Mt Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, Part Two

Me and Joel on the summit, above the clouds, with ice penitents all round us.

Our Forth Evening

I had hoped to spend my time at camp reading my book and generally enjoying the environment, but I was too cold and uncomfortable for any of that. I spent most of my time huddled in my sleeping bag listening to podcasts and trying to sleep. On our forth night at camp, I wore two pairs of socks, four pairs of pants, eight layers on top (including my rain jacket…, anything to trap some body heat), a hat, thick gloves and hand warmers. Wearing all of those layers, I tucked myself into my sleeping bag rated -30 along with a sleeping bag liner which was supposed to add another 10 degrees of warmth, and I also tossed in a hot water bottle near my feet. I still felt chilled - and trapped underneath all of those layers. My lungs gasping in the thin air. I couldn’t wait to get to the summit so I could then head back down to warmer temps where the air was thick and lush with oxygen.

My morning view at Karanga Camp while I brushed my teeth. (13,255 ft / 4,040 m)

Day Five

Simba woke us has he did every morning with a cheerful “Jambo” and some hot coffee. We shivered as we changed, packed, and tried to eat some breakfast. We took our Dimox. After our health check (my pulse once again absent), we headed for base camp. It was just a few hours up to BARAFU CAMP (15,331 ft / 4,673 m), also known as base camp for those of us on the Lemosho, Machame, or Umbwe trails. Hiking slow and steady, we arrived around 1 pm. Weather was great most of the way and then just before we got into camp it started to hail and the fog rolled in, surrounding us once more. 

After lunch we each took our ‘body wipe showers’ with GoodWipes and quickly changed into warmer clothing, which basically meant putting on every bit of clothing we brought. We huddled in the tent trying to keep warm, crunching on Pepto tablets to keep our tummies calm, and drinking loads of water to help us with the high altitude effects. I was trying not to think too much about what was about to happen in a few hours.

At about 6:30pm we got up again for dinner, it was so cold we could see our breath and the tent had become icy on the outside. The zipper was frozen and hard to maneuver. Taking a trip to the toilet tent was extra tough in the cold, with so many layers to peel back and chattering teeth. Every little thing we did tired us out. Just getting in and out of the tent caused a shortness of breath. We struggled, with zero appetites, to eat dinner. The soups were always my favorite, flavorful and warm but it was hard to get much more than that down.

Our guides Steven and Eli came in to check on us. Their advice was to not worry about the mountain. Hakuna Matata. Polé Polé. Simba wished us a good night with his usual lala salama, my favorite Swahili phrase.

After that we got into our tent, fired up our hand warmers and tried our best to rest.

Summit Day

Simba woke us at 11pm for the final summit climb. Shivering, we peeled off some layers, prepared our packs, and tried again to eat. By 12:15 am we were on our way. The other hiker’s headlamps glowed all the way up the trail in front of us as far as we could see, switch-backing out of sight.  The terrain was mostly loose gravel but occasionally larger chunks of shale and big wobbly rocks – in other words, easy to slip in the darkness. It got steep quickly and I began to moan in discomfort. I warned everyone that I’d be vocal but not to worry about my noises. I was just uncomfortable with thin air but otherwise okay.

The steep switch-backs seemed endless and the higher we got the colder it became. I felt a little woozy and was thankful I had hiking poles to keep me balanced. Steven kept us at a fast pace, whenever we met up with another group in front of us, we’d veer off trail and sprint ahead to pass them. Each time we did this I felt like I was going to die. Joel could hear the discomfort in my voice, I couldn’t even form words, my lungs screamed. We did not any breaks until about 4am. Eli had me sit down between a couple of boulders to shield us from the wind and I couldn’t help but cry. I just needed to let it out for a moment. Two minutes later we were back on the trail. I got into meditative state, focusing my mind on my breath and putting one foot in front of the other, each step a little triumph. I thought about my friends, my family, and my colleagues, I thought “do it for them, keep moving”. Honestly though, I never had any intention of doing otherwise.

At one point Eli started to seem a little woozy and he lost the trail in the darkness. We were off trail for maybe 30 minutes or so, it felt like a long time but I was never too worried. Eventually I started seeing trash on the ground amongst the ice, fallen handwarmers and juice boxes, and I knew we had found the trail. Eli stopped to check our eyes for signs of altitude sickness, but we were fine. On we went.

Then suddenly we were somehow at Stella Point, which is the last landmark before the summit. As we crested the ridge the wind hit us hard. It was gusting up there with no place to hide and rest, so we didn’t stop. We were close to the summit now.

The terrain started to change. There was more snow and penitents had formed. I’d never seen anything like them. They were about knee high in places. The air was so thin we had to stop every couple of steps to catch our breath. The air on the summit has 50 percent less oxygen than at sea level. We tried to cover our faces to shield them from the bitting wind but immediately started to suffocate, unable to get enough oxygen through the fabrics covering our faces, we peeled it back off quickly. Steven, impatiently hurried us along. Somewhere along the way we lost Eli and only later learned that he got sick from the altitude and decided not to continue to the summit with us. We pushed on as the sun edged towards the horizon.

We got to the summit at about 6:20am, just as another small group was finishing their photos. It was freezing cold. I couldn’t feel my fingertips. We quickly handed Joel’s phone to Steven so he could take our picture at the famous summit sign just as the sun came into view. It was incredibly beautiful up there. About five years ago when hiking was new to me, I never would have believed that I’d hike it to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. Yet here I was at Uhuru Peak (19,341 ft / 5,895 m).

