Four friends joined our Kilimanjaro Private Journey in July 2021 for an epic trek up empty trails to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This journey turned out to be extra special as one couple celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary on the trip! Read on to learn more about their amazing trek.
Our dream to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro had to be put on hold for a year due to the pandemic. But by the summer of 2021, international traveling was opening up again, we were fully vaccinated, and the testing, quarantine, and health protocols of Wilderness Travel convinced us that the trip would be safe.
We booked a private tour for four (two befriended couples)—and ended up with a support group of 42! At first sight, this may look like an excessive ratio (more than 10 support staff per hiker). Yet, it is essentially the price paid for: A) a well-organized expedition and B) an eco-friendly one, because not only does everything from food to tents and emergency supplies have to be carried UP the mountain, but all garbage needs to be carried OFF the mountain as well—eco-tourism in action.
Here is a look at our wonderful team:
Wilderness Travel promotes climbing Kilimanjaro along the Lemosho Route and through the (in-)famous Western Breach, which is the most scenic, most private, and adventurous approach. Also, scheduling nine days for the expedition raises the probability of a successful climb to above 90%. By comparison, alternative routes like Machame or Marangu allow for less acclimatization, are more crowded, and are less interesting from a scenery point of view, plus they have a lower success rate.
We started with two days of initial acclimatization on the slopes of Mt. Meru at Itikoni camp. This was a wonderful introduction to Tanzania. We were spoiled by Paul’s exquisite cuisine, enjoyed the hospitality of our guides Mchili and Leo, and took advantage of the many amenities at the camp.
From the base of Itikoni camp, we undertook a spectacular game drive in Arusha National Park, coming face-to-face with a large herd of giraffes, besides seeing all kinds of other wildlife.
On the second day, we were treated to a surprise apéritif spread on top of a nearby hill with a clear sight of Kilimanjaro.
Hiking Day 1
After a scenic three-hour drive to Lemosho Gate, we had the first of many delicious meals prepared by our gifted field chef, Eric. Then we hiked to our first camp, Mti Mkubwa (8,694′). This is a three-hour hike through dense forest with moderate points of interest, except the occasional Blue Monkey peering through the thicket. The camp was very busy, with tents popping up left and right, although we were assured that this was “nothing” compared to the occupancy during pre-pandemic times.
Hiking Day 2
A long, strenuous hike brought us to above the tree line and into the heathland zone, with plants in all shapes, sizes, and colors lining the hiking trail.
The trail was occasionally very steep, but we were encouraged to go “polé polé,” meaning “slowly slowly,” “take it easy,” and that did the trick to avoid over-taxing our system.
After hiking for about five hours, we turned a corner and BAM there stood the immense bulk of Kilimanjaro.
At this point in the trek, one of our team experienced altitude sickness. He felt unwell all afternoon and then was audibly sick in the evening. Our guides handled the situation with aplomb, assuring us that most likely all would be fine tomorrow, and they were right. Our sick team member was like a man transformed, and the following morning his appetite was back and he tackled the next segment of the hike with vigor.
Hiking Day 3
The weather continued to be sunny and dry, and as we were moving higher and higher, the vegetation was getting ever more hardscrabble, with Everlasting flowers (Helichrysum newii) dominating the flora.
Today’s hike took us well above the sea of clouds, with the cone of Mt. Meru visible at a distance. Our next camp, Moir Camp (13,100′) is right at the base of Kilimanjaro.
By now we’d settled into a regular daily routine:
• Wake-up call at 6 am followed by hot breakfast and coffee
• Hike from 7 am till noon
• Enjoy an excellent, hardy meal at 1 pm
• Take a rudimentary body wash from a basin with warm water
• Spend the rest of the afternoon in the personal tent reading and relaxing
• Popcorn and tea from 4-6 pm in the dining tent
• Savor a multi-course dinner at 6 pm
• Discuss current affairs, philosophize, and learn about Tanzania until the cold drives us into our sleeping bags
• Watch Netflix till 9 pm in the tent (pre-downloaded content and while batteries last) then try to sleep
• Wake-up call at 6 am…
Hiking Day 4
Today’s trek took us up into the alpine desert zone. Our goal, Lava Tower Camp, lay some four hours away, at an elevation of 15,100 feet. 2,000 feet of vertical gain is substantial at that altitude, and we were huffing and puffing over some of the steeper sections, but enjoying the tremendous views.
