Standing on the roof of Africa, we watched the sun slowly show itself above the horizon. Although it’s one of the busiest of the Seven Summits, we found ourselves alone on the summit.
At 5,896 m Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and one of the Seven Summits: the highest mountain on each continent. Richard was on his way to being on top of each of these seven and Maggie joined him on this trip. We’re slowly writing about each of his Seven Summit trips. This one is from a few years ago.
Mount Kilimanjaro is an anomaly in the group of Seven Summits as it is not in the middle of a mountain range. Rather it is a volcano rising high out of the surrounding plains. In fact, it is the tallest freestanding volcano in the world. We first saw Kili, as it is called, from the city of Moshi. It’s a small but vibrant town at the base of the volcano. Most trekking groups spend the night in Moshi before their climb. With great views of Kilimanjaro from the streets in Moshi, we were getting excited for our adventure to begin.
There are several routes to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. We chose to do Umbwe Route because it travels across Arrow Glacier. Gaining elevation quickly, it is considered to be one of the more difficult routes. Normally when hiking at a high elevation, this is not desired, but we were already acclimatized from hiking on Mount Kenya (story coming soon).
Umbwe Gate to Forest Caves
Distance – 11 km; Elevation Gain – 1,450 m
Even before the trek began, we were subjected to what we think is a typical scam. Since we were already acclimatized, we wanted to complete this hike one day shorter than recommended. When registering at Machame Gate, the park ranger said we couldn’t possibly do this route that fast. It was here that, the scam began. We had already bought a package that included guides and porters for the entire route. Park rules at that time did not specify fees per trek only fees per day. They charged us an extra $100 USD each. To make matters worse, we think the money was split between our own guide and the ranger.
After that kerfuffle, we were left wondering what trust we could have in our guide, but we had little choice. We had already paid and wouldn’t be able to find another guide in time. Instead, we tried to put the issue behind us and enjoy our trip.
Our hike began at Umbwe Gate (1,400 m). Thankfully it was much quieter at this entrance compared to the mass of hikers we saw at the Machame Gate. The trail took us through a quiet, dense forest of large trees including redwood and ficus. The trail was steep in parts and offered very few views, but we were gaining elevation so we knew our efforts would pay off.
Finally, we reached our first campsite, Forest Caves (2,850 m). The ‘caves’ are more like overhangs in the rockwall, but they provided an interesting atmosphere to our camp. It was incredible that with all of the hikers we saw at the main entrance gate, we were the only ones at this campsite. This route is not very popular because in one day we were already at 2,850 m.
Our guiding company was a no-frills outfit, which is how we hike back home. We sat on the tall roots of a ficus tree for our meal, surrounded by the African wilderness. It was perfect. That is until our head guide began vomiting. When he recovered, he told us he has malaria and needed to go down. We were to continue with the assistant guide. Unfortunately the assistant didn’t know the Umbwe Route so we would instead have to join the busier Machame Route. We were pretty sure it was another scam, but what else could we do?
Forest Caves to Baranco Hut
Distance- 6 km; Elevation Gain – 1,100 m
After a night of discussing our situation, we decided we had to make the best of it and continue. Leaving camp the trail began climbing through the forest, going up a narrow ridge. As we gained elevation, the trees became smaller. Many were covered in Old Man’s Beard lichen which hung from the branches like a white beard. At times the trail was so narrow, we could barely fit between the tight trees. It was a steep trail gaining 1,100 m in only 6 km and the wet forest floor made the climb more difficult.
As we got higher, the forest began to thin allowing us to see the incredible landscape. Below us was a deep, forested ravine. Above us Kilimanjaro’s peak was poking through the clouds.
Eventually the trail emerged from the forest and we entered a very unusual landscape. The open moorlands had an eerie feel. Low clouds were rising between large heather and colourful lobelia. Further on, the bizarre looking giant groundsels with thick trunks and bulbous green tops took over the scene. Mist filled in the spaces between the unusual trees adding to the mystique. This interesting forest continued all the way to our next campsite, Baranco Hut (3,950 m).
At Baranco Hut, Umbwe and Machame Routes intersect and share the campground. It was a busy place. Large groups set up several tents, both personal ones and larger dining tents. Beside camp the shear Baranco Wall is seemingly protecting the route to the massif above. Most groups stay two nights here for acclimatization and spend the next day scrambling up Baranco Wall. Since we were acclimatized, we only spent one night.
Even though we suspected our guides had scammed us, it was hard not to like them. They were always joking around and having fun. They served us amazing meals cooked over their kerosene stove. In fact the meals were usually too large. Maggie usually gave half of her large lunch to the assistant guide. He would initially protest saying ‘Eat Momma, Eat’, but eventually gave in and ate the offered food. He spoke very little English so we tried to learn a small amount of Swahili. He taught us simple words such as ‘jumbo’ (hello), ‘mzuri’ (good), ‘asante’ (thank you). Our favourite phrase was one that he often said to us, ‘pollo, pollo’. It means slowly, slowly. We weren’t good at following his instructions though.
