On this day we separate from the standard Umbwe Route. Where they usually head east, climbing the Barranco Wall on their way to Karanga Camp and Barafu, we instead opt to head west, up to Lava Tower and from there down to lonely, serene Moir Hut. For acclimatisation purposes this is excellent, the stage climbing from Barranco at 3986m (13,077ft) all the way up to Lava Tower at 4627m (15,180ft), before descending fairly gently to 4155m (13,632ft) and Moir Huts. It’s a great walk, with highlights including the lovely giant groundsel grove above Barranco Campsite, the unusual rock formation of Lava Tower, and the extensive views over Shira Plateau. The descent down to Moir is gentle and pleasant too.
But it’s the tranquillity of the day that really sticks in the mind. Add to that the fact that, by climbing 641m/2103ft to Lava Tower then descending 472m/1549ft to Moir Huts, you have actually done your chances of acclimatising no harm whatsoever, and you have a great day’s trekking!
Day 4: Moir Huts to Pofu Camp
Distance: 9.2km/5.7 miles
Altitude Lost: 122m/400ft
As mentioned before, peace and solitude are the main characteristics of this path. In terms of acclimatisation, you actually achieve the lofty altitude of 4402m/14,442ft today before falling to the Second Pofu Camp at 4033m/13,231ft. It won’t be unusual, therefore, for people to feel some symptoms of altitude sickness (often a headache) by the time they arrive at one of the three Pofu campsites. So do try to go pole pole and to drink lots to avoid this; and furthermore, don’t set off from Moir Huts if you’re feeling any symptoms of the altitude, as you are going to even more remote places.
The walk begins with perhaps the steepest climb of the day, a relentless slog up a barren slope to around 4402m/14,442ft. Cairns both mark the top of the ascent and the way forward, as you spend your day making your way around Kibo’s northern face, dropping down into the many north–south valleys before clambering back out of them. Though this can get a little monotonous, note how the character of each valley is different to its neighbours, with some decorated with everlastings, others blanketed in heathers, and still others virtually pure, lifeless desert.
Eventually, after three hours, you’ll come to the first of the Pofu Camps followed in short order by some boulders that you need to scramble over to reach the second (45 mins; 4033m/13,232ft) and most popular of the three possible Pofu campsites.
It has to be said that the three Pofu Camps are all fairly uncharismatic places, perched on chilly ridges between the valleys and with not a toilet between them (though some were being built when we were last there. It’s not an issue anyway, as of course we provide private toilets for every group.) There’s not much to distract you so just sit and watch the mist roll in and see if you can spot the eland that are said to hang about in these parts (and after which the campsites are named).
If the skies are clear enough you should get a full frontal view of Kibo, while Mawenzi peers coyly over your shoulder and the lights of Kenya twinkle in the far distance below.
Day 5: Pofu Camp to Third Cave Campsite
Distance: 6.8km/4.2 miles.
Altitude Lost: 97m/318ft
Unsurprisingly this stage continues in pretty much the same vein as the previous one as the path continues on its merry traverse around the northern slopes. Once again the trekker is asked to negotiate numerous valleys, mostly dry, one or two slightly more fecund, and one at the very start of the day that is, so it is said, favoured by buffalos in search of water during the dry season.
The gradients aren’t quite as dramatic on this stage and the day slightly shorter though you’ll still find yourself pretty puffed out by the time you reach Third Cave Campsite (3936m/12,193ft). The reason for this is clear when you look at the gradient profile and see how much ascending and descending you have to do on this stage. The views, however, provide ample compensation, with Kibo to your right and Mawenzi gradually looming larger and larger ahead of you, though you won’t see much of the glorious Saddle that separates them until the next stage.
Day 6: Third Cave Campsite to School Huts
Distance: 4.9km/3 miles
Altitude Gained: 751m/2464ft
After gently traversing the northern slopes of Kilimanjaro for the past two days, today you start the trek upwards from Third Cave Campsite to School Hut (4717m/15,476ft). But while the distance may be shorter than the previous two days, the height gain ensures it won’t be an easy walk.
