How It Feels To Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

How It Feels To Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro

If you are an #active traveler, you want to really push yourself to the limits. A climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro in #Tanzania will do it. For me, it was an exhausting and profound 6 days, but also rewarding. The #hiking guides were confident and compassionate and the trip would have been very different if they hadn't been so supportive.

You might think, I’m not the best person to answer this question. A little while ago, when I told you the ins and outs of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, I also confessed that I actually failed to summit this beast of a mountain. And yet, I know what it feels like to set out to conquer Uhuru Peak, to walk up up up and see the world (well, at least Northern Tanzania, or the clouds over Northern Tanzania) from above: breathtaking, inspiring, exhausting, encouraging, at times discouraging, very hard, and definitely awesome.

Those 6 days I spent at the slopes of Africa’s highest mountain, attempting to ascend its summit, left me in awe for trekking and high altitude mountaineering. It was as beautiful as it was hard, and I think making it to the top is only the cherry on top of a big, delicious chocolate cake with sugar icing. Taking that first step alone, and hiking from hut to hut has taught me how it feels to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Those 6 days I spent at the slopes of Africa’s highest mountain left me in awe.

"Don’t worry, he’ll be alright," Arshad, our chief guide, said to me, as he shows me the photos of a man being brought down from Kibo Hut on a stretcher just a few minutes ago. My face drops, "I don’t wanna end up on a stretcher!" He looks at me and reassures, "You can do it." That was on day three, our acclimatization day at Horombo Hut (3,720m). The next day we would hike up to Kibo Hut (4,750m) ourselves and summit Mt. Kilimanjaro the following night. But first things first.

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Kilimanjaro Trekking and Climbling

 Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
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Nomads of the North

When my dad and I planned our trip to Tanzania, it was his wish to book a trekking tour and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Excited about the idea of standing on the roof of Africa, I started looking for a suitable tour company. I didn’t want to go through a travel agent, but book directly with a local recommended operator, ideally Tanzanian owned and with a sustainable employment philosophy. I found all that in ZARA Tours, which was recommended to me by the Tanzanian Tourism Board, and is actually the leading Kilimanjaro company in Tanzania. ZARA was founded by Zainab Ansell, a local woman (!) from Moshi, and has been running since 1987. They offer trekking tours to Kilimanjaro and Mt Meru, national park safaris and island getaways in Zanzibar.

The day before, my heart was racing with excitement

Welcome To Moshi

The day before our first day on the mountain, we arrived at Springlands Hotel, the ZARA’s home base in Moshi, the capital of Kilimanjaro tourism, roughly one hour’s drive from Kilimanjaro International Airport. After meeting our mountain guides, Arshad and Basili, and receiving their thorough briefing on what to take, what’s going to happen and other crucial facts, we rented some last-minute gear at the hotel’s rental shop, re-arranged our bags – each of us was allowed to fill a duffle bag with up to 15kg for the porter – and took a final shower. 8.30am the next morning, we boarded a mini-van, greeted our crew welcome and set out for our first stop: Marangu Gate (1,800m).

Welcome to Moshi!

We had decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro via Marangu Route, which is also called Coca Cola Route or Tourist Route. Don’t be mislead though, this route is not easier than any of the others, but the fact that it is the only route with huts and real beds, made the choice for my dad (who is almost 66 now) quite clear. The other routes, like Machame, Lemosho or Rongai, have a better acclimatisation profile (which means, that you climb high up during the day, but pitch your night camps in lower elevations), but you need to sleep in tents. 

Marangu is doable in 5 days, but we booked an additional acclimatisation day at Horombo Hut, to give our bodies the chance to get used to the lower oxygen levels, which added up to 6 days – 4.5 days up, 1.5 days down. Each day we climbed roughly 1,000m of elevation, just over 4,000m (one way) in total. Here is my account of what this feels like.

Step By Step, Day By Day

Day 1, an 8km-hike from Marangu Gate to Mandara Hut (2,700m), was easy-peasy. We walked through lush green rainforest, discovered some blue monkeys on the way and exchanged life stories with Arshad and Basili. It took us roughly four hours to reach Mandara, including a leisurely lunch break. 

