I am an experienced backpacker who is new to Summit Post and mountaineering in general. I was informed of this site by an experienced mountaineer when planning our trip, and I found it extremely useful. I hope anyone reading this finds it equally helpful.
Before I get into the specifics of the report, a few pointers based on our experience:
1.) We used Adventures Within Reach to book our trip in the U.S. and they in turn use EcoTours as their TZ outfitter. (They formerly used Zara). I had no major issues with either of them and found them to be all that was advertised. I would also highly recommend our guide Adam who is starting up his own company. His page is www.kilitours.com if you would prefer to book directly with a local company. I can not personally attest to how he would set up the entire trip, but on the mountain we found him to be a great guide with exceptional knowledge of the mountain, a good communicator and he constantly monitored and adjusted to our abilities and physical state. As an experienced backpacker, I felt that if anything they did too much for us, and at times things were to excess such as too much food (which was excellent) or instructing us that we take only minimal necessary items in our day pack and insisting on carrying all of our other items for us. I truly can't imagine what more could be done or provided by companies that charge up to 2 or 3 times what we paid other than if they pay the guides and porters better, but you can do this yourself by tipping them directly what you feel is appropriate and then you are assured that is where your money is going.
2.) We read on this site and others about the poor equipment of the porters, but it is worth stating it here again as I don't think it can be overemphasized. These guys are truly amazing in how hard they work and they are truly appreciative of the opportunity to work for you. We took a full duffel bag of old winter clothes, boots, etc to give them and also gave them some of the clothes right off our backs after the trip. We still left wishing we could have done more for them as they simply don't have any opportunity to buy any new items for themselves as there is no local store that sells equipment. Also, anything you can possibly take that you could donate to them, take it. When we returned we wanted to ship a box with some more things we hadn't thought to take like old sleeping bags and it would cost us over $600 to ship one box. Bottom line, think about what you have that you don't use anymore and if at all possible take it with you. They will appreciate it.
3.) The weather changes on the mountain were really suprising to me. Make sure you are prepared with rain gear at all times and gaiters were very valuable to keep water (as well as scree) out of boots.
4.) When choosing a route, if you have the time I would highly recommend the Lemosho route. I had ready different accounts of people complaining about the crowds on the mountain but we didn't see another sole for the first 3 days of our trip. Eventually, all of the routes meet up so the last day or 2 will be the same for everyone but we didn't find crowds to be a problem whatsoever. (We went in mid-December) Also, this route gives you the opportunity to take side hikes to gain significant elevation with only minimal changes in elevation where you will sleep.
5.) If going that far, most people seem to tie together the trip with a safari. We did a 5 day trip to Lake Manyara, the Serengenti and Ngorogoro Crater. The safari is amazing at first, but if you are active and adventurous (you are reading summitpost after all) 5 days is a LONG TIME to be sitting in a car. Seeing elephants, giraffes, lions, etc is an unbelievable experience, but lions basically lay around and sleep and everything else pretty much stands and eat grass and it really does lose its effect pretty quickly. If I had it to do over again I would still do the safari, but probably just 3 days or try to incorporate something else like a walking safari.
6.) Another thing we read is that luggage often gets lost/delayed by the airlines on this trip. We had no problems but did witness a group of 3 guys who arrived with none of their equipment. While the outfitter they were with did their best to help them, I can't imagine walking for 5-10 days in boots, clothes that I wasn't comfortable in so I would highly recommend wearing and/or carrying on all of the basics you will need (especially boots, raingear and a set of warm clothing)to get you to the top.
On to the report.
We got an early start from our hotel at 8 am and were taken to meet our crew who were finishing packing up our van with supplies. I was shocked to see that we had a crew consisting of a guide, an assistant guide, a cook and 6 porters for the 2 of us. I was also shocked at what all they would be carrying. For example, they had a wicker basket the size of a laundry basket filled with fresh fruits and vegtables to make our meals on the way. Soon we were off to the park right on schedule. That would be short lived however. We arrived at the park gate at about noon. You are not allowed to complete registration and begin your climb until the rangers can verify your payment. Across the country, they were having rolling blackouts and the communication systems were down and so we couldn't be verified and didn't get on the road until after 2:30 to the trailhead. Then, several roads (all dirt) were washed out and we had to take an alternate route to the trailhead. After driving until a little after 3 the road became unpassable several miles from the actual trailhead. We didn't even reach our supposed start point until about 4:30 and Adam advised that it was unwise to risk getting stuck in the dense rainforest in dark and so we camped at the trailhead, already a day behind. We were upset by this, but accepted it as nothing could be done. It was a lesson learned about how different a natoinal park in Africa and things in general were from home.
We got up early and were served breakfast of sausage, eggs, toast and fresh mango which was pretty typical of how we were fed on the trip which suprised us with how good it was. The hike was through very dense rainforest limiting visibility and views. We did see a bunch of black and white colobus monkeys which were cool to see as they jumped through the trees overhead. We didn't notice any other wildlife but apparently encountered some as we arrived at the ranger station at the Big Tree camp where we would spend the night (2650 meters). As we were signing in we noticed that we had safari ants literally in our pants. We put on quite a display to the entertainment of our guides and the rangers as we ripped our pants off and brushed the bugs off. The rest of the day was spent at camp relaxing and doing some short side hikes. Overall, a much better day than the one before.
