That time I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and lived to tell the tale…

I was on top of the world!! (Or at least on The Roof of Africa!)

Despite some (major) breathing struggles due to the high altitude and extremely thin air, I’m really happy to report that I made it all the way to Uhuru Peak! I climbed 19,341 feet on the World’s Highest Freestanding Mountain to The Roof of Africa. From being cold and dirty for seven days and only using wet wipes to bathe, to camping out in sleeping bags in the great outdoors and going to the bathroom behind rocks along the trail, to facing my fears of climbing a real rock wall (with no harness) and hiking up to 7 hours in a day, to even climbing 13 hours in extreme cold and dangerously low temps on summit night, I can honestly say that even though in the moment it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically, I enjoyed every day and the adventure of it all.

My climbing group consisted of 3 other girls and I along with our 3 guides and 13 porters. We saw dads and sons, couples and groups of guys but we were the only group of all girls. Yup, we’re that badass.

We chose to do a 7 day hike on Machame, the route known as “The Whiskey Route” because it is more challenging and scenic than Marangu, the “Coca Cola Route.” The more days you spend climbing, the better your chances are of acclimatizing and successfully making it to the summit. I don’t know if I would have made it if we did a shorter trek. Climbing, much like in life, is a mental game. If you believe it is possible and tell yourself you can do it compared to if you are weak and give up, the choice is yours. You have to honey badger through that shit. The mental aspect of the climb was actually the easiest part for me. Apparently, when I want  something, I am a lot stronger mentally than I ever fully realized.

I used to wonder what it was like to touch a cloud. They look so fun and fluffy, right? Let me tell you right now – they aren’t. They are cold and damp and quite dreary! But even if you are standing in the clouds or above the clouds, when you’re on the mountain looking up at the snow-covered peak, you completely forget that you’re in Africa.

Every morning at 6am the porters woke us up with hot tea and a hot breakfast. We’d get dressed (we pretty much wore the same clothes everyday so this didn’t take too long), pack up our stuff and load our daypack with the stuff that we needed for the day. Having the right gear made the trek a thousand times easier. We had 3 hot meals a day and ate dinner around 6pm by candlelight. It got really cold at night and there wasn’t much to do in the dark except rely on our headlamps and candles to play cards, write in our journals or read so we’d stall best we could and then retire early for the night to rest up for the long day of hiking ahead.

Quick Kilimanjaro Facts:

  • The guides repeatedly tell you “pole pole” (pronounced polé) which means “slowly slowly”. The slower you go, the more likely you are to make it to the summit.
  • It’s the largest freestanding mountain in the world standing at 19,341 ft/ 5895 m.
  • Kilimanjaro supports 5 major eco-zones: rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and arctic tundra. Where else on Earth can you journey through 5 climates from the Equator/Amazon Rainforest to the North Pole in 45 miles? Truly incredible.
  • The biggest challenge and danger is the high altitude. Climbers die from improper acclimatization and altitude sickness rather than falls.
  • Approximately 25,000 people attempt to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro annually. Only about 2/3 are successful. (and I am one of them! Woo!)
  • The structure is composed of 3 volcanoes: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. Kibo, where all the hikers are, is the highest and only peak that is dormant and could erupt again. The most recent activity was only 200 years ago! (Yea, so I climbed on a colossal volcano!)

So here is a day by day account of the life-changing climb:

October 14: DAY 1
Machame Gate to Machame Hut Camp
Elevation: 5,997 ft to 9,908 ft

Distance: 10.8 km
 (6.7 miles)
Time: 12N to 5:22PM
. 5 hours 22 minutes
Zone: Rainforest

It rained in the rainforest. Go figure. I saw some monkeys swinging in the trees, so that was entertaining. The air was already thinning and already becoming more difficult to breathe. I tried to focus on the climb rather than what could have been.  That night I stood mesmerized by the breathtaking beauty and astounding mass quantity of stars. Stars in Utah have nothing on this.

day 1 - kilimanjaro
 
October 15 DAY 2
Machame Hut to Shira Camp
Elevation: 12,621 ft

Distance: 5.2 km
 (3.2 miles)

Time: 8:30AM to 1PM
 - 4 hours 57 minutes
Vitals: 97 Oxygen level
Zone: Alpine Forest

Today was rough and very steep. We were already above the clouds and climbed over rocks, mud and boulders. At one point, we were on the edge of a cliff with only a 3-inch thick ledge!! (not exaggerating at all)

day 2- kilimanjaro
Thank goodness for walking sticks. No stepping stones are stairs, only boulders.
October 16 – DAY 3
Shira Camp to Barranco Hut (via Lava Tower)

Elevation: Lava Tower 15,092 ft / Barranco Hut 130,70ft

Distance: 
Shira to Lava 7.0 (4.3 miles)
Lava to Barranco 3.7 km (2.3 miles)

Time: 8:30AM to 4PM
 - 6 hours 27 minutes
Vitals: 94 Oxygen level
Zone: Moorland

The first 3 ½ hours were straight uphill and extremely cold.The cold temps only make breathing in the thin air that much more difficult. To help acclimate (climb high, sleep low) we descended after reaching Lava Tower which is the highest point along the route until the summit.

