WLHQ: Seven Days to Summit Kilimanjaro
As a native New Yorker, I am stoked to be working here at Wanderlust Headquarters. I spent last year working for a public health NGO in Zimbabwe, where I was fortunate enough to be able to travel all over the southern continent. One of my last stops was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro—something I’m sure many in our Wanderlust community have done or are hoping to do in the future. As we all begin looking forward to the four summer festivals, and in the spirit of our love for the mountains, I wanted to share some of my experiences on preparing for your climb and the journey up the mountain!
People set out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for all sorts of reasons, for adventure, for the view, to prove something to him or herself, or for someone else. I chose to climb because I love the outdoors, and I climb and backpack as often as I can. Having been in Africa for a year, this was the perfect opportunity. I was looking for adventure; a challenge to test myself. Kilimanjaro was a culmination of my time spent in Africa, a final farewell to my home of a year. I was excited about the climb, but sad to leave Africa, even while I was also looking forward to returning home to my family and loved ones.
They say climbing Kilimanjaro is like walking from the equator to the north pole in one week. Each day the animals, vegetation and scenery change drastically. You start off in a rainforest with monkeys swinging in the trees, and 6 days later you are on a snow-covered mountain peak next to a glacier right above the dry savannah home to elephants and lions. Some of the flowers and trees found at higher altitudes are found only on Mt. Kilimanjaro, making it a “sky-island” in its own right.
There are multiple routes up the mountain, two of the most well known are affectionately known as the Coca-Cola route (Marangu) and the Whisky route (Machame). We took Machame up. Our trek started with checking in at the Machame Gate, and weighing bags (Each porter is only allowed to carry a certain amount of weight up the mountain. Bags are also weighed upon return to avoid dumping.) There is a little bit of down time here, when you are packing and repacking your bag, tying and retying your shoes and you have butterflies. Then, you are ready to go and you start to walk! (After a few photo ops in front of the sign of course.)
Day 1: The first day of hiking you gain an altitude of around 4,000 feet. It is warm while you are walking, but if you stop to eat or use the bathroom you can cool down quick, so have layers handy. I felt giddy and in awe of the adventure we were beginning. The altitude is not too bad yet, so most people have good energy for the hike. It is key to eat as much as you can the first few days, as the altitude will cause you to lose your appetite when you really need to eat. (This is why bringing along some chocolate is always a good idea) When you reach Machame Camp if it is clear you will have a great view of Kibo peak and the surrounding area.
Day 2: The second day you only gain about 2,500 ft in altitude, but some areas can be very steep. On our hike it rained all day, so the mud and general wetness made it a bit difficult. When we arrived a Shira camp I felt frozen to the bone. I did not venture out of our tent much, in an attempt to stay dry.
Day 3: The third day can be tough but invigorating. You only gain 360 feet, but you spend the entire day hiking! This is your main acclimation day, where, in order to let your body adjust to the altitude, you hike up to a very high area, eat lunch, and then return down to spend the night. The hike up to Lava Tower is when the scenery really begins to change. It reminded me very much of Mordor from Middle Earth, and we were climbing up a volcano after all, so at times I felt like I could be Frodo. On this hike, my arms began to ache. I’m not sure if it was from altitude, or the bend in my arms from holding my poles, but it was very uncomfortable. Once we got to Barranco camp, considered the most scenic on the mountain, I felt better and we explored the scenery around the campsite.
Day 4: I think in some ways this was my favorite day of hiking (other than summiting). There are some rock walls that you need to scramble up, at times it is necessary to use both hands and do a bit of climbing. It was a fun day, where I was able to use my flexibility and strength from yoga. The hike concludes with a drop into a deep valley, and a final push up to camp on the ridge. This whole time you can see the campsite, but it takes a long time before you finally reach it. This is a great part of the journey to go inward and focus on your goals and experiences thus far.
Day 5: The hike today is a short one, ending at 15,000 feet. It is short because you will start your summit hike at midnight, so get to bed right after dinner! I had a difficult time going to sleep. Our summit hike coincided with the full moon. At one point before we began, I woke up to use the toilet (a bucket or bush). The moon shone so brightly I did not even need to use my headlamp.
Day 6: Finally, it’s time. You are woken up around 11:30pm to get ready. Dress warm! My hands were the only thing that really bothered me on the summit hike, they just could not get warm. You will also have to put your water bottles into socks so they don’t freeze, the water in the hose of my camelback tube froze solid within an hour of the hike! As you start out with your headlamps and your giant smile, you see all of the groups with their lights heading up the mountain. There is a something special about waking up in the middle of the night knowing in 6 hours you will be on the roof of Africa that forms a camaraderie like nothing else. I felt connected to the people on the mountain and the mountain itself, lucky for the amazing opportunity and clear summit sky.
The summit hike is much steeper than the rest of the mountain. It seems to be a 45 degree incline up to Stella Point, but from there it is a nice easy walk around the rim of the crater to Uhuru Peak. I surely felt the altitude, as my back was a little achy and I was short of breath (pranayama time!). However, the summit hike is really more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Your mind keeps telling you to stop, but you want to get to the peak before sunrise! By this point you will have heard the phrase “Pole-Pole” (or slowly-slowly in Swahili) from your guides a hundred times, and slow and steady steps are the key.
From Uhuru Peak the view is like nothing else in the world. It is one of the best places to watch the sun come up. You are above the clouds; there is a beautiful view of glaciers, the inside of the crater, and everything around for miles. We were up so high I could see the curve of the horizon. Uhuru means freedom, and that is definitely what it feels like. You made it, and are now on your way to joining the Seven Summits club. Take it all in, breathe deeply and fall in love with our amazing world.
Day 7: I must say no one prepared me for how difficult the hike down would be. You travel the same distance it took to go up in 6 days down in one day. Upon returning to base camp you eat breakfast and take a short rest before beginning the big hike down. It’s a race against yourself- the slower you walk the longer it takes you to get to camp, the faster you walk the more you feel like you’re going to tumble down the mountain. Either way your legs feel like jello!
When you do finally arrive back at the gate you receive a completion certificate and can buy a cold coca cola. When you get back to your hotel you get to take you first shower in 7 days and boy does it feel good.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is something you can never lose. You will always have this amazing experience and be able to connect in a special way with other people who have climbed. It shows you how strong you are and how much there is for us to do and see if we set our minds to it. It is an emotional, spiritual and physical journey all wrapped up in one very long hike. So if you haven’t yet, put it on your list!