Ever since I was a young girl, I dreamed of visiting Africa. The culture, the wildlife, the rainforests, the savannas and the Sahara – everything about the vast continent intrigued me, and I was determined to one day make visiting a reality. In my twenties, I took my first multi-day hiking trek in Peru, and fell instantly in love. With global warming threatening to forever erase the snows of Kilimanjaro, seeing the glaciated summit that was the ‘roof of Africa’ quickly became a top priority.
After carefully researching the seven routes that traversed the slopes of Tanzania’s 19,341′ (5,885 meter) peak, we settled on the Lemosho Route. Not only was it the longest, providing more time to enjoy the mountain as well as more time to acclimate to altitude, it also traversed all five of the mountain’s ecological systems, from the humid rainforest to the alpine desert. Importantly, Lemosho is also noted as being one of the most scenic and less traveled routes.
Day 1 (Sunday, June 23, 2013):
Starting point – Londorossi Gate (7,070’)
Ending point – Mti Mkubwa (Big Tree) (9,186’)
Distance – 4 miles
Elevation gain – 2,116 feet
Today we embarked on our 8 day/7 night Kilimanjaro trek via the western Lemosho Route. We began at the Lemosho glades trailhead (Londorossi Gate) and journeyed through the rainforest along the western side of Kilimanjaro. In the forest we were dwarfed by enormous vegetation. Wild carrots climbed as tall as us and giant ferns rose to nearly seven feet. Amongst the foliage, we enjoyed a glimpse of the colobus monkeys as they navigated the treetops. The shy, arboreal primates were surprisingly large, with long, flowing black and white hair… although not discreet as they loudly and clumsily leapt from tree to tree. After an easy 4-mile hike, we stopped for the night at the Lemosho Forest camp (Big Tree).
Day 2 (Monday, June 24, 2013):
Starting point – Mti Mkubwa (Big Tree) (9,186’)
Ending point – Shira 1 (11,000’)
High point – ridge (11,650’)
Distance – 5 miles
Elevation gain – 2,464 feet
After about an hour’s walk through dense juniper trees draped in old man’s beard, we emerged from the forest ecosystem and entered the heather (moorland) zone. The transition between the two climate zones was surprisingly abrupt, the soaring trees instantly giving way to stunted shrubs. Once in the moorland, we climbed a steep path of dust and rocks that led us past large clusters of heather and everlasting flowers.
Eventually, we crested a tall ridge where we had our first view of Kibo (the large, snow-capped dome of Kilimanjaro). We found it curious that we had hiked on the mountain for roughly 8 miles and had been unable to look up at the summit. When we were finally met with a sun-drenched view of the glaciated peak against a cloudless blue sky, it was one of those truly fantastic, indescribable moments – when you are completely awestruck by your ethereal surroundings, and suddenly realize how lucky you are to be somewhere you always dreamed of but never thought possible.
We descended the ridge to the vast Shira Plateau (11,000’), where we set up camp for the night. The plateau was a treeless expanse of a very fine, dark, volcanic dust with sweeping views of Kibo towering above us.
Day 3 (Tuesday, June 25, 2013):
Starting point – Shira 1 (11,000’)
Ending point – Shira 2 (12,600’)
Shira Cathedral – 12,710’
High point – 13,340’
Distance – 6 miles
Elevation gain – 2,450 feet
Today we awoke to a stunning (yet frigid) sunrise over Kibo. We spent the majority of the day crossing the seemingly endless Shira Plateau, one of the highest plateaus in the world. For as far as we could see, the nearly flat landscape was speckled with huge boulders, scrub brush, and various species of everlasting flowers (Helichrysum). The little blooms were particularly charming – they were shimmery and somewhat translucent, and made a crinkling sound when you touched them. I immediately pictured the cellophane flowers described in the Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.’ Consequently, I had the song resounding in my head for the rest of the day’s hike.
We were also quite fascinated by the wild carrots we passed along the trail. While we saw these plants growing to 4-5 feet in the forest, here they were only a couple inches in diameter, their leaves pressed firmly in the arid soil. Usually more intrigued by birds and wildlife, I had no idea we’d be so taken by Kilimanjaro’s incredible plant life when we started our trek.
