Mt. Kilimanjaro….the highest point on the African Continent. The summit is located at a lung busting altitude of 19,341 feet. It is located in Northern Tanzania, about 4 degrees below the equator. Kilimanjaro is also the highest free-standing mountain above sea level in the world. It is also the highest volcano in Africa and in the Eastern hemisphere. We chose to take the eight day Lemosho Route, 6.5 days up and 1.5 to descend. The Lemosho Route has several advantages over other possible routes to climb the mountain. We went with the company “Climb Kili” and stayed in Arusha at their compound before we embarked on our journey.
It is interesting to note that the border of Tanzania has a mostly straight line, with a dog leg around Kilimanjaro which keeps the mountain entirely in Tanzania. These lines were drawn by European Powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884, and had no input from African peoples. The original straight line left the German territory of Tanganyika without the mountain. A popular fictional story has the German Kaiser complaining that the original line gave both high mountains (Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya) to the British and Queen Victoria redrew the line to give the Kaiser a mountain for his birthday. More likely was that a negotiation gave the mountain to Germany, but kept the important port city of Mombasa in British hands on the Kenyan side of the border.
Kilimanjaro is a magnet for climbers and adventure travelers from around the world and is a very important source of foreign exchange via tourism for the country of Tanzania. There are several routes you can take up the mountain. We chose the 8 day Lemosho Route not only because it is one of the most scenic routes up the mountain, but it has much less foot traffic than the popular Macheme or Marangu routes. The longer 44 mile route from the west also allows for more days of acclimatization to the altitude, making for a higher likelihood of a successful summit.
Our hike started at the Londorosi Gate, where we checked in with the national park. Having a set of porters made the trip much more manageable, as we only had to carry a light pack of no more than 15 kilos, while the porters carried the camping gear and food. They even carried a toilet for us to use at camp. We’ve never carried one of those on a backpack trip before! It falls to the least senior member of the staff to be the one to carry it on the expedition. All of the porters started our their careers in this way.
The altitude at the start of the hike here was 7,742 feet. While the cost of a guided hike is high, most of that money goes to the National Park. One can climb without porters, but the cost for a foreign traveler climbing independently is almost as high as a guided hike. Therefore, the vast majority of visitors to Kilimanjaro National Park opt for a guided hike. It sure was nice not to have to climb such a massive mountain with fully laden backpacks!
The hike starts at about 7,700 feet in elevation, leaving almost 12,000 feet to reach the summit. Actually, there is much more climbing than that, as the route goes up and down quite a bit on the traverse around the south side of the mountain. The trail starts out in rain forest, and hikers will experience several more ecosystems as you climb higher and higher. The first day we saw many different species of monkeys in the rain forest, including Blue Monkeys and black and white Colobus Monkeys.
As you climb higher, the temperatures get colder and you will move into another ecosystem, the Heath Moorlands. We leave the monkeys behind, but have greater visibility as the trees thin out. There’s quite a bit of up and down before we finally top out at the Shira Plateau, which is a volcanic landscape.
Once we hit the Shira Plateau, the trail levels out a bit and you can see the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance, where the summit is obscured by clouds. We are now at about 11,600 to 12,000 feet in elevation. Hiking distances are short each day to allow your body to acclimate to the lack of oxygen and to have ample time in camp to rest.
As seen from the picture below, it can get quite windy up on the Plateau. We slept in the geodesic dome tents. The big green tent was the mess tent where we ate our meals. We only had three climbers in our group, but there are usually 4 staff members for each paid client.
The porters work hard for very little money. Tipping is the custom at the end of the trip, but it is always nice to show your appreciation during the climb. At the end of this second day, I pulled out a bag of lollipops from my pack and passed them around to all of the porters. They were so happy that they burst out into a song of thanksgiving in the picture below. Little things do make a difference, and I was just as happy to lessen the weight of my pack by a pound and a half! The clouds began to clear and we had a great view of the mountain in the background.
This isn’t the only time that our porters busted out in song. I had seen some you tube videos of other climbers posting about their hikes. Ahead of time, I studied some Swahili. When they started singing “Jambo Bwana”, I joined in with them in the song. They were impressed that I could sing the song in Swahili with them, even though I didn’t know the meaning of all of the words. But it did show respect for their culture by an outsider.
