Kilimanjaro Update 2 of 2: Summit and Back

In 3. Kilimanjaro, Africaby Steve

A Windy Night in Kosovo Camp

Tuesday night at Kosovo Camp the wind blew strong all night. In the strongest gusts my tent would lay over covering me in fabric, then pop up again when it eased off. That combined with the constant rustle of the tent flapping in the wind made it difficult to sleep.

At about 23:30 I heard voices outside. Sticking my head out the tent door I saw a large team slowly creeping up the hill. I assumed they were aiming to get to the summit by sunrise, but they had a long night ahead of them at that pace.

Leaving for the summit around midnight is actually pretty normal for most teams and we heard quite a number of people heading up during the night. We were aiming to avoid the crowds however so planned to set out several hours after them (a convenient excuse to sleep in and not have to get up in the dark).

Heading for the Top

Wednesday morning we got up at around 07:00, had a quick breakfast, packed up camp and were on our way by 08:30. As we set off, Julio (our guide) instructed in his usual soft voice, “pole pole” (translation: slowly). It is as if it is hardwired into them. Everything is “pole pole”. Anyway, I just let Julio set the pace and while it was a bit slower than I would have gone by myself, we still made good time. And just for the record, if Julio wanted to he could literally fly up this mountain, no way I could keep up. He is incredibly fit and comes from a long distance running background. But when he is guiding he likes to go “pole pole”.

It was a beautiful morning. The wind overnight had pretty much died down. There was a thick cloud bank below us at around 4000m elevation and above was blue skies.

The route zig-zagged up and was pretty easy going. As we climbed above 5000m we entered Vegetation Zone 5 “Eternal Ice”. This was a stark reminder of the effects of global warming. With most of the ice now melted, the landscape was predominately volcanic rocky scree. There were a few ice sheets off the main route but they were melting by the day as well.

After a few hours walking up moderately steep terrain we reached Stella Point, 5756m. Stella Point is on the edge of the crater rim and from there it was just an easy stroll around to the true summit, Uhuru Peak, 5895m.

Topping Out!

It was about 11:25, Wednesday 14th February, when we reached the crooked timber plank sign marking the top of Kilimanjaro. That sign itself has some history. There was an original sign consisting of two vertical posts and horizontal timber planks with engravings. Over the years, as some of the planks fell off people just nailed / lashed them back up, hence it ended up all crooked. It became the icon of Kilimanjaro summit. Local authorities eventually decided to replace the sign and installed one of similar construction but made it all nice and square. There was so much complaint about this perfectly erected sign that they eventually removed some of the planks and bolted them back up on an angle, replicating the original sign.

It was a beautiful shorts and gaiters type of day on the summit, relatively warm and sunny (yes I wore shorts to the top). Despite the criticism I get for my shorts and gaiters, and comments on my fashion sense, or lack thereof, I find it the most comfortable trekking attire. I’ll stay in shorts and gaiters as long as I can, at least until my knees start getting too cold. It was heartbreaking last year when I had to retire my first pair of gaiters, a very sad day. They had been my trusting companion for over 20 years. We had been everywhere together. Our first outing was actually a snowy trek to Everest Base Camp way back in 1998. And fittingly our last outing was a return to Everest Base Camp last year on my way to climb Lhotse. They had served me well but were starting to show their age. It was a tough decision but I knew the time had come to swap them out. So far my new Sea To Summit Gaiters are performing handsomely.

We stayed on the summit for a good hour or more taking photos and videos and even having a few games of Connect 4. It was a beautiful day and for the most part, we were the only ones up there.

Oh, and happy Valentine’s Day! I didn’t even know it was Valentine’s Day until someone told me. Valentine’s Day has never been an important day for me as I’ve never actually had a Valentine date (maybe my shorts and gaiters have something to do with that). However, if I had to pick somewhere to be for Valentine’s day, the summit of Kilimanjaro, far away from all the roses and chocolates and other commercial bullshit is as good a place as any.

Camping in the Crater

From the summit, most teams turn around and descend straight back down the way they came up. We instead planned to sleep up high in the crater, something very few people get to do.

From the summit we continued further around the crater rim for about 30min then dropped down a steep snowy trail to the crater floor at about 5750m where we set up camp. Kilimanjaro is a relatively busy mountain, but up there we had it all to ourselves. It was magnificent.

In the afternoon we went for a short stroll to the “Ash Pit”, the heart of the volcano. Despite the rotten egg / sulphur smell, it was remarkable. It is a view you don’t get from the top of Kilimanjaro and can only be seen it if you walk out this side. It was like a lunar landscape, no vegetation, just rock and gravel with this large steaming hole in the middle.

On the way back to camp we walked across to one of the few remaining ice sheets. In the afternoon sun you could see it melting and dripping around the edges. It is sad to think that it will only be a matter of years until these ice sheets will be all but gone.

Back to the Summit

Thursday we were going to descend straight back down, but decided to duck back up to the summit for sunrise. I am so glad we did.

From our high camp in the crater it was only about 30min back to the summit. It was a cool morning as we got up and set off in the dark. As we climbed back up to the crater rim we could see the first hint of daylight with a faint glow on the horizon. We got back to the summit at about 06:15. The sun was still below the horizon but by now was casting a brilliant orange, red glow across the horizon. We stayed there for about 30min and watched as the first rays of the sun slowly appeared above the horizon.

Something magical about watching sunrise or sunset from high in the mountains is the sense of almost looking down on the spectacle. It is so much more vibrant than at sea level.

A Long Way Down

From the top the only way was down, and a lot of it. It took us about 5hrs to get from the summit all the way back down to the Mweka Park gate, about 4200m of decent in total. It was brutal. I hate going down, the constant pounding and jarring doesn’t do my knees any favours. But as they say, “what goes up, must come down”, so I just had to suck it up and deal with it. I should learn to paraglide, I’m sure it would be a much more enjoyable way to get back down.

We were back at the park gate by lunch time, signed out, jumped in a waiting car and headed straight back to the lodge. First port of call – I nice refreshing dip in the pool.

Kilimanjaro Wrap Up – Hakuna Matata

I had heard a lot about Kilimanjaro over the past years. It was so wonderful to finally have had the opportunity to experience it first-hand. Yes it is a pretty straight forward walk, but the location, the scenery, the culture and the people all combine to make it such an amazing experience.

Special mention must go to all the local porters, cooks, guides, etc. who work tirelessly on the hill. They are amazing. They work incredibly hard and are yet always happy, smiling, singing and dancing. They are the true backbone behind the entire Kilimanjaro operation and make it an attainable and incredible experience for all the tourists that come here.

Two phrases the locals love saying in conversations with all the tourists on the hill are “pole pole” and “hakuna matata”. Pretty much every sentence will have either or both phrases slotted in somewhere, often completely out of context, but it always gets a laugh.

With a “pole pole”, “hakuna matata” overdose, it will be some time until I will listen to the Lion King soundtrack again. But if this climb is on your bucket list, then taking it “slowly slowly” with a “no worries” approach is great advice for enjoying the mountain, and for that matter, a great approach for enjoying life.

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“Go with the decision that will make for a great story”.


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