My amazing journey to the summit of the highest free standing mountain in the world!
by Kenny Smith
Over a year after booking up the time had come... We all met at Heathrow Airport, 30 strangers eyeing each other up and down and trying to suss who everyone is and what they are like and thinking about the week ahead. All these people, all with the same goal but with different reasons for being there and each having a different story to tell.
We landed at Tanzania nine hours later and then jumped on another plane to Kilimanjaro airport, the sort of plane that you would find on an Indiana Jones film! We caught our first glimpse of the mountain from the air. We landed and packed the mini buses with our bags and jumped on board to head to the hotel.
Day 1 of the Trek - Machame Gate to Machame Huts
After a briefing the night before (oh and a few ice cold Kilimanjaro bottles of beer to settle the nerves!) and a nice breakfast in the morning, we were packed and ready for the off. Our day started early and everybody was in good spirits. We filled our day bags and topped up our water containers.
The journey from Arusha to Mount Kilimanjaro took about an hour and a half, and because it was quite cloudy we couldn't get a good view of the top of the mountain that we were going to conquer. It was nice driving through the villages and seeing all the local people and farmers and the whole different way of life: cows and goats tied up at the sides of the dusty roads and women carrying massive straw baskets on their heads. As we approached the mountain we ascended up to 1800m to the Machame Gate, which is as far as vehicles can go.
The gate was a busy place where each climber must register their details with the authorities who control the mountain. We would all have to 'check in' at each camp site on arrival to make sure that no one went astray during the day. There were lots of porters who seemed to be either trying to get work or be complaining about the weight that they must carry. Each porter's load had to be weighed to make sure it was within the 15kg weight limit set per porter, although further up the mountain they carried much more than this as we would empty more gear from our day bags into our kit bags. Just outside the gate there were loads of souvenir sellers who would build up into a frenzy of frantic sales pitches if any unsuspecting climber got too close!
After waiting for the whole group to check in and having an equipment talk we eventually got the signal to start trekking and, personally, I was quite pleased to get going as all the planning and packing had been going on for ages. The path to begin with was a mud track through the jungle, and we were welcomed by many wild monkeys! The first few miles were wide enough for 4×4 access but it soon narrowed, meaning the only way forward was on foot.
The trail was uphill but easy going, taking us from 1800m to 3032m over about 10km, which was a pretty gentle introduction into what lay ahead. The air was fresh and it wasn't too hot as the trees in the jungle provided a good shade from the hot sun, which occasionally shone through the gaps in the trees. It was nice to hear the wild animals and birds in the jungle as well as the marching of trekkers! The pace was surprisingly slow, giving plenty of scope to make new friends, not just within our group but also with the local guides and porters who were accompanying us up.
There was some slight drizzle after our lunch stop which immediately prompted us to put on our water proof clothing and put on the covers on our back packs. Within 5 minutes we were drenched as the rain lashed down on us, the sort of rainfall that only happens in Africa. We stopped for a few minutes under the shelter of the jungle canopy until the heaviest of the rain had passed. By the time we arrived at the camp we were freezing cold, soaked to the skin and very miserable!
The porters had set up the camp before we arrived and a brew was quickly produced along with a large plateful of fresh popcorn. As the sun went down, the temperature dropped and we were all reaching for warm fleeces and jackets, which made me start to wonder how cold it was going to be further up! Dinner was soup and a beef stew, just what we needed, and this certainly warmed us up.
The first night sleeping in the tent was not helped by the damp clothes and gear, which we couldn't dry anywhere. I was pleased that my sleeping bag was very warm and comfortable and my sleeping mat kept the rocks and stones at bay. We were blessed with a clear starry sky, but it was so nice to get my head down and get off to sleep.
Day 2 - Machame Huts to Shira Camp
We woke up early and luckily for us it was a beautiful sunny day, so I took all my wet clothes and hung them from trees and bushes in the sun to try and dry them out while we had breakfast. After a breakfast of porridge, toast, omelette and sausages we set off in good spirits. We could see the glacier at the top of the mountain. I hung all my wet items from my back pack and they didn't take too long to dry while we were en route.
