Significantly steeper, exponentially colder, and unimaginably harsher.
A friend randomly suggested Tanzania as a great destination for an adventure trip, and three months later I was forcing my way up a defunct volcano called Kilimanjaro – not knowing what I just got myself into. I decided to write this post-mortem not only as a personal memoire, but also to help shed some light for others planning their trips.
If you’ve never heard of Kilimanjaro before, it was only a matter of time, as this mountain has become quite a popular travel destination and a fairly “easy” one to summit. Due to its three separate volcanic cones (Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira) supporting each other’s peaks, Kilimanjaro is actually the highest freestanding mountain in the world at 5,895 meters. It’s peak is higher than either of Mount Everest’s base camps – which take about 15 days to get it! It is also the highest mountain on the African continent, giving it an impressive #4 position on the Seven Summits List. Who knew we’d be mountaineering such an impressive landmark already!
Make no mistake however, walking up this beast for 6 or 7 days is no easy task! It’s down right exhausting. An average of about eight people die annually from heart attacks, elevation sickness and various falls. Yet how your body will react to the altitude, on any given climb, is difficult to predict for every climber and this is beyond anyone’s control. The lesson here is: always listen to your body. Nevertheless, my first mistake was not physically training for the climb…
Get in the Zone
Sitting just south of the equator gives Kilimanjaro an interesting collection of climate zones, ranging from warm tropical forests to freezing arctic deserts. Vegetation and landscapes vary drastically as you increase altitude, and the most scenic route to experience these changes on is Machame. One gets to drag their tired feet past beautiful waterfalls, humbling volcanic rock formations, and unbelievable cactus sanctuaries! So although it is considered a more difficult route, Machame is the most popular way up with quite a bit of traffic. Yet come the second day most people begin to care very little about the species of vegetation around them… Sleep and nightfall quickly become cherished moments.
Six days of POLE POLE
- Day 1: The Gate & stair master up through the jungle
- Day 2: Rocky walk through shrubs to Camp 2
- Day 3: Flat lands past Lava Rock & Cacti Sanctuary
- Day 4: Climb up the cliff, down into valley & the last clouds
- Day 5: Early AM ascend! Also the descend? (Lost track of days)
- Day 6: Descending through lush bush, not easy on the knees!
The gate to this route is already at 1490m, as opposed to the town of Moshi which sits at a more comfortable 890m. So what I thought would start as a gradual incline quickly turned into doing a full fledged stair-master for 7 hours on the first day! Going up Kilimanjaro can be compared to climbing the Egyptian pyramids, all day, for a week straight, while someone is maliciously playing around with the thermostat. It gets hot, it gets cold – it gets both at once. You wonder how that’s even possible! My first piece of advice is to be really mindful of what you pack. Although your team carries your main bag, your day sack should be as compact as possible! Avoid unnecessary things, such as bringing a few cold beers because you were thinking the first day is a breeze – it’s not!
Your first camp is situated within the dwindling forest, above the jungle you tracked through on day one. By the second night at Shira Camp you’ve cleared most substantial plant life. The nights quickly become colder and thus you’ll want to bring a metallic water bottle with you, which you could fill with boiling water to clench for life as you try to sleep! I personally also stuffed my sleeping bag every night with literally everything in my possession to create a makeshift thermal layer around me. These were all futile attempts to escape the bone-shivering high-altitude cold engulfing your body at sundown. Now’s a good time to mention that we arrived in Africa with no climbing gear what-so-ever. Aside from some glow sticks and a long cotton dress I used as a scarf, all of our equipment was borrowed from our guide’s spare closet of things left behind by climbers past. The shoes didn’t quite fit, I skipped on taking the down feather coat (big mistake!), and only one of our borrowed air mattresses could hold up until sunrise (we would rock-paper-sissors who would suffer next). All of this probably added to our nightly misery.
Although you pass jungles and moorlands, don’t expect to see much wildlife on the mountain. The thick greens and heavy human traffic prevent any real sightings on your first day through the rainforest. From there, but-for the occasional mouse, nothing will really venture above 2500m. The only campsite visitor which seems to be around at pretty much every altitude except the peak is the white-necked raven. It is a scavenging and garrulous bird, always on the lookout for food scraps near your lunch spots. It’s strangely a bit motivating to see them, knowing that you’re not the ONLY animal senseless enough to be up there. On the other hand, they behave like little vultures: black death birds reminding you of your imminent doom.
