Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro on the Machame route was not technical but it was very strenuous. We include a virtual tour of our route, here.
When people ask us, what the most difficult part was, we have very different answers. Pauric suffered from mild to severe altitude sickness from the 4th day and throughout the way to the top. Yes, he successfully summited the mountain (in great discomfort) which was a great challenge and achievement for him.
I was a little taken aback by the first day. I didn’t expect it to be so long and steep. There was absolutely nothing too steep or technical about the first day, I just had a much lower expectation and it took me by surprise. Day 1 was the most difficult day for me as it took me longer than others to adjust – especially with the backpack. I should have left the whole kit-and-kaboodle behind.
There was so much we learned about ourselves, attempting and ‘conquering ’ an expedition like this. We became extremely aware of our individualism all the while leaning on each other as much as our trekking poles. Evident early on that this was going to be mind over matter.
We booked our adventure through a travel agency and were placed in a group of 7 people. This was a relief because we did not want to climb the mountain on our own. It is definitely an experience worth doing in a group. We made a good friend – who knows our weakest and strongest moments on the mountain – a very special bond and we are very grateful for this.
DAY 1: Machame Gate – Machame Camp
It’s an early start to the day so our duffel bags are packed from the night before. We made our way to the breakfast table and loaded our bags into the van. This might be the last opportunity to fill our water bottles, so we did and traveled in a mini bus of 8 people to Mount Kilimanjaro’s Gates.
On the journey, we past through the village of Machame, waving at children at play and passing through banana and coffee plantation. The drive took about 50 minutes and we enjoyed watching the daily African life as we passed through the small towns and villages with people coming and going from the markets.
There was little to no delay at the gates. After signing in, we started walking to the starting point, took a couple of photos and off we went….one step at a time. This was the beginning. It is also the first time you become aware of how much work and physical effort goes into the preparation of an adventure like this. We were 2 teams of 3 – 4 people who will be trekking and camping together for the next 4 or 5 days before splitting up. The other team (our neighbors) booked an extra night. So, where we will venture on, they will hang on a little longer.
Each team was staffed with 16 porters carrying our duffel bags, their cooking equipment and food produce, tents and all necessary camping equipment. It is incredible to see all the porters line up at the gate with all the different bags and equipment for weighing as there is a limit to how much they can carry. We had the utmost respect for these people and felt spoiled for having our gear carried.
We now leave the park gates and we are overwhelmed with different emotions – the thrill of adventure, the apprehension of the enormity of the task not far from the forefront of our minds. All of this is nonexistent after day 1.
We walked through the rain forest on a winding trail up. Luckily we had no rain or mud, so our trekking poles were not needed.
6 Hours, 11 kilometers and elevating from 5 400 to 9 400 ft, we thankfully reached the first camp site. We felt tired but strong and accomplished. Done and dusted. We made our mark by signing in to the site’s visitor’s book, knowing this was not going to be a late night.
Six out of seven people who geared up on this first day, reached the summit successfully. Unfortunately, one person fell ill along the way and turned around.
DAY 2: Machame Camp – Shira Camp
After breakfast we left the glades of the rainforest for our 6 hour, 5km trek. We continued to ascend all the way to the next camp. The climb started with a small valley and your legs limber out just before the steep rocky ridge. The area is beautiful, covered in heather and a variety of plantation. Dannii was in her element and the view; breathtaking. At times you are above the clouds and it is hard to believe how high you climbed so quickly.
This was the first day that actually become aware of how high you are going.
After arriving at the camp our guide, Killian (our mentor, our doctor, our spirit guide and all-round Yoda), took us to another elevating tip as an acclimatizing exercise. With Kilimanjaro’s peak right behind us, we took a few photos and walked back down again. Staring up at the peak made our tummies turn with excitement. For us, Shira camp (12 500ft) was the most memorable camp.
It was wonderful to sit close to the edge of the mountain after a strenuous hike and dinner, watching the sun set with a hot chocolate (‘Milo’) in hand. There is certainly a chill in the air.
DAY 3: Shira Camp – Lava Tower – Barranco Camp
This day is a very important day for acclimatization. The exercise for the day is to climb high and sleep low. The terrain itself was nothing like the past two days. We walked about five and a half hours through semi dessert terrain from the Shira plateau, eastwards, up a ridge and then South East towards the Lava tower at 15 190 ft. (Cue Lord of the Rings peak to peak montage).
