June 27 - July 2, 2011
NOTE: There are a whole bunch of video blogs at the bottom of this post so if you're not much of a reader, I officially give you permission to skip to those now :)
Remember, if there's a text that happens to be dark brown-reddish in colour then there's a really good chance that when you click on it, a new tab will open on your web browser. It could be a wiki page. Or perhaps a photo. It could even be a video or piece of audio!
If you're impatient to see the pictures, here's my Kilimanjaro '11 photo album.
7.9 kilometers of tropical rain forest. Waterfalls, lush green vegetation, and the odd jaguar. OK maybe no jaguars.
The first leg of our climb was easy enough. Not too steep, beautiful scenery, and everyone was in good spirits, excited and rearing to go.
We reached Mandara Huts (2750 meters above sea level) at 5 in the evening and had dinner in the dining hall before getting into our sleeping bags and hitting the bunks.
The mist in Mandara is blinding. After sundown you'd be lucky to see anything ten feet in front of you.
Saw plenty of colobus monkeys in the trees around the huts before the mist set in. Beautiful creatures. Awfully vocal as well.
I wouldn't be doing a blog post on Mt. Kilimanjaro any kind of justice if I failed to mention the stars. Hundreds of millions of them, winking at you cheerfully with the occasional one flying past the others. Spellbinding.
We would walk 11.7 kilometers the next day to Horombo Huts.
Day 2- Mandara Huts to Horombo Huts
20 minutes into our hike to Horombo we left the South America-like terrain of the previous day behind and entered more open, airy conditions.
Less trees meant lesser protection from wind, bringing blowing dust into the equation.
A little while later Mawenzi Peak (5149 meters above sea level) was visible on our right and directly in front of us, albeit in the distance, we got our first sight of Uhuru Peak - the snow-capped summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Although it was playing hide and seek behind the clouds, it was a good feeling seeing our ultimate goal as we trudged on.
Three hours in we stopped at a picnic spot for lunch. At this point we were virtually above the clouds.
Another three hours and many hills later, the green-tinned roofs of Horombo Huts (3700 meters above sea level) were a welcome sight. Horombo would be our home for the next two nights, with one extra day for acclimatizing to the altitude.
My Taazim khaala (aunt) calls Horombo "a piece of heaven." Indeed with the clouds blanketing the horizon on one side, and the peak of Kilimanjaro looming over us on the other, Horombo is a special place.
At night, the lights of Moshi shine like tiny luminescent ants down below us.
Day 3- Acclimatising at Horombo with a day trip to Zebra Rocks
The extra day at Horombo was for our bodies to get used to the thin air we'd be breathing for the next 48 hours.
An optional trek to Zebra Rocks (4000 meters above sea level) was open to us if we were up to it. The rocks are about 1.5 kilometers from Horombo. As its name suggests, Zebra Rocks are a series of rocks that are coloured like the stripes of a zebra.
Five of us decided to go, while the rest opted to chill at the huts.
Me and my mum were feeling good so at 10 AM, we joined the others to go see the only zebra on the mountain. It was a good workout getting to the Rocks and photo opportunities were aplenty once there.
Back in time for lunch at Horombo ("Zucchini soup!"), the rest of the day was spent relaxing and playing Uno in the huts. My cousins can testify that I am the most consistent Uno player on the planet. I finished fifth in virtually every game we played.
There were always five players playing.
Day 4- Horombo Huts to Kibo Huts
Refreshed and ready to go, we set out for the last hut on our route early in the morning.
The nine point something kilometers from Horombo to Kibo Huts (4750 meters above sea level) is characterized by a patch known as The Saddle. This is a long, barren stretch of land that leads us into Kibo's huts.
The Saddle is so long it can be seen from space.
It's almost as if you're walking on another planet. There is no vegetation (stuff can't grow this high up), and the bone dry, desert-like surroundings drains you of any happy thoughts that may have been swimming in your mind. There's lots of blowing dust as well, so balaclavas are a help on The Saddle.
On either side, the barren land goes on as far as the eye can see. Probably the best thing to do is to keep your eyes on the snowy summit ahead of you. Or, as my Yassir mamu (uncle) would say, "Keep looking at the boots of the person in front of you."
This is his third climb up Kili and he has successfully reached Uhuru on both of his previous attempts.
An hour after we stopped for some lunch (served on a few boulders with rats scuttling around us), we could see Kibo Huts in the distance. It was one, long, silver roofed hut which lay right at the foot of the final accent passage.
But the problem is that Kibo just does not come. You can see it, its right there, but it doesn't look closer no matter how long you think you've walked. After a while one of us asked a guide how much longer to Kibo.
"Oh about an hour more," he replied with a completely straight face.
At long last, we reached Kibo. Since we passed the Last Water Point on our way, there is no running water here.
"Depressing," is what many people describe the place as. For me, Kibo will be etched into my memory by one noise and one noise only: the sound of vomit hitting the bottom of a plastic bowl.
