Deciding to return to Tanzania in 2016, stemmed from my desire to pursue public health education; however, I was also excited to indulge in another passion – hiking.
I would never forgive myself if I spent nine months in Tanzania without attempting to reach the roof of Africa: Kilimanjaro’s summit.
Months of Prep
I reached out to many potentially interested friends to join me on this trek, and for those who were not able to, I hope this trip report convinces you to go for it someday. Wish you all could have been with us!
My Tanzania traveling buddies, Laura and Tarik, and my adventurous father finally made the commitment to join me on this trek. I spent months a whole year in advance combing the interwebs for answers to all my questions: the best time of year to hike, which route to do, what to look for in a company, what gear to bring, how much to train, and anything else I thought would be necessary to get us to the top of that mountain.
I could bore you with all the details of that planning process but ultimately you’re probably just here for the photos so I’ll get on with it.
But, It you’re interested in all the info I compiled just shoot me a comment and I can send you the documents :)
The Lemosho Route
I chose this route because it offered less crowds, a more scenic view of the Shira and Kibo craters, and it’s length of 7-8 days offered a better chance at acclimating well and achieving the summit. I had confidence in our group of four’s fitness even with mixed experience and abilities, so I planned for a 7 day trek – 5 up and two down.
Charts curtesy of a company we did not use….oops ;)
High Peaks Expeditions
I chose High Peaks because they responded quickly to my inquires, offered a very affordable price without compromising quality and ethical treatment of porters, and they functioned out of Arusha where I would be living.
Gear, Tips, etc.
Here’s my gear list. And feel free to ask questions about details! I do like to geek out over gear :)
Day 1: The adventure beings…February 27th, 2017
Our trek started from the front gate of Laura and Tarik’s apartment where we were picked up by a bus that would fill with our two guides, our cook, and the 14 porters it would take to get us up the mountain. We picked up most of the porters on the side of the road and at a gas station before heading into the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro for several hours of bumpy roads while listening to a repeating loop of 10 classic Bob Marley music videos.
We stopped for lunch and the National Park sign-in at the Londorossi gate where our gear was repacked and each porter weighed in to ensure no one carried more than the 15kg (32lb) limit, which by the way is in addition to their personal packs.
More winding and treacherous driving through light rain finally brought us to our trailhead in the early afternoon. With mud puddles and several other hiking groups filling the parking lot, the four of us took a quick photo and started up the muddy but well maintained trail.
One by one our porters swiftly passed us on the often steep and slippery steps cutting through the rainforest. Pole pole (slowly slowly) was already the phrase of the trip as we maintained a slow and steady pace up from the Lemosho Gate at 6,900′ (2100m).
We worked up a sweat with the humidity of a misty afternoon and we enjoyed our successful search for colobus monkey’s in the dense green surroundings. At a two hour water break our sneaky guide informed us that it would be another two hours hike to camp, which seemed reasonable so we set off mentally prepared for the slog, only to walk into camp five minutes later.
Showing up at Mti Mkubwa Camp (Big Tree Camp) to our dinner tent and two sleeping tents all set to shelter us from the coming rain felt like such a luxury! As the mist turned to a steady drizzle, the light faded, and we had our first round of tea and dinner at 9,100′ (2750m).
It was a long day of travel despite the short hike, and we were plenty ready to snuggle into our dry sleeping bags on top of our plush and roomy sleeping matts.
Morning came early with breakfast of porridge, toast, peanut butter and jam, eggs, sausage, tea and coffee at 6:30am with hopes of hitting the trail by about 7:30am. Unfortunately, it was a rough night for Tarik running to and from the bathroom, but we all felt ready to hit the trail in the early sun. We finally got one foot in front of the other by about 8am.
Our guide Dismas thought we showed promise in our first two hours of hiking the day before so he informed us that we would combine two days of hiking into one by eating lunch at the next camp and continuing on to the next to stop for the night.
We continued hiking on the very well maintained trail through the dense forest. We tackled some steep terrain that would have been quite a challenge had the nicely cut and braced stairs not been there to assist with the muddy hill sides. Quickly gaining elevation, the surrounding forest thinned and the canopy moved closer to our heads, allowing for stunning views of the far off valley floor. We made our way up the side of the Shira Plateau all morning while other groups and porters leap frogged along with us.
Eventually we popped out over the ridge onto the wide plane that is the Shira Plateau at about 11,800′ (3600m). The terrain had fully transitioned from rainforest to moorlands and the dark clouds began to bring a crispy cool wind to keep us company for lunch at the first Shira Camp.
