Updated on June 11th, 2020
“Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro had been on my Life List for a while & I finally decided to tackle the mountain to celebrate a new decade as I turned 50. The first 3 days had already proved a challenge after suffering from the altitude. Here is the story of my climb to Base Camp.”
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Shira II to Barafu (Base) Camp
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro had been on my Life List for a while & I finally decided to tackle the mountain to celebrate a new decade as I turned 50. The first 3 days had already proved a challenge after suffering from the altitude. You can read all about the start of my journey in Part 1. This is the next instalment of my 8-day hike to the summit on the Lemosho Route. I organised my trip with Monkey Adventures, through Mohji, both based in Tanzania.
What do you need to know?
In Part 1 of my blog post, I discussed the first 3 days of the trek, my reasons for choosing the Lemosho Route, the impact altitude can have & my awe at the amazing porters! To read all about it click HERE.
Day 4 – Shira II to Barranco Camp via Lava Tower
This day was billed as the first hard day which was a bit disconcerting bearing in mind how much I had suffered on Day 3. The first part of the hike was to Lava Tower which, at 4600m would be our highest point so far. In addition, it was the same height as Base Camp where we would be staying before our climb to the summit. As a result, it was a vital milestone to help adjust to the altitude & see how our bodies responded.
“As usual we left camp at 7am in bright sunshine & with a stunning view of the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. After the trials of the previous day I felt strong & ready to face whatever challenges were thrown at me.”
I had slept well & tucked into a delicious breakfast with gusto (papaya, porridge, eggs, sausage…thanks goes again to Joseph, our amazing chef!). My appetite had returned which was a huge relief.
Anticipating the morning to be much colder, it wasn’t long before we stopped to strip off our layers, the sunshine creating even more positivity. From Shira II Camp (3900m) to Lava Tower, we were climbing 700m. Once we got going the pace was slow & it suited me fine.
Walking on the Moon
As last night’s camp disappeared behind us, the landscape changed once again. It was barren, rocky & looked like we were walking on the moon. After a while, we reached the top of a ridge as we followed the colourful line of porters, negotiating the trail while balancing 20kgs on their heads. An icy wind met us at the top, so we stopped to wrap ourselves back up again. This is the trick for tackling Mount Kilimanjaro – layers, & lots of them as the weather can change almost in an instant.
Our guide Zaf pointed out our first landmark. From where we stood the trail led us along the ridge, down across a flat plain & gradually up again to a peak which was our lunch stop & highest point of the day, Lava Tower. It seemed very straightforward.
The summit was always there, looking ominously high & far. Covered in glaciers it was spectacular, but I was still struggling to believe that we would actually be walking to the top.
An Out of Body Experience
“For the next hour, I moved in a dream-like state & can only describe it as my first “out of body” experience. I was very lightheaded. My feet took steps on autopilot.”
My breathing was heavy & at times felt very laboured. It’s hard to describe the feeling but my eyes & thoughts were just “fuzzy”.
After about 3 ½ hours walking we were in sight of the Lava Tower but I had to call to the others to stop. I was breathing hard but felt I was losing the battle to get enough. A moment to sit & catch my breath was what I needed. I sat on a rock for a few minutes & although my breathing became easier, I still felt very odd.
The final push to Lava Tower was only a few hundred meters away. Then we were going to stop for lunch. Zaf took my backpack & we started moving slowly towards our goal. At last, we reached the sign & I instantly started to feel more like myself. We took the obligatory photos as the summit appeared & disappeared behind fast-moving clouds. Brigit, my friend & climbing partner had felt fine all morning & as she jumped for the camera, it was the most I could do to smile for the photos.
But we had made it! The highest point until Mount Kilimajaro Summit Night…done! It also marked the spot where all routes to the summit met, so from here on in there were a lot more people on the route. We found a sheltered spot to settle in for lunch & Zaf & Humphrey (our assistant guide) produced a couple of lunch boxes which contained a whole array of delicious food. The flasks of ginger tea also came out which we drank a lot of on the mountain. It felt like a cure-all for any hints of altitude, calming on the nose & in the stomach!
“I instantly perked up & whereas the previous day the altitude had stolen my appetite, today was the opposite. I ate with relish!”
Or I did until a porter came through asking for food. He was not one of our team, but Brigit & I were shocked & instantly handed over what we had left, sadly just a couple of packets of biscuits. We asked why the porters were not fed? It totally jarred with what we hoped was the treatment for our companions on the mountain. On most days we made camp by the time we had lunch & there was always a hot meal prepared for us. Today, was a packed lunch day, so the porters were not fed until they reached camp. Clearly this was not adequate.
There was a sting to the privilege of being able to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for “fun” while those who make it possible suffer. It reinforced how important it is to research your company thoroughly before you book your trip. I will be writing more about this in the future.
Some groups battled against the wind to make camp at Lava Tower. We were moving on though & once we had finished lunch, we got back on our way for at least another 2-hour walk, downhill to Barranco, tonight’s camp at 3900m.
