Thursday, 16 October 2008

Mount Kilimanjaro ascent


At 05:30hrs on Friday 10th October I reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain on the African continent at 5895 metres above sea level!! The immense satisfaction and happiness of completing this challenge is well worth the aches and pains I’m feeling as I type this report.

James flew out to join me from the UK two days before we set off and in the lead up to the off we gathered our kit together and filled up on supplies essential for the trek.

Day 1 – Machame Gate to Machame Camp, 18km, 1800m ascent.

At 8am on Day 1 the minibus arrived in the camp loaded with our guide, John, our chef Emmanuel and three porters all of whom are accomplished Kili-ascendants from many past trips. I said a sad goodbye to Bre who unfortunately couldn’t afford the high cost of the trip and would act as a superb guard for the Colonel whilst we went off to find our mountain, and drove east towards Moshi and the entrance to Kilimanjaro National Park and the Machame Gate where we’d commence our climb from.

The further east we went the darker the clouds became until we eventually hit the driving rain, not the best way to start off our six day hike! We turned off the tar road towards Machame and up a slippery muddy road slowly gaining altitude until, with the aid of a skilful driver and a 4wd minibus, arrived at the departure gate along with around 30 other tourists all waiting to pit their wits against one of the highest free standing mountains in the world.

The kit was equally split between the three porters, the chef and the assistant guide, Solomon until each of them were heavily weighed down by our backpacks and the supplies which would carry us through the next week. We’d later in the trip find out quite how balanced, tough and quick these guys really are and why they deserve the tips they receive!

We started our climb up through the forest in a persistent cloud which seemed to hover over the forest and had to wear ponchos and rain jackets to stay dry…hard to stay cold though as the temperature was still 25°c! We walked at a good speed and the training Jimmy had put in back in the UK was showing as we raced along at ascent speeds of up to 15 metres per minute, the well maintained track passing through stunning woodland with bird song and bright flowers all the way. We stopped at 3.00pm for a bite of pre packed lunch to replace the exertions of the morning and continued the trek.

The rain and clouds continued to swirl around us making the path slippery and hard work but after an hour Solomon happily announced we’d arrived at our camp for the night…a collection of bare areas amongst the rocks! The porters hadn’t managed to catch us and we spent the next hour pacing around the site waiting for them to arrive…and when they did I noticed I hadn’t put the rain cover over my backpack, result – one wet sleeping bag, balls.

We eventually had our tent erected, got out of the rain and laid out our wet kit hoping that it’d have a chance to dry out overnight even though the temperature was dropping rapidly as the evening drew in. Dinner was prepared by our chef and guess what, it was only fish and chips for the Englishmen!! After the days exertion we hit the sack around 7pm following a few games of shithead to pass an hour or two.

Day 2 – Machame Camp to Shira Hut, 6km, 840m ascent

Up at 5.30am after one of the longest sleeps ever! Eventually got ourselves out of the sleeping bags (which had finally dried out) and ready for breakfast around 6am to be presented with a delightful breakfast which we enthusiastically scoffed down, the sun was poking its head through the clouds giving us confidence for the day ahead and a clear view of Mt Meru in the distance. The peak of Kili however remained elusive behind the mist.

Left the camp at 8am and within half an hour the ominous clouds had caught us up and started to empty their delightful wet contents over us, another wet day in the offering. The first part of the climb was steep and crossed more maintained track before becoming a rocky track which wound off into the distance to our lunch site for the day, and for the first time the cloud appeared to be thinning, hurrah!

As we arrived at our campsite the familiar story of our speed on the trek was rewarded by a lack of porter and no tent. The rain hadn’t started again, until of course we stopped and then the heavens opened again, balls x 2! Once he did arrive we bedded down and eagerly stuffed popcorn, tea and hot chocolate down warming our damp, cold bodies.

Day 3 – Shira Hut to Barranco Hut, 10km, 110m ascent

Being almost another 1000m up the night was really cold, down to about 2°c and a frosty tent welcomed us as we squeezed out of the tent entrance at 5.30am to a stunning sunrise giving us renewed hope for the day ahead. The orange and purple glow of the horizon signalled the approach of the sunrise and as it hit the horizon it cast a shadow of Kili’s peak on the western skyline, awesome.

The morning breakfast was porridge, eggs and fruit to fuel us along for the day and we hit the trail at 8.15am. The first two hours of the day were a gentle climb but again the usual story of the morning’s sun heating the ground below and forming rising clouds, maybe we should have expected it as it was the start of the rainy season but hugely disappointing all the same!

We were the first group to leave in the morning and kept the lead all the way through the day! As we hit the halfway point of the day the Lava Tower came into sight, an imposing 100m high mass blasted up through the side of the mountain when it was formed and made a good place for an early lunch. The little stripy mice particularly appreciative of our choice as they munched down our leftovers. We’d followed a nuisance trekker all the way over the last three days acting as a little ‘Hansel and Gretel’ dropping the same type of sweet wrapper every km or so….WHAT THE HELL GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO DO IT YOU MONKEY!! Kili is a pretty dirty mountain around the campsites with non-degradable plastics littering the area and it really annoys me. Hmmmm.

We followed the track down to our overnight rest camp and finally arrived after our porters to find the camp set up and tea on the boil, it had taken us five hours and finally got the legs pumping in earnest! Usual story of dinner, shithead then bed at 7.00pm.

Day 4 – Barranco Hut to Barafu Hut, 8km, 650m ascent

A superb night’s sleep and awake before the alarm at 5.30am with another perfect pink and orange sunrise but this time with just light cloud below us….could this be the day it improved?!

