My wife and I decided to have an adventure of a lifetime for our 30th birthdays. We determined that a trip up Kilimanjaro would be just the right amount of adventure, so we booked our trip. We decided to use the tour company Nature Discovery that is headquartered in Arusha. They recommended a 7-day trip up the Machame Route, and we agreed.
Other things required for preparation include:
Vaccinations for Polio, Tetanus/Diptheria, Hepatitis A & B, Typhoid, Yellow Fever, and Meningitis. We also got prescriptions for Malarone (anti-malaria), Limotl (anti-diarrhea), Levaquin (antibiotic) and Diamox for altitude sickness. We got lucky and our health insurance covered some of these costs, so we paid about $250 per person for the vaccines and drugs.
Get to the gym. Work on hiking uphill and climbing stairs. Do long workouts that require you to keep climbing when winded. You will not experience many quick bursts of activity on the mountain. I shed 14 pounds to get down to 238 in the 4 months before we left. I was not in the best shape of my life, but I had lost the weight of my day pack, and strengthened my legs significantly. You don't have to be an Adonis to do this hike.
I buzzed my hair with clippers before we left, and it was the best decision I made. I could wash my head with the provided soap and water, and not have to worry about greasy hair (like my wife's).
All you have left to do is beg your boss for some time off.
The Penultimate Day
We arrived in Arusha and spent the night at L'Oasis Hotel. The next day we took four naps and checked our gear. It was a nervous but restful day.
Early in the afternoon we met with our guide, Liberate, and John with Nature Discovery. John needed the rest of the payment,and Liberate wanted to size up this yankee couple.He was smaller than I expected...5'-3" and a buck 10...but it was solid muscle. They both insisted we would make it even though they knew nothing about our level of fitness. At least they were thinking positively. I would come to learn in the following days just how important positive thought was.
Machame Gate to Machame Camp - 1185m, 20km, 7 hours
Get used to speaking in meters and kilometers. This is the language spoken on the mountain.
The first day was quite a test. The walk through the rain forest was a tough way to start. We walked from the gate up through a crowd of tourists and porters still waiting for the permits that took us two hours to procure. The trail wasn't very crowded at first, but after we stopped for lunch it really filled up. Our guides told us that nearly 100 tourists are let onto the trail every day...that doesn't include porters or guides.
The forest scenery got very monotonous as there were no visible goals. Water breaks became more frequent, and Liberate asked to take my pack for me about an hour before the day's finish line. My pride wouldn't let me give up my pack, so we pressed on. I was thoroughly exhausted at the end of the day not even considering a New Year's Eve celebration. The first doubts about my ability to make it to the top began to set in. Jen and I talked about this and made a pact. The only goals we would talk about from then on was the next camp and no further. The peak was just too far away to imagine.
This first day I realized how bad BO could be. It was so prevalent that you begin to get used to it. The stars are more brilliant here than anywhere on earth. We realized that we have our own toilet just before bed...something about this is ludicrous. Now it's time for bed.
Machame Camp to Shira Camp - 840m, 4.5 hours
This morning I realized how important the liner sheet was that I left out of my sleeping bag. We were far removed from the warm winds of Arusha, and it was a cold night. Our assistant guide Jared was tired after New Year's Eve celebration, but we were all ready to go at 8:30.
The trail begins with a long hike up a steep rock hill that doesn't seem to have a top. About half way up Jen lost grip of her water bottle and it went bounding down the hill. We watched on helplessly until a nice porter grabbed it and brought it back up to us. We needed lots of water today, and we needed lots of rests. There were some treacherous areas of the trail with a rock wall on one side and a fatal drop on the other. I didn't quite expect this, but we are on a mountain after all. As we neared Shira Camp I realized that I felt stronger than the day before, even with the increased altitude.
I washed some clothes before bed and put them on top of the tent to dry. Bad idea.
