Kilimanjaro – Journey to the top of Africa

The calm before the storm

Two hours to midnight. It won’t be long now. Will I make it?

It’s freezing and there are people next to me who are actually able to sleep. Not bad for the altitude we are at; the Kibo Hut is located 4,720 meters above sea level. Of course I am tired too, but the tension keeps me awake. The moment of truth will soon be at hand.

At the very top, at 5,895 meters, the summit is waiting…Uhuru Peak.

Motivation

But let’s start from the beginning with a few words about motivation. What drives a person to climb the highest mountain in Africa? For me it was a combination of different things; thirst for adventure, the charm of the unknown, as well as testing my own limits. How far and how high can I go? In Switzerland, hiking mountains are limited to more or less 3,500 meters and if you want to go higher, you have to take a look abroad. Kilimanjaro is a good choice if you want to reach the „next level“. It is considered a popular trekking mountain and known as an “easy” almost 6k mountain (if you want to consider almost 6k as “easy”). This is mainly due to the fact that it is a long, multi-day hike without any climbing passages. Technically, Kilimanjaro does not present any difficulties, it is more a kind of endurance test.

The whole experience in Tanzania is of course also very motivating. It’s a country that might otherwise not necessarily be at the top of your bucket list, although it has many great things to offer. After climbing Kilimanjaro you can go on a great safari and watch Africa’s wild animals or spend a few relaxing days at the beach on the island of Zanzibar.

Overview

The Kilimanjaro mountain range is located in Tanzania and is the highest point in Africa. This makes the mountain one of the “Seven Summits”, i.e. the highest mountains on each continent. The highest point of Kili is Uhuru Peak at 5,895 metres above sea level. Every year around 50,000 trekkers try their luck at the mountain and the summit success rate is around 70%.

Preparation

How do you prepare for such a long, multi-day hike? Of course, what you should do most are many long and hard hikes in the mountains. Climbing stairs, jogging, swimming, and Pilates also help.

My thesis is that you can enjoy the “competition” (in this case climbing Kili) much more if you are well prepared. The training should therefore be harder than the actual competition and it can’t hurt if you go to the limit (or beyond) a few times during preparation.

However, what you cannot really prepare for is the altitude. Every person reacts to it completely differently. I noticed the first signs of altitude sickness at around 4,500 m, but more on that later.

You should also ask yourself whether you want to do the whole thing as a private tour or in a larger group. We – my buddy Roman and I – decided on a private tour, as we liked to go our own pace and don’t have to adapt to other people. This would certainly have been possible in a larger group with several guides as well, but we preferred to play it safe and opted for maximum flexibility and freedom.

Marangu Route

Many roads lead not only to Rome, but also to Kilimanjaro. There are a total of eight different routes that lead to the summit. We chose the Marangu route because it was the only route where you could spend the nights in huts; on all other routes you spend the nights in tents. Theoretically, the Marangu Route can be tackled in five days, but we decided to go for the 6-day itinerary in order to have an additional day of acclimatization.

The start was at the Marangu Gate at 1,880 m. We then spent the first night in the Mandara huts at 2,720 meters. Then another two nights in the Horombo Huts at 3,720 m, before eventually spending a short night in the Kibo Hut, which is at 4,720 m. From there you start the summit at midnight and ideally reach Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa with 5,895 m, at sunrise.

Why do you start in the middle of the night? There are several reasons for this. On one hand, it’s great to be on the summit at sunrise. In addition, the path is frozen at night and not as slippery as during the day. And last but not least, you usually have a long descent on the same day, so it is worth setting off as early as possible.

But hey, that’s enough chit chat for now. Let’s start with the actual travel story.

Arrival in Tanzania (07 Sep 2016)

After a long flight, my friend Roman and I were picked up at Kilimanjaro International Airport by a representative from our agency (Base Camp Tanzania). We reached the hotel two hours later. There we were greeted shortly afterwards by our guide – Emmanuel. He was the main guide for the coming days and he gave us useful information and inspected our equipment. He seemed satisfied and had no objection.

„The most important thing is that you always feel warm, because it can get very cold on the mountain, especially on the summit night,“ he explained to us.

We wanted to know what the summit success rate of him and his clients looked like. «100% of course!», He said and laughed, «You have to reach the summit, otherwise I lose my 100%.»

Then he said goodbye and mentioned he’d come to pick us up tomorrow morning with the rest of the crew.

100%, well what could go wrong then?

We spent the rest of the day in the hotel and prepared ourselves mentally for the coming days.

