Kilimanjaro - 3 - The Climb

Monday, 29 August 2011 17:13 by ranjanbanerji

The journey to not just up Kilimanjaro can be a long and tiring one. I started my journey in the US with a long flight to Zurich (about 8 hours). Luckily the wait in Zurich was very short and then I switched to a Swiss International Airlines flight to Nairobi (another 8 hours). Swiss International had a pretty good aircraft with some pretty awesome entertainment in economy. Their monitors were much larger than what I have seen on other aircraft. But, as luck would have it the monitor on my seat did not work. So I had a long boring flight. I was wondering if this was not a bad omen.  It wasn’t.  Just my lousy luck….   LOL

At Nairobi I had arranged to stay at the Wildebeest Camp and they had a taxi arranged for me so my ride to the camp was quick and I did not have to deal with getting a cab and negotiating rates etc. I found the Wildebeest Camp to be nice, clean, very affordable, with ok food. I had a deluxe tent, which came with a bathroom and the bed was comfortable. Not very good sound proofing so I could hear city sounds but I was tired and I slept well. The tent was large with one queen size bed and one perhaps twin size.  So you can probably get three people to stay there.

The next day the Wildebeest Camp arranged a cab for me to go to the Parkside Hotel. This is where I got the Riverside Shuttle to Arusha. I had already booked my ticket with the shuttle via their web site.  When buying your ticket at the riverside shuttle web site remember to put your hotel name in Arusha or Moshi.  Don’t just select the city as your destination.  The shuttle drops off people to several hotels in Arusha and Moshi.  But the web site does not explicitly offer the option for the hotel drop off.  The bus ride is ok.  Took about 6 hours.  Riverside shuttle has some newer and some older buses.  I got an old one.  It was pretty cramped.  So after 16 hours of flying this 6 hour ride was not exactly joy.

In Arusha I stayed at the Outpost Lodge.  I found this to be very affordable and they have good rooms.  The same day I was visited by my Team Kilimanjaro guide Nick.  Nick reviewed my gear, gave me a briefing and we were all ready for the Kilimanjaro climb starting the next day.

So why the rush?  Why not get some rest before starting the climb?  Well many people tend to get sick when they visit a foreign country.  Specially if it is in Africa or Asia.  So one runs the risk of getting an upset stomach and some mild viral flu like illness.  Minimizing your time as a tourist on the streets of Nairobi, Arusha, or Moshi helps prevent picking up some bug.  Climbing when sick is not fun.  Leave the tourism for after the climb.  So try and get as much rest in those long flights.

Day 1

Day 1 started early with leaving the Outpost Lodge and a long drive to the main Kilimanjaro gate.  This is where you sign in and get all your permits etc for the climb.  Once the paperwork is all done (my guide Nick took care of it all) it was another long drive on very bad roads to the Rongai gate.  The drive was referred to as the “African Massage” and I must say it lived up to its name.  At the gate we had lunch and then the climb started.  I was asked to go slow but the path was pretty flat so I was going at a good pace.  Nick was quick to tell me to slow down.  He was establishing the Pole Pole rules early on.  In retrospect this was a good thing.  Keep a slow pace.  This is not a race, most of us are not used to high altitude and the effect of high altitude can hit you fast.

The Rongai gate is at 1996m (6549ft).  Day 1 is a short day since most of the day is spent driving to the gate.  We walked for 6.7km up to 2626m (8615ft).  By the time we got to Simba camp the porters had already setup camp, tents, mess hall etc.  Had some tea and later had dinner.  Also started to observe all the other teams that were on the Rongai route.  There was a small team of the 3 Americans from out west, another team of a few American women climbing for some charity.  One woman on that team was well how do I put it, large.  So large that the guides starting placing bets on how fast will she quit the climb.  I got to meet her.  I think her name was Cara and she has a web site http://www.fatwomanonthemountain.com/.  Now that is confidence.  Found out she had already succeeded at climbing Kilimanjaro.  The fact that she had already succeeded got a lot of the guides and porters to start respecting her effort.  That was pretty cool.

I also noticed that Team Kilimanjaro had setup have a seat like contraption as a toilet inside a small tent so I don’t have to squat to take a dump.  Make sure you request one.  These make life a lot easier.  Specially at night when it can be very cold and very windy.  Trust me you don’t want to be stripping outdoors.

