Climbing Kilimanjaro

February 2004

7th February: In the morning we got back our laundry, still wet. I'd been relying on this for a regular change of clothing and despite putting in a lot of effort to dry these clothes during the rest of the trip I didn't manage it until the last night. We all got collectively smellier in the next few days but were past caring. Our bus took us to the start of our chosen, little-frequented route beyond the village of Umbwe. Children flocked to the bus en route waving and shouting "Jambo". Even some of the adults waved to us. Our guides, cooks and porters, numbering 32 in total joined us at the Umbwe gate, where we posed for a group photograph (small photo) (large photo) and then set off at a leisurely pace up a track through the rain forest (small photo) (large photo). The local guides use the expression "pole, pole" (slowly, slowly) which is an experienced approach to the climbing of Kilimanjaro. Soon the track started to climb steeply onto a narrow ridge with steep drops either side. Trees and other vegetation grows profusely on this ridge reducing any feeling of exposure and ensuring that anyone who falls does not fall far. After about seven miles we got to our first campsite at the "Forest Caves", around 9,800 ft above sea level. It was gloomy, partly because of the cloud cover and partly because of the rain forest canopy. There was no of insect or bird life here, though we were warned it was baboon territory and they would come into our campsite during the night. There were seven Vango Hyperspace tents for the twelve of us plus a mess tent, which some of our staff slept in overnight, and assorted other tents for the rest of the party. As soon as the cooking staff sorted themselves out they made us tea, coffee and our regular fresh popcorn. While eating popcorn I managed to break a piece from a wisdom tooth. The dentist in our party seemed keen to treat this for me and as our expedition leader had some temporary filling material in his medical kit it was soon arranged. It was already dark by this time so the treatment had to be done by torchlight. I soon found myself lying on my back in my (shared) tent, feet up the slope and head down with the dentist half in the front of the tent attending to my tooth and another party member halfway in the back of the tent with a torch. It was the most bizarre dental treatment I've ever had and I found it hard not to burst out laughing. It was, sadly, unsuccessful as the filling material wouldn't stick, but our dentist said there was no nerve showing and she thought it wouldn't give me any trouble yet. She was right. During the night I heard all sorts of calls, including a loud "shutup, shutup" from some unidentified creature. I didn't venture out during the night, fortunately having little need to, and I doubt if anyone else did either. After our meal we settled down to sleep, as there was little else to do.

8th February: I think we were all glad to leave this most gloomy of camps which boasted the worst toilet of the lot with only one inch of freeboard below the hole in the wooden floor. The narrow ridge got higher and higher and narrower and narrower with drops of 2,000 feet either side. Trees and other thick vegetation made it hard to see down into the valley, the Great Barranco (barranco is Spanish for a ravine or gorge). It gave a sense of security on a ridge about as narrow as Striding Edge, leaving no great sense of exposure, but it also made it hard to photograph. I missed my opportunities but managed to scrounge a picture of it for the website (small} (large photo). Gradually the ridge broadened out and the rain forest gave way to open moorland (small photo) (large photo). Here there was mostly giant lobelia (small photo) (large photo), giant groundsel and giant heathers. Our next camp was at the Barranco hut where we were to spend two nights, 12,800 feet up and another important step in our altitude acclimatisation. It was misty and overcast at the camp when we arrived (small photo) (large photo) but we all gathered for another group photo (small photo) (large photo). It was here that one of our party decided she could no longer keep up and decided to go back before reaching the point of no return. We were sad to see her go, but she had been lagging behind for some days, probably due to illness contacted shortly before the trip started, and she knew our planned summit day would be extremely demanding. There had been no one on Umbwe route but ourselves, the logbook at the gate showed the previous party had started almost a week before us. The Barranco hut however is at a major crossroads on the South Circular Path, and there were several other parties camping nearby. It continued to be misty and overcast for most of the evening but we did see the summit rim briefly through the cloud (small photo) (large photo).

9th February: This was nominally a rest day, in reality another day of high altitude acclimatization, but our expedition leader wanted us to hone our scrambling skills for the Western Breach ascent to the summit, so we spent the day scrambling up and down the Great Barranco Wall. There was nothing too difficult and everyone coped admirably, even one party member who had done no scrambling before. We had less cloud this evening and were delighted to have a better view of Kilimanjaro's summit (small photo) (large photo).