And so it begins… (08 Sep 2016 – Marangu Gate to Mandara Huts)

As promised, right after breakfast, Emmanuel picked us up by minibus with the rest of the crew. The team consisted of several people. In addition to Emmanuel, there was David, the second guide, a cook and several porters. We were only two people, but we had a real entourage. You have to be aware that food and water have to be carried up and down the mountain. There are no shopping opportunities within the national park and rubbish must of course be collected and brought along. The porters were not only responsible for our luggage, but also for kitchen stuff, food and water.

We drove 2-3 hours on more or less good roads and it was around noon when we arrived at the Marangu Gate and thus at Kilimanjaro National Park. The Marangu Gate is at a little over 1,800 meters above sea level and was the starting point of our trekking.

At that point I had a really good feeling and was mentally and physically fully up to speed. The basis for a successful ascent was given, now it was just about getting closer to the goal step by step. I also knew that you couldn’t force a successful ascent. Either it worked out or it didn’t. It is best to approach the matter with a certain degree of looseness and enjoy every minute of this trip, regardless of the outcome. In the event that it is not enough, one should still be able to look back with pride on what has been achieved and the many great experiences.

The Marangu Gate. Our Starting point.

We hiked up the first 900 meters in about 4 hours. By the way the vegetation changed every day, which makes climbing Kilimanjaro a very scenic climb. On that first day we hiked through a lush rainforest.

First steps…

Then we already made the first part and reached the Mandara Huts situated on 2,720 m.

I am standing on the right side

After that we were able to rest a little in our 2-bed hut and some time later we were called for dinner.

And this is already the right time to pay the chef a big compliment. The food was very diverse every day and it was always most excellent. Before starting the trip, I had a few concerns, as my stomach can sometimes be a real cry baby. However, these concerns turned out to be completely irrelevant. The food was always fresh and I never had any problems during the entire trip.

For breakfast there was mostly toast with butter and jam, porridge, as well as tea, coffee and orange juice. I wasn’t particularly keen of the porridge, but it was extremely nourishing and you were really full for the next few hours.

After breakfast we were each given a lunch box. Every day there were similar things in it like bread, cheese, eggs, bananas, but also cookies and chocolate. In addition, we could fill our water bottle with hot water or tea every morning.

Sufficient provisions were definitely provided and we had absolutely nothing to complain about in terms of culinary delights.

Back to the Mandara Huts: After dinner we went to bed early. But then I didn’t sleep so well and even had nightmares. Would the spirits of the mountain have any objections to a successful ascent?

The road goes ever on and on… (09 Sep 2016 – Mandara Huts to Horombo Huts)

Despite the nightmares I felt reasonably well rested and ready for a hard day. It was a long hike ahead with another 1,000 meters of altitude difference, but a significantly longer distance than yesterday. The total hiking time ended up being a little over 6 hours.

After breakfast we marched off and soon we left the forest landscape behind us and came to the so-called moorland, also called grassland. Soon you had a great view over the whole country and in the distance, high up, you could see Uhuru Peak for the first time.

It went slowly but steadily up the dusty roads. We deliberately set a slow pace because in the few days we had there were actually too many vertical meters at once. I’m not an expert, but you shouldn’t do much more than 500 meters a day, I’ve read somewhere. The reason for this is that the body has to get used to the new heights. And if you climb too high too quickly, you can have physical problems, usually in the form of altitude sickness. This is also one reason why the summit success rate is not 100%, but several hikers fail on this mountain.

Anyway, such negative thoughts have no place here and true to the motto “Good Vibes Only”, we continue to climb up and up unimpressed.

At some point in the afternoon we finally reached the Horombo huts. It was our camp for the next two nights, altough tomorrow won’t be a resting day, but an acclimatization day, where we give our bodies the chance to adapt to these unfamiliar heights.

A white-neck-raven is enjoying the view
Far away our destination; Uhuru Peak
So far so good. We have reached the Horombo Huts

The acclimatization day (10 Sep 2016 – Horombo Huts to Zebra Rock)

Today we took it a little bit easier. The plan was to hike to the «Zebra Rock», which was on something over 4,000 metres. In addition we went to a nice vantage point, from where we could marvel at the Kili in all its glory and from a distance we saw our ascent route for tomorrow night. When I gazed at the steep ascent I felt a little nervous because it looked really, really steep. However, viewed from a distance, our ascent route was a little less steep than that of another route. In retrospect I can say that it was a bit misleading from that distance and our ascent wasn’t as steep as I feared.

