Brendan McKenzie

Climbing Kilimanjaro

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest point in all of Africa at 5,985m above sea level (ASL). One believed origin of the name is derived from the Chaga word "Kilimankyaro" meaning "difficult mountain to climb;" had we known that before we climbed, maybe we might have thought it better not to try. Luckily for us - we found out a few days after we started our ascent: far too late to turn around.

We were fit, we'd done our preparations and we had our prescription (Diamox). We were ready to go. The Kilimanjaro climb is known as being more a hike than a climb, but it still takes a great deal of physical and mental strength to make it to the top. At the end of the day, it's a mountain, and for us who don't have the years of evolution to prepare ourselves for working at higher than average altitudes, we're going to have a task ahead of ourselves.

We spent the night in Arusha, Tanzania (the half-way point between Cairo, Egypt and Cape Town, South Africa) after arriving at 4pm the day before we begun our trek. Before bed, we consumed as many carbohydrates as our bodies would allow not knowing what the food would be like on the trek, drank plenty of water and had our last showers for a week (in hindsight, I probably would have doubled the amount of time I spent in this shower), finalised the packing of our bags and went to bed. I tried not to think too much about the climb, and actually managed to get a decent nights sleep.

Day 1

Macheme Gate to Macheme Camp

Altitude: 1,800m to 3,000m

We woke early to meet our guides – Emmanuel (lead) and Father Fred (assistant), and our cook Kindalee – before making our way to the starting point: Macheme Gate.

There was an hour-long drive from Arusha to Macheme, we had plenty of time to get to know our guides and ask hundreds of questions. I managed to keep the nerves under wraps still expecting it to be a piece of cake, even as we neared the mountain and the snow-capped peaks soared overhead.

After handing over our packs to be carried up the mountain by our porters we signed in and waited while Emmanuel and Father Fred organised the porters. We made use of the last of the running water and flushing toilets that we would have for a week and spent our time scoping out all the other climbers that were at the gate making the same preparations. It was at this point that we both started to become aware of how glad we were to not be climbing in a large group, knowing it would only be Ivona and I in our tent, and two guides to look after us.

After what seemed like hours of waiting (which was more likely about 30 minutes) we were on our way. Father Fred was with us to start with, we waved good bye to our porters – who on a daily basis would leave at camp in the morning, then an hour or so later after packing up everything would fly by. We would see them again in the evening when we arrived at the next camp, with everything set up for us. – and begun our hike.

To start with I was a little frustrated with our pace, it was slow... really slow. But I kept telling myself that it was a good thing and after a while I got used to pole-pole (pronounced 'pol-eh pol-eh', Swahili for "slowly").

This day we were making our way from Macheme Gate to Macheme Camp through the rainforest. The air was damp, and it was hot. Our CamelBaks were full and we had no trouble keeping ourselves hydrated given the amount we were sweating.

Macheme Gate

I have to take this moment to say how impressed I was with my Lulu Lemon shirt that I wore for the entire week, it's made with silver lining to help kill bacteria (which leads to odour), after a week of sweating, the t-shirt retained a neutral smell (something that could not be said of our boots).

We had a quick stop for lunch and finished our packed lunches before continuing our way up. We arrived at Macheme Camp in the early evening, signed in then started looking for our camp learning that the best way to find our camp was to yell "GORONCHO!" (the name of one of our porters) who would respond loudly: "EH?"

The nightly ritual took place: drop our bags in our tent, go to the bathroom (thankfully, Goroncho was our saviour - he carried a Porta-Pottie up the mountain for us and every day set it up in its own tent. When climbing a mountain you don't expect luxuries like this, but it was greatly appreciated!), wash up, relax, eat dinner, sleep (bathroom, sleep, bathroom, sleep. Altitude and Diamox reeks havoc on your metabolism!).

Day 2

Macheme Camp to Shira Cave Camp

Altitude: 3,000m to 3,200m

Our day started off slowly (as usual) hiking through the marsh land. Nothing extraordinary to report from this day, though it did include the first bit of actual climbing.

We made our way to Shira Cave Camp (not to be confused with Shira Hut Camp which is used on a different trail) and arrived as the sun was starting to go down. The camp was set up very much in the open so it was much colder than the previous nights camp which had the rainforest canopy to keep the heat in.

Shira Cave Camp

Nature called in the middle of the night so I made my way to our private bathroom, on my way back to the tent I had to stop and take in the moment. The coldness seemed to have lifted (it was probably 3-4am; we didn't have watches or clocks of any kind so most times throughout are estimates) and I took a moment to look around, the first thing I noticed was how amazing the stars were. Having grown up in the city and only spent very short stints camping out in the wilderness the unpolluted star-scape never fails to take my breath away.

