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Sunday, 28 September 2008

Reaching the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

Written by Carolyn Bonello
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Reaching the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, travel Africa, travel tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro climb, Tanzania, Uhuru Peak, Marangu Hotel, Moshi, Shira plateau, Machame camp, Barranco Camp, Barranco wall, Karanga valley, Barafu camp, Stella Point, Mweka camp, www.maranguhotel.com, Carolyn BonelloThere is something about volcanoes that fascinates me, and finds me craving to conquer their summits to be able to satisfy my curiosity and peer down their crater rims. Having climbed Mount Etna (3350m) in Sicily and Gunung Agung (3142m) in Bali, (Cotapaxi (5897m) in Ecuador was weeks away but the trip was cancelled at the last minute), the time had come for something African – Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania was the next conquest. At an altitude of 5895m, it is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, and I promised myself that one day soon I would have my picture taken at the summit, Uhuru Peak.

Getting there

Kilimanjaro International Airport was our final destination after a dodgy, one-hour flight from Nairobi Airport in Kenya, on a flimsy, toy-like, propeller-engine, 16-seater (we were exactly 16 people) aircraft , inappropriately named ‘Precision Air’. Struggling to breathe in the gusts of sticky, humid air that greeted us on arrival, we were immediately welcomed by friendly staff from the Marangu Hotel, located in the village of Moshi (www.maranguhotel.com ), who took care of the whole trip we were about to embark on. Two hot, bumpy, dusty hours later we were tucking into a feast of meats and vegetables kindly prepared by the wonderful hotel staff.

Getting kitted for the climb

Having brought more gear than most professional climbers about to embark on an expedition up Mount Everest, we were told during our briefing the next morning that our rucksacks were to weigh a maximum of 20kg! Waves of panic and horror (and a little bit of embarrassment) swept through me as I struggled to imagine what I could possibly remove:

· A few dozen Mars and Snickers bars out of my chocolate treasure box? - no way, I needed all the extra energy I could get. I was, after all following guide book orders.

· Headlamp, flashlight, rope, penknife, cutlery, flask, mug, extra mug? - always be prepared they said, so none of these could go.

· Thin waterproof rain jacket, thicker-but-not-waterproof padded jacket, thin fleece, chunky, thicker, fleecier fleece, rain pants, wind pants, thermal pants? ……..This was getting tiring, and we hadn’t even begun!

Eventually, after painstakingly parting with half my precious items, I was properly kitted with the essentials, and hey presto, my bag weighed a very decent 19kg!


The briefing

Seamus, a calm and collected South African man, is the owner of the Marangu Hotel and has been operating Kilimanjaro treks from here for a number of years. He is bursting with knowledge about the do’s and dont’s of climbing this volcano and there is no one better than him to brief any group about to embark on this expedition. So the 16 of us sat in silence and listened in admiration as he carefully explained some basic rules, as well as giving us an insight into what we should expect along the way in terms of climate, terrain and potential dangers, including signs and symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness).

 


 

We were then introduced to the guides and porters who would be accompanying us on the trek (and without whom this could not be possible). A total of 51 staff stood in a very smart, long line, each stepping forward when called by Seamus and introducing themselves politely. Gaudenz was to be our chief guide, helped by seven assistant guides, who then would liase with the rest – porters and cooks. We were each assigned to a porter who would carry our bags for the whole trip (hence the importance of the 20kg max rule!). Mine was a young man named Joseph - he spoke very good English and I learnt that he spent months on end doing back to back trips, to take money back to his family. Throughout the trip we grew to be buddies, and at the end of each day he would hang around my tent hoping to acquire an extra Mars bar I might have, or a t-shirt or maybe a pen!

The Machame route – off we go to Machame camp (3000m)

There are several routes to the summit (www.kilimanjaro.cc/kroutes.htm), some longer than others. We chose a longer, scenic route, the Machame route, also known as the Whisky route, which takes a total of eight days – six up and two down.

 

Bursting with excitement and a little bit of apprehension, camelback full of fresh, cold water tightly strapped to my day pack, virgin trekking boots itching to be used, wooden walking stick in hand, I stood at Machame Gate, the starting point of our trek and, with the rest of my group, waited. A sea of porters carrying our not-so-light bags, sacks of food, barrels of eggs, tents, mats, all unbelievably balanced on their heads and hypertrophied shoulders, sprinted past us and disappeared into the dense vegetation, only to be seen again at the end of our day’s trek.

