A group five of us (all students from the University of Cape Town) tackled Kili two days after summitting Mount Meru, as the highlight of our Tanzanian expedition.
The crew was: Karen "Polly" Graaff, Russell "Spike" Shaw, Doug "Smiley" Hildebrand, Sele "Bob Marley" Selebonelo, and Daniel "Ze German" Ehret
The Initial Climb
After relaxing for a day in our hotel after Meru, the following morning we were driven to the Umbwe village, where we were to start on the Umbwe route, a steeper but shorter option than many of the other routes up Kilimanjaro. A major bonus was that we were the only party on the route, whereas on the Marangu and Machame routes you could have as many as 150 people hiking and camping with you every day! However we were still a large group, as for the five of us we had a crew of 2 guides, one chef and about fifteen porters!
We started off trekking through dense rainforest, but after only 20 minutes the heavens opened and it started raining…and raining…and then some more rain. In fact, it rained for so long and so hard that our path soon transformed itself into a river, both slippery and up to 15cm deep in some places. We decided that a more appropriate name for the country would be Tanrainia!
By the time we got to the initial Bivouac camp we were all drenched from head to toe. Not even Polly’s fancy waterproof La Sportivas could withstand the constant barrage! Meanwhile Bob’s neck seemed to be under pressure as his dreadlocks accumulated about 20 litres of rainwater. It all seemed very colonial as we hung around shivering whilst the porters went about erecting our tents and cooking our food. Whilst ordinarily I would feel bad about this, one only had to remember that we were paying them for the privilege, and they would also be expecting a decent tip at the end of the hike.
Day two started out in the same way days three and four would – with bright sunshine followed by gathering clouds, a menacing wind, lots of mist, and (you guessed it!) more rain. Our clothes were still wet from the previous day, so we wore them in the hope of drying them off. It seemed like a good idea, but when the rain started up again we were back at square one. As tour leader/ organiser I was constantly reminder as to how good my timing was for the trip – seemingly right in the middle of the monsoon season!
The vegetation soon changed from dense rainforest to more heather, with giant cycads proving to be a major feature. The path became a little more rocky, but due to poor visibility we were never able to gauge exactly where we were on the mountain. By the time we got to Barranco camp (above right) the mist was so thick that we couldn’t even tell where the Barranco Wall was! But the view we were treated to the following morning really raised our damp sprits, as the peak was starting to look- and feel closer.
The going was a lot harder at this stage, and the effects of altitude were starting to be felt, with a few team members experiencing headaches. The last kilometre to Barafu Camp (4600m) acted as a harsh reminder as to what we could expect the next morning. For the first time since we began the hike, we could enjoy a sunny afternoon. The high altitude ensured that all clothes and boots dried sufficiently, but unfortunately resulted in me getting sunburned even though I was only outside for about ten minutes!
It may have been the food, it may have been the altitude, but when we went to sleep that night not too many of us were feeling that well. There were a few upset stomachs as well as some headaches. It was recommended that Diamox be used at altitude, as it helps thin the blood, improving circulation. Sele had been popping Diamox pills since we arrived in Tanzania, so he was probably feeling the best. But we tried our best to get some sleep as we hit the sack at 7pm, knowing we would be woken up just four hours later. It was difficult to get to sleep, as the wind picked up and the tent felt as if it would be blown off the ridge!
At 11pm on the dot we could hear someone knocking on the tent, but we were already awake. The sense of excitement was our main reason for not getting any sleep, but we took our time in getting fully geared up, with Doug managing to lose one of his gaitors in the process! Our guides tried to get us to eat some oats and have a cup of tea, but I wasn’t hungry in the slightest, and could feel my stomach growling for all the wrong reasons.
We set off into the night just after midnight, right into the face of a howling gale. We could see the lights of other groups higher up who had come up via the Machame route, but the routes converged for the final summit. The path seemed like an endless zigzag, and with the terrain mainly comprising sand and skree, it was a case of two steps forward, one step backwards. The going was tough for two reasons. Firstly, our energy levels had dropped substantially due to the altitude, and even though we were hiking very slowly, you found yourself running out of breath in a hurry. Earlier in the trip we had passed the time by singing songs, but on this particular night one’s voice was reduced to a mere croak after singing just one verse!
Secondly, we had to deal with a bone-chilling wind. Without the wind it would have been fine, but the gale took the temperature down to between –15 and –20 degrees Celsius. Within an hour of starting I started losing feeling in my boots, and my fingers started aching inside my thermal gloves. It started getting so bad that I had to clench my hands into fists to try and prevent them from becoming completely numb. But the worst was not having a balaclava. I had a beanie and my waterproof shell that covered my mouth, but my nose was at the mercy of the elements, and nothing I could do could stop it from running. At least Doug and I managed to provide a morbid sense of entertainment as we had to frequently answer nature’s call, hobbling off the path and baring our backsides to the continent.
