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Video Summary Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bXz-d8DsHo&feature=youtu.be
The idea started with a buddy attempting to revive a dream from the time he was deployed in Saudi Arabia. When he suggested that we climb Mount Kilimanjaro the idea stuck with me. Otherwise known as the Roof of Africa and one of the Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro stands at a towering 5,895 meters or 19,341 feet at its peak. That’s higher than Mount Everest’s base camp! Local laws dictate the use of professionally certified guides for the climb, it is illegal to climb without using a guide service so we looked around and decided on using Ultimate Kilimanjaro (http://www.ultimatekilimanjaro.com/). They have a few testimonial videos on their website supporting wounded veterans and celebrities so we figured it’d be a safe bet. We chose the 8-day Lemosho route. The max size for a group is 12 and we had 10 in ours. It was a mix of Americans, Canadians and UK peeps. Below is a picture of the group, from left to right Vicki, Bruce, Steve, Ryan, Sue, Neha, Mike, Jared, Erin and myself. This was the first day of actual trekking but more on that later on.
Arrival into Dar es Salaam was hectic – people everywhere, no lines and papers flying around the arrival gate. Best of luck grabbing one of those pieces of paper to fill out and apply for a visa. Cash only, bring $100 USD. The country prefers dollars over the Shilling and we saw that evident everywhere. It takes approximately 30mins – 2 hours to process through the visa process. We hopped onto the connecting flight into Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO) where we were picked up by an Ultimate Kilimanjaro (UK) representative. The bus ride to the Stella Maris hotel (http://stellamarislodge.com/) took approximately 35 minutes. There we received a quick familiarization brief on the hike and were able to request additional equipment. Walking poles cost an extra $20 and sleeping bags cost $50. I recommend bringing your own if possible for quality purposes. The sleeping bag you bring does NOT need to be inside your duffel bag. I found this out on day 6 unfortunately, since they put your duffel and the sleeping bag into a water proof bag of their own before the porters carry it. That’s 6 frustrating days of unpacking my entire bag’s contents and stuffing my sleep system into it. Checking in was a painless process and the rooms were amazing. Two beds to a room, it had a mosquito net and the mattresses were tempurpedic material. We had a great view of the objective from our balcony.
The adventure starts early the next day at 0800. The buses were loaded after bag weigh-in, they are strict on the 15KG weight (but you can get around it by overloading your day pack on day 1). The first leg of the journey is to Londrossi Gate for registration at Kilimanjaro National Park and then a ride to Lemosho Gate to start (see first pic). Day 1 is easy, it’s only half a day to the first camp at 9,500 ft. It’s a stairway to heaven climb, I recommend walking poles for the entire trek, you won’t regret it. Keep in mind your group is one of several hundred that are trying to reach the same camp. Around you will be other hikers and even faster will be the porters that carry equipment from the lower to higher elevations. Pure speed demons, they will only grunt “jambo” at you before swiftly side-stepping you. The terrain is mostly rainforest and dirt paths for the 1st climate zone, hot and humid.
The first stop is Mti Mkubwa at 2,895m/9,498ft around 1200 hours. Short half-day climb that lets everyone know that this will be a serious hike. The follow-on days will follow the same format, sign-in on location and then locate your own tent. We were glad that we didn’t overpack the day pack and found our tent easily. The rest of the time is yours to relax, chat and get to know the other people we were climbing with. Snacks and Kilimanjaro PREMIUM tea is always provided in the mess tent.
After settling down for the night, day 2 is a 0800-1300 climb. Wake up was 0630 hours for a quick wash, hot water was provided and then breakfast. ASK for the spanish omelet! I wish I had known this early on, it remains my favorite to this day. The temperate climate on day 2 is the same as day 1, t-shirt and pants/shorts. The Shira Camp 1 lies in a valley between mountain ranges and provides a great view of the summit if clouds are not blocking the view and will be the stopping point at 3,505m/11,500ft. The climb was a lot of up, some down, but mostly up. Think stairmaster. If you didn’t like the stairmaster before the trip, you’ll hate it even more now. The up-side was the scenery – breathtaking with a lot of picture opportunities provided you can whip the camera out fast enough during the hike. After the stop, there is enough day light to explore the area to check out the foliage and a small stream at the base of the camp.
