Before we take off on this newest adventure, we thought it would be important to write a couple of posts detailing our first excursion as a couple – Mt. Kilimanjaro, which we summited in February of last year.
So…from the top.
It was September 2013 when we decided to buy a Living Social bargain to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (you heard correctly, a Living Social deal!). At the time, we knew little of the mountain or the difficulty level, but it seemed like an amazing package that we just couldn’t pass up!
A little background on the beast – Mt. Kilimanjaro is located in the eastern African nation of Tanzania and at 19,341 feet (or 5,895 meters) above sea level, it is the highest freestanding mountain in the world (i.e. it’s not part of a mountain range – it’s basically by itself in what is mostly a flat region).
We would find that the majority of the 5-day hike was quite manageable, featuring only a slight incline and forgiving terrain for the first 3 days; but you don’t get the title of highest freestanding mountain in the world by being a manageable climb and Kili’s true colors did fully reveal themselves in day 4 and 5. They would prove to be some of the most difficult and challenging hours either of us had endured, both physically and mentally, in our lives.
In this post we’ll run through the events of each day until we – spoiler alert – finally make it to the top. Hope you enjoy!
Day One and Two: Traveling to Africa
After plenty of research on training techniques, packing lists, and climate expectations (just to name a few) we left Washington, DC on February 17th, 2014 to start the 10-day venture to the “Roof of Africa”. We flew Turkish Airlines and had a layover in Istanbul which split the journey into an eight-hour and six hour flight. The flights were actually quite enjoyable; the food was excellent and the flight was roomy. Long flights are always a pain, but it proved to be much better than we expected. Along the way, we met a few of the wonderful people that would be in our trek group throughout the trip and immediately fell in love with them; such wonderful people. The trip would not have been as impactful without the 16 personalities in our group. I strongly encourage future trekkers to go with a group, preferably strangers rather than opting for a private tour. We learned so much from each other and created unexpected friendships along the way.
Day Three and Four: Rest and Relaxation
Once we arrived in Tanzania, a representative from Skyline Travel & Safaris, our guide company, greeted us at Kilimanjaro International Airport. After completing visa paperwork (which cost $100), we were escorted by bus to the town of Moshi, where we would check into our hotel and recover from traveling. We stayed at Springlands Hotel and while the facility itself was lovely the service and people made the stay especially extraordinary. Although much of our time was spent catching up on sleep (I think we missed a whole 24 hour day!), when we were up we were always greeted with a smile and engaged in riveting conversation with people from all over the world.
Day Five: Montane Rain Forest
On the fifth day, we were ready to start the climb. We loaded a bus with duffels, porters and wide-eyed mountaineers (mountaineers might be giving us too much credit…), and drove about two hours until we arrived at Kilimanjaro National Park. Our group of 16 then registered with the park staff; our nerves building at this point, as we were all anxious to start the trek. There are about seven different routes that trekkers can take to Uhuru Peak (the highest point in Africa) of which the Marangu Route was predetermined for our group, which took the hassle out of trying to decide the best way up the mountain.
We entered through the Marangu Mountain Gate and there was no turning back! The first day of hiking took about 3-4 hours, where we traveled through rain forest like environments. The temperature remained warm throughout this beginning leg and we were able to make it to the first checkpoint, Mandara Hut, without any issues. We were greeted at the Mandara Huts with warm food to eat and bunks to sleep. At this point in the trek, we were 9,000 feet above sea level. Breathing started to become more difficult and it was important to take part in acclimation exercises while settled at the huts.
Day Six: Mandara to Horombo
After a less than satisfying sleep in the Mandara Huts (sleeping at high elevation with proper acclimation is tough), the group ate the breakfast which was graciously prepared by our team porters. Then we began the next leg of the trek through much shorter foliage which grew increasingly less dense as we ascended. As we continued to climb, a slower pace was necessary to reserve energy. Porters remind you by saying “pole-pole” which means “slowly” in Swahili. It was on this day that we were able to notice ourselves above the clouds, which was a remarkable experience. We hiked for about 5 hours until we arrived at Horombo Hut.
The trek grows increasingly more difficult as the air thins and the incline steepens. At the same time, porters carrying at least 30 additional pounds were almost sprinting past us to prepare the next campsite before we arrived. The men and women who aid trekkers up the mountain are truly extraordinary people. The food was great and they even set aside specific plates that were gluten free (which Chris was eternally grateful for)! Sleep in the Mandara Huts was almost non-existent; at this point in the journey you have a clear view of Kilimanjaro, which seems like an impossible trek and with thin air and anxious thoughts, sleep is hard to come by.