We're only in Kibo for a handful of hours in which we're supposed to rest before the final accent at midnight, but a few of us decided to spend those precious seven or so hours vomiting like there's no tomorrow.
At 4750 meters above sea level, altitude was beginning to take its toll on us. You lose your appetite, and only feel like eating fruits. Even water is hard to drink at Kibo.
I wasn't feeling sick. But rather, I was a touch nervous for the final accent which we would embark on in a few hours time. Would I be able to make it? Would we be able to make it?
My thoughts went to a scene we had witnessed on day two of our trip. We were on the way to Horombo when some commotion ahead of us caught our attention. A climber, not much older than myself, was being rushed down by a bunch of porters on a rickety stretcher.
He looked dea- OK, maybe not that, but he seemed awfully clammy. The only cure for altitude sickness is, quite simply, to come down to lower grounds.
I wasn't sure how my body would take to the thinness of the air I was breathing. So far, I hadn't thrown up or felt sick during the climb. But the final accent is supposed to be super steep, and we're going much higher as well.
Sleep doesn't come easy on Kibo either. Our porters would wake us at 11 PM to serve us tea and biscuits before we leave for the summit.
Its hard to rest when there are so many thoughts going through your mind. It doesn't help either when theres the constant noise of retching, followed by sick hitting plastic echoing around the cold hut.
Diamox made me go to the loo thrice that night. With the aid of a headlight, I crept outside into the freezing cold to go answer several calls from nature.
Oh, and just for the record, on a scale of 1 to 10 -with 1 being the dirtiest and 10 being the cleanest - I would rate the bathrooms of Kibo Hut somewhere between -30 and -45.
At long last, 11 PM came. Head cook Peter knocked on our door before coming in with a steaming thermos and a platter of Mary biscuits.
We dressed in silence, putting on layer upon layer. It gets cold on the peak, around -20 Celsius cold.
Day 5- Final accent at midnight to the summit
At exactly midnight, we began climbing. Under the cover of darkness and a brilliantly starlit sky, we made our way up through sand and volcanic scree.
Head guide John was at the front while assistant guides Fustin and Seyyedi flanked our sides. Assistant guide Tom held the anchor.
If any of us were to come down early, we would be accompanied all the way back to Kibo by a guide.
It's around five hours to Gilman's Point (5681 meters above sea level), which is the first real landmark en-route to Uhuru Peak. You get a certificate for reaching Gilman's, and it's where most climbers reach before turning back.
I would divide the climb to Gilman's into two parts: strenuous climbing up steep sand dunes (one-way sand dunes that is), and tricky, potentially dangerous climbing through jagged rocks.
Since The Scree is so steep, we move upwards by zig-zagging through the sand instead of going straight up. It's always a demoralizing sight when you see the headlights of climbers high above you. Better to keep your head down and focus on the task at hand.
As a group, we tried to keep eachothers morales up by chirping encouragement like we had done all trip long. But on the final accent, its much harder. Everyone's already breathless and wasting valuable energy in opening your mouth seems pointless.
Me and Kumayl (my cousin) managed to keep a conversation afloat for two whole minutes before it gradually evaporated into the thin mountain air.
This is where the guides come into play. John began singing classical swahili tourist songs on the top of his voice. The Jambo Bwana song seemed to be a personal favorite of his.
At Kibo, we divided all the chocolate we had into nine so that each of us had enough sugar going around for the final accent. Its recommended to carry something that can give you a quick energy boost while climbing through the last stretch. We had chocolate and peanut butter flavored PowerBars, pieces of pure milk Cadbury, and Snicker bars in our arsenal.
Williams Point was the first landmark we passed. No idea how high up that is but it was about an hour after we left Kibo. Then we passed what is known as the halfway point to Gilman's: Handsmeyer's Cave, notoriously known as Muhindi's (Indian's) Point. It's called Indian's point because apparently, all Indians come this far before turning back to Kibo.
This group of Indians weren't stopping here. No sir we weren't.
The guides served us lemon tea a little while after Handsmeyer's. I only had a couple of sips before devouring a peanut butter PowerBar.
So once the sand bit was done, our group got divided into two. Since our pace was good, me, my brother, and two of our cousins went ahead with assistant guide Fustin while my mum and the others stayed back and advanced at a more slow rate with head guide John and Seyedee.
I began hallucinating once we were started the rock climbing. I could have sworn I saw gloves and scarves lying on nearby rocks and on a couple of occasions, I would tell my brother ahead of me, "Ammar, you left your mittens he- never mind."
My cousin claims he forgot the name of our guide for ten full minutes.
Fustin was superb. He guided us expertly up the steep rocks, placing each step carefully. He would scold us if we took a step that wasn't following his.
This is where most of the deaths on the mountain take place. Rock slides and people falling over the cliffs. You can see the cliffs above you, where Gilman's Point is, but just like Kibo, it just does not come.
