November 1-6, 2011
01.11.2011 - 06.11.2011
My first ever high altitude hike happens to be to the top of Africa at 5895m. Climbing Kilimanjaro was a bit of an ambitious plan considered that I had no high altitude walking experience (the highest I have ever been prior to Kili was up at ~3500m in the Swiss alps) and I did minimal physical activities the few months prior to the big climb. Two weeks before the climb, I was still not sure if I could do it. I was considering trekking up Mt Meru, the “sister mountain” at 4565m instead. In the end, through some encouragements from friends and the fact that I am already here in Tanzania (don’t know when I’ll be back again), I didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity, so I decided to do it. And I am so glad that I did.
I took the 6-day Machame route up to the summit. It is also known as the “whiskey” route since it is known to be somewhat more challenging than the other popular route, Marangu, aka the “Coca Cola” route. I picked the Machame route simply because the available trip date fit with my travel schedule best and it allows one extra day for acclimatization. This route is also known to be the most scenic one.
I did the climb during the first week of November, which has traditionally been the start of the short rainy season. Luckily the weather was on my side. We had good weather up to the afternoon when we started our descent from our base camp on day 5. By then, since we have already reached the summit that morning and we have only one more day until we get back to our hotel with dry clothes and showers(!!), we didn’t mind the rain. Yes, it takes four and a half days to reach the summit but only one and a half day to come back down. “Slow” is the key to acclimatization and it works. We hear the term “pole pole” repeatedly from our guide from day 1 and no, he wasn’t reminding us to use our hiking poles. The Swahili word “pole” (pronounced ‘po-lay’) means “slowly”. Walking slowly and allowing your body to acclimatize to the thin air (less oxygen) is really the key to successfully summiting any high mountain. I never thought I would be walking ‘that’ slowly. It was like I was walking in slow motion! But at that pace, my leg muscles were not overworked and my body was not stress (keeping heart rate and breathing rate low). Most importantly, this set the pace for the slow walk up to the summit.
On summit morning, we woke up at 11pm (it’s not a typo! We were woken up at 11 in the evening!) and was ready to tackle the summit by midnight! It was a clear morning with stars overhead and we could see the city lights from the town below (Moshi). The air was cool. I’m not sure what the temperature was but I was bundled with multiple layers of clothes (five layers on top and three on the bottom). Other people have already started ahead of us as I could see lines of headlamps up ahead on the trail. We moved at a very slow and steady pace, and taking small steps, which felt like big steps at that altitude! For me, I just concentrated on following the steps of the person ahead of me as we zigzag up the mountain. It was hard not to want to stop and take a little break but I knew it was not going to get any easier. It was hard to get the body going again once I have stopped because you get cold (it was definitely below 0C since water freeze in water bottle placed on the outside of the pack). The trek up just kept on going and we were at it for about 5 hours before we started getting some day light. The sun was rising behind us and we made it up to Stellar Point (5730m) to enjoy the sun rise just before 6 am.
On reaching this point, I already felt like it was a big accomplishment. We have already climbed about 1200m from base camp, but there was still another 160m of climbing to reach the summit. The sky was clear, clouds were below us, what a beautiful morning! Seeing clouds below me is one of the most amazing view and feeling that I will always cherish. What was going through my mind at the time? I can’t remember…… probably just wishing the summit was closer! Because of the fatigue, I don’t think I appreciated the scenery as much at the time, but looking back at the photos, the scenery looked stunning! There were glaciers nearby!!
The steep hard part of the climb was actually behind us but for some reason, my legs just couldn’t move at a faster pace. It was a strange feeling because the terrain to the summit appeared relatively “flat” and mentally I was very excited to reach the summit, but physically, my legs just couldn’t move very fast even when I could see the big summit sign ahead of me. It was as if my body was telling me to take my time and enjoy the moment. After an hour (at ~7am), I reached the summit!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I was standing at 5895m, Uhuru Peak, Africa’s highest point and on the top of the world’s tallest free standing mountain! Very cool! :-)
Going back down to base camp where we started more than 7 hours ago was no easy task. The steep hill that we climbed up to reach Stella Point was mostly loose rocks (scree) and I basically used my downhill skiing techniques (slalom style!) to help me “slide” down the slope. It was incredible looking at the terrain now in day light and seeing what we had climbed up in the early morning. Wow, we did THAT!! If I had “seen” the hill that we had to climb up, I think it would have been very discouraging. I am so glad we did it in the dark! After a break back at base camp and enjoyed a well deserved ‘lunch’ (by that point, we have already been up for more than thirteen hours!), we still had four hours of downhill walking ahead of us to reach the next camp and it has started to rain. But by that point, I think the sense of joy and triumph was what was driving our legs forward down the mountain. What a really LONG day that was! That was definitely one of the most challenging days I’ve ever had mentally and physically.
Would I climb Kili again? Ummm I don’t know. May be on another route and with the right company, I might consider it. But for now, there are other mountains to conquer………..