Updated on June 11th, 2020
“Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro has been on my Life List since I compiled it back in 2016. When I was hiking the Inca Trail the following year, I found it tough. I vowed then that before I got too much older, I needed to tick off Kilimanjaro. The morning after celebrating turning 50, I set off for this big adventure!”
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Londorosi Gate to Shira 2 Camp (Day 1 – 3 of 8 Hiking Days)
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro has been on my Life List since I compiled it back in 2016. When I was hiking the Inca Trail the following year, I found it tough. I vowed then that before I got too much older, I needed to tick off Kilimanjaro.
The mountain is the highest in Africa (5895m) & the biggest free standing mountain in the world. Mount Kilimanjaro is also the only one of the Seven Summits (highest peaks on each of the continents) that is possible to climb without any specialist equipment or expertise. Do not let this fool you. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is tough. You never know how the altitude will affect you on the day, no matter how much effort you have put into training & preparing. Success rates are currently quoted as around 65%.
The morning after celebrating turning 50, I set off for this big adventure. It felt very daunting & I was incredibly nervous about whether I could do it. We had chosen to take the 8-day Lemosho route. For us, the priority was to give ourselves the best chance of reaching the summit. By taking this option our odds increased to 85%.
What do you need to know?
There are a lot of considerations to take into account before you attempt Mount Kilimanjaro. This will be the subject of a separate post in the near future. One of the keys is to find the ideal partner or group to complete the climb with. I was with Brigit.
“We had only met once before, on a yoga retreat in Cuba. Somehow, we had found each other again to make this epic dream a reality. There were only the 2 of us in the group, but I have to say she was the perfect partner!”
Younger, fitter, without any experience at altitude. However, she had an enthusiasm & positivity which matched mine, & an equally big love of food. When the moment came to start our journey, we were ready. I would like to take the opportunity to thank Brigit for supplying some of the photos & for being such an awesome partner in crime for my time in Tanzania!
We booked our trip with Monkey Adventures, via Mohji who gave us a choice of operators. It was important to us to book locally through an agent in Tanzania. This meant that the money stayed in the country & also helped our budget in the process.
How did we do?
Day 1 – Londorosi Gate to Mti Mkubwa (Big Tree Camp)
The first day was not the nerve-wracking big climb I had been dreading. We started at a very civilised 8am for our pickup. The van was already full of bags when we were met by our guide, Zaf & we introduced ourselves excitedly to our team of porters. After initial photos for our “before” album, we then sat & waited for 30 minutes. We were told it would be 10, so this was our first taste of Tanzanian time! We had hired extra Thermarest mattresses, but the crew had forgotten to pick them up. It wasn’t the perfect start, but finally, we were off!
We made the 2 ½ hour journey to Londorosi Gate, via a couple of stops for supplies & lunch for the team. Londorosi was a very busy place. Here is where the van had to be unloaded & the weigh-in occurs for all the porters.
“They have a limit of 20kgs each to carry, on top of their own packs. These are truly the heroes of the mountain! It wasn’t until we had the weigh in that we could definitively know how many porters we needed.”
The conclusion was that for Brigit & me to get up the mountain, we needed a team of 12! A guide, assistant guide, chef, waiter & 8 others. All our tents, food & everything for us all to survive for 8 days required 12 people which is kind of mind-blowing. We also chose the luxury of a private toilet which of course somebody also needs to carry. It seems & feels ridiculous to take so many people, but the guilt was kind of outweighed by the jobs that are created for the local people. It is a tough job & all we could hope was that they were well treated & rewarded by the company we had chosen.
“The important thing about Kilimanjaro is that nobody knows how they will do. You can train as hard as you like but at the end of the day, we are at the mercy of how our bodies respond to the altitude.”
This can be different on any given day, & if summit night is not your moment, or you have issues beforehand then any of us may fail to make it. That thought is a real leveller.
Finally, our weigh-in was finished, our bus was repacked & we were off to our next stop…the start, Lemosho Gate.
After all the hanging around we finally started our hike & it seemed very sudden! Off the bus, used the (grim) toilet facilities, hung around, expected to hang around longer but suddenly we were off. Zaf stayed behind to do the final checks with our porters & we were in the friendly & capable hands of Humphrey, our assistant guide. We began by climbing up steps as porters around us were already rearranging their loads at the side of the path.
Our first day’s hike was beautiful, through the forest, slowly taking it one step at a time for 2 ½ hours. The words you hear everywhere on the mountain are “Pole, pole”, Swahili for “Slowly, slowly”. I liked it! Sometimes it seemed painfully slow, but I was pleased to report that the uphill felt easy & I didn’t get at all breathless. Success was within my grasp…in 8 days’ time!
The highlight of the day was when we approached a small clearing to be met by a group of colobus & black monkeys. The colobus were stunning! Think long black & white hair flowing down their back to a bushy white tail. They mesmerised me!
