Are you tough enough?
What does it take to climb to the highest point in Africa? Physical fitness and the right gear may get you some of the way but, as John Seitz discovers, it is mental toughness that will take you all the way to the top.
It was my son’s idea. Really it was. When I told him back in January that I was planning to visit Tanzania for the fourth time, he said, “Dad, let’s do Kilimanjaro”. He had been fascinated by the mountain ever since he first saw it in 2006. Okay, me too. I admit it.
On the advice of friends in Tanzania, we contacted Wild Frontiers, an outfitting and booking agency based in Johannesburg, South Africa, which specialises in outfitting custom trips to interesting places in Africa. After much discussion with them and extensive research, we decided to climb the mountain via the Umbwe route. This was not a decision we took lightly. The Umbwe route is not for the faint of heart but its reputed beauty and isolation were our principal considerations.
And, I have to admit, the idea of doing something out of the ordinary was extremely attractive.
Although the rest of the family soon grew tired of hearing about our planned adventure, our enthusiasm was infectious enough to convince my brother-in-law, Ron to join us. Now there would be the three of us.
Our research revealed a treasure trove of information and led us to conclude there were three major factors that we could control that would enhance our chances of summiting a big mountain like Kilimanjaro.
The first was our level of fitness and acclimatisation to altitude. All of the tourist routes up Kilimanjaro are really hikes or treks, with perhaps a little of what would be classified in the US as Class 3 climbing (four-point scrambling). We knew to not underestimate the distances and the sheer relief we would encounter, not to mention the effect of altitude and the ever-present risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). But our research indicated that improving our levels of fitness, spending time at higher altitudes and drinking an awful lot of water were ways to improve the probability of summiting. Diamox, a drug that many people can tolerate, also helps to reduce the symptoms of AMS and we planned to take it.
I am 56 years old. I have maintained an active lifestyle but, like my 21-year-old son John and his uncle, Ron, I was not much more than reasonably fit. But now we all had a significant motivation to change that – fear. We might not be able to summit. We needed to get in better shape, and fast!
I spent most of May, June and July hiking and climbing in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in the US. Along with cross training on a mountain bike, I hiked at high altitude, climbing several of the Colorado 14’ers. (There are 56 peaks in Colorado higher than 14 000 feet – 4 300m – and it has become a popular pastime to “bag” a number of peaks.)
Both John and Ron joined me at different times and on different peaks. You never know how you will react to higher altitudes until you experience it. They each had a slight headache and a touch of light-headedness, having just come from sea level. I had a similar experience on my first 14’er of the summer, but found that the acclimatisation worked as I climbed more peaks. This was a very good test, because it was exactly what we would experience when we flew from our homes at sea level in Houston, Texas, to Kilimanjaro Airport.
Because of their work commitments, neither John nor Ron had the luxury of training at altitude. John trained hard in Houston, running with a pack holding two to three times the weight he would carry up Kilimanjaro. Ron works on a drilling rig far offshore Angola. Although truly at sea level, he climbed up and down the many steps on his oil rig, every chance he had. Each of us managed to trim a few excess kilograms – weight we certainly did not want to carry up the mountain.
The second factor was equipment. This was tricky. We did a lot of research and followed advice – only to discover that the weight of the recommended equipment exceeds the weight limit that you and the porters can carry, quite substantially. This was a conundrum we never quite overcame.
Thanks to my months in Colorado I was able to test much of the gear we were going to use. Here is a quick guide to what we found to be most useful:
>> Boots, socks and liners: We tried these out on long hikes with lots of altitude change. The fit makes a difference. We carried treatment for blisters, just in case, but we had no problems. I think the liners prevented blisters.
>> Sleeping bag, liners and pads: It gets very cold on the last few nights on the mountain. We invested in bags good to -40 deg Celsius (-40F) and this was one of our best decisions.
>> Hydration bladder and water bottles: We each drank six to seven litres of water a day, carrying three litres in a bladder with a tube, which meant we did not have to stop to drink. We used 1-litre Nalgene bottles to purify water each afternoon and evening. (It takes four hours for the tablets to work so you must plan to have enough to drink in camp and fill your hydration bladder.)
>> Hiking poles: This is for all those macho types out there – poles truly make a difference. Using them prevents undue use of muscles to maintain balance. On the way down, they can prevent a nasty fall and take some of the strain off aching joints.
>> Windproof pants and jackets: While we were fortunate to have good weather on the mountain, we were pleased to have relief from a chilling wind.
>> Warm gloves or mittens: Summit day gets quite cold. It is worth investing in very good mittens.
