Category Archives: Kilimanjaro

Day Two – Machame Camp to Shira Camp

At 6am we were woken with a hot drink, “tea or coffee?” I opted for coffee, we had passed coffee plantations on our drive to the gate and I figured that all coffee in Tanzania must be good. I was wrong. However, it was hot and it was a lovely gesture from the porters to bring us a drink in bed. We ate a hearty breakfast of sausages, eggs and toast with peanut butter. We delivered our empty water bottles to the porters for refilling, today was the last of the mineral water, from here on we would be drinking treated water from the streams.

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Dave & Julia preparing to leave Machame Camp

There’s a certain skill to camping on the mountain, one has to be extremely tidy and organised. On our first morning we were neither and spent half an hour packing and sorting the correct gear into our day packs. Eventually we got ourselves sorted out and set off up the track. The terrain had change notably, the tall deciduous trees of the woodland had given way to the much shorter pine trees of the mountain scrub, and the air was filled with a wonderfully fresh pine smell.

The track was notably steeper than the previous day and without the protection of the woodland canopy we were much more exposed to the sun. The sun is just one factor, like altitude, exhaustion or dehydration that is conspiring to prevent you reaching the summit. Forget the factor 20 Piz Buin you need to cover all exposed skin with thick smeary factor 50. Long-sleeved base layers are great, I wish I’d taken more of these in preference to the short-sleeved variety.

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Dave & myself

As we followed the steep track up the mountain we were passed by numerous porters. After  we left camp it seemed like it took our crew less than 5 minutes to pack our tents and load up and they were soon overtaking us with cheerful greetings of “Jambo” as they race to the next camp. As we climb higher, the scrub seems to get lower and we’re treated to some great views of Kibo.

We pass many groups on the narrow trail, including some that are finding the climb notably hard. One lady is close to tears as she leans heavily on her trekking poles, a reminder that Kilimanjaro is an inclusive mountain, available for climbers of all abilities. As we pass others struggling with the gradient, it’s inevitable that one wonders who will make it to the top and who will need to turn back? Will our group make it?

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View down the trail through the alpine scrub on day two

Looking back down the track we have some great views of Mount Meru, a classic stratovolcano. Meru is a perfect conical volcano looking much like those sketched by GCSE geography students, Meru is classed as active having erupted as recently as 1910. At 4,585m the summit of Meru is still a great deal higher than we are.

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Mount Meru

We reach Shira camp in time for lunch and are rewarded with some fantastic views of the Shira plateau. Kilimanjaro is formed of three volcanoes, the oldest, Shira is located on the western side of the mountain and the top of this ancient volcano has long since collapsed to form a caldera. The next oldest volcano, Mawenzi, is located to the east and still retains a classic volcano shape. Both Shira and Mawenzi are classed as extinct, but the youngest (200 million years old) and highest volcano, Kibo is classed as dormant and could erupt again.

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Looking west across the Shira plateau

At Shira camp I start to develop an altitude headache, a feeling that will become quite familiar over the coming days. I feel somewhat disappointed that I’m the only one of the group to have succumbed to the effects of altitude so early. In my mind I question the money spent with the London Altitude centre who issued me a glossy report assuring me that according to their measurements I should be slightly better than average at adapting to altitude. After two Nurofen Express I’m feeling much better. We take a short walk out to admire a lava cave and attempt to snatch a rare moment of mobile phone coverage. From the elevation of our short acclimatisation walk we can see the Lemosho route winding up the Shira plateau and a second camp site (Shira II). We reflect on the fact that the next day the Lemosho and Machame trails would merge and the trail would be even more crowded.

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Our assistant guide Emanuel inspects a fairly unimpressive lava cave

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Views back on Shira Camp from our acclimatisation walk

Whilst we took great care and effort with our packing it’s inevitable that one will eventually realise that they have omitted something vital, that evening it became obvious that wet wipes were not as good as tissues for blowing ones nose. With all the dust on the mountain you will want to be blowing your nose a great deal. One of our team kindly gave me a pack of tissues and I emptied what seemed like half the Shira plateau from my nasal cavities.

