19,341 feet ~ 5,895 meters
Africa had always seemed huge and wondrous to me, a world vastly different from my own in the United States. After summiting Mt. Vinson in Antarctica, Kilimanjaro seemed like the next logical step, in part because it would provide a needed break from the seemingly constant mountaineering training that had dominated my life for the past two years.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano in Tanzania, it is the highest free-standing mountain in the world at 19,341 feet (5,895 m). Kilimanjaro would be an interesting "climb" for me because I had become very accustomed to carrying my own loads on previous climbs, and this wouldn't be necessary on Kili as the local custom is to employ high altitude porters which scale most of the mountain carrying enormous piles of gear and supplies with ease.
This site includes my training plans - which are different from other peaks given the altitude of Kili and the reliance on porters - time on the mountain hiking the Northern Circuit route, and what I learned during the hike.
Training for Mt. Kilimanjaro was not as all-consuming as other mountains because it is a straightforward endeavor which does not require any technical climbing skills. But, it still involves considerable elevation gain and hiking to over 19,000 feet. Plus, I committed to the trip, and wanted to be successful and enjoy myself without feeling tired or unprepared.
I started training three months before my departure date, but began with a strong fitness regime that included trail running 10 - 15 per week, a weekly yoga practice and hiking a few weekends per month.
Below is an overview of what my training included. This isn't a recipe as everyone starts at a different fitness level with different strengths and weaknesses, and every body responds differently to exercise. Here's what my training included:
week 1: run 12 miles at 75% max heart rate, hike 7 miles w/ 20 pound pack, 1 hr strength
week 2: run 16 miles at 75% MHR, hike 9 miles w/ 20 pound pack, 1 hour strength training
week 3: run 8 miles at 70% MHR, hike 7.5 miles with 20 pound pack, 2 hr strength training
week 4: run 5 miles at 85% MHR, hike 10 mils with 25 pound pack, 2 hr strength training
week 1: run 8 miles at 70% MHR, 1 hour strength training, summit Rainier, 90 min yoga
week 2: run 13.5 miles at 70% MHR, hike 10 miles with 25 pound pack, 2 hour strength
week 3: run 10 miles at 70% MHR, hike 10 miles with 25 pound pack, 4 hr rock climbing
week 4: run 14 miles at 70% MHR, hike 14 miles with 25 pound pack & camp overnight,
1 hour strength
week 1: run 15 miles at 70% MHR, hike 8 miles with 30 pound pack, 2 hour strength
week 2: run 12 miles at 70% MHR, hike 14 miles with 25 pound pack & camp overnight,
1 hour strength
week 3: run 12.5 miles at 75% MHR, hike 15 miles with 25 pound pack, 2 hours strength
week 4: run 10 miles at 75% MHR, hike 14 miles with 25 pound pack, 2 hours strength
Taper until trip.
October 16, 2014
I woke up early, before full light, under my mosquito net, to the sound of children singing, and the faint smell of smoke from a wood fire. This is what I imagined Africa to be like.
I left Seattle something like three days ago, and arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport last evening. The two back-to-back 8.5 hour flights went much smoother than I expected, and I am so thankful now for a soft bed!
I wiggled my way out of the gauzy mosquito net and peered through the window toward the direction of the children's voices, I saw my first glimpse of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I absentmindedly reached down to scratch my leg and realized that I had three mosquito bites, I'm sure they're the non-malaria kind.
October 17, 2014
Mti Mkubwa camp - 9,498 feet
We met our guide, Meshack, this morning at our hotel, he introduced us to the ten other men that would be carrying our food, fuel, and gear up the mountain. It seemed impossible that the two people could need this many people to assist us. I resisted telling them that I could carry my own stuff.
Together we all drove toward the mountain and stopped a few times to buy food for the trip. I really think that there must have been 20 people in the van - I was sitting in the first bench seat, and when we stopped to make purchases, men just kept coming from the back like a clown car. We drove for two hours through the countryside and arrived at Kilimanjaro National Park's Lemosho gate to check in, eat lunch and organize our gear.