The path was steeper than the day before, and there weren't many trees to protect us from the hot sun and it was very dusty. By the end of the day we were covered in dust inside and out! We were now above the clouds and the views were breathtaking, with the Kibo summit and the neighbouring mountain, Mount Meru in sight.
The vegetation grew smaller as we climbed higher, following a ridge with several false summits up to our lunch stop about the halfway point. The after lunch trekking was good fun with lots of rocks and boulders to scramble over and around.
The trail rose up to 3899m on the Shira Plateau before flattening out and then dropping down to the Shira Camp at 3847m, one of the nicest campsites on the trek. Looking out from my tent, I could see a clear view of the jagged peaks of the Plateau in the distance. It was so amazing I kept having to pinch myself as I couldn't believe I was there and couldn't believe the fantastic scenery all around me!
Again, as the sun set the temperature dropped, and I was pleased to get on my thick fleece, woolly hat and jacket. We had only covered about 6km but, looking back, it was one of the best days on the trek. We were much more organised in our tent because everything was dry and we could sort our kit and hang clothes out and I had a really good night's sleep!
Day 3 - Shira Camp to Barranco Camp
We awoke this morning to a heavy frost, but the sun soon popped his head out! After breakfast we topped up our water containers and we were ready for another day on the mountain. The frost soon disappeared as the sun warmed up and the day began with a gentle ascent towards the Western slopes of Kibo, soon leaving the lush grass vegetation behind and then taking on a boulder terrain.
It was a long day, covering about 10km and taking us up to 4642m before dropping us down to 3985m at the Barranco camp. We gained just 138m in height, but it served as useful acclimatisation, although some trekkers were starting to suffer and were getting slight headaches.
Our pace was slower today with our guide taking the lead and deliberately setting a slow pace and repeatedly telling us to take it "Pole Pole" ("Slowly Slowly" in Swahili) so as to minimise the risk of altitude sickness, which some were beginning to feel the effects of. I was still feeling good though and kept my place right up front, leading the way as I always do, both because I like to ask the guides plenty of questions and also because you get longer breaks up the front while the team regroups at breaks and stops.
We took regular breaks and I kept topping myself up with energy gels and Kendal mint cake. Also each day I carried 4ltrs of water in my back pack as you must stay hydrated on the mountain - the locals say it is the medicine of the mountain!
Further along, the path forked with one route going up to reach a lava tower at 4600m and the other going around the valley, creating a short cut for the porters. Taking it easy, we reached the lava tower and took a break for lunch, at the highest point we would reach for the next few days. It was a barren place and you could of been on the Moon or Mars!
The path then descended steeply, crossing a couple of streams in a valley, and we then had to climb up the other side, but from there it was downhill all the way into the Barranco Valley. The vegetation returned and it was generally a much more pleasant place than up at the lava tower. There were giant cacti along the way, and the scenery looked like something out of a horror film or Lord of the Rings, some plants were massive and well over a hundred years old. Eventually the camp came into view, although it still took an hour or so to reach it. We had been walking for over eight hours and I just chilled straight away in the tent when we arrived.
The camp had great views of Kibo's southern face and the Barranco Wall, which we were to ascend the next day, and that was a part of the trek I was looking forward to as it was hand and foot climbing and scrambling! It was very cold that evening and I forced myself to eat everything that was served to me. Although I was a bit tired, I still wasn't suffering from any altitude sickness, which was my biggest concern and worry since actually booking the trip up. My legs and feet were also okay and fitness wise I was in great shape! The months of hard training, exercise, long walks and runs and constant stair climbing really was paying off!
Day 4 - Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp
We woke up very early, around 5.30am, and witnessed the most amazing sunrise ever. It's amazing because below all you can see is far distant fields and plains and God knows what else, but as soon as the sun is up, all that landscape is then covered by the cloud!
We had a very long 11hr trek to Barafu Camp, but again I was looking forward to the challenge. Our mission for today was to scale the steep Barranco wall, which peaked at 4233m, and then head down into the Karanga Valley where we would have lunch at 4040m, before making our way up to 4600m and the final summit camp.
