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Now that our Kilimanjaro Trek is finished, I have some thoughts, suggestions, advice, or tips that might help someone else when planning to climb the mountain.
Things We Did Right
- Practice Hikes - we hiked 5 to 7 miles nearly every morning, in the cold snow and ice, for about two months before our trek. We hiked up the steepest hill in our area a few times each week for the month before our trek. I think the hills were the most valuable exercise!
- Clothing - we packed just enough for length of time and potential temperatures. We used pretty much all our clothes, but didn't fear the summit night hike.
- Daily Hydration - I made a point to drink a lot of water in camp each morning, and then some during the hiking. I drank very little in the evening so I didn't have to go during the night very often.
The arid, dusty, and windy air on the mountain sucks quite a bit of moisture out of you, even with no sweating and mild exertion.
- Visit with Others - my wife and I made efforts to hike in different spots in our group so we could chat with different people. It kept the hikes fresh by learning a bit about 20 other people.
- Don't Worry - Americans tend to worry a lot about everything. Every evening, our lead guide gave us a brief idea of what the next day would bring, and then opened it up for questions. Our group tended to ask about everything from weather to trail conditions to food; sometimes things that either had obvious answers or no answers or didn't really matter. We had everything we needed in our day packs, so I just waited to see what each day brought.
Things We Did Wrong
- Didn't take enough pictures. Never enough pictures. A better camera would be nice, too, but they're such a burden to carry.
- Should have put more effort into learning some Swahili before the trek. Being ignorant and unable to communicate feels terrible.
- Should have spent more time on the summit. I'll never be there again and another 15 minutes would have made a more lasting impression.
- The Food - I've put a bunch of pics of our food below. It was hot, healthy, tasty, and plentiful! We ate a lot and I was never hungry, but I still lost a few pounds. There was a plethora of fruits and vegetables, with meat and starch every day. No freeze-dried backpacking food, either - all very fresh and just wonderful.
- Medicines - We got an armful of shots before the trek - hepatitis, flu, and tetanus; plus pills for typhoid. On the trek, we took altitude pills, and malaria pills after summitting to prepare for our lower elevation safari adventures. Just in case, we had ultra-strength and regular strength diarrhea pills, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen - I didn't use any of them. I did take a daily multivitamin each day.
- Physical Concerns - The trek went great with no leg pains or injuries. I, along with 6 others, had blurry eye problems on the summit day, but it went away. Breathing in dust every day made for a some dirty nostrils, and the dry air gave me a nosebleed once.
- Human Waste - In all my research and reading, the problem of human waste and toilets on Kili came up over and over. I was expecting to tip toe around poop piles all the way up the mountain. What we encountered was much different. Oh, there were human waste problems along the trail, with toilet paper flowers dotting the landscape, but it was much less than I imagined.
Every camp had outhouses with no seats - our group called them Squatty Potties. Some were in better shape than others, but they all smelled pretty bad inside. Our large group paid extra to have 3 portable toilets lugged along with the rest of our camp gear so we could sit in clean, private comfort.
These toilets were wonderful but did make more work for some porters. All our waste 'flushed' into a small holding tank which a porter would disengage, slosh around, and carry to a permanent squatty potty to dump, bring it back, and set up.
In a small effort to be less of a burden, I used the squatty potties to pee always, and used our toilets only when necessary. I'm used to squatting in the woods on my long hikes, anyway.
- Trash - A bigger, and more easily solved, problem was trash along the trail. I'll never understand how a person can carry a 4 ounce candy bar for miles but can't keep carrying the .2 ounce wrapper after eating the bar. With our lethargic pace, I had plenty of time to pick up bits and build a collection in a pack pocket. At each camp, I dumped the trash in a common bag outside the Thunder Dome. It's an easy way to help a little.
Finally, here are a few miscellaneous suggestions to consider that might make your trek more enjoyable:
- Wake before the sun at least a couple times to see the amazing stars and watch the day unfold.
- Take something special for your summit photo. I took an Ultimate Disc to play catch with, but the intense wind ruined that idea. Instead, I had a stick that I had spent the week whittling in our camps (pic below).