Grace and I at Lava Tower; crazy Tim Burton-esque trees; me standing in front of Kibo
October 17 – DAY 4
Barranco Hut to Karanga Hut

Elevation: 13,255 ft

Barranco Wall (843 ft)
Distance: 5.8 km (3.6 miles)
Time: 8:50AM to 1PM
 4 hours
Vitals: 90 Oxygen level
Zone: Alpine Desert

The air had gotten so thin that it took me 5 minutes to catch my breath. Even going from the tent to the toilet tent and back was an effort. We literally climbed a rock wall known as the High Breach Barranco Wall. We put away our walking poles and used our hands to pull ourselves up and over massive boulders. On our walk, I had an interesting chat with Vincent, my guide, about how Tanzanian’s main news source is the radio because TV’s cost too much, papers are hard to find and people have to go to Internet cafes to get Internet access. When he told me Obama did well in the 2nd debate and bombed the 1st I realized just how disconnected from the world I had become and how at peace I was in the complete and utter silence, the serenity and the calmness of the mountain.

Yoga above the clouds, Niki and I climbing up the Barranco Wall and the four of us eating
October 18- DAY 5
Karanga Hut to Barafu Hut
Elevation: 15,092 ft

Distance: 3.4 km
 (2.1 miles)

Time: 8:45AM to 12PM
 2 hours 44 minutes
Zone: Desert

Upon arrival at the camp, we were told to rest up for our big night. The guides woke us up for dinner and then again at 1130p to begin our summit attempt. This was where it hit me. Time had come to go big or go home; but really just to go big because going home wasn’t going to be an option for me.

day 5 - kilimanjaro

October 18th/ Morning of October 19th – NIGHT of DAY 5/ DAY 6 SUMMIT ATTEMPT!
Distances on Summit Day
Barafu Hut to Stella Point: 3.3 Km (2.05 miles) ~ 6 hours 
(Stop & think about that. Climbing 2 miles straight up a mountain.
That puppy is huge!)
Stella Point to Summit Uhuru Peak: 1.2 km (.75 miles)
Summit to Barafu: 4.5km (2.8 miles)
Elevation: Stella Point 18,871 ft / Uhuru Peak 19,341 ft
Vitals: None taken. Vincent didn’t want to psych us out if we made it
this far?
Time: 12:20AM-1:30PM Summit. 13 hours!
Zone: Arctic Tundra

As soon as we left base, I felt like we were on a death march with what should have had dramatic Star Wars music playing in the background. Saving my iPod battery up until this point just to listen to music as I attempted to summit made all the difference in the world. It helped pass the time so much easier. I was wearing almost every piece of clothing I brought and while I was comfortable, others were vomiting and fighting frostbite. After all, climbing (pre-sunrise) in the cold, dark night at -10C (14 F) for  about 6+ hours was damn near frigid. When it is pitch black out, all you see is the feet of the person in front of you lit up in the light of your headlamp. You can’t see that you are on the edge of a massive cliff and you’re less likely to get psyched out by how far you have left to climb.

Did you know that the brain does not function very intelligently and often hallucinates at this altitude? One climber-friend said she must have blacked out while continuing to walk because she doesn’t remember parts of the climb near Stella Point. Another said he saw hippos. That’s bad, there are no hippos anywhere on the mountain. Thankfully, I didn’t have any symptoms of AMS. When you reach Stella Point you think you’re done but you’re not.  It’s a big tease. You’ve already climbed about 7 hours and you think you’ve exhausted all your reserved energy and that you can’t go any further but oh wait. You can! There is still (only) 470 ft to go! Even though I was struggling to breathe, I told myself, “Who needs to breathe!? I’ve come 5 days and have just an hour and half left! I can do this!” Admittedly, I cried a few tears when I got to the sign. Standing just feet away from a real ice glacier in Africa was absolutely magical. It  is so sad to think that they are melting and will likely be gone in 10-20 years.

summit

October 19 Day 6:
Barafu Hut to Mweka Camp
Distance: 6.3km  (3.9 miles)
Time: 3 hours
Elevation: Mweka Camp 10,138 ft

Vitals: Oxygen 70. Uh oh.
Zone: Alpine Desert

TOTAL Climbed Summit Day - Total 15.3km  (9.5 miles)

