Written by Doris Dondur
Ever since my teenage years I’ve dreamt about summiting the highest point in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, and this dream became a goal to be fulfilled before my 50th birthday. I would unlikely be in a position again – both from a preparation and financial perspective – to have another shot at it; so I needed to make 100% certain that I did everything possible to prepare myself with the best possible chance to summit Uhuru Peak.
I researched the trekking operators extensively and knew that from a high standard, ethical behaviour towards the porters and guides and simply the best-run trekking operators perspective; there was only one company that I would consider…and that would be Wild Frontiers. They also have one of the best successful summit records! This….give yourself the best possible chance – became my mantra from the time that I had confirmed my trekking dates to the moment I stood at Uhuru Peak.
Every decision I took about my Kilimanjaro experience was formulated around this. So I decided to:
- Summit at full moon – when the sunrise was most spectacular
- Add a day to aid my acclimatisation and thereby assist with the prevention of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
- Do a solo climb as opposed to trek as part of a group
- Train as much and as correctly as I could to be as fit as I could be for this trip
- Research as much as I could about other people’s experiences at summiting Kilimanjaro and what I should take into account as lessons from these experiences
- Ensure that I had the best possible gear I could afford but without going overboard on items I would be unlikely to ever use again
- Keep reminding myself – Go ‘pole pole’ (slowly, slowly in Swahili) up the mountain – this is the surest way to successfully reach the top! This was always most likely to be the biggest challenge to my very competitive spirit – when people pass me and I want to keep up with them – go ahead of them, walk as fast as possible to get to the next overnight camp – NO!
I was to do a solo climb with a support team of guides and porters (here I thought it would be a guide and perhaps 2 porters)…I ended up with a support team of 7 people! I also arranged appointments with my biokineticist who worked out a Kilimanjaro specific program for me; which I followed very closely and under his very watchful eye. Climbing the Westcliff stairs 10 times up and down with a full day pack (the contents of which were four full two litre bottles of frozen water) and with my hiking boots also became part of my routine. As did me walking at a very steep gradient on the treadmill at gym, at a very fast speed, with a 12 kg Bulgarian Bag on my shoulders. I was super fit (I had successfully run my first marathon earlier in the year so I knew that fitness and perseverance and tenacity would not be challenges I needed to overcome with this adventure).
Whilst the summit is not something that should be attempted without adequate preparation and a reasonable level of fitness, it is achievable – especially as there is no/very little technical skill required (depending on which route one decides to take to the top).
From the many routes available, I chose the Machame-Mweka Route; simply because it is described as the most scenic route and I had the option to add a day to go up in altitude and descent, thereby giving my body more time and a better opportunity to acclimatise to the very thin air and lack of oxygen and so reduce the likelihood of contacting acute mountain sickness.
Tuesday, 14 June 2016
My arrival at the hotel in Moshi, Tanzania is uneventful, but obviously everyone who is staying at the hotel is about to attempt the summit to Uhuru Peak…there is a buzz and an electric atmosphere of excitement that envelops the hotel. I get to my room and repack everything and pretty much empty the contents from my day pack which had everything from my wet weather gear, sleeping bag, water bottles, solar chargers and all essential odds and ends I could not do without if my luggage had gotten lost, delayed or stolen…My travel document said that “The Keys Hotel, your base hotel, is one of the best hotels in town. [although fairly basic by South African standards] The staff are very friendly and nothing is too much trouble”. This is absolutely true.
Trek Day 1: Wednesday, 15 June 2016
Starting altitude: 1,811 m
End of day altitude: 2,835 m
Distance covered: 11 km
I am awake early, super pumped, excited, and ready to go. I reread the route description for the umpteenth time: ”The Machame Route is a popular route by which to ascend the mountain. Nights are spent in ‘alpine tents’ and all your supplies and camping equipment are portered up for you and your meals are prepared. Your personal baggage limit is 12 kg for the climb (this is what the porter will carry and excludes your day pack that you will need to carry). The guides employed are excellent (some have climbed Kili over 400 times)! They are employed by the Keys Hotel and have looked after a multitude of clients. Each trip is led by a senior guide, with other guides in a ratio of approximately one guide per 2 or 3 climbers – if you are a bit slower than the rest or get ill and have to descend, a guide will always be with you.
