They say travel is a true test of a relationship, but I think it’s camping.
In summary, we laughed our way through the discomfort. I’m so glad we did it, and I also never want to do it again. It was hard. Really, really hard…. the most grueling physical challenge I’ve ever attempted. We’ve definitely earned some lazy beach time on Zanzibar.
I drafted this post every day to make sure I wouldn’t accidentally sugar coat anything…
Day 0 – Prep
We spent one night in a nearby town called Moshi to do final prep. Our guide came to our hotel to check out what gear we did/didn’t have and give us a briefing.
Everyone must take 2 guides, in case one person can’t summit or a guide gets sick. You must use the sanctioned camp sites, which means we will see other groups, even though it was just the two of us. The route we chose is the slowest ascent with the highest success rate (which was reassuring to hear). He returned later that afternoon with heaps of ski clothing and some serious cold weather sleeping bags, which was not reassuring.
The German spent the afternoon reading various recaps of other people’s climbs and periodically saying “Oh my god”. This didn’t help my confidence.
I slept terribly mainly because our hotel was pretty dumpy. The bed was super hard and there was a ton of noise outside – roosters crowing, dogs barking, a nearby mosque blasting the call to prayer. And the blanket was very thin so I spent half the night freezing. We joked it was good training for the mountain, which would at least be quieter.
Day 1 – Getting Started
We took one last shower and then met up with our 2 guides, 1 cook, and 8 porters to start the adventure.
It takes about 3 hours to drive to the main gate. This is where you officially register, plus they weigh everything the porters are carrying to ensure each one takes no more than 20kg.
They gave us a boxed lunch while we were waiting. I’m fairly certain I wound up eating a butter sandwich but I knew I needed to eat a lot to have energy to climb and stay warm at night. So basically, we both tried to eat whatever they put in front of us throughout the trip. Suffice to say, any low-carb diets were off.
I thought I’d take the opportunity to use the toilet one last time, and was dismayed to find it was just a hole in the floor. (Basically, every woman’s least favorite thing in the world.) At this point, my decision to pay for a private toilet was obviously going to be my biggest regret of this trip. You are supposed to drink at least 3 liters of water per day, which is tough to do when you dread having to pee. Sigh.
When the weighing of our stuff was finally finished, they re-loaded everything onto the van and we drove another 30 minutes or more to where we truly started hiking.
We started at 7220 feet and arrived a couple hours later at our first camp at 9230 feet. (We are using the compass app for the first time ever to track all of this.). The path is much more established than what we dealt with in Rwanda – it’s a nice, wide dirt path with crude stairs on the hills. The hike felt taxing in spots due to the steep incline (and the altitude, presumably), but they encourage you to go slowly and drink lots of water on the way. The forest was lovely and lush, and overall it was a pleasant hike.
The porters passed us early on and had camp almost set up when we arrived. There’s a small tent for us to sleep in, plus an adorable dining tent with a table for two. They brought us a couple bowls of warm water for washing up, and then we had a snack of tea and popcorn while they prepared dinner.
As a bonus, a couple blue monkeys came by to beg/steal food. They are baboon-sized, but clearly used to having campers around and you could get really close to them.
Dinner was surprisingly good. We had a hot cucumber soup, followed by pasta with a hearty vegetable sauce and there was also potatoes and fried fish. They kept encouraging us to eat more but it hardly felt like we worked up enough of an appetite for the volume of food they gave us.
As soon as it got dark, temperatures dropped dramatically. We have silk sleep sacks inside our rented sleeping bags (thanks to Nicholas’ wife, Lisa for that great idea), which adds even more warmth. The German has a solar-powered battery we can use to recharge our phones, so I spent the last hour of our first night listening to an episode of my favorite podcast while cocooned in my sleeping bag.
At this point, I’m feeling like this is all doable – the camping (other than the bathroom situation), the hiking, etc.
Day 2 – The Real Hiking Begins
We both slept remarkably well. Getting dressed was a bit comical in the tight space… Neither of us has been camping in decades. I found myself saying “I’m not very good at this” quite a bit, as I did things like accidentally punch him while I put on my jacket.
Breakfast was eggs and bread and what can only be described as “gruel”. I tried adding honey, but that didn’t help mask the taste. The fact that it was hot was its only redeeming quality and we both agreed we couldn’t choke it down.
