Deciding to climb Mount Kilimanjaro is probably the easiest of the decisions to make with regards to hiking this behemoth of a mountain. With 6 ascent routes to choose from, there is a lot weighing on the choice of route up, and then there is the choice of who or where to hire your guide and porters, or what company to hike with, not to mention which month to go for. I had the relative luxury of time and after doing some research, I opted to hike via the Lemosho Route which is the longest route, allowing for decent acclimitisation, and therefore having one of the highest summit success rates. I’ve hiked at altitude before in the Andes mountain range in Peru, but this was the first time I would be paying a lot of money to hike a mountain that I wasn’t really guaranteed to summit. For all it’s popularity, the success rate of reaching Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro’s Kibo Massif is only 66% (give or take, depending on the source), so the best I could do to improve my chances, was to pick the route with the best chance of leading me there. For me, choosing the route was nearly as easy as deciding to hike the mountain in the first place, and in the end, I didn’t deliberate too long about the company I went with either. Having had an incredible trip to the Galapagos with G Adventures a few years prior, I decided that they would be the people to lead me up Africa’s highest mountain.
After picking up our guides and porters outside of Moshi, we left the dry, red landscape behind and headed into the forests that grew on the fertile slope of what is a dormant volcano. I missed out on spotting the monkeys that some of my fellow passengers noticed, but I was content just watching the landscape go by, spotting people farming and workers upgrading the road under the blistering African sun. It was over an hour and a half before we pulled up at Londorosi Gate (2250m/7382ft) and all piled out. Here, everyone and everything had to come off the bus. This was the weigh-in station where all our bags and the equipment that the porters would carry for us, had to be weighed to make sure they were within the limits set out for carrying. Meanwhile, we had to check in for the hike, signing in at the office before there was a lot of hanging around waiting for the logistical side of things to get wrapped up. Even when at last we all bundled back on to our bus and everything was loaded back on to the roof, we still had a half hour drive to reach Lemosho Gate (2100m/6890ft), and from here, our hike was finally to begin.
With a summit altitude of 5,895 metres (19,341 ft), I felt initially dismayed that the bus climbed up and up as it drove us there, somehow thinking that we were cheating by skipping the lower slopes of the mountain. Having left Moshi at 950m (3117ft), we’d already gained over 1000m (3281ft) on the drive, but over the coming days, I’d put those feelings aside. We gathered for a group photo at the start of the hike as loud birds crowed above our heads, and finally, after over 2 years of planning, I was finally on my way to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. Our first campsite was listed as 4hrs away and the trail took us through dense forest, with swathes of green below our feet as well as above our heads. This was to be the best chance of spotting monkeys and some of the rich bird life that lives on the volcano’s slopes, but alas I didn’t see much wildlife at all. The steady climb and ease of this day’s hike was a good chance to start to get to know those that were hiking with me, and for the most part we all hiked at a relatively similar pace. In part, this was at the request of our guide who wanted to keep us together and take our time. It was his mantra for the coming days too: to take our time, maintain a steady but slow pace, and prevent over-exertion.
Our porters had left us behind in order to get camp set up and ready for our arrival. Mti Mkubwa Camp was amidst the forest at 2650m (8694ft) with no view to speak of. Although this route isn’t one of the busiest, this camp site was well used and there were plenty of people packed into the gaps between the trees. The campsite ritual was to become very familiar over the coming week: sign in at the cabin, meet with our personal porter who had set up our tent and mattress, get cleaned up, have a wander round the campsite then retire to the meal tent for hot coffee and snacks before dinner and a debrief, including a run-down of the next day’s hike. There wasn’t too much to explore here as the campsite was compact, so the time spent in the tent was another chance to get to know each other. The dinner that was served to us was filling and delicious and it reminded me of the amazing meals I’d received whilst hiking to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail.
As part of our debrief each night, we had to get our oxygen saturation levels read via a finger monitor. Altitude sickness can hit anyone of any fitness level, and it is important to catch it early. Our guide was explicit from the beginning that if he wasn’t happy with how any of us were doing, he’d send us down. It was hard for people not to become competitive with this test. We were generally a bunch of fit people, used to hiking in our respective countries. The aim was to stay above 90%, but our guide said it was common for some people to drop into the 80s at higher altitudes. That first night I was sitting at 98%, a fairly normal reading for a healthy adult, and this was fairly consistent around the table. The temperature was cool but manageable in my sleeping bag, and I was able to get some rest to prepare for the next day’s hike.
