Review: Climbing Kilimanjaro

‘Pole, pole’ we soon learnt is Swahili for ‘slowly, slowly’, it was all to be about timing. This was soon to become our Mantra for the joint Marlborough College and Dauntsey’s school expedition to Tanzania. Our aim was firstly to summit Mt Meru at 4,566m in preparation and acclimatisation for our main objective, Kilimanjaro.

Kilimanjaro does not need much in the way of introduction.  Rising 5,895 metres it is the world’s highest single standing mountain.  It is also the highest mountain on the continent of Africa so therefore it is one of the much coveted ‘Seven Summits’.  First summited by Hans Meyer in October 1889 the slopes of Kilimanjaro have been graced by some celebrated English mountaineers including HW Tilman and Eric Shipton back in 1930.

Our initial challenge had nothing to do with the mountains but more related to the uncertainty of the modern world and the endless boundaries of terrorism.  A week prior to our planned departure which entailed transiting via Istanbul, the international airport was the target for terrorists.  Thankfully by the time of our planned departure on the 5th July the airport was operating normally.  Good timing then.

Arriving in the early hours of the 6th July our transfer to the comfortable Weru Weru River lodge was straightforward if not a little unconventional having been told we needed to wait for the Police escort.  Weru Weru Lodge was collection of impressive two story buildings each providing three or four twin en-suite rooms all enclosed behind a secure fence within manicured gardens.  The relaxing scene was completed by reflections in the swimming pool against a backdrop of Kilimanjaro and roaming Camels!

After a necessary period of rest and final preparations we departed for Ngongongare gate for registration and entry into the National Park and the start of our ascent of Mt Meru at 4,566m. A further short drive brought us to our trek start point, Momela gate where we met our trekking crew of 26 Porters, Cook team, and Guides plus our armed park Ranger.  Our bags were weighed with the maximum a Porter being allowed to carry of 20 kgs before the food and other essential supplies were equally distributed.  Whilst we set of on the gentler route affording more time for acclimatisation our Porters made a direct approach to our first overnight camp at the Miriakamba Huts.

From the Miriakamba Hut it is another 1,000metres of ascent to Saddle Hut from which a summit attempt can be made.

Our summit day started at 03.30 as we made our way by the light of our head torches towards the first of the recognised landmarks, Rhino Point at 3,800m.  From here a short descent leads to an area of interest as we scrambled over rocky slabs ‘protected’ by some fixed chains which we were encouraged to use.  By 0930 we had reached the summit completing our ascent well within the guide book time frame of between 6- 8 hours.  Now the easy part, the descent, retracing our steps; however for some the effects of the altitude were taking a toll.
Rest and recuperation back at Weru Weru River Lodge was restricted to overnight as it was imperative we did not loose the benefit of acclimatisation on Meru prior to climbing Kilimanjaro.

Our chosen route up Kilimanjaro was the  6 day Umbwe route which is known to be a relatively quiet  but described as ‘hard’ due to the initial ascent profile. (In 2007 when a survey was completed for which the figures are available, of the 40,701 who climbed Kilimanjaro only 156 used the Umbwe route.)  Once at Umbwe ‘Gate’ we waited for the Porters to arrive and the usual administrative ‘weigh in’.   We finally departed at about 12.30 just prior to our team of 46 trekking crew slightly anxious we would arrive at our campsite after dark having been told it was a 6 hour trek ascending 1,000m.  We trekked at a seemingly tediously slow pace through ‘primary jungle’ along a good tracks arriving at Cave Camp (approx 2,800m) after 5 hours.

The following day entailed another 1,000metres of ascent concluding at Barranco camp where we experienced for the first time just how popular Kilimanjaro has become as here several routes converge and camp just below the impressive Barranco Wall.

The following morning, a little after sunrise, many groups had already started out scrambling up the Barranco Wall, or ‘Breakfast Wall’ as it is sometimes referred to whilst we were still enjoying our breakfast.  It was all about timing.  Although initially looking intimidating the ascent up this rock wall added ‘interest’ to an otherwise steady trek at altitude and we made good quick progress over undulating terrain towards our next campsite, Karanga Camp at 3,995 metres.

Karanga Camp to Barafu camp was an easy three and half our trek the following day which was just as well because Barafu camp at 4,673 metres is also known as High camp or Base camp and it is from here summit attempts are made.  The maths is easy, but 1,222 metres of ascent wouldn’t be quite as easy.  The plan was to rest for the remainder of the day, and if possible, sleep until 11.00pm.

Then we would have a late meal before setting of at half past midnight with strict instructions we were not to ask ‘how much further’ until at least 06.30am.  We were expecting it to be cold but never before had I climbed wearing my ‘Goose Down’ jacket over the top of another 4 layers of mountaineering clothing.  At such a necessarily slow pace our momentum created little in the way of warmth and it wasn’t too long before we were looking for the early signs of sun rise as we trudged, one foot in front of the other, the path lit by the beams from our head torches and those in front of us. As the early dawn rays lit up our surroundings magnificent views of a cloud inversion below us and the summit of Kilimanjaro above was a sight appreciated by all. After a welcome short break at Stella Point (5756m) and a hot drink we made steady progress for a further 45minutes to Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro at 5,895 metres and the highest point in Africa where we all stood by 7.20am.  After numerous photo’s and hugs of celebration we turned and started to retrace our steps back to Barafu camp and past several groups, large and small, still making painfully slow progress towards the summit.  We continued our descent and after a further rest at Barafu camp we continued down the Mweka route to Millennium camp, our planned overnight stop.
The remainder of our descent was largely uneventful except perhaps receiving a text message from The Master, our ‘Base’ contact informing us there had been a failed coup in Turkey and that Istanbul airport, our transiting airport, was closed.  So it was all about timing.  The most appropriate thing we could do was to go and enjoy a two day overnight Safari, visting both Tarangire National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area and concentrate on seeing as many of the ‘big 5’ as possible whilst letting others worry about our travel arrangements.

During a magnificent two days it became routine to see large numbers of Lions Elephants, Giraffe, and even a Rhino at distance plus countless other species of wild animals roaming in their natural habitat.  Travelling back through Istanbul and our flight home was, as it transpired, also pretty routine.

Russ Tong
Head of Outdoor Activities

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