Note: I leave out the practical details, Henry Stedman's Kilimanjaro site and guide book is much more detailed, and probably will be updated going forward. If you want to climb Kili, buy it and read it cover to cover. Also, the pictures below are clickable, and if you want more pictures, check out my PicasaWeb album or the video of the climb. Check out the Safari Trip report if you are interested in what we did after the climb.
Day 1 - Machame Gate To Machame Camp (3000m)
Today is the big day. Ernest, our guide, picks us up at the hotel in a mini bus, and off we go. The cook is already on board, we load a few more porters on the way, and about an hour later we arrive at the Machame Gate. We meet our assistant guide Marcus, who then promptly disappears, he'll catch up with us later. We also meet the rest of the support crew. Total 13 people for the three of us. Guide, assistant guide, cook, assistant cook, 9 porters, one of which doubles as waiter, and one doubles as assistant waiter. These are positions of status, and it's always the same person bringing food. Paperwork, porter organization and other stuff takes over an hour and a half, and we are on our way, up through the rain forest.
Lunch comes in boxes from Good Earth. I am taking pictures of another group that eats on a table, the only one among several tour groups. Little did I know that I'll be having - and appreciating - a table for lunch on all other days. This is clearly a different kind of hiking.
At 4:10pm we finally get a glimpse of Kilimanjaro. "It exists!" is my first comment. I knew I saw it when I landed in KIA, but since then, Kili has been hiding in the clouds. Even today, after we walked for hours on it's foothills, we never got a view of the top. But finally, it's there. It was to be with us for the duration of the trip, with the exception of the afternoon clouds that often cover the peak. 10 minutes later we arrive at Machame Hut.
Good Earth brought us two nice, bright orange tents, one for Arturo and Joaquin, and one for myself. That much more to heat in the night... We get hot water to wash, and popcorn and tea. Dinner comes shortly after, with soup, potatoes, chicken. And a table and chairs to sit on. The Good Earth Web site says one doesn't get a table for 3 people only. This is a good start!
Day 2 - On To New Shira Camp (3800m)
It turns out my new REI Kilo is a good sleeping bag, just what I need on this mountain. The tent was built on a slope, this was a bit of a challenge, with multiple pads, but otherwise the night went well. Last night went down to 2 degrees C and we wake up to a beautiful morning, with blue skies. Breakfast is outside the tent, but that's fine. Our kitchen crew serves an excellent breakfast, and we leave at 9am. The trail goes up and up and gets steeper all the way to lunch, which we reach shortly before noon. We have now left the rain forest and are in the realm of heathers. First tall like trees, then getting shorter and shorter. We also encounter the first Senecio. We also get great views of Mount Meru in the distance.
Today we eat lunch on chairs and tables, and get some litchi juice, which I actually like a lot. The cheese is made in Poland. After lunch it is easy going - less steep, but still up - to the lip of the Shira plateau.
We also find our first Lobelia. They collect water in their leaves to survive up here and they only get about 2m high max, then they die.
Just beyond the lip a porter collapses and quickly goes into hypothermia. It isn't actually very cold, but between exhaustion - the guy passed us very fast just before the lip, dehydration - the porters don't drink as much as the mazungu, not wearing enough, and high altitude he reached his limits.
The people already there quickly put him in a sleeping bag, his guide joins him in there, and another group provides oxygen. The porter doesn't know where he is, and it is very scary, most of all for him, but all the right things are done, and he improves quickly. There are about 15 people standing around him, which must be even more scary to the patient, but reassuring to me. There are a lot of people here who know what to do. He is ok to walk in another half hour or so. He will spend the night in the camp, and will be evacuated tomorrow by 4WD, which can make it almost all the way up to the New Shira Camp through the Lemosho route. That group lost their assistant guide, too, due to a family death. Not a lucky day for the clients, two Danish women.
I am in my tent at the New Shira Camp at 2:30pm. After some rest, popcorn, and hot tea/cocoa we leave shortly before 4pm for a short walk up to Shira Camp, the ranger and rescue station. On the way there we look at the Shira Cave, a small cave that was used by porters for cooking and sleeping before they had tents. I also found a toilet that beats the one on top of Whitney in the category of toilet with the best view. You have a great view of Mount Meru, and the Western peaks of Kilimanjaro.
