Trip Report: Climbing Kilimanjaro
As I stepped onto the tarmac at the airport in Tanzania. The air was hot and rich with pungent smells. A stiff breeze blew, and although it was dark…made even darker when the tiny third world airport experienced one of many rolling blackouts (including runway lights) during our brief excursion through immigration….I could sense the fertile greenness of this equatorial land.
My travelling companions were Josh, Ian, & Catherine, four of us embarking on Crested Butte Mountain Guides’ first expedition to climb one of the famed Seven Summits. …..Mt Kilimanjaro (19,341’). The next day we met our main African ‘Chagga’ Guide, Abdi, and plans were laid for our 7-day climb via the Machame (“Whiskey”) Route on Kili.
We agreed on a whopping 12 porters for the 4 of us, plus 2 guides, a cook, and a server…16 people in all on our support team….for getting 4 people up the mountain. With the help of local guides (required by Tanzanian and National Park law), I quickly realized the familiar guiding skills of route selection and pacing were going to be easy for me with so much support. Instead I would be liaison between our team and the local support team, most of whom only spoke Swahili…the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Assoc) doesn’t train you in this type of mountain guiding skill!
A bumpy and dusty bus ride found us speeding up the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro, through coffee plantations and banana groves to the Machame Gate. Here there were dozens of other Western climbers, along with hundreds of porters, guides, and park service rangers…the latter heavily armed….all shouting, packing, organizing, and negotiating work contracts in Swahili. After an hour and a half Godfrey (our assistant guide) escorted us through another gate, and on a wide jungle path we began our expedition and climb.
The beginning of any climb always brings a mix of excitement and trepidation. After years of guiding, I have seen this nervous energy manifest in one way, and one way only…taking off out of the gate running! Kilimanjaro may not be a technically hard mountain to climb, but it’s big….really big. In fact it has the distinction of being the “World’s Largest Free Standing Mountain”, and with the summit of Uhuru Peak at 19,341’ it also has real high altitude issues to contend with. The scale and size of Kili is hard to comprehend. For someone used to being surrounded by jagged jumbles of the multiple peaks, spires, and valleys that populate most ‘mountain ranges’, the incredible girth of this volcanic giant, coupled with its stark and lonely nature, makes it seem just that much bigger.
“Pole, Pole”…meaning “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. This is the secret to climbing Kilimanjaro, to help with the acclimatization for a peak with such extreme altitude gain in such a fairly short and easy amount of time. “Pole, pole”…our group heard it early on Day 1, and frequently throughout the trip….and I now have one more language in which to express my wishes as a guide to temper folks’ pre-climb enthusiasm and nervous energy.
The lower slopes of Kilimanjaro along the Machame Route are a beautiful and slightly steep walk through dense jungles filled with plants and trees in every shade of green imaginable. Colobus and Blue Monkeys crash through the tree canopies, and Tarzan-like vines twist and hang from all directions. Through all this one cannot even actually see the summit cap of the mountain until the beginning stages of Day 2.
Kili is so big it creates its own climates, and it has various plant and animal life found nowhere else in the world. The Machame Route offers a unique view of the mountain by its circuitous nature–starting far to the west on the south side of the mountain, climbing up to the Moorland environment of the Shira Plateau, a long broad bench around 12,500’-14,000’ that stretches across the south side of the mountain between the old volcanic peaks of Shira and Mawenzi. Combined with the main summit crater/plug/peak of Kibo, this massif is widely known simply and singularly as Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Days 3-5 were spent traversing east along the Shira Plateau, and working our way to the east/southeast side of the mountain from which to make our summit attempt from the Mweka Route and the SE Ridge. Travelling in this way, gave us a few days of acclimating at altitudes between 12,500’ and 14,600’, before heading up to Barafu Camp (high camp) at 15,100’ from which to make our summit push. What we soon learned was that this strategy also offered us an incredible journey through all the varied eco-systems, environments, and terrain features that Kilimanjaro hides amongst its cracks and folds and that can only be seen up close.
This sub-alpine environment is home to the mists and rains of Kilimanjaro, which gathered us into a cold, damp, white fog of clouds and light rain every day from late morning until sunset. This is the zone where the mountain slopes receive the most precipitation, while just a few thousand feet higher in the alpine desert the precipitation rate is less then a quarter of what falls here. So days were spent walking amidst a moonscape of orange lichen and moss covered volcanic boulders in a foggy haze of weird plants and surreal landscapes more like the scenery of a Dr Suess story then a mountaineering environment.
