Mount Kilimanjaro, Part 2: the trek to Barafu Camp - a blog, in 1000 Words or Less
Kilimanjaro is made up of three dormant volcano cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. Kibo is the largest cone of the three, and Uhuru Peak is the highest summit. There are six routes by which to reach Uhuru Peak, success can depend heavily upon the selected route. I chose the Lemosho route because it is generally considered the most scenic. It is also the longest in terms of days, which I liked because if a person decides to travel all the way to Africa, he might as well stay a while and visit. More practically, the longer duration of the climb means more time to acclimatize to the always increasing altitude. That in turn allows a higher chance of reaching the summit. Of the estimated 50,000 trekkers who try for the summit of Kilimanjaro annually, only sixty-five percent make it and as a goal oriented person, I very much wanted to reach the top.
Thanks to ever-present Tanzanian highway speed bumps, and brief stops to pick up two or three of the eventual twenty-nine individuals who’d support us on the hike, the bus ride to the trail-head took the better part of two hours. Upon arrival at Lemosho Gate, we were served lunch, after which the full purpose of our African trip began in earnest: a seven-kilometer hike through a rainforest to the first night’s campsite, uphill from 6890 feet to 8694. Cool afternoon temperatures and relatively low altitudes made this the least arduous of all the subsequent days we’d experience on Kilimanjaro and importantly, it taught us to go slowly, or “Pole, pole,” as the locals say in Swahili.
Four hours after we started, we arrived at the fully prepared Mti Mkubwa (Big Tree) campsite: the gear we couldn’t carry in our daypacks was waiting on the mattresses inside our tents. The mess tent was set up, ready with table and chairs and hot water for tea, coffee or hot chocolate, along with popcorn for snacking. The portable toilet our group rented was nearby.
I didn’t fully appreciate how many other people were climbing Kilimanjaro at the same time as our group, until I saw all the tents pitched around the campsite. At any one time, there are several tour companies guiding dozens of tourists up the mountain. That many people, along with the associated support personnel, adds up to a big crowd who, sooner or later, all need to use a bathroom. That “issue” exacerbates as routes merge higher up the mountain and the population of the campsites grow. Outhouses are therefore, necessarily large. Because they’re basic knee-tremblers, they aren’t entirely sanitary.
Our tents were typically pitched several hundred meters away from the outhouses, which at first seems like a good thing. Do you really want your tent pitched beside a huge communal latrine that hasn’t seen much in the way of Scrubbing Bubbles in the last month…or ever? Of course not, but as I discovered, you don’t want the facilities to be located too far away, either...
The guides were extremely insistent we drink a minimum of three litres of water a day. Five litres was preferable. Hydration along with, “Pole, pole,” and more days compared to less on the mountain, are helpful ways to avoid altitude sickness. In addition, most people take a prescription medication to help mitigate that problem. A side effect of the medicine is the need to urinate. That need, along with three litres of water...you can see the problem. Several times a night, there’d be an audible storm of zippers, twelve per tent:
zip open the sleeping bag,
zip open the tent,
zip open the tent-fly.
When your outside business is complete, do the zipper dance in reverse. By this point, you’ve woken up the person you're sharing the tent with and he or she is going through a similar routine. Meanwhile, the same tango is happening in every tent across the campsite. Crawling out of a warm sleeping bag into temperatures near freezing two or three times a night, became progressively less fun as the trek continued. The portable toilet cost each person $25 and meant there was a “facility” for our group’s use close by. Everyone agreed it was money well spent.
On the second day of the hike, at Shira 1 campsite, we met the twenty-nine people who made up the support staff including: four CEOs (Chief Experience Officers David, Tony, Regan and Dodi), a camp manager, a cook, various helpers and porters…every man had a specific job and every one of them was there in support of us nine. After we left the campsite each morning, these hard-working individuals rolled up mattresses, collapsed tents and stowed gear, dismantling the camp and then carrying it up the mountain to the next campsite. One man of the twenty-nine carried the toilet from one campsite to the next, set it up, emptied it and cleaned it. That was his job. I tipped him heavily at the end of the trip, as did many others in our group, and thanked him profusely for making our lives so much more comfortable than they otherwise would have been.
Despite the enormous loads the twenty-nine hauled on their backs or balanced on their heads, they passed us on the trail without visible effort. They’d set up that night’s campsite before our arrival, and with time to spare, backtrack down the trail and take our daypacks, carrying them the rest of the way to the camp on our behalf.
I asked several of these men how many times they’d been to the top of Kilimanjaro. None who I asked could remember, they’d done it so many times. I was even more impressed with their strength, ability and stamina when, several days later, we reached Barafu Camp at 15,092 feet (essentially base camp), and I learned the closest water source was 678 meters downhill from the campsite. Porters would carry empty five gallon pails down the mountain and then carry the filled pails almost three quarters of a kilometer back up the hill, so there was water for cooking, cleaning and consumption.
The distance we hiked each day was never excessive, but short distances didn’t translate into easy hikes. A man named Shebi woke us up every morning at 6:20, rattling the tent-fly, calling our names, pouring us each a coffee or hot chocolate with a smile. He’d return ten minutes later with a bowl of hot water for washy-wash, as he called it. A carb heavy breakfast of runny porridge and French toast was served at seven. By eight we were hiking again, while the camp was disassembled behind us. Every step took us higher up the mountain, into progressively thinner air. The path, once we left the rainforest, was frequently rocky and constantly dusty; every step raised a cloud of ancient volcanic talcum around our legs. The campsite on day two was at 11,843 feet and on day three, 12,631 feet.
On day four we ate lunch at 15,092 feet before descending to 12,795 for the night. Short excursions to a higher altitude are part of the Lemosho route profile and help the body acclimatize to the lack of oxygen. Even so, I had a headache at lunch and very little appetite. By the time we stopped that day, my only interest was a light snack and a bottle of hot water to stow in the bottom of my sleeping bag, a habit I started on day two as a means to warm up my feet, my sleeping bag and the clothes I’d wear the next morning.
I awoke on day five without the previous day’s headache, excited to tackle the formidable Barranco Wall, an 843-foot scramble up the side of the mountain. This part of the climb isn’t technical but a person needs to use caution and all four limbs to traverse the narrow, boulder strewn path, at one-point flattening against the Kissing Wall and shuffling sideways a couple of steps while hugging the rock with outstretched arms, to avoid falling off a steep drop. At 13,000 feet, every breath and every step on this nearly vertical staircase, is a challenge. Reaching the top was a satisfying moment, made better by our amazing group of porters, who met us with congratulations and a table laden with mugs and thermoses of water for our hot beverage of choice.
Finally, on hiking day six, under a blanket of thick fog that reduced visibility to only a few meters, we made it to Barafu Camp, our last campsite before the summit. At 5 PM we ate an early dinner and Regan (the head CEO) briefed us on how to dress and what to expect later that night. CEO David added a few inspirational words that carried ominous undertones, saying, "Stay positive. Pain and discomfort are temporary. The summit is forever."
Then, we were encouraged to sleep. We’d be woken up a few hours later, at 11:00 PM for the five-kilometer, nighttime hike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Part three next time...the trek to the summit.
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