Day 3

Shira Cave Camp to Barranco Wall via Lava Tower - Reality Strikes

Altitude: 3,200m to 3,940m (acclimatisation at 4,600m)

We begun our hike in the warmth of the sunlight (me only in a t-shirt, but with sufficient additional warmth in my backpack if needed) leading away from Shira Cave camp towards Lava Tower where we would spend lunch acclimatising to serious altitude. As the wind started to pick up and the sun decided to hide behind the clouds more than show her pretty face I had to slowly layer on more and more. Although I was by no means comfortably warm, I wasn't anywhere near freezing; Ivona on the other hand was starting to feel the effects of the cold and altitude. After an endless hike through the Alpine Desert we arrived at Lava Tower which sits at 4,600m above sea level. Upon arrival we hastily made our way into the mess tent so we would no longer be hammered by the icy cold wind. At the time I felt fine and scoffed down as much lunch as I could. Ivona also was able to eat but was definitely not feeling 100%. The one noticeable effect that the altitude had on me was difficulty breathing. If I took a deep breath, my lungs hurt, they almost felt a bit like burning. I have in a previous life been a smoker (of cigarettes) and it felt absolutely nothing like that, or the feeling of a short jog after smoking a few. My lungs just hurt, and it wasn't very comfortable.

On the way to Lava Tower

It wasn't until we were well into our descent (towards Barranco Camp) that it felt like someone gently placed my head in a vice and ever so slowly started to tighten. The feeling didn't get better as we relaxed in camp (which lies at 3,940m ASL), dinner time came and I managed to get the soup down before the main (of harmless vegetarian pasta) stared me in the face and made my stomach feel awful. Try as I may I just couldn't manage to take fork from table to plate to mouth. Fortunately I didn't bring up any of my lunch - or anything at all for that matter. Sleeping wasn't comfortable but on Emmanuel's advice I kept a CamelBak next to my sleeping bag and drank as much water as I could - which helped, but also meant I was constantly getting up to go to the bathroom.

The following morning I woke up, headache was gone and my appetite was back.

Day 4

Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp

Altitude: 3,940m to 3,900m (acclimatisation at 4,200m)

Though I didn't manage to get much sleep that night (thanks to the headache, nausea and constant need to use the bathroom), I woke up feeling good. My headache had subsided and I wasn't feeling nauseous. To make things better the view from our camp really made it look like we had made it to an island above the clouds. I managed to take down every course of breakfast and was ready to take on the day.

We started off with a short trek to the base of the Barranco wall which we could already see from camp. We tried to take photos and videos to help describe what it was like on the wall, but none of them even come close to doing it justice. The wall is the only real "climbing" part of the Macheme trek but it certainly was interesting. There were climbers, porters and guides all making their way up the wall at the same time. The porters leave camp after packing everything up which gives the climbers a bit of a head start, but then the porters speed past us after a couple of hours, and unfortunately that point of the day happened to be as we were climbing the wall. There were constant bottlenecks and traffic jams, we would have to stop for the porters, the porters would stop for us, it was carnage but after a couple of hours we finally reached the top of the wall for a quick break. I still can't understand how the porters make it up that wall with all the gear they carry.

Climbing the Barranco wall
Climbing the Barranco wall

After our break we continued on a mostly downhill route towards camp. There was one point where we could see our camp and it looked really close, but unfortunately there was a huge valley in the way that we had to traverse. By this point in the hike I realised that someone really needs to come through the trek and install zip-lines.

We made it to Karanga camp at 3,900m ASL in the early evening, got settled then Baraka took us for a quick acclimatisation walk to 4,200m ASL. This time the altitude had very little effect on us and really raised our spirits, after an evening and morning that begun to fill us with doubts.

Later that night after questioning why there was so much yelling for "GORONCHO!" before our acclimatisation walk I discovered that the reason why it was Baraka and not Father Fred or Emmanuel taking us on the acclimatisation walk was because the guides and porters were playing cards in the tent to see who had to take us on the walk.

Day 5

Karanga Camp to Barafu (base) Camp

Altitude: 3,900m to 4,600m

This were starting to get real now. We were only hours away from making our attempt on the summit. The plan was to walk for a few hours to Barafu camp, rest, have dinner, sleep then wake up at midnight for our attempt.