Boxed lunches with chicken, bread, mango juice, a boiled egg, and chocolate rejuvenated us as we huddled by our Maasai shuka covered table. The glamor of camping and hiking with an entire support staff is astounding.
We left our lunch camp with a view of our trek ahead out across the Shira Plateau and just up onto the rim to Shira Camp II. The hiking was very pleasant with rolling hills and shorter bushes capped in tiny yellow flowers. We even ran into our first giant “alien tree” – more about those later.
We were able to pick up our slow and steady pace a little along this easier terrain, and we appreciated the time to more easily chat along the trail. Unfortunately, by now dad had joined Tarik in his frantic and too frequent trips to the bathroom, thus beginning the trip’s battle of the bowels.
After hiking a little into the afternoon mist we got our first glimpse of the shimmery wet base of Kibo Peak, an exciting site to be sure. Then we made it up onto the Shira II Camp perch with sore feet and high spirits.
The rest of the afternoon and evening were spent snacking, resting, and enjoying the stunning views from the hustle and bustle of this larger and more populated camp. This day we worked hard for our tea and two course meal of soup, rice and veggies for dinner. We hiked for 7 hours and reached 12,700′ (3850m).
The beauty of the mountain really set in as we watched the sun set far to the west of the growing tinier Mt. Meru 14,977′ (4562m). The stars came out in the cold and clear evening and gave us our first glimpse of the milky way before bed.
Again early to rise, we were greeted by a dusting of frost and the warm colors of dawn. On the trail by 8:00am we quickly passed a large group of hikers moving painfully slow up the gradual slope. The group of about 12 were mostly grey haired, one boasting 81 years – pretty impressive.
We all felt great getting hiking despite Tarik and Dad’s continued struggle which brought profound thankfulness that Laura’s mom had insisted on bring Imodium capsules. The morning was bright and we quickly warmed up as the sun crested Kibo Peak straight ahead.
This day we would make our way up to our highest point at the Lava Tower where we would rest and eat before coming back down several thousand feet to camp and continue acclimating at the next camp.
Back to our pole pole pace, we found that the hiking was very manageable at the surprisingly comfortable slow pace. Our guide Dismas and assistant guide Daniel took turns leading and following while keeping an ever watchful eye on our breathing, water intake and need for rest. Thanks to the slow pace we were able to converse, get into good grooves and only take occasional breaks throughout the day.
Into the clouds, we hiked in thick fog as we gained the ridge of the Lava Tower for our lunch. We were excited to get to the highest point any of us have ever hiked to. At 15,100′ (4600m) the impressive rock tower stood watch over our lunch. I tried a little rock frolicking to see how it would feel and was quickly brought to heel by my lungs heaving against the thin air. This was a good 600 vertical feet higher than I had ever been before – felt like it too.
Glad for the short break and the boxed lunch, we were happy to start are trek back down. Some people set up camp at the Lava Tower to spend an extra day acclimating, but the spot definitely shows the wear of lots of traffic with trash and disturbingly soggy ground all around the outhouses.
With mist in the air we scrambled down some loose rock and started a quick, steady, and steep descent down to the Barranco Camp in the early afternoon. This section was not difficult, but Dismas surprised us with a pace comparable to my normal (aka fast) hiking experience. We made quick and knee pounding work of the long slope on both smooth muddy gravel and steep rocky trail.
We quickly noticed how often the four of us adjusted our clothing. It feels like a necessity as the weather constantly changes. To avoid getting too sweaty we take off layers when the intense sun shines through, but then clouds roll by bringing a chilly wet breeze that calls for our rain jackets. We really looked silly changing so often because our guides would literally make it the whole day barely touching their garments.
The quick descent brought us back from the alpine desert down into the moorlands where we trekked through an alien like landscape of mist and towering “trees,” the Dendrosenecio kilimanjari, which happen to be apart of the dandelion family. These giant groudsels, as they’re called, can only be found on Mt. Kilimanjaro above 14,000′. They are funky beyond belief, can stand upwards of 14′ tall, and make for an imposing presence along the trail and among our tents.
Trudging into Barranco Camp 12,900′ (3900m) after 5.5 hours of hiking we enjoyed a rest as a question on our minds was answered: “Can it rain inside a cloud?” The answer apparently is yes. We settled quickly into a routine when we got to camp: unpacking into the tent, washing up with the fresh hot water from the cook tent, having tea and pop corn, napping and reading in the tents while the constant ebb and flow of the chatter and laughter of guides and porters around camp created an ever present din until dinner. It was a very pleasant way to spend the rest of the day after working hard and covering so much ground.