- When hiking, put room between you and the person ahead of you if you aren't conversing, so you aren't walking nose to butt. It lets you look around more, and feel free to stop to gaze and take pictures.
- Talk to your guides, cooks, and porters to learn about their lives, hopes, and dreams. Some of our guides were studying computers, engineering, and medicine - their guiding income was helping to pay for that.
- Learn Swahili words, and practice them. Jambo, Pole Pole, Wazungu, ... there are some fun sounding words.
- If you're going to use gaiters, get some Dirty Girl gaiters instead of knee-high snow gaiters - they are very light and keep the debris out of your shoes.
- Bring a cribbage board, or at least cards, for afternoon entertainment.
- Take photos of any glaciers you see since they'll not be there much longer.
- Lots of hours of hiking means lots of opportunity for jokes, riddles, and stories. Having a couple ready each day might make the hike more interesting for others in your group. I told this one and at least got a courtesy chuckle.
When you start planning your trip to Kilimanjaro or Tanzania, contact Tanzania Choice Safaris and see what they offer. They did a super job for our large group.
Our last meal on the mountain was a wonderful breakfast in the Thunder Dome. Yes, it had been recovered after being blown away last night. A few rips in the top, but still able to stand. After breakfast, we had the traditional Thank You ceremony with the support team. This is where the clients present monetary tips to the various support roles - porters, cooks, toilets, guides, and lead guide. It's customary to present the money and announce the amounts in front of all so there is no chance someone might pocket some that should be distributed. A couple fun songs and we were ready to scurry down the hill to a bus, lodge, and showers!
Surprisingly, today's long walk downhill caused more slips and injuries than the rest of the trek. The trail was fairly steep through a beautiful rain forest with lots of terraced steps that meant hard pounding of feet. That trail opened into a gravel road for another couple miles. The sand on this steep road was very slippery and I heard that most of us slipped at least a few times on the way down. I slid four times myself, with no injury but just more stress, and I saw one person not in our group actually fall ahead of me.
One highlight of this hike was that there were many monkeys causing a ruckus in the trees overhead a couple times. The other highlight was reaching the exit at Mweka Gate and having a cold beer while waiting for the rest of our gang. When we were all down, it started to rain as we loaded the buses, and there was even a few claps of thunder up the mountain. We drove to Meru Meru Lodge for showers, drinks, and a celebration dinner, followed by sleep in a luxurious bed.
Even though the wind was a challenge on the mountain, we were very, very fortunate with weather on our trek. The wind destroyed some camps, and when we go off the mountain, it rained. Higher up, it snowed! This is the view of Kilimanjaro from our lodge the next morning when we woke to clear skies. Compare that to the photo of our mountain family above and you can see that our entire summit day would have been through fresh snow today.
We hiked from 12,500ft down to 5,400ft over a distance of about 7.5 miles.
The excitement of 'Summit Day' came early for us. As we rested in the late afternoon at Barafu Camp, our cooks were hard at work. We enjoyed an early dinner in the Thunder Dome dining tent and then had the tough job of resting until our 2am planned departure for the summit.
The breeze that typically died off in the evening every day so far decided to take a different tact this day. As the sun sank lower, the wind picked up. And picked up. And picked up. The stakes holding the vestibule on our tent tore out of the ground, so I got out and piled rocks on them. They tore out again, so I got bigger rocks. Other tents were being buffeted as well. Inside the tent, all was fine and we could tune out the noise and fall asleep.
I'm not sure of the time, but I woke and it was dark night. Our tent was rattling and the vestibule was flapping yet again. I went out to fix it, and heard a commotion above the roar of the wind. Where our dining tent had been, there was just empty dirt. The entire tent had torn loose and blown somewhere out into the wild down the mountain! The kitchen tent was partially flattened and other tents were being rocked around, but held in place. Porters scrambled around to check stakes on some tents and pile more rocks on them. I had taken care of ours, so I headed back to bed.
