Any local will tell you that the trick to summiting Kili is to go polé polé, which means slowly in Swahili. Going slowly helps the body adjust to the altitude. Choosing a longer trail, like Lemosho, also ensures a slower accent and a better chance at reaching the summit. The trail started out steeper than we thought it would and right away it was polé polé with Eli, our assistant guide. I don’t think I’ve ever hiked so slowly but over the next few days I’d come to be extremely thankful of his slow pace. As we hiked through lush rainforest, we saw two kinds of monkeys, the blue monkey and the black-and-white colobus (they looked similar to skunks but had long bushy white tails). Even though we were making good time, our eleven porters quickly passed us with all of the gear. We ate their dust.
It only took us about two hours to reach the MTI MKUBWA CAMP (9,292 ft / 2,820m). Our tent was already set up and dinner was being prepped. We were happy to see that our tent was relatively large and had a sleeping area and separate dinning area. There were lots of colobuses in the trees. It already seemed too cold. We drank hot cocoa and took a short walk around camp. After dinner Steven, our lead guide, briefed us on the next day and we settled in for our first night on the trail.
We were woken early the next morning by Simba, our lead porter, bearing hot coffee and a smile. Incase you were wondering, that’s not his real name – he’s just smart and uses it with tourists so they remember it easily. He soon became one of our favorite people on the trail. We quickly dressed, had breakfast (avocado toast!), and headed out with Steven in the lead. He set a faster pace than Eli, I struggled to keep up and still have time for photos. This was a big hiking day, lots of steep uphill climbs. Steven ran a tight ship and didn’t like to stop for breaks, I found myself calling out meekly for an occasional water break. They had lectured us on the importance of hydration and required us each to carry three liters of water. Before long we were up in the clouds and it was so beautiful seeing the mist move through the mountains.
The ground leveled out as we headed into Shira Camp One where our porters had set up our tent for lunch. It was a welcomed refuge from the wind slicing through the valley. We settled in and took our second dose of Dimox for the day. I was also relieved to see the bathroom tent being set up, so fancy.
After lunch it was an easy stroll for a couple hours through the Shira Valley to our camp for the night, SHIRA CAMP TWO (12,631 ft / 3,850m). Along the way, Eli was happy to walk with me, pointing out flowers and plants while I snapped photos. Once at camp we were greeted with a warm “Jambo!” from Simba who helped us with our day packs and offered us hot towels to clean the dust from our hands and faces.
The next day was an important one, an acclimatization hike up to the Lava Tower for a high altitude lunch at 15,190ft (4,630m). It was slow going, not steep just a slow steady incline over a fairly barren landscape of alpine desert. I could really feel the altitude. When moving it was a near constant feeling of suffocation, an inability to suck in enough oxygen into my lungs, which felt uncomfortably tight. Occasionally I grappled with control over my mind so as to not panic. For me it was slow and steady steps (polé polé), and calm breaths all the way to our lunch spot – which was thus far the highest point I’d ever hiked to. Once up there I felt much better and had energy to explore while they prepared lunch. My tummy also was not feeling great, but I pushed through it and munched on some Pepto tablets (I highly recommend packing these). Neither of us had much of an appetite.
From there it was a long way down into a cloud covered BARRANCO CAMP (12,795 ft / 3,900m) where we settled in for the night. We were cold, tired and suffering from bad headaches and nausea due to our afternoon at 15,190 ft. Steven and Eli assured us what we were feeling was completely normal and encouraged us to rest, drink a lot of water, and eat – however eating was the last thing we felt like doing. After dinner and our nightly briefing on the next day, we washed up using GoodWipes (which I also highly recommend!) and changed into our warmer clothing for bed. Simba wished us sweet dreams in Swahili, “lala salama”.
The next morning, I layered up and went outside to brush my teeth. I was surprised to find the clouds had parted to reveal the summit of Mt Kili towering above us. I stared in awe, unable to believe we’d be at the top in just a few days. It was stunning and inspiring. I felt strong. Until I glanced to the right and saw tiny flashes of color along the cliff face. I took a closer look and realized it was a line of tiny hikers scaling the cliff up into the clouds. It was the Barranco Wall I’d read about, but it seemed much bigger than I though it would be. Panic started to seep in. I tried to keep it cool, crack some jokes, etc. Deep breaths, deep breaths… It wasn’t a technical climb, just a steep scramble… with a severe drop off… and with the wind, and the slippery dew, and altitude making me feel woozy… I was worried. All of my confidence melted away and my heart started racing. Just then Steven showed up to do our morning health check. Most mornings the oximeter couldn’t read my levels at all, but this morning with my heart pounding, it was off the charts. I looked at Steven, and said, “I’m really nervous.” Joel’s like “Yeah, she’s really nervous about the wall.” Steven, with the poorest bedside manner, looked at my pulse said “Yep, you are really nervous” and walked out of the tent. I’d be receiving no words of encouragement from him.
It’s true what I’d heard, that hiking Kilimanjaro is just as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Once we started up the wall I realized I was fine. We had to go single file, so the pace was extra slow which allowed me to keep my breath comfortable. Soon I was having fun scrambling up, using all of my limbs, and occasionally pausing to view the camp far below through the shifting clouds. Eventually we were enveloped in thick fog, visibility was low adding to the eerie beauty of the place. The porters and other hikers in front of us, faded to silhouettes. It took us a little over an hour to get to the top, and in the end it was one of the most fun parts of the entire seven day hike. Mind over matter, clearly.
The rest of the day was some up and down hiking through the mist. Until we reached our next camp, KARANGA (13,255 ft / 4,040 m). The fog was so thick we could barely see in front of us.
We had a late lunch and then retired to our tent to rest. Just changing our clothing at that altitude was difficult and we had to pause in between layers to catch our breath. It was very cold, despite all of my layers I was still shivering, which didn’t bode well for the next night at even higher elevation.
To be continued…
Click here to read part two.