Wednesday, February 10, 2016

To the Top of Africa: Kilimanjaro

Dear Readers, this post will not cover urban or rural decay. Instead, it is about a trek over a fantastic geological terrain, a volcano that has been weathered and eroded for millennia. Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the great topographic wonders of the African continent. The highest part of the summit cone rises to 19,341 ft above sea level, or about 16,000 ft above the surrounding plains.
It must be profoundly rewarding to stand on the highest point on each continent. I will never achieve this in North America, South America, Asia, or Antarctica. But Africa - that is possible for a normal mortal, even one with creaky knees. Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain on earth that can be summited without needing technical equipment or special mountaineering skills. It is a hard trek, but achievable for anyone with altitude acclimation and stamina. I had thought about it for many years and decided I better go before I became too decrepit to make the journey. (The photograph above is from the National Archives, UK).
Climbing Kilimanjaro is different than hiking in many other countries. Unlike USA or Europe, you can't just strap on your backpack and start walking. In Kilimanjaro National Park, you must be accompanied by at least one authorized mountain guide. Most foreign visitors hire a trekking company to make arrangements for a team of guides, porters, and cooks. The porters carry the tents, food, and other equipment, including the foreigners' duffel bags. The visitor walks with just a day pack, and, when he reaches the evening camp site, he is met with a dining tent, food, and hot water. Water is sometimes a long distance from the camp sites, and the porters work hard to carry bottles up and down the trails. The water issue may be one major reason to not try Kilimanjaro on your own without a professional crew. The ratio of Tanzanian workers to foreigners is about 5:1, so our team of four Americans had 26 support staff.
Another interesting note: most trails are one way to reduce congestion. So you ascend on an uphill trail and descend on a downhill trail. Porters can go against the traffic direction as needed, but the main groups all walk in tandem. My three friends and I took the Lemoscho Route, which starts on the western edge of Kilimanjaro National Park. This is one of the longer routes, meaning the foreigners have more days to get acclimated to altitude. Our trip was eight days on the trail, 6½ up and 1½ down. The longer the group spends ascending, the higher success rate. The outfitters who promise to get you up and down in 4 or 5 days have a high failure rate because most tourists suffer altitude sickness. Our bodies simply can't be rushed when adjusting to altitude.
On Day 1, we drove in a minibus from Arusha to the western border of the National Park. The trail starts at the Lemoscho gate, where you check in and the park authorities inspect your permits. These gents were our guides. The fellow on the left was Godlisten Moshi, the chief guide who has summited Kilimanjaro over 100  times. In the center was Dennis, and on the right, Morris. They were unfailingly helpful, polite, and cheerful. Morris was my guide in Arusha for a couple of days prior to the climb.
Then we ascended gently through dense, lush forest to Mti Mkubwa (big tree) camp at 9,000 ft elevation. The porters also check in with the rangers at each camp and have their packs weighed to ensure that they are not being forced to carry dangerous loads. The camp was crowded and noisy, and some obnoxious guys from New Hampshire stayed up much of the night laughing at their own jokes. I yelled at them, and then Godlisten yelled at them. Poor night's sleep.
Day 2, we gained the Shira Ridge and entered the great Shira Plateau, an ancient eroded volcanic lava flow and caldera complex. The vegetation was moorland, with shrubs and cacti. Now the trail was dry and powdery, and every footstep kicked up clouds of ground-up volcanic rock powder. Before long, the dust was everywhere - in your eyes, nose, socks, clothing. You blow your nose and volcanic snot comes out.
Shira 1 camp is at about 11,500 ft elevation. This was a long day and the camp was welcome. The big peak loomed above us, still a long way off. We were tired but glad to be able to see our destination. There is a road on the Shira Plateau but is only for emergency use by rangers or ambulances. The porters must carry all supplies up here. The tall tent in the photograph is the toilet tent, containing a chemical toilet. Some of the camps have latrines, but they are pretty grim.
Day 3 was a nice trek across the plateau to Shira 2 camp, at about 12,300 ft altitude. This was a good day for acclimatization. The camp itself is spread among almost-barren rocks, a bit bleak. None of our team had any altitude issues. But we were advised to drink 4 liters of water a day to help speed altitude adjustment. Four liters means getting up often at night to pee.The Diamox tablets just make it worse.
Day 4 took us up to Lava Tower Camp at 15,200 ft altitude. We still all felt well and walked strong. Consider, this is higher then Mount Rainer in Washington (14,400 ft) or Mt. Whitney in the California Sierras (14,500 ft). The tower is an eroded volcanic plug that looms above the camp. The camp was crowded with, I guess, at least 200 people total. Night was below freeing, and my thick down sleeping bag and thick socks were welcome.
On Day 5, we walked up to Arrow Glacier Camp at 16,100 ft. The plan was to stay at Arrow for a couple of hours and then descend to Lava Tower for another night, letting our bodies adapt to the altitude. The terrain at Arrow is bleak. Arrow is the last camp before the Western Breach trail, which ascends to the Reutsch Crater at 19,000 ft. The Western Breach is the most technically challenging ascent to the summit area because it is a steep and rocky scramble. This route is usually attempted by experienced hikers/climbers. In 2006, three climbers were killed by a rockfall, and the route was closed for several years.
For Day 6, the plan was to re-ascend to Arrow Glacier Camp, sleep a short night, then start up the Western Breach at 0100 on day 7. But something went very wrong. A young American couple we had met the day before had started up the Breach, and the man was killed by a rockfall (Mr. Scott Dinsmore, a Californian). The guides had already mounted a rescue, and we saw porters carrying out the body. His young wife survived and we saw a porter carrying her out on his back. Two of our porters were loaned out to that group to help with the transport. Needless to say, Western Breach was closed.
Godlisten developed an alternate plan. We did a forced march around the summit along the Southern Circuit, past the Barranco Hut (12,900 ft) and a scramble up over the Great Barranco (Barranco Wall). We continued up and down ridges in the Katanga Valley and finally climbed a ridge to the Barafu Hut (camp) at 15,100 ft. Usually this is done in two days, so we were beat.
Barafu Camp is a bleak and exposed location devoid of vegetation and with water a long way down a valley. The camp site was jammed with trek groups who, like us, had to change their plans as well as groups who had ascended via other trails. 
We awoke at 01:00 on Day 7 for the summit ascent. The temperature was about 20° F - cold but not brutal. Most of us wore all the insulation that we had. It was pitch black, but looking up the trail we could see an almost continuous train of twinkling headlamps slowly plodding upwards. We passed several groups, but it seemed like slow progress. Being in the dark was probably good for the morale because in daylight, the long way up would be intimidating. Godlisten said we walked quickly, but I think he was being diplomatic to make us feel good. Near the rim, I asked Morris to carry my day pack, and that helped. We reached the Stella Point (18,650 ft) at the crater rim exactly at sunrise, 06:30. Our 4,000-ft ascent had taken about 5 hours.
It was a glorious sunrise, with Africa spread below. Immediately the temperature rose and the wind dropped. We rested a few minutes and proceeded along the crater rim to the Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa (19,341 ft), The peak was so crowded, we had to wait our turn for the obligatory dorky group portraits in front of the sign. I estimate there were at least 100 tourists and over 100 Tanzanian guides present, so over 200 people on the summit ridge. One of my companions had not eaten in a couple of days, so Godlisten hustled him down to Barafu Camp quickly. Another, Ed, wanted to see the ash pit, so he dropped down into the crater with Dennis. Morris, Fred, and I lingered about an hour and then started back down to Barafu. Surprisingly, we were breathing and walking well at 19, 000 ft. 
The way down to Barafu in daylight revealed the bleak, dusty trail. Going down was like glissading in a snowfield, except it was in dust. There were still teams trudging up, but I was tired and glad to be heading down. Lunch was ready for us in the dining tent. Then the porters packed up the equipment and we all headed down the Mweka Trail.
By midday, the clouds had formed, as on most days, but we were still above them in the clear. The trail was easy going but still dusty and rubbly. We used walking sticks to help reduce the strain on our knees and provide balance assistance.
We continued down to Millennium Camp at 12,500 ft. We had finally dropped down into the vegetation zone with stunted trees, where the temperature was comfortable. We were exhausted but abruptly felt better. After three days at 15,000 ft, the air at 12,500 felt so thick! Our companion got his appetite back and we all slept well. By now, we were all really rank and grubby, along with our clothing.
Day 8 dawned sunny and brilliantly clear. A tradition on the last morning is for the staff and porters to sing the Jambo-Kili song. They sing this on the trail as well to help pass the time. Afterwards, we gave them tips and all seemed very pleased. Then they packed up quickly and hustled us down the Mweka Trail and on the Mweka Gate. 
As we descended, the vegetation became thicker and more lush. Eventually we entered the spectacular montaine forest, with immense trees. I described the forest (Trees of Kilimanjaro) in a previous post. With the increasing moisture, the trail changed to packed hard mud. I bet it is a slippery slushy mess in the rainy season.
Finally, the Mweka Gate, where we had a box lunch, beer, and received our official certificates. We had descended 7000 ft in about 8.5 miles today, but at least it was downhill. A minibus took us slowly back to Arusha and to our hotel, where the showers got heavy usage.

