September is here, and it is my favorite month for hiking. (Runner-up month: April) Sure, it is still a bit hot for long hikes across the Santa Monica Mountains – my old SoCal stomping ground and home to the 65-mile Backbone Trail – but many higher-elevation peaks are at their most-accessible in this “shoulder season” month. I completed the four-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in September of 2005. I scaled Lembert Dome and Mount Hoffman – two prominent peaks in Yosemite National Park – in September of 2003. Just one year prior, I bagged the highest peak in the contiguous United States, 14,497-foot Mount Whitney. I have also climbed (hiked) Mount Baldy, the 10,064-foot SoCal landmark, three times, and two of those were in September (2004 and 2011).
But it is my successful climb to the summit marker atop Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in September, 2010 that I am most proud of. Hiking is one of my great passions, you see, and if I haven’t been able to do as much of it over these past few years as I would have liked, I at least know that I have many years of great hiking memories to choose from. Kilimanjaro is my fondest, and the one I want to tell you more about in the paragraphs below.
Three Countries in Three Weeks
I took my second trip to sub-Saharan African in 2010. The trip was the brainchild of my friend Miles, just one year after our Great Southern African Adventure of 2009. This time we were joined by my friend Mark. Miles and Mark have expensive tastes, and make more money in a week than I make in a year, so they yearned for a pre-planned trip with guide/driver and first rate accommodations. They immediately declined when I suggested a Kilimanjaro add-on, but we compromised on four days in Zanzibar before they returned to the U.S. and I moved on to Moshi, Tanzania.
We met our guide, Moses, in Nairobi, in late August. After one night in Kenya’s capital city, we drove to Amboseli National Park. Amboseli is known for two things: elephants and Kilimanjaro views. We were even treated to shots of elephants grazing in the foreground while 5,895-meter (19,340-foot) “Kili” towered in the background, a thin layer of clouds obscuring its middle elevations. This being the dry season, the air was thick with dust and the mountain was covered in haze, but it was impressive nonetheless, and for me, it signaled that I had arrived. The mountain seemed close enough to touch!
Kili views notwithstanding, Amboseli wasn’t as scenic as Kruger National Park, which Miles and I had visited just one year prior. It is the number of animal sightings, however, that make Amboseli such a phenomenal park. Hyenas, zebras, buffalo, exotic birds…and elephants. These magnificent African giants are wild enough that I wouldn’t want to be caught in a stampede, but they are a wonder to behold…just like Kilimanjaro in the dusty distance.
We visited two other game parks in Kenya, and spent time with a tribe of Maasai warriors. Wildlife sightings at these parks were even more common than at Amboseli. At Lake Nakuru National Park we saw thousands – millions – of birds, pink flamingos in particular, resting in the lake’s shallow waters. In Southwestern Kenya, Maasai Mara National Park was the site of the most spectacular wildlife display I’ve yet witnessed: the annual wildebeest migration. Words can’t do it justice…and frankly, neither can photos.
We made a rushed, four-day side trip to Uganda, with the sole purpose of trekking to see the endangered mountain gorillas. Mission accomplished! I vow to write a Uganda trip report one day, as it would take many paragraphs to describe my elation for that leg of the trip. But between Kenya and Uganda, our safaris were quite exhausting, and Zanzibar was a welcome respite. There, I caught up on emails and laundry, and re-packed for Kilimanjaro!
I had the window seat on our flight to Zanzibar and at one point I gazed out and saw this:
Hiking Kilimanjaro from the Marangu Route
Wikipedia lists seven routes to the summit. The most popular – and the one I took – is the non-technical Marangu route. Although I’ve done some scrambling in Yosemite National Park as well as a bit of fixed rope-assisted bouldering in the Santa Monica Mountains, I don’t feel comfortable with anything greater than Class 3, which is non-technical scrambling that may require the use of all four limbs. I know that at least some of the other routes are non technical as well, but Marangu offers the greatest flexibility in start dates, and has hut lodging – rather than tent camping – at its disposal. I was a bit concerned with nighttime temps, so I figured that Marangu, with its huts, was the route for me.
