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I spent months preparing for my hike up to Mount Kilimanjaro. I researched and researched more. I exercised. I was confident in our guide company, Pristine Trails. But when I woke up early in the morning in my Moshi hotel room on the day of my hike, I had no way of truly knowing what I was going to experience in the next seven days. Each day was completely different from the day before. The scenery, terrain and climate – even my physical shape and mood changed with each new day (something I wasn’t entirely expecting). If you’ve just signed up for a Kilimanjaro trek or are contemplating whether to sign up for one, hopefully this recounting of my experience hiking Kilimanjaro will give you a clearer picture of what to expect on your 7 day Kilimanjaro trek. Of course, your experience might not be identical to mine, depending on your tour company, group size, and level of preparedness.
Day 1: Machame Gate to Machame Camp
Pristine Trails had organized for my group of 10 hikers to stay at the Moshi Leopard Hotel in Moshi, Tanzania the night before and the night after the hike. Our lead guide, Patrick, and two of our assistant guides, Suley and Kim, met us at our hotel the day before the hike to go over logistics with us and make sure we had all the gear we would need for the next seven days.
On the morning of Day 1 of our hike, we left our hotel around 8:00am to head to Machame Gate, where we would be starting our hike. On the way there, we made a few last minute stops at the pharmacy and grocery store to pick up some first aid supplies and load up on snacks – a crucial part of the hike. Upon arriving at Machame Gate, we met up with our guides, Patrick, Kim, Suley and Philip. They provided us with boxed lunches containing fried chicken, hard boiled eggs, sandwiches, juice boxes, and candied nuts to chow down on while they went to check us into the park. A couple of hours later, we found ourselves leaving Machame Gate and heading toward our first night’s camp.
To get to Machame Camp, we hiked through the rainforest for roughly five hours. This was the only day on the hike when we walked through the trees and not over them. It was a scenic hike, but the incline was already steeper than I expected. The rainforest lived up to its name and down poured for part of the trip, which was great because I didn’t have my rain jacket on me – major fail! Lucky for me, Patrick, our lead guide, was so amazing and unpacked his entire bag to get me his spare jacket.
While it was relatively warm when we left Machame Gate, by the time we reached Machame Camp at almost 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) higher than where we started, the temperature felt significantly cooler. Once we arrived at camp, we were all pretty hungry and were pleasantly surprised to find snacks (popcorn, cookies tea/coffee/hot chocolate) waiting for us in the dining tent. A couple of hours later, we had a delicious dinner of cucumber soup, fried fish, potatoes with veggie sauce, and fruit. If you’ve never had cucumber soup before, do yourself a favor and try it.
We were all pretty tired after our first day of hiking and went to sleep around 9:00pm to get as much sleep as we could before our 6:00am wake-up call the next morning.
Day 2: Machame Camp to New Shira Camp
The genius in me decided to go to bed in shorts, so it was no surprised when I woke up shivering. The sleeping bags we had were sufficient, but it was definitely colder than I expected. We were offered tea and coffee while we packed up our bags, and breakfast was served at 6:45am. We were served porridge, millet soup (for the gluten-free), toast with eggs, cheese and sausage and the usual beverages. Then we were on our way again!
We hiked for about five hours – all of which was pretty steep. I found the hiking poles I had to be very helpful in some spots, but a nuisance in others. Throughout the day, we ended up with about another 4,000 foot (1,200 meter) change in elevation, and we could definitely feel it in the temperature. I started out the day in a tank top, and by the end of the day I had to wear a sweater.
We arrived at New Shira Camp and had lunch at around 1:30pm. Afterwards, we took a 1.5 hour break midday to rest up and take in the views. At that point, we were already above the clouds.
Once our midday break was over, we took a short, one hour hike past Shira Caves to an awesome viewpoint and had dinner shortly thereafter. The purpose of the hike was to help our bodies acclimate to higher altitude, so as we move higher the next day, the altitude won’t be such a big shock to our bodies. We all felt more tired than we expected by the end of the second day of our Kilimanjaro trek, so everyone went to bed pretty early once again, knowing that the hike would only be getting harder the higher we go.