This evening after dinner and before bed we were called to have a little meeting with Dismas our head guide. We thought it might have something to do with a reprimand for how fast our descent was that day. When in fact he explained, with the help of a nicely hand drawn diagram, that our hiking abilities proved worthy of moving our summit day up. Dismas and Daniel had been keeping a close eye on how we handled the pace, the altitude, the quick descent, and each day’s recovery as we made our way this far. So the plan, if we chose to accept it, was to hike the next day all the way to the summit camp and try for summiting on our 5th day instead of our 6th.
We were hesitant, but trusted in Dismas’ almost 30 years of experience on the mountain. We had finally lived up to our nick name “mountain gazelles.” It sounded like a good plan to do another day of hiking similar to the previous two days and have the possibility to complete our trek a day early. We agreed on the plan and went straight to bed.
With our new plan in mind, we actually made it on the trail by our goal time of 7:30am. The night’s sleep was great and my 2am bathroom run provided a stunning view of crystal clear stars from the milkway to the yellow lights of far off Moshi town.
Another crisp but clear morning gave an unobstructed view of the Barranco Wall ahead of us, with speckles of colorful people forming a line all the way up the imposing rocky face. I was so excited to actually get some “climbing” in on what has been a fairly straight forward trail. Unfortunately, with a more technical trail also comes insane traffic jams. The hundred some hikers that stayed with us at camp were now bumper to bumper on this steep rocky mountainside.
This section was by far the most impressive work of the porters. They seemed to effortlessly balanced huge bags and bundles on their heads or shoulders as they maneuvered tricky sections jam packed with tourist climbers (aka us). The start of the wall was also where we saw our first of maybe three female porters.
It was actually laughable how slow this one group of about 20 European hikers were as they caused a 20 minute back up on one of the bottle necks of the trail. Dismas was ruthless in his efforts to get us through the massive line/mob and he kindly helped speed up the process of getting the other group’s inexperienced climbers up the tough trail. The four of us made quick work of the scrambling but had to grit our teeth until we finally got a chance to speed past the large and honestly rude group of hikers who were not happy that we made the effort to pass them.
Finally, ahead of the main clog we quickly summited the impressive wall to find a warm sunny view of Kibo Peak ahead and the vast flatlands of Tanzania behind.
After applying sunscreen and once again altering our attire, we made the long and undulating traverse of the mountain below the peak. This section of trail was straightforward and gave an awe inspiring reminder of how huge the whole massif of Kilimanjaro is. Up and down and up and down and up finally brought us to the Karangu Hut for our hot lunch at 13,100′ which is about what we started our day at.
This is where we would have originally stayed the night before making the 2 hour hike to the summit camp. But thanks to Dismas’ plan and our high spirits we instead enjoyed the hot and sheltered lunch in the already set up camp, before we set off into the fog once more. Our trusty porters made quick work of tearing down camp and quickly passed us on the trail as we hiked the final hours to the Barafu Hut.
This section of trail in the alpine desert was mostly winding it’s way up into the clouds and for the first time we underestimated where we were going and were a little taken aback with how many ridges were still ahead of us. Our first real taste of weather came with a hail storm that hiked with us for a section of the final rocky climb into Barafu Camp 15,400′ (4600m).
After 6 hours of hiking we settled into our camp in the early afternoon with several inches of hail piled in corners of the rocky hillside sprawling camp. We were jubilant to reach our new altitude record and all be feeling pretty good. Mind you that’s as long as we didn’t move any quicker than necessary. A short jog to the bathroom sent me gasping for breath with a bit of a spinning head.
What was really wild was realizing that that night, at roughly 3am we would be making our summit push. So we were all too ready for tea and our afternoon routine of recovery. As we contemplated our physical and mental states we were pleasantly surprised to find that we were all feeling pretty good. Especially considering Tarik and my dad’s struggle to attain solid stools, we felt strong and ready for our early morning attempt despite our nerves and honestly not knowing what to expect. We were early to bed after a hearty dinner and fell asleep listening to fresh snow fall against the tent.
Day 5: Summit Day
We awoke to heavy thwacks against our tent. I hit my head as I sat up, knocking it on the ice that now covered the canvas of our tent side. An encouraging start to the day. It was 2:30am after a fitful night of sleep listening to snow and dozing on and off while other groups started their hiking at 11pm and midnight.
We once again trusted Dismas’ decision; our summit hike started at 3:30am rather than the usual midnight or earlier trek. For two reasons: (1) He was confident in our pace and ability to make it up and back before noon without the several hours buffer, and (2) he thought the main obstacle was the cold which is only worse in the dark. Dismas did not want us hiking the whole way in the icy dark only to summit just as the sunrises. He wisely wanted the sun to warm our final hours of climbing.
