MACHAME ROUTE DAY 5: KARANGA TO BARAFU/KOSOVO
After another decent nights’ sleep (I was awake a couple of times), I was up by 5:45A for all the preparations for the day’s hike. New on the menu? Trying out a pair of sock liners. My feet felt good for the duration of the walk so I decided t wear them again for the summit attempt starting at 30 minutes past midnight on this day.
Our hike this day took us through and up a fairly steep path through a high plain littered with small and large rough-textured black rocks.
To our left Kibo peak could be seen clearly, a large white glacier reflecting the sun. At one stage we watched a commuter-type aircraft circle the mountain for what must have been some splendid views before it headed off in the direction of Arusha.
At the crest of this rise the trail dipped down into a glacial valley, only to rise again quite sharply (some rock-hopping involved) before we got to Barafu. Barafu is a large camp, being the main springboard for Kibo for the Machame, Umbwe and Lemosho routes. We checked with the local warden and rested for about 20 minutes or so (I enjoyed a Mars bar, a small banana and 250ml of juice) before setting off again for Kosovo. As I had mentioned previously this put us about an hour closer to the summit. We were all happy with this decision because the first hour out of Barafa was one of the most difficult stretches yet; a steep hill littered with large slabs of rock scattered in helter-skelter fashion. Several times we were simply climbing over and around rocks and negotiating patches of flat rock, rather than following any marked trail.
Completing this section of the trail at night would have been significantly more strenuous and tricky. We got to Kosovo at around 11:30A, enjoyed a great lunch of ‘kuku and chips (fried chicken and French fries) about an hour later. The mountain was clearly visible and very much dominated the landscape, looking right in front of us. To the east Mawenzi Peak could also be seen from time to time.
The idea is to get some sleep in preparation for the evening’s summit attempt. I gave it a shot and managed maybe a one hour nap, but that was it.
MACHAME ROUTE DAY 6: KILIMANJARO SUMMIT
At 1030P on the night of our summit attempt we were up and getting ready. Boots? Check. Gaiters? Check. Walking sticks, bandanas, fleece, thermal underwear? Check. The list is a long one. The temperatures can drop to well below zero Fahrenheit (-16 Celsius) and rain is also a factor, so all bases need to be covered.
By 11:30P we sat down in the mess tent for a light breakfast (oats and toast) and right on the dot at 12:20A on Thursday 23 February we walked out of the camp in single file, following our head guide Daniel up the trail in the direction of Kili.
Almost immediately the elevation started to increase and just to make things interesting, we were climbing in complete darkness with not even the moon providing some ambient light.
As opposed to our daily hike to get to this point, the summit day was ‘all business’ and there was not a lot of light banter going on as usual. The prospect of hiking nearly 7 hours in the dark while negotiating difficult and sometimes potentially dangerous terrain tends to focus one’s attention on the job at hand. One step at a time. Pole Pole.
As the hours slipped by and we inched our way ever higher along the winding trail leading to the edge of the crater, I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that in terms of actual distance, we did not have far to go. It didn’t help much.
To say that the climb was hard would be an understatement. Its duration and intensity combine to make it one of the hardest things most people will attempt in their entire lives. From 16,000 to 19,000 feet and above, the human body is simply not capable of utilizing blood oxygen as effectively as at lower altitudes. Most people attempting this 7-hour uphill climb are not yet acclimated to such high altitudes, having spent just a few days at 10,000 feet plus.
This manifests itself in shortness of breath, fatigue & dizziness, all of which negatively impact one’s performance at altitude. Every high step onto a rock or ledge became an effort and I wondered how much more of this I was going to be able to handle. By this time I was totally gassed and it took every ounce of perseverance and determination to keep going. The same could be said of my fellow climbers.
Just about then, I heard voices. The relief flooded over me – obviously we must be close to Stella Point! And so it was; not 10 minutes later we were sitting down at Stella Point for a really well-earned cup of hot tea. Uhuru Peak was about an hour away, along a fairly gentle slope compared with what we had just been through.
By now the morning light was starting to illuminate the striking natural beauty of the area. Brilliant white glaciers against a dark blue morning sky, a dense band of clouds obscuring the surrounding forest areas, and of course the massive crater itself with the ash pits visible from afar.
Although Uhuru Peak itself is a somewhat nondescript jumble of rocks not a lot higher than its surroundings, reaching it is a milestone of epic proportions for ‘every day’ climbers. And for many people it is a huge big check on their bucket list. The official TANAPA synopsis describes it as ‘the physical and photographic manifestation of one of the worlds’ signature adventures: conquering the highest mountain in Africa. From a personal perspective, the high point for me was seeing the familiar Uhuru sign slowly emerge from the gloom and reveal itself in the foggy mountain air. We did not linger long: took our turn (yes there was a short line) for the summit pic in front of the sign, big grins hiding the fatigue and sleep deprivation. We did it!
SO HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT – REALLY?
If anyone ever says that climbing Kili is ‘easy’, they are not doing it from the perspective of most of the thousands of persons who attempt to do it every year. For them, like us, it was a monumental endeavor which required good planning, proper equipment, lots of support, and a good amount of training and preparedness.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is challenging and can be dangerous (altitude sickness is a potentially deadly condition) yet it continues to attract thousands of people every year. Why? Kili is accessible and for all the popular tourist routes, no technical mountain climbing gear or skills are required.
Kilimanjaro pushed me to the limit of my physical resources and demonstrated that if one wants to hike one of the routes and enjoy the experience, a high level of physical fitness and endurance – while not mandatory – make it challenging but doable, rather than a grueling trek punctuated by some punishing climbs.
For the most part our daily hikes on the Machame Trail were long and arduous, but none of them was a supreme test of fitness. The 7-hr hike to the Crater on the last day, is where one’s physical prowess or the lack of it becomes evident. If you’re relatively fit and did some pre-climb training, it will be hard but manageable and – well – fun. Show up in bad shape and you will pay dearly in the form of having to bail out. Of course illness and external factors such as altitude sickness, lack of sleep, come into the equation as well. The arduous summit day climb is pretty much the same for the Machame, Umbwe, Lemosho, Rongai and Marangu routes.
As if the day wasn’t long enough already, we had to hike down from the Crater rim to our campsite (Kosovo) and from there to Mweka Camp. All in all this took another 5 hours of hiking, starting with a couple of hours or so of ‘scree-skiing’ down steep paths. By now our legs were pretty much shot. Not far out of Kosovo, the trail started to get a lot steeper. It turned out to be a real slog with the trail dipping down from the highland plateau to the forest via some abrupt steps, with boulders instead of bricks, and lots of protruding natural rock formations. Also, it was wet on the day which made this physically taxing trail even more of a challenge than one would expected.
Finally we made it to Mweka campsite which was quite large with two huge campsites filled with hundreds of hikers year-round. It felt good to realize that the we had nailed it, Kili was ours. We slept well that night.
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