I was like a kid in a candy store as I sat there, dumping spoonfuls of sugar into my tea and bouncing around in my chair like a middle schooler with ADHD. Turns out I REALLY enjoy this high-elevation, expedition-style climbing.
Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,341′), Tanzania, is the highest mountain in Africa and the largest free-standing mountain in the world. “Kili” is not technical and does not require glacier/snow travel unless you really, really seek it out. For most people the main obstacle is the higher altitude. The summit elevation of 19,000 is significantly higher than most Kilimanjaro hikers have ever been. A good trail takes you through five (!) different ecozones on a good trail.
The summit at sunrise is a scene you will never forget.
For most, all Kilimanjaro takes is a good pair of in-shape legs, and strong lungs and strong mind barring any altitude-related issues (which should be taken seriously). I learned on the last day of the hike that in the busy season (I was a few weeks prior to the busy season) there are 8-12 helicopters per day taking people off the mountain, almost exclusively for altitude-related symptoms.
My journey started with several hours of research on routes and guide companies.
I found the Machame Route to be my preferred because of its up-and-down topography and built in “rest days” where you would hit a high elevation at lunch time and then descent slightly down to sleep that night. I was worried about the altitude on the last day because, although I have many successful high-elevation mountain climbs under my belt from Colorado’s 14ers, I had never been above 14,500 feet on the summit of Mount Elbert, the highest point in Colorado.
“The Machame Route takes you high to Lava Tower (4,630 m/15,190 ft) on Day 3 then brings you down for an overnight at Barranco Camp (3,950 m/12,960 ft). This intermediate ascent and descent is the secret to a successful acclimatization, and is the reason that this route has a high success rate.” - Zaratours.com
A guide is required to hike to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. I selected Zara Tours after carefully researching guide companies (not an affiliate link; I receive no money by clicking the above link). I would simply echo the reviews and advice I read when I was booking my guide company (not at all specific to Zara Tours):
1. Pick something “middle of the road” for price. Companies range from about $1,000 to much, much higher (more than $2,500 for a guide). Zara Tours was around $1,300 for a single person on the 6-day Machame route. On the mountain I found the higher-priced companies to offer better amenities (tents, meals, toilets, etc.) but also found it to be a bit overkill and there was a point of diminishing returns on the value of your extra cost. A tent can only get so much better. A mess tent can only be so good (you are essentially squatting over a plastic hole no matter what company you go with). You are on a mountain for 5-7 days, a certain amount of “roughing it” should be expected. Middle of the road prices will guarantee that you have a reputable company with safe tents, good meals, and good guides and you won't be totally slumming it, either.
2. Pick a reputable guide with reviews and a website and contact information that is published. I saw several recommendations for guide companies that are either no longer in business or did not pay to continue their website or had very difficult to find contact information. Stay away from such places. Even the best companies are a bit … laid-back … compared to western standards so if you can’t readily find a website, a telephone number, or other basic contact information after a quick Google search I would stay away.
3. Keep your emails and document (PRINT!) everything that is agreed upon with the guide company. Even after pre-booking with Zara Tours it was pretty apparent they had not planned ahead as far as what group of hikers i would be joining and who my guide would be. They figured it out after I arrived the night before the hike began. I am pretty “go with the flow” so it didn’t bother me that they added me to a group of hikers and introduced me to my guide about 12 hours before we departed. But it is important to make sure that if there is any confusion that you have documentation that shows you are paid in full, booked with that particular company, that specific route, that specific day, etc. This is not really something to worry about, just make sure you are keeping documentation and records. Don’t show up empty-handed as far as your documentation or there could be a lot of headaches.
The Hike (or climb if you prefer)
The Machame Route
Machame Gate (1490 m) - Machame camp (2980 m)
Hiking time: 7 hours
Distance: About 18 kilometers
Habitat: Montane forest
The Hiking Party
Alfons - German hiking partner
Gerd - German hiking partner
Kabila - Head Guide
Amani - Assistant Guide
About 12 porters
The day started early with a briefing at the hotel with the full team. The day before we left, I learned I would be hiking with two Germans, Alfons and Gerd who were co-workers recently retired from their jobs near Nuremberg.It was great fun watching the porters packing the vans—the dawn of a new adventure for everyone! It was a 45-minute drive from Moshi to the Machame village and I was nervous with excitement and anticipation of the unknown. The drive was also a very humbling experience as we drove from the very westernized hotel (with a gate and guards) through the villages surrounded by Moshi with very poor subsistence farming.
The guides and porters prepared and packed the supplies and equipment as we (the clients) ate lunch and waited anxiously for the hike to begin. After registering at the gate office, you start your ascent and enter the rainforest. As the name implies there is a possibility of rain in the forest — and unsurprisingly — our group got hit from time to time with light rain as it went through the overhead canopy. But this being my first time in a rain forest I found the experience to be surreal with the large-leafed vegetation, moss, and overhead canopy.