As we were eating, black clouds rolled over us and a thunderstorm started, unfortunately it would rain for the next several hours, which it turns out is typical for this time of year. We started hiking at 1 pm, at 7,800 feet. We had 1,700 feet to go in just over three miles. The trail was slick with mud, which made the down sections tricky, I was surprised that I didn't fall. As we were hiking - veeeery slowly - we were passed by our porters and porters supporting other teams. They carried 40 liter packs and also had big duffles or unwieldy grain sacks balanced on their heads. I was amazed at the size of the loads that they could carry with such ease. As the mellow trail wound through the jungle and I recognized several plants from home - impatiens, hibiscus, fern, stinging nettle (discovered the hard way). Today was very easy and went faster than I planned, after about two hours, I heard voices murmuring through the thick jungle vegetation and realized that we were close to camp.
Mti Mkubwa camp is a muddy clearing in the trees, near a tree occupied by a family of Colobus monkeys who are fun to watch. I think that I learned through strained translations from a porter that they don't have thumbs. When we arrived at camp our tent was set up with our duffels in it, right next to our toilet tent. On the other side of the sleeping tent is our mess tent, which is set up with a table and two chairs ... it looks comically out of place. Shortly after we arrived we were given two bowls of warm water and a bar of soap for washing and then hot drinks and p-o-p-c-o-r-n! We sat in our mess tent and read while our waiter just kept bringing more food ... warm cucumber soup, avocados stuffed with fresh veggies, fried potatoes and talapia with fresh green beans ... it was the best meal we've had since we've been here! I think that I could get used to this version of hiking.
Tomorrow we will hike to Shira I camp, which is at 11,500 feet and about five miles away.
October 18, 2014
Shira I camp - 11,500 feet
I looked around this morning and realized that there are more than the original ten porters plus two guides that drove with us to the trailhead yesterday, in fact, there are now thirteen porters plus two guides. How can we possibly need this much support??
We had another big meal for breakfast - eggs, bread, porridge and vegetables. I think that I'm going to gain weight on this trip. As we were enjoying breakfast a blue monkey same into camp and helped himself to the contents of the scrap food bowl. It's amazing to me how similar their mannerisms are to our own!
We left camp at 8:10, while the porters were still tearing down camp, our hike started out in the jungle, lots of viney things and more of the same plants and flowers that we have at home - ferns, moss, pincushin flower, salvia, impatiens, gladiolia, thistle. When we got to about 10,000 feet, the vegetation started to change, the trees became shorter and there were fewer plants that I recognized. Meshack, who studied wildlife management in college, was very knowledgeable about the flora, which now was mostly erica tree, everlasting flower, and protea bushes. The hike today was a lot of up and down, but we continued to move slowly, and even though we made our way to 11,500 feet, I felt great. Eventually I saw the Shira (which means either big or pig, I think big) plateau opening in front of me and I could see the buildings from the Park Service in the distance. The last bit of the hike was flat across the expanse of the plateau.
We made good time, four hours and forty minutes, to camp, and in the six hours between our arrival and bedtime, I ate the following: carrot soup, hard boiled eggs, fried vegetable sandwiches, sliced avocado and tomato, popcorn, rice, fresh vegetables, fried fish and coleslaw. The seems on my pants are starting to strain.
It rained again in the afternoon, more thunderstorms, but like yesterday it passed after a few hours. I spent the afternoon writing and resting in the tent listening to the sounds of the porters talking, laughing, and listening to soccer on a transistor radio. They all seem very jovial and are rarely quiet. Meshack said that there is a local porters union which weighs the bags at each camp, ensures that they don't weigh more than 25 kg, and that each porter receives three meals per day. Each hiking group is required to have at least two porters from the local union. In addition to the porters in our entourage are a cook, and a waiter, very extravagant!
