame Gate at Kilimanjaro

We cheered when we saw our guide come over with paperwork – it meant we were ready to go.  The funny thing is that we saw other guides come out around the same moment with their papers.  You would think the first-come, first-serve approach would have led to guides coming out gradually and sequentially.  Nope.  It seems all permits were issued almost at the same time for all the groups waiting!  That meant, everyone got going at the same time creating a little bottleneck at the entrance gate.  We got to pass quickly through without waiting long so we were FINALLY on our way!!

The hike on Day 1

Day 1 was mainly going through a forest habitat starting at 6,000 ft (1,830 m) and ending at the Machame Camp at 10,200 ft (3,100 m).

Day 1 of the Machame Route of Kilimanjaro

Typical of the Day 1 Machame Route. Notice the porters on the trail.

It may have been the built-up anticipation but, for the most part, I didn’t feel the altitude wear on me as the day went on.   We were fortunate it did not rain that day so the gaiters were not really needed (those green things I am wearing on my legs in the earlier photo to help prevent mud or pebbles from getting into our boots).  This part of the trail is about the nicest one with some work done to create a good trail for part of the way.

We got to camp about 4:30 PM, five hours after we had started.  We were thrilled at having completed our first day of 6 to get to the summit!  While we knew we still had a lot of challenges ahead, it felt SO good to have one day under our belt!  At this point we did our first book signing to show we were there – a requirement if we wanted to be issued an official completion certificate at the end of the hike.

Register at camp in Kilimanjaro

The Machame Camp sits in an area with plenty of vegetation.  This means we had more smaller animal life than we would have higher up; read, mice.  Key here is to keep the tent zipped up when not coming and going!   The Machame Camp has a toilet building that is pretty new.  I heard it had both Western toilets and Turkish toilets, if those are the proper names for the fixture types.  We also had a pair of portable toilets-tents and I preferred those… (less smelly).

In any case, getting to camp means setting up the sleeping tents and the mess hall tent.  Normally the porters who carry these items and set them up get there ahead of the trekkers and the guides but on Day 1 we got there at the same time.  So this day we got to watch them at work.

Camp being set up in Kilimanjaro

Setting up camp

Once the tents were set up and before dinner was ready, I, like some of the other trekkers, got organized by washing up, taking out the items needed for the night (headlamp, etc.), and preparing the daypack for the next day.  Oh, and the getting drinking water and treating it (Steripen worked wonderfully!) – a staple of the every day life on the mountain!

Trekker at camp in Kilimanjaro

Yours truly getting ready for my first night camping ever!

We got to enjoy a beautiful sunset before heading to the mess hall tent for dinner and an early bedtime so we could be well-rested for Day 2.  Dinner included a hot soup, potatoes, fried fish, vegetables, and small bananas along with tea and hot chocolate.  On to my first night camping ever and Day 2!

Tents at Machame Camp during sunset in Kilimanjaro

Our tents with a beautiful backdrop courtesy of the African sunset

On to Day 2

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Other posts about the Kilimanjaro trek:

–  Preparing for the hike is more than training and gear

–  The Machame Route:  our way up

–  Day 3 of the hike

–  Day 4 of the hike

–  Day 5 of the hike

–  Day 6 of the hike (summit night)

–  7 things you will not see me without as I climb Kili

–  Interview with fellow Kili climber and Ultimate Global Explorer

Getting Up High in Sydney- The Amazing Bridge Climb

ilivetotravel climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia

When I got to Sydney, Australia to visit friends and finally explore that land down under, one of the first thing my friends told me was I HAD TO do the bridge climb.  The Sydney Harbor Bridge climb.  I was immediately mesmerized at the thought.  Normally, I try to go up any structure that allows me birds eye view of a city.  The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Christ Redeemer in Rio, the medieval towers in la rossa Bologna, St. Paul‘s in London, Sacre Coeur also in Paris, the Peachtree Westin in my hometown, … you get the point.  Nothing like being high up and looking down at man’s urban creation.  I had crossed the bridge on foot and snapped a photo I really liked looking at the Sydney Opera House (and you are already high from the bridge level) but a higher vantage point… THAT would be awesome.

