Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa and the highest self standing mountain in the world. It reaches up to 5895 amsl and it takes anywhere between five and ten days to reach its top. The journey to the summit is lined by ever-changing scenery and breathtaking views found nowhere else in the world. However, it’s a very physically demanding hike that needs be taken seriously. In addition, the high altitude can cause the altitude sickness. Light symptoms such as headache, dizziness, breathing difficulty, lose of appetite or insomnia are almost guaranteed to occur but do not represent substantial health risk. However, when the altitude sickness develop further it can cause vomiting, hallucinations, weakness, sharp pain through the whole body or even loss of consciousness. If such severe symptoms appear too soon, there is no other way than to return as ignoring them for few more days while keep on ascending could result into the death of the individual.
First time I’ve heard about this climb was two years ago reading a blog article by Timetofit. Even though her description of the whole experience sounded pretty frightening, it got me so excited I ever since decided that it was something I wanted accomplish myself!
There are several different routes you can take to reach the top of Kilimanjaro. I went for the Machame one – a bit steeper and more difficult option, but having one of the best views. Another advantage of Machame is that you’re taking one path up and a different one on the way back. The trek can take up to ten days with each extra day adding more time to acclimatise and to take rest, reducing the likelihood of developing altitude sickness and thus increasing your chances of completing successfully. But with each extra day also significantly increases the price of the whole hike hence me choosing the six-day option at the end. To make the event even more memorable, I decided to start the climb right after Christmas with the summit being planned for 1.1.2020.
The cost for the whole tour with Skyhook Adventure was USD 1900. This may seem like a lot, however, USD 800 covers just the government fees and permits. Furthermore, the price includes food and filtered water for seven days, good quality tents, mats, sleeping bags for extreme temperatures and last but not least salaries for the entire crew of guides and porters. For our group of 6 people we needed three professional guides and 17 porters to support us along the way. Porters carried all our equipment, tents, food and even a portable toilet (?!). As for us, we only had a daypack with food, spare clothes and water for the day.
Additionally, I paid 130 USD for equipment rental (trekking poles, down jacket, etc.) and another 200 UDS as tips for the crew. The total cost went then up to USD 2230.
About a month before the New Year’s Eve, I finally booked and paid the whole thing, and started to get ready. In addition to my daily two hours of yoga and exercising, I added a fast 14-kilometer walk to the nearest village and back every other day. After one month of the African diet in the orphanage, I was also very skinny and needed to gain some weight. When the high-altitude makes it impossible for you to eat anymore, it is important to have some fat storage so your body can burn it to get new energy. So every day, I stuffed myself with as much beans and avocados I could take.
A week before my scheduled departure, I suddenly got very sick and within a day my fever rose up to 39C. As, in the first stage, malaria has the same symptoms as does a common flu (high fever, headache, general weakness and fatigue, joint pain, severe cough) I immediately went to get tested. Fortunately, the malaria test proved negative. The rainy season had just started and it was getting quite chilli at night. Most of the kids in the orphanage got sick, coughing right into my face all day long. Inevitably, after few weeks, I got sick too. I then spent the last week in bed trying to recover as quickly as possible. On December 27, I set off for a twenty-two hour bus journey from the south all the way up north near the Kenyan border. Unfortunately, still remaining a bit sick with the cold and the strong cough lasting through the entire trek.
Day one – 10 km, 1743 – 3021 amsl
We got to properly test all the waterproof gear right away with a heavy tropical rain pissing it down through the few first hours of our hike. The guides also set an incredibly slow pace, and I could not help but keep overtaking them. They however kept repeating “Pole, pole!” which in Swahili means “Slowly!” They knew what is coming and that to save as much energy as possible is essential. The rain finally stopped and we could fully enjoy the beauty of the rainforest surrounding us on the way to the first camp at the altitude of 3021 amsl.
By the time we arrived, our campsite was already completely set up. The first thing to amaze me was already above mentioned portable toilet. Apart from the sleeping tents, we had another separate one just for dining. My astonishment continued as we got in and found a table and six chairs, the table covered with a neat tablecloth (?!) and hot meal ready to be served. The dinner consisted of three courses – zucchini soup, grilled chicken wing with chips and salad and as a desert fresh slices of pineapple.
Day two – 6 km, 3021 – 3830 amsl
We woke up to a beautiful sunny morning. The breakfast was huge every day. Porridge, beans, eggs, sausages, French toasts, pancakes, fresh fruit… There was a choice of honey, strawberry jam or peanut butter and to drink a coffee, tea or a hot chocolate. Impressive to see what kind of feast our chef managed to prepare using one simple gas cooker.
