Category Archives: Photography
Full moon ascent
Barafu Camp (4,450 m/ 14,930 ft) to Stella Point (5,695 m/18,684 ft) and Uhuru Peak (5,895m/ 19,340 ft)
It’s finally here, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The summit climb.
At 11 pm, we were pulling on 4 layers of clothing – both tops and bottoms. We looked like the Michelin Man—that is, if anyone could see us in the dark! It’s cold out. 10F/-10C at Barufu, a little below 5,000 m. It will get colder before daybreak. And so it begins… we set out by the light of the moon. We actually don’t really need our headlamps, its bright enough and we can see the glow on Kibo’s glaciers above. The next 7 hours are pretty much compressed into a surreal fog. Walk, breathe, stop, rest. Repeat. Very slowly. Pole Pole, trudging up, climbing 4,500 vertical feet (1,350 metres) over 7 km is a marathon taken 1 oxygen-deprived step at a time.
People are stumbling about like zombies. Most can’t quite seem to perform simple tasks like open their water bottles or turn on their headlamps. For some, their water has already frozen because they didn’t insulate it well. Others are nauseous and vomiting because of the altitude. Myself, I start to lag behind after the 5,000m point. Breathing is too difficult. Eliakim, one of the guides, takes away my pack to help me out. It helps for a while. But eventually, even with a lightened load, the thin air takes its toll.
It’s now an hour or so before dawn. The moon falls behind Kibo and it gets dark. We must take out our headlamps. And does it ever get cold. My fingers seem frozen to the bone. I have warmer mitts… but don’t have the energy or presence of mind to dig them out. I just whimper and rub my hands together to restore the circulation.
We keep plodding along, and the sky starts to lighten. The sun peeks over the jagged spires of Mawenzi, the 2nd highest volcanic cone on Kilimanjaro. And it warms our spirits and spurs us on. We keep plodding, and soon the crater rim is in sight above us. But it is a steep climb up the scree slope. The last few hundred feet feel like a mile and take the better part of a half-hour, if not more. By 7:30 am, we’ve all managed to reach Stella Point on the crater rim (I think I’m last to arrive). For this, we earn a green certificate of achievement signed by the officials of Kilimanjaro National Park.
Everyone is exhausted after 7.5 hours of climbing in the cold, with little or nothing to eat. We take the requisite group photos and rest a bit, enjoying the views of Rebmann Glacier, the crater pit, and the ice fields on the other side of the volcano’s rim. Now we must all make our own decision…. Is the crater rim enough? Or do we press on to the highest point on the rim, the highest point in Africa, Uhuru Peak? The group is evenly divided on the issue. 6/11 opt for the descent, while 5/11 continue on. Myself, I had enough and decided against continuing, especially because I was the slowest in the group at that point, and didn’t think I could push myself to keep up!
For those who pressed on to Uhuru peak (5,895 meters), it was another hour of “Pole, Pole” (slowly, slowly) at an even more “Pole, Pole” pace. Kilimanjaro, in the Chagga language, is known as the ‘journey that never ends’. The air was thinner than at Gillman’s point and although the climb was not particularly steep, it was extremely tiring. Kilimanjaro boasts five major ecological zones. The summit zone (5,000 to 5,895 meters), is just bare volcanic rock and ice. No sign of life – except for the climbers!
In the late 1880s the summit of Kibo was completely covered by an ice cap with outlet glaciers cascading down the western and southern slopes, and, except for the inner cone, the entire caldera was buried. In the past century, Kilimanjaro has lost 80% of its ice cover. At the current rate, Kilimanjaro is expected to become ice-free some time between 2022 and 2033.
Day 5 of the climb
Karanga Valley Camp to Barafu Camp (4,550 m / 14,930 ft; 12 km/ 7.5 mi)
Today is the day before the big day—everyone is a little nervous. We set out after breakfast for Barufu Camp. The landscape is now completely barren. Lava rock, shale, scree, the odd snow patch, and only the ravens circling above. Despite being essentially devoid of life, the rocky landscape above the clouds holds a certain beauty. Much like the desert does. In face, this is a desert—an alpine desert. The views of the Kibo Saddle, and the rugged Mawenzi Peak are breathtaking. These are both extensions of Kilimanjaro. And the air in thin at this altitude, which makes every step breathtaking as well!
