Africa Part Two, Kilimanjaro Expedition
The Safari fresh in our minds we drove back through Moshi to the Marangu Hotel at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Our Safari guide Nico was from the town of Moshi and when we told him we were planning to climb the mountain he gave us a very serious look and asked “All the way to the top?” Yep.
Our itinerary had us taking seven days to reach the summit with an overnight in crater camp, the descent would take two days along the Mweka Route. The walking distance was 45 miles with an estimated 15,000 feet of total elevation gain.
At 19,340 feet Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain on the continent of Africa which makes it one of the fabled Seven Summits. Although not considered a technical climb, only an estimated 30-50% of those who attempt it successfully summit Kilimanjaro. Fewer still spend the night in the crater. We chose to ascend via the Lemosho Route which is the longest of the several traditional ascents to the summit, Uhuru Peak. We had wanted to use the Western Breach route but it was closed at the time of our ascent due to a recent accident and was deemed too dangerous, therefore we reached the summit via Karanga Valley and Barafu Camp.
Seamus, the proprietor of the Marangu Hotel gave us our pre climb briefing and introduced us to our crew. John was our guide, Elias assistant guide, Elvis was our cook and we had ten porters to carry enough food and gear for nine days on the mountain. After loading up the truck we spent the next few hours driving around the base of the mountain to the west side and up the roughest steepest track I’d ever seen to get to the Lemosho trailhead. Due to the long drive and our late start it wasn’t clear if we’d make it to camp before dark. Christy and I had trained hard for this trip and we made it up this first leg of the climb using our headlamps only in the final kilometer.
The following day we were up at dawn for a long day of climbing to Shira Camp One. We trekked through rain forrest, rose above the tree line and settled in for a cold evening on the Shira Plateau. The next morning we had our first clear view of the peaks of Kilimajaro.
Climbing up to Shira Camps One and Two weren’t difficult. While there were several steep sections, the trail and terrain was congenial. Reaching Lava Tower on the other hand was more difficult. The effects of altitude became more pronounced as we ascended above 14,000 feet, The air became increasingly cold and damp and we had to scramble over rough rocky terrain. We had learned about Lava Tower when we watched the IMAX Kilimanjaro DVD back home and it didn’t look quite so daunting in person. I was exhausted and between the freezing drizzle and 15,000 foot altitude I wanted nothing more than to climb into my sleeping bag for the night. This was the most frigid night so far with temperatures dropping well below freezing.
Day five had us trekking down from Lava Tower, climbing up the Barranco Wall and crossing over to Karanga Valley. This was our most strenuous day thus far on the mountain and also the most beautiful. We walked into the clouds and through Senecio flower, lobelia and white mountain flowers. The landscape was like nothing I’d ever seen. At the base of the valley we crossed a stream and Barranco Wall stood looming 1000 feet overhead. We climbed up and over the wall without too much difficulty but it was very fatiguing and we had to cross over to and descend the next valley before our final climb up to Karanga Valley.
The views from Karanga Valley were absolutely stunning. We were above the clouds and through small gaps you could look down upon a town thousands of feet below as if from a plane. Directly across from us breaching the cloud cover was the peak of Mt. Meru.
The following day we ascended to Barafu Hut at 15,000 feet. It was from Barafu early the next morning where we would make our final push to the summit. I was nervous. The highest peak I had previously climbed was 14,050 feet. Was I fit enough? Tough enough? Determined enough? Were we both up to the task of climbing 4,300 feet at altitude in the morning? The only was to find out was to get up and do it.
We left Barafu Hut just before sunrise. A steep use trail wound up the scree and talus to the crater rim. As the sky lightened we could see the trail blending into the mountain above us and Tanzania stretching out beneath us. The hours passed quietly as we worked our way up the slope. Tanzanian guides usually aren’t in a hurry, they are often reminding us to go pole` pole` that is “slowly slowly”. About half way to the crater rim we were passed by a large group of climbers moving hard and fast.
Climbing any mountain is a strenuous activity. Climbing a mountain that demands you acclimate and hydrate to avoid cerebral edema, pulmonary edema and altitude sickness is a dangerous activity. We were encouraged to climb pole` pole` for our safety, to minimize the possibility of altitude sickness and to have a good time. Christy chatted with the people in the faster group a bit before they disappeared up the hill. They were about our age and from various places around the United States; Oregon, Georgia and Washington State. They were also planning on spending the night in the crater. We didn’t see them again until we were about 100 yards below the crater rim. The whole group of them were sitting huddled together obviously tired, eating and drinking. As we passed by several of them asked us to stop and join them for lunch and declining we wished them well and continued on our journey to the top.
Frigid air blew gusts of fine volcanic dust into our faces as we crested the crater rim. Before us lay the expansive crown of Kilimanjaro and to our left up and around the rim was Uhuru Peak. We paused for a few minutes against the rocks of Stella Point for a quick snack and some water then began the final leg of our upward trek. We reached the peak at 1:30 PM, took a few celebratory photographs and paused to enjoy the views. We still had to descend the inner rim to the crater floor and our camp. Nobody in Africa was higher than us that night!
Although we acclimated the air was thin at Crater Camp and we moved slowly and carefully. The snows of Kilimanjaro extended outward from the front flaps of our tent. We watched the shadows cross the crater floor and the color of the light change from clear brilliant white to gold to utter darkness to be pierced by the hosts of heaven, the moon and stars. Inside the tent was no escape from the bitter dry cold. Water vapor from our breath formed a delicate layer of frost on the inside of the tent which came down as a little snow fall when you bushed up against it. In the euphoria from our climb and being a bit loopy from the altitude, Christy made up a little rhyme “my little snow storm” which we chanted until our faces hurt with laughter.
The “fast” group we had met earlier and passed as they sat eating and hydrating never made it to the summit. Their crew had to pack up their crater camp site and trek back to Barafu for the night.
Two days after reaching the summit we exited the park through Mweka Gate. How strange it was to be surrounded by so many colors, plants, trees, cars and so many people.
This is the Kilimanjaro song. The first version is in Swahili and the second is the English translation:
Kilimanjaro Kilimanjaro Kilimanjaro
ni mlima mrefu
wewe nyoka mbona
wanizunguka wanizunguka wanizunguka
is highest mountain
why you surround me
I can’t wait to return to Africa.