December 21-25, 2008
The Coca Cola Trail
There are several routes to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
The one we chose is called Marangu, named after the village near the park entrance where this trail begins. We chose this route because it’s the only one that can be done in 5 days, and we were pressed for time. It was probably a good choice for other reasons. For starters, the Marangu route is the easiest one – the trail is pretty gradual for the first three days. Also, on the Marangu route you tend to have better weather (less rain), and you can take shelter each night in the huts along the way (instead of tents), which means you stay both drier and warmer. For these reasons the Marangu route is also called the “coca-cola trail”.
The alternative is the Machame route, also called the “whiskey” route. It takes 6-7 days, involves far more uphills and downhills, generally has wetter weather, and has no huts – you have to sleep in tents along the way. We met one guy , Richard, who started up the Machame trail with his wife but had to bail after 3 days; the altitude gave him a splitting headache and he just couldn’t get warm at night. Instead he did the Marangu trail.
Accompanying us on the trail was a whole entourage. We had our guide Eric, our assistant guide Florian, our cook (“stomach engineering”) Michael, and four porters.
Most of the time we only saw the two guides and the one porter who also worked as waiter, Innocent. The first day the porters actually took a different route up to the campsite, possibly because they wanted to avoid tourist traffic on the trail. The other days we shared the same trail, but we still didn’t see them much. They were always behind us packing up the camping gear or way ahead of us setting up the next camp. In fact, we didn’t really know who all our porters were until the last day when they all gathered to do a farewell song and to collect their tips (which is when we took that photo).
Anyhow, this crew did a bang-up job. We definitely felt pampered all the way up and down the mountain. We had three square meals a day, various snacks, and there was always warm water to wash our face and hot water for tea. We ate better during our 5 days in Kilimanjaro than we did in the prior 2.5 months of traveling.
The Marangu trail takes a total of five days. For the first three days you walk 3-6 hours and ascend about 1 km in altitude to reach the next camp area. On the fourth day you wake up early to summit, then turn around and walk half the distance to the bottom. On the last day you walk the remainder and then drive back to Arusha.
First Three Days – Easy
The first three days were surprisingly easy. The trail was well built and maintained. The climb was gradual, e.g. we hiked 9 km to gain 1 km in altitude. And, as I mentioned, our entourage took really good care of us. It felt like 5-star hiking.
In the first day we we still in forested area. We saw some black-and-white colobus monkeys and some blue monkeys, some of which really posed for us like models and let us get extremely close. We also had a pair of mongooses visit us at our lunch spot to beg for chicken bones.
Each morning we woke up to a beautiful sunrise:
And along the way we saw some beautiful sights:
Fourth Day – Summitting, Not so Easy!
At the end of the third day we reached the Kibo hut. Here the temperature was much lower and even in our hut it was hard to keep warm.
We had an early dinner chatting with the other hikers in our room. There was a nervousness in the air. It was contageous. People talked about the final climb we have ahead of us and whether altitude sickness would set in. Suddenly I found myself wondering: is my stomach upset? is that a headache settling in? We went to sleep in our thick sleeping bags wearing all our clothes.
We woke up at 11 PM, had some hot tea and biscuits, and headed out. Most people tend to start the hike at midight but our guide, Eric, asked us to get going by 11:30 PM so we can go “poli poli” (slowly, slowly). I think he chose the earlier start-time because he saw from the previous day that we tended to run late. Well, he was right 🙂 We were off by 11:45.
It was pitch black outside so we used our headlamps. We couldn’t see exactly where we were headed. We could see a horizontal line way up there that divided a field of stars from black emptiness of the mountains, but we couldn’t tell where along that ridge we were supposed to go, or exactly how far it was. The ground was soft, just sand and gravel, and we did switchbacks forever and ever. It felt a little like climbing a sand dune.
Also, it was cold, really cold. I was wearing four layers of pants and five layers on my tors, and Pnina had more layers than I did. At first we felt fine. Then our hands and feet started to freeze. Then the rest of the body started to follow. Part of the problem is that we just didn’t move fast enough to build up heat, and we were outside long enough to lose what heat we had. Of course, if we tried to move faster then we would probably turn ill from the altitude.
