Climbing Kilimanjaro — The Approach

by Elizabeth

[I kept a daily journal of our Mt. Kilimanjaro summit attempt along the Machame route on my phone. That summary from the first four days of our climb, along with some of our photos, is below.  We’ll post a separate description of our summit attempt, how we chose a climbing operator, and our post-trip reflections.]

Day 1 (Aug. 8):

11km, Machame Gate (1828m/6000ft) to Machame Camp (3020m/9900ft)

Day one is complete and we’re both doing really well.  The key for us today was to accept the chaos that often accompanies budget tour operations and to go with the flow.  We were supposed to be picked up from our guesthouse in Moshi between 9 and 9:30am.  Of course, they couldn’t find the place and got lost.  Our host helped us to call the trekking company and we were finally picked up around 10am.  The van picking us up was filled with our guide (Alfred) and porters, but no other climbers.  We figured that they must have been picked up separately (we had been told that we would be joined by two Austrians).  Our morning was filled with a number of stops — the gear rental shop to pick up warmer clothing for us and sleeping bags (I picked an awesome hat), a shop for snacks, and a few other stops for miscellaneous supplies. 

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Peeking through the gear at the gear rental shop.

We got to the starting area for the Machame route at about noon.  It seemed that many climbers were already there.  We ate our (huge) boxed lunches while our guide organized the porters (saving part of our lunch for later snacks).  While eating we met a group from the UK fundraising for a micro-lending non-profit.  Still no sign of the Austrians and we’re starting to think they don’t exist. 

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Ready to start climbing from the Machame Gate!

Organizing the porters and getting us paid and registered with the park office took forever.  While waiting, a large group of local high school girls visited, presumably to practice their English.  I spoke with a few groups, one of which couldn’t believe that I wasn’t 18.  I guess I’ll take that as a compliment.  They asked if I had Adele on my phone.  They also wanted to take their picture with me.  After dozens of pictures and a bit of enthusiastic man handling, I made my exit.

We didn’t start walking until about 2:15pm and were worried that the entrance sign estimated a 5 hour hike to camp.  That would put us getting in around dark, and we’d both packed our headlamps in the bag carried by the porters (or so I thought, I later found mine in my day bag).  Our guide sent us ahead with a porter while he finished organizing the remaining porters.  We fairly promptly lost the porter.  Not because he’d left us in his dust, but because we’d accidentally walked faster than him.  I know the motto of the Kili climb is “pole pole” (slowly), and I swear we weren’t walking that fast.  But we also didn’t want to be walking in the dark. We did eventually see the porter when we stopped at a toilet and our guide caught up shortly thereafter.  Not that he led us per se.  In fact, he would let us go ahead and then occasionally catch up and check in.  Not really a problem since the trail is obvious, but interesting since we passed many groups that were being led by their guide at a snail’s pace.

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Finally starting our climb!

Today’s walk was about 11 km through a cloud forest.  For the most part, the trail followed a steady, but not steep, incline.  Only a few stairway sections were steep, and even those weren’t bad.  As we headed up into the cloud forest, the trees began to drip a bit onto us.  After awhile, we gave in and put the rain covers on our day bags.  We held off on rain jackets until the drips truly resembled rain (I actually thought it was raining at first, but it was really just condensation from the low-hanging clouds).  Luckily it wasn’t too bad, and although there were some puddles on the trail, it wasn’t too muddy. 

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Many of the porters carried part of their load on their head.

We got into camp at about 5:45pm and checked in at the ranger’s cabin.  There are so many tents here!  Our guide went looking for ours and we showed up just as they were finishing up setting up ours (we beat some of the porters today since we didn’t really stop on the trail).  We were happy to change out of our semi-wet clothing and into dry, warm gear.  Around that time, our guide came and apologized because they “forgot” the table used for meals.  He asked if we were okay eating in our tent (no other option really).  The porters never set up a dining tent (which every other group appears to have), so my guess is that the oversight was intentional.  Oh well, we’ll live.  It’s not like there is anyone else to dine with as the mystery Austrian couple doesn’t appear to exist.  We did, however, enjoy our pre-dinner snack of popcorn and hot drinks.  We have lots of drink choices and appear to be well stocked (we even have Milo!).

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Done with the first day’s hiking — just a little wet!

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A small sample of the many tents at the first night’s camp.

