Well, what can you do after that Wing Walk that life changing challenges organised?
Simple answer – Kilimanjaro!
The trip had been organised quite some time ago and I’ve been preparing myself as best I could for the massive challenge of climbing to the roof of Africa. I am in mind and 59 and half stage for Skin Cancer I was met at Heathrow Airport by my companions for the trek - they were all 17! I did feel a little bit out of my depth and a little more apprehensive than I was already.
The flight to Nairobi was without any incident. Then we had quite a long stay over, waiting for a connecting flight to Kilimanjaro International. On the morning of the flight from Heathrow I had, for some reason, dashed to the Apple shop in London to buy some of the air tags - I must’ve known that one of my bags was going to be left at Nairobi! Once one of my 17-year-old companions showed me how to use the Find My option for the air tag. I informed the people at Kilimanjaro airport. My bag was still in Nairobi. We arrived at Springlands, Moshi quite late, and we all got to our rooms ready for a day, chilling around Moshi which is a vibrant, colourful town about 45 minutes from Kilimanjaro Airport.
We were also introduced to the guides who were to take us up Kilimanjaro. We discussed the kit that may be required and also a brief idea of the itinerary. We were all very excited.
Machame Gate to Machame Camp
•Elevation (ft): 5,400ft to 9,400ft
•Distance: 11 km
•Hiking Time: 5-7 hours
•Habitat: Rain Forest
The drive from Springlands Hotel, Moshi to the Mount Kilimanjaro National Park Gate took about 50 minutes. The journey passes through the village of Machame which is located on the lower slopes of the mountain. The park gate is where we assembled, and all the porters bags/camping equipment was weighed. The walk through the rain forest on a winding trail followed a ridge. Lower down, the 11km trail was a little muddy and slippery – not to mention sweaty!! Gaiters and trekking poles were a good idea here. The habitat of the rainforest provides great cover for Team Mongoose at Machame Gate, some wildlife including monkeys and several varieties of birds. It’s only around 20 minutes from the forest edge to Machame Camp. Our first overnight on Kilimanjaro!
Machame Camp to Shira Camp
•Elevation (ft): 9,400ft to 12,595ft
•Distance: 5.5 km
•Hiking Time: 4 – 5 hours
So, an easier day today, a shorter walk and more time to try and acclimatise further up Kilimanjaro. It was quite strenuous climbing up to Shira Plateau and finally reaching Shira Caves, our campsite for the evening. All through the climb the porters had been racing past us as if we were standing. Olivia and Charlie (the fastest of our group of 5) kept steaming ahead and not really paying any attention to the altitude that we were at. During the walk Olivia also found some obsidian rock which is scattered around this area.
The vegetation has changed significantly and small chunky trees with a green leaf top dot the area. These are helichrysums and are found above 3000m. Also, we found some lobelias along the trail.
Shira Caves to Barranco Camp via Lava Tower
•Elevation (ft): 12,500ft to 13,000ft
•Distance: 10 km
•Hiking Time: 6-8 hours
•Habitat: Semi Desert
On this part of the climb only 482ft lies between the altitudes of the campsites (Shira Cave and Barranco). BUT it’s a day used to gain altitude on the way up to Lava Tower which stands at 15,180ft. The day starts reasonably easily as the path meanders through the plateau. The vegetation has again changed with only a few lichens and everlastings able to survive at this height.
The day was quite tough especially due to the height gain at Lava Tower where we settled for lunch and a very well-earned rest. The terrain that we had negotiated to get to Lava Tower was very barren and rocky, often parts were incredibly steep, and you could feel the effort required really kicking in!!
The rest at Lava Tower was a welcome one. Time to try and acclimatise and get your body used to the thinning oxygen. Not a place to stay for too long. Limbs were tired and an overwhelming desire for sleep set in. Lava Tower was once something that people could climb – but this is no longer an option. I would have loved to try, but feeling as I did it was probably not a good idea!!
