Right, time to go for a bit of a walk. We’ve been talking about climbing Kilimanjaro for a couple of years. Lot of planning, ridiculous amounts of time and money spent at REI, and some long flights later, we’re here at the edge of Kilimanjaro National Park.
The crew are waiting at the trailhead for us. It comes as a bit of a surprise how many porters there are–many more than we expected. For our group of 6 paying clients, we have 34 porters, a head guide, and a tour leader. It seems rather indulgent at first, until we start getting a feel for the logistics of a trip like this. Everything has to go in and out with us. That means not just the usual tents, sleeping bags, and climbing gear, but all our food for the entire 8 days. Fires are no longer allowed on the mountain, so we have to take cooking gear with us (including propane tanks, water filters, and carrying containers). The weather changes drastically over the course of the climb, so we need clothes suitable for both the equator and for the arctic-like conditions at the summit. There’s safety gear to take, and all of our trash needs to be carried with us. When you add it all up, it makes sense. And more porters means that they’re not being loaded down with too much weight. Apparently, with groups of 20 or 30 paying clients, there can easily be over a hundred porters. No wonder climbing Kilimanjaro is such a source of employment around here.
They arrived at the trailhead last night, dropped off by a truck. We’ve just pulled up in our Toyota Landcruiser, having stopped by first at the ranger station at Londorossi Gate. It’s there that we sign in, sign waivers for the Western Breach (more on that later), and get our passports stamped with the special Kilimanjaro stamp. It’s bustling, because not only are tourist clients from several different groups signing in here, but dozens of porters are lining up to get their gear weighed. There are restrictions on how much they can be made to carry–the more reputable companies, like ours, strictly enforce those limits. As they drop their bags on the scales, items are shifted around between other porters to lighten or increase the load as need be. Outside the gate, men stand waiting, hoping they’ll be called in as a last-minute addition to a porter crew. It’s not completely in vain–in the time we’re there, I see a few of them get called in to work.
There are several signs warning of the dangers of climbing Kilimanjaro and establishing ground rules. If you have a sore throat, cold, or breathing problems, don’t proceed up the mountain beyond 3,000 metres, one warns. Drink 4 to 5 litres of liquid, preferably water, a day, says another. Others warn you not to push yourself if your body is exhausted and that if you start getting affected by acute mountain sickness, descend as soon as possible. We can’t say we weren’t warned.
With the paperwork sorted, and after a quick, makeshift repair to the truck’s brake line–done “African style” with plastic wrap, electrician’s tape, and a bit of rubber belt–we drive another hour or so along eroded dirt tracks through the timber forests to the edge of the national park and the Lemosho Glades Trailhead.
The crew is waiting, and so is lunch. We’d just as soon get cracking and have a sandwich while we walk, but as we soon learn, that’s not how things are done. Our crew includes a dedicated cook, after all, and he’s going to make sure we do meals in style. Over the coming days, we’ll find again and again that the crew takes a lot of pride in their work, and we’ll run into resistance if we suggest they cut any corners, even if they’re corners we’d happily do without.
After sitting for a very civilized lunch, we emerge to find a conference going on in Swahili. It turns out the head guide is assigning porters to carry each of our packs. For security reasons, a porter is assigned to carry each client’s gear for the duration of the trip. A $100 fleece or a $50 pair of gloves might not seem like much to us, but here, especially in the off-season when work is hard to come by, there’s real monetary value in them.
We gear up. Gaiters buckled and backpacks on, we follow our tour leader up the dirt trail into the national park.
We can’t actually see the mountain yet. All we can see a path going up through thick forest, with clouds above that. It’s fairly steep in places, but certainly manageable. There’s no sign yet of the rocky, barren landscape I’d seen in photos. Here it’s thick, lush forest. Apparently, not too long ago, it was standard practice for groups to be accompanied through this section by armed rangers just in case an elephant or buffalo caused problems. We don’t see any wildlife, but we’re assured it’s out there somewhere.
It’s dry and warm without being hot–ideal for hiking.
Inexperienced distance runners nearly always set off too fast at the start of the race, letting the excitement get the better of them. We do pretty much the same thing. But at this early stage, and at this relatively low altitude (7842 ft), it’s harmless exertion. It’s further up the mountain that we’ll have to be more careful about it.
We’ve chosen an 8-day climb along the Lemosho Route, which makes the ascent up the western side of the mountain across the Shira Plateau and Western Breach. But right now, it’s all pretty abstract to us. We’ve read that the Lemosho Route is one of the more scenic of the half dozen or so established routes. And we know that the 8-day is much better than the 5- or 6-day option for giving our bodies a chance to acclimatize to altitude. It also means that we’ll be able to camp close to the summit, at Crater Camp. But we’re not really sure what the next week or so will bring. Only one of our group has any real experience mountain climbing or being at altitude. For the rest of us, we’re just going to have to take it as it comes.
We’re definitely climbing, but because we can’t see beyond the trees and the path is a bit up and down, it’s hard to get a sense of progress.
After about four hours we arrive at camp and sign in at what passes for a rangers’ hut–a flimsy, dark metal hut drenched in the smell of propane.
We haven’t exactly got the place to ourselves. It’s buzzing. A bunch of different groups crammed in under the trees. On maps, it’s Forest Camp, but it’s better known as Big Tree Camp because, well, it has trees.
After dinner, we turn in for our first night on the mountain.
Climbing KilimanjaroLemosho Route / Day 2
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