Food served on the mountain is generally plain and wholesome, including a lot of carbohydrates, stews, soups, vegetables and fresh fruit. We pack up and squeeze into a 4×4, and get driven to the National Park gate – the Machame gate, which is just under an hour away from the hotel. The admin process did not take too long and we are off – my heart is pounding – this is REALLY happening – I am about to embark on the biggest adventure of my life so far. I refuse to try and locate the peak – I know what lies ahead. I am somewhat disappointed when we arrive at the first overnight camp – Machame Camp – as I realize that I have not even broken into a sweat at any point during the day or felt that I was overexerting myself. I was enthralled by the peace, solitude and serenity of walking through the rain forest. Today’s low light…the long drops are as bad as I was warned about!
The first part of the hike follows a 4×4 track, after which it becomes narrower and steeper, following one of the ridges up the mountain. Our porters had walked (truth be told – they ran) ahead and by the time we get to camp my tent is set up and my duffel bag placed neatly inside it. I get asked for my sleeping bag so that it can be neatly spread out and the sleeping bag liner placed inside it (It is essential as the temperature drops to below zero soon after as the sun sets). I also hand over my water bottles, hydration system (the camel back) and water purification tablets, as one of the porters fills them up and adds the water purification tablets. I take out my inflatable mattress and as soon as I start inflating it one of the porters rushes over and takes it from me, inflates it and places it under my sleeping bag. I luckily realize that they are completely focused on me not expending a single unit of unnecessary energy, as I will need to use every possible bit of energy on summit night. This becomes a ritual over the next five days. When I get to camp, my tent is set up, sleeping bag neatly unfolded, mattress inflated and even my little pillow is in position. Oh and most importantly, my tea is ready a few minutes after I arrive at camp each day and the tea is always accompanied by a snack – popcorn, biscuits, flap jacks, or freshly roasted peanuts.
I also very quickly understand that my every move is watched very closely – am I walking steadily, am I tired, am I drinking enough water, am I cramping, do my walking strides vary from day to day? I see through all of it….the porter who brings my food, checks how much I eat and Isaac comes and “complains” that I am not eating enough and I am going to struggle from day four if I continue eating “like I am on diet”. The porter who takes my water bottles from me at night is actually checking how much water I consumed during the day and again I get “moaned at” if I have not had at least 3 liters of water…I also realize that my “water provider” has taken my water purification tablets so as to make 100% sure that it is not a “end of day” task that I forget… and end up with diarrhea and severe stomach cramps which force me to turn around. Isaac and I also establish a ritual of “debriefing” after I have finished dinner and discussing the route for the following day and what I should look out for. Isaac is meticulously pedantic with checking that my blood pressure is 100%, that I am breathing normally and even my pulse gets taken a few times each day. Bottom line: conditions are difficult on this route, and your guide/porters will do everything they can to make your climb as pleasant and as comfortable as possible.
Trek Day 2: Thursday, 16 June 2016
Starting altitude: 2,835 m
End of day altitude: 3,840 m
Distance covered: 9 km
Today we ascend to Shira Hut, 3,800 m.
The trekking today is much steeper than yesterday and at a constant gradient – so I remind myself – pole-pole – keep going at the slow, steady pace Isaac has told me to take. Further along the route there are a few flatter sections, with a few steep ascents in between. From the lunch stop we start traversing westwards, which makes the hiking a lot easier, as it is at a more relaxed angle. There are one or two relatively steep spots along the way, but nothing serious. After crossing the ridge, we descend down to camp on the Shira Plateau – it’s a pretty exposed & cold campsite, in the morning the ground and tents are frozen over. There’s a magnificent sunset and sunrise though!
Trek Day 3: Friday, 17 June 2016
Starting altitude: 3,840 m
End of day altitude: 3,950 m
Distance covered: 15 km
Isaac warns me before we start our trek after breakfast: “Today is a long and tiring day, but essential to your acclimatization.” We walk for about 8 to 9 hours up to 4,600m and I am completely amazed at how picturesque the alpine desert is, even though only the hardiest of plant species can survive in this extremely harsh terrain. On parts of the route toward Lava Tower it looks like a lunar landscape, with nothing but dust and huge round lava rocks, and it creates the illusion that I am walking on the moon. At the Lava Tower Isaac insists I have a hot lunch so my support teams sets up the mess tent and the kitchen tent just to prepare a hot lunch consisting of soup, freshly fried chips, vegetables, roast chicken, and fresh fruit for dessert. After lunch we descend, dropping back down to an altitude 3,950m at Barranco Camp.
