This summer we decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It was Paolo’s idea and I was terrified.
But since almost every single holiday we took together sounded terrifying at first (unfenced camping in the savanna, whale watching in a kayak, camping in bear country…) and turned out to be amazing in reality, I didn’t oppose this plan.
There are many different routes for reaching the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, and we chose Machame route because of the allegedly more spectacular views and because we found camping more romantic than sleeping in the huts.
We chose the 6 days route which tends to give the climbers enough time to acclimatize, even though if I had to do it again I would go for a 7 or 8 days version.
We booked with African Budget Safari, a website that we have used already for our other african adventures and that has never disappointed us, and the actual climbing, as well as the safar I we did afterward, was than with Tanzania Experience.
We love to go in the mountains and spend a lot of time in the alps, but we have little climbing experience. Mount Kilimanjaro is the only 6000m peak in the world that can be reached without any technical equipment and without climbing experience, it is “just” a very long and steep hike on a well maintained trail and, even if it is surely not for everybody, it seemed doable to us.
It was not easy to pack for this travel, even with the checklist from the company.
It was almost 30°C when I started packing and it just felt completely absurd to take so many warm clothes, all those ski gloves, merino, fleece and down jackets and ski underwear… but fortunately we had the list and strictly followed its advice.
There was also a weight constraint (15 kilo) since the porters who will have to carry our luggage, among the other stuff, must know in advance how much weight we are adding to the load.
Having the right clothes was paramount: even if it seems impossible, there is place in Africa where in august temperatures can reach -15C!
What saved me at the end were Paolo’s expedition over-gloves, sort of giant leather and goretex mittens, big enough to be worn over my ski mittens… without them, I don’t know…
This holiday is an expensive one and there are reasons for that, first the National Park fees for Mount Kilimanjaro are steep, over 120US dollars per person per day +VAT, and since this money goes to nature conservation it is totally reasonable that tourists contribute to it.
Then there is the crew: I was shocked when I discovered that for our tiny group of three (there was a German guy, Arne, in addition to Paolo and me) we will have a supporting crew of 14 people!!
When we met at the park gate in the lush rainforest it felt completely absurd that we will have to carry so much stuff that 14 people are needed to do that!
Indeed it was necessary, because they carry absolutely everything: even if camping is permitted only in designated areas, there are almost no facilities in those areas, everything must me transported from the valley. There are neither cars more mules, humans carry all the load: tents, clothes, sleeping bags and mats, table and chairs, all the food and cooking equipment, as well as, on some portions of the trail, water since there are only a few streams where water can be gathered.
I was astonished: for what will we need table and chairs? We could well sit on a stone! Why an extra tent as dining room? Everything seemed so excessive…
We started around 10am with our assistant guide Alfa, the main guide Said had to wait at the gate for our official permits (there were some technical problems) and sent us off. The porters rushed in front of us balancing their 20Kg load in the most improbable ways, some of them on the head, quickly disappearing in the misty forest.
It was warm and humid, the canopy a green tunnel around us; in every direction giant trees covered in musk and lichens formed a thick intricate mosaic.
It felt so good! The trail was wide and climbed gently, we had a very light backpack, only a jacket and our water bottles, we moved fast in the easy terrain and when, in less than 5 hours, we reached Machame Camp at 3000m I wasn’t tired at all.
The “dining room” tent was already set up, a tray full of popcorns waiting for us along hot drinks on a small wooden table (with table cloth!) surrounded by director chairs. I must admit it was nice to have all these amenities, but it still seemed odd, shouldn’t it be an adventure?
Since there were still a couple of hours before dinner I ventured out with Paolo on the path that we will take the next day, we hiked up the trail in the sunset. A thin fog was rising from the forest but we were already above it, it was the “woodland” an area with much smaller trees, beautiful flowers, and an open view of the sky.
There was nobody in sight, the camp being hidden from view. It was calm, magic and beautiful, I felt perfectly happy in the evening light surrounded by nature and all my fears about the climb disappeared.
Our crew treated us amazingly; we had even a waiter serving our meal! Everything was delicious: every day fresh fruits, a hot soup and a main course of meat and vegetables with rice or pasta. It felt such an excessive luxury to be served at the table, in real dishes, with real glasses and cutlery…
Looking around at the camp we noted that other groups had even private toilets, so their crew were carrying up the mountain, in addition to all the other stuff, also a chemical toilet and a tent to build around it! It seemed the peak of decadence and we laughed at this extravagant idea.
After dinner there was what will become a daily ritual, the measurement of pulse and oxygen level in our blood which is done with a fascinating device called oximeter (since I didn’t have any possibility to ask Google how this thing worked, I wondered every evening how is it that simply a light directed at your finger could possibly tell the oxygen level in your blood. If you are curious too here is the answer.)
My measurements and Paolo’s ones were fine but Arne’s were a little bit lower, Said said we had been rushing too fast thru the forest and that we should slow down if we want to reach the summit. I wasn’t tired, I didn’t have the impression we were too fast, so I began thinking that after all this climb will probably be much easier than I thought…
We went to sleep and I woke up every half an hour. The temperature was great, the tent was confortable and nobody was snoring… I just woke up again and again… and it went on like this for all the rest of our permanence above 3000m, insomnia being one of the most common symptoms of altitude.