Barufu – Swahili for Ice
We arrived at Barufu Camp around 1:30. Early compared to the rest of the trip. This is the last stop before the actual summit bid in about 10 hours. People are still coming down from the summit of the mountain, so we have to wait for them to leave before we can set up camp. We wedge ourselves among the rocks and bask in the sun. Despite the spectacular views and the awe-inspiring feeling of being near the top of the world, this is an inhospitable environment.
Once the tents are up, we have lunch and nervously sort out our warm clothes for the summit climb. Then we try to nap for a few hours before dinner. Dinner is carbohydrate overload—pasta, beans, french toast, and fried potatoes. A crazy combination that would have Atkins turning in his grave.
The fatigue we are experiencing is somewhat offset by the excitement level. We try to catch a bit more rest before the climb. So we crawl into the sleeping bags for a couple more hours and although we don’t really sleep, we get some much-needed rest. We wake up at 11 pm to set out under the full moon to reach the crater rim—and the Roof of Africa— around sunrise. It’s cold, dark and windy, making it even harder to get up and out of the minus 20° sleeping bags. But no precipitation now, so the summit bid is a go. Time for an “Alpine Start.”
“Mountain climbing is comprehended dimly, if at all, by most of the nonclimbing world. It’s a favorite subject for bad movies and spurious metaphors. A dream about scaling some high, jagged alp is something a shrink can really sink his teeth into. The activity is wrapped in exaggerated tales of audacity and disaster that make other sports out to be trivial games by comparison; as an idea, climbing strikes that chord in the public imagination most often associated with sharks and killer bees.
“People who don’t climb mountains – the great majority of humankind, that is to say – tend to assume that the sport is a reckless, Dionysian pursuit of ever escalating thrills. But the notion that climbers are merely adrenaline junkies chasing a righteous fix is a fallacy, certainly on any high altitude mountain. What we were doing up there had nothing in common with bungee jumping or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour.
“Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. I quickly came to understand that high altitude was primarily about enduring discomfort.”
To be continued…
Day 4 of the climb
Barranco Camp (3,950 m/ 12,960) to Barranco Wall (4,260 m/ 13,976 ft) to Karanga Valley Camp (4,000 m/ 13,123 ft); 12 km/ 7.5 mi
All the work today came right at the beginning. We crossed a stream at a little dip in the valley just outside of Barranco Camp, and then started working our way up the Barranco Wall. The wall is a 600 ft+ cliff face and the trail zig zags its way up where it can, and you have to scramble up with both hands in a few spots. The climb is made more interesting because everyone leaves camp at once. So climbers and porters, with all the attendant gear on their heads, jostle for the same space on the narrow trail. It causes a bit of a traffic jam.
Once the wall is breached, there’s a little respite on a level plateau, before a final scramble to the high point of the day, around 4,260m. This spot is called Breakfast by the porters – because by the time you’ve reached the top, you’ve burned off your breakfast and are ready for a snack. Since the view is amazing, most people stop for just that reason. So we spent some time munching Power Bars and jerky while contemplating Kibo‘s glaciers looming overhead… So close, yet so far.
After the Barranco Wall, things are a piece of cake… or the Swahili equivalent, Hakuna Matada (no problem). The trail descend into a valley, then climbs up and down over a ridges and more valleys. On the left, cliffs of lava contain numerous caves. The vegetation is fairly desolate, but it is punctuated by the odd lobelia or senecio amidst the sedge grass. On the lee side of some of the ridges, there are even dwarf cypress trees.
It’s a relatively short day, with an arrival in Karanga camp by mid-afternoon. This even gives a chance to do some laundry in a basin of warm water! Karanga is the midway point between Barranco and Barufu. Some people go directly to Barufu to cut a day off the trip. However, the time in Karanga helps with acclimatization and reduces the chance of altitude sickness – and thus increases the chances of success. Plus, the views are phenomenal. As the moon rises over the tents, the sunset to the west silhouettes Mount Meru, the 2nd highest mountain in Tanzania, about 100 km south of Kilimanjaro, peeking through the cloud cover. Awesome!
