What happens in the Himalayas does not always stay in the Himalayas…
Wanting to stretch our legs a little, and listening to some of our alumni who had ‘Kili’ on their bucket list, we decided to organize a climb. And it worked (errr…mostly worked). We are happy to report that in the early morning hours of Sept 7th, Tanzanian time, all members of team ‘Kilimanjaro Coffee Crushers’ made it to the crater rim of the highest free standing mountain in Africa where they were thoroughly thrashed by heavy winds. Our nationalities included Australia, Canada, USA and Nepal. Three members (Sharon, Tony, and Jennie) were alumni of HAL’s Annapurna Circuit 2017 Fastpack. We were also joined by Sally (Australia) and her husband Rick (Canada).
Kilimanjaro is heavily regulated by the park service. Certain routes are for going up, and certain ones are only for going down. We chose the ‘Lemosho’ route which includes the longest and most gradual approach, starting from the west in jungle and climbing up to the Shira Plateau before wrapping around the south side of the mountain for a summit push from 4.650 meters at Barrafu Camp.
Overall our trip went well. Challenges included the altitude, dust, and close proximity to many other teams. Like popular high altitude trekking routes in Nepal – some team members struggled with GI and respiratory issues as well as symptoms that sometimes resembled early indications of altitude sickeness (which fortunately did not progress). As with all of our trips – we contract with Dr. Pranav Koirala as our remote high altitude expedition doctor and also Michael Fagin as our weather forecaster. Messaging back and forth via our satellite devices cleared all members for a summit attempt, with the caveat that the top might have wind gusts of up to 47km per hour.
Barafu camp, a boulder strewn place on a ridge leading up to the crater rim stands at 4,650 meters. It was more of a resting place for us than a true camp. We arrived mid-day from Karanga Camp at 3,950 meters and did our best to block out the sun and noise and get some sleep before our summit push. A slower team left at 11pm and a faster team at midnight with the goal to group-up just below the summit. With a little over 1200 meters to climb in the dark and the wind at high altitude, we expected , stretched across 5km of linear distance, we planned on 6 hours of climbing – hoping to catch the sunrise from the top.
Of course, things rarely go as planned in the dark at high altitude. One member experienced early signs of hypothermia which was solved with more layers and chemical hand warmers tucked in strategic spots. One of our local guides had stomach problems along with an old knee problem which caused him to separate from the group – after returning to Barafu camp he was wheeled down the mountain on a stretcher (and is now recovering well).
Extremely high winds, as forecast by Michael, and met us at ‘Stella Point’ at the crater rim as well as the morning dawn. Two team members opted to head back down rather than risk more exposure and five tagged ‘Uhuru Point’ which is further along the crater rim. Frozen fingers, iced up cameras, and plummeting body temperatures ruled out the quintessential group photo. As the noted mountaineer Ed Viesturs says ‘Getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory’ – and so down we all went and by 10am we were all back in Barafu camp with wind-burned smiles, and trying to organize gear for a long trudge down the mountain to Mweka camp, and thinking about hot showers and clean clothes the next day in town.
- Our initial idea was to climb it fast, light and unsupported. In other words, the way we organize most of our trips in Nepal. By unsupported, we mean carrying our own gear and not relying on porters.But it wasn’t long before we ran into park rules that require every group utilize porters. We also had some members who didn’t necessarily want to carry full loads up the mountain; so we opted to provide porters for those who wanted some help and tried to keep our overall group gear at a minimum (including using outhouses along the way instead of having porters carry a toilet tent etc).
- We learned that conditions for porters on Kilimanjaro as are precarious as they are for many in Nepal. Many do this work our of economic necessity, they carry injurious loads and have substandard gear, often hiking in cotton layers and poor foot ware. The experience reaffirmed our commitment trips in the future that can be run without requiring porter support and trying to help ‘the plight of the porter’ in other ways – as we have done in the past through research and our charity ‘Wide Open Vistas’ which sponsors several children of porters in Nepal. We encourage anyone who is climbing Kilimanjaro to meet with their guide and porters at least one day before leaving Arusha or Moshi and inspecting their gear. Anyone without adequate gear should either be equipped or not allowed up. Remember ‘Cotton Kills’. The tents porters sleep in should also be commeasurate with the tents that clients use.
- We also learned that Kilimanjaro is extremely crowded. Even though we selected a longer, less crowded route, we were joined by hundreds of campers our first night and eventually merged with the other routes finding noise, tents, and toilet paper crowding our vistas. The park service needs to start limiting permits – the mountain can’t sustain 50,000+ summits per year. The answer? Easy – come to Nepal where we are dreaming up new, off the beaten path adventures. Or..if the draw of Kili is too much, consider going in the off-season and maybe trying the northern circuit.