I drink so much water during the day that midnight trips to the outhouse (bring toilet paper) are inevitable, but at least I’m rewarded by the clearest night sky I’ve ever seen.
The mountain rises in two volcanic peaks: a smaller one called Mawenzi (17,564 feet, 5,354 m), which is rocky, pointed and resembles the Matterhorn, and Kibo, the giant, glacier-capped volcanic flattop. The third night we camp at the base of Mawenzi, and waking up to another dusting of snow on the craggy peak definitely reminds me of the Swiss Alps. On the fourth day, we trek what’s known as the Saddle, a long stretch of alpine desert between these two summits, covered in hard sand and small rocks.
By now, we’re at about 13,000 feet (3,962 m). The wind whips over us as we creep across. The desert seems to stretch forever in every direction, and the only real landmarks are jagged Mawenzi behind us and the dark-brown camel hump of Kibo, now dead ahead, so close that we can clearly see the glaciers that crown the top.
The trail is essentially flat at this point, but the direct sun and wind make it a battle against the elements. Sun block and lip balm are critical, along with a constant supply of water. Throughout the trip, I’ve been rationed sugar products — chocolate, juice and biscuits — and the extra energy comes in handy. At the end of the day, we camp at the base of Kibo, all visibly anxious, knowing that the most challenging stretch is only a few hours away.
I’m wearing every layer I’ve brought, and should have thrown on a second layer of thermal socks. But after a grueling six-hour climb in the dark, a ripe red sun rises over Mawenzi and warms us instantly. We see how far we’ve climbed during the night — a viciously steep slope up to Gillman’s Point at the rim of the volcanic crater. From here, we get a closer view of the glaciers that rise a few hundred feet from the scree, giant white walls out of the brown.Today is summit day. This is a 17-hour day. We need to start at 11 p.m. so we can arrive at the summit by dawn, and it’s freezing. The wind lashes us, and outside the small circle of light from my headlamp, I can’t see a thing. We trudge at a slug’s pace up switchbacks as the bitter cold seeps into my gear.
After a brief rest, we traverse the rim, around the ash pit of the dormant volcano to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kibo. Ironically, the final part of the climb, while much gentler than our evening hike, takes the wind out of all of us.
At the summit, we all celebrate with hugs, and savor breathtaking views from the roof of Africa. Because we’re standing at the rim of a crater, we don’t see the 360-degree panorama one might expect, but the views of the Tanzanian plans are stunning, and the sense of accomplishment is worth all the work.
We descend along the easier Marangu Route for two days, and I can finally compare the two paths. Marangu is less scenic than Rongai, wide enough for an automobile, and the tread marks indicate that it’s been used by many.
It’s more manicured, and dotted with wooden bridges and huts that seem like small villages. At night, instead of taking in the stars, we overlook the brilliant city lights of Moshi (population 145,000) on the southern slope of Mount Kilimanjaro.
After the climb, we celebrate with a few beers, including a sip of home-brewed and pulpy banana beer, and pack for home. As someone who’s been looking forward to this climb since I was around eight years old, I’m still thrilled months later.
I had envisioned the trip for years, but the actual experience was grander and more vibrant than I’d hoped. For anyone considering the trip, this is the amateur hiker’s dream, and almost anyone who prepares for it can make it.
If You Go
The African Adventure Company offers treks that start at US$ 1,525 per person for the ground rate (excluding airfare), including all meals and transportation.
Tanzania Tourist Board
Tanzania High Commission London