 

Reaching the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, travel Africa, travel tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro climb, Tanzania, Uhuru Peak, Marangu Hotel, Moshi, Shira plateau, Machame camp, Barranco Camp, Barranco wall, Karanga valley, Barafu camp, Stella Point, Mweka camp, www.maranguhotel.com, Carolyn BonelloLed by Gaudenz, we took our first steps into the Montane rainforest, initially a messy, muddy trail surrounded by dense vegetation. A relatively easy walk, we had to follow the golden rule – ‘pole pole’, which in Swahili means ‘slowly slowly’. This rule is crucial and fundamental to anyone who seriously intends to reach the summit. Five hours and a little bit of sweat later, we reached Machame camp at 3000m, our destination for the night. A lovely whiff of food filled the air, as our porters busily prepared our supper, having already set up our tents, with our rucksacks placed outside, together with a basin of welcoming hot water to ‘wash’ in. Totally impressed at the efficiency of these porters, we were even more surprised at the tables they set up, complete with starched tablecloths, stainless steel cutlery and napkins, ready to feed us a fantastic dinner of vegetable soup, chicken, mash and watermelon.

Up to Shira plateau (3840m)…..

After a night of extreme nausea and uncomfortable squatting behind frozen bushes, we woke up to clear blue skies, fresh air and a steaming mug of tea and warm honey bread outside our tent! A procedure which was to become an automatic daily ritual followed, and it consisted of rolling up our bulky sleeping bags, frustratingly trying to stuff them in their little bags (we perfected this by around day five), then strapping our sleeping mats to our rucksacks, followed by filling our camelbacks with boiled water, slapping on heaps of sunblock, preparing our daypacks, grabbing our walking sticks and then, totally laden...having to remove everything to answer nature’s call!

 


 

Reaching the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, travel Africa, travel tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro climb, Tanzania, Uhuru Peak, Marangu Hotel, Moshi, Shira plateau, Machame camp, Barranco Camp, Barranco wall, Karanga valley, Barafu camp, Stella Point, Mweka camp, www.maranguhotel.com, Carolyn BonelloWalking through some great scenic paths, we entered the moorland zone, marked by volcanic rock and the very weird Lobelia and Senecio plants. Stopping several times to rest and munch on energy bars, the seven hour walk was rather pleasurable, and spirits were high by the time we reached the Shira Plateau. The campsite had fantastic views of Mount Meru, was bustling with other trekkers, and housed ‘toilets’ that stank so badly that a minimum distance of at least 50m was necessary to prevent whiffs of nasty odors from reaching our delicate nostrils. (We all opted for ‘al fresco’ toileting from that day on).

 

We spent an extra day here, to acclimatize. (Acclimatization is vital to prevent altitude sickness, so a gradual ascent is necessary. Going up too fast too soon is a recipe for disaster).

 

Barranco Camp (3850m)

The terrain changed dramatically as we walked through the alpine desert, with sparse vegetation and moon-like landscape. Injuries started to set in – we had one twisted ankle, an acute Achilles’ tendonitis due to ill-fitting boots, a number of blisters and sore backs, and by far the worst: early signs of AMS, very ironically manifested by the strongest of the group, our local Judo champion. A couple of intramuscular injections and a few bandages later (we had two doctors in the group, plus myself, a Physiotherapist), we were back on track, and after eight hours of walking reached Barranco camp. Initially shrouded by a dense layer of cloud, golden rays of sun soon burst in to the area, lending to a breathtaking sunset with clear views of the snow-capped peak we were soon to reach.

 

Climbing the imposing Barranco wall

The next morning, a rich breakfast of toast with mango jam, porridge, bacon, eggs, sausages and watermelon gave us the energy we needed (plus a few extra fat deposits on our hips!) to climb the daunting Barranco wall we had been dreading. In spite of giving the illusion of being steep with fatal, sheer drops, it turned out to be a pleasant, two hour climb along safe footpaths. The rest of the walk to Karanga valley (3950m) Reaching the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, travel Africa, travel tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro climb, Tanzania, Uhuru Peak, Marangu Hotel, Moshi, Shira plateau, Machame camp, Barranco Camp, Barranco wall, Karanga valley, Barafu camp, Stella Point, Mweka camp, www.maranguhotel.com, Carolyn Bonellowas a surreal experience, and rather than trekkers, we felt more like Alice strolling through wonderland, due to the high concentration of the bizarre endemic Senacio plants in the area.