Around 1am, I woke up and we got ready to go. I put on some layers and went out to see how I felt. I quickly went back in the tent and put on every layer I had - long undershirt, shirt, fleece, down jacket, and rain coat - long underwear, pants, rain pants - mittens, face mask, and stocking hat. I figured we would be doing a lot of standing around on the climb and that wind was doing a good job of pulling heat away. Eight hours after it started up, the windstorm was still building and it was difficult to even hear someone right next to you. Even with all this, the staff had hot drinks for us before we headed up the mountain - amazing!
There's not much to say or show about slowly hiking up a mountain in the dark. For the next 4 hours, we just trudged along following the person ahead of us. The sky was clear so we could see a trail of twinkling lights up the mountain as all the other climbers started earlier than we did. And, the stars were bright above. Eventually, the eastern sky lightened, we turned off our headlamps, and the sun finally rose. That didn't stop the wind, raise the temperature, or make the mountain less steep, but just being able to see around made the climb nicer.
About sunrise, I noticed that the vision in my right eye was blurring. The strong wind was blowing from the north, our right side, and I figured that must be causing problems. Dust and sand were flying and pinging off my face, but I didn't feel any irritation in my eye, just blurred vision. That's a bit scary when you don't know what's causing it. As it turns out, at least 7 people in our group experienced the same blurred vision - only in their right eye. A little research later indicated that blurred vision at high altitudes is a thing, somewhat common (After we descended later in the day, the vision problems went away).
The vision excitement was the only big deal I had happen on the climb. It was just a steady walk all the way up with little talking, a few short breaks, and plenty of dust. The temperature didn't seem all that cold, but it was enough to have frost on my faceshield, and ice slush in my water bottles. Quite a few people had their camelback hoses freeze up. Some people ran out of water (I shared mine).
Once it got light enough to see, I did notice there were some climbers coming down already - much too early to have made it to the summit. They were just 1s and 2s, and escorted by guides. I counted 11 separate groups, but I expect there were more I missed. They may have turned back due to the wind, exhaustion, or altitude illness, but they did not make the summit. None of them were from our group.
Around 8am, we finally finished the steep part of the climb and arrived at Stella Point. This is on the mountain rim, but not the absolute highest point. By this time, our large group had split into a few smaller groups going different speeds. We were in the first group and just kept on hiking after a short stop at the sign. The weather was pretty much the same except that clouds were now skittering across the landscape, hiding most of the summit view.
From here, the trail across the relatively flat mountain rim was soft and comfortable. The air was cold and thin, but everything was going just fine. Another 40 minutes or so of very easy hiking and we arrived at Uhuru Peak, the official summit. We made it! The clouds soared past, sometimes blanketing us in a whiteout and sometimes evaporating to show off the summit views.
Here's me taking a snack break at the top just to show what I wore. The faceshield really worked great, warming the air a bit before breathing it in. I was never cold, nor sweating. By unzipping all the layers, I stayed just right the entire hike. The raincoat was a great windbreak and the down jacket insulated well. I carried my Spot Tracker on my day pack.
The Kilimanjaro glaciers are one of those brilliant natural wonders that are disappearing. Some say they will be gone in a few years, others say a few decades. There is only 18% of the ice that was there 100 years ago, so book your trip soon if you want to see them!
The majority of our group (16 I think) were at the sign at the same time. Another 5 were climbing slower and we were told to head down before they made it up. One person stopped at Stella Point. So, our entire group of 22 made it to the top of the mountain. I believe that is mostly because we took a long, slow route up the hill with a great support team that made sure we were doing well the entire trek.
We summited on Valentine's Day, so my wife had a surprise card along that said 'You Leave Me Breathless'. The wind was STILL blowing so hard, it was a challenge to show it off.
After only a very short time at the summit, we had to head back down. This was my one disappointment looking back on the trip - I would have liked to enjoy the summit longer.
The descent had caused me the most worry when planning for this hike. I was concerned how my knees would do pounding down a steep hillside for 6 or 7 miles. As it turned out, the soft scree and sand acted like a cushion for each step and my legs did just fine. It was a relatively fast hike down since gravity was helping so much and the trail was fine. We reached our camp at about noon, but could only stop for a short rest and to pack up our gear. This was because camp was moving down the mountain to make room here for the next wave of climbers coming up.
