Mount Kilimanjaro 19,341’/ 5,895 m
Total Time: 6 days
Distance: 38 miles/ 61 km
Elevation Gain: ~16,500’/ ~5050 m
Crux: Class 3
Trailhead: Machame Gate to Mweka Gate
Companions: Justin Shelton, Adnaan Sheriff, Rob Frings
For my 100th trip report I decided to go back and start writing up some of the bigger renowned summits I had climbed prior to the creation of this website, particularly my International trips where I kept detailed journals of my ascents. I can think of no better way to start this series than with Mount Kilimanjaro. Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa placing it among the seven summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. It is widely considered to be the easiest of the 7 peaks on the list, with a nontechnical trail going all the way to the top. But at just under 6,000 meters, the summit is certainly not without difficulty. While there are only isolated deaths or injuries due to rockfall or trauma more commonly occuring on other mountains of similar height, the trail allowing rapid ascent predisposes unacclimatized climbers to altitude related illness such as High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Most of the deaths on Kilimanjaro are attributed to altitude related illness, with a calculated mortality rate among all climbers of 13.6 per 100,000 (0.0136%) translating to a few deaths per year. The most common route up the mountain is the Marangu or “Coca-Cola” route, which utilizes a series of huts on the eastern slopes, with vendors selling namesake Coca-Cola at each stop. While volunteering in Tanzania in 2014 during medical school with 3 friends, we elected for the more scenic Machame route, which traverses the southern slopes beneath Kilimanjaro’s rapidly shrinking glaciers, and joins the Marangu route at the summit rim. After a 3 day acclimation climb of Meru Peak 14,977′, it would be the pinnacle of our 6 week trip to Tanzania.
We woke up early in Arusha to leave for Kilimanjaro, and after our morning rituals and a good 30 minutes taping our feet for blisters, we were off. A solo traveler from Tunisia, Jed, had been added to our group, and after picking him up, we left town. We had barely left Arusha proper when traffic came to a complete stand still from a truck going off the road. We sat in place for about an hour before continuing to the Machame Gate as the rain began to fall.
There was one other team at the gate when we arrived, a young group of 4 from various European countries that seemed to have twice as many porters as us, particularly since we had choose to carry all of our own gear that wasn’t group gear (tents, cooking stuff, etc). We quickly ate our packed lunch and paid our park entrance fee in hopes to hit the trail as quickly as possible given the earlier delays, but subsequently waited several more hours to start, as one of our porters had forgotten his ID and could no longer join us. By the time his replacement arrived, it was already 1:20 PM. At last we started up the trail, initially an old 4WD road that slowly narrowed to a double track trail.
The grade on the first segment of trail was quite gentle, especially compared to the steep slopes of Mount Meru. It rained consistently for the first hour, followed by on and off sun the rest of the day as we trekked through the jungle. Just before we reached our first camp at an elevation of 3000 meters, the forest began to give way to the Moorland Zone, characterized by heather and lichen hanging from the stunted trees. The first camp, Machame Camp, was quite large and had plenty of room for the four groups- ourselves, the Europeans, a solo Canadian traveler, and a Frenchman training local guides.
The porters were setting up our tents when we had arrived, and we crawled in as darkness fell to change into dry clothing and wait for dinner. Given our late start, dinner was served relatively late, but was quite good consisting of a buttery soup, bread and butter, boiled potatoes and a beef stew. By the time we were through with dinner, it was already quite late, and we headed into our tents to sleep.
I awoke shortly before sunrise to a chorus of birds from the rainforest below, and unzipped the tent to cloudless skies and a beautiful view of Kili’s glaciers above. After a breakfast of toast, eggs and sausage, we set out for Shira Camp at 3846 meters (~12,600′) under sunny skies. The route was steeper on day 2, and was mostly muddy gneiss and exposed volcanic rock, fairly slick from the recent rains.
Within the first hour of hiking, thick clouds moved in and visibility dropped to only a few feet in front of us. About halfway through our ascent for the day, the clouds turned into a light mist, which slowly gave way to a continuous rain that became harder and more consistent as we scrambled over the most exposed rocks of the day.
We reached camp as the rain began to peak, and made a beeline for the ranger hut in an attempt to get dry. I was a little surprised to find the porters, who had left long before us, were only beginning to make camp, and we stayed in the ranger hut until the tents were pitched. At this time it was 2:30 PM, and we still had not eaten lunch. Cold, wet and hungry, spirits were a bit low after two days of hiking in the rain without much views and cold clothes we were unable to dry. After a late 3:30 PM lunch, the rain finally stopped at 5 PM, and we emerged from our tents to explore the camp a bit before dark. Stanley, our head guide, took us over to Shira Cave, a natural cave where people used to sleep and make fires before the Tanzanian Park Service made it illegal to do so.