Day Seven: Horombo to Kibo
Just as we had done the morning before, we woke early and ate breakfast as a group. It was then time to make our way to what they call the saddle of Kilimanjaro. We left the Horombo huts around 8am and would arrive at the Kibo encampment midday, around 3pm. While much is uphill, there is a vast portion of terrain before you arrive at Kibo that is desert. Amongst the desert there is one mountain peak, known as Mawenzi. Although she pales in comparison to Kilimanjaro, she is an intimidating figure which is nearly impossible to climb according to our guides. We have no desire to prove them wrong.
The Kibo encampment is about 15,416 feet above sea level and extremely cold; all of the water has to be carried up to this campsite and rations are scarce. Everyone is exhausted at this point. The goal is to eat an early dinner and sleep as much as possible before ascending at midnight and as you can imagine, it was extremely difficult to get the necessary rest within this environment. Chris likened the Kibo dorms to sleeping in a Russian prison. He probably wasn’t too far off; it was awful.
Day Eight: Summit Day
At midnight, in darkness that wouldn’t allow you to see an inch in front of your face, the group gathered outside of the Kibo Huts and began our push for the summit. Leaving at midnight would allow us to see the sunrise from the top of the mountain and allow us enough time to descend safely with daylight. It was probably best that we left with no visibility so that we were not able to see what was ahead of us.
The group moved slowly up the mountain in a snake-like fashion and to say it was freezing cold would be a gross understatement. It took us about six grueling hours to reach Gilman’s Point, at the crater rim of the mountain which is about 18,640 feet above sea level. We stopped here to rest, but would still have about an hour and a half ahead of us around the crater of Kilimanjaro until we reached Uhuru Peak so our guides urged us to keep moving.
Our time at Gilman’s Point was a mental and physical struggle for everyone. Altitude sickness was extremely common among the group and the cold conditions made every step painful. But the group was able to pull together to help each other carry onwards to the summit. Traveling around the crater was extremely dangerous. The ground was covered in snow and one slip could mean tumbling down into the mountains crater. But alas, we rounded the final corner, surrounded by glaciers and clouds, to find the famous green Uhuru Peak sign at 7:30AM.
It is amazing what adrenaline can do for the human body. At this instant we were no longer tired or distressed and the few hundred feet to the sign seemed painless. We stayed up at the summit for about 15 minutes, took pictures and exchanged many hugs and high fives with our group, porters, and even other groups that had gotten there at a similar time. It was such a relief to be standing at 19,341 feet, the highest point in the entire continent.
Day Eight: The Descent
As much joy as we had at the top of the summit, it was soon accompanied by the realization that we would have to make the trek down the mountain immediately after. The descent would involve not only the ground that was covered on summit day, but also the mileage all the way back to the Horombo Huts. Going down the mountain was slightly easier because the sun had warmed us up and gravity was working in our favor, but it still had its difficulties.
We did not end up getting to the Horombo Huts until almost dinnertime that day. This meant that we had been hiking and climbing for about 14 hours straight. At Horombo, dinner was prepared for us and we all slept well knowing each one of us had accomplished what we set out to do. This may have been the longest day of our lives, but it was also one of the most rewarding.
Day Nine: Back to Moshi
After waking up refreshed from an exhausting summit day, the group ate breakfast (we snapped a picture with our favorite porter, William) and made our way down the last portion of the mountain. No more stops were made as we ventured down the mountain. By midday, we were at the park entrance, where we started this crazy adventure. We ate lunch together and were given certificates of completion.
We took a bus back to Moshi, and sang Kilimanjaro songs the entire ride – it was an absolute blast. The cohesion of the group had grown so much from the the start of the trip. It was truly a special moment for us all to be singing and laughing together after such a grueling 5 days. We arrived in Moshi in time to eat dinner at the hotel and exchange contact information with each other from the group. We decided our group name would be “Mohsin’s Mighty Dream Team” (part of an inside joke regarding the booking services). The group has done a great job staying in touch despite people being from all over the country.
Day Ten: We’re Done! Homeward Bound
Not much time was allotted for us to catch up on rest at the hotel. The bus came to pick us up in the middle of the night to head to the airport. The flight home seemed much longer and was much more stressful than the flight there, but I guess this is fairly common. We arrived in Washington, DC the evening of February 26th. Being home was such a treat! Drinking water from the faucet, eating amble food, showering, and sleeping in a clean bed were just some of the perks we’ll never take for granted again.
What an amazing trip! Can’t wait to find the next adventure…