Day 3: New Shira Camp to Barranco Camp
Other than summit night, Day 3 was by far the toughest day for me. We hiked from New Shira Camp at 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) to Lava Tower Camp at 15,000 (4,600 meters) feet for lunch and back down to Barranco Camp at 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) to rest for the night. Between adjusting to the elevation and the rough terrain, it was probably one of my least favorite days of the hike.
We started by hiking up to Lava Tower, which sits at 15,000 feet (4,600 meters). It took us about 4.5 hours to hike from New Shira Camp to Lava Tower, and when we arrived, we had a big lunch of fried chicken, muffins, bread, plantains and soup. Since we had reached pretty high altitudes, each step took much more effort than it typically would at sea level. While I felt fine most of the way, by the time I reached Lava Tower, fatigue had started to kick in, as well as a very unsettled stomach.
I’m not sure if lunch helped settle my stomach or hurt it more, but by the time we started hiking down from Lava Tower to Barranco Camp, my nausea started to worsen, I started to develop a mild headache and feel lightheaded, and my knees started to hurt from the constant downhill movement. The best way I can think of to describe how I felt during this leg of the hike is like I had been day drinking all day and this was hour 10 and all I wanted to do was lay down and sleep.
By the time we arrived at Barranco Camp, my mild headache continued to worsen. Dinner was served – soup and macaroni with tuna sauce – and I went to bed early hoping to sleep it off.
Day 4: Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp
Unfortunately, I woke up with the pounding headache I went to sleep with. I spoke with the lead guide, Patrick, who was able to give me some good advice on the best medication to take (I had already spoken with my doctor at home, who suggested some suitable options). He suggested that I take Excedrin for the time being to dull the headache while we started our ascent up the Barranco Wall, and to switch to Diamox (altitude sickness medication) when we reached our next camp if my headache was still there.
We had breakfast at 7:45AM – porridge, bread, sausage and egg – and left to climb the (in)famous Barranco Wall, a steep rock wall that required us to use all four limbs and go very slowly to make it safely to the top. While many hikers are intimidated by or afraid of the Barranco Wall, this was my favorite part of the seven day hike. I found it to be a very fun, chill, and interesting hike. Plus, if these porters can do it while carrying 20kg+ of weight on them, I’m pretty sure we can do it with much lighter weight on our backs and all four limbs freed up.
Once we arrived at Karanga Camp, at 13,000 feet (4,000 meters), we had lunch – fries and spaghetti bake – and then took a two hour break to relax. I kept myself awake by reading, since I didn’t want to ruin my ability to sleep at night by sleeping during the day. From there, we had a quick snack and took a short, one hour hike up the mountain – the same route we would be taking to Base Camp the next day.
The altitude was really starting to get to everyone by the end of the day. Thankfully (for me, but probably not for those around me), all it did to me was give me a serious case of the giggles, but for others, like my friend, it resulted in nausea and vomiting throughout the night. Despite this, I think everyone agreed this was probably the most fun and relaxing day of the trek.
Day 5: Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp (Base Camp)
We woke up at 6:30AM, packed up our bags, and had breakfast at 7:15AM. I was extremely tired from not getting much sleep the previous night, so I was a bit worried about how the day was going to go.
We hiked three straight hours uphill to Barafu Camp (Base Camp) at 15,000 feet (4,600 meters). I was feeling pretty tired, sleep deprived, and grumpy, so I popped in my headphones, gripped my hiking poles, and really tried to focus on the hike. After we arrived at Base Camp and had lunch, I took advantage of the warm rays of sun that were beating down on us to take a nap. I zonked out for about four hours until dinner at 5:30pm.
After dinner, our guides took each person’s pulse and oxygen levels to make sure we were healthy enough to continue on with the hike to summit that night. Luckily, we all passed and were cleared to continue the hike that night.
Day 5 into 6: Summit Night
If you’re wondering why I napped all afternoon the day prior, it’s because we had to wake up at 10pm that night to get ready to leave for summit. The temperature wasn’t too bad at Base Camp at that time, and I actually shed a layer pretty soon into our hike because I had started to work up a sweat, but I quickly put it back on, and then some, not long after, as it seemed to get colder and colder with each step.
