I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I signed up to do Kilimanjaro. It was some interest in the climb, some FOMO. I dove into research – what temperature should I expect? Rain? Snow? How hard would the hiking be? I didn’t find the answers to all my questions, but by the time we arrived in Tanzania – I was ready. What follows is a recap of my experience – probably written a little like what I was looking for but unable to find with photos by my incredibly talented boyfriend Chris – make sure you follow him on Instagram and check out his website.
Jerald picked us up at the airport – we would later learn that he would be our head guide and by the end of the trip, he would be our friend. In the interim, he would pose as motivator, cheerleader, consoler, spiritual guide, doctor, healer, and leader. Jerald was the most impactful person I met on this trip, which I hope will be even partially described in the words to come.
We had a day before climbing – so we opted for a safari at Arusha National Park. We were lucky enough to see giraffe, hippos, cape buffalo and zebra among other animals!
Day 1 – 2/27/2018 (5,400 – 9,400 ft): We left the hotel and made our way to Machame gate. This was our starting point for the Machame Route. I thought we would have to stand in a long line and have all our bags with us to get weighed. Turned out – we didn’t! The porters pack everything into larger bags and take care of that part. We simply had to sign in at the gate and we were good to go!
The trek was an easy walk – steady incline to 9,400 feet. It was through the rainforest and along a well-maintained trail. We stopped part way up for a boxed lunch. The 11k hike to our first camp – Machame camp was a rain-free, warm start to the trip!
Once at Machame camp, we signed in at the register and were happy to see our campsite was set up with a great view of the summit and a nearly full moon. The summit looked so far away. The porters were superheroes and superhuman. They literally ran up the mountain with packs on their back and baskets on their heads – carrying everything from our sleeping bags, tents, and clothing to our food and our toilet (in addition to their personal things)!
Jerald joined us in the mess tent for our meals – and during this time we continued to bond with him, asking about what we were to expect, about family and about life in general. He knows so much about Kilimanjaro and the surrounding areas – having been born and raised nearby.
As for the food – it was amazing. Almost every lunch and dinner started with delicious soup – from fresh tomato and ginger to creamy cucumber. Meals included everything from porridge, sausage, and eggs for breakfast to rice, veggies, sandwiches, and sauces to pasta and chicken for lunch and dinner. It was hard to believe that all this food was carried up the mountain to each camp – and then cooked and served to us hot. We were provided with tea, coffee and hot chocolate and popcorn in the afternoons.
Day 2 – 2/28/2018 (9,400 – 12,500 ft): Trekking a similar distance as Day 1, we made our way up to Shira Camp. We went from the rainforest to the moorlands – and were lucky enough to have a clear to overcast day of walking – as we were no longer in the trees. I was surprised at the ease of the hike. Coming from the east coast, I am used to somewhat challenging and/or strenuous hikes. This, so far, had not been the case. Once at camp (again, with our tents already set up), we were lucky enough to experience some hail! As the sunset, the sky cleared and we got some incredible views.
I had felt really good until just before dinner. I started feeling a little nauseous, completely lost my appetite and had a slight headache. Jerald picked up on my discomfort right away and put me at ease. I had let some anxiety set in – I didn’t want to have to turn around – but I felt like absolute shit. Jerald spoke in such a soothing and comforting tone that my anxiety was soon washed away. Some of the group had been taking Diamox since before we started climbing. I had opted to wait until I felt the effects of the altitude. This was my sign (and Jerald’s recommendation) to start – so I took some Advil and my Diamox and went to sleep.
Day 3 – 3/1/2018 (12,500 – 13,000 ft): I woke up feeling much better – ate a hearty and delicious breakfast and we started on our climb. While we only increased 500 feet day over day, we climbed to a high of 15,000 feet to eat lunch at Lava Tower. The climb to lava tower was our first taste of real climbing – as we could see our destination in the distance, but because we were going ‘pole-pole'(slow, slow) and the altitude was starting to affect people, it seemed to take forever to get there. Our guides had set up the mess tent and toilet so we could have a relaxing lunch before heading back down to Barranco camp at 13,000 feet. The rainy season starts in March, and it sure is on time. We joke that we are on Africa time (nothing happens on-time – everything runs late), but the rainy season sure arrived on time for us. We had the most incredible thunderstorms overnight. I was most thankful for earplugs!
