Temperature dropped dramatically as soon as the sun went down. Wind remained, making sure every exposed bit of skin felt the cold.
We sat quietly in the light of a gas cooker in our kitchen tent, trying to stay warm. Completely exhausted from the climb of the day. It took us a while to notice he had started shaking uncontrollably. Not good when you’re camped for the night at 5730m altitude in the crater of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
To Big Tree Camp
Two days after finishing my 270km trail run around Mt. Kilimanjaro (full story here), my alarm went off at 5:30 AM. It was finally time to start the journey towards the summit!
After a four hour jeep ride to Lemosho gate, we saw our crew of 20 porters, guide, assistant guide, and a chef, arrive in one packet minivan. All of our climbing kit was either attached to the roof or stuffed inside the van on top of the passengers.
Support crew of 23 people felt a bit overwhelming as there were just two of us climbers. Apparently there was a lot to carry. And everything that goes up, must come down – including the contents of our toilet tent.
Within minutes, the whole crew was lined up by a scale with their bag ready for weighting and inspection. There´s a limit on how much each porter is allowed to be carrying and the weighting procedure was repeated a number of times along the way to avoid excessive weights and cheating.
We were heading for the summit via Lemosho route, which is considered to be one of the most scenic ones, approaching the mountain from west. We had planned 7 days for climbing, one night at the summit crater, and one day for descending back down to Mweka Gate back at the altitude of 1650m.
Apart from summiting the mountain, which I had been running around for the last week, I was really looking forward to the descending as well. I had agreed with our guide to switch to my running gear at the summit and start one long run down the mountain, all the way back to the gate. Definitely the longest downhill I had ever attempted to run in one go!
For the first day, we walked slowly through a tropical rainforest with porters passing us left and right carrying huge loads of gear on their heads. After a short day of slow-walking, constant drinking (part of the acclimatization), reporting our pee color (yup, also part of it), and monkey-watching, we popped to a small village of tents called “Big Tree Camp”.
Our tents were already pitched and we sat down drinking tea, listening to the singing crews, and watching the constant row of climbers on other expeditions arriving to camp until it got dark. Eventually, the camp accommodated roughly 200-300 climbers for the night.
Next morning started chilly. I had been lying awake for a while already, listening to the camp around me slowly coming alive. The sun wasn´t up yet and I packed my gear inside the tent quietly, staying in the warmth of my sleeping bag.
Eventually, I decided to crawl out, pulling on a down jacket and a wooly hat, and headed straight to the kitchen tent where the gas cooker provided some much needed warmth. Our chef, Kiplet, handed me a warm cup of coffee to start the 2nd day of climbing.
As soon as the sun was up, it got really hot again. After breakfast, we started hiking in one long queue on a dusty path through the rainforest.
I tried to keep out of the sun and stay hydrated as the day was getting really hot, but the higher we got, the scarcer the shadows were. We started leaving the rainforest behind and entering alpine desert, opening great views down to the savannah surrounding the mountain.
After a lengthy push over a rim, we descended down to Shira Plateau arriving to the campsite for our second night. Tents were already set up at a perfectly selected spot at the outer corner of the camp with great views up to Uhuru peak. The crew welcomed us with the already familiar Kilimanjaro Song, and we happily joined the tune the best we could.
I think it was the combination of getting the first glimpse of summit (Uhuru Peak), meaty lunch, and the upbeat mood in the camp, that energised me to make an innocent suggestion to our assistant guide Manase – “How about a short evening run on the Shira Plateau before sunset?”.
It ended up being quite an experience! Kilimanjaro summit right in front of us, sunset on our backs, and the extensive Shira Plateau all around! To be honest, starting the run at 3700m+ elevation was a bit of a shock, but once I got adjusted to the elevation (in other words – realised to reduce the pace significantly) running turned really enjoyable.
We did turn quite a few heads when returning back to the camp after an hour of running right before sunset.
My adrenaline levels were up and my body was warm from the exercise so I stood around outside my tent taking in the view with no hurry. Porters kept coming to me one after another saying “sunset, sunset!” with a bit of agitation. My response “yes, really beautiful” didn´t seem to suffice and eventually they got through to me – I really needed to wash myself quick before the sun went down as it was about to get really cold!