While we were gone for the past 10 hours, the wind had been blowing dust everywhere and there was a layer over everything inside our tent - because the vestibule had come loose yet again. Being the worst of our problems, that was really nothing. We packed up, gathered about 10 or 12 of us, and headed down, down, down being led by George our guide to Millennium Camp at 12,500 feet. It was an uneventful hike, but I really enjoyed dropping through all the environments as we got lower. Grasses, then bushes and brush, small trees, and finally forest covered the land as the elevation dropped.
Hopefully, this video will give you an idea of what the wind was like on the mountain. This is not our camp - it is one a bit higher up that we walked past on our way down. We found out later that some groups that were to summit the day after us had to abort their attempt because their tents and equipment got destroyed by the wind.
We hiked from 15,300ft up to 19,341ft and down to 12,500ft over a distance of about 9.25 miles.
We are SOOOO Close! Looking up at the summit this morning felt like we really should be on our way up today! But, just one more short hike to get in position to push to the summit.
We've now been over 13,000 feet for 2.5 days and I've noticed no altitude issues at all. If I walk a short distance up the hillside at a normal pace, then I get winded, but no headache, sleeplessness, nausea, dizziness, or fatigue. I've checked my heart rate a couple times each day and it's normal. So, the Diamox we are taking is helping and/or we are treating our bodies well by slowly gaining altitude and taking it easy.
As usual, the clouds are all gone this morning and we have another beautiful, blue sky day ahead of us. I'll bet money that the clouds will build by 11am though.
This will be the last day that our porters need to carry gear up the mountain. This young man is leaving Karanga Camp carrying his own 10 pounds of gear, plus 30 pounds of our stuff. The porters do amazing work on Kilimanjaro and watching them is the hardest part of the trek for me. Our outfitter seems to treat all the workers appropriately, holding to the rules in place and not abusing the porters. It's very hard work, but I've heard from many sources that it is the best work available in the region. Some of the key rules are:
- Porters get paid at least $8.50/day
- Porters carry no more than 15kg of gear plus 5kg of personal gear
- Porters get paid, plus tips, immediately at the end of the trek
A couple hundred feet up the hillside from Karanga Camp, there was absolutely no vegetation left. From here on, rocks, gravel, sand, and dust are our friends! The sun is bright, the sky clear above us, and the trail a gradual climb along a well-worn path as we gain 2,200 feet - about 1000 feet per mile. This is a fairly steep grade, but we Pole Pole up and up, taking plenty of short rest breaks to enjoy the barren landscape and gaze over the accumulating clouds far below us. As long as they stay down there, we'll be just fine.
We have the mountain peak high above our left and the cloud covered plains far below our right all morning as we kick up dust. This photo shows our long, final ascent to Barafu Camp at 15,300 feet. We'll be camping up on that ridgeline where the trail seems to disappear.
From Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp, we crossed no streams or water source of any kind. That means all the water we use up at 15,300 foot high Barafu Camp, and on our summit hike, is carried all the way from the stream in the Karanga Valley which is about 3 miles and 2,500 feet in elevation away! A 5 gallon bucket of water weighs about 20kg. At this camp, we don't get bowls of hot water for washing - instead, we use a couple of wet wipes on our face and hands. All the water for drinking, cooking, and toilets is carried up.
Trying to make a tiny bit less work for others, I filled all my water bottles at Karanga and carried the water up myself so I would have it ready for the summit attempt in the morning. At least someone else didn't have to carry that small amount so far.
We reached our temporary home very early in the afternoon. The idea is that we'll clean up, eat, and then get what rest we can before we start our climb around 2am. It is pretty impressive how our crew can find flat tent spots on a rocky mountainside for all of us - well, for our tent at least. We've had wonderful spots at every camp. Here, you can see our tents packed between rocks with the cloud cover boiling below us. It's a beautiful, dry, breezy afternoon to rest and wait. Of course, over the other shoulder is the imposing summit silently waiting for our attempt to join the hundreds of thousands of others that have scampered to the top.
We hiked from 13,100ft up to 15,300ft over a distance of about 2.25 miles.