Day 4 – 3/2/2018 (13,000 – 13,100 ft): While this was a relatively short day for acclimatization, it was one of the more fun days. When we awoke – we were able to see the Barranco Wall (which had been in fog the night before). I would have had no idea that was the trail until I saw a little red dot about halfway up. It looked like the porter was rockclimbing – the wall appeared to go straight up, and none of us could believe that we would be going up that! The rain had lifted and traversing the wall included some scrambling and some minor climbing. It was a lot of fun – a nice reprieve from the walking we had been doing for the past 3 days. We arrived at Karanga camp for the night in time for lunch – which led to some nice naps that afternoon. The sunset and views were incredible – with the summit on one side and a view of Mt. Meru in the distance on the other. Again, the rainy season made itself known that night – with more incredible thunder and lightning storms overnight.
Day 5 – 3/3/2018 (13,100 – 15,300 ft): When we awoke and started our trek to Barafu camp for the day, we were surprised that we could see a snow line close to camp. This was a somewhat short day, but interesting as we neared the base camp. After dipping into a valley and back up, we were treated to porters and guides taking photos of the snow at camp. There was enough snow that they had to shovel out areas for the tents to go. Jerald told us this was the second time he had seen snow that low in the 9 years and over 250 climbs of Kilimanjaro he had done. To make matters more interesting, a number of the groups we saw coming down told us that they had to turn around – that their guides said it wasn’t safe to proceed to the summit in 2-3 foot snow drifts and blizzard conditions. We had an early dinner, grilled Jerald about what to expect, and tried to get some sleep before our 11pm wake-up call.
Day 6 – 3/4/2018 (15,300 – 19,341 – 12,530 ft): This was it. I was able to sleep a little bit and awoke just before our wake up call at 11 pm. Yes, PM. After a quick cup of tea and a few biscuits, we began our arduous climb towards the summit. This was the most mentally challenging thing I have ever done. The steps we took were so slow that we needed to have enough layers on to stay warm (as our body movements were not big or fast enough to generate extra heat). Our steps were slow because it took every shred of energy we had to move forward with the lack of oxygen. I felt far better than I thought I would though. I was expecting a headache and nausea – but luckily didn’t feel either. Other than feeling short of breath – I felt fantastic. The shortness of breath reminded me of how I felt when I had the symptoms of Graves Disease – having to stop frequently to catch my breath. As I think back now, I have to lean towards the Graves Disease helping prepare me for this lack of oxygen and inability to get a deep breath in.
Had conditions been normal, we would have summited for sunrise. However, as we trekked through more snow, it took us nearly 10.5 hours to reach the top instead of the expected 6.5. By the time the sun rose, I could see the summit, but I was still over an hour away – it made for one of the longest hours of my life. Throughout the night, I tried to keep my mind busy by looking at the imprints that the shoes left behind in the snow. Each imprint, when crossed with another imprint, appeared as something else to me: a bicycle, bears, people cheers-ing steins – it turned into a game for me – that helped me take each step forward. Jerald and the assistant guides were imperative here. Their guidance was absolutely incredible. Sometimes they would just sing – and that was all that was needed to keep us moving forward. They knew when someone needed assistance, when someone needed encouragement, and when someone needed to make a difficult decision for themselves. Altitude is no small issue and there is no rhyme or reason as to how or when it affects individuals. It affected everyone differently on this trip, and I consider myself extremely lucky for the low impact it had on me.
