Kilimanjaro – a Trek up the Machame Route

20 08 2011

August 2007

This trek was with the same group as on my Mount Kenya report and followed on immediately after it…

After a glorious night’s stay at the Keys Hotel in Moshi, Tanzania, we met our porters and Tanzanian mountain guides (this was in addition to our British Guide from the trekking company, Neil). I wasn’t feeling too optimistic as I’d just failed to summit on Mount Kenya due to altitude sickness a couple of days before – and this peak is a couple of thousand feet higher! Also, even back as far as when I’d initially read the itinerary when it was mailed to me, I’d seen that, towards the end of the ascent, we had a very improbable couple of days lined up – but we’ll come to that later…


Roman – our nicest Tanzanian Guide – with our mascot, Barney Bear

We were driven to Machame Gate (5904 feet) where the trek would begin and lots of paperwork had to be filled out on behalf of the group. It was a pleasant spot though and so we just sat in the sun and watched the sights. Presently, we were ready to begin and we all set off eagerly on the good track into the rainforest to ascend to Machame Camp (9840 feet). The rainforest was beautiful (these treks were my first sight of rainforest, although I believe they are more correctly termed ‘cloud forest’ on the mountain) and there was much more wildlife than we’d seen on Mount Kenya, although thankfully small animals – nothing big and dangerous.


Tree Fern

It was an easy climb to our forest campsite so we had a relaxing day’s walking. Kilimanjaro was much warmer to sleep on than Mount Kenya had been so most of my nights were good ones – I think the much drier air accounted for the warmer feel, although the temperatures would still have been very low at those altitudes.

The next morning we were up early, breakfasted and started out for Shira Camp (12595 feet), pretty soon leaving the cloud forest for good. The route ascends a long lava ridge and there were good views of the route above and below us – the sheer amount of people ascending the mountain was astonishing! There was more or less a continuous line of folks in each direction. The scenery was good though as the air was clear.


You can just see Kibo, Kili’s summit cone, faintly in the distance

Shira Camp was on a beautiful plateau with distant views to Mount Meru peeping over a thick layer of cloud, and the pretty peaks on the end of our mountain. The plateau is huge… I really wanted to go off exploring to see if I could reach some of the peaks on the edge of the plateau but they would have been too far away. In the other direction, I eventually noticed there were faint but high white shapes in the sky a considerable distance away. I suddenly realised I was looking at the main event – Kibo itself!


Shira Peaks and Plateau


Mount Meru from Shira Plateau

We’d arrived at Shira Camp by mid afternoon so we had quite a bit of time to spare – most of us, including me, just sat idly round in the lovely sunshine. I noticed a black gleam in the sandy ground and fished out a dusty stone. When I polished it off, I found it was Obsidian – volcanic glass! I picked up many other stones at random and dusted them off – they all had the same smooth, perfect, black glassy sheen. They felt really lovely to touch and I’m afraid I snaffled the very first small one into my bag. I know – if everyone did that, Kili would become a much smaller hill! 😉

There was a pleasant stream running through the camp – coming from Yorkshire, to me it was a ‘beck’ and so I referred to it as ‘Shira Beck’, much to the amusement of the rest of the group.

I would have had a good night’s sleep but it was totally ruined by my guide, Neil’s, total insistence that I up my fluid intake on this hill. I had to drink three litres minimum he said. Of course, doing that just led to the inevitable hourly trip to the toilets all night to let the damn stuff back out! 😦

The next morning we set out for a much tougher day heading for the Barranco Hut (12956 feet). While that doesn’t sound like much ascent, there was nearly 2500 feet of it – just there was a large descent at the end to the hut. This part of the walk took us, just after our dinner break, to the fabled Lava Tower (at an altitude of 15088 feet, although the actual tower is probably only about 50 feet). This is an audacious piece of rock which, despite looking impregnable, had a route up one side.

While we approached the Lava Tower we were eyeing it up. I wanted to have a go at it if I thought I could cope with the scrambling and didn’t feel too tired (of course, at this altitude, I did feel a bit weary). The ascent line was a zig-zag up the side and was fairly obvious from the approach. At the last minute I decided to go for it.


Lava Tower, The – Route Goes up Right-hand Side


Lava Tower Summit (above) and View From (below)

The ascent was very easy indeed and we were soon up and admiring the big drop from the top – it did look a long way down! Descending again was slightly harder, especially near the top where there were some large, steep slabs to descend. Luckily I’m very long so I didn’t struggle at all on this section – nor was it particularly exposed – but some of our smaller members in the party needed a hand.

