Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Canadian Tree Planter Climbs Kilimanjaro, part 2 of 3

(This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Click here to go back to part 1, if you haven't read that yet).

My Trekking Group

I signed up for the trek as a single individual, but indicated that I wanted to go as part of a group rather than as a solo climber with a small group of personal guides and porters. I got really lucky with the group that I was part of:

- Jackie & Nathan were two other Canadians. Jackie is a licensed GP. It's always nice to have a doctor in your group, if you have any questions about mixing medicines! Nathan grew up only about ten kilometers away from where I did, on the east coast of Canada, and we discovered that we have many friends in common. Even more unexpected, he works for a helicopter company that I also work with, on the other side of Canada, about five thousand kilometers away. So we also have mutual friends on Canada's west coast. It's a small world. Jackie & Nathan had been doing a ton of physical training in the months leading to the trek.
- Martine was from Norway. She had just spent a few months surfing in South Africa, so she was naturally in great shape already.
- Mitch works professionally in electrical networks in Australia, based out of Sydney.
- Curdin works in Switzerland, but he is also a part-time professional climber, whose goal is to eventually finish all of the Seven Summits. Technically, Curdin was doing a "solo" trek, but we were hanging out with him in the hotel before we left, and since he was taking the same route, we suggested that he and his guides join our bigger group.

Be aware that there could be risks if you're joining a group of random people that your tour company is putting together. It's entirely possible that the group of people you're matched up with are not nearly as cool as the people that I went with. For instance, we heard a story about one tour group that one of our guides had recently escorted. I won't go into exact details, but let's just say that there were a couple people each from two countries that are currently disputing the ownership of a small group of five uninhabited islands. Because of the hostility between the two countries, the trekkers from each of the countries refused to have meals when the trekkers from the other country were present. I would recommend that if you're going to go climb a large mountain in Africa, it helps if you're open-minded about life and the other people on our planet, no matter what they have for ethnicity, nationality, skin colour, or religious beliefs. If you can't be open-minded, let your tour operator know in advance if there are any potential group-composition issues that you'd prefer to avoid. Even better, if you're not adventurous and you don't want to meet new people from other cultures, perhaps you should find some friends that would be willing to accompany you to Kilimanjaro, so you and your friends are the only clients in your trekking group.

Also, if you have dietary restrictions, you may only have two options: eat whatever they put in front of you, or starve. Based on my month of travelling, some Tanzanians can comprehend the idea that someone is a vegetarian. That's about the extent of it. Two of the people that I traveled with prior to the Kilimanjaro climb were vegans, and that concept was simply incomprehensible to every single cook and waiter that we met, for the entire trip. They would start each meal with a ten minute discussion, telling the staff, "We don't eat dairy products, such as milk and cheese and butter. We don't eat animals. Do you understand?" The wait staff would smile and nod and say that they understood, and then come back with a rice dish cooked in butter and covered with meat sauce. If you happen to be gluten-free, well, you'll probably be pretty much screwed in Africa.

Machame Route

Be aware that the longer your trek, the higher the chance of reaching the top, because you have more time to acclimate. Due to this, all tour companies try to advertise their trips to be as many days as possible. This includes days that I wouldn’t really count as a part of the trip. For example, if you arrive back at the hotel on the evening of Day “7” they will probably list 'Day 8' as being "this is the day that you depart the hotel." Now on a positive note, the stay at the hotel on the first and last night is included as a paid part of the trip.

If you're curious about what the exact full itinerary might look like, here’s the link again to the itinerary for the G Adventures (Zara) trip up the Machame route (this was the itinerary for my trip, but check the GA website for the most recent itinerary if you're actually doing the trek):


Now let me go through what I experienced in my own words, to give you a better idea of what to actually expect. I’ll use weekdays instead of numbered days, to match my own trip:


I arrived at the Springlands Hotel in Moshi. Decent hotel. Basic rooms, but quite clean. Nice pool, reasonably priced gift shop, reasonably priced beverages ($3 large beer, $1.50 for a 1.5 litre bottle of water), nice courtyard, etc. I think some people would say that there wasn’t as much variety in the food as they would have hoped, but I’m not a picky eater so I was fine with it. The rack rate is $120/night, which seems a bit high. However, the hotel is owned by Zara, the tour company, so if you’re showing up early for a Zara tour, or if you stay for a couple nights extra, you only pay $36 per person per night (I was in a single so I don’t know if this meant that a couple would pay $72 for a room for one night). That’s a very good price. Dinner if you’re there for extra nights outside the itinerary is $10 per meal, buffet style. You sign pieces of paper for everything extra that you buy, and just pay when you check out. By the way, all the prices that I list here are in US dollars, which are commonly circulated everywhere.

Be aware that payment can be challenging! I’ll tell you a story about my Mastercard later, but for now, assume that it’s helpful to carry cash. On my final night, I asked when I could pay my bill, and they said that the office was open until 10pm. I had used my credit card there the previous week, with no problem. I showed up at 8pm to pay, since I had a shuttle before 6am the next morning, and they said that the woman who runs the credit card terminal was gone home and wouldn’t be back until after breakfast. It would have to be cash. That kind of issue can be tricky if you don't actually have any cash on hand.

Anyway, I made it to the hotel and got settled in, had a few drinks, tried to organize my gear, and went to bed after talking to a few other guests.


I thought I was supposed to start my climb this morning, but due to confusion with the dates, I found out that they had booked me to start the following day. This turned out to be very lucky, because it gave me some time to catch up on my sleep, and allowed me to be FAR more organized than I would have been otherwise.

At 4pm, we met with the local Zara representative. He spent about an hour talking and then answering our questions. He wasn’t going up the mountain with us, because he stayed at the hotel full-time as a tour coordinator. Anyway, after talking with him for a while, I felt like I knew much more about what was going to happen. We also met our lead guide (Hajji), and made some arrangements to have gear available that we weren’t able to secure by that point. We also got some gear from the rental shop at this point, and I finished packing.

By the way, let me also take a moment to say that Hajji was AWESOME as a lead guide. He was a bit quiet for the first two days, until he got to know our group. But he very obviously had a LOT of experience on the mountain. This was his 98th trip to the summit. Seriously, if you're booking a Kili trek with GA/Zara, ask them if there's any possibility of having Hajji as your lead guide. Here's a photo with Hajji on the left:


This was the day that we started. We met at 8:30am in the hotel courtyard for departure, and got on a bus with all of our guides and porters. We stopped at a small shopping centre on the way to the mountain, to get a few last minute items like extra batteries and energy bars. Be aware that this last-minute shopping expedition can have very high prices! Get everything you need in Moshi before you leave the hotel. The hotel provides a shuttle in and out of Moshi that’s only $2 return.

We got to the Machame Gate in about an hour or so, and got our gear unloaded. The porters began dividing everything up so everyone had equal loads. We had to wait for Hajji to deal with a lot of paperwork, so we relaxed in the visitor area for about an hour or so.

We started walking just before noon. No turning back now. By the time we reached the first camp at Machame, it was almost dark. This first day was a fairly easy walk as there was a solid trail the whole way, but we covered a lot of ground. To be honest, I was a bit out of shape, so my legs were cramping by supper. If I had done this immediately at the end of a season of tree planting, it would have been an absolute joke. However, I had just spent the prior nine weeks driving around in trucks, drinking coffee and eating sushi, with practically no exercise. My “advance exercise” for the trek consisted of going out dancing for a few hours on Saturday night with an African girl in Arusha. No wonder that my legs were like rubber after a sudden eighteen kilometre hike with a gain of 1500m. The others in my group had done a lot more training than I did (some of them running 20km/day for months before the climb), so I was probably hurting the most. Anyway, we made it with no real problems, and everyone was in a pretty good mood for tea and then for dinner.

Incidentally, I was soaked when I arrived at the Machame Camp (3000m), partly from light rain/mist most of the day, and partly from sweating. However, the temperature was still pretty good. But it was good to change into dry clothing.