(Dinner break)

Just finished dinner (at about 9:40pm).  It was good and very filling: hot cucumber soup, fried fish with potatoes and veggies, and watermelon.  It’s quickly become apparent that eating in our tent will get old.  It’s crowded since they bring in the serving platter and all the drink options and my back was starting to hurt.  It sounds like tomorrow is a short day though, so hopefully we won’t be eating so late (and if it isn’t raining, maybe we can eat outside).  Here’s hoping there aren’t too many surprises tomorrow 😉

Day 2 (Aug. 9):

5km, Machame Camp (3020m/9900ft) to Shira Camp (3847m/12,621ft)

Michael spent the majority of the night coughing and feeling miserable.  What’s weird is that he is more of less fine while hiking, but has difficult once he lies down.  During the night he was feeling really poorly and wanted to turn around first thing in the morning, but we agreed that he’d start a round of antibiotics and more cold medicine and give it another night.  When we booked this climb we thought his cold was almost gone, but it seems to have gotten worse the night before we left.  Neither of us got much sleep.

Breakfast was huge and included millet porridge.  Not exactly sure what that is.  It was… interesting.  Neither of us went back for seconds. Today’s climb was steep, but not particularly long.  We left camp at 8:30am, led by George (yesterday’s porter, but maybe he’s an assistant guide?).  We were cautioned by our guide that today needed to be pole pole; unlike yesterday there was no rush to get to camp.  We dutifully followed George and at times the pace was excruciatingly slow.  We also made an effort to take more breaks and drink more water to help prevent altitude sickness.  We caught our first glimpses of Kili through the clouds, although it seemed that we spent much of the hike today either in or just above the clouds.

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View looking back as we began our morning climb.  Within minutes, the clouds had moved in and the view was gone.

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Michael was feeling pretty good as we hiked, but tended to get coughing spells during breaks.  He briefly had a headache from the altitude, but it went away with some rest, water, and ibuprofen.  I seem to be handling the altitude pretty well so far.

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A peek of Kili’s summit (Uhuru peak) through the clouds.

When we got to camp at around 12:30 we quickly grabbed all of yesterday’s gear that was damp and put it out to take advantage of the sun.  We were happy to see that the porters had brought up a couple of camp chairs, so we enjoyed lunch seated outside.  We are experimenting with some options that will allow Michael to sleep with a raised head tonight.  Hopefully that will fix the issue (given that it’s 3:30pm and Michael is snoring next to me I’m hopeful it will work).

Evening update: I had to wake Michael from his nap at about 4pm for our afternoon acclimatization walk.  George (who I’m getting the feeling is an assistant guide) took us on an hour-long walk to a nearby camp (Shira Camp II).  Nothing strenuous, but should help with the further altitude gains over the next couple days.  Just as we got back it started to sprinkle.

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View from Shira Camp II.

Another candlelight dinner in the tent.  Veggie soup, fried chicken, rice, and watermelon.  It’s always interesting to see how these outfits feed people on a mountain.  Not at all like we ate on the JMT.

Tomorrow is supposed to be a longer day with a big elevation gain for acclimatizing before heading down to a lower elevation to sleep (only 200 meters higher than tonight).  Fingers crossed that Michael has a better night.

Day 3 (Aug. 10):

10km, Shira Camp (3847m/12,621ft) to Lava Tower (4,642m/15,230ft) to Barranco Camp (3984m/13,070ft)

What a difference a day makes!  Michael slept through the night (or at least didn’t have coughing spells when he woke occasionally).  Looks like some combo of drugs, sleeping position, breathing exercises, and luck paid off!

When I opened the tent in the morning, the sky was clear and the ground was covered in frost.  It was beautiful and we could see what we think was Mt. Meru in the distance.  Millet porridge made another breakfast appearance, but I somehow found it slightly less objectionable this morning.

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A frosty view from our tent.

We started our uphill climb at about 8:40am.  The trail was much more gradual and we enjoyed the frequent views of Kili that we have been missing the last couple of days.  In order to stave off altitude sickness, we focused on taking breaks and drinking lots of water.  If only I was a guy, dealing with the side effect of our drinking efforts would have been easier to handle!

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Finally!  A view of Kili!

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Michael with a “Truffula” tree (from Dr. Seuss 😉 )

We spent about four hours walking pole pole to the Lava Tower at 4600 meters.  That’s higher than Mt. Whitney and it was just a lunch spot!  The difference between climbing operations was especially clear at lunch.  Many of the other operations had their mess tents set up, which shielded their climbers from the cold winds and presumably meant they ate hot food.  Some of them also had toilet tents set up.  Sigh.  We tried to shield ourselves from the wind while we ate our boxed lunches (which were fine but unfortunately were too messy to be eaten with gloved hands). 

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A view of the Lava Tower in the distance (following the trail up, on the right).