If you’re wondering how I planned everything, my friends and I researched Kenya-area safaris online and decided on the company Kenya.com. We had to buy our into-Africa and out-of-Africa plane tickets but otherwise just gave the tour company our arrival and departure dates and a list of places we’d like to visit. They secured any necessary permits, arranged all airport transfers, and packed lunches for our safaris. They booked the hotels, game lodges, and intra-Africa flights. This included the Kilimanjaro extension for me. It wasn’t cheap. Pound-for-pound, this remains the most expensive trip I have ever taken. The Kili portion alone was roughly $2,500 USD, IIRC.
I was picked up from Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO) and transferred to my hotel in Moshi town. Kenya.com outsourced this leg of my trip to local tour operator Zara Tours. My hotel was perfectly serviceable, although I later learned that most tour companies use a much bigger, resort-style hotel on the outskirts of town. Still, no complaints.
I met my guide, Martin, that afternoon, and we coordinated logistics for the next morning’s early departure. When we finally set off on Day One of the hike we made four stops along the way. At each stop, one person boarded our van. These were the other members of my “crew.” In addition to guide Martin, I had an assistant guide, cook, and two porters at my disposal! (This is standard operating procedure, not overzealous gringo preparedness.)
A long bumpy ride up gentle slopes, passing middle-class shacks en route, eventually deposited us at the entry gate to Kilimanjaro National Park. We checked in, I posed for the requisite picture in front of the trailhead sign (at 1,970 meters/6,400 feet elevation), and we were off! The entire Day One hike was through semi-tropical forest. We passed a small waterfall after perhaps 10 minutes, and spotted colobus monkeys another 10 minutes or so after that.
A separate trail was designated for porters so it was just Martin and I on the trail, although we occasionally encountered small groups descending from their summit attempt. Being here was a dream fulfilled, and I was in great spirits. I said something like “Congratulations, did you make it?” to each outbound hiker that I passed, but when an exhausted-looking couple shook their heads “no,” I decided to dial down the enthusiasm. According to the national park, only 41 percent of trekkers actually reach the summit.
Martin and I were the first to arrive at Mandara Hut (2,700 meters/8,860 feet). He stayed with the guides and I was assigned one bed in a three-bed hut that had a mattress, blankets, and little else. We did a short, add-on hike to a vista point that overlooked volcanic Maundi Crater, although the glacial peak of Kili itself could not yet been seen. I, of course, climbed down into the crater itself. The crater floor was covered with yellow grass, a sort of mini-savannah.
I cannot remember what we had for dinner, but in general, meals were a dismal affair. Porridge and bananas – blech and double-blech! – were fixtures at every meal. I returned to the hut and met my roommate for the day – a young, South Korean chatterbox who was doing the same hike but on a different schedule. I remember that he was ecstatic about getting service on his cell phone, although no one else that day had such technological success.
Days Two and Three
After a nourishing breakfast (more porridge, yum!), Martin and I continued our slow climb. The grade was gentle and the terrain slowly changed as we climbed above the palm forest along slopes that looked like something transplanted from Britain’s moorlands. Cool plants called giant groundsels, which look something like tiki torches, grow vertically from the ground and are endemic to high-elevation, equatorial East Africa. Our camp for the next two nights was Horombo Hut, at 3,720 meters (12,205 feet) elevation. Views from here were panoramic, although Kili itself was still nowhere to be seen. Incidentally, the ranger station at Horombo Hut often has soft drinks available for purchase, but they were out of stock both times I tried to buy one.
My crew and I spent two nights here acclimatizing. The acclimatization day is optional, but highly recommended. Martin led me 400 vertical meters to a striped rock overhang aptly named Zebra Rocks. We enjoyed lunch here, then hiked back down to Horombo Hut, where I did not have a roommate this time. The idea is that acclimatization is easier at such heights if one goes to sleep at a lower elevation than the highest point reached that day.
With two nights at the same hut, I had an opportunity to meet more of my fellow trekkers. There weren’t any Aussies, believe it or not, but there were a few other Americans, a large Japanese group, and an eccentric father-daughter German team. (There were also several curious mice keeping warm in the dining hall, scurrying across everyone’s feet and sniffing for crumbs.) The older German was perhaps 60, and every time I saw him he had a cigarette in his mouth. He brought a six-pack of beer with him on the trail and said that he didn’t have much high-altitude trekking experience, yet he never seemed to break a sweat.
I remember waking up once during the night for a call of nature and gasping at the night sky. The Milky Way was a brilliant spiral of light, and I had never seen anything like it before – nor have I since.