10th February: After a good night's rest we set off to the Arrow Glacier. The moorland gave way to desert (small photo) (large photo) and the track was across rocky terrain. The rock size was quite small, nothing likely to twist an ankle, so the going was easy. Our head guide continued to maintain a slow walking pace, we were here to acclimatize not waste our bodies' resources rebuilding damaged muscle tissue. There had been an Arrow Glacier Hut once upon a time but a rockfall had flattened it. There was a wonderful view of the Breach Wall in sunshine, covered in snow from a recent, and rare (the summit only gets the equivalent of four inches of rain per year), snowfall. We arrived quite early in the afternoon and were advised to get some sleep as we were to set off just after midnight so as to reach the summit rim at sunrise. As I lay trying to sleep I heard a persistent background noise. "What's that noise that sounds like a train?" I said to my tent mate. "Probably a waterfall", he replied. There was then a loud crash and I looked outside to find the air filled with fine snow and visibility down to ten yards. The porters were agog. It was the first of several avalanches. "That'll put paid to our trip to the summit", said my tent mate.

There was no sign of our expedition leader when I went in search of him but he returned eventually from a conference with the guides. They believed that the avalanches were off to the right of our route and that as we were ascending at night the ground cover would be frozen. So the ascent was still on. I had taken photographs of the Western Breach and the end of the Breach Wall when we arrived and I took more now, comparisons of which are shown here - Western Breach (small photo) (large photo) and the end of the Breach Wall (small photo) (large photo). Can you see the difference? Two things had been major concerns for me since I had booked this trip. One was that I would catch a cold and get a chest infection, as has happened to me twice in the past three years, just before we left. This would have scuppered my chances of success. The other was snow and ice on the Western Breach which would render the route treacherous and potentially lethal. I did get a cold a week before we were due to leave though fortunately the chest infection did not materialise. And, the Western Breach was iced up. I tried not to think about this while I watched and photographed the sun setting behind the clouds way below us (small photo) (large photo). Soon afterwards as I lay in my sleeping bag in the tent a gale blew up threatening to blow us all away. I triggered one of those chemically activated heat pads and warmed my feet on it as best I could. It was the coldest I'd been for a long time.

11th February: The wind had died down by the time we were roused, shortly before midnight. We did our packing, were given warm drinks and set off at around 12.30 by the light of our head torches for our assault on the summit. At around 16,000 ft we still had over 3,000 ft to climb to the summit. I wore two Odlo thermal vests, a North Face thermal base layer and Paramo Cascada jacket; Odlo thermal long johns, Karrimore Powerstretch pants, Goretex overtrousers; a Powerstretch balaclava and Extremities Ice Gauntlets. The scrambling would have been easy without the snow and ice but with extra care being needed our progress was slow. I set off walking directly behind out head guide, comfortably warm and forcing myself to breath heavily to keep my body well oxygenated. I assume the head guide thought I was struggling because he suddenly suggested I use my trekking poles. At the time I didn't question his suggestion and got out the poles, which I'd planned only to use only on the descent. This proved to be a mistake. Not only did they slow me down but they immediately drained heat from my hands and left them unpleasantly cold. Our expedition leader gave me two heat pad hand warmers, rather like tea-bags, which I put in my gloves. Once I put the poles away the problem went away. Our expedition leader, being the only one with an ice axe, cut steps through the snow where necessary and we meekly followed. Another member of the party was struggling to keep up, wanted to go back, and was being cajoled and pushed up the mountain by two of the guides. We had by then long since passed the point of no return. I found the scrambling easy, no more difficult than Swirral Edge on a dry ice-free day. Only in one place did my pulse race and that was walking across the top of a steep snow-field but the path was easy and secure. It was seven hours before we reached the crater rim where the guides were overjoyed, jumping up and down and hugging us. A chill wind, from which we had been protected on the ascent, prompted me to don another layer of clothing, a microfleece top under my Paramo jacket. It was perhaps about -16 Celsius with wind chill, but feeling much colder in the rarefied atmosphere.

We still had around 700 ft to ascend and doggedly we stuck to our task and reached the summit. There were very few people there we'd been expecting to queue to be photographed at the top. There was a small party of four, and a woman with a film crew. The woman, it transpired, had won several thousand Euros in a Dutch TV show but had to collect the money at the top of Kilimanjaro, so she got an adventure holiday as well as her cash. I donned yet another microfleece as we were going to spend some time on the summit. I still had a Goretex shell in my day sack which I could have worn on top of everything else if it had been even colder. Once again we got together for a group photograph (small photo) (large photo). To the south there were spectacular glaciers (small photo) (large photo) and to the east the crater rim looking towards Stella Point, Gillman's Point and Mawenzi (small photo) (large photo). Up till now, unlike many of our team, I'd hardly suffered any symptoms of altitude sickness but the gastro-intestinal problems I'd had for days had left me dehydrated and with feelings of nausea if I drank any water. Now I felt sick, though there was nothing in my stomach to bring up, and desperately tired and wanting to go to sleep both symptoms of the onset of acute mountain sickness. Our expedition leader was soon at my side. "We'd better get you down", he said.