I do a quick stroll back along the trail to get cell phone signal, and to take pictures of Kili in the sunset. There I meet Marcus who finally caught up with us, right at sunset of the second day. Eventually, when it comes to tipping, we tip him the full amount, despite him being around for only 4 out of 6 days.
Day 3 - To Barranco Camp (3950m)
Two days ago, I started taking pictures everytime we start or stop hiking, so I can document in detail how long it took us for each leg. But now, we are getting sloppy. First, it's not a race, and second, you are there when you get there. We also walk extremely slowly, in Kili speed, as opposed to Sierra speed. We walk so slow that when I stop I am not breathing hard. Still, my pulse must be at some 120 constantly. But now, I am just enjoying the trails and the views. Vegetation is mostly gone, it's rocks and dust now. Luckily we have great weather, and very little wind
My stomach starts to worry me. If I drink I feel nauseous. If I don't drink, I get a head ache. I vote for the headache. We discuss taking Cipro at lunch, but I decide to wait, a decision I will regret later. The problem with nausea is that I don't eat, so I am going to run low on energy. I do pop my first Diamox, just in case, and enjoy the tingling in my feet. The right leg gets way more, for some reason. I get very little in the hands. It passes quickly, and I hardly felt it going forward, except when I washed my hands in hot water, that triggers a serious tingle.
We take the trail up to Lava towers at 4800m. I wanted to climb them, but I don't feel like it given my stomach, and Arturo and Joaquin go with the guides while I just rest and conserve energy. Then we go on, and this is the worst segment of my trip. I feel weak, nauseaous, and in need of a bathroom for the rest of the day.
All day we see the clouds climbing slowly higher and higher. We figure out why trails on Kilimanjaro run on the ridges. They stay in the sun longer. Several times we say good-bye to the sun, but every time we dodge the fog for a while longer. But eventually the trail to Barranco takes us down into the fog.
Barranco camp is probably the most beautiful. Glaciers overhead, huge Senecios, the Barranco wall in front of you, waterfalls close. I don't see much of all that. After we arrive in the camp, I basically collapse in my tent. It's the low point of the trip, and I pop the Cipro on top of some ibuprofen. I only pop one, again something I regret later. And eat very little, mostly to reduce the impact of cipro+diamox+malarone on the stomach. I feel like I have a fever, and it turns out Arturo carries single use fever thermometers - I didn't even know they exist. Anyway, I run some temperature, even after the ibuprofen. Ernest now gets worried, and we even discuss evacuation options. One can go down directly (Option 1), or head over to the Mweka trail - which is easier logistics, but a lot of uphill, it turns out (Option 2). Or go up to Barrafu and see how things go (Option 3).
I always worried that what will get me is elevation, or maybe the weather, but now it's a few billions of stupid bacteria in my guts...The porters give me hot water with sugar for the night, and toasts, and eat a bit, everytime I wake up and hurry to the bathroom. Despite packing generous amounts of toilet paper I run out. Luckily, the porters have plenty, I get a whole roll, just for myself.
Day 4 - To Barrafu Camp (4600m)
The Cipro did a pretty good job tearing those little suckers apart. I feel much better in the morning, and will continue for now. Ernest asks me if I feel "strong like a lion?" I say "no, strong like a Hyena." He explains to us what Hyenas do when an elephant dies...
We enter directly into the Barranco Wall, also called the breakfast wall. It looks intimidating, but if you can handle the mist trail in Yosemite, you will not have problems here. The trail is beautiful, as it climbs up these cliffs. It's also never dangerous. Amazing is how fast the porters climb up some of these steps. We take it slowly and steady and enjoy the view over the camp site, and Kili.
The rest of the day is ongoing up an down, and after lunch mostly up, through land that reminds Stedman of foreign planets. It reminds me of Mordor. When it says "crossing a valley" in the trip descriptions, it means some serious drop, followed by a serious climb after. The picture on the rigth shows the drop into Karanga Valley and the trail up the other side. This is why some people say Machame is a hard route. The bottom is the last chance to get water before the summit. This means the porters fill up their containers in the creek and carry the water up to Barrafu, at least 3 hours to go at porter speed.