The Descent…

The descent was obviously trickier than the ascent but the rock was very grippy and my long length got me down with no problems at all – the others were amazed at my very long reach (I’m quite gangly really). I was pretty chuffed with myself when I got back down 🙂


Kibo from below Lava Tower


Western Breach from below Lava Tower

We then continued to Barranco Camp (12956 feet) where I caught my first glimpse of the even more famous Barranco Wall. I’d been really worried about this section of the walk due to my fear of heights and exposure. I’d spent hours and hours googling it and collecting photos to study. Of course, most people writing about it, were generally not hill walkers and so their viewpoint was naturally going to be totally different to mine so I wasn’t really any wiser. Also, the height of the wall, when you googled it, varied wildly from around 500 feet to about 1500 feet! I still don’t really know what height it is… My first glimpse reassured me however – it didn’t look bad at all – there was an obvious raking path up it.

I resolved to get my camera out to get some photos with the evening sunshine on it just as soon as I got my pack off and into my tent. That wasn’t to be however. I came back out of my tent a couple of minutes later and the cloud had rolled in for the first time on the mountain and blocked all views out. The next morning the light was completely wrong for a decent photo of it.

Views from Barranco Camp down the Mountain

It was at Barranco Camp that I found I’d got chillblains in my hands – for the first time since childhood! It was quite unpleasant as my fingers were constantly burning when I was in bed and I had to leave my hands outside the sleeping bag to keep them cool and calm the burning sensation. I also had to move them to a new, cool spot every couple of minutes or they started burning again!

The next morning, I headed for the wall quite eagerly – I was actually keen to get to grips with it. I have to say the whole ‘scramble’ (if you could really call it that) had no difficulties. The fact that it was quite clambery took your mind off the effort of the climbing. I was amazed at how the porters were balancing such huge bags on their heads while clambering up so steeply and made sure I got a photo to illustrate that. Looking back, the Barranco Wall was my favourite part of the whole two weeks trekking, closely followed by the scramble up the Lava Tower.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and we presently reached the top of the wall. Very soon after, we had quite a large descent into the narrow Karanga Valley and a steep and hard re-ascent to another ridge where we stopped for our dinner break. After a good rest, we set off steadily climbing up the ridge. It was quite a boring section and seemed to go on forever… We then had another, smaller descent into a very broad valley and a final short re-ascent to Barafu Camp (15088 feet – interestingly, the same height as the Lava Tower area earlier).


Broad Valley Approach to Barafu Camp


Cloud Avalanche


The Main Objective Looms

Coming up the final ascent to Barafu, I started to feel exhausted – not a good sign. I hoped I wasn’t going to have a recurrence of my problems on Mount Kenya…


My tent at Barafu Camp

This is where, to my mind, the itinerary (in fact, any itinerary you care to look at for Kili), totally exceeds all reason. We’d already had a hard day’s walking of around 7 hours with over 3000 feet of climbing – might not sound much but, at that altitude, it is quite a good day by anyone’s standards. Then we were scheduled to get a couple of hours sleep (if we could – doubtful – and no-one did) and get up for our summit attempt before midnight. To me, that is completely ridiculous and I can’t see any reason why an acclimatisation and exploration day isn’t built into the schedules at Barafu Camp.

The literature generally gives a couple of excuses for this. One is that Barafu is deemed an unpleasant place to camp – while I’m sure the weather can be bad (but can probably be equally bad anywhere on the mountain), the scenery is magnificent. In one direction you are looking up the summit cone, in another you are looking across to the very beautiful Mawenzi Peak – I’d have loved a day strolling across to have a closer look at that!


Mawenzi Peak – the sun would look great coming up behind that!

The second excuse is that, apparently, the sunrise somehow looks better from the summit of the mountain than it would from four and a half thousand feet lower down and coming up behind Mawenzi Peak. To me that is again ridiculous. Also, it’s not as if you need the ascent route to be frozen for your ascent as you would, say, in the Alps or similar. So, to my mind, a day off should be based at Barafu – a trip across to visit Mawenzi Peak could then be undertaken by those feeling up to it, then you could set off at a reasonable hour, say 0600, for your summit attempt and pause to watch the sun come up over Mawenzi Peak. At that height it doesn’t get too hot for the ascent either!

Coupled to this, after your already hard day, you are now expected to ascend, probably without any real rest or sleep beforehand, the near-equivalent height of Ben Nevis (4408 feet), up steep scree, with virtually no air to breathe and nothing to see to distract you except a line of headtorches! Anyway, rant over but, if I am ever to attempt the mountain again, I’m going to have to plan my own, more sensible, itinerary! If anyone is interested, let me know…


The Night-time Summit Attempt Goes up the Nearest of the Right-hand Ridges to Stella Peak

You can probably see by now where this is leading… I lay down for a couple of hours in my tent, not sleeping at all and starting to feel queasy again – oh no! By the time we were called around 2300, I was feeling pretty sick – Sandra was too. We took an anti-sickness pill each but didn’t feel any better unfortunately. I didn’t have the severe disorientation and dizziness I’d had on Mount Kenya though and didn’t feel like I was about to have a heart attack this time so decided I’d attempt the summit.