I was hoping to get some wildlife pictures of monkeys and birds as day 1 goes through a rain forest.  But got very few.  I could hear a billion birds but could barely see any.  A big joke on day 1 was that despite the fact that we were climbing Mt Kilimanjaro we could not see the peak.  However we could get beautiful views down into Kenya which is north of Kilimanjaro.

Views into Kenya

Day 2

Day 2 was a 11.8km hike going from Simba Camp at 2626m (8615ft) to Kikelewa Cave at 3679m (12070ft).  The first half of the day was supposedly harder.  Majority of the altitude gain occurs then.  But I was fine except that my urine was dark yellow, i.e., I was dehydrating.  This is a bad sign.  I am not sure why it happens but high altitude dehydrates you fast and staying over hydrated is one way to reduce chance of high altitude illness.  I needed to drink a lot more water.  So for lunch I had plenty of soup and water along with chicken and grilled cheese sandwiches.  Sitting eating lunch out in the open made me a little cold so I put on a light wind breaker and decided to continue with the climb.  I felt if I kept sitting I would get colder.  So instead of letting my lunch settle a little I started the hike.  This was a bad idea.  Lunch was not digested.  My heart rate shot up, i started to get a bad taste in my mouth and I was breathless fast.  So I stopped got some rest and then things got better.  This was a lesson learnt and good that this happened so early in the climb.  I now knew I have to be a lot more careful.  At Kikelewa Cave I had some some hot chocolate and peanuts.  But I started to get a mild headache.  I was told it was normal.  A good nights sleep took care of that.

During the hike I asked Nick what's with the summit night concept?  Why don’t people make the summit during the day?  Why start climbing at 12am?  He said its mostly because people want to see the sunrise from the top.  Hmmm! I had absolutely no interest in watching the sunrise.  I simply wanted to climb Kilimanjaro.  So we started discussing the option of doing a day summit.  This way I do not have to focus on keeping warm during the climb.  Just focus on going up.

I also noticed that there was a small number of climbers who did not make it to camp.  I did not think people would start feeling the negative effects of high altitude so fast but it happens.

Early morning Day 2 is when I saw the Kilimanjaro peak.  My first view.  I thought I would be able to see it on the drive to Arusha from Nairobi, or from Arusha itself, or on the way from Arusha to the Kilimanjaro gate.  But due to clouds I was unable to do so.  It was day 2 when I got this first view and I was thinking to myself, oh! crap, is this what I have to climb?  lol

First View of Kilimanjaro

Day 3

Day 3 is a short 3.7km hike from Kikelewa Cave at 3679m (12070ft) to Mawenzi Tarn at 4303m (14117ft) but you actually go much higher than 4303m and then you descend to Mawenzi Tarn.  So a short but very steep hike.  Had lunch, was so exhausted i napped in my tent.  this was good as  i have not been getting much sleep.  Yesterday i stopped taking the malaria pills.  I think they were keeping me awake. In the afternoon we went for an acclimatization hike to about 4700 maybe 4800m.  Very very steep.  I also loaded my backpack with a little extra weight.  I wanted to start preparing for the summit.  So the acclimatization hike followed by a 30 minute rest at a higher altitude for a while before descending was the strategy.  Get used to rare air and get used to heavy loads.  I came back from the acclimatization hike with severe headache and nausea.  I had to force my self to eat soup.  I was not at all hungry but I made myself eat.  I knew I needed the energy. Within minutes of eating I started to feel better.  To make matters worse I now also realized that I had diarrhea.  This was not good news at all.  Luckily it was more along the lines of loose motion and not some kind of a stomach bug that required me to run to the toilet frequently.  So I did not take any Imodium.  Later that night I felt a lot better and did some night time star trail photography of Mawenzi peak.  It was cold.  I was now high enough to be in sub zero temperatures.  Staying out at night taking long exposure pictures was fun but it took me forever to warm up in my sleeping bag.

At Mawenzi I noticed that more climbers had abandoned their efforts.  My guess is that by now about 10% of the total number of people attempting the climb had dropped out.  So despite my headache and nausea I was doing good.  Pole Pole was a good strategy and so far working for me.  By now people across the different groups started to get to know each other.  There were climbers from all over the world.

