Kilimanjaro via Machame Route – Sep 2018
Monday mornings don’t get much better than this. It was a fine day when we boarded the expedition bus in Arusha, and Jonathan, Ernst, Emma, Joanna and James were looking forward to their first views of Kilimanjaro which we would attempt on this expedition via the Machame Route. We were not disappointed. The clouds continued to burn off as we drove towards Moshi giving us superb views of the summit of Kibo, which continued all the way up to the Machame Gate.
With the obligatory registration process completed and the porters’ loads weighed and shared, we started our walk through the forest, on a very gentle gradient punctuated by numerous staircases until we had gained 1200m height without ever feeling a were really going uphill. By 6.30pm we were comfortably settled in Machame Camp enjoying the last views of Kibo as the sun set.
The following day, we made our way up an enormous ridge of lava flow towards the Shira plateau. The path had become much steeper, and everyone began to feel much more exertion, but the numerous wide flattenings along the way gave us a chance to catch our breath and enjoy the stunning views. We scrambled up and over steep lava steps until finally we reached the level of the Shira plateau, where a gentle descent took us down to Shira Camp at 3800m. A superb hot lunch awaited us followed by a ‘siesta’ before dinner.
The altitude begins to take its toll at some point and today was a tough day for Ernst. We did our morning ‘Lake Louise Scorecard’ and no sooner than had Ernst declared that his guts were fine, than a bowlful of porridge proved otherwise and he had to make a hasty run from the tent. Unable to keep his food down, Ernst had to draw on his 75 years (yes!) of determination to keep himself going. It was ‘scorchio’ as we followed the long line of other trekkers and porters up the path towards the famous Lava Tower, with superb views of the west side of Kibo and back across to Mt Meru. At 4600m, the Lava Tower was now the high point of the trip so far and certainly far higher than any of the group had ever been before, and the final few hundred metres were very hard work. But, after a packed lunch and a decent rest, we began to descend towards Barranco Camp, enjoying the wonderful scenery in this dramatic valley and drinking in the extra oxygen as we lost height. As we approached Barranco Camp we could see the path weaving its way up the Barranco Wall, which David, our head guide, described as “our breakfast” for tomorrow.
‘Breakfast’ was delicious, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the Barranco Wall. Unfortunately, today was Jonathan’s turn to feel nauseous, so with little food inside him and having hardly slept, it felt harder to him than it would otherwise have done. The group found the scrambling great fun, at the same time marvelling at the porters as they found numerous short-cuts to overtake, all the while their loads balanced on their heads.
A few hours later we were at Karanga Camp and the delicious chicken and chips lunch was a huge morale booster for everyone. There was a bit of a shock as we stepped out of the mess tent, however, with swirling thick cloud surrounding us and actual drops of rain. It was waterproofs on for the first time, and heads down as we trudged off into nothingness. The next couple of hours were tough as we again were moving up towards a high point in altitude and with nothing to see except for the pair of heels in front, everyone had to dig deep. However, an hour or so before we reached Barafu Camp, the cloud lifted giving us a clear view of the camp across the little valley we had to cross. The last couple of hundred metres ascent were tough, though, and Joanna was a little overcome as we reached the camp and in need of a little ‘blub’ and a hug. It was a late arrival though, and we knew that we didn’t have long to eat and drink, re-pack and rest in time for our midnight summit bid.
Midnight brought mixed emotions. Jonathan and Ernst decided that having both had a couple of hard days dealing with the effects of AMS, that they were not going to attempt the summit. This was a great shame as they had both started out so strongly, Jonathan being extremely fit and strong; and Ernst being amazingly fit and (unsurprisingly) very mentally tough for his 75 years. However, it was their choice and probably a good one given how they were both feeling. So, with an assistant guide left with them to take them down to Mweke Camp in daylight, we left them to get some more sleep.
Emma, Joanna, James and I and our guides set off to join the zig-zag line of head torches snaking its way up towards Stella Point. After a while, it became apparent that Joanna’s average pace was significantly slower than the others, so she was assigned another assistant guide to let her go at her own pace, although in the end the effects of the altitude proved too much for her and she opted to turn back to Barafu. The hours dragged by as we plodded up the hill. Several times the zig-zag of torches seemed to peter out, giving us a false hope that the crest of Stella Point was not far away. But as we reached that point, we would be met by the demoralising sight of yet another line of head torches far above us. False summit after false summit continued through the cold of the night, until finally the horizon began to be tinged pink and we knew that the sun signalled both warmth and potentially our arrival at Stella Point.
By this time, though, both James and Emma were succumbing to various symptoms of AMS and were suffering in all sorts of ways. Our pace slowed even more as rests and gasps for air became more and more frequent and longer each time. It seemed to take an age from first light until we finally reached the crater rim and the Stella Point signpost. James and Emma were elated but utterly exhausted, but still absolutely determined to reach Uhuru, and so we continued around the crater. Somehow, they seemed to find a new lease of life as the gradient eased, and an hour or so later the sign marking the ‘roof of Africa’ was in sight. It was an emotional moment as we approached the sign, and a few more tears were shed, but finally it was all over. They had both reached the summit as they had set out to do, and in doing so James had also raised a considerable amount of money for MIND, the mental health charity.
We couldn’t linger long, however, and it was important to get down quickly. So, after a few photographs and soaking up the views, we turned and made our way back down to Barafu and then after a rest and some lunch, on for a further 4 hours to be reunited with the others at Mweke Camp. A further short walk the next morning, and it was all over as we finally left the national park with just our memories of an amazing experience.