Shira Camp to Barranco Camp - 110m, 6.5 hours (780m to Lava Tower)
I woke up this morning to find a brilliant sunrise and frozen underwear on my tent. Luckily I brought more than one pair. We ate and set off up a long but gentle ascent. There were many false summits but I kept my breathing steady and we kept a good pace. During one rest we all sat and watched another guide carrying this guy's pack. We chuckled amongst ourselves, and I reminded Liberate that I wouldn't be able to laugh if I had let him carry my pack on Day 1.
After lunch the weather took a turn for the worse. I can't call it rain, but the rest of the day's hike was through a rain cloud. No drops fell...instead you just gathered wetness on your every surface. We made it up to Lava Tower where Jen started to feel the altitude. The Lava Tower is incredible I'm told, but the fog obscured it completely. After the Lava Tower it was all downhill. The path was muddy and visibility was low. We didn't talk much. We just put our heads down and kept going. Downhill hiking is not easy. This would be our worst day of weather...not so bad.
We made it to Barranco Camp an hour early, and we're pleased. We feel even stronger today...until Liberate points out the Barranco Wall that we'll start the following day climbing. We are about to have our best night of mountain sleep.
Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp - 40m, 3.5 hours
We start the day with a climb up the shear face of the Barranco Wall. We put away our trekking poles and do alot of scrambling. The trail is a bit crowded, but we make it up quickly. It was actually fun. The rest of the day was easy until we descended the steep rocks down to the Karanga River. This was tough going, then there was a step wall to climb after the river to get to camp. We did it slow and steady, but it was a hell of a way to finish the day's hiking. We then stopped at Karanga Camp for lunch and the rest of the day.
We chose to take this extra day to acclimate, and to rest. Otherwise we would have continued hiking to Barafu after lunch. It was an excellent choice as we got some much needed rest and were able to take stock of all our gear and get some washing done. From this camp we got our first good view of the peak and it was incredible. The pictures just can't do it justice. After staring at the peak, you can turn around and stare over the town of Moshii. What a view.
Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp - 635m, 3 hours
We wake well rested and take off again at 8:30. The goal is to make it to Barafu in 4 hours. We made it in 2:45. Our guides are probably playing head games with us, but they are pleased with our pace and are certain we'll make it to the top. Just before camp there is a steep hill that takes about 1/2 hour to ascend. All vegetation is now gone from the trail. We make it to the top and we're exhausted. The porters are all happy because they have to ascend no further.
After lunch we take a trip to see tomorrow's trail. It looks daunting, especially when you realize that you can only see the first quarter of the trail. During dinner, Liberate checks all our gear and makes recommendations about what to take and what to leave. We go to bed at 6:00 knowing we'll wake again in 5 hours.
Day 6 - Summit Day
Barafu Camp to Summit to Mweka Camp - 1265m up, 2785m down, 14 hours
THE day has arrived. We wake to a breakfast of porridge and tea and we're off by midnight. The walk starts of easy but quickly turns into grueling switchbacks. You can only see what your headlamp will allow, which is about 4 feet in front of you. One thing you quickly notice is how brilliant the stars are and how equally brilliant the lights of Moshii are far below.
My breathing becomes harder and harder to control, and I ask for more frequent rests and water breaks. This is killing Jen who now has nausea, but only when we stop. I can't believe how bad my lungs hurt, and how fruitless each breath seems. We stop again for water and realize that our water bottles are freezing...this can't be good. We are hiking on endless switchbacks covered in loose gravel. Each step comes with a chance to loose ground by slipping on the gravel. I try to keep a rhythm between my footsteps and breathing, and it usually doesn't last long. I begin to think that it hopeless with every burning breath. Liberate can sense it and he gets in my faceto urge me on. He points out the glacier upahead that has come into view. It's only 4:00 am, but even in the black of night the glacier glows.