>> Chafing: A product called Glide is quite helpful and, if you become sore in a tender spot, antibiotic ointment works wonders.
The third factor was mental toughness. For those of us living in cities, life is pretty easy. On a climb like this, you sleep on hard, unlevel ground. You get soaking wet in the rain forest or from the sweat from wearing too many clothes on the summit. Toilet facilities are limited and your bowels may not be in great shape. There is some hardship, privation and strenuous physical activity to endure. Of course, the reward is spectacular scenery – nature at its most fundamental – and the satisfaction of doing something that is hard and far from commonplace.
While I had read stories about those who don’t make it to the top, I did not realise how common it was to see people at Stella Point, less than 300m from the summit, heads in their hands, saying, “No more, I cannot make it…”
I also saw some very fit-looking people not make it to the top. I saw considerably more, who were physically ill prepared or with poor equipment, fail as well. We were resolved, that short of serious injury or illness, we would get to the top!
Arriving off a long flight from the United States, we stayed at the simple and clean Keys Hotel in Moshi, near the mountain.
Freddy and Clemence, our Tanzanian guides, met us at 9.30am the first morning and gave us a briefing of what to expect that day, telling us we would be climbing the “Highest Point in Africa”. They told us that every single day for the next seven days.
When we weighed our bags, I knew I would be over the 12kg porter limit. We threw out clothes, a water bottle, energy bars and many other things. But my biggest regret – and one I would rue every night
on the mountain – was leaving my sleeping pad behind.
So, what to do when the recommended equipment doesn’t match the porter-limited weight? I wish I had had the foresight to arrange for another porter, each sharing some of the excess. Don’t get me wrong, the porters on this mountain are amazing, ours especially so because of the steeper Umbwe route. They cover the same ground we do (except for summit day), only with heavy loads on their heads. They do this joking, laughing and singing the whole way. Each day, we left first and, after breaking camp, the guides would catch and pass us, to have camp ready for us when we arrived.
Our guides made us go “pole, pole” (“slowly, slowly” in Kiswahili). The pace was critical to our success. Seriously. And I believe this is the most important piece of advice I have to offer. Go too fast and your body does not have time to acclimatise, or recover from the exertion. I had read about this and applied it in my climbing in Colorado. Find out what the mountaineering step is, practice it, and use it, especially on summit day. We did, and I know it made it much easier for us.
Day one: We registered at Machame Gate, about a 45-minute car ride from the hotel. Then again at Umbwe Gate and, at about 12.15pm, we were off. The start is a gentle grade that follows an old, overgrown, logging road. It steepened and narrowed rapidly and soon became a wet trail. Black-and-white colobus monkeys in the trees seemed just as curious about us as we were about them. Our guides set a slow pace (“pole, pole”) but, with just two short stops, we reached Umbwe Caves campsite, at 2 900m, in just over 5 hours.
Overcast skies meant it got dark early. It was an eerie experience, surrounded by cold mist that partially hid the dense, unfamiliar foliage of the rainforest. Dinner that night, in a separate tent with a table and chairs, was pasta and meat sauce, bread, fruit and a hot drink. Water was carried to this campsite but glacier melt provided plenty of water for the rest of the trip. Before going to bed, I caught a glimpse of the almost half moon surrounded by a bright halo of water droplets.
Day two: It cleared overnight and, after a hot breakfast, we left camp at 8am for the Barranco hut (3 900m), where we would camp for two nights. The trail steepened considerably and it was like climbing a flight of stairs – for five hours. This was a fantastic day as we traversed a ridgeline heavy with vegetation. The ridge had extremely steep sides down into broad deep valleys. The trail dried out about halfway up, the vegetation thinned and changed dramatically, and the footing became less treacherous. We negotiated an almost vertical section of about 10m with plenty of handholds and footholds. As would be the daily routine, the porters caught us within several hours, continuing onto the next campsite to ready everything for our arrival.
One of the best things about the Umbwe route is that you have it all to yourself. The mountain can get quite crowded on the other routes and we knew we would soon join the Machame route at the Great Barranco Wall. But, for now, we were on our own.
At Barranco hut our trusty porters had set up camp. Looking across the valley to the base of the Great Barranco Wall, we were astounded by the number of tents, too many to count. Kilimanjaro was a majestic backdrop, lit by the setting sun. Later that evening, we could hear singing and revelry from across the valley. We were glad for the isolation the Umbwe route provided.
Day three: This day was to be one of acclimatisation. We started climbing in sunshine, heading northeast along some rocky cliffs to the Lava Tower, whose top is at 4,600m. The books say to “climb high and sleep low” to aid your adaptation to altitude.