After traversing the plateau, we made our way to Shira Cathedral, an extinct volcanic ash cone standing 12,710 feet above sea level. Here, we learned that Mount Kilimanjaro actually contains three distinct peaks – Shira (12,710’), Kibo (the highest at 19,341’), and Mawenzi (14,518’). The volcanic cones of Shira and Mawenzi are extinct, while Kibo is dormant and could erupt again. Following a quick, 30-minute scramble up the rocky ridge, we reached the top of Shira Cathedral. From the craggy outcropping we had incredible views of the exposed Shira Plateau, a lush, green valley on the opposite side of the peak, and the top of Mount Meru floating in the distant clouds.
As we sat atop Shira, taking in the stunning landscapes, we noticed several white-naped ravens playing enthusiastically with small twigs as they flew between the dark, rocky ledges that rose above the verdant valley below. The birds would soar upward, drop the moss-covered branches abruptly from their beaks, and dive steeply down to retrieve the falling sticks. It was really a spectacular sight to see how playful and intelligent these birds are.
That afternoon, following a gradual descent, we ended our day at the Shira 2 campsite.
Day 4 (Wednesday, June 26, 2013):
Starting point – Shira 2 (12,600’)
Ending point – Baranco Valley (12,790’)
High point – Lava Tower (15,230’)
Distance – 6 miles
Elevation gain – 2,630 feet
Today we hiked out of Shira, leaving the moorland behind and entering the alpine zone. As we entered the even more dusty, barren region, we found deposits of beautiful obsidian. The glistening, black stones had been flung from Kibo’s crater during the last eruption, roughly 200,000 years ago.
My highlight was reaching the top of Lava Tower (15,230’), where the white-naped ravens ate eagerly from my hands. I think the feathered friends were thrilled that I was willing to sacrifice nearly my entire lunch. Although the locals aren’t particularly fond of the birds, we were just captivated with their animated personalities. We tremendously enjoyed watching them yesterday atop Shira Cathedral, and were equally excited to be able to interact with them this afternoon.
Our day concluded with a hike down to the camp in the Barranco Valley, a magnificent spot lined with endemic giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari) and lobelia (Lobelia deckenii) at the base of the imposing glaciers.
Day 5 (Thursday, June 27, 2013):
Starting point – Barranco Valley (12,790’)
Ending point – Karanga camp (13,100’)
High point – Barranco Wall (13,890’)
Karanga Valley – 12,980’
Acclimatization walk – 13,790’
Distance – 3 miles
Elevation gain – 1,910 feet
This morning we conquered the much-anticipated Barranco Wall (13,890’). It was mainly just a steep hike up, though some scrambling was involved. At one point about halfway up the wall, we had to swing our bodies around a sheer rock face, aptly named “kissing rock.” Being fairly short and carrying a full pack, I found this task slightly daunting. After excitedly reaching the top of the wall, we again enjoyed some truly incredible views. We did a bit of ’emotional yoga’ and snapped some shots of Mount Meru rising above the clouds before beginning our descent. The trail here dipped steeply along glacial streams into Karanga Valley, on the southern side of Kibo. Here, we paused by a picturesque creek, the last water point on the mountain, before making a final, sharp ascent to Karanga camp (13,100’).
Day 6 (Friday, June 28, 2013):
Starting point – Karanga camp (13,100’)
Ending point – Barafu base camp (15,287’)
Distance – 2 miles
Elevation gain – 2,187 feet
After a short 3-hour hike through the alpine desert and just over 2,000 feet in elevation gain, we arrived at Barafu Hut. To the east, Mawenzi’s peak welcomed us to base camp. To the west, Kibo and Uhuru summit loomed over us, teasing us with impending adventure. We rested here for the afternoon and anxiously awaited our midnight summit ascent by torchlight.
