I've been wanting to write about my experience for some time now (hard to think it's already been 5 months!) To share it of course, but also for myself. I realised that every time I told the story, I relived it fully. So I thought writing it down must be on a whole other level of re-immersion. And… reading multiple blogs and recounts of other people’s treks helped a lot for the preparation and anticipation. So if my advice/story can be of any help, then why not?
My next post will also be on Kili, but will be more advice based...don't want to bore you :p I hope you enjoy reading this first post. The pictures are all iPhone, the DSLR ones being in my gallery.
Below, you’ll find a more or less detailed account of my climb (I’ve tried to include as much as I could…this definitely doesn’t do the actual version justice of course, but nothing ever will).
Meet Our Guides
We went with Kandoo - which I would recommend any day any time. Guides were very pro, lovely, funny and considerate. Food was amazing, which is a must for this type of adventure. They rank first with the KPAP (Kilimanjaro porters association) and that was important as we chose our operator.
Thank you Robert, Gerard, Erick and Micheal for being the best guides we could have hoped for. And of course, what would be Kili without Nico, Graham, Sandeep (known as Sandy), Jenny, Caro, Becky, Rafma and Trish?! Mr. Delicious and his cooking obviously, and Phillibert, Joseph an Michael who accompanied Nico, Graham and I to the summit for sunrise. I never stopped laughing and giggling and was honoured to be dubbed “Baby” of the group by the guides (my age…).
As you’ve probably grasped considering my website, I have a thing for Africa. After travelling to Cape Town a year ago, to visit some cousins, I learnt climbing Kili was very possible, and did not require any ice experience. It is, after all, only a trek. So with my best friend Nico, we decided to go for it. Elbrus or Mt Blanc are closer, but there was just one problem - they aren’t in Africa. Plus, both of us are keen photographers (see Nico’s website here: nicolasvecchioli.com), and so it was a good excuse to visit the country afterwards.
ARRIVING IN MOSHI
We were so excited. We'd chosen to get an extra day after we landed to avoid starting to hike immediately upon our arrival (which I would certainly advise on doing). So on Saturday, we walked around Moshi, the town at the foot of Kili, and started learning some Swahili.
We each bought "good luck bracelets" -which we both still wear- and spent our days on the hotel's roof terrace, looking up at the mountain. It seemed unreal to think we were about to spend the next few days on its flanks, clambering up towards Uhuru ("Freedom") Peak . It just stood there, completely unaware of our existence. We met our team and guides that afternoon.. And what a team! I am forever grateful to have met such amazing people. We were going to spend the next 7 days sharing (almost) everything.
FROM MACHAME TO BARAFU
We trekked through a jungle-like habitat at the foot of the mountain, before gradually climbing towards a more lunar landscape as we approached the summit.
Day 1- Moshi - Machame Gate in African minibus. Machame Gate - Machame Camp (3100m)
One thing we learned / reconnected with, was TIA -This is Africa. In other words, “departure at 9am” could mean 9am or 1pm. We left Moshi at 11:30pm, after a very interesting bag weighing session. Robert, the lead guide, simply picked them up and estimated them - “13.5kg. 11kg. 12.5kg…”. Quite impressive. The bus ride was also very TIA. Aka there were 40 of us, some which we picked up gradually along the way, including ports, cook, guides and hikers, in a 15 seat minivan.
I managed to get ripped off - I needed a sunhat- and we stopped in a place some of us could complete our gear. I finally agreed to buy a much too expensive hat (apparently there would be no other way to get one). As we drove off, and stopped to pick up another guy, 3 street vendors rushed to the windows....with arms full of sunhats. For 5$. I was furious.
Further small en-route delays meant we started our ascent after lunch. By that time, we were super excited, and just wanted to start hiking. Finally, at 2pm we hadd the green light to get going.
BUT Pole Pole. The most important words on Kilimanjaro. It means "go slow", setting the pace for the trek. Going any faster means failing to summit in most cases.
Although we had an amazing sunset amidst the trees, we arrived well after nightfall, which meant things started to get quite cooler after sundown. Hot chocolate had never been so welcome.
Day 2- Machame Camp (3100m) - Shira Camp (3900m)
The next few days were all very intense, each in their own way. Getting to Shira Camp was tiring, we gained a little less than 1000m under the blazing sun and breathing in huge quantities of dust.
And yet we laughed so much, especially as we managed to get some Swahili slang out of the guides (e.g - the famous Hakuna Matata’s cousin: “Hakuna Matiti”). We reached Shira just after 12:30, which meant food upon arrival. Lunch -like all our other meals- was delicious. The afternoon was dedicated to napping... and selfies in our bright orange tent. We explored camp as well: it was absolutely beautiful. The clouds were continuously moving around the mountain edge, adding a slight mystical perspective to the camp’s views.
Below- Cool kids and smelly feet.....
