DAY 1 – Briefing
Here we were, sitting in a lovely lodge in Usa River, Tanzania, recovering from a long night flight, while trying to come to terms with the fact that we are only a day from the start of the climbing!
Before we actually started, we met with our main guide, Daniel, manager of the company, Ben, and our lovely travel agent, Sara, for a briefing and checking of our gear and clothing. With a map of routes and Kilimanjaro spread across the table, we were told that we would be facing a hike of total 67km to the summit before going into the detailed agenda for each day, covering everything from the change of the habitats, daily calories we could expect to burn, altitude changes and possible consequences and so on, so forth.
We learned that our daily routines would include such tasks as measuring our oxygen levels and resting pulse twice a day and drinking a minimum of 4-5 litres of water every day by person. We also had to sign a risk weaver stating that we were aware that climbing was risky, and can cause death. I signed quite few of those in my life, but apparently my face had gotten quite pale when I saw a hike to 4 600m above the sea level scheduled for the day 5. Suddenly the thought “damn, that’s high” crossed my head, but it was definitely too late to say that I was staying in this lovely lodge and they could take the Other Me only.
Daniel, our guide, took also time to check our clothing and gear. I don’t mean that he asked what we had packed with us. Rather, he came to our room, and we had to take out every piece of clothing out of our luggage and show it him, including socks, item by item. I was impressed how meticulous the company was with the preparation for the climb. Choosing the company is very important. Good companies distinguish themselves by better preparations, choosing the staff, routes, etc. These companies have also higher success rate, but they also tend to be more expensive.
DAY 2 – Registration and Forest Camp, 2 821m
We were picked up from the lodge on early Thursday morning and driven to the main gate, Londrossi Gate, to register and pick up the necessary climbing permits. This is the place where all the climbers and their crews gather to weight the load to ensure that no porter would carry in excess of 20 kilos, in addition to his or her personal backpack. The rules in this regard have become much more stringent in the recent years. Before this rule was introduced, the porters could have carried even up to 40-45kg loads, and this was on top of their personal backpacks.
Usually the trekks are organized some time before the climb, so the full crew is provided by the company. However, there are individual climbers who prefer to do it on their own, and they can hire porters who are waiting by the registration office. The minimum crew contains approximately 16: main guide, an assistant guide, a cook, a staff manager, and rest of the crew are porters.
We started the hike from the Lemosho Gate (2 424m) and the plan was to hike up to the Forest Camp for the first night. The first day of the hike was quite pleasurable, I must admit, and I could put my new hiking sticks to work. We hiked for 1.5 hours out of planned 2 hours in thick rain forest, reaching our camp located in between the trees at the altitude of 2 821m sometime in the afternoon.
At the camp we finally met our entire crew. Additionally to Daniel, there was Raymond, assistant guide, Zachario, the crew manager, Freddy, the cook, and 16 porters, including one female porter, whom I referred to as Superwoman for the rest of the trip. She was really quite amazing and not noticeably slower or weaker than any male porters. This was our family for the next 7 days.
We already had a bit of a challenge on the first day. A tent serviced us as a living room, bedroom, and also a “shower”. I don’t mean that we had had no experience in sleeping in the woods in a tent before, but we had no experience in navigating between mattresses, sleeping bags, dusty shoes and clothes, backpacks and all. I can tell you that the first evening and night was rather funny and chaotic, all the same time.
DAY 3 – Shira 1 Camp via Shira Ridge, 3 505m
We both had rather restless night trying to get used to sleeping in the sleeping bags, and dealing with the all the excess water we had drank during the day. It is all nice to drink cool and filtered water when you are walking, but when you find yourself cosy in a warm sleeping bag woken up in a cold night at least twice by an increasing pressure in your bladder, it is not the most pleasant experience. You have to remember that to release this pressure, one had to unzip a sleeping bag, put warm clothes on, unzip two inside layers of the tent, put one’s shoes on, unzip the external layer of the tent, unzip the toilet tent, zip the toilet tent so one has a little of privacy and here you are. I am sure that you can imagine the process on the way back to the tent as well. Mind you, all of this was happening in the darkness of the night. All of this added to the climbing experience, as well as a lot of zipping sounds throughout the night in the entire camp.
“Shower” facilities every morning were identical to the ones from the previous evening: two bowls with warm water that appeared in the front of our tent at 6am on the dot. We had expected cold nights, but the Other Me and I were taken by surprise how actually cold it got during the night. With all the breathing in the night, everything inside the tent was moist by the morning. Warm water at 6am was thus a blessing. With the altitude, the cold was getting worse, but at least we already knew what to expect.
After morning routines, it was time to start walking again. Following the plan, we were on the way to Shira 1 camp at the altitude of 3 505m above the sea level, hiking on the Shira plateau with an approximately 6hours of total hiking time.
Beginning of the 8km walk was still through the green and lush rain forest, but one hour into the hike, the surroundings abruptly changed. The pleasurable walk also changed into a steep hike on the volcanic rocks with tall grass, with habitat of the moorland. This was also the day the Other Me and I discovered that we had two speeds; he preferred faster pace, and I had my own slower pace, or “pole pole” as Daniel kept repeating to me (“slowly slowly” in Swahili). It was really good that our crew included a guide and an assistant guide, so we could keep our respective paces we were comfortable with.
I stopped quite few times on the way to the second camp, not only to have maji (Swahili for water), but also to admire the view. When we came out of the forest, the slopes revealed their beauty and the different varieties of plants. While I was taking in the views, the Other Me used the opportunity of exercising with the group of British soldiers who were on the same route that day as us. Every day of their climb, they did 22 push-ups in remembrance of 22 UK and US soldiers who commit suicide every day across the globe.
Finally, we reached the camp sometime at mid-afternoon. Kibo was proudly peaking from behind the clouds, showing us a peek view of what still lay ahead. Unfortunately I could not enjoy the mountain views, as I started feeling very bad. I felt like my brain was pressed from every possible angle, leaving me slightly dizzy and my stomach turning. Well, we were after all at the 3 500m above the sea level.
The altitude range of 3 000 – 3 500m is where one may begin to feel the symptoms of the altitude sickness, so observation and the extra care is called for. Usually if the symptoms disappear within a night or a day, then there is no problem with continuing the climb. However, the severe cases may even be life-threatening and a climber may need to rapidly escorted to the hospital.
Fortunately, my “crisis” was not life-threatening hence I was just sent to have a nap. It definitely helped with a headache and the adjustment to the altitude, but not with the nausea feeling. In this case, instead of taking a pill, Freddy, our cook, prepared me a thermos with a hot ginger tea. It was a miracle medicine and as it turned out the most popular drink of our entire climb. We asked for it every day for the rest of our time on the mountain!
It was time for our first acclimatization walk. Daniel, our main guide, took us on the path that we would be taking a day after. The surroundings looked almost like from “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, starting to display darker volcanic habitat. We used these walks not only to adjust to the altitude, but we used this time to get to know Daniel better, and to enjoy his experience and knowledge. He was not just a very the experienced guide, trying to get us to the top of Africa, but he eagerly shared his knowledge about changing flora and fauna history of the mountain. He also had quite a sense of humour!