We walk up a ridge, straight toward the cone of Kibo, and have good views of the ice field on the western side of the mountain, and the ancient glacier of the Breach Wall on Kibo. From here there are a few steep downhill sections, especially to get back down to Barranco. The whole idea of today is to hike to a higher altitude and return to sleep at a lower altitude. This should help immensely with acclimatization. This is my favorite camp and the most beautiful one with a magnificent view of Kibo from camp and the Umbwe Valley below, neither of which I saw when we arrived in the dark the previous night. I am gob smacked when I crawl out of my tent the following morning and see this beauty (pictured above).
Trek Day 4: Saturday, 18 June 2016
Starting altitude: 3,950 m
End of day altitude: 4,040 m
Distance covered: 6 km
The first obstacle this morning is a steep, near vertical, rocky ridge known as the Barranco Wall, which looks like a sheer rock face and terrifies me completely. I contemplate what I have gotten myself into? For the first time I start having doubts about my sanity. The top, which is of course much further than “just around the corner”, which is what Isaac keeps telling me for a good 2-3 hours, has spectacular views of Kibo once again. After this we descend sharply into the Karanga Valley.
Trek Day 5: Sunday, 19 June 2016
Starting altitude: 4,040 m
End of day altitude: 4,600 m
Distance covered: 4 km
There is a short, but steep ascent out of the valley, and from there we continue across to Barafu Camp. We only walk for four hours and Isaac keeps telling me: “Drink more water, you are now in a ‘desert’ area, even though the temperature is below zero. You need to be well hydrated as tomorrow will be a long hard day.” We trek through a very rocky and inhospitable terrain, where very little vegetation can be seen, but the amazing views of Kilimanjaro’s two peaks, Mawenzi and Kibo, make up for the lack of vegetation.
We get to Barafu at midday, I am told to eat a good portion of lunch and then rest and have a nap as I need to gather all my strength I possibly can for the summit that will follow this evening. It is very cold, it’s drizzling and the camp area is covered under a very thick cloud layer; it really is a miserable day up here. I decide to have a nap and fall asleep rather quickly and get woken up with the now very familiar sounding voice: “Hello …HELLO….the food is ready” I am not hungry…and Isaac insists that I eat. I say I can’t, Isaac says I must. Isaac wins.
He comes back after dinner, listens to me breathing and I am told to improve on the pace of my breathing. “It is very important to listen to your body and breathing and try to get into a rhythm.” Isaac says we practice the ‘Kili shuffle’, putting one foot in front of the other…very, very slowly! He tells me that I MUST listen to him and if he says I have to turn around, I must do just that! He continues by saying that it will be very cold tomorrow – especially when we stop for lunch and rest after the summit and when the adrenaline subsides. I am told to dress warmly and we meticulously go through my gear. He reminds me to arrange all my summit gear as the temperature when I wake up will be well below freezing.
My summit gear is all ready and sorted and has been since I packed my duffel bag in Johannesburg. Three pairs of socks (inner thins, a trekker middle thickness pair and the summit very thick woolen ones I also place a heat pad into each of the top socks) and five layers of bottoms (my special Kilimanjaro thermalite tights, professional climalite thermal long johns, fleece pants, hiking pants and on top of all of that my waterproof pants). Oh, and for good measure we add my knee high gaiters to round it all off. My tops: two pairs of thermalite bodywarmers, a wicker layer, a thin fleece top, a thick fleece top and then the three-in-one snow jacket on top of all of that. Two pairs of fleece gloves, then a heat pad on top of every hand and then mittens to round off that picture. Two balaclavas cover my face with only my eyes protruding and to top it all off, my head lamp. I tell Isaac that I will surely get heat exhaustion from all of this, plus I am going to look like a very round snowman and I cannot possibly walk in all these layers of clothing.