Unfortunately at about 3am Karen decided she had had enough. Her lack of sleep and a nagging headache, together with the fear that her not-completely dry boots were starting to freeze over, convinced her that it would be better to turn back. It was sad to see her go as we desperately wanted to get up together, but it is important in situations like these to keep a grip on your emotions. No mountain is worth summiting if you run the risk of losing digits on the way, or even your life. Elphas, our assistant guide, led her slowly back down the mountain, whilst the rest of us realised there was no way but the high way with our solitary guide providing encouragement.
A summit attempt like this is a little like running a marathon or driving from Joburg to Cape Town. You know that you are going to be hiking for a long time, and a slight change in speed is not going to take you there any faster. I knew that we would be near the summit at around dawn, so for that half dozen hours in between you just had to put your head down, grit your teeth and plough on. The wind was playing havoc with the cloud overhead as well, as our sky view alternated between thick cloud and the most beautiful constellation of stars one could ever hope to see. Had it been a calmer night you could lose yourself in those stars, but looking in them for too long usually resulted in losing one’s balance on the loose gravel that was our path.
But onwards and upwards we strove, taking breaks every few minutes to catch our breaths, even though we were walking at a snail’s pace! We had 1295m to climb that morning, with the hardest part being the 100m climb before reaching Stella Point, our entry point to the lip of the crater. It was just before dawn, and there was an overwhelming temptation just to lie down, curl up into a ball and fall asleep. It is in times like these that your guide becomes essential, as he turns from being a friendly little helper into a boot camp sergeant, keeping your breaks to a minimum and pulling you to your feet if you have been sitting down for too long. He knew that if we were going to get there, we had to keep moving, and of course he was dead right. We made a final push and got up to Stella Point (5600m) at the crack of dawn. Our reward was a short flat stretch and one of the most memorable sunrises imaginable. Fortunately the clouds were absent as we saw the sun rise over the African continent, and it warmed our spirits as we knew the hard work was almost over. We had just crossed the snow belt, and a massive glacier on our left turned a majestic pink as the sun’s rays engulfed it.
After a short break and some photos like the ones above we set off again, this time each person going at his own pace as he waged his own battle against this giant of a mountain. Ice and snow crunched under our boots as we shuffled ever closer to our destination, but the wind persisted and drained every ounce of energy from our exhausted bodies. We were buoyed by the site of some of the other groups returning from the summit, but I felt desperate when one of them took my hand and said, “Well done.” – I hadn’t even got there yet!
The last 295m ascent takes about 45 minutes to complete, but it felt like ages. Even though the gradient was easier than before reaching Stella Point, we still had to rest every few minutes. However, taking a break didn’t ease matters, as the wind still howled around you, and your pulse rate never seemed to come down to a level where you were happy to move on feeling a little refreshed. I ended up being at the front of the group and was taking one of my numerous breaks, wondering if I would ever get there, when our guide Damien came up to me, urging me to get up. “Come on Russy boy,” he shouted, “you are almost there. Just two minutes. Can’t rest now, too dangerous…you can still get mountain sickness if you are up here for too long.” I looked at him in disbelief, not sure whether he was pulling my leg or being serious. But it was just the tonic I needed, and with tears of frustration running down my cheeks I set off once more at a better pace. Within seconds I spotted a small group of people not far ahead, and I knew that they must be at the summit.
That was the best part of the whole trip. The summit was within touching distance, and the exasperation and exhaustion melted away like the specks of snow on my eyelashes. I got to the board congratulating me on my achievement of standing on the highest point in Africa, and kissed it with an overwhelming sense of emotion and achievement. I want to scream and dance, but my mouth was so dry that it was more like a croak that came from my mouth! A few minutes later Sele arrived in his calm and collected manner, and we hugged each other in celebration. Doug and Daniel were not far behind, helping each other all the way over the last stretch. The expression on Daniel’s face was timeless, as we exclaimed: “Why do we do these things? We climb all the way up here just to take one f#$%ing picture?”
But it was so much more than that. It was the culmination of months of planning, the accomplishment of a personal goal within each one of us, and a story to tell for years to come. We were at the highest point on the Africa continent, and it felt absolutely bloody marvellous! The only disappointment was that the clouds had closed in and we experienced a ‘white out’ at the top, where the mist was so dense that we could lo longer even see the crater floor behind the peak.
But our mission was accomplished, and whilst the initial descent was quite tricky as we descended via the Marangu route, we eventually made our way back down to Horombo Huts, where we were to spend the night before returning to the hotel the next day. We got down at about midday, which meant we had been hiking for 12 hours. Needless to say a well-deserved nap was the order of the afternoon! Later that evening we were in the position of wishing other groups well as they prepared to summit that night. On the way down the next day it was amusing to see how the other groups reacted to us. We wished them well, and one lady even remarked, “I can see you guys made it up simply by the expression on your face!”
The final morning was a gentle four hour hike back to the park headquarters at the Marangu gate. We had the pleasure of hiking through the rainforests again, although (as luck would have it) our final day was basked in glorious sunshine, and we had so much energy that we bounded down some of the sections like school kids in a playground! That evening we had an awards ceremony where we received our certificates for summiting Meru and Kili, and had dinner with our guides before thanking them and bidding them farewell. Thereafter it was a fines meeting for the party members, where we enjoyed the fine local beers. The best brand of beer? Kilimanjaro Lager, of course!