The walk this day was shorter, but we still climbed another thousand meters. Again, we had light rain/mist for most of the day. We got to Shira campsite fairly early, but that was intentional, because after lunch we waited for the rain to calm down, then we went for an acclimitization hike for a couple hours.

The view from the Shira campsite (3800m) was pretty good, and Mount Meru was very photogenic. This campsite had a lot of white-naped ravens. Be careful, because those ravens are curious and smart, and they will definitely steal your lunch. I'm sure that I wasn't the first victim.


This was the day that we passed the Lava Tower (4600m). We had lunch there too. It was kind of cold and wet, unfortunately, so there wasn’t a good view of the Tower. One of the porters had altitude sickness by this point and had to go back down. After lunch, we pressed on, but the for that segment we actually went back down the mountain for a bit to a lower elevation. Our camp for the night was at Barranco, back down at about 3900m.


After breakfast, we studied the next section of trail. It looked imposing. The Barranco Wall requires a lot of careful climbing (scrambling) rather than pure hiking. But it was far less difficult than it appeared from the bottom. Good photo opportunities. Also, by now, my legs were back in shape, so I was feeling pretty good. I was also pleased that I didn’t have any problems with altitude sickness, although two of the five others in my group had problems with headaches, nausea, and some loss of appetite.

The walking in the afternoon wasn’t difficult, as we were only going up to Barafu Camp at 4600m. This is the Kili base camp. We saw quite a bit of snow during the afternoon hike, but I prefer snow to wet rain. The snow doesn’t soak your clothing as much, so it’s actually a bit warmer than a freezing rain. We got to Barafu camp by mid-afternoon, which was good because we were going to do the final summit hike that night. We had an early dinner and then Hajji talked to us for a while about what to expect for the summit attempt. We then tried to sleep for several hours. I suspect that some of the others didn't get much sleep, although I was pretty tired and had no problems staying asleep until we were woken back up at 10pm.


Well, it was obviously still Friday night when we got up at 10pm. We had a light meal, then started to hike through the night. Perhaps the biggest problem with the night hike to the summit, other than the potential for altitude sickness, is the problem of carrying supplies.

Because the air is so dry, I recommend taking 5-6 litres of water with you. But the problem is that it’s pretty cold up there, maybe fifteen to twenty degrees Celsius below freezing by 5am. Carrying water in your backpack is fine at first, but after several hours of climbing, that water will freeze. You don’t want to carry the bottles again your body to keep them from freezing, because that draws heat away from the core of your body. My recommendation is to partially insulate your backpack from the cold. I’m used to colder weather, so as long as I’m dry, I’m fine with the low temperatures. I wore a long sleeved undershirt and a decent fleece, and two coats. One was a very light winter coat, and the other was a regular ski jacket, very large. There is an advantage to this kind of system, because layers are important. I was cold when I started, but within fifteen minutes, I was removing layers. But three or four hours later, as we got higher and the temperature dropped significantly, I was starting to put those layers back on. Anyway, with the large size ski jacket, I was able to wear my backpack outside my fleece and light jacket, but underneath my heavy ski jacket. Do that, and wrap your water bottles in a sweater or something, and you should manage not to have everything freeze up. You might also want to take a thermos or two full of warm tea, and save those for last.

  (I didn’t have any special gear with me, and this link has far more information than I’d care to read, but this will open to a section about water bottles which is worth the read)

A second problem with the low temperature relates to cameras. Your cameras will freeze up very quickly at low temperatures. I’ve done a fair amount of photography during the snow, and I didn’t think that low temperatures were a major problem, but it’s possible for a digital SLR to stop working once it gets cold, and your camera batteries will drain very quickly. Make sure you keep your camera warm against your body until you get to the summit. If you have a spare battery, keep it in an inner pocket.

  (Some of the comments under this last article are more useful than the link itself)

It seems that many people get this close to the summit, and then start to experience symptoms of altitude sickness. At that point, they’re so close that they ignore the symptoms and push through. Unfortunately, a small number of these people that push too hard end up getting very sick (or occasionally dying). Admittedly, almost everyone gets minor symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, loss of appetite, and nausea. So the trick is to try to decide if you have normal minor symptoms and want to proceed, or if you might be going further than you should. I’m a tree planter, so I’m always in favour of pushing the limits of what the human body can do, but sometimes you have to remember that you can push too hard and too far. I'll talk about altitude sickness in more detail in a few minutes.