We go pole pole, and I just enjoy being out there, hiking, having great views to the summit and the glaciers, and the clouds. We have lunch at the Karanga Hut camp site, where some of the teams we spent the last days with camp for the night. They do a 7-day climb, and spend one night here, and go up only tomorrow to Barrafu. This breaks up the strenuous last day before the summit, and gets you to Barrafu early in the day, so you can rest before midnight departure. In our case, it's 3pm by the time we arrive up there. The porters are not here yet, we are exhausted and cold, and we huddle together for a while. As soon as the porters put up the first tent, we all collapse inside.
For the rest of the day we should get as much rest as possible. We get the best spagetti I ever ate, and I can actually eat some, which makes me feel better for the night. I also continue to stuff more sweet stuff into me, to get energy for the climb. Basler Läckerli do the job just fine. While Arturo and Joaquin rest in peace, I continue my routine of getting out of the sleeping bag, dressing up heavily, go to the toilet, crawl back in the tent, undress and go back to sleeping bag. I still have diarrhea which is not a problem for the hike, but getting out of the tent into the cold night more often is a disadvantage. Still, I think I slept some.
Day 5 - Summit (5895m) and Descent do Mweka Camp (3000m)
We get up at 11.15pm (Day 4, technically) and I feel pretty good. Enough to go ahead.
We leave camp at 12:15am and start hiking. I put on everything I had and it works out just fine. I am the only one without an LED light. Ernest thinks my battery is dieing, but this yellow shine is just how the old bulbs perform like. The weather is gorgeous. A starry night, you can see the milky way. The moon set hours ago. I walk without head lamp, just using the light of the stars, which allows me to see way more of the mountain. All of the guides do the same. All other tourists turn on their lights, which is at times a bit annoying, as it impacts my night vision, particularly when they shine directly in my face. Also, if you have your light on, you live in this little gray circle of light. The picture gives you an impression, you got a small circle, and everything else is black. Without the head light, you see the whole mountain. The snow fields, the glaciers, the rocks. It's beautiful.
As we climb, I start to feel better. I think adrenaline is starting to do it's work, and maybe Cipro, too. The pasta certainly helped, too. I do save every bit of energy I have, though, and just go pole pole. I don't take a lot of pictures either, part of the reason is that it's pretty cold, and getting colder as we climb, and as the night progresses. I am drinking from my platypus and always blowing back the water in the pipe and biting the mouth piece to get the water out. No problems.
We walk mostly up, then some more up. At one point our guide starts to fall asleep while walking, which is bothersome at least. In addition, if he really drops out, then what do we do. He notices that we are pretty fast up the hill, and slows down a lot, and I am getting cold. And the slow walk doesn't help him stay awake. As we ask him to go a little bit faster, he does so. Later it turns out he drunk coffee in the afternoon, and couldn't sleep. Make sure your guide doesn't drink coffee and gets his sleep, like everybody else. Arturo and me already started making emergency plans, but just keeping him moving got us to the crater rim at Stella Point, right at dawn. Perfect timing. He was right to slow us down, as before dawn, it's cold on top of Africa. As we get closer to the summit, we cross paths with the people who were ahead of you. They didn't stay on the summit for the sunrise, they were very cold and just turned around.
As the eastern skies turns red, we reach the rim at Stella Point. The view is amazing. No, it's mind blowing.
When I see the glaciers I tell Arturo "that's why I came" and then I am quite overwhelmed by exhaustion and emotions. One of the main thing I remember from a documentary long time ago was the glaciers on top of Kilimanjaro. It will take me all the way to base camp to recover.
As it gets brighter we hike over to Uhuru peak (another 40 minutes, but it seems way shorter), and shortly after we arrive, the sun rose. It's gorgeous. We all feel great - which is not true of some others we see. We stay at the rim, take pictures, eat and drink and have a good time. After we reached the rim, I forgot my platypus discipline, and the hose immediately froze. But it's not a problem, I just drunk out of the bag directly.
We start going back down. After a short breakfast break a bit below the rim, we descent on a slight different route. As the Stedman says, if you can handle it, by all means take the porters route down. We came a long way in the dark. You can see Barrafu camp slightly above and to the left of the guide in the picture.