Day 7 (Saturday, June 29, 2013):
Starting point – Barafu Base camp (15,287’)
Ending point – Millennium camp (12,500’)
High point – Uhuru summit (19,341’)
Distance – 10 miles
Elevation gain – 4,054 feet
At 6:34 am, we made it to Uhuru, the roof of Africa!
Our hike began around midnight, and followed a dusty, lava rock path for 3 miles, gaining 4,054 feet in altitude. Our guides, Big Jonas & Little Jonas advised us that if we ascended polepole (slowly), we would have little concern. The hike started off surprisingly easy, and neither of us felt any symptoms of AMS for the duration of the climb. The only hiccup came around 17,000 feet, when my synthetic down jacket lost all warmth to the single-digit wind chill (even with 4 additional layers underneath). As my gloved hands swelled like giant balloons, I panicked that I would have to turn back so close to my goal. Fortunately, our amazing guides assured me that I would be just fine as I had no other symptoms of altitude sickness. Jonas generously bundled me in his down coat, and we pushed onward.
Stephan and I agreed that the last 1,000 feet or so of steep climbing felt like eternity; even though we could constantly spot our endpoint, it seemed to never get any closer. Around 5:30am, though, we finally reached Stella Point (18,800’), the final point below the summit. We were pleased to have posted a respectable 5.5 hour hike time, and by this time I felt amazing, and was just so thrilled to be up there! After shoving half a liter of hot tea down my throat, our guides confirmed we were both well enough to summit. Thus, we made our final 541 foot ascent around the crater rim to Uhuru peak – the highest point in Africa at 19,341 feet!
The sun rose as we walked the last stretch of dirt path to the summit, with vibrant pink and yellow sunlight saturating the sky over a silhouetted Mawenzi. Along the path, sharply pointed ice fields glistened in the glow of the morning light. Enormous glaciers greeted us at every turn. We were wide-eyed as we passed the immense Rebmann and Furtwängler glaciers, bathed in the pastel colors of the morning sun. The crater and Reusch ash pit looked like a dark, barren moonscape dusted unevenly with crisp, white snow and ice. To the West, off in the distance, we looked down on Mount Meru (14,977’).
After about a 40 minute walk, we arrived at the famous green sign at Uhuru, welcoming us to the official summit of one of the world’s most iconic peaks. In that moment, I was incredibly overjoyed and grateful to be standing beside that simple, wooden sign:
Barafu to Uhuru: 3 miles; 4,054 feet gained; 6 hours
We could have stood atop the summit forever enjoying the dramatic views. However, we finally had to make our descent, as we still had a full day of hiking ahead. The trail down was extraordinarily steep and unstable, comprised of slick sand, dust and scree. Surprisingly, the descent was probably the most taxing part. Almost every step was an uncontrolled stumble and, upon reaching Barafu for brunch, my knees had had it. The remaining 2,787 feet down to Millennium camp at Mweka Hut was much more relaxed, and provided breathtaking views of the rolling, green slopes. After a nearly 15 hour day of hiking, we stopped here for our final evening on the mountain.
Day 8 (Sunday, June 30, 2013):
Starting point – Millennium camp (12,500’)
Ending point – Mweka gate (5,400’)
Distance – 6 miles
Today we made our final descent down Kilimanjaro. We tramped down 7,000 feet of steep hillside through the lush Mweka rainforest on the southeastern slope. Surprisingly, this forest was much different than the western Lemosho woodland where we began our ascent. Here the trails were muddy and slick, and the path cut through gnarly, moss-covered heather and endemic camphor trees. Again, we enjoyed some of the unique vegetation, including the masale (Dracaena). Known as the ‘peace plant’ to the Chagga people, the spiky, succulent shrub is used commonly as a hedgerow as well as a peace offering in their culture.
That afternoon we reached Mweka gate, and were met with our gold certificates from the park authority for reaching Uhuru. We departed the gate, headed toward the cultivated farmland zone below, feeling amply accomplished, a bit tired, and already nostalgic for the pure, crisp air of Kilimanjaro.
Total distance: 42 miles (68 km)
Elevation gain: 17,811 feet (5,429 meters)