This is the story of my climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, and the worlds tallest freestanding mountain. I have wanted to climb this natural wonder for several years now, and this year I made it happen.
Some may ask, “Why climb a mountain?” and to that others will answer “Because I can”.
For me, this this was a personal challenge to prove to myself that I am strong enough, that I am worth my name which, while there is no direct English translation, means “grand, immense, magnificent.” What better way to represent the meaning of my name than a mountain?
Those who know me well also know that I do not think of myself in those terms, that I consider myself small and no better than anyone else – just another person walking the Earth searching for the meaning of my existence. So, this climb is another effort in that search.
As with all such journeys, they happen during a time of transition in life, and the people that you travel with can make or break the experience. I was fortunate to travel with an incredible group of 7 others who made every moment of my trip amazing. We started off as strangers, but by the end left each other knowing more about each other than most people who have known each other for years. They will all have my unending gratitude.
Having met my new friends, experienced a beautiful new country, its warm and friendly people and succeeded in my personal challenge, I finished my trip believing in myself once again.
The trip started with a several hour drive from our hotel near the city of Moshi toward Londorossi Gate to meet our porters, guides and have everyone register for the climb.
During the drive was much to see in the beautiful African landscape. These are scenes everyone has seen on TV, but are even more breathtaking in person.
As we approached the mountain, the fertile lands around it were filled with timber farms.
Once registered, we made our way around the base of Mount Kilimanjaro to Lemosho Gate to begin our 8 day trek on the route with the same name.
Mount Kilimanjaro has 5 distinct vegetation zones. The first is Montane Forest filled with beautiful greenery. Standing still in this zone will allow you to hear the trilling of birds and the rustle of leaves as the animals living in the area go about their lives.
Occasionally the animals will come into view! Here, we were lucky enough to see a few of the Colobus monkeys jumping between trees. They are easy to recognise from their distinctive fluffy white tail.
We got to Mti Mkubwa camp after about 3 or 4 hours of trekking and were greeted this adorable Blue monkey. His/her back left leg was injured, presumably from an encounter with another of its kind. Despite this, it was not afraid of all the attention it was getting, and at one point decided to explore one of the many backpacks lying around. It was, however, unsuccessful in obtaining some easy snacks. Everyone kept their distance as these are truly wild animals and can behave unpredictably.
After a night of unsuccessful sleep due to the full moon, which made the night seem like day, and the sounds of the animals (including snoring humans), we made our way out of the Montane Forest zone into Heath.
This second day was harder than the first at the climb got steeper. There was a little trouble experienced by one of our group, but she powered through with the help of our amazing guides.
During the trek, I was left breathless not due to the climb but because of this view.
Luckily, nature had created some very comfortable seats for me to recover only a little further along the trail. These “mounds” were likely created by water runoff from either rainfall or glacial melt cutting into the mud.
There was so much beauty along the way, not just in the massive landscapes, but the plants as well.
Having started early in the morning, we approached our Shira Camp situated in the Moorland vegetation zone at about 1.30pm. The afternoon was spent resting in side our tents and avoiding the dust thrown up by the heavy wind. Luckily it calmed down after about 4pm, just in time for everyone to wander over to the mess tent for popcorn and cookies!
This was one of the best views of Mount Kilimanjaro, however the mountain was feeling a bit shy and was shrouded in cloud until after sunset.
In the morning, after a more successful attempt at sleeping, we were greeted by Manjo, one of our cooks, to tea/coffee right in our tents. But, once we saw a glimpse of the sunrise we quickly forgot about our hot drinks and jumped outside to marvel at the work of mother nature.
We were once again on our way by about 7.30am with each step taking us closer and closer to the peak. This was another short day of trekking filled with views of the Moorland vegetation, plenty of sun, singing and many word games from our riddler and lead guide, Kevin.
Mount Kilimanjaro, being a dormant volcano, has many views that bear a striking resemblance to views I have seen in Iceland.
We felt quite like superheroes upon reaching our third camp, Shira II.
Upon arriving at the camp we were greeted by many Ravens. Some were just walking around, while others were perched on roofs of the huts and rocks. None were afraid of the people and this one let get as close as 1.5 meters to snap this picture!
At around sunset, were blessed with magical rays of light shining through the clouds in a Lion King-like scene. This is something I have wanted to see and experience for more years than I remember and feel so lucky to have it finally happen.
After dinner, I decided to capture the stars and mountain. To add a little more interest to the scene, beyond the natural beauty of course, I decided to light the foregroud with my headlamp.
Due to the clear sky, I was also able to capture this panorama the city of Moshi as seen from the camp.
Upon waking after a restful sleep, we were once again greeted to a stunning sunrise above the clouds with Mount Meru in the distance glowing in the morning light. I watched, awestruck, until I was cold enough that I realised I needed to move to keep warm.