Me and Joel in front of the iconic Mt Kilimanjaro summit sign at Uhuru Peak, 6:20am, 19,341 ft / 5,895m.

Though we would have liked to linger longer, we had to start heading down. Up there the air is so thin you can only safely stay up there for about 30 minutes. It was very steep all the way back to base camp. Some points felt much like running down a steep sand dune, feet sinking into the sand.

As we got back into Barafu camp the crew handed us welcome drinks and sang us a song. The moment felt so special and surreal. We had lunch and rested for a bit before hiking another six hours or so to MWEKA CAMP (10,402 ft / 3,110 m), our camp for the night. By the end of that incredibly long day, we were beyond exhausted. We hiked a total of 14 hours that day.

But before sleep, we counted out tip money for each of the porters and guides who made it all possible for us. We had it ready for them in the morning, our last morning together. After a breakfast of fries (we ate lot of fries on this hike), we packed and gathered for our final day on the trail which began with another song from our team and words of thanks from us. We never could have done it without them.

Me and Joel with our full team from Karibu Adventure on our last morning together. .

Mt Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, Part One

Eli, our assistant guide, and me close behind on the trail with Mt Kilimanjaro looming in the background.

Eli, our assistant guide, and me close behind on the trail with Mt Kilimanjaro looming in the background.

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.

Our porters, lining up to get the gear weighed before starting the hike. Each porter may carry up to 32 lbs (15 kg).

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.

Day Two

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.

Joel and Steven, heading across Shira Valley to our camp for the night.

Eli, waving as we depart from Shira Camp One, where we had our lunch on day two.

Eli, waving as we depart from Shira Camp One, where we had our lunch on day two.

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.

Day Three

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.

Me, really small next to our tent on our lunch break at the Lava Tower 15,190ft (4,630m).

Other hikers on the trail heading into Barranco Camp surrounded by giant groundsel trees. This particular tree is only found on Mt Kilimanjaro and only above about 14,000 ft.

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”.

Day Four


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.

Tanzania! Mt Kilimanjaro, a safari, and a little bit of Zanzibar

Very soon we'll be taking off for Tanzania.

It's been about 10 months since I first began digging into the planning for this trip. First it was deciding which route to take up Mt Kilimanjaro. There are 7 established routes, each with some pros and cons. We ultimately decided on the Lemosho route. It's one of the longer routes, 7 or 8 days (we picked 7), on the mountain. The scenery is supposed to be spectacular and the longer route will give us extra time to acclimate to the high altitude.

Hiking Kilimanjaro doesn't require any technical ability, but still something like 50 percent of people who attempt the hike do not summit. This is mostly due to the high altitude and how well the body handles the lack of oxygen. Through some research I've learned some key things that can help your body adjust. Going slowly is a big one which is why we picked the Lemosho route - it would suck to go so far and not make it to the summit - and I also picked up a prescription for Acetazolamide, commonly referred to as Diamox. The drug helps prevent altitude sickness. I opted not to take it for the Inca Trail, but Mt Kilimanjaro is considerably higher at 19,341 ft (5,895m). By contrast, the highest point on the Inca trail is 13,828 ft (4,215m) and we just passed through it, on Kili we'll be well over 13,000 ft for a considerable amount of time. My body definitely felt the altitude on the Inca Trail. So let's just say, this time I'm not fooling around - hand me the drugs. 

After we picked our route, it was an agonizing few months sifting through all the various tour companies to book the hike and safari. Like the Inca Trail, Mt Kilimanjaro is highly regulated by the government and you have to hike with a registered guide and team of porters. The market is flooded with companies, prices vary wildly, some people warned of fake reviews on sites like Trip Advisor, some companies were better for the hike, others were better for the safari, some local companies, and some foreign. We searched high and low, asked for advice and recommendations from friends and family, and vetted multiple companies. Ultimately we booked with two different tour operators, we just couldn't find one we liked that specialized in both the hike and safari that remained within our price point. 

We booked the hike through Karibu Adventures. They are a a Tanzanian company which means all our money will go towards supporting the locals, which was important to us. They have high safety standards (clearly important), good reviews, over 10 years of experience, and were the right price. However, they did not seem as experienced for the safari and did not offer the type of mid level accommodations we were looking for - many safari companies offered either a really low budget public campground option or a super lux option, neither of which worked for us.

Ultimately, we booked a 5 day safari with Good Earth Tours. They consider themselves to be one of the most ethically-responsible tour operators in East Africa and expressly state the importance of animal welfare on their site, which is something that was really important to us for a safari tour operator. They also offered the mid level accommodations we were looking for and came personally recommended from a family member who did a safari with them a few years ago. Choosing to book with two different tour companies created a bit more logistics to sort out but ultimately worth it for us. 

After our 18 hours onboard two airplanes we'll arrive in at the Kilimanjaro Airport and have one day in Moshi before starting our 7 day Kilimanjaro hike via the Lemosho route. After the hike we'll spend a much needed night in a hotel in Moshi (we'll be looking forward to a bed and showers by this point!). Then we'll head to Arusha, about an hour away. We'll have a day to recoup and then we start our 5 day safari. We'll head to Tarangire, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater. After summiting the world's tallest freestanding mountain (hopefully) and starring in awe at epic wild animals (most likely), we'll fly over to Zanzibar to check out Stone Town and enjoy a little R&R by the beach. 

Put me on the plane.