And it sure did. As soon as the sun set, the temperature dropped to sub-zero and the condensaded water on top of our tents quickly froze in the harsh wind. I went to sleep early, listening to the wind and wondering how cold it would get through the night.
Due to the excessive drinking required for acclimatisation, I needed to pop out for a pee in the middle of the night around 1AM. It was completely dark, but the sky was lit with more stars than I had ever seen before. I switched off my head torch and stood in silence.
The wind had subsided and the moon was about to come up illuminating the shape of Uhuru peak in the distance. I stood in awe, staring up until it eventually got too cold and I crawled back to the warmth of my sleeping bag.
It was the first night I actually slept with my winter-grade sleeping bag properly closed. The next morning I found my drinking bottle completely frozen inside the tent next to me.
On our 3rd day of climbing we hiked up to Mawenzi camp at 4150m. This was where I really started feeling the effects of high altitude. Mild headache, trouble sleeping, and general feeling of tiredness kept troubling me.
Our guide, Felix, kept checking our vitals every morning keeping record on heart rate, blood oxygen levels, breathing rate and pee color. Regardless of my mild symptoms, so far all good!
As the days wore on, the realities of actually approaching the summit were starting to creep into my mind. We had our first share of snowfall when passing through Lava Tower at 4600m before descending back to Barranco at 3980m for the night.
The camps were getting bigger as the different climbing routes collided on the higher parts of the mountain. People kept arriving to camps way past sunset and we estimated 700-800 people staying overnight at Barranco with us.
The dinner at Barranco was the first time we actually started discussing our summiting strategies. The plan was to ascend to Karanga camp at 4100m the following day. Porters would leave our kit there and continue on to supply water up to Barafu camp at 4700m for the next night, as there’s no water source up there. We´d follow them to Barafu a day after and leave majority of our kit and crew there for the duration of our summiting attempt and planned overnight at the crater camp next to summit at 5730m.
We were advised to pack our water bottles in socks or t-shirts and store them upside down to avoid freezing the caps. Regardless of the cold, we were also guided to wash ourselves before higher altitudes as the salt on skin apparently makes you feel cold. Another pro tip was to put on clean set of socks for the summit day to stay warm.
Next morning at Barranco, after waking up, I went for a pee a bit away from the camp. Suddenly, I heard a loud sound of a train approaching from behind. It took me a while to realise there are no trains on the mountain so I quickly turned around to witness a huge landslide coming down the Barranco wall. It started from the very top and made its way down slowly lasting at least five minutes.
The dust cloud was still visible long time after. We´d be heading up the same wall shortly after breakfast, luckily from a different spot.
Barranco wall is pretty much just as it sounds like – a 260m high vertical wall right behind Barranco camp. And the trail to the next camp, Karanga, goes straight over it.
We spent an exhausting morning slowly crawling up the wall on a narrow undulating trail along with 700ish other climbers. Porters were skipping ahead of us with heaps of gear on top of their heads braving the long drop down. When we eventually reached the top, we were greeted by spectacular views tho the peak above the clouds and all the way to Mt. Meru.
At Karanga, My overall condition started improving and also the daily-measured vital signs were getting better. I guess the acclimatization was doing the trick. We were already 5 days into our climb and the summit was visibly getting really close.
It might have been partly mental too. Barranco and Karanga were by far the most spectacular spots I had ever camped at. The clouds were beneath us and we were enjoying constant sunshine. Oh – and the sunsets and sunrises were something you just have to go and see for yourself!
Part of our crew had already fetched big containers of water from Karanga valley and headed off towards our final camp before summit, Barafu, staying the night there guarding the water. It was also time to familiarize ourselves on the operation of pressure tent and supplemental oxygen in case we ended up needing them for emergencies further up.
“Brushing my teeth in darkness, surrounded by starlit African sky, lights of Moshi town below, and Kibo peak behind my back. Tomorrow we’re off to Barafu, the peak is getting close.”
The day from Karanga to Barafu was spent contemplating on the summit attempt ahead. Barafu, at 4700m, was a big camp on an inclined mountainside and served as a kind of a “base camp” for Kilimanjaro summit attempts.