I kept thinking, “What comes up must go down” because for me the scariest part of it all was going down the loose scree. Couldn’t they have a ski chair lift to take me down? 10 hours into climbing and still 3 hours left, I was tired!! I thought once I descended and reached camp, my breathing would return to normal. However, I was wheezing coughing so violently that I almost vomited so the porters put me on a stretcher and carried me 3/4 of the way to Mweka camp to get me to lower altitude as fast as possible. They then gave me oxygen to help stabilize me. As it turns out, I was actually lucky to have been given a ride because really, going down is a lot harder on your knees and body and after 13 straight hours, I don’t think I had the energy to keep going.

complete
Happy and Dirty and in need of a shower, but we did it!
October 20 Day 7:
Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate to the hotel! AKA finally a shower 
with soap & water, a real toilet and a real bed!
Elevation: 5,423 ft

Distance: 8.5 km
 (5.3 miles)
Time: 8:30 to 10:30AM hotel by 12:30PM – 2 hours 47 minutes
Zone: Rainforest

I was lucky, even though I couldn’t breathe, I didn’t suffer from any AMS symptoms. I never had a headache, never saw hippos nor did I vomit. I think taking Advil and Diamox every day helped tremendously. Before we knew it, we were at the finish line receiving our certificates of summit completion! I immediately showered, laid on the bed and called home to wake up my parents to tell them that I was indeed alive and that I had succeeded! That night we all went to celebrate our successful climbs (and newfound access to showers) at Glacier – a bar hangout in Moshi with tables in a treehouse.

TOTAL DISTANCE WALKED: over 45 miles in 7 days.

Cheers'ing to our successful climb and to finally having a shower again
All 7 of us successfully made it to the summit. 100% success rate! Celebrating our successful climb and to finally having a shower again
October 21
Zone: Hotel & Airport

Time for my 22 hour flight home. Funny story – Before Grace contacted me to join her, I had considered joining a group of 6 Australians so I didn’t have to climb alone. When I got in the van to go to the airport, I was chatting with my van-mates who happened to be Australian. I  instantly knew who they were and when I asked if they climbed Rongai, they gave me a look like “WTF, how’d you know?” Turns out it is a very small world after all and they were the ones I almost climbed with! Good thing I went with Grace because it was a group of men all in their 50’s! That sure would have been an awkward 7 days.

A good life lesson learned – just keep your focus on what is directly ahead of you. Don’t look up the mountain and get caught up in how far you have still to go, just take one step at a time. 

It was such an incredible feeling of immense satisfaction and such a sense of accomplishment to know that I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro! I made to the top! I didn’t give up and yes, I did it! It was a very proud moment and in that moment, I felt untouchable, as if I could do anything. I felt on top of the world. While it truly was a once-in-a-life-time experience, it made me realize I am capable of so much more than I ever thought possible and am so much stronger (mentally) than I ever gave myself credit for. I am fierce, brave and independent. I enjoy adventures and camping and nature, too. I don’t need to wait for a man to come along for my life to begin. I  can accomplish dreams on my own. Looking back at pictures and memories, I am still impressed with myself that I was able to accomplish such a challenging feat. I am now apart of an elite club of people who can say that they made it to The Roof of Africa! I’m excited to see what my next adventure will be.

{Interested in climbing? Have questions about my experience or want to know more details on how climbing works, ask away in the comment section!}

** If you want to see more pictures check out my album.**

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Author: Caryn

Hi! My name is Caryn. I'm a midwest transplant living on the east coast. I love games, asking questions, making lists, and sunshine. I dream of someday owning an antique car, starting my own charity, and traveling the world. Welcome to my Blog!

9 thoughts on “That time I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and lived to tell the tale…”

  1. Proud doesn’t even begin to cover it, Caryn. YOU ARE A BADASS AND I ADMIRE YOU! So much love! I teared up reading the end of this, because yes, you are right. You are fierce, brave and independent. You can do anything you put your mind to. 🙂

  2. I’m so proud of you, lady, that you did this incredible and amazing thing and joined this elite club of people who have completed that climb. You’re a rock star and I’m so glad that you have this incredible feat of endurance and mental toughness to add to your resume of awesomeness.

  3. Hi Caryn, Thanks for posting your blog. I read each instalment carefully. Very inspirational. On Jan 31st I am heading to Kili to do the Lemosho Crater route. I have talked to a few people who have done it before and every time I hear the stories or read the accounts I get more an more excited about making it to the Summit. I have been training physically for a year now and hope my body adjusts to the altitude. Taking Diomox, ginkgo, garlic and everything else I can get my hands on that people say help you adjust 🙂 The second part of the trip is on Safari so this will truly be a trip of a life time.

    Cheers

    Steve from Toronto

    1. Good luck! A friend of mine did Lemosho route and loved it. Just stay positive, it really is mostly mental. If you want it bad enough, you can do it! Good luck! And enjoy the Safari! What parks are you going to? I loved every minute of the Safari!

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