Summit number 2, Mount Kilimanjaro. I walked into this one with mixed feelings, obviously I was excited to get a crack to get to the top of Africa’s highest peak also the worlds highest free-standing mountain. But on the other hand, time and money was a concern. I need to build a strong base of mountaineering skills for my future ambitions, and Mount Kilimanjaro wasn’t going to help with that and it’s not cheap. But at the end of the day it’s one of the seven summits so I had no choice, and instead of looking 10 steps ahead I needed to look at what was in front of me. Don’t get me wrong though, I was really looking forward visiting Africa (Tanzania) and being immersed in the different culture, I also looked forward to the physical and mental challenges and hurdles this summit and travel would bring me.
So I left Melbourne Airport on the 21st of July 2019, excited to get started. The flight to Tanzania was a long one. I would leave from Melbourne Tullamarine Airport to Abu Dhabi International Airport this takes a total of 14 hours, from there I would fly to Nairobi Airport a 5 hour flight and from Nairobi its a 1 hour flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport, Tanzania. Add in the stop-overs and its over 24 hours worth of sitting and waiting. This is the part I hate about travel, it takes forever to get anywhere.
I arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport late Monday afternoon and there was a slight problem. No luggage, usually this wouldn’t be too stressful, it usually turns up in a day or so if it’s “Lost”. Problem was I was set to to get started on the mountain the following morning. I tried to stay positive but it was hard, I told myself if there was a will theres a way up the mountain, I’ll find gear, however when everything except for your boots is gone, it s hard to keep a positive mindset. Funnily enough I was more concerned about my thoughts and attitude more so than losing my gear. I became overwhelmed with negative thoughts and was worried my own head would ruin the whole trip. However after a good conversation with my mum, I gained some perspective. I’m in Africa and have got an opportunity to be standing on Africa’s highest peak, so just accept whats happened, enjoy myself and make the most of the situation. So this is what I ended up planing to do, I was going to borrow some gear from Chris and Stuart, two legendary Brits I just met, stuff the gear in my day bag I’d been using whilst flying and then hire a sleeping bag. Meanwhile the hotel receptionist was calling the airport trying to find my luggage, by 4am the next morning I had accepted what had happened and started to look at it as a positive, an extra challenge I’d have to overcome. By breakfast I was good to go, I had accepted what had happened and was cool about it. However as were finishing breakfast the hotel receptionist came in and told me “magic” had happened. My luggage was found and was on it’s way.
Before I continue writing I should mention I chose to get to the top of the mountain carrying my own gear, carrying my 22kg pack. This was part of the challenge I wanted to embrace, it would also be good training for future mountains. This is partly the reason why I was so upset with the thought of not having my gear. It would decrease the difficulty of the trek.
So I got my luggage and quickly organised my gear and before I knew it we were off. On route to the mountain we stopped at Arusha shops to pick up some last minute supplies. I personally didn’t need anything, in fact most people didn’t need much if anything, Stewart though quickly decided he needed some rum for summit night. We then left the shops and head straight back on route. After about 30 minutes of driving we were at the foot of the mountain, I was finally getting started on summit number 2.
We arrived and were treated to song and dance from the G-Adventures, “Kili Kings”, numerous songs were sang, the infamous Kilimanjaro Song not excluded. Once they settled down and we signed the permit forms we had lunch. Fried potatoes and chicken, not bad for mountain food. Once lunch was done, we took some photos and were off.
The foot of the mountain was covered by rainforest, plenty of tall, dense green trees and the conditions were wet, sticky and humid. You could feel the moisture in the air as you breathed in and out. Our pace was steady, “Pole Pole” the local Tanzanian’s call it, ‘slowly slowly’ translated in English. A smart tactic when you climbing, trekking or scrambling at altitude. Moving steadily and not overexerting yourself whilst making your way up the mountain gives your body the best chance to properly acclimatise. Your body starts to produce greater amounts of red blood cells (oxygen carrying blood cells) to make up for the lack of oxygen in the air, and the longer you give your body to make this change the better chances you have to adapt and prevent altitude sickness. You don’t know how your body will react at altitude so it’s best to give your body more time to adapt. Symptoms of altitude sickness can range from minor to life threatening, some of these include hallucinations, headaches, shortness of breath, throwing up, lack of appetite and digestion problems, just to name a few. However the biggest concerns of altitude sickness is the chance of getting something as deadly as cerebral oedema (swelling of the brain) and/or pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs), both can and have killed. We went ‘pole, pole’ for a good 4-5 hours, occasionally stopping for drink and toilet breaks. I didn’t mind this to start off with, I was having a good time getting to know the two Brits, Chris and Stuart. Stewarts humour stood out to me and Chris was just an all round great bloke, I instantly felt comfortable climbing the mountain with them.