In the following days we traversed the woodland, and reached the semi-desert area, a majestic landscape of rocks, rare bushes and the wonderful giant lobelias, big trees resembling giant pineapples punctuating the views. We even so a duiker, a small antelope!
The weather was always good but the temperatures changed very fast: the moment before we are sweating in the baking sun with only a t-shirt, a moment later an icy fog comes up and we are shivering in our fleeces and gloves.
The trail segments became steeper and steeper everyday. The oximeter still indicated that my oxygen was ok, but I was beginning to feel the altitude. I couldn’t sleep, I had headache, a constant pressure on the forehead, I was never hungry, and I had to pee hundred times a day.
Said remembered us all the time that going slowly and drinking a lot (3 litres during the day and as much as possible in the evening) are the best measures against altitude symptoms, but of course all that water has to go somewhere… so after a while the private toilets from the other groups started looking more and more appealing, especially because there is no water at the camps and the toilets are actually just a wooden booth, often without door, built around a hole in the ground. Since there are many people using them every day, they are simply disgusting especially if you have to visit them at night. The private toilets were not so extravagant after all.
All other amenities stopped looking excessive too; every day I reached camp more tired than the day before and it was such a joy that everything was already set up: the hot tee, the popcorn, the chairs, not having to sit on a rock, these comforts became more and more necessary to keep me strong, motivated and upbeat. The climbing was hard and long enough and I felt permanently not at my best, I would have never had the strength to cook something myself or to build a tent… I began to understand how hard all this would be without all these comforts.
Machame route is conceived around the “climb high sleep low” theory which means that we were reaching higher ground during the day but than walk down again in the evening so that we could sleep at lower altitude, and acclimatize better.
On day 3 Said announced that we will reach Lava Tower for lunch but instead of taking our the lunch box with us the porters will go up and prepare a hot lunch there. I thought this was really unnecessary, the poor crew! instead of rushing to the camp which was at much lower height, they had to go up the whole mountain just to cook a soup for us there!
But when we got there I totally changed my mind ! The climb to Lava Tower was steep in the hot sun and I had a terrible headache. When we reached the summit, a superb rock formation against a perfect cloudless sky, the weather suddenly changed, it became cold and there was a strong confusing wind. The porters had set up the whole dining tent there, with table and chairs. I entered this cozy warm shelter and there was hot soup, samosas, chicken and hot tea waiting for us. I felt so grateful about what we had, unlike other hikers that where eating their sandwich sitting on a rock outside in the stormy wind. I realised how good our guide was taking care of us, keeping us strong and protected from the capricious weather. When we headed down to Barranco Camp less than an hour later, in the rugged alpine desert landscaper dotted with giant lobelias and colorful mysterious flowers, the weather had already changed again and it was at moments hot and dry, at moments cold and humid.
The views during the climb were the most spectacular: it is mostly impossible to see all the way down in the valley because there are always clouds over the forest, but the sea of clouds, with the other peaks emerging from it, the beauty of the sunset over it and the snowcapped summit above us, which was visible almost all the time, is magnificent.
Summit day starts actually at midnight. on day 4, after having climbed the notorious Barranco Wall and having hiked for the rest of the day, we had an early dinner and were sent to bed with a list of what to wear the “next day”, so we woke up at 11PM and put on the 6 recommended layers on the upper body (I ended up with 8) and 3 on the lower body. I felt like a Michelin man and I couldn’t imagine that one could climb a mountain dressed like this, I could barely move! I had 3 pairs of gloves: thin silk gloves, fleece gloves and down filled mittens.
Since my headache was unrelenting, Said had told me to take Ibuprofen to tackle the summit so at least that symptom was less daunting during the climb.
The full moon lighted the way, there was almost no need for the headlamps, the air was freezing, the sky full of stars.
Even after the short and interrupted sleep I felt energetic and strong. Barafu camp is at 4600m, the summit Uhuru Peak is 5895m so there are 1250m height to overcome on a trail that is almost a strait line going up.
Said gave the pace, it was incredibly slow, I was directly behind him and could put my feet exactly in his footsteps. It wasn’t hard to advance at this rhythm. I took big breaths at every step and simply marched behind him. There weren’t many distraction either, since everything was dark, I just looked in front of me and marched, I wasn’t cold, I wasn’t tired, I felt confident. Soon other groups began overtaking us, a big group of some 20 young people passed us chanting, they felt confident too.
In the darkness the headlamps of other climbers in front of us drew a dotted line leading to the top.
But after the first two hours, every step became harder that the step before. Soon we began meeting people going in the other direction, that one guy was abandoning, that other too… on the climb we were meeting everyday the same people, and now they were giving up. A couple of hours after having passed us, the whole chanting group was turning back, all 20 of them…
We went on, silent, slow, and my legs felt like stones. I was beginning to suffer, it was grueling, why was I there? What a craziness had led me to sign up for that? My hands were freezing, the 3 layers of gloves were still not enough.