From the camp the steep Barranco wall looked pretty imposing, and we could make out a line of trekkers and porters slowly making their way up a winding path. We had to put our poles away as it was a scramble up the wall and required some 'hands on rock', which made for a nice change and was a lot of fun. The pace again was slow and the mood good, although now some of the group started dropping out due to altitude sickness and lack of training and fitness.
There were a few steep parts, and the odd slippery part in a couple of sections was a little scary. We came across a part where we had to literally 'kiss the wall'. I think the encouragement and help given by the local guides really helped some of the trekkers that weren't quite so nimble on their feet. Most impressive were the porters who came past us carrying large loads on their heads whilst somehow scrambling up the wall. The porters really are amazing and do work so hard and seem so happy all the time.
There were again plenty of false summits but that just added to the fun and after about an hour and a half we reached the top of the wall and were presented with some amazing views of Kibo, and the cloud cover way below us. We stopped for about half an hour to take in the views, rest and have some snacks.
From the view point we descended down into the Karanga valley, which saw a return of the vegetation, and whilst it was a bit of a scramble down some narrow and steep paths it made for a pleasant trek. At the bottom of the valley was a stream, which we were told was the last place to get water on this route. The porters would have to carry water for us to the last two camps, which they boil and sterilise for us, they would then pour it into our bottles via a tea strainer. It came out brown but it was fine to drink, although I put in a steriliser tab and a flavoured tab to sweeten the taste!
After lunch, we made our way to Barufu Camp. We descended into a shallow valley before reaching a steep ascent section which involved a bit of scrambling as we made our way towards the highest camp on our route at 4600m. The porters as usual had left after us, packed up camp, carried the gear on their heads and passed us en route.
We reached a plateau and the path then lead steeply up to the left into the Barafu camp. Apparently Barafu means 'ice' in Swahili, and the camp is probably named after the nearby Rebmann Glacier. It was a barren camp, with tents pitched between large boulders where there was enough room. It was also a lot more littered than anywhere else on the trail, which had been very impressively clean.
We arrived at camp at around 6pm, and all thoughts now turned to the summit push, which we would be starting at 2am! We had tea, had a summit brief and I got dressed ready for the summit climb and slept in my clothes.
I couldn't sleep at all! The wind was gale force and was beating the tent all night! We were camping on the other side of the mountain now and the weather conditions were totally different. I started to have negative thoughts going through my head and although I was feeling good I was starting to doubt if I would reach the summit!
More of the group were dropping out and I decided to take precautions so I took an altitude sickness pill. I wanted to get to that summit so badly that I wanted to take no chances of getting altitude sickness and being turned around! The only down side to taking the tablet is that you pee like a race horse and this means drinking more, because on the mountain you must keep hydrated to avoid mountain sickness, but then you find you're going to the loo every 15 to 30 minutes. At temperatures of minus 15 that's not a lot of fun!
Day 5 - Barafu Camp to Stella Point and Uhuru Peak (and back)
The summit day started at around 1am with the aim of seeing the sunrise close to the summit and also allowing enough daylight for the long descent back down to 3000m. We got up at 1am and I was keen to get up and get started. It was really, really cold with a biting wind, but I drank a warming cup of tea and filled myself up on pain killers and energy gels so as to not take any chances of not seeing my goal! I was pleased to own an insulated camel pak as the water inside would have frozen due to the freezing temperatures. I did have two other bottles that I carried on my pack that did freeze, but these defrosted later giving me a nice ice cold drink
I think we were all feeling apprehensive so there was plenty of reassuring and encouraging each other. We were a great team and we all wanted to reach the summit as a team!
Again, I just wanted to get going straight away but it took a while for everyone to get sorted. It was pitch black when we started trekking so we were all wearing head-torches, which offered visibility to just a bit in front of your feet. Finally, we set off and I had my normal position at the front and we moved through the camp towards the path to the summit at a very slow pace, being careful to walk and follow the guide in front under torch light. I was happy with plodding up at a slow pace watching the feet of the guide in front and not doing a lot else apart from trying to stay awake!