We arrived at Machame Camp (3000m above sea level), our first nights camping spot at approx 5pm. You could tell at the camp we were starting to exit the rainforest. The trees had started to spread apart, the air was crisper and everything was drier. At camp I reflected on the day and wrote in my journal, “the trek today was of easy-moderate difficulty”, it was a constant steady, uphill pace, I felt good. At the camp the first thing I noticed was how amazing the service of the G-Fighters was, this service continued throughout the whole trek. They’d rushed ahead to set up camp and our tents. Then as we arrived they were quick to take our equipment and show us to our tents. From there they brought out “washy washy’ (some warm water to clean ourselves) and started making dinner. Dinner at the campsite was amazing, fresh meats, soup, pasta or rice, vegetables, fruit, coffee and tea. It was luxury camping. In addition after we ate the G-Fighters were quick to clean up after us. They were too good I started to feel guilty, so I made sure I’d a least help with the cleaning up. This became our post trek routine, pretty much everyday on the mountain. Once dinner was finished we’d have a quick meeting with Bruno on the following days plan. Our blood oxygen and heart rates would then be taken and then finally we’d go to bed.
Something I want to mention is the first couple of days I felt additional pressure to perform well. I needed to prove myself to the G-Fighters and to the CEO’s that I was strong enough to carry my own gear. It’s very uncommon that a “white man” carries his own gear and the CEO’s doubted I could do it, I wanted to prove that I was capable. Their doubts were made known when I first mentioned to Bruno (the head CEO) my plans to carry my own gear. My pack weighed 22kg which is too heavy for the porters to legally carry. For this reason I was asked what happens if I can’t carry my own bag the whole way? I can’t give it to the porters because it’s too heavy. From this question I got the sense Bruno was thinking “this guy has no idea what he’s in for”. I knew I was capable though, I I completed Kokoda in 5 days (12-16 hour days) with my own pack, which is perhaps one of the hardest treks in the world and I knew I could cope with the altitude because of my experience on Mount Elbrus previously. My reply to Bruno was “they won’t need to carry my gear, I’m capable”, this answer wasn’t good enough though. So I came up with a compromise, if I couldn’t carry it I’d carry half the weight whilst a porter would carry the other half. Bruno agreed and I swore to myself that this would never happen, I’d prove that I could do it.
Day 2, today was a 6am wake up call I slept amazingly, my new sleeping bag given to me from my extended family was extremely comfortable, it was more than enough to keep me warm and snug. I was sharing a tent with Greg, a navy officer for the United States. And honestly it was a pleasure to share a tent with Greg, top bloke, good sense of humour, considerate and an amazing photographer. We woke up to find the G-Fighters had brought out a warm drink for each of us and had prepared a delicious breakfast for the whole group, eggs, sausage, oatmeal, fresh fruit, toast and more tea and coffee. I continued to be stunned by the level of service and the luxury these guys provided on the mountain, I felt like I was cheating nature. After about 30 minutes we were off. The terrain today was quite different, less trees to the point where once we were done for the day there were none, everything was dustier and much drier and the pathway became much steeper and rockier, at times scrambling instead of walking was required. We continued stopping every hour or so and like day 1 kept a steady pace, however naturally it became clear some people in the group were fitter and/or adapted to altitude better than others. The group at times spilt up into 2-3 different paced smaller groups. We hit camp as a collective at approximately 3pm and were given a few hours of rest, I used it to organise my gear, read my book “Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer” and take some photos. Time passed and before we knew it the cold and the fresh air of night time had reached us.
Day 3, the wake up time again was 6am and like usual I awoke early and was treated to a fresh, cold but beautifully clear sky. As I walked out of the tent to my left was the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro staring at me, clear as day with the sun rising behind it, Ulhuru Peak (the summit) looked so close, I could touch it. To my right was a beautiful view of a collection of other hills and peaks covered in green trees, the suns raise had started to reach these peaks, revealing a natural beauty.