I set off with my guide and with a much larger group of trekkers than on my first two days. Not even two minutes up the trail and Kili finally came into view, its frozen glacial top glistening in the morning light. The trail was a bit steeper, and the going a bit slower. “Pole pole, gringo,” Martin advised me. “Slowly slowly,” in Swahili. There was still enough oxygen to engage in chit chat with my fellow climbers. I met a chef from Chicago and a charming Irish couple. They all skipped the acclimatization day but were keeping pace; the Irish couple was young and very much in love.
We passed “Last Water” – a tap leading to a clean spring from which porters gathered water for the last time – and the giant groundsel plants disappeared soon afterwards. The trail leveled out for a stretch and a lonely pair of men and women’s outhouses stood just off the trail, seemingly abandoned. Ahead in the distance, we could see a steep rise but its acme was hidden by ominous-looking storm clouds. Picture LOTR’s Sam and Frodo staring in dread across the cursed lands of Mordor towards Mount Doom.
The aforementioned rise could’ve slowed us down but adrenaline carried us up that hill; we all felt that our next hut was just around the bend. Sure enough, forbidding Kibo Hut stood alone in the saddle just over that long rise. I didn’t really notice it at first, however – it was cold, snowing horizontally, and I wanted to get out of the wind. The night’s lodging was going to be communal. Kibo Hut was an all-stone edifice rather than a series of cabins. The building was divided into two large rooms, each with several bunk beds. A corrugated metal building across the saddle served as a toilet, and the less I can say about those facilities, the better.
The guides and porters stayed in a third building a bit higher up the saddle. Several of them sat outside, drinking coffee and relaxing in folding, REI-style camping chairs that some unfortunate soul had to haul up the mountain. I think I speak for all of my fellow trekkers when I say that we were not in the same high spirits as our support staffs. We made it this far – Kibo Hut was at 4,703 meters/15,430 feet in elevation, no small feat for anyone – but we were shivering. And nauseous. Our guides eventually came to check on us, offering porridge, tea, and coffee, but none of us had any appetite. We basically climbed into the sleeping bags that were on the beds when we arrived, and passed the time with nervous small talk.
The cold didn’t leave our bodies for the remainder of the day but we got used to it – until we had to wander outside to use the toilet and started shivering all over again. The nausea graduated to diarrhea and we held an informal farting contest. True story. None of us had ever summited Kilimanjaro before, so we took some comfort that we were all in this together. A Kenyan climber arrived late to our hut; he was ecstatic to be so close to the top of the mountain of legend that towered over his own country’s Amboseli Plain.
Dinner was served early, as Day Four’s bedtime was an early one. I felt leagues better by this point but still just picked at my food. Martin advised me that our assault on the summit would begin at midnight, with the goal of reaching the top just after sunrise. He advised me to prepare my summit clothes and check my headlamp batteries before hitting the metaphorical sack, and to sleep with my camera batteries close to my body to keep them warm – and charged. We went to bed no later than seven p.m., but were woken up not long after by a large group of Spanish trekkers, the day’s stragglers. For their part, they tried their best to be quiet, although it didn’t really matter – I doubt sleep came easy for anyone. Altitude sickness is a bitch.
Summit day actually started about 11:15 the night before. Our guides woke us up (although I doubt anyone slept soundly) and we slowly slipped into our summit gear. I decided on a moisture-wicking t-shirt, another two t-shirts over that, a thermal shirt over that, and a winter coat. On my lower extremities I wore two pairs of socks, long underwear, convertible pants, boots, and gaiters. I had two pairs of gloves, a winter hat, headlamp, and – the finishing touch – a balaclava. Stashed in my pack were my camera and two non-freeze thermoses filled with water.
I turned on my headlamp and it died almost instantly. After a moment’s panic, I replaced its batteries with the “old” batteries that I had changed out the night before, and voila! Weird. Anyway…we were off!
The snow that was falling when we arrived at Kibo Hut the previous afternoon had stopped. The clouds had parted and the sky was clear – perfect summit conditions. The “trail” to the summit was a semi-frozen, switch-backing scree path that you could barely make out by headlamp. But the procession of trekkers en route to the summit was a funny sight to behold – an S-shaped pattern of dotted lights! I was bringing up the rear at first but others would occasionally stop to catch their breaths and – yes – vomit, and I eventually moved to the front of the pack. “Pole pole,” Martin warned me again, as I climbed ever higher. I became excited, thinking I might be the first person to summit that morning (completely forgetting the fact that other routes to the top might get there before the Marangu Route). I started feeling queasy again, and finally had to step aside. I sipped some water and the “urge to purge” passed…but so did most of the other trekkers. I lost my lead.