Left camp at 8am and headed east a few hundred yards before hitting the monstrosity and most imposing part of the climb so far, The Barranco Breakfast Wall! A 300m long very steep sided, hand over hand ascent along the river valley which meant packing the poles away and literally clinging to the rock face. The wall is out of the morning sun and with the temperature around freezing our fingers got cold very quickly – a taste of things to come! Once we’d passed this testing little obstacle we returned to the alpine tundra and the dusty track which zigzagged up the slope clearly visible in front of us to a height of 4600m.

After lunch we dropped into another steep sided valley before starting the 2hr descent back down to 4200m and our overnight camp. The clouds were rolling in now and the temperature again dropped away with the visibility down to only around 20m at times, the landscape was very barren with single spewn out rocks littering the surroundings and slate fields all around jutting out of the ground, the rocks making metallic sounds as our poles hit them. The landscape resembles a lunar one.

Our porters had by now caught us balancing their gear on their heads, how on earth they got up the mornings wall I’ll never know! We arrive at the camp after six hours of trekking, all the time the thinness of the air and the altitude making going more and more difficult but the rewards of being up the side of Africa’s highest being a fantastic pay-off! As we sit down for dinner the sun shines onto the summit for the first time exposing the challenge of the next day to us in all its glory. Tomorrow is a huge day so we finish dinner around 4pm and try to settle in for the night.

Its amazing that when you need to rest as you have an early start the next day, quite how difficult it is to fall asleep and the sound of snow on the outside of the tent didn’t help, dashing our hopes of reaching the summit as the path would be unusable after a heavy fall. We dropped off soon after with trepidation filling our dreams.

Day 4 – Barafu Hut to Summit and Mweke Gate, 27km, 1200m ascent / 4100m descent

This was it, the day of the big ascent, the culmination of the past four days trekking and a real test of our mettle! After a shortened nights sleep with the snow and wind hitting the sides of the tent the alarm prematurely went off at 11.30pm but the potential and excitement of the day ahead ensured we leapt up were there to greet the chef as he tapped on the front of the tent with a thermos of hot tea and some sugary biscuits as our only fuel for the next few hours. The sky was clear, the outside temperature around -5°c and as a blessing no wind at all. By the time we’d got ourselves dressed and poked our heads outside the tent we could already see a trail of head torches making their way up the steep scree slope to the north which led, after 6ish hours to the summit of this the next challenge, Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro!

John was ready, our bottles were filled again with boiled river water and the nod was given; now was the time to go. ‘Pole Pole’ literally means slowly, slowly in Swahili and was the key phrase we’d been given to repeat to ourselves by John at the start of the trek. It helps to ascend as slowly as possible to acclimatise well and stand the best possible chance of actually making it to the summit – some 35% of people suffer the effects of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) on their attempt at Kili and we didn’t want to become another negative statistic!

The first scree slope we’d take on that morning was a zigzagging path which we trundled up for what seemed like hours, four in fact, and as we went we slowly caught in turn each of the groups in front of us and overtook them, our greater fitness showing!

As we ascended the air became thinner and at times both of us were breathing really deeply even though our legs were doing very little in the way of real work, a testament to the lack of oxygen at the 5000m we were now at. As we neared the top of the scree we noticed four head torches approaching from the left hand side, another group who were making for the top via a different path and this spurred us on further, the final 150m ascent of the steepest part of the slope really taking it out of us, but we were there; Stella Point at 5750m above sea level.

The relief of making it this far was greeted by the bitterly cold wind which swept in as we arrived so to maintain warmth we kept on pushing to the summit across hard, snow covered ground which did nothing to warm the toes through out boots. The angle of the slope had now decreased as we approached the final 150 metres to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the African continent, and as we passed the final group the first signs of light were starting to show on the horizon behind us.

With a spring in our step we marched on to the highest point and the wooden sign which symbolised the completion of our climb and also the completion of challenge number seven…..and what an amazing, emotional feeling! My amazing friend Char, who died in the tsunami disaster, had been here before me when she was only 16 years old so I built a cairn and left a photo of me and her under one of the stones as a personal memorial.

We took our photos, sent a few text messages as there is reception would you believe and that was about it, the cold was intense; around -25°c with the wind chill taken into effect. As soon as you removed your glove the exposed fingers were numb within 30 seconds, so we waited for the sunrise around 6.10am and turned and headed down the path we’d come up as quickly as possible!

We were lucky as there were only another 10 people up there for the sunrise and as we descended passed at least another 50 on their way slowly to the summit and offered our support for the final few minutes until they shared in our success. Our guide said we’d made it up so fast that we’d be able to make it all the way down to the gate that day rather than splitting it into two and staying the night on the hill again…some 20kms along and 4100m down, bring on the challenge!

The descent was down a slippery dusty scree slope, back to the tents only took one and a half hours so we caught the chef off guard so had to wait an hour for our breakfast broth to arrive. As soon as we’d scoffed it down and packed our kit up we were off again, the descent taking a different path down via the Mweke route, the park employs a one way system to help the flow of people around the mountain and we didn’t meet another person on the trek down to the first campsite….the one we were supposed to be staying at!

After a quick drink we started off again, the legs starting to feel the down hill and the constant banging of thigh muscles and knee joints. We took four and a half hours to reach the gate, as soon as we arrived the boots and socks were off to inspect the damage, I’d got away with a couple of small blisters and a bruised big toe nail but nothing too major. Lucky as I have the Nairobi Marathon in a fortnight’s time and the last thing I need is damaged feet going into it!

We took some photos of the group and waited for the minibus to arrive to take us back to the Masai Camp, Bre and a well earned dinner!

Total distance: 60kms
Total days: 5
Total ascent/descent: 4000m

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