There are 3 peaks to Kilimanjaro: Shira, Mwenzi and Uhuru, with Uhuru being the highest and most accessible peak –it’s also the youngest and last active part of this mountain. Kilimanjaro is massive with Uhuru standing at 5895m/19,341 ft and during this time of year, with little snow to take on, means it’s just a super long, potentially arduous hike. In my opinion, it’s one of the most approachable mountains if you ever want to take on a summit at this height.
More than just achieving new heights, this mountain intrigued me for it’s 5 different climate zones. From the jungle to the alpine desert, you are greeted with contrasting landscapes, each with their unique elements. Hours of hiking each day may seem daunting, but the guides make it fun and our fellow climbers kept things interesting. I absolutely fell in love with the upper mountain and could have kept hiking for days.
It was actually a treat to have a guide and a team of porters invested in giving us the best chance of summiting. We didn’t rush, we went at the pace that all of us could keep together. Sometimes it felt ridiculously slow, but then, I would remind myself, “what’s the hurry?” I loved the hiking, I loved the guides, I enjoyed the comradery and I knew the porters would have camp set up for us when we arrived. There wasn’t anywhere in the world I wanted to be other than at that very place, doing what I was doing; therefore, why rush it?
Our porters were strong and fast, quick with everything and always smiling. I learned a small bit of Swahili while hiking (basic greetings, numbers, phrases, and some common words) and every time the porter with my pack would pass I would say ‘asante sana’ (thank you in Swahili) with a cheerful nod. He would smile and breeze on past and I would watch as my pack made it’s way out of sight in a matter of moments.
Some days the hiking was harder than others, but overall completely achievable and thoroughly enjoyable. It didn’t really matter because at the end of each hike, there was camp to look forward to. At every camp, upon arrival we would find our tents fully assembled, mess tent complete with table, chairs, hot water and your choice of tea, coffee or cocoa; and the bathroom available to us. I was shocked to see the elaborate offerings made for us each day. For example, we had a hot lunch at the Lava Tower (4600m) waiting
for us, mess tent and toilet all setup. This was our first major altitude sampling and the greeting was a welcome break.
Breakfast, lunches and dinners were always hot. Soups, chicken, eggs, toast, porridge, sausages, vegetables and fruits, including a watermelon late in the trip. We had peanut butter, margarine and other accompaniments that we couldn’t believe were hauled up the mountain. I was very thankful for all of it! At some point on the way up, my appetite was insatiable. I was already packing leftovers for snacks along the hike but in the middle of the night I started craving food. I started packing leftovers from dinner so I could eat something later. My metabolism was on overdrive!
With the varying altitudes and differing experiences handling the altitude changes, we took things slow at camp. Most of us were exhausted by 8pm. Luke, on the other hand having recently summited Denali, would run off and do some night photography, see his blog for his experience on the mountain. Sleep did not come easily for me on the mountain. For some reason, despite having used the restroom before retiring to my tent, I would lay down and find myself immediately feeling like I needed to get up and go again. Frustrated with this late night phenomenon, I could do nothing but wait it out for as long as I could then suck it up and venture out (usually around midnight).
The higher up we got, the colder the nights but unlike in the jungle we were slowly creeping above the clouds and now the skies were peeking out and clearing up. The night sky was impressive with the lights of Moshi far below. I could clearly see the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and even in the early morning/late night Orion. The moon was not quite upside down but more on that spectrum, which reminded me that together with the Southern Cross, we were clearly below the equator. I looked for other constellations, but found it hard to pick things out. I figured these midnight outings gave me an excuse to look up and enjoy the night sky which made the inconvenience more bearable.
Summit morning was a long day with a mild-ish hike to base camp and a super early start (midnight) for the summit. While I had layered my socks, I found my toes still froze. That and my water bladder froze and my extra water bottle leaked out. Together with frozen fingers I realized I still have not mastered the art of mountain warmth.
Luke had gone up ahead of our group and was taking photos and our group nearer Stella Point had some gaps. Thus, I made my way up to Stella Point on my own and had a picture taken. I moved quickly to Uhuru, counting my steps as I went, pausing every 100 feet. When I arrived, I was completely overcome with emotion and could feel my eyes welling with tears.
I made it. My first big mountain. A long time, really big dream of mine that I made happen, with some luck and support from Luke.
Now, I may have made the summit but I was severely dehydrated and did not linger, knowing I needed to get down and rehydrate quickly. Of course, our guides were prepared for this and had juice boxes waiting for us on the way up and at Stella Point–a peak being just 20 minutes from Uhuru, which can feel like an eternity if you are having any altitude problems. A juice box was not going to be enough to help me by that point and for the first time that entire trip, I started to feel off.
By the time we got back to camp, I had a headache that developed into something mind splitting. I’ve never experienced anything like this and wanted to sleep, but we needed to tear down camp and hike out that afternoon. Also for the first time, we were on a strict time schedule so resting was cut short and we moved out as soon as we could.
Back in June I had hurt my knee on a long run and though I was able to hike most things, up was fine, coming down could be a challenge. It seemed if the terrain was not overly impactful on the knee and not longer than a couple hours, I would be fine. But, after that point, if the knee was aggravated, my ability to go downhill deteriorated fast.
The summit descent took a toll on my knee. I knew I needed to get down quickly so I went quickly, which put a lot of stress on the knee for a long distance. Luke had to carry me for a few stretches to give it some rest but still make progress down. When the group had assembled we made the decision to hike further out to get as far down the mountain on this day and not have as long the next. Luke had to carry me at points on this descent as well. I was in bad shape. After some time, and with a lot of leaning on hiking poles, I figured out a way to hobble out on my own. My whole body was wrecked after, but then we were heading out on safari where I would be sitting for days so I figured I could give my knee some rest then.
Another memorable moment of this part of my trip was the post summit celebration. First, I should remark that 2 members in our party got engaged at the summit. We had a celebratory moment at the final camp, thanks to some forethought and planning from our guide, Raymond, and Chris (the proposer). Spirits were high as we made our final camp, but I was feeling sad. The adventure was coming to a close and I didn’t want it to end.
After breakfast the next morning, our crew did a celebration dance and swept us into their circle where we moved and embraced the final moments we would all be sharing together. It could have been the summit high, the altitude oxygen deprivation swings or just the intense bonding that occurred throughout the trip; but during this engagement, I was once again moved to the point of tears. I would have tried to hide it but my hands were clasped with someone else’s as we
were directed enthusiastically around to a joyous beat. Tears escaped my eyes and rolled down my face as I tried hard to contain the emotion and not start hugging every single porter, cook, waiter, guide and hand. It was a moment that I found myself in love with everything and everyone around me. My love for this mountain, the experience, the people, this celebration, was overwhelming. I had never had such intense feelings like this from an adventure before and I knew I would miss it all once it ended. There aren’t enough words for me to express how grateful I was for everything.
This was definitely worth the experience. I can’t believe it took me this long to get around to it, either. 14 years ago, the experience would have been a bit different since the commercialization of the mountain hadn’t quite come into it’s own just then, but I am sure I would have enjoyed that experience, too. Climb Kili, the guiding company we used, made this journey personal and intimate without even trying. I can’t thank them enough for everything they did for us and I can hardly believe the crew will go back in 4 days and do it all again and again until the end of peak season. I’m impressed they can make each summit push a unique and personal one despite the number of people they will meet on the journey and never see again. I, however, hope this will not be my last meeting with some of them.
Next up, Safari time!
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