At my mom’s recommendation, we’ve been taking ginkgo biloba, which she uses to prevent altitude sickness. (There is also a prescription medicine we didn’t manage to get. Our guides said it makes you have to pee a lot, so maybe that was for the best given the toilet situation.) We haven’t had any symptoms of altitude sickness, so we spoke to our guide about doubling up the day’s hike (which would mean one less night of camping).
The morning hike took 4 hours, and at least 2 of those were incredibly steep. Sometimes it felt like we were moving in slow motion (which is the pace the recommend – slow & steady). The guides did a good job of distracting me with Swahili lessons for the first half, but then I couldn’t spare the breath to keep talking for the second.
We were both drenched in sweat and covered in dust by time we arrived at our lunch stop, which was essentially a big, rocky, windy dustbowl. (This was the camp we decided to skip, thankfully.) Every other bite of food came with a mouthful of dust (as if I wasn’t dirty enough). They also had a plethora of the horrible squat toilets. So in other words, I was very happy it was just a short stay.
At this point we are both feeling really exhausted, but the next camp is still another 3 hours away. And we’ve left the cover of the forest, so we hiked that in the blazing afternoon sun.
Everything was covered in dust – my white socks were brown, my boots were unrecognizable, and I felt like my teeth might also have a layer of dust on them. I couldn’t imagine ever being clean again. The hiking was really tiring, even though it wasn’t as steep as the morning’ route. It felt like we would never get there. At this point, The German asks how I’m doing and I respond with:
“I feel disgusting, I look disgusting, and my main goal of every day is not to pee on myself.”
(We both burst out laughing)
At this point, the guides made us take a break and drink more. My climb is essentially powered by mango juice – one small box will get me 30-45 minutes of a better attitude.
When we were about 30 minutes away from camp, two of our porters appeared and relieved us of our day packs! This was a very welcome surprise, and we managed to make one final push to get to our camp.
This camp was at 12800 feet with a clear view of the top of the mountain, which had been hidden in clouds until now. We are still several days away from the summit, but it was nice to see it getting closer.
We were thrilled to see all the tents already set up and they had water ready for us to wash up. After one dish of warm water, I was feeling much more human.
But even better was my discovery of an actual toilet!! I never expected to be so happy to find the equivalent of a nasty porta-potty (which should give you an idea of how dire the situation has been).
Day 3 – Acclimitization
Our route is designed to give you the best chance of adjusting to the altitude by “climbing high, sleeping low”.
Our goal for the day was to make it to 15,000 feet for lunch. It was a long, gradual uphill trek, moving at a pace I would describe as “granny with a walker”. At this altitude, we were exhausted from getting dressed – walking seemed like an intense physical workout.
This is the point at which the different routes to the top start to converge. We are seeing a lot more people (and a lot more trash) along the way. Its pretty much an international parade – there are people from all over the world, and all different ages and physical capabilities making the climb. A lot of these people clearly don’t understand the concept of taking your trash with you – it’s unfortunate to find candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and toilet paper along the way.
We managed to make it to Lava Tower for lunch at our gradual but continuous pace (with many breaks for water and snacks). However, by time we stopped to eat, The German wasn’t his normal ravenous self, and we both had low grade headaches. Both are sure signs of altitude sickness.
From there, the walk to camp was about 2.5 hours downhill, which sounded great in theory. However, it was very steep and rocky so you really had to consider every step and our knees were getting so tired. I was somehow feeling much better than the day before, so now I guess it was his turn to feel exhausted and defeated.
This camp is in a gorgeous spot overlooking the clouds, but it’s crawling with other people. I always pictured this climb as an isolated experience, but tonight seems more like camping at a music festival. (Minus the music, though several other groups like to sing, apparently.) Each climber needs about 3 porters, so it can turn into quite a lot of people at the campsites.
Several of the other groups have private toilets and I find myself looking longingly at them. You periodically see women exiting the camp bathrooms full of nasty squat toilets, and they all look miserable.
The German had a terrible, throbbing headache and no appetite when we got to camp. We forced him to drink a bunch of ginger tea and eat some soup in hopes it cleared up before morning. Otherwise, we both agreed from the start that if one of us got sick, we’d end the trip and go down together instead of risking serious illness. At this point, there was nothing to do but wait until morning.
Day 4 – The Baranco Wall
Every night I dream of food. Don’t get me wrong – they are doing a really job considering where we are, but I miss cheese. And wine. And food that stays hot long enough for me to get it from my plate to my mouth.