The view of Kibo over the morning tea or Milo isn’t half bad either. For those who don’t know, Milo is a malt based drink that you dissolve in hot milk (mazeewa moto) or hot water (maji moto). I guess you could say it’s the African version of Ovaltine.
As far as the rest of the breakfast was concerned, Alex, the cook from Tusker, didn’t let us go hungry. A typical day would start with fresh fruit – bananas, papaya, oranges – toast with peanut butter, fluorescent orange “mixed fruit” jelly, and/ or honey. Then there would be hot porridge, eggs (scrambled, fried or spanish) and on some days, sausage and bacon. The last few days of the trip, we got the best French toast ever – I guess the bread was getting a bit stale. Some days, it seemed we ate more than we could burn off. However, we all managed to lose at least 5 to 10 lbs over the course of the trip.
The easy day at Karanga allowed us some much-needed rest before the summit assault. Today, the real work begins. As we climb ever higher, breathing is increasingly laboured. Some of the climbers are getting headaches and upset tummies; appetites start to be affected and some have not been sleeping well. At this point, we were 12,000 feet (3,640 metres) higher than 5 days ago. We’ve been averaging about 13 km per day in 6 or 7 hours of hiking.
To be continued…
Day 3 of the climb: Ups and downs
Shira Camp (3,890 m/ 12,760ft) to Lava Tower (4,630 m/15,190 ft) to Barranco Camp (3,950 m/12,960 ft); 18 km/ 11.2 mi
Crossing Shira Plateau
We set out from Shira camp under slightly overcast skies. After an hour or so, drizzle and hail set in. We kept on through a moonscape of lava boulders and sedge grass. Nothing much growing up here. Although we began in the lush tropical rain forest just a 2 days ago, any signs of plant life are starting to disappear fast. Not to put too fine a point on it, we are about to spend time in areas not meant for either plants or animals to stay very long. Plants can’t thrive and the only animals are some insects and small rodents and in another day even they will disappear. Spiders are sometimes seen quite high up, but how they survive with almost no water around is a mystery. The only constant is the ravens soaring high up in the sky, and scavenging at the camps.
Today is an acclimatization day. Meaning we climb to a relatively high altitude and then descend to sleep low. It helps the body adjust for the days to come, where the air pressure will be progressively lower. As the air pressure decreases, the fluid balance changes. Blood thickens and fluid leaks into the tissues. This can cause headaches, nausea, and swelling in the extremities. In extreme cases, acute mountain sickness can lead to fluid on the brain or in the lungs, which can be fatal.
Anyhow, as we climbed in the hail, I began to feel the altitude. I was queasy by 4,300m and feeling pretty awful by 4,500m, when we stopped for lunch. I had no appetite, so I pressed on toward the Lava Tower. I just wanted to get to a lower spot! It was amazing how descending just a couple hundred meters made all the difference. I was almost euphoric and ran down the slope into the valley below the Lava Tower.
We continued on up and over a series of ridges and valleys before reaching our destination, Barranco. The Barranco Valley was magical. As we descended to the valley floor, we were greeted by a magical forest of giant lobelia and Senecio. These hardy plants are among the few that can survive in the harsh environment. And looking up, we were below Kibo, with great views of the glaciers.
We are now circling around to the east of the mountain, below the summit. Some people climb directly from the west side–but our longer route will give us more time to acclimatize. Today, we actually climbed almost 700 metres to get to the tower and then descended just about the same amount to get to Barranco. Why gain all that altitude and then go back down, you might ask? This is part of the “climb high, sleep low” regimen. When you sleep, your metabolism (respiratory rate and circulation) slows down and because of that your body suffers more from the thinner air and lower air pressure at altitude than when you are awake and moving. So they try to get a day of climbing higher to acclimatize, but then let the body recover by sleeping at a similar altitude to the night before. Of course you ultimately have to climb and sleep higher, but this helps and is one reason taking a longer route to the top (as we did) can improve the chances of making it.