Our First Camp
Eventually, we had to continue along the path & soon enough we entered the camp which was a frenzy of activity as porters from all groups frantically erected tents. Zaf took us first to sign-in, which you have to do on arrival at all the camps.
On Kilimanjaro, the length of hiking in terms of time & distance is less relevant. Most important is the altitude. How high you camp & which is the highest point on the route, are all the most essential statistics for your climb.
“Acclimatisation is way more vital than hiking quickly (which can actually negatively impact your success). Big Tree Camp is at an elevation of 2650m. This means we had over another 3km to climb to the summit. That’s pretty daunting!”
The rest of the day was made up with tea & popcorn, exploring the camp & chatting to our fellow hikers & their teams. We listened as other groups got serenaded with African songs & then tucked into a delicious dinner of chicken soup, fried fish & vegetables, with potatoes. We congratulated ourselves as we hailed our chef, Joseph for this amazing creation. Then came the first of our nightly rituals as Zaf came to take our measurements… pulse & all-important oxygen saturation.
Then, he asked us the (soon to be familiar) list of questions:
• How would you rate how you feel (0-10)? Why?
• Have you had a headache? Nausea? Vomiting? Diarrhoea?
• Did you take any medication?
• How was your appetite?
This was followed by refilling our water supplies for tomorrow (mainly 2 litres in the Camelback but also a thermal bottle) & a briefing on what to expect for Day 2. The Camelback is an essential piece of kit for the hike, a bag of water which fits into your pack & accessed by a straw. With everything positive & darkness descending, we tucked ourselves in for the night at our soon to be traditional bedtime of 7.30pm.
Day 2 – Mti Mkuba to Shira 1 Camp
We were up at 6am for the first morning as our lovely waiter Isiah came to bring us warm water to wash in. By 6.30am were packed, dressed & ready for a delicious breakfast of papaya, porridge, eggs, toast & sausage to sustain us for the morning. We would, of course, be eating again at lunchtime when we got to camp!
“It is important to eat as much as you can on the mountain. Loss of appetite is a sign of altitude sickness. You don’t know if, when & how the attitude will affect you, so it’s important to make the most of your appetite while you have it”
Taking full advantage of the advice, I tucked in!
We headed out with Zaf 30 minutes later & into the forest. It was a beautiful way to start our second morning & we relished the sun as it illuminated the vegetation, giving a mystical feel to the trees. I felt fresh & strong, ready for the rigours of the day!
After an hour, exactly as Zaf had briefed us, the forest finished & we found ourselves out in the open, on Shira plateau. It started flat before we began to climb over the rocky path. The days of “pole, pole” seemed to be already behind us. The going started to feel harder work but the pace didn’t seem to reflect the mantra of “Slowly, slowly” at all! I listened to my breathing as it got harder. We continued to move, making ground all the time as we only stopped a couple of times briefly to use the toilet (by that I mean nature’s own bathroom!) & a quick snack.
We passed groups who were getting a nature lesson along the way & teams of porters as they stopped to catch their breath & put their load down for a bit.
“The porters on the route seem superhuman. They practically run the course & the only time you ever pass one is when they have stopped for a short break. Be prepared that a few minutes later they will come bowling past you, occasionally with their music blaring, to a chorus of “Jambo!” & the occasional outstretched hand for a fist pump or high five.”
Their weights are often awkward-looking & generally carried on their heads, sometimes without hands. I was in awe for the whole journey.
The Mountain Gods
At one point we finally stopped for a short breather & felt spots of rain. Zaf wasn’t keen on stopping so told us that “The mountain gods are telling us to keep moving”. We obliged & the rain didn’t materialise!
Eventually, we spotted the camp coming into view as we went a little downhill. Another rule of the mountain is to drink plenty of water, at least 3 litres a day. They boil it before drinking so it is totally safe & I didn’t use any additional supplements while I walked. My Camelback supplies dried up as we approached the camp. I was satisfied, 2 litres down so I was on track!
After signing in, we took our ubiquitous photos by the big sign & headed for our “dining tent” for a hot drink. Literally, as I turned to sit, the heavens opened & the rain finally arrived! The mountain gods had clearly decided we were safely in camp now!
After 4 hours walking up & down the hills, we had made it 7kms closer to our goal. However, the low cloud we had been walking in all day persisted & stopped us from being able to see the prize, the summit. Shira 1 Camp sits at 3610m above sea level so we had also climbed another kilometre closer. To celebrate our achievement, we went to rest & fell straight to sleep which was only interrupted by a delicious chicken & pasta lunch before more sleep!
Less Time on the Mountain?
We were already establishing a routine…get up, walk, arrive, sleep, lunch, sleep some more, explore camp, dinner & settle down for more sleep at 7.30pm. Zaf told us a couple of times that there was nothing to do when we got to camp so if we desired we could keep going. This would involve skipping a camp or 2 & therefore knocking a couple of days off our climb. We refused each time.
“The walking each day felt enough & we had already prepared to spend 8 days getting there. The longer the time, the more adjustment your body makes & the more likely you are to summit. For me, it was about this one shot, so I wanted to give myself the best chance possible.”
Dinner on our second night was at 5.30pm, as it gets dark early. We were then able to take a sunset stroll, with the clouds illuminated in a purple light which I had never seen before. It felt calm after all the rain of the afternoon. It was satisfying to finally be on the journey & despite all the sleep of the day, I had no problem settling down again. Or I did until I realised that my sleeping bag was all wet! I had inadvertently fallen asleep while resting on the straw (& most importantly valve) of my Camelback. It had wet my mat. It had soaked my sleeping bag. Fortunately, it was superficial & did not go right through to the inside. Lesson learnt – don’t attach the pipe until the morning! Fingers crossed it would dry overnight.
Day 3 – Shira 1 – Shira 2 Camp
We woke up to find the clouds had cleared & for the first time we had the sun shining & a very clear view of the mountain, its peak covered in snow. The view was spectacular & took my breath away. Our excitement was palpable.
Today was billed as an easier day. Basically, we were crossing a flat plateau in around 4 hours with only 300m elevation between camps. But don’t trust everything you are told, especially not when it involves the unpredictable nature of the human body & altitude.
After about an hour, Zaf presented us with an option which we weren’t prepared for. We had to choose between the easier “short cut” or the slightly (1 hour) longer Cathedral Point route. After much discussion, where I have to admit I was all for preserving my energy with the “easy” route, we agreed to go with something a little more challenging. We had hardly any information apart from the length of the walk, so we were pretty much guessing anyway.
“To be alone as we walked across the plains alongside the ever present & majestic spectre of Mount Kilimanjaro was precious.”
As was becoming expected now, the bright sunshine soon changed to low cloud & mist before a light rain began. After a couple of hours & a short climb, we reached a peak where we could finally have a proper rest. Up high Humphrey pointed to a board which was barely visible in the fog. “We are going there!” he said. I thought he was joking as we seemed to have walked for a while, gradually uphill & the last thing I was in the mood for now, was a climb. It also looked like it was more of a rock scramble which I was even less keen for.
But Cathedral Point beckoned & as a test for our fitness & adjustment, it was hard to turn down. Some visitors do not have time to tackle the full spectacle that is Mount Kilimanjaro. They come to experience the mountain over 1 or 2 days. For them, this is their peak…so it seemed disrespectful not to conquer it!
If I’m honest, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. The rain started in time with us beginning our ascent, making it more slippery as we clambered up the rocks. When we arrived, we were greeted with a spectacular view of…. just clouds. We couldn’t see a thing over the edge of the cliff! Taking the obligatory photos of the sign, we headed back down to finish our walk to Shira 2 Camp. However, the milestone was achieved & we had now made it to 3872m. We remained 2kms still off our ultimate goal.
The mist engulfed the path when we got down, casting a mystical feel over the landscape & it was hard to see far. However, it was also very bright, meaning that I kept my sunglasses on, despite the constant need to wipe off the water droplets. We walked past the day-trippers picnic spot. It looked otherworldly. Fellow hikers had visited before us & all around our path were stacks of rocks silhouetted in the mist.
Finish on a low…
“1500m is not far at all. But, I was exhausted. Then a wave of nausea hit me which kept coming. Although I never felt I was going to be physically sick, I was so desperate for the walk to be over.”
It blindsided me. In terms of altitude, I had been considerably higher during my time in South America.
I spent a while in La Paz, Bolivia (3658m), Quito in Ecuador earlier in the year & the highest I had ever been before was on the Inca Trail, Dead Woman’s Pass at 4215m. I had never felt like this before.
Thankfully, after way too long, we arrived at Shira 2 Camp (3850m).
I felt beaten. It was weird as Brigit felt the same & both of us had experienced it at the same time. We collapsed into our tent with exhaustion. I was thirsty & needed water. There was a full bottle complete with rehydration salts in my daypack, but I couldn’t be bothered to get it. I lay on my mattress getting colder. My sleeping bag was in the tent, but I couldn’t muster the energy to get it out of my bag. I decided that trying to tackle one thing at a time & then rest was my best option.
It was announced that lunch was ready. I dragged myself from the tent & struggled through a tiny portion of the egg pasta that was there for us. I had no appetite. All I wanted was to sleep. When I eventually crawled into my sleeping bag, I had a dreadful feeling of foreboding.
I slept well that afternoon & am pleased to report that both myself & Brigit woke up feeling much better, except for a headache which I took paracetamol for. It was a huge relief when I went to dinner, reinvigorated with my appetite intact and energy & enthusiasm reengaged. But we were concerned. We had another 2km to climb to the peak & I couldn’t imagine ever summiting if I felt like that. We had another 5 days to go, so pledged to take each day as it came & crossed our fingers tightly.
See my next blog post for all the details on the next few days, including my struggle to the high point of Lava Tower, the infamous Barranco Wall & Kissing Rock and whether I did actually make it….check it out here!
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