Salvation came in the shape of Paolo’s over gloves, which he fortunately didn’t so terribly needed and generously gave me. They kept my hand warm for at least two more hours but at some point my fingers started feeling like bare branches in winter, so hard and fragile, I could barely move them and I had the impression they belong to someone else.
We stopped for a couple of minutes to drink and the cold became immediately unsustainable, I imagined the hand of death tightening around me and I realized that we couldn’t stop at all, that the only chance was to move all the time however slowly and I stopped complaining about the cold and just kept going.
I not only stopped complaining but actually stopped perceiving anything and went on just looking on the ground in front of me reassured by Said footsteps, losing myself in the mechanical movement to put one foot in front of the other.
Many find mountaineering elevating, and I can imagine what they mean, I had that feeling many times especially when the climb culminates on a summit. That perception of nature greatness and of being there to admire it at 360 degrees, how the struggles to reach the top morph into a metaphor of life itself, the philosophical reflections that come to mind while pushing on… but there was nothing of it, actually I felt the opposite. I felt devoid of every feeling, every thought, every sensation. I wasn’t a person anymore, I was a machine, a machine that does only one thing: putting a foot in front of the other.
At some 5500m Arne turned back, I barely turned the head to see he going down. Alfa would go down with him and Said would stay with them just for a short while to see if he is ok verifying that the situation is not and emergency. we were left with emanuel the summit porter and guide-in-training.
We went on, Emanuel’s pace was very different from Said’s, we began overtaking other groups, Paolo who is a ultra runner didn’t mind the augmented speed. As of me, in my new machine modus I was just unable to have an opinion and tried to keep up. Every group we overtook looked terrible, there was a guy completely folded in two, there were people throwing up, there were people on the way back that were actually being carried by their guides. And still the line of lights above our heads seemed endless… were they headlamps? Were they stars?
Then a freezing wind rose. It was dawn, the most beautiful nature display on the most magic location imaginable and I wasn’t able to perceive it, I couldn’t raise my eyes, I was like in a tunnel. a tunnel of coldness, suffering, and a sort of spell that made me able to survive only as long as didn’t leave my machine modus.
We reached Stella point, this counts already as a successful climb but Emanuel didn’t even stop, Paolo neither, so I kept going. At one point Emanuel switched off my headlamp, I hadn’t realized that I didn’t need it anymore, the sun was shining.
Paolo said that the perceived temperature with the wind was -15 and I’m sure it was. The snow around us was completely frozen in shapes resembling needles, there was a narrow path in the hard snow and on we went.
When we reached Uhuru Peak there was a group taking a photo with the signpost, so we had to wait a moment. I sort of perceived them, they were totally euphoric, laughing, making poses. I couldn’t imagine how that was possible. I felt so bad, I felt bad about all the people who had come from all over the world to do this hike and didn’t reach the top, I knew that it is not their fault, that is not the grit, not the fitness, not the motivation… it is just luck. My altitude symptoms were not strong enough to make me turn back, but it could be otherwise and there would have been nothing that I could have done about it. I started crying… I don’t know why I was crying, the relief of being arrived? The pressure of having to reach the top finally dissolving? The thought of how many people and money it took to bring me there? But there I was… and what was I? A machine devoid of the capacity to appreciate the beauty of this place! Other people’s euphoria felt so incomprehensible to me.
We took a photo, but I couldn’t bring myself to smile. I really regret this because all the summit photos show me in total disarray… making it difficult to use them to brag about this achievement. But is there anything to brag about? Without the over-gloves or without Ibuprofen I’d never arrived, and I would still be the same person… or not?
Emanuel had pulled us so fast up the mountain that Said reached us only when we were already turning back: just minutes after reaching the summit and without having perceived anything of the landscape I was rushing the others to begin our descent because I was freezing.
But then a miracle happened! Said had a thermos of hot tea and he gave us this unlikely elixir of life. My double layered frozen hands were barely able to hold the cup but as that warm fluid reached inside my body, I felt completely transformed.
I looked around and I saw another world: there was the crater full of snow, the glacier on one side, an impressive wall of blu ice, the sun in front of me (when did it rise?), the needle shaped snow concretions, oh was it beautiful! Some more tea! The colors became even brighter, now I see also the people! Now I realize I did it! I’m someone who have reached Uhuru Peak, isn’t it incredible?
The walk down to Stella Point is magnificent; I can’t imagine having passed that same place less than one hour before without seeing anything of it’s majesty. I’m on the Roof of Africa, and it is full of snow and ice, it’s absolutely unique and I see it with my own eyes (thanks to a cup of tea!).
The descent is long and hard on the knees but it feels like nothing compared with the undertaking of that night. At some point we meet a French guy who I remember having seen the days before. I wonder if he reached the top, Paolo tells me that he was at the top with us, that he even gave the hand. I remember nothing, was a high five? A handshake? It must have been before the tea.
We pause on a rock at some point and Emanuel asks the time, I look my watch 10:15… It must be broken, it is just nonsense. Everyone laughs… it is 10:15 and, as impossible as it seems, the day is just beginning!