Kilimanjaro… oh you beautiful, horrible, amazing beast.
I have no idea how I came up with the idea to trek this mountain. I’ve never hiked a mountain before in my life. In fact, when I booked this trip, I’d never done any REAL hiking at all. So why it became my goal is as big a mystery to me as to you. But nevertheless, in true Cara style, I thought it sounded fun and booked it without much planning or thought.
And that’s how I ended up ringing in the 2017 New Year smelling exponentially worse than the homeless people under the Wilson viaduct and vomiting harder than that first time I tried Jack Daniels…. But I’m getting ahead of myself here….
I arrived into Tanzania after about 52 hours of travel: Wichita (mutt drop off) – Chicago – Paris - <12 hour layover and city tour in Paris> - Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. The excitement temporarily beat out the exhaustion, and as we drove 45 minutes to the hotel, I took in the vast open red dirt plain speckled with tiny dung huts and concrete brick houses (generally 1 room, square buildings). It was too cloudy to see the beast just yet. We arrived to the Stella Maris Lodge for our pre-hike briefing & gear check where I finally got to meet the 11 strangers that soon became friends who would be hiking Kili together.
The group was made up of:
The next morning, we packed our bags, checked the luggage we wouldn’t need on the mountain, and set off in a small, hot, smelly van. Our porters and guides precariously strapped our luggage to the roof before joining us for the 3 hour ride to Londorossi Gate. There, our guides spent about 1.5 hours filling out paperwork and paying our entrance fees in a truly archaic system while the porters had each bag weighed to ensure they didn’t exceed the 20 kg limit per porter. This weigh-in was really something to watch. The bag was placed on the scale and then miscellaneous food items would be tossed in or removed until it was exactly 20 kg. It did my heart good to see the rules enforced that promote safety for porters!
Another 45 minute drive to our starting point, and then we were off! 5 hours into Day 1 and we finally got to start hiking! For about 3 hours we trekked up and down very small inclines on a well maintained dirt path through a lush rain forest. I remember thinking that they lied to us about Day 1 being mostly flat because it was far hillier than this Chicago girl is used to. (I later realized that by comparison, it IS flat) Aside from a 30 minute light rain, the weather was lovely- maybe around 70 degrees and sunny, though we were shaded most of the route. We made it to our first camp- Mti Mkubwa or Big Tree Camp feeling unwarrantedly tired. The hike wasn’t hard, but I thought it was at the time. And we hadn’t gone far, though I thought we had at the time. Basically Day 1 is a great illustration of how unprepared I was.
I settled into camp that afternoon and made my first major hiking mistake by not removing my wet clothes or hat to allow my hair to dry. The team met in the mess hall- as we would do 3 times a day for the next 7 days- for dinner, laughter, a bit of political talk, and a LOT of potty talk. It was in these mealtimes that our new friendships were made, and I’m not really a touchy-feely kind of person, but let me tell you those friendships are what made me survive that Godforsaken mountain. We headed to bed around dusk for a mostly sleepless night. It was colder than I counted on – probably just above freezing- and my wet hair kept me shivering through the night. I rejoiced in the warmth of the light of dawn and started Day 2 with renewed energy.
Big Tree Camp was my second favorite camp, entirely due to the gimpy monkey who made the camp his home. He was tame enough that I could pet him with the right amount of bread for bribery. Not sure the porters appreciated me using our food to feed wild animals.
Day 1 summary: Londorossi Gate (7,740 ft) to Big Tree Camp (9,500 ft), 4 miles
More rain forest and beautiful weather were the themes of Day 2. The dirt path took us up and down steeper inclines than yesterday. The day was highlighted by one particularly steep incline followed by a less steep but never ending one. I took to asking our resident incline expert from Colorado to estimate the incline… Her response was almost always “More than 12%” because that’s the steepest she trains on a treadmill. We arrived into camp for a late lunch in the mess hall followed by card games and tour of the kitchen. The food on the mountain was surprisingly delicious! They catered to a western diet – fresh fruits, various homemade soups, breads, spaghetti, wings, etc. It’s all run together in my head now, but we gushed over how delicious the food was after every meal. This is quite different than what I expected from all the blogs I had read in preparation that had me mentally prepared for bland, tasteless food. On the contrary, we looked forward to meal times (right up until the altitude sickness hit, that is!)