At some point during the night we passed Hans Meyer Cave without stopping. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached Gilman’s Point, a small plateau at 5,685 meters, or 18,650 feet. Time to rest! It was still dark as we struggled to catch our collective breaths. I had no idea what time it was. We were “almost there,” as Martin reminded me, but there was still 700 vertical feet to go! We plodded forward and the earliest hints of daylight brightened the sky as we met the intersection with the Machame Route. Not long afterwards, I photographed the rising sun with shaking hands. I hadn’t noticed the cold until we stopped to rest at Gilman’s Point.
We rounded a bend and the first summiteers of the day were already on their way down. Amazingly – and yet somehow not surprisingly – the 60-something, chain-smoking, beer-guzzling German had arrived first! (Later that day, he confessed that he was so delirious he “didn’t know what was going on.”)
The summit marker loomed ever closer until…finally…success! I was ecstatic. The sky was that perfect shade of blue, and a stunning glacial ice cap surrounded us on all sides, but I hardly noticed. My first order of business was a summit photo or two…or three. Martin congratulated me, and we posed for a picture together. He then said that we should head back as it was literally dangerous to spend long periods of time on the summit. I noticed a guide napping in the shade provided by the summit marker’s shadow and smiled, took one last satisfied look around, then agreed to head down.
I exchanged congratulations with others that I passed on the way down, but mostly I just took in the wonder of nature that was Kilimanjaro’s high point, Uhuru Peak. The mostly-flat peak sprawled for what could have been miles, and much of it was capped by a semi-permanent glacial ice cap. I say semi-permanent because it’s been well-documented that the ice cap is melting as a result of global climate change. I remember watching a documentary about the mountain with footage from several decades ago. In the film, an environmental scientist posed for a picture alongside a glacial shard that was easily 10 feet tall. In 2010, the same shard barely came up to my waist. I shudder to think what will happen to the wildlife on the Amboseli Plain so many thousands of feet below when a major water source for them – melt-waters from Kili – cease to exist. Global climate change is real, and it is scary.
But I digress. I was no less humbled to be up here, a dream fulfilled. On the way down, I stopped again at Gilman’s Point, and finally got to view the steep path I had climbed for five hours en route to the summit. I would wager that it was a 45-degree slope, and Kibo Hut was a long way down! I could understand why the hike up is done after dark, when the scree is more likely to be “frozen” into place. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to the knee-jolting descent.
It was as unpleasant as I feared it would be. Many avid hikers suffer from knee pains, and I’m no exception. I occasionally tried making huge, bounding leaps to reduce the total number of steps I would have to take. Leaping was fun – and it definitely saved steps. It also covered my pants in several coatings of dust; thankfully I was wearing gaiters to prevent rocks from getting in my boots. It was beautifully sunny, however, and I shed a few layers of clothing, including the legendary balaclava.
I wasn’t too far downhill from Gilman’s Point when I encountered the 18-person Spanish group on their way up. They apparently opted to sleep in and ascend after sunrise. “How long until Gilman’s Point?” one Spaniard asked me in a perfect Antonio Banderas accent. “About an hour,” I replied. “Good,” he said, “because I have diarrhea.” I never saw him again, and I don’t know if he made it to the top.
I made – I think – pretty good time on my way back to Kibo Hut. I checked my watch when I reached the hut. It read 10:30 a.m. I thought it had stopped working – maybe broken by the extreme cold, perhaps – but then it dawned on me that with my midnight start, I really had made it up and back before 11 a.m. of the same day.
Four other trekkers were in my Kibo Hut dormitory when I entered. There was a Belgian couple whom I had met the night before, and the Irish couple was cuddled together on one of the bunks, drinking tea. I learned that the Belgians were suffering from altitude sickness and either turned back soon after midnight or simply never even left the hut. They seemed to finally be feeling better, and harbored no regrets at not making the summit. The Irish couple was in much better spirits, and I learned that he proposed to her at the summit marker. She said “yes,” but confessed to everyone that she was so delirious and dizzy from the altitude that she really didn’t get to savor the moment. “I’m sure you’ll make it up to me later,” her fiancé joked with a wink and a nudge. Cool people; I wish I could remember their names.