As soon as we arrived, we noticed the constant flow of climbers heading down in varying physical and mental conditions. The flow continued through the day into the night. We saw people vomiting, being carried, shaking from cold and lack of energy, and walking with faces white as ghosts. It was hard not to imagine yourself being one of them in just a couple hours.
From the sad faces, it was apparent that not all of them had made it to the summit.
We enjoyed a dinner and spectacular sunset over Mt Meru before retreating to our tents for the last good rest before heading up. Only a handful of porters, chef, our guide, and assistant guide were joining us for the summit and crater camp. The remaining crew stayed down at Barafu with majority of our gear.
I packed everything I needed including all the available warm clothes to my daypack and fell to a restless sleep listening to the steps of the still continuing flow of descending hikers passing our tents in the distance.
Most of the other teams started their preparations late in the evening heading off at midnight. We had a plan to set off at 7:30 in the morning as we didn´t need to save time for descending due to our plan of staying overnight in the crater camp.
I don´t remember sleeping much and at 6AM I was all packed, sipping coffee with Kiplet in the kitchen tent in the dim light of the gas cooker. He had been up at the Summit a number of times and tried to assure me we´d be ok.
After breakfast, our small crater camp porter team headed off one by one towards the summit. We bid farewell for the crew staying behind and started our slow march up.
This was the first day I pulled out my trekking poles and I sure ended up needing them.
The further up we got, the slower our progress became. Obviously, the air got thinner, making us slow our pace and stop for breath more often.
The previously solid trail turned into soft rocky sand, bringing you half a step back down on every step up. Luckily the views were amazing and there were no clouds in sight.
Slowly, our chatter died down and we marched in silence, each of us battling with our own annoyances. Our guides reminded us to keep drinking and measured our vitals to make sure we were good to proceed. It was good to know that “statistically” I was somewhat ok, even though I definitely did not feel like it.
Around half way from Barafu to the crater wall was the first time I seriously started questioning if we could actually make it to the top.
Climbing, drinking, climbing, climbing, drinking, eating, climbing, stop for a photo (or any other excuse to stop for a while). The journey felt like ages. Every time I saw a “ghostlike” puking hiker being half-carried down the trail, I imagined myself in the same situation. I sure felt like it.
Finally, we reached a ridge that wasn´t just another “fake crater wall” (we had experienced quite a few of those by then), but the actual real one! This was proven by the sign of Stella Point next to us.
We posed for photos as if it was the summit already, and our spirits lifted. The actual summit was already in sight and there was just a short hike to go along the crater wall!
We walked the final stretch, side by side, soaking it all in. The glaciers were shimmering in sunlight and shards of ice surrounded the trail. Still, we needed to stop and sit down a couple times, but now we were sure there was no turning back before the summit. It was within our grasp.
Reaching the summit sign was elating. Laughing, cheering, posing for photos, just sitting down and contemplating on the journey in quiet. We were at the highest point of the African continent and the week´s journey to get there, which wasn´t easy for either of us, made it feel like a real achievement!
We probably stayed at the summit longer than we should have. As soon as the adrenaline wore down and we started our trek towards the crater camp right beneath us, I realized I was getting really cold and not really feeling well.
The headache was back, I was really tired, and even though I knew I should have kept eating, I could barely stomach anything.
It took a concentrated effort to actually make the couple hundred meters down to the crater camp and as soon as I got there I just sat down to warm up in the kitchen tent with no energy to eat, drink or speak. Our guide was constantly checking on us, growing visibly worried, but our vitals were still on acceptable levels.
Sitting there in the kitchen tent, while trying to munch through a sandwich I had been trying to work on for ages, I realized my climbing partner was starting to shake visibly. Our guide quickly went to check on him and he agreed feeling really cold. That´s when the guide took the matter into his hands. He was quickly escorted him to his tent, shoved in a warm sleeping bag and made sure to drink.
While the guides were working on him, I was listening all this happen, still in the kitchen tent. Suddenly, I realized I was shaking quite a bit as well and not really feeling well at all. In no time, I was up for the same treatment and found myself lying down in my sleeping bag.
