I opened my eyes, my head was pounding like I had spent the previous night in a bar enjoying several alcoholic beverages not on a wind-swept plateau of the worlds highest free-standing mountain. I was desperately tired but my bladder would not let me go back to bed. Checking my watch, I had barely been in my sleeping bag 3 hours. It was just before 2am. The moment I had dreaded since I tackled the Inca Trail in Peru 3 and a half years previously had arrived. I needed to make my way to the loo.
The Inca trail’s lavatories are infamous for their varying states of ‘cleanliness’ and I use that in the loosest possible sense. After entering my first loo on that trek I swore not to use them unless it was an emergency. A lot of reviews state that the lavatories on Kilimanjaro are in a better state. That they may be but not by an awful lot. I knew that I would not be able to eclipse my almost superhuman effort of avoiding them on this trip. The Inca Trail is 4 days, the Machame Route is 6 in total and that is still classed as a rather quick ascent/descent of the mountain. Combine the length with the sheer amount of water and food you are expected to take in, I knew this moment would come sooner or later.
Piling on the layers after the last 3 hours curled up in a ball in my sleeping bag, desperately trying to keep warm without much success, I opened the tent and crawled out of it like a chrysalis trying to keep any warmth in there. I must have looked like a hung over caterpillar emerging for the first time. The temperature and the wind took my breath away. My head felt like a jack hammer was drilling through it and every limb ached. I was sure I had caught the worst case of man flu in the Northern Hemisphere.
Falling back into the tent I felt I had just finished a marathon despite our camp being the closest to the toilet block. The wind outside was still howling and the sleeping bag now felt like a freezer. My head was pounding more than ever. Why hadn’t I brought some paracetamol with me? Epic fail on high altitude touring 101.
I thought the morning was nearing. I opened my eyes again but only 50 minutes had passed. I was clearly going to be in for a long night. I had only felt this cold once before, stuck on a ski lift in France for 25 minutes in a -30 degree wind chill. After waking up every 40 minutes or so generally in a heap at the bottom of my tent thanks to a slight incline, the night was mercifully nearly over.
I was, quite frankly, exhausted after getting hardly any sleep, I also felt quite sick and my pounding headache hadn’t got any better. At breakfast I could barely manage a cup of milk powdered coffee and yet I knew before our guide told me to get something solid in me that today was going to be gruelling but my stomach was having none of it. I knew our guide was worried about me as was everyone else in the group but I put on a brave face, told him I would manage and I would be fine later once we got walking. Turns out I lied.
With breakfast out of the way quickly, we were soon packed and on our way. One of the most important days for acclimatization, today we would spend the first part of the day getting up to the Lava Tower at 4,600 meters before descending to the Barranco Camp only 50 meters higher than we were currently via part of the Southern Circuit. It at first seems such a waste to expend all that energy to get up to 4,600 meters only to come back down to about the same height again but it is very important for our bodies to get used to the thinning atmosphere. On summit night you will be very, very thankful for today but 10 minutes in and barely out of camp I was feeling like the Lava Tower was going to be my undoing.
There is a lot of talk online about altitude sickness and various ways of dealing with it. I had queried the use of acetazolamide tablets, more commonly referred to as Diamox. My doctor was not keen to prescribe them and their side effects are well documented. Nobody is immune to altitude sickness and with proper acclimatization the use of Diamox will not be needed. The problem lies in what people can afford to spend ascending the mounting which directly relates to the number of days. It is not a technically difficult mountain to climb, all that is needed is a reasonable level of fitness and an awful lot of determination. There are quicker routes to the top than Machame but I would not recommend them to anyone who has not been at extreme altitude before.
Climbing Kilimanjaro – Altitude Sickness
I had some idea that I wanted to do this trip many years ago and since 2012 some of my holidays have been geared to seeing how my body would cope, first with a little high altitude and hiking on the Inca Trail then hiking around Patagonia in 2014. I go skiing every year in the Alps and knew I wouldn’t have problems up to 3,500 meters but anything higher than that was a mystery. Along with my doctor and my previous experience in Peru I decided Diamox wasn’t for me. I am not a qualified doctor so I cannot offer any advice to you about Diamox, it is a choice you will ultimately have to make after gaining the facts yourself by talking to people you know who may have climbed the mountain or taken other high altitude tours, by talking to your doctor and scouring the various online guides. What I will say though, if you have no experience of altitude, is to start off smaller like trekking the Inca Trail or searching out a specific hiking tour or altitude experience like a 4×4 excursion through the Altiplano in Bolivia to see how you go first. It’s a good indication of what you and your body are likely to experience on Kilimanjaro.