This traverse gave us a different look at the mountain as Arrow Glacier came into view. As we approached the tower, the clouds came in, but we climbed to the top, ate lunch and returned to camp along the Machame route. Clemence set a much faster pace. I think perhaps he was testing us to see how well we could handle the altitude. “Headaches, dizziness, feeling any nausea?” So far so good, only a little muscle soreness and stiffening after the cold
In camp that evening, we kept eyeing the Great Barranco Wall with trepidation. It looked steep and we knew it was more than 300m high. As we joined the throngs at its base the next morning, it was far less intimidating in the bright sunshine. Yes, there are some steep pitches, but there is very little exposure to a serious fall. Remember the porters ascend this with heavy loads on their heads. You are mixed in with other climbers and porters and it is polite to stand aside as the porters pass with heavy loads on their heads. Before we knew it we were at the top and looking across the broad expanse to Karanga Valley where we would camp after some hours of walking.
Day four: Karanga camp is at 4 200m so this seems like a relatively easy day, but the net vertical change does not indicate how much climbing you are really doing. There is quite a bit of hiking up and down ridges to get to camp. We did an acclimatisation hike that afternoon, gaining another 300m or 400m before coming back down to camp. The camp is on a broad rocky plateau, with no level tent sites. The best you can do is to set up so your feet are facing downhill and scrunch yourself back uphill several times during the night. We again did an acclimatization hike that afternoon, gaining perhaps another 300 or 400 meters before coming back down to camp.
Some groups continued to Barafu Hut, but our guides thought this was a mistake. One needs to conserve energy for the summit, so we stayed overnight. We would continue to Barafu Hut (4 600m) the next day.
Day five: We got to the Barafu hut (4 600m) before midday, knowing we would launch our bid for the top from there. We watched climbers coming down from their early-morning ascent and we had to wait for the campsites to clear before we could set up our tents. I spoke to several of the climbers and was disturbed to learn from some fit-looking individuals that they had not made it to the top. What did it take to make it to the top of this mountain? Although I didn’t share it with John and Ron at the time, I was wondering if I had it in me.
When I weighed my backpack at the hut, it was 10.8kg. I was carrying a large camera, a satellite phone, spare batteries, first aid and survival gear for all three of us, along with extra clothing for that day. Although this is what I had trained with, it would have been a great deal easier with less.
After camp was set up, we organized our gear, wrote in our journals and tried to doze. In a few hours we would strike out for the summit. An early hot dinner was laid on. Surprisingly we were hungry and ate everything put in front of us.You hear about loss of appetite at altitude, but this never happened to us. It got very cold that evening and I was sure glad of those – 40 sleeping bags. The guides woke us at 11.30pm and, after some tea and biscuits, we were on our way up the mountain just after midnight.
Day six: From the long line of headlamps zigzagging up the face behind camp, it looked like we were one of the last groups to start. It was a strikingly clear night with the lights from Moshi and even Arusha clearly visible. I don’t think I have ever seen so many stars.
We soon settled into a rhythm: Freddie leading, then John, me, Ron and Clemence. This is where the “mountaineering step” really paid off. We were breathing hard right from the start, but were able to maintain our pace without stopping. We soon began passing other groups as they paused to rest. Then, there were no more headlamps ahead of us.
We stopped after a few hours and found our tubes had frozen. Luckily, Ron had an insulated cover over a Nalgene bottle in his pack and those shared sips really helped. Ron asked how far it was and John and I cried out, “Nooooo! You never ask that!”
After what seemed an eternity, we stopped again, sitting under a rock overhang. Freddie told us we
were at Stella Point, which is at 5 700m. I jumped up (and would have hit my head but for his hand cushioning me) and shouted, “Let’s go! We’re going to make it!”
We set off and the scree turned to rock and ice. I’m not sure how long it took from Stella Point but it seemed like no time at all. We were on top, too early as it turned out, because the sun wasn’t even up yet. We had done it in 5 hours and 11 minutes, much less time than we had predicted.
All our photos at the summit are by flash with our trusty point-and-shoot cameras. That heavy digital SLR camera I had lugged all the way did not have a built-in flash. Those fabulous photos I dreamt of taking from the “Highest Point in Africa” were not to be.
I almost forgot to call my wife from the top, but my son reminded me. At least I didn’t carry that satellite phone in vain. We spent maybe 15 to 20 minutes on top before our guides wanted us to head down. Reluctantly, we took one last look around (with our headlamps) and started the long trudge down, passing several groups on their way up. One group was seriously stalled at Stella Point. To climb this mountain is hard.