About an hour before reaching the top of this endless hillside Pnina threw up. Vomiting is one of the typical side effects of altitude sickness, but we don’t think her case was from altitude. After vomiting she felt great, whereas other people we saw along the way just kept vomiting over and over til there was nothing left. We met one guy, Clinton, who managed to reach the summit but vomited 20 times, 10 in each direction, and was borderline delirious for part of the time. The pills we took to prevent altitude sickness (acetazolamide) must have helped.
Eventually we reached the end of this incline, a place called Gilman’s Point. It was still dark when we got there, but here’s how it looked on the way back:
Our assistant guide, Florien, felt ill at this point, so he headed back down while we continued with the main guide, Eric. We tried to give Florien one of our headlights, but he refused – he went back down in complete darkness!
From Gilman’s Point things improved. The slope was more gradual for the remaining 300 meters of elevation gain. Also, the sun was about to rise so we got to see our beautiful surroundings. When the sun did emerge, we were only some 100 meters from the summit – Uhuru peak – which means that Eric did a great job timing this whole thing. Also, as far as we can tell, we were the first ones to reach the summit that day. Cool!
We hung around for 10-20 minutes taking photos and jumping up and down with joy for making it to the highest point in Africa. Uhuru is at an altitude of 5.9 kilometers, over 19,000 feet. This is definitely the highest altitude we’ve ever reached (outside airplanes). The next highest point for us was Mount Muhavura earlier on this trip, which was 4.2 km. I also reached 4.2 km in one of the passes on the way to Machu Pichu in Peru, and I reached just over 5 km in the altiplano in Bolivia (though the latter doesn’t count because I got there by jeep)
Coming down from the mountain we finally got a chance to take some beautiful shots of the surrounding, now well lit:
When we passed Gilman’s Point we saw the same sandy incline that took so many hours to ascend in the wee hours of the day. On the way down it was much faster – it probably took only 90 minutes to descend what earlier took 5.5 hours to climb. We practically skiied downhill. It was awesome.
Heading Back Down
We took a break in Kibo hut, had some food and took a nap. Then we continued down to the next campsite down the mountain. By this point the weather was starting to turn. It hailed and snowed, and our thoughts were with the people heading uphill who might have to try to summit not only with cold temperatures but also with wind and snow.
On the fifth day it got much easier. The temperatures were warm once again. On the way down we found some chameleons along the way:
We reached the bottom in the early afternoon, Christmas Day:
We had one final warm lunch at a picnic table at the bottom, this time with a bottle of champaign. The bottle was a bit warm, and when I opened it the pressure caused half the contents to empty all over the place (including my pants), but it still tasted nice.
According to the certificates we got, Pnina and I are persons number 50,003 and 50,004 to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. We find this number surprisingly low – Kili is such a touristy place, so many people try to summit each day.
Another surprising thing. There’s a plaque at the bottom in the honor of Hans Meyer, a German who was in the first group to summit Mt Kilimanjaro in 1889. We asked our guide “OK, but when was the first (local) person to reach the top?” and he said that as far as he knows no local person tried to reach the top before Meyer. The locals just weren’t interested.
Another German (forgot his name) holds the record for going up and down the mountain in the shortest time: 9 hours. Yup, he did the same work in 9 hours that took us 5 days. Holy crap.
Summiting becomes harder in the rainy season, May/June, when the summit is covered with ice. They still send treks up in that time of year but you have to wear cramp-ons and the success rate is much lower. Pnina and I had no idea that December is one of the best times of year to try to summit. Sweet! 🙂
The porters that do all the hard work along the Kilimanjaro trail wear an odd assortment of clothes – probably whatever they can get their hands on that will keep them warm. They probably don’t know what their shirts say and perhaps they don’t care. We saw one middle-aged porter wearing a noisy green sweatshirt that read “World’s Best Grandma”.
Is it worth it?
At $800/person plus tips, Kilimajaro is the single most expensive excursion we’ve done on the trip so far (and hopefully for the remainder of the trip too). Which begs the question – is it worth it? We think so. The sights were amazing, our guides took great care of us, and there are just few places in the world where you can reach altitudes like this without technical climbing skills.
We thought we had it pretty cold in Kilimanjaro, but while we were there our friends and family in the northwest (Seattle and Portland) were hit by a very unusual snowstorm. For two weeks they got snow just about every day. People were trapped at home. Some cars spiraled out of control and were abandoned, one right in front of my parents’ house in Portland. Our friend Justin took some great shots of the winter wonderland.