We hit the freshly packed 4-5 inches of snow on the trail right on time at 3:30am. Each of our headlamps creating a little globe of visibility around us with nothing but the bright stars beyond our field of vision. We also trusted Dismas’ instruction to pack away our trekking poles as we tackled the mountain, we would only need them on the descent. We were honestly hesitant to believe him but went with his advise.
The first hour of dark cold climbing was much more challenging than we’d expected. With the fresh crusty snow covering the rocky trail we had to step exactly where Dismas stepped to avoid slipping on the steep mountain side. We got warmed up quickly with the effort and strenuous slow stepping.
Laura and Tarik mentioned that it was a huge struggle to hike in the dark without the distraction of the surrounding beauty. It was such a mental game that they were not experienced with. Dad and I on the other hand really enjoyed occasionally looking up and out into the vast darkness that shown with only the glow of starlight in every direction. The snow storm had burned out and left a perfectly clear and still night for us to tackle the beautifully frosted mountain.
Not more than an hour into our hike we saw several headlamps making quick work of the slopes ahead of us, but in the opposite direction. Within moments the surreal site of two people carrying another between them plowing straight down the mountain. What looked like a small women was held by the shoulders between them and she was wrapped in a golden space blanket that billowed around her along with all the snow they were kicking up. They passed us in a matter of seconds and were gone. It was a sobering reminder that this was no normal hike and dangers like hypothermia and altitude sickness lurked just out of sight.
Once we hit more steady and groomed trail we paused for my furnace of a dad to remove a layer of clothing after the heated ascent we just tackled. Unfortunately the next section allowed the cold to start seeping in. Dad unexpectedly exclaimed “I feel fuzzy,” which immediately prompted us to take a quick break for snacks and dad re-donning his down jacket.
We plodded on as the far horizon to our right started to glow with about an hour to go until sunrise. These three hours in the dark brought interesting challenges: figuring out the right combination of layers to battle the cold and match our effort, how to pee when you’re super cold, and how often to choke down a snack.
Finally after six o’clock we saw the stunning colors of sunrise and light streaming over the soaring pinnacle of Mawenzi Peak. The golden alpine glow brightened our spirits as an icy wind picked up to urge us on through our occasional short breaks where the cold would get to us quickly.
Dismas had set us in a specific order for the summit push and we stuck to it as we kept our slow and steady pace up the mountain. First Dismas, then me, Laura, Tarik, dad, our summit porter Peter, and finally Daniel who often meandered off to the side and off the trail. Later we realized probably as protection if anyone ever slipped.
Now that the trail ahead could be seen in the bright morning sun, we could see how close we were getting to all those tiny headlights that had dotted the mountain when we started. We reached the final face that would spit us out on top of Stella Point just before the summit.
By this time I had finally crossed the threshold of feeling great and thinking “this is just another awesome hike!” to realizing that the cold was sweeping in, I was bonking and needed more fuel, and the claws of the 18,000′ (5400m) altitude were sinking into my stomach. From here on out I had the kind of nausea that grips you after doing sprints.
Here we realized a whole other level of pole pole. Each step was paired with an inhale or an exhale and we were thankful for each person in front of us to spur each step forward. Despite our slow pace we were please to find that even slow and steady had us passing several groups who started hours before we did. It quickly went from us being alone on the face of a mountain to finding the final huge pitch quite busy as groups began passing us on their way down and we passed slower groups on the way up.
The sun greatly helped with warmth, as did the steep climb, but the altitude definitely kept us from getting too excited as we finally crested the huge ridge at Stella Point just over 19,000′ and just under 6,000m. Here, a joyous break gave us a chance to snack and take some photos with our final destination in site.
It didn’t take long to sober up from the beauty and excitement with the final push ahead of us. The remaining trail to the summit was laid out clearly ahead but gave a very false sense of closeness. We spent the next 45 minutes or so going just as slow and taking several short breaks to slow our panting breaths despite the more level trail. Incredibly this specific trail to the summit was glaciered over only a handful of years ago. Just about the only thing that kept us going was the knowledge that we would soon be able to start going down.
One step and breath at a time we came around the bend greeted by the huge glaciers to our left and Uhuru Peak 19,341′ (5895m) straight ahead. Joy and relief swept over the group as we cheered and hugged and exclaimed our success. To be honest, I was overwhelmed with emotion with the final steps and celebratory hugs. I was so thankful we had all accomplished the feat as a group. And we had passed several groups on the final section of trail which miraculously gave us the summit to ourselves for about 10 minutes.
