For us this was the culmination of 6 months planning, training and travel half way around the world to undertake the climb. We are now 2 from 2 and already planning for our next trip to Agrentina to climb Mt Aconcagua in December. As we were putting our plans we searched the web and books for certain information about what this cklimb of Kilimanjaro might entail. We have prepared our own trip notes not just as a summary of the trip but as a possible resource for others who may also find themselves in the same position as we were several months back. If there’s information that you’d like that we ommitted please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
African Travel Resource (ATR) completed all the bookings and arrangements for the African side of this trip us. We selected them after undertaking research via the web and travel/trip guide books. Our experience with them, and especially Clare has been excellent. The advice we received about dual Mt Meru and Mt Kilimanjaro summit programme was right on the nail and we believe the programme we set ourselves was in the end the correct one. The safari and accommodation recommendations were spot on and provided the fabulous contrast to the first 10 days of the trip. When we advised them of a change to our group size (+1) approx. 4 weeks before departure the new bookings required were completed without difficulty.
ATR recommended African Walking Company (AWC) as our on mountain guides and we would support this recommendation to any other group considering a Mt Kilimanjaro summit. We received a briefing the day before leaving Arusha for the mountain and this confirmed all the requirements for the coming week. On the mountain our AWC team consisted of a Head Guide (Happson), 2 assistant guides (Alfred and Nicolas) , 1 cook (Mexson, subsequently replaced by Paulo), 4 helping porters and 18 porters. The 3 guides had a very good level of english as did the cook Paulo and Emanual, who was ever present around the cooking and mess tents. Between this group the level of on mountain experience was substantial and it was proven many times when route knowledge, camp positioning and acclimatisation issues were discussed and agreed. We found that the more effort we put into interacting with all of the AWC team the more engaged the overall team became. We were constantly challenged by new Swahili words and terms and our attempts to pronounce and use in daily discussion were always an interesting aspect of the day! Twice during our trip sickness required different members of the AWC team to leave the mountain and in both cases the change-over to replacement team members was very well managed by Happson (Head Guide) to the point that he also became our cook for 2 days.
For the five of us in our team this was our first experience of a trip where all we had to do was walk, and the guides and porters took all responsibility for camp set-up, cooking and washing. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy it. Leaving camp in the morning with only a day pack and arriving in camp later in the day to find all the tents erected, a cup of tea on the table and preparation for meals underway was fantastic but an experience we know will be a one-off in our 7 summits challenge. A typical daily routine, while under the watchful eye of Happson and his team went along these lines (the times are approx. depending on the days expected walk times) –
- 6:30 am Wake up call with coffee or tea
- 7:00 am Washee-washee – bowl of warm water for each of us delivered to our tent for washing. During this first hour we also had to dress and pack our bags for the day so that the porters could commence the packing of their loads while we were breakfasting.
- 7:30 am Breakfast in mess tent. The menu consisted a mix of tea, coffee, porridge, toast, fruit, bacon and eggs or similar)
- 8:00 am We commenced our walk for the day. If the days walk was to be substantial in length (day 4 etc) then on arrival in camp we would have afternoon tea. If the walk between camps was of a short duration then the day generally continued as follows –
- 1:00pm Lunch at the mess tent
- 1:30pm Rest time
- 3:00pm Acclimatisation walk
And then each day concluded as follows –
- 5:00pm Afternoon tea (tea, coffee, peanuts or pop-corn)
- 6:30pm Evening meal. These were always very well catered both in variety and volume but generally consisted of a soup, main course nd desert of fruits.
- 8:30pm We were usually in sleeping bags by this time
Route – general
Very early on in the planning phase we agreed that it was best for us to take the maximum time possible on the mountain to acclimatise to the altitude, especially given that with 3 of us being based in Sydney we effectively had no pre-trip altitude acclimatisation. To achieve this we decided to come onto the mountain via the longer Shira Plateau route that would have us summiting on day 7 of an 8 day trip. Using this approach route ensured there were no long access day walks and on 3 of the days we were provided an opportunity to complete afternoon acclimatisation walks and thus walk high – sleep low.
The move from Lava Tower Camp to Karanga Camp was the second longest day (behind summit day) and involved scaling the Barranco wall. This provided us with our first view of the popularity of the Mt Kilimanjaro climb as we now had all climbers from the western and southern routes looking for space on one track.
Summit day was our longest walking day on the mountain (described more fully below) and once again provide a view on the popularity of the climb with a veritable trail of glow worms (head torches) heading to the summit from 11pm. Post summiting we returned to Barafu camp for food and rest before continuing to descend a further 1,000 meters to Millenium Camp.