I’d stocked up on diamox, a drug to reduce the effects of altitude, ahead of this trip, and my doctor had told me to start taking it once I was above 2500m (8202ft), so that second morning I took my first one, committing myself to the twice a day tablets in conjunction with the malaria tablets that I’d been taking for the past week. We still had some forest to walk through on leaving the camp behind and it remained thick for a good chunk of the morning before the height of the vegetation noticeably dropped and the canopy opened up. The tree tops were just above head height and looking behind us, we could see back down to the flat land surrounding the mountain and across to the neighbouring peak of Mt Meru in Arusha National Park. Although the plants here were distinct, the hiking reminded me a little of New Zealand, with rolling green false summits disappearing in front of me. On one of these ridges we stopped for lunch, coming out of the bush to find a large tent had been erected to accommodate us. The sun was strong and it was a pleasant temperature although some wind whipped across the exposed area.
We climbed higher up a rocky terrain with the vegetation continuing to get shorter as we gained altitude. It felt like the climb was never ending when all of a sudden, the track turned a corner, and there right in front of us was the Kibo Massif, the highest of the three cones that make up Mount Kilimanjaro. In comparison to the view from our hotel, it suddenly looked close and I marvelled that it was still several days hiking away. Little did I know what was to be in store over the coming days of hiking. We took a break on a prominence at the side of the track where we could look down on the expanse of the Shira Plateau and our campsite not too far ahead. We watched the cloud roll in and tease Kibo, threatening to engulf it then retreating over and over again. The snow on the side looked like icing sugar and the summit had large chunks of snow visible. It was hard to leave this vantage point behind but after walking the rest of the way to the campsite, I discovered that Shira I camp had just as cracking a view as our rest stop had had, and I was in awe.
By now we were at 3610m (11844ft) and the vegetation had shrunk down to low shrubs that didn’t even reach waist height. Unlike the previous night’s campsite, this one was exposed and a bit more spread out. After signing in on arrival, there was plenty of time to wander around and ogle at the view. As the night drew in, the clouds came with it, and Uhuru Peak disappeared into a veil of cloud. It felt noticeably cooler here and we were all rugged up in our layers as we ate our dinner and had our debrief. My oxygen saturation had dropped to 96% which was still a reasonable level to be at considering the altitude and I felt fine. However, among the group, the numbers were already starting to vary, and as we discussed the next day’s hike, it became clear the group was going to split up. I took another diamox before going to bed and woke up in the night with palpitations and shortness of breath. It was a wholly unpleasant sensation that took me a bit of time to get under control. Having been bundled up in my layers inside my sleeping bag, the shortness of breath had almost sent me into a panic. Thankfully I was eventually able to get back to sleep.
I took another diamox in the morning but after speaking to my companions, I realised that it had been the cause of my shortness of breath in the night. It was cold again as the sun was yet to rise above the Kibo Massif. The mornings were just as ritualised as the evening: a morning wake up call, hot chocolate to warm us up, pack-up, breakfast then meet up to head off. After being kept close together on day 1, we had spread out a bit on day 2 and on this 3rd day there were two options to proceed: the more direct route to Shira II camp, or the detour to Cathedral Point on Shira Peak, the lower of the 3 cones that make up Mt Kilimanjaro. This detour allowed a bit of acclimitisation which was recommended, but a few of the group chose to head straight to the next camp. It was a short walk to reach the track junction and after a brief pause there, we set off across the flatness of the Shira Plateau. The vegetation here was sparse and it was an exposed march across the unsheltered flatness. In the distance we could see the ridge of Shira Peak grow closer and closer until finally we were at its base.
There was an initial climb to Cathedral Junction where large volcanic rocks were interspersed with some taller vegetation again and from here, there was a large rock face to frame the view across to the Kibo Massif. It looked unbelievably close and I again marvelled that there was still several days hike ahead of us. I was yet to feel much effect of the altitude, even at 3806m (12486ft), so at that stage it looked so achievable. We paused here to allow us to take some photos, as well as due to a bit of a queue to negotiate the narrow track that led to the cone’s summit. When at last there was a chance to move on, we picked our way up the rough and wandering track to Cathedral Point at 3872m (12703ft) where there was a spectacular view. To our right was the large flat expanse of the Shira Plateau which made it look like we weren’t that high at all. However to our left, the ground dropped away in a steep and dramatic fashion, disappearing in the distance to the bottom of the volcano. The sun shone above us, and some clouds whisped around the nearby jagged rocks. I felt alive and it felt good, and we celebrated our achievement of summiting one of the mountain’s 3 peaks. I was feeling positive and pumped for what lay ahead.