Today was up for a relatively short, but a very steep hike up to 3830 meters above the sea level. With the raising altitude the air was getting thiner and so was the rainforest, slowly turning into beautiful moorland with the Mt. Meru rising up in the distance behind us.
Before the dinner, we took a little two hours hike up to 4000 amls and soon come back to be rewarded by breathtaking sunset and the top of snow white Kilimanjaro showing up for the first time. The peak was still so far away.
Třetí den – 10 km, 3830 – 3972 mnm
Probudili nás první mrazy a nádherné výhledy na Mt. Meru skrz nadýchanou růžovou mlhu. V noci jsem n
Day Three – 10 km, 3830 – 3972 m
It was a frosty morning but the beautiful views of Mt. Meru floating on the fluffy pink mist made it quite easy to get outside my tent even though I’ve slept only a few hours through the last night. Insomnia, however, is common before adjusting to high altitudes, so I did not worry about it.
We set out before 6:00 a.m. and hiked through a hell-like landscape. No trees or any plants, just black rocks and thick fog with us slowly moving up towards the Lava Tower – one of the peaks of Kilimanjaro, which lies 4600 meters above the sea level. There I experienced the light symptoms of altitude sickness for the first time. Sharp headache, dizziness and nausea. We stayed at this height just for about an hour to acclimatise and after lunch we continued our journey to the next camp. Luckily, this time we were heading down and I started to quickly recover. According to the mountain rule “Walk high, sleep low” we descended back to 3972 amsl. A bit annoying to end up back in the same altitude after a long tiring day of climbing up and down.
Upon the recommendation of the guide, I had some blood thinners to help to prevent the development of altitude sickness on the next day. In addition to the quite pleasant tingling in fingers and toes, another side effect is a frequent urination pushing me out of the tent to pee in the freezing cold every hour. By the morning the sky had cleared up and when I left my tent for another pee break, I just paused staring in amazement looking at the splendour. The snow-covered white peak of Kilimanjaro shining through a pitch black night with a bright wiolet-white Milky Way slicing through the sky from horizon to horizon almost getting lost in a flood of bright flashing stars. It was the most beautiful night sky I have ever seen. It completely made me forget I actually needed to pee and was freezing cold. I turned off my head-torch and just enjoyed the view of this beautiful creation of nature for few minutes.
Day Four – 8 km, 3972 – 4642 amsl
All the preventive measures payed off. I woke up feeling great and full of energy. My appetite returned so I filled myself with a delicious breakfast. Despite my legs and back being quite sore already, this day remained my most favourite day of the entire hike. The morning started with a steep and finally a bit technically demanding climb of the Barranco Wall. There is no need for ropes, but you still have to think quite a bit about where to put your hands and feet to get yourself to the top, where we got rewarded by one of the most beautiful views of the entire trip. Passing countless rivers and waterfalls, we then descended again into a little valley finishing by a steep hike up to 4642 amsl to reach the last camp to rest before the summit. My upper lip and the tip of my nose were covered with blisters from the sunburn. The appetite was completely gone over again and I didn’t manage to eat anything at the dinner. However, except for the nausea and light headache, I felt great and I could not wait for the morning. We all wished each other a happy New Year, made a celebratory toast with our cups of tea and disappeared in our tents just after the sunset as we were to be up at midnight again.
Day Five – 14 km, 4642 – 5895 amsl
I managed to fall asleep for just over an hour. I kept waking up with a pain in my chest and having difficulties breathing. Even so, at midnight, I shoot out of my tent like a little rocket, pumping up with adrenaline and ready for the final climb. The only thing I managed to have for breakfast was a cup of tea filled with three spoons of sugar. It was 13 below zero with the wind blowing in the speed up to 30 km/h.
On this final day, three more experienced porters joined the team so each of us had our own personal guide at hand through the whole time. My guy was called Jamal and he was amazing! Keeping a step ahead of me at any time and taking wonderful care of me the until the very end.
