Summiting Kili – New Years Day, 2017

Day 1 & 2 – Machame Gate (1,800m) to Machame Camp (2,835m) to Shira Camp (3,800m)

It was strange going from balmy 20 degree nights to 0 in the space of a few hours. 2am relief was becoming torture, with every mouthful of water I weighed the consequences. Sade (pronounced Sardie), our waiter brought us hot water and served our breakfast of sweet millet porridge, omelette, pancakes & beans. The food throughout the trip was mostly excellent, full of flavour and high in calories.

While the first day was a relatively easy walk through lush, mossy rainforest, the second was much more difficult. The sun was out and to the West we could see Mt Meru as we climbed up a ridge line with a spectacular view.

Spirits were high and Kelly lead the charge with Jerry (one of our guides), Chris and I came behind with Bobby (our head guide) who played reggae for us to keep spirits high. Finally our core group was completed by Nate (our Adventure Out Loud leader), Godson & Jacob, (AOL assistants) and Kush (another guide). Traffic was a big problem as the Wagumu (porters) raced ahead of their clients to ensure they had the best camp spot. On the mountain the Wagumu have right of way and one has to be aware of who is coming up behind them.

We walked for about 7 hours and as we neared the top of the ridge the weather rolled in and caught us by surprise. It’s quite a sight to see 100+ climbers within sight all scurry around in their bags to pull on their wet weather gear, it’s also interesting to see who didn’t think when they packed their bag and now were essentially emptying their packs in the rain. Given nothing ever dries at elevation, I wished them luck.

Day 2 was tough, especially the Wagumu, who despite the steep and hazardous terrain, never seemed to tire. Kelly had a bad last hour, with freezing hands and Chris was having stomach issues. We reached camp just on dusk, we were tired, cold and I was starting to feel the effects of altitude; a mild headache. As we turned in for the night I had no idea how badly this would progress overnight.

Day 3 – Shira Camp (3,800m) to Barranco Camp (3,900m), via Lava Tower (4,600m)

Waking up at 2am, I now had a headache and nausea. I tried to sleep but the altitude increasing the pressure in my brain gave me no consolation. Around 6am I gave up and decided to get up to watch the sunrise. With temperatures well in the negative, Uhuru peak behind me and Mt Meru in front, it was one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever seen.

Early in the morning, Bobby, who was a continual pillar of strength and knowledge, had made the call that Yaky (nicknamed Basketballer, due to his obsession of the sport) would carry my pack and while my symptoms came and went, the guide team kept a very close eye on my health during the morning trek.

Wagumu were shooting past us at a rapid rate. Through the mist, we took slow steps and big breaths as Kelly once again led the charge. Amused, Basketballer joked when asked about how heavy my pack was (15-18kg) that he would run to the summit with it. Looking back I have no doubt that he could.

The environment had changed again from alpine forest to alpine desert. The only flora was the moss that grew on the boulders we were negotiating as we ascended. The occasional crow would scout us from above waiting for any opportunity for food or perhaps a fallen climber!

The final 300m to Lava tower, an important 4,600m acclimatisation stopping point for lunch, were brutal. It was all bad news for me, splitting headaches and nausea came in waves. I managed to get some food down in between episodes but the waves were hitting more frequently and as we began our descent to Barranco Camp, the heavy rain started to set in, soaking us and dropping the temperature.

The final few hours were some of the hardest my boots have endured. By the time we made camp I was verging on throwing up and was spent physically and emotionally. Bobby and Nate came to my tent and assured me that the game wasn’t lost, we would evaluate my health throughout the night and make a call in the morning.

At this point I think it’s important to state how much climbing is a team endeavour. We were becoming a family, looking out for each other and although I went to my tent with an empty stomach due to illness, I went with the support and encouragement I needed to stay positive. Morale tops the list of climbing essentials. Thanks Kelly, Chris, Nate, Bobby, Jerry, Jacob and Godson, as well as the ever present support from the Wagumu who I still can’t praise enough.

Days 4 & 5 – Barranco Camp (3,900m) to Karanga Camp (4,000m) to Barafu Camp (4,600m)

By some miracle I managed to snag a solid 10 hours sleep. The nausea was mostly gone, the headache moved from an 8/10 back to a 4/10 and I felt like I had some energy again. I was by no means cured but had shown enough improvement to be allowed to keep climbing after Nate and Bobby put me through some detailed testing.

In truth I had been expecting to wake up a ragged mess and be sent down the mountain with a porter, while my peers continued to climb. In fact we all were reporting improvements in our various ailments, apart from Kelly who hadn’t had a single complaint, besides for the obvious challenge of being a female and having to relieve herself on the side of a busy mountain (fair enough as well).

Ahead of us was breakfast wall, a 300-400m high, narrow ridge that we would climb straight after breakfast, hence its namesake. In ideal conditions it would take a Wagumu 30 minutes to climb but we had the disadvantage of hundreds of climbers as we were planning to summit for New Years. Add their support teams (roughly at a 4/1 ratio) and a traffic jam was inevitable.

