Kilimanjaro via the Rongai Route
Following some very long journeys from Europe, and particularly from the States for three of the team, as we met for breakfast on Saturday morning the excitement at getting started at last was obvious. There was time to meet the guides for the trip, check our kit and to sort out any last minute problems, before setting off on the long bus ride to the Rongai Gate for the start of this expedition to Kilimanjaro via the Rongai Route.
En route, low cloud hanging around the base of Kilimanjaro meant that there was not the slightest hint of the vast mountain that loomed above as we spent several hours driving around its base. Eventually, we began to make our way up through pine forests more reminiscent of Scotland that Africa, until the sudden sigh of a baboon made us remember where we really were. Once the bus was unloaded and the porters prepared, we set off walking though the forest to our first camp, Simba Camp, at 1740 m.
The following morning, we set off walking through the thinning forest and at about 9 o’clock we were teased by a glimpse of Kibo through the trees. From this angle it appeared as a rocky ridge topped by a thin sliver of snow on the top, much closer and higher than I expected it to look. But not long after the clouds took it away again. We continued up through moorland and heath, enjoying occasional views through the clouds, seeing plenty of alpine flowers, and marvelling at the lava formations including the two cave areas on the route, whose curved rooves are formed of sheets of lava. After a hearty cooked lunch, we continued walking and in the afternoon, the clouds cleared for a while giving us a good view of Kibo and some glimpses of Mawenzi before we reached our next campsite at the Kikelewa Caves.
On Monday morning, a few people experienced headaches as the altitude began to make itself felt, but these had largely disappeared after breakfast. We made the short, steep ascent to Mawenzi Tarn quite quickly to be greeted by the porters singing the customary expedition songs. After another good lunch, we settled down to an afternoon’s rest as we entered the main acclimatisation phase of the trip.
After a lie in and a leisurely breakfast at 8.30, by 9.30 we were heading up towards one of the dramatic rocky ridges leading to Mawenzi, in search of some thinner air to help push our acclimatisation by “climbing high, sleeping low.” We made our way up a ridge quite like Striding Edge or the Carn Mor Dearg Arête until we could safely go no further. Everyone seemed to enjoy the excitement of the more technical terrain, and we then passed an hour or so playing silly but addictive naming games until we felt the time was right to descend back to Mawenzi Tarn for another lunch and afternoon siesta.
The excitement was really building the following morning, Wednesday, as we knew that there were no more full days or nights before we would be setting off for our summit attempt. The walk across the lunar landscape of The Saddle was something or an easy recovery walk and we enjoyed great views of both Kibo and Mawenzi behind us. The long approach to Kibo Camp, however, was deceptively long and the huts never seemed to get closer while our breathing became more laboured with the additional altitude. But we eventually made it and later settled down to another filling cooked lunch.
The afternoon was spent choosing and preparing clothing and equipment ready for the summit day, and having another final rest before the early evening meal. After the meal, our head guide came into the communal tent to give us a briefing on how the summit trip would go, and then we settled down for a final rest, as best we could manage.
At midnight the camp staff awoke us and by the light of our head torches we made our final preparations and drank a few last cups of tea. Then there was no reason to delay longer, and by 1.00 am we set off. The pace up the scree zig-zags was slow but steady and relentless, and for some people barely enough to keep themselves warm. But we were quite a strong group and after a few hours we had made ground on others who had started much earlier. We overtook group after group until we were high up on the screes on Kibo’s flanks, and eventually popped out onto Gilman’s Point at about 6.15. The sun was beginning to show on the horizon and the view was breathtaking, though there was little time to savour it in the crowds that were developing at the Point.
We continued on around the crater rim passing Stella Point and enjoying the stunning views of the summit ice fields and glaciers, much more extensive than I had imagined. Finally, after numerous lung-busting false summits, by 7.45 we were stood alongside that very famous sign marking the highest point in Africa. Having made such a long ascent over several hours, there is sadly not time to linger at the summit so after a few photographs and hand-shakes, we began to make our way down. It took surprisingly little time to retrace our steps down the crater rim, and then swiftly down the scree slope that we had slogged our way up not so long before. At 10.30 we had all reached our Kibo tents once again, and people collapsed to get some rest and sleep for a couple of hours. We were woken once again for lunch, after which we set off at 1.00pm to head down to Horrombo Camp, arriving by 4.00pm. There was a huge sense of achievement at our summit success, but also a sense of anti-climax that it was now all over and a feeling that the summit was some sort of surreal vision rather than somewhere we had actually been standing a few hours earlier.