After the first hour of a steep climb through pitch black nigh came the sharp headache, in another half an hour first hallucinations arrived. I could see tiny flickering rainbows everywhere, the ground rippling under my feet, the stones changing shapes in front of my eyes, even my guy Jamal was beginning to look kinda strange. However, I was not particularly concerned about the hallucinations. I knew they could come, and they were rather funny except the rippling ground which caused me quite a lot of trouble. I often stepped where there was no ground at all, stumbling like I was drunk and every so often falling down. With the coming sunrise the hallucinations gradually went away. Even though I was already feeling very sick, I could still appreciate the incredible beauty of watching the sunrise from such high altitude. A long, steadily growing, bright orange streak of light spilling from the horizon behind the top of the Lava Tower in the distance.
The sharp headache gradually grew stronger and stronger. It felt like someone pressed my head in between two metal desks while another person, from the inside of my head, trying to push my eyes out through my eye lids and the forehead. I felt dizzy with my head spinning like crazy. I managed to eat a half of energy bar which I’ve immediately vomited out again. My whole body was in pain. And when I say the whole body, I mean every single muscle and organ in it. My brain, eyes, ears, lips, tongue, shoulders, wrists, ribs, lungs, heart, kidneys… As they desperately tried to search for some oxygen, it felt as if thousands of little needles was stabbed inside my body and with rising altitude kept sinking deeper and deeper inside. Every sip of the ice cold water was like a kick in the stomach. The tips of my fingers and toes began to get very cold.
My brain was no longer able to coordinate basic motion functions. Sometimes I forgot to walk and just kept standing still, sometimes I forgot to hold my trekking poles, so they both just fell out of my hands, sometimes I forgot to breathe (?!) and I would notice just after few seconds when I began to choke. The pain made it very difficult to keep my eyes open. But as soon as I closed them, I began to fall asleep, so I just repeated in my head, “Walk, breathe, eyes open! Walk, breathe, eyes open! ” and slowly moved forward.
At my pace it was at least another 5 hours to the top. 5 hours of debilitating pain that was only to get worse. But this was not what I was thinking about. I just focused on every single moment and everything I need to do to be one step closer to the top. Not even for a moment, it ever came to my mind I would give up. Before we set out, the main guide told us something very powerful. “When you’ll think you just can’t take it anymore, remember that the pain is only temporary, but the experience and the pride in what you have accomplished will stay with you for the rest of your life!”
Another funny part of my temporary retardation was that I forgot to speak English. I only spoke Czech to Jamal and everyone around me. Well, most of the time I was not even able to do that. Usually, I just made some kind of sounds signalling that I needed to drink, stop, die, etc.
The volcano dust have slowly turned into ice and snow, so Jamal put on my metal cramp ons to make walking under such conditions easier. But to be honest, my performance through the final two hours could be hardly called walking anyway. I just slowly bounced from side to side, with each swing trying to move my foot forward at least a few inches. But I often failed to do so and just kept standing on the very same spot.
I began to cough heavily with every breath hurting, as if someone had stabbed a knife in my lungs and kept spinning it around. At one point, everything in front of my eyes turned black and I fell to the ground. When, with a great effort, I finally got back up, same thing happened and I fell again. The headache was so strong I could hardly see, tears pushed through my eyes and I started to cry. This moment of emotional weakness did not last long though. Immediately, I made my head argue that sitting here and crying would hardly help me, and if I wanted this terrible pain to finally go away, I’d better get up and get my ass moving. Jamal seemed to agree so he helped me up, took my hand, and we walked on together.
After another hour of walking, the famous black and yellow sign finally appeared in the distance. The adrenaline kicked in and I was able to pick up some speed and then finally even run (!!!) for the last few meters to reach it. The time was 9:30, January 1, 2020. The summit took me 8,5 hours. Eight and a half hours of the worst pain in my life.
After a little while another guy from our group arrived. It was only as two and our guides at the top at the time. We started to laugh and hugged each other. I finally managed to properly look around. I had no idea what kind of beauty had been surrounding me the whole time. Huge walls of glacier all around, shining white snow as far as one could see and fluffy white clouds floating above the horizon. At the top, we only stayed for about ten minutes. After making few victory pictures next to the sign Jamal said: “OK, now, let’s get you down as fast as possible.” My condition was still very serious, and any prolonged stay in such high altitude made no sense. The best remedy to cure altitude sickness is to descend as quickly as possible, and so the symptoms began to slowly disappear with every step. As if someone was slowly releasing the strong pressure in my head. As if all the needles in my body was being pulled out one by one. Such a relief! However, the day was far from being over. There was a long and very steep hike all the way down, which proved to be incredibly demanding on those already completely exhausted legs and knees. Many people just run out of energy by this point and they need to be carried down on a stretcher. Several of these were passing me on the way down. Even though my legs were all shaking, and my foot slipped every so often and I found myself rolling down for few meters I proudly reached the camp walking by myself.
