What is the longest you could possibly imagine taking to go 5 kilometers? It’s only 3.1 miles right? My best 5k time ever is just over 20 minutes (didn’t bring all my old training journals with me, so I don’t have an exact time), but I now have a PR for the longest 5k of my life.
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was way more of a challenge then we thought it would be. We’re in decent shape and you just walk to the top, right? While that is technically true, it was a little more complicated than that. I’ve been at what I thought was a high altitude in Colorado a few times, but the effects there held nothing on the effects crossing 19,000 feet. Except for the summit day, the day we had lunch around 15,000 feet was the roughest, and neither Cara or I were counting on feeling the altitude as much as we did.
We did a 7 day hike on the Lemosho route, and the options range from 5-8 days from most guide companies, although the record climb and descent is less than 7 hours. People are really crazy. You have to hire a guide company, which means that you get roughly 5 supporting people for each person going on the trek, between the porters, cooks, waiters, assistant guides, and guides. We ended up with 11 total people helping us, 7 porters, a waiter (who also carried a bunch of stuff camp to camp), cook, assistant guide, and guide. If you ever decide to come to Africa and climb Kilimanjaro (more on my opinion if that is a good idea or not later) you can usually join a group of hikers, which doesn’t save you a ton in the cost of the trip, but since all of these support people rely on most of their income to be from tips, you can save a lot if you have more people to split the tips with. We were very happy with our company (Kessy Brothers Tours) and our trip was definitely on the budget end of things when you compared our gear to the high end companies, but based on what we heard from people and prices I looked into before getting here, we paid less than half of what some people were paying and we still felt like we had incredibly good service. For example, we had our own private “mess tent” where we were served 3 hot meals a day and received better service than I have in a lot of “nice” restaurants. Not really the “camping” we are used to…
The first few days we settled into the pace of hiking, and the favorite saying of the guides and all the porters passing you on the trail is polepole (spoken polay polay) which means “slow”. They really mean this as you feel like you are barely moving, but it makes it much easier to deal with the large altitude gain each day. We couldn’t believe we would be walking that slow for the next several days on day 1, but by the summit day it was tough to move at any pace. We like to try to learn a little of the local language wherever we go, so of course we had to learn how to say “fast” and joke with everyone that we would start going “haraka” or that the porters were “haraka”. A common response from the porters was “me haraka, you polepole!”, or “hakuna haraka” which means “not fast”.
Skipping the boring first couple days where we just walked all day, often going higher up the mountain than we would be sleeping to help acclimatize, lets get to where it got real, summit day. We spent the morning of day 5 hiking up tobase camp and then you get lunch, have the afternoon to nap, have a good dinner (although neither of us had an appetite from the altitude but you force yourself to eat), and then try to get a few more hours of sleep. There are a ton of people in base camp, moving and talking and this makes it really hard to sleep so when wake up came at 11 pm neither Cara nor I had slept much. We got a little time to wake up and get ready, a small snack, and a little before midnight we were on our way to the top. Our guides told us that it wasn’t a very busy day to summit, but we felt like there were headlamps in a constant stream from the camp to the top, I can’t imagine what it is like in high season. Most people are all going at relatively the same polepole pace, so you just settle in and keep walking. It is really cold, which is another thing we weren’t quite ready for mentally, although our tour company gave us all the winter gear we needed since we aren’t lugging that around the world with us (this was a nice bonus because most companies either charge for gear or you have to rent it separately from one of the outfitters in town). We were very tired from the start, but you just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Because of the low temps, they discourage many breaks, so you might stop just long enough to eat a granola bar or to try and catch your breath, and then you’re right back at it. It is an incredibly long night, and because its dark it’s really hard to judge your progress. Eventually the sun comes up, which just like in GoRuck events I have done, sunrise is a huge mental boost. We were still a ways from the top but we did pause for a bit and enjoy the view. Not too long after that our guides told us we were only about 25 minutes from the top, which was a bold face lie. We did make it to the top of the ridge we were climbing and there is a nice sign for Stella point, but it’s not actually the top. We were still almost an hour away from the true peak…
After a very short break, we started back at it and the last hour wasn’t very steep, but it was an incredible hard grind. Cara was about to fall over and for most of it our guide held one arm and I held the other and we nearly carried her. She did make the last 100m or so on her own, and definitely wasn’t the only one being supported across the top, although I don’t know if anyone else had the visions of small mice or chipmunks running around our feet that she did… To say I was scared for her but impressed by her will to go on is a drastic understatement. We made it to the summit, snapped a few quick photos, and then its time to get going back down as they don’t want you to spend much time at the top. The way down was much faster, but still pretty grueling. We had lunch at basecamp, but I didn’t eat anything except a slice of watermelon as the effects of altitude had a delayed effect on me as I was throwing up and had a pretty bad headache, but we got to sleep for a little while before packing up and heading further down the hill, about another 4 hours down to the next camp. By the time we got there my head was clear and I wasn’t nauseous anymore, and we got our best night sleep on the mountain as we were both exhausted. We got an early wakeup, a big breakfast (although we didn’t eat a ton as we were both starting to get the effects of what we assume was contaminated water). We made the last 2.5 hour trek down to the gate of the national park and piled into a van from the tour company.
It was a rewarding experience, but unless you are really into mountaineering or this is at the top of your bucket list, I don’t recommend it. You have to be ready to be dirty for the duration of your trip (no showers, and you get a bowl of water to “wash up” before dinner most days, so except for the big group of Germans that had no inhibitions and washed literally everything at camp, everyone just smells and is pretty gross by day 3, with a long way to go). This coupled with the fact that nearly everyone gets altitude sickness (summit day it was common to see someone pull off the trail, vomit, and get right back to walking) makes it hard to justify feeling bad for 7 days (more really since we’re both now sick back at our hostel) just to say you made it to the highest point in Africa.
Oh, and what is my new PR for longest 5k of my life? 7.5 hours. Yes, that’s correct. Seven and a half hours to go the 5 kilometers from base camp to the peak, and only 2.5 to get from the peak back to the base camp.
Bet you can’t go slower.
P.S.: I found out how to make my wife slightly happier to be woken up at 6 am: Have someone bring her tea along with the wakeup call.