We walked up the same hill we did our acclimatisation on the evening before then continued on to Barafu; Ivona continued with her task to pick up all the blue and yellow that were being dropped by a porter/guide/hiker with a ridiculously sweet tooth. After a few hours we arrived at camp located at 4,600m ASL, signed in and made our way to our tents.

Arriving at Barafu Hut camp

We had a quick snack, nap then woke up for dinner. Had a last little briefing with Emmanuel then went to our tent to try and get as much rest before we set-off. I can't speak for Ivona but from 6pm-midnight I managed to get at most 2 hours sleep. Thankfully, however, I was lying down the whole time so was plenty rested when we finally woke up at midnight. Well, I'm not sure if you would say we woke up, or were shaken aware fiercely by the winds ravaging our tent; I think the last dream I was having was something to do with being at sea as when I woke up I was being rocked as if I were on a boat. We would see just how windy it was when we came back from our attempt.

We layered on, and I mean we really layered on. This is what I wore for the ascent. Bottoms: shoes, two pairs of thick socks, hiking boots, underpants, knee-length compression shorts, long-johns and snow pants. Tops: compression long-sleeve shirt, t-shirt, thermal long-sleeve t-shirt, regular long-sleeve t-shirt, fleece jumper and wind-proof jacket, with a spare down jacket in my bag as backup. Two pairs of gloves (woollen and snowboarding) and a beanie (tuque, bobcap, wool hat, stocking cap, whatever you want to call it).

Day 6


Departure: 12:10am, Stellar point: 06:25am, Uhuru: 07:30am. Summit temp: -5C (approx), Ascent temp: -15C (average approx) with wind

Altitude: 4,600m to 5,985m (summit) to 3,100m

When we finally emerged from our tents into the howling wind we noticed something missing. The mess tent was situated right in front of our tent, but in the gusting wind it had come loose and was blown away. Initially I thought the porters had just taken it down, but the pegs hadn't held and some of the ropes snapped, luckily it blew down into a region that wasn't too windy and was caught on some rocks so it could be recovered.

We set off very, very slowly just after midnight (12:10 for those who must know everything). Slowly making our way out of camp, slowly making our way towards the constant incline that would lead us to the peak.

Looking up the mountain - something I did twice, and vowed not to do again - was phenomenal. It was pitch blank, all we could see was a trail of headlamps from people who left before us, and stars over what was the peak of the mountain. It was hard to tell where the headlamps ended and where the stars began. Looking up and seeing how many people were in front of us, how high they were and how far we still had to go was extremely disheartening so I stuck to my original plan of keeping my head down and staring at the back of Emmanuel's boots.

We would stop occasionally to use the bathroom, get snacks, rearrange clothing. But we made sure to keep every break as short as possible - a tactic Emmanuel told us was much better to the alternative where we would climb and climb and climb then rest for a longer period. The people who took that approach seemed to be having a lot more difficulty than us, so we were grateful. Once we reached about 4,800m I started to feel ill again, a mild sense of nausea came over me and my head felt like it was put in a clamp - to start with the clamp was fairly loose but as we kept ascending the clamp tightened. I tried to eat some of my chocolate bar, I managed to get a couple of nibbles off the end but it was too frozen and I was too nauseous to eat anymore.

There was one point where we had been walking for so long that I felt as if I were sleep-walking. I snapped myself out of it and we kept going.

As it was reaching 6:00am the horizon begun to turn a beautiful colour of orange and we knew the sun was on its way. It was the first time Ivona asked Emmanuel what the time was, his stuttered response of "three..." almost broke our hearts before he said the "... to six am" part. A short while before this we walked past another hiker who had an altitude watch on and was telling her companion that they were at 5.5km ASL. The sight of the sun rising through the clouds and over the Tanzanian country side was absolutely amazing, something words (at least, not mine) can't describe. Everything was falling into place, we realised that we could, and that we would do it.

The amazing sun rises to guide us the rest of the way to the top...

Once the sun was well on it's way the air started to warm, we no longer needed our headlamps and we were only moments away from reaching the peak.

At 6:25am we reached Stella Point - the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, but not quite the summit. Emmanuel and Father Fred brought along a thermos to give us a cup of tea. By this point my head was really starting to pound and it was starting to get a bit uncomfortable. The tea helped with my nausea and I managed to get a bit more of my chocolate bar down. We took a few photos at the sign, had a quick bathroom break then continued on to the summit. It was surprising to see how many people made it to Stella point but seemed to give up with an hour to go to the Uhuru.