After dinner that evening our guide came and asked us the usual questions. How were we feeling? How many litres of water had we drank? Who had a headache? The plan for the next day was to climb up to a lava tower at 4,700 metres before losing almost all the precious height to camp at Baranco camp, just 100m higher than our current camp. Our guide politely pointed out that we had wasted precious time that morning, fairly chastised we knew that we could be more efficient in our packing.

As the sun descended over the plateau to the west, we were treated to a beautiful sun-set with deep oranges and reds descending over the rim of the caldera, moments later it was pitch black and we climbed into our sleeping bags to listen to the chatter of the camp.

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Sunset at Shira, looking back at mount Meru

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Sunset over the Shira plateau

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Day One – Machame Gate to Machame Camp

Shortly after making my final blog post the Team Kilimanjaro bus arrived , a clapped out tourist bus from the eighties. As we stepped up into the vehicle I was greeted by  twenty three smiling faces packed in like sardines. At this point it struck me what a great name our tour operator had, ‘Team Kilimanjaro’, however hard one finds the climb and in spite of whatever training and preparation one makes all those reaching the summit have got there as part of a team effort with numerous porters having hauled tents, bags and food to establish the many camps.

Dave & Chris at the Kibo Palace

Dave & Chris at the Kibo Palace

The trip from Arusha to Machame gate takes 90 minutes, there’s a buzz, an air of excitement amongst the porters, cooks and guides they chat and read news papers, the head guide sits with us, the valued clients, I can’t help but think that he’s silently evaluating us, trying to decide who’s capable of reaching the peak, who’s not trained, who had too many Serengetti Lagers at the Mango Tree bar last night?

It feels like it must be over 30 degrees in the back of the bus, yet our guide pulls on heavy mountain jacket that wouldn’t look out of place on a polar expedition, this seems odd at the time but later it becomes obvious that Kilimanjaro has developed it’s own class system with guides, assistant guides, cooks, assistant cooks and porters. The expensive mountain equipment required on summit day are the badges of office for the guides and their assistants.

Team Kilimanjaro Bus

Team Kilimanjaro Bus

That morning my climbing buddy and I had experimented with a new drug, Diamox or Acetazolamide. A pharmaceutical in which we had placed great faith, our hope, that it would help us overcome the  effects of altitude and improve our chances of summiting. As our driver negotiated the numerous speed bumps that punctuate the road between Arusha and Moshi we became painfully aware of the primary side-effect of Diamox, that of elevated diuresis. With a bladder that was as taught as a snare drum we were more than happy to break our journey at a small local cafe.

The cafe provided us with our first opportunity to converse with our fellow climbers, we would be a team of six. It seemed somewhat incredible that it would require a team of 26 porters, cooks and guides and the best part of a week to get the six of us to stand briefly on the summit of of this awesome mountain. Numerous other busses have chosen to break their journey at this popular rest stop and the climbers chat excitedly in English and German, I feel somewhat under dressed in shorts and T-shirt, as other climbers look pristine in their best, North-Face, Rab, Mountain equipment etc. Everyone seems to have brought expensive DSLR, I immediately  regret not taking my new Canon and opting instead for the lightweight option of a compact.

The cloud cover is low and as we continue our journey towards the gate the guide explains that Kilimanjaro is a shy mountain, and that it’s uncommon to have un-interupted views of the mountain from the plains, this somewhat shatters the illusion of so many iconic pictures of Kili with elephants grazing the plains in the foreground. Suddenly we get our first glimpse of Kilimanjaro, the white snowcapped peak appears to be magically floating above the clouds, we are all instantly thrown into state of excitement, despite the poor visibility and bad angles we all attempt our first photographs of the mountain. The peak seems unfeasible high up, I have a quite introspective moment of self doubt that I choose not to share.