Isaac checks my day pack; removes a few things and makes sure that my hydration system is full and in working condition. He adds my other two water bottles and turns them upside down in my day pack, as water freezes in a container from the top, so I can just turn it around and then drink in that manner. He concludes his briefing by giving me a flask full of tea and telling me to drink as much tea as possible, settle down and try to sleep for a few hours. He asks me if I have a headache, “No Isaac none at all.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, Isaac…(sigh)…I would NOT lie to you”.
He reminds me that we will be climbing up scree for approximately 4-5 hours. He will stop frequently to ensure that I rest and he will continuously check my breathing and oxygen saturation levels, reminding me that he is carrying portable oxygen if I need it. He ends by reinforcing that he and not I will be making the decision as to whether I am able to continue to Uhuru Peak…”Right Isaac, understood”. I do settle down as a sense of calm prevails over me…and fall asleep very quickly.
Trek Day 6: Monday, 20 June 2016 (Summit Day!)
Starting altitude: 4,600 m
Uhuru Peak altitude: 5,895 m
End of day altitude: 3,820 m at Millennium Camp
Distance covered: 23 km
I am woken up at 11 pm and offered hot, sweet tea and some biscuits. The chef has even prepared snacks for me to take along the route. Isaac and I set off shortly before midnight and the road ahead is a slow one – we are but two in a very long human queue of hikers – all with our headlamps on, whilst performing the Kili shuffle. The headlamps on the trail to the summit look like fireflies in a long curving row, while our hiking boots crunch-crunch over the frozen ground. Very few people are speaking as trying to speak is simply too much and the summit night on Kilimanjaro turns out to be slow, arduous and cold. This part of the trek is a tough test of mental resilience. I see people whom I got to know over the last five days, turning around, saying that they ‘simply cannot continue’. Some people are throwing up and being turned around by their guide, some climbers are coughing up blood and being forced to turn back by their guide, and many are simply crying because of the excruciating headaches, nausea and general lack of energy. Worst of all, for any climber, is knowing that this means the end of the dream to summiting Kili.
I keep wondering when I am going to get a headache or any other symptoms of AMS – I am unbelievably fortunate as I do not even have a mild headache and get to the crater rim and Gillman’s Point. Here I experience the most memorable and hypnotic sunrise ever – I am glued to the spot. The feeling of being above the clouds, high enough to see the curvature of Earth is humbling.
Less than five minutes further I reach Stella Point on top of the crater rim and…Uhuru Peak is in sight! The hike to Uhuru Peak takes about 45 minutes and I get that once-in-lifetime photograph of me standing next to the sign indicating that I have reached the highest point in Africa! The ultimate show-stopper view of the spectacular hanging glaciers from Uhuru Peak leave me overwhelmed with emotion and unable to speak or describe what I am feeling. I descend in high spirits as I have just achieved a goal that I had set for myself literally 30 years ago. I slide down the very dusty scree slope by skidding down the loose gravel with big steps and some sideways moves.
Rain descends on us during our last two hours of the descent before Barafu Camp. When we eventually arrive at High Camp and have had some warm food; Isaac and I decide that I have absolutely no symptoms of AMS. Due to the poor weather and my ability to handle the higher altitude exceptionally well, there is no need to descend to Mweka Camp, and we trek the additional two hours to Millenium camp, where we overnight. I do not think I have ever been so exhausted and due to this and the extreme excitement of the summit, I am fast asleep by 8 pm.
Trek Day 7
Starting altitude: 3,820 m
End of day altitude: 1,980 m
Distance covered: 16 km
My last day on the mountain; Isaac and I either run or walk the last few kilometres and it only takes us 3 hours to get to Mweka Gate. The forest is not quiet today; loeries abound and blue monkeys are jumping between the huge tropical trees. Amazing how the energy and atmosphere is so different from what it was a week ago. Today it is excitement whilst a week ago the feelings were more menacing, apprehensive and pensive. My last night in Moshi and with plenty to celebrate as I am presented with a certificate to attest to my successful summit! My Kilimanjaro expedition and experience has come to an end. I feel so enriched by this experience and can unequivocally state that this is not for the faint hearted – it tested me to my limits – both physically and mentally.