By the time I reached Stella Point (18,600 ft) I was beat. It took everything I had to make it to the sign. It was snowy, cold and windy – but I had made it – and the sense of accomplishment and relief was washing over me. I was one of the last in my group to summit – and it was incredible to see those behind me summit as well. I was ready to call it quits – I didn’t need to get to Uhuru Peak, I was happy with Stella Point. I was exhausted, thirsty and needed to pee. There is no private place for a girl to pee when it’s snowing leading up to and on the summit, so I was holding it. Therefore, I didn’t want to drink any water (silly me). Thankfully, another girl in the group gave me the push I needed to head towards Uhuru Peak (the summit at 19,341 ft). What we thought would be a quick jaunt to Uhuru Peak turned into an hour long, snow-covered traverse. I thought I had nothing left in me when I made it to Stella Point – making it to Uhuru took the cake. While we didn’t have any views at the summit because of whiteout conditions, the experience made it all worth it. Not only did we summit Kilimanjaro, we summited in extreme conditions. But hey, we’re from Maine, so we’re used to extreme conditions :).
The trek down was almost as daunting as the climb up. I was mentally prepared for knee pain, I was not prepared for the sauna and sun reflection off the snow. We went from what felt like extreme cold on the summit, to extreme heat just below the summit. As the sun had risen, it reflected off the snow on the way down and created an oven – an oven that even Jerald said was extremely abnormal (if you haven’t caught on yet, we truly had an experience with abnormal and extreme weather conditions). I finally found a spot to pee – so was able to rehydrate and rush down the almost unbearable heat and sun. Rushing I say loosely – as it’s still hard to breathe – but every step down it became easier and easier.
We made it back to basecamp – had a quick rest and then headed down to Millenium camp for the night. We were supposed to have another 4 hours of hiking down to Mweka camp, but because summiting took over 10 hours, we opted to get to a higher camp during daylight and have a longer day hiking tomorrow. Getting to Millenium camp was no simple feat either. The trail ran through a wind tunnel – that we were getting pelted with rain through. We moved faster than I thought would have been possible after the night before. Many of us were going on no sleep – and I’m sure we were all running on pure adrenaline.
We arrived at Millenium Camp to the tents set up (did I mention the porters were superhuman?) and almost immediately passed out. We were awoken around 1030 for dinner – at least those of us who actually woke up. While we didn’t need to eat, the food had been brought to the other camp, so a porter had to run down and bring the food back up to Millenium camp (hence the late dinner). For that, I felt obligated to get up and have a delicious dinner. Shortly after that, we went back to our tents, and I’m sure could have slept through a tornado if one had come through.
Day 7 – 3/5/2018 (12,530 – 5,400 ft): We were all ready to be off Kilimanjaro at this point. At breakfast, we organized the money that we were tipping to our porters and guides, and were treated to some traditional Kilimanjaro singing by our team. Jerald then asked for the envelopes with the tip money and announced to everyone exactly what we had tipped them. This public announcement of what we tipped was not expected (I’m happy we tipped well), and they broke out into another song for us. In the US, this is often a private matter, so we were all surprised that this was done so publically. Thankfully, we had asked Jerald what was considered good for tipping – and tipped more than that. I wish we could have tipped more – the team we had supporting us became family – an integral part of the success for us, but we had all brought limited cash with us on the trip.
We made it to Mweka Gate about 4 hours later and signed the exit registry. We had done it – we climbed Kilimanjaro.
Before making it back to the hotel, we stopped in Moshi for a quick lunch and to see the shops. While we ate well on the mountain, there is nothing like a burger and fries and fresh iced tea to really soothe the weathered soul – and we got that at Chrissburger.
We all ate well and rested well that night before starting the 20-hour trip back to the states. We apparently brought the snow with us, as we arrived in Boston and followed the start of a noreaster back to Maine.
Overall, this was an absolutely incredible experience. I knew I was getting into both a physical and mental challenge – but I never knew what I would feel. Over a week has passed since we summited, and I am still struck by the experience in ways that I cannot describe.
**You will see the Flowfold logo a lot in these photos – Flowfold is an awesome local outdoor gear company (run by a friend and person climbing with us) that we were doing some product testing for. Check them out online and on Instagram!