EricHarlan

Climbing Kili

Climbing Kili

A recap and informational post on packing for and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

The week before I set off to attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro my wife asked me a question that rings over and over in my head. She asked me, “Are you looking forward to your climb”? As I struggled to find the words to explain what I was thinking all that came out was “No, not really”. I knew the climb was going to challenge me, tempt me, test me and flat out kick my ass.

You see I had been training in various ways getting ready to for the hike up the world’s largest solo peak (4th on the S7 list). Between packing up my old home in my hiking boots to break them in to various hikes around Utah and Colorado to get some altitude under my belt and test my equipment. Even as a youngster my father and I hiked a lot of the Application trail, so I was no stranger to grinding out a long long day or scaling a knife edged ridge. A few 14,000 foot hikes later I knew that the mountain would be a challenge but quite honestly there was zero doubt in my mind that I would summit Kilimanjaro, not an ego thing it was just that I was in the best shape I’ve been in since high school and I manage altitude pretty well.

Fast forward to the first step out of the Marangu gate and there was no turning back. Our trip would take us overland 51 total miles up the mountain and back down. It would cover 25,753.5 feet of vertical ascent and descent and a hell of a lot of millet porridge eaten (more on that later). Mount Kilimanjaro can really be summed up as 2 separate mountains when taking the Marangu route (aka Coca Cola route). This is because the pace and pitch is pretty steady and in some cases down right easy to hike. That is of course until you hit day four and your summit attempt. Going from Kibo hut up to Gillmans point and on to Uhuru peak was a pretty good grind.

The route is called the Marangu route because it starts at the town with the same name. From everything I’ve read this is the easiest route to take and has the highest chance of success if you have a limited amount of time to do the hike. A limited amount of time is where we found ourselves because it was stuck in between Sharing the Point events. It’s called the easiest route but from the description of our guide it’s the 2nd easiest because of the conditions during peak season.

The first day you will find yourself in the forest with all types of birds, monkeys and farmers cows who have broken loose and found their way up the mountain. The trail is pretty well worn and they even have some rock roads they built to keep the erosion from slowing you down in the rainy season. At a steady pace it takes about 4-5 hours to get from the gate up to Mandara camp. The accommodations are pretty solid for the fact that you’re on the side of a mountain. Communal buildings house individual rooms that sleep usually around 6-8 people. In each case our group of 5 had their own room or own hut. Toilets… well it was a western style toilet with no seat and a Turkish style toilet. Luckily you get to choose which one you visit, that is of course as long as you choose one that was pretty disgusting. That rang true for Mandara as well as pretty much every stop along the way. But again you’re on a side of mountain and you’re already on the easiest route. Suck it up.

On day two we hiked from Mandara another 7-8 hours to Horombo camp. This honestly was my favorite day of hiking and my favorite camp. It was literally just above the cloud layer and situated at the top of two lava chutes and a ridge down the middle which you can go off hiking to explore. At night time, because it was above the cloud layer Kilimanjaro offered up some spectacular views of the stars and even more spectacular sunrises. You actually spend two days at this elevation (12,204 ASL) acclimating to the altitude. Honestly for someone that spends a lot of time above 12,000 feet ASL the second day at Horombo was more of a vacation day. You hike off to Zebra Rocks (named because of the color lines in the rock) but really it’s a cake hike just meant to get you out of camp and see the area. It was pretty cool though, I’ll never forget the way the clouds rolled UP the lava chute valleys when I was coming back down to camp from Zebra Rocks.

Day four and you start to hunker down and get serious you get up early and hike from Horombo to Kibo camp which is at 15,429 feet. Higher than I’d ever been mind you, however to get there you walk through Mars. No, literally it feels like you left earth and found yourself walking on the planet Mars. As you come out of the Moorland area you crest over a ridge and look over a vast valley that undoubtedly the glaciers carved out. There are literally no trees, no bushes or scrub it is all dust and rock. Very surreal indeed. The pace here is almost easier than any part of the entire trip if it were at sea level. Being that you are so high up each step gets a bit more labored but it is still very manageable. Once you arrive at Kibo camp you get sorted with a room and a bed and go directly to sleep. After a 3 hour nap or so you are awoken to dinner around 7pm. After dinner you literally go right back to sleep until about 11pm where you wake up to start your day 5 summit day.