Once my gaze finally left the natural landscape I got myself organised and ready to go. This was followed by a quick breakfast as a group and once again we set off. Today was an acclimatisation hike to Lava Tower, a new high point for the group, 4630m above sea level. We started off going very slow “Pole, Pole”, although this was the smart and right thing to do it was agonising for me, I felt like I was being restrained to a leash. So as Chris started to move at a faster pace, ahead of the group I saw the opportunity to follow. This hurt my conscious, we were a team, only as fast as the slowest member but the pace was sucking the enjoyment from the trek. I was constantly torn between going at my own faster pace and being a team player. I tried a blend of both by encouraging my group members whenever I could, sometimes walking with them and sometimes going ahead at my own pace. Nonetheless Chris and I picked up the pace and before we knew it the rest of the group was gone. We were so entranced, feeling happy and comfortable with our own pace, chatting, getting to know each other. We didn’t even realise we had been moving by ourselves for a good hour. In the end one of the guides, Babu to be specific came after us to lead the way. The terrain at this point was so vast and arid with only volcanic rocks to be seen as far as I could see.
By approximately 12pm we had reached Lava Tower, a 300 foot rock tower formed by volcanic rock. Here we would wait for the rest of the group followed by lunch and a descent to a lower camp known as Barranco camp, there we would camp the night. Before all that though I felt the urge to climb Lava Tower, so I did along with Babu who felt obliged to join me. It wasn’t until now that I realised this was actually illegal, officials believe it to be too dangerous for trekkers to climb it. It wasn’t anything difficult, just a 20 minute scramble. The views though were breathtaking, especially of the camp below and the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Once that bit of fun was over I rested a little with Chris and waited for the rest of the group. About an hour to an hour and a half later the last of our group had arrived, we had a quick lunch and set off again to Barranco Camp. The descent from Lava Tower to Barranco camp was a quick but painful hour and half, going downhill is hard on the knees and by that point I started to notice some of the effects of the altitude, honestly I felt rather tired and just wanted to rest. The trail however was fascinating, unique trees, flowers and bushes were spread throughout the track. They were like nothing I’d ever seen before, like they belonged to another planet. Besides how they looked what made them so unique was their ability to survive in the extreme conditions; at high altitude and in dry, cold conditions. We continued passing the hundred of unique tress that stood next to the path, making it look like a long walkway and by around 5pm we all had made it to Barranco Camp. As usual I went straight into my routine, get everything organised for the next day, take some photos, write in my journal, read and then wait for dinner.
Day 4 was an earlier start, which I appreciated, as an early riser this suited me. Get up time was 5:30am, today we were set to make our way up what is known as Barranco Wall, home of the “kissing rock”.
This was our reason for the early start, we wanted to avoid the possible traffic jam that can occur on Barranco Wall, which can make it quite unsafe. What’s the Barranco Wall? It’s a 257m rock wall that requires a good hour or so of scrambling. For me this was one of the funnest parts of the trek. We left camp at around 6-6:30am and started making our way up Barranco Wall, some of our group members were faster than others but at the end of the day we all seemed to get up the wall with no serious difficulties, scrambling/climbing from one rock ledge to another. At the top, the view was beautiful, we were above the clouds and down below was a vast landscape with rock formations and the heads of dense rainforest trees. You could see Mount Meru’s summit off in the distance, I’ll need to come back and get to the top of that one next time I thought. We took a good 30 minutes break just to take pictures of the view, everyone took numerous shots, selfies, poses, team photos, individual photos, landscape shots, you name it. It was a beautiful morning and the view was as clear as glass. From here we would make our way across the mountain to Karanga Camp, our lunch destination. This part of the trek had some flat parts which was a nice break from the constant ups or constant downs.
After spending the morning with the rest of the group at the top of Barranco Wall, I along with Greg set off at our own comfortable pace across the now high altitude, alpine desert towards Karanga Camp. I was taking photos every 30 minutes or so trying to capture the beauty and isolation of the environment in it’s most natural state. Halfway we were lucky enough to come across an eagle, soaring across the sky. We walked some more and before we knew it both Greg and I had arrived at Karanga Camp. Here we took some more photos, rested and waited. After about an hour later the others caught up and we had lunch. After lunch we all head off, straight up we were met with a fairly long and steep slope, at this altitude walking up a slope like this can be hard work, as a result some of our group members started to struggle. Going my own pace I begrudgingly head out in front of the group, this time by myself. Once again I was having an internal struggle, honestly the groups pace was killing me, I’d came to the mountain to challenge myself and although I thoroughly enjoyed the groups company staying at their pace was killing me and wasn’t giving me the challenge I craved. So finally I broke and head off by myself. As a result I arrived at Barafu Campe AKA base camp nearly 2 hours before the rest of the group, I don’t say this in an arrogant way but just as a matter of fact. Anyway once they all arrived we ate dinner and got a debriefing on what would be our summit night. This night we’d be going to bed at around 7pm and wake up at 11pm for our summit bid. Our head CEO, Bruno wanted us to be the first out of the gate to prevent any traffic jams from stopping us dead in our tracks. Instead of being stuck behind others and having to move around them, others would have to move passed us. A good plan.
