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Summitting Mount Kilimanjaro

Added 10 Sep 2013
Summitting Mount Kilimanjaro

Michelle Laverick is Explore's Head of Marketing and travelled on our Kilimanjaro Trek tour. Here she gives an honest account of the trek, with pointers and advice for those looking to take on this iconic mountain.

The Adventure
Everyone has their own reason for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, so what was mine? I’ve trekked in Nepal, South America and Europe, but I realised that I’ve never climbed to the top of a mountain. So, now it was time to take one on, I knew there was no other choice than Kilimanjaro! As a mum of two young girls life is really busy and I wasn’t too sure if this year was the year to do it, but after the sudden death of my daughter’s teacher, I realised life was too short and there was no better time than the present.

I booked the trek in February and immediately began a training programme to do all I could to ensure I got to the top. However, we don’t live near any mountains so making the most out of the gym and the swimming pool was the bulk of the plan. Luckily, my whole family is into walking so we went to the Lake District and climbed Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, Green Gable and Great Gable – not bad for my seven and nine year olds!

I had just under six months to get as fit as I could, and then the day arrived to head off to climb to the roof of Africa. Even though I’m a keen traveller, I’d never really explored Africa, and was really excited at the concept. So, armed with malaria tablets, my yellow fever certificate and more kit than you can shake a stick at, I boarded my flight to Kilimanjaro with Ethiopian Airways, via Addis Ababa. The flight on one of the new 787 Dreamliner aircraft was great and spare time at Heathrow and Addis Ababa airports was spent trying to work out who else would be travelling on my tour with Explore -the walking boots were always a give-away! Although almost everyone at Addis airport had walking boots on…surely they weren’t all on route to Tanzania to climb the mountain?

After two flights, very little sleep and two chicken curries I arrived in Tanzania. Most of the group found each other in the baggage reclaim area –with the help of the Explore kitbags some of us were travelling with. The kit bags were ideal for a trek and, at 90 litres in size, everything fits in. Within minutes of meeting the group were bonding, comparing the vaccinations everyone had had, our previous trekking experience and how much training – or how little! - people had been doing in preparation for the trek.

We spent one night in a hotel before we started our trek, so the whole group was focussed on preparing for the challenge ahead. Even though there was the temptation to have the last beer, most opted for a soft drink. Alcohol is proven to impair your ability to acclimatise to the altitudes we would be facing and no one wanted that!

The Trek
Day one: Today started early and gave us all our last chance to shower for a week! It was then time to head to the park gate where we met our porters for the eight day Lemosho (Shira) route trek. After we completed all the paper work at the park gates the trek really began.

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kili trek day1We were off! The first day was only a couple of hours walking through almost tropical jungle. The pace was really slow, which was the theme throughout the whole trek. It was essential at altitude to take the pace slowly, slowly, or ‘pole, pole’ in Swahili, as this helped us acclimatise. When everyone is trying to find their pace for the trek it can be a challenge for experienced trekkers to walk so slowly.

We walked gently up and, after taking a few drink breaks and stopping to eat our packed lunch, we arrived at our camp early afternoon. We were the first ones there, with enough room for a few more groups after our arrival. We claimed our tents and checked out how the toilet tents/long drops worked and then it was time for afternoon tea which consisted of tea, coffee or hot chocolate and either popcorn, biscuits or nuts.

Around camp there was not normally a great deal to do other than relax in our tents, repack our kit, read a book or catch up on the events of the day. Dinner was normally served around 6.30pm and was always soup followed by either a pasta, rice or potato dish. The food on the whole trek was excellent and vegetarians and gluten free diets were catered for. After dinner, due to the cold and the dark, there was only one thing to do, and that was to retire to your tent…for about 11 hours!