The good news was that The German was feeling much better after 12 hours of sleep. The bad news was that we had to tackle The Baranco Wall, which is a point where many people quit.
From the ground, it looked absolutely impossible. I have no idea how people weren’t sliding right off the rocks to their death. And there’s one part called the “kissing stone” where you have to hug a giant boulder and shimmy across a ledge. Our guides kept telling us it would be fine, but it looked incredibly intimidating. For the first time, I was scared.
We weren’t allowed to use our hiking poles as we needed our hands free to grab onto rocks and pull ourselves up. (I’m guessing this is what my climber friends would call “bouldering”.)
It was a solid 2 hours of vertical climbing. As usual, the porters were moving at double our pace while carrying massive bags on their heads.
As our guides promised, once we got started it was actually kind of fun – in a “I can’t believe we are doing this” sort of way.
We arrived at the top (around 14,000 feet) exhausted but invigorated. The view was amazing and the summit was actually looking achievable.
We bought a bunch of “food” from REI before we left SF – I never imagined in my life that I’d need things like energy chews, but they were surprisingly effective when faced with some of these steep climbs. The German was skeptical at first, but other than “margarita” being a poor flavour choice, we had to start rationing to make sure we had enough left for summit day.
We had a few more hours of hiking up and down to get to our camp, which was at 13,300 feet. The last “hill” was ridiculously steep. You could see the other climbers making their way up like a line of slowly moving ants, and this is the only time the porters have moved at the same pace as the tourists. We joined the line and arrived at camp shortly after 12, our faces hot with windburn. This meant we had the whole afternoon to relax – a nice change from prior days.
This camp was on a really windy slope. Food slides to one end of your plate while eating, and you can see people slipping down the dusty hill to the toilets (which are the worst yet – in addition to being revolting, some don’t even have doors). On the plus side, it was a very surreal perspective – like the whole camp might slide off the mountain into an ocean full of clouds.
We celebrated our accomplishment of conquering the wall by breaking out our stash of TCHO chocolate. Our tour company recommended we bring chocolate along to try and stimulate our appetites if we didn’t feel like eating, but we figured we deserved a reward for making it this far.
Day 5 – Base Camp
The night was the coldest yet. I slept in long underwear and a fleece and still wasn’t warm enough. Neither of us is sleeping well – not sure if that’s the cold or the hard, rocky ground or the incline or the altitude (or all of the above).
At this point I’m wearing double layers of moleskin on my feet. (Thanks to Les for forcing me to buy some before we left SF.) My hiking boots are well-worn and generally comfortable, but this is certainly the most action they’ve ever had.
The hike to this camp was short but incredibly steep. Even the porters ceased to overtake us. I’ve grown to resent the large group of college students who still somehow look fresh-faced and energetic. They chatted their way up the Baranco Wall, as though just breathing wasn’t a huge labor for them.
We arrived at base camp 2.5 hours later, which is at 15,300 feet. The landscape is “alpine desert”, which basically means rocks. There are tents everywhere amidst the rubble of the steep slope. The wretched squat toilets are perched on what looks like the edge of the cliff, so that added an element of danger once it got dark.
Our tents are right at the start of the summit trail and we saw many groups shuffling down the steep incline like colorful zombies. They all looked completely drained.
Because this camp holds everyone who is ascending or descending, there’s a constant rabble – porters shouting to each other, climbers chatting, some folks have radios which play fuzzy reggae music or a soccer game. And throughout the day people continue to descend, often with guides leading them by the hand or with an arm wrapped around their waist. I really hope that isn’t us tomorrow.
Day 6 – The Longest Day of My Life
We left for the summit at midnight, because it would’ve been too easy to do it during the day. (Haha) They gave us the option to leave at dawn but I guess sunrise is the best time to be there, and frankly, we were both ready to get it over with. In hindsight, I’m fairly certain they recommend going in the dark because if you saw what the path looked like, you’d immediately psych yourself out of attempting it.
We were lucky in that it wasn’t terribly windy. Even so, it was incredibly cold and I basically wore everything I brought plus every piece of clothing they loaned me. And a headlamp. They advised me to wear 2 pair of long underwear, and told us how to store our water bottles so when they freeze (not if it freezes, but when) you’ll still be able to get some water out of them.
As we started the death march, I immediately understood why everyone looked so drained on the previous day. This hike would’ve been challenging to anyone, but combine it with extreme altitude and it was downright grueling.
