Many trekkers arrive at Mount Kilimanjaro dreaming of a grand wilderness adventure on the world’s tallest freestanding mountain. At the very least, they expect some peace and quiet to contemplate the toughest physical challenge they might ever face. Finding a circus instead of solitude can be mighty disappointing.
While Africa’s contribution to the seven summits ranks high on the to-do list of serious mountaineers, scaling the 5,895-metre (19,341 ft) dormant volcano requires no technical skill. Climbers with a moderate level of fitness, positive attitude, and a body that adapts reasonably well to altitude have a good chance of success. It’s no surprise to learn that the number of people attempting the climb is high.
According to Tanzania National Parks, Kilimanjaro attracts 50,000 climbers a year, up 25% from 2008 and about 50 times the number attempting either Everest or Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) in Alaska. Managing the impact of so many boots stomping up and down one mountain is a serious challenge, so hikers are required to stick to formal routes and to sleep at designated camps. On one route – Marangu – camps feature permanent huts. On the others, elaborate tent villages are erected each afternoon, only to disappear the following morning as climbers come and go, sometimes in their hundreds.
Despite, or perhaps because of, increasing visitor numbers, Kilimanjaro national park has cleaned up its act. Each camp now features a weigh-station where guides and porters check in. Weigh-ins protect porters from carrying too heavy a load and also protect the mountain from litter. Groups must weigh their rubbish to ensure what goes up Kilimanjaro, and is not eaten along the way, comes back down. Previously, weary porters often stashed their rubbish in the bushes.
However, human waste is an ongoing problem. Digging new latrines is challenging in the rocky terrain, and cold temperatures slow the decomposition process.
Luckily, I was forewarned about Kilimanjaro’s crowds and the pollution – noise, rubbish and excrement – left in their wake. I planned my climb to avoid the busiest areas on the mountain and learned additional crowd-avoidance tactics along the way.
On Kilimanjaro, hikers choose from six well-trodden ascent routes, which converge towards the summit. Two-thirds opt for Marangu or Machame, routes so popular they’re nicknamed Coca-Cola and Whiskey. The quieter reputation of the longer routes, Rongai, Lemosho and Shira, has ironically made them popular. The steepest route, Umbwe, draws few climbers but offers limited potential for crucial altitude acclimatisation. All but Rongai ascend the southern face of the mountain, and all climbers descend to the south.
Picking a route is vital for crowd avoidance, so my climbing partner and I tested the TK Lemosho – developed in 2008 by mountaineers from the family-owned tour operator Team Kilimanjaro, it is a combination of existing routes. By taking a scenic, little-used detour known as the Northern Circuit to join a portion of Lemosho with a portion of Rongai, it avoids the busiest areas on the mountain. The extra few days this requires enables hikers to explore more of the mountain and allow more time to acclimatise, but it also adds to the route length (about 86km) and the cost, in excess of £2,000 all-inclusive for the seven-day trip with Team Kilimanjaro. Costs of treks vary greatly according to the number of days, group size, operator reputation, quality of equipment and food, number and experience of guides and porters, and add-ons such as transport and hotel nights.
After a bouncy three-hour drive from Arusha (hub of northern Tanzania’s safari and tourist circuit), our trek started from the west at Lemosho Gate along the Lemosho route through some of the best rainforest on the mountain. Amid birdsong and monkey hoots, a gentle three-hour climb led us to Big Tree camp. A Sykes monkey and a small, tented village housing about 15 other hikers greeted us under the namesake big tree as rain settled in for the evening. The rain continued the next day, but only added to the fairytale atmosphere of huge trees dripping with old man’s beard lichen amid flowering St John’s wort. Eventually, we emerged from the forest into short heather, a moody landscape of grey-green shrubs, before reaching Shira camp set along a stream. A cold fog had us huddled in our dining tent, but the clouds parted briefly in the evening, revealing a first look at the still far-off peak.