After an afternoon in camp of hot tea, popcorn, travel Scrabble games and maybe a nap or two, the mists would dissipate, hot dinners of local veggies and rice and meats would be served, and we would watch the sun light up the peak above in shades of pink, red, and orange alpenglow before setting over blankets of clouds and dust from the East African plains far below.
By Day 5 we had arrived at Barafu Camp, a fairly desolate place lacking windbreaks and with no water. This was to be a brief stop, staging ground for our summit attempt, as our porters were carrying water for our group up 2,000’ from the last camp in five-gallon jugs and buckets, and we could only be here as long as water lasted…likely one night.
It’s always hard to settle into camp before a summit attempt. And the longer to get to this point in the trip, the more difficult it is trying to settle in. We say–and truly mean it too–that the summit is not ultimately the goal, it is the journey along the way that matters most and where the richest experiences are gained. Even so, it is hard not to be anxious and feel the tug of failure and uncertainty in the back of your mind. I know my clients were feeling it, as we all had an early dinner and tried to force ourselves to fall asleep by 6 pm with the sky still lit by the sun’s rays.
11:30 pm the alarm buzzes, and Kejinga comes to the tents saying “hello….good morning….how are you feeling”….in his unique African-English accent. Choking down some quick calories, layering up, and off into the night we go….up the SE Ridge to the Kibo summit crater and Uhuru Peak.
You haven’t seen stars until you’ve seen the stars on a moonless night from 17,000’ on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. They weren’t stars as much as they were clusters and bursts of white and yellow on a black canvas. At times in the pre-dawn hours one is not sure if you are looking at stars against the night sky or looking at an old dark, threadbare blanket pulled over a blinding white light, with intense rays and glimpses of the light beyond showing through the thin and holey patches.
The night wore on, and deep into its depths we climbed higher and higher….pole, pole….into its darkness. The combination of higher altitude and an incessant bitingly cold and strong wind had us all buried deep in layers of down and Gore-Tex, trying to stay warm, deep in our own thoughts, too focused to talk.
Just about 6 am, we began to crest the edge of the crater and summit rim, known as Stella Point. Well over 18,000’ this point seemed to re-energize and re-invigorate the team. As if on cue, the sky to our east begin to show the magnificent deep reds and oranges of the approaching dawn, and we could see Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the crater rim, marking the true summit of Kilimanjaro.
It was a surreal last hour of walking. The new rays of an electric dawn burned on the eastern horizon, the icy blue walls of the remaining glacial ice bathed pink and orange in the morning alpenglow just to our left, all of Africa spread out beneath us under a sea of clouds far below.
I have seen many sunrises in the mountains in my 12 years as a mountain guide, but that sunrise from the summit rim of Kilimanjaro borders on a religious experience. The mountain itself is not a very aesthetic climb–for true climbers it is much more of a long, dusty, high altitude hike. But sunrise over the exotic horizons of East Africa, surrounded by strange remnant glaciers, snow, and rock and dirt and ash, will soften even the most jaded alpinist.
The word “Uhuru” in Swahili means “freedom.” The highest point on Kilimanjaro was christened Uhuru peak in 1961, the same year Tanzania gained its independence peacefully from Britain, its colonial ruler. Uhuru has recently been fitted with a shiny new sign in bright greens and yellow…colors of the Tanzania flag, green symbolizing the forests and fertile land of the country, and yellow signifying corn, and the abundance of food the land and people provide. It is a huge summit sign–much bigger than the wrought iron crosses that decorate the summits of the Alps and the rock cairns that celebrate the tops of the Rocky Mountains highest peaks, and more aesthetic then the aluminum poles, prayer flags, and stone stupas that decorate many of the worlds big mountain tops.
We walked…pole, pole…along the rim to Uhuru Peak taking it all in. After months of planning, long days of travel half way around the world and 5 days of trekking, everyone on our team had reached the 19,341’ summit of Kilimanjaro…..congrats to Ian, Cat, & Josh. We fought to stand against the 60 mph winds, then made a quick turn around, putting the last 7 hours of climbing time behind us in a 90 minute dash back down scree and loose dirt to high camp.
The summit experience was as fleeting as the early dawn light in that unearthly environment. While we only spent an hour bounded by the snow, glaciers, ash and lava of KIli’s summit….being there while a new day broke in all its splendid color on the horizon and watching it all happen form the highest point on the African continent, as shades of pink, orange, red, a and yellow changed seemingly with each breath of the thin mountain air…that brief moment will for sure be etched in each of our minds for many more summits, and mountains to come. It certainly will be in mine.
-Jayson Simons-Jones (Guide)