Sunday, March 4, 2018

How I Climbed Kilimanjaro

Warning: long post.

I climbed Kili more than a year ago, between February 13 and 19, 2017 but am only now getting to blogging about it. I guess I am one of those bloggers who blog late. But better late than never, right?

I had been thinking about climbing Kili since mid-2013, when I learned that my next job would be in Ethiopia. At first, I was more like “Climbing Kili sounds awesome – wouldn’t it be nice?!” but I knew that it would be hard to do with the kids and all. In early 2016, when Paul was assigned to Sofia, Bulgaria and we knew we would have to separate and I would have to stay in Addis for about a year alone, I started thinking more seriously about it. I wanted to do it but I didn’t necessarily believe I could do it. I mean, I was a mom of two, in my mid 40s, struggling to stick to an exercise routine – not exactly the type to go scaling mountains. But Kili was not technical. Climbing it didn’t require rad skills. Plus, I was already living at 8,000 ft in Addis, so I was somewhat acclimated to high altitude. Kili was at 19,341 which was more than twice the altitude of Addis but at least I wasn’t starting at sea level. And there was a direct flight from Addis to Kilimanjaro International Airport. I would need to get in shape but I had time, so it seemed doable. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. I started exercising, slowly. First, I started walking for about 40 min daily during my lunch break. I recruited my friend Tara to join me. Tara was also interested in climbing Kili. She ended up not doing it with me for a variety of reasons but she worked out with me most of the time and that helped me stay motivated. I gradually added running (three times a week), yoga (once or twice a week), hiking in the hills above Addis (once a week), and Marine workouts (once a week) to my exercise routine and ended up gaining strength, stamina and eventually losing more than 20 lbs. By the time I climbed Kili, I was in the best shape of my adult life and felt great.

Climbing Kili was a popular thing to do for my colleagues at the embassies in Africa.  I did a lot of research before I embarked on it. I talked to colleagues who had done it and got their advice on how to prepare, what gear to get, what companies are good.  There are a lot of companies that offer Kili climbing packages. The prices also vary but while I am generally cheap price-sensitive, I knew I didn’t want to skimp on this because there are safety aspects to it. That said, I didn’t want to go super high-end either because I have two kids to put through college, so I knew the $9,000 trip a colleague invited me to join was not for me. I considered a company that organizes climbs for women only but ended up doing a co-ed trip in the end. I was looking for something in the $1,500 range. I ended up paying $1,850 and though it was higher than what I was hoping to pay, I felt good about it as the company I used was run by a guy who had started out as a porter, worked his way up to a guide and eventually started his own company with the idea of providing climbers with a quality experience while paying his staff a fair wage. I felt paying a little extra to ensure the porters and guides were well cared for was worthwhile. Note: This price is just for the climb - it includes park fees, food, water, tents, guides and porters but it doesn’t include airfare.

The company I used was Tanzania Expeditions ( The other companies I considered were:,,, and They all came recommended by friends, so I am sure they are good too.

I worked with the CEO and owner of Tanzania Expeditions Justin Mtui, who responded promptly to my very last minute request to be added to a group in order to save money (climbing with a group is less expensive than climbing solo). My climb took 7 days along the Machame route, the most scenic route also known as the "Whiskey route.” Here’s a visual of the various Kili climbing routes (source:


This is what it looked like:

Day 1, February 13: We started at Machame Gate, the beginning of Machame route, at 1,490m and hiked to Machame Camp at 2,980m. The distance was about 18 km and it took about 7 hours. My group consisted of three French guys and me. Here we are at Machame Gate, waiting to get our permits to climb Kili:


Our ascent started in a lush tropical jungle with a lot of interesting species, including monkeys.


This is where I have to say that the French guys were in their late 20s, which means they were a lot younger and faster than me. I tried to keep up with them on Day 1 but they totally smoked me, so we ended up splitting up in two groups most days. The three of them went ahead with the assistant guide Clemence, while I moved at my own pace with the chief guide Tumaini.  I had a pacing issue at first: I would try to go too fast and ended up winded, frustrated, cursing and asking breaks, so Tumaini offered to set the pace for me and taught me the “pole-pole” (Swahili for slowly-slowly) mantra , which was very helpful.