We make it back to base camp by 9am. It feels much later in the day... We take a few hours rest, eat, and move on.
What's left is 9km long and drops another 1600m to Mweka Huts. It turns out to be a beautiful trail, although grueling on the knees. The vegetation is coming back one by one as you descent. Mweka huts are just before the rainforest starts.
Day 6 - To Mweka Gate
After getting up early in Mweka Camp we pack quickly and say good-bye to the porters. This involves tipping them, the subject of much sorrow in all guide books and many a trip report. For us, it is very pleasant. We went exactly by the guidelines of the tour operator, Good Earth. Their guidelines, $7/day, are about 50% higher than the one in the Kili guide book, and about twice as high as what some guide recommended to a few other people. So we give them $42 each. Our guide suggested going higher for the porters but we stick to the guidelines. We also massively break protocol by tipping the porters before the guides (remember that status thing?). It's funny to see the verbal struggle between our spokesperson Joaquin and Ernest. The porters seem truly happy. The guide book says that porters will always look disappointed, but you may still see them walk away with a smile. Ours were very happy. They jump up and down in anticipation. I also suspect our tour operator to tell them to be happy, to make the experience better for the clients, which together with higher guidelines makes happy porters, happy clients, and send some money to the people who need and deserve it....
After the tipping, they sing a song for us, which even involved some dancing. It is very nice. Then we head down the trail. Some people just want to get off the mountain, but I have no hurry, and we went "pole pole" the guides were eager to get home, but were good sports and didn't push. The rain forest is amazing. We see some colobus monkeys on the way out, too. And we get our golden certificates....
The trip to the hotel is uneventful - apart from having the worst driver so far. His name matters not, but Tailgater would fit better. The rooms in the hotel are worse, looks like we now got the old ones. No tub (makes laundry harder), no door to the bathroom, only UK plugs, so I can only plug in one thing at a time, and my mosquito net has a hole the size of silver dollar... In Malarone we trust...
We have a late lunch at 2:30pm, and skip dinner. l am ready and packed for Safari tomorrow and Joaquin even washed some clothes for all of us. He made a fire, too, so clothes can dry faster. The rooms have fireplaces, it's the only way to heat. He used the hand sanitizing lotion (Purell) as a starter, pretty out-of-the-box thinking here. We also back up all memory cards to Arturo's laptop and I do some initial delete rounds. This is crucial, as while driving I shoot out of the car, and many pictures are blurry. I also use continuous mode, which makes me feel like a Google Street View operator. The results are actually pretty good, about one out of a hundred.
Arusha, a Week Later
Good Earth Tours & Safari
I fully recommend Good Earth Tours (writing this in 2007, things can change over time). The trip was a complete success. The few things that didn't go as planned tended to work better than planned, e.g. the extra table and chairs. We had more porters, which is good. The food was amazing, and plentyful. And they briefed us before the trip, and debriefed after. They really cared about my stomach and felt bad, even when I don't think it's their fault.
As of Ernest, he was a great guide. Ask for him, and make sure he doesn't drink coffee the day before the ascent, and take extra cash for porters ;-) After all, we not only summitted, but did so happily. He took well care of us and the porters.
Check out their Web site for more details: they are African owned, support local schools, etc. Ernest also mentioned that he attended wilderness rescue training with them, and he isn't even their employee. Abdul, our safari guide, was a car mechanic, and he fixed someone else's car in the middle of nowhere. Abdul also told us that of their two reps in Florida, one was a Kili guide, and the other a safari guide. This is exactly the team you want.
The guy from Good Earth comes to find us before we depart to debrief our trip. It turns out to be very interesting. First, we were supposed to get only 6 porters + 1 cook + 2 guides. Three porters and an extra cook were added by Ernest. Good Earth isn't happy about this, as they felt we were ripped off. Now we don't know what happened, whether these guys got a salary or not, and what Ernest's motivation was. But this cost us an extra $200 among the three of us. On the other hand I don't know how we could have done this trip with 6 porters. There was a lot of stuff to carry, including the table and the chairs. That table alone was worth an extra $100... And we had so much food. Finally, I want porters to carry reasonable loads, and tips are money that flows directly into the local economy. On the issue of tipping, Good Earth was unhappy that Ernest suggested tipping the porters more, he wasn't supposed to do this. Like us, they did give Ernest credit for making sure that the porters didn't give us a hard time, though. Ernest told us that he is not a Good Earth employee, but contracts with them, which explains why they are so interested in all the details of the trip.