To put things into perspective, let me tell you what the other five people in my group experienced while going to the top:

- Four of the five said that it was the hardest thing that they’d ever done. One of these four is a professional climber.
- One decided that he wasn’t even going to try for the summit, since he felt sick at base camp. However, Hajji talked him into going at least part of the way just for the experience, and after a few hours he started to feel much better. In the end, he was really glad that he pushed the limits.
- One of our group threw up “about a hundred times” on the last half of the trip to the summit. That person said they would never do it again.
- Our group saw people who pushed too hard, who were literally getting carried off the mountain, with oxygen. That’s obviously not very smart. Incidentally, we didn’t use oxygen to climb, although the guides carried one bottle for emergencies. However, it wasn’t much consolation, being a first aid attendant myself, to know that their bottle appeared to be a D cylinder. That size bottle only gives about 35-36 minutes of oxygen flow at 10 litres/minute. Even if you drop down to 6 litres/minute, which is a bare minimum, that’s only an hour of oxygen. And it takes a couple hours to walk down from the summit just to base camp, IF you can walk.
- Even Hajji threw up on the final ascent to the summit.

The coldest part of the trip to the summit is from about 3am to 5:30am. After that, as the sky begins to lighten, the temperature warms up. If you haven’t run into serious altitude problems by now, you'll likely be fine. Your time at the top will be extremely limited. Take a couple quick photos (if your camera is still functional), spend five minutes to look around, and then head back down the mountain. There is no executive lounge. It’s cold, the air is thin, and you’re probably feeling unwell and exhausted. Get back down to base camp, as fast as you safely can.

After you’ve had some hot tea in camp, you’ll crawl into bed for a few hours to warm up. Despite the difficulty of sleeping at altitude, you’ll probably have no problem sleeping now. You’ll have lunch a few hours later, then start heading down the mountain.

At this point, it’s normal to descend for a few hours and camp for the night at Mweka Camp. However, at this time of year, it’s often cold and wet there, and you’re probably tired and exhausted (and everything you own might be wet). Our group decided unanimously to turn our “two day orderly exit strategy” into a six-hour mad rush for the exits. So we didn’t stop at Mweka; we just pushed on, practically jogging, all the way to the base of the mountain (28km from the base camp, 35km from the summit - a good workout).

Let me give you a suggestion: when you’re training, make sure you’re doing downhill hikes as well as uphill. The body uses an almost completely different set of muscles in your legs going downhill. So even though I thought I was back in shape by this point, the downhill trek woke up all the muscles that I had barely used when climbing the mountain, and again, my legs were like rubber by the time we reached the bottom. As noted before, if I’d been doing some physical activity for the few weeks leading up to this point, it would have been a comfortable hike back down to the Machame Gate.

Other Routes

There are a total of eight or nine conventional routes up Kilimanjaro, although you need special permission for a couple of them because of past fatalities (ie. Umbwe and the Western Breach). Machame is one of the most scenic, and has lots of up and down. Some of the other routes are very, very simple flat slopes uphill. Therefore, those routes are much easier hiking, but climbers don't get much opportunity for advanced acclimitization along the way. Accordingly, success rates (of reaching the summit) on those easy routes seem to be lower.

Would I take the Machame route again if I went back? I'd say 50/50 odds. There is a newer route called the Northern Circuit which I think I'd also consider. It's listed on the wikipedia page as being the longest route, at 90kms (remember that the distances on the wikipedia page are the "shortest possible climb using the direct route," exclusive of side trips for exploring and acclimitization). Check out the link below for more detailed information:


Click HERE to read part 1, if you missed it before reading this part of the story.

Click HERE to read part 3, which covers medical and physical challenges, altitude sickness, potential travel problems, getting trip insurance, and some final notes.

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