The other three trekkers in our dorm eventually returned. One of them – the Kenyan – was successful, making for a 50/50 success rate among the eight of us. The porters served us lunch and we headed down to Horombo Hut. This was our camp for the night and an easy downhill, so we walked at a leisurely pace. The day was cold and windy but also perfectly sunny. The ranger recognized me and flagged me down upon my arrival to Horombo Hut. He had saved me a Coca Cola! My fellow trekkers and I spent most of the late afternoon in the dining hall, chatting, sharing pictures, counting the mice, and agreeing to meet for drinks in Moshi the following evening. Guides and porters came down to sing us the Kilimanjaro victory song – a cute tradition. We crashed early.
My last day on the mountain was an uneventful one. Martin let me sleep in a bit, and after another porridge-and-banana breakfast, we headed out, all the way to the park’s entry gate. We stopped for lunch at Mandara Hut and spent several minutes watching the colobus monkeys, but otherwise hiked at a breakneck pace. After five days together, I realized that I still didn’t know my guide very well. He led me safely to the top and back, but I wondered about his life, and why he would chose such a taxing job.
Martin was born in Moshi, and spent several years working first as a Kilimanjaro porter, then as an assistant guide, then as a guide. I knew from an earlier conversation that he was married with three children, but I didn’t know until our last day on the mountain that his dream was to open a cell phone repair shop. He explained that in Tanzania, not everyone speaks English, not everyone has email, and not everyone even has electricity…but everyone has a cell phone. Another thing that I learned: he had just one day off before leading another trekker, or group of trekkers, towards the summit. As such, he would not be joining me and the other summiteers for cocktails that evening.
We reached the entry gate with aching calves and dirty clothes but otherwise not the worse for wear. The porters, cook, and assistant guide joined Martin and I for a group photo before we all piled into the van bound for Moshi and my hotel. The time had come to figure out tipping arrangements. This is a compulsory, but awkward, part of any African safari/trekking excursion, and it’s hard to know just how much to give. A Kilimanjaro website linked here gives good advice on the subject. I think I tipped Martin $25/day, the assistant guide and cook $15/day per person, and the porters $10/day per person. If that’s correct, I dropped $450 in tips. I don’t know if that was what they expected, but it was in line with the chart shown in the link, and I know that I would’ve given more if I could.
I met my fellow trekkers for dinner and drinks that evening. We were abuzz with excitement and high on life. We chatted about many things: future travel plans, our lives back home, the incredible hospitality of the African people. None of us spoke about the climb, however. Kili, it seems, is a personal experience, something different for everyone.
What was Kilimanjaro to me? Despite so many paragraphs to the contrary, it’s actually hard to put into words. Like Africa itself – where the people are so poor and yet so quick to smile – Kili was something of a contradiction. Although the trail was different than what I expected – namely, there was less mud and there were more switchbacks – it met my expectations in scenic regards. Although the ice cap is sadly melting, seeing so much ice in equatorial Africa was still a surreal experience. And although the food left much to be desired, I know that I can’t expect much where the altitude affects food cooking times, and where everything must be carried up by hand.
The next morning, I caught a short flight back to Nairobi, where I spent the day sightseeing and craft shopping, as my connecting flight didn’t leave until late that evening. I expected to think more about my Kilimanjaro experience during the eight-hour flight back to Europe. I must have been tired, though, as I zonked out as soon as I took my seat and didn’t awaken until 30 minutes before landing. Much time has since passed, however, and the experience remains fresh in my mind.
Would I climb Kilimanjaro again? I don’t know. It would be interesting to try a different route next time, but my “bucket list” only seems to get longer, not shorter. I’d like to do another African safari – perhaps Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater next time – but I suspect that my remaining multi-day trekking goals will bring me to other parts of the world. Everest Base Camp, maybe. Britain’s Coast-to-Coast Walk, possibly. The Appalachian Trail, perhaps.
But that reality is in no way meant to reflect badly upon Kilimanjaro. I made it! I “went all the way,” as the congratulatory peak-bagging t-shirts humorously proclaimed. I climbed to the top of the highest point in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.
A dream fulfilled.