In our team of six people, two of us developed a serious altitude sickness at the end despite all of us taking the altitude sickness pills.
After reaching the camp my appetite was back to normal and the nausea gone so I ate any food I could find, exhausted crashed into my tent and in a second fell asleep like a baby. The sweet nap didn’t last long though. I haven’t even slept for one hour and there was the guide already waking me up again. We were still very high up and for our safety we had to get back under 4000 before the dinner. The short nap and all the food worked like magic though and I was suddenly booming with energy. I was jumping down from rock to rock like a little monkey and after all I’ve been through it suddenly felt just like walking a park.
Day six – 12 km, 3820 – 1635 amsl
I woke up sore, but feeling happy and proud of my accomplishment. Just by now I finally began to realise all that happened the day before and pleasant joy flooded my body. Don’t get fooled by me. Although more then half of the entire article basically describes only my suffering, this part actually lasted only nine hours out of a total of six days. I really enjoyed every second of the remaining five days and a half and was really grateful for being able to experience something as wonderful as this. And now looking back I was even grateful for all the pain and suffering I went through as it only made the whole experience way more powerful.
Last 12 km downhill through a dense rainforest while spotting some monkeys, then a well deserved beer, a shower and finally the last dinner and celebrations. And there was a lot to celebrate!
Are you about to climb the Kilimanjaro?
Here are some recommendations you may find useful.
What to bring?
High quality, waterproof, light and well tested trekking shoes. !!!
At least two non cotton T-shirts, shorts, trekking trousers, light sweatshirt, fleece sweatshirt, fleece neck warmer
Thermals – top and bottom
Quality poncho raincoat big enough to go over your backpack. In case of heavy rain, the backpack rain cover won’t be sufficient as it does not cover the are round your back that would eventually let some water in.
Warmer wind jacket
Waterproof down jacket
ligh hat or scarf, wool hat, sun hat
Light gloves, waterproof ski gloves – mittens preferably
At least two trekking socks, two warm woollen socks
High quality sunglasses and one spare
Slides to wear around the campsite at evening
Camel bag and a spare water bottle. You will not be admitted to the national park with a classic pet bottle. Moreover, disposable plastic bags are completely banned throughout Tanzania and will be taken from you when entering the country.
Sunscreen factor 50+ renewing the thick layer several times through the day
Wet wipes, antibacterial gel, deodorant
Cream for dry skin
Pover bank, headphones, a solar charger was very handy too
Quality head torch
Sleeping bag liner, as another layer inside your regular sleeping bag.
Hot water bottle !!! I take this lifesaver with me on any mountain trek and I am always also the only one not to complain about being too cold at night. There is nothing worse than to get into the freezing cold sleeping bag after dinner and try to fall asleep. This rubber bottle filled with hot water will make your sleeping bag cosy and warm before you even get inside and will stay it hot until the morning, keeping you warm all night long.
Handwarmers – Must have inside your gloves on the summit day.
Energy bars, nuts, chocolates, dried fruits – anything that will give you some energy quickly. My all time favourite are peanut m&m’s. (The best selection in Moshi has the Rafiki supermarket. They also sell many western brands including m&m’s)
Electrolyte tablets to be dissolved in water
You have to ascent slowly from the very start. The fastest one in the group group is often the one does not eventually make it all the way to the top.
Don’t overdo it with clothes!
You’ll often set off early in the morning. It is freezing cold, and the idea of putting on your entire wardrobe is tempting. However, you’ll warm up very quickly and you’ll need to carry the excessive clothing through the whole day. You should always be a little bit cold before leaving the camp. The only parts of the body that must be warm from the beginning are the hands, feet and the head.
Go to bed in what you’ll be wearing the next day.
There is nothing worse than to be putting on socks that are freezing cold as they have been left outside the sleeping bag through the whole night.
Drink a lot!
This sounds logical but the higher you’ll get, the harder it will become to keep yourself hydrated. Drinking enough water is extremely important though as thick dehydrated blood distributes oxygen more slowly. Water is also an emergency source of oxygen for the body in times the air does no longer provide enough. So try to drink as much water as possible already in the camp before you leave. Downing few cups of some sweet tea is a great option.
Good luck, strong will and have fun! It will be all worth it I promise. 🙂