Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro: Life changing five days of pain and pleasure

“Protus! If you tell me about another corner again, you will have to carry me!” I barked at my guide in Kiswahili. This was my fifth and last day on Mount Kilimanjaro.

I was grumpy, tired and hungry. I hadn’t had a shower in five days, my fingers had suffered mild frostbite, there was excruciating pain in my left knee and my feet were sore after walking 27km.

After my threat, Protus walked by my side in silence. Despite sharing deep conversations with him minutes earlier, I had now turned him into an enemy. My two friends, Nana Wanjau and James Mwangi, who were a few metres ahead, also suddenly went quiet. The four of us walked in silence.

Every few steps, I kept asking Protus how far it was to the Marangu Gate. Protus, in his wisdom, kept saying we were a short distance away — that there was only one “last corner”. It was his latest “last corner” statement that had made me snap.

At the start of 2015, as the rest of the world was celebrating the New Year, I and a team of 38 volunteers were on an expedition to climb Mt Kilimanjaro from January 2 to 6 to raise funds for various charity projects, including the eradication of Polio.

Tackling Polio is of the highest priority to Rotary — an international volunteer organisation that has 1.3 million members globally.

“We are closer than ever to a Polio-free Africa, with cases down 90 per cent compared to 2013. Africa has not had a case of Polio since August 2014 and Nigeria, one of the last three polio-endemic countries in the world, had only five recorded cases in 2014, compared with 42 at the same time in 2013,” said Bimal Kantaria, the Rotary District 9212 Governor.

But he also had a word of caution: “This progress is real, but it is fragile, and we must stay committed to holding on to these gains.”

To ensure continuous funding and raise awareness for Polio eradication, the Rotary Club of Nairobi East of which I am President, embarked on an ambitious fundraising project that involved climbing 19,340ft to Uhuru Peak — the highest summit of the breath-taking Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania — one of the highest volcanoes of the world and the highest mountain in Africa.

The fundraising was also to build water harvesting systems for schools in Kajiado County, and buying a plastic recycling machine for a youth group in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum that is adjacent to Dandora dump site.

My journey to Kilimanjaro began when a member of the club shared his mountain climbing experience. In my installation dinner in June 2013, I had announced plans to raise funds through climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. Our target was to raise KSh1.5 million.

What followed was six months of intense training. Every Saturday we were either walking at Nairobi Arboretum, Karura Forest or climbing a mountain to build resilience and acclimatise to high altitude.

We climbed mounts Longonot, Kilimambogo, Elgon, Aberdare, and Ngong and Lukenya hills several times.

For people planning to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, it is important to mimic beforehand the conditions likely to be experienced during the ultimate challenge, including hiking up and down slopes between 10 and 40 degrees on varied terrain.

Apart from physical training, we had to change our diet and drink a lot of water. An important factor to a successful climb is staying well hydrated. Dehydration is one of the more subtle and dangerous high altitude afflictions. We were required to drink at least four to five litres of water a day.

As we were training, we were also fundraising. We approached corporates, friends and family. Each climber was required to raise a minimum of KSh100,000.

Half the amount was going towards the cost of the climb while the other half was going to a kitty.

Come January 2, I was among the 39 climbers that left Nairobi for Kilimanjaro. There are several routes up Kilimanjaro. The Machame route, also known as “whiskey”, is known for being tough. But our team used the popular Marangu route, nicknamed  “Coca-Cola” and said to be the “easiest” trail up the legendary mountain. From base (1,847m/6,149ft) to summit (5,895m/19,340ft), it can be done in an average of five days. The other routes can take six to seven days.

Regardless of the route you take, there is something about Mt Kilimanjaro that breaks you. All the luxuries you think are important don’t matter. All that matters are three things: taking the next step, staying warm and breathing. During the five days we were on that mountain, the phrase “pole, pole” became our mantra.

No wonder my colleague Nana later said: “I am glad climbing Kilimanjaro was not a competition. All you needed to do was walk at your pace.”

Day 1 : Friday, January 2

We arrive at Marangu Gate in high spirits. We set out at 4:30 p.m from the base camp after eating a rather sumptuous lunch of bread, soup, pasta and fruits. Day One involves walking from Marangu Gate to Mandara Hut, a distance of 12km through the forest. It is a relatively easy walk that takes you from 1,700m to 2,709m.

We are accompanied by a team of 75 guides, porters and cooks who carry our luggage, sleeping bags, food supplies, cutlery and cooking items.

Albert, the leader, is very kind and all he tells us is to listen to whatever we are told in the next five days.

“Weather conditions depend on the season but as a general rule, the temperature decreases steadily by about one-degree centigrade with every 200m increase in altitude. Carry some clothes in your day backpacks so we can layer on when it gets cold,” says Albert.

We get to Mandara Camp at 7:30 p.m. It is a brisk walk and since it is getting dark we do not have time to stop along the way. Accommodation is in wooden cabins —  women and men sleep separately.

The beds are double deckers with a small mattress and pillow. Shared accommodation comes with its unique challenges. For a comfortable night, it may help to carry ear muffs to allow uninterrupted sleep.

