We're normally well prepared and well informed about the destinations that we visit, but this leg of the journey was special, everything being planned in advance by our wonderful friends who came halfway around the world to visit us. The agenda consisted of a seven-day climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, a four-day safari through Northeast Tanzania's national parks, and five relaxing days at a beach resort on Zanzibar.
Because everything was set up in advance, we took the opportunity to take a break from planning and preparation and began the Kilimanjaro hike knowing blissfully little about it. It might be a good thing that we didn't know what to expect, because I don't think any reading or research would have prepared us for how hard an undertaking it turned out to be. We opted to do the Machame route in seven days, allowing for an extra day of acclimitization, which would give us a better chance of actually making it to the summit. The first five days of the seven day trek were relatively benign; we marveled at the frequent and abrupt changes in flora and fauna, enjoyed the company of five of our long-lost friends, and saw some incredible views of the mountain's three peaks, the town of Moshi at its foot, and its smaller sister, Mount Meru, a few hundred kilometers away.
We trekked from three to six hours per day, and the hiking ranged from slow and steady ascents through dry terrain to rock scrambles up steep, narrow, and wet passages. Our crew of guides, porters, cooks, waiters, and tent guys numbered 25, and they ensured our camp was set up each day well before we got there and that we were constantly well-fed and hydrated. During our down-time between arriving to camp in the afternoon and having dinner, we sat around the table in our mess tent, played cards, talked about the day's hike, and passed the time discussing topics such as how "technical" that day's toilet hole was (we're not sure why, but for some reason, potty talk ends up being the number one topic during multi-day treks!).
Then came the summit push, and the expedition changed from a stroll through some moderate hills to a serious, high-altitude adventure that was more physically challenging than anything we've ever done before.
Summit day actually starts at 11pm the night before. After an afternoon of rest, dinner, and a few hours of excited sleep, the alarm goes off, and we're bundling up in all our layers and headed to the mess tent for a cup of hot tea and the start of the final push. The first five hours or so are slow work, as much a mental challenge as a physical one. The altitude is finally getting to us (or maybe it's just the cold, lack of sleep, and unusual hour to be doing any kind of physical activity), and all our focus goes into keeping our feet moving forward, into making it to the next hourly break and deciding if our stomachs will be able to hold down the granola bars that are quickly freezing in our pockets. Mostly we just look at the circle cast by our headlamps, lighting the path and the heels of the person ahead of us; sometimes we look up at the star-filled sky or down at the shining grid of streetlights in the distance far below. Eventually the crescent moon rises ominously from behind us. We stop to breathe and look at these other sources of light because we seem to lose our balance if we take our eyes off the path ahead of us. Our hands and feet are freezing and totally numb. We start to lean a little too heavily on our walking sticks, often catching our eyes closing with each pause between steps; we are becoming totally exhausted.
At about the time when we're starting to doubt we'll ever get to the top, starting to doubt our strength and resolve, we receive the good news that the furthest light we can see belongs to a hiker who has just reached the caldera. From there the trail flattens and we'll be all but sure to make it to the summit. But there's still nearly an hour's climb to reach that point, and frankly it doesn't look any closer than when we started five hours earlier. We continue to trudge along, our steps getting shorter and slower, less and less able to completely pick up our feet.
Somehow the last hour passes, we reach Stella Point, and everything changes. The sky is beginning to lighten from behind us, the trail is now packed snow instead of loose gravel--and is far less steep than the rest of the ascent--and we begin to see a few people who have already reached the summit and are starting their return journey. They pass us a few words of encouragement. Instantly the torpor in our legs recedes, our bags no longer feel heavy, our heads become clear and focused, and we nearly run the final section to the summit. The sun transitions from a few orange spots on the horizon, through deep red, violet, and yellow light, and finally shines majestically on the tops of clouds as far as we can see. It's a different world up here: we're treated to incredible cloudscapes like you normally only see from plane windows, and there are beautiful and majestic glaciers in every direction, seemingly glowing in shades of blue, green, and white..
At 6:15 am, we finally reach Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa at 5895 meters above sea level, and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world! We snap a few obligatory photos--in our faces I'm sure you can see all the relief, accomplishment, and pride we were feeling at that moment--and turn around to begin the descent after about ten minutes.
And at that moment we realize that we've been setting the wrong goal for ourselves all along: getting to the top is only getting halfway; we still have seven hours descent ahead of us. The adrenalin from summiting has run out, the lactic acid is back in full force and makes our legs feel like jello, and before long the relentless downward trudge on loose sandy gravel--which our friend Greg described as "a controlled fall"--makes our knees feel like toothpicks. Somehow: slowly, painfully, and exhaustedly, we make it down to base camp, where we are allowed to rest for one hour, and then eat an early lunch. Even though we've been up since 11:00 pm the night before, and have already forced our legs through over nine hours of ascent and descent, the day is not over yet: we have to continue down to a lower altitude to spend our last night on the mountain. We somehow muster a bit of energy to descend for another four hours to the hike's final camp, a push that was no doubt aided by the beer break we took halfway there (a can of Kilimanjaro has never tasted so good). Once at our final camp, we are more exhausted than we've ever been, but the fact that we've just climbed the highest mountain in Africa finally starts to settle in, and our feeling of accomplishment begins to overshadow the pains and aches in our bodies. We spend the afternoon commiserating over how incredibly challenging the trek was, and revelling in the feeling of accomplishment of having successfully pushed ourselves to the top. We eat a hearty dinner and go to sleep around sunset. The next day holds three more hours of downhill hiking, but our desire to take a shower and sleep in a bed keeps our eyes on the prize. Before we know it, we're back in Moshi, gazing up at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro from its base, wondering how in the world we got up to the summit!
Logistics: We used Peter Tours and Mountaineering, after reading our friends' review. The price was fair and we found the service to be wonderful: our guides were friendly and professional, the food was plentiful and delicious, and the tents and sleeping bags were in good condition. We did the Machame route in seven days, but it can be done in six. Having an extra day allows for the last hike before the summit push to be done over two days instead of all in one, which allows you to be better-rested for the long haul to the summit.