From here, the trail undulates up and down over the plateau and occasionally we find a patch of bushes which shield us from the wind. It was nice to hike just behind this happy girl!
For the next few days we will be walking through volcanic landscapes which resemble a desert. Once we reach Lava Tower at 15,190′, we merge with other routes on the mountain and the foot traffic picks up quite a bit. But for now, we enjoy the relative solitude.
Past Lava Tower, the mountain looms large ahead of us. However, we will continue to walk around the base on the south side and summit from the Eastern side which is at the far end of the picture below. From here on out, we will see multitudes of people from other groups who are climbing the mountain from a few other routes. The closer we get to the mountain, the more foreboding it looks.
On day four, we had to traverse the Barranco Wall, a steep 257 meter scramble to the top, and then down again to the Karanga Camp, which lies at an elevation of about 13,100 feet. Here we found the last water source before the summit. Besides being steep, the path was narrow. Bottlenecks formed when one somewhat corpulent climber had trouble scrambling up the trail. Beth, who was immediately behind her, had to use two hands to push her butt to get her up one of the slopes. No extra charge for that!
Each day, one of our porters like Benson would bring our meals to the mess tent.
The mountain looks invitingly close from here, but it is still a couple of days before we will make the final approach to the summit. A steady stream of helicopters flew over, rescuing injured climbers and staff. That added to our angst about the final day of climbing.
The night at Karanga camp was magical, as we found ourselves above the clouds, with a wonderful view of Mt. Meru poking up through the clouds in the distance. It felt other-worldly.
The guides woke us up at 11PM to have a meal and we put on our headlamps and started the summit attempt around midnight with our head lamps. The sliver of the moon would soon set, so we hiked in total darkness. We could only see a few feet in front of us and we climbed slowly, ever upward. My blood oxygen level measured a low 80% as we started the climb. We would have to stop every few minutes and try to suck in as much oxygen as we could before continuing to trudge upward. Beth felt like her legs weighed 300 pounds each. When we paused to look below, we could see a procession of headlamps below and they were gaining ground on us. Finally, we reached Stella Point, at the lip of the crater. From here, we put on our crampons to continue the one mile walk around the rim of the crater. The hard part was over. Now to make one last push to reach the rooftop of Africa!
The temperature was a chilly -9 degrees Celsius and the wind was blowing hard. We put our heads down and trudged through the fog. There was a lot of ice on the trail when we went there a few years ago. We did pass a set of shrinking glaciers near the summit, which are predicted to be gone in about a decade. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached our goal of the summit. Other climbers had beaten us to the summit, so we had to stand in line for a while to wait and then take a picture at the summit sign. The sign is placed at Uhuru Peak, which is the highest portion of the summit cone of Kibo, the highest of the three cones on the mountain. The cone is more than 15 miles wide at the Saddle Plateau altitude.
But this day was less than half way over. After spending only about 5 minutes enjoying the accomplishment, we headed back downhill. We descended more than 10,000 feet that afternoon, making for a long 19.5 hour day of hiking. Back in the forest again by afternoon, we encountered a muddy, rutted trail. Our knees were on fire, but we continued down until finally reaching the last camp of the trip. Benson brought us dinner that night, but we were too tired to eat very much.
The next day was a short day of hiking to reach the end, where we had a celebratory drink with our support staff.
Most of the porters chose to drink soda pop, but a few of them had a beer with us. Of course, we chose the Kilimanjaro brand of beer.
In conclusion, most anyone with a moderate fitness level can climb Africa’s highest peak with the help of good support staff. The climb is not overly technical, but you will have to endure bone chilling nights and very hot days. Beth ended up shivering a full ten pounds off her body during the eight day hike. But one can remedy that with a week of eating when you get back to civilization. Fortunately, having scheduled a longer eight day trip allowed us shorter days of walking (except for the summit day) and allowed us to acclimatize to the altitude. In retrospect, we were grateful to have chosen to hike the Lemosho route and booked our trip with Climb Kili. Their clients have about a 90% success rate of reaching Africa’s highest peak.
Thank you readers, for taking this Geographical Journey with us. If you decide to tackle this expedition personally and not just virtually, you should do it before the glaciers are all gone!