Kilimanjaro Blog 5: A wondrous and challenging experience is finally realised

by George Coombes | July 11, 2019
In his final blog, George gives the lowdown on this memorable trek from start to finish.

Wow… what a trek!

To say I found this trek hard would be an understatement!  When I reached Gilman’s Point, I can honestly say I have never been so exhausted in my whole life and I can understand why so many people settle for this and don’t go on to the actual highest summit of Uhuru Peak. 

But more of that later – let’s go back to the start…

So I was all packed, flight boarded and had met the others at our connecting flight out of Amsterdam for our nine-hour flight to Kilimanjaro airport.  We arrived late, had a quick debrief and dinner before hitting the sack at our surprisingly comfy Outpost Lodge in Arusha.  An early start, after not a lot of sleep, two-hour drive and we were suddenly at the official weigh in gate.  It was really busy here and it took several hours until we were all officially registered, checked and able to begin our trek from Lemosho Gate. 

A short walk later through a rainforest section and we were at our first camp at dusk.  So far, so good – but this is when the other challenges of this epic adventure suddenly dawned on me. 
The toilets… you had a choice between the long drops or the little portable like tents with a bucket.  During the first few days we were very careful and slightly embarrassed when it was obvious what we were doing but by day five all inhibitions had gone and we were comparing notes on how hydrated we were by discussing our urine colour! 

The tents… I’m not a seasoned camper so it took me a while to get used to camping and if the truth be known I never really did!  Every night I struggled to, at best, get two or three hours of sleep.  Not ideal when undertaking such a challenge...

Thankfully we lucked out with the weather though, and every day it was sunny and clear - allowing us to see the daunting summit of the mountain on every day of our trek!  Our route also allowed us to walk through a number of climatic zones, from rainforest to heath and moorland, alpine moon-like desert, and finally the arctic ice cap.  Some of the scenery and views were simply stunning… there is something very surreal when you are taking a photo looking down on clouds.

Days one and two were pretty easy going and there was lots of banter as we got to know one another.  On Day 3 we left the busy Lemosho route and ventured on the less trodden Northern circuit… from here on in we saw hardly any other trekkers and the camps were a lot quieter (which we all agreed was a good thing!). 

 


Day four was a step up.  A 17km walk over what we thought would be flat terrain as we were setting off from Moir Camp with an altitude of 4165m and finishing at Third Cave Camp standing at a lower altitude of 3952m.  Boy, did we get it wrong!!  We were walking through what I can only describe as moon-like landscape.  Going up and down through countless gullies and rocky terrain.  It was hard going and the first time I found it a real challenge.  It was also towards the end of this day that we experienced our only rain – just for the last 10 minutes.  That was enough and we all reflected afterwards how lucky we were and how much harder it would have been if we had experienced more rain.

Day five in comparison was relatively okay although we did ascend nearly 800m to 4710m to School Hut Campsite.  We had lunch and then had an afternoon acclimatisation hike - apart from the odd headache we all felt fine and were showing no signs of altitude sickness.  So, going into our final push spirits were high.

And so on to summit day (or should I say summit endurance test).  With all of us wearing head torches we set off at midnight.  Single file, head down and little talking as we were all on a mission to get to the top.  The first section wasn’t too bad but we soon got to the infamous ‘zig zag’ section.  This was really hard – it seemed to go on forever and every step we took was an effort.  After the zig zags we had some big boulders to ascend… now in the UK I love scrambling but right now I could hardly lift my leg let alone heave myself up big boulders.  But finally - after one last heave I was at Gilman’s Point (with our chief guide, Jackson, holding me up before I fell back down over a boulder).  After sitting down and trying to get my breath back we took the obligatory photo and kept on going to Uhuru Peak. 

It was at this point that Jackson talked me through some really good breathing techniques, and whilst this last section was hard, this definitely helped and I was able to get to Uruhu Peak in a much better condition than I did at Gilman’s Point! 

Yesssss!!  We had done it!  You would have thought we would all be elated and jumping for joy!  We did hug each other but with oxygen levels down to 50% this high we were all too exhausted to fully take it in and celebrate properly… the whole trek is really one long endurance task and you take each day/section as it comes.  The elation we felt only really kicked in once we got off the mountain – and even then it was… Did we actually just do that?  

Now what isn’t really documented is what happens next!  We had just walked for 10 hours straight to reach the summit.  We now had to hike down over 2000m to our camp for the night.  So as soon as we had the obligatory photo off we went down the mountain for yet another epic hike.

Finally at 4pm we made it back to camp.  That’s 16 hours after we first set off!  I was so exhausted I collapsed in my tent – and a very nice porter helped take my boots off! 

The next day we were up early to descend a further 2000m!  Descending is a killer on the knees, especially for those of us with dodgy knees, and I still have two black big toes as I write.

The challenge was really tough but looking back I wouldn’t change anything at all.  I walked with a great bunch of people and we all got on well.  Our main guides and porters were fantastic.  The Tanzanian government requires that you must register with an official and licenced guide and cannot undertake the hike on your own.  This is really essential.  How else would we be able to carry the camping equipment, cooking facilities, toilets (well a bucket and a tent!), first aid kits, food etc.  They are all a critical part of the trek and a major reason why we were successful.  Internet reading informed me that Tanzania is also the eighth poorest country in the world… and whilst tourism can bring many negatives I dread to think where their economy and indigenous population would be without the attraction of Kilimanjaro. 

So whilst this was an epic challenge that shouldn’t be taken lightly I would highly recommend it and look back on it with fond memories. 

I’ve even found myself trawling the Internet for other mountain challenges… Elbrus anyone?

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See more of George's photos on Flickr.
Read the climbing reports and see the daily photos from the Team Kilimanjaro site.