Route – detail by day
Day 1 – Base Camp to Shira 1 camp:
Base Camp is at the road end (past the Park entrance and registration point) at an altitude of 2,250 metres. This is already an increase of 1,000 metres from our starting point in Arusha earlier in the day and by the time we complete the 1.5 hour walk into Shira 1 camp total elevation gain for the day is 2,000 metres. By the time we are in Shira 1 Camp four things have struck us –
- a. The attractiveness of the landscape we are walking in. Mostly shoulder height scrub and similar to bushwalking in Australia but the expansiveness of the area and the looming shadow of Mt Kilimanjaro which has been covered in high cloud for the afternoon.
- b. The dust that is ever present and getting to be an issue for us. Hugh’s asthma is giving him grief as a consequence of the dust and for Gavin it is also affecting his breathing.
- c. The speed of the porters over the terrain. It wasn’t that long after we left the Base Camp that we had porters breathing down our necks and we were continually having to “step right” or “step left” to give them and our gear right of way.
- d. “Pole Pole” is Swahili for slow-slow but we are finding it too slow. Some encouragement and baiting of Nicholas did get a marginal increase in walking speed but Hugh was nearly tripping over his own feet in frustration. We all felt the same way to differing degrees.
Carrying a satellite phone proved it’s worth today as Mexon our cook was ill in the evening and required evacuation back to base camp. There’s no cell phone coverage in the camp and the satellite phone provided the means of calling the AWC base in Arusha to organise firstly, a rescue car to collect Mexson from Base camp and then secondly to confirm arrangements for a new cook to join our group.
Day 2 – Shira 1 to Shira 2 Camp:
Total elevation gain today is only 300 metres but it is one of the days with a longer total walking distance as we’ve also included a detour out to Shira Cathedral as part of the days trip. Alfred is our guide today and he seems amenable to a little bit more pace, so approximately three hours from Shira 1 across a relatively flat plateau we reach Shira Cathedral. It’s a raised spite section on the edge of the Shira Plateau that provides a look down into the rain forests below and further out to Moshi in the distance (if the cloud hadn’t been there).
Many photographs later and after a bite to eat we were joined by Nicolas for the walk onto Shira 2 camp. It’s on this section that we experience our first incidence of AMS, thankfully not in our group. At the intersection of the walking track and rescue road end there’s also a helicopter landing site, and here we meet a German woman who has left her group of three who have continued to ascend. She’s suffering from AMS and been recommended by her guide to return to lower levels. Interesting she and her climbing partners had completed an acclimatisation climb of Mt Meru immediately before attempting Mt Kilimanjaro. We had also considered this option in our planning but Clare at ATR had recommended we leave it out if we were serous on Mt Kilimanjaro. We have now heard the arguments for and against and I believe we made the right decision for our team.
We arrive in Shira 2 at approx. 2pm and to provide further opportunities for acclimatising Hugh, Bridie and Kendra take on a walk from camp up to the 4,000 metre level. Gavin’s struggling with dust and what progress’s to be a chest infection so takes a shorter walk later in the afternoon.
Day 3 – Shira 2 to Moir Camp:
Today the elevation gain is a mere 400 metres as Moir camp is located at an altitude of 4,200. From Shira 2 camp it’s an immediate climb before settling into a traverse to the west and into Moir camp. In total a 1.5 hour walk for our group .
First impressions of Moir camp are that it’s very dusty, windy and cold, impressions that are confirmed as the day progresses. To round out the walking for the day we complete an acclimatisation walk from the camp out to the
Lava Tower on the Western ridge line. It’s a two hour walk and provides another lift in maximum elevation for the day through to 4,500 metres before returning to overnight at 4,200 metres in Moir camp.
Day 4 – Moir Camp to Lava Tower Camp:
Up and walking by 8:00am, today’s walk will take us from the western slopes of the mountain and have us join with several other of the routes that come in from a more southern line (Lemosho and Machame). We are now starting to see evidence of others on the mountain and by the time we merge with the Machame route it’s obvious there’s a very large group in the vicinity. Thompson Group porters who are dressed in high vis. orange start appearing from the right of us and before long there are many of them passing us or resting on the track side. When we get to Lava Tower Camp around 1pm the Thompson group size becomes event, there are 18 client tents and Happson estimates 100 supporting porters – a total group of somewhere between 120-150.
To complete our walking day the 5 of us plus Happson, Alfred and Nicholas complete a walk/climb to Arrow camp. Located at 4,800 metres it provides an access point to Arrow Glacier for those taking a very direct route to the summit. There’s one US group in Arrow Camp planning this approach as they’ve been forced to reduce days on the mountain because of sickness in their team (later we hear that 2 of them will attempt the Arrow glacier route).
