It was two years ago that I saw a gym from the inside. I do walk regularly, but without reaching any altitude in the Netherlands, you can hardly call this exercise. We nevertheless decided to climb the Kilimanjaro, at an altitude of 19,341 feet the highest mountain of Africa. Without any physical preparation.
We actually did not quite plan doing so: too expensive, too high, too bad in shape. ‘You can forget about ever climbing a mountain again without preparation,’ I had promised myself after climbing Mount Toubkal (13,671 feet) in the Atlas mountain range in Morocco. An incredibly beautiful climb, but for two days, I was hardly able to stand straight because of the sore muscles. To try again, and on a mountain that is considerably higher at that? No, thank you.
But when Caroline, my wife, and I hear the stories at a hostel in Arusha from travelers who did dare, we start harboring doubts. If it’s true what these people say, it is rather a hike than a technical climb, more of a mental than a physical challenge, and it is extremely quiet so that prices are convenient (because the season has nearly ended). And supposedly there are plans to build a funicular, so that the charm of the adventure may get lost completely. We decide: even though most people prepare physically for the trip, we leave for the summit for seven days without any preparation whatsoever.
Ki-li-man-ja-ro, 5 syllables, 5 steps. On the endless steps (that is: uneven rocks and gravel) of the mountain, it is difficult to remain positive at times. I take the stairs at my office every day, but after seventy steps or so, you have reached your destination. Now, the end never seems to approach, and you are climbing stairs for hours. ‘Why did I do this to myself, again?’ To chase that thought away, I focus on the five syllables composing the name of the mountain. It sounds weird – I know – but it works! No negative thought is able to subdue the five syllables, so there is enough space to enjoy this trip.
We conquer the roof of Africa with Materuni Tours via the Lemosho Route. A popular route because your body has enough time to slowly get used to the altitude. An additional advantage is the incredibly beautiful and diverse nature of the National Park. You walk through four different ecological zones, each with an own character.
The lush rainforest probably is the most beautiful forest I have ever seen. Especially when the sun pierces through the mist and the foliage: a magical appearance. I recognize the plants you can purchase at the garden centers in the neighborhood, potted and pretty. But in this size, in these numbers, and so luscious I have never seen them. Ferns look like palm trees and the tall trees are grown over with vine and countless dots of moss: “we call these old men’s beards,” explains our guide, Emmanuel.
Shit (is) on
Along the path, there sometimes are animals we can spot. “Especially birds, but if you’re lucky, you may even see an elephant or giraffe in the rainforest,” Emmanuel tells us. There are buffalos here, too, that travel from nearby Kenya to Kilimanjaro. At night, the animals climb as high as 12,000 feet, because of the saline content of the rocks that they lick at.” Personally, we have the pleasure of encountering a group of Colobus monkeys. While we ecstatically try to record the black and white spotted animals, we are greeted by the animals with rather less enthusiasm. The pretty white appendix is raised and the rainforest oozes a penetrating stench: we are literally being shit on. May this serve as a warning, were you ever to encounter these seemingly friendly creatures.
Despite the monkey incident, the first three days of the trip have passed better than I expected. Physically it has been doable until now: I had expected to have been bent over from aching muscles by now, but the experience proves different. Our guide applies the Pole, Pole principle (Swahili for slowly, slowly) which allows you to save a lot of energy. It feels slightly unnatural, but it works, because I feel in shape and until now, I haven’t had any trouble walking up the mountain.
The trickiest factor is how your body will respond to the altitude. You can take Diamox(r), for example, but the collateral effects can make you feel pretty bad as well (sensation of weakness, diarrhea). That’s why I decide to try to climb the Kilimanjaro without medication. According to our mountain guide, day three is the moment of truth regarding altitude sickness: “This is the moment you can actually start feeling the altitude in your body.” We move from Shira 2 Camp (12,600 feet) to the Barranco Camp (12,960 feet) via Lava Tower (11,800 feet). So substantial differences in altitude are on the agenda today.
Several times a day, the guide checks the oxygen level of our blood so we can continue upwards safely. I set off that day with a 99-percent score, but lose 10 percentage points of my oxygen level along the way. Still fine, but I have started to feel it. When we reach the base from Lava Tower (amazing, by the way), I feel terrible. Headache, nausea, and no appetite whatsoever. Altitude sickness starts kicking in, indeed. Would I’ve done better taking those pills? The porters have set up our tents, as every day, and the only thing we need to do is roll out our sleeping bags. After trying to grab a bite to eat all the same, we hit the bed around 8.00 PM, just like every night. ‘I’m sure I’ll feel better in the morning.’
The next day, the Barranco Wall is on the menu; it is usually referred to as ‘the breakfast rock’. I’m not quite fit still, and with a bite or two of breakfast I start off on the more technical hike. The actual climbing is so much fun, that the adrenaline gives me an additional boost of energy: exactly the type of ‘breakfast’ I need at the moment. We are lucky, too; we are about the only people climbing the Wall today. “In high season, you get traffic jams on this stretch,” says Emmanuel. The end of March turns out to be a perfect time for this adventure.
Climbing is so smooth that we decide to skip a day on the schedule. I had never anticipated this as an unprepared mountain climber. It does mean, however, that we will walk on directly across the volcanic range up to an altitude of 15,200 feet and will head for the summit tonight, already. We will be sleeping there way above the clouds in tent camp Barafu, which means ‘ice’ in Swahili. The dark rock of the summit of the volcano forms the impressive backdrop to the camp, offering a breathtaking panorama.
“We will wake you up tonight with tea and popcorn,” Emmanuel explains the procedure. “Make sure to wear five layers of clothes tonight: the weather is unpredictable and it can get cold. Lala Salama (sweet dreams)!”
When we crawl out our tent at night, we are startled by what we find: the entire camp is covered in a thick layer of ice and snow. Despite what the name of the camp suggests, it is no longer a given these days that so much snow and ice is in place. Splendid for nature, of course, but should this really make us all that happy?
We struggle for seven hours and a half through a blizzard towards the top. “I estimate the temperature is between 15 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit,” our guide says. Too cold to take a break. As soon as you stand still for just a second to drink some water, you feel the frost penetrating your bones. So there is no choice but to push on, through a layer of snow of well over a foot thick. Ki-li-man-ja-ro, Ki-li-man-ja-ro: I try to run off my despondent thoughts again with the aid of my own invented mantra. It starts to take some more effort, by now. My eyelids feel frozen, there is ice in my beard, and my legs seem to drag me down. Way down. When I look down, I notice it is not just the physical exertion. My shins have literally transformed into sheets of ice.
We still manage to reach the summit! Yes, Sir, without preparation. The last yards are a battle, but the view is incredibly beautiful. And we have the summit entirely to ourselves. That really is unique! To celebrate the success, we are welcomed with a song upon our return by the greatest heroes of the mountain, the men who do not get to see the summit themselves, but are absolutely indispensable to reach the top: the porters. They perform the Kilimanjaro song with verve.
The adventure has come to an end. I am watching the rain (without aching muscles) from the veranda in Moshi, as it’s dumping from the sky, in the knowledge that up on the mountain it is probably snowing even more. Whether we should recommend to climb it without preparation? That will depend on when you ask. During the summit night, we cursed ourselves for failing to prepare. But does training resolve altitude sickness or a snowstorm? It is the very unpredictable nature of the Kilimanjaro that makes the adventure more than worth your while.
The Lemosho Route takes six to eight days. Explore Africa climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with Materuni Tours, a local company owned by the enthusiastic Ambrose. Nice touch: friends and family at home get daily photo updates from the mountain. Pricing from 2000 USD per person.