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Climbing Kilimanjaro

Updated: Jun 27


Last week, I had the experience of a lifetime hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro: the highest point in Africa and tallest self-standing peak in the world. Trekking the eight-day Lemosho route was challenging, but beautiful. This is my journal for each of the 8 days of climbing Kili.


Day 1 - Mountain Rainforest

After a briefing the previous day by the Follow Alice team, when we also rented gear we didn't have, our group of 5, set off into the cool and misty mountain rainforest.


Our Group of 5 (Kili 5), setting off from Lemosho Gate

L to R: Ayan, Akshay (my Dad), Charlotte, Paul, John


Green mossy jungle trees shaded the path while dew covered brambles sprawled across the forest floor, leaving almost no soil visible. Occasionally we would spot some monkeys clambering in the trees and hear the calls of different species of colorful birds. John, who is an avid birder, always carried his binoculars and would constantly be trying to identify the birds. He even had an app on his phone that could identify the birds by their song. Through him, I saw the amazing variety of birds that would have otherwise been missed. Besides that, John's stopping to identify the birds gave us an opportunity to drink water and rest.


L to R: All set at the hotel, Our drive to the gate; My Dad & I; photos from the trail


Along the hike, we learnt two key phrases that we would come to use very often with the guides:


"Sippee Sippee" (drink water); and "Polle Polle" (slowly, slowly)

The guides would regularly break for Sippee Sippee because they were trying to acclimatize us and build our habits to be well-hydrated to prevent altitude sickness. This day's hike was the shortest, lasting just three hours before we reached the first campsite: Mti. Mkubwa. This camp sat squarely in a clearing on the forest floor.


Kili 5 at Mti Mkubwa Camp


Our evening routine consisted of eating dinner, cooked on the spot by the tour guides on a camp fire, and then heading straight to our cozy sleeping bags in small, compact tents. But before we could sleep, we had an important lesson from our chief guide, Bwenge: How to use the bush toilet. The toilet was discreetly kept in a separate tent, and to use it, you needed to open a flap, know how to flush, and then close the flap; overall quite convenient to use once we knew how to use it. With that important task sorted out, we prepared to call it a night. Even though we were in a rainforest, temperatures still dropped well below 10 degrees Celsius, so cozying up was the way to go.


Camping Tents, John and Charlotte, Bush toilet


Day 2 - Rainforest to Moorlands

We woke up at 5:30am, in order to beat the crowd that would emerge from Mti. Mkubwa. After a quick breakfast we headed up the rainforest once more. John had a few bird sightings, but the experience was similar to the previous day, with magical green scenery on either side of us. However, about an hour and a half into our climb, we reached the heath moorland zone: a transition between the rainforest vegetation and the more desert-like moorland. This transition was characterized by shorter trees and a drier climate.


Shorter trees & shrubs marked the Moorland landscape


The rise through this transition zone was tough, with three steep ascents taking place back to back. The third ascent was especially steep, winding along the mountain side for nearly an hour. My dad was very tired after the third ascent, but he managed to reach the top, and a good long break helped us recover. After about six hours of hiking, we finally arrived at the Shira 1 camp in the alpine moorlands at 3600 meters.


Shira 1 is an exquisite location

Shira 1 lies in the collapsed crater of an earlier volcanic eruption before Kilimanjaro was formed. It is a vast flat plain full of moorland bush vegetation with low crater walls ringing it with Kilimanjaro looming in the distance. It was far colder and windier here, due to being in the middle of a volcanic crater with little in the way of cover. While I was very tired, John and Paul went out with their trusted binoculars and saw plenty of birds including the White necked Ravens which were foraging for food around the campsites.


Kili 5 at Shira 1 Camp


Day 3 - Moorlands

On Day 3, We woke up at 6:00am which became the norm for the rest of the trip. It was a fabulous morning, the sky was purple and blue, with the crater rim providing a beautiful frame to the early morning light show.


Early morning at Shira 1 Camp


After the breakfast, we headed across the crater to the other side of the rim. There, we stopped for a quick water and snack break, before ascending up the rocky side of the lip. To get to this point took three to four hours. After this, the path rose gently with less and less vegetation visible, until we found ourselves in the alpine desert at more than 4000 meters above sea level. After walking past shallow caves in the mountainside, we arrived at our destination: Moir Hut. At 4200 meters above sea level, this camp site had very little vegetation to protect us from the harsh elements. As a result, this was one of the toughest campsites, as violent wind threatened to un-pitch our tents at any moment. The winds were so strong that at one point the team had to weigh down the tent stakes with heavy rocks so that the tents didn't blow off during the night. And we were worried if the toilet tent would stay intact the whole night, because it was mercilessly being battered by the winds. Happily all the tents survived the night, though we couldn't walk about much in the campsite because of the wind and grit in the air. Nonetheless, the starry sky we could see from here, more than compensated from the howling wind and biting cold.