Lava Tower camp was one of the coldest on the mountain. From early evening we noticed the change in temperature and then overnight and again in the morning additional clothing was required to keep warm.
Day 5 – Lava Tower Camp to Karanga Camp:
Today we descend down to 3,900 metres (Barranco Camp), climb the Barranco Wall and then close out the day by walking the final distance through to Karanaga Camp at 4,050 metres. The descent is almost a non-event. We do come across one of the Thompson Group Porters who’s taken a fallen on the ice sheets formed by the water running down the track. We stopped to provide some assistance, anti-inflammatory and pain killers before moving on, only to have Nicholas take a similar fall a further 20 metres down the track. It’s a great walk down into the valley, new flora alongside the track that both Nicholas and Alfred are keen to identify for us. At Barranco Camp we also get an increase in traffic on the track as the Umbwe route also now joins from the South.
Honestly, by the time porters and climbers combined there must have been 350-400 people making their way up the Barranco Wall and the pace is dead slow! With 4 of us with some rock climbing experience we were able to take advantage of a “short cut” with a little exposure thanks to Hugh’s quick thinking. This quick move allowed us to bypass the bottleneck and move with the porters to the top of the Barranco wall where we stopped for hot soup and an opportunity for Colin and Nicholas to re-join us. From the top of the wall the walk progresses down into a slightly lower valley before completing the final small climb up into the Karanga Camp.
Day 6 – Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp:
Karanga Camp is another that is common to all the routes ascending the mountain and as a consequence it is large in climber population and also geographic size as it sprawls over the ridge line. The camp is positioned on a ridge line and consequently requires the porters to return back into the valley to access water.
The walk across to Barafu camp was a short 1.5-2 hours and following a later start than normal we arrived in Barafu Camp at approx. midday. There’s little difficulty in this walk and the altitude gain is almost all achieved in the last kilometre where you climb up onto the ridgeline where the camp is located. There’s no source of water at this camp and all water is carried across from the Karanga Camp.
Lunch and then rest were the order of the day here as the summit attempt is to commence at 11pm. Around 4pm we gathered together and reconfirmed what gear we would be carrying (sun block, handcleansers, medicines and water) plus reconfirmed clothing choices.
Day 7 – Summit day then down to Millenium Camp:
We received our wake up call from Happson at 11pm. I think we had all pre-dressed and slept in some of our summit gear so completing the final dress was easily achieved by 11:30pm when we met in the mess tent for tea and coffee and final check. At 12:08am we commenced our trip to the summit with Happson, Alfred and Nicolas with us.
The first thing we noticed was the almost constant steam of head torches heading up, there were so many others with the same objective as us. Happson and co’s experience on the mountain really paid off. Our pace was “Pole Pole” but obviously Happson had been monitoring our progress over the past week and we did have a slightly higher speed than others on the mountain. This was used to good effect in the early stages of the ascent. We moved past other groups as they stopped to rest and positioned our selves sufficiently higher than those who had stopped to allow us to see them recommence and get ourselves underway before they closed the gap to us.
As the altitude increased and breathing became more difficult, our pace reduced, but overall progress was good. We had some minor issues to deal with on the ascent, altitude related headache(s), cold – due to sweat collecting in clothing but in the main it was an uneventful climb up to Stella Point that we completed at 5:30am. Here we took a short break to gulp down some warm soup and then it was off on the final hours walk through to Uhuru – the summit. From Stella point to the summit we were walking amongst ice but in most places the track had worn through to the underlying rock and stone. Also the sun was beginning to rise and this allowed for easy navigation of route.
At 6:25 we arrived on the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro to find that there was only one group of approx. 8 ahead of us. There was the usual rush to complete photographs and take in the amazing view. To the east the sun was rising through the cloud and illuminating the crater filled with snow. To the west, the patterned glaciers and then further out to Moshi and Arusha.
After 15-20 minutes Happson called an end to our time on the summit and started us on our way back to Stella Point where we took the opportunity to reduce clothing layers before some of us set off on the fun filled scree skiing back into Barafu Camp. Others took a more sedate approach but in the end we were all back in Camp by 9am and enjoying, once again a tea/coffee. We took several hours break at Barafu Camp to pack our gear and eat before setting of on the 2 hour walk own to Millenium camp.
Once again the porters moved faster than us and it wasn’t long before we saw our group and personal gear heading past us on the way down. The porters had an obvious enthusiasm to be going down. The 2 hours down to Millenium camp passed relatively quickly – we were all on a high from getting our entire group to the summit but there was also the feeling of knowing we were leaving the mountain.