First View of Kili

First View of Kili

As we approach the mountain the road begins to steepen and the diesel engine of our bus begins to labour, we progress through banana plantations that carpet the lower slopes and barefoot children run alongside the bus and wave and smile happily I feel somewhat humbled by their cheerfulness, despite the poverty they hold no resentment to the rich foreigners that have come to climb their mountain. The road steepens and despite the drivers best efforts the overladen bus struggles with the gradient, eventually the hill is too much for the bus and the engine overheats, luggage, food and ourselves must all be unpacked to access the steaming engine chamber inside the bus. Thankfully help is at hand, and the local children assist the bus driver in sourcing water to cool the engine. The children are happy to be able to help us “Hello” one of them says in a clear accent. “Jambo” I reply much to his amusement. The bus is fixed and reloaded, we board and set off round the corner, two hundred yards later we arrive at the gate.

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Overheated Bus

The gates of the kilimanjaro national park have an energy that’s difficult to describe. The small car park is tightly packed with old busses, the porters spring to life and immediately start unloading the tents and equipment from the roof. Usually so quiet and peaceful the porters shout at one another in swahili there seems to be a fierce rivalry between our crew and other groups, space is at a premium and vehicles pass each other with just inches to spare. We are taken to the gate office where we sign the register. The authorities of the Kilimanjaro national park seem to love their paperwork, at each camp climbers must sign and provide numerous items of information such as age, address, profession etc.  At first we take this very seriously but as time progresses we are less accurate with our data, a detailed reconciliation of their records would reveal career changes from Investment Banker, Pilot, Ballerina and Dolphin Trainer all within the week.

Porters queue to have their bags weighed at Machame gate

Porters queue to have their bags weighed at Machame gate

As we sat and ate our packed lunch we watched other climbers feed blue monkeys bananas, I collected $5 from my colleague who was certain that we wouldn’t see monkeys on our first day. We enjoyed a high protein packed lunch, I ponder over my chicken and my egg wondering which to eat first before inspecting the park signs. The sign clearly states that one must be physically fit to start the climb. It strikes me that ‘physically fit’ is a very subjective statement. Despite dieting, 10k runs and numerous gym sessions am I ‘physically fit’? Maybe not by mountain porter standards?

Monkeys at Machame gate

Monkeys at Machame gate

Health and saftey notice boards at Machame gate

Health and saftey notice boards at Machame gate

At last it is time to start climbing! Our assistant guide Richard leads us to up the track and through and impressive looking gate. The path climbs steeply. From my reading I had assumed that the first day would be easy, a short 7k ramble through the woods, the first few hundred yards were worryingly steep. “if this is easy how steep is the tough bit”? the path quickly disappeared into the woods where a leafy canopy provided welcome shelter from the harsh mid-day African sun. It felt great to be finally walking, and the gradient soon evened out, occasional signs provided the local and latin names of the flora but no more monkeys were spotted.

The only way is up

The only way is up

Our pace was steady and respectable but we were soon passed by numerous porters carrying 20kg loads on their heads. “Jambo” each of them greeted us as they passed, despite their loads they all seemed happy and excited about the trek. Due to our late start I think we must have been some of the last climbers to leave Machame gate that day which made for a pleasant unhurried climb. We passed some larger groups taking well earned rest stops, teams that we would see again on each day, Macmillan, Citigroup Korean trekking club etc.

Whilst the tree canopy provided welcome cover it also blocked all views up and down the mountain making it impossible to gauge our progress. We continued making steady progress up the mountain until finally the tress began to thin and yielded an impressive first glimpse of the mountain, the snow capped peak of Kibo still looking every bit as unobtainable.

Glimpses of Kibo through the forrest on day one

Glimpses of Kibo through the forrest on day one

Finally we reach our camp site, Machame Camp. We are struck by just how many tents there are. Our guides inform us that the mountain is unusually busy. Through all our careful planning maybe we weren’t the only ones to have considered the temperatures, dry seasons and full moon. Our tents are packed tightly together, perhaps the most striking thing about the camp is the dust, it’s everywhere a fine powdery dust that clings to cloths and rucksacks. We set out our tent, unpack our sleeping bags complete with silk liners, and make sure we have head-torches close to hand before progressing through to our food tent for our evening meal.