By the time we had finished exploring the caves, dinner was served (a rice and tomato beef stew) and the clouds were beginning to part. Above we could see the high point of Kilimanjaro, Mount Kibo, and its’ large glaciers spilling down the southern slopes.
The clouds parted completely by sunset, and Adnaan experimented with his camera trying to capture star trails while the rest of us tried to convince Rob to hook up with one of the European girls from the other team. He didn’t cave to peer pressure, and we went to bed, hoping for a day without solid rain.
I awoke on the third day not to birds from the forest below, but Jed from Tunisia belting out Police songs from inside his tent at 6AM. There are worse ways to wake up I suppose. The morning was crystal clear, and I could see Mount Meru in the distance to the west and Mount Kibo up above to the northeast.
The sun was strong enough to dry our clothes a bit as we ate breakfast, and we left camp for Lava Hut at 4637 meters (15,209′) to acclimate, with plans to make camp at Barranca Camp at 3976 meters (~13,000′) that night. Leaving camp, the views opened up dramatically across the Shira Plateau, with views of Meru in the distance and Mount Kibo above.
By mid morning, the first clouds began to move in, and as we climbed higher, Kibo became partially obscured by clouds above, as did the valleys below. We reached the Lava Hut shortly after noon and had our packed lunch. The Lava Hut is no longer in use as a camp, but often hiked to as a way to acclimate, and is marked by a huge rock spire above camp. Sitting down near the Lava Tower, we were quickly overrun by rodents, with dozens of four striped mice fighting for every crumb of food we dropped. One even boldly (and unsuccessfully) made an attempt to climb up Jed’s pants!
During the break, the clouds in the valley below had risen to our elevation, and we hiked another two hours in thick dense cloud to Barranca Camp. The hike to camp gave us our first look at the bizarre Senecio Kilimanjari, a giant groundsel reminiscent of a Joshua Tree, found no where else in the world.
We reached camp just as it was starting to mist, so we crawled into our tents to keep dry and wait for dinner. The mist broke at around 5:30 PM, and we emerged from our tents to the most incredible views of Mount Kibo directly above, by far the best views from any camp of the trip. Dinner was served at 6:30, a thick pasta loaded with vegetables and made from a fish based broth. It was actually my favorite meal of the trip so far, somewhat ironic given the unfortunate amount of vermin running around camp that had no doubt gotten into our dinner as it was prepared.
With no clouds and the camp situated at the bottom of a canyon, it became bitterly cold after the sunset and we scrambled into our tents to keep warm. Despite a little mist, we had kept dry all day with pretty fantastic views, and they day had been my favorite of the trip so far.
A wave of nausea woke me from my sleep around midnight. My initial hopes of dehydration or altitude related illness were dashed when the abdominal cramping started, and I knew I was infected. I took a Cipro and tossed an turned until finally falling back asleep at 3 AM. When I woke up later that morning, I found that both Adnaan and Rob had been up all night puking, as had the solo Canadian hiker and 3/4 from the European team. It seemed the four striped mice had spread illness to the entire camp. I was still extremely nauseous when we left camp at 9:30 AM (some forced vomiting did not help), and Adnaan, Rob and myself were all moving very slow.
Unfortunately, we were faced with our most difficult day yet, starting with a scramble up the Barranca Wall, a 1,000′ cliff above Barranca Camp with a good amount of class 3. I was able to ignore the nausea initially just by the fun I have when scrambling, but by the time we reached the top of the cliff, I had complete tunnel vision; they would tell me later I looked pale and dazed. Our difficulties were not all behind us at the top of the cliff, as we traversed in and out of a series of 3-4 drainages across Kilimanjaro’s southern slopes, including going up and over several ridgelines.
By the time we reached Karanga Camp at 4040 meters at 1:30 PM for lunch, I felt downright terrible. I took another Cipro as we climbed out of the valley, and just focused on my feet in front of me as the afternoon clouds began to move back in. From the valley, we ascended a long barren ridge which seemed to have no end in sight, completely lost in cloud.
We took a break as the ridgeline eased, and when I went behind a rock to urinate, I was surprised to find my pee was completely clear. I had been assuming I was dehydrated all day and had been pounding water, but began to wonder if hyponatremia (low sodium) was contributing to how I was feeling. I dug through my pack to find and consume the saltiest food I had- some corn nuts that had come with an MRE from Mount Meru. I felt better within minutes. My elation was short lived when I turned to see Justin with his head in his hands. The sickness had finally caught him as well. As Rob, Adnaan and I were just getting back to normal, Justin was getting hit with sickness hard. The rest of the day was a slow 3 hour march to Barafu Camp 4700 meters (15,420′) with frequent stops to allow Justin’s nausea to pass. We could see Barafu Hut on the ridgeline above on the final approach, and as we started up the final push, Justin sat down and said he needed to vomit. He dropped his pack and ran around the corner, and I heard heaving and a loud splash…. from the opposite direction. We all turned around to find Jed doubled over puking on the rocks, a huge surprise considering he had been the perkiest one all day. We sat down as the two regained themselves, then finished the hike into camp just as the sun set.