The last stretch towards the Lava tower was uncomfortably challenging. The air is cold, much thinner and our energy levels are low. With a faint headache – because of high altitude – we reach the tower. It was exceptionally cold, so we decided not to have lunch on the tower as originally planned. Instead, we enjoyed a cup of sweet tea made by Killian and head down again to Barranco Camp.
Going down is meant to be easy, but it wasn’t for me. Everyone else seemed to be doing okay – especially Pauric. He was gliding down like he had done this before. It was a very fast paced descent. Dare to stop and get trampled on by a stampede of crowds coming down behind you. So, we didn’t and continued down to Barranco hut, 13 000 ft. Here, I had a short nap, felt much better, enjoyed dinner and overnight.
If there is anything we would do over, it would be having lunch on Lava tower.
DAY 4: Barranco Camp – Karanga Camp – Barafu Valley
At this point, all of us had symptoms of altitude sickness. Whether it was just a faint headache or nausea, it was there. It became increasingly difficult to eat due to a lack of appetite. We ate what we could and after breakfast left Barranco camp and continued a very steep ridge climb; the Barranco Wall.
We stopped at Karanga Camp (13 100 ft) for lunch. We then continued a journey that felt endless to the Barafu Valley campsite. Strangely, we stopped taking photos. It just seemed like too much of an effort taking the gloves off, zip everything open to reach the camera, snap, and zip up again. This is something we regret.
To Pauric, this day was a blur as the symptoms of altitude sickness started taking its toll and his only focus was to move forward and ignore the discomfort. To me it just felt like forever.
Tip: Keep your camera or phone close to your chest. Your body temperature will save the battery from running down.
We arrived at Barafu camp late and exhausted. Killian took our blood pressure and oxygen levels as he did every night. He briefed us on our big night and we headed straight to our tents to rest. Tonight, is the night we start the summit. It is incredible how fast the past 4 days have finally come to ‘D’ day.
DAY 5: Barafu base camp – Uhuru Peak
23:00. ‘Water for washing’, comes Joseph’s (porter) voice outside our tent. I am not quite sure if I was excited or terrified. But the feeling was indescribable. I think we just wanted to get it over and done with and were secretly hoping that we were coming down from summiting, and not going up.
Pauric started getting very sick with acute altitude sickness. I needed to think about my options in case he needs to turn around. I wouldn’t leave him behind.
Luckily no one had to turn around and slowly-slowly (‘pole-pole’ in Swahili) we ascend higher and higher. With our headlamps on, through a very rocky terrain towards Stella point, nothing can describe that scene when you look up to a string of lights – headlamps that guide the trail in the darkness. We are all on the same journey with the same goal. Summit.
Then you realize, it’s better to look down – keep the motivation going. We have got this far. No turning back. This is the most mentally and physically challenging portion of the trek.
Tip: If you are using a camelback for water, you have 2 hours before it freezes. Ask the porters for boiling water in your camelback. This will keep you warm and keep the water unfrozen for another 2 hours.
We watched the sun rise on Stella point on the crater rim (18 000 ft). It was the most beautiful sunrise we have ever or will probably ever see again. As the sun rose, so did our excitement. I got emotional at this point in complete disbelieve that we made it!
As we continued I heard a passerby saying; ‘She looks like a Zombie’. I might have looked like it, but I surely did not feel it.
With energy from the sun, there was no problem going on and on. It is like you are already there. From Stella point, we saw glaciers and a little snow on our 1-hour ascent to the summit.
We reached the summit at 07:30 on the morning of 11 October. The highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro and the continent of Africa. The highest freestanding mountain in the world. Emotions were overwhelming. Suddenly nothing mattered, not the cold, not the exhaustion, not the discomfort or the pain.
Just us, here on the ROOF OF AFRICA!
Killian carried a bottle of church wine all the way for a brief 60th birthday celebration of one of our fellow trekkers and now good friend. We decided to save it for later and raced down the mountain back to base camp. We had a few hours to sleep before packing and gearing up for the descend to Mweka Hut Camp site (12 km).
Trekking poles came in handy all the way down. Mweka camp is in the upper forest and can be a wet area. We clearly picked a good time of the year or were purely just lucky with no rain. We savoured our last dinner and well-earned sleep on the mountain, here.
After breakfast, we continued a 3 hour descend to the park gate to receive our summit certificates and drive back to our hotel in Moshi to celebrate our victory with the largest Kilimanjaro beer we can find.