Day 3- From Shira to the Lava Towers for Lunch ( 4600m), descent to Baranco Camp (3950m)
I remember Day 3 as quite tiring, considering we walked 8hrs at high altitude. Lunch at 4600m was windswept - we got attacked by the tent. BUT we were surrounded by literal lava towers, which was quite cool. And half the group seemed to be napping. The hike down to camp was loooong. It also involved a lot of singing and serenading. And more selfies. ALSO, I discovered Micheal's favourite song was "Papoutai", (by Belgian artist Stromae ....words are in FRENCH).
Upon arrival at a camp, the general “rule” is to go straight to the “Sign-in Hut” and fill in your details. There was no queue for a change, which meant less selfies and more rest. That night, Nico, Sandy and I stayed a little later after diner, and taught Robert how to play the Chimney Sweep card game. We renamed it Baranco though -much sexier. Some very welcomed quality time with the guides.
To the right- Robert vs Nico. Highly tense moment of the game. A proper mountain experience.
After playing....a little bit of night photography. My first....and I loved it. We had a full moon that evening, and although it was freezing, we braved the night to sit our cameras on Nico's tripod and shoot 25'' pics. We probably woke up the entire campsite with our laughing, but the fresh air and the altitude made us giddy. Oops.
Day 4- Up the Baranaco Wall to Karanga Camp (4000m)
The fourth day was dedicated to climbing up the Baranco Wall. Such a cool way up, although harder for those with vertigo.
Karanga camp was astounding in beauty. By far my favourite one. We properly felt above the clouds…the camp was kind of sloped and inclined towards the cloud cover… which was pink when I emerged from my nap, as the sun was starting to set. Put another way: we slept more vertically than horizontally. I had a little nose bleed incident which lasted 30mins or so. Weakened me a lot, and I can't say I didn't panic a bit (typical). I had no idea if it was the altitude or just the shock due to putting some warm water on my face and the air temperature. Still, another little game of Baranco post-diner, before an earlier bedtime - this was our last proper night’s sleep for the next 48 hours.
Day 5- From Karanga to Base Camp, the Barafu Huts (4600m)
As we set off the next morning for our trek to Base Camp, Nico and I were discussing our overall rating of the toughness of the trek. Before reaching Barafu Camp, we were (I can’t believe how naive we were) saying that it was tiring yes, but not as challenging as we had expected. In fact -and I’m quoting - “we didn’t have any AMS, we slept perfectly well and ate like lions”. Our only worries had been waking up every night and having an internal debate as to whether to brave the freezing night to pee or not (obviously our “want-to- stay-in-the-snug-sleeping-bag-and-not-have-to-get-dressed-and-leave the-tent” argument lost every time). So, at that moment we weren’t exactly disappointed, but we felt it was much easier than expected. That was halfway up to Base Camp.
And then as we approached Camp, and so, gaining altitude, it started to become colder as we were engulfed in a huge cloud. We were hungry, and most of the group started to get violent headaches, even more so than previous times. I was worried because of the previous evening’s nosebleed, hoping it was insignificant. We just wanted to get into our tents asap and sleep as much as we could before ‘Summit Night”. Our guides told us to get some rest after lunch, and before diner, which we tried to do, considering the night ahead of us. It was more like a very light nap. I fell asleep quite quickly, but woke every half hour or so. It was peculiar. My body felt awkward and I was a lot more conscious of each movement than on “normal” ground. I could feel my body burning anything I fed it, or anything I drank. It was rest without rest. So it was definitely a weird feeling. At least I had no headaches or nausea.
And then, it was time for the final ascent from base camp (at 4600m) to the top of Kibo Crater at 5895m. Again, after diner, we had 2hours to rest before our guides shook us up at 10pm. Ascent at 11pm. Outside temperature: -15ºC, with wind, chuck anther 5º off and that's what are exhausted bodies walked through.
I was so tired, I remember just counting down the hours until sunrise because the cold was burning my fingers, my toes and my legs. Every time someone in our group stopped to eat or pee, the battle to stay awake started. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and sleep, and for the cold-induced pain to stop. I didn't have altitude issues, so my breathing was fine, but that was it. My feet, fingers and legs were burning from the cold…despite wearing an extra pair of socks Sandy had given me (can never thank you enough for that, mate). My water had frozen less than 2 hours after we'd left camp, and taking my gloves off to eat was not an option. So metre by metre we climbed. It was steep and rocky, so we were on our all fours quite often, and the group gradually detached as we all had different progression speeds. I remember asking myself a few hundred times why on earth I'd decided to go and climb a mountain. I could have been in my bed in London, warm and snug, instead of shivering and suffering with 60% fewer oxygen in the air.
And finally, finally, Nico, Graham and I arrived at Stella Point - the base of Kibo Crater- at around 5am. It was still dark, but we were just 45mins away from the top of Africa. I had been fine during the entire ascent but I suddenly found myself feeling very faint as the sun rose, and being me, I panicked. The air was incredibly thin, each breath in felt empty, and all I needed was sugar. Obviously, I thought I was dying and that my brain was shutting down.