 

Flared tempers rose and some of the other Wagumu were taking serious risks on unestablished routes to get up the ridge. We could hear arguments between teams, vomiting as the sudden increase in elevation hit some climbers and at one point the clanking of pots and pans falling down the escarpment as a Wagumu lost his load to the cheers of his peers.

The climb took 2 hours and at the top we were greeted by yet more rain. As we walked to the top of the ridge, we could hear the subtle sound of ice seracs breaking off and tumbling down the easement far to the left. I imagine the scenery that day would have been beautiful, unfortunately, due to bad weather we couldn’t see further than a few metres. For 5 hours we trekked up and down valleys until the final ascent into Karanga Camp. Luckily my altitude symptoms had disappeared during the day and I was now acclimatising well.

Day 5 was our final push to the summit base camp (Barafu). Until this point, we had not earned the right to consider the summit, something Nate and Bobby continually remind us of. The rain had still not given us a moment’s reprieve, which didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the Wagumu who continued to amaze. Even in the shittiest weather, I could hear them chatting and laughter in their tent.

It was a short steady and steep trudge. The rain that we started in turned to sleet as we edged higher to Barafu Camp, finally turning to snow, heavy snow. Posing for photographs become painful as we quickly cooled down and it wasn’t long before everyone retreated to their tents. This camp is quite steep and due to the snow it was covered in ice and haphazard rocks (thank goodness for my tent pee bottle, no way I was venturing out at 2am in this weather).

We were also starting to see real problems with the tents as moisture started seeping through the ground sheet and the floor, even the mattresses was becoming damp, along with anything else sitting on the tent floor. I used my bag cover to keep a layer between the floor and my kit, but it wasn’t a permanent solution. We just had to endure this until we summited early the next morning. This would be a very long night.

Day 6 – Part 1: Summit (5,895m)

It was 6:30pm, the usually relaxed and jovial atmosphere of the mess tent was replaced by a quiet tension. The snow storm was persisting, each of us had some ailment, were tired, cold, and a little scared.

My boots, as it turns out, were not waterproof and we spent as much time discussing how to keep our gear dry as we did about the summit itself. Between our support crew we had over 300 summits of experience but no one had ever seen the weather this bad. Even Nate was worried about the weather and the next 18 hours. Their main concern being returning to camp with saturated gear. My main concern was my saturated boots.

We turned in for a couple of hours of sleep before we were woken at 11:30pm to prepare for the summit ascent. We awoke to a clear star speckled night, it was a miraculous turn of weather but as we would find out, the heavy dumping of snow would be compacted to ice making the ascent treacherous. I solved the wet boot problem by layering socks, chemical toe warmers and plastic bags. I was feeling better about our prospects, Chris was still very apprehensive, Kelly seemed steely and resolved, it still amazes me how tough she was.

Above us, we could see a long snaking line of headlamps up the face towards Stella Point. Led by our guides, we quickly learnt that the key was to find a rhythm and pace that allowed us to make distance but prevented us from being short of breath and increasing our chance of altitude sickness. The oxygen was getting thinner and thinner and everything was difficult. The mere act of pulling ski gloves off to get at a water bottle or adjust a strap took extreme concentration. We rested approximately every hour but not for more than a few minutes, any longer and we would begin to freeze. The only way to stop frostbite or a core temperature drop was to keep moving.

Stella Point seemed so far away. At times we asked Jerry or Kush how far we were from the top, it was a bit demoralising to hear that we had only walked for 2 hours and had at least 4 to go. Chris was struggling with fatigue and had dropped back, Nate, Jerry and Jacob stayed with him. Kelly, as always, led the charge and I had to push hard to keep up with her. Mentally it was so important for me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The snow was really compacting as it became less rocky and it began to get thicker. Some parts were painfully slow as we negotiated long sections of iced path, sliding and slipping with every step. We made Stella Point in a little under six hours with Chris and his support team about 30 minutes behind. We gave each other a congratulatory hug, took on some food and water and then kept pushing for Uhuru Peak (the final summit).

Bobby estimated that the temperature, without windchill, was -20. As we stepped up onto the exposed ridge heading to the summit, the wind picked up and the temperature plummeted. Our boots were iced up and even the toe warmers stopped being so effective. We covered our noses in paw paw extract to stop them from freezing and twitched our fingers in the ski gloves to generate as much friction as possible.

The pace had slowed down, 8-10 very slow steps, 10 seconds rest, followed by another 8-10 steps. Even Bobby and Kush were finding it difficult. It took 45 minutes from Stella Point to the summit where once again we were greeted by a traffic jam of people trying to get photos. Clearly a pro, Bobby made sure we didn’t wait long, pushing his way to the front.