By the way, today I felt in top shape. I would have liked to have continued straight away and walked towards the summit. However, obviously that did not happen, as we had to go back to the Horombo hut and spend another night there. At that time, I thought that if I am doing so well today, I will be doing great or even better tomorrow too. Unfortunately, that’s not how it turned out to be…

After taking a lot of photos, we turned around and walked back to the Horombo huts. We then had the rest of the day „off“ and so we spent most of the time in the large hut, drank tea and read. From time to time we got into conversation with people from other groups, it was a real multi-cultural society that found itself on this mountain with nationalities from all continents.

As it got dark very early and the altitude as well as the long hikes made us tired, we went to bed early, around 8 p.m. By the way, I haven’t had any bad dreams since the first night, which I considered as a good omen.

In the middle of the night I had to step out. What an experience. The stars and the moon literally glowed and in return there was absolute darkness and silence.

The Horombo huts from above
At the Zebra-Rock
Viewpoint with the Kili in the background

It’s getting serious (11 Sep 2016 – Horombo Huts to Kibo Hut)

Onwards! Today (and tomorrow, respectively) was the big day, because we first had to climb another 1,000 meters to the Kibo hut and after a very short night we will set off to the summit just after midnight. But until then, there is another hard and long hike ahead of us.

After the start I still felt reasonably good, altough not as good as yesterday. Somehow I felt a little weak and just not 100%. I hoped this was just a phase and the longer we hiked the better I would feel.

The terrain was now high alpine, a veritable lunar landscape and apart from a few stones there wasn’t much else to see. It was absolutely fascinating how Kili and other peaks shot up out of the ground.

After 2-3 hours we were about halfway and had lunch. We were already at about 4,200 m and somehow I did not feel right. Did I drink too little? I drank as much tea and water as possible and then we soon marched on.

My condition didn’t get much worse in the course of the next few hours but it didn’t improve either. How long can it be before we get to the Kibo Hut? Every step and every meter of altitude became more strenuous. At some point in the afternoon we finally arrived. I already had a slight headache and prayed to god that it didn’t get worse.

The Kibo hut at 4,720 meters above sea level is a large stone hut with dorm rooms. In contrast to the huts below, we had to share a large room with several people.

They called us to dinner already between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Spaghetti was served and even if I wasn’t hungry I ate as much as I could (it wasn’t much) because I knew that every bite counted.

Then we called it a day and hoped into our beds. As I said, several people were accommodated in the room and the mood was accordingly snoring and musty. Normally this would have bothered me extremely, but I was pretty exhausted and dozed off again and again, however it wasn’t a really restful sleep.

So we would have come back to the introduction and the first few sentences of this report and the question remains the same: will I make it?

Suddenly an alarm clock rang, I actually fell asleep again and was extremely happy about it. Every ounce of energy could make the difference between success and failure in the next few hours.

It was 11:30 pm … I had a headache … it was freezing … and yet I couldn’t wait to start walking!

The fascinating landscape on the way to Kibo Hut
Just awesome to look at
We arrived at Kibo Hut. As usual I’m on the right side.

The way to Uhuru Peak (12 Sep 2016 – Kibo Hut to Uhuru Peak)

00:30 a.m. We’re finally starting. After being woken up an hour ago, we ate a light breakfast and got ready to leave. I couldn’t really eat anything and had to force myself to nibble on a few cookies. At the same time I was extremely tired of drinking tea. Well packed and mounted with a headlamp, we set off into the dark. Some groups had already left before us and we saw their lights in the distance. However, Emmanuel was setting a quick pace and we were overtaking one group after the other and soon we were way ahead of everyone else.

After 1-2 hours of climbing, I was feeling worse and worse. I had headache, nausea, and then I had aching limbs all over my body. Especially my back felt really bad and my small backpack became an unbearable burden. The altitude sickness had caught up with me. To be honest, I felt very miserable that night and wanted to give up a hundred times. We were now somewhere over 5,000 meters, the air was very thin and I had to lean on my sticks every 5 minutes to catch my breath. I had the feeling that I was progressing only very slowly, but everyone else was probably even slower because nobody caught up with us again. Maybe I wasn’t that slow after all and my mind was playing tricks on me.

My friends, what agony I suffered that night. At the beginning I wrote that the preparation should be harder than the competition. However, one essential factor was not included in this formula; the altitude. No matter how fit you are, if you can’t stand the altitude, your dream can quickly burst into flames. Somehow I made it step by step, also thanks to the help of the two guides who carried my backpack for me. Last but not least, my pride carried me forward and giving up so close to the finish line was simply not an option.

Then finally, after what felt like an eternity, we reached a plateau, the so-called Gilman’s Point at 5,681 meters above sea level and here I knew now I had made it, now I can do the rest, now I can also get to the summit!

