Tanzania: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

On our recent 2.5 week trip to Tanzania, we climbed Kibo, went on a safari and relaxed on the island of Zanzibar. This is the first of a three part series.

In the months and weeks leading up to our trip to Tanzania, I often asked myself why anyone would want to climb the highest mountain in Africa. Some go to be able to say “been there, done that”, some go to commemorate something, some have a need to stand on that summit and maybe there are some who have no clue as to why they are headed up that ancient volcano. Like me. I was climbing the mountain because it was my husband’s dream.

Someone told me maybe I will be able to answer the question as to why after I had climbed it. Now, 2 weeks later I can, but the answer is 6 days long. For me it was the whole process and everything I experienced on the trail to the summit and back. This is possibly the most personal post I will ever write on the blog. But climbing Kibo is a personal experience, and only describing the trail and showing photographs would not do this mountain justice.
Mount Kilimanjaro is actually the name of a mountain consisting of three volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. The one climbed when people say they are climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is Kibo. There are 7 routes to reach the summit and we hiked the Marangu trail. Our Tanzanian mountain crew consisted of 1 chief guide, 4 assistant guides, 1 cook, 2 waiters and 35 porters. We were a group of 11 including our Swiss guide.

The first leg of our trip was from the Marangu gate to the Mandara huts (2720 m). We slowly walked through the rain forest, watching for monkeys. We heard them first, then saw them jumping from tree to tree as they chased eachother.

The next day, we walked out of the jungle and into the heather vegetation zone. Here we saw amongst others protea, giant lobelia, sage grass and giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari). Monkeys were replaced with birds, lizards and chameleons.

Our second and third nights were spent at the Horombo Huts (3780 m), later declared to be the Horror-ombo Huts, due to the altitude sickness and digestive problems some members of our group had. Our third day on the mountain was an acclimation day. We hiked from the Horombo Huts to the Mawenzi Saddle (4340 m). Even before breakfast, I was out taking photos of the sunrise and the beautiful light everything was bathed in.

We hiked past giant lobelia and groundsel, there were fluffy clouds and the sky was blue. Once we reached the Mawenzi Saddle the wind whistled past us and we were given the full view of Kibo (see first photograph). So that was the mountain we were to climb two days later.

The fourth day took us from the Horombo Huts to the Kibo Huts (4750m). We left the heather zone and headed through alpine desert. This is when altitude sickness started to pester more people in our group. I still felt fine and would hum to myself as I braced myself against the harsh winds which swept across the plain. Pole, pole (slowly, slowly in Swahili) we walked in groups of two, three, four or by ourselves. I found this day to be the most meditative. My scarf was wrapped across my head and over my mouth, tucked under my sunglasses against the dust which whirled about with each gust of wind. My hat with its large brim firmly secured under my chin was to assure that I didn’t get sunburned. I walked a large portion of the trail by myself, letting the wind blow all thoughts away, concentrating on my slow steps, stopping every now and then to capture the raw beauty of the desert.

We reached the Kibo huts in the late afternoon. We talked about the ascent which would begin at 1 am, had an early dinner and were in our bunks at 7 pm. This was probably the longest night of my life. My husband was suffering from severe altitude sickness, others in our group had head aches and I was nervous. I caused myself a headache, wondering why I didn’t have one! I was at 4750 m and only felt a little out of breath when I walked back up from the outhouse. Wasn’t I supposed to feel more?
I didn’t sleep a wink, cursing my husband for being sick and there I was at the base of a mountain I didn’t even want to climb. I was mad at feeling forced to feel excited about the ascent. All I wanted was to be at home. At midnight when we got up, my husband was to be escorted down the mountain while we started our ascent. I didn’t know what to do. Up, down? Although down wasn’t really an option for me. I had made it so far I wasn’t about to give up that easily, especially considering the fact that I had no issues with altitude. Just one question came out of our group: will you be joining us? I barely looked at the expectant eyes watching me and my decision was made. I would ascend that mountain no matter what it took.

I started out on no breakfast except for a handful of cookies which I had in my jacket pocket. My stomach was a bundle of nerves (plus I had a little bug, which said hello to me that night when we were back at the Horombo Huts), and I couldn’t eat a bite. We started out walking slowly, slowly. For 7 hours I meditated to myself: I can do this, I will do this, I’m doing this. Every hour we stopped for 5 minutes to drink something, and I nibbled on my cookies. When I dared to look up in the darkness to see where the headlamps of the other groups were, someone told me not to look up and ignore what I saw. I was so tired I almost fell asleep walking. I had to take gulps of cold air to revive myself. Two other people experienced the same. Five hours later the sky lightened and we stopped to watch the sun rise behind Mt. Mawenzi.

The last two hours seemed to fly by. It’s so much easier to walk when it’s light. I felt better, more confident my stomach would stay where it was. As we reached the top, I saw the sign post and the famous glaciers in the distance. One woman in our group needed to rest, and I remember thinking I would take her hand and guide her to the top if I had to. We were all in this together. I happened to be the first in our group who reached the top, only because of my somewhat unstable condition. Our Tanzanian guide wanted to congratulate me, but I had to reach for a tissue first. When I turned around, everyone else had joined me and we all fell into eachother’s arms wiping our tears away.

Only then did I have a look around. It was so different from what I expected. I was standing on a pile of scree, the highest free-standing mountain in the world, and there was barely snow around. Those famous glaciers were off in the distance. Global warming has assured that the glaciers have melted away.

There was soup and then we hiked down the mountain. 3 hours later we were back at the Kibo Huts. After packing our things together and a light lunch we headed further down to the Horombo Huts.

I took no pictures on the way down from the Horombo Huts to the main gate as my stomach bug had left me weak. My backpack was carried those 20 km by an assistant guide, and I will be forever grateful that he carried it. The last few kilometers I felt like I would collapse, but I forced myself on. I was not going to be carried off that trail. I walked up, I would walk down.

So why would anyone climb Mount Kilimanjaro? There are many answers and everyone has their own. Thrill, to prove themselves, to fulfill a dream. To push themselves to the limit. I didn’t climb the mountain to push myself, but that is what ended up happening. I climbed that famous mountain through sheer willpower. My stomach was dodgy due to nerves and the bug but I refused to let it take control. I was going to climb that pile of rocks and nothing was going to stop me. I admit to having a moment when one woman turned back at 5200 m when I thought about quitting. Then I remembered something I had read weeks earlier about ascending the mountain: tiredness isn’t a sickness so get a move on!
It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. Edmund Hillary
At this point I’d also like to thank everyone in our group and the entire crew on the mountain. The porters for their hard manual work of carrying our belongings up and down the mountain, the cook and waiters for supplying us with nourishing and good food during our hike and the guides for seeing us safely up and down the mountain. Thank you also very much to our group for the support we gave eachother, for the laughs to keep us going and the helping hand when needed.

This post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the other things we did before and after the climb. We stayed at Marangu Hotel before and after. Before we started our hike, we visited the village and afterwards we lounged around the hotel gardens. These photos were taken around the village and in the gardens of the hotel.

What about that ride with the drunk driver and the visit to the local pub to try banana beer? Well, those are stories for another time.

2 Replies to “Tanzania: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro”

  1. Judy Miles says: Reply

    Oh my, I have read this for the first time (that I remember) , and it was a most welcome break in my otherwise boring day…I was unaware you made this trip, I know personally of only one other person. As always, your writing is well crafted and your art is stunning. Love living vicariously through your world, Juliana.

    1. Thank you so much, Judy. It certainly was a trip of a lifetime.

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