I have spent much of my life out in the mountains, hiking and exploring as much as I can in the US and abroad. As a young girl my dad brought me out into the wilds of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and all over the forests of New England inspiring my love for seeing the beauty of the forests, the oceans and the mountain peaks. Since a small girl I have been hiking as much as possible, in recent years I summited the tallest mountains in Portugal, Spain and Malaysia. In 2014 my father suddenly passed away from a heart attack. Whenever I could I would head to the mountains to feel his spirit. In just a few days I would hike Africa’s tallest mountain , carrying with me the spirit of my very own mountain man. I would be summiting on International Women’s Day with a small group of just 6 ladies including myself from around the world, knowing full well that my dad would be with me along every step.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is made up of three volcanic peaks. Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. Kibo’s Uhuru peak stands at 19,341 feet making it the tallest free standing mountain in the world and one of the seven summits. Kilimanjaro requires a good amount of training and living in Los Angeles I tried to hike as much as possible on nearby trails in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains. I had been hiking every weekend for a few months, using an acclimation mask and running. With max elevation of around 11,000 feet Los Angeles mountains were hardly enough to prepare me for climbing Kilimanjaro. Needless to say, I felt prepared as I left LA and headed to Tanzania.
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A few mountain facts before we begin….
There are six climbing routes that vary in length to reach the summit of Kibo, we would be climbing the Machame route. This route takes 7 days from start to finish. Hiking through 5 climate zones and almost every weather pattern, it is one of the most successful routes as it gives ample time to acclimate to the altitudes while passing through beautiful and changing sceneries. More than 30,000 people attempt to climb Kilimanjaro every year and less than 50% make it to the summit. Oxygen levels at the summit of Kilimanjaro are just 9% which is slightly more than half of our normal oxygen levels of 20.9%. Adequate acclimation is the key to success. Mountain guides are required for anyone wanting to climb Kilimanjaro and there are a plethora of guiding companies to choose from. Picking a company that has been certified by KPAP is a great place to start. KPAP ensures fair wages, adequate meals and proper equipment for porters on the mountain. I chose to climb with a great company called Eco- Africa Climbing located in Moshi they are a company that gives back to the community and local schools. Their porters are paid higher wages than many other groups, as well as being fed three meals a day they make sure they are all well equipped with proper gear for the conditions.
For the 6 of us we had 21 porters and 3 guides, this includes a cook, waiter, assistant guides, tent builder, toilet cleaner and many other positions. All of them are equally important and we would not have made it without any of them. “It takes a village” That couldn’t be more true on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Some of our porters and guides had climbed more than 100 times. Some of them had been up and down the mountain for more than 10 years. For many of us this climb was one of the most difficult experiences we would have, but for our staff it was a piece of cake.
Pre-Hike and Day 1
Before the hike begins we meet our guides at our hotel in Moshi and are briefed on our journey to the summit. All six of us have to get our gear checked to make sure we have proper equipment and are not in need of any rentals. Since we would be hiking from rainforest to desert, to glacier, through rain, snow and heat, making sure we are well equipped is a priority in success.
After meeting our porters and loading gear onto several big vans we headed towards the Machame Gate of Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park. At the gate we registered, and ate lunch while our porters got loaded up and weighed their bags before the climb began. New regulations require that Porters bags cannot weigh more than 22 kg.
The trail begins in the rainforest. Almost immediately we spy velvet blue monkeys playing in the trees as we hike up the road and into deeper forest. Today’s hike would take us 10km to an elevation of 3100 meters, 1210 meters of elevation gain. We begin hiking at 1:30pm, already my pack is too heavy. The guides had stressed the importance of taking just a small day pack, big enough for a camelback, snacks and your poncho. Just the necessities for the day. I had three cameras, a tripod, steady cam, a generator, solar panels and changes of clothes in a 65L backpacking bag. (insert emoji with hands on face)
The rainforest was beautiful and soon enough the road had turned into a well maintained trail. With lush, moss covered trees in every shape and size. I saw many plants I recognized and learned of some new ones by our knowledgeable guides. We saw wild carrots, raspberry, turnip, elephant trunk and many more species of flowering plant. I spied mice, more monkeys and a plethora of bird species as we walked. There was no rain on the trail yet, but the humidity was fierce in the warm coverings of the Montane forest. I arrived at camp just before dark, slightly behind some of the other ladies.