A stream on the path


Pitstop enroute to Moir Hut


Day 4 Moorlands - Alpine Desert

Day 4's goal was to get to Lava Tower, the highest point before we summited. At 4600 meters above sea level, oxygen at Lava Tower is just 11%, compared to 21% at sea level. This was to be the highest elevation before the summit. The guides plan this to acclimatize us to the low oxygen conditions. The aim is to get trekkers to spend about one hour at this altitude and then walk down and sleep at a lower elevation. After the tiring walk we reached Lava Tower, with lots of sippee-sippee breaks along the way as we had entered the arid section. Luckily, I didn't have bad altitude sickness, with my worst symptom being a mild headache.


Kili 5 at Lava Tower


After eating our lunch, and trying to acclimatize to the high altitude, we descended down to Barranco camp.


The 700 meter descent through the rocky terrain was mentally and physically tiring

The path was rocky, with sharp-edged loose volcanic stones, making the path quite treacherous. Any fall on these stones, could have resulted in injury or worse. We had to scale down big boulders and jump through gaps in the rocks to reach the lower levels. This made it quite mentally challenging too, as I had to make sure every step was on solid rock and not loose stone. We were very far from the soft, turfed paths of the first day. After three hours we saw the Barranco camp in the distance, and it was cool to see how much more vegetation at the camp as compared to the Lava Tower, just 700 meters up.


Various Flowers & Shrubs along the path. Check out the White Necked Raven near the tents.

I was exhausted on this day. We had climbed up and down in various conditions for more than eight hours. So after dinner I zipped myself into the cozy sleeping bag, and fell into a very deep sleep as soon as my head touched the ground.


Day 5 - Barranco Wall

This was the day we came face-to-face with the daunting, and famous Barranco wall. From a distance, this looks like a cliff face: impossible to scale. It a sheer wall that rises almost vertically from next to our camp for about three hundred feet and there is no visible path to reach up.


We started in the morning, and gingerly made our way to the cliff face. Even close up, it seemed impossible to climb it, but our guides showed us the rock ledges where we could put half a foot and small rock niches that we could hold on, to hoist ourselves up. After about ten minutes of such climbing we came to the infamous "kissing rock" - here you have to literally kiss the rock face (your cheek touching the wall) to climb up, while on the other side is a drop of about thirty meters. I climbed the kissing rock very carefully, all the while carrying my backpack. In the photographs you will see my dad barely having any foothold on the rocks, and looking a bit worried! Thankfully, with our superb guides, we knew where to step and which rock to grab on to, and gradually we managed to go past the kissing rock section. While some found it terrifying, I found it exhilarating.


This was one of the highlights of my climb

After a fun two hour scramble up the wall, we finally made it up to the top, and the sense of accomplishment was unmatched. There was wild whooping, and photographs at the top. The views were incredible. We could see a sea of clouds below and standing at the edge of the rock felt like being along at the top of the world. After the short break, we descended back down to 4000 meters in a pretty uneventful hike. We settled at the Karanga camp, which was the second last before the summit.


L to R: Barranco wall from our tents, Barranco wall, Paul scaling the wall, Akshay scaling the wall, Walking up to the ledge, At the top with my dad


Day 6 - Alpine Desert

The start of day six was quite easy. After seven hour treks for the last few days, a four hour trek up to Barafu camp, seemed almost too easy. Barafu is our last stop before the night of the summit. In reality, our minds weren't on this hike, as we were preoccupied by the imminent summit attempt happening late that night. Dinner was served early at 5:00 pm and there was nervous energy in the group, with talk about how many layers of clothing are needed; whether we have back up batteries for our headlamps; who can sleep; emergency handling if one of us cannot make it to the top.


It was like the night before an important exam

We finished our dinner, we caught what little sleep we could before being abruptly woken at 11:00pm to get ready for the summit.


Kili 5 on the way to Barafu Camp with William (guide)


Day 7 - Summit at Snow-capped Mountain Peak

At midnight sharp we set off. With just our headlamps illuminating a small circle ahead of us, we started the climb by scaling the bare, steep rock ridge in the middle of the night. I looked up during one of our rest stops, and saw a beautiful sight: all around was complete darkness except a trail of lights from the other groups attempting to scale the mountain. It looked like a yellow snake of light floating in the air making its way to the heavens. It was mesmerizing.