Initially the path was a bit rocky but it soon flattened out into a shale path that had a series of zig zags up towards the summit. It was uphill and steep all the way, there would be no downhill until after we reached the top! There really wasn't much to see apart from the feet of the guy in front of you, occasionally I would look behind and see a line of head torches zig zagging towards me.
The temperature seemed to get colder as we got higher up, so I was happy to have all the layers of clothing on now. I had a thick pair of fleece lined trousers on, thick socks, long sleeved wicking shirt, a thin fleece, thick fleece, hard shell, thick jacket, buff, balaclava and fleece hat and skiing gloves and I was thankful! Although when I removed my glove to use my camera my hand has never been in so much pain through the cold!
The air was so thin and breathing had become so difficult, it was almost impossible to walk and take a sip of water at the same time, so taking a 10 second break to have a couple of sips of water and then get your breath back was common on the way up, and really helped. Talking went to a minimum as well as this also made you short of breath! I would try and answer questions with just a single word answer.
I'd been looking forward to watching the sun coming up and it started to rise at around 6:30am. It energised us but also showed us that we had a long way to go still. I was starting to feel pretty knackered now and it was hard graft in the deep scree, and my legs were beginning to ache. I was so tired now due to lack of sleep but I knew I was so close, so I kept my head down and kept pushing onwards and upwards. I would rest for a few seconds between steps and lean on my walking poles to breathe, which was definitely more difficult. After a quick break to have some water and an energy gel I heard one of the guides say that the summit was "not far, only thirty minutes", but unfortunately Africa runs on a different timescale and distance to us so it was fair to say I was doubtful, because half an hour usually means over an hour and 5 miles means closer to ten!
Suddenly it didn't look too much further, and this is where the mental state takes over. I had dreamed of reaching the summit and what I was going to do when I got there so many times since booking up, and that thought kept me going. And there in the distance was the sign for Stella Point at 5,752m. The tears began to fall on my frozen cheeks, I couldn't believe it, I was seconds away from the top!
So I gave our guide my camera and in true Kenny style I ran as fast as my tired body would allow and I reached Stella Point and I cried with so much joy! I made it and was on top of the mountain and so close to the summit. The whole group hugged and congratulated each other and took photos for everyone, and we all downed a lovely cup of tea before deciding who was going to go on to the summit of Uhuru Peak and the highest point. My name was well and truly on the list, but over half the group would not make it.
I could see it in the distance, it was about a half hour to an hour climb. And then that was it! I was there! I was speechless! The sign informed us that we were now at the highest point in Africa, on the highest freestanding mountain in the world at 5,895m. The view with the glacier, the clouds way below, and the crater was outstanding.
There was absolutely no life at all up there! No birds or animals and no plant life whatsoever. It was bitterly cold and like nowhere else on earth I have ever been! I was so happy that I had completed my mission and that I had raised lots of money at the same time for the Multiple Sclerosis Trust. Whatever else happens from that moment on I can always say that I climbed to the summit of the highest free standing mountain in the world! I am a Mountaineer!!!
Everyone took turns having their photo taken there with the sign. I had my MS Trust flag at the ready and enjoyed my brief moment at the sign and summit! I forced down an energy bar but it was too cold to hang around for too long and after one last look around the crater we followed down the scree.
Going down was a lot easier than going up as you could slide down on the scree. It was very hard on my knees though and we had now been on the go for nine hours and we were all pretty shattered! A couple of times I had rests and sat on the odd large rock, I soaked in the amazing views and constantly had my camera on the go. It was hard to get going again but I was looking forward to a lie down back at the camp.
This is now the worst part. The summit was reached and it was a long and steep trek back to camp. The skin on my nose and lips was chapped and sore, we all suffered from this, probably bought on by breathing in the freezing cold air and then the heat of the sun. Around three hours after we left the summit we arrived back at the camp, immediately I went straight into the tent, stripped off and laid down. It was heaven!