October 19, 2014
Shira II camp - 12,500 feet
My morning routine is waking at 6:30, packing my personal things into a day pack, getting warm water and soap at 7:00 for washing, and eating breakfast at 7:30, then beginning to hike between 8:00 and 8:30. I've become curious about the "kitchen" that our cook, called Little Man, uses to create such wonderful food in such a rustic environment, so this morning I asked him if I could see his kitchen. This single tent is dedicated to cooking, and is also where he and the waiter sleep. Little Man has no table, just a large gas cylinder with a burner attachment and the buckets that are used for gathering water to sit on. He neatly organized all of his pantry items on tarps on the floor ... fresh veggies, pasta, rice, etc. Little Man went to school for a year to become a chef before working on Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We took a small detour from Shira II camp and went to Shira Cathedral. On the way the trail was mostly flat with gradual elevation gain. We saw buffalo, dik dik and wild dog tracks. Apparently there are also golden jackals that come to camp and steal shoes. I can just imagine a jackal running across the barren landscape carrying my pink trail shoe in its mouth, adding it to a pile of other confiscated shoes and boots.
As we made our way to Shira Cathedral, the clouds started to build, and when we got near the top of the ridge, clouds were blowing up through the valley below. We continued up the ridge to 12,300 feet, and I could finally feel the altitude in my lungs. The clouds started to clear intermittently and I could see the other side of the valley below. The ridge was dotted with dead trees decorated with orange and green lichen, swinging like Christmas garland in the breeze, it was quiet and felt very still, and not what I expected from Tanzania.
Even with the detour we made it to Shira II camp by 1 pm and were of course greeted with more food. For lunch today we had veggie soup, pasta, fried veggie dumplings, fried chicken, crepes and beans. I'm going to need new pants.
So far at camp the weather at Shira II seems to be the same as the plateau, intermittent wind blowing through clouds. When it is clear I can see Kilimanjaro's crater, and it seems like there is already less snow than this morning.
October 20, 2014
Moir Hut camp - 13,580 feet
Our destination today was the Lava Tower, which is a vertical pillar that rises 15,190 feet above its surroundings. The route from Shira II camp crossed two ridges that became increasingly barren as we gained altitude. As the plants dissipated, the number of people grew; our route converged with the popular Machame route. The clouds built more quickly this morning, and by 9 the sun was nearly eclipsed and replaced with clouds. This environment - thick clouds, cold, moist air, and barren landscape started to remind me of higher elevations in the Pacific Northwest.
We arrived at the Lava Tower in time for lunch, and scrambled to find a spot out of the wind and away from the crowds to enjoy fried chicken and corn muffins. If the weather had been better, I would have wished for a climbing rope and harness to play on the rock. But I was ready to leave and retreat to better conditions after just 40 minutes. We arrived at Moir Hut 70 minutes later.
Moir Hut is named after a tee-pee shaped wooden structure which the local Rangers previously inhabited. This camp is not popular, and today we are sharing it with just one other team.
Meshaeck is pretty quiet when we're hiking, but seems like a very thoughtful guy. Occasionally he will point out things as we're walking and if I ask him questions he usually just responds with short answers. He has taught me some Swahilli in addition to the porter mantra of "pole, pole", meant to encourage hikers to move slowly. Meshack explained that Swahilli is made up of a combination of the 36 tribal languages in Africa so that people can communicate outside of their own tribe. All of the porters and guides on Kili are from the Chagga tribe, so they speak Chagga instead of Swahilli. They are all very social and good natured. Although I can't understand a word, everyone in camp seems to be having a good time talking and laughing about something.
October 21, 2014
Buffalo camp - 13,200 feet
Today we began our traverse around the mountain. We intentionally chose to hike the northern circuit because it is less populated than other routes, and because it allows us to see more of the mountain.
We'll hike about 16 miles in three days as we traverse to School Hut and then head for the summit. Most of the day was spent hiking at an elevation of about 14,000 feet, and it felt good to get some exercise and put our lungs to work on pretty easy terrain. It was also interesting to see the ecosystem change as we traversed, the first few ridges that we summitted and descended looked very similar and reminded me too much of Aconcagua. Gradually, though as we moved east the vegetation came back, but the rocks remained. For most of the hike we could see glimpses of Kili's summit between the clouds. During the intermittent sun breaks, things heat up quickly so I'm constantly putting on and removing my puffy coat. We saw very few signs of animals today, just an old wild dog turd and some buffalo bones.