Then off we went again after trying to eat something and rest. Off to Barranco Camp. The route drops steeply south to a stream, rises, and falls a few times then drops steeply into Barranco Valley. Absolutely beautiful part of the climb – but tough!
Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp
•Elevation (ft): 13,000ft to 15,000ft
•Hiking Time: 8-10 hours
•Habitat: Alpine Desert
We started hiking to go from Barranco camp to Barafu Camp early in the morning covering 10 km and almost 700 net height meters (much more if you count the ups and downs of the trail).
We headed off a bit earlier than usual, to beat the hordes of tourists that were to start at 07:30 and avoid the “traffic jams” at the very narrow passages there. Also, it’s good not to be behind anyone afraid of heights – then the going gets very slow. The early start meant that we once again woke up before dawn and made breakfast while we took down the camps and repacked.
First, we started with the Barranco Wall, which is known for looking impossibly steep from below – but turning out to be just a fun non-technical scrambling challenge. The legendary Kissing Rock (or Hugging Rock, whatever you call it – the important part is that you find a tight personal contact with it once you are on the way to pass it, otherwise you risk losing balance and falling off the path) was achieved with flying colours. It took us 2 hours of scrambling the cliff (roughly 200 height meters?) to reach Breakfast Point. That’s the point you reach as you manage to climb Barranco Wall – earning its name because no matter how much breakfast you’d had at the camp below, it seems to disappear while climbing Barranco and you are going to need a new breakfast right there.
We were well above the clouds, and the view was amazing. We went on in the semi-desert, along valleys and ridges, some members feeling better than others, and stopped at the stream just below Karanga camp, 2,5 hours and 6 km later, to have lunch and rest before the last 4 km with the steep ascent to Barafu (meaning Ice Camp), our last camp before the summit.
Not much to do. We wolfed down the dinner, and hurriedly packed the daypacks for the summit attempt. As this was done late in the afternoon/evening, half in the dark, a few things were forgotten, to the big sorrow of those who brought the gear all the way (many days, and over 2500 height meters in total) just to leave it in their tents for the most important day. Nevertheless, the most important part was to grab some sleep – no gear will help if you have a clouded mind. So, we tucked ourselves in, at some time around 20:00, to try and get some rest.
Barafu Camp to Uhuru Peak and the descent of Kilimanjaro
•Elevation (ft): 15,300ft to 19,345ft (and down to 10,000ft)
•Distance: 5 km ascent / 12 km descent
•Hiking Time: 7-8 hours ascent / 4-6 hours descent
Frankie, one of the porters was tasked to wake us at 11.00pm. For some very strange reason he got his timing wrong and ended up waking us at 10.00pm!! We were told to go back to sleep like kids waiting for Santa Claus. Fat chance – an hour later he was back. Sophie, Annabel and I were up and off to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro… Uhuru Peak, located at 5,895 meters (19,350 feet) altitude.
Why are we hiking in the dark? It’s a common question, and there are actually a few reasons.
Weather conditions at the top of Kilimanjaro are very changeable and difficult to accurately predict. During the day, it could be anything from a clear blue sky to a blizzard! However, at night, things are generally clear and calm. Also, the Barafu Base Camp where most people leave from to get to the summit isn’t set up for long term stays. There is no water supply there, and with a constant flow of new climbers, they don’t want you there more than one night. So, when you come back down the mountain, you have to continue past Barafu Camp and normally on to Millenium Camp which is another 4 kms (2.5 miles) down the mountain. With the climb up, it can take as long as 14 hours to complete and if you started at first daylight, you may not make it down the mountain before dark. By 12:00 we had all our winter summit gear on, our headlamps on - we were on the trail with guides Brucie and Samil.