“The first night was difficult as we had to sleep in a common room. At night the snoring sounded like an orchestra. I tossed and turned. At a point I got a little sleep then someone started snoring!” recalled Mr Joe Otin, CEO of The Collective.

The toilets and bathrooms have very cold water, but every morning, climbers get a bowl of hot water which they use for washing and brushing teeth.

Day 2: Saturday, January 3

The wake-up call is at 6.30 a.m. and breakfast is served an hour later. We leave Mandara for Horombo Camp at 8.30 a.m. Every morning climbers are given a lunch pack and have to replenish their drinking bottles.

The guides and porters keep reminding us to drink water frequently and monitor urine which should be clear and a copious 1.5 litres per day. The trek to Horombo is about 15km and takes about 6 hours with pit stops for water, toilet and lunch. Today we will climb from 2,709m to 3,726m. Walking upward, the vegetation drastically decreases as it gets colder.

Day Two is relaxed with climbers taking photos and talking. The first group gets to Horombo Camp at 3.30 p.m. After settling into our cabins, we have time to rest and even play board games. By 4.30 p.m. the temperature drops and we all have to layer clothes. It is one of those nights when one appreciates the warmth of the sleeping bag.

Day 3: Sunday, January 4

After breakfast, filling our water bottles and getting our packed lunch, we leave for Kibo Hut at 9am. It is a distance of 15km – an ascent of 3,726m to 4,708m. Kibo is an inactive stratovolcano. Kibo’s last eruption occurred 100,000 years ago creating the Shira Plateau and the nearly flat lava plain called The Saddle towards Mawenzi.

The walk on day three starts getting tough. The air is extremely dry above 4,000m and the guides advise us to avoid panting through the nose, drink water frequently and minimise sweating by removing any layers of clothes. We walk slowly and some climbers start experiencing altitude sickness. Some climbers start vomiting, others have nausea, running stomachs and complain of headaches.

When we stop for lunch at the Saddle, it starts raining hailstones. Since we have nowhere to take cover, we pack our lunch, wear our raincoats and start walking. The temperatures have fallen to negative and it gets colder as we ascend. At 4,708m the air is very thin and cold. We arrive at 4pm and after settling in our rooms, we are informed that dinner will be served at 5:30pm. We are required to be asleep at 6:30pm. We are expected to wake up at 10pm to prepare to leave for the summit at 11pm. The next few hours is what we had been preparing for the last six months.

Wake up call is done at 10pm. We dress up and go to the dining room for a light meal of bread and porridge. We are heavily dressed with jackets and headlights. Unfortunately, one of us is too sick to leave Kibo and she is forced to stay behind after she develops breathing problems. She breaks down in tears but it is too dangerous. We leave camp at 11:30pm and walk in a single file. Destination –

Uhuru peak!! From Kibo to Uhuru is a very steep ascent of 6km from 4,708m to 5,895m.

Day 4 – Monday 5th January at 1am

We are all walking in a single file. We stop after every few steps to catch our breaths and drink water. On this day, all the porters and guides are with us. Although we trained, this is where our willpower came to play. The air was very thin and it was freezing cold. Even the water we had carried was frozen.

As we approached Gilman’s Point at 5,703m some of the climbers turned back. When day broke at 6am, we were a few metres from Gilman’s. The sky suddenly turned orange and we saw the sun start lighting the sky. The first team got to Gilman’s at 6:15am, rested and started the walk to Uhuru Peak. The distance is a strenuous 192m.

After a certain time the guides do not allow climbers to proceed to Uhuru peak because of the temperature. Only 13 climbers reached Uhuru peak and 21 got to Gilman’s and turned back. Five members of the team were not able to get to any of the peaks due to various physical reasons.

When we were at the summit, a snowstorm started. The descent was a nightmare and the guides were forced to assist many of the climbers. After 12 hours of walking, fatigue, lack of sleep and nausea, descent requires both mental and physical strength. Descending is hard on the knees and some climbers have to be carried by the guides.

Climbers arrive back at Kibo at 1pm, have lunch and immediately leave for Horombo. Despite the fatigue, are not allowed to spend the night at Kibo because of the high altitude. At 2pm we start the 15km descend that takes us through the Saddle. It is one of the most painful walks. Those who did not get to Uhuru are so sad that they don’t talk. Those who got to Uhuru are tired and walk limping. We all walk slowly in silence.

We get to Horombo have dinner and have an early night. Some people are still sick and they have to be driven by an ambulance to the base in the morning.

Day 5 – Tuesday 5th January

Wake up call is at 6:30am. Today we have a special ceremony to thank all the guides and porters. After breakfast, we assemble and sing. The guides congratulate us for conquering the mountain. It is a happy day for everyone. We hand over a cash reward to the guides and start our final descent of 27km back to Marangu Gate.

We are given water and we depart at 9am. We are told that lunch will be served at the base. The walk down is torturous. Although the altitude is reducing, the strain from walking for four days takes a toll on us. By the time we get to Marangu Gate all we are thinking of is having a shower and sleeping!