I thank Ed, Fred, Zak, Godlisten, Dennis, Morris, and the entire team for being such cheerful companions. This was a hard and rewarding trip. Everything went well - none of us got sick or injured, and we all achieved the summit. All the Tanzanians we met were unfailingly friendly and courteous. I do not know if I have the stamina for another big peak, but Mount Fuji is tempting. Possibly next year...

If you want to take your own trip to Kilimanjaro, I strongly recommend Embark Adventures of Portland, Oregon. They will organize all the logistics for you at a reasonable price.


Photographs taken with a Panasonic G3 micro 4/3 camera with Lumix 12-32mm lens. RAW files opened with Photoshop Elements (Adobe Camera Raw 7.4) and processed with DxO Filmpack 5, mostly with the Kodak Tri-X film emulation and yellow filter.


Here are coordinates from my SPOT for select camps and locations along the route:


Date/Time local Lat Long
9/8/15 12:07 PM -2.99776 37.20119
9/8/15 4:08 PM -3.0132 37.22943
9/9/15 2:26 PM -3.05438 37.27584
9/11/15 12:47 PM -3.0723 37.33654
9/12/15 9:56 AM -3.06763 37.32826
9/12/15 1:58 PM -3.09889 37.33693
9/13/15 7:59 AM -3.07643 37.35407
9/13/15 8:52 AM -3.07817 37.36259
9/13/15 11:26 AM -3.10199 37.37875
9/15/15 8:23 PM -3.70058 35.86324

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