So after Graham and Nico had sat me down and stuffed my mouth with dates, sweets and energy bars, we slowly made our way towards Uhuru Peak. And honestly, I have never, ever, ever seen something as magnificent and as gorgeous as the sun rising over the glaciers and eternal snows of Mount Kilimanjaro. The sea of clouds was pink, and the light over the ice-fields was incredible. We were all completely exhausted and so HAPPY (no other word for it) to have made it, after such an arduous and strenuous ascent. Things were peaceful at the top… we were too dazed and in awe to be able to do anything other than grin stupidly at each other. It was perfect. We summited on September 16th 2016, at 6:16 am (well around then, but it felt cooler to put it that way).
Day 6- From Uhuru (5895m) to Mweka Camp (3100m) and Day 7 - to Mweka Gate.
The way back down to Base Camp was super fun. It took us less than two hours to run down (literally) what we had painstakingly crawled up in 7/8hours. To get to Camp, we trudged through massive dried up lava plumes (felt a bit like skiing).
The trek down the mountain on the other hand, was less fun. In 36 hours, we had hiked for 20 and slept for about 5. The rest was meals, packing or unpacking, or trying to rest unsuccessfully. As soon was we'd summited, and arrived back to Base Camp, our bodies started shutting down. And yet we still had to push them to Mweka Camp at 3100m, which we reached for diner. Again, the next day, another hike down - our very last one- to reach civilisation. My nose was bleeding liberally at that point due to fatigue. And Nico and I couldn't walk properly for three/four days after we'd started our Safari because of the descent. It was so worth it though. Now that i’ve forgotten the pain, I would go through it all over again just to relive those unique moments.
We had a beautiful ceremony at Mweka Camp, “the tipping ceremony”. It is quite impressive, as the porters open and count the money in front of you, whooping and singing. Mr Delicious had baked us a cake (still find it extraordinary considering we were on a mountain) and we were all dancing and laughing. It is tradition to give a speech as the envelopes are handed to the porters, and I was voted (without my consent haha) to deliver it. Robert’s excuse - “Aleesi you are the baby of the group. You can do it”. I entirely improvised - I needed the words to come straight from my heart- and can only hope my words did the porters and guides justice, and accurately reflected our experience.
And then all too soon it was finished. Back through the rain forest to Mweka Gate. The pictures speak for themselves....
And then came the time to shower. After 7 days of sweat, dust, grime, more dust, and even more dust. Of course, everyone showered at the same time, except for me, and I had no hot water left. Still felt good though, maybe not as amazing as everyone said it did...
Kilimanjaro remains the toughest thing I have ever done, mentally and physically. It was beautiful, exhausting and cold. And dusty. And my most treasured memory.
The toughness of the climb isn't really relative to how strong, how fit and how much training you've done. The more cardio you do, the stronger your lungs and heart will be and the easier it'll be to breath up there. It's more the exhaustion of summit night, and the cold. Add to that AMS -Acute Mountain Sickness- which thank goodness I didn't get, and honestly it's intense. But the experience is utterly personal. I can only give advice based on what I lived and my understanding of others’. I consider myself to be quite a physically fit person, in the sense that I do a lot of long distance swimming, dancing and hiking. Add in a few workouts, and the blessing of a very slow beating heart, and my overall fitness levels were way more than what was required for Kili. Still had a hard time.
And yet...it's ALSO the most beautiful experience i've ever had. Living above the clouds, laughing all day and night with Nico -the best hiking mate I could ever ask for- Sandy serenading us with Justin Bieber, or a bunch of hikers we met telling us our singing was “off” when we collectively joined in on Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams”…the list goes on and on. I remember our nervous laughs every breakfast and diner when Robert came to take our health stats, aka heart rate and oxygen levels. The one thing we were scared of the most - not having stats above 80% for oxygen or a super fast heart rate. It was always a mini competition between Nico and I to see who had the highest oxygen - usually around 91%- even at 4600m. (I won, obviously ^^). There was also that one guide who, for some reason, managed to always be in the sign-in queue in front of us at the same time. He was clearly from a group of at least 15 people, and SIGNED IN ALL OF THEM. So it took forever seeing as he needed to put in each of their details he copied out from a piece of paper. I think some of us won’t be eating soup for a while, or porridge for that matter. But man the food was good, even if simple. I welcomed warm food with a huge appetite, and was beyond grateful for it.
Kili means a lot of things to me. I learned a lot about myself, and the long trek is a little like meditating. Well for me anyways. When you’re not talking to anyone, you’re just breathing in and out, lost in your thoughts, and in the landscape. It is a kind of spiritual experience, in the sense that for me, it helped put things in perspective. I was confronted not only by the mountain, but by parts of myself. On a lighter note, I think baby wipes and hand sanitiser will forever remain the best allies we had during the week...the dust was absolutely crazy. It became engrained in our skin. It was quite amazing to see how quickly our supposedly civilised education disappeared in the name of simplicity and personal comfort.
Finally, the key to my successful ascent obviously lays with Sandy -who lent me an extra pair of liner socks - which was under my own pair for Summit Night. My feet would have probably frozen to death (well maybe not, but I honestly don’t know how much more cold they could have sustained).