Trekking to the Summit of Africa
Summiting Kilimanjaroby Austin Peters
Of all the strenuous endeavors one can pursues in life, there are few things quite as fulfilling as standing on top of one of the seven summits: the highest peaks on their respective continents. At least that's what the agent at Alaska Mountain Guides, my guide service, had told me. Inspired by the non-technical, though rugged trekking route, and lured by the wild mysticism that surrounds Africa, I decided to try my luck on Kilimanjaro
The folks at Alaska Mountain Guides, with over fifteen years of experience guiding on the mountain, recommended the Machame Route. The route, they promised, was said to be the most scenic on the mountain offering trekking through four different eco-systems as you make your way up the mountain over the course of seven days.
Upon arrival at Kilimanjaro International Airport I knew instantly I had made the right choice. After being picked up by my guides we headed to a hotel in Moshi, Tanzania at the base of Kilimanjaro for an overnight before beginning the trek the next day. That night I met the rest of my climbing team, four of us total, and our American guide. The guide went over the route with us as well as doing a gear check to assure we had everything we needed. I had purchased a new Kelty sleeping bag and Black Diamond trekking poles especially for the trip and my guide assured my that everything I had was more than adequate.
The trek began in the rainforest and wound its way up through the lush green habitat containing hundreds of species of plant and bird life as well as blue monkeys. Lower down, the trail was muddy and slippery so gaiters and trekking poles were definitely a good idea. True to its name we got some rain in the afternoon on this section and I was thankful for my Patagonia rain jacket that kept me dry in the warm rain. Luckily, later in the afternoon the rain stopped and we began the sunny spell that would last the rest of the trip.
The Machame route is approximately twenty five miles long and travels half way around the mountain offering spectacular views from all angles. As we progressed through the route the surroundings changed from dense rainforest to moorland heather and the vegetation yielded to beautiful views of the surrounding valleys as well as the summit itself. As the trail becomes more uneven and rocky and we continue to gain in altitude our pace slowed and we develop the rhythm that would carry us to the summit. Our guides told us "Pole pole" which is Swahili and means slowly slowly. So it was that we made our way through the next few camps and up to our high camp "Barafu Camp" at 15,100ft. Over the course of this journey the steepest climbing was done on Barranco hill, a steep face with a narrow winding trail that requires you, in some sections, to use your hands on the rock for balance. Here a good pair of sturdy hiking boots was mandatory to keep from slipping around.
From our high camp we began our push for the summit at midnight. Donning down jackets and head lamps to fend off the cold and light our way we set off at our steady pace. Our guides had told as the night before that it would be on of the hardest things we would ever do in our lives and in the first hours of what would become a six and a half our push to the top I already believed them. The low oxygen content of the high altitude environment made it increasingly difficult to move even at a modest pace and we slowed down traveling hardly faster than a crawl. The full moon was high overhead and in addition to our headlamps, did well to light our way and provide a supernatural backdrop to the pristine surroundings.
As we neared the summit ridge my legs ached and my lungs strained to filter out every bit of available oxygen from the air. Encouraged by our guides we pushed on to reach Stella Point at an elevation of 18,650ft on the summit ridge just 700 vertical feet from the summit. At this point the red sun began to rise over the Serengeti plains and we began to realize the full magnitude of our endeavor. From Stella Point it is only one more hour to the true summit and spurred on by the amazing view that was developing in the east we took only a short break there before continuing along the summit ridge circling the great crater rim.
Here the massive headwalls of the ancient glaciers line the trail and cast an eerie red and blue glow as they reflect the sunrise. Though my legs felt like noodles my inner drive pushed me onwards to reach "Uhuru Peak" the roof of Africa.
The sign on the summit says that Kilimanjaro is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world making it possible for unencumbered views for thousands of miles in all directions. Here, bathed in the warm red light of sunrise, we took summit photos and shared high fives and congratulations with our team mates, guides, and fellow climbers.
The trip down, though steep, was uneventful. Resonating with the energy that comes from standing on the summit of Africa we made our way back to our high camp for a nap before continuing all the way down to our last camp of the trip at 12,000ft.
True to the agents words the summit brought me a sense of fulfillment unlike any other physical endeavor I had ever tried. At the end of my Kilimanjaro trip I was truly thankful to my guides and porters that made my trip possible and encouraged me throughout the trip to its ultimate completion on the summit and then back down into Moshi. Unlike any other experience that I have ever had the climbing expedition offered a realistic challenge that pushed my physical limits and rewarded that effort every day with beautiful views and unforgettable experiences.
After returning to Moshi we spent another night in the hotel and enjoyed a well deserved hot shower, a hearty meal and a comfortable night on a real bed. From there some of my trekking companions and I headed out on safari to experience the wilds of Africa in a different, less strenuous way.
Even upon my return to the U.S. I felt I maintained the glow of the summit on my face and in my soul. An experience of a lifetime, the adventure was born in dreams and made real by hard work, determination, and a little help from my guides.