To be continued…
Day #2 of the climb
Machame camp to Shira Camp (3,890 m/12,760 ft); 10 km/ 6.2 mi
No one slept terribly well last night. The first 6,000+ ft gain in altitude from town to Machame camp made many of us a bit breathless and nauseous. And the excitement of the first night of the trip, anticipation of things to come, didn’t help. The night sky was clear with thousands of stars, and Kibo‘s snow cone almost glowed in the dark. Dawn brought warm sun and we basked for a while during breakfast before setting out.
The weather didn’t last for long! As we set out through the exposed in the heath zone (an area of mostly shrubbery) and began climbing, the clear sky turned to rain and hail. By the time we reached the lunch stop, many were soaked (despite Gore-Tex and all the high-tech gear). Leonard was almost hypothermic and Sylvia pretty much resolved to abandon the climb and return to the hotel. Fortunately, a little food, some dry clothes salvaged from the bottoms of our packs, and some hot tea lifted their spirits. Everyone pressed on and as we reached the Shira Plateau, the weather began to clear.
Shira is the smallest crater of Kilimanjaro. Shira Cathedral and Shira Needle, among other stunning jagged peaks, are separated from Kibo by a saddle called the Shira Plateau.
To be continued…
About 8 years ago today, I decided I would climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, as a part of a fundraiser with a group of a dozen other Montrealers. I always enjoyed hiking, but had reached a point where I was in the worst shape of my life. The decision put me in motion. I had less than 6 months to get my act together before the climb. So I hit the gym several times a week, lost 30 or so pounds, and set my mind to achieve something great. And I did!
The experience taught me that anything was possible, if you want it badly enough. However, today, I find I’m back to where I started… Shiftless, no goals in sight, I’ve gained back twice the weight I lost and find that nothing really motivates me. I need to set myself a new challenge and hold myself accountable. Until then… I’ll just share a few experiences from Kili!
In the local dialect Lilma-Ngiaro means “Journey which has no ending.” Kilimanjaro is actually an ancient volcano. At 19,340 feet high, it is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. The route to the summit gains 4,400 meters (13,000 feet) in altitude, starting in rain forest, then traversing moorland, alpine desert, and scree slopes, before reaching the glaciers of the snow-capped summit.
The route of our trek involved almost 100 km of hiking over 7 days/6 nights. We followed the Machame Route is also known as the Whisky Route. It is so named as a comparison to the Marungu, or Coca-Cola Route. Marangu is a hut-to-hut trek that is shorter than Machame – they sell Coke at the huts, hence the name. Since Machame is more difficult, it gained the name “Whisky Route.” It is also supposedly one of the most beautiful routes on the mountain.
Day 1 of the climb:
Machame village (1,490 m/4,890 ft) to Machame camp (2,980 m/9,775 ft); 18 km/11 mi
After weighing and loading up all our gear into the minivans, we made it to the park gate and set out around noon. The path climbed gradually but steadily, but the footing was great. The first few miles followed a jeep road, which then narrowed to a wonderful newly reconstructed trail. No mud, rocks, or roots here! Although the walking was easy, the guides kept slowing us down, chiding us with Pole, Pole (Swahili for slowly, slowly). The slower you climb, the better you acclimatize to the altitude. So Pole Pole is the motto of the climb, used as a greeting and encouragement by the porters, passing by at twice our speed with 40 lbs of gear loaded on their heads!
We stopped for lunch in the lush rainforest. Eventually, the forest shrunk and transitioned to heath. We reached camp late afternoon. The tents were already set up, and there was tea and popcorn waiting for us. What a treat! Highly recommend the guides and porters from Tusker Trail.
From town, in the days before the climb, Kilimanjaro was obscured by the thick band of cloud that hovers above the rainforest. Machame camp gave us our first partial views of Kibo, the middle (and highest) crater of the mountain. That night, I felt the first effects of altitude—dizziness, headache, apnea. At we are not yet at 10,000 ft; we are 5,000 ft higher than where we began in the morning.
To be continued…