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Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

In June of 2004, 27 year-old Michelle Tsai from Michigan set off on a round the world trip for approximately one year. She managed to climb to the “Roof of Africa,” in Tanzania. Below is an account of her experience climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Day 1 – Machame Gate (1490m) to Machame Camp (2980m)
We left our hotel (and the comfort of our beds) by bus and were dropped off at the Machame Gate where the guides and porters arranged and weighed all of the gear. Our group was 9 in total – Karen and I, Gabriel (guide), Hamice (asst guide), a cook, and 4 porters. The porters can carry up to 25 kg with them! That’s amazing – for the most part they carry everything on top of their heads, or on their backs, or both. We hiked from the Machame Gate to the Machame Camp. We were hiking through the Montane forest for about 18 kms up to the camp, which took about 6 hours. By the time we got there, the porters had already arrived, set up our tents, boiled water for us and made popcorn and tea/hot chocolate. Not bad, huh?

I had a prescription for Diamox to help with acclimatizing to the altitude change, since the body only naturally acclimates 500m per day and we were ascending faster than that up Kilimanjaro. I was going to hold out to see if I actually got sick or not before taking it, but that night in the tent, I began to feel very short of breath, had a headache, and became very aware of every breath I was taking and wondering if I was getting enough oxygen. It was probably not the altitude, but my mind playing tricks on me, but either way, as I laid in my tent unable to sleep, I decided to ditch the ‘wait until I get sick’ plan, and follow the ‘take the drugs and avoid it all together’ plan. So thats what I did. I still had a mild headache for most of the first 3 days, but nothing major.

Day 2 Machame Camp (2980m) – Shira Camp (3840m)
The 2nd day of hiking was the hardest for me (other than the summit night). We hiked up to the Shira Camp which was another ~900m in altitude. Even though it was only about 9 km of hiking, the trail seemed to go up and up forever with no end in sight. It is common on the mountain to hear the swahili words “Pole Pole” (pronounced Poleh-poleh) which means “Slowly Slowly,” and they aren’t kidding. I had adopted this method of walking that seemed to work for me – take one step forward while inhaling, take another step forward while exhaling, very slowly, slowly and slowly. 9 kms takes a pretty long time this way. I finally rolled into camp mid afternoon and went over to sign in the log book (which they have at every camp)

When I walked over to sign the log book, there was a scale hanging from the tree; the one the porters use to weigh their packs before they go charging up the mountain. I looked at the face of the scale and saw that it went up to 220 lbs and thought “hey, lets see how much I weigh.” so I started to hang on the scale. Well, the scale may have been rated to 220 lbs, but the branch it was hanging on was most likely only rated to about 110 lbs because that’s the last number I remember seeing before the whole stupid thing came crashing down on me. All of a sudden, I was laying on the ground in a cloud of dust, the plastic cover on the scale was broken, and my lip was bleeding everywhere. At first I thought I knocked out a tooth, but I really only cut my top lip. What a dummy. Once I got all cleaned up, it wasn’t that bad, but it was a little dramatic after a day of taking one step per breath for 7 hours.

Day 3 – Shira Camp (3840m) – Lava Tower (4630m) – Barranco Camp (3950m)
On the third day we hiked from the Shira Camp up to Lava Tower and then back down in altitude to Barranco Camp for the night. One of the guides said that if you were ok after hiking to Lava Tower, you’d have a good chance of making it to the summit. I followed my same pattern of: step – inhale, step – exhale, all day. We could definitely feel the altitude on our bodies now and even doing the simplest things like getting in and out of the tent had me out of breath. Our campsite was just next to the “Barranco Wall” which we’d have to climb over the next day. Beyond the wall was a great view of the peak.

Day 4 – Barranco Camp(3950m) – Karangu Valley Camp(4200m)
The Barranco Wall was not as bad as it seemed from the campsite. It was about an hour of climbing mostly upward, not technical climbing, but vertical enough that you’d have to use your hands to balance while ascending. From the top we could see the peak of Mt. Meru in the distance before we descended to Karanga Valley Camp. The Barranco Wall seemed intimidating at first, but for me at least, it ended up being the easiest hiking day of them all. The Karanga Valley Camp was stunning. Its one thing to fly over the clouds, but camping above the clouds was quite an experience.

Day 5 and 6 Karangu Valley Camp (4200m) – Barafu Camp (4550m) – Summit (5895m) – Mweka Camp (3100m)
We left Karangu Valley Camp and hiked to Barafu Camp, not too hard of a hike – we took it very “pole” “pole” in order to save energy for the summit attempt later that evening. We arrived at Barafu around noon and everyone tried to get some sleep before the evening hike. I slept for about 4 hours in the afternoon and then after dinner I couldn’t sleep at all. I just laid there waiting for 10:30 pm., anxious and cold.

Finally, 10:30pm arrived, and we put on all of our gear. There was no moon so all we could see was what was illuminated by our headlamps. We set off following Gabriel, who did not even bring a headlamp, having been to the summit of Kili over a hundred times, he just knew the correct way. I had never hiked at night like that before, it was a bit unnerving, not being able to see what was further than about 5 feet from me in any direction. At first it was not that cold, we were hiking up to the crater rim, and from there it would be about another hour hiking along the rim to the Uhuru Peak. It seemed to take forever, and I mean FOREVER, to get to the rim. We were hiking up very steep area with loose rock, gravel and sand, so when you took a step forward, you slid half a step back. My method of step-inhale, step-exhale, was reduced to: inhale-exhale-step. I was exhausted, my stomach felt queasy, I was freezing, I felt phobic because I couldn’t see more than 5 feet in any direction, and I had a headache. This went on for 6 hours – until we reached the crater rim. When we got there, the wind picked up. With the wind, the temperatures were well below freezing and the water in my platypus tube froze. Oh well, I wasn’t drinking it anyway. Whoever thought up the idea that Hell was a hot place probably has never tried to climb to Stella Point in the freezing cold darkness before.

The last hour from the crater rim to Uhuru Peak was not as physically challenging as getting to the rim, but it was more mental. I was already completely spent, both mentally and physically… I stumbled around the crater rim for about 45 minutes and finally saw the “Uhuru Peak” sign in the distance, and at the same time, the sun was starting to rise from behind us. It was really emotional finally getting there. I have always expected the climb to be physically challenging, but I never thought it would be so mentally challenging as well. It took all my energy and determination, but it was a great feeling being able to get there on my own two feet.

After the elation subsided, I thought, “Crap, how am I going to get down from here?”

It took about 3 hours to get down from the peak back to Barafu Camp. That also seemed to take forever. Climbing up loose scree is slow and painful, but coming down is fast and scary. I was trying to be really careful not to twist and ankle or a knee. I had no energy left and when I finally got back to camp, I just collapsed on the ground from exhaustion.

I took an hour and a half nap and then we packed all of our stuff up to hike to Mweka Camp, where we were spending our 6th and final night on the mountain. Mweka camp was another 14 kms of hiking! After the 22 kms to get up to the peak and back to Barafu. I really thought I was going to need a new set of legs afterward.