This was to be our longest and most difficult day yet as we trekked to Lava Tower at an altitude of 4600 meters (15000 ft). We did not stay overnight at this camp - only spent lunch there as part of the acclimatisation process as it is at the same height as base camp. To ensure we were set for the send part of the day, lunch included muffins!
After lunch and a break, we descended from Lava Tower, just as the clouds rolled in, towards Baranco Camp.
As we approached Baranco Camp, we passed through a forest of Giant Groundsels (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari).
Walking throught this forest was, for me, a mystical experience. I felt strangely connected to the place sending tingles down my back. The only other place that has made me feel this way was Machu Picchu.
The next morning we started even earlier than usual and were off on our way by 7am to make sure we were ahead of the porters as we scrambled up the Baranco Wall. It is also known as the Breakfast Wall as it is normally ascended immediately after breakfast.
Since the wall is located in a valley, the sun does not reach it until much later in the day and so, everyone dresses warm and wears gloves so that they can hold the stone comfortably during the scramble.
I’d probably say the scramble up the Breakfast Wall was my favourite part of the trek. Having made it to the top and reached the accompanying warmth of the sun, I celebrated!
We stayed at Karanga Camp overnight, and after a very windy and freezing cold night we woke to a frost-covered landscape.
The day was filled with a variety of weather and landscape as we made our way to base camp. The weather was so varied, I didn’t even bother taking the bottoms of my zip-off trousers as I tried to cool off, knowing that I would need to pull them up in short order!
As we rested, I took in the view. At the end of this path is our base camp. Not long to go!
At the lowest point on the path, we took a short break before our ascent to base camp.
We made it to a very windy, very cold and very appropriately named Barafu Camp at about noon - “barafu” meaning Ice in Swahili.
At 11.30pm we would begin the ascent to the summit so everyone quickly went into the tents after lunch, packed up, and tried to get as much sleep as they could. I managed to get about an hour of sleep between lunch and dinner, and about 2 hours after dinner.
Before I knew it, I was waking up at 10.30pm and putting on every warm piece of clothing I had brought with me and heading out into the freezing, windy night.
We congregated at the food tent where snacks and our filled water bladders were awaiting and, after final packing, we stepped out and began our ascent. Even from the camp site we could see the twinkle of head lamps of other groups that had begun before us. Some seemed so distant that we wondered how long it would take us to get there. Soon, we joined what felt like a traffic jam of fellow climbers.
We started well, and everyone was in good spirits. The thin air made it difficult to talk, so we mostly kept our own company as we climbed, focusing on breathing and our own internal motivations. Occasionally Kevin could be heard chanting “Kili! Kilimanjaro!" and we would all join in until we were breathless once again.
The climb was slow as it should be, in line with the motto of the mountain “pole pole” meaning slowly. There were some boulders to get over at the beginning of the climb, but after that the trail was largely clear. We stopped frequently to sip our water and to eat a bite of our snacks, hiding behind any large rocks nearby to seek shelter from the wind and to allow others to pass us on the trail. After about 2 hours or so, many of us had lost the use of our bladder packs due to frozen pipes and our water breaks turned into mini-adventures fumbling with our sock-wrapped waterbottles!
Luckily, I didn’t suffer any symptoms of altitude sickness and was warm enough despite the bitterly cold, blustery wind which made it feel about -25c (-13f) if not colder. I got blown sideways a few times during particularly strong gusts, but otherwise kept my feet. We later found out that the wind was as strong as the local guides had ever seen it.
Everyone was counting down to sunrise from around 5am so that it would warm up a bit. It arrived at about 6.30am in with this spectacular view at Stella Point, but it did not feel like it brought with it any warmth. Neither did it dissipate the wind which continued to blow wildly for about 30min to an hour afterwards.
I found the last 200 meters of climbing difficult, with each movement and step leaving me breathless due to the lack of oxygen. But, I had my goal and was determined to achieve it.
So, while I stopped frequently to catch my breath, I persevered and finally made it to Uhuru peak, the highest point on the mountain, at about 7.30am.
Once there, I took out the camera batteries I had kept in my chest pocket to prevent them from freezing, placed them in my camera and took a few choice pictures. I couldn’t keep my hands out of my gloves for more than about a minute but, if I could have, I think I may have spent hours up there taking shots of every possible view at every possible angle.
I had made it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and I wanted to remember this moment perfectly forever.
The whole gang - the people who made my journey what it was.
What had taken 7 days to climb, took only merely 1 day to go down. And so, sooner than I wanted, it was time to say goodbye to Mount Kilimanjaro.
Soon after that, after this amazing adventure, it was time to say farewell to Africa as I flew home