When I arrived, our camp was already set up with a private bathroom, hot water for washing and a hearty serving of popcorn, tea and crackers was waiting in the mess tent. Tonight we did our first of many health checks, one of the benefits of going with a great guide team. All of us had our oxygen levels and heart rate checked before we went to our tents for bed. The first night I came in at 93 percent oxygen and a resting heart rate of 65. Oxygen levels are based on 100, anyone under 80 has to be monitored and may end up having to turn back for lower altitudes until it increases to a healthy level. As I tucked in for the evening, a steady stream of rain fell on our tents that lasted into the morning hours.
Day 2 Machame Camp to Shira Camp
The morning came with a break in the showers. After a great breakfast of pancakes, fried eggs, oatmeal and a variety of other dishes, we donned our rain gear and headed out for day two. Leaving the rainforest behind we entered the moorland. Low lying shrubs, flowering plants and lots of rocks. Today we would hike to Shira Cave which lies on the Shira plateau. Shira was once a large peak but a volcanic eruption 300 years ago reduced its height and created a large plateau. For most of our 6 hour hike the rains fell intermittently and the mountain was covered in clouds.
The constant rainfall had erupted into dozens of waterfalls on the mountain side which could be seen in the breaks of clouds. We crossed several rivers and walked under the pouring falls of the mountain before arriving to Shira Camp just after lunch. Today we also heard many times the saying “Pole Pole” which in Swahili translates to slowly. Since Kilimanjaro rises to so many feet above sea level it is not the physical demand that sends hikers home but the oxygen in the air or lack thereof. Going at a slow pace is paramount in making it to the top.
Today we had planned on a bonus hike for acclimation but the weather did not cooperate and we instead had an impromptu group party; after a nap of course.
Shira Cave was at an altitude of 3,840 meters which was already causing issues for one of our team members. While it was only day two, it is at 10,000 feet where many people start feeling symptoms of altitude sickness. I was definitely feeling like I had less oxygen than usual. My normal excited pace I have when filming was significantly slowed. Fast movements caused my brain to feel like I had just blew up a balloon. But a nights rest at this altitude would make me more well adjusted.
I spent some time wandering around the plateau before dinner. The landscape was beautiful, filled with purple flowering thistles and green mosses it was both colorful and alien with the overlaying fog.
It rained again overnight, but we woke up to clear skies and our first glimpse across Tanzania to see Mount Meru; the second highest mountain in Tanzania located more than 100km away.
Day 3 Shira Camp to Lava Tower to Barranco Camp
Today would be our first big acclimation day we would hike from camp up to Lava tower at 4600 meters, then hike back down to Barranco Camp 3900 meters, in total 10 km. For those that make it through today, reaching the summit is more likely. One of the rules of mountaineering is walk high, sleep low which helps with acclimating your body.
The day began like many, with a light mist, as we left camp and headed towards Lava Tower. The landscape changed as we entered the high moorland. Big boulders were strewn across the landscape of this dormant volcano. Evidence of all the past eruptions could be seen all around. I could definitely feel the air thinning as we hiked higher up the volcano. At around 4300 meters we entered the snow line and were soon following in each others footsteps to avoid sinking in. Reaching lava tower I could absolutely feel the thinness of the air.
After another delicious meal of hot soup and sandwiches we threw on our packs and headed down the hill for Baranco Camp. This hike was quite entertaining for me, as many of the guides and porters from other groups were slipping and sliding in the slick snow that blanketed the trail. The rocky terrain caused quite the traffic jam and it was slow going for a bit. Having tagged along with the faster women in our group we were making a quick pace for camp. From the snow line we came back down into alpine desert and moorland filled with dozens of giant groundsel. These unique plants look like giant candelabra’s living only in Africa they are well adapted to living in a topsy turvy climate.
