You hear many reasons why you shouldn't climb Kilimanjaro: likelihood of not making it to the summit due to insufficient time to acclimatize to the altitude, likelihood of getting sick due to insufficient time to acclimatize to the altitude, Africa has more beautiful mountains that you can climb for a fraction of the cost, there is no technical difficulty involved in the climb, there are hoards of ill-prepared tourists purely climbing for the glory of telling their friends back home that they have scaled Africa's highest peak, etc, etc. These reasons are probably all valid. But I did it anyway. And loved it.
I have read somewhere that scientists are predicting that Kilimanjaro will be devoid of snow and ice by 2020. As well as becoming a less interesting trek, it will also be more dangerous. At the time of writing the Western Breach route has already been closed after a number of Italians were killed by falling rocks that were previously locked in the ice. However, over Christmas the mountain received the biggest snowfall in many years. Seeing as it is the dry season, rather than heavy snows bringing optimism for future treks, they are further evidence that the climate is messed up.
Of the ten or so routes, I chose Machame. This route is reputed to be the most scenic and is longer, giving more time for acclimatization so increased chances of making the summit. The excessive cost means I will probably only climb here once in my life so I thought it daft to attempt a cheaper but shorter and less interesting route up.
I booked the trip the day before the climb in Moshi with MEM Tours, who I would highly recommend. I climbed with Simon, a very interesting Swiss chap who worked for the International Red Cross in places like Congo and Haiti, from whom I have learnt much about what is going on in the world. I was pleased we were a small group. Most groups booked from their home countries were in parties of ten or more, sixty or more when you include guides and porters. Just us two meant we walked and relaxed with our own staff and got to know them all. Far more entertaining than tourists.
The route up the hill starts in lush rainforest. The trees gradually reduce in height until you reach a barren moonscape. It steepens near the summit with loose ash and solidified lava flows before a flat section across hard ice and snow leads you to the top.
The walk itself is fairly easy. I suppose climbing in the Rwenzori a few weeks ago meant I could cope with the thin air a lot better but I did expect it to be more taxing. Simon and myself spent most days overtaking large unfit parties shuffling along and generally arrived at the campsite before lunchtime. A few sections required a bit of scrambling and you are constantly held up by tourists who insist on using sticks even though it is much easier with your hands free. "If we were meant to use sticks we would have been born with four legs" said one of the porters jogging past with a table and chairs balanced on his head.
The short days and easy walking makes you complacent before the summit day which is disproportionately hard. The climb began at midnight, after little sleep due to a howling wind. The only windy day of seven on the mountain. The half moon shining through the thin air offered enough light to render headtorches unnecessary. The route is steep and picks its way through tongues of ice reaching down from the glacier above. The freezing wind, loose ash, and lack of oxygen eventually made me quite fed up. However, once again, as when climbing Margherita Peak a few weeks previously, stubbornness got me to the top.
The aim is to summit in time for sunrise at 0630. We made it by 0530 but it was far too cold to hang around. It was still quite a sight on the way down to watch dawn breaking over knackered tourists still with a long way to go. Very few people replied to our cheery "good mornings". I completely understood. Earlier on as I breathlessly stumbled up a particularly steep patch of rock my guide started singing and I could have thrown him down the ravine.
This is the second highest of the three high mountains I have ever climbed and every time I have got over 5000m I vow to stick to low mountains in future. Having being born at about 30m above sea level I don't belong up there. There are some fantastic treks in the world that don't involve shivering all night and struggling to take ten steps without stopping for a rest. Although if I am to complete my quest of climbing the highest mountain of every country in the world I will need to go a lot higher. The quest is now racing along. I have done four. One hundred and ninety to go.
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