Before eating we take our evening dose of Diamox, shortly after I start to lose sensation in my finger tips, despite my gloves and hat I can’t get my hands warm. Being near the equator the daylight is somewhat predictable, at 6am the sun rises, at 6pm the sun sets but unlike sea level at sunset the temperature drops suddenly. Overall we’re pleasantly surprised with the quality of the food. Each meal starts with soup. Cucumber, Chicken, Tomato, Pumpkin, they all taste similar yet different. We’re warned that our appetites will decrease with altitude but we must force ourselves to eat.

Views of Kibo from Machame camp

Views of Kibo from Machame camp

After dinner our guide, Hasbon comes and talks to us. He’s keen to know how difficult we found the days walk, does anyone have a headache? is anyone cold. I explain about my numb fingers “perfectly normal” his confidence puts me at ease and we retire to bed. It seems odd to be getting to bed at 7pm but in truth once the sun goes gown it’s freezing cold and there’s nothing else to do. After 5 minutes of messing about in the tent and deciding what cloths to ware the next day I’m safely installed in my sleeping bag. The neck pillow purchased from Heathrow terminal three is seemingly useless and uncomfortable, I discard this in favour of a down Jacket stuffed inside a dry bag, this makes for the most comfortable of pillows.

The camp is far from quite with porters and climbers chatting away, as I lay there unable to  sleep I realise that I need to get up and visit the our chemical loo. Damn Diamox!

New Jacket

Whilst perusing the local Cotswold store one lunchtime I noticed a huge discount on this cherry red Trinity jacket from Mountain Hardware. The jacket uses the soft shell technology and feels soft and comfortable unlike more traditional waterproofs. I was assured that the jacket is highly waterproof and every bit as breathable as Gore-tex. On it’s first trip the jacket performed well albeit in only very light rain.  Jacket

Training Walk 1

Almost two month have passed since committing to climb Kilimanjaro, so about time I tried a training walk! At 2,634 feet and being the twelfth most prominent mountain in the UK, The Old Man of Coniston seemed like a good place to start.
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On a beautiful winters morning I set off up the miners track towards the youth hostel.

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It was hard work up the track but before too long I’d reached the snow line and an abandoned slate mine.IMG_0631

Not long after the slate mines I reached a frozen glacial tarn called “Low Waters”, at an altitude of 2,000 feet I could think of a more accurate name.

IMG_0641From Low Waters things got much tougher, the path winds round into the shade and gets steeper and icier. The party of climbers in front of me stopped to attach crampons leaving me feeling decidedly under equipped.

IMG_0645A short scrabble up an icy path later and I reach the ridge and the sunshine, with a brisk wind now blowing and the path steepening it seems to be getting tougher. Fortunately there are several other climbers struggling with the same route all of whom seem to be in agreement that they were glad they didn’t have to come down this route (unfortunately I was planning to descend this way).

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The views from the top were fantastic.IMG_0648

But how to get down?

IMG_0657After consulting the map I decided to head along the ridge and pick up a path running down a gully, surely it couldn’t be any more icy than my route up?

IMG_0660Shortly after dropping into the gully I began to wish I’d stuck to my original route, the gully was every bit as steep and icy but without any other climbers. In places the snow was deep and whilst the frozen crust held my weight most of the time occasionally a foot would slip through allowing snow into the top of my boots. I now understand the value of gaiters. Much slipping and sliding later the gradient shallowed and I reached the edge of (the very beautiful) Levers Water.IMG_0682

On the banks of tarn I met a fellow climber who asked me whether I recommended the path I had  taken, I explained that I didn’t think it was the best I also pointed out his correct position (he thought he was at Low Waters!). From Levers Water it’s an easy ramble back past the copper mines and into the pretty village of Coniston.

