We began our summit bid by the light of the full moon, from Kibo Hut Camp at 15,500 feet. As we climbed, we could see strings of lights winding along the slopes above, and as the climb wore on I overheard a guide sending a climber back down to Kibo Hut. At these elevations, you don’t mess around; when altitude sickness starts afflicting you, you get back down below 16,000 feet pronto. Defying this rule can be fatal.

Kilimanjaro is a land of extremes; being merely two degrees south of the equator, it can be very hot at lower elevations, and yet so bitterly cold at the summit that even with three layers of wool, a warm hat, and a rain jacket on, I didn’t sweat on summit day.

Kibo viewed from Kibo Hut Camp, at 15,500 feet ©Rakesh Malik

Sometimes the wind at the summit can be harsh enough to require a balaclava, so it’s advisable to be prepared with one. What determines whether or not you summit is, for the most part, your approach to the climb. Being fit and accustomed to hiking day after day helps, but the most important things are to keep your pace slow, and eat and drink plenty. As the increasing elevation reduces your appetite, it can be a challenge to force yourself to eat. The food the porters prepared was delicious, which helps with that.

One bit of advice I would add to the usual is to bring an extra water bottle, in addition to what you plan on carrying during the hikes. That way, you can have an extra bottle to drink from while the porters are boiling water to purify it. There is very little correlation between fitness and success in climbing Kilimanjaro. On the mountain, your attitude determines your aptitude.

The Trail

©Rakesh Malik

The trip began on a hot summer’s day, from the Rongai gate at around 6300 feet. Some cloud cover helped to keep the temperature down; it was in the high 80’s rather than the high 90’s when we did our first day’s hiking, through rain forest. The dense canopy of Erica trees (no kidding — there are something like 20 species of Erica trees on Kilimanjaro).

Our first night’s camp lay in the transition zone between forest and moorland. After a rainy night followed by a hearty breakfast, we hit the trail for the 10 mile hike toward Kikelewa Cave. The route took us through fields of towering sagebrush, some of it still scorched from a huge wildfire years ago. After lunch in Second Cave, we continued through the moorland, with the peek-a-boo views of Mawenzi and Kibo as the cloud cover ebbed and flowed above us. When we arrived after a long day of trekking, our group of 45 porters greeted us with a song and dance. The warm welcome made arriving in camp just that much more pleasant. We had our first clear views of Kibo and Mawenzi that night. Kibo still seemed very distant, while Mawenzi towered over the camp.

©Rakesh Malik

The next morning we ascended 3000 feet in the three miles to Mawenzi Tarn Camp, perched directly below the jagged summit of Mawenzi. The fog gradually burned off in late afternoon when some of us took a short trip up one of the ridges in order to aid in our acclimation.

This camp was quite crowded, so navigating it was a bit of a challenge, particularly in the dark. It was easy to trip over the legion of guy lines, or get lost in the labyrinth of tents crammed into the area. The nearest set of toilets was on a concrete platform that jutted out over a cliff. At night, when the fog thinned, I could see city lights in the distance, though just barely.
From there we trekked across the Saddle to Kibo Hut camp. The Saddle is almost completely barren; there was very little vegetation among the rocks and boulders. The trail took us past a wrecked plane, that had crash-landed here because of the intense winds that contribute to the Saddle’s barrenness. We also had the worst weather of the trip here, rain and sleet limiting visibility, and leading me to keep my digital camera protected under my rain jacket.

©Rakesh Malik

We ate an early dinner at Kibo Hut camp, went to bed, and then awoke at 11 p.m. for a hearty meal. We began the hike to the summit at midnight, with a crystal clear sky and a bright full moon above. It was also bitterly cold, due to both the altitude and the hour. The route quickly grew quite steep, a series of switchbacks along the face of the mountain. When we had our first snack break, we were in snow a few inches deep. As we continued, the terrain changed to scree, making the going a bit more difficult. I ran out of water before I reached the summit, and right about as the sun rose over Mawenzi. It was a glorious moment. Shortly thereafter, HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) started affecting me, and I became increasingly disoriented and disconnected from what was going on. Because of this I stopped after reaching Gilman’s Point.  I felt like I could have made it to Uhuru Point another 600 feet higher, and one mile farther on, but chose the safer decision to stay at Gilman’s Point. Togalay, the porter who was accompanying me started dragging me down the field of snow. Good luck and Togalay helped me scree-skate the rest of the way back to Kibo Hut, where I slept off the HACE.

What was it like?

The climb overall was quite a challenge. It was my first experience with high enough elevation to risk acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE). Our team of guides and porters were excellent. The food was delicious and plentiful, and they even provided vegetarian food for our one vegetarian member. Once we explained to our guide about a wheat allergy, they started providing wheat-free food for the person who had it, though that was new to them. They even brought out basins with hot water and bars of soap each morning for us to wash our hands with.

Hiking Through the Moorland ©Rakesh Malik

I went with a group of 14 people, supported by a mountain guide, his assistant guide, and 45 porters. The porters set up the tents every night, so they were ready for us when we arrived at each camp. Every morning, we would pack our day packs and our duffels, and the porters would take the duffels when they packed up the tents. The tents our group had were MSR Asgards; luxurious, spacious, and pretty heavy mountaineering tents.

Every camp had toilets, which are not much different from Washington’s backcountry toilets, other than that they were enclosed, and usually had doors with latches. In between camps, toilets were very rare. Of the members, only three or four had ever hiked at over 14,000 feet, and none over 16,000. Two had not done any hiking above sea level before this trip, and had also not done any camping at all previously.

Everyone in the group made it to Kibo Hut camp at a lofty 15,500 feet, which is quite an accomplishment already. Getting there was definitely a challenge. One person stopped there, and chose not to make the summit attempt. The rest of us went for it. All of us who made the attempt reached Gilman’s Point at 18,600 feet, and only a few of us turned back at that point. I was one of the few who turned back, because I was feeling the effects of the altitude, particularly when I ran out of water.

I would like to return by a different route some day, so that I can get a look at a different part of the mountain, and also the glacier, while it’s still there. I would arrange a longer trip, to allow for more acclimatization time. All in all, it was a great experience for me.

Mawenzi in the Clouds ©Rakesh Malik
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