- Millenium Camp to Park Gate:
Happson has asked for an early start today to try and avoid some of the queue’s expected at the park gate. With such a large group summiting yesterday there are many climbers on the descent and with each one having to individually sign-off the mountain this could lead to an unnecessarily drawn out process.
But first things first – washee-washee, breakfast and then the guide and porter tipping ceremony. This is new to us and with a guide and porter team totaling 25 in number getting it right is important. Thankfully Jackson from AWC gave us a guide to the process and the “expected amounts” when he had briefed us the day before departing Arusha. The previous day our group had discussed the per porter amounts and agreed that the success and enjoyment we had from the trip was due in no small part to the guides, the porters and how we had really tried to get involved with life on the mountain – Tanzanian style. For that reason we had decided to tip at the higher end of the suggested scale. Then for good measure thrown in a few one-off amounts to the porters who had carried our bags and then Emanual who had served us meals in the mess camp and who along with Happson, Nicholas and Alfred become our window into the porters life on the mountain and more importantly life in general in Tanzania.
In return for announcing the tips the AWC team sang several songs in Swahili. This was obviously a standard response from the porter teams as we heard many groups singing as we made our way lower over the course of the morning.
By 7:30am were we on our way down. Over the course of the 2,000 metre descent there were obvious changes in flora. At Millenium Camp we set out in 2-3 metre high scrub but within an hour this had changed to very dense rain forest.
The other very obvious change was the under-foot conditions. For the past 7 days we had been moving forward and upward in a sea of dust. Today was going to be the complete opposite – once we were in the rain forest we were slipping and sliding lower in a sea of tacky mud. Our pace was reduced but you should see the porters plough through this stuff. They reduce speed only slightly despite the loads that they are carrying balanced on their shoulders and/or head.
By midday we had negotiated the final reaches of the track and found ourselves closing in on the park gate and the sign-off queue. Thankfully the queue was reasonably short and within 30 minutes the formalities were complete and we were ready to conclude our Kilimanjaro adventure with a simple 20 minute walk down to our waiting vehicle for the 3 hour ride back to Arusha.
Sydney and it’s surrounds are home base for the 5 of us so we no altitude acclimatisation to carry with us onto the mountain. We were able to complete some training sessions at the Sydney Altitude clinic before our departure and this was of some benefit to us. Three of us have climb on Mt McKinley, Alaska in the past 14 months and have an expectation of the effects that high altitude will have on us while for the other 2 there’s no recent high altitude experience.
To manage and hopefully reduce the chances of suffering from AMS we have decided that we will use Diamox (drug). Those of us with McKinley experience are more than aware of the effects Diamox has on increased urine production and for that reason we decide our intake level will be half a tab with breakfast and half a tab at lunch time. Hopefully this will provide for a more “restful” sleep period (in hindsight there’s a 50:50 success rate with this approach).
We also made a conscious decision to make an extended ascent by taking the longest route on the mountain to provide further opportunity for acclimatisation. Our conclusion after the climb was that proved beneficial for us.
Lastly we supported the “climb high – sleep low” approach by completing acclimatisation walks whenever possible on each day of walking.
Rubbish and Mountain Management
This was the only negative aspect of the trip for us and it’s all caused by the visitors to the mountain. Very early on in our trip as we crossed the less traveled Shira Plataeu the volume of rubbish left by visitors was minimal and where possible we were making efforts to collect small pieces of rubbish left by others. At the Lava Tower Camp we witnessed one of the porter groups putting in time to collect rubbish from around the camp and to their credit they did a pretty good job. The National Parks rangers on the mountain (only at the Camps with Ranger stations) weigh the rubbish generated by each of the guided group and ensure the rubbish is delivered off the mountain. As we moved higher on the mountain, and began to combine with climbing groups from the other routes the level of visible rubbish increase exponentially to the point that it was embarrassing to think that we collectively as guests into the park were responsible for the mess. From the top of the Barranco wall through to Barafu Camp the rubbish levels are at their worst. Food scraps and wrappers lie along side the track but worst of all is the human waste and toilet paper that is plainly visible. Almost any large rock along the track has become a toilet space and in most cases there is no attempt to bury the waste or toilet paper.
We discussed this subject many times within our team as we moved around the mountain and came to the conclusion that if the current practices of visitors continued there was a risk that in the medium / longer term the mountain would be closed to locals and visitors alike as the risk of contracting serious illness would be too great.
That risk comes not just from exposure to the rubbish as you move from camp to camp but from the risk of infection and illness from drinking water that has fecal matter leaching into it. There are few viable water sources on the mountain as we found out and if these were to become contaminated there appears to be only one outcome – close the mountain. We are hopeful that this isn’t the outcome because so many Tanzanians rely on the tourist dollars generated both directly and indirectly from those ascending Kilimanjaro.