On the third day, our route peeled away from Lemosho, heading north to Moir camp on the Northern Circuit. This 8km walk took us away from the busy southern face of the mountain and into a windy alpine desert. In the afternoon we hiked up a nearby ridge and explored a waterfall fringed with alpine plants including spikey giant lobelias. The waterfall was frozen the next morning when we set off to skirt the entire peak from west to east. This 22km section can be split over two days, but the terrain is flat and easy. The Northern Circuit affords incredible views up to the peak and an expansive panorama downslope through the heathlands and forests, and on to the Kenyan savannah and Amboseli national park. Fresh buffalo and eland tracks crisscrossed our path through one of the most wild and remote sections of the mountain’s trail network. After a long day of hiking, we settled in at Third Cave camp.
The fifth day brought a steep climb high above the vegetation line to the camp called School Hut, where a bearded vulture soared overhead. From School Hut, TK Lemosho makes its bid for the summit, converging with the Rongai and Marangu routes on the arduous climb to Gillman’s Point before meeting up with the remaining routes at Stella Point just beneath the spectacular Uhuru Peak.
It’s not just the 50,000 annual visitors that crowd Kilimanjaro. The average tourist employs between four and six people to guide, cook, clean and carry equipment on the mountain. My climbing partner and I enjoyed a 12-person entourage that made the trek luxurious compared with our usual backcountry experiences. Instead of sleeping on hard ground, lugging heavy packs and eating rehydrated food, we relished thick roll-up mattresses, light loads, and good meals: oats, eggs and bacon for breakfast and three-course lunches and dinners including soup, a main dish, such as chicken and chips, and fruit for dessert. All of this pampering helps with altitude adaptation; however, the trade-off was 12 extra people arguing politics in camp and passing us on the trail each day. Not many people realise that it’s possible to forgo the support staff. Only a guide is mandatory. Of course, not many people could manage the climb without porters either, nor would they want to.
Guidebooks suggest climbing Kilimanjaro in January-February or August-September, when warmer temperatures and clear skies are most likely. But these are also the most crowded months. Climbing in March or October, just before each of two rainy seasons, is the best hedge to avoid both crowds and foul weather.
For the final summit bid from the highest camps, guides recommend starting the seven-hour slog shortly after midnight. Many people can’t sleep at the high camps anyway, so walking through the night means less time at dangerous altitudes and a full day to descend to safety. Our guide, Frank Gebra, explained that “summiting” at sunrise is the best chance for clear skies and scrambling up loose scree is easier when it’s frozen. After trudging for hours through darkness and sub-zero wind, I realised, too, that Frank’s hypnotic, rhythmic Swahili chanting probably works better to coax suffering clients onwards when they can’t see how far they have to go. In the blackness, I could barely discern the stars from 30 other hikers’ twinkling headlamps, seemingly miles above us.
At this extreme altitude, many hikers suffer from stomach problems, but the terrain is too dangerous for delirious climbers to move off the path when nature calls. Unfortunately, in my headlamp’s narrow beam, I saw things I wished I hadn’t, scattered amid carelessly discarded hand warmers and tissues. The going was tougher than I imagined – my hands and feet went painfully numb, my head pounded, my water bottle and camera battery froze, and nausea got the better of me a few times.
But shortly after the most spectacular sunrise I’d ever seen, we stood, elated, at the summit in a moonscape of loose scree, pockmarked by thousands of boot prints somehow resisting the whipping wind. Above us was nothing but clear sky. The glaciers glowed blue against a still-pink horizon as we waited our turn for a picture in front of the iconic summit sign.
I didn’t fully appreciate the value of our route for avoiding the crowds until our descent. Heading down the south slope, we passed a throng of climbers struggling towards the summit along a choked trail. I felt incredibly lucky when we bypassed sprawling Barafu camp, where nearly 100 tents housed climbers prior to their summit day, and groups were still streaming in. By comparison, we had shared Moir Hut with one party of three climbers and Third Cave and School Hut with two climbers who hardly made a peep.
Would I climb Kilimanjaro again? Sure, though I’d trade the constricted headlamp view and cloud-free sunrise for a daylight climb, wide vistas and deserted summit. With the transcendent view from the roof of Africa surprisingly accessible to mere mortals of moderate fitness, even a nature-loving misanthrope is better off joining the crowds than blaming them.
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