- Kick-off for Kili
- The scenic route up Kilimanjaro
- Last of the ‘easy’ days as going gets tougher but home comforts help
- One foot in front of the other all the way to Uhuru Peak (and down)
Day 6: Karanga Camp (3,935m/13,106ft) to Barafu Camp (4,650m/15,331ft)
The next two days are going to blend, in 36 hours we will have added over 6K feet in altitude to reach Kilimanjaro summit/Uhuru Peak and descend another 6-7K feet. All of this will be done with maybe 3-4 hours sleep.
Short three-hour walk to Kilimanjaro Base Camp, arriving around 11.30 am. There was a much more conscious decision to make stops for water breaks from the guides today. Roman was leading with a pole pole pace, Collins was at the back being his typical jovial self and unofficial photographer. The rest of the day was spent chatting and hanging out, playing some card games, and some time relaxing in our respective tents.
Final brief pre-summit around 7 pm with the dreaded oximeter. We’re going to leave at 1 am to avoid the traffic (the usual kick-off time is midnight). Going around the table for 02 levels spirits are generally good. Bosco has mentioned before how laughing is great as it increases the amount of oxygen you take in. Once before the oximeter reached me and then again when it reached me, there was a prompt ‘my 02 levels are dropping, give me a joke!’. Ollie delivered for me, “Why didn’t Pluto organise his birthday party? … He couldn’t planet.” Worked perfectly, and my 02 levels increased!
By 7.50 pm I was in ‘bed’. Last notes: “Feeling pretty calm, some good nerves but the guides are good….fingers crossed. Now sleep.”.
Day 7 – Kilimanjaro Summit Day. Barafu Camp (4,650m/15,331ft) to Uhuru Peak (5,895m/19,340 Ft) to High Camp (3,950m/13,000ft)
I’ll start at the end here with the first words I wrote in my diary at the end of the day
I’m a little lost for words to describe today. Exhaustion has definitely limited my vocab.
Despite that, looking back at my notes I wrote 10 pages, admittedly the diary is only slightly bigger than the size of my phone but that’s a lot more than I wrote for any other day.
As planned, the wake-up call was midnight with a 12.30 breakfast/snack (porridge). Unfortunately, plans didn’t continue as hoped at that point.
James was feeling very rough and asked to check his 02 levels. They were low. It was a fairly quick mutual decision between James and Bosco that it’s better for him to stay behind. It sucked, everyone had had tough moments during the hike. James and Sam had definitely suffered more from the altitude, but we hoped to achieve the summit together.
After descending we discovered a few days prior a hiker had died from a heart attack at Base Camp after summiting. The previous morning I’d seen a lady being led down at Base Camp looking very rough. Throughout the hike, I was re-reading Bear Grylls’s account of summiting Everest. He quoted Ed Viesturs’ famous line “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory,“. It takes a lot of courage to pull yourself out on the day, but all those experiences really highlighted the smartness of James’ decision.
1am, we set off
It’s a long time since I’ve received such explicit instructions on what to wear, but I gladly took all the directions. Two pairs of socks, base layer bottoms, hiking trousers, waterproof trousers, t-shirt, fleece, windbreaker/waterproof over the top. Oh, and two pairs of gloves, buff, and a hat (complete with a head torch). The down jacket was in the bag, ready to add on later but first, we had to do a bit of rock scrambling in the dark. We didn’t want to get sweaty at the beginning and end up very cold later.
The plan was to keep moving as much as possible to stay warm. We’d take a short break every hour. In 7 hours, we should be at the top of Kili, Uhuru Peak. The route was broken down into milestones/sections which gave me a huge help mentally. First, we get over the scramble, then it’s mostly a zigzag leading up to a steep section to the first peak – Stella Point. Bosco termed this steep section the point of no return. A lot of people find it very tough and it’s a point people give up, but if we get there we’re not going back. From Stella, it’d been another 45-60mins to Uhuru Peak. 3 hours down to Base Camp.
Leading up to each break I made a mental note of priorities for when we stopped. First break: priority 1, drink water. We had 3L with us (typical daily intake), which was both the most weight on summit day but also water helps with blood oxygen levels mitigating altitude effects. Priority two, find the chemical hand warmers.
The priorities changed as we went up. At the second stop, my priority was to fix my headtorch, one of the straps had come loose and the strong winds meant I was being slapped in the face by the strap constantly. At the second or third stop, I added the down jacket.
Breaking the day down into mini goals – get to the next stop/get to the beginning of the steep section, really helped. If I kept thinking 9 hours to go or spent long looking up and seeing the flicking lights of other head torches in what seemed an unbelievably far distance I would have struggled more.
Halfway up, getting over the hump
About halfway things got a bit slower. Shahini and Sam were suffering from the altitude. The guides had taken their bags to help but Sam was still struggling. We stopped to decide whether to break into two groups or continue for the moment with a few more frequent stops. We agreed on the latter, but I didn’t want to make many more stops as you get very cold (circa -15C/5F temp) when you’re not moving.
Beth had some cliff running gels on her and once Sam had taken one of those suddenly it seemed to give him an extra boost. All that talk of more frequent stops didn’t transpire into more stops and we actually just kept going. Incredible turnaround! For all of us, as the sun started to peak above the horizon it gave a real boost.