So lessons learned. Firstly you need the right kit for the job, crampons and an ice axe would have been really handy. Secondly, it’s not a great idea to go alone, particularly when moving off the well beaten routes. Thirdly whilst hill walking is exhausting and can raise your heart rate very effectively, one always has the option to walk slower. In fact, observing the more experienced climbers (those that stopped to attach crampons) they set a very slow but very steady pace.

And what of the new boots? I’m happy to report not a single blister and other than the snow that made it over the top, completely dry!

New Boots

Given that my walking boot had now reached the fine old age of 25 I decided to invest in a new pair. I had read a few reviews online but wanted to try some on before buying so I headed to Cotswold Outdoor in my lunch hour. Walking boot technology certainly seems to have moved on over the years and I’m glad I took advice from the shop staff rather than chancing the internet. Apparently leather boots aren’t necessary for Kilimanjaro and the new fabric boots are much lighter. The store assistant measured my feet (in a pair walking socks) before advising me of a few options. The North Face Vebera were on sale but unfortunately not available in half sizes and  felt tight across the toes. The Meindl Softline Light GTX looked like a really well constructed boot but didn’t fit so well on the heel.  Fortunately the Salomon Mens Quest 4D GTX fitted really well on both toe and heal and felt as comfy as a pair of slippers. The shop assistant put me on a ramp and got me to perform calf raises to check that my heals weren’t lifting then asked me to stamp my feet down the ramp to check that the toes weren’t going to bash the front of the boot before fine tuning the fit for my high arch with a pair of Superfeet Green Trim Footbeds. Overall I think I’ve made a good choice and look forward to thoroughly testing them in my training walks.

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Progress

Over one month has passed since I committed to getting fit to climb Kilimanjaro. I have dutifully logged every item of food that has passed my lips, I have climbed the stairs to work each and every day and I have walked the 13 miles home from work each week. The results of all my hard work? 16 pounds of weight loss and a 4 percentage point reduction in my body fat to a level that could (just) be described as average.

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Everything was progressing so well, but then came the dreaded annual medical screening. With the knowledge that my body mass index was now below 30, I was hoping for a clean bill of health. After two hours of examination and having received some much improved blood test results, all that was left was the dynamic fitness test.

The dynamic fitness test is not for the faint hearted. Wired to an ECG the blood pressure and heart rate are monitored whilst one pedals furiously on an exercise bike with ever increasing resistance. The physiologist enters results into a computer and magically the software determines a measure of your fitness known as your VO2 Max.

And the results of my fitness test? A VO2 Max of 31, “is that good?” I enquired sheepishly, “Well it puts you in this category” the physiologist tactfully replied as she pointed to a column in her chart labelled “poor”. I tried to console myself with the fact that there was a category labelled “very poor” but there again there was also “average” and “below average” separating me from where I wanted to be.

Whilst weight loss is surely a great achievement, it strikes me that to climb a mountain one needs to be fit rather than thin.  What get’s measured gets managed but perhaps I’ve been using the wrong measure?

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Getting Started

It’s the 27th of December 2012, I’ve just finished a fantastic meal of cold turkey with bubble and squeak and waved goodbye to my parents, the last of our Christmas visitors. Thoughts now turn to the New Year and the crazy conversation I had with my good friend David Klein in a London pub several weeks ago. David is keen to climb mount Kilimanjaro next year, the last time he asked whether I was interested was the day before my annual medical was due. I was going to seek a qualified medical opinion as to whether I was (or could be) fit and healthy enough to take on such a mountain. I have gone as far as purchasing a book describing the particulars of planning a Kilimanjaro trip. Whilst many people assume that climbing Kilimanjaro is a simple feat (almost everyone seems to know someone who has recently achieved success) the book suggests that on average 10 people a year loose their lives whilst attempting the climb.

Chris, Christmas 2012

Chris, Christmas 2012