On the way, the views across the saddle to Mawenzi continue to make the heart stop and jaw drop. Ask your guide to take you to see the dead buffalo too, well-preserved and wedged between rocks just a 100m or so from the main trail.
At School Huts aim to get to sleep as soon as possible in the late afternoon/evening, as you will be woken at around midnight to begin your assault. Don’t worry about waking yourself for meals – your crew will rouse you for these. You probably won’t feel like eating but please endeavour to do so as you’ll need the energy reserves.
You are advised to get all your gear ready for the summit bid before you go to sleep as you may feel disoriented when awoken for the assault.
Night 6/Day 7: School Huts to Uhuru Peak and Mweka Camp
Distances: School Hut to Summit via Gillman’s Point: 5.9km/3.7 miles
Summit to Mweka Camp: 11.5km/7.2 miles
Total = 17.4km/10.5 miles
Ascent to Uhuru Peak: 1178m/3865ft
Uhuru Peak to Mweka Camp: -2789m/-9150ft
Around midnight (your guide will judge the time that is optimal for you based on your pace thus far) you will quit camp for the assault via Gillman’s Point to the summit. Tonight is very difficult – particularly the final 500m/1640ft – and you’ll need to commit to fight for the summit. You will inevitably feel like giving up and going to sleep. This is normal and can be overcome with perseverance.
When resting please ensure you only stand or sit and do not lie down or close your eyes. Please trust your guide; he is very adept at judging whether your condition will allow safe progress or whether you have succumbed to a potentially dangerous condition and to proceed will not be safe. Nausea and headaches are normal and around a quarter of climbers will vomit at or near Gillman’s Point. While very uncomfortable, these are not symptoms that are indicative of being at risk, per se. The onset of cerebral and pulmonary oedema are marked by distinctive early warning symptoms that your guide is capable of identifying. Please maintain regular dialogue with him and frequently update him on how you are feeling.
Avoiding loose scree slopes above Kibo Hut, you ascend from School Hut via Hans Meyer Cave (5259m/17254ft) and Gillman’s Point (5719m/18,763ft), to Uhuru Peak (5895m/19,341ft). When you reach Gillman’s Point you will sit and rest. At this point the body often thinks you have finished your uphill fight and will be trying to coerce you into giving up and turning around. While you may genuinely believe that you have already exhausted your reserves in reaching this point, this is actually very unlikely to be so.
Remember that you are less than 200 vertical metres/600ft short of the summit (via Stella Point), the journey from here is much less steep, and you have plenty of time for further pauses. If you do feel the need to give up at Gillman’s Point please proceed towards the summit for just two minutes before making your final decision. In most cases this act of re-establishing momentum is enough to persuade the mind and body to cooperate. Indeed, you will probably find hidden reserves for a final push, reserves that you were not aware you still had.
On the summit your guide will advise how much time you can spend there in consideration of your condition, your timings, and the weather. The brain does not function very intelligently at this altitude so please remember to take many photographs in all directions or you will probably regret not having done so at a later stage.
From the summit you will turn around and descend to Stella Point. When you reach Stella Point your guide may opt to switch left onto the loose scree. On arrival at Barafu you would usually have time to rest an hour or so before continuing the descent after some refreshments.
From Barafu you will usually descend to Mweka Camp (3106m/10,190ft) for overnight. If your guide judges that a shorter day will benefit you and preserve sore knees and ankles, he may decide to stop short at Millennium Camp (3827m/12,556ft) instead.
Day 8: Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate
Altitude Lost: 1473m
It’s just a couple of hours further now from the campsite to Mweka Gate, where those who made it to the summit or Stella Point will collect their certificates. A car will be waiting to take you back to your hotel, and a land of warm showers and cold beers. Your trek is at an end.
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