The other issue that came up was my stomach. Good Earth was very unhappy, and attributed this to the cook, and they will follow up with them, and ask them to be more careful going forward. I don't blame the cook, for a few reasons: First, I was not feeling well from the beginning of the trip. Things got gradually worse, not in a big step on the mountain. Second, three of us all ate the same thing. If anything, I was more careful. I was the only one who got sick. Third, these guys are cleaner than we are. Seriously, they wash their hands all the time. They boil water a long time, then wash all the food in that water. They scrub our plates. When I go hiking on my own, I don't wash my hands with soap and hot water 3 times a day.
The last topic was Tailgater. I hope he will take the feedback and starts to drive more defensively.
I am sure you already got Henry Stedman's excellent Kilimanjaro guide book- if not, go buy it. It is full of detailed descriptions of the routes, background information and observations, many of which I share. I also bought the Rough Guide and The Lonely Planet, and if you want to carry only one, get Stedman's. Here are a few of my own, and a few aspects where I disagree with the book.
The first one is good news. The book uses the word "stalacshites" to described the Barrafu toilets. I have found all toilets on the Machame route to be absolutely clean and well maintained. And some have an amazing view. Granted, they are long drops, but even in dry Barrafu, they must be cleaned and scrubbed daily, with water that has been carried up for several hours. They are also building new toilets in almost every camp. These are your fees at work.
Here is another thought: There is some trash on the trail. Very little, particularly for trail with that much traffic. Anybody who expects no trash on a trail that moves an army every week should reconsider...Similary, the toilets were in great shape, given the use.
Another minor issues with the guide book. Stedman doesn't like the steps on the last segment on the Mweka descent. I think they are great. Slipping down a muddy trail seems much worse to me. I was very glad they were there :-)
One thing that bothered me me is how little Kilimanjaro porters make compared to the hotel porters. Many people tip the hotel porters 1USD per bag or so - like in the US. Towards the end of the safari, we were down to 1000TSH per person, or about 80 cents for 5' of work. A typical lodge has maybe 100 rooms, and maybe half a dozen porters. A single trip earns more than 10% of what a Kili porter gets for lugging 15+kg for hours, building tents, washing dishes. The hotel porters must make at least 5x what a Kili porter makes.
Another thing is how much food we get on Safari. On Kili we all ate the same, even if they cooked for us first, and the porter probably ate our leftovers, too. In the hotels we get 4 course menus, buffets, just amazing amounts of food. Even the lunch boxes are overfull. Thus lots of food gets wasted.
Some thoughts on what humans crawling over this mountain do every day: we had some 30 clients starting the same day. Our group had 13 support staff (Guide, Assistant Guide, Cook, Assistan Cook, and 9 porters, two of which doubled as our waiters. It's at least a 4:1 ratio - smaller group (many were couples and even a single), longer trips (many do 7 days), or more luxury (your own portable toilet) will drive it up. Even conservatively, this is 150 people moving up this trail. In high season, it can be 4x that much. 600 people! Compare this to the army of your choice (and service, if you served...) In Swiss terms, that's a batallion with no batallion or company staff, just lieutenants with their zug. Every day, they break camp in less than an hour after the clients started hiking, move all the gear - tents, food, drinking water in some places - build up the new camp before the clients arrive.
Most days they serve you hot lunch, which means they are at the lunch spot before you, so they can start cooking, and set up your table and chairs, then leave after lunch, and hurry ahead.
The trails are not easy. Standard Swiss Infantry would complain bitterly if they had to navigate some of these locations, steep exposed rock climbs, narrow passages, dusty trails, icy trails, slippery mud. With heavy backpacks. Much of it in freezing cold. Starting at the elevation of Zermatt, and going above Matterhorn level for one camp, the one without water. So you carry water up from at least 3 hours away...
What the Kilimanjaro porters do is just amazing...