Looking back now, on reflection, my symptoms were indicative of dehydration brought on by me not drinking anywhere near the recommended amount of water. I should have been through 6 litres by now but my hazy memory tells me I had only just about scraped through 2. Desperate to limit the number of overnight trips I had to make to the loo, my limiting of the water intake had directly lead to me nearly not even getting to the Barranco Wall. Don’t make the same mistake yourselves. This high above the rainforest zone, the air is so dry you dehydrate by convection. The air pressure is lower and it is much less humid which leads to more rapid evaporation of moisture from your skin. Just because you aren’t sweating doesn’t mean you aren’t losing moisture. At the summit you will typically be losing twice as much than at sea level.
Back on the mountain, 2 hours of solid hiking had passed by in what felt like a year. The landscape was almost unrecognisable from the last 2 days with the scenecios replaced with a barren landscape of rock and not a lot else. Sleep deprived and unable to eat, feeling sick, tired and dizzy I had the full gamut of altitude sickness warning signs and my guide knew it. Being a non smoker and used to a physical job I could usually be found in the front third of the group only slowed down by my need to document our little adventure with my camera but today was different. I was quiet and withdrawn and lagged far, far behind the rest of the group. He waited for me at our mid morning stop letting the others carry on to the Lava Tower with the other guides. Urging me to eat as much of my lunch as I could once we reached the Lava Tower to get my energy up and pressing me to keep downing the water at regular intervals.
At one point mid morning my aches and pains momentarily distracted me from the landscape which had become almost as monotonous at the hiking today. My throbbing headache was made worse by the photosensitivity I had gradually gathered through the morning and the severely overcast day wasn’t, unfortunately, helping so with sunglasses pulled as close to my eyes as I could, I concentrated on every footstep for around 2 hours. I didn’t talk to anyone; it was exhausting enough just trying to put one foot in front of another and every twist of the trail or minor peak mounted but then opening up into another mountainous vista with the trail disappearing off into a pinpoint in the distance was heart breaking. I was at my lowest point on the mountain.
Climbing Kilimanjaro – The Lava Tower
The Lava Tower, or Shark Tooth Rock must be a spectacular sight on a clear day but on an overcast day like today and feeling worse than the undead I couldn’t believe it had taken me this long to reach here but just as I thought I could rest I realised we were still about 50 minutes from our lunch stop at the base of the tower. My heart sank but I kept plodding on unable to take in the still breath-taking sight of the Lava Tower in the distance.
Eating was the furthest thing from my mind. The walk up to the Lava Tower had taken every last reserve of energy I had left. I managed two dry biscuits from my lunch box before finding the quietest part of the tower to curl up and pass out, quite literally, for half an hour but in a flash I was being shaken awake. Surely we couldn’t be leaving already?
Looking bleary eyed in the direction everyone seemed to be heading I thought I must still be dreaming as one by one they were disappearing over a ledge and down what appeared to be a cliff face. I had never seen a wall of loose rock that high or steep and standing at the top looking down at a dribble of humans gingerly making their way to the bottom trying their best to avoid the falling rocks from a misplaced foot above their heads. It was another one of those surreal moments I could chalk up to my Kili Adventure.
My power nap had actually done quite a bit of good. I at least felt human once again and the copious amounts of water I had been taking in all morning meant the throbbing head was slowly dissipating. I felt I had a little more energy and started my descent into the unknown. 20 minutes later I was at the bottom looking up still slightly bewildered by how steep this last section was. This was supposed to be a walkable mountain but the last 20 minutes were the closest I had come to mountaineering, scrambling down scree slope and over and around boulders the size of cars. And I enjoyed myself for the first time that day. It was a welcome respite to the monotony that had thus far been the main feature of the day.
Looking east, the monotony soon set in again, realising that we were now encased in a valley that had 2 very steep sides and had only 1 way to go to get out. Sadly there wasn’t an easy option. The climbing began again. This mountain can be so cruel sometimes.
Climbing Kilimanjaro – Barranco Camp
Climbing out of the valley after 40 minutes the mountain plateau spread out before us again. Ahead lay a couple of hours of easy hiking down to Barranco Camp, 700 meters below our current point and still a few kilometres away. Now on the Southern Circuit and losing elevation, the vegetation was once again starting to bloom all around us.
It was once again a breath-taking sight even with the grey cloud drawing closer and obscuring the Barranco Wall to the north of the camp.
From checking in, it was an arduous walk to our camp perched high on the plateau overlooking the camp next to the toilet block. My energy reserves had again run out and all I wanted to do was sleep. All I could do was sleep. I didn’t even have enough energy to wait around for the rest of the group to finish signing in. Practically falling over my own feet I made my way to my tent and collapsed. I had never felt this exhausted in my life.
Kicking off my boots I fell into a deep sleep for the next 2 hours before a knock on my tent for afternoon tea. Turning over the next thing I remember was another knock for dinner around 7pm. My appetite had evaporated along with my energy. All I needed now was as much rest as I could get before we tackled the much feared Barranco Wall first thing in the morning.