Again, to my mind, the next mistake was the rate we set off at. We did the next thousand feet or so like at a rocket-like pace, our Tanzanian guides insistent that we pass all the parties ahead of us if possible. Not the way for people unaccustomed to high altitudes to ascend a peak! About a thousand feet or so into the climb, unfortunately Sandra was too ill to continue and dropped out and had to be taken back to Barafu.

I was feeling completely terrible by now and trying desperately hard not to be sick (I hate being sick and absolutely refuse to bring anything up). I spent most of my time swallowing as rapidly as I could but my mouth kept filling up with bile. Another thousand feet or so later I’d commented to Neil that we were going far too fast and he’d managed to slow the group down. Unfortunately, it was too late to be of any help to me (I’m not sure whether it would have helped anyway) and by now, in order not to throw up, I was breathing very rapidly indeed. The others thought I was panicking or couldn’t get my breath but it was merely my attempts not to be sick. I asked for the current altitude – it was only just over 17000 feet. I queried how much further it was to Stella Peak, hoping I could at least make that, but it turned out we were only halfway.

Seeing my difficulty, Emily very kindly offered me her i-Pod to take my mind off feeling ill and the climb. I thanked her but would have felt awful for depriving her of it and I didn’t think it would be any use at this stage anyway. I said I was pretty certain I was going to have to drop out (thereby depriving the party of another of the guides). Neil asked me to try another ten minutes of climbing but I really didn’t feel I had anything left and was certain I would be sick if I continued. As vomiting always makes me pass out, I thought it best I should turn back and let the others get on – I was only holding them back anyway.

I was hoping for the kindest guide, Roman, to accompany me but he continued to the summit with the others and I got the grumpiest guide who looked most displeased with me for giving up. I felt disgusted enough with myself – well, as much as I had the energy to feel like that anyway. To be honest, I’d have been perfectly capable of getting myself back to the camp but I don’t suppose that’s allowed. Of course, as soon as I started to descend, I immediately felt a lot better. I wondered whether I should just have a rest and then ask to continue but decided I’d better not.

We reached the camp in not many minutes and I crawled into my tent feeling miserable and a total failure. I couldn’t believe I’d failed two weeks running on two different mountains. I had reached over 17000 feet though which I suppose is no mean feat. I lay in my sleeping bag too exhausted to sleep.

I was soon broken out of my miserable stupor by hearing the guide who’d accompanied me back down talking to the porters and the guide who’d accompanied Sandra back earlier. His exact words were:

“The English… they’re okay but they’re weak” in a very disdainful voice!

I was absolutely furious and made sure I relayed his comments to the rest of the group at ‘tipping time’. When I later checked the log books, I saw that no-one in mine and Sandra’s age group was actually making it up to Uhuru Peak – most were managing Stella Peak at best. I’d have been happy with Stella Peak though and was still heartbroken I hadn’t even achieved that 😦 So, I think that, unless you’ve previously done stuff at altitude, you generally acclimatise badly as you get older. It’s certainly nothing to do with fitness as I was very fit at the time.

I got up quite early to a beautiful day to await the summiteers’ return. I thought initially I could probably sunbathe in my shorts and t-shirt but soon found that, although the sun was lovely and warm, the prevailing temperature at that altitude certainly wasn’t! I hurriedly put my trouser leg-bottoms and my jumper back on – it was then very pleasant indeed. I gazed across to Mawenzi Peak and wished I had time to trek across to see it.

The trekkers eventually re-appeared looking tired but happy. They were allowed a couple of hours rest (not sure if they slept or not) and then we all had a quick snack. Then the poor beggars had to descend just over 9000 feet to Mweka Camp! I felt better and better as I descended but I’m not sure they would have been feeling the same.

Some of the route was quite slippery mud and we were sliding about quite badly in places on the path. Sandra and I commented at one point how amazing it was that none of the porters fell while balancing huge loads on their heads on the slimy mud… we then heard a huge clatter round the corner when one of them did just that.

We had a pleasantly warm night in camp, I texted my further failures to my friends and relatives and felt relieved to be going back to civilisation the next day. The descent to Mweka Gate was a very easy day and the group were going faster and faster as we descended to the end of our trek. Although the others were undoubtedly pleased with their achievement, they were equally relieved to get off the hill and most said they hadn’t really enjoyed the summit day – even Neil said he didn’t want to do it again!