Seven hours later, we made it to Machame Camp. I was dead tired but I looked up and I saw Uhuru for the first time. Because we were in a jungle all day, we couldn’t see it from the trees. It was magnificent. 

IMG_6895 (2)IMG_6898

Note: Kili is the world’s tallest free-standing mountain and the tallest point in Africa. It has three distinct volcanic cones - Kibo, Mawezni and Shira. Kibo is the highest of the three and the highest point on Kibo is Uhuru. They look like this (Source:


It was time for our first dinner - salad, fried tilapia and potatoes. I was very nervous about the food, so I had taken some snacks (bars, instant oatmeal) with me because the thought of having to climb on an upset stomach terrified me. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food – I didn’t take pictures of all of it but it was consistently good. The porters had to carry all the food supplies, utensils, dishes, pots, and pans up the mountain on their backs because there are no stores or restaurants there and the chef had to cook everything at camp.


Day 2, February 14: Machame Camp (2,980 m) to Shira Cave Camp (3,840 m). Distance: about 9 km. Hiking time: about 6 hours. The forest gave way to moorland and we were treated to lovely views of Mount Meru, the second highest mountain in Tanzania, located about 70 km/43 mi west of Kilimanjaro. It is 4,562 m/14,968 ft tall and is also a popular climbing destination.


I saw a lot of interesting plants along the way, some of which are found only on Kili.

Kili Plant Collage

We kept moving right along...pole-pole...


Until we reached Shira Cave Camp

IMG_6976IMG_6958 (2)

Most days we took a short hike a few hours after our main hike for the day to help us acclimate to the higher altitude. We'd usually go a little higher than the camp where we spent the night because hiking high and sleeping low helps one adjust to the altitude. The short hike for Day 2 was to Shira Cave. It was also Valentine’s Day and I ended up spending it with 19 men I barely knew – 3 from France and 16 from Tanzania. The porters and guides were putting on shows for their groups all over camp. There was singing and dancing – not related to Valentine’s day but because that’s apparently the way the companies welcome their climbers to Kilimanjaro, which was sweet.


After dinner we played poker and had some liquor we had bought at a store in Arusha before entering the Kili Park but instead of money we “bet” hot celebrities, you know, because Valentine’s Day and it seemed funny at the time to “bet” the Valentines of your dreams. So, Beyonce, Angelina Jolie, John Hamm and a few others may have come across the table that night. This is also the day I learned two more phrases in Swahili: muzungu kitchaa (crazy foreigner) and muzungu majinga (stupid foreigner).

    Day 3: Shira Cave Camp (3,840 m) to Lava Tower (4,630 m) to Baranco Camp (3950 m). Distance: about 15 km. Hiking time: about 7 hours. The daily hike had hiking high, sleeping low built in. The shrubbery of the moorland turned into a semi-desert as we went up to Lava Tower and back to moorland when we got down to Baranco Camp.


    Lava Tower Camp was the highest point of the day and it was a challenging hike up. It was also about half-way, so we had lunch (boxed) there before hiking down to Baranco Camp. The Lava Tower itself (right picture above) was quite impressive. The French guys decided to climb it, the overachievers that they are... while I took a break. The rest of the way was down, so it was easy and quite enjoyable. We even goofed off a little along the way.



      The area opened up into Baranco valley and Tumaini pointed out that across from the valley was Baranco wall, which we were supposed to climb the next morning. You can kinda see the faint trail going up the wall in the right of the picture below. I was like, “How in the world are we going to do that?!!!” He also said that a French woman had died climbing Baranco wall a week earlier and now I was really scared.


      IMG_7066But before I knew it, we reached Baranco Camp and it was time to relax. This is probably where I should mention that Kili was much colder than I thought it would be. People (like me) think, “It’s Africa – how cold could it be?” Ummmm, very! Kili is a tall mountain and temps fall below freezing at every camp overnight. So yeah, I froze my butt off every single night. To be comfortable at night while climbing Kili, you need a sleeping bag good for –18 C/0 F. Mine was only good for temps down to 0 C/30 F, so I had to really bundle up at night. This is what I usually wore to bed: up to five pairs of ski socks, two pairs of leggings, ski pants, a tank top, turtleneck, a thermal long sleeve shirt, a fleece sweater, a puffer jacket, a scarf, a balaclava, a hat, a hood and gloves, all of that in my sleeping bag. Basically all the layers I could put on and I was still cold. Especially my feet. And I don’t know about you but I can’t sleep if my feet are cold. Not to mention that the guides had told us that sometimes people from the neighboring villages at the lower camps or fellow climbers slash tents and steal stuff, so I was a little paranoid and had a small purse with my money, passports, phone as well as my big camera also in the sleeping bag at night. Last but not least, I was taking diamox (a medication preventing high-altitude sickness), which worked great but it made me pee several times a night. There are toilets (though no showers) at each camp but they were outside and of the squatty variety and going to the bathroom with all of these layers and stuff was an ordeal. So sleeping at night was suboptimal, to say the least. I tried to make up for it by taking naps during the day after we got to camp, early in the afternoon, when the sun was nice and hot and my tent was like little oven. Oh how I loved those naps!   