At 11pm you wake up and start to gear up, our group was totally scared off by the hordes of people coming down the mountain saying to “wear everything you brought” and that it was terribly cold. Unfortunately I listened to them and we got a fairly warm day at the top of the mountain and I sweated the entire way back down as my pack was only large enough to take off a few things and stash them. Make sure on this part you take a large enough empty bag to stash clothing in as your temp goes up or goes down. In hind sight I should have carried my large pack emptied of its contents like others did.

Regardless the hike starting at midnight takes you from Kibo camp up to Gillmans point. What you can’t see while you’re climbing up is that you are literally switch backing through nothing but volcanic scree about ankle deep and this comes into play on the way down. The stars going up are just unbelievable from the perspective of someone that has seen the stars mostly from North America. It really does feel like you walked into a new world. For us Mars was close to the moon so it had a very surreal feel to it all.

Just about 6:15 or so you reach Gillmans point (18,200+ ASL) where we stopped to watch the sunrise. Amazing. Your guides will probably shuttle you off as quick as possible because at this point they are thinking about time to summit, time at summit and then the descent.

It took us about another one and half hours to get from Gillmans to Uhuru peak. Quite honestly from Gillmans on is a bit of a cake walk again taking into account the altitude which really does some funny and sometimes scary things to people.

The Zombies leading the Blind.

One of the things that altitude can sometimes do to people is literally making them blind, at least temporarily. High Altitude Retinal Hemorrhages (HARH) can take your sight partially or totally while at altitude. A very scary thing if you don’t have a guide to help you back down to a lower altitude where your sight comes back (most of the time). The double scary sight is watching a zombie guide someone who has been hit with HARH. We saw a ton of zombies at altitude on the way up to and on the top of Kilimanjaro. A zombie is essentially that, someone that has the will to continue as they have mentally conditioned themselves to continue but has totally mentally checked out. Usually you’ll see them being helped along by friends, or guides to complete the trip up to the summit. From all accounts each of them made it down safely which is more than we could say for those folks getting run down the mountain on stretchers.

Being at that altitude I noticed interesting changes in myself as well. It’s a bit hard to explain but it is a very solitude feeling. You are completely alone in your thoughts (or at least I was) but almost out of body at the same time. I remember each breath being fairly labored as I approached the summit but very excited that I was mere feet away. For 4 days all you thought about was making it to the top and here you were within spitting distance you get tunnel vision in completing your task. So much so that I walked right through and stood in someone’s photo as I approached and kissed the sign that marked the high point on the crater rim.

After some photos and some personal reflecting time as well as some tasks carried out in representation of my family we started back down the mountain. With each step becoming painfully obvious that the 25.5 miles uphill to the summit will be matched by a formidable 25.5 miles back down. The trip down is a bit of an uneventful one as you relive all the moments you had on the way up except now under the perspective that you made it to the top and the personal satisfaction that came with that. The only notable portion of the descent is the time frame and the span between Gillmans point and Kibo camp.

Once you reach Gillmans point on the descent you come face to face with what you trekked on the way up. Scree, you see scree is volcanic gravel, rock and dust. There are two ways to approach it in descent, obviously the first way is the way you came up and that’s navigating the switch backs where thousands of people have packed down the scree to the point where its manageable to walk down. The other way, the much more fun and exponentially more exhausting and tricky way is to boot ski the scree. Boot skiing is exactly what it sounds like you essentially lunge and push your way through the gravel. You have to be pretty careful though there are rocks buried in the scree and you can tweak a knee in a second. Staying limber with bent knees (“Benzee knee’s if you please”) will ensure that when you do hit a rock, you can bounce back up. Oh, and try to keep your mouth closed all that dust flying can make you pretty thirsty pretty fast hopefully your water has thawed by this point. For the 3 days of actual hiking going up, you descent the mountain in a little over a day and a half!

Going back to the initial question I was asked “Are you looking forward to your climb”? I would still say no, I don’t think I would do this climb again after doing it once. Not because it was too hard but in a way it was too easy. There were no technical portions, no ropes, no crevasses (on this route) and entirely too many people on the mountain. That said, knowing what I know now, and presumably never having climbed Mt. K I would do it (for the first time) in a heartbeat. If you have the opportunity go for it, it is extremely rewarding to reach the top and beat out mother nature’s altitude.