To top off the evening, we were treated to THE KILIMANJARO SONG! Oh my gosh this made me laugh so hard. Truly one of my most memorable moments of the trip!
Finally, the sun set and to bed we went for another shockingly cool night. I snuggled into my 0 degree sleeping bag with too few clothes on and shivered through the night again.
The 4 liters of water we forcibly drank each day combined with the oh-so-pleasant side effects of Altitude Sickness Pills meant a bladder-alarm about every 2 hours. And in the spirit of seeing the silver lining, I must say that it was in these peepee breaks (that fun, 5 times nightly opportunity to put all your clothes and shoes back on, unzip and rezip 10 zippers per trip, expose your bare behind in the freezing temperatures and lose any residual body heat keeping the inside of the tent tolerable) that I got to see one of the most breathtaking views of the trip- the starry sky. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before! I live in the city with tons of light pollution, but I grew up in the country in Southern Kansas, so I’ve seen clear starry skies before…. But that was nothing like this! I’m sad to have not gotten away with any photographic proof, but will cherish the memory forever. It gave me a feeling of being so small in this universe but yet so connected. Or maybe that was another side effect of the drugs….
Day 2 summary: Big Tree Camp (9,500 ft) to Shira 1 Camp (11,500 ft), 5 miles
After Day 3, I realized that every day we ratchet up the difficulty level and ratchet down the temperatures. A mostly flat dirt path took us out of the rain forest. The luscious trees and hanging moss were replaced by waist high shrubbery. The greens turned to browns. And about halfway through the day, the sunshine turned to rain. This would be the last of sunshine we would see until our descent. Thank God I didn’t know that at the time, or I might have taken a left turn on the Medical Evacuation Access Road we crossed. The clouds we climbed through on Day 2 seemed to have caught us and then follow us the rest of our time on the mountain. Occasionally, we got a small glimpse of a view and could see one or two neighboring peaks, but for the most part, it was fog and precipitation of some sort.
In the final approach to the campsite, we had our first encounter of many to come of slippery, stupid rocks. They weren’t my favorite. Actually, I’m not sure that I complained about anything more verbally or hatefully. Everyone else in the group had no trouble, but I was sure they were going to send me toppling off the mountain to a certain uncomfortable death. Every. Single. Step had to be calculated to keep me from slipping. I absolutely realize this was just another one of my unfounded fears, but I took a tumble in the mountains of Vietnam last year and really have no interest in broken feet in 3rd world countries anymore.
This campsite was my favorite. We only shared the site with 1 or 2 other small groups which made it feel like we were miles and miles from civilization. We arrived and rested in the afternoon in rain, fell asleep listening to the wind blow across the plateau, and awoke to a breathtaking view of Uhuru peak freshly covered in snow. I finally deployed my winter-gear arsenal and slept warmly and soundly in my dry Canada Goose coat. I also finally realized that if I finished my 4 liters of water before reaching camp and then didn’t drink the rest of the day that I would only have 1 nightly peepee alarm. And was taught to put my wet clothes into my sleeping bag overnight to get them downgraded from a miserable “sopping wet” to a tolerable “cool and damp” by the next morning. The things experience teaches you.
All in all, today was a good day.
Day 3 summary: Shira1 Camp (11,500 ft) to Moir Hut (13,800 ft), 7 miles
This day is all about feeling the altitude. We set off from our cozy campsite to have a hot lunch at Lava Tower trudging up slippery stupid rocks in the rain, sleet, snow and fog. It wasn’t the most pleasant thing I’ve done in my life. But from a physical perspective, certainly not the most difficult either. The terrain was steep but manageable.