As soon as we finished lunch were ready to get moving again.  From Lava Tower it was about a 2 hour walk back down to 3900 meters to camp. This should help with acclimatization since we exposed ourselves to higher elevation but are only sleeping 200 meters higher than last night.  I had a headache today and Michael still occasionally hacks his lungs out (from his cold, not altitude), but overall we are both doing well.  While it’s hard to say how we’ll respond to higher elevations, I think we both have a good shot at summiting.

Our camp tonight has a great view of Kili, but is very windy and dusty.  It’s my least favorite so far, and my eyes are not happy with the dusty wind.  Our attempt to enjoy our afternoon popcorn outside resulted in much of it blowing away.  We retreated into our tent to relax away from the wind and dust before dinner.  It was a good reminder that warmer clothing will be needed tonight and earplugs to tune out the flapping tent.

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I may not have liked our campsite, but the sunset view of Kili was amazing.

We had another huge dinner.  Eating in the tent is still a pain because it means we can’t prep the tent for evening until after everything is cleared.  Tomorrow is supposed to be another long day with a section where we can’t use our hiking poles because we need our hands for rock scrambles.  We’ve heard others talk of this section with trepidation, but since we didn’t do very much route research we aren’t sure what to expect.  Now we just need a good night’s sleep so that we’ll be well rested.  The day after tomorrow is the ascent morning and we start walking at midnight, so not much rest tomorrow evening.

Day 4 (Aug. 11):

9km, Barranco Camp (3984m/13,070ft) to Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp (4681m/15,357ft)

It was so windy last night!  Out tent was flapping around creating so much noise that I felt like I barely got any sleep.  Earplugs didn’t help :(. The good news is that Michael had another relatively cough-free night!

We started early this morning with the Barranco Wall.  This segment requires some scrambling and therefore we had to start with our walking poles put away.  We’d heard another climber speak about the wall with dread/fear.  Once we got past a group of hikers and could go at our pace I actually found he scramble to be sort of fun.  Glad I didn’t had to do it with my fully-loaded pack though. 

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View of the line-up waiting along Barranco Wall.  Unfortunately, I had my camera stowed for most of the scramble, but this gives an idea of the group that we had to pass (and the porters trying to get past everyone).

After climbing up the wall it was back down again before re-gaining the elevation to reach Karanga Camp for an early lunch.  Climbers who chose the 7-day Machame route stop here for the night.  Since we are on the 6-day route, we continued on to Barafu Camp after lunch.  It only took us another 3 hours to get to Barafu Camp, including breaks.  While I’m sure that some find the extra day helpful, I’m glad that we avoided two half-days of walking (and another night with meals in our tent).  Our hike today moved into the alpine zone, which means that there isn’t much of anything growing. Just lots of dust and volcanic rocks.  We have been treated to great views of the Uhuru (the one we’ll be climbing) and Mweka peaks!

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Looking back at Karanga Camp, which we skipped on the six-day route.

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Barafu Camp (the base camp for our summit attempt) is along the ridge in the distance just up from where you can see the trail meet the ridge.

While waiting for all of our stuff to arrive to Barafu camp, we were told that our hiking company had another group with an eating tent where we could go enjoy our afternoon tea!  I guess the group was on the 7-day Machame route, so this is the first evening we’ve camped together.  We didn’t get to meet them during tea, but we’re excited about the thought of no longer having to take meals in our tent.  We relaxed in our tent awaiting our early dinner in preparation for our midnight summit start.

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We made it to Barafu Camp, which served as the base camp for our summit attempt of Uhuru peak!  This camp is taller than Mt. Whitney in the US.

Evening update: My hopes for a relaxing dinner were dashed when once again our meal was brought to our tent.  We protested, but were told there wasn’t enough room for us.  To say that I’m now in a bit of a pissy mood is an understatement.  Doesn’t help that the bathrooms here are bad for Kili standards, my eyes hurt from the dust, and I’m just generally tired after last night’s high winds.  Trying to remind myself that my enjoyment of the trip is up to me.

The good news is that we are both feeling pretty good.  Michael has a bit of a headache coming on, but I’ve managed to avoid one taking hold today.  Obviously tomorrow could bring anything, but I’m feeling pretty good about our chances of summiting.

Just had our briefing.  Alfred wanted us to start climbing at 11pm and I quickly objected.  My understanding is that midnight is a normal time and we’ve been going at a better pace than most.  We explained that seeing the sunrise is not a priority for us (plus, given that we can only spend 5 minutes up there due to altitude it seems unlikely).  We pushed back to a midnight start and now need to get some rest.

Our summit attempt is coming soon…!

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One thought on “Climbing Kilimanjaro — The Approach

  1. Pingback: Climbing Kilimanjaro — Summit Day! | two backpacks, no plan

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