Realistically, it’s just you and the rocks…
OH and the mob of tourists. As well as everyone’s porters (i.e. sherpas) carrying everything, from propane gas tanks to plastic chairs, on their heads! These men, some well into their 40’s and 50’s, humble you with their strength and commitment to their jobs – which is ultimately all for their families down below. This element of the climb becomes a good motivator for the rest of your life: You may dislike your coworkers or dread studying for a test, but you are not carrying 40kg of someone’s useless belongings up a mountain you would otherwise not be on for $8 a day. Engrave that vision into your mind for every moment you feel like complaining in the future.
As the cooling surroundings teach you a new meaning of darkness, the busy stomping grounds slow to a dead halt every sundown. Alas the landscape’s vastness, at one point or another, will begin to quietly remind you of the fact that you are on a very large mountain, entrusting yourself to a group of complete strangers. Locals which know this mountain extraordinarily well, while you do not. Climbers whom are extremely fit and acclamitized, while you are not. Meanwhile you’ve been wearing a cloak of perceived safety.
Every year stories circulate of tents being slashed open at night to steal bags and belongings while reaching arms are stabbed out of the way. We were warned not to leave shoes and clothing outside to dry as they may not be there in the morning. In this completely immersive six day excursion, you soon realize everyone around you is fully aware that you have a nice lump sum of cash on you. Don’t be a statistic – be mindful of this.
It would be a good time to mention here that you should avoid going to the bathroom alone in the middle of the night… especially as a woman. Mostly because it’s extremely dark and the bathrooms are smeared with faeces, but also because you’re several days inland on a freezing-cold mountain full of mostly men. We were warned every night that the denser forest is perticularly unfriendly – bring a buddy.
I haven’t listed every day’s exact activities because what you eat, where you sleep, and how many days you take are all up to you and your tour operator. The meals are really not that bad considering where you are, granted you leave your Hyatt expectations are home. However looking back I would say that being able to recognize some crucial “landmarks” would have been a bit motivating for me; Mostly to help determine your place on route as you walk for hours wondering “oh god, am I there yet?”. It’s also not everyday that you will walk through what is quite possibly the closest we’ll all come to an extraterrestrial martian landscape! Looking forward to that moment may in fact help saver every minute of it while there!
Although unlikely, if you have energy to explore around each camp after your climb, you’ll be rewarded with even better views and experiences. For example, Shira Camp has some natural caves a short walk away and offers a great view of the camp below. Seeing the minuscule tents and camp area in comparison to the vast open space of the mountain ranges is quite humbling. It’s so beautiful up there – it’s truly a shame you’re so tired simply being there. You’ll want to remind yourself everyday to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets, drag the experience on, but chances are you will opt to snore through them. If you have a chance to spend more than 6 days – do so!
The third day is the most scenic. Walking up a few hours from Shira, you arrive at the lava rock formation which is the peak of that day’s altitude. Most groups stop here for lunch and it is unbearably cold, however – beautiful. If you’re on a longer hike you might even camp here. Take note, this red rock is a monument to the fact that you are actually on a volcano! As you walk around it and back down through the valley behind, your mind will clear up as you reduce altitude for the night and everyone has an extra cheer in their step. It is here, right before the third camp, where the ice-cold glacier waters drop down as waterfalls, flowing to the rest of Africa. It is here that the martian vegetation captivates your imagination. Mars, is that you? You set up camp below the Barranco wall and this cliff you will need to scale in the upcoming morning. A moment of doubt. Take rest!
Re the $
First, to give you some context, when my partner and I travel, no planning is done ahead of time and pre-packaged tours are strictly avoided. This allows our trips to be spontaneous in nature. Perhaps the stranger on your next bus has a better suggestion for your stay? Perhaps they can get you a discounted ticket to a festival who’ve never even heard of before! Ultimately this way of traveling really allows you to acquaint with the local culture and society. I highly suggest it. It also lets you scope out various pricing along the way…
Basically, when it comes to Kilimanjaro, it’s safe to say the local culture is to make as much money as you can off the tourists stupid enough to go up there. Do not fear, bargain for everything.