Demoralisation sets in: Barafu camp(4600m)

Feelings of wanting to give up started to seep within some of the group by now. Nausea, bouts of diarrhea, headaches, breathlessness and general fatigue (as well as desperate need for a shower in exchange for our daily ration of one tub of hot water) made the walk up to Barafu camp a rather unpleasant one. Silence filled the air as we trudged on, pole pole, stopping only to catch our breath and squeeze some sickly-sweet energy gel into our dry, chapped-lipped mouths.

 


 

Barafu camp is a very inhospitable place covered in rubble and broken glass and, worst of all, infested with a species of rodent known as rasmus. I would have paid anything to have a helicopter come and lift me out of the nightmare at that point. Tents set up as usual, we were expected to get some rest until around 11pm, at which time we would start our final ascent to the summit.

 

Feeling the effects of the altitude, my head throbbing and exhaustion overwhelming, I needed large amounts of coaxing and TLC from my better half to feel convinced that I could actually reach the summit later on that night. His efforts were not in vain.

Uhuru peak, here we come

At 10.30pm sharp, our guides brought warm tea and honey bread to each of our tents and urged us to get ready. With biting-cold, gale force winds blowing outside, we instinctively put on all the gear we possessed, layer after layer, until we could barely move shoulders and elbows to a quarter of their full range of motion! – but at least we were warm!!

 

No amount of physical or mental training could have ever prepared me for what we were about to experience in the next few hours. Carrying only the bare essentials – a headlamp, camelback and the sickliest, most sugary sweets we had, we formed a single file behind Gawdenz, interspersed by the seven assistant guides. Struggling to keep upright, we battled the gale and stumbled up the rocks and scree, barely able to see more than a meter in front of us.

 

Hour after hour, we pushed on, setting mini goals and just focusing on placing one foot firmly in front of the other. Glancing behind me, the initially bright line of head torches had now dimmed to a few scattered lights several meters apart –some of us slowed down, and two others had to turn back (ironically, the two doctors). I tried to keep positive and stuck to the leading group, convincing myself that I was not mad for having undertaken this challenge.

 

With temperatures at around minus 25 degrees Celsius, my camelback, that was strapped to my chest, froze, so apart from not being able to sip any water, I had a block of ice chilling my already freezing body. My last reserves of energy were used to open my mouth and chew jelly beans which my partner forced in every few minutes. This is what kept me going until finally, at 6am, a burnt-orange glow filled the sky and the biting wind died down gradually, replaced by a warmer, more bearable breeze. Reaching the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, travel Africa, travel tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro climb, Tanzania, Uhuru Peak, Marangu Hotel, Moshi, Shira plateau, Machame camp, Barranco Camp, Barranco wall, Karanga valley, Barafu camp, Stella Point, Mweka camp, www.maranguhotel.com, Carolyn Bonello

 

As the sun rose, so did our spirits, and I could hardly believe my eyes when Gaudenz announced that we had reached the crater rim - Stella Point (5790m). Too tired to even consider the short walk to peer down (as I claimed to love doing) I collapsed on the volcanic terrain, totally oblivious of the fantastic views that lay below, and waited , as each member of the group slowly appeared, some held up on their feet by the guides, others almost dropping dead on arrival!

 


 

The last hour’s walk to Uhuru peak was not quite the walk- in- the- park as described in some guide books, but the breathtaking views of the glaciers and distant peaks made it bearable. I thought I was hallucinating when the famous sign I had been dreaming of for the past six days finally came into view –

‘Congratulations – you are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895AMSL, Africa’s highest point, world’s highest free-standing mountain, one of the world’s largest volcanoes. WELCOME’

Reaching the Summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, travel Africa, travel tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro climb, Tanzania, Uhuru Peak, Marangu Hotel, Moshi, Shira plateau, Machame camp, Barranco Camp, Barranco wall, Karanga valley, Barafu camp, Stella Point, Mweka camp, www.maranguhotel.com, Carolyn Bonello

Back to decent showers and toilets

The way down was a long, dusty route, skidding on scree and rocks, and very tough on the knees, but the thought of being able to sip a chilled beer at the end of the day, had us almost sprinting down. We spent the last night at Mweka camp and the next morning had a two hour walk through the rainforest to Mweka gate, where we were transported back to the lovely Marangu Hotel.

 

A beautiful ceremony followed, where we were proudly presented with our certificates, looked on by our heroes – the guides and porters who harmoniously sang and clapped to the beat of their traditional song ‘kilimanjaro’ – the shining mountain that had welcomed us so graciously!

©Carolyn Bonello

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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