I keep trekking and my mind races with contradictory thoughts...I'm not going to make it; this is too hard; I can't breath; I just slipped on the gravel again; all that lost energy; get in rhythm; there it is; you can make it; you've come this far; keep going; those people at home don't think you can make it; keep moving; I just slipped again; this sucks; my feet are frozen; when will this end; I'm not going to make; I might as well sleep right here; almost fell down; Liberate letting us have another drink; so good; twende; you can do it; I'm gonna do this...and that recycled in my head about once every five minutes or so.
One surreal and maddening fact about hiking at night is that there is no visible goal up ahead. All you see are fireflies up ahead of you which you realize are the headlamps of other hikers. These only seem to get further away. At 5:00 Liberate senses my frustration and get in my face again. He tells me to stop looking up and to look at his boots only and step where he steps. I do this for another mini-eternity and we finally make it to Stella Point. At that moment the sun rises and Liberate pulls out thermos full of hot tea. This was the most delicious tea ever made. The tea coupled with the sunrise and our sense of accomplishment get the adrenaline pumping. Jen takes off for the summit 10 minutes before I do, as I need a longer rest. I star hiking again firm in the knowledge that the hard part is behind me.I finally reach the summit and see Jen there. I begin to cry with joy over out accomplishment. At this moment, this is the greatest feeling of my life.
We take in the view for 15 minutes than head back down the trail. It's along way down and our leg muscles are shot. Halfway down Liberate again has a surprise with Snickers bars for all. Tasty.We reach camp and have lunch before we begin the long descent. After taking 5 days to climb this high, we go 2/3 of the way down in a 1/2 day. We arrive at Mweka Camp with high spirits and bruised toes. Going downhill is tough too.
Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate - 1280m down, 3 hours
We wake up to a beautiful sunrise and a great view of the peak. Our mood quickly turns as we realize that Jen's boots have been stolen. After a search through camp we realize that they're probably gone forever. Luckily she packed some trail shoes so we make our way down the final leg of the trail. We are anxious to get to the gate, so we hike fast. My feet and knees pay the price. I won't walk normally for five days after this.
We make it to the gate where we receive our certificates. We are official now. The guys get together and sing for us at a certificate ceremony. Everyone leaves in high spirits after we hand out the big tips. We then head back to Arusha for a hot shower and clean clothes. Ahhhhh...
Nature Discovery was a great tour group to use. They exceeded all of our expectations, and made the trip fun and informative. If you're familiar with Thomson Safaris, don't bother paying the extra cost. They are the same company with the same gear and same guides. Our guide Liberate Tesha had been to the summit 89 times, and Jared, our assistant guide had come up through the ranks as a former porter. We were in good hands with both.
This trip is expensive. Your tour company will give you a quote for their services, but on top of that do not forget about gear ($1500pp), vaccines ($250pp), tourist visa from US ($100pp), and tips to the guides and porters ($500pp). You can purchase a visa when you arrive, but it was $100 instead of the published $50.
The food was better than we ever dreamed. Our daily routine was as follows:
6:00 hot tea delivered to our tents
7:30 breakfast of porridge, fresh fruit, ham and eggs and more tea
8:30 start hiking
12:00 lunch break with sandwiches and fruit...and tea
16:30 tea with popcorn and warm cashews
18:00 dinner with chicken, rice, fruit, bread and cheese
19:30 bed time
We also had a toilet of our own (again unexpected) and our tents were set up and taken down for us at every camp. Even so, this was the hardest physical feat that I have ever completed. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, but I wouldn't do it again. There are just too many other mountains.
We received a gear list from Nature Discovery, and also did research on other websites about recommended gear (check Alpine Ascents). Here is what I ended up taking:
Kompardell anti-shock trekking poles - Poles are a must, and the anti-shock is recommended. They held up to the abuse well.
LED headlamp - there's no need for a fancy one, just bring batteries. You'll only use them for nighttime potty breaks and summit night.
Vasque Breeze hiking boots - make sure you have a lightweight hiker with Gore Tex. You can keep warm on summit night with socks.
Hiking shoes - these were not needed, but camp shoes are a must. Get something insulated that slips on easily.