When I reached camp I realized I was feeling a bit more nauseous and headachy than normal. The altitude was definitely playing with my senses and the quick descent might have been a bit too much. I went to bed early that night feeling thankful that my oxygen level was still in a good range. One of our other women would not be making it to camp, the altitude had been too much and she would be returning to the bottom.
After a good night's sleep I rose early and walked around camp taking photos and watching the fog role in. Its crazy how quickly the weather can change on the mountain, it can be sunny one moment and within an instant covered in fog or rain.
Day 4 Barranco Wall to Karangu Camp
After breakfast we headed off for a portion of the trail called the Barranco Wall. It was a challenging climb not so much in difficulty but pace and terrain which made the day very interesting. The trail literally goes straight up a rock wall, porters, climbers and guides all scrambling up single file. Rain made the rocks slippery, the porters with their big packs were often balancing bags on their head. When we reached the top of this section I was rather relieved. The last few feet of the climb had really tired me out. From the top of the wall we still had a few hours left to hike before reaching camp. Heavy rain fell for much of the rest of the afternoon. We passed through some really neat looking areas of the mountain, old lava flows and rocky outcroppings were some of the interesting things to look at.
This portion of the hike was rather miserable for me, my pack was hurting my back, it was wet and the trail was slippery. It went up and down and with all the rain the trail became a river in many places along the way. The final jaunt to camp was a steep and rocky climb that I was all too happy to have over. My savior Ali, one of our porters, always seemed to come for my pack right when I was on my last leg of energy, giving me a very welcome relief.
The misery of the last leg of the hike that day was quickly washed away with singing, dancing and chatting in our mess tent. We even had some evening rainbows and our first clear view of the summit of KIbo Peak.
Day 5 & 6 - Karangu to Barafu Camp (Base Camp) to Summit
The last two days of ascent are really one very long day……
On Day 5 we began our hike like most mornings, in the mist and fog. The trail now in the high alpine desert was filled with huge rocks and we marched on under the shadow of the summit. Quickly re-entering the snow line, the temperatures dropped, the visibility lowered and intermittent snowfall met us throughout the day.
For whatever reason I had a hard time keeping my usually happy energy on the climb this day. I was overcome by a grouchy and irritated attitude, my pack was so uncomfortable it almost left me in tears, and I had to several times have an internal conversation with my emotions on having a better attitude.
The hardest part about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is overcoming your own mind. I quickly learned within a few days that my determination and will power weren’t as strong as they used to be.
Upon reaching base camp the weather had cleared and I was finally in a better mood, with blue skies it was absolutely beautiful. I could see Mawenzi Peak the third volcano of the three and the summit of Uhuru was also in view between intermittent clouds. The sky was blue and the temperature was a warm 50 F. In a few hours we would be starting our last and final hike to the summit.
After a small snack we retired to our tents to rest and pack our bags for the evening climb. I got out my snowpants, and all the layers I would wear. At the summit the temperatures would be well below freezing and layering would be essential. I got out my smartwool shirt, under armour coldgear, base layer, mid layer and jackets. I prepared my gloves, hand warmers and long underwear and retrieved my last pair of clean socks from my bag. At 6:00PM we were roused for an early dinner of noodles, rice and various meat dishes. The plan would be to sleep from 7-10 pm and then start hiking at 11pm. Unable to sleep so early I tossed and turned thinking about the climb. At 11 we donned our backpacks and began the climb. Luckily the nice weather earlier in the day had made it warmer than before and we set off for the trail in good conditions donning headlamps and following each other foot by foot.
The first push is steep and takes you to high camp where several of the other guiding groups had made camp. Passing from there we continued on as the trail became steeper and steeper. I’m not sure if it was actually straight up or if it was just my mind being overcome by altitude, a heavy pack and my all of a sudden upset stomach....Not to get super personal but having to use the bathroom in the middle of the night on the side of a trail with dozens of other people around is not my idea of fun, and this experience several times really wore on my mental state. Looking back I wish I had taken immodium or some other sort of anti diarrhea medicine that evening before the climb began.
