Sunrise at the Roof of Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro ModelAt 5,895m Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa. Attempting to climb this gentle giant was ludicrous until a hundred years ago although even now, it’s still pure lunacy. A common misconception is that Kilimanjaro consists of 1 peak when in reality it’s a 2-peak mountain. Kibo is the taller volcano peak that has been immortalized by every African picture book out there. Mawenzi is the virtually unknown second peak of Kilimanjaro. Due to its jagged form, climbing Mawenzi is not as easy as Kibo (and not as photogenic).

Day 1: Nairobi to Marangu

Mount Kilimanjaro is also the tallest freestanding mountain in the World. What this means is that Kilimanjaro isn’t part of a mountain range. It stands alone. This is quite evident on the drive from Nairobi to Marangu. Mount Kilimanjaro sprouts out like a pimple on the face of the Earth. Marangu is a tiny little town popular only because of its proximity to the big mountain. Enjoy your last warm shower here. Showers and bathrooms are luxuries that the mountain does not offer.

Day 2: Rongai Gate (1950m) to First Cave (2600m)

After registering at the Marangu gate, a 3-hour range rover ride gets you to the Rongai trail. Wave goodbye to civilization as you pass all the tiny Tanzanian villages. Rongai gate marks the head of the trail. Don’t let the gentle slopes and beautiful forests fool you. Day 1 is just a warm up for the real climb. Volcanic ash covers the entire path and after a few minutes of carefully trotting through the ash, you give up and realize that it’s actually a lot of fun walking through a foot of ash. As you head towards camp 1, the pine forests give way to smaller trees.

Day 3: First Cave (2600m) to Kikelewa Cave (3600m)

The morning of day 3 greets you with an amazing view of Kibo and Mawenzi. They both seem quite a fair distance away. Day 3 doesn’t seem to go anywhere and is a rough welcome to the mountain. The day wears on and each ridge gives way to yet another ridge much to everyone’s frustration. Finally, the second campsite shows up on the horizon. The final challenge of the day is crossing a stream to get to camp. You realize that this really is a tall mountain. Sleep at the end of day 3 is a relief.

Day 4: Kikelewa Cave (3600m) to Tarn Hut (4330m)

Day 4 marks another day of trekking up what is now beginning to seem like an unending mountain. The trees around have disappeared now and shrubs along the path are beginning to dwindle. One foot up this hill is one step closer to the summit and this is the stage where travelling with a fun group of people definitely helps. Tarn hut lies in the shadow of Mawenzi and camp is right next to a beautiful little lake.

Day 5: Acclimatization at Tarn Hut

Humans are only capable of dealing with altitudes below 3000m. Any further and breathing, sleeping and eating becomes a struggle. Acclimatization is crucial to any summit attempt and climbing higher and sleeping at a lower level seems to help. That’s exactly what day 5 is all about – a peaceful baggage less hike to the foothills of Mawenzi and a descent back to camp to spend the night at Tarn Hut again.

Day 6: Tarn Hut (4330m) to Kibo Hut (4700m)

A U-turn at tarn hut ensures that the group finally heads towards Kibo. The region between Mawenzi and Kibo is a barren, flat region that has been compared to a lunar desert. ‘The saddle’ as this is known as is a never ending path that begins and ends in clouds. After a never ending crawl through this desert, a small hill appears through the clouds and an excruciatingly long scramble up this tiny hill gets you to Kibo hut – base camp.

Day 7: Summit Attempt – Uhuru Peak (5895m)

Summit night begins at 11:30pm on day 6. This is it. The most challenging day of the entire trip. Months and months of preparation all boil down to this day. Talk about performance anxiety. Without blowing this out of proportion, summiting Kilimanjaro can be a matter of life and death. Due to the inability of our bodies to deal with high altitudes, acute mountain illness can cause fluid to build up in the lungs or brain and may eventually result in death. The only treatment for this disease is to descend. And fast.

Mountain sickness aside, 8 hours of grueling climbing in the numbing cold gets you to Gillman’s point (5681m).  At this level, the air’s pretty thin and breathing is difficult enough without have to trudge along the rim of the crater to get to Uhuru peak. On the other hand, the sunrise at the top of the mountain more than makes up for all the hardships over the last week. It was worth it. And given the chance, I’d do it again.

The glacier at the top of the mountain is surprising large when standing next to it. Hearing it creak is truly an awe-inspiring experience. Due to global warming, Africa’s only glacier atop Kilimanjaro is melting at an alarming rate. In the next 10 years, it will cease to exist. Before you rush to book the cheapest ticket to Nairobi, here are a few things to consider before climbing a big mountain.

Day 8: Descend to Marangu Gate (1980m)

Climbing up the mountain is just half the job. A majority of mountain mishaps occur on the way down, because people have the tendency of letting their guard down once the mountain has been summited. Fortunately for me, other than a few blisters and an intense craving for warm weather, I survived the descent and have lived to tell the story…

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