It was summit night, theres always this awkward silence on summit night, fuelled by the unknown and anxiety of the group. I got out of the tent at 10:30pm, I’d hardly slept, by 11pm I was joined by most of the rest of the group, we were all greeted to the cool, cold, fresh air. There was no doubt about it, it was cold, not unbearable though, after putting on my base layer top and pants, my jumper, down jacket, windproof/rainproof jacket, hiking pants, windproof/rainproof pants, beanie, balaclava, liner gloves and outer gloves and mittens I was toasty. We were given a hot drink and some biscuits and then we set off. For the summit we were positioned and ordered by Bruno, slowest at the front, fastest at the back, I was at the back. There was one exception though, one of our group members was too slow to get ready, he was exhausted from the walk we finished only 6-7 hours ago. We did wait for a good 5 minutes but eventually we had no choice but to head off without him. Not a great start, but then after only about 10 minutes we stopped and waited again, finally he caught up. But he was taxed in his effort to catch up and as a result he cracked it and threw his walking poles, he’d had enough. This was as far as he would go, already we were down a member of our group.
Our pace was slow or “Pole, Pole”, I understood this was the smartest way to make our way up the mountain. It was the same on Mount Elbrus, it’s best to not over exert yourself at such an altitude but I knew I was capable of moving faster, and after about half an hour I was becoming impatient. Other groups were passing us and to be honest I was miserable, not because I was being challenged or cold but because I was bored. I’m attracted to the challenge of climbing the mountain and here I was on summit night, feeling like I was just having a stroll in the park, I was disappointed. So what did I do? I asked the guide if I could break off from the group and make my own way to the top. I was surprised I got the ok, after about 20 minutes I was given permission to leave the group at a faster pace with one of the porters, King Cola. This is where the fun began. We set off, just the two of us and man was King Cola fast. We were passing groups left, right and centre, it was hard work to keep up, finally I was getting what I wanted. Doubt started creeping in, can I keep up with King Cola? Have I just ruined my opportunity for the summit by allowing my ego to get the better of me and overexerted myself? This headache is killing me, am I getting cerebral oedema? Can I make it to the top? These self doubt questions is what I was after, this was the challenge I’d been craving. I started counting my steps to hopefully forget the struggle and focused on my breathing. In, out, in, out, for me at this altitude and with this exertion I find it comfortable to breath in and out using my mouth, making sure every now and then I’d take a really deep breath to get plenty of air in the lungs. Hours passed, step, breath, step, breath, I checked my watch, it had been 3 hours with no break, we were making good pace. Sure I was struggling but I was managing to keep up. About half an hour from Stellas’s Point which is 5795m above sea level and only 100m below the summit we took our first break. There was no lights above us, I looked down the mountain and it was lit up with headlamps, we had passed everyone on the mountain. It was breathtaking, looking down below in the dark, seeing hundreds of headlamps making their way up the mountain, its an amazing, unique site. I admit, arrogantly it was pretty cool to think we could be the first up the mountain and even better to have the whole summit to ourselves. Not that I needed it but an extra fire had been lit in my stomach, the thought of being first up the mountain was pretty exciting. So after a quick drink and some snacks we started up the mountain once again. Now it got really difficult, the ground beneath us was moving underneath our feet, small rock debris causing us to move one step backwards for every two steps. I was also pretty exhausted and taxed by this stage and started to find it harder to keep my balance as we scrambled upwards. This is when it’s important to remember just to put one foot in front of the other, I was exhausted but kept pushing forward. Breath, step forward, another step forward, slide backwards a little bit, stumble, breath, breath, step, nearly fall over. This pattern was repeated over and over again but after about an hour we were at Stellas Point. King Cola turned around and said “congratulations you’ve made it”, I was confused “this is only Stellas Point”, to that King Cola said “yeah, but it’s easy to the summit from here, it’s mostly flat”. I was honestly relived, I was exhausted. At Stellas Point we took a few photos in the dark, had a quick drink and some snacks and then made our way to the summit.