For hours we climbed in the darkness visible only by a steady bobbing stream of headlights that lined the steepest section of Kilimanjaro. The stars were out and although my mind was already starting to go it was truly beautiful.
I went through waves of wanting to cry, to lay down on the snow for a nap, to give up, to drink, to eat, to yell and scream. The climb was physically so demanding, but for me, it was the mental game that really wore on me. The sick feeling I had from my dinner was wearing down my last bit of fortitude as we climbed higher and higher.
Eventually I had to give my pack to one of the porters. I have to say how amazing this group of men and women were. Besides our guides we had each been assigned to a porter that would come with us to the summit to help us with gear. All the rest of our crew stayed at base camp. This group of two women and 4 men were instrumental in me making it to the top. Several of them having to carry two backpacks up the mountain as we all tired from the altitude, I have never witnessed such strength and compassion in people in my moments of struggle.
Feeling completely helpless at some times they lifted me up and urged me to continue on this journey that for most is once in a lifetime. A few hours from the summit I really started to fall apart emotionally. All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and cry. Think of the worst case of PMS ever!
I finally reached Stella Point- the sub summit point about half a mile from the top. Several of the other women in our group were already there. Exhausted and drained mentally I fell into a heap thinking I was at the summit.
When Nasiri told me there was more to hike I really felt my heart break. I wanted to turn back, but that wasn’t an option, I had come so far and there was so little left. After being fed and hydrated by one of our lady porters who literally carried a steeping thermos of tea up the mountain. I linked arms with Nasiri and we walked Pole Pole towards the real summit. All I could do was 20 paces before having to stop and breath deeply, so we worked out a system of 20 paces walking and 10 deep breaths. The air was so thin…. With his help I made it to the summit. A cried my eyes out when I got there and gave huge hugs to the team that helped me get there. The time was just after 8am. We stood on top of a huge glacier. This mountain created by fire and crowned with ice had almost defeated me, but now I stood at the highest summit feeling thankful and happy.
After one of the longest journeys I stayed at the summit for barely 30 minutes. The walk back to base camp seemed like an eternity, trudging and sliding through the thick snow we opted to sled most of the way down the snowy peak. Leaving us all screaming with giddy half altitude drunk joy. The strangest part was the lack of people on the descent. At times it seemed like Frederik (the owner of Eco-Africa) and I were the only people for miles. A little over a mile from base camp it began to hail, the landscape was so mysterious...as we were walking on an area that had been fallout from an eruption it was devoid of vegetation. With the falling hail it really was like walking on a foreign planet. We finally reached base camp around 11:30 in the morning. Jodi had been there for well over an hour already and the other ladies had yet to arrive. We rested shortly, had a small lunch, changed our clothes and then began the continued journey down the mountain. The goal was to reach the lowest camp we could and spend the night so we could exit Kilimanjaro National Park the next day.
That last night on the mountain was a great one. It is amazing how quickly the struggles of hours earlier are washed away with happiness and accomplishment. Camp was filled with joyvial singing and dancing as the sun set over the peak of Kibo. It was still hard to believe that we had climbed the tallest mountain in Africa.
Although this was one of the most difficult things I have done in my life, there is no doubt in my mind that I would do it again. If you are reading this blog, you may in fact have already signed up or be thinking about climbing the tallest mountain in Africa. I say Go For It. It was hard, but it was also one of the best experiences of my life, that I will remember for the rest of my days. Don't let my struggles discourage you from heading to Africa. Many women and men also take altitude medicine the most common being Acetazolamide which makes the effects of altitude sickness, like headache, fatigue, nausea and shortness of breath less acute. Personally I wanted to see my own physical limits and decided against taking anything that would ease my journey. I am not a doctor and would never want to discourage anyone from doing what is right for them. I recommend talking to not only your doctor but your guiding team to decide what's best for you as Acute Mountain Sickness is serious and can be life threatening if not properly dealt with. For me the altitude was extremely challenging but I think my min was my biggest obstacle. After returning home from this journey I have a renewed sense of self and a new determination to make things happen in my life.
Have you climbed Kili or are you planning a climb? I want to hear from you in the comments below.
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