So the Sydney Bridge climb was right up my alley.  Of course, I had to be OK parting with a good amount of dough, well north of US $100 (truth be told, around $200…).  But WHEN would I return to Sydney to do this?  I am not scared of heights when I feel secure and being on a walkway was good enough for me (vs. walking out on some diving board-like piece of something hanging of a needle or other such skyscraper structure).

A friend of mine who is also a travel blogger (Erin, from The World Wanderer) was telling me she wanted to do the climb.  I encouraged her to do it and she encouraged me to write about my experience (it was on the long to-write-about list).  The bridge climb is a fairly recent offering having been started in the mid 1990s or so.  They claim over 3 million participants so far – become one, like Erin will some day, and help them get to 4 million!

The prep

So I made my way to the place where they brief you on the entire process and suit you up on this very not glamorous attire.  The important thing, though, is that you part ways with ANYTHING that could POSSIBLY fall off you during the climb.  It is not only that you would lose the whatever-it-is.  It is that there are likely cars right under you that could be hit by anything falling off!  If it is not covered completely by the suit – it comes off.  Your sunglasses, mercifully, are given a contraption so you can keep them and they won’t fall off – whew.  They go through some instructions and -voilà- off you go!

Modeling the jumpsuit used in the Sydney Harbor Bridge climb

Notice all the gear on the model

The hike

Once you are ready to go, the first step is to hook yourself up to the “cord”.  This cord thing runs the ENTIRE route you will walk and you will be hooked to that cord the ENTIRE time you are out there either UNDER the bridge or climbing up.  Yes, that is why you should not fear doing the hike.  You are tethered to the bridge.  The only way you are falling to your death is if the bridge falls into the harbor hundreds of feet below.  And then it does not matter if you are climbing the bridge, on a bus crossing the bridge, or a pedestrian on the sidewalk on the bridge.  So no fear!

ilivetotravel climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia

Notice how I am strapped to the bridge

Once you start climbing, yes, the effort could be significant for some.  I exercise frequently so the physical effort was not extraordinary.  But I think you don’t have to be in great shape to go up.  Just don’t have serious heart issues or other serious illnesses.  Oh, and don’t be intoxicated.  They check and won’t let you go up!

The guide will make stops along the way but she/he is explaining things along the way.  The headphones you get are AWESOME.  They don’t go in your ear but over the rear of your cheek close to your ear – the sound vibrations emitted by the thing get to your eardrum and you hear perfectly fine – how cool is that?!  Our guide was phenomenal – great explanations, great humor (I am sure the same jokes he  and his peers say every tour but nevertheless funny), and great Aussie attitude and friendliness.

Say cheese!

As you hike the bridge, they will be taking photographs.  Remember the bit about not being able to bring a camera?  (You leave your stuff in a locker.)  Well, they know you want a picture or two.  And they know we will buy them so they won’t be cheap.  But since you already dished out a couple hundred buckaroos, what’s another limb, right?  The photos will be great – admire mine but do not laugh at the suit cause you will be wearing one too!

Climb of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia with Opera House in the background

One of the worst smiles I’ve given in a photo but, overall, I can’t complain!  And it’s windy up there if you can’t tell!

“Closing arguments”

If I ever return to Sydney, I am likely to splurge again – but this time to do the night climb which I hear is also phenomenal (and cheaper!).  Hopefully, I’ve had enough time by then to save up for the cost of another climb.  But one thing I know, it will be WELL worth it!

I give this a completely certain thumbs up even if it feels gimmicky.  Gimmicks like this, though, have to be gone for (here is where English teachers cringe).  They pay you back with an incredible view of this great city by the water!  Did I convince you to do it??

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