Day 4 – Barranco camp to Base camp via Karanga camp – 9 km, 8-9 hours walking
Day 4 turned out to be one of the most technically challenging days we had. From Barranco Camp you climb up Barranco wall, which, as the name suggests, is a rock wall that you have to traverse before continuing. Due to the distance we needed to travel to get to base camp, as well as the fact that we wanted to get there as early as we could to get as much time to sleep as possible before summitting, wake up today was at 6am. As we went through our usual morning routine, we could just see the sun coming over the mountain, but it took another hour or two before it’s rays made it to us. After a long day yesterday and knowing that today was going to be hard as well, we were all feeling a bit of trepidation. We set off with the sun following behind us, and very quickly the path turned into the rock face, where we had to use a mixture of scrambling and climbing to get up. It probably took a good 90 minutes of this before we had scaled to the top, but as Rich and I both have some rock climbing experience as well as long legs, neither of us found it too difficult. Once at the top we had some beautiful views of the valley below us, and one of the mountains peaks above us.
After a brief rest we continued, and, after climbing to the top of the wall, we then had to walk down the other side, taking all the satisfaction of getting to the top away! By this point, porters were flying past us in an effort to get to the next camp before us so that lunch could be prepared, and we were starting to feel the effort of the day. We could see camp in the distance, and our CEOs promised that we were about an hour till lunch which perked us up; however, what they didn’t tell us was that that was ‘mountain time’, and it was just over 2 hours until we finaly made it. Part of this was due to the fact that between us and camp, although we couldn’t see it at that point, was a massive valley, and the only way to get there was to climb in to it and up and out the other side.
I knew before starting our trek that there would be a lot of up hill walking and climbing, what surprised me; however, was just how much downhill was done before the final decent on day 6. Part of this is just naturally where the path goes, as certain areas of the mountain are untraversable, but some of it also goes back to ‘climb high, sleep low.’ The higher you can climb in a day before coming down to sleep, the better your chances of summiting without altitude sickness. This was definitely the case today, and after our rock wall climb this morning already, none of us were looking forward to the climb down then up before we got lunch. There is one path going down the valley, but two coming up the other side to camp. One of our CEOs explained that the left hand path is just for porters who are bringing up water from the stream, and the right hand path is for climbers and porters who are bringing everything else. They do this because Karanga camp (where we stopped for lunch) is the final camp that has access to water. All water from here on out needs to be carried up the mountain to base camp, and it’s a steep 4km hike back if it runs out. In order to avoid this, water at base camp is for cooking and drinking only, and we did not get any water to wash until after we summitted and were at High Camp. Therefore, the porters who carry the water – nicknamed ‘the frogs’ by the rest of the porters (there’s a quite catchy song about then as well!) – went up and down this path multiple times in order to have enough water for everyone. And we thought going up once was bad!
We did eventually make it to camp and, as per usual, they had an amazing lunch waiting for us. For me, today’s lunch was the best meal of the whole trip – freshly fried chicken, homemade coleslaw, and a Tanzanian dish called Chipsi Mayai, which is an omelette that has chips (French fries) cooked into it. It was just what we needed before starting our second leg of the day, which would take us to the base camp.
I’m not going to lie, I thought the hardest part of our day was done after we’d successfully traversed Barranco wall and made it to lunch. I was wrong. The next 3 1/2 hours were all uphill, with varying degrees of steepness. Up until this point we’d managed to stay together pretty well as our group of 10, but it was during the trek to base camp that the group started to split up as people were going at various paces. Something I found helped during the slow, uphill climb was speaking to Makori (pictured above), who was leading us towards base camp, and asking him a lot of questions. Those who know me know that I have an insatiable curiosity, and I love asking questions. This trip was no different, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the 4 CEOs pulled straws to see who would have to walk near me every day 😂 as it turned out, Baraka and Makori were usually the ones putting up with me, but I wouldn’t have made it to the top without them.
Eventually, the first tents (and toilets) of basecamp came into view; unfortunately, they were at the top of the steepest hill we had seen thus far. Something about knowing the end was in sight spurned us on however, and there were 4 of us that made it to base camp together. After signing in, we were taken to our tents where we had a few minutes to relax until the rest of the group arrived.