Gaiters - I used a mid-height gaiter. I would have preferred an over the calf pair that didn't slide down.
Socks - I carried several pair. Your liner socks will smell worse than you can imagine. Bring one pair per day. For hiking socks, bring at least 4 pair. One just for sleeping in every night, and one each of light, mid and heavy weight. Where two pair on summit night. I couldn't feel my feet after three hours with one pair.
Synthetic underwear - Bring one pair per day. There's no need to spend the money on Ex Officio, just get thin synthetic ones.
Synthetic undershirts - Bring at least three so one has time to dry if you have a rainy day.
Long underwear - Bring at least one light and one heavy set. I found no need for different colors or zippered collars. Capilene is worth it.
Windproof fleece jacket - At least Polartec 200 with a full zipper. Find the lightest one (by weight) that you can find with Polartec 200.
Shell Jacket - Make sure it has a hood, vents and is Gore-Tex and windproof.
Parka - I bought a sythetic down lined, hooless parka for summit day. I didn't wear it, but we had a rather wind free night. I would bring one anyway.
Liner pants - Get synthetic ones that are thinner than regular fleece. I only used these on summit day. REI Heavyweight MTS pants worked great.
Shell Pants - I used a $100 REI brand pair with a full zipper. I wore these every day but the first and last.
Lightweight convertible pants - The forest gets hot on the first and last days.
Liner gloves - make sure they are insulated and windproof. Luckily I brought two pair on Summit Day because one pair froze from my sweaty hands.
Insulated gloves/mittens - Mittens will be warmer. I used gloves so I could use my hands better. Bad idea...my hands were worthless anyway.
Balaclava - I didn't have a need for it except for on summit day. No need for an insulated one.
Buff wear - I bought one of these at www.buyabuff.com and I wore it every day. It was great to cover my face or neck, or just keep my bald head covered.
Wool hat - I wore this from Day 2 to Day 6. Make sure it covers your ears.
Sun hat - I used this more on safari than on the mountain, but it was nice to have on the last day.
Bandanas - I hung one on either side of my backpack...one for snot and one for sweat. After a while I forget which was which and didn't care.
Glacier glasses - Bring ones that can work everyday. I used Julbo Advance that worked great. Their protection varies with the sunlight.
Water bottles - Bring at least 3 liters worth. If you're using water purification tablets then consider opaque bottles, because the water needs to be protected from light while being treated (4 hours).
Pee bottle in the tent - I didn't use one, but we had a toilet next to our tent for those midnight tinkles.
Pee funnel - My wife became a pro with this in minutes, and used it often when away from a toilet.
Backpack - Buy something about 3000 cubic inches. Outside pockets are helpful. Buy the lightest one you can, because it gets heavy fast.
Sleeping bag/pad - we rented this and it was top quality. No complaints. Make sure to get a liner sheet as well if not provided.
115 liter boundary bag by Seal Line - This is what the porters carried with the bulk of our gear in it. It probably doesn't need to be as waterproof as a boundary bag, but we had pretty dry weather, and it's good piece of mind.
Glide stick - I used this on my feet and inner thigh to keep from chaffing or getting blisters. Buy some...it's a lifesaver.
Snacks - I used Clif Shot Blox and Beef Jerky. The Shot Blox helped keep the energy up on the trail. The Beef Jerky was a nice treat for the porters. All other snacks were unused because we got fed too well.
Misc. - I covered vaccines and prescriptions earlier, but do not forget Aleve. I took two in the morning and two every night for aches and pains. Also bring baby wipes to take care of the hot spots in the morning in lieu of a shower. You'll thank yourself. I also brought cold medicine, but didn't use it. Bring lip balm with SPF 30 and sunscreen that rubs in easily. Don't forget your toothbrush and toothpaste, and lots of ziplocs.
Shop as much as you can on www.sierratradingpost.com They have a huge selection and great prices. Between here and REI, I got 95% of my gear. In total the gear cost about $1500 per person.