Our guides had snagged the best (i.e. level, safe, and secluded) camping site at Lava Tower, and here we settled in for two days.
Using that extra day for acclimatization is crucial at this altitude. Lava Tower is a great location for the extended stay, being so high, wild, and almost otherworldly, with a Mars-like feel about it. But it is also a super dry spot, and all water had to be hauled in from a distance by porters.
Meanwhile, temperatures dropped to freezing after sunset, and inside the dining tent, we were eating with our gloves and caps on.
Rest Day 5
On our rest day, we did some local scrambling around, but mostly we just enjoyed talking, reading, and lazying around inside our tent, which was a comfortable place to be during the daytime.
Hiking Day 6
Today, we climbed up to our second highest camp, Arrow Glacier camp, a short distance away but a fairly steep scramble up to 16,000 feet.
From this vantage point, we saw the full extent of the famed Western Breach rise steeply before us.
The next day, we’d be scrambling up there, leaving camp before 5:30 am, as required on a large signboard.
Any later departure would expose hikers to the danger of rockfall. We were the only group at this campsite, as all other teams had chosen the more crowded, easier access route to the summit. The sunset at this forlorn place, seen from the ridge above camp, was spectacular.
Hiking Day 7
This was not only the biggest day of our climb, but one of the most serious physical challenges of our lives. We got up at 4 am, then left camp in complete darkness, using our headlamps, before 5:30 am. Climbing the Western Breach of Kilimanjaro, going from 16,000 feet to Crater Camp at 18,500 feet, is an exhausting but utterly exhilarating experience.
We were wearing helmets, a necessary precaution, and a reminder that we were in class 3 climbing territory with some class 4 climbing as well (Yosemite Decimal System).
Despite the demanding nature of this uphill slog, there were lighter moments. At an altitude of 17,700 feet, during a rest break, someone played Toto’s “Africa” on an iPhone, and soon enough, our spirits revived to the point where we were dancing along, appreciating the fitting the lyrics: “I know that I must do what’s right / As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus from the Serengeti.” It was a surreal experience. Finally, close to 11 am, we crested the rim of Kibo, taking a while to catch our breath.
From here we marched across the dreamlike landscape of brittle snow crust and sand to reach the Furtwängler Glacier, sitting on top of Kilimanjaro like a beached white whale.
Sleeping at our highest camp, Crater Camp at 18,500 feet was not for the faint of heart.
The altitude was brutal on our system, and I slept very little, counting the minutes to the wake-up call at 4 am.
Summit Day 8
On summit day, we again left camp and in the light of our headlamps, tackled the last steep slope to gain the summit rim of Kilimanjaro, up 600 feet. It was slow going and the cold was sharp as glass, but we were rewarded with a glorious sunrise just as we crested the summit.
It is hard to describe the feelings of elation when stepping up to that roughly timbered signboard. We’ve reached the top of Africa!
The descent was one long grind. The weather began to turn now, and we were grateful to have been on top before the clouds moved in. After summiting Kilimanjaro, we had the task of descending almost 10,000 feet along 8 miles, a very tall order! Halfway down, our team had pitched the cooking and dining tents, and there we enjoyed a delicious warm lunch, before tackling the last section of the endlessly seeming descent. When we stumbled into Mweka Camp (altitude 10,000′) around 4 pm, we were amazed to look up and see the summit of Kilimanjaro towering above us: Hard to believe that we’d been up there the same day!
Hiking Day 9
The last section of the descent from Mweka Camp (10,000′) to Mweka Gate (5,400′) was another long slog through the dense cloud forest. We marveled at the enormous eucalyptus trees and at the delicate endemic Impatiens Kilimanjarii, but mainly we just tried not to slip and slide on the muddy trail going down, protecting our knees as well as we could using a pole and holding hands.
We reached the gate at noon, then were bussed to a nearby restaurant and souvenir shop where we drank our first sip of beer after nine days and enjoyed the farewell lunch cooked by Eric.
To our delight, Mchili had organized a decorated cake to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary—there couldn’t be a happier, more memorable occasion for this special day.
— Text and photos by WT adventurer Bernard Shweizer, Kilimanjaro Private Journey.