It was during this time that we discovered that this camp was home to toilets with the best view in the world. Don’t get me wrong, it still sucked that we had to squat, but at least here we got a good view whilst doing it. Once everyone else made it to camp, we all had an early dinner together before getting a short briefing about tomorrow (/ later tonight), and we went to bed just after 7. Four hours later we were woken up, because it was summit night (gulp).
Day 5 – Base camp to Stella peak (4 km, 6-7 hours walking) to Uhuru Peak (summit) (1km, 1 – 1 1/2 hours walking), and back down.
At 11 pm we were given the wake up call, and we all got up with multiple layers on due to how cold it was. Before we set off, we were given a hot drink and encouraged to eat as the porters brought out some millet porrage. I was only able to stomach about 3 spoonfuls of this (Rich, of course, went back for seconds), but luckily there were bourbon biscuits on the table as well and I managed to get down about 10 of them instead. It was about 12.30am by the time everyone was ready to go and we headed off up the mountain. Normally, the 28 porters would go on ahead of if and we would walk with the 4 CEOS. As the porters didn’t need to go anywhere because we were coming back to base camp when we were done, the 4 CEOS climbed with us as well as 4 of the porters. They did this so that they can help and encourage us, as well as taking our packs from us should we need it at any point.
From what I understand, the night we climbed had near perfect conditions. It was a clear night, not too too cold, with very little wind. Although I imagine a night climb is never very fun, at least we were as happy as we could be with the weather. Both Rich and I stayed near the front of the group for the duration, this time with Baraka leading us. As we set off from camp, we could see a line of headlamps slowing snaking its way up the mountain in the distance. This had the effect of being both motivating and demoralizing at the same time, as it was good to see where other people were and what path to follow; however, it also showed us how much more we had to go and how much farther ahead other groups were. As we trudged up the mountain that night, constantly looking up, those lights always showed us the way whilst never getting any closer.
We continued climbing through the night, stopping about every hour or so to rest, pee, and eat anything we had brought with us. I had a pack of gummy Lifesavers (which were literally lifesaving), and some Jolly Ranchers, and there was more then once during the night when fellow climbers, porters, and CEOs requested a sugar boost from my pack. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again – the porters and CEOs were amazing, and during the near silent climb they knew just when to burst into song to help raise our spirits. I was finding it difficult enough to muster up the energy to ask any questions (probably much to their pleasure), and I have no idea where their strength came from. All I know is that they are the reason everyone got as far as they did.
At around 530, the distant horizon started to turn a shade lighter, and over the course of the next hour we were treated to the most spectacular sunrise I’ve ever seen.
By this point there were 3 of us at the front with Barraka, who, to give encouragement and help us save our energy, became our unofficial camera man. As the morning went on and we become slower and slower as the climb became steeper and steeper, Barraka was there with the camera, telling us stop, pose, and give a smile as he went bounding up the hill to get a better angle. He essentially gave us breaks without making us feel like we were making him stop, and distracted us with silliness and laughter, which I found to be the most helpful thing he could have done at that point.
As we started to thaw out from the sunshine, we were able to look up and finally see Stella Point – which at this point, looked closer then it was, but was at the top of a slope that was even steeper then yesterday’s.
For those of you who don’t know, the summit of Kilimanjaro is comprised of 2 different points. Stella Point sits at 5756m, and 700 m after that and sitting at 5895m is Uhuru Peak, the very top. The final hour and a half until we we reached Stella Point was the hardest hardest thing I have ever done in my life. We probably only walked about 900 m during this time, but it was so steep, I was exhausted from lack of sleep and climbing since midnight, and the higher we went, the harder it became to catch my breath. Both Rich and I were incredibly lucky, and neither of suffered from headaches or nausea; the only side affects of altitude sickness we got was shortness of breath, and it was hard enough with just that.
My pace up until now had been fairly consistent since we started, but it was around this point that I really started to struggle and doubt myself, and I massively slowed down. Barraka, seeing this, asked if he could help me, to which I promptly burst into tears and replied: “Yes, but I don’t know what would help right now!” Having climbed the mountain almost 300 times, this is probably not the first time Barraka has been in this situation, and so he just nodded and said: “How about I just take your pack for now?” This was the first of many tears from me, and once back at camp I was glad to hear from my fellow trekkers that I wasn’t alone in this. Once my pack was taken care of, I seemed to get a bit of a second wind that lasted for all of about 10 minutes before I was slowing down again back to tears. Rich, although also struggling, was fairing better then myself and kindly started offering me a variety of things from his pack: water, protein bar, fruit, a mint chocolate bar (my favourite), hoping something might grab me and give me some energy. Still holding off tears, I snapped: “I don’t know what would help, STOP ASKING ME IF I WANT THINGS!” A few minutes later, feeling bad, I apologised for my outburst, told him it wasn’t him it was me, and we continued up the mountain.
