Summiting the roof of Africa had been on my bucket list for a while. I had been planning this trip for so long that when the big day loomed up, it felt like it was happening all of a sudden.
My friend, Abdullah and I set out to do the full moon trek in August 2015.
After extensive research, we decided to take the Machame route, which is known for its scenic value and greater acclimatisation, and by extension, a higher success rate. So with just three weeks of incline training at the gym, I set out for the toughest challenge of my life.
But, on arrival at the Kilimanjaro International Airport, I hit a slight snag. I had read online and even asked the airline I was travelling with, about visas, and was informed that Pakistanis get visa on arrival. Upon arrival, however, I was denied entry.
After some begging and pleading, I was asked to “show my generosity” to the immigration officer, so that he may in return, “show his humanity”.
A 100 dollars later, I was allowed entry in the United Republic of Tanzania. (Note to my fellow Pakistanis: there is a bright possibility that you will be asked for a bribe too, so it's better to keep some loose change so you don’t have to give out a $100 bill like i had to).
On arrival at the lodge, we met our guide, Michael, who checked our equipment. He informed us that we were going to be a group of four and asked us to be ready at 8:30am the next morning.
I tried to savour what was going to be my last shower for seven days and enjoy the luxury of a warm bed as much as I could. Our adventure would begin tomorrow.
Machame Gate (1828m) to Machame Camp (3000m)
Distance - 10.5 km
We met our two travel buddies and set off for Machame gate.
The trek on this day passed through a beautiful rainforest with old trees and vines like the ones Tarzan would swing on.
Even though it was a gradual ascent, it was a long day and my five-kilo backpack wasn’t helping much. By the time we got to the campsite, we were quite exhausted.
Machame Camp (3000m) to Shira Camp (3874m)
Distance – 5 km
The second day, we went through clouds, heather and fern. The terrain was very different from the previous day, but just as beautiful. The trek was shorter but definitely more stony.
Shira Camp (3874m) to Lava Tower (4600m) to Barranco Camp (3940m)
Distance – 10 km
This was a tough day. We crossed the 4000 metre mark for the first time. This is when most people start feeling the altitude. I, too, got a pounding headache but nothing a painkiller couldn’t cure.
The Machame route follows the walk high, sleep low strategy. So we went up to Lava Tower at 4600 metres but came down to under 4000 metres to sleep. This helps in the acclimatisation process, though you do question the sanity of putting in so much effort to go up only to descend back to the same altitude you started off at. But such is the way of the mountains.
Barranco Camp (3940m) to Karanga Camp (3980m)
Distance – 5km
This was the day of the scramble. Even though I was not up to mark with the training, I had read enough travel blogs before the trip to know what was in store each day.
Some people had scary reviews of the Barranco Wall, and to be honest, it did look pretty steep and daunting. Plus, there was frequent screaming from the groups in front of us, which created more nervousness.
Michael assured me that no one had died from the Barranco Wall, and this turned out to be the most fun part of the entire trek. We had to use all four limbs and be extremely surefooted. There was a ‘kiss and hug’ stone where you literally had to hug the stone and walk over a very thin ledge to get to the other side.
We reached an altitude of 4200m on top of the Barranco Wall and none of us felt the altitude – the benefits of walk high, sleep low were showing.
Karanga Camp (3980m) to Barafu Camp (4600m)
Distance – 4km
The final day before the summit was a relatively easy and short day.
The terrain was the same as the day earlier; rocks everywhere and no vegetation. We reached the campsite by 2pm and were served a hot lunch. I had lost my appetite for protein since Day 2 and could feel my legs grow weaker.
Our group had become like a family and everyone was generous in offering me their protein bars, protein powder, fruits and trail mix. I took full advantage of their generosity and on most days, ended up eating all the fruit served. We were told to nap, but anxiety and the fact that we were not used to napping in the afternoons made it difficult to sleep.
At 5.30pm, we were served dinner and instructed to get some rest. Our wake up call came at 10.30pm.
Barafu Camp (4600m) to Summit (5895m)
Distance – 5 km
By far, this was the most demanding night of my life. We geared up (I was wearing five layers on the top and three at the bottom) and started at 12.15am for the summit.
This was one of those experiences that cannot be put into words; the strenuous task of walking up 1295 metres from base camp in the dead of the night in sub-zero temperatures with the fear of ‘what if I don’t succeed’.
The night was beautiful. A full moon hung low low in the sky, with the moonlight reflecting off the snow in certain parts of the mountain. We went up ‘pole pole’ (Swahili for ‘slow slow’), which is key to success in summiting. From severe fatigue to extreme drowsiness, we went through it all. Abdullah actually had a dream when he rested his head on the walking pole for two seconds.
If it wasn’t for the encouragement of Michael and the entertainment of Johnson, most of us would not have been able to summit that night. I really don’t know how I convinced myself to continue walking against all odds.
In such a situation, you realise how amazing your mind is; how capable it is at blocking out the pain and becoming so singular in its approach that everything else becomes irrelevant.
Sunrise at that height is one amazing sight. You have to witness it to believe it. We finally reached the summit at around 7.30am after walking uphill for more than seven hours. And when I saw the glacier right next to the mountain glistened under the morning sun, it was an exhilaration beyond words.
We had made it to the roof of Africa — my greatest accomplishment to date.
They say the best views come after the hardest climbs, and they're so right. The views are indeed extraordinary.
I was incredibly lucky that I didn’t feel the altitude at all. No headache, no nausea...I was as good as I am at sea level. That definitely helped getting to the top slightly less difficult.
Day 6 and 7
Summit (5895m) to Mweka Gate (1800m)
Coming down all the way from 5895 metres to Mweka Gate at about 1800 metres is no joke. There is a general perception that coming down is easier, but it is very taxing on the knees and there is a greater chance of slipping and falling. I fell down about six times during the descent.
One doesn’t need any technical skills to go up Kilimanjaro; it is the only mountain you can ‘walk up’, but it is no walk in the park either. Besides being considerably fit, you need to have immense mental strength to reach the top.
There were moments on the summit night when I wondered why I wanted to do this in the first place. But once I did make it to the top, it was all worth it.
This adventure has left me craving for more, and since the very minute I was back in connectivity, I have been looking up the K2 base camp (fingers crossed).
—All photos by author except when stated otherwise