An hour within Moshi and we already had over 20 offers to climb with various groups on various routes. We could have probably convinced someone to feed us chocolate covered strawberries the entire way up. Every person in this town has a referral arrangement with what they say is the “best tour guide”. Therefore don’t feel like you have to settle if you don’t like the price or start date – shop around, competition is high. Yes, I’m sure there are also plenty of scams too… it’s Africa, be careful – but something about wiring over a thousand American dollars to an African bank account three months before a trip didn’t seem right to me. Just go there, read some reviews online about the companies you meet, and make a deal in person.
For example – we got a very reduced rate of $900 usd each for the next day’s climb because they were looking for 2 extra people (bingo!), but anywhere from $1000 – $1300 usd is a great and fair price. If you stay in any “lodges”, for the better but don’t expect much as these are just metal or wood huts instead of tents. We saw some porters carrying luxurious plastic chairs for their groups and it’s actually quite sad… You’re going up a mountain, not the beach. Don’t be that guy.
Some tours also mention that any money you ‘save’ on your climb comes out of the porter’s pockets and thus charge over $3000! That’s all nice and sweet but at the end of the day, they probably still pocket that money. Just bargain your climb down as much as possible, and bring the extra money you saved to give directly to your porters. After all, they carry all your shit up for 6 days on their backs, shoulders and heads! It’s intense and very humbling to witness, so do them a favour and give them cash – hand to hand.*
*specifically each porter – in their hand, not to the main guide! Reason I say this is our very friendly and actually quite professional team leader tried to tell us we had 11 porters while we only had 6. Predicting this, we actually asked to see our team on the second night, and he went through the trouble of “borrowing” another group’s porters for the awkward line up! All the work he went through to try and pocket the extra money – too bad we can actually head count the rest of the climb. So be warned, they will try – it’s their living after all.
Thus when it comes to tipping the porters – have exact cash ready before your climb. Ask your tour company how many people they will use and plan for two extra people just in case. Validate this number right at the gate, because at the gate your bags are weighed and extra people might be required by law. The first evening is a great time to meet your team and do a sneaky head count, when everyone is not too tired yet and working on setting up your camp. Place the tips cash in separate envelopes ahead of time to make life easier after the climb. Get to know your team and write the porter’s names on the envelopes as you go, they will definitely appreciate your efforts. Remember – this is their hard earnings. You will yawn at a desk later and make significantly more money, so don’t be cheap! Give it to them directly, hand to hand, with any special thanks, funny doodles, or gifts. We gifted our hat and gloves to the cook who was a sweetheart!
You’ll need a variety of gear to be a success due to the number of climates on the way up. We flew to the Kilimanjaro airport from Dar with literally 20 glow sticks and two light snowboarding jackets – not the best idea. A friend warned me about how cold it gets at 5000m, being a Canadian I didn’t really take it seriously – one of my major mistakes. I basically climbed in yoga pants under my cotton pyjamas: the warmest article of clothing I brought to Africa!
Most tour operators expect this type of ignorant behaviour however and stockpile warm clothing for you to use or rent. We were a severe case and needed literally everything – bottles, gloves, hats, shoes, pants, jackets, sleeping bags, head lamps… You name it. Who knew you needed a walking stick??
My advice here is to bring some of your own warm clothing and donate it to the porters after you’re done. The best way to dress is to LAYER. Thermal layers you can add and remove as you go from warm shade to freezing sun. (Wear sunscreen! ) You’ll need a trusty head lamp with extra batteries. You need a waterproof layer in case it rains. I would suggest a very warm insulating sweater in which you will live. Most importantly, plan to cover every inch of your skin on the last night as you head for the peak at 1 am, being more tired than you have ever been in your life, while walking in complete pitch darkness and unimaginable cold wind. Imagine spending a full day inside an industrial freezer while throwing up every half hour – prepare for that.
But do not shy away from the experience. You will love it.
I definitely underestimated the difficulty of climbing kilimanjaro.