We could see Stella Point by now and we could also see the few hikers who had already made it to the summit on their way back down. Despite Stella Point not seeming to get any closer, seeing the happy faces of people coming down made me grit my teeth and continue trudging up: ‘I can do this.’ Step. ‘Almost there.’ Step. ‘I can do this.’ Step. ‘Almost there.’ Step. And so it went, with occasional interludes from Barraka telling me I was strong, I would make it, and that I could do this. And you know what? I am strong and I did make it, although there were plenty of moments when I didn’t think I would. Coming up over the ridge to see the Stella Point sign just 10 feet ahead, I felt an elation unlike any I’ve ever felt before. And then I sat down and never wanted to move again, before remembering that we still had another 700 m to go to the summit. The CEOs had warned us that although it’s only 700m, it takes most people 45 minutes to an hour to get the rest of the way. I was ready to call it a day by this point, but a lovely porter named John was waiting to walk with us to the summit, so I took a deep breath and we set off again.
Although I didn’t get altitude sickness, by this point I was feeling the most exhausted I’ve ever felt in my life, and I was really struggling to keep my eyes open and put one foot in front of the other. John had my bag, and seeing that I was falling behind he grabbed my arm, tucked it into his with a pat and a ‘pole pole’, and we were off (not very pole pole I might add). Just over an hour later we made it, and besides us, there were only 2 other people there, which made for some great photos.
Because of the altitude, the CEOs and porters encourage you to only spent 10-15 minutes at the summit, and we were no exception. I would have loved to spend a little more time taking in the views and sunshine; however, we were also aware that we had to climb back DOWN the mountain, and we were already exhausted. After a few photos and some giant grins, we made our way back down to Stella Point, where we spent about 10 minutes resting before heading off again.
As much as I found going up difficult, after having done all of that, going down was killer. Just like going up, it was very steep and slippery, and after about 300 m we turned off the path we’d walked up, onto a different, “easier” path to go down, which is 75% scree. Rich and one other member of our group took off and were flying down, but due to my knee, I found it difficult to go fast. Due to sheer exhaustion as well, I was finding that my legs would just give out on me and I ended up on my bum and back a fair amount of times. We had 3 people in our group who had to be carried down by the porters and CEOs, and I was kind of keeping pace with them as we went down. After my 3rd time landing on my backside, John once again took pity on me and came to my rescue. We had hiking poles that we all used, and these were a big help going down, and what the porters would do is take one pole away from you, lock hands with you and tuck your elbow in, and then go flying down the mountain. I had been walking down with another member of our group, Tom, and it was ironic that when John came to help me he kept saying ‘pole pole’, as within 5 minutes we were a good couple hundred metres in front of Tom and I didn’t see him again until we got to base camp.
I can’t really tell you much more about the next 3 hours, as it’s all kind of blurred together from the pain and exhaustion. I managed to take absolutly no pictures during the entire day, and by the time I arrived at base camp around 12.45pm, all I wanted was to take off my gear, eat, and sleep. The porters were waiting with a glass of really strong orange squash and to help take boots and gators off. They then sent us to our tents for about 2 hours to nap, where Rich was already asleep – he didn’t even make it into his sleeping bag – before getting us up to have some much needed food. Again, due to altitude, they want to get you lower down as quick as they can, so after eating, we again donned our hiking gear and set off for the 2 hour downhill walk to the next camp -High Camp – to spend the night. We were all very glad to make it there in the sunshine (There was even sit down toilets!!😁😂 ), where we had an early supper and headed to bed.
Day 6 – High Camp (3950 m) to Mweka Gate (about 5 hours walking)
In order to get us down at quickly as possible, wake up was 6.30am, with breakfast at 7am. After breakfast we joined the CEOs and porters in the sunshine for one last display of some traditional songs and dances, before listening to the CEOs give a speech and having to make one in return. No one else volunteered, so who better to say a few words then me? After this, we started the 5 hours downhill walk down to Mweka Gate, where a bus was waiting to take us back to our hotel for a long shower and a much deserved beer!