Today we headed to Shira camp 1. It took about a half hour to get above the rainforest and then about another hour to get through the heather (mostle evergreens). This was nice as the views really opened up without the thick tree cover. However, the clouds moved in quickly limiting the visibility. This would become a recurring theme of the trek as the weather could change instantly turning from perfectly blue skies to rain with zero visibility in a matter of minutes. We ended our hike by descending to Shira 1 camp (3610 m) as rains moved in. This set up an awesome picture though as it started to clear up and we peeked out of our tent from a nap to see a huge rainbow over the summit.
Today took us from Shira 1 to Shira 2 Camp which provided minimal elevation gain. We did however climb Cathedral Peak en route. The morning started off with clear skies and I was looking foreward to the views from Cathedral but the rain and clouds again moved in on us quickly and at the top visibility was less than 15-20 feet. From this point it rained about as hard as I've ever been in the rest of the way to the Shira 2 camp and we arrived soaked. Our crew was waiting for us at camp and already had everything set up and before we were even done changing our cook had a huge pot of stew and hot drinks ready for us which was awesome. Despite, everyone's efforts the rest of the day was pretty miserable and we were stuck in our tents waiting out the rain. All we could do was hope for some sun the next day.
We were up at around 4 am b/c we fell asleep so early the night before. We layed in the tent until it began to get light and when I poked my head out and couldn't believe how beautiful everything was. We had our first clear view of the summit here and had a 360 degree view over the plateau. The mornings were cold at this elevation but we hopped right out of our tent and walked around for about a half hour before breakfast taking pictures and then ate breakfast right out on the rocks while taking in the scenery. Today's hike took us to the Lava Tower (4600 m.) en route to Barranco camp back down at 3950 m. The views at the tower were beautiful and the sky clear blue when we stopped for lunch around 11:30. As with the prior days, the clouds and rain moved in quickly and before we could get a picture together in front of the tower it completely disappeared into the clouds. The last hour of our hike it rained again but nothing compared to the day before and we enjoyed a mild afternoon hanging around the camp.
Today was the day we designated to do 2 sections of the trail to make up for our lost first day. We started early at 7am. We had about a 5 minute walk to the Baranco wall which definately woke us up quickly. This was our favorite part of the trip and the most physically challenging. The wall consisted of equal parts hiking and scrambling up the steep ledge. There were great views from the wall down on camp and some waterfalls. At the top the views were even more spectacular as the morning was crystal clear. This was the first point where it felt we were getting close to the top as we had a great look up at the glaciers. We arrived at Karanga hut at about 10 am and this portion of the trail was also really interesting. It was very rugged and rocky with some steep cliffs and a number of caves. We made a very brief rest stop at Karangu which we would be skipping to make up time and then continued on toward Barafu Hut camp (4600 m). As much as I liked the mornings hike, this part was pretty unremarkable as we got up into the desert it was very barren and dusty and felt like we were walking on the moon. The final approach was a challenge as it was one last steep climb to the camp which sat on top of a ledge. Once at the top the skies were again very clear and we had beautiful views and nice weather as we rested up for our summit attempt.
This was a ridiculously long day that really began at 10pm the night before as we could not sleep due to the anticipation. After a snack we got started right at midnight as planned. We dressed way too warm and about 20 minutes in were already stripping down layers. The hike was simply straight uphill and steep. We both began having difficulty around 4 am. Neither of us had signs of altitude sickness but I believe it was a combonation of exhaustion from not sleeping plus doing 2 segments of the hike the day before combined with the altitude. Whatever the reason, we were both struggling. At one point while we stopped, I think I actually fell asleep leaning on my poles and stumbled which concerned the guides but after they saw I was OK we continued on. The last hour the guides were awesome as far as encouraging us and even insisted on taking our packs for us for the final stretch as they were useless since our drinks were frozen. Despite our struggles and due to our guides help we arrived at Gillman's point right at 6 as planned and watched as the sun began to rise. As it became light, we realized that we were actually looking down upon the glaciers. From here, the final stretch was much less steep but no less difficult as every step was a major effort at this altitude. We reached the summit around 6:40 and hung around for about 20 minutes taking pictures before heading down. It was amazing to me how easy it was to go down. The slight grade which seemed impossible on the final stretch going up was now no problem to cruise right down. We also flew down the steep portion of the hill getting back to camp at 8:30. (Almost 7 hours to go up, exactly 90 min down.) We took a short break at camp and were too exhausted to eat and decided to just move on down the mountain. We decended the Mweka route which was pretty unremarkable and we were moving at a fast pace arriving at Mweka Camp (3100 m) in about 3 more hours. We were exhausted by the days end and were asleep before 8 pm.
We awoke feeling great after sleeing for over 10 hours and were ready for our last morning heading off the mountain. Before leaving, our crew sang us a Kili song and did a little dance which was cool and then we gave them tips and thanked everyone for all they did to make our trip truly exceptional. The trip down was unlike the rest of the trek where you barely saw another person and had near solitude. The bottom of the Mweka trail was more like a superhighway. We were hiking quickly, passing other hikers, porters were flying past us anxious to get home and there were probably close to a hundred locals who passed us while coming up the trail carrying boards balanced on their heads, one to three at a time, up to the camp where they are using them to build a new ranger station. We were at the gate by 10 and signed out and back in Moshi by 11 am. Other than the rough start which was really out of the hands of our guides and tour operator, the trip was amazing, everything we had hoped for and then some.
I already gave my $.02 on the safari above and won't go into details on that. It was overall enjoyable and the amount of wildlife seen was awesome. I am including a few of my better pictures, but this is far from inclusive of all that we saw. Basically, if you look in the guide books, everything that is in them we saw except for a leopard and just about everything was in large quantities except for seeing only 1 rhino and a few cheetas.