We knew it would be a challenge but figured as relatively active, physically fit people, it wouldn’t be too difficult. Somewhere around 18,000 feet at 2:00 in the morning on summit day when Jed was frantically looking for his glove (it was on his hand) and Meg was trying to zip together the two different jackets she was wearing, we realized that high altitude can make seemingly simple things pretty difficult.
Two hours later when we arrived at Gilman’s point (a turning around point for a large number of climbers) and realized we still had 1.5 hours to the summit, things looked pretty bleak. About at about this point that Jed said “it is 4am, dark, freezing, and snowing and we are on top of a mountain at 19,000 feet, what are we doing?” However, walking slowly and unsteadily, we reached Uhuru Peak—the tallest point in Africa—exactly as the sun was rising. It was a pretty magical moment:
For those of you that don’t know the system for climbing Kili is quite interesting. You are not allowed to enter Mt Kilimanjaro National Park without a guide, nor are you allowed to do the climb carrying your own things. Instead, you arrange to climb through a local tour company (as we learned, some of them more sketchy than others.) The climbing package includes the guide, several porters, a cook, and a waiter. You carry only your day pack from hut to hut and upon arrival, your bags are delivered to your cabin door, washing water in brought to you, a three course meal is cooked and served to you, etc. The whole process is quite disconcerting. On the one hand it is very uncomfortable to have so many people serving you. On the other hand, it provides employment and income for thousands of Tanzanians and when you are at 14,000 feet (with another 5,000 to go), you realize that not carrying your heavy backpack is probably not such a terrible idea. Throughout the entire climb we discussed how to reconcile the discomfort of so many people serving you (when you are supposed to be “roughing it”) with the benefits to the local economy it brings and never really arrived at an answer. We did have a fabulous “team” though!
The first three days of the climb were very enjoyable and fairly easy. We hiked between 8 and 11km per day very slowly (“pole pole” as they say in Swahili) to minimize the effects of the altitude. As we reached higher altitudes the vegetation changed starting from the rainforest, to heather moorlands (think Scotland), and finally to alpine desert (similar in appearance to Chile’s Atacama desert). Each day was ended with a short, acclimatizing walk that afforded amazing views of each of the three vegetations, though our legs were never actually tired at the end of these days.
Day 4 is when things started to get difficult. We started our summit climb at 12am (see above for details.) Once we reached the summit, we immediately wanted to start back down (to get to a lower altitude.) Unfortunately (as we needed to get back to town early on Day 5), our ending point for that day was 29km away making the total distance we hiked 40km (including the 11km to the summit) over an elevation change of nearly 11,000 feet. By the end of the day, we had spent the previous 36 hours hiking a total of over 50km with nearly 18,000 feet in elevation change and 3 hours of sleep. Needless to say we were pretty tired by the end of the day. Day 5 was only an 8km hike to the entrance gate, but rough on our sore legs. Overall, climbing Kili was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and a great capstone to our time in Africa.