We set off downhill round the crater rim towards Gillman's Point but only as far as Stella Point where we turned right towards the Barafu hut down a scree-covered path. Had I felt fitter I'd have run the scree but I was too tired to do other than walk down it. The temperature rose as we descended and gradually I removed layer upon layer of clothing. In theory I should have started feeling better as the air pressure rose during the descent, but I still could not eat or drink without feeling sick. We had been told to bring summit rations from home, something that would tempt us to eat despite possible feelings of nausea, but even Marks & Sparks All-Butter Flapjacks, lovingly individually wrapped in Clingfilm at home by me, went begging. Sunburn had so far been successfully avoided by covering myself with long-sleeved clothes, a wide-brimmed hat and factor 25 sun block at the beginning of each day. This day was different. The sun block on my hands had gone and by the time I realised it was too late. Using trekking poles exposed the back of my hands to the full glare of the sun and they were burning. Factor 35 lip block was applied to no avail. I stubbed my the big toe on my left foot very painfully several times on the way down, causing damage to the nail bed. Three months later the nail dropped off. And so I arrived at the campsite by the Barafu hut, with a couple of others a few minutes behind the main party at around 1.00 p.m. We stopped for lunch, or rather we stopped, they had lunch. There were still another three and a half hours of walking to go to the Mweka hut where we were to spend the night. We stuck doggedly to our task and at least the terrain had improved and shortly after 3.00 we met our cooking staff who had come to give us a refreshing drink. It was a tasty blackcurrant juice, less acidic, less sweet and less highly coloured than Ribena and for me it was just the ticket, the first drink of the day not to make me feel sick. I was starting to feel better.

The terrain changed back from moorland to rain forest as we descended and we got a surprise glimpse of Mount Meru through the trees (small photo) (large photo). We got down to the Mweka campsite at about 5.00 p.m. My tent mate gave me some more blackcurrant juice, Ribena this time. I grabbed my kit bag, got out the Thermarest and sleeping bag and settled down to sleep. We had been walking for over 16 hours, climbed over 3,000 feet, descended 9,000 feet, I was utterly exhausted, and I slept like a baby till about 2.00 a.m. After that I dozed intermittently till our wake-up call at 7.00. It was time to pack once again.

12th February: I had fresh pineapple and tea for my breakfast, my rehydration was starting, and I was feeling much better, well enough to take a picture of the camp site with Kilimanjaro in the background (small photo) (large photo). We had only a couple of hours walk to the Mweka Park Gate and it was a pleasure to travel through the lush rain forest. Once through the gate we were mobbed by souvenir sellers. When we got to our bus we found our doctor had come to meet us. She had been observing the traders for some time. They had come mostly from Moshi, having inside information that there were seven parties coming down from the mountain that day. The commercialism at this gate was in stark contrast to that of the Umbwe gate from which we had started. Back at the hotel I hung clothing up to dry, and showered away the days of grime. There was a celebratory dinner at which we received our certificates for climbing Kilimanjaro. I for one had a good night's rest.

13th February: Four of us went on a guided visit to Machame village where we learned something of the life, past and present, of the Chagga people. Back at our hotel we packed for our return. We flew back overnight from the very modern Kilimanjaro International Airport, via Dar es Salaam, a time-consuming detour. We said our farewells at Amsterdam airport and I returned to 5 degree Celsius, foggy old Manchester. A course of antibiotics (Ciprofloxacin) sorted out my gut, Malarone had protected me from malaria, my sunburnt hands recovered, and I weighed in at 8 st 1 lb having lost seven lbs, mostly from my midriff.

It was a wonderful trip, everything I'd expected it to be. For the tour operator this is one of their least demanding tours. They regularly tour such heavyweights as Ama Dablam and Cho Oyu with impressive success rates. It was a very well organised trip with plenty of support and our expedition leader was excellent. Will I do another such trip? Well, Mera Peak looks enticing. "It lies in a beautiful uninhabited region and boasts a summit that gives superb views of Everest, Makalu, Lhotse, Cho Oyu and Kangchenjunga."


Links

Kilimanjaro Home Page
Preparation: Selection, booking, equipment and departure
Mount Meru: Animals, huts, minor triumph and major disappointment
Lake District Walks Title Page