The hike was gentle on a very clear, well-worn path that was easy on the feet. We stopped every now and then for water and rest breaks where we ate the remaining lunch if there was anything left.
After about five hours we reached the first stop on our hike up the peak: Machame Camp —a beautiful area just above the rainforest with picturesque views of Kilimanjaro in the distance. I think we were all feeling very good at this point with no wear or tear to speak of — just a bit hungry and ready for a good tea and supper before bed! I was introduced to “Kilimanjaro tea” this night and I think from here on I had at least two cups for breakfast, two for lunch, and two for dinner. It was great to have an excuse to dump a bunch of sugar into flavored water to keep my body going! I am not much of a tea drinker usually but this stuff was my lifeblood for the next week!
At the end of the night, after dinner, we were greeted by our guide Kibla for a brief—and totally unexpected—”medical check” to review our heart rate, oxygen saturation (how much oxygen was being retained in our blood), indication of headache, cough, nausea, apettite level, etc. We would repeat this each night after dinner until the final night. (Fun fact: Even on the last night, above 14,000 feet my oxygen saturation was still 94%).
Machame camp (2980m) - Shira camp (3840m)
Hiking time: 6 hours
Distance: About 9 kilometers
Our first camp was an incredible evening spent under the stars (and a Milky Way visible with the naked eye). We rose a little after daybreak at Machame camp and after breakfast, we hiked about an hour or so to the top of the forest and then for 2 hours through the moorland zone—a very unique geography and vegetation zone dominated by the unusual “Serencio” plant. After a short lunch and rest, we continued up a rocky ridge onto the Shira plateau. After a few more hours, we reached Shira campsite at 3,840m. The porters boiled drinking and washing water before serving dinner. Alfons and Gerd napped as they were starting to feel the effects of altitude and two long hiking days. I sat outside and took in the commanding views of the valley below and ridgelines in the distance.
In order to stay loose and not get tight muscles, Kabila (guide), assistant guide Amani, and myself hiked another 30 minute without packs and wearing tennis shoes to a rock formation outside of camp with beautiful susnset views of Kilimanjaro.
Shira (3840m)-Lava Tower (4630m)-Barranco camp (3950m)
Hiking time: 7 Hrs
Distance: About 15 kilometers
The route turns into a semi-desert and rocky landscape surrounding Lava Tower, a prominent geologic volcanic tower, where we reached an altitude of 4630m after about a 5 hour walk. After we arrived, the porters quickly setup camp and our mess tent (food tent) to serve us a huge lunch (that none of us were particularly hung for unfortunately!) and tea. Lunch is served in a designated area before ascending the rocky scree path to Lava Tower (4630m). Everyone was feeling a bit tired and lathargic either from two nights without great sleep or altitude. I was starting to get a slight headache which is very rare for me even at 14,000 feet so I was glad when we packed up and headed back down to a lower elevation for a night of sleep at Barranco Camp. This day was one of the reasons I selected this route in the first place — a great acclimatization benefit by reaching over 14,000 feet then descending back down to 13,000 for a good night of rest after a few hours above 14,000 feet. The descent to Barranco Camp took about 2 hours and offered breathtaking views up to the Western Breach and Breach Wall of Kilimanjaro’s summit massif. Barranco Camp is situated in a valley below the Breach and Great Barranco Wall. Before dinner, we were treated with changing weather conditions as high, then clouds surrounded the summit as the sun disappeared over the adjacent ridge.
I think the anticipation of what we were up to was starting to become apparent. Gert, Alfons, and I were definitely transfixed on the summit looming above us — our first time to get so close and to really see the work ahead. But luckily we could also tell just how far we had already come (but also how far we had to go!).
Barranco to Karanga Valley - Barafu camp (4550m)
Hiking time: 7 hours
Distance: About 13 kilometers
Habitat: Alpine desert
Our guide advised that we should get up earlier on this morning as our pace had been a bit slower on the 2nd and 3rd day. Despite the early wake up call we were greeted with a beautifully clear sunrise and the first and only real “climbing” of the route: easy rock scrambling on solid rock as we climbed above Barranco Camp.
This day was a very fun day for this Colorado hiker: Not only did we get above the clouds, we also got to do some very easy rock scrambling (3 and 4 point contact with rock) on the well-known Barranco Wall. Of course, as we circled the summit, it was a further 1345m looming above us.
Throughout the day we were passed and overtaken by porters carrying waters from miles away. The last camp is not near a water source. It was absolutely humbling to watch them carry 20+ pound buckets of water above 14,000 feet for several miles.
We stopped halfway for lunch with views of the cloud-filled valley below before continuing up more fun rock scrambling sections to the last and final camp: Barafu Camp.