Earlier in the day during the acclimatization I once again discussed the climb schedule with Nick.  I wanted a day climb and instead of descending to 3rd Caves on day 4 I wanted to proceed to School Huts.  If we got to school huts early I could do another acclimatization climb on day 4 and then attempt a day summit day 5.  Or if the acclimatization climb at School Hut shows I am not fit then I stay an extra day at School Hut, acclimatize, do more acclimatization hikes and then I can summit on schedule on day 6.  After some discussion we had a new plan.

Mawenzi

Mawenzi

Mawenzi Tarn is like bowl so you are protected from crosswinds.  During the day it really heats up despite the high altitude, but at night the temperature drops rapidly.  I think we went from 20C to –5C in an hour.  So be prepared to get into your sleeping bags before it gets too cold.  At high altitudes even shivering can get you breathless.

Kilimanjaro

Star Trails around Mawenzi

Day 4

This I thought would be an easy day.  But that was not the case.  The hike from Mawenzi Tarn at 4303m (14117ft) to School Hut at 4722m (15492ft) doesn’t look all that tough.  After all its only a 400m altitude gain.  But getting out of Mawenzi Tarn itself requires a steep climb, then you descend for a while before you cross this saddle between Kibo Peak and Mawenzi peak.  It’s just a long walk. We got to School Huts for lunch, I napped then went for an hour long acclimatization hike up to 4900m or more.  it took us 10 maybe 15 minutes to descend.  This was an indication as to how slow I would be on the summit attempt.  Once again during this acclimatization hike I overloaded my daypack and I made sure I sat at the higher altitude for a while.  Not just walk up and down.  All the other climbers from Mawenzi went to Kibo hut.  School Hut is not a commonly used base camp.  So I was alone with respect to the group of climbers I started with.  There were two groups with two people each at School Huts and then there was me.

So Since we are pretty much at the equator the sun is really hot.  Even at 4700 meters it is hot.  But the moment the sun sets the temperature plummets to -15C.  After my experience at Mawenzi where I found it difficult to warm up I decided to stay warm this night.  I needed the energy for the summit attempt at 4am.  I wasn’t sure why Nick wanted to start at 4am.  Since I was not interested in the midnight summit and sunrise is at 6:30am I was not sure why we had to leave at 4am.  Anyway, so I dressed into my summit gear:

  1. Top:  Champion base layer, Polartec mid weight base layer, Tshirt, Patagonia Nano Sweater, Columbia anti wind and rain shell, Balaclava, glove liners, and mittens.
  2. Bottom: Polartec mid weight base layer, socks liners, smartwool mid weight socks, hiking pants

I had dinner and jumped into my sleeping bag in my gear.  Smart idea and it worked well till I realized I had to pee.  Except for my first night on the mountain I kept a pee bottle with me in my tent.  At first I was repulsed by the idea, but one trip out of the tent when it is below 0C and windy was enough for me to agree to the pee bottle idea.  Something you should seriously consider.  Despite having a pee bottle, peeing with all these layers of clothing was not easy.  Luckily I did not have to go take a dump.  For those of you thinking this is funny or disgusting, this is actually a serious issue  LOL.  Its too fucking cold up there and due to the oxygen shortage once your body gets cold, it takes a lot of energy to warm up.  So staying warm is critical.

Mawenzi from the Mawenzi Ridge on my way to School Huts.  Our camp was down there.

Kilimanjaro from the Mawenzi Ridge.  You can see the trail going straight to Kibo huts and the ascending up the mountain. Way down the trail splits and one fork to the right goes to School Huts.

Day 5

Day 5 started really early.  Not at midnight as for most but early.  There are not many people who stay at the School Huts so I was not super disturbed when they left at midnight starting their ascent.  I was woken up at 3:30am to get ready for my climb.  I had a light meal but I was still concerned about the diarrhea from the day before.  I was much better now, but this was no time to eat like a pig and suffer from further indigestion.  But I knew I needed the energy. Ah! the delicate balance of life.

I have already talked about what I was going to wear.  In addition I was carrying:

  1. Camelbak in my daypack and two bottles of boiling water.
  2. Couple of cereal bars and some Toblerone chocolate bars.

