7-day Machame Route Trek: November 19-25, 2016
Day 5: Karanca Camp (3995m) to Barafu Camp (4673m) 4km; Weather: nice and clear in early morning & foggy in the afternoon; Vegetation: Alpine desert
Around 5:45am, the first ray hit the summit of Kilimanjaro. It’s also fascinating watch the changing hues of Mt Meru.
When I set off around 8:15, the weather was fine with good visibility. I therefore had the best photograph day with superb views of the summit, Rebmann Glacier and the mountain as a whole from different angles. Sanke also showed me the path to the summit from the Barafu camp. For me, it is important to have an idea about where I would be heading next.
This morning, Sanke did two things which impress me. First after making a steady ascent for over half an hour, I saw a group of America hikers stopping in front of me. At first, I thought they were having a photo stop. When I got close, I realised a porter from their group had AMS: he was shivering, gasping and vomiting. One of the doctors of the group gave him some medication and moved on. After resting a few minutes, the sick porter tried to stand up and walk back to the Karanca camp. But he was so weak that he fell to the ground again. I knelt beside him and found his hands were cold. I told Sanke that he was very sick. Sanke rushed to his side and felt his pulse. Without uttering a word, Sanke dropped his backpack, put the porter on his shoulder and started walking downhill. He told me to follow other hikers to the base camp. Anyway, Sanke caught up with me in less than an hour’s time: he must have been running!
The second incident involved Samson, one of our porters who had been coughing the whole night. When I reached the Barafu wall, I found him sitting motionlessly: he looked pale. I asked him whether he was ‘OK’. Sanke heard me talking to Samson and came over. After exchanging a few words, Sanke picked up Samson’s stuff and put it on top of his own backpack. Samson with a light load on his head was able to continue his way to the base camp. I feel proud of Sanke who is ready to shoulder responsibility and help other porters in distress.
On a clear day, one is able to see the peaks of Mawenzi and Kibo from the Barafu Camp. But by the time I reached my tent at noon, fog had already rolled in and I could hardly see beyond 50m. I guessed some 20 hikers were camping here today. Owing to the limited space available along the narrow ridge, the camp ground looks cramped.
The cook prepared me a creamy soup for lunch. I could not stand the smell and did not touch the food. I asked once again for a vegetable soup for dinner. To conserve energy, I spent the afternoon resting in my tent though I could not sleep at all. Without having substantial food for two days, I knew that I would be too weak to make to the summit. I have never asked people for food in my life. But today I pulled myself together and asked Sunny, a nice young German lady who was scaling the summit with her 65-year-old-mom, for energy food she might be able to spare me. Sunny generously gave me four energy bars and a drink. I am most grateful for her kindness.
I forced myself to eat that evening: two bowls of watery soup, a bowl of boiled vegetables and two spoonful of rice. Then I dozed off for a couple of hours.
Day 6-Summit Day: Barafu Camp (4673m) to Stella Point (5756m) 4.3km to Kibo Peak /Uhuru Peak (5895m) 0.7km; descent to High Camp (3950m) 10km; Weather: clear from midnight to 11am; snow from 11:30am to 2pm; foggy for the rest of the day; Vegetation: Alpine desert
Climbers usually set off around midnight. I am not keen to walk in the dark. Given my physical conditions, Sanke agreed that I should rest and start at 3am. He woke me up around 2am and gave me two boiled eggs and some biscuits. I forced myself to take an egg and eat a few biscuits.
It took me over 15 minutes to get fully dressed. I put on five layers of clothes including a merino wool turtle neck pull-over and three jackets (fleece, down and Gore-Tex). I had four pants and two pairs of woolen socks. When I set off at 3am, I saw a New Moon and a few glittering headlamps half way up the mountain.
It was cold but not freezing. I walked closely behind Sanke and could tell we were walking over rocky and steep terrain. I felt bad and kept vomiting all the way to the summit. After two hours’ steady ascent, I began to see twilight coming through thick and dark clouds hanging above the Mawenzi Peak. I asked Sanke for my camera and took the first photo of the day just before 5:30am. The colours over Mt Mawenzi were amazing. The sun finally broke through the clouds at 6am. The glacier also turned golden. Sunshine lifted my spirit and energised me. The steep terrain towering above me looked less menacing.
I was making slow progress as my legs were as heavy as lead. I was tempted to take a rest very now and then. But it’s impossible: I must keep up the momentum and push on. I began to count my steps and would stop only every 40 or 50 or 100 steps. It worked.