As we arrived into Barafu Camp, I felt an immediate switch from the atmosphere of the lower camps. The climbers, the porters, the guides, and the mountain suddently became much more serious. We had finally arrived at the base of Uhuru Peak/Mount Kilimanjaro and its summit was within grasp. I could sense its aura looming above, tumbling down its ridges, and beckoning to the hikers below. It was time for the hard work to start and the serious preparation to begin. Barafu Camp is a windswept, desolate, and foreboding camp without many spots for tents and even less oxygen to breathe. We were well over 14,000 feet (by far the highest I have ever slept or eaten or walked) and I think everyone was a bit more tense and nervous with anticipation of what was to come.After arriving in camp it was time for a brief rest before starting the organization process to organize our gear for the summit night/day. Most of the hikers were swapping out jackets, adding hardshell layers, adding gloves into their bag, changing shoes, and adding headwear for what would be a very cold, long morning.
At some point in the midst of packing up food, pulling extra layers, etc. it hit me that was about 12 hours from (hopefully) hitting the summit of Africa’s highest peak. I had felt great up to this point each and every morning and night at breakfast and dinner. No soreness and not even tired from the previous day’s work. I was confident that barring some kind of injury or sudden altitude sickness, I would be up on top the next morning.Because of our pace the previous few days it was decided we would leave an extra hour early than anticipated. After dinner we had about 3 hours before our 10:30 wake up call for the summit.I spend the first 30 minutes of that attempting to get into my sleeping bag with basically every article of clothing on (including boots!) because it was FREEZING.
Somehow, amazingly, I was able to get in 2 hours of sleep and was awake only the first and last 30 minutes.At 10:30 I uncurled from my sleeping bag, did a final double-check of my gear, food, and clothing, snapped a selfie (a rare occurence), and met Alfons, Gert, and the guide in our mess tent at 11:00 for tea, popcorn, and energy cookies.
…There are some of those moments in your life that you will remember forever. I hadn’t even started walking towards the summit and I was having one of those moments. As I sat in the mess tent sipping my 40th+ cup of tea in the last few days I was shaking uncontrollably with excitement and nerves. Hot tip: Find the things in life that do that to you because then you know you are on to something pretty great. I was like a kid in a candy store as I sat there, dumping spoonfuls of sugar into my tea and bouncing around in my chair like a middle schooler with ADHD. Turns out I REALLY enjoy this high-elevation, expedition-style climbing thing.
We departed the tent around 11:00 PM on day 4. We would climb through the night, into Day 5, as we hiked upwards towards the summit.
Barafu camp (4550m)-Uhuru Peak (5895m)-Mweka (3100m)
Hiking time: 8 hours to reach Uhuru Peak, 7/8 hours to descend to Mweka, Distance: About 7 km's ascent - 23 km's descent
Habitat: Stone scree and ice-capped summit
We were only of the first groups on the mountain as we donned our headlamps and began our ascent towards the summit. After about 20 minutes, a string of headlamps could be seen approaching below.I’m not sure when it happened but at some point delirium/boredom/exhaustion/frustration set in as we made very, very, very slow progress by headlamp, upwards into an endless abyss of darkness and rock, knowing somewhere the summit had to be above us. Alfons, Gert, and I later said that we all had the same thought process in our head: “Just keep hiking until sunrise.”We were constantly looking over our shoulders to the east and southeast to look for the rising sun — that would be our cue that we were at least close to the summit.
Thirty minutes before sunrise we reached Stella Point, the subpeak / final summit ridge before a short walk to the actual summit: Uhuru Peak.Our guides had absolutely nailed down our pace from the previous few days and their estimation that we needed to leave 30-45 minutes than previously planned was perfect. Our final steps to the roof of Africa were taken just minutes before daybreak.
Gert, Alfons, and I stood in disbelief that we were actually at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. No judgement: All three of us had tears in our eyes as we surveyed the endless African landscape thousands of feet below.
The sun moved above the horizon just as we prepared to take our summit photos. After just 15-20 minutes on top it was time to head down. A 100% success rate for our group of three as well as accumulating lifelong memories and friends.
“How to get the best of it all? One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end - to know there's no dream that mustn't be dared. . . Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We're not exultant; but delighted, joyful; soberly astonished. . . Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No. . . and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction. . . fulfilled a destiny. . . To struggle and to understand - never this last without the other; such is the law. . .” - George Mallory
We made good, but slow time down the mountain as Gert was absolutely exhausted from the hike to the summit that morning. I was quite worried he might faint of exhaustion. Nonetheless, we made it back to Barafu Camp. We rested for a few hours before heading down to Mweka Camp, on a separate side of the mountain from our ascent route. The descent was progressively hotter, steeper, and more rocky as we descended. We rolled into Mweka Camp very tired from hiking nearly 18 hours straight with just a few hours of break at Barafu Camp.
We woke up to our last breakfast before heading down to the bottom of the mountain. Before we departed, the guides and porters gathered and gave us a parting song and dance—my favorite part of the whole expedition! The guides and porters truly made the week a memorable experience.
Steps walked: 128,263 (approximate)
Cups of Tea Consumed: 45 (approximate)
Friends Made: 13 (guides, porters, hiking partners)