The light brought us a beautiful, clear, sunny day. The sunrise, the glaciers, the crater and Mount Meru were all memorable sights. My favourite was the view from Stella Point looking all the long way down to Barafu hut – showing just how far we had come during the dark ascent.
We took our time on the way down, conscious that most injuries on mountains happen during the descent. A warm lunch was waiting for us at Barafu camp, where we had a well-deserved rest. We then packed up and headed down the Mweka route. This turned out to be a long and hard day with our leg muscles and joints taking a pounding with every step. This is where the poles came in handy, helping us to keep our balance. I don’t know what Kiswahili is for “faster, faster”, but our guides seemed to forget about “pole, pole” on the way down. A rapid descent can prevent or mitigate the symptoms of AMS and I can assure you we came down that mountain a lot faster than we went up.
Mweka camp was humid and cool, but not cold. We bought softdrinks for all our porters and took the opportunity for a group photo. A sobering reminder of the risks of this big mountain occurred when we watched as they brought one person down on a wheeled stretcher.
Day seven: The next morning we set off, every step down, down, and more down. Encountering the forest again meant a wet, slippery, path but, after another few hours, we made the Mweka gate and signed out for the last time. I was glad we had taken the group photo the day before because our porters had come down well ahead of us and were nowhere to be seen.
Footsore and weary, we walked down the clay road to our waiting Land Cruiser. We were besieged by young and old alike, all hawking souvenirs. I gave in when a youngster noticed the Nalgene bottles in the side pockets of my pack and offered to trade. One bottle, one necklace. Sounded fair to me.
Back at the hotel we tipped the guides who also take care of the porters. (Tipping is mandatory. Your outfitter will inform you how much and, of course, you can leave more as appropriate.)
Our adventure was officially over. Freddy and Clemence presented our certificates and told us, “You have climbed the Highest Point in Africa”!
Somehow it seemed just right that our first beer in several months should be a Kilimanjaro Lager.
Marangu Route: This route is also known as the “Coca Cola” Route and is the busiest route on the mountain. It uses the same route for ascending and descending and you stay in communal huts. The climb can be done in 5 days, but it is advisable to spend an extra night at Horombo Hut for more acclimatisation and therefore a better chance of summitting.
Machame Route: One of the more scenic routes up the mountain, after the Umbwe route, this is probably the most beautiful route by which to ascend the mountain. This is a 6-day climb, starting on the southwestern side of the mountain and descending on the southeastern side. It is a camping route and a nice option to consider on this route is to spend an extra night at Karanga valley for more acclimatisation time.
Umbwe Route: Probably the most beautiful route by which to ascend the mountain, it is slightly shorter than the other camping routes whilst still having good acclimatisation time. Ideal for the more serious hiker, as it is steeper and more strenuous than the Machame route. It is normally a six day climb and is a camping route.
Rongai Route: This route begins on the northern side of the mountain. It is one of the least travelled routes with a long drive to the starting point. It boasts fantastic views and the likelihood that you will be the only climbers. Descent is on the Marangu (Coca Cola route).
Lemosho Glades Route: This route begins on the western side of the mountain, and although it is a long drive to the starting point, your rewards are the possibility of seeing wildlife on the lower slopes and being the only climbers. A game ranger accompanies you for the first 2 days as there are elephant and buffalo on this side of the mountain. The climb can be done in six days, although it is more advisable to do the climb in 7 days.
Some Mt Kilimanjaro Facts
Mt Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano. It was formed between two to three
million years ago during the faulting of the Great Rift Valley.
The highest peak (Uhuru Peak) is 5895m and this is the highest point in Africa.
Mt Kilimanjaro is the highest free standing mountain in the world.
It was proclaimed a world heritage site in 1989.
Three volcanoes or cones, make up Mt Kilimanjaro – Shira, Kibo and Mawenzi
Shira is the oldest and shorter cone of the three.
Mawenzi, Mt Kilimanjaro’s smaller 2nd cone, is the 3rd highest point in Africa.
Kibo is Mt Kilimanjaro’s summit crater. Uhuru Peak is on this cone.
The youngest person to summit Mt Kilimanjaro was nine years old, the oldest
Mt Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in the world you can hike up as
opposed to climb up with climbing equipment.
On climbing Kilimanjaro, you should:
Use an experienced operator who does not cut corners at the detriment of
your safety, the safety of your team and the well-being of the environment.
Make sure that you allow yourself the time to rest and recuperate after a
long flight so your body is ready for the climb
Invest in the expense and time of taking an extra day or two to allow your
body to acclimatise well and improve your chances of summiting.