Into the Cloud
As the clouds came down & the rain started, our journey began clambering down rocks into yet another completely different landscape. As was becoming a tradition for our day, the afternoon brought an otherworldly atmosphere as we were engulfed by mist. I was so pleased I felt better as we negotiated our way along the river & past a waterfall. However, the relief of going downhill was soon overshadowed by the discomfort it brought to my knees & hips.
Finally, we were relieved to make it to Barranco Camp. By this time Brigit was suffering from a headache & sore knees. The first hard day had definitely taken its toll on us both & we headed straight for our tent & a sleep.
This camp is the gateway to the Barranco Wall which is a legendary section of the Kilimanjaro climb. True to form, I had read numerous blog posts about the adventure, but forgotten about this key part of our journey.
“As we explored camp later that afternoon it remained elusive, as did the summit while all we could see around was covered in low cloud. Brigit started to re-educate me on the Baranco Wall stories but Zaf tried to put our minds at rest, “It’s totally walkable” he kept saying…somehow it made me feel more worried!”
We went through our usual routine of eating as much as possible over delicious dinner (leek soup & pasta Bolognese) & filling our water bottles for the morning. Having our oxygen & pulse measured was standard now, along with answering questions to identify how our bodies were responding so far. Then into bed for 7.30pm, slightly dreading what the morning would bring.
Day 5 – Barranco to Karanga Camp. 4 hours
The first thing we had to do today was climb the Baranco Wall & in the morning it was fully visible in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit. Staring at it from outside our tent we could just make out a few dots in lines & I realised the reality of the task ahead. These dots were our fellow climbers. Barranco Wall was not a simple walk along a thin pathway on the side of a cliff, as I had envisaged the wall. It was a climb up what looked like a very high, sheer rock face. It all suddenly looked very daunting.
We were up early to try & get a start before most people. The advantage of having just 2 of us is that we were far easier to get moving than a bigger group to coordinate. In our usual formation, we began today’s challenge, Zaf, followed by Brigit, then me, with Humphrey bringing up the rear. After crossing 2 rivers we were there. Both Brigit & I had rented poles but so far didn’t feel a need for them. On the wall, they are of no use, so we soon overtook a number of fellow climbers as they put theirs away, ready to tackle the rock.
“At one point, Zaf stopped to give Brigit specific instructions – where to put which hand & foot as she straddled & then swung her right foot over a sheer drop in the rocks. I watched intently & followed their lead.”
Next, there was a bit of a kerfuffle. Although they didn’t say anything, from the exchanges between guides & porters I could tell something had happened. We were told afterwards that one of the tourists had fallen. It was sobering to hear but they did their best to keep us focussed on staying safe & making our own progress. We heard afterwards that he had been fine & even continued on past the camp we stayed at that night.
“Then I heard Zaf say to Brigit “Don’t look down, keep both hands on the wall & edge sideways with your feet”. We were at the infamous “Kissing Rock”.”
Suddenly I remembered what I had read! They named this spot because it’s literally facing to the rock as you sidle along the path. We were both calm, followed instructions & made it over without a problem.
Are We Having Fun?
We stopped for a break after the Kissing Rock. It dawned on me that I was actually really enjoying this ominous climb. The challenge of involving all your limbs & brain in the process was giving me a buzz. I found the Barranco Wall fun! As we watched the group behind us, the already superhuman porters surpassed themselves.
“They were doing exactly the same route, except they were negotiating it with 20kgs balanced on their heads. They worked in teams to get themselves & their loads through the obstacles. I was again in awe as they happily still gave us a friendly “Jambo” on the way past.”
The climb lasted for about an hour & was the best part of the journey for me. The pinnacle (literally & figuratively) was when we reached the end of our climb (or almost as we kept stopping to take photos before Zaf informed us this wasn’t it yet…twice!).
When we finally got there, it was literally like we were on top of the world. Of course, the summit was still ominously looking unachievable but beyond the mountain were blue skies as we stared out above the clouds. It felt amazing! To have conquered the Wall & to see this view. We reaped the benefits of leaving early as there was hardly anyone up there yet. We had earned a rest & celebrated with biscuits before the groups started to join us over the ridge.
What Goes Up….
When we had finally had our fill of the gorgeous views, & run out of biscuits, we started on the descent & things changed again. Rocks & scree took us down & up again before the clouds descended. We were back in the mist while walking across the surface of the moon.
Then, I heard voices in the distance which generally indicated that we were getting close to camp. In theory, we were, except camp was located at the top of the next very steep hill. Before we got there we had to go down into the low valley. Again, clambering over rocks was the order of the day as we made our way down towards the river. Once there, we had another break before the sharp ascent which represented today’s “home straight”.
