Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, boasting 19,341 feet at the summit called Uhuru Peak. There are various different trekking routes to the peak, each with there own advantages. Due to time constraints, we opted to pursue the Marangu route, which is a five day trek. It is the shortest trek available, leaving less time for altitude acclimatization, which is why it has the lowest success rate of the routes. Luckily, all seven members of our group made it to the top despite summiting on day 3 instead of the usual fourth day. More on that later.
We started the trek at the base at 1879 meters above sea level. The first day was a slow introduction to the climb with only an 841 meter elevation gain over 8 km to Mandara Hut. The first day’s trek weaved through rain forest with many monkey sightings including colobus monkeys. We stayed in huts along the way, which provided extra warmth but not much else in the way of comfort. The simple A-frame huts had multiple bunks in each with just enough room to squeeze around bunkmates. There was one large dining hut where we shared meals. Though primitive, I became more and more thankful for the huts’ shelter as we ascended.
The next day, we continued our trek to Horombo Hut. We climbed 1000 meters over 11 km through the last of the rainforest and into the moorland. My favorite part was the grove of giant groundsels that paralleled our route. Groundsels are large cactus-like trees that signal water below. I also enjoyed the red-hot poker flower, seen in front of the huts.
On day 3, we continued on to Kibo Hut gaining another 1000 meters over 9 km through the alpine desert. Typically, trekkers arrive to Kibo Hut by early afternoon and rest until midnight, at which point they attempt to summit to Uhuru Peak. Due to frequent blizzards over the week prior to our ascent, the success rate was incredibly low. Because the weather was quite clear when we arrived to Kibo Hut, our guides suggested we attempt to summit that afternoon rather than waiting until midnight. We all heartily agreed and pushed through physical exhaustion to climb another 1175 meters over only 6 km. The final stretch between Kibo Hut and Uhuru Peak was mighty steep and took about 5 hours. The last 200 meters seemed interminable with altitude worsening our already strenuous breathing. We admired the orange and coral sunset as we finished the last of our climb to the peak.
Because of the cold (-5 degrees) at the summit, the threat of imminent storms, and the dark sky we quickly turned around to descend. The descent was treacherous at points as we navigated the rim of the caldera covered in snow and ice by headlamp. The descent lasted 3 hours. I can honestly say I have never been so mentally and physically exhausted in my life. My body felt wrecked by the time we gleamed the lights of Kibo Hut.
Day 4 and 5 were the final descent back to the starting gate. We tried to move quickly as we were tired and sore with knees as stiff as boards. We were so blessed to have relatively good weather and no injuries in our group. We all managed to skate by without altitude sickness, thanks to prophylactic acetazolamide. And we had fantastic porters and guides along the way. This trek was by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, harder than I had anticipated. I am so thankful to have completed this journey along side my wife, who without her support and encouragement, I wouldn’t have made it.