Shira I Camp was at ~11,500 feet, Shira II at ~12,800 feet, Baranco at ~13,100 feet, and today's destination is also ~13,100 feet. In the past three days, we've only gained 1600 feet on the mountain, and we have 6200 feet to the summit. Looking at the numbers, it may seem like a waste of a few days. But, spending these days hiking over 13,000 feet is giving us plenty of time to acclimate to the lighter air. I haven't really felt any physical challenges, altitude symptoms, or even sweating. We've been going very slowly (Pole Pole) and enjoying the time out here in the fresh air and crisp weather. The statistics show that this longer, slower Lemosho route has a higher success rate than shorter, steeper routes that cut out days and demand more of your body. We'll see.
Our view of the summit from Baranco camp this morning was gorgeous. We could certainly just scoot right up there today if we wanted, but we still have one more camp before our summit attempt. And, to get to that camp, we have to scale the notorious Baranco Wall!
OK, on pretty much any long trail or popular adventure there is at least one part that gets hyped up as being a real challenge. On Kilimanjaro, from what I've read, it's the summit attempt and the Baranco Wall. I've read how it is practically vertical, very narrow trail, hundred foot falls to certain death, palm-sweating terror, clinging to rock faces, and so on. I guess it's all relative. I thought it was one of the most fun parts of the entire trek. We got to scramble up rocks, there wasn't much room, and if you jumped off the trail you would probably die. But, it was safe, took about two hours, and had exactly one spot where you needed to hug the rock wall. That is evidently called the Kissing Rock but you'll have to google images of it because I didn't stop to take a photo.
The Baranco Wall was a fun way to start the morning. Right out of camp, we crossed a small stream and then spent the next couple hours climbing up and making way for porters. Since there was not much room, we gave way to porters often and they hopped on up like mountain goats. You can see there are people far up the cliff ahead of us, but the trail is easy to follow.
In a few spots, we did need to put away the trekking poles and use hands and feet. It was a nice change, but could be challenging for some. Speaking of trekking poles, they are something to consider. Almost all of us had them, mostly renting from the outfitter rather than transporting across the ocean. But, they were not really needed for the vast majority of the trek. I used mine most days, but only really appreciated them on the summit day and descent. One person in our group just kept them in their pack the entire trip.
At the top of the Baranco Wall, we had a nice rest break on smooth, solid rock with the sun shining brightly. It was a great respite, but our guide didn't let us lounge around for long. We still had a few miles ahead of us and we were getting pretty good at Pole Pole, maybe a bit slower than the guides wanted.
After the wall, we were above almost all vegetation. It was much like a moonscape with dust and rocks all around. The trail was obvious and porters could fly past after being crowded on the narrow wall trail.
Cool weather, skittering clouds, and easy trail made the rest of the day's hike fairly uneventful. The last half mile had us drop steeply into the Karanga Valley and then just as steeply climb up the other side to our campsite at Karanga Camp. The Karanga Valley is a deep ravine that drops hikers a few hundred feet in elevation and provides moisture and protection for more plant life. Senecio trees, mosses, and and brush filled the hillsides for our last bit of 'forest' until after the summit.
Up the valley towards the mountain, I noticed a second trail where porters were busy bringing water from the creek up to the camp - almost a half mile each way. It made me appreciate the water at camp a bit more this night.
We're still right at the preferred elevation of the clouds. They played tag with us all afternoon and provided for a colorful sunset. They also kept the air moist and chill so warm layers were put on as soon as we stopped hiking for the day to relax in camp. It was a short day of hiking, but the alternative would be to hike all the way to the next camp and then do the summit attempt tonight - some crews had that itinerary but it just sounds like no fun to me.
We hiked from 13,100 feet to 13,100 feet, with a few deep valley and high ridge crossings, over a distance of about 3.5 miles. We have now come from the western slopes all the way around to the east and have just a couple miles to our last camp where we finally start going vertical.
For sure, we're spoiled now. Three days of perfect weather, great views of the mountain, wonderful food, easy hiking, good sleep, it's all going wonderfully. We were even treated to the sun rising from behind Kibo in another clear sky day. Ok, hang on, you know it's going to change...