Day 3 we departed camp and set foot through moorland-type terrain with the mountain in the background. Hats off to mother nature for providing an excellent and unobstructed view of the summit.
After the desert trek which is mostly flat for two hours, we moved onto a ridge line encompassed by white-tipped bush and rocks. The incline climb lasted approximately another 2 hours and there was a nice stop in a cave along the way. On top of the ridge-line there was an awesome Eco-system in the mountain with water and grass that grew inside smaller caves. Moir Hut is the final stop for the day at 4,200m/13,800ft which sits in the middle of a glacier recession point (a Geology major might be able to provide the technical term here). We reached there at lunch, took a short break then did an acclimatization climb another 1000 feet up a trail to the ridge line. Beautiful views. The climb for this day was a test in intestinal fortitude, certain parts of the climb required all fours and was a distance trek. By the end of the day every just passed out but I did end up grabbing a night sky shot. After this night, I put the DSLR away for the treks, in hindsight I wish I hadn’t.
Day 4 we took off from Moir Hut in the opposite direction up an 45-50 degree angle mixed in with all porters and other groups. The climb looked like a giant traffic jam. After a quick 20 minute climb the trail flattens out as we circled the mountain and walked through the clouds. Approximately 2 hours is spent circling around the mountain, on the left you have Uhuru Peak standing out prominently and on the right you have the city and countryside below with clouds hanging overhead. The last part of the trek gets difficult as you head up towards Lava Tower at an altitude of 15,100 feet (15,200 if you climb the actual tower like I did). This will be the highest altitude you reach until base camp on summit day which is 15,300 feet. We were told that we if felt good here, it would be a promising road ahead. After a quick lunch at Lava Tower, we prepared for the descent through clouds. The trail was flush full of green plants in contrast to the rocky climb at the beginning of the hike. Prepare yourself for nosebleeds as the air starts to become extremely dry. It was a straight descent through clouds until Barranco Wall. Halfway through the descent we had to pull out the rain gear. Barranco Camp puts you right at the base of the wall. What we saw was a straight uphill climb with a giant cliff drop on the right. Take the time to explore here if you have any energy left, it’s worth it. Sue was gracious enough to lead a short yoga session for some of us. Definitely welcomed, especially the pigeon! Oh, bring some cards – some fun memories came from a couple of friendly card games that night.
Day 5 started off with the usual fight against the stuff sack and repack of the duffle. The guides pushed the wakeup time an hour back but I honestly felt no difference. Once the party was ready to move, we headed off across a few streams and started the Barranco Wall climb. [GoPro video to follow soon!] The process was slow because of the porters and other groups. I highly recommend wearing gloves since certain parts of the wall are technical climbs requiring hands and feet. The rest of the trek also had technical elements to it but nothing that required putting away the trekking poles for again. There was a brief stop way up above the clouds at a great scenic view point where we practiced our jump shots and where we found out that some can jump more naturally than others 😀 After that it became an up and down trek ending at Karanga Camp located on a ridge overlooking the city of Moshi; elevation 3,995m/13,106ft. The most impressive part of this climb was seeing where the last natural water source was located, in a draw just below the ridge 1,000ft down where porters constantly milled back and forth carrying water jugs up for us. Seeing that shut me up from complaining the rest of the time. The second impressive part was one of our own that imagined my ass for that of a woman’s as his motivation to complete the day’s hike. Definitely a first for me. The day ends around 1500 hours giving us enough day light to explore the ridge line and see the sun set over the city.
On Day 6 we kicked off with breakfast and another routine health check with the friendly neighborhood pulse oximeter before heading straight up the ridge. A nice 45 degree angle to get the juices flowing, can’t get a break on leg day here! We shot up and across loose dirt and volcanic rocks with a final 300ft climb up to Barafu Camp, the final stop before the summit. The first thing you’ll notice is the wind! It cuts hard across the camp at 4,673m/15,331ft. As always, the tents were up and we just had to sign in before we could take a quick nap. We ate lunch, took another 3 hour nap, ate dinner and were told to sleep until 2330 hours when it was time to assault the summit. Between the adrenaline and thoughts of reaching the summit, it was extremely hard to catch shut eye.