There was a young lad at the gate with a bucket and scrubbing brush offering to clean our poor, dust-caked boots for around £1 – I eagerly took him up on his offer – he made a superb job. One of the problems on Kili, with it being such a dry climate, is that the whole mountain seems to consist of huge amounts of dry dust and it gets literally everywhere! I’d had problems with a stuffed-up nose at the start (a usual problem for me stemming from the traffic-polluted air at home) but the dusty air had completely scoured my nasal passages clean – it had actually been bleeding a bit on the final descent as it got more scoured.

It was wonderful to get back to the Keys Hotel with its beautiful, cool outdoor pool and comfy memory-foam beds. I had a good sunbathe the next day and several swims before going off into town to find an internet cafe to further communicate my general uselessness at altitude. I also booked a (very cheap) full body massage at the hotel – that was great, and good value at £12. The lady who did the hotel laundry made an absolutely superb job of all my trekking clothes and they came back the same day beautifully pressed and sweet-smelling.

After a day of rest we flew back up to Nairobi between the snow-capped peaks of Kili and Mount Meru. The pilot gave us a commentary as we flew past and banked each way so we could all have a good look (much like the Viscount pilots used to do when flying out to the Outer Islands of Scotland). I was pretty glad to be going home!


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8 responses

13 09 2011
Susie

It was your comments about the ridiculous length of the pre-summit day that made me look very carefully at itineriaries before choosing one. Exodus/African Walking Company fit in a camp at Karanga, between Barranco and Barafu, a third night (5th camp on the mountain) spent at 4000m to really help acclimatisation before pushing on up to Barafu and the summit.
Our guide said that the reason they don’t like people leaving too late for the summit was because of the time certain clients can take to actually get up and down before even continuing down to Millennium or Mweka camps. On arrival at Barafu we saw people descending from the previous night’s summit climb at 3pm! Barafu was certainly a very busy camp so I don’t think that the park authority logistically could let every group camp two nights there.
Actually, one girl in our group did start her summit climb at 7am (delayed by a medical problem), reached Uhuru around 1.30pm and was back down in Barafu just 45 minutes later! The head guide was not happy about it, but had not been specific enough in stating up to which latest time he would let the assistant guide start to take her up, never imagining that she’d go back to bed, sleep well for 5 hours and then demand to leave for the summit! Just as well she was a very fit and fast climber.
Anyway, i think you could very well organise a Kili trek to a timetable that suited you and succeed. Overnighting at karanga was definitely the right decision for us.

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14 09 2011
mountaincoward

I think the good sleep would have helped her times enormously! I think it’s more the hard day followed by the summit attempt of over 4000 feet in the same evening which snookered me. That made it an over 24 hour day which is hard enough just to stay awake for at ground level, never mind doing something strenuous. I believe the Rongai route has a shorter summit day as I think you can camp further up on the north side of the mountain – perhaps I could look at that for a future attempt. But I think age didn’t help and, of course, I’m not getting any younger! 😦

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6 09 2011
Tango

Hello Carol Terry here been busy doing life things!!! God account , i did Kili about 5 years ago & it is hardish!! i was 35 then ive just climbed Mont Blanc last month at 40 & found that hard too even know it is smaller!!! Old age is a bugger… Toubkal i clmbed 4 years ago no problems!! you could climb it in 4 days but thats without travel time.. you need to be on the mountain if that makes sense!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! if you need anymore info drop me aline…

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10 09 2011
mountaincoward

I think Toukbal would be a more sensible objective for me, although I’d be willing to try Mount Kenya again via the Chogoria (sp?) route as that has more stops and a smaller summit day. I’ll give you a shout if I need more info, although I’d worry a bit about the explosive situation in the North African/Middle Eastern area just now (your working country excepted perhaps)…
Carol.

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28 08 2011
bob

Very good account.The cloud forest would have been my highlight and I like all the zones of different plant cover on the way up.Doubt I,ll see it for myself now so thanks for the description and photos.
bob.

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28 08 2011
mountaincoward

My highlight would have been getting to the summit – if I wasn’t so pathetic and got sick! 😦 But my highlights, strangely for a mountain coward, were definitely the fairly scrambly bits of the Lava Tower and Barranco. At least I felt I achieved something there…
Carol.

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23 08 2011
Scotlands Mountains

As you say,it doesn`t matter how fit you are the only thing you can do to acclimatise is to take your time but that would increase the price the guides charge and mean less customers for them.Better doing these things off your own back.
I`ve been looking at cheap flights to Marrakesh for Toubkal.for Bob and I in October . £100 return from Edinburgh would you believe.! Still trying to figure out how to squeeze it into 4 days or thereabouts.

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21 02 2015
mountaincoward

I’d like to do Toukbal sometime… but not in 4 days I don’t think (although I don’t know how many days it’s normally done in)

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