The only thing visible (besides stars) were the other climbers’ headlamps. A few groups started ahead of us and we could see they were already much higher. The climb started off very steep, then was ridiculously steep, followed by “how are we even walking on this?!”. I kept hoping for a bit of flat path, but each time I spotted the other climbers, they were always moving higher. This went on for 6 hours.
Even the guides didn’t speak this time – everyone needed to save their breath. The recommended method was to move slow and steady, no matter how small your steps. At times, it felt like I wasn’t actually moving forward, though I was certainly moving my feet. There was a lot of dust and small stones, so you’d regularly find yourself sliding backward. And I tripped over the equivalent of a pebble on numerous occasions – it was just that hard to life your legs.
Your best bet for success was to just focus on your guide’s feet and follow their steps and pace. Your job was to just keep moving. It was all too reminiscent of a Horror Movie: Step…. Step… Step…
The path was predominantly serpentine. Sometimes this involved scrambling over smooth rock faces, sometimes it was deep dust, and sometimes it was big chunky rocks. And it just never ended.
There were many others on the trail, which meant we passed a lot of carnage on the way: bloody noses, vomiting, people collapsed on rocks in exhaustion. (All “completely normal” according to our guides.)
Breaks had to be just 1 or 2 minutes or else your body would get cold and you’d have a whole other set of problems. I had those chemical heat packs in my gloves, but I still was sincerely concerned about frostbite- it didn’t seem like they were working at all.
We trudged and trudged and trudged, struggling to breathe and move, battling waves of nausea from the altitude but knowing we needed to eat something occasionally or we wouldn’t have enough energy to make it. There were times I wished I could just lay down in the dirt and rocks and sleep – it was that exhausting.
We finally made it to Stellar Point (at the top of the never-ending steepness), 6 hours later and right as the sun was starting to rise. I inexplicably wanted to burst into tears – I’m guessing from pure exhaustion and relief that the worst was behind us. The German was feeling awful – clearly the altitude was getting to him and our guides were really trying to help him push through to get all the way to the end.
It was another 45 minute walk to the actual peak, with much more manageable terrain of rolling hills. The uphill parts still felt ridiculously difficult, but at least there were some flat parts to balance it out and none of it was nearly as steep as what we just did. There were glaciers on one side, and the sunrise was beautiful. I felt newly invigorated, while The German was pretty much delirious.
We got our token photos at the peak. (Somehow he wound up with cool snowboarding loaner clothing, while I looked like some kind of Rainbow Brite reject.) After I took about 5 photos, my iPhone shut down due to extreme temperatures- it was still that cold. I wanted to use The German’s phone, but he was so delirious he didn’t know where it was (which was a first for him)!
Once the photos were taken, we immediately started to descend because neither of us needed more altitude exposure.
The way down took another 2.5 hours, but it was much easier. There were many groups still working their way up – I tried to offer encouragement as we passed. Then we veered off to an alternate path, where we basically slid/ski’d down through the deep dust. It was actually kind of fun, though it took “filthy” to a whole new level.
We stopped halfway down for a juice break – I think they were trying to give The German enough energy to make it back to the tent. I couldn’t help but feel proud of the achievement… It was an incredible physical and mental challenge, and not only did we accomplish it, but we were amoung the first to the top and neither of us barfed!
We were allowed to take a 1 hour nap at base camp, followed by lunch. Then we really needed to head to lower altitude.
Both of us were dismayed to learn it was a 4 hour hike to our final camp. It was all downhill, which sounded appealing, but the reality was that our knees were extremely fatigued and we felt like we were hobbling the whole way.
We descended down to 10,000 feet to Mweka Camp for our final night. As the oxygen became more plentiful, all symptoms of altitude sickness vanished.
Day 7 – Return to Civilization
We slept well for the first time in a week, no doubt due to exhaustion (and oxygen). As you can imagine, we were excited to get back to town to a shower and clean clothes, so we were quick to pack and start the last leg of hiking to the gate.
We made our way down to the forest, which was full of lush plants and trees and a gorgeous mist. Pretty much every muscle in my legs was sore, so we weren’t moving as quickly as I would have liked. And the beautiful mist caused the trail to become a slippery, muddy mess. As usual, the porters were flying past us as we struggled not to wipe out in the mud.
A dumpy hotel has never looked so good! Now it’s time for hot showers, hot food, and a day of trying to clean all of our stuff before we head to Zanzibar!
This was a great experience, but I never need to do it again.