We reached Gilman's exactly at fajr time - 5:20 AM. Fustin gave us rough handshakes and quick one armed hugs in congratulations.
My cousin Maytham suggested we pray fajr at Gilman's. I told him kindly, in a fatherly sort of way, that he was delusional and that he should perhaps smash his head on one of the nearby boulders.
Thinking back, we could have prayed our salaat. In conditions like that, we need not have removed our boots and in the absence of water, tayyummum (ablution on earth when no water is available) could have been done on the sand.
But instead we took a three minute breather and some chocolate before telling Fustin, "Piga Uhuru Peak bwana!"
The two kilometer climb from Gilman's to Uhuru Peak (5895 meters above sea level) is much easier than pre-Gilman's. It's less steep and we're mainly navigating through large alpine rocks up a gentle slope.
Fustin started quickly, darting through the rocks. We actually had to tell him to slow down a bit but little did we know that he had a plan in mind - he wanted to get us to the peak for sunrise.
An hour later we saw our first set of glaciers -an awe-inspiring sight. Massive houses of ice, rising hundreds of feet into the air on a backdrop of cotton-candy-like clouds.
200 feet from Uhuru we got the sunrise Fustin wanted to us to see. It was a stunning moment, seeing the sun, a fiery ball of light, rising slowly from the clouds below us.
Ammar and Kumayl were the first to reach Africa's highest point. I was slow because I was having trouble breathing. Every ten steps I would stop, breathing deeply through my nose and exhaling from my mouth. I had a guide with me, asking me if I had a headache or felt like throwing up - common symptoms of altitude sickness - but I didn't feel any of that. I was just a little out of breath, which is normal when you're this high up.
But all of that is worth it once you reach that famous black and yellow signboard. The view from Uhuru Peak is, quite simply, magical.
We took pictures with the signboard - individual shots, pictures as a group, with our guides. There were other climbers there as well, those who had made it before us and others were still on their way.
We hoped that mum and the others were amongst those still on their way. It's not recommended to stay more than 20 minutes on the peak, due to the lack of oxygen up there, but we dawdled as long as we could, looking for a sign from the rest.
Finally, we decided to start coming down. But just as we had come to this decision, we saw my mum in the distance with a guide for company. Shortly behind her was my Taazim khala with Yassir mamu and another one of my cousins, who had been super sick from Kibo, not too far behind them.
We cheered them on all the way to the signboard, enveloping them in big hugs on the way. After pictures and video blogs, we began going down.
It had been nearly 40 minutes on Africa's rooftop for us four who had made it early. We were out of breath all the way down, occasionally sitting down on the rocks and gasping for air.
The way down to Kibo is a pain. Its steep, you're already so tired, and the sun is mercilessly beating down on you.
We literally ran down the sand dune part - its so steep you cant just walk down the way you came up.
Finally back at Kibo at round 9 AM, Peter greeted us with an ice cold glass of pineapple juice. God bless that guy. We were so tired that as soon as we reached Kibo, we just took off our shoes and went to sleep in our bunks.
That sleep you get at Kibo... its as if you're knocked out cold. Literally, your head hits the pillow and you're gone.
So the plan was that the porters would let us sleep for a couple of hours before waking us up for lunch, and then starting our trek back down to Horombo Huts.
Being well above 4000 meters above sea level, its not suggested that you sleep at Kibo Hut for too long. You'll go to sleep "moja ka moja" (one way, straight), the guides and porters will tell you.
At 1 PM we began our descent to Horombo. The Saddle on the way back is much easier because you're rested to a certain extent and more importantly, the group was in high spirits. Everyone was making fun of each other, cracking jokes and reminding each other how we used to barf .
We reached Horombo at 4 PM and had an early dinner before going to sleep. We would go all the way back down to Marangu Gate the next day.
Day 6- Whatever goes up must come down!
Jogging is probably the best way to go down the mountain. It's steep, and theres no point testing your knees by braking regularly.
We passed Mandara Huts at 11 AMish and stopped for lunch halfway to Marangu Gate. At 3 PM, we were back where it all started five eventful days ago.
Had it really been five days already? It seemed like just a couple of hours ago that we were all huddling around the Marangu Route sign for our first group picture.
Back at the Kilimanjaro National Park parking lot, we said our final goodbyes to the porters, cooks, and guides, who had served us magnificently during our climb. We tipped them each a decent amount before they sang us the famous Kilimanjaro Song (see video blog Day Six).
VLOGS (video blogs)
Day One -unarguably my worst vlog of the trip. i actually said "mandara route" instead of "marangu route." atrocious to the point of repulsive.
Day Two -getting there, but i held my ipod the wrong way!
Day Three -not bad, not bad at all. maybe the lack of company helped
Day Four -we're not on the move so its easier and Day Four part two - altitude probably getting to me.
In case you missed it earlier, here's the link to my Kili photo album.