In Search of Water
It looked challenging & seemed odd to see that some of the porters had already made it up to camp & were on their way back down. Then Zaf told me why. At all other camps, water is supplied from taps attached to big water tanks. They collect the water from the rain. At Karanga there is not enough rain to fill the tanks, so the porters need to fetch it from the river, down in the valley. Even harder to get my head around was that the same also applies to our next camp, Barafu (Base) Camp. There is no water supply closer, so the porters need to collect it all from this same river. It blew my mind again how hard these men & women (there are a few on the mountain) work to make our dream a reality.
“My breathing was as heavy as ever but by this stage I realised what an important focus hearing my breath had created for me. If I concentrated, it took away the pain of our relentless journey.”
When we reached the top, it was the first day for a while that we both felt good. Physically we were great & our spirits were high from the amazing morning we had had (it was only 11am). As I sat with Brigit & waited for our camp to be constructed, we reflected on our achievement. Nerves started to bubble up as we realised that we only had 1 more camp to go before it was Mount Kilimanjaro Summit Night.
Karanga was spread out & at 4035m, our highest to date. The clouds were rolling in, it looked very bleak but we were so proud of ourselves for just being there.
The afternoon & evening were uneventful, comprised of the usual sleeping, eating & walking around camp for photos & making new friends. As we settled in for the night, we had our final, now dreaded activity. Getting out of our warm sleeping bag & tent, into the icy, windy night to use the toilet & brush our teeth. But tonight was different. We had chosen our dates to enable us to summit on a full moon. It was almost here. The clouds had cleared & the moon illuminated the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The mountain looked magical. Below, we could see the lights of the town. It all felt very special.
Day 6 – Karanga to Barafu (Base) Camp. 2.5 hours
This was the shortest of all days. We began the walk “Pole, pole”, very slowly as we climbed out of camp. The start was steep & long. My heavy breathing came back as my ever-present companion, as did the rain. At the start it was fine. The climb was hard & when I thought we must be nearing the top (or what had looked like the top from below), there was still further to go. This happened a number of times. It felt relentless.
Here Comes the Rain Again…
Finally, we reached the top & the rain had really gained momentum. It was icy cold & heavy & while we negotiated the brow of the hill it attacked us horizontally. The rain felt like sharp icy needles were being pressed into our faces, accentuated by the bitter winds. Luckily this level of rain didn’t last too long but as we crossed the flat plain ahead it was a bleak experience. There were no words, just walking with our heads down to get it done.
“The summit would appear briefly from behind the mist & cloud before disappearing again. Although we were only walking for 2 ½ hours that day it felt much longer. Camp came into view & I got excited about being there.”
But we kept going, climbing for another 30 minutes before we reached the hut & went to sign in. We may not have been walking for long, but I had reached my limit & just wanted it to end.
It eventually did, but once we reached our final camp before the summit we had to wait. A short walk invariably means the team have not had time to get the camp ready. Brigit & I tried to find respite from the bitter wind while we waited. It wasn’t easy. It was cold. My hands & feet, in particular, were freezing. We waited for an hour in the end by which time I felt I would never be warm again.
Finally, I saw Isiah, our waiter, heading down to the hut & he appeared to be looking for us. I called his name a few times, but he was determined to head in the other direction. Brigit ventured “Maybe that’s not his name?!” That worried me. I had been calling him “Isiah” all week!
Isiah headed straight to an American couple to call them over. They looked slightly confused as we watched on. He took their walking poles as the three of them started to head off. Then he clearly realised he had a case of mistaken identity. Handing back the poles he dismissed the couple back to where they were sitting as I started calling his name again.
“I was correct! He had been looking for us! Brigit & I giggled all the way to our haphazard collection of tents. I was only slightly perturbed by the fact that the taller of the couple (who clearly he thought was me), was in fact a man!”
I was so cold I couldn’t stop shivering but we had made it to Base Camp! We were back at 4600m, where I had last suffered from the altitude at Lava Tower. I felt fine. Maybe I could do this after all?
The Last Supper
As soon as we got to the tent, we both got straight into our sleeping bags to try & warm-up. The afternoon continued as the others but with an increased sense of foreboding.
We finished the evening early with dinner at 5pm & a “pep talk” from Zaf. We would need to wake up at 11pm to start our climb at 12, midnight. Six & a half hours later, hopefully, we would reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro to see the sunrise.
“It will be bitterly cold. Our water may freeze. When we stop to rest it will only be for a minute as we mustn’t get too cold. If the altitude becomes too much we will be told to stop. If we need oxygen we are not going any further.”
I tried to motivate us by suggesting that our oxygen & pulse readings had been good throughout so that hopefully was a good omen? We may be OK? He didn’t bite on my hint for positivity. We had nothing else to go on. Basically, we were scared.
By the time we got into bed, we had set for our alarms for just 4 hours sleep. Fingers crossed I would get the rest I knew I needed. Fingers crossed we would make it….
To read all about my adventures on Mount Kilimanjaro Summit Night & to find out how we got on, watch this space for my next blog post…
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