Upon reaching the hut, dad and I were joking about walking on all the way to Horombo, but of course our guides slowed us down: pole, pole (‘slow, slow’ in Swahili) – the unwritten law of climbing Kili. We had a wash and some coffee, strolled up to Muandi Crater for the view and returned for dinner and a good night’s rest. So far, so good. The only signs my body was showing was a stiff hip from walking, breathlessness from crawling awkwardly into my sleeping bag and numb hands from lying in weird positions.

Which way should I go?

Day 2, this time 11km from Mandara to Horombo, was again not so bad – the pain in my hip was gone, and although the Danish guy in our hut had snored a little bit, I felt well rested. After an hour or so walking, we left the rainforest behind and the vegetation changed to moorland – shrubs (at first taller, then much shorter than me), yellow flowers and from 3,000m elevation, the peculiar looking serencia trees. 

Wind was picking up, and so were the clouds, but with walking uphill, it was still rather warm when we reached Horombo Hut. After another wash and more coffee, I realised that I had a headache and my pulse felt like racing. Seeing that we had planned an additional day at Horombo the next day, Arshad allowed me to take some pain killers, and I slept like a baby.

The mountains are calling and I must go

Day 3 was our lazy-ass acclimatization day. In the morning, we waved goodbye the people hiking on to Kibo Hut – June is only the beginning of the season with very few hikers, and as everybody follows the same itinerary on the route, you get to know each other and feel deeply for each others’ success. Arshad and Basili took us on yet another leisurely stroll up to Zebra Rock (roughly 4,000m). It hailed a little on the way down, but otherwise it was a beautiful experience, and felt like heaven to give my back and legs a break. The rest of the day, we spent eating, reading and mentally preparing ourselves for what would follow. My headache was back, but killing the pain with pills is not advisable if you intend to ascend further, so I pushed through. Arshad measured our pulse with an oximeter (all good) and sent us to bed.

To Zebra Rocks!

Day 4 started and even though I didn’t sleep much last night (according to Arshad, that’s normal in this altitude), I felt fresh and motivated to go on. I knew, that on our way up, we would meet the other hikers from Mandara and Horombo, who hadn’t taken an acclimatization day, on their way down from the summit – our time to ask how it was up there! Again, the vegetation changed after a couple of hours – from moorland to vast and windy alpine desert. 

At 4,100m we reached Mawenzi Ridge, a point from were, technically, it is only uphill, but when you ask me, it was only downhill. My body and the elevation did not get along anymore – increasing headache was joined by a sick tummy, tired legs and mental discouragement. After lunch, roughly two hours away from Kibo Hut, it only got worse. Arshad kept asking me whether I wanted him to carry my backpack, which I negated a few times, but soon, he didn’t give me any other choice. Defeated, disappointed, a little scared and very exhausted I handed over my rucksack – admittedly accompanied by a few tears (and more every time they told me that I’d make it up.) 

On the last stretch of the day, I could already see Kibo, but it was still an hour walk away. Every few steps I had to stop, breath deeply to ease my tummy, or give my legs a break, or simply sob a little.

Rocks form an incredible picture

Exhausted and embarrassed, that’s how I felt when we finally reached Kibo Hut after 5 hours walk. Everything, from answering my dad’s questions, translating Arshad’s explanations and even walking to the toilet sucked all the energy left from my body. 

All I could do now was lie down still. I slept for about an hour, but after that returned to sleepless resting – by now, I hated the altitude more than anything else in the world. After two hours, we woke to eat dinner and discuss the following summit trek with Arshad. I could barely eat (another side effect of the altitude) and started crying again – the image of myself being carried down Kilimanjaro on a stretcher was too much to take. 

When Arshad came in and saw me crying, he almost started himself. My dad met Basili outside and told him about my condition. Together the guides tried to cheer me up, and I had to promise them no more crying.