Now for the tasty bits. In our search for information leading up to our climb, below is the most sought after information that I know myself and the others in my group were looking for.

Packing list. One of the major things people do when going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro is over pack. The thought is that you’ll have a porter or someone carrying the majority of your things. Honestly there isn’t a lot of things you really need to bring. Here was everything I brought along with notes on if it was used or if I needed it.

Also I went in early September which is the dry season. From what I understand it can get down right nasty there in the rainy season. Additionally it was unseasonably warm the day we summited. So a lot of if I needed it doesn’t reflect if I would bring it again. Under usual circumstances you would need the heavier warmth.

Item

Was it used?

Notes

6 oz SPF 80 sunscreen

No

8 oz SPF 50

Yes

Only ended up using 4oz total

Diamox

Yes

I only took ¼ doses (75mg on summit day) I noticed no change plus or minus

Doxycycline

Yes

Still taking it unfortunately although it was mostly too cold where we were for mosquitoes

800 mg motrin

Yes

Took a few one before summit attempt and a few here and there for sore muscles

2 roles Moleskin

Yes

Went through 1 role between myself and my team

First aid kid w/2nd skin

No

Still would advise taking a small one. Band-Aids ointments 2nd skin etc

Neosporin

No

Still would take it

4oz 100% deet

Yes

In the forest region I deeted up, that was the only time.

In boot sticky pads (for cushion)

No

Probably leave at home if your boots are broken

Anti-diarrheal

No

Thank goodness, still take it.

Yellow Fever Vax

Yes

Had to have it to enter Tanzania, they’ve since lifted that requirement

2 packs of wipes

Yes

Definitely take them for bathroom runs and body wipe downs

5 “GU” energy gels

Yes

Went through 4 of them most on the last few days

5 packs cliff shots

Yes

Good for a snack/energy push

10 mini cliff bars

Yes

Went through about 5 of them, loss of appetite and granola bars took a most of the desire

10 chocolate granola bars

Yes

Ate them all

collapsible water bottle

No

Big enough bladder pack to not need it. Leave it home

Small pack for holding water bladder and hiking essentials

Yes

Keep it really small, you wont need much on most days. I had a super compressible backpack I used

1 two liter camel back bladder

Yes

Everyday all day

Head lamp

Yes

At night and on summit night

2 sets extra batteries

Yes

Only needed 1 set but bring 2

collapsible “Monotrek” poles

Yes

Personal preference but I use poles and I used them a lot

2 pair Coolmax sock liners

Yes

Bring 3 pairs, they are your base socks and they get nasty.

2 pair medium weight Smart wool hiking socks

Yes

Love me some smartwool

1 pair heavy weight wool socks

Yes

Only on summit day

UV blocking bandana

No

Gave it away to the porters

Asolo Fugitive boots

Yes

Love my boots!

3 spare laces

No

Bring them anyway

Para cord bracelet

No

I would bring it again just in case

1 pair heavy ski gloves

Yes

Only on summit day

1 pair spring time ski gloves

Yes

Moorland and above I used all the time

Silk sleeping bag liner

Yes

I rented a sleeping bag from Zara so I used my silk liner as a gross out barrier plus its easy to pack J

Solar powered gadget charger

Yes

Every day to charge my altimeter and map watch

Sunglasses

Yes

Everyday all day

Ski goggles

No

Wasn’t cold enough on summit to need them but I’d bring them again in a second

1 pair convertible hiking pants/shorts

Yes

Bring 2 pairs after 6 days of dust and grim these were NASTY

1 pair ski pants

Yes

Didn’t need them though but normally most people would. I’d bring again

1 full set thermal underwear

Yes

Used at night time in my bag as well as on summit day

1 pair thermal tight running pants

Yes

Only used on summit day, I’d bring again

4 pair moisture wicking underwear

Yes

Easy to wash and dry

1 long sleeve under armor shirt

Yes

Standard gear for me when I hike

1 short sleeve under armor shirt

Yes

Standard gear for me when I hike

1 ski jacket shell

Yes

Used it as a medium jacket when it was cold with no liner

1 ski jacket fleece inner jacket

Yes

Only used on summit day, would bring again

1 thin rain shell jacket

Yes/No

Team mate lost his and I gave it to him on the second day. Super thin jacket would bring again