Godson had left his hands out for too long and was crouching down on a rock, hands down his pants to try and warm them up. It was good to know that one could always use their privates to stave off frostbite, as unpleasant as I’m sure it was. The very moment we were happy with our snaps and enough strained smiles had been forced, we quickly started our descent. Clearly, the usual glacier sunrise we had hoped for wasn’t going to happen.

If the ascent was treacherous, it was nothing on the descent. Although faster, it was extremely slippery and we decided to paired up and link arms in an attempt to arrest each other’s falls. Godson, whom I paired with, wanted to go at Wagumu pace and I often felt like a child being dragged by its arm down a shopping aisle. 3 hours later we walked into camp.

The Wagumu came out of their tent applauding us. There were congratulatory hugs and Sade brought us cordial. I was absolutely spent after the hardest 10 hours of my life.

Chris, Nate, Jerry and Jacob, who we’d passed approximately halfway between the summit and Stella Point, arrived back at camp an hour later, accompanied by the ever-watchful Bobby. Somehow, Chris had made it to summit, it was an incredibly gutsy effort and I could tell he was wrecked.

With the final summiteers into camp a fierce new snowstorm settled in, again drenching everything it touched. We had limited dry gear, the Wagumu’s tent and gear was also saturated. As we ate lunch we debated what to do. Nate outlined that we could camp at High Camp, approximately 2 hours away and hope we could dry our gear out enough to sleep or we could walk all the way out, approximately 6-8 hours but with the promise of a hot shower and warm, dry bed.

Day 6 – Part 2: Getting off the mountain

The snowfall was ferocious as we finished lunch and began to leave camp. Everything was covered in several inches of snow and sludge. We still hadn’t decided what to do, obviously a warm shower and bed was appealing but we were worried we might not be able to make it that far after what we had put our bodies through over the past 12 hours.

Kelly for the first time began to show signs that she was in fact human, not a machine, wasn’t keen to walk to the gate, Chris shared this sentiment. The Wagumu, guides, Nate and I on the other hand were of one mind, get off the mountain. We knew however that it had to be a unanimous decision, we were a team and we’d need support each other until the end.

Whatever their motivations, probably the hot shower and dry bed, Kelly & Chris quickly changed their minds once they reached High Camp. It was here that we realised that there was no chance anything was going to dry, we also saw that every other team on the mountain was in the same position as us.

For another 4-6 hours, we walked downhill. Our quads & knees screamed in protest with every step. Mental fatigue was a big issue and there were many times were we all wanted to stop. As we descended the air became more oxygen rich, muscles, previously exhausted and sore suddenly were being fed more CO2 and our energy and mood began to improve. Nate, who was ever optimistic, canvassed the team’s vibe and kept us all moving.

Chris felt waves of nausea as we descended, a common feeling for someone who has gone from an oxygen poor to rich altitude. His progress was slow and again Nate, Jerry, Bobby and Godson kept him company. Kush, Kelly, Jacob and I pushed on ahead, setting a pace we hoped would get us to the gate before dark. As we walked the Wagumu practically cartwheeling past us. Their gear was saturated and they were delighted that they were going home a day early. Paid days off don’t happen often in Tanzania.

Approximately 2 hours from the gate, Kelly and I began to really struggle. Our muscles had used their stores of glycogen and goodness knows where they were pulling energy from. An ascent from rainforest to glacier had taken us 5.5 days, our descent, had taken just 12 hours. Nate estimates that the average climber loses 5-6kg during the 7 days, I was definitely no exception.

The final few kilometres were torture, the elusive gate seemed to never come. Darkness fell and our head torches lit the way as far as the next corner, the one we hoped would be our last. Reaching the gate we must have looked like the walking dead, there was no jump for joy, no hugs, no speech. We lay on the cold concrete in silence, waiting for the rest of our team to arrive, almost 2 hours later.

The ride to our hotel was silent, everyone was exhausted. Kilimanjaro is without doubt one of the hardest things I have ever done. Reflecting back now, I can honestly say that it was an incredible journey that I would highly recommend. It’s surprising how a hot shower, good sleep and time to heal revives the body and mind.

 

Things I learnt during my trek:

Never ask a Wagumu “how far/long to go”? The answer is open to interpretation, any estimate provided will likely be based on Wagumu pace or you’ll get a Godson answer, “10 more minutes”. Either way, you’re only going to be disappointed so best to plod on.

No matter how hard things get, I can still push through and I should never write myself off.  

You don’t need good weather to enjoy the journey when you’re surrounded by good people.

Always pack for cold and wet weather.

Waterproof hiking boots are a must for Kilimanjaro. 

About the author

Michael "Meady" Mead loves adventure and it is not uncommon to find him out exploring Australia's great mountains and parks. A highly intelligent fellow, Meady enjoys reading mountaineering books and one day plans to summit most of the Wold's great mountains. Kilimanjaro was Meady's first high altitude experience and it inspired him to push his boundaries and spread his wings.

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