Day two: After probably one of the worst sleeps I have had for a long time, it was time to get up and prepare for the next day’s trek to Shira camp. I wore shorts the day before and was scratched by every plant going and convinced myself that I had been bitten by every insect I encountered, I opted for long trousers on day two. Although some of my fellow trekkers opted for a new look – shorts and gaiters!kili trek day2

The trek started in the rainforest for the first couple of hours but after a steep climb we emerged from the trees and into shrub land. The walk was a moderate six hours and the scenery was constantly changing during the course of the day. One of my lasting memories of this day was the dust! It is easy to forget that Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano and I’m not too sure if it is good for the complexion! We were covered in volcanic dust by the end of the day. It sticks to sun cream so, upon arrival at camp, the two essentials for this day were wet wipes and a nail brush. We had one nail brush between the group and it was the most essential piece of kit which I now know all of us should have had!

When we arrived in camp it was cloudy and our main aim was to get clean, but when the clouds cleared we were taken aback by the sight before us  - our first glimpse of Kilimanjaro. It was awesome, and I was surprised at how big it was, but we clearly still had a long way to walk. As the sun was starting to go down, and whilst we were waiting for dinner to cook, we were introduced to all of our porters, cooks and guides – in true Swahili style – with a song. It was an amazing moment and it reminded me why I love trekking so much - getting to know those whose lives we can change, and those who I knew would have changed mine by the end of this trek. After dinner, with a clearing sky, the temperature started to drop and we all started to pile on the layers before bed. I wanted to get more sleep than the previous night but I couldn’t help sitting outside to admire the night sky for just a few minutes. It was truly breath-taking.

And that wasn’t the only chance I had to see the stars. To assist your body with acclimatisation it is essential that you drink plenty of water to keep your body hydrated. At altitude, it is difficult to sleep deeply (I slept very lightly and often enjoyed some very unusual dreams) and visits to the toilet were often frequent – especially during the night. Therefore, opportunities to view the amazing night sky and the full moon were plentiful!  

kili trek day3Day 3: The view as I stepped out of my tent on day three was unforgettable but the air was cool and there was a frost on the ground – the down jacket was going to come out for dinner tonight! After breakfast we headed off on a steady climb out of camp, once again making our way through the shrub land. We were lucky with the weather as it was calm and sunny, which always made for more pleasant walking conditions. The heat also helped with making sure everyone was drinking plenty – having a platypus was an essential, encouraging constant ‘sippy sippy’.  It was a gradual up all day and the scenery continued to change. We climbed above the shrub land and into a more volcanic landscape which was made even more eerie when the afternoon clouds set in and surrounded us.

On arrival at Moir Hut camp, all the down jackets came out - it was cold. After afternoon tea, there was an acclimatisation walk for about 45 minutes. There was a rumour that there would be mobile phone reception at the top of the climb, however, due to the weather, there wasn’t!

Unfortunately, on this afternoon we had to say goodbye to one of our group as they were suffering from altitude sickness - the only way for them to go was down. Due to the cold and the events of the day the group were subdued a little, so it was a quick dinner (spaghetti bolognaise) and off to bed.

Day 4: kili trek day4We went to bed in the clouds but we woke up to blazing sunshine which was the perfect start to the day. Group spirits has been picked up by a slightly better night’s sleep all round – despite the higher altitude. After a hearty breakfast of porridge, eggs, sausages, toast and tea we were off on a shorter trek but gained some good altitude. This was one of my favourite days of the whole trek. We trekked up to our highest altitude yet, Lava Tower Camp at 4,640m, and the scenery was outstanding, we were above the clouds, the weather was perfect and Kilimanjaro was so close.

The terrain was very volcanic and rocky but the people we met – including quite a few porters and other groups – made the day fascinating and full of life. I noticed that a lot of other groups had lunch at Lava Tower, and then they continued down to Barranco Camp to sleep. At first I was wondering why we weren’t doing that – I almost felt short changed that we were only doing a ½ days walk. But looking back on the trek, it was a brilliant move and we benefitted from it over the following days. After a cooked lunch we had time to relax around camp and even had the chance to visit the internet café – also known as a rock where we could sit and get mobile phone reception. Before dinner we had an amazing acclimatisation walk with stunning views over Meru. That night we slept at over 4,600m and even though many of the group started to suffer from the effects of altitude, the symptoms soon subsided and we all turned in for another 11 hours in the tent.