Around 7am, Stella Point came into view. Many consider the climb towards the Stella Point the most mentally and physically challenging portion of the trek. Anyway, it took me over two hours to reach it! On my way up, I came across a dozen of hikers making their way back to the base camp after having reached the summit.
At 9:28am, I stood next to the Stella Point sign board for a photo. My legs were tired and moved like a snail. I doubted whether I had the energy to walk another hour to reach the summit.
Sanke came to my rescue. Noting my weak physical and mental state, he told me to put my left arm over his right arm so that we could walk together. It helped and I finally reached the Roof of Africa at 11am. Sanke asked a group of hikers to take a few photos for us. We spent less than ten minutes at the summit and I took only a few snapshots of the crater, the rim and the glaciers.
Sanke urged me to leave as the weather was changing fast. By the time we got back to Stella Point, it started to snow. Sanke told me to walk with him by holding the right side of his backpack. By now, the path we had taken had vanished covered by the fresh snow.
He made long and sure strides through the snow and spree. I held his backpack tightly as I was no longer sure-footed. On a few occasions, I lost control of my limbs and began to tumble. Luckily Sanke knows the path by heart even without the cairns and other landmarks.
After walking downhill for half an hour, I spotted a blur figure in the snow in a distance. It was Samson who had come to assist me. I was moved. It’s quite a long way to walk back to the campsite. Though going downhill is quick and not strenuous, it is hard on the knees. The section just before the campsite was most scary as I had to walked over rocky, wet and slippery terrain. Anyway, I trailed behind my guys and was relieved when I finally walked into my tent shortly after 2pm.
It’s a miracle that I got back unscathed and without knee injury. Feeling exhausted and unwell, I suggested spending another night here instead of walking 10km to reach the High Camp. Sanke objected. Given my conditions, he believed I must descend without further delay.
After resting an hour, I felt slightly better. But I threw up as soon as I tried to take a spoonful of chicken soup. In order to keep going, I ate an energy bar and a few biscuit. Around 4:30pm I pulled myself together and walked the last 10km of the day to reach the High Camp. The downhill walk over semi desert is relatively easy. But I moved slowly as my intestine and organs were churning inside my body. It was foggy and miserable. I was relieved when I finally arrived at the campsite at 7pm.
I indeed felt better at a lower altitude and began to feel hungry. I asked the cook to prepare me a vegetable soup as before. This time, I finished the soup and most of the vegetables. I was exhausted and had a sound sleep at least for 5-6 hours. But after getting up to go to the toilet, I could not return to sleep.
Day 7: High Camp (3950m) to Mweke Gate (1640m) 13.5km; Weather: good & clear sky; Vegetation: cloud forest & moorland
Around 5:30am, I came out of my tent to watch sunrise for the last time. The colours were not too vibrant but the sky was clear. I was amazed to find a snow-cladded mountain! After an early breakfast and giving tips to the cook and three porters, I set off with Sanke around 7am. On our way down, I met Amy, an American lady on a 6-day trek on her own. She has spent eight years in China, three in Hong Kong and is now working in London. I was excited to meet someone who knows Hong Kong. We walked together and spent spent the whole morning talking about China, Hong Kong, the President-elect Donald Trump, world affairs and travel.
We descended through thick forests and found various types of flora (including pretty gladiolus and elephant ears) along the path. We also saw the black-and-white colobus and blue monkeys. As the path was muddy and slippery, both Amy and I had to walk slowly. Anyway I still fell a couple of times.
At noon, we finally arrived at the Mweke Gate and reported our successful climb to the park office. I got a certificate! Upon my enquiry, the staff told me that five out of the 12 Danish students did not make to the top. Time to say good-bye to Amy and my supporting team!
I gave Sanke US$200 as tips in recognition of his work and patience without which I would never have reached the summit. Also I award him for his readiness to help others in need and as a small gift for his wedding on December 10.
I was back in the Panama Hotel around 2pm. I had a good shower and then washing the dirty clothes and hiking boots. I was hungry and had half a chicken for lunch. Though I was still feeling hungry, I dared not eat to my heart’s delight. I had a beer and went to bed early. Though I was tired, I tossed around and could not sleep till 2am!
November 26-28: Moshi
My flight to Sri Lanka was scheduled for November 29. Though I had finished the trek earlier than expected, I could not re-arrange my flight. Hence, I spent three days resting and recuperating in Moshi. leave. Perfect!