1 pair of tennis shoes

Yes

At camp you want to get out of the boots

2 pair cotton socks

Yes

Again get out of those boots

1 multi country power adapter

Yes

1 cotton shirt

Yes

1 pair of jeans

Yes

1 ball cap

Yes

All the time

1 knit hat

Yes

Cold nights/summit day

Ultimate Kilimanjaro is the company we went through to purchase our tour. However when we arrived we quickly realized that Ultimate Kilimanjaro is just a middle man booking agent. Not really a bad thing but our actual tour was done through “Zara” tours who seems to have a lock down on most of East Africa for diving, safari’s and climbing. Ulitmate Kilimanjaro charged us 1,500 USD per person where if booking directly with Zara on their very western style website would have only cost us 1,250.

If you are not sharing your hut with anyone and you have an odd number of team mates you should walk into the hut and instantly grab one of the mattresses and lay it over your own mattress. The extra padding goes a long when if you’re a side sleeper.

Kinda gross but as I said above none of the toilets had seats to them. As a person who’s come accustom to having a seat to sit down on, this can be an issue. Again, kinda gross but here’ show I tackled it. Don’t go. Don’t go until you just know you wont have an issue going while squatting (yeah I know gross sorry). A tip though, hang on to the door beams and lean back, it takes the stress off your thighs and kinda makes it easier. Sorry everyone that had to read that, that will never go climb.. but if you do go you’ll really thank me for that tid bit. Also while in Horombo camp, watch out for the wet ground… that’s from the bathrooms.

Millet… BLOODY MILLET!(that was going to be the original title of this post) I swear if I never see millet porridge again (not that I had seen it before this trip) it will be too soon. Ok straight up, the food was pretty rough. A lot of what I read said most of the food was good and based off of the different companies servicing guests I can see how that could be the case. I never saw anyone really eating the same thing. So whatever your porters and cooks haul up the mountain is what you get to eat. All week. The day we summited none of us ate, we were just too sick of the food, coupled with the exhaustion we just let it ride and went to sleep. A typical day at least for us:

 

Breakfast: Millet porridge, egg, bread/toast, hot tea/chocolate mix for a drink, hot dog like sausage

Lunch: cucumber soup, sandwich made of jam….onion, carrots and bread or whatever was leftover from dinner

Dinner: Varied between pasta in an orange sauce that caused instant heart burn (literally), dried fish, dried chicken, cucumber soup or various combinations

I still gag thinking of that soup and porridge.

Tipping. Tipping can be a challenging topic. Some folks in our group tipped higher than others. On most of the websites they list what is “customary”. My issue with the way it worked on the mountain is that we had 5 people. All of our people are professional travelers; we pack EXTREMELY light so our bags were MAYBE 12 pounds max each. Every time I saw our porters I saw the same three guys picking up our bags, the problem is that Zara “assigned” 10 porters (2 each) total to our group. When I asked who/where these other porters were I was told that a lot of the work is divided up between porters/cooks who are lugging pots/pans, food and your belongings up the mountain. To that effect I gave a bit of leeway. But after really thinking about it and watching the way these guys carry stuff up and down the hill I realized there was just no way there were 10 guys and the tips were going to be split up between three of them with a cut probably given to the guides etc. I brought this up to our group and each person factored that in and came up with what they wanted to tip the porters. This was later cemented by the fact that the people lining up at the bottom of the hill as “porters” were the same guys hustling wrist bands and t-shirts when we came in. To be ok with this you have to understand how Africa works and we were ok with it. In the end it was a difference of about 20 dollars for each person in our group. It’s the principle of it but still 20 bucks to some hard working folks.

Money talks. You want a cabin to yourself, bribe the caretaker. You want to tap into the solar power to charge your camera or altimeter. Show some cash it will get done no problem.

As I think of more tips I’ll add them here, or if you have questions ask away.

 

Thank you to Michael Noel for packing out the camera and taking all the great photos!

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