Kilimanjaro - A Week in the Rain and Snow
I climbed Kilimanjaro with Explore in December 2012, and found the trip inspiring but brutal. Over the last week I have read innumerable accounts on climbing Kilimanjaro written by happy folk who seem to have spent a week at 15,000 ft above sea level having a transcendentally trippy time Heidi couldn't have bettered. My week there was hard on the soul. Make no mistake, if you climb Kilimanjaro in the conditions we had you will have to dig deep!
Mawenzi seen from Stella Point just after dawn, 27/12/2012.
Day 1: After a sound night in a decent hotel the eight of us (a decent bunch) boarded two 4WD's with our guides Chunga and Benson, and were taken to the Park entrance on the Lemosho trail. It was raining hard. We met the porters (and a lot of equipment) at the gate, but couldn't continue immediately because our Park entrance fees had not been transferred. This took several hours to resolve, whereupon we drove towards the trail head but were prevented from reaching it because the torrential rain had made the forest tracks impassable. We proceeded on foot, but the six hour walk extended well beyond dusk (practically everyone had left their head-torches in their main kit bags, the forest proved fascinating in a half-seen 'mind that tree-root' kind-of-a-way). The rain didn't stop, turning the road into a gushing torrent of chocolate water, it reminded me of the factory in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. We reached Big Tree camp at 9pm, minus 4 porters who got lost on the way.
Day 2: A good morning because it didn't start raining hard until 9:30 am. We left the forest and entered juniper scrub at around 10,000 ft abs. The mists came down and the clouds rolled in, and packed-lunch was consumed with added rainwater on a cold and windy mountain ridge. My waterproofs hit saturation point at about mid-day, even though the label says they should still perform near the bottom of the Marianas Trench. We got to our next camp 'Shira 1' fairly early and all crashed in our tents (shared, in-spite of the paid single supplement), before tea, and a sing-song by the porters. We introduced ourselves and explained a bit about why we had all shelled out some big readies to be right there with them getting rained on. The bloke next to me had it right; for his presentation he just screamed "Maxiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimum!" and did a Usain Bolt impersonation, whereupon the porters all went crackers with delight and chorused "Reeeeeeeeespect!". I mumbled something about having a dream about climbing Kilimanjaro, but they didn't really get my passion.
Kilimanjaro looming over Moir camp.
Day 3: Another good day, again because it didn't start to rain continuously until (almost) lunchtime, and because we woke up to a view of Kilimanjaro in all its glory, dusted with snow from the constant precipitation. We continued up through the scrub to about 13,000 ft abs where the vegetation died off, the country turning into a spectacular grey rubble moonscape. We got to Moir camp early in the afternoon, ate then climbed a rugged little hill overlooking the camp, reaching the top about two hours before dusk in a fierce little snow flurry which blasted on through, leaving Kilimanjaro looming clear over the camp. The altitude started to affect people at Moir (beyond struggling for breath walking up steep hills), sleeplessness, loss of appetite, nausea and headaches all being mentioned.
Day 4: Christmas Eve 2012. A tough old day this one, cold, endlessly rainy, sleeting, and eventually bitingly cold and snowy. We travelled through barren terrain from Moir to the Lava Tower camp, and then on to the ruins of the old campsite below the Arrow glacier up at 16,000 ft abs (deep snow). The Lava Tower site was exposed, scoured with sleet, and high enough to make altitude sickness really take hold in the group. Everything became wet - clothes, boots, dinner, waterproofs, sleeping bag, tent inner, ground mat, silk liner, painkillers, mars-bar, it all just melded into one sodden morass of misery. I smeared my way into my sleeping bag at dusk and was caught by a sudden urge to vomit all of my dinner into the back end of the tent. I had the self control to throw-up into my sleeping-bag compression sack. At that moment I just wanted to get home; if a London taxi had pulled up outside with the meter running I'd have got right in, sod the cost.
The Lava Tower camp at (almost) its most miserable.
Day 5: Christmas Day 2012. We descended into the Barranco valley, and the loss in altitude was a joy. This valley is something of a highlight with great views up to the Western Breach and the glaciers surrounding it, and as soon as we dropped below 13,000 ft abs we came into an area of weird and wonderful vegetation - giant lobelias and cotton-wool bark giant groundsel. The rain came in as we zigzag traversed the Barranco Wall (a 1,000 feet high cliff forming the southern side of the valley, a tough scramble but less fearsome than it sounded), and by the time we were at our designated lunch spot it had settled on us like a cough that just won't go away. I turned in at dusk, and got a good night's sleep little marred by the porter who stole all of my money.
Day 6/7: Summit Night. There was a slight edge to the breakfast tent conversation when I got there at 7:30 am, and it wasn't induced by the thought of high altitude eating either. Chunga talked us through the impending summit night: 'pole, pole, sippy, sippy' (slow and keep drinking), necessary clothing and food, ways of stopping drinking water from freezing, and warning signs of impending AMS, lung collapse and brain haemorrhage. We walked to Barafu base camp in steady sleet, and all attempted to dry off and sleep a little before the 11 pm rivale. I rolled around in my cold wet tent for several hours but failed to nod-off (did anyone?), then started packing early as much from nerves as anything else. 11 pm seemed an age away, then no-time-at-all, and finally we were ready to go, 8 walkers, 2 guides and 3 summit-porters strung out in a line, the swirling ice chips lit by the glow of the head-torches. We trudged through strung-out Barafu and climbed to the snow-line quickly, and as we did so more and more lines of head-torches appeared below and above. The moon rose and snow became thick on the ground, and the silhouettes of Kilimanjaro and Mawenzi could be seen against the stars and behind and below electrical storms flickered across a hundred miles of plain. We all slowed as the altitude increased, and by 18,000 ft I found the going hard - headache, tightness in the chest, paranoia, and breathlessness. Ian ground to a halt behind Chunga mentioning he was out of energy. I watched him fumble for an unfrozen bottle of water, drop the top in the snow, scuffle for it and freeze from lack of energy. Slowly he raised the bottle up, and attempted to match the cap to the thread. It took an age. I could see lights high on the mountain above and cracked: "I don't know if I can make that" I said to Chunga. He laconically replied that I didn't need to think, he had been watching me, and I was as expected but fit to go - 'pole, pole!' He was right (possibly a judgement forged through a hundred ascents of Kilimanjaro). I reached the summit ridge just as dawn broke.
Dawn light just catching the Kersten glacier as seen from the summit.
Explore and their Tanzanian partner Asante promise a high summit success rate, and this was delivered (in our group every single person reached the true summit, I was the last of the eight, arriving at 7.09 am) via slow ascent and use of experienced guides like Chunga. However, if you climb Kilimanjaro in a week of constant rain and snow you will be fighting both altitude sickness, cold and seemingly endless rainy misery, something everyone strangely fails to mention when they talk about climbing the mountain. If I had the time again I would choose to tackle a high dry hill somewhere sunny, maybe the Atacama Desert…