I had done a few things though. First, I had two massage sessions which had done wonders to my limbs. My legs were no longer sore by the time I left Moshi. Second, I sorted out the photos and almost finished writing the trip notes of the climb. Third, I met two young German hikers in the hotel. Sophie summited two days after me while Alex would depart for a 6-day trek on November 30. It’s wonderful to meet so many passionate hikers during and after the trek.
November 29 Tuesday: Kilimanjaro Tanzania– Nairobi, Kenya – Dubai
A long travel day! I left Panama Hotel at 6:30am. Luckily there’s a lounge in this small airport and I had a comfortable time while awaiting my 9:15am flight to Nairobi via Zanzibar. I had a short scenic flight over Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean. Then I spent over three hours in the lounge in the Nairobi airport before flying to Dubai at 4:30pm. I arrived in Dubai around 10:30pm (local time) and spent another three hours in a lounge before taking the 2:30am flight to Sri Lanka. I finally arrived in Colombo at 8:30am (local time) on November 30. In brief, I spent almost 24 hours taking three flights with a total flight time of about ten hours.
Remarks (written in Sri Lanka on December 1, 2016)
I am not looking for challenge nor proof of prowess at my age. But I feel proud of myself for scaling Kilimanjaro, one of the seven summits in the world, at 11am on November 24, 2016. It’s a miracle. This 7-day trek is the best, most memorable and rewarding hike I have ever had in my life.
It’s the first time that I have ever pushed myself to the limit. I was slow but had no problem to reach Stella Point (5756m). Then Kibo Peak which less than a kilometre away on a gentle slop, looked close yet unreachable. My legs were as heavy as lead and I did not want to move on. Sanke said with an assuring voice, “You have gone so far. The summit is just there. You can do it”. In order not to waste time and save energy, he told me to walk with my right-hand walking pole and another arm around his. It worked though I took almost an hour and a half to arrive at the summit with many stops to catch my breath and take photos.
I am used to AMS. I first experienced it when climbing Mt Kotabalu (4096m), Sabah in the late 1990s. AMS affected me while climbing Toubkal (4167m) in Morocco, Ras Dashen (4550m) in Ethiopia and trekking in Nepal, Ladak in India and Bolivia. But this time, owing to the high altitude, I suffered more than ever before: I could hardly eat, slept badly and vomitted over 30 times beginning on Day 2. I felt weak when I was at Barafu Camp. It’s unbelievable I could make my way to the summit on Day 6. I am a survivor and my stamina and subconscious determination have pushed me to the summit!
This trek has proved to be a spiritual journey for me cleansing both my mind and body. As I could not charge the battery of my phone, I turned it off. As a result, I lived without the device which tells me of the time. One had only one battery for my camera as the second one was dead. Hence, I took only a few photos for the entire trek. I rest but without any idea of when I went to bed or woke up. But I was always in time to catch the amazing hues at sunrise. I appreciate nature, the magnificent landscape and scenery, whether in fine weather or in fog. The friendly smile or nod from hikers, local guides and porters always cheered me up. To survive and give me energy to reach the summit, I had to ask a stranger for spare food. I appreciate Sunny’s generosity and had eaten two bars on Day 6. The bar is symbolic giving me the energy to summit.
Luck must have been on my side thus making it possible to realise my dream. I have found Safari Heroes through an agent by chance. Being a small operator, Safari Hero has been accommodating and offers value-for-money packages. I paid in total around US$2000 including tips for the 7-day trek on my own. Though the weather might not be at its best (one can never predict the weather on the mountain), I never not got wet while hiking during the entire trek.
I am most fortunate to have Sanke as my guide. He is a fine young man who lost his parents in a car accident when he was 12. I like Sanke who is quiet, gentle, resilient and solid. Without his support and push, I would never have made to the summit. He has been working hard to look after his two young siblings and will be getting married in December. I am sure he will succeed one day.
This hike has shown me that I might after all stronger than I have thought. I am never sure about my knees which can hurt each step I take downhill sometimes. I therefore could not believe that I had no pain whatsoever during the entire trek. I am glad that I have stamina and am tough and resilient for my age. My muscles were tense and my legs were sored after the hike. But after having two massage sessions in Moshi and rest, I feel my body is back to normal and the pains have all gone. Unbelievable!
After my epic Kilimanjaro climb, I know I may still be able to take on a 6000m peak if I stay fit and am not incapacitated by AMS. Would I ever stand above 6000m in my life? God knows!