It all happened really quick and I wasn´t mentally at my best to notice all the details. I remember looking for my water bottle, which seemed full and was set properly upside down next to my legs in the other end of my tent. I also had my head torch and blood oxygen meter thingy in my sleeping bag readily available.
Lying there in the darkness of my tent in Kilimanjaro crater, I didn’t yet know I was about to start the longest night I had yet experienced.
It was completely dark and the only things I could here were the howling wind and the restless turning and couching of my climbing partner in the tent text to me. I felt extremely tired, but just couldn’t fall asleep.
My head was aching again and mind was foggy. The worst part of all this was knowing the fact that there was no other way out of it than actually climbing back up to the crater wall and descending from the other side. Going upwards right now was about the worst thing I could think of. Even sitting up was too big a task to accomplish.
Barafu camp, where we had started our summiting climb the same morning, felt completely unreachable. I felt trapped, defeated and really didn´t know how this would end.
At times, I fell asleep briefly, just to wake up in panicked gagging and gasping for air. It felt suffocating, and after it had happened a couple of times, I grew more scared of falling asleep than suffering awake. I kept checking my blood oxygen levels constantly and they were nowhere near the healthy levels I was experiencing earlier during the climb.
I also knew I should have been drinking to stay hydrated. There was just one obstacle on the way. My water bottle was next to my legs, all the way at the other end of my tent. In my current state, it was totally unreachable. I tried to get my mind to it – just sit up and reach for it – but I couldn’t. For the whole night.
Somehow, the stories of Everest climbers, who just decide to sit down and end up freezing to death started making a lot more sense to me.
Our initial plan was camping in the crater overnight, head up for the summit for sunrise, and then head back down. Luckily, our experienced guide was monitoring us carefully and after a time that had felt like forever, he turned up at my tent at 2AM announcing we’d be heading down immediately. He helped me pack my sleeping bag and get dressed ensuring I was wearing everything I had available.
I don´t remember much from our march from the crater camp up to the crater rim. Just a couple of glimpses of walking in complete darkness, no speaking, stars above us, toes really frozen.
When we finally reached the Stella Point on the crater rim and started our way down, my hopes started returning – I may just about make it back to Barafu on my own feet.
It´s really strange how quickly your condition starts improving once you start descending.
When we were 200m down, I started feeling energized, 400m down I started thinking about the planned downhill run, and finally, 600m down I brought it up with our guide.
He saw my quick recovery and more importantly, my urge to actually get the run done, and agreed that I can switch to running gear and start running once we reach Barafu.
It was one long downhill! We passed puzzled climbers hiking down after a long night hiking down from the summit and breezed past rows of porters trying to hurry down and get back home.
From the deserted summit, we descended through the alpine bush, back down to rainforest. The temperature kept rising and air got easier to breath. I felt more and more energised the lower we got and the pace kept increasing.
After 7 days of climbing, it took us exactly 1 hour and 33 minutes to run all the way from Barafu camp down to Mweka Gate.
We searched for a roadside stall selling coke, bought two bottles and sat down on a bench next to locals waiting for the rest of our crew to arrive. It was a perfect ending for a week up on the mountain and it was hard to imagine that just a couple hours ago I was suffering at the summit finding no way out.
Sipping the coke in sunshine, it was easy to forget all the trouble along the way and just focus on the most important stuff – we had made it!
Next up would be a week of relaxitime maximus in Zanzibar. Well deserved!
Questions and answers
How high is it again?
- The summit is at 5895m, crater camp at 5730m
Which organizer did you climb with?
- We climbed with Sene, really happy with the experience!
Who was the guide?
- Felix Mtuy
I thought there were two of you climbers – who´s the other one?
Why do you need a crew of 23 to get two guys up the mountain?
- There was surprisingly lot to carry. Guess the porter/climber ratio gets a lot better on bigger expeditions.
Umm…it was a bit difficult to keep up – what was the route again?
- Lemosho Gate – MTI Mkubwa Camp (Big Tree Camp) – Shira 1 – Mawenzi – Barranco – Karanga – Barafu – Crater Camp – Mweka Gate
How about toilets?
- There are smelly toilets at camps. We carried a toilet tent which was a lot more comfortable.
Would you do it again?
- Oh yeah!