      Day 4: Baranco Camp (3950) to Karanga Camp (3950). The two camps are at the same elevation but you had to climbs up and down a lot. The distance was about 5 km and the hiking time about 4-5 hours. The hike started with a scramble up Baranco Wall, which seemed impossible at first glance. This was one of the few hikes I did together with the French guys.


      It was just too dangerous for them to move fast. Our guides assured us that if we followed them we would be OK, so we did because a week earlier a French woman did not. She apparently tried to take a shortcut and fell to her death. There were a lot of very steep parts of the wall but the scariest was the kissing rock, named so because you have to hug it pretty tight and almost kiss it to avoid falling into the abyss below. Not sure how I managed to smile.


      But then again, we were climbing with just our day packs. The porters had to make it to the top carrying heavy and bulky tents and provisions, which is substantially harder and more dangerous.


      We finally made it to the top of the Barranco Wall without any issues!


      After a short break we continued the up and down, up and down until we reached Karanga Camp.


      After lunch and a nap, we took a short hike above Karanga camp in the spirit of "hike high, sleep low," which helps with altitude acclimatization. Rock towers were everywhere in the area where we went for our short hike. Perhaps they were the prayers of climbers to make it all the way to the top of Uhuru.


        Day 5: Karanga Camp (3,950 m) to Barafu Camp (4,600 m), the last camp before the summit. Distance: about 4 km. Hiking time: 2 - 3 hours. We woke up to a brilliant morning -  cloudless sky and a sweeping, majestic panorama of Uhuru and Meru way back in the distance.


          The hike wasn’t long but we were pretty high up already, so it wasn’t easy. The weather was beautiful and we enjoyed it.


          Pole-pole, we reached Barafu Camp - the last camp before we summit. Only 5 km left to Uhuru!


          Each of us were assigned a porter who carried our stuff throughout the climb and set up our tents each day. The porters go a lot faster than us, so they get to camp a lot earlier than we do, even though they carry a lot of stuff. The porter I was assigned was Benjamin. He would set up my tent and wait for me at the entrance to each camp. He'd always high-five me for finishing each day's hike and take my day pack to my tent. Such a sweet kid! You can see my tent behind Benjamin. Being the only female, I got my own tent. The three French guys shared the tent behind mine.


          I was tired because hiking at this altitude is strenuous but was otherwise physically fine. The French guys all had headaches and one had tummy troubles. The airline they used to come to Kili (Turkish Air) had lost their luggage and they did not get the gear they had bought and packed for the climb, which was a huge pain in the butt for them. We had to take them shopping before we started our climb because they needed everything. Our guides took them to second-hand stores, where they were able to get most of the gear they needed but they couldn’t find malaria and high-altitude sickness pills, so they had to go without. After night one of the climb malaria is not an issue because it’s too high and cold for mosquitos but high-altitude can be. They were having altitude sickness problems now. I had Ibuprophene, so I shared it with them and a few other climbers who were also having bad headaches and looking for pain killers around camp. There were thousands of climbers on Kili with us. We kinda moved together with those using the Machame route, so we got to know some of them because we would see them on the hills and at camp each day. The camps were like small international towns each evening. There were people from all over the world – quite a few French, some Canadians,  Germans, Russians, Americans, as well as others. There was even a hard-partying group from Romania though I didn’t see/hear any Bulgarians.