We made it to the roof of Africa at 9:17am, Friday, March 3rd, 2017. The sun shown clear, the blue sky stretching to the ends of the earth in every direction. White fluffy clouds billowed up from below the edges of our mountainous perch, and the fresh snow sparkled like diamonds on every feature of the huge volcano.
The summit party was short lived. We each downed a mango juice box, pulled out our trekking poles and sunglasses, and gladly started to head back the way we came.
The descent was a welcome change from the slow six hour plod we took to the summit. However, the altitude was ever present, my stomach still clawed at my insides. We now realized that not using our poles on the ascent was probably to save energy and stay warm.
As the morning wore on we made quick work of the high ridges of Kibo. The snow was now soft from the sun, and there was a well worn trail gouged in the snow that became dirt straight down the face we had slowly zigzagged our way up.
It does wonders for the spirit to know that with each step it will get easier to breath instead of harder. But I still struggled to gag down a granola bar and my stomach was relentless despite the descent.
Finally, somewhere around 17,500′, I left a little bit of myself in the snow on the side of the mountain as my stomach got the best of me. The short break finally relieved me of my nausea though it robbed me of whatever energy I thought I had left. There was nothing left to do but keep walking down.
Clouds brooded at the edge of the mountain and we hiked in and out of sun as we pounded our way down the melting trail. What took us 6 hours to go up took about 3 to go down. And when we finally covered the now melted final rocky section before camp we were astounded that we had managed it without problems in the dark and covered with ice.
Stumbling into Barafu Camp at noon the porters, who had enjoyed their rest day, cheered and shook our hands in congratulations. We had a short snack before a half hour nap and then lunch. Total, we rested about two hours before we had to start hiking down in elevation again to the next camp for the night.
Waiting for lunch the four of us sat in our meal tent looking and feeling as pathetic and exhausted as I think any of us had ever felt. None of us could see how it was feasible for us to hike anywhere else anytime soon. And yet, the body is an amazing thing, and before 3pm we were back on the trail making our way to a camp with more oxygen.
Remarkably we felt much better after some food and getting moving again. The two hours it took to make it to High Camp 14,000′ were pleasant enough in the drizzle. We walked and talked as we passed back into the moorlands where we felt like we could finally breath again. Even though we were technically sleeping at the maximum altitude I had ever been to prior this trip.
After roughy 11 hours of hiking we settled into camp to enjoy eating and sleeping the rest of the foggy day away.
We slept like babies (kama mtoto as our waiter porter says). I even slept through the huge rain storm that blew over our meal tent in the night.
We had a leisurely morning with breakfast after 9am as we planned for another consolidated day of hiking that would take us all the way to the exit gate. Had our legs been too tired or our motivation minimal we could have had two days of only a couple hours of hiking before completing our trek, but we opted to do the full 4.5 hours today and make it back to Arusha for a cold beer a whole day early.
Before we set off hiking, we had the pleasure of handing out all the tips to our outstanding crew while they sang and danced in celebration of a successful trek.
After photos and many handshakes we started on our final way. Feeling rejuvenated despite the sore knees, Dismas allowed us to go at our own speed down the winding muddy trail.
The rest of the day was spent descending from moorlands back into dense rainforest in the cool humid air. A quick snack at the Mweka Camp 10,000′ (3100m) brought us word that the night’s storm brought Kibo Peak three times as much snow as we had the previous night. This had prevented many large groups from even attempting to summit and forced some groups to turn around. We were so grateful for Dismas’ insight that had us summit a day early and dodge a failed attempt summiting on the day we originally planned.
The descent of a long trek tends to really drag on. The feet get sore and the mind sifts through the adventure of the ascent now behind you. We enjoyed seeing the forest grow tall as we hiked, and we reminisced of the previous day’s accomplishments and struggles. It all already felt so much like a dream.
Like clock work we made it to the exit Mweka Gate in 4.5 hours to sign out and jump back on the bus with all our porters already waiting for us. We said so long and thank you to porters as we dropped some off in Moshi and others along the road back into Arusha.
Back to Laura and Tarik’s apartment with plenty of time to finally get a real shower and go out for Indian food and Kilimanjaro beers.
Conclusion & Recovery
The next two days we spent as horizontal as possible at Laura and Tarik’s apartment before my dad jumped on a plane for home. We relished the time to recover the spent energy and sore muscles as well as process the experience as a whole.
It really was a unique experience and it edged its way into the group of things I’d label as the “hardest things I’ve ever done.” I find it hard to translate the whole experience into words because so much of it was unique compared to anything else I’d felt before. I hike all the time, but had never felt like that on a mountain before. And to be honest, I don’t really hope to ever feel that way again. Altitude sickness was deeply unpleasant. But who knows. Anyone want to plan another next big trek!?