Climbing Kilimanjaro – Reaching the Rooftop of Africa

Climbing (2)
Climbing (2)

Climbing Kili, (as it is affectionately known), was perhaps one of the most amazing and awe inspiring experiences of my whole life. Before we embarked on the climb we read lots of really helpful reviews and accounts, so here’s my two pence worth. It was the summer of 2007 and I had itchy feet. I hadn’t been on a proper adventure for about 2 years, so it was time to start planning! I’ve always enjoyed trekking and was desperate to visit Africa again after a wonderful trip to Namibia a few years earlier. Put the two together and ‘hey presto’ you get Kilimanjaro – the majestic rooftop of Africa. The first challenge, and arguably one of the most difficult, was persuading my other half that climbing the world’s highest freestanding mountain (also one of the coveted Seven Summits) was a good idea!

Paul, (my other half), is less adventurous by nature and more ‘grounded’ than me, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I proposed the idea to him carefully, playing down (not mentioning) the bit about it being the world’s highest freestanding mountain, and it was met with the usual “”that sounds nice dear”” and somewhat thankful relief that he wasn’t going to be on the hook for organising our next holiday. So the trip was booked for the middle February 2008. Even though climbing Kilimanjaro does not require any technical climbing experience, crampons or ice picks, it stands at a mighty 5,895 meters (19,340 ft) and so is physically very demanding, (even before you add in the altitude sickness).

Now the trip was booked, we needed to start thinking about what training we had to do and the kit we needed to get, so Paul’s perception that Kilimanjaro was a kind of very large hill needed to be corrected! One evening in September I read him the following article: Taking On Kilimanjaro – Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Africa by Kent Stewart (fantastic account and well worth a read). At the end of the article I looked up and saw facial expressions that can only be described as some combination of fear, horror, anxiety and total disbelieve. The full gravity of what he had unwittingly agreed to had finally sunk in. Over the next 5 months, and in between a barrage of berating comments from a rather unwilling Paul (“”you’re irresponsible””, “”you have no idea what we are capable””, “”you’re going to get us killed”” etc), we researched and bought our kit (see Kit List below) and embarked on a training programme. Paul and I both work in London and live in Woking (just outside London), so we were a limited in terms of mountains to practice on!

We went to the gym a few times every week and also went walking on the South Downs most weekends. By the time February arrived, the berating comments had ceased and we were both really excited about our Tanzania adventure, although a little nervous that perhaps we hadn’t done enough training or we’d forgotten some bit of kit. When we got on our flight at London Heathrow, I remember sitting near another couple that we knew must also be climbing Kili from rucksacks, walking poles and walking boots.

Their boots were obviously brand new and I felt a kind of satisfaction that at least we weren’t that unprepared – if nothing else, we had ‘walked in’ our boots! We got to the hotel and sorted out our kit for the next day. By this time the nerves were really beginning to kick in. Would we be able to do this? What if one of us needed to turn back? We had chosen the Machame route because it is one of the most beautiful and varied routes and also longer than some of the other routes, (giving more chance to acclimatise to the altitude), but of course there are never any guarantees. A glass of wine to calm the nerves and then an early night.

Day 1 – Machame Park Gate (1,815m / 5,590ft) to Machame Camp (3,003m / 9,850ft) Godfrey (our guide) and Paul (our cook) picked us up in the morning we drove to Machame Park Gate. We met our porters (there were 10 in addition to the guide and guide!), registered and then started out climb. The porters bounded off in front and within literally seconds we could no longer see them! Godfrey explained that we should take it slowly, “”pole pole”” in Swahili – this would help us to acclimatise. Somewhat relieved that weren’t expected to bound up the mountain at the same speed as the porters, we settled into a fairly leisurely pace. We were walking up a well maintained path through dense forecast. It was quite eerie in places and akin to how you would imagine woods in fairytales. As time passed the wood the gradually thinned and the trees gradually gave way to heath land – with giant heather standing at > 6ft. At around 2pm, the heavens opened and it rained hard for about 3 hours.

We found out later that it rains every day in the forecast at about 2pm, so would suggest you wear clothes you don’t mind getting wet or that will dry out quickly on day 1 of the climb. We walked for around 6 hours before we got to camp. It actually felt like one of the longest days walking (even though distance wise it wasn’t) – I think because it was the first day and much of the battle is about getting used to and understanding what to expect. The porters had been there for hours and had already set up our tent and started dinner! Dinner was fantastic! We had soup and popcorn for starter, fish and pasta for main course and fruit for dessert. I was totally blown away with what Paul had cooked on a tiny gas stove! Machame camp was our first experience of the Kili toilets! They are generally a small hut, just big enough for one person, with a hole in the wooden floor. At best, these toilets have a lock and have recently been swept with a dashing of bleach.

My nemesis had arrived….! Paul picked it up instantly and was ‘skiing’ down the slope fast, but I just could not get it. I was scared to relax in case I went tumbling for down thousands of feet and as a result kept on falling over – every couple meters. It was painfully slow and whilst Paul and Godfrey were patient for a while, I could tell they were getting frustrated at the total lack of progress. In the end Godfrey and the porter linked arms with me on either side and ran me down. I was so scared I felt like I was about the have a heart attack, but the alternative was that I stayed on the mountain. Convincing myself that staying on the mountain all in, was probably worse than the risk of a heart attack, I closed eyes and hoped desperately that it would be over soon. It took well over 2 hours to make the descent to Barafu camp. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved in my whole life!!! We arrived back and all the porters greeted us with hugs and congratulations.


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