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5685 Meters in 5 Days

In the second instalment of our mountain climbing double feature, Robert takes on a giant from his childhood — the indomitable Mount Kilimanjaro
Above: The sun rises over Mawenzi peak

I was born and raised in a small town at the Kenyan–Tanzanian border. As a little boy, I went to school with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro almost every day. This mountain is an icon — the world’s tallest free-standing mountain, with seven climatic zones. It is regarded as a superb personal accomplishment in summiting it as a large number of people don't make it to the top. When I got the invitation to climb Kili with friends, I simply couldn't pass it up. I will attest that the decision to climb Kilimanjaro should not be taken lightly; it takes endurance and more than a decent amount of fitness — and that’s if altitude sickness does not take you down. This is my story.
There are many routes to climb 'Kili' and we chose the Marangu route. A more direct path, it is a 5-day trek from Marangu Gate and back, considered moderate but difficult on the summit day with less time to acclimatise. There are three mountain accommodation stops along the way; each hut at the stops sleeps four, with toilets and running water available. After just one month to prepare myself, I travelled to Moshi town in Tanzania, which is about 100km by paved road from my hometown in Kenya. My friends arrived later by air from Nairobi, landing at Kilimanjaro International Airport. The next morning after breakfast we met for a briefing from the guides who would be accompanying us on our trek to the summit and back. Most importantly, they made sure we had all the necessary equipment and proper clothing needed.

It's all smiles at first

The first day saw us driving from Moshi town to the Marangu Gate, about an hour's drive passing through farmland, small villages, coffee and fruit plantations. After registering with the park authorities and checking that our documents were right, our climb officially commenced. We passed through the thick rainforest zone to reach the first stop, spending the night at Mandara Hut (2720m). It took us 3.5 hours to cover 8km which was an easy first day. I psyched myself up for what was to come. With just a few necessities in our daypacks like water, snacks and maybe a camera, the porters are the real heroes here. They carry all your extra luggage and food whilst still managing to go at a very fast pace.

The rainforest zone signals the beginning of the hike

On the second day, we continued our ascent through the forest for a short time, before reaching the heather and moorland zone at roughly 3000m. Walking through this short climactic zone, the landscape opens to stunning views of the mountain peaks while at times you pass through the clouds. The trek to the second stop (Horombo Hut, 3720m) took us 6 hours on dusty, rocky paths for 12km which was a challenge as you must watch your every step. An ankle sprain here would spell the end of your journey.

A beautiful landscape that belies what's to come

We continued our trek on the third day as the vegetation thinned out from the semi-alpine zone towards the desert-like alpine zone. The climb here has spectacular views as you approach Kibo peak, leaving Mawenzi peak behind. The trek crossing the saddle (the space between Kibo and Mawenzi peaks) is extremely windy — we covered only 9km in 6 hours adding on layers and protecting our heads. On this day, I started feeling the mild effects of altitude sickness. I had a headache which got better later after I reached my 3-liter minimum daily water intake and rested a bit to acclimatise. This day was by far the most exhausting, but nothing compared to what was to come. Our guides informed us that we had about 8 hours of rest before summiting at midnight. At 4720m above sea level, Kibo Hut was the last stop.

The alpine zone in the saddle, looking like Mars

Eight hours later, at 11 pm, with barely enough sleep due to anticipation and adrenaline, our guides walked into our hut. A sudden gust of wind followed behind them and after I looked at the temperature indicator, the savannah boy in me stared in disbelief as it indicated -2 degrees Celsius outside. 'Pole pole — slowly slowly', and, 'It’s all in your head', I kept thinking as they had kept motivating us from day one. I had come this far, I was not about to get frightened now. With a quick check on our oxygen levels, they briefed us on what to expect as we prepared for the summit push.

Kibo, both tempting and taunting

The summit was unlike anything I have ever tried to do physically. 'Difficult' is an understatement; the ground is loose in some sections and it is easy to lose your footing; my nose was constantly running in what I was told was -8 degree Celsius temperature. I was in full zombie mode as I desperately kept one foot in front of the other with the darkness concealing how far down I would fall if I stumbled. I kept clenching my fingers inside my heavy gloves to keep the blood flowing. My bare face endured the worst of the cold and soon I could not feel my nose or cheeks. I felt my lips cracking as I was breathing the cold air with less and less oxygen. 'Quite a nice mess I've gotten myself into', I kept thinking, trying to distract myself. I couldn’t escape the thought that I was climbing high above 5000m in pitch darkness while freezing and gasping for air. I questioned myself several times, 'What am I doing here?!'. I shook my head to jerk myself from thinking too much. After a good butt clench, we pushed through the night aiming to make it to Gilman’s point at 6 am — just in time for sunrise.

Believe it or not, the author is smiling

Six hours later, I stood tall at Gilman's Point (5685m; 18,885 feet) with a renewed strength to walk the round trip along the crater's edge to Uhuru Peak — the highest point in Africa. We watched the sun rise above Mawenzi peak with Africa stretched out in front of us. The view was breathtaking and the feeling of accomplishment was unlike any other. About two hours later we reached the highest point in Africa, Uhuru peak (5895m). I breathed a sigh of relief. I had made it. And I finally knew what it looked like from the other side.

One of Kili's glaciers which gives it it's snow-capped appearance

Notes from the Editor:

At about the exact time that Robert reached Gilman's Point, Charlotte gave him a wave and sent him some good wishes from the plane flying over Kili. This picture gives a true indication of the size of Kili as she sticks out well above the clouds.

Filed under: East Africa Travel

Tagged with:

Angama Team , Hiking , Kilimanjaro

About: Robert Sayialel

A passionate photographer and videographer, Robert started his career working with Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Amboseli National Park, close to where he was born and raised. He honed his skills photographing the famous big Tuskers and travelling with guests through Kenya’s National Parks, documenting their safaris. A kid at heart, some say he never stops smiling.

Browse all articles by Robert Sayialel Meet the angama team

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Join the Conversation (2 comments)

Comments (2):

Bernd Erwerth

12 November 2022

Dear Robert Congratulation for this act. God bless you time of your life, your fine character in the sense of your mom. Hope that we can see us again and we can finish us dreams. Greetings to you and your family - also your sister. God bless you all.💓 🙏 Your Bernd

    Charlotte Ross Stewart

    21 November 2022

    Dear Bernd, thank you for writing this kind message. I have passed it along to Robert who tells me you are great friend of his family and he sends his best wishes. I've known Robert as a friend and colleague for a long time and I am in no way surprised that he was able to achieve this incredible feat. His determination and good sense of humour gets him through any trials and I have no doubt that he learnt this from his family. Thanks again, Charlotte

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