This was topped by a fresh cup of tea. I could have stayed there until the next day but there was still more of a descent to do as we had to go from 4,600m to 3,000m that afternoon, and we had no water at camp so there was little time for a rest. I was dreading it, I just wanted my bed! But after some soup I felt a lot better and was now eager to just get on with it and get back down. So a few energy gels and I was on my way to the final camp on the mountain.
The descent was actually not that bad and as we started I felt re-energised. Breathing started to get easier and easier as we dropped in altitude. Unfortunately there were a lot of steps on the trail, which just hurt my knees and obviously weren't popular as alternative paths had been made just to the side of the main trail. The vegetation got bigger and bigger and soon it shaded the path completely. We kept thinking the camp "must be around the corner" but the path just kept going! Eventually the jungle reappeared and our camp with it. It had taken us four hours to descend what had taken us four days to ascend! That day, we had walked for around 22 hours of the past 35, but in my head I kept saying you're getting closer to a beer!
The Mweka camp was busy and noisy with lots of groups and porters having done the hard bit and now letting off some steam. It was still cold, but breathing was back to normal. During the night we were hit by a mega dust storm and there was dust everywhere, and I mean everywhere! I'm not entirely sure how it got inside the tent but we were covered in the filthy black thick dust and my nose was totally bunged up. I skipped dinner, phoned home, sorted my gear out and went straight to bed, and I slept for England!
Day 6 - Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate
The next morning after breakfast it was customary to tip the guides, cooks and the porters, and it was nice to thank them all individually. Given that a porter must pay his own transport to and from the mountain, and for his food, and then carry all our gear on their heads, they more than earned our small token.
They sang us a few mountain songs and did us a dance to which we cheered and clapped. I said an emotional goodbye to my porter who I called 'My Man' and left him with my sleeping bag and mat and told him that he deserved a good night's sleep. We exchanged bracelets, hugged and I said goodbye with tears in my eyes.
From Mweka camp it was downhill all the way and my knees were really taking a pounding now. We went through the jungle to the Mweka gate and our waiting transport to the land of showers, beer, and a decent meal. Having not had these luxuries for the past six days this was now very appealing! We had 1,400m to descend and we again went at a good pace, although porters came past us even faster! It took us about five hours to reach the gate which was bustling with porters packing gear onto the coach. There was a toilet with running water!
We sat to wait for the rest of the group while necking a few well deserved ice cold beers! It was amazing sat there in the sunshine with a beer in my hand and chatting with my new friends. Once the whole group had arrived we ate lunch, necked a few more beers and then got on the mini buses to head back to the hotel.
At the hotel I told my room buddy that he could go first in the shower, I just asked in return that I could use the loo first! After a week on wet wipe washes in the tent and long drop toilets it really was so nice to be back at the hotel, but phoning home was first on my list!
That night after a well-deserved shower and shave I put on my party clothes and enjoyed the celebration meal, music and plentiful cold beers! I really enjoyed sitting round the table mingling with my new friends and having a bloody good laugh and a joke. We were all congratulated for our achievements and given our certificate of ascent. That night it was heaven to sleep in a real bed!
The next day I woke early and surprisingly hangover free! I had a large breakfast and we had a free day to do what we chose until leaving for the airport so I decided to go to a local market town to buy some presents and to also have a lovely local lunch.
Back at the hotel, my bags were packed and we all said our goodbyes to some of the group that were leaving on other flights and we made our way to the airport and our long flight home. Then at Heathrow we exchanged contact details and hugged and shook hands with our new friends. We promised each other that we will all trek together again and will certainly keep in touch through the wonders of Facebook!
It was an absolutely amazing experience and looking back now it was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life, not just the trek but the training too. But it was also definitely one of the most enjoyable and friendly challenges of my life. The people I met and the friends I made hold a special place in my heart.
To anyone out there looking for a challenge that really is something out of the ordinary with every terrain and element, and something so rewarding and beautiful, then Mount Kilimanjaro is for you! With the right training, right kit and a positive attitude you will reach the summit! I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone!
Right, now on to the next challenge!