We started off slow but were actually going at a reasonable pace as we reached the point of our 1 hour acclimatization hike in about 45 minutes.  The hike from School Huts is a steady steep climb but on firm ground.  No scree.  So this makes it better than the climb up from Kibo Huts.  As I hiked I could see a line of head lamps headed up.  After about 2 hours I met up with the scree slope that all the climbers from Kibo Hut use.  I got there at around 5000m at Williams Point.  Basically I escaped about 300m of scree climbing.

The red line is approximately the path I took from Mawenzi to School Huts to Gilman's Point and then you circle around the crater to get to Uhuru Peak. The green path takes you to Kibo Huts and then to Gilman’s.

Sunrise from Hans Mayer Cave

Now the real painful part of the climb came.  Though soon into the climb I reached Hans Mayer Cave which is at 5150m.  It was now about 6:30am and the sun was rising.  This was quite an amazing view, so I stopped, took a few pictures, got some much needed rest and water.  Because I started at 4am my water had still not frozen, so this was good.  So far I had not encountered any other climber.  They were all way ahead of me.  In fact about 4 hours ahead of me.  So most of them must be summiting.

Soon after Hans Mayer Cave the climb gets really steep.  You can see Gilman’s Point.  Many people say it looks so close.  To me it looked really far away.  At this point you do some serious zig zagging to go up.  The effect of the scree is really felt here.  You get the feeling you are sliding down rather than climbing up.  Its like walking on sand and it gets tiring really fast but I was doing ok.  Pole Pole was the way to go.  I was in no race and in no rush.  I took my time.  I decided to walk to each switchback, stop, count 5 and then walk to the next.  All the interval training I had done was now paying off.  I noticed that my heart rate would shoot up but each time I stopped it would drop back down.  I was able to recover really fast.  Having a heart rate monitor was useful.  I noticed that at these altitudes my resting heart rate was over 100, while climbing on this stretch my heart rate would peak at about 190 but the moment I would rest it would drop to about 130.  I made sure I got some rest every so many steps.  I did not want to collapse.

Breathing was tough.  I could clearly tell that there wasn’t enough oxygen.  Another thing that helped out was this concept of breathing from your belly.  Before the climb I was reading somewhere that when we breathe we do so by expanding our chest.  This brings air into the top 2/3 of our lungs.  However if we breathe by inflating our belly or expanding our diaphragm we fill the entire lung with air.  A friend who plays the saxophone told me they are trained to do the same.  I practiced this technique prior to the climb.  Now that I was over 5000m and really short of oxygen I started to breathe in this manner specially when I would pause at each switchback.  It was incredible as to how quickly I would feel myself recover with the additional air coming in.

Its on this stretch that I now started to see other people.  The first bunch were people that appeared to be unconscious being taken down by guides.  Then I started to see people pretty much collapsed, unable to go any further.  Some were just throwing up, others were collapsed sitting, trying to catch their breath, and a few were just emotionally broken.  I eventually caught up with a group that had set out from School Huts.  One of their climber was doing well the other two not so well.  We stopped and offered some help.  One the climbers had just completely broken down and was unable to move.  Their guide decided to make her descend.  The other lady joined us.  This slowed us down more but Hakuna Mutata (no worries as everyone in Tanzania says) I was in no rush.

All of a sudden we reached a bunch of rocks just before Gilman’s point.  The top was so close but now in addition to walking one had to scramble up some of the rocks.  I met the team with which Cara (The Fat Lady On the Mountain) was climbing.  They were on their way down after deciding to stop at Gilman’s Point.  Still a great achievement.  A few encouraging words from them had me going up again.  By about 9 maybe 9:30am I was at Gilman’s point.  When I got there I met several people that I had come across during the previous days.  Most seemed to be having some pretty adverse effects of high altitude.  They looked like a bunch of zombies.  No one had the look of success and joy and elation despite their achievement. 

I on the other hand felt fine.  But I knew I needed rest.  There are plenty of rocks at Gilman’s Point so I sat on one for a bit.  Nick gave me a red bull and I have to admit that gave me a surge of energy that I did not know I had.  Now that I was full of energy and suffering from no high altitude effects I started to enjoy the views.  Uhuru peak is a short distance (about an hours walk but can be done in less time) and I was full of energy.  So between helping this other team and me walking around taking photographs I actually ended up taking a lot of time getting to Uhuru from Gilman’s.

