Climbing Kilimanjaro: Reaching the Rooftop of Africa, Part 1

Climbing Kili, (as it is affectionately known), was perhaps one of the most amazing and awe inspiring experiences of my whole life. Before we embarked on the climb, we read lots of really helpful reviews and accounts, so here’s my two pence worth.

It was the summer of 2007 and I had itchy feet. I hadn’t been on a proper adventure for about two years, so it was time to start planning! I’ve always enjoyed trekking and was desperate to visit Africa again after a wonderful trip to Namibia a few years earlier. Put the two together and "hey presto", you get Kilimanjaro – the majestic rooftop of Africa.

The first challenge, and arguably one of the most difficult, was persuading my other half that climbing the world’s highest freestanding mountain (also one of the coveted Seven Summits) was a good idea! Paul is less adventurous by nature and more "grounded" than me, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I proposed the plan to him carefully, playing down (not mentioning) the bit about it being the world’s highest freestanding mountain. It was met with the usual “that sounds nice dear” with a somewhat thankful relief that he wasn’t going to be on the hook for organising our next holiday. The trip was booked for the middle of February 2008!

Even though climbing Kilimanjaro does not require any technical climbing experience, crampons or ice picks, it stands at a mighty 5,895 meters (19,340 feet). It is physically very demanding, (even before you add in the altitude sickness). The trip was booked, we needed to start thinking about what training we had to do and the kit we needed to get, so Paul’s perception that Kilimanjaro was a kind of very large hill required correction!

One evening in September I read him the following fantastic account. At the end of the article, I looked up and saw facial expressions that can only be described as some combination of fear, horror, anxiety and total disbelief. The full gravity of what he had unwittingly agreed to had finally sunk in.

Over the next five months, and in between a barrage of berating comments from a rather unwilling Paul (“you’re irresponsible”, “you have no idea what we are capable of”, “you’re going to get us killed” etc), we researched and bought our kit (see Kit List in Part 3) and we embarked on a training programme.

Paul and I both work in London and live in Woking (just outside London), so we were limited in terms of mountains to practice on! We went to the gym a few times every week and also walked on the South Downs most weekends.

By the time it was February, the berating comments had ceased. We were really excited, although a little nervous that perhaps we hadn’t done enough training or we’d forgotten some bit of kit. When we got on our flight at London Heathrow, I remember sitting near another couple that we knew must also be climbing Kili from their rucksacks, walking poles and walking boots. Their boots were obviously brand new. I felt a kind of satisfaction that at least we weren’t that unprepared – if nothing else, we had "walked in" our boots!

We reached our accommodation, sorted out our kit for the next day. By this time our nerves were really beginning to kick in. Would we be able to do this? What if one of us needed to turn back? We had chosen the Machame Route because it is one of the most beautiful and varied, also longer than some of the others, (giving us more chance to acclimatise to the altitude), but of course, there are never any guarantees. A glass of wine to calm the nerves and then an early night.

Day 1 – Machame Park Gate (1,815m / 5,590ft) to Machame Camp (3,003m / 9,850ft)

Godfrey (our guide) and Paul (our cook) picked us up in the morning, we drove to Machame Park Gate. We met our porters (there were 10 in addition to the guide and cook), registered and started the climb. The porters bounded off in front and within literally seconds, we could no longer see them! Godfrey explained that we should take it slowly, pole pole in Swahili – this would help us to acclimatise. Somewhat relieved that we weren’t expected to bound up the mountain at the same speed as the porters, we settled into a fairly leisurely pace.

We were walking up a well maintained path through dense forest. It was quite eerie in places, akin to how you would imagine woods in fairytales. As time passed the woods gradually thinned and the trees gave way to heath land – with giant heather standing at six feet. Around 2:00 p.m., the heavens opened, it rained hard for about three hours. We found out later that it rains every day at about the same time. I suggest you wear clothes you don’t mind getting wet or that will dry out quickly.