We arrived at camp at noon, and spent the afternoon eating and reading. I think that I have spent more time eating than hiking at this point, but I shouldn't complain, Little Man's food has been wonderful. I ate until I was stuffed tonight - rice with veggies and steak strips plus sweet potato. This was after a snack of popcorn and warm peanuts two hours prior and lunch of soup, grilled cheese and fruit three hours before that.
October 22, 2014
Third Cave camp - 12,700 feet
There seems to be a bug running its course with our porters, I'm sure that it must be potent for these incredibly strong men to end their hike and forfeit their pay. Today our assistant guide, Vincent left, along with a porter. I've started washing my hands obsessively and eating zinc like it's candy. This shake-up affects the hierarchy of our team, and I suspect that porters are jockeying for Vincent's spot on summit day.
The weather has continued it's normal routine: sunny in the morning between 8 and 9, then a wall of clouds gradually moves up the mountain toward us and only allows for minimal sun breaks throughout the rest of the day. Today's hike was a lot like yesterday's, but the ups and downs were shorter as we continued to move northeast. The weather was less windy, but mostly cloudy. We could see glimpses of the summit ridge again, and it's sad to visualize the size that the mountain used to be, it just feels like it is crumbling in every direction. We walked through patched of smooth rock that were bluish, worn by previous glaciers. Along the way Meshaeck pointed out a cave that buffaloes sometimes sleep in, and although there were prints, there were no buffaloes today.
October 23, 2014
School Hut camp - 15,600 feet
We moved quickly to our high camp this morning, as we gained elevation, I could again feel the sting of thin air in my lungs, but it felt good to be moving higher. We are now in a rocky desert, with very little vegetation, images of Aconcagua continue to disrupt my thoughts. There is, in fact, a hut at School Hut camp. It was built by Outward Bound students and is used by the porters for sleeping, cooking, and eating. I counted eight thick foam mattresses lying side-by-side on a wooden bunk for them. I'm happy to be staying in a tent.
It started snowing late this afternoon, and for the first time I felt some doubt creep into my mind ... what if it snowed all night and we couldn't summit? But my concerns were unnecessary, the snow storm moved on and the quarter inch that it left behind melted before we went to sleep.
We arrived in camp with plenty of time to prepare for our summit attempt tomorrow. I quickly fell into my normal routine of stuffing already opened candy bars into pockets, checking headlamp batteries, and adding electrolyte powder to water. Among my preparations, I was sad to trade my trail shoes for proper boots. I feel very fortunate that neither the weather nor the terrain has warranted them until now. I could feel my feet get angry as I put on clean socks and laced them. I already missed my comfy shoes!
We'll wake at midnight to begin our summit bid, it seems a bit early to me, but I guess that it may be icy higher on the mountain, making travel during the coldest part of the night necessary. I'd really like to sleep until 7 and then go!
October 24, 2014
After a quick breakfast in the frigid hut, we were both ready to hit the trail with Mechack and Dickson, the porter chosen to accompany is. The first thing that I noticed was that Dickson was wearing tennis shoes - cheap ones, the plastic-y kind that kids made fun of me for wearing in grade school. I'm amazed by how resilient our porters are. He obviously wasn't planning to summit, and was making the best with what he had. I thought about offering him my mean boots so that I could wear my trail shoes.
The first part of the trail was uneven, together our small group wound up and over and around boulders. After a short rest to eat, drink, and add a warm layer - I think at the Hans Meyer Cave - we continued upward and the trail started to make switchbacks most of the way to the top. Although it was dark, I sensed that there were multiple trails, and eventually we intersected another group. I was surprisingly cold and wished that I'd worn warmer gloves. I wiggled a chemical warmer out of the already-opened package in my pants pocket, and began switching it between hands to keep them warm. I thought about Dickson's toes. I doubt that he could feel them. After many switchbacks, we scrambled over rocks to Johannes Notch and Gilman’s Point at 18,600 feet (5685 m), We were all feeling strong and goofy, and stopped to take group photos in the cold, dark air.
