As we flew into Kilimanjaro International Airport we caught out first glimpse of Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa and the peak of the highest freestanding mountain in the world – Mount Kilimanjaro. The peak that sat proudly above the clouds looked very calm and majestic, sitting quietly for everyone to see…
Early in 2014, after speaking to Ajay and hearing the stories of friends and family who had climbed Kilimanjaro, our small but determined group decided to attempt the challenge for BEHT. The three of us soon booked flights and begun training and fundraising for the impending climb. The group was comprised of my two good friends Alistair and Ewan and myself. Three is quite a small group but we are all so close and knew that no matter how much we irritated each other we would remain good friends throughout!
We arrived in Kilimanjaro and transferred to the lodge for our overnight stay and briefing before setting off on the Machame route the next morning. On the short bus journey from the airport to the lodge we started to get a scale of the mountain and its size. None of us had set out with any expectations, but the manner with which the mountain dominated the landscape amazed and scared us. Its presence was felt everywhere; from the Kilimanjaro larger advertising campaigns, to the eerie shadow it cast over the land. Sadly, cloud cover prevented us from seeing the peak of the mountain from ground level.
The first day of walking was absolutely stunning. We started at the entrance gate with all the other climbers and after registering and unpacking the coach we set off. Climbing through the rainforest on the good, well maintained path was very comfortable walking and we all made good progress climbing through an entire climate zone in one day. We arrived at the campsite in the early evening and were shown to our tents by our guides Thomas and Bartos. We were extremely happy and surprised to find fresh popcorn, tea, biscuits and a fully laid table waiting for us in the mess tent. This level of service continued through the rest of the trip with well seasoned, hot, tasty, food everyday for dinner and waiter service throughout.
We woke up to a misty camp the second day, which was situated just above the rainforest. There was almost a line drawn at the camp, at around 3000m above which was moorland or heathland, below it rainforest. We set off with a lot of other climbers and porters, and it was the busiest day of the week. Visibility was very low due to the mist, but about two hours after starting, we broke through the cloud layer and had our first stunning view of the summit. It was surprisingly motivating but also quite daunting to see the task laid out before us so clearly, although it did look like it was just over the next hill! We then continued on a more exposed path all the way to the Shira camp which was at 3900m. The site had the most stunning views of the summit as well as some other peaks in the other direction. One of the best memories came from this evening, whereby we watched the sun set above these peaks, and then saw the Milky Way and an incredible, irrevocably beautiful night sky.
By Day three, we began to get into the routine of waking up, packing up, eating and then moving off. This was one of our longest days of walking; 7 hours. Along the trip we played little jokes and pranks on each other. On this day Ali and Ewan cunningly placed rocks inside my bag, which I later found with some bitterness! We climbed up to Lava Rock, which was at 4600m, and this was the first day that two of us begun to face real problems with altitude. Headaches were common despite drinking about 6 litres of water over the course of the day. Lava Rock felt like a massive achievement when we got there, since we knew that there would be no more climbing that day. We met three people from Plymouth University, and enjoyed talking with them over lunch. They were also walking the same route as us with an extra day to acclimatize and we continued to bump into them over the coming days. After Lava Rock we then descended into the cloud to go to our next camp site, walking with about 10m of visibility. The never ending paths eventually led to the ‘sign in’ hut, and the relief was more evident in some than others! On seeing the hut, Alistair was given a very large hug as I practically collapsed on him. After about 10 minutes the cloying cloud that had blighted us cleared, to show that we had been walking in the shadow, underneath the summit, with a stunning view, which we just hadn’t been able to see. It was a really awe inspiring view that truly made the day feel like a great accomplishment, despite the difficulties.
Day four was brilliant fun, as we scrambled up the Barranco Wall. The wall consisted of a very steep path with tight hairpin bends, which although was more tiring, ended up being far more interesting, making a break from just the walking. When we reached the top of this wall, an amazing photo spot was found, with an unbroken view of the summit and clear views of the glaciers. At this point Alistair was starting to struggle a lot more; being unable to hold food down was starting to become a real issue and he felt tired for the whole time. But we kept going and reached Barranco, our next camp site.
A short walk from Barranco at 3900m to Barafu hut at 4600m was all that was planned, but was one of the hardest days to walk, due to the altitude. We ended up stopping asking for rests more and more regularly, with Ali struggling to keep going on an empty stomach; he hadn’t really eaten anything since day three and was kept going on a glucose tablet an hour. The summit appeared more and more looming. Bertos, our guide, took Ali’s pack for the first time – although it was not heavy – taking the weight off really made a difference. We kept walking and found ourselves paying less and less attention to the surroundings, and just kept focusing on trying to keep going and get to camp. After about 5 hours, we reached the next camp site and we all then tried to sleep to prepare ourselves for the ascent to the summit that evening.
We descended quickly from this point returning swiftly to the base of the mountain in the two days following this. Descending was extremely hard work as we had begun to lose motivation and the steepness of the terrain meant that toes begun to feel cramped and painful in the boots. At the base we said a sad farewell to out guides and porters and wished them the best for the future. They were an absolutely brilliant team and their help, expertise and motivation was unbeatable. We could not have done it without them. Climbing Kilimanjaro is a truly humbling, amazing, scenic experience and one that we would all recommend everyone does. Whether it is for the physical challenge, beautiful views or charitable fundraising the whole experience changes your perceptions of how far and how hard one can be pushed. All three of us learnt valuable lessons whilst on the mountain and are extremely grateful that we had the opportunity to do so.
Article written by Krishan Shah