Once at Lava Tower, there was a sense of accomplishment in the air. Lots of people celebrated, high-fived, and took photos to commemorate new personal records for reaching 15K feet. For me it was just like every other day since the everyday ended in a new personal record for altitude. I think before Kili I hadn’t hiked about 6K or 7K feet.
The warm lunch reenergized the team and we set off back down to sleep low and recover. The whole hike back down were my favorite rocks. I took one small tumble down those slippery suckers which won me the Biggest-Bruise award at the end of the trip. As we descended into the zoo that was Barranco Camp, we were back below the tree line and enjoyed the view of these interesting trees.
Barranco Camp wasn’t my favorite in part because it was mobbed with thousands of people (literally! 3 routes combine to share this camp) and partly because we had all night to stare at the beast that is Barranco Wall and shrink in intimidation and fear of tomorrow’s hike.
Day 4 summary: Moir Hut (13,800 ft) to Lava Tower ( 15,190 ft) to Barranco Camp (13,050 ft), 6 miles
Anyone that tells you Barranco Wall isn’t that bad is a filthy liar and shouldn’t be trusted.
Also coined the “Breakfast Wall” because you tackle it first thing in the morning, the Barranco Wall is about 800 feet straight up. You don’t walk. You climb. Now, admittedly I have no experience in real climbing, but I have walked a mile or two in my 34 years and never have I considered the scrambling and wall clinging and maneuvering that we had to do on that wall “walking.”
The Wall takes about 2 hours for most people. I think I clocked in somewhere closer to 3 hours. You know… Pole pole wins the race. And even though it wasn’t what I was expecting, it was totally a manageable climb. Other blogs I read in preparation described it as a stairstep. Not sure I agree with that characterization, but it is a step-wise progression up the side of a cliff. Up and over 3 feet rock ledges, sliding/ jumping down 5-6 feet drops, stepping over a 1-2 foot gap in the rock… that kind of thing for 2-3 hours until you look down and see the tents of Barranco Camp as teeny ant-sized speckles . There were only a few moments that actually scared me but the guides were always there to make sure my every step was taken safely. They assured us before we started that the Wall was safe and no one ever got injured. After watching them carefully get me to the top, I’m inclined to believe that TOURISTS don’t get hurt. Porters who take the Wall at a running pace must be another story altogether.
The high of beating the Wall was quickly followed by the disheartening realization that we had long hike ahead still. By the end of the day, we camped down with only a small elevation gain, but that’s only because we ascended and descended very steep slopes in nearly equal measure.
The rain plagued us again and I trudged into camp sopping wet, tired, and feeling the most discouraged of the entire trek. Altitude Sickness finally found me at Karanga Camp and stole my spaghetti dinner right out of my belly. Side note- it sucks to puke spaghetti. I resolved to have a better day by writing “TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER” about 17 times in my travel journal that night and slept soundly through the night snug in my favorite red coat on top of all my wet clothes.
Day 5 summary: Barranco Camp (13,050 ft) up Barranco Wall (elevation gain of 800 ft) to Karanga Camp (13,100 ft), 3 miles
After a short and otherwise unremarkable hike to Base Camp through snow and sleet up stupid slippery rocks, we celebrated the accomplishment in the mess hall together, disregarding the mounting anxiety over the looming summit attempt. Our tents were placed precariously on the side of the steep campsite. Every step around camp felt like you were climbing stairs. Altitude Sickness continued to haunt me, and try as I might, I couldn’t keep any food or water down. We found our tents early for bed to try to get some sleep before the 11 pm wakeup call.
Day 6 summary: Karanga Camp (13,100 ft) to Barafu Camp/ Base Camp (15,300 ft), 2 miles
At 11 pm, we were gently awoken by the servers. It’s finally summit day. And also the final few hours of 2016. If all goes well, we summit at dawn of New Year’s Day 2017. Spoiler alert- all didn’t go well.