At Gilman's point, we were at the edge of the crater and just over a mile from the true summit at Uhuru point, I was confident that I'd make it. The trail continued, and although it was still dark, I could sense the expanse of the crater to my right. Soon we reached Stella Point and encountered several other groups ascending via the normal route. We continued past the Stella Point sign and the crowds as the sun began to rise in the east.
I stopped to look inside the crater to my right, and watched the lights of the villages below me diminish as the sun rose to expose the edges of Kilimanjaro's remaining glaciers. I could see groups ahead of ours walking the final hill to the summit, we continued to move slowly and I scanned the landscape for Kilimanjaro's summit sign. I just couldn't see it, and I had no sense of how far I was from the true summit, which was unsettling but I felt good and my hands were warming from the early morning sun. We continued on the flat, rocky crater edge and finally I could see Uhuru Peak at 19,340 ft (5895m).
We were joined at the summit by probably thirty others, some of which, in my view, had pushed themselves beyond their limits. I saw two men laying on the ground vomiting in the rocks and many people being lead hand-in-hand by their guides. All around me were stunning views of the African plains.
We waited for 5 or 10 minutes to take our turn at the summit for photos. I was thankful that I got to experience this amazing place and that I took the time to wander for a while around Mt. Kilimanjaro. It's ecology was much more diverse than I imagined.
After 20 minutes or so on the summit, we began our descent through the steep, loose rocky terrain. Although my boots were still fighting with my feet, I wanted to take my time to enjoy Mt. Kilimanjaro and the people who make their living here. We leisurely moved through various camps and finally arrived at Mweka Camp for the evening before walking the remaining 6 miles to Mweka gate to end our trip. Along the way I relished the flowers and birds and ants and felt the familiar sadness when I realized that we were close enough to civilization to hear Jeeps. I had had an incredible trip to a beautiful and friendly mountain, and I was sad that it was ending.
Summitting Mt. Kilimanjaro affected me in a different way than other mountains, primarily because while on there I was surrounded by the gracious people who make their living as guides and porters. More than any other trip, I felt incredibly privileged, and not in a good way. Being in Tanzania made me realize that there are things in this world that really don't matter at all and that there are things that deeply do, like humility and honesty. I know that Mt. Kilimanjaro's impact on me will fade over time, but I hope that my priorities will remain slightly shifted and that the next time I'm about to scream because my favorite pair of jeans is wrinkled I will take a minute to realize what's really important.
As for the hike itself, I think that I slightly underestimated the temperature on summit day, this wasn't a big deal, but I wish that I'd had warmer gloves. I greatly, greatly appreciated having trail shoes for the trek to high camp. Being able to walk the for to nine miles every day in comfortable shoes made a huge difference for me.
In order to receive a permit to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, you must employ a local guide company. For this reason, western guide companies hire local guide services and act as a middleman. In order to save some money, I did considerable research to find a reputable Tanzanian guide service and was very impressed with the level of service, guide knowledge and attention to safety that I experienced. I don't regret saving some cash and working directly with a local company.
It probably goes without saying ... but take some Cipro with you when you go to Africa. I don't like to discourage others from experiencing local food and drink, and I don't regret my adventurous eating habits on this trip, but somewhere along the way - most likely after I was off the mountain - I picked up giardia and various intestinal bacteria that were tough to eradicate after I got home.
I highly recommended taking a less traveled route to the summit. Hiking the northern circuit gave me the opportunity to see more of the mountain and to take in its flora and fauna, it also avoided the crowds, which I appreciate. I also believe that it's important to get to know your guides and porters. Most of them speak remarkable English and have remarkable stories to tell about their families, their education and the path that led them to work on Mt. Kilimanjaro. These strong men - and a few women - work tirelessly to support western climbers, most of which would not be able to summit safely without them.