Baranco Hut to Barafu Hut
Distance – 9 km; Elevation Gain – 600 m
In the morning we were treated to an incredible sight. A gorgeous alpenglow covered Kilimanjaro in a bright red colour. Throughout our time on the mountain, the mornings were usually clear, but by mid day clouds came in to obstruct the views.
The Machame trail begins by crossing a boulder field under Baranaco Wall and then scales 275 m to its top. The steep rocky trail was slippery from the daily mist. From the top of the wall it felt as if we were right beside the giant. Mount Kilimanjaro has three cones. The tallest is called Kibo and we were passing under it as we walked around the mountain. Kibo is the most photographed view of Kilimanjaro. Mawenze and Shibo are the other two, lower cones.
Above the wall vegetation was scarce and eventually the ground was barren. Only rocks added texture to the earth. As we walked to the top of a small hill, the rugged peak of Mawenze came into view. Its jagged top has a completely different look than the rounded cone of Kibo.
Barafu Hut (4,600 m) is located in a rocky area with very few flat areas. Luckily our tent was in a great, flat spot under Kibo’s towering peak. We hoped to be on its summit the next morning.
Barafu to Kilimanjaro’s summit to Mweka Gate
To summit: Distance – 5 km; Elevation Gain – 1,296 m
To Mweka Gate: Distance – 26 km; Elevation Loss – 4,096 m
We were awakened early on summit day. We began trekking an hour later than other groups, but still we left too early. Getting to the summit from Barafu Hut is not an easy walk. The trail begins almost immediately, climbing a series of steep switchbacks on loose stones and scree. With headlights on we slowly made our way up the steep moraine. We could see rows of headlamps above us from all the climbers who left earlier. Everyone plans to be at a lookout on the crater rim called Stella Point (5,700 m) in time to watch the sunrise.
Step by step we made our way up the mountain. Each step was more and more difficult as there was less and less oxygen to fill our lungs. Many of the others on the trail don’t hike regularly so it was no surprise that within a couple of hours we were ahead of everyone.
We arrived at Stella Point far too early. It was pitch black and very cold. We had a brief rest at Stella Point and decided to continue. We’d hoped to see the sunrise from the summit.
From Stella Point the trail is easier as it traverses clockwise around the crater’s rim. It was dark, so we couldn’t see the crater but we knew each step took us closer to our goal. Finally, we arrived on the roof of Africa. Uhuru Peak on Kibo is the highest point on Kilimanjaro at 5,896 m. The sun was just starting to poke above the earth to begin a new day. It was a spectacular sunrise. After seeing so many people on the trail for the last two days, it was nice to have the summit to ourselves.
It was very cold on the summit. We were dressed as we would during winter in Canada, but our guide only had a light sweater. We lent him a jacket, which later we gave to him. Even with that he was very cold, verging on hypothermia. Richard wanted to stay on the summit to take more pictures. Our guide said he wasn’t allowed to let him remain alone so instead, we hiked down. Of course, we later we regretted leaving so early.
The trail down, followed the same path that we took up. This time we could see what we missed. Beside us, Kilimanjaro’s shrinking glaciers glowed in the morning sun. Further on, dozens of hikers were only now making their way up from Stella Point.
A little further down Mount Meru came into view. It is another high volcano that is often used for acclimatization before climbing Kilimanjaro.
The steepest part of the trail is between Barafu Hut and Stella Point. It was almost more difficult on the descent with the loose stones acting like ball bearings under our feet. Our hiking poles came in very handy. Finally, we arrived at our tent, where our chef made a sumptuous congratulatory breakfast.
It was still very early in the day, so after eating breakfast we were back on the trail. We took the common descent route, Mweka, all the way to the bottom. This busier route allowed us to see how hard the porters work. Porters were carrying tables, chairs and even medical stretchers up the trail. By mid-afternoon we were at the base of the mountain, exhausted and happy at another of the Seven Summits completed by Richard and the first for Maggie.
When to trek
Kilimanjaro can be climbed at any time of year. The driest months are January, February and September. During November and March/April it is more likely to be wet, but is still climbable.
Which Route to take?
There are several routes to get to Kilimanjaro’s summit. Research the routes and chose one that meets your needs in terms of experience, length of days on the mountain and remoteness. Some routes take more days but traverse more difficult terrain. Others have easy trails, but are very short so it’s difficult to properly acclimatize. Some are busy with a lot of other trekkers, other routes are less busy but are more remote.
Acclimatizing is very important for success on a high mountain like Kilimanjaro. The only way to acclimate is by a slowly gaining elevation over a number of days. Active rest days are usually spent climbing to a higher elevation and returning to camp. The town of Moshi is where most guiding companies spend the first night before the hike. It’s only at 900 m elevation so it isn’t high enough to help acclimatize. This means you need to become acclimatized while hiking on the mountain. Some people acclimatize by hiking nearby Mount Meru (4,562 m). We had already climbed on Mount Kenya the week before and were well acclimatized so could chose a quicker route on Kili.
Coming Next: Spotting Big Game on African Safaris
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations
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