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Kilimanjaro Retrospective Part 3: Barranco

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.

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Barranco Valley

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…

New Goals & Kilimanjaro Retrospective: Machame

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!

Mount Kilimanjaro

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.

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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…

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