The usual morning coffee, hot water for washing, and over-indulgent breakfast prepared us to start our daily walk around 9am. Today, we headed up the hillside at our typical Pole Pole pace, making way for porters as they sped past with our gear, tents, food, and toilets. In this wide open, vegetation free, expanse of mountain desert, the support crew has many paths past us so they pay us little mind. We do our best to share a friendly 'Jambo' and step out of the way.
Up we go, heading for the highest point any of us have ever been. I've hiked a bit over 14,000 feet, but we'll top out above 15,000 today. Along the way, clouds form below us and begin blowing UP the hillside towards us. These are the same clouds we've seen every day since arriving, only now we are above and then IN them. The mist is chilly and most everyone puts on warmer layers and raingear. We are so high that the air is cold enough to freeze the moisture and we are pelted with hail. This only lasts off and on for an hour or so.
There is not much scenery with the encompassing clouds and desolate landscape, but it is still a great day. It doesn't take much imagination to feel you are visiting a different world. We walk on, mostly over a long, gradual rise to our lunch stop destination.
Lava Tower is a well-known stopping point. On this day, it marks the highpoint of our climb and from here we will drop down, losing all the elevation we gained today to this point. Today is designed to be an acclimatization hike. We hike up to get our bodies used to the thinner air, and then descend to sleep for the night. Actually, no one complains of any altitude problems, so we're doing just fine so far.
As I mentioned, some of us tend to enjoy cooler temperatures over warmer. In the photo, you can see one person in short sleeves - Yes, I was comfortable and felt just fine. :-) But, I did have my raincoat on earlier during the hail - because my wife gave me 'that look' letting me know I was being weird. This turns out to be the only bad weather day we have the entire trek and it wasn't really even enough to cause concern - the wind on summit day was awesome, but no really 'bad weather'.
Here at Lava Tower, our crew had gone ahead to set up the kitchen, toilets, and Thunder Dome. I was just expecting a simple snack as we had the previous day at Cathedral Point, but this was over the top. I can't say enough times how pleased our group is with Tanzania Choice Safaris as our outfitter. The tower itself is an especially hard pack of volcano lava that has not eroded with the rest of the mountain, causing an impressive butte. People can arrange climbs of the tower as part of their adventure on Kili.
After our wonderful lunch, we had to force ourselves back into the clouds from our comfortable dining tent to continue the hike to camp. This half of the hike was nearly all downhill, so it was mostly a matter of watching our footing on the rocky trail. There were a couple ups and downs along the way, but not too bad. We descended through a forest of Dendrosenecio Kilimanjari trees - more commonly called Senecio trees. Our guide for the day, Augustine, took time to explain how to tell the age of the trees, but I'm not sure any of us actually understood it all - something about each hip was 25 years, and some trees were over 100 years old.
Each day, we had a different guide leading us, and a second as the caboose. This was something to look forward to each day as it gave us opportunity to meet a few Tanzanians and learn from them. They all spoke English and were very friendly and helpful. Our lead guide, Festo Mtui, would visit us somewhere on the trail each day, sometimes joining us for an hour or so, sometimes longer. Keep in mind, this one man was managing a team of 80+ workers and keeping 22 clients safe, happy, and comfortable.
Our day came to a close at Baranco Camp, at about the same elevation we started this morning. In this photo, you can see the Senecio trees and camp in the distance. When we reached camp, the support crew was all assembled and sang a wonderful, energetic, welcoming song as a nice treat.
We hiked from 12800ft up to 15000ft and back down to 13100ft over a distance of about 6.25 miles.
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Feb 13, 2020 - Jason Berklund
Feb 13, 2020 - Hiking Dude
Getting to the northern terminus is expensive (in my mind). If you can schedule correctly, Arrowhead Transit is cheapest to Grand Marais, but then Harriet Quarles is the only shuttle I know of. You might find a good ol' boy in Grand Marais willing to drive you the 35 miles to the end for a few $$$.
It's a 3 hour drive from Duluth - that's 6 hours and 300 miles round-trip. Maybe your friend would like to drive up the north shore for a day.
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