We hiked for about six hours before we got to camp. It felt like one of the longest days (even though distance wise it wasn’t) – I think because it was the first day and much of the battle is about getting used to and understanding what to expect. The porters had been there for hours, had already set up our tent and started a fantastic dinner – soup and popcorn for starters, fish and pasta for the main course and fruit for dessert. I was totally blown away with what Paul had cooked on a tiny gas stove!

Machame camp was our first experience of the Kili toilets! They are generally a small hut, just big enough for one person, with a hole in the wooden floor. At best, these toilets have a lock and have recently been swept with a dashing of bleach. At worst, there are panels missing from the sides, no lock on the door, flies and a, ahem, messy floor. To be fair though, the Machame camp toilets were probably the worst in terms of smell because the weather was still fairly warm and humid at 3,000 meters.

Machame camp was also the first time we experienced slight breathlessness – it’s like you’ve been running up a slope – not really uncomfortable, just strange.

Day 2 – Machame Camp (1,815m / 5,590ft) to Shira Camp (3,003m / 9,850ft)

Quick breakfast and then the climb, steeper that the previous day. I was becoming more and more a fan of pole pole! Mostly Uhuru Peak was hidden by clouds, but when we stopped for lunch, the clouds cleared for a few minutes and we caught a glimpse of it.

The higher we climbed the shorter the heather got. When we reached Shira camp, the heather was sparse, a similar height to what you would expect in the UK. We reached camp at about 4:00 pm, had a rest and then took a short walk up a couple of hundred meters – a good way to help your body to aclimatise to altitude is to "climb high", then "sleep low" each night. 

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Our tent

We set up our tents on the edge of camp – a little away from everyone else, more peaceful than the previous night – we had our room with a view! Also that evening we had a beautiful sunset full of pinks, yellows and oranges, but the best bit by far was watching it from above the clouds – quite a spiritual experience.

Day 3 – Shira Camp (3,003m / 9850ft) to Barranco Camp (3,948m / 12,950ft)
I woke up with sore hands and cheeks, quickly realised I had a nasty sun burn from the day before. I’d put factor 50 on my face but hadn’t done it very well, missed bits on my cheeks that were now blistered!. The tops of my hands were also red raw. This was not a pleasant experience at all. I urge you not to make the same mistake.

After breakfast and a heavy basting of sun screen, we set off. The landscape became sparser still with the now short heather disappearing altogether to reveal the rocky ground. The climb was more strenuous than the previous days as the trail steepened, so we took it slowly. We climbed up to the Lava Tower (4,573m / 15,000ft) before we descended back down to our camp for the evening – part of the "climb high, sleep low" system. The Laver Tower is a 300 foot volcanic plug left over from the time when Kilimanjaro was volcanic. At 4,573 meters, we were at the highest altitude so far; the breathlessness had become far more noticeable. We were walking really slowly, kind of like fairy steps with one foot just in front of the other. Yet it felt like we had been running. Paul made light of it but he had a headache, albeit not severe – it had been on and off since the previous night.

After lunch we descended from the Lava Tower into Barranco Valley. One thing that I haven’t mentioned is that I’m really not a big fan of going down hills/moutains, especially when they’re steep. My knees hurt, the thought of falling freaks me out – uphill is definitely more my bag. So what was I doing climbing Kili, I hear you ask! Well, my theory was that once I got to the top, I’d have no choice because I had to get down – so I’d worry about it at that point! The descent into Barranco was my first taster and I have to be honest, it wasn’t much fun.

As we dropped into the valley, the landscape became greener and less baron. The vegetation was nothing like we had seen before. One plant in particular caught Paul’s eye – the giant Lobelia that is uniquely endemic on Kili and which doesn’t usually come with integral hat and glasses! We also had our first glimpse of Barranco Wall – what we would be climbing the next morning.

We camped that evening at the bottom of Barranco wall. After another wonderful and much anticipated dinner, I decided to get an early night, but not before seeing the moon rise over Uhuru Peak.

If you want to see the photos that
accompany this article, check out Love & Cherish

Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

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