It’s very steep. The section to Stella Point climbs 1,079 meters (3,500 feet) in 3.3 kms (2.0 miles). You can only inhale so much cold air before it starts to hurt, so you have no choice but to go slowly. There were other groups on the trail as well. All moving at different paces, and you could see a stream of headlamps all the way up the mountain. There was no point in taking pictures… it was dark out. The hiking was tough. It was slow, and monotonous. Not what I would call fun. By this time, I was starting to think I had bitten off more than I could chew. The difficulty became obvious to me when we began seeing the odd person heading downhill past us. But these were not people who had already made it to the summit… these were people who couldn’t make it to the summit and had given up.
Dawn – I’m still going up!!
My goal was Uhuru Peak – The “Roof of Africa. Stella Point was above us and it seemed impossible. Dawn came and went. We were still going up! The problem was, Stella Point never seemed any closer. It was taking us an hour to do half a kilometre! I was exhausted. I was taking more and more breaks, and I could tell I was struggling. The guides, William and Brucie, said to Annabel and me that will turn back at Stella Point. Olivia, Charles, and Sophie had gone ahead. My response was clear and simple: “Over my dead body!”
From Stella Point, the trail evens out. It’s still another 1.2 kms (3/4 mile) to the peak, but only another 140 meters of height gain. I made it to Uhuru Peak at 10.10am. It was then time to take the obligatory pictures and I also spread some of my Mum’s ashes that I had taken with me. It was a very emotional point of the trip for a whole host of reasons.
There was still a long day ahead of us. The plan was to make it down to Barafu Camp where our tent was still set up, have some lunch, then an hour nap, then do another 4 kms (2.5 miles) down to Millenium Camp where we would spend the night. I was exhausted and had to be helped a bit of the way back to Barafu Camp. All I wanted to do was sleep. Then another 12 kms (7.5 miles) downhill the next day to the Mweka exit gate. I had a little lunch and then an hour nap. When I woke, the others had already set off and one of our guides, William, had stayed behind to walk with me the 2.5 miles to Millenium Camp. That was the longest 2.5 miles of my whole life. I was walking on empty! Eventually the camp came into sight – I couldn’t wait to get some food and head down ready for the last leg to Mweka Gate.
Millenium Camp to Mweka Gate and on to Springlands.
•Elevation (ft): 12,500 to 5,400ft
•Hiking Time: 4-5 hours
•Habitat: Rain Forest
Millenium campsite is a site used when descending, an overnight stop/resting point used by climbers instead of the Mweka camp as Mweka is a little further down.
It is purposely used by climbers going down from the summit via some of the main routes. Trekking from Millenium camp to Mweka Gate is like the last trip to civilization, the internet, and actualshowers! The distance from Millenium Camp (3,825 m) to Mweka Gate (1,160 m) is about 14km and it would take you about 3-4 hours trekking on foot to descend the mountain. The five of us set off together, but it wasn’t long before I was trailing behind. William went ahead with the other four. Salim and Brucie stayed with me. I was on autopilot and never had. I’ve been so, so tired. The path down was quite steep in places, very rocky and quite muddy making navigation quite tricky, especially with poles. I was absolutely spent!
Once we reached Mweka Camp on the way down. Brucie organised a couple of the porters to help me in certain places and ensure that I didn’t fall. The others must have been very close to the gate by now. The path continues down past the camp, and it is still steep, rocky and slippery. Great fun – or not. My knees were telling me to stop but I was desperate to get down. All I can think of right now was a lovely, lovely shower.
Just before the Trail ends becomes a track suitable for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Brucie had organised the local Ranger to collect us and get us safely back to Springlands in time for a late lunch. It was such a relief at this point to sit and be driven the last mile.
Once we were through Moshi town centre, the Driver, very kindly let me drive the remainder of the distance to Springlands Hotel. We were all safely back and we had all achieved the summit, the very roof of Africa.
What a stunning achievement for us all.
We all showered after lunch and then went back down for the official ceremony, where we all received our certificates from Brucie.
It was an incredible experience – physically, emotionally, and mentally. A trip with four young people that I will never ever forget.
Thank you Life Changing Challenges – two experiences of a lifetime that were adrenaline filled and oh, so wonderful.
Guest blogger - David Uttley