Forcing a smile at Stella Point

After an hour of hiking along relatively flat ground and staring in awe at the huge glaciers that have thus far survived global warming, at 7:30am we made it to Uhuru - the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. Along the way we saw a Chinese fellow who was suffered from acute altitude sickness, so we stopped to give him some words of encouragement, he really was only 15 minutes away from the peak. Shortly after we arrived at the sign our Chinese friend made it as well, a little dazed and confused and only wanting one photo he made several attempts to photo bomb our group photos under the sign. In the end he got his photo and his proof that he made it.

Finally at the top

We took a moment and looked around, seeing Africa in every direction laid out before us as far as the eye could see, across the border into Kenya and Moshi (Tanzania) in the distance. Standing there it was definitely clear that we'd reached a milestone, we made it; the forced smile on my face begun to turn to a natural one. I had climbed a mountain, I did something that others can't and won't, I pushed myself through the pain and reached the top. I did think for a moment why I was standing on the roof of Africa, but quickly quashed that thought - it no longer mattered, I was there.

The way down was a lot quicker than the way up, but by no means was it easier. We started off basically skiing our way through the ash down, having to break occasionally - it required much more physical exertion than on the way up, by the time we reached the "bottom" my knees and hips were already starting to burn.

After a couple of hours of skidding our way to the bottom we made it back to Barafu camp, one of our porters - Venance - came out to meet us as we were about 100m from camp to help Emmanuel with the 5kg oxygen tank he'd carried all the way up and down. He asked us if we had made it and we told him we had and he gave us a big congratulations, it brought a smile to our face as we walked the rest of the way back to camp. As we arrived back to camp the porters were all sitting around the cook's tent and when they saw us Baraka was on his feet cheering and starting a song, all the porters joined in celebrating our return and praising us for being strong enough to make it, and congratulating themselves for doing their job and helping us make it. They were singing in Swahili so obviously at the time I had no idea what they were singing about but you could get the gist of it and Emmanuel explained it to us afterwards. After the song Baraka came out of the cook's tent with what might as well have been champagne, in the form of a Coca-Cola bottle, a celebratory drink for making it.

We had lunch in camp - the mess tent had been recovered and carefully pieced back together, napped for about an hour or so then continued on to our final camping place. The walk was long and painful on the hips/knees but after a while I couldn't really feel the pain anymore.

We made it to Mekwa camp about an hour before the sun went down, set ourselves up in the tent, ate our last dinner with Emmanuel, recapping what we'd achieved that day, then headed off to bed.

Day 7

Mekwa Gate: The end.

Altitude: 3,100m to 1,800m

We woke after a very stress-less night's sleep to our ritualistic morning tea and biscuits delivered to our tent by Baraka. We split up all our belongings into what we wanted and what we would give to our guides/porters, then went out for breakfast.

Our porters had another song to once again congratulate us and themselves and recap our journey up and down the mountain, then Venance had his own song to sing for us about the differences in our races but how we are all the same people. We handed out our tips and gave a big thank you to our porters, cook and guides.

Our crew

From Mekwa camp to gate was only a few hours hike, we got one last look at what we achieved part of the way down. As we were getting close to gate there were more people around, women and children of the Chaga tribe. The women were cutting grass to take down the mountain to feed their goats and cows, the children were on the side of the road begging for chocolate.

One last look

We arrived at Mekwa gate, signed out and bought some souvenirs. Then made our way through all the locals trying to trade my sunglasses and hat for paraphernalia - no chance. We arranged a place to hand out all the goods we'd brought from home for the porters. The clothes were neatly arranged then in order of seniority everyone went through picking what they wanted, it was good seeing that what we no longer needed/wanted would be put to good use.

The previous day had been a slow reintroduction to "civilisation" and being around other people, and today we slowly made our way back to town. We passed through Moshi so I could buy a souvenir t-shirt of Mount Kilimanjaro - surprisingly no one on the mountain thought to sell t-shirts? Crazy, I know.

Then we arrived back at our hotel in Arusha, the same one we stayed at the night before we started our climb. We went to our room, had very long individual showers then went down to have a celebratory Kilimanjaro Lager - the first one was on the house thanks, the hotel offers a free beer to all those who successfully reached the summit.


And so ends my Kilimanjaro experience. Will I do it again? Not any time soon, but who knows? It was an experience and I'm glad I did it. A very big thank you to Ivona for taking me on the adventure of a lifetime and also to our friends at Kensington Tours and High Peaks for all their help and support in getting us up and down the mountain safely!

I leave you with a quote from JFK, just replace 'moon' with 'Mount Kilimanjaro.'

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

John F. Kennedy – September 12, 1962