King Cola was right, it was an easy walk to the summit, although it was dark I could see the glaciers along the crater of Mount Kilimanjaro, beautiful! You could even hear the cracking of the ice as we made our way to the summit, it echoed in the dark, silent morning. Honestly though part of me was disappointed I wasn’t able to see the glaciers in daylight, a sacrifice I made by moving too quick up the mountain. The idea was we were supposed to make it up to the top for sunrise, but due to my impatience we had arrived 2 hours too early. We reached the summit at 4:30am, sunrise was approx at 6:30am. I did however get the summit to myself, the closest group was at least an hour behind us so this in itself was pretty special. We didn’t stay long, after some photos having to use the flash of my camera to see our faces, we made our way down the mountain. We were only at he summit for about 5 minutes. I truly believe though that the summit is only a small part of climbing a mountain, it’s the whole journey that’s important. We made our way down, and boy was this fun. We went down a different path close to the path we came up. This path though allowed as to slide down, admittedly it was pretty dangerous in the dark, we narrowly avoided crashing into human sized rocks constantly. I created a competition who could fall over the least amount of times, the end result was a draw, 2 times each. On the way down we passed our group and King Cola exchanged some words with the groups CEO’s and porters, killing all silence of summit night. They were yelling across the path in the dark. This lasted only minute though, down, down we went. On our left we could start to see the sun rising behind Africas third highest peak Mawenzi, it was a beautiful site and to our right, fellow climbers were making their accent of Mount Kilimanjaro, it was a magical morning.
By 6:30am we had reached our tents at base camp. I was exhausted, my head was pounding and I was dehydrated.
The idea was after summiting you’re supposed to sleep and rest to be ready for the trek out of base camp that day, but due to my need to be organised I got all my gear packed and ready to go, so when it was time to go I was ready. However due to the combination of being exhausted and distracted by the beautiful view of Mawenzi and Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit it took me about an hour to finish the task. I was stopping every 10 minutes to rest and admire the views. By the time I organised my gear I was freezing, it was still early morning and I had taken off my gloves to organise my gear, as a result I had become quite cold, my hands especially. Because of this I decided I’d warm myself back up by going for a walk. I didn’t know this at the time but this walk ended up seeing me back up 3/4 of the mountain. I wanted to congratulate each of my team members as they were descending and then come down with the last of them, I had taken off my hiking boots and was wearing my cheap, camp, canvass shoes from target, oh well I thought and off I went. One by one I passed and congratulated each of my team members, they had put in a huge effort, worked hard and got to the top, only 4 didn’t summit out of 11 of us. I was proud of the group, everyone had pushed themselves to their own individual limits and most reaped the rewards, everyone looked completely exhausted though. This became especially apparent as the last of our team members were coming down. He had two porters escorting him with another holding his bag and another 3 ready if he fell. It was a reminder of how dangerous mountains can be and how important it is to know your limits. If these porters weren’t here he might not of had the energy to make it down the mountain himself, and as a result died. When we reached the tents he couldn’t even remember which one was his, I had to lead him to his tent. I was in awe though, he pushed himself to his absolute limits, he literally had nothing left to give and this was extremely admirable.
It was done, I along with most of my group members had made it to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the seven summits. What an awesome journey it was.
After the summit the group slept and rested for about an hour, we then had lunch and finally started to descend the mountain. It was only a 1-2 hour trek through the alpine desert down to Millennium Camp. This is where we would camp and sleep, before descending all the way down to Marangu Gate the next day. It was a windy couple hours though, lucky we didn’t get that during our summit attempt.
Nothing exciting happened over the next day and half during the descent, except for one thing. A small group of 3 G-Fighters and CEO’s challenged me to keep up with them down the final stretch of the mountain, in the rainforest zone. It was slippery, steep and people were falling over constantly. I accepted of course, so there we were, running down the mountain, they were constantly laughing at me. They were enjoying watching this white man chase them down the mountain. I was also getting funny looks from everyone we passed, it didn’t matter to me though I was having a great time. You don’t usually see a white man running down Mount Kilimanjaro with a massive grin on my face and with a 20kg pack on his back. I think it’s fair to say I didn’t look the part. About 1 hours later we were at Marangu Gate, the finish line.
I had made it up and down the mountain, I had made some lifelong friends, experienced an experience like no other and could say I have completed 2 of the 7 summits, I was and am stoked.