We rapidly gained altitude and progressively each step on the slope became harder, with the lower oxygen. We saw a few people resting on the rocks straining to gain their breath before climbing, and saw some who turned around and were walking back. Our group managed to climb for an hour together, but my dad was struggling to keep up. Our chief guide separated him from the group, so that he can climb more slowly with one of the guides, while the rest of us carried on.


After six grueling hours we finally reached Stella Point, on the crater rim at the top of the mountain. The early morning was magical. Just before the sunrise, the night is the coldest, and the wind was strong and biting cold on the exposed parts of my face; then an orange line appeared on the horizon with darkness on either side of it; later there was a bit more light that brightened the orange line while the dark sky was still visible; and finally the sun peeked up over the horizon to fill the sky with a gorgeous orange hue, and we could see an ocean of clouds hundreds of feet below us, covering the land all around. It was an incredible sight.


I was so proud that I had made it this far. And I was so tired

On reaching Stella's point, I too started to feel the effects of altitude, and the low oxygen rendered me a bit delirious in my movements, and I couldn't walk in a straight line for sometime. My group, especially William our guide, helped steady me, and encouraged me to carry on. At Stella Point, Paul who is very fit and is a marathoner, also experienced the severe effects of altitude. He felt a sharp pain in his chest, and rightly chose to walk down to the Barafu base camp instead of attempting to walk to the summit. Thankfully, his chest pain went away when he reached the camp and there was no medical emergency.


L to R: Midnight climbing on the slope; Dawn break; Sunrise; At Stella's Point; Meeting my dad on the summit; Charlotte, John, and Ayan at Uhuru


So, it was Charlotte, John and I who were left of the original group of five, and we weren't done yet. We started walking along the rim for another one and a half hour: the goal being Uhuru Peak at 5895 meters. While the trek along the rim was nothing compared to the one up to Stella's Point that I had just finished, the low oxygen and my altitude sickness made it very difficult. Step after step through the ice and glaciers, I finally made it to Uhuru Peak.


I summited Kilimanjaro

I savored the moment for a short while, as I couldn't be there for long in the high altitude. I just took a few pictures and started descending back to a more healthy altitude. On the way down, I saw my dad coming up who had managed to summit about half hour after us. The way down was hard because I had used almost all of my energy on the way up, but I walked very slowly, taking nearly four hours to return to Barafu Camp. In contrast with the frigid summit, the camp was quite hot, so I took off most of my layers and crashed in the tent.


L to R: Ayan reaches Uhuru Peak, Summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Paul, Charlotte, and John


However, the day wasn't over yet, as once all five of our group had made it down the mountain, we had to pack up, and set off for Millennium camp at 3900 meters. It was a two hour downhill walk, but our fatigue made it feel like we were walking forever.


It had been an incredible day - having walked more than fifteen hours starting from our base camp at 4600 meters; climbing in the middle of the night to 5895 meters; suffering from altitude sickness at the summit, then walking down to the base camp; packing our gear to walk another two hours to finally end the night at 3900 meters. In total, I had walked about seventeen kilometers that day. I have never been more tired. That night, it was a deep and well earned sleep.


Day 8 - The Descent

We woke early on day eight, and had a five hour downhill trek ahead of us. As we were walking, our will to get to the gate propelled us, and we only took four and a half hours. It was a very pleasant walk.


We recapped the different vegetation zones we had seen on the way up, in reverse: from the glaciers to the rainforest. We dropped almost two kilometers in altitude over the course of our four and a half hours walk from the camp to the gate. Finally, we reached the gate and signed out of the national park: officially ending our expedition.


Moorland views on the way down; Rainforest; Certificate


The experience of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was once in a lifetime. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but so rewarding and beautiful at the same time.


It truly was another way to see my favourite continent: Africa

Kilimanjaro Park exit

L to R: Akshay, John, Charlotte, Gideon (guide), Ayan, Paul, Bwenge (guide)



 


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Mesmerising write- up ! Ayan is a good raconteur , & I felt as if I was also in the group.

Daring & bold adventure.

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Congratulations on conquering Kilimanjaro, Ayan!!! From your breathtaking journey to the summit, it sounds like you can now laugh in the face of mere hills! Your adventure is truly inspiring. What's next, Mars? Keep climbing high and sharing your incredible experiences!

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