At exactly 2330, the team suited up (5 top layers, and an arbitrary 4 bottom) and met in the mess tent. We were given snacks and some black tea for the 9 hour trek ahead of us. As we followed our guides to the summit, we saw a trail of torches (headlamps) also headed up the same path. We were always able to see what the path was ahead of us since multiple tour groups illuminated the way ahead. Over time, groups of torches would pull to the side as their clients couldn’t continue on and soon we all were feeling the toll that a lack of oxygen takes on the body. Until we actually started climbing, it was hard to anticipate the challenges – I just kept my head down staring at the boots ahead of me and every now and then pushing for a short piss break. By the time we hit our first checkpoint, Stella Point I barely could recall events happening around me. For many, this was the final stop since groups were turning their clients around as they saw Acute Mountain Sickness set in.
To my discredit, I cannot remember taking this picture but I’m glad we captured the sign! Once we started moving again towards Uhuru (Freedom) Peak, I found myself without a headlamp which was replaced by a GoPro on my head. The sun was just below the horizon at this point giving the mountain an eerie blue and gold glow. To the left of us were the glaciers, barely visible and to the right was a long drop off into the crater. The cool factor was that as we continued to ascend, the sun ascended with us. In the last 100 yards, I reached into the bag and pulled out my flag that has been with me since I joined the service. Steve assisted me and jokingly commented that one of the stars represented the Pikey state. Sorry if that offends anyone but it cracked me up and as soon as I started laughing, one of our guides snatched the flag and started sprinting up the ascent. It was a glorious moment, seeing his enthusiasm and I was almost overwhelmed with emotion having reached this pinnacle of my life.
The burst of motivation cleared the mind and all senses were on alert – looking around the view was incredible. Uhuru peak was quiet, almost in reverence to the power of the mountain that can create its own climate, break the health and will of humans and stand as the highest point on the continent of Africa. As we took our final steps to the marker, the rocks crunched beneath our feet from frost that had not yet melted from exposure to the sun, some sobbed softly while others carried a solemn look on their face that bore the memory of having just assaulted up a 20 degree slope for the past 6 hours to reach this point. I can only imagine the the thoughts of others as my mind was comprehending the crucible I had just passed.
When our chance finally came to take a group shot, we had maybe 5 minutes to take all the pictures we wanted. Other groups behind us were finally experiencing AMS and they wanted to be up and off the summit. Eunji and Zoey, your picture is there and it’s buried about 50 meters in the ground under a rock behind the sign post. Maybe one day we can find it when Zoey is old enough.
Overall the experience was exhilarating and definitely a worthy challenge for anyone that loves to hike but doesn’t want to learn anything too technical. Diamox is key, so is sunblock ~50SPF keeps the doctors at bay, baby wipes are key and bringing enough layers is perhaps one of the most important aspects of this climb. Lastly, pick a company that you feel comfortable with – on a trip like this, paying more is actually worth more. Safe travels, until the next adventure!
Below is the summary of our route with the stops.
Featured Gear for the trip:
Backpack: Kelty Redwing 32 (http://www.amazon.com/Kelty-Redwing-32-Liter-Backpack/dp/B00GZHVEV6). Great backpack at 2lbs 8oz. Selling points for me were the two water bottle slots, trekking pole slots and a camelback-friendly loop through the top. Recommend the rain cover as well, not included with backpack.
Boots: Merrell’s Moab Mid (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00132GBRU?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o02_s00). Goretex on the outside worked great when it was wet and kept the boots durable the entire trek.
Jacket: North Face Men’s Resolve Jacket (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008DJPJ8S?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o09_s00). Light-weight, durable and comfortable all I had to worry about were my internal layers.
DuffleBag: North Face Base Camp Duffel (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00WI09NLW?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o02_s00). The quality of this bag was of utmost importance especially since it was being thrown around a lot. The bag held up to the challenge and was extremely easy to pack.