Before we tackled the last section, we rested a little bit on Gilman’s Point. Since I was still not feeling well – compared to a bad hangover after a night of drinking – Emmanuel advised me to just let it out, front end. I would feel better after that. I performed the process behind a rock as suggested. And behold – similar to the same process in the morning after a night of partying – I immediately felt better. Emmanuel my dear, you are really worth gold and I will forever be in your debt for this glorious idea. Nothing could go wrong now and it should only take one more hour to reach the top.

On the way up we passed another important point, Stella Point at 5,756 meters above sea level. There were already quite a few people there, as this was a junction point from another route.

So, now we really wanted it and had one last burst of energy. I already saw the summit sign a few hundred meters in front of me. There were also large glaciers and ice fields to marvel at on the sides.

A dream comes true

It was 6:00 a.m. and we actually made it. After 5 hours and 30 minutes of ascent, we were at the very top, on Uhuru Peak at 5,895 meters above sea level. It was of course a great feeling to be up there. The biggest emotions for me, however, did not come at the summit, but in the hour before. When I knew I would make it.

The whole training paid off and all hopes were fulfilled. I am on the summit of Kilimanjaro just in time for sunrise. The camera has given up and was broken due to the cold, but that’s ok, because the cell phone still works and this great moment is captured for eternity.

It’s done. My summit pic
Sunrise from Kilimajaro
Of course Roman made it too

Lots of time for thoughts during the long descent (12/13 Sep 2016 – back to Marangu Gate)

What goes up must come down. After 5 hours 30 minutes ascent, the climax was reached, but the day was far from over. We had a long descent ahead of us, which should bring us back to the Horombo huts by the afternoon. And the following day the journey would come full circle with a final descent to Marangu Gate.

But let’s go back to the moment of the summit. At the top we only stayed 10-20 minutes. Due to the cold and the altitude, we quickly started the descent again. The previously strenuous climbed vertical meters were in the opposite direction a piece of cake. Because after Gilman’s Point we could literally run or rather slide down the scree slope.

I don’t remember the exact time but I think we didn’t even need two hours from the summit back to the Kibo hut. A few members of our crew were waiting at the hut to congratulate us. They had a glass with cold orange juice ready for us, which I very much enjoyed. My throat was completely dry because I had nothing to drink for the last hour during the descent.

Otherwise I felt great again. All the tension dropped and my pain from climbing was gone. I came to the conclusion that a large part of this pain was mentally caused, maybe even phantom pain, which would have been a delightful study for a scientist.

We were by far the first back in the Kibo hut and were able to rest in the room before we started the descent to the Horombo hut.

In the room of the Kibo hut there was a somewhat negative surprise. A woman from another group was there. She had to turn back shortly after the start in the night because she almost fainted. Of course, she was totally depressed because she missed her big goal. I told her it wasn’t the end of the world and that she could try again in the future. But in such a moment such words are of course anything but comforting. Be that as it may, health comes first and you should definitely not force anything at almost 6,000 meters.

Back at the Horombo huts it was time to celebrate with the whole team
Our Guides Emmanuel und David

The further descent I felt like in a dream. Really thrilled by the summit success, we walked down as fast as we could.

Back at the Horombo huts there was a small ceremony and our team performed a little dance. We then handed over a generous tip.

That night we slept again in the Horombo huts and since all the tension was gone, we were able to sleep very well and restful.

On the last day there was another long descent from the Horombo huts via Mandara huts all the way down to the Marangu Gate.

At some point I started counting the steps and was really happy when we were finally back at the starting point which now became the finish line.

At the gate, the first thing I did was to buy a cold, overpriced Coke at the kiosk. Man that was good! Never tasted a Coke better than in that moment. After so many days of drinking water and tea, I really craved for it.

Then it was time to say goodbye to our guides and porters. We were brought back to the hotel and had a visit from Achmed, the owner of the agency with whom we booked the trip. He is an English guy and came to Tanzania years ago to open this agency. We drank a few beers with him and reported about the highlights of the last few days. Achmed, on the other hand, was able to talk about many interesting things about Tanzania and his life here.

After that, it was time to go to sleep. The adventure continues tomorrow, because we have booked a safari and will see a lot of wild animals, both at the Ngorongoro Crater and in the Tarangire National Park.

Final word

My conclusion on this trip: It was of course a complete success and all expectations were met. I can really recommend this trip to anyone who is interested. There is no guarantee of a summit success. However, if you are reasonably well prepared, the chances are very high that you will make it. And even if it doesn’t go all the way to the top; all the impressions, landscapes, people and animals that you encounter along the way are still absolutely worth the trip.

In summary and as a final word: You can always go one step further than you think!

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