          We had lunch and I took a nap in my little oven of a tent. We took our last short hike. It was along the path we would use to summit and it was very steep. I was nervous because I knew summit night was going to be hard but I so wanted to summit. I was so close and was doing well physically. I mean, I was the slowest person in our small group but had made the hikes each day. There were plenty of other hikers on the mountain that were slower than me. I was OK mentally but worried if I had it in me to make it to the top. Climbing Killi is a test, not just physically but mentally too. Not everyone makes it. I did not want to be one of the people who have to give up without making it to the top. That evening at camp was somber. The French guys and I would usually joke with each other and the guides/porters over dinner but tonight we all had one thing on our mind, “Will all of us make it to the top?”

          Summit day is actually summit night because it starts at 11 pm, so we had early dinner and went to bed to get as much sleep as we can before the hardest part of the climb.

          Day 5/6: Barafu Camp (4,600 m) to Uhuru Peak (5,895 m) and then down to Mweka Camp (3,100 m). Distance: about 5 km up to Uhuru and then 23 km down from Uhuru to Mweka. Hiking time: about 8 hours up to Uhuru and about 7- 8 hours down from Uhuru to Mweka.  We woke up to a snow blizzard, high wind, horizontal snow and everything. We had a quick snack with coffee in the dining tent and it was show time. This picture was taken at 11:30 pm on summit night, right before we started climbing (and yes, you have to use headlights because you climb at night and you need to see where you are going - you don’t want to trip and split your skull). My face says it all: Crap - this is the weather we get to summit in???!!! But we had one chance to do this, so there was nothing else to do but climb. The guides told me later that I surprised them all because I just kept going that night, one foot in front of the other. I didn't complain or ask for breaks, as I had every other day. I was really cold but the key was to keep moving so you don't freeze. You can't move fast at this altitude, so it was a long, hard and bitterly cold climb but in the end, we all made it to the top. And that's all that matters! I guess I was saving my all for summit night.


          Only the two guides and two porters went up with us on summit night. The rest of the porters waited for us at Barafu camp. We started up the steep hill above the camp in the blizzard. The path went back and forth, back and forth. We were all going pole-pole because it was too steep and you really can’t move fast at that altitude. The blizzard kept blowing snow in our faces. I am not sure exactly what the temperature was, but it was very cold. I heard someone say it was –15 C. They recommend that you bring ski gloves to keep your hands warm. I didn’t have those but I had three pairs of fleece gloves. The first pair got wet from the snow and my hands started to freeze. I swapped them out really quick. It was hard to see in the driving snow and the darkness. We all had our headlights on, so when you looked up all you could see was this endless lighted snake of climbers following the switchbacks into the sky. It seemed like it would never end. One of the French guys, Olivier, wanted to stop. He said he wasn’t feeling well and asked for a break. He wanted to lay down, which was impossible as there was no room for that along the very narrow and steep path but also a really bad idea because you’d freeze. He hadn’t eaten anything because he had stomach issues and seemed to be having a low blood sugar episode. The two other French guys decided to keep going with the assistant guide Clemence and one of the porters. Tumaini was checking Olivier’s vitals and trying to stabilize him. I had couple of emergency nutritional bars and some GU energy gels in my day pack. I gave him one of each. A few minutes later he seemed to be perking up , however, both my hands and feet were starting to freeze. I needed to keep moving. Tumaini noticed and decided to send Gerald, one of the summit porters, up with me while he was taking care of Olivier. Gerald carried my day pack and water on summit night (I carried those for the rest of the climb). He continued up the steep, seemingly endless hill with me and helped get to the crater edge, Stella Point, just in time to see the sunrise. At some point I noticed that he didn’t even have gloves. Poor guy! I knew he was freezing, so I gave him one of my pairs of gloves and he is happily wearing them in this picture:


          The sun was rising over Mawenzi, the second highest of the three volcanic cones on Kili and we enjoyed the incredible view for a few minutes. I was able to take two pictures here before both my camera and my phone froze and wouldn't take pictures. I had to warm up the battery before my camera would shoot again. My phone wouldn't turn on until later when the temp rose a little.


          And then we saw Tumaini and Olivier. We were glad to see Olivier was feeling better. I told him that my phone and camera were frozen. He gave me his camera, which was miraculously working and asked me to take pictures for him as he was not up for it. So I did and some of the pictures here were taken with his camera. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the glaciers both inside and outside the caldera, which looked bluish in the morning light.