Before I fell asleep the previous evening I had scrolled through my Spotify and from my already downloaded songs made a playlist titled ‘Get up that hill’. Unfortunately, on that ‘hill’, I couldn’t find my phone – it transpired I’d left it in my tent. While I had to go without music I had ‘One Foot’ by Walk the Moon in my head, and that was literally what I focused on – one foot in front of the other.
The final stretch to Stella Point seemed to last a lifetime, though it can’t have taken much more than an hour. As we drew closer, I could see the telltale sign and could make out the word ‘congratulations’. Probably due to altitude brain and wishful thinking, I pondered for more than a minute if we’d reached Uhuru Peak and somehow already made it past Stella Point.
Reaching Stella Point I had a growing but relatively mild headache. It still felt great to reach there and a quick photo there and we dropped our bags, left them with a guide, and headed to Uhuru Peak. I think it was about here that it hit, only 45-60mins to the peak was still at least a two-hour round trip. I was knackered. Knackered but determined.
We were spreading out a bit now into two groups. I was still in the wind me up and point me in the right direction mindset. Knackered as I was there was only one option on the table. Congratulations were shared as we passed groups: “congrats!” “congrats, you’re so nearly there!”. It was mostly flat along the edge of the crater aside from a final uphill. Over that bump, we could see the ‘finish line’. Running alongside were cables, apparently, Wi-Fi installed recently.
As I Googled this later I realised a reporter covering the implementation of the Wi-Fi at Uhuru Peak also died from altitude sickness. With the number of people who achieve Kilimanjaro, you forget the need to appreciate the mountain for what it is. I also wonder, and feel disappointed, why is there a need for Wi-Fi here? The feeling of being off the grid for 8 days was a bonus to the whole trip. I had no clue what was going on in NY, England, or anywhere else from the moment I left the hotel till the moment I was back there. Yes, the photo went up on social media but I was happy to wait vs post it that minute.
As half the pack made touching distance with the finish line we hung for a couple of minutes for the rest of the pack to catch up and cross to the Uhuru Peak sign together. It was such a euphoric feeling. High fives among the group and the guides. Honestly, after reaching Everest Base Camp I didn’t expect to reach this height.
And down again to Base Camp…
Key photos achieved, I was still in euphoria land as Bosco started ordering us down. More of us were feeling the altitude effects. My headache had grown from mild at Stella Point to a harder-to-ignore front-and-center headache.
Reaching Stella Point we hoisted our bags back on and started the Lava Tower-esque rapid descent, of course, led by Roman. This time I appreciated the speed. I don’t know how much time had passed but maybe 30-45 minutes when we eventually stopped for water and a snack. The last part of the descent was much harder. Tiredness, loose shale, and speed combined to make a very slippy trip down.
Bosco had clearly recognized what was going on and communicated for a bunch of porters to meet us and take our bags. Then at one point I looked over and saw Bosco helping Katie down. Then I slipped and was soon in the hands of another porter chaperoning me down. On and off he helped me, holding my arm or hand. I don’t remember or maybe didn’t even look up to see what was going on with everyone else.
Eventually, we made it to Base Camp and our tents. Coming down the final little hill to our camp I slipped again. I literally bounced into our campsite on my arse. All I could do was laugh. As each of us entered the camp we got more high 5s from the rest of the crew at camp, notably the waiters and some of the porters who had carried our tents. Cartons of orange juice were handed out, no beer at this altitude but this felt as good as any beer in a long time!
And down even further…
As if that all wasn’t enough for one day. Summit and back to Base Camp achieved. Short rest and lunch, and then it was time to pack up our tents to go again. There were two camp options, but in the end, Bosco decided it was best for us to descend to the nearer camp. Despite a suggested two hours, within an hour or so we reached High Camp. Shattered.
Day 8: High Camp (3,950m/13,000ft) to Mweka Gate (1,640m/5,380ft)
Oh my god, one of the best nights’ sleep. The group had been split the night before on when to leave. The toss-up – a lie in vs, start sooner and make it back to the hotel sooner. We compromised on 6.30 am wake up and were packed and leaving by 7.45. 4-5 hours to go. With no rush to the next camp everyone in our group including porters was leaving about the same time. It looked like we might be one of the only few groups at this camp. That morning really put into perspective the size of the operation. There were a lot of people supporting us.
Through the rainforest, although a different route down. We stopped a couple of times. The last time Collins informed us we had an hour to go. An hour?! Then we’re done?! I’d missed my Spotify playlist on summit day but this felt like the right time. “Get up that hill’, helped me get down that hill. Tired as I may, I again felt like I found an extra boost. For most of the hike, I was at the back of the pack, going slowly, and taking photos. This time I was right there at the front, blisters be done.
Just as we had done at the summit, we were not going to cross the finish line without everyone in toe with us. There were some question marks/doubts for a minute, is there even a sign for us to take a photo with? Doubts were put to rest; the ritual was safe.
Post Day 8
I finished capturing these notes in the hotel on Day 9 (the day of departure). I can’t help but compare it to Everest Base Camp. Was this harder? Yes. Did I suffer more physically on EBC? Yes. Am I more ready to go on another big adventure now? Yes. The contradictions don’t make a lot of sense in my head but simultaneously I’m clear on them. The overwhelming thought right now is going back to NYC, to the office, to the day job seems…underwhelming? I’ve scratched that itch. Now what?
Message from Beth two weeks later:
Found yourself wondering which mountain is next yet?