Our camp for the night

Day 4.5 started at 10.30pm, and although I hadn’t slept at all, I felt motivated to make it to the top – I wanted that picture taken with my dad and me at Uhuru Peak. We woke to put on almost every piece of clothing we had in our packs. We forced down some hot water with honey and packed our rucksacks with energy bars, sweeties, sun lotion, sun glasses and water. 

Together with Arshad, Basili and another assistant guide, Franki, we set out towards the summit. We followed a steep zig-zag path up a rocky slope; not that we could see much of it, as the night was pitch-black – there is of course no light pollution up here! Soon it was obvious that my dad was walking a lot faster than me. He hadn’t shown any sign of altitude sickness so far, and felt rather excited about reaching the top. 

Soon it was obvious that my dad was walking a lot faster than me.

So, we split up – dad was going ahead with Basili and Franki, and Arshad stayed with me. He was carrying my backpack, helped me put on and take off layers of clothes, and zipped up my jacket when I was cold. Basically, I felt like a little child whining about all kinds of things, needing him to tell me to push on. 

Again, we had to stop every few minutes for me to rest my legs or fight my sick tummy. At times I felt like vomiting, but never did. Other times I was so exhausted that I reached for my chocolate bar. After two or three bites I felt sick again. I was completely draught of joy by that time; climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro felt like the worst thing in the world, and other groups of people were overtaking us slowly.

Williams Point sign

I knew I wouldn’t make it and had to make a tough call. I told Arshad – who had even offered to drag me up if I wanted to hold on to my backpack on his back – that I wanted to make it to 5,000m and then turn back. 

I would rather make is as far as possible (and back) on my own feet out of my own physical strength, than push too far, ending up on his shoulders and subsequently a stretcher and ambulance. I was done. Somehow I dragged on to Williams Point, which marks 5,000m and had a little rest on a rock. 

I knew I wouldn’t make it and had to make a tough call.

As soon as we turned around and started walking downhill I felt better – mentally at least. Physically I still felt like shit. We reached Kibo Hut at 3am and I collapsed in my sleeping bag. Not finding any sleep, I was contemplating how my dad was doing, and watched the sun rise outside a few hours later, which was a piece of solace – the sunrise at 4,750m is just as pretty as I expected it to be on the summit!

The sunrise this far up is simply incredible
The sunrise this far up is simply incredible

Before you now think, "This sounds like I can never do this," let me tell you: You can do anything! At 65 years old, my dad, who has done a fair share of hiking in his life, but is by no means an experienced mountaineer, didn’t feel a thing until just before reaching the top. Altitude sickness can hit anyone or you’re spared – you simply can’t tell in advance who’s going to make it, and who isn’t.

Day 5 had started and my dad returned from the summit around 10am – he was exhausted, euphoric and a little confused from the lack of sleep. After an hour rest we started our long walk down: to Horombo for the night, and finally back to Marangu Gate the following day. When we reached Horombo at 3pm, my dad had been up and going for almost 15 hours – you can imagine how tired he was. Another sleepless night later, Arshad made our day (Day 6) by getting us onto the ‘ambulance car’ (which can only go as far as Horombo) and spared us of walking almost 20km to Marangu Gate. My dad’s knees were hurting, and I was still suffering from light headaches, so it was definitely the safer thing to do. Back at Marangu Gate we waited for our porters, who had to walk all the way from Horombo (heroes!) and drove back to the hotel for a well-deserved shower and some beer.

Trekking group
Our trekking group

I hope that my account will not discourage you to try to climb Kilimanjaro yourself. All in all, attempting to climb Kili has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. No, I didn’t make it to the summit, but as our guides said to me, "The Mountain is not going anywhere." I can (and will) try again. 

It was physically and mentally challenging, but it was also physically and mentally rewarding – the people, the views, the feeling of success. This was the highest I have ever made it and I’m incredibly proud of my achievement and the fact that I had the courage to give up before I had to be carried down the mountain. It was all SO WORTH IT! You don’t need a particularly thick skin for this hike either – me crying in front of my guides should be more than enough proof for that. What you need is some physical fitness, a little bit of willpower, and eventually,  luck.

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