          Mawenzi looked stunning but completely different in the snow than the day before.



          Olivier kept going while I was taking pictures. I tried to catch up to him along the crater’s edge but got so winded, I had to stop to catch my breath several times. We saw the two other French guys coming back. It took about 15-20 minutes to reach Uhuru from Stella Point. And finally, there I was – I had made it!


          We had to take a promo shot for the company that got us there…


          We stopped at Stella Point for a quick picture on the way back. The temperature had risen a little, so my hands and feet had finally defrosted and I was feeling much, much better.


          Now we needed to get down, down, down…This was the view of the path down from the edge of the crater at Stella Point. Kilimanjaro is one of the few places on Earth from which you can observe the curvature of the earth. You can kinda see it in this picture, which was shot with a regular lens, no tricks.


          We could have gone down using the same switchback path we used to climb up but that would have taken forever. Instead, our guides suggested we go down this side path that was steeper but was basically lava ash and snow. There were almost no rocks, so we could practically run down. It was fast and fun.


          We got back to Barafu camp and had lunch before continuing down. I was dead tired and needed a nap badly but we still had a long way to go to get to Mweka camp, so no nap. At least we were going down which was much faster than going up. On the way down, we saw at least a couple dozen stretchers like the one below. They are there for emergencies, apparently, which unfortunately do happen with some frequency on Kilimanjaro. I just kept wondering about the logistics of taking someone down from here though. This is a one-wheel stretcher. It's not like it's going to get you down on its own. You still need at least two people to steer it down because the path is steep and rocky. Plus, it's still about 8 hours to where you can get into an ambulance. You just hope you never need this. One of the guides told us that patients often start out in the stretcher but the ride is so bumpy (though they do put a mattress on the stretcher) that after a while they just say they feel better and start walking, however slowly. For the really serious cases, MedEvac is the only option, and to organize one, it takes several hours because it has to come from Kenya and you are flown back there for treatment. It’s a good thing I learned all this on the way down. Otherwise, I may not have gone. Ignorance can be a bliss sometimes.


          After hiking down for what seemed like forever, we made it to Mweka camp - our last camp. Whew! That night was a blur. I was so tired, I must have eaten and passed out, though I don’t specifically remember.


          Day 7: This was our last day. I woke up to a lot of pain – all over. Literally, my everything hurt. Even walking was painful. My extremities were swollen and red from the altitude, cold, wind and sun. I looked pretty scary. Mind you, there are no showers on Kili, so the fact that I hadn’t taken a shower in a week, may have had something to do with the scary. We did take sponge baths with warm water the porters provided every day and used a lot of baby wipes to stay somewhat clean. Those things were lifesavers.

          We had breakfast, after which the French guys and I sat down in the dining tent to figure out the tips we were going to give to the porters and the guides. You are encouraged to tip everyone, kinda like on a cruise. Instructions were provided. The rest was up to us. We had already discussed how we felt about each person and had agreed on what we wanted to do. Now we had to get the money all counted, separated and make sure we gave the right amount to each person. When I first read about the tips, I was a little irked because I thought I was already paying a pretty penny to do the climb but spending time with these guys and watching them work changed me. They work hard. Being a porter or a guide does pay better than most other jobs in town but they do earn it.

          The guys did a farewell ceremony for us with more singing and dancing. I may have shed a tear or two while watching. They did this thing where each person danced a little while everyone else sang, including me and the French guys. Here’s Benjamin “gettin’ jiggy wit it.”


          Here’s a farewell picture with everyone:


            And with Tumaini, our chief guide, who was just fantastic. He was kinda quiet and unassuming but this was his 198th time climbing Kili, he had taken safety/first aid classes and knew the mountain like the back of his hand. I knew I could trust him. He was also very good with people – he observed them, playing close attention to what they needed and was supportive and considerate (which was not the case with all the guys on the mountain – I watched and talked to some of the others and while they were generally very nice, some were preachy and condescending). Tumaini and I spent a lot of time together every day and bonded over my constant cursing and complaining and his stories about growing up Masai and his first Kili climb without proper gear, freezing his butt off and sick as a dog. We became fast friends and had a blast despite our completely different backgrounds. Tumaini is an awesome guide and I feel so fortunate I had him with me when I climbed Kili. So long Tumaini!


            And so long Kili!


            Locations of visitors to this page