Pemba, one of the four porters who volunteered to summit with us, quickly became my hero and took my bags after a couple hours of hiking because I started to get terrible back pain. As you can imagine, I was incredibly tired and used my hiking poles just to keep myself upright, but it got so cold that I had to put them away because my hands were too cold to have out – even with two layers of gloves on!
I’ll be honest, I’ve never been so cold in my life, and despite having enough clothing and the right type of clothing, I don’t think I could have prepared for this. The cold, combined with the exhaustion, made me feel like I was sleep walking through half the hike. I would put one foot out in front of the other, but not get anywhere, so one of the guides had to give me a little push to keep me moving forward. It was rough. We were given ginger tea at a couple of stops, which really helped, but I really didn’t eat much at all during that eight hour ascent because my protein bars had frozen solid in the cold, and again, my hands were too cold to take out of my pockets to do anything.
As we got closer to summit and it was still pitch black outside, some of us had doubts that we were going to be able to stay up at summit to watch the sunrise, but the sun started to rise right as we approached summit, and it couldn’t have been more perfect timing. Sunrise happened very quickly, and each photo I took, even when spaced out only seconds apart, looked completely different. The sun had completely risen in about five minutes, which was more than enough time for me because I was too cold to even enjoy it much longer than that and had to head back down to Base Camp.
It took 2-3 hours to get back down to Base Camp, which was interesting in and of itself. I don’t know what I pictured, but the entire descent is basically skiing down a mountain of loose gravel wearing hiking boots, where each switchback ends in a cliff you could easily slide right off of. Pemba, the porter who had been helping me all hike, observed my hesitation and incompetence in mountain gravel skiing and helped by carrying me down the mountain by the arm. The descent down to Base Camp took a huge toll on my knees, but we were back to Base Camp by around 10:00am and had a few hours to rest, so it wasn’t too bad.
Day 6: Base Camp to Mweka Camp
Once everyone returned back to Base Camp, we had lunch at around noon, packed up our belongings, and left around 1:00pm to start the four hour hike down to Mweka Camp. Since it was all downhill, the hiking poles really came in handy, although the hike was still quite strenuous on my knees. We encountered some rain on the way down and it was still pretty chilly most of the day, but all in all this felt like a piece of cake compared to what we had just conquered.
After having dinner at Mweka Camp, I crashed and slept TEN whole hours, straight through the night.
Day 7: Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate
We woke up at around 6:00am and had breakfast around 6:45am. Leah, one of the girls in my group, was celebrating her birthday that day, and the porters completely surprised us and brought in a birthday fruit plate for her that morning and showed us some Tanzanian birthday rituals. Our guides and porters also sang to us once again and we had a little dance party before hiking back down to Mweka Gate.
I learned my lesson from the day before and made sure to take some Aleve before leaving for our last hike down the mountain. This turned out to be a great idea because the 3-4 hour downhill hike down to Mweka Gate felt completely fine for my knees. When we arrived at Mweka Gate, our porters greeted us with champagne, beer and other soft drinks, more singing and dancing, and a birthday cake for Leah. All of it was incredibly thoughtful and completely unexpected – a very nice way to close out the trip.
On our way back to our hotel in Moshi, we stopped at the souvenir shop and the Pristine Trails office in Moshi to pick up our extra bags and get our certificates to prove we reached summit.
It took a day or two to feel completely recovered from the trip, but Tanzania offers some amazing places to catch up on some R&R.
I experienced every emotion in the dictionary on this trip – from feeling anxious to feeling dread to feeling proud and relieved. It was so amazing to conquer this goal of mine, and I couldn’t be happier to have done it with a group of 10 of my friends and amazing guides who I can now call my friends as well. The crew at Pristine Trails are really top-notch and I don’t think I could have accomplished this major feat without them.
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A big thank you to Pristine Trails for making our trek possible. As always, all opinions are 100% our own.