The walk along the rim of the volcano from Gilman’s to Uhuru is pretty easy.  On one side you see the crater, with trails going down, I wanted to go down but Nick said no way.  On the other you soon start seeing huge glaciers.  You can tell that they are receding.  From what I heard, once upon a time you had to walk almost next to them, now they appeared to be a mile away.

Finally above Mawenzi.  It feels good to look down.

Kilimanjaro Glaciers

Eventually as I wandered around I reached Uhuru Peak.  There was a bunch of people ahead of us so we waited almost 30 minutes for them to be done with their photo moments.  Then of course I took my obligatory Uhuru Peak photograph.

I made it to the top of Africa

Once we were done with the pictures the return journey started.  This was long, very long, very very long.  The first step was to get back to Gilman’s point.  This was easy.  From here you scree ski down pretty much all the way to Kibo huts.  The way back does not require going to School Huts.  The scree skiing was incredible fun.  I would climb Kilimanjaro again just so I can scree ski down.  I think I made it to Kibo Huts in an hour or two at most.  Then there was the long endless hike to Horombo Huts.  This was one night I really enjoyed my sleep.

Day 6

Day 6 was another long walk to the park gate.  It was long and downhill walking can be pretty tough too.  The walk was mostly uneventful, I started from being above the clouds to finally going back below them.  Soon I was back in the rain forest region, saw a raptor of some kind but could not ID it and also saw a blue monkey which was pretty cool.

Blue Monkey

Not sure but I think its a Jackal Buzzard

Finally we were at the gate and the Kilimanjaro experience was over.  Well not exactly, there was one major task/destination that was still left.  I needed a shower.  I have never wanted to shower more desperately in my entire life.  Every time the car would slow down I wanted to scream and say hurry up.  The moment I got to the hotel I took that long, much needed shower.  Then I had a beer.  Now the Kilimanjaro experience was over.

A rough table of distance and altitude gain per day is in the table below.

Day   Alititude (M) Altitude (ft) Destination Alititude (M) Altitude (ft) Distance
(km)
Distance
(miles)
Elevation Gain
(M)
Elevation Gain
(ft)
Climb Rate
1 Rongai Gate 1996 6549 Simba Camp 2626 8615 6.7 4.16 630 2067 9%
2 Simba Camp 2626 8615 Kikelewa Cave 3679 12070 11.8 7.33 1053 3455 9%
3 Kikelewa Cave 3679 12070 Mawenzi Tarn 4303 14117 3.7 2.30 624 2047 17%
4 Mawenzi Tarn 4303 14117 School Hut 4722 15492 9 5.59 419 1375 5%
5 School Hut 4722 15492 Uhuru Peak 5895 19341 5.4 3.36 1173 3848 22%
  Uhuru Peak 5895 19341 Horombo Hut 3705 12156 15 9.32 -2190 -7185 -15%
6 Horombo Hut 3705 12156 Marangu Gate 1860 6102 19.7 12.24 -1845 -6053 -9%

Aftermath

Ever since climbing Kilimanjaro I have been obsessed with the idea of climbing other mountains.  Several of the 7 Summits (highest mountain in each continent) are non technical climbs.  This includes Elbrus (Europe), Denali or McKinley (North America), Vinson (Antarctic), and Aconcagua (South America).  Aconcagua is the highest non technical mountain one can climb and is at 6962.  Too bad Aconcagua is not at 7000m.  There are several other amazing non technical climbs, Stok Kangri in Ladakh, India is at 6153m.

Next summer I may attempt Stok Kangri to break the 6000m barrier and then try Denali and Aconcagua.  Let’s see how this works out.

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Comments

December 28. 2011 02:51

Rahul Singh

When is the best time to climb?

Rahul Singh

November 17. 2012 21:48

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scientificnotation.mykf.info

January 31. 2013 06:48

mount kilimanjaro

Photos are wonderful...it is one of the most beautiful place. climbing mount kilimanjaro is always been a memorable experience.

mount kilimanjaro

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