We set off as one large group in the dead of night through thick fog. After about only 30 minutes, I was sweating and had to step aside to de-layer. The group went on and a guide stayed back with me. We continued on, every step becoming increasingly labored. Without even the smallest of objections I gave up my day pack for my guide to carry. The lighter load helped with moral if nothing else and we continued along in the darkness. There was a steady buzz of excitement from all the hikers around me. For the first time of the trek, we finally had a few switchbacks so I could hear and see people ahead and behind me. The growing buzz suddenly turned into an outburst of yells and high-fives. For a short moment, I smiled widely thinking how awesome this hike would be if everyone was going to cheer like this all night! The booms and claps of fireworks in the village below brought me back to my senses and I realized that I just rang in the New Year… Alone, in complete darkness, on the side of a mountain in Africa… There wasn’t another place in the world I could imagine being more exciting than right there in that moment. As far as NYE celebrations go, I’ll take this Godforsaken mountain over a fancy dress and champagne toast any day.
The snow that had looked so beautiful a few days ago had created a treacherous sheet of ice over the path. Every time I lifted a foot to take a step forward my grounded foot slid backward a few inches. We alternated between the ice and the fresh snow off the path, but it was equally treacherous with slipping scree under the snow. If your foot didn’t plant just right, you’d end up sliding down to snow and scree up past your knees. Up and up we went into the darkness following the stream of headlights with no other visible indications of where we were. The Altitude Sickness wasn’t cutting me any slack… every 10-15 minutes I would have to stop to vomit. After a while, there wasn’t anything left to puke, but I kept on trying.
Sometime around 4:00 am I decided I’d had enough. Up until that very moment, pride had told me that I had to make it to the summit. Each night in the tent, I had thought how embarrassing it would be to have to tell people I didn’t summit. Even leading up to the trip, I joked that I would photoshop myself onto the peak if I had to. But at 4 am on January 1, 2017 at a bit over 17,000 feet, the weight of my pride was no longer there. I didn’t even give it a thought. There was no internal debate about getting tough versus listening to my body. I simply wanted to go back to camp. So I stopped mid-step and rather meekly uttered “I’m ready to go down.” My guide seemed a little shocked when I immediately turned around and started my descent. About 5 minutes later, he stopped me and asked if I wanted time to think it through but I didn’t. There was nothing to think about. I finally realized that the last 7 days had been the adventure I was chasing. A foggy view from a vomit and poop covered summit wasn’t the goal of the trip after all.
So in the darkness, feeling notably lighter in the absence of pride, we descended carefully back to Base Camp. I thought my only Altitude symptom was the incessant vomiting but I must have been not quite steady on my feet too. The guide seemed overly worried I was going to careen off the edge and insisted on holding my hand at all times. Finally as the sun’s light tried peeking through the dense fog, we arrived to camp. I looked into the fog in the direction of Uhuru peak and wondered if my new friends were up there yet. (They weren’t yet… but 9 of them soon would be!)
After a quick nap, I set off with my guide and a fellow non-summitter (I made that word up!) to further descend to our final campsite of the trip. For 3 or 4 hours we trudged down, down, down on a reasonably graded slope through rain, sleet and hail to get to Millenium Camp. It would still be a few hours until the others arrived, so I enjoyed a second nap and some much needed food that finally didn’t escape digestion. We welcomed in the successful summitters in waves and had one last mess hall dinner together as a group. A final singing of the Kilimanjaro Song took us to bedtime.
Day 7 summary: Base Camp (15,300 ft)
to Uhuru Peak (19,341 ft) to Cara’s turnaround (just over 17,000 ft) to Millenium Camp (12,500 ft), 8 miles
No one had to wake me up this day… I was only one hike away from solid ground! The weather FINALLY turned back to clear, sunny skies for one heck of a hike out. (Just our luck!) We enjoyed the scenery turning from brown shrubs back to lush green trees. We abandoned our “pole pole” motto and it was a race to the bottom.
Day 8 summary: Millenium Camp (12,500 ft) to Mweka Gate (5,400 ft), 8 miles
The Kilimanjaro Team
See the rest of this 3 week trip to Tanzania: BLOG COMING SOON!