Day 5: kili trek day5Today was the day that everyone feared - the ascent of the Barranco Wall. After a steady descent from the Lava Tower Camp in constant sunshine (as we were now going to be permanently above the clouds until after we summited) group spirits were high in anticipation of ‘the wall’. Everyone was raring to get cracking at it and we were no longer feeling the effects of altitude as we had the day before.

After about ninety minutes the wall loomed in front of us. We were advised that it would take about an hour to get to the top which didn’t sound too bad, and we were then told to put our poles away as we would not need them. This worried me a little! However, apart from a little scrambling, the wall was fine. There were a few false summits near the top though! This was one of our longest walking days and by the time we arrived at our next camp, everyone was agreed that it had been a good day!

kili trek day6Day 6: After the best sleep I had on the mountain, the realisation hit that our summit attempt would start later on that night. It was finally here. We’d all heard stories about how ill people can get on the final stage of the walk and talk all day was about what kit we were going to wear, how many layers and what food we were going to take. Today’s walk was a steady few hours to get to our base camp at Barafu. Upon arrival, where there appeared to be hundreds of people, we all dived into our tents to sort our kit out and prepare ourselves for the night ahead. We were advised to rest as much as possible during this time, although proved to be difficult when you are excited and nervous!

Day 7: Technically still the same day, we had our wake-up call at 11pm, which gave us an hour to get dressed and have some tea and popcorn before we left camp at midnight. When we were all dressed and ready to go, our Tour Leader sorted us out into an order for walking, putting the slowest first to keep the group together with the support crew dotted amongst us. It was very cold and dark, although the sky was full with a plethora of stars and we were guided by a full moon. Head torches were on and we were off. The first part of me to feel the effects of the cold and lose feeling were my toes, and I didn’t feel them again until about 10am the next day. The next things to go were my hands – which disappointed me as I had a brand new pair of gloves especially for summitting!

We plodded up the mountain in the dark, one foot in front of the other, stopping every hour for a break. We couldn’t stop for too long though as it was just too cold. The order of the group changed and the support crew stepped in to take some rucksacks off the group to give us the best chance of getting to the top. The trail of head torches up the mountain made it feel like Christmas and when I was advised that we were nearly at Stella Point, I had a renewed spring in my step – although ‘nearly there’ ended up meaning another two hours to go!

kili trek day7At 6:30am we finally reached Stella Point. I had carried lots of food and drink up with me and had hardly touched it. It was too difficult to eat – even sucking on Lucozade tablets was hard. We took a few photos and then pushed on for the last 45 minutes to the summit.

This part was really tough and I have never seen so many ill looking people before. It was a case of head down thinking ‘I will get there, just keep going’. And I did. At 7:15am the group arrived at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

It was awesome but hard to appreciate what we’d achieved due to the exhaustion of getting there - I had nothing left in my legs at this point. I always thought I would cry when I got to the top but I don’t think anyone had the energy! We had a short break to take photos before we all headed back down to Stella Point. From Stella Point it was all downhill and was like running in snow – although this mountain route is all scree!

It was tough on the knees but the thought of getting to a lower altitude kept everyone going. We were back at base camp by 9:45am and had a few hours to rest and have lunch before we continued our descent. The afternoon walk was subdued as the day had taken its toll on several members of the group and we limped into the final camp in the clouds late afternoon.

kili trek day8Day 8: It’s all over. We’d done it and what an achievement! but all any of us could think about was getting down off the mountain, having a shower and most important of all, a celebratory Kilimanjaro beer! The last day felt long, it rained and the group spirits were down after adrenaline rush of summitting the day before. When we finally got to the end of the trek and reached the gate we were welcomed with a beer – one of the best I have ever tasted - and the option to have our boots cleaned. After lunch it was off to the hotel for the best shower in the world and then onto the bar to recap the adventures of the past week.

It was truly a brilliant trek and, although the summit day was really tough, the rest of the walking was fairly steady. At first I said I’d never do it again, but, now? I’d love to go and do it again!

MIchelle travelled on our Kilimanjaro Trek tour.