Justin immediately went to sleep while I prepared my summit pack for the following morning. Dinner came at 7:30 PM, and Justin started puking as soon as he smelled it. For the rest of the night he was throwing up every two hours until 11:30 PM when it was time to leave for our summit bid.
Justin was extremely sick when he woke, and we didn’t leave until 12:30 AM, 30 minutes later than planned. The climb started with a steady grade and some fun class 2 friction slabs which I particularly enjoyed. Early on in the hike Justin was in really bad shape, and stopped to dry heave about every 15 to 30 minutes. At one point we had to talk him out of turning back and Stanley took his pack to help him conserve energy. From there, Justin held onto his backpack while I spotted him from behind to keep him from stumbling. About halfway up, he seemed to be feeling better and started finding a rhythm. I switched off my headlamp to enjoy the stars, the others providing enough light to see the bare rock underfoot. All of us got a second wind as the sun rose over Keyna and Mawenzi (a sub-summit on Kilimanjaro), just in time for the route to steepen considerably straight up to the summit plateau.
At that point we were at about 5200 m and I was starting to feel the altitude and took some Diamox. Jed, who was unusually quiet, said he felt terrible, so I gave him 250 mg of Diamox as well. As we climbed higher, I watched him and noticed he was ataxic and confused. I stopped him at a flatter stretch of trail, had him remove his pack and did a quick gait assessment, which he failed miserably. Based on the symptoms, he had high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), and I told him he needed to descend immediately or risk death. At this point, we were already at 5700 m just below the summit plateau and Stella Point, but Stanley our guide felt he should try for the summit, which was less than 1 hour away. When we reached Stella Point it signaled the start of the summit plateau and the grade improved considerably. Despite that, everyone seemed to be at their worst- Justin grabbed on to my pack to follow me, Rob threw up twice from the altitude, and Jed continued to deteriorate, speaking more and more nonsense.
45 minutes later, we reached the summit and highest point in Africa. Our summit joy was more focused on getting Jed down as quickly as possible, and we snapped a few pictures of him to send him down as quickly as possible. He would say later that he did not remember the summit or taking pictures at all. Once Jed left with Charlie, the assistant guide, Rob, Justin and I cracked into some summit Kilimanjaro lagers and started taking tons of photos.
We spent a good 30 minutes at the summit, but knowing we had a long way to Mweka camp that night, we reluctantly packed up and headed down. We caught up to Jed within 15 minutes of leaving the summit, having not made it far and not looking much better. Charlie insisted that we continue on with Stanley, and we dropped down the trail that we had ascended earlier that day in darkness. There were a number of wonderfully loose scree chutes I was able to boot ski down, and we made it back to camp in a somewhat incredible 2 hours.
We ducked into our tents to rest once we saw Jed making progress on the ridgeline above, and came out when he returned to camp for lunch. We were all packed up by the end of lunch, but it took another hour for Jed to slowly gather his things despite our help as he was still feeling pretty sick, but at least coherent. Our guides quoted us an easy 3 hour hike from Barafu Camp to Mweka Camp, but in reality, it was another 5,000′ of descent on top of the 4,200′ we had already descended from the summit that day. We slowly dropped out of the high alpine desert back into the Moorland and made it to Mweka Camp at 3100 meters at 5:30 PM. The group killed the Red Label I had brought along in a flask, we gave the guides and porters their tips, and feasted on our last dinner- pumpkin soup and vegetable stew. We then headed into our tents for a very sound sleep through the night.
We awoke after a full nights sleep at our usual time in the early morning. We were approached by the guides that our tip, which we had calculated off an overall percentage of the climb, had come up short. Apparently on Kilimanjaro, there’s a well known formula on how much you tip per person, per day based on their job (ie $10/ day for the cook, $15/day for the guides). They had certainly earned a good tip considering getting us through the illnesses we had all struggled through, and we figured out how much more we should give to them as a fair tip. We told Stanley we would get him the balance when we arrived in Arusha, only bringing a set amount on the climb. After finishing breakfast, we broke camp one last time and hiked into the rainforest. The hike to Mweka gate only took 3 hours, and we got our completion certificates and bought some cold Cokes while we waited for our driver. While we waited, a bus load of Austrian tourists unloaded and began to take our pictures, hailing us as heroes, which was down right hilarious. When our driver did arrive, it was a 1.5 hour ride back to Arusha where we said our goodbyes to Stanley and Jed and got him the tip balance. Our victory dinner was a masala chicken and chips with spicy